Commentary by Gendo
“….What does sitting meditation mean? In this teaching there is no obstacle, not obstruction: when mind and thought are not aroused over any good or bad objects or situation in the external world, this is called sitting, When you see the immutability of your own essential nature inwardly, this is called meditation. “ (Platform Sutra, chapter 5)
This commentary is inspired by this quote from the Platform Sutra, a text that is said to be spoken by the person named Huineng in 8th century China.
In this teaching there is no obstacle, not obstruction. Nothing gets in the way because the teaching is not found externally. It is natural and already present, with no obstacle, no obstruction. What gets in the way is the very effort that looks elsewhere for something new and special, the self that seeks to affirm itself by its acquisitions.
When mind and thought are not aroused over any good or bad objects or situation in the external world, this is called sitting. We think of ‘sitting’ as being still, a seated position. But, as we discover in Zen practice, the body can be still, yet the mind races. True repose is a quiet mind. Then, even though moving, one is still and undisturbed. Another ancient teacher, Rinzai, says, “Just make yourself master of every situation and wherever you stand is the true place.”
What disturbs the mind? Again, the insight of Buddhism is that the basic disturbance is self-absorption, the standpoint of gathering all to oneself, defended against others, construing reality to suit one’s own desires. It is the posture of the self that discriminates one thing from another, judges good and bad from the standpoint of what affirms its own situation.
It is, of course, our human nature to want to do well, the fondest wish of our parents. Yet we confront a universe that does not revolve around our self-interest, a universe whose constant activity is both creation and destruction.
Likewise, it is our nature to live, but also to die. We cannot rest in the truth of our nature and the nature of the universe without acknowledging both our coming and going. Huineng calls this the wisdom not to be “aroused over any good or bad objects or situation in the external world.”
Is that some impossible ideal? On reflection, it is most ordinary. It is the the experience of every moment of awareness, the raw sensory experience that precedes the arising of thought, precedes the judgment of like, dislike, and the attaching of words to one thing and another; an experience sometimes described as “emptiness,” empty of distinctions.
Of course, the self and its needs inevitably arises. Inevitably emptiness breaks apart and gives rise to thoughts of self and other. But emptiness remains the underlying condition, so Huineng next speaks of meditation.
When you see the immutability of your own essential nature inwardly, this is called meditation. Huineng suggests that sitting becomes meditation when sitting leads to the realization that emptiness is the reality underlying all consciousness. All objects of attention arise from emptiness in an act of discrimination; one original wholeness divided in two from the perspective of “self” and its desires. What we take to be objective reality is, on examination, a duality, a paradox.
Since ancient times, the act of breathing is used to demonstrate this truth; in-breath and out-breath, two separate and opposite activities, utterly dependent on each another. One cannot happen without the other. Likewise day and night, male and female, joy and sorrow, life and death. All consciousness is like this.
As long as we are alive, self and its likes and dislikes arise. But to realize a larger context is to notice “essential nature,” the self-less embrace of everything that we call ‘true love’ and that Buddhism calls “paramita,” crossing life’s turmoil to reach the far shore.
Commentary by Gendo
"Delusion has no location; fixation is delusion. Purity has no form; if you define a pure form as meditation, the act of entertaining this view will obstruct your own original nature, and you will be subject to bondage by purity." (Platform Sutra, Chapter 5)
Meditation is making your own effort, not some pure thing to be acquired. Zen teachers over the centuries point out that it is not enough to read about something, to read or hear the beautiful words someone else produces. It is necessary to recognize a truth in terms of one’s own experience in order to make it your truth.
I think Buddhism appeals to an American culture that emphasizes individual effort. We uphold the ideal that anyone who works hard can “get ahead;” and the ideal that it is necessary to question authority, questions blind faith, and know a thing for oneself. “Meditation” has become popular in this country along with other forms of ‘self-help,’ like physical fitness and a healthy diet. Zen practice seems to fit those ideals.
But there is also a difference. Zen points out that to fixate the ‘self’ and its goals is a delusion that “obstructs your own original nature.”
Picture, for a moment, two levels of mind, corresponding, more or less, to Western concepts of consciousness and the sub-conscious mind. The first level is the world of language and culture. It is the world of discriminating awareness, where there are differences of opinion and argument. It is the world of identity: personal, family, religious, political – the many ways we characterize ourselves and world around us.
The second level is a layer that feels older and is non-verbal in nature; a foundation that underlies the self that declares “I am” and expresses its various opinions. This foundation is the realm of ‘raw sensation,’ the sensory awareness that precedes thought; a realm we associate with earliest childhood and deepest experience. Every moment of consciousness is born from a place of raw sensation, quickly interpreted and labeled by the thinking mind.
