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338. Seeing Bodhisattvas

When we finish Zazen, after we chant the Heart Sutra, we chant the four Bodhisattva vows.

The first is, “all living beings, I vow to save them”.

From this we might believe that a Bodhisattva is primarily concerned with doing, with saving all beings from suffering. Indeed, in Tibetan, the word for Bodhisattva literally means something like Enlightenment Hero. 

Hidden underneath that idea of compassionate doing is a more subtle idea concerned with seeing

In the normal way of things a person looks at another person and asks, “What is the value of that person to me?” The ordinary  person looks at an object and says, “What use is that object to me?”

In contrast,  the Bodhisattva will look at a person and say, “What is the value of that person?” The Bodhisattva will look at an object and say “What is the dignity and beauty of that object?”

In the literature Bodhisattvas are often occupying a heroic role. In the Vimalakirti Sutra for instance, at the start, in the scene setting, the Buddha is said to be preaching in the presence of 8,000 monks and 32,000 Bodhisattvas, all of  whom are recognized by the monks. 

These Bodhisattvas have heroic names. But if you look at the names closely,  they are names you would associate with the activity of practice. This is a way of seeing differently. Seeing in terms, not of personal utility, but in terms of a reciprocal relationship. Meaning-giving and love fill the world with Bodhisattvas. 

It isn’t that this person is a Bodhisattva who is going out to save all these other people. The change is primarily a change in how we see and hence, how we act. Dōgen for instance, humorously talks about the Broken Ladle Bodhisattva, and things like that. Everything is our teacher.

The Bodhisattva isn’t a being who sees themselves as a Bodhisattva. Rather, they are someone who sees other beings as bodhisattvas.

You yourself should ask whether you can see this or not. You yourself  are full of  Bodhisattvas: Enduring Through Doubt Bodhisattva, Loving Despite Everything Bodhisattva. And 32,000 others. And likewise the world.

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335. Being Held

In Mahayana Buddhism we often talk of the Dharmakaya, the universal body of the Buddha.

The faith that all beings are the body of the Buddha.

At first blush, we’re inclined to explain this away as a convenient metaphor to explain unity and differentiation.

It seems a faith that’s quaintly out of time.

If we touch another person, at first we just simply experience their surface. 

If we continue that touch, a still touch in a spirit of openness, curiosity and love, we gradually get to feel the depth of that person. And feeling the depth of that person, we also feel the depth of ourself.

In this sense when we are practising, we are held by the Body of the Buddha.

We are held, in this moment of practice, whether we are like a fractious baby, or a dreaming child, or a person caught in the fever of the self. We fall backwards into the depth of the self, and fall forwards into the depth of the world. Or rather, the self is like a narrow ledge, and whether forward or backward, we fall into the same space.

Being still is not the absence of movement, it is actualising this depth, this height

this held, this holding.

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333. The Mahayana Sutras

How do we account for the fantastical and novel structure and content  of many of the Mahayana sutras: the Lotus Sutra, the Nirvana Sutra, the Flower Garland Sutra?

These sutras are dramatically different from the Pali sutras,  which are simple in comparison. Usually, they just record what the Buddha said to a specific person who came to him with a specific problem or enquiry. The sutra is simply a record of what the teacher said. 

In contrast, we read the Lotus Sutra or the Nirvana Sutra and we’re looking around amidst all the imagery and stories, trying to find the teaching.

What’s going on? 

Nagarjuna’s decisive move in the MMK, near the beginnings of Mahayana, was to make the development of a systematic body of doctrine or of a systematic framework impossible. 

That left Mahayana with a number of options.

First  the essential emptiness of everything could just be reiterated. That’s what you see in the Diamond sutra. Over time, this gets rather sterile, which is probably why the schools most directly continuing Nagarjuna’s teachings didn’t prosper in China.

The second is that the teaching can go off in unusual and new directions which changes both the nature of language and the nature of teaching. 

