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.