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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


370. Buddha Nature (2)

Buddha Nature is said  to  exist  in  two  forms. When it’s covered over  by kleshas,  the defilements, it’s called tathagatagarbha—Buddha embryo or womb.

When  those defilements  don’t exist anymore,  it’s called Dharmakaya. Dharmakaya  is the universal  body of the Buddha, the Body which encompasses  all of existence. The Dharmakaya is  said (in the Nirvana sutra for instance) to have four qualities: self, bliss, eternity  and purity. 

When we hear that,  it doesnt sound like Buddhism. In fact, it sounds like the  complete opposite of. everything  that  we’ve been taught about no self, impermanence  and  suffering. Indeed those four  qualities are the opposite of the four qualities which we’re told  characterises samsara: suffering, the belief in a personal, continuing  self,  impermanence  and the kleshas,-—the  mental impurities. 

In her book ‘Buddha Nature’, Sallie King says   that the Dharmakaya isn’t  about establishing a new self. Rather, it’s a creative and appropriate response  to Nagarjuna. Her argument is  that  Nagarjuna’s method  of subjecting all concepts  to  destructive analysis  leaves us with a  conception of emptiness  which is negative.

In his time – and now too – Nagarjuna  is often criticised (unfairly and incorrectly) as a nihilist,  because  the  positive  side of his teaching  is ignored, because it’s not explicit in his principal writings. It’s there by  inference.

In that way, it’s quite similar  to  the Buddha, who  doesn’t describe  the  state  that the meditator is in  when they leave their  misconceived  conceptual world—when they leave  their adherence to a fixed sense of self—it’s simply  left  for the practitioner to  discover, because explication would leave the practitioner still mired in a conceptual position. 

Likewise, when  Nagarjuna clears away  all the  erroneous,  conceptual structures he doesn’t tell  us  what  the ground, which is left, looks like. The suggestion Sallie King makes is that after Nagarjuna, the emerging Mahayana tradition took a  turn towards  talking about emptiness  in positive terms to remedy this misunderstanding which led to nihilism. Compassion was further emphasised, for the same reason.

The various sutras that we associate  with that  were turbocharged in impact because of the fortunate coincidence (for  them) of their appearance in the  early centuries of the common era. This coincided with the reception of Buddhism  in China.  Because the  positive language of those sutras  was much more in keeping with the positive view the Chinese had of the world (rather than  a quite pervasive  view  in the Indian spiritual traditions that  the world was something that we require  to be liberated from), these sutras thrived in their new environment.

Careful analysis of  the texts has made it clear that people no one thought that the Dharmakaya or the Tathagatagarba  was a ‘something’, contravening  emptiness. Rather, it was a positive  interpretation of emptiness, so for  instance, in the Buddha Nature Treatise, there’s the following passage,”Buddha Nature  is the thusness  revealed by the dual emptiness of person  and things.  If one does not speak of Buddha Nature then one does not understand emptiness.” The author is clear that you need to  see these concepts  through the lens of Emptiness. 

And if we also see these concepts  through the lens of  Practice  then it seems to  me that  Dharmakaya, the universal  body of the Buddha, is an experientially accurate way  of describing our experience  sometimes in Zazen—of non-separation, of the the split  between  ourselves and the world  and the internal splits that we have dropping away, which Isso Fujita calls one piece Zen. 


369. Buddha Nature (1)

The term  ‘Buddha Nature’ first appears in the  Tathagatagarbha  Sutra  and in a number of subsequent sutras, most famously the Nirvana Sutra and thence, via the Lankavatara Sutra,  into  Zen, hence the most  famous koan about whether or not a dog has Buddha Nature

The Tathagata Sutra  is a really interesting sutra. It’s very short  and it’s not discursive. It has an instruction, then eight  similies  for Buddha Nature.

  The introduction was apparently added  later.  In it, the Buddha is giving  a talk to a large number  of  named  bodhisattvas. He performs a kind of conjuring trick, miraculously creating the appearance of a multitude of beautiful lotus flowers in the sky. Within each lotus flower,  there’s a Buddha.

After the initial vision, the lotus flowers suddenly wither, giving off a  foul stench. 

The  similes used are interesting  too:
The first is  honey  in a cave or a tree  surrounded by  a swarm of  bees;
The second  is a kernel of wheat  that has not had the husk removed;
The third  is gold in a pit of waste;
The fourth  is an unknown treasure underneath a poor person’s house;
The fifth  is the core of a fruit which  can then develop into a  magnificent tree;
The sixth  is a gold statue  wrapped in filthy rags;

The seventh, which probably gives the  sutra its name,  is (and I’m quoting) ” an impoverished, vile and ugly woman, hated by others, who bears a king  in her womb”; 

The last one is a golden statue which has been in a  foundry, so has a dark casing.

All of these similes refer to the kleshas. ‘Klesha’ literally means poison  and in this context means  a mental state that clouds the mind. There’s lots  of them: ignorance,

self-centeredness,  attachment, avoidance,  and fear, and many others.

Klesha is often translated as ‘adventitious  defilements’.  This is typical of an elevated way of translating which, focusing on apparent accuracy of meaning,  distances us  from the emotional  sense  of the term translated.  In a similar way, is-ness is often rendered as thusness, and we lose the sense of “well, it doesn’t (independently and separately) exist but it doesn’t not exist either, so what do we call it?”; a human sense, that you can imagine real people actually saying. This does seem to happen in  translation quite a lot. For example, when Ernest Jones translated Freud he rendered ‘Ich’ (‘I’)  as ‘Ego’, with predictable consequences. 

