“Mind is like the void in which there is no confusion or evil, as when the sun wheels through it shining upon the four corners of the world. For, when the sun rises and illuminates the whole earth, the void gains not in brilliance; and, when the sun sets, the void does not darken. The phenomena of light and dark alternate with each other, but the nature of the void remains unchanged. So it is with the Mind of the Buddha and of sentient beings. If you look upon the Buddha as presenting a pure, bright or Enlightened appearance, or upon sentient beings as presenting a foul, dark or mortal-seeming appearance, these conceptions resulting from attachment to form will keep you from supreme knowledge, even after the passing of many eons as there are sands in the Ganges. There is only the one Mind and not a particle of anything else on which to lay hold, for this Mind is the Buddha. If you students of the Way do not awake to this Mind substance, you will overlay Mind with conceptual thought, you will seek the Buddha outside yourselves, and you will remain attached to forms, pious practices and so on, all of which are harmful and not at all the way to supreme knowledge.” (The Zen teaching of Huang Po)
Commentary by Gendo
I regard ‘fullness of mind’ as the big picture of what is involved in this activity called “consciousness,” the activity of mind. I often talk about how Zen analizes consciousness; and concludes that every act of conscious awareness involves a dualism, an act of discrimination, contrasting one thing with another. Like the contrast of light and dark Huangpo refers to in our text. Like pure and foul. Like any duality we might generalize as ‘plus’ and ‘minus’. We know plus in contrast to minus, and viceversa. What from the viewpoint of Huangpo’s void, or outer space, is seen as a dynamic whole, earthlings divide into day and night. And the one who arises between those two, and discriminates one from the other according to its preferences, is the self.
In this fashion, Zen theorizes that the activity of discriminating consciousness is the activity where ‘one’ breaks apart and becomes ‘three:’ plus, minus, and self. The analogy is to birth, to the union of a man and a woman, and the birth of the child, the self, that stands between them, and regards them apart from itself, and apart from each other. But this is an incomplete perspective; or what in Buddhism is decribed as “relative truth.” As a matter of experience, we know the incompleteness of that perspective. We have a sense that it is not the whole truth. Like coming away from a really great movie, where you have lost yourself in the plot and characters, and, for a moment, you are living that world, and don’t even want to talk about it, because to talk about it feels like you have left it.
Huangpo points out that the big picture is day and night together, one dynamic activity, without separation. Purity and foulness are like this. Plus and minus are like this. All dualities are like this. When separation between them disappears, when object consciousness disappears, the self that discriminates one from the other disappears. The big picture is light and dark, pure and foul, plus and minus, together in one dynamic activity, free of a separate self and its preferences. This is the state in which three (father, mother and self) become one family; an experience Buddhism describes as an “absolute truth;” an experience of ”blowing out,” like blowing out a candle, the blowing out of the candle of separate identity. The ancient Sanskrit word for that blowing out is “nirvana.”
But even this absolute truth is not a fixed thing. The separate self disappears into the wholeness of the family, but soon a new self identity is born: my family as opposed to other families; my town versus other towns, my school versus other schools, my country versus other countries, my ethnic group versus others, my Buddhism versus your cellphone app. Over and over again, three becomes one, one becomes three.
Yet there is progression. We call it maturity; the maturity to rediscover the absolute within the relative over and over again with each expanding dimension of life. Sasaki Roshi said it this way: “The way the child first appears is to receive both plus and minus in equal amounts. But what will this born child eat? Just to say it simply and perhaps extremely, mother and father are what the child eats inorder to grow.”
All relativity, rests in one absolute; the absolute we are born with, before any notion of a self has formed, the absolute we return to in the moment of our death, the absolute, the nirvana, inherent in every moment of conceptual thought, in the attachment to forms. In Huang Po’s words, even the distinction between “enlightened appearance,” and “foul mortal-seeming appearance” is to be let go of. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form, says the Heart Sutra Three is one and one is three.
If we are going to find peace in the world, if we are going to get along with people who are different from us, we need to pay attention, awaken to “one mind.” If we are to find trust in ourselves, trust in the wisdom of ‘one mind,’ we need to know that wisdom for ourselves. This is practice.
