11/1/22 commentary by Gendo
“The perfect way knows no difficulties except that it refuses to make preferences.” (Shinjinmei, 7th century poem of Zen ancestor Sosan)
To live is to have preferences. And who is it that has those preferences? It is of course this being we call ‘self.’ I think it's fair to say that ‘self’ is defined by preferences. We come to know who we are by our likes and dislikes. We are born on the day of our birth, but ‘self’ is born as a matter of consciousness. Parents work hard to instill the language and sensibility of who we are, the tools we need to function in society. We come to think of the conscious “I am” self as who we are.
To fixate that “I am” self, is also to fixate the world of its perception, a world viewed from the standpoint of self and its likes and dislikes (“materiality”). We become so accustomed to our preferences, and to the materiality of our perceptions, that it is hard to imagine “no preferences.”
Yet, it's also the case that we come to experience the ‘imperfection’ of our preferences. Just because I have a preference doesn’t mean that I get what I want! Just because I once ran a mile doesn’t mean I always can. Just because I love someone doesn’t mean they’ll never die. By such disappointments we are moved to explore what is ‘true.’
I regard Zen practice as discipline to engage in that exploration. We come to understand, it’s not “all about me;” the message of the Buddhist “wake up call” known as the Four Noble Truths.
It’s also Sosan’s message: pay attention, know a truth beyond preferences. Know a truth beyond the assumptions of this identity called ‘self’ and the material world of its preferences. As I see it, Sosan’s poem is offered as a guide on that journey.
The object is an object for the subject.
The subject is a subject for the object.
( Lines 53,54)
‘Subject and object’ are terms used by Zen teacher, Joshu Sasaki, whose teachings inform this translation of the Shinjinmei. (Available at <uvzc.org/study-texts>.) In my view, ‘subject and object’ are other words for “preferences,” another way of describing how consciousness works.
All objects of our senses, all objects of thought, are rooted in preference, in an act of comparing one thing to another; also called “dependent origination.” An object is said to be “dependent” in that it is always known relative to something else, something else described as “subject.” ‘Subject and object’ can describe any two things known relative to each other- like in-breath and out-breath, two distinct activities, nonetheless dependent on each other. You can’t have one without the other. When you breathe in, in-breath is the ‘object’ of attention. Yet that awareness stands in distinction to out-breath, the ‘subject.’ When in-breath comes to an end, out-breath wakes and now becomes object relative to in-breath as subject.
Other pairs illustrating this principle are countless: day and night, mother and father, cause and effect, coming and going, life and death. There’s no end to the list. It is how consciousness works.
Who distinguishes object from subject, one preference from another? Again, it is, of course, the ‘self.’ Sometimes ‘subject’ is understood in our culture as “self” in distinction to an “object” other than myself. But Zen tradition concludes that “Self” is the one who stands in the middle, between subject and object, distinguishing one from the other. Awareness of “self” is born together with subject and object, born in relation to our preferences.
Know that the relativity of the two
Rests on one emptiness.
In one emptiness the two are not distinguished
And each contains in itself all the ten thousand things
The poem suggests that to know the relativity of subject and object is already to sense a truth beyond fixation on preferences, beyond our ‘hang-ups’ and our suffering. If those things that we fixate as real only exist relative to something else, then the true situation is both subject and object. When subject and object are joined, the space between them disappears. Consequently, the meeting of subject and object is the dropping way of ‘self’ and its preferences.
This is oneness (“three becomes one”) and also emptiness, empty of distinctions between subject and object, empty of a separate self, empty of distinctions between this and that, timeless and inclusive of the ‘ten thousand’ (all) things.
We have preferences. Self, as a matter of consciousness, is born. One becomes three. And self, as a matter of experience, disappears. Three becomes one. Both life and death are who we are, which, after all, is a teaching older than Buddhism called …
Halloween. A poem:
When Death rings the doorbell
Escape to the dark safety
Of your preferences
And pay the trickster’s price.
Open the door,
Give of yourself,
And the goblin
Into something ordinary,
Like the kid next door.