In the Pali sutras, the language is simply faithfully recording what the Buddha said.

In the Mahayana sutras by contrast, the language is expressive and performative, so the teaching isn’t, as it were, set out in the sutra. The sutra is like a teacher who will change you. The language goes from being descriptive to being performative. 

It’s like somebody seizing your head so it’s pointing in a different direction. 

Viewed this way, you can see the direct connection between these sutras and the koan stories.

Mahayana is accordingly not something new, but a return, in a new way, to the Buddha’s original intention, which is not to promulgate a consistent body of doctrine, but to attend to and change the person in front of him, like a doctor would.

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324. Visual Imagery In Mahayana Buddhism

When we read many of the Mahayana sutras, The Lotus Sutra for example, or the extraordinary Flower Garland Sutra, what immediately strikes us is the incredible array of fantastical imagery. We’re quite bemused by it. Often we read through the sutra rather impatiently, trying to get past all this visual stuff and get to the point

We’re a bit like a primitive anatomist, who, when opening up a body, sees all this gunk; all this myofascial goo, and discards it, because he thinks the real business of anatomy is the organs, not this weird connective tissue. 

The sumptuous visual quality is even more striking when compared with the Pali sutras, which are mostly very practical. Somebody comes to the Buddha, asks him a question, the Buddha inquires about his particular circumstances and then gives his response. 

The emphasis on the visual in Mahayana seems to start with the origin of Mahayana itself:  the prajnaparamita sutras. It’s important to note that the start of their composition occurred around the same time as the start of the Abhidharma literature. 

For the first few hundred years after the Buddha’s death, the sutras were just transmitted orally. They have the pattern that you’d expect of an oral transmission: there’s a lot of repetition and formulas to enable the sutra to be remembered more easily.

Then there’s a change: the sutras are written down. Once they are, it’s much easier to compare them; to try and fit them together into a coherent philosophical system. This is what the Abhidharma literature attempts to do, and it’s what Nagarjuna attacks.

But alongside that, in opposition, is the prajnaparamita literature. Instead of a philosophical structure, there is this mass of visual imagery and repetition. 

It’s hard for us to make sense of this because for us, in our culture, with its predominance of writing, we associate ‘vision’ (seeing)  with the mind and we probably associate ‘hearing’ with intuition. To make sense of this emphasis on the visual in Mahayana, we need to understand that the assumptions in classical India were exactly the opposite. 

Because of the initial preservation of the sutras by recitation – by hearing – hearing was associated with the intellect and by extension, when we’re hearing arguments – the Abhidharma scholars  trying to make all these sutras into a coherent system – we’re doing so, as it were, with our ears. By contrast, ‘vision’ (sight) is associated with immediacy, with receptivity, with a kind of wholeness coming all at once without the mediation of the intellect. If we can understand that, then we can see what is going on with the emphasis on the visual in the Mahayana sutras.

What we need to be careful of is not to think of this as making fantastical claims about the nature of reality (reality corresponding with these extraordinary visions) but rather as a poetic description of the ways in which different beings can see; see in that intuitive and complete and arrived sense. 

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321. Why are our eyes open in Zazen?

We practice Zazen with our eyes open. Why is that?

When I asked my first teachers about that they would tend to give a humorous answer. Something to do with the propensity of Japanese people to fall asleep if they closed their eyes! But sometimes, humor is a motivation for us to probe further.

And it is a curious issue because, as far as we can tell, at least from the evidence of today, Buddhists in India would tend to meditate with their eyes closed. When you come across Indians today, most just assume that meditation is always done with the eyes closed. So it seems at least a possibility that, in the gradual process of Buddhism travelling from India to China, the practice changed from having the eyes closed to having the eyes open.

 So, why is that?

The most obvious answer is that the Chinese had a different idea of the subject of meditation. With our eyes closed, arguably the subject of meditation is this person. The world is excluded, so by implication meditation is about this person; this person’s consciousness, level of awareness, capacity for focus, and so on.

