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371. The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana

The Awakening of Faith  in the Mahayana  is a treatise that was written  in China  around about 550 a.d. It’s attributed to  Aśvaghoṣa  who certainly didn’t write it  and the translation is attributed to  Paramartha,  an important Indian buddhist monk  who  relocated himself to  China. He may have written it. He may also  have written the Buddha Nature treatise. 

It’s a really important treatise. It comes at a point when the Chinese  appear to have assimilated  the  Mahayana  sutras  which, following on from and balancing Narajuna, give  a positive language and a positive view  of emptiness.

Using terms such as ‘thusness’ or ‘suchness’  or ‘the tathagatagarbha’, the Treatise uses that positive language more comprehensively, and it immediately precedes, and plays a part in forming, the distinctively  Chinese schools: the T’ient’aithe Tendai school,  the Huayan school,  the Zen school  and the Pure Land school.

The most famous commentary  on the treatise was by Fazang, the  third patriarch  of the  Huayan  school.

The Treatise sets out, in a very  systematic and terse way, the  nature of   reality.  It takes as its  starting point  a position of  imminence rather than  duality or transcendence.  The nature of that imminance  it calls ‘Suchness’ . When  Suchness  manifests itself  in the phenomenal realm, (which is not separate from the absolute  realm) , it’s called ‘Mind’. 

This is an extremely important point  because it helps clarify  what people like Mazu/Baso meant when they were talking about  Ordinary Mind.

It continues, in a clearer and more methodical way, the innovation in the Lankavatara Sutra of combining two separate Mahayanan threads. The first, originally in the Tathagatagarbha sutra and later in the Nirvana sutra, is of all beings having  – in some sense – Buddha Nature. The second is the Yogacara concept of the eight  consciousnesses, but specifically the  alaya -storehouse- consciousness. Putting these two  together was natural, as the Chinese chose to use  the word  ‘zong’, treasure house/storehouse  for both the  alaya consciousness, and also  the tathagatagarbha. 

The  basic idea  is  that our underlying reality is thusness or  suchness  but that is overlayed by  ignorance.  That ignorance  doesn’t have a beginning ( because it has never truly existed), but it does  have an end.  

When there’s a turn to enlightenment,  the  eighth consciousness, the storehouse  consciousness, ( which is anyway fused – in a not entirely clear way – with the Tathagatagarbha Buddha Nature)  purifies itself, and the tathagatagarbha emerges.

That  is one really  helpful aspect of the treatise because  that  perspective  is  the one which  generally attains dominance  within Chinese Buddhism subsequently, but is often assumed rather than stated, which can make understanding what people of that time were trying to say difficult. 

The overarching metaphor which is used in the Treatise  is the ocean  and the waves. The ocean ( in a departure from the more negative use of the ocean as a metaphor for samsara)  represents suchness or mind and  the waves  represent phenomenal reality. The waves are  created by the wind of  ignorance or externality. The point is that the waves -ignorance- are  conditional, but the ocean isn’t, yet even in that conditionality, the waves are always part of the ocean. Just as the waves are always wet, Suchness is always here, whatever our confusion.

We can also see the importance of Faith, standing in stark contrast to our ideas of attainment and self improvement.

When the wind  dies down  through practice and through  faith,  the  ocean becomes like a mirror,  clearly reflecting whatever is there. Reflecting the moon above. Rendering visible the pearl of wisdom at the bottom of the ocean.

And that also ties in with Yogacara, where it’s said that the eighth  consciousness, when purified, becomes like a great mirror. And the mirror metaphor  is very  frequently used by the Zen teachers, although not exclusively in this way.

There’s a dance between different  but related  metaphors: the ocean and the waves and  the mirror. And we must add space, which in the  Treatise is used as a synonym  for  suchness,  thusness and emptiness.  It’s used in  that way  because space is indivisible.You  wouldn’t say there’s 10 square metres of  space in my room and outside  there’s another 50 square metres of space and the two are different. Space is the same space whether it’s  here or a billion miles away, and the space holds all beings within it.