“You may study sitting in meditation, but meditation is not concerned with sitting or lying down. You may study sitting in Buddha, but Buddha is not concerned with any fixed form. Of all abodeless dharmas, the Buddha is not to be chosen. If you sit in Buddha you will kill the Buddha; if you cling to the form of sitting, you will not reach the principle.” (Zen teacher Huai Jang, as recorded in the “Transmission of the Lamp)
What is true about meditation? What is true about anything?
Zen teaches, the text teaches, that we cannot make an object of truth or God. What is ultimately true about any situation is impermanence, impermanence that cannot be captured as an existent thing, a form, a particular idea. As soon as we have fixated a particular thing and say, “This is it! This is true!” we make a mistake; a mistake because object fixation is always from the standpoint of a separate self, always from a self-affirming point of view. Even Buddhism, even Buddha, regarded as object, as something to be attained or acquired, is mistaken.
All teachings, all doctrine, even the US Constitution, are like this. Objectified as truth, they become a pretext for abuse. Preoccupation with some “fixed form” is not only self-absorbed; it is also unjust; unjust because it is blind to failure, our own, and those who are most vulnerable.
These are struggles that we return to again and again. We return to our self-centeredness again and again. And so we speak of diligence, the diligence to engage in practice, again and again, to face our struggles and learn from them.
Learning starts with something we want, a skill or accomplishment we want to acquire. We begin with a goal in mind. But it turns out, that, in order to get there, we have to practice, and practice involves both success and failure, over and over again. It’s as if that thing or skill we viewed as success, as a plus, turns out to involve equal portions of failure, minus. With diligent practice, plus and minus combine and become zero, the zero of ‘just doing.’
With diligence, finally, there is ‘just doing’ called ‘mastery’ or ‘wisdom.’ What was conceived of as a goal to be acquired becomes ‘letting-go;’ letting-go of both success and failure, letting-go of the objective itself that has become ‘just doing.’ By diligence, by engaging success and failure over and over again, the arc of experience (to paraphrase Martin Luther King) “bends toward justice,” bends towards compassion for our own failings and for those who are most vulnerable .
What was imagined from the start as something to be achieved, is instead, found inside; neither success or failure, a truth underlying all encounters of self and other. This, I suggest, is the “waking-up” we are invited to, personified as “buddha,” as God, experienced as selfless love, and the relief of suffering.
commentary by Gendo
First noble truth… "...birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering." (Pali Canon)
The first of the four noble truths of Buddhism is the truth of suffering, not getting what you want. Suffering is not ordinarily something we want to pay attention to. You either try to forget about it or blame someone else for the situation. Like climate change. Like a pandemic. Like so many issues that are the source of suffering, but become hidden under a cover of blame, greed and denial, hidden under what Buddhism calls three poisons.
Suffering is the neglected one, the minority position. It is not the popular one. It’s the kid who cries in the corner. Suffering is something we get very good at pushing aside, often until it is “in your face.” Even then, desperately sick and in the hospital, people find ways to look the other way.
But Buddhism teaches that it is the forgotten one, the minority position, that has something important to teach us. We fixate on the things we like, the circumstances that make us feel good about ourselves. But there are two sides to the situation; like understanding that art is not just the object depicted, but also the negative space that defines it.
We identify objects with certainty – a pillow, a tree, a joy, a depression. But the truth is, that implicit in every object is something held in contrast: a white thing against a dark background, a sweet thing against a bitter background, a happy thing against a sad background. The same is true of ourselves. We understand self, who “I am,” in relation to people different from me. I know myself in relation to what I like and what I dislike. Consciousness divides the world in two, discriminating one thing from another.
The conclusion is that consciousness is deceiving. What we fixate on as an object of mind and preference turns out to be incomplete and impermanent – including words and text! What is true is not just an object of attention, not an independent appearance, but a dynamic relationship: positive and negative, night and day, happening together.
The first inkling of this truth is disappointment. What we conceived as an existent thing, turns out to be impermanent. What comes must also go. Suffering is the embodied experience of our desires, our preferences, meeting this truth, the truth that what comes into being must also go away.
