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339. The Five Eyes of Practice

In Zazen we practice with our eyes open, but we do not see in the usual way.

The Diamond Sutra says there are five eyes, five ways of seeing.

The first is the physical eye. You can understand that is the eye of our karma. We see a world which has been told to us by our parents, by our society, and by earlier versions of ourselves.

The second eye is the heavenly eye. This is seeing the world conceptually. When I look up at the sky for example, I see it within the context of the world and the universe that’s been taught to me. I can see the world conceptually in many ways: through physics, through economics, through history; any number of ways. 

The third eye is the prajna eye. This the ‘wisdom’ eye that sees the emptiness and the non-separation of all things.

The fourth is the dharma eye which, while seeing the emptiness of all things, uses compassion and skillful means to alleviate suffering—the eye of the Bodhisattva. 

The fifth eye is the Buddha eye. 

When we read about these five eyes, we think that they belong to five different kinds of beings. Or to the one being, in progressive stages of development.

I think we can equally look upon these ‘eyes’ as facets of practice. The Buddha eye is this non-dual awareness, this non-separation which contains the other four. 

Not just those other four eyes of course, but the countless eyes of Avalokiteshvara.  

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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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336. The Fabric of Buddhism

The literal meaning of the word sutra is thread. At its most basic, the reference is to the thread which kept the pages of the sutra together and in order.

The root of the word sutra means ‘to sew together.’ 

We can see an association with the ordination practice in which, prior to the ceremony, a person sews together disparate pieces of material to create their rakusu, or kesa. This garment, which always has the same form, is also unique. It is unique because it is sewn by this particular person, with all this person’s skills, clumsiness, mistakes, and so on. Originally, the monk’s robe was sewn together from pieces of discarded material, so the symbolism, in terms of interdependence, the rich dialogue between particularity and universality and everything having value, is very rich.

Zazen is sewing together body and mind; self and world; past and present; practitioners seen and unseen.

That possibly throws light on one of the peculiarities of the Mahayana sutras.

At the start, the Buddha is gathered with an assembly of monks. And almost always, there’s also a huge number of Bodhisattvas.

In the Vimalakirti Sutra, for instance, the Buddha is said to be preaching on Vulture Peak to 8,000 monks and 32,000 Bodhisattvas.

Who or what are these Bodhisattvas?

If we read the Lotus Sutra does Vulture Peak appear or not? Are we there, or not? 

When the Chinese determined upon a word for sutra they used, on the face of it, an identical word, thread. But in their genius ‘thread’ has a particular context. It’s the thread of the loom. Or rather, one of the threads: the vertical, or the horizontal.

The Chinese mechanical loom is a metaphor for constant activity; the full dynamic functioning of the universe. If the thread of the sutra is, as it were, one line of the fabric to be weaved, the vertical say, what is the horizontal line? What or who is woven with it to constantly produce the miraculous fabric of Buddhism?

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334. Skilful Means

The Heart Sutra is a – probably Chinese – attempt to condense and to get to the heart of the prajnaparamita sutras; a vast body of literature that started to be composed in India around the first century BC.

In these sutras, there’s a repetitive emphasis on three elements: prajna ( intuitive wisdom), compassion and skillful means. ‘Prajna’ (wisdom) is the ability to see the emptiness, the boundlessness and the lack of separation of all things. ‘Compassion’ is the feeling with all beings. 

The temptation, when we hear these three terms, is to think that they’re attributes of the person. This ‘person’ acquires the capacity to see emptiness and, seeing emptiness, this ‘person’ then develops compassion in their heart and then this ‘person’ acts towards other beings in the most efficaciously compassionate way using skillful means. 

However, to think of these three qualities as qualities of the individual is to fall into exactly the same kind of spiritual narcissism that plagues meditation today. 

Prajna doesn’t mean me seeing the emptiness of all other things. It means seeing the emptiness of all things, including this ‘person’. The wall of identity which surrounds this person and separates them from other beings is dismantled.

With those walls absent, what is there but fellow feeling? 

And skillful means, because it’s not a personal quality; because it’s a universal quality, can be seen as one facet of this infinitely faceted diamond of all beings; each facet expressing the whole diamond.

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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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326. Bodhidharma’s ‘Wall Contemplation’

In Zen legend, Bodhidharma arrived in China from India, had his encounter with the Emperor and then went to Shaolin temple where he sat facing a wall for nine years. There’s pictures of this everywhere, showing Bodhidharma with dramatically bulging eyes.

When we sit facing the wall, we’re evoking that. 