In that sense, space is a metaphor ( and in meditation, the reality) for the unitary  nature of  being expressed in the Dharmakaya. Which is why  it’s said that  the Buddha’s true body, the Dharmakaya, is  just like space. 

In the treatise the word mahayana  isn’t a reference to the Mahayana school.  It’s a reference to suchness. So it’s faith in suchness, not in the tenets of the Mahayana.

The  Treatise is in effect saying that faith in the reality of suchness manifests suchness. So what is primarily required from us  is faith,because everything follows from that. And, the first classic of Zen literature is Verses of Faith Mind.

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372. The Three Natures

In the  Yogacara  perspective  there are said to be three natures:  the  conditioned nature, the dependent nature,  and the perfected nature.

The conditioned nature  is the way that the ordinary person  sees the world; as constructed of  familiar  objects, as seen conceptually.

The dependent nature, is seeing  everything as  impermanent, as interdependent. 

The  perfected nature  is seeing everything as  suchness. 

The metaphor  which is used to explain the distinction  between these three  natures is the metaphor of  a person with cataracts seeing  flowers in the sky. Flowers which obviously aren’t  there. In the conditioned nature, a person seeing these  flowers in the sky, unaware he has cataracts,  will think of  the sky flowers as real.

For the dependent nature  the person seeing these sky flowers  realises that he has cataracts and so he understands  that the phenomena of sky flowers,  is simply  generated  by  a matrix of causes and conditions.  The fact that he has cataracts,  the pattern of  light  playing  on his cataracts and so on.

In the perfected nature  the person with cataracts  understands that the sky flowers are  neither  real or  unreal. They’re not  real because they’ve no  self nature  yet they’re not unreal because all experience is real. That position,  where  there is plainly  experience but  where one cannot assert a self  behind that  experience, or behind phenomena, is suchness.

The problem  with  schemas such as this  is  that they can be quite  bloodless. It seems that they’re  inviting us  to  understand the world in a conceptual way. That’s very unfortunate  because what these apparent concepts are  designed to do  is to  take us into  an emotional,  feeling position, because that’s where we change. 

You could say that  in the dependent nature  it’s as if I’m travelling through  the landscape of my life—like in a  train or like a car. I’m seeing my life—but I’m seeing it  in a disconnected  way. It has a  slightly unreal  quality to it  and I’m  not  intimately  part of it. 

For the  dependent nature  it’s as if in a dream. I’m always running towards something, yet just as  I’m  approaching it, it vanishes into nothingness.

In the perfected nature  I understand – at a  visceral  level –  that all  experience  is a miracle.

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373. Liberating Seeing

The Sanskrit word for ignorance, avidya,  literally means darkness.’Vidya’ is seeing, and the prefix is the direct negative.

Understanding that makes it clear that darkness is a metaphor about seeing. In the darkness, we can’t see anything. Apart from the darkness. So darkness is not a metaphor for seeing nothing, it’s seeing just one thing and assuming it is everything.

We think that to become familiar with Buddhism we’re required to become familiar with the whole edifice of doctrines, ideas and controversies, but that’s not true. What we need to do is to become intimate with the metaphors which are used.  Not metaphors understood as a kind of encrypted meaning but metaphors as liberative ways of seeing. Not seeing them like a text but seeing them as like a person, capable of infinite engagement and expression. 

Because language always fossilises, it is our responsibility as practitioners to attempt, as sincerely as we can, to generate our own ways of expression.

The metaphor of the mirror is a good illustration. We can see that metaphor in doctrinal terms, pointing to the illusoriness of separate phenomena. We can see it as a metaphor for the interpenetration of all things. We can see it as a metaphor for the mind—calm and meditative—able to experience all phenomena as they are, with equanimity.

