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.
Jesus is born, Buddha is enlightened, not in the bright days of Summer but in the darkest nights of Winter. It is human nature to avoid suffering, to cherish the summer sun. But, inevitably, what we like encounters what we dislike; what we know will encounter what we don’t know. Summer warmth meets winter cold. Summer sun meets winter dark. The year we have known meets the year we do not yet know in a moment of reckoning.
The first of Buddhism’s noble truths is suffering. Try as we might, suffering happens. To contemplate suffering reveals something other than self-affirmation, something other than the preferences that define who ‘I am”.
As with in-breath and out-breath, what ’I like’ is already present in what ‘I dislike’. Pleasant and unpleasant depend on each other. Light and dark, friend and enemy, knowledge and mystery; all are partners in one dance.
To know the dance is to loosen the grip on partiality. To abandon partiality is to recognize a world larger than the categories imposed by personal preference; a reality ‘true’ because beyond self-centered-ness, ‘love’ because all embracing.
To act on the basis of true love is virtue, both the fruit and resolution of suffering. Virtue manifests in many ways and one of them is generosity.
Comment from Gendo
“The extent of mind is vast as space, without bounds….The subtle nature of people in the world is originally empty, with nothing that can be grasped." (Huineng, The Platform Sutra)
The third of six Buddhist ‘paramitas’ (transportation across life’s turbulence), is sometimes translated as ‘inclusiveness.’ We generally think of inclusiveness as openness to other people – like the Pilgrims inviting the native tribes to Thanksgiving. But I am suggesting a broader meaning. In a time of ‘globalization,’ we learn again the ancient truth that the earth itself, and all who live here, are who “I am.” Huineng goes on to include all of space. The whole universe is implied by our existence!
The entire universe is implicit in the awareness that is mind. Inclusiveness, in this sense, is what we call ‘mindfulness,’ or, as I prefer, ‘fullness of mind.’ Huineng equates fullness of mind with ‘emptiness’, empty of separate identity.” In other words, emptiness is all inclusive.
I don’t think such ideas mean much unless we can relate them to everyday experience. Emptiness and inclusiveness are not some doctrine dictating appropriate behavior. In my mind they are simply the way things are, a natural, will-less activity, so ordinary it escapes notice; which is why ‘waking up’ is necessary.
Buddhism is after all, concerned with the ordinary experience of suffering and its resolution. ‘Emptiness’ is another way of talking about the resolution of suffering.
Buddhism identifies four stages, or ‘truths’ of suffering. The first is acknowledging suffering. Suffering can be frightening and we try to avoid it. But avoidance only confirms its power. The path to resolving suffering must go through suffering itself!
Acknowledging suffering leads to a second truth: 'causes.' Suffering is holding on to something, some irretrievable loss, a person or circumstance, a death or destruction that you weep for something or someone lost, perhaps fully appreciating them for the first time. Grief uncovers some deeply held experience, an 'attachment.'
The third truth of suffering is ‘letting go,’ or not clinging. If noticing grief leads to awareness of attachment, then attachment leads to the paradox that grief (loss) and joy (clinging) are happening together. Hidden in grief is some joyful recollection. Zen Buddhism offers the perspective that minus (loss) and plus (clinging) meet and become zero (emptiness), experienced as equinimity.
The fourth Buddhist truth of suffering is ‘the path,’ or ‘moving on,’ leaving the stuck place of suffering to act with insight into the dynamic nature of grief and joy. This is ‘fullness of mind,’ the 'emptiness' personified as ‘true’ self’ or 'Buddha nature', the ultimate inclusiveness.
A reflection on Climate Change. Gendo
To be aware in New England in October is to be aware of change: leaves changing in a flash of color before falling; cold nights and dying gardens; a reminder to harvest, store food, and find the snow tires. But these are quaint melancholies beside a greater transformation. Climate itself is changing: late frost, new storm patterns, different caterpillars and more ticks. People who study such things warn us: pay attention! The world that is home to all people is becoming inhospitable. We are up against a problem and it is us.
Of course, Buddhism long ago identified the issue; not climate, specifically, but us. The irony that what we desire would lead us instead to what we seek to avoid has an old name: conditioned co-arising. It is a situation that since ancient times is illustrated by breath: in- breath and out-breath, two opposite activities nonetheless dependent on each other. You can’t have one without the other To indulge life excluding death, to attempt all of one without the other is the Buddhist recipe for suffering.