The discipline of meditation is training to pay attention to that realm of experience preceding thought and word; a layer that becomes hidden beneath the overlay of language and identity and is inaccessible to the intellect. Why bother? Because we ignore this part of our nature at our peril. Because sooner or later intellectual explanations and social expectations are not enough. Because we suffer and wonder why.
Various guard rails and road signs are erected as reminders of this fundamental aspect of our humanity. Ethical norms are such warnings, sometimes experienced as imposed standards, as ‘bondage.’ But, from the standpoint of Zen, the true meaning of such discipline is found in the roots of our own experience, like the hidden roots of a tree that account for the appearance of branches and leaves
If words and social identity are the leaves, meditation is training to experience the roots. By roots, leaves are connected with each other and with the ground that nourishes all that grows and gathers all that dies. Leaf activity is dependent on root activity. On the other hand, roots find expression in leaves. Both roots and leaves make the tree.
The so-called “three treasures” of Buddhism are about touching the roots of ‘self’. As connection it is called Sangha, as shared purpose it is called Dharma; as shared identity it is called Buddha, the awakened self.
Commentary by Gendo
“The object is an object for the subject, The subject is a subject for the object. Know that the relativity of the two rests ultimately on one emptiness.” (Shinjinmei, poem of the third ancestor of Zen in China)
We find ourselves in a remarkable nexus of events: the celebration of Martin Luther King’s life and sacrifice for racial justice in our country, mob attacks in the name of white supremecy on this nation’s capital, and the election of new president promising unity.
The United States was established in pluralism, a union of diverse states, governed by opposing parties. Yet implicit in union is shared purpose. As children in school we chanted allegence to “…one nation, under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all”. What is happening to that nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all? The national news is a litany of insurrection and division, violence, disease, social isolation and financial hardship.
The advice of our wisdom traditions is to look inside. Martin Luther King’s advice was to look inside. He said: “I must be measured by my soul; the mind is a standard of the person.”
The Buddhist advice is to wakeup to our own true nature. Dogen, the Japanese Zen teacher and founder of Soto Zen said: “To study Zen is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be illuminated by the ten thousand things [everything]. To be illuminated by the ten thousand things is to remove the barrier between self and other…” In other words, opinion without the humility of common purpose, makes useful debate impossible, makes one nation impossible.
Buddhist practice (Zen) teaches that the fundamental divisiveness is the “self” and its preoccupations, the self that divides the world into subject and object, in defense of its own position, according to its own preferences.
Originally, there is no separation between subject and object; like hearing the song of a bird in the early morning, a moment empty of thought, empty of self awareness , empty of “other” awareness. Zen describes such a moment as the meeting of subject and object in one emptiness, empty of ‘self’ and ‘other.’
Very quickly, subject and object break apart. Very quickly, sound (object) and a prior moment of silence (subject) separate. It is taught that ‘self’ is born in that space between subject and object, the ‘self’ that discriminates one from the other.
By analogy, lovers meet and then separate and the child of their union is born. The self is born that has as its contents, as its experience, a small part of both subject and object, discriminating one from the other. This is the ‘self’ that forms an idea and the words “Ah, a bird sings!”
Zen explains that, with the birth of the self, subject and object, having given up part of themselves, are now diminished. The situation returns to completion with the eventual dissolution of self and meeting of subject and object in one emptiness.
All conscious experience is like this. All objects of awareness arise from dualism, arise from a human mind that separates mother and father, giving rise to the born self that discriminates one from the other. In doing so, the self affirms its own situation, affirms what it likes as opposed to what it dislikes.
Yet, the whole picture, the true nature of the situation is union, one emptiness, subject and object together, empty of distinctions between self and other, what we call ‘true’ or ‘selfless’ love. To only and unconditionally affirm ‘self’ and its likes versus its dislikes is what Buddhist tradition calls ignorance, ignorance of the whole picture, ignorance regarding how the self got here and where it is going, ignorance that is the root source of “greed, anger and delusion,” poisoning the wisdom that knows”one emptiness;” one nation, indivisible.
Selfless love, “one emptiness,” is the fundamental condition; hidden to the self that objectifies God or truth, because objectification of the “other” is always centered on self and its preferences. But by awakening to interdependence, “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” becomes possible.