All these formulations are not wrong but they’re incomplete. They’re incomplete because they do not move our hearts. They stay within a conceptual framework. Like seeing ignorance as a disguised metaphor of sight, we can see the mirror as a metaphor for liberating seeing: the mirror of the Buddha, the mirror of another person, the mirror of a bodhisattva, and the mirror of you, but at some past or future time.  All different ways of seeing, not one displacing the other, but all of them within a liberative kaleidoscope of seeing. 

It’s not as it were, the person that is liberated into correct seeing, but the seeing is liberated. 

It’s that shift, essentially a shift from our conceptual world to an alive experience world, which is the shift that we’re looking for. 

That’s why Buddhist truth is often called ‘the inconceivable’.  Not because it’s very difficult to understand, but because its purpose is to knock us out with that constructed realm.  Until then, it’s as if we’re deaf beings in a world of deaf beings. We cannot hear the voices of the other. And in this world, all movement and vitality has evaporated:  we are seeing all beings, but as objects. We see them in the mirror of our mind and we see them in the mirror of our language.

 Then suddenly, we start to sing. We can’t hear ourselves sing but we know that something is different within our experience. Something is different. When the world sings back at us, even although we cannot hear this with the mind or with language, we know that something has changed.  

Even though we cannot describe it, because we cannot describe it—something has changed.

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374. Compassion

Mahayana  Buddhism,  in all its fantastical  detail  and complexity, is an attempt  to answer  two questions.   

The first: “Isn’t the wish  to be free from  desire  a sort of desire?” 

The second: “If we accept  the radical  interdependence of all being,  isn’t the wish  to be liberated  from that  interdependence a kind of  ignorance?” 

In the  attempt to  answer these questions  we can see the central  place  of compassion. 

But we need to understand what compassion  means.  

Primarily, we need to understand that  compassion is not  a personal  quality.  It’s not something which  you  cultivate  or accumulate.   It’s not  kindness  or pity  or  generosity.

It’s feeling  with, the self, as it were, is unfolded and recorded into this  feeling  with. 

It’s from  that starting point  that we can understand some of the more  fantastical,   or apparently fantastical  aspects of Mahayana. 

We can start to understand  both how practitioners  can be viewed as  bodhisattvas and how the world as a whole and the beings in that world can likewise  be seen  as bodhisattvas—as having a liberative  capacity. Because compassion is a universal quality that transiently locates itself within particular beings, like the air in our lungs, then it is continually being expressed everywhere.

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375. As If Light

Shinji Shobogenzo  Book 2   Case 91:

One day Master Tenno Dogo asked Master Sekito  Kisen, ” What is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?”

Master Sekito said, “It isn’t graspable. It isn’t knowable.”

Master  Dogo said, “Can you say anything else?”

Master Sekito said,  “The wide sky does not hinder the flying white clouds.”

In one way we can take Sekito’s answer as being a statement of the non-obstruction of form and emptiness and the mutual dependence of form and emptiness—their interpenetration.

In another way we can focus on the innovative use of clouds in the answer that Sekito gives. This is helpful because it clarifies the difference between a living language and a dead one,  or in  traditional parlance — living words and dead words.  Clouds are used famously, and in a contrary way, in a metaphor for Buddha Nature.  

Buddha Nature is like the sun.  It’s always there but we can’t always see it  because sometimes it’s obscured by clouds. That’s why we require faith. So clouds,  in this metaphor, are symbolic of mental obstruction— confusion, doubt and so on.

Here’s the danger: because we have such a poor, superficial understanding of symbolic language, we think that the different elements within these various Buddhist metaphors have a fixed meaning.  So there’s clouds, that means mental afflictions; there’s the sun, that means Buddha Nature and so on.

All these pictures then can yield up a particular meaning based on a fixed symbolic vocabulary.

Thinking this way is plainly fatal to any kind of living Buddhism and it’s absolutely not what Buddhism historically has engaged in. Rather than having a fixed meaning, these various pictorial elements:  the wind, the clouds, the sun, the moon, the water, the pearl, and so on, are more like people. They can gather together and separate and express themselves in unusual and new ways. Those people can have within them the Buddha—concealed and then revealing himself in an unusual way. 