With the eyes open, the subject is different. The subject is not just this person, but this person in the world; this person in the midst of all beings.

When we do Zazen, although our eyes are open, it’s difficult for us to maintain a sense of our body as an object in the world. Indeed, it’s arguable that that is one of the main changes that happen when we take up practice. A ceasing of the sense of my body as being an object in the world; an object in contact with other objects. 

If we lose a sense of the body – this body – as an object, then that percolates outwards. We gradually lose a sense of everything else as being objects – objects to pick up, objects to throw away, objects to use, objects to discard – and instead we see objects as being more like people. So trees, birds, sutras, feelings, aren’t these –  as it were – passive things waiting to be scrutinised and appropriated by us, but have the beauty and dignity and indeterminacy which we associate with people.
That being so, even if the storm of the self is such that for now we cannot hear the voices of these people, if we make this fundamental shift then we know that a lull in that noise is possible. And hence, us hearing the voices of all beings is possible.

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320. Alaya Consciousness

The two primary influences from India in the development of Zen in China were the Emptiness perspective of Nagarjuna and the early Mahayana (the Madhyamika school) and Yogacara. The third primary influence on Zen, the Buddha Nature perspectives, are, arguably, indigenous to China.

Nagarjuna comes first. In his work we see the destruction of attempts to make Buddhism into a coherent philosophical system. After his – ostensibly –  destructive work near the start of the development of Mahayana, that route of systematising was cut off. But there’s a limited shelf life in simply reiterating the truth of Emptiness, over and over. And this might be a reason why the Chinese Madhyamika school didn’t last, and why the Zen school most directly associated with Nagarjuna, the Oxhead school, didn’t last either, although they were pivotal in later developments through their authorship of The Platform Sutra.

Historically, the school which rose directly after Nagarjuna, and possibly in response, was Yogacara, often called mind-only, or consciousness-only.

The term’s unfortunate because when we hear ‘mind-only’,  we think of Idealism in Western philosophy – which makes claims about the unreality of the world, which has a doubly unfortunate tie-in with the mistaken view of emptiness as being vacuity, nothingness.

Yogacara has nothing to do with that. Its interest is in focusing our attention on what we actually experience and what we can experience. It’s not making truth claims about the world, the sort  which would be involved in any systematic philosophising  of Buddhism, which Nagarjuna made impossible.

Yogacara says that there’s eight consciousnesses. The first six are familiar: the five senses plus mind (which is traditionally thought of as a sense in Buddhism).

Where it’s innovative is that it posits two further consciousnesses which, at least in part, attempt to address the issue of the  self, which has been a primary issue in Buddhism from the outset.

The seventh consciousness in the Yogacara system is ego consciousness. It’s that aspect of experience which appropriates what we’re experiencing as mine – as my experience. 

The eighth consciousness is the pivot. It’s called Alaya consciousness, which is often rendered as ‘storehouse consciousness’. That word storehouse is a bit unfortunate, I think, because it has the connotation for us of a kind of granary reserve from which next year’s harvest can be produced. But that’s not the purpose of the term. Rather, it’s to suggest that present experience derives from past experience – our karma, if you want to put it that way.

Alaya does not specifically mean storehouse in Sanskrit. It means dwelling. So: where we figuratively live or what is habitual and usual for us is the intention – one intention – of the phrase, which encapsulates something, which I think that we can agree on.

We’re like a little Alsatian puppy that gets bitten, very young, by a black Labrador. And then – for the rest of our lives – we look around for black Labradors to attack, before they attack us.

We can see that when we’re sitting. Alongside all the randomness, the mental noise, what comes up has a certain emotional structure to it which is unpleasantly familiar to us. You might have a  habitual feeling of fear, or anxiety. I may have habitual feelings of anger, or of indignation, or of bitterness. But I think you get the idea. 