So, the first of the so-called “four noble truths” is suffering. Not suffering as some doctrine, “Believe this!,” but as reflection on ordinary experience; “noble” and true because self-evident, undeniable. To notice and explore the experience of suffering is to know for ourselves the impermanent nature of all things, including this thing we call “self.“
To pay attention to the experience of suffering, is to explore the roots of suffering, the second of the “four noble truths, ” To explore is to discover that hidden in suffering is some joy, something that we are grateful for. Hidden in the suffering we call grief is something, someone we have loved.
With the realization that love and loss go tegether, comes a “letting go,” the third of the four truths. That letting go is, first of all, the letting go of the expectation that this person or thing we have lost would somehow always be physically present. But letting go is also the realization that a love I had understood to be gone forever, is, instead, present in suffering itself. To love is to suffer, but also to suffer is to have loved. Implicit in suffering is love, without which there is no suffering.
Hence suffering’s resolution: the letting go of the self that attaches either to gain or to loss, to one preference or another; a letting go that finds truth in paradox, in the inter-relatedness of gain and loss, a letting-go experienced as love, love that is ‘selfless,’ which is to say, ‘true.’
From this follows a fourth truth, that everything, all actions and distinctions, become true or “right” the light of that letting go; a project Buddhism calls “ the eightfold path.” “Right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.”
Commentary by Gendo
SHIGU SEI GAN
(Four Great Vows)
shu jo mu hen
sei gan do
bon no mu jin
sei gan dan
ho mon mu ryo
sei gan gaku
butsu do mu jo
sei gan jo
Vow to liberate
Faults without end
Vow to overcome
Vow to learn
Awakened way unsurpassed
Vow to embody
In Zen practice, we often chant the Four Vows in ancient “Sino-Japanese” language. People ask about their meaning. I regard meaning as inherent in the act of chanting itself. Zen is practice, not doctrine. Still, words are worthy of study and can be helpful, in the way that road signs help navigate the road .
Beings numberless, vow to liberate. What are beings and what does it mean to liberate them? Buddhism is concerned with consciousness; and all beings are objects of consciousness; including the beings that are objects of thought, like ideas and feelings. Huineng says: The beings in my own mind are infinite; I vow to liberate them.
Why do beings need liberating? Because consciousness is misleading. Remember Adam and Eve, the serpent and fruit of the ‘tree of knowledge’ that led to suffering? All things are impermanent. To fixate on something as an ego preference becomes suffering, described by such words as: “…delusion, deception, immorality, jealousy, malice.” The first vow is, essentially, to notice suffering and vow to resolve it, reminiscent of the first “Noble Truth” of Buddhism.
Faults without end, vow to overcome. But even liberation can become prideful. So the second vow is the reminder that liberation is an act of selflessness; a reminder that attachment causes suffering. Investigation of causes is the second of the four noble truths. To look at it another way, the first step is expansive, all beings. The second is contraction, no self (as in the Diamond Sutra). Nisargadatta: “When I look outside and see that I am everything, that is love. When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that is wisdom.”
Wisdom all pervading, vow to learn. To embrace both expansion and contraction is the wisdom of the ‘middle way;’ and the letting go that is the third of the Noble Truths.
Awakened way unsurpassed, vow to embody. The culmination is to embody wisdom in the ordinary activities of daily life, in everything that we do; also called the Eightfold Path, fourth of the Noble Truths.
“Monks, form is impermanent. What is impermanent is suffering. What is suffering is nonself. What is nonself should be seen as it really is, ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ (Pali Canon, 2300 or so years old.)
“When subject and object are facing one another, opposing one another, we can say that this is a condition within the condition of the origin. Neither one of the activities are harming the other. Neither one of the activities have any thought of good or evil. There is no good and there is not evil in this situation. It’s a completely will-less activity. The true condition of meeting is a beautiful condition, but if, when meeting takes place, thinking arises, such as, “I wonder where this guy comes from. I don’t really like the look of him,” that sort of thinking makes it not the true meeting.” (Joshu Sasaki, Feb., 1997)
Commentary by Gendo
I want to say two things. One is impermanence. The other is goblins. Impermanence is the goblin. Death is the goblin. The teaching of Halloween, an ancient teaching that is also the Buddhist teaching, the teaching of waking up to the reality of our situation, is that goblins come. Suffering comes. And when the goblins come, greet them that at the door. Treat them honorably. They are our teachers. They are us.
