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309. Non-attachment, Nonseparation

Mahayana Buddhism has two principal pillars: emptiness and compassion

Emptiness is primarily a skillful means to cultivate non-attachment rather than an assertion about the fundamental nature of things. There’s no ‘Emptiness’ lying underneath Form. Emptiness is itself empty

Compassion (feeling-with) is intimately connected with non-separation.

When we say emptiness and compassion, we can equally say non-attachment and non-separation. With regard to the first, it’s no accident that the most common metaphor for our human condition used by Buddhists is the dream. In the dream we cannot say that there is nothing. Our experience is vivid and immediate, yet there is no essence to grasp hold of. Living in this way is not attachment, but neither is it detachment, which would be grasping ourselves.

Cultivating this attitude in our own life and in witnessing the lives of others, we can understand that we are all living within a dream. And so we can cultivate non-attachment for ourselves and compassion for all beings.

When we turn to zazen, it’s true that to steady ourselves, to solidify our practice, we cultivate non-attachment to our thoughts and emotions. But the fundamental practice of zazen is not non-attachment: it’s non-separation. And we achieve this by attempting to practise at a level deeper than that of ordinary perception.

We’re not simply sitting quietly in our familiar world – we are sitting within a new world which is vivid, immediate and momentary. And within which there is no separation between this person and all beings.

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306. The Wise Doctor

In Chapter three of the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha tells the story of a foolish king who has a stubborn doctor as his personal physician. This doctor only prescribes milk products as medicine, whatever the illness.

One day, a wise doctor arrives in the kingdom. This doctor has eight different remedies for illness but he hides his knowledge and apprentices himself to the stubborn doctor and thus gains access to the king.

He convinces the king that the stubborn doctor is no good. The king expels the stubborn doctor from the kingdom and makes the wise doctor his physician instead.

The king asks the wise doctor what he would like by way of recompense. The wise doctor says that he would like nothing for himself but he would like the king to make an order saying that the remedy of milk products for illness is absolutely prohibited throughout the kingdom. The king makes the order. 

Sometime later the king becomes ill and the wise doctor prescribes milk as the appropriate remedy.

The king is baffled and furious and asks the wise doctor why he is prescribing milk in view of the milk prohibition. The wise doctor says, in effect, “it all depends on the particular circumstances.”

The narrow purpose of this story is to set up an argument later on in the sutra about buddha nature, but the wider purpose is to say something important about teaching.

The wise doctor is obviously the Buddha. The eight different remedies refer to the noble eightfold path and the milk products remedy which the stubborn doctor always prescribes we can take to be the various doctrines of the self. Just as milk products might look different from each other, but all rely on milk, the doctrines of the various non Buddhist schools may look very different, but they all rely on the assumption of an underlying self. The outlawing of the milk remedy we can equate with the buddha’s teachings on no-self, emptiness and impermanence.

The metaphor of the Buddha as a wise doctor is also the last of the  famous parables of the Lotus Sutra and, arguably, the most important.

We normally think of any spiritual tradition as involving the acceptance of our set of beliefs which we then apply to our lives, regardless of whether the effect is good or bad. The beliefs of that tradition form the structure of our lives. But Buddhism is not like this. It isn’t a system of beliefs about the world. It’s a compassionate strategy to attend effectively to human suffering.

When we try to deal with the sickness of suffering of each being, we can’t unthinkingly prescribe the same doctrinal remedy, because what is medicine for one person may be poison for another. Ideas of no self and how that is expressed might be either very helpful or very harmful for someone whom at this moment is borderline psychotic, for example. It all depends. That’s why “skilful means” is emphasised so much. 

If we read the Pali sutras, two things are evident. One is the Buddha’s refusal to answer abstract questions, such as whether the universe is permanent or impermanent, what happens after death, and so forth. The second is that he is attending to the person in front of him, not simply recapitulating what he has already said.

After the Buddha’s death, there were attempts, with the Abidharma literature, to make his teaching into a coherent philosophy. It was in reaction to this that Nagarjuna emphasised Emptiness and said that Buddhism was the relinquishing of views (ie systems).

Aside from the wise doctor, the other metaphor often used for the Buddha is that of the father, which, I think, emphasises the feelingness rather than the thinkingness of Buddhism. The father, like the doctor, is concerned with care, not belief. But each exemplifies different facets of care: compassion, and love.

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301. The Buddha’s Enlightenment

The story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, like the Nativity story, developed over time. In the best known version, the Buddha sits down under the Bodhi tree, vowing not to get up until he attains enlightenment.