It’s not that the Alaya consciousness – the dwelling– is full of seeds for the future. It’s rather, it’s full of ghosts from the past who keep half incarnating in our present experience.

The pivot for the Yogacara system is when we see this. When we can see the deep structure, as it were, of our experience (quintessentially during zazen). When we can see that, that’s the potential  switch to what it would call mirror consciousness, which is the other aspect of Alaya.

Instead of being in this karmic tempest, it’s as if we’re seeing it within a mirror. Or, more accurately, we’re like a mirror which is just simply, dispassionately experiencing whatever is in front of it. 

And the Yogacara would say that that switch then works its way back down through the previous seven consciousnesses, and transforms experience from something dualistic and predetermined by the past into something non-dual and spontaneously one with the aliveness of everything in the present moment. Dogen’s small boat, unperturbed by the waves. So, that’s the switch.

Rather than abstractions, we should think of these consciousnesses in terms of our actual experience in zazen. Being aware of this tendency to appropriate experience to me, aware of the familiar structures that our thoughts and emotions habitually congeal into. And sometimes, because of that awareness, we can experience this mirror consciousness, this pivot.

It’s not something which we work and work and work and work towards and eventually realise and retain, a fantasy of becoming enlightened. It’s something which we experience in the present moment and lose in the present moment. But it’s the experiencing of it which is important. This enlightening moment.

It’s as if in our normal experience, strangers keep coming into our dwelling. And when the stranger opens their mouth to say what they need to say, we don’t hear their voice – we hear our voice. Or, to put it another way, when the stranger is about to start speaking, we suddenly take a gag and place it across the mouth of that person, stopping them from speaking. And we write something on that gag like ‘fear’ or ‘pain’, whatever is most familiar. The switch is: not doing that. Not gagging the stranger. Not failing to hear the stranger’s voice. But living at this moment with the voices of all these strangers, all around us. Who then, aren’t.

And never were

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317. The Tower and The Ground

When Buddhism arose in 5th century bc India, it – along with Jainism, its contemporary –  retained many of the characteristics of the dominant Brahman religion.

Those which were shared were: samsara, the belief that we’re reborn from one life to the next over a very long period of time; karma, that our actions determine the quality of our rebirths; and liberation, becoming free of those rebirths.

For both Brahmanism and Jainism, what was retained within those various rebirths was the soul, an underlying transcendent self, which was encased within this coating of what we would assume to be the person: body, mind, consciousness and so on. The point of practice, particularly the mortification practices which the pre-enlightenment Buddha’s companions carried out, was to free that immortal soul from that casing and so liberate it from samsara.

Buddhism diverges from Brahmanism and Jainism by denying both the soul and the reality of an unchanging self. But on the face of it,  Buddhism retains those other aspects: karma, samsara and eventual liberation. 

One of the results of that retention, is that there has been a persistently vexing issue for buddhists – ‘How can there be consequences?’ ‘If there’s no ‘self’, then if I do bad things, to what and where do the consequences of that adhere?’

 A lot of Buddhist intellectual effort, around about the time of Nagarjuna in particular, was trying to produce a coherent system which would give answers to questions like that. 

 However, at a fundamental level, it’s wrongheaded.

We assume that we and other entities persist through time. We take it for granted there are distinct phenomena called ‘self’ and ‘things’ which, as it were, unravel their will, their narrative and their destiny through time. But it’s the other way around. Other than as an obvious, convenient and, probably inescapable way of making sense of our world, our idea of linear time – past, present and future – comes about precisely to accommodate this presumption of the self or the soul. So by logical implication, when the self is no longer affirmed, then ‘time’ as commonly understood, is no longer affirmed either. 