In this sense, Buddhism, once we can see it as a history and play of metaphor, is very alive.

It’s as if Light is all the time forming and reforming itself.

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376. Mappo

In traditional Buddhism there’s an idea of the various Ages that the world goes through. 

In the time of  the historical Buddha, we’re in the first Age, which lasts for about 500 years.In that time, it’s easy for people to be liberated.  Following that there’s an Age that’s not quite so good.Liberation is much more difficult. Following that is an age that’s distinctly degenerate. Liberation is impossible. And following that agre, Buddhism disappears.  We simply have to wait for the next Buddha to come along

But I wonder if there’s a different way of regarding these Ages. 

You could say that all the ages are all there, all at the same time.  But one has more prominence than the others.  If you look at China, for instance, Chinese Buddhism doesn’t really acquire any of these distinctive characteristics until about 500 years or so after Buddhism first arrives in China.

At that point there is an incredible flowering of Chinese Buddhist culture, evidenced in, amongst others, the ‘Awakening the Faith in Mahayana’ and the writings the T’ien Tai school,  the Huayan school, the Zen school, and the Pure Land school.

Similarly, in Japan, it takes about 500 years or so between the arrival of Buddhism and the flowering that it had in the 13th century of distinctively Japanese forms of Buddhism; specifically for us the Buddhism of Dogen but also Nichiren, Shinran and others that all appeared much about the same time. 

It seems to me that when Buddhism first goes to a different culture, that’s its degenerate phase. It’s degenerate because the characteristic way that civilizations will deal with something new is that they’ll either imitate it or they’ll attempt to assimilate it to existing ideas.

We can see this very clearly in the West.  In terms of imitation, we’ve all these people dressing themselves up as Asian monks and constructing dojos that purport to replicate medieval Japanese dojos and so on. 

And we have assimilationists.  Much [but not all] of the Mindfulness Movement would be in that category. They say well, this is Buddhism, but we can fit it within our ideas of wellness and individual development. We can  get rid of all the historical  barnacles that disguise that. 

I think that we are not, at least on the surface, in a great stage of Buddhism.  The degenerate stage occurs first and a long time into our future —hundreds of years perhaps, at that point, there’s the potential for us; both to take Buddhism seriously and to understand it; but also to have digested it.

So then what comes out of us is something valuable—something genuinely new. 

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377. Gradual and Sudden Practice

The Tendai school say that there are three distinct approaches to spiritual practice: the gradual, the variable, and the sudden.

The gradual, as the name suggests, proceeds through stages.  First, you accept the Buddhist life—the precepts and so on. Second, you cultivate equanimity — calming and steadiness in meditation. Thirdly, having cultivated that steadiness, you practise insight into the way how things are—the way that you are. Having done all of that you cultivate compassion—the bodhisattva path. You proceed in that way in the direction of the Buddha. 

The metaphor – metaphors are very important – used is the ladder. It’s an unusual metaphor because you’d expect the familiar metaphor of the path to be used. 

The path is an obvious conceptualization of practice as the idea that you’re going somewhere. You start from one position and through effort, you get to another position.  Obviously that is the case with the ladder too, but in an oddly vertical way. In one way, you change position. In another, you don’t. 

The metaphor which is used for the sudden approach is another unusual metaphor. It is the metaphor of a magician being able to suspend himself in mid air. That metaphor obviously takes advantage of the very close relationship in Chinese between the words for space, sky and emptiness.

The idea is that entering into somewhere is completely entering that place. Having a slight experience of emptiness is simultaneously having that experience – which can have its own life of growth and development –  but which is also entering into the whole space.

That sudden idea of practice is, for better or worse, one that was taken up by the subsequent Zen tradition. 

It pays to carefully consider the ways in which these two metaphors are a  complement and contrast to each other.  They exemplify the point that it really is impossible to understand Buddhism without taking the metaphors seriously. 

And taking them seriously means taking them on their own terms.