The Chinese phrase which is rendered as, ‘wall contemplation’, is ‘pi-kuan’. Classical Chinese is notoriously terse. The expression means simply something like, ‘wall gazing’. It doesn’t say who’s doing the gazing – if it’s a person gazing at a wall or if it’s the wall gazing, or something else. The phrase is original to Bodhidharma.

Because of the pictorial representation, we think, without inquiring further, that the phrase simply means that Bodhidharma practised zazen facing the wall. Except, that isn’t really an explanation at all.

Given that the wall is plainly not the object of meditation, the phrase, I think, only makes sense when we interpret it as meaning that when we are sitting, we are like a wall gazing onto the world.

What does that suggest? Firstly, that the wall, like a tree, or a mountain, is rooted in the being of all things. It’s non-dual. Secondly, that the wall doesn’t differentiate. So the wall will see all beings, in all states, with the same ‘gaze’. 

In that sense, the wall is like a stone mirror. If we look at it in that way, then we can see a connection between this idea of wall gazing and the Alaya consciousness that we encounter in Yogacara. Bodhidharma was known for bequeathing to his successor the Lankavatara sutra, which is a Yogacara sutra.

The phrase is evocative and open-ended. We should approach it as we should approach all the teachings; not as a ‘puzzle’ to be solved and then never returned to, but like a person. For all the sutras, for all the teachings, it is like we’re encountering a person, who is not exhausted by definition and classification but who, from moment to moment, offers the opportunity of a living exchange about practice, which can change us, and change them.

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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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314. What is ‘Nirvana’?

There’s a common belief that Nirvana is the reward for practice. So, as it were, if we put in the hard yards of meditation, at some point we attain Nirvana. It’s something we attain, like we would attain Enlightenment, on the same kind of thinking: attain and keep. We go from our ordinary, fallen human condition to the state of Nirvana. Nirvana is a noun. Paired with that is often an image of blowing out a candle – Nirvana is like blowing out a candle.

This is an almost complete misunderstanding of what Nirvana originally meant. For that, we need to go back to the Buddha’s first three sermons after his awakening. He gave the first two of these to the five ascetics whom he practiced with, before taking a different path. 

In the first sermon he outlined the truth of suffering. He talked about the four noble truths  and the noble eightfold path. In the second sermon he talked about No Self. Throughout, he talked to this small group of practitioners in a straightforward way.

The third sermon was different. It was given to a much larger group of practitioners, and is known as the Fire Sermon. The reason why it’s called that is because the Buddha used the metaphor of fire to describe our ordinary human condition. So he said that our eyes are burning, the objects of our eyes are burning, our mind is burning, our hearing is burning, and so on. Burning is the common theme, and the fires that he describes are what later became known as the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance.

To understand this metaphor you need to understand that the Sanskrit and Pali word for fuel (i.e what keeps the fire going) and the word for attachment are the same. The word is upadana. The suggestion of the metaphor is that the fires of greed, anger and ignorance which consume our lives are generated and sustained by the fuel of attachment –  attachment to a self, and to all the things which your self believes it requires.

The word Nirvana has two parts to it: the prefix NIR means out and VANA means blowing. So at first glance we think, ‘oh, that fits in quite well with the image of the candle being blown out,’ but we need to understand two things. Firstly, the word vana has a much broader meaning than our word ‘to blow’, which we would think of as a person blowing out. We wouldn’t think of it as a person breathing in, and we certainly wouldn’t think of it in terms of a general movement in the air – though figuratively we would understand if someone said ‘the wind is blowing’.

The contemporary Theravada monk and translator, a wonderful and generous man called Thanissaro Bhikkhu, renders ‘Nirvana’ as not-blowing. On his reading of it, Nirvana is not blowing on the flames with a bellows, with the breath, or with something similar, a blowing which will keep the fire going. It’s not doing that. However, this isn’t quite right. ‘Nirvana’ is transitive; there’s nobody doing the blowing, and there’s nobody refraining from blowing. In fact, the reference is to the fire blowing. In other words the fire – of greed, anger and ignorance – which is sustained by our attachment, is ‘blowing’. It is drawing in the air which helps to sustains it. The consequence of us not continuing to give fuel to the fire is that the fire gradually dies down, and when it does so it’s not ‘blowing’- and that’s Nirvana.
But you can see how this original metaphor could gradually change into the metaphor of blowing out the candle, and who else would blow out the candle other than the practitioner? But this is almost a complete reversal of the original meaning, and throws attention onto what the practitioner will get, rather than what they need to stop.

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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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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.