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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. 

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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.