Goblins are the face of what is tricky and dangerous, threatening to me. Yet Goblins are immaterial. They are not of “this world.” Buddhism, this ancient tradition called “awakening,” is, like Halloween, waking up to recognize the goblin at your door as yourself; the scary skeleton at the door as your own.
Sasaki says, you and the goblin are of one origin; an origin divided into subject and object, into life and death. Halloween (older than Buddhism) is this moment in the dying of the year, the dying of the plants that grow and sustain life, when, it is said, the veil that separates the living from the dead thins, and the dead walk among us.
Impossible! we say. From the standpoint of the world of material form, that is impossible. But goblins are not of this world of material form. And the awakening of Buddhism is that what is ultimately true lacks material form. In a culture deeply tied to technology and the daily news, that is indeed scary.
But all the time the dead are walking with us. In the fullness of life, the dead are with us. Like the patient who said, “Cancer gave me my life.” Life becomes precious in the light of death. Death derives its meaning from a life lived.
Life and death are impermanent, and it is that impermance that makes their distinction as object possible. Each arises in contrast to the other, in dynamic relationship that includes both. Implicit in the material form of life and the form that is death, is a relationship that is ungraspable, that is immaterial. Therefore it is said in the Heart Sutra, “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”
“…subject and object facing one another … within the condition of the origin,” speaks of an origin that is emptiness, empty of separate identity; a meeting that is genuine because it is willess, without judgment of good or evil. When someone steps into the situation with their preferences, ‘I like this one, I don’t like that one,” then the origin is lost sight of, and the object nature of each becomes the focus of attention.
In that moment a goblin knocks at the door. “Trick or treat!” Which will it be? Hide in the dark of your preferences? Or turn on the porch light and open the door?
The inevitability of impermance asserting itself was in ancient times called Karma. Karma, the activity of impermanence, will find us even if we hide in the dark. The willless activty of impermanence inevitably makes itself known. Ignore the goblin and they will soap your windows.
Greet the goblin and something beautiful occurs. Behind the mask is the kid next door, a kid like your own, like the kid you are.
Commentary by Gendo
“Followers of the way, as I see it we are not different from Shakyamuni Buddha. What do we lack for our manifold activities today? The six rays’ divine light never ceases to shine. See it this way and you’ll be a person who has nothing to do lifelong. “
(Linji, Chapter X)
“…Bahiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bahiya, there is no you in terms of that. When there is no you in terms of that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of suffering…” (Bahiya Sutra – Buddha’s advice to Bahiya)
Here are words to consider from the standpoint of our own experience, to find their meaning not merely in reverence for some ancient text, but to put them to the test of what we know for ourselves. In this project, I offer the perspective of my own study with a Zen teacher.
Rinzai speaks of the “six rays’ divine light’ that ‘never ceases to shine.” In Rinzai’s time and culture, the senses were regarded as six: the five we identify (taste, touch smell, hearing and sight) with the addition of ‘mind’ whose response to the world of external stimulation is thought, or cognition.
What is the ‘divine light’? Other translators have used in place of ‘divine’, the words ‘miraculous’ or ‘wonderful.’ ‘Light’ I take to mean something revealed, like an object in darkness ‘brought to light.’
What is this wonderful revelation of the senses? The second text offers another perspective. It is presented in the form of a dialog between the historical person, the Buddha, and the person Bahiya, who approaches him for instruction while the Buddha is busy begging for alms. “Not now, Bahiya,” the Buddha says. Bahiya is persistant and after three attempts, the Buddha finally agrees to give him the ‘cheat sheet’ version of the teaching.
What the Buddha offers is ‘training’ to sense only the sensed. And then it is said, when one senses only the sensed, a further aspect of that experience is that “there is no you in terms of that.” And repeated: “no you there;” no you “here or yonder or between the two.” And, finally, “this …is the end of suffering.”