Given the ubiquity of euphemism, my  guess is that the pit of waste is really a pit of shit. The  dirty robes/rags are probably something similar. Despite that, the emotion in these similes remains clear: 
the angry swarm of bees protecting the  honey is  anger; 
the kernel of wheat inside the husk that is unknown is ignorance, 
the the pit of shit is disgust; 
the treasure beneath the poor person’s house is ignorance again,  
the core of the fruit, ignorance again; 
the gold statue wrapped in filthy  rags, disgust again;
the impoverished  vile woman, disgust;
a golden statue  wrapped within a dark casing,  ignorance;
and the initial  image  that  we have about these flowers giving off a foul stench is obviously disgust as  well.

These are emotions that we  generally don’t want to go anywhere near—just like we wouldn’t want to go near a  pit of shit, we don’t want to go near our disgust, our  anger and  so on. 

If we pay  attention to the emotions which are invoked by these similes  then I think we can understand  how the Tathagata,  far from being some  quaint  Chinese medieval  device, is actually a very  good  description  of Zazen.

When we’re sitting we’re aware of this  kind of  dynamic  emptiness – this treasure – at our centre.We’re also  aware of all our surrounding  nonsense: our  fluctuating thought babble, emotions, images and all the rest. All of which  are just coming and going  and which  we can see  doesn’t  really  exist. That’s where  the introduction is  helpful, because it is saying  that  these stinking  lotus flowers,  these  kleshas don’t exist either, because they’re  all taking place within the Buddha’s  conjuring trick. 

If you  understand all of that,  then it seems to me that the Tathagatagarbha is a  very helpful and practical way  of looking at  our practice  and  our experience  in Zazen. 


368. The door is always open

A central idea within Mahayana Buddhism is the Dharmakaya,  the universal body of the Buddha — the whole universe is the body of the Buddha.

Although this is quite difficult for us, it’s a perspective which is fairly constant within Chinese Buddhism. It appears in various forms.

For example,in the Huayan school, the foundational idea is derived from the proposition that everything’s empty.  And because, like space, emptiness is one, there’s not a billion, billion pieces of emptiness.

And because that is so, each thing is all things and each thing is identical with each other thing. Identical, because different. 

There is a striking resemblance with Spinoza’s idea that there is nothing which is not God.

What this supports – and this is the real point –  is the insight that our liberation is not transcendent. There is not some other special place that we need to go to—it’s not attainment. 

It is understanding that our true nature and the nature of this world is not separate.  The perspective is immanent rather than transcendent. That changes everything.

The dharmakaya is ‘virtual’ in the Deleuzian sense: it only appears through individual things. These individual things are both in their particular dharma position, but also, in their emptiness, they escape from that particularity.

We’re not confined within the boundaries either of our own skin or of the feeble stories we tell ourselves. 

The dharmakaya, erroneously thought of as a proposition about the nature of reality, is quite abstract. Huayan makes it brilliantly real.  The whole universe, like a body, is whole, integrated, diverse and alive—each part is its own part and is also whole. 

We need to understand that the door is always open.


367. Liberation

Here in Glasgow in November all the leaves have fallen from the trees.

 We might talk about this by saying that autumn leaves fall.  In a slight variation of that, we may say within my life, in my 62nd year, in the autumn, I see the leaves fall.

These apparently innocuous containers of autumn and my life blind us to the evanescence, the aliveness of our actual life; autumn is the leaves falling—it’s nothing else

Your life is each event in it. There is no container of self. There is no container of time to enable self.

There’s two expressions that  we have in zen: one is genjo which means actualisation as in ‘genjokoan’ and the other is todatsu which means liberation.

Liberation means that each moment is complete; in its self-expression it is free from before and after.

And so, at least sometimes, we are not like a tramp impacted with the grime of our karma, trudging from babyhood to death.

 The kanji for Genjokoan signifies something like a person coming out of a house: something that was latent becomes vivid.

When we sit Zazen, and not just then, in other moments of our life, we give expression to something within us which we cannot name. It is like a little bird flying out of a burning house.   


366. These Little Birds

One of the instructions we’re given when we start Zazen is that we should allow our thoughts to come and go freely, like clouds in the sky. That instruction can be quite helpful to people right at the start of their meditation practice to become aware of their mental chatter, and the possibility of not being imprisoned within that. 

But taken as a general instruction, it is both harmful and useless. It’s harmful because it sets up an unnecessary dichotomy between thinking and the absence of thinking; between mental noise, the noise of our thoughts, and silence. The consequence of that is to create, unintentionally, an ideal of meditation which essentially emphasizes silence and an absence of thoughts. That ideal, that perspective on meditation, is both joyless and austere. It’s also frustratingly unattainable. 

The instruction is useless because ‘thinking’ in no way encompasses the range of our experience, either during Zazen or otherwise. Alongside mental chatter we will experience – for example – the various manifestations of our imagination; we’ll experience auditory and visual (and other sensory) hallucinations; we’ll experience  emotions that we can’t name and don’t like. We’ll experience sensations that are very elusive and we’ll experience the movement and aliveness of our body and the world.

The purpose of meditation is not to kill thought: it’s not to kill this rich experience—it’s to liberate it.

When we’re on retreat at Ardfern, at the back of the house there’s a little tree. To it are drawn all these lovely little birds,all different colors. Some blue, some yellow, some green, some red. They’re all drawn to the aliveness and tremulousness of the little tree.

When you’re sitting, your little birds are drawn to your alive tremulousness. Sometimes the birds of thought, sometimes the birds of the imagination, sometimes the birds of movement and aliveness, sometimes the birds of emotion, sometimes the birds of sensation. Do not wish them away; if they come and go freely, everything is as it should be.

When we get carried away with ourselves, we might think of our steadfast sitting as being like a mountain, but we’re more like this little inconspicuous tree which, even though it’s small, its roots extend throughout the earth. because it arises in love, not fear, its branches reach throughout the sky.