The confusion is inherent in consciousness itself. We fixate objects as reality. But appearance is a matter of discrimination, one thing relative to another. We know day in distinction to night. We fixate one or the other, but the whole picture is that both inform experience. The whole picture is that no object is singular and permanent. All are interdependent and impermanent.
It is that fixation, without reckoning the whole picture, that Buddhism identifies as the cause of suffering. Wanting all the energy – oil, gas, and technology - to pursue our desires without reckoning the consequences is a set up for misfortune. We are seeing the great lengths we human beings will go to avoid that reality.
The Buddhist resolution of suffering is to let go of fixation: no clinging, also depicted as ‘emptiness.’ In Zen (under the influence of Taoism) we speak of plus and minus: two dimensions of opposing activity regarded as plus on one hand, minus on the other. The whole picture - day/night, in-breath/out-breath, life/death - is plus and minus together; in other words, zero. That zero, that emptiness, embraces all the contradictory aspects of our discriminating awareness. It is empty, yet full of everything; “Empty,” as the Dalai Lama explains, “of separate identity.”
To embrace emptiness is to take responsibility. It is ‘fullness of mind,’ (mindfulness if you like). It is the courage to embrace all of heart and mind; to set aside self-centered preference for this or that. It is the courage to act on the basis of wisdom and compassion.
Commentary by Gendo
Compassion’s Latin root means “feeling with.” Buddhists talk about the “meeting of subject and object.” Christians say, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.” Can you teach compassion?
From a Buddhist standpoint, compassion is completely natural. There is nothing to learn, nothing to teach. It is the natural expression of your “true” or authentic self.
How could you possibly teach someone their own true self? Of course, everyone has to find their own way. Maybe there are helpful signs. Maybe there are favorable conditions. But you can’t do that work for someone else.
What is that work? Buddhism calls it the work of not clinging, not clinging to ideas about your own identity. That’s not a directive, like “you must not cling.” Rather it is what you do when you let “nature take its course”. Notice clinging and the consequences of clinging and you know for yourself that your true nature does not cling to anything.
Every day something has to be done. You have to jump out of the way of a speeding car, or lift your hand quickly from a hot stove. A baby cries and you have to pick it up: You just do it.
It is not clinging until you fixate an idea about yourself. It becomes clinging when you adopt an attitude, like “I am never in the right place. ” Or “I’m a really smart person.” Or even “I am so compassionate!” It’s that “I am”, that assertion of an objective identity, that gets in the way and is different from what was, in the first place, unselfconscious. .
Gets in the way of what? Change, of course. Everything changes, including yourself. Youth becomes old age. Pride comes before fall. A fixated self is like trying to stand straight in a rushing river.
Buddhism says that your true self is “empty.” It’s not that your self is some great void, an emptiness that is just another “I am” identity. The true experience of self is said to be empty of independent identity, empty of ‘self-consciousness’. In that sense emptiness embraces everything.
We commonly think of our bodies as being ourselves. You can, of course, look at your own hand and say, “This is my hand.” But notice that the one who sees the hand stands apart from it. You, the observer, and your hand are in that moment separate from each other. You can look at every part of your body, even imagining the insides that you cannot see, and the same thing is true. The self that observes stands apart from the thing observed. Consider not just your body, but also its decline, in aging and death. The one who regards all of this is detached from it. Consider feeling and thought, both positive and negative, in the same way. All are separate from the “you” that stands apart from them and observes them, Self is not found in anything that we perceive as object. The observer cannot observe itself and is, in this sense, unknowable.
Just as this “I am” rests on a foundation that is empty of an observable self, the same is true of other selves. Thus the act of greeting requires more than exchange of information. It involves ritual, my emptiness acknowledging another’s emptiness: bowing in some cultures, shaking hands or hugging in others. In emptiness, self recognizes other as itself, an experience we call true (selfless) love, or compassion.
Commentary by Gendo
Fullness of mind is empty of self. Isn’t that right? When attention is focused fully on something, there is no experience of self. When some sudden bright thing or stunning sound or strong sensation comes, there is no time to think what it is or who I am. Looking back, you say, “It took my breath away.” What happens without breath? You die.
