67. The Eight Characteristics of a Great Person

The last teaching given by the Buddha was ‘The Eight Characteristics of a Great Person’. Master Dogen’s last teaching was a commentary on this teaching.

1. The first of the eight is ‘have few desires’.

A misunderstanding of what the Buddha meant by desire engenders an entirely false perspective of the whole buddhist endeavour, and so it is crucial that we understand this correctly.

He didn’t mean ‘have few feelings’. He didn’t mean ‘don’t feel’.

Underneath our random mental noise is our momentary feeling state, and as practitioners we become very familiar with this. Our indeterminate vitality and aliveness enables us to understand the vitality and aliveness of the whole Universe, because its the same. It is the ground of being. It is our home and our heart.

However, our delusive tendency as human beings is always to ask ‘What is this?’, re-ordering our momentary feeling state as an emotion, which is a kind of thinking, and around which thoughts cluster, giving an explanation: what we must gain, what we must lose, and this is desire.

2. The second characteristic is variously translated as ‘knowing how much is enough’ or ‘to know satisfaction’.

A first response on hearing this is to hear it as an anodyne buddhist piety. We should be happy and content, whatever the circumstances, even if our life is filled with conflict and lack.

But we should ask: satisfaction with what?

In the Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 2 Case 92, Master Chokei Eryo asked Master Hofuku Juten: When we look at matter we are looking directly at mind. Now, can you see that boat?

Master Hofuku said : I see it

Master Chokei said : Forgetting about the boat, where is the mind?

Master Hofuku pointed at the boat again

In this story mind [shin] doesn’t mean our thinking mind, but something more fundamental, which includes our thinking mind. Shin also means heart. So, the story demonstrates that mind, heart and world are not separate.

Taking that to be so, we need to understand the whole circumstances of our life, including emotions thoughts and feelings as the scenery of our life. So, being dissatisfied or in conflict is as it is, and is satisfaction. We don’t need to keep trying to cut off our own arm.

3. The third characteristic is to enjoy serenity.

The Buddha said “..if you want to have the joy of serene nondoing, you should be away from the crowds and stay in a quiet place. If you are attached to crowds, you will receive suffering, just like a tree that attracts a great many birds and gets killed by them. If you are bound by worldly matters, you will drown in troubles, just like an old elephant who is stuck in a swamp and cannot get out of it. This is called ‘to enjoy serenity in seclusion’

We should understand that we do not necessarily leave the crowds behind when we shut the door.But we can separate ourselves from the crowds inside of us. The birds kill the tree; they don’t kill the sky.

4. The fourth characteristic is to practice diligence.

The example the Buddha uses is a constantly flowing trickle of water which gradually wears away rock.

Of course, the water doesn’t intend to wear away the rock, it is just fully expressing its nature. Similarly, if we imagine that we are being diligent, we are simply being dualistic. When we are diligent, there is no observer, and everything is natural.

The Chinese compound for diligence is Shojin. The first character means purified. That is, not two, non-dual. The second character means to make effort. So our diligence, and the diligence exerted by the whole Universe, which constantly causes it to leap out of nothingness, is the same.

5. The fifth characteristic is not to lose mindfulness.

The Buddha said : If people possess the ability not to lose mindfulness, the robbers of the five senses are unable to invade them. For this reason, you constantly should regulate thoughts and keep them in their place in the mind…even if you go among the robbers of the five senses you will not be harmed by them – it is like entering a battlefield clad in armour and having nothing to fear.

Sekiso said that enlightenment was like a thief breaking into an empty house. The five senses are robbers because there is a ‘you’ separate from them.

The place that thoughts should be kept in the mind is vast space. The regulation which they should be subjected to is their complete expression.

6. The sixth characteristic is to practice meditation.

The Buddha said “…if you gather your mind, it will abide in stability..When you have stability, your mind will not be scattered. It is like a well roofed house or a well built embankment, which will help you maintain the water of understanding and keep you from being drowned…”

There are three elements to the simile: water, structure and the space created by structure. And it’s highly noteworthy that the Buddha identifies water -which is almost universally associated with feeling – not with ignorance, or delusion, or desire, but with understanding, when it is somehow ‘contained’ within space, within emptiness.

7. The seventh characteristic is to cultivate wisdom.

The Buddha said : Monks, if you have wisdom, you will be free from can deepen understanding through the wisdom of listening, contemplation and practice”

Wisdom is Prajna, which isn’t intentional knowing. ‘Pra’ means ‘pre’ and ‘jna’ is knowing, hence pre-knowing, that state of intuitive wisdom and wholeness prior to division into thinker and thought. And each of ‘listening, contemplation and practice’ is an aspect of this wholeness.

8. The eighth and last characteristic is not to be engaged in hollow discussions.

The Buddha said: “Monks, if you get into hollow discussions, your mind will be scattered”

When we sit, it is often as if our head is surrounded by our thoughts, and it is as if we are engaged in discussion with our thoughts. But given that there is no head of the self, what is this if not hollow discussion?