We have to stand up for our beliefs, whether Democrat or Republican or something else. But without the humility of common purpose, useful debate becomes war, one nation becomes divided. The truth of interdependence, of true love, is the power of non-violent protest. Martin Luther King in reference to non-violent Black protestors in the early 60”s said at Dartmouth College in 1962:
“They have been able to say, in substance, that they stood up against the unjust system: “We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We can not in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because non-cooperation with evil is as much as a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. And so throw us in jail; we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children and we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at midnight hours and drag us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half dead and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit morally, culturally, or otherwise for integration and we will still love you. Be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’”
Commentary by Gendo
"As our insight into the fundamental equality of everything deepens, we develop the ability to manifest as we truly are. This manifesting is called the “path of compassion.” (Joshu Sasaki )
From the perspective of Zen, fundamental equality is knowing the “other” as none other than myself; a proposition echoed in the Christian idea of “loving your neighbor as you love yourself.” Zen teaches that compassion is not simply an aspiration. It is who we are.
Thirteenth century Zen teacher Dogen said: “To study Zen is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be illuminated by all things. To be illuminated by all things is to remove the barrier between self and other:” in other words, compassion.
On examination, ‘self’ is hard to pin down. This head, this hand, this foot are “mine,” they are “me.” But who is observing this? “I am” of course. And yet this “I am” cannot be observed without an observer self that stands apart, an observer that can never be observed! Even the self we call “tree,” means different things to different people, depending on where you live,. And tree changes; grows, drops its leaves and collapses in old age. There are other things that happen in and around the tree, like animals that dropped the seeds that grew there, the mushrooms that help nourish the tree, the water and sunshine that give it life. Are they not also “tree?”
Buddhism concludes that consciousness of ’self’ is an act of discrimination; one thing distinguished from an infinity of interrelated possibilities, possibilities that are ultimately empty of separate identity. The whole picture of any object includes that emptiness from which it is born and to which it returns. We are born from unconsciousness, identifying self and other by the efforts of our parents and teachers, by the desire to live and thrive. And, with death, we return to unconsciousness, empty of self and other.
On examination, this life cycle is reproduced in every moment of awareness. Every instant of consciousness begins with raw sensory awareness empty of identity, empty of self and other, transformed by discriminating mind into separate name and form, “me” here, ”it” there. And just as quickly, some new experience takes its place.
“Buddha” means “waking up,” waking to the dynamic nature of experience, of our experience, also called the ‘Tathagata,’ meaning, ‘thus come, thus gone.’ You and I, and all the selves that comprise our world, are coming into being, and returning to emptiness over and over again, an activity of fundamental equality experienced as compassion.
Halloween - a paramita
Have lost their leaves,
Frost has killed the garden.
Onions and carrots,
Stash and horde because
Who knows what lies ahead.
Now the dead rise up
And remind us
Of their fate.
Specters of Sawain
At the door
Hide in darkness
And they will
Play their tricks
Tricks are averted
By one measure
Give of yourself
And death transforms
Into something ordinary
Like the kid next door.
“Good friends, people of the world originally have the knowledge of bodhi and prajna within them, but they cannot realize it themselves because of the wandering of the conditioned mind…” ( Huineng, Platform Sutra, chapter 2)
“Prajna,” an ancient Sanskrit word meaning insight or wisdom, is one of the so-called “paramitas” in Buddhism, (generosity, ethics, inclusiveness, resolve, meditation, wisdom), practices that help us ‘cross over’ the turbulent river of birth and death. ‘Paramita,’ another Sanskrit word, means ‘perfection’ or ‘having reached the other shore.’ Prajna’ is the row boat, but it is also the far shore itself.
There is something wonderful about that far shore. You know it’s there and want to get there. But there is difficulty – it is far away, beyond clear sight and knowing – and rivers can be dangerous. At first thought, I can’t get there from here – no boat, no wings. Something else is required.
It’s like being young and believing you can solve everything yourself, but around middle age (or older) waking up and realizing , ‘I might not live forever.” All of a sudden life and death are a problem “I” am not going to solve. We start looking for help. Maybe Zen practice will get me there!
But Huineng says you already have the knowledge of prajna! It is only due to the “conditioned mind” that you can’t get there! In other words, the “I” that cannot solve life and death is a condition of mind, a concept that, whatever its usefulness, is limited.
Of course, you have not always had an “I am” self. We were not born with that state of mind. And, we might reflect, that we will not die with it, either. At some point, we will have to let go of everything that “I am.” If “I am” is all there is, then this is a disturbing prospect to say the least.
But Huineng suggests you already know something larger than that ‘I am’ self. When you ‘throw yourself’ into whatever you do, where have you gone? And what is left behind? Is there not, in such moments, a kind of freedom and energy, focus and attention - wisdom, even - appropriate to the task at hand?