We often think of ‘being’ and  ‘time’ as like two planes. We think perhaps of a horizontal plane which is ‘being’ and a vertical plane which is ‘time’. If we wanted to make this more figurative, then we could imagine ‘being’ as being the ground and ‘time’ as being this gradually upwardly growing tower, constantly reaching up towards the future. We might also imagine the self as a person running up the staircase of that tower; both to avoid the imaginary annihilation of the past but also, to elevate.

This tower is inherently unstable: because it is made of the self and all that the self implies, if the self vanishes, the tower collapses, back into the ground of being.

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316. A Billion Stars

Nagarjuna said that Buddhism was the relinquishment of all views.

By ‘views’ he meant a comprehensive theory, or picture, of the world. A statement of how things are, worldpictures.

 The Buddha himself conspicuously refused to answer general metaphysical questions put to him about whether the universe is permanent or impermanent, what happens to us when we die, and so on. 

That was unusual at his time, 5th century B.C India, where religious figures were expected to expound a particular position or view. 

The Buddha’s language can be seen as being strategic and situational, directed towards relieving the suffering of whatever particular person was in front of him,  not stating a general theoretical position and working backwards to the concrete situation.

After some considerable time had elapsed after the Buddha’s death, some Buddhist schools attempted to craft what the Buddha had said into a coherent and comprehensive philosophy. This seems to have coincided with his teachings being written down and grouped together.

It’s that which Nagarjuna is reacting against when he’s talking about the relinquishing of views. And he’s doing that through a newfound emphasis on emptiness, derived from the prajnaparamita sutras.

He talked about the relinquishment of views because it seems an inescapable part of our nature as human beings to create pictures of the world. It’s as if we’re almost continuously seeing images of the world, of ourselves, and grasping these as reality. 

If we do that, then this world, the only world in which we can experience joy, becomes a ghost cave. It becomes like dead ashes.

If we see a little bird singing its heart out, even if we had a book to translate birdsong, I don’t think that we would ask ourselves, “what is that bird saying, and is it true or not?” Rather, we would see the bird’s ‘truth’ in its full expression of itself. The bird however does not require to grapple with the polarity which we have, between the felt, particular and indeterminate, and the symbolic and abstract. 

In his book, The Master and his emissary, Ian McGilchrist speculated that we had two languages; a left brain language and a right brain language. 

The right brain language is older and is particular.  It is song, poetry, metaphorical language. It’s expressive of a particular person at a particular time and place. It’s ‘true’ because the person is fully expressing themself. The person, in their expression, is true.

Left brain language by contrast is to do with making truth, making pictures of the world. It was given a tremendous boost with the invention of writing. And if you look at the earliest forms of writing, these aren’t magical statements about the nature of experience, they’re lists, they’re inventories:- “That’s my cow.” “That’s my land.” “That’s my slave,” and so on. 

The question for us as human beings is, who we want to be and what we want our life to be. Whether we want our life to be an inventory or programme of gain and loss. Or if we want it to be like a billion stars.

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315. The Middle Way

Buddhism is often called The Middle Way. What does that mean? 

The most common way of describing it was as neither remaining within the sensuality and attachment of secular life, which the Buddha had whilst staying in his father’s palace, but neither was it to do the kind of mortification practices that the Buddha with his five ascetic companions practiced, before he broke with them and had his awakening.

The middle way can also be thought of in a related way to that. The five ascetics were not simply people doing tough guy exercises. They were doing gruelling mortification practices from the standpoint that each of us has an unchanging soul or self that is trapped within the body, trapped by the circumstances of individual existence, and that through these practices of mortification, liberation of the soul, the eternal essence, could be attained. 

The apparent contrast is with people – people rather like ourselves – who believe that the self comes into existence when we’re born, continues throughout our life, is the owner and agent of our experience, and at death it’s all over. It’s not eternal, but whilst we’re alive, it exists. 

Buddhism is not a middle way in the sense that it tries to take some middle position between these two apparent extremes. In fact, it takes an even more extreme position by denying that there’s an essence or unchanging self at all. So in what way can we describe it as the middle way?