As he’s sitting through the night  Mara appears, and attempts to unsettle him with apparitions to create fear and sexual desire. Yet whether he is unsettled or not, the Buddha continues to sit.  As dawn approaches, the Buddha touches the ground with his hand, and Mara and his forces disappear. As dawn breaks, he looks up to the sky and sees the morning star, Venus. And at that point he attains awakening.

The earliest versions of the Buddhist enlightenment contain hardly any of these ingredients. We’re simply told that he attained Nirvana. Not that he attained enlightenment. And it’s clear from the context that Nirvana is not a unique quality or faculty which only the Buddha had, but is something readily available to other people, once the nature of our existence is understood.

So when the Buddha starts teaching, others will frequently attain Nirvana too.

Elaborating the  story to make it about the Buddha’s enlightenment carries the risk of removing him from the whole messy mass of humanity. Changing him from being a very unusual person to a unique person.

Yet there’s also a way of looking at the enlightenment story which is a simple description of our experience in zazen. The tree – the Bodhi tree – under which the Buddha is sheltering-  is hollow, empty. It has no self essence, only location and connection. Its branches extend everywhere into space. Its roots extend everywhere in time. It’s a clear symbol of interdependence.

The ground which the Buddha touches is the ground of your practice body. And Mara, I would have thought, is clearly indicative of intruding and habitual patterns of thought and feeling. The space, which is actualised by the Buddha looking up and seeing the morning star through and within this vast space, is the space of awareness in zazen.

What’s the function of the morning star? The word that is rendered as enlightenment,yet ‘Bodhi’ doesn’t have any connotations of light, or of illumination. It simply means ‘awakened’. Yet it’s said (in the story) that at the moment of his enlightenment the Buddha said, “Now I and all other beings are enlightened.”

If you think about light, then the light – space, illuminated –  must permeate everywhere. If it didn’t then he could neither see the morning star, or anything else. But at the same time the morning star is particular. So it is both particular and universal. As are we.  

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295. Nirvana

The Buddha talked about Nirvana a great deal. Usually he would talk of it in negative terms, so he might say, for example, that it wasn’t perception and it wasn’t no perception, things like that. 

But among the few positive statements he made about Nirvana, one in particular is very resonant. He said that Nirvana was the ground of the holy life.

From that, I think it’s clear that Nirvana is not an achievement, or a place, or a destination, or a state, but it’s an intrinsic faculty of us as human beings.

But if nirvana isn’t a state, or a place, then what are we to make of its apparent opposite, Samsara?

Samsara is normally explained in terms of the transmigration between the six realms of existence: the hell realm, the realm of hungry ghosts, the animal realm, the fighting demons realm, the heavenly realm, and the human realm.

I say that Nirvana and Samsara both arise within this practice of zazen. The ‘ground’ that the Buddha talks about is this body. The space which is there, which is common to all the realms of existence, is the space of our awareness in zazen, and the space which holds all these different aspects of existence. And it is the one space.

Nirvana and Samsara are both within us, and contain us, and are here, now. And if they’re not here, and now, then where are they?

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290. Kanzeon

Kanzeon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is usually depicted as having myriad hands and eyes. The symbolism is clear: she sees the suffering of individual beings through her manifold eyes and she relieves that suffering through acting with her manifold hands.

But the name Kanzeon doesn’t mean someone who sees the suffering of the world, it means someone who hears the suffering of the world. 

So what are we to make of her manifold eyes and hands? 

Kanzeon is not the bodhisattva of kindness or good deeds, or pity; she is the bodhisattva of compassion, ‘feeling with.’ If her eyes and hands are manifold -limitless-  then the entire universe is hands and eyes, expressions and perspectives. And nothing else. We can’t simply see those hands and eyes from our limited perspective. If we were an ocean, we might imagine that each wave, each current was our hand and each glint of light was our eye. 

Why do we suffer? We don’t suffer because we feel pain, we suffer because we don’t feel anything. Or, we suffer because our experience of our feeling world is just a frozen and fixed mass of thought and emotion, that we can neither remove or dissolve.

 Kanzeon is identical with the practice of zazen because when we practice zazen we are in this simple feeling state, unconstrained by self, by ownership, by interpretation, by fear, by attachment.

When we are sitting, sitting in a balanced way, our experience of ourselves is not as something fixed or closed, but as something open and spacious, and rather than  experiencing ourselves as something in opposition to the world, it as if all being and all time is flowing into this person and leaping out of this person.