We assume “I” to be something objective, something concrete, this body, this identity, this physical reality. But sometimes we say “I forgot myself,” or “I was beside myself” or “I’m dying to do that!” From the standpoint of awareness, “self” is a fleeting experience.
Though born without self-awareness, we are urged by our parents to develop the language and knowledge to function in society. But we reach a stage of maturity where we long for the innocence of childhood, and search for a way to reconcile our social selves and that original lack of self-consciousness.
Zen is practice to notice that this history is present in every moment. Every instant of sensory connection moves from raw, unselfconscious sensation to the perception, volition and consciousness that defines the social self and its relationship to the world.
Prajna (wisdom) is fullness of mind, the wisdom that embraces both the coming and going of an ‘I am’ self. It is not to be sought after, because it is already here, if only we resolve to examine our own experience.
Commentary by Gendo
Commentary by Gendo (as offered, more or less, at the UUChurch in Norwich, VT)
Text: “The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality, because that touchstone can only be oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes. And these attitudes, furthermore, though the person is usually unaware of it (is unaware of so much!), are historical and public attitudes. They do not relate to the present anymore than they relate to the person.” (James Baldwin, "Letter From a Region of my Mind" - 1962)
It is tempting, in a time of threat (and there are so many threats), to withdraw to the safety of our separate identities: my mask versus your germs, my politics versus yours, my racial identity versus yours, my zendo versus your church. But separate identity only yields more threats: the people who don’t wear masks, the people who hold contrary opinions, the people who look different than I and my friends, the people who worship strange gods or none at all.
Courage is wearing a mask, not in fear of others, but in solidarity with all in preventing the spread of disease. Courage is recognizing that my neighbors, whatever our differences, are moved by the same desire to live life well that inspires me. Courage is paradox: affirmation and sacrifice, an act of true, which is to say, selfless, love.
The story is told of a young man named Huineng, who lived in ancient China over 1300 years ago, an illiterate “Southerner and aborigine,” who heard a Zen monk reciting a Buddhist text; and was moved to change his life, arranged for the care of his widowed mother and took off for a monastery in the North.
There, he said to the teacher: “…I want to be a buddha (awakened one).” The teacher tested him: “You are a Southerner and an aborigine, how can you be a buddha?” Huineng replied, “As an aborigine, my social status is not the same as yours, but what difference is there in our buddha (awakened)-nature?” The teacher recognized Huineng’s determination and ability, but was fearful of how the monks would treat this aborigine, and sent him to work in a back building, pounding rice and chopping wood; while the monks practiced diligently in the meditation hall.
Long story short, when it came time to pick a successor, the teacher tested the monks and chose the aborigine above all others, gave him the bowl and robe that signified transmission of authority, but warned him to flee under cover of darkness. The monks, alarmed that Huineng had stolen what was rightfully theirs, chased after him. One of the monks, formerly an army general, caught up with Huineng and cornered him. But Huineng placed the bowl and robe on a rock and said, “This robe represents faith; is it appropriate to struggle over it.?” The monk tried to pick up the robe and bowl, but could not.
Humiliated, he asked Huineng instead for his teaching and was profoundly awakened by his words. He returned to his fellow monks and told them Huineng was not to be found there and diverted them elsewhere. Huineng took refuge in the woods and lived with a group of hunters for fifteen years before he emerged, was properly ordained and recognized as the sixth patriarch of Zen in China; known to this day as a foundational teacher of the tradition and author of the “Platform Sutra.”
Sometimes courage means letting go of the negative identity of a social outcast. Sometimes courage means letting go of pride and assumptions of privilege. Either way, courage is letting go of fixed assumptions about who I am and what the world is. It’s noticing self-absorption (maybe someone else has pointed it out) and letting go with trust in something greater: trust that love only becomes true when it is selfless.
Lately, I spend a lot of time walking down the road near my house. Have you ever noticed that if you walk in a hang-dog posture, eyes on the ground, how your mind becomes lost in anxious thought? Then if you lift your eyes, take in the surrounding lansdscape, suddenly there is a kind of freedom and expansiveness. It’s as if suddenty and mysteriously, you have touched a source of courage and connection. Where did that come from? In the Judeo-Christian Old Testament thay say God’s help comes from the hills. In Buddhism we talk about waking up to our true nature. Whatever words we chose, may we know the courage to throw ourselves into the mess and beauty of the world and love truly.
Commentary by Gendo
"Going and coming freely, the substance of mind without blockage - this is prajna [wisdom]." Huineng, Platform Sutra
Zen practice is about the wisdom to live life well. It’s investigation of what it means to be a human being, to have a mother and father, to be born, and to die. It’s research whose subject is ourselves. No one else can do this project for you. Training is helpful, but, ultimately, the practice is everything you do.