We can take these positions (the conscious position of the ascetics about the existence of the unchanging soul, and the unconscious assumptions of people in everyday life about a persisting, though mortal, self) and think of them in terms of views, perspectives on the world, dogmas. We can then use the analogy of two pillars forming an arch. In this perspective, the middle way is not a position, it’s the space of expression, freedom and emptiness between those two fixed positions. A bird can land and can make its home on either of these pillars, but it can’t fly through them. To the bird, the contrast isn’t between the two pillars, but between the pillars and the liberating and expressive space.

That same perspective we can apply to zazen, for example, saying, well, there’s one view that would regard zazen as being our physical activity – something we do with the body and breath, like a yoga position – and there’s the opposite view, where we think that zazen is about our consciousness, about our mind, so the activity of the body is incidental, and what’s really important is the development of our consciousness.

You can see that taking either a purely physical or mental view, or some connecting arch of the two, distorts and impoverishes our experience immensely. It conceptualizes the body whilst pretending not to, and it misses an enormous part of our actual experience.

We might take the view that our minds are filled with thoughts and emotions, but that doesn’t account for the larger part of our actual experience, our energetic sensations, our temporal fluctuations and so on. No view does.

Taking a view – any view – entails the shadow creation of its apparent opposite, but also a limitation and impoverishment of our actual experience, and the life, expression and possibilities of that experience. It’s for that reason that Nagarjuna says that Buddhism is the relinquishment of all views, and because of this, is The Middle Way.

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311. The Good Physician

About four hundred years after the Buddha’s death, the buddhist sangha started writing down the sutras which recorded his teachings. Up to then, they had been memorised and transmitted orally.

Writing them down enabled them to be collected together. This was the start of the Abhidharma (‘about the dharma’) literature.

At the start, each buddhist group which compiled that sutra collection, simply prefaced it with an attempt to state buddhist belief. This gradually grew into a distinct literature which attempted to create a consistent set of buddhist beliefs.

As they did this, they had some difficulties. So, for example, if nothing has a self, how can we explain karma? If nirvana and samsara are opposite, then how do they relate to each other? And if they’re the same, then why do they appear so different? Do past and future exist and if they do, in what sense? And so on. 

In these various attempts to create a consistent philosophy, divergences started to occur.  Some groups would affirm something that seemed quite like ‘a self’. Others would say, “Well there’s not a self, but karma is possible because past, present and future all exist together”, and so on.

And so, various different schools appeared. Traditionally, it is said that there were 18 schools, but there were probably many more.

However, the enterprise to create a consistent philosophy was based on a false premise; namely that the Buddha’s teachings were a set of consistent beliefs waiting to be systematised.

The most persistent way of describing the Buddha is as a physician. People would come to him with particular queries, particular distresses, particular sources of puzzlement. These would be specific, and the Buddha would give an answer specific to that person – like a good physician who would not prescribe the same medicine to all his patients, irrespective of the illnesses they had. 

It’s really in this way that we need to understand buddhist language. The essential insight of the Buddha was that we suffer because we cling. We cling to what we have, to what we want, to what we hate, to what we don’t have but fear will be imposed on us, and so on. That’s why we suffer. 

So his language is a provisional, instrumental language; it’s not a philosophy, it’s a strategy to address this basic wound. That’s why there’s apparently inconsistent or incomplete language. That’s why sometimes buddhists talk of ‘no-self’ and other times they talk of ‘buddha-nature’ and other times they talk of ‘emptiness’, or of ‘suchness’. 

They’re a very wide range of languages. But we need to understand these languages in terms of our sickness and our health rather than in terms of ‘literal truth’. A medicine for the person, not a picture of the world.

In our error, it’s as if when ill, a doctor gives us a prescription for medicine, but instead of taking the medicine we take the prescription, keep taking it whether ill or not, and urge others to do the same.