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286. The Buddha Vehicle

The Buddhist state has nothing to do with thinking or willing. We’re not spiritual warriors. We’re not on a hero’s journey. But because thinking – attempting to grasp reality with our minds – is so much a part of who we are as human beings, Buddhist teachers use expedient means.

In the Lotus Sutra the most famous story is the parable of the burning house. In that story,  an old, sinister and decrepit house is on fire. The father requires to get his children out but they won’t leave because they’re preoccupied with playing with their toys. Their toys are a little deer cart, a little goat cart and a little ox cart.

The father uses expedient means to get them out of the burning house, promising much better versions of their toys outside, where they’re met by an enormous, magnificent cart for each of them, drawn by an ox.

We’re told this is the one Buddha vehicle. The three toys correspond to: the sravaka – the person who seeks nirvana;  the pratyekabuddha – the person who  seeks personal enlightenment; and the bodhisattva, the person dedicated to saving all beings.

But it’s really noteworthy that although the vehicle waiting for the children outside is drawn by an ox, it’s completely different from the toy cart which one of the children was playing with. And you can see the point of this – a person who says their aim is to save all beings isn’t really a bodhisattva, he’s just a kind of insufferable person.

What’s required in entering into the Buddhist state, which is where this is a clever story, is falling backwards from a state of intellectualism. Back into, you could say, a childlike state of wonder, of gratitude, of astonishment, of aliveness. But we can’t get there with our head. We can’t enter this room, as it were, going in frontwise. We can only fall into it. We can’t enter it with our head. We can only enter it with our whole body.

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259. The cause of suffering

What is the cause of suffering? We often imagine – wrongly – that the Buddha said that desire was the cause of suffering. But he didn’t. He said that the cause of suffering was the three poisons of ignorance, attachment and aversion.

The most important of these three is ignorance: the other two follow on from that. Ignorance is a confusion about our true nature: instead of understanding our nature as relational, we falsely think we are beings encased in a self. Thinking in this way, it is only natural to want or to keep what we like, and discard what we don’t.

We confuse ourselves so easily because our society’s usual way of thinking of desire is to think of it in terms of a lack: something is missing.

The point isn’t technical, it’s of fundamental importance. If we misunderstand desire, if we can’t see it as the pulse and flow and expression of this great being, then we will aspire to a buddhism of false equanimity, a buddhism which is empty and lifeless. With the ghost of suffering inside.

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258. The four merits of meditation

The four merits of meditation are said to be intuitive wisdom, compassion, equanimity and empathetic joy – but these are not personal qualities.

Yet when the restless dust and debris of the self is stilled, it is as if it forms an archway, through and around which the vast living space containing these qualities can be actualized.

Through which all the mute things can be given voice.

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253. Mudita

In early Buddhism, the four virtues of practice were said to be Metta, Karuna, Upekkha and Mudita, usually translated as loving kindness, compassion, equanimity and empathetic joy.

We’re very familiar with the first three, but not the fourth. Does this matter and, if it does, why?

It seems to me that the first three, when the fourth is excluded, make possible a kind of christianised buddhism, where the purpose of practice can be seen as the making of a great person, and, to aid that, the three virtues can be seen as personal attributes, cultivated by this person. So this person is benevolent, kind, steadfast. But the larger space is thrown into shadow by this inflated person, and joy is forgotten.

But if we take the four qualities together, I don’t think we can see the practitioner as a great, or potentially great person, but rather as a co-arising and relational person, and the qualities cease to be personal qualities, but rather are the qualities of a re-enlivened and re-envisioned open and relational space within, around and between us, which we directly experience when we practice.

Buddhism is a house built on these four foundations. The fourth might seem tiny, barely noticeable, but its removal will cause the house to buckle and tilt, imperceptibly at first. The house can remain standing for a very long time. But fall it will.

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222. Supreme being

If we don’t understand the assumptions embedded in our language, it’s very difficult for us to understand buddhism.

One of the assumptions we have is that there shouldn’t be contradiction. Something is either one thing or another. Alive or dead. Active or passive. Good or bad. Fundamental or peripheral. High or low.

This leads us to misunderstand familiar buddhist metaphors like space, or mountains, or the ocean. We think that space is a metaphor for something – tranquillity, say – rather than the container and enabler of everything.

And not just buddhism. When 19th century European sanskrit scholars were translating tantric texts, they rendered ‘Supreme Being’ as ‘The Supreme Being’. It seems innocuous, but it’s not.

‘Supreme Being’ is an expression of being, not an entity. Just like the deepest depth of the ocean is part of the ocean. It’s not separate. Everything is working together in full expression. Like a real person. Not a corpse, tethered to a ghost.