No you and no suffering, I suggest, is the same something wonderful beyond rational understanding, that Rinzai speaks of. Both are a kind of poetry for what defies description: like the first glimpse of morning sunrise, like the sudden song of a bird, like the sound of a ringing bell. In other words, before the self that judges and analysizes, has entered, and taken a step back to stand apart and attach words to describe what has happened.
That moment of experience free of self-conscious thought is an inspired moment free of comparison, one thing with another. It is a moment free of suffering because suffering is always known in relationship to something else. Disappointment always stands in relation to some preference, some other condition in contrast to the present moment.
But each of the six senses has its moments of unselfconscious sensation, a moment of nonjudgemental, pristine awareness. Buddhism is training to notice such moments, to notice the deep seated desire to experience nonjudgmental engagement, a desire that keeps us running around looking for the perfect solution, never found because it is already here. Stop the busy-ness, says Rinzai, and know in this moment the selflessness that we experience as ‘true,’ and the fullness we experience as ‘love.’
commentary by Gendo
TEXT:“The gross material of which you are composed is at the mercy of the four elements, earth, water, fire and wind; the fine material of which you are composed is at the mercy of the four phases: birth, being, decay and death. Followers of the Way, you must right now apprehend the state in which the four elements and four phases are formless to avoid being buffeted about by circumstances.” ("Recording Sayings of Linji", trans. Ruth Fuller Sasaki)
The so-called first sermon of the Buddha is associated with the four noble truths, “suffering and its resolution,” but actually it doesn’t begin with those four truths. Or, rather, it begins with an underlying principle. It begins with the “two extremes (that) should not be followed.” The first is hedonism or sensual pleasure, and the second is the “pursuit of self-mortification.” The advice is not to “veer toward either extreme,” but to awaken to the “middle way.”
In Zen these two extremes are seen as the universal juxtaposition of opposites, like the “yin and yang” of Taoism; like expansion/ contraction, male and female , life and death, light and dark,…the list is endless.
Buddhism attributes such dualisms to the nature of consciousness itself. In other words, the way consciousness ‘works’ is to break apart an experience that is originally undifferentiated, breaking it apart by contrasting one thing to another according to our preferences. This, in my view, is what Linji wants us to understand “right now;” to see that the “ buffeting circumstances” of such dualisms are ultimately one wholeness, one ‘middle way.’
This idea is also expressed as “dependent origination” (pratityasamutpada in Sanskrit language), the notion that something that we distinguish as having independent existence is, on inspection, arising in dependent relationship with something else. In-breatth and out-breath, night and day, are distinct activities and yet utterly dependent on each other. You can’t have one without the other. Pleasure and self-mortification do not ultimately exist independent of each other. This is the insight of Zen. But it is also an everyday experience.
The middle way begins with recognition of the duality inherent in the existence of any object, whether it is an object of the senses or mind objects such as a feeling or a thought. Collectively, these are all beings, as in the daily chant, “Beings numberless, vow to liberate.” With that recognition comes the realization that we hold on to one side or another of such dualities according to our preferences. These are the “faults” we vow to overcome. Language itself is objectification, giving something substance and “reality” by naming it. Yet for every object, a contrasting subject lies in the background. This is the wisdom we vow to attain.
Who is it that distinguishes one from the other. It is of course, the “self,” the self that picks and chooses according to its preferences. Discriminating consciousness is self affirming.
The middle way expresses the idea that, to embrace the truth of what is going on, is to embrace the whole situation, is to embrace the whole of expansion and contraction, the whole of male and female, of life and death. That embrace of both sides of duality is also described in Zen is as the coming together of subject and object.
When two sides come together, what happens to the self that was distinguishing one from the other according to its preferences. Of course, the discriminating “self” has disappeared. To embrace the big picture, to embrace both sides, is to forget the self. That is the teaching of Zen. But it is also your own experience. Is that right? Like old Nisargadatta says, “When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that is wisdom. When I look outside and see that I am everything that is love. My life turns between these two.” To let go of the picking and choosing activity of “self,” is the wisdom, the “true knowledge” capable of holding the “whole picture” beyond the self-centered fixation of the moment. This is the “awakened way” we vow to attain.
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.’”