If that is an unsettling thought, consider that from the very beginning of life you are empty of self. A baby responds to everything with utter unselfconsciousness. With the constant teaching of parents, babies learn to name themselves and all things. But first comes the fullness of experience, empty of self. Adults, who have learned so much, are nostalgic for that innocence. Where has it gone?
If you start looking for fullness of mind, you will not find it. Why? Because who is searching? Your self, of course!. It is the job of the self to divide the world into this and that, into like and dislike, light and dark, tall and short, all in relation to its own preservation. But fullness of mind holds everything. Originally, the mind holds everything.
The self cannot find what is empty of self because that emptiness was never gone, only disguised as discriminating awareness! Every first impression is empty of self, then quickly gives way to thought and name. “Look at the beautiful sunrise!” But even as the words are spoken we have left a moment in which there is no breath, no self. I have made on object of an experience that in the first instance was held in fullness of mind; full, not only of sunrise , but also of night and stars; full of day the bright sunshine and stormy clouds grey and white; all in distinction to the riot of color before me; for which words are poor substitute.
In every moment you die and are reborn. That is the conclusion of Zen.
Comments (more or less) by Gendo offered at Puget Sound Zen Center, Vachon Island, Washington, to an audience including children.
People might think of “Buddha” as a person who lived long ago, or as a statue in front of the room. But “Buddha” is a word (or a statue) that refers to an experience. Like all words and statues it is different from the experience itself.
“Buddha” is an ancient word from the Sanskrit language of India, translated as “the awakened one.” It represents an experience that is like waking up from sleep, or the waking of a newborn baby. In this case, “sleep” is the usual way of seeing things and “waking up” is a particular, fresh understanding of the way things are. When someone has that waking up experience, Buddha is born.
The first person to describe this experience lived 2500 years ago in India. Today (May 5, 2019) we honor him, honor that experience, its potential in each of us, and its continuing relevance to life in our time.
The Buddha of ancient India was a person born of a mother and father just like us. He was born into a family of privilege, with a father who was a leader in his community. Seven days after his birth, his mother died. His father vowed that his son should grow up with every possible pleasure to distract from the tragedy of his mother’s death.
But, as the boy grew to become a young man, he saw from his window people in the streets who were sick and dying. He decided he needed to leave his comfortable home and solve this problem of suffering.
Of course, human beings still face this problem. Everyone is born with the boundless opportunity of new life, but all must eventually face illness and death. Buddha’s journey is our journey and our ritual today is renewed dedication to his quest and to the timeless truth of his realization.
Commentary by Gendo
Suffering is the forgotten 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, until, suddenly, it is “in your face.” Even then, desperately sick and in the hospital, people find ways to look the other way. Everyone prefers the things they like, whatever makes you feel good about yourself.
But, it turns out, there are always two sides to the situation. Sooner or later, in spite of best intentions, it seems something bad happens. We call it bad luck. Buddhism calls it impermanence.
We identify objects with certainty – this is a cup, there is a pillow, there is a tree. But day becomes night, beautiful becomes ugly, thoughts come and go. All objects of consciousness are impermanent, and what is impermanent I experience as beyond my control, not mine, a source of disappointment and suffering.
Implicit in every object of awareness is a “duality,” 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. A “self” is also an object of consciousness. 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. It is how consciousness works. It divides the world, discriminating one thing from another.
In this way, consciousness is imperfect. What we fixate (cling to) as an object of mind is incomplete. It is not the whole truth. What is true is not an independent, existing object, but a dynamic relationship. What appears to be separate, is happening together; positive and negative, night and day, life and death, self and other. What is “true” is fullness of mind, both the happy kid and the one who cries in the corner.
The first of the "four noble truths" of Buddhism is dukkha, or suffering, disappointment, discontent. Psychologist Carl Jung said, "There is no consciousness without pain." It isn't hard to sit in meditation. What is difficult is what we notice about ourselves, the stuff we'd rather not look at.
But Buddhism starts off with the message to pay attention to the hard parts. Meditation is not an escape. Instead, it is the discipline to sit with everything, with joy and sorrow. It is the wisdom of the middle way: not wallowing in pleasure, but not wallowing in self pity either,
Suffering is a teacher. Inherent in suffering is already the knowledge of something else. Inherent in sorrow is the joy having known something or someone. To go through sorrow is to discover that joy has never left.
Joy and sorrow, life and death, in-breath and out-breath: such 'dualities' inform each other. They exist in relationship. If we try to have all of one or the other, the result is suffering.