Training begins with zazen, sitting quietly and still. The first lesson of zazen is not what you’re taught or read in a book. Sitting quietly and still, you know the busy-ness, the fixations, of your own mind. Those fixations include thoughts on the inside, objects on the outside.
In stillness, the question naturally arises (no one tells you this), how do I quiet my mind? If you try to suppress thoughts or even just ignore them, the result is just more busy-ness. Like a cat chasing its own tail. The one having the thought trying to suppress the thought only adds more thought! Neither thought nor the willful effort to eliminate thought proves sufficient to free the mind from bondage (suffering), to experience this “going and coming freely,” that Huineng calls ”prajna” or wisdom.
But in Zazen and in life, the act of breathing offers instruction. When some anxious fixation arises, in everyday speech we say, “Take a deep breath!” Breath moves freely in two directions, inbreath and outbreath. To notice breathng, is to notice activity that is “going and coming freely.” One can interrupt breath or alter its pattern. But let go of intention and breathing moves freely.
Likewise, detach from investment in your thoughts and they come and go of their own accord. Likewise, all objects of attention come and go. Even this life, this body, regardless of our preferences, comes and goes. Who “I am” is, after all, more than my thoughts, more than my things, more than this body.
All of Buddhism comes down to the truth of our experience. The “Four Noble Truths” are themselves found by our own investigation: the blockages of mind (suffering) , the recognition of the attachments that bind the mind (causes), the letting go that is “going and coming, substance of mind without blockage,” and the practice of wisdom in everyday life.
The threat of pandemic disease and death offers plenty to worry about. But that is not to say that suffering is inevitable. Which is, after all, why it is said that there is “refuge.” What does it mean to take refuge in the Buddha, in the awakened mind? Where is that mind? It is of course your own mind! All the disciplines of practice are about that. All are trainings to notice that. Like chanting. Like sitting quiet and still. Like walking. Like breathing. It’s not about escape, because fleeing from difficulty only serves to confirm its power.
Hence the truth of suffering. The path goes through suffering because suffering itself holds the seeds of its resolution. If there was not already knowledge of something different, of its opposite, there would be no suffering. In coronavirus itself are the seeds of something very different, like gratitude, like appreciation for how interconnected our lives are, how dependent we have become on people who work long hours for low pay in paper mills to produce our paper towels and toilet paper. We are given an invitation to quiet down, to be still, to pay attention, to to look beyond the drama of ideas and opinions, to see all sides of what is 'just happening, ' and then to act: the ‘Tathagatha,’ ‘thus come, thus gone,’ just what’s happening.
“The Perfect Way knows no difficulties, except that it refuses to make preferences”. (Shinjinmei, 6th Century China)
“No preferences” is not doctrine. Strive to have no preferences? The project is already impossible! How can you achieve no preference without preferring it?
“No preferences” is just what’s happening. There are moments, like the startling sight of a bright sunrise, like the cry of a new born baby, moments of full awareness that are, for a moment, unselfconscious, beyond thought or opinion. But look carefully, and those moments are happening all the time. The first instance of any awareness is an experience devoid of thought or opinion.
Quickly, those selfless moments become objects of thought - “Oh, what a beautiful baby!” – or something else we name and judge as likable or not. We habitually separate 'self' and gaze on the objects of our preference in an act of consciousness.
Zen teaches that human beings have learned consciousness to protect their situation.. Of course, we prefer to cross the street safely rather than not. We are constantly experiencing and acting on a preference.
But our preferences are not the whole picture. Like it or not, the universe does not hinge on our preferences. Self-absorption and all its miseries and delights are not the end of the story. “The person who distrusts himself…interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes.” (James Baldwin, 1946)
Zen teaches that the underlying ‘truth’ of our situation is not an object.. It's nature is selfless ('true') and all embracing ('love'). It is empty of preferences, empty of opinion and thought. But ancient Zen teacher Huineng warns: "don't cling to emptiness when you hear me speak of emptiness." A truth fixated is no longer true! Religions warn against golden calves and images of God, and still, people fixate the warning itself and war against sinners. “Those who find fault with others are themselves at fault.”
Zen points to a stillness in the midst of paradox, in the midst of a conscious mind that discriminates good and bad, healthy and sick, right and wrong, life and death. Suffering itself instructs: “Wake up! No preferences! Cling to neither joy or despair. Know the 'middle way,' Know wise (selfless) action. Know it for yourself, without which all such words are worthless.