TEXT: “Your past lives are simply the deluded mind of your previous thoughts, and your present life is simply the enlightened mind of your subsequent thoughts. Use the enlightened mind of your subsequent thoughts to reject the deluded mind of your previous thoughts so that delusions have nowhere to cling … the moment your deluded thoughts are eliminated, the bad karma of your past lives is wiped away.” (Huineng)
"The first step of Zen practice is to manifest yourself as nothingness. The second step is to throw yourself complete into life and death, good and evil, beauty and ugliness." (Joshu Sasaki)
COMMENTARY January, 2023 (Gendo)
There is something natural about repentence at the start of the year; a time to survey what has gone before, to evaluate all that you have left behind, and then to make a fresh start.
I regard Zen practice is discipline to notice how that letting go and fresh start is happening all the time. All the time the position of “I am” self is dissolved in a new moment of raw experience, a moment of first impressions empty of self-conscious awareness; “wiping away the karma of past lives.” Like waking to a morning bird song, that first moment before either “song” or “bird” or even before the idea of “me listening” comes to mind.
It is a moment that is all-inclusive, “nothingness” in the sense of no distinctions, that quickly breaks in two: “I hear a bird.” What began as a moment free of distinctions like “self” and “other” quickly becomes observed from the remove of “I am” here, it is “there”. Words represent the experience, but are removed from the experience itself. As it is said, “Words are fingers pointing at the moon, not the moon itself.” And so the desire forms to recapture that moment of letting go, that fullness of experience, empty of self and other. This, I suggest, is the motivation of repentance.
We hold so strongly to self-affirmation that the idea of experiencing yourself as ‘nothingness’ seems frightening. But isn’t it the case that both birth and death are who we are? Buddhism points out that the arising and dissolving of self is happening all the time. We are said to “wake up” to this truth as one awakens from sleep to realize something that was present all along. Buddha, the awakened one, is also called “Tathagatha,” meaning “thus come, thus gone.” Self is born out of the emptiness of raw experience and dissolved over and over again, activity explained by analogy to the natural and ordinary act of breathing.
To become preoccupied with the born self, that declares “I am,” to get ’stuck’ there, to get stuck in the world or words, is the recipe for what Buddhism calls “suffering;” the “bad karma” Huineng refers to. Zen teacher Joshu Sasaki explained karma as “the activity of impermanence.” Inevitably, the born self encounters negation. Inevitably, who we are is both life and death. To stand in the way of the natural activity of coming and going, of affirmation and negation, is to stand in the way of the activity Buddhism calls Dharma, inclusive of both affirmation and negation.
The posture and assumptions of self-interest are strong and deeply ingrained, deep as the desire of parents that their children will be happy and do well, reinforced by the institutions and roles society requires. Self and its needs inevitably arise, and are required by our participation in society. We want to cross the street safely.
Yet to fixate a self-centered position becomes a problem. The need to negate that position is nothing less than the desire to know what is true about a universe that is, after all, not organized to accord with our preferences; to embrace with “true (selfless) love” the world in all its beauty and ugliness.
A year, like that momentary experience of the singing bird, reaches a point where it, too, becomes an object of attention. Then we look at the year from the standpoint of the “I am” self, and give names to what has happened. But, I suggest, as with the singing bird, the truth of our experience is more than words, more than an idea, inspiring us to repentance, to letting go of fixation on an “I am” perspective.
Like chanting the four vows. Beings numberless, liberate. Look back, reflect. But then, know that as soon as we stand in opposition to the past, and fixate that position of self and its preferences, afflictions arise. Chant. Experience yourself as nothingness. And, by nothingness, know the vow to overcome suffering, “to throw yourself completely into life and death, good and evil, beauty and ugliness." To throw yourself completely into the mystery of what lies before us, this fresh start, this new year.