Sunday, July 2, 2017

Circumstances and suffering.


In your minds eye picture yourself on a boat floating down a river. Some parts of the river are tranquil pools and some parts are roaring rapids. The river flows continuously with every inch different from what existed a moment ago and the water under our boat just keeps changing. 

We imagine the boat offers us security from the surge. And while we are in those tranquil pools there is very little risk; we just float along enjoying the day and basking in the calm. But the boat moves and the roaring rapids follow the calm, which at times puts holes in the bottom of our boat. So then we have a choice to either fix the holes or sink.

This imaginary reverie is a parable that speaks to attachment and identification. None of us is flowing down the river of life alone. Instead we choose to ride in big or small boats with others who make the same choice. But there are different boats on this river populated by people not like us. And then an unfortunate thing happens: We begin to attach our identities to our boat and when we do, we stop being able to even see the holes, much less repair them.

Everyone rides a boat. The name of our boat may be a particular political party, a family or gang, a union, a nation or a religious institution, or any one of a near infinite set of other configurations, with which we choose to identify. The boat becomes our identity and we cling to “our” boat for fear of drowning since none of us has ever learned to swim. The circumstances of our life are constantly changing like the river. The water is just water. Circumstances are just circumstances. The water is not to be feared and water doesn’t create suffering. It is our fear of being free of our boat that creates suffering. We can’t imagine that we can swim but instead remain prisoners on our boat.

In such a state of mind we become defensive and hostile. When someone in one of those other boats criticizes our boat we suffer because our boat has become who we experience ourselves to be. To criticize our boat feels like the same thing as criticizing us. So then we put a shot across their bow and they respond in kind. We end up sinking their boat and they sink ours. Nobody wins. But the truth is that we are not our boat. Instead we are swimmers who also choose to ride on boats. There is nothing about changing circumstances that produces suffering. That is purely the result of identifying with boats. Maybe we all need to get off our boats and find out that we can swim and survive.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Freedom

The driving force that has compelled all cultures at all times is the desire for freedom. How we understand this desire defines us all. Read histories from all cultures and you’ll find this force at work. Wars to subjugate others, for being set free and independent, to the shaping of religions (e.g., The Exodus)—It’s all there and continues to this day.

But one stem on this branch of freedom addresses the motherlode of all bondage: Bondage of the mind—The firm conviction that we are in bondage and slaves to desire. No other compulsion is more endemic and pernicious than this one. And until we awaken to our inherent freedom, we will never be free. Beneath the apparent trap, lies freedom and the two can never be apart.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Beacon on the Hill?


The shades that color our vision

Just prior to the last U.S. presidential election I wrote this post, which I think may be germane again. I wrote, “In a few days the American citizenry will go to the polls and vote to elect the next President of the United States. Most people have already decided how they will vote and little between now and then is likely going to alter their perspectives. Thus this message will undoubtedly have little if any effect on their future choices. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to say something concerning vision that could make a small difference.” Sometimes (rarely) a tiny message can have a huge impact. Little things are not always insignificant. For example, the Botulinum toxin is possibly the most acutely toxic substance known. Four kg of the toxin, if evenly distributed, would be more than enough to kill the entire human population of the world.

Some years ago my teacher said, “A single drop of rain, waters 10,000 pines.” His point was that something as tiny as one drop of rain has the potential to bring about significant growth. The words I offer here are like that drop of rain: tiny but intended to stimulate expanded spiritual insight that will bring about fragrance as pleasant as a pine. I am not so delusional to imagine that this message will come close to that potency but I offer it anyway with the hope that goodness will result.

How any of us sees the world affects the choices we make. Few people are even aware of the nature of their own biases and distortions that shape their vision, but we all have our own versions. We just assume that our views are correct without realizing that we are looking through lenses colored by these erroneous perspectives. The great Zen Master Bassui Tokushō instructed his students to first awaken the mind that reads and then they would understand what they were reading. Of course, that advice took root in few then and even fewer today. We all assume that our visions are clear and we see things as they truly are.

I make no claim to perfect vision. I know I have much of value to learn so in a certain sense my vision is no better or worse than anyone else. But I have lived a long time and been exposed to parts of the world I never imagined as a boy. I have lived with many people, both rich and poor, from all walks of life and read the wisdom of great poets, prophets, and sages. All of that has entered my mind as a chef might throw together ingredients into a pot to create a tasty meal.

If I had to reduce the teachings of great sages down to a short sentence it would be that we are all one, none better or worse than anyone else and how we understand ourselves determines everything. In the words of Jesus, what does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and suffers the loss of his own self? Or what exchange shall a man give for his soul?

Our self-understanding runs in one of two directions: either towards selfishness or selflessness. One way leads to increasing fear, alienation, hostility and greed. The other towards courage, equanimity, unity and goodness toward all. I don’t have much use for dogmatic religion even though I am an ordained Christian Minister, have studied and put into practice the words of great men. I don’t regard myself as a socialist or a communist either, but I do agree with Karl Marx who said that “Religion is the opium of the people.” And I agree because to most religious people I have ever known, their dogma has turned them into self-serving, self-righteous, unthinking robots more interested in cherry-picking their holy texts to serve their own predetermined agendas than shaping their lives around the teachings of their own pioneers. The new Pope offers some hope in restoring his followers to the proper place of paying heed to the teachings of Christ to love without discrimination. And the life of Nelson Mandela likewise serves as another beacon.

I fear, however, for our country at this point in history because we have become polarized robots who have run contrary to the advice of Jesus: we have traded away our souls for dwindling wealth. Instead of becoming more and more the United States of America we have become increasingly disunited, caring more for preserving and protecting selective hides than for becoming magnanimous. Our nobility of spirit, that made us into a shining beacon, is growing dim and we routinely waste our dwindling resources in such endeavors of fighting more and seeking peace less.

Maybe this small message, so late in the game, will crack the thin façade of greed and open the hearts and minds of many to what we are losing by our lust for ever increasing exclusivity. I hope so but my hope, like that shining beacon, is growing dim.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Physics and Metaphysics

Measuring what can't be measured.
Since the beginning of time, we have wrestled with the same issues. Like an adopted child we long to find our parents. The issue is every bit as poignant today as it was centuries ago. We desire to know who we are, where we came from and we grow weary of fairy tales. We want the truth, not embellished variations. The problem is, of course, so many conflicting messages about truth all coming from many vested points of view. It’s like trying to find the correct diet without realizing that since we are all unique, a single diet won’t work for everyone. There are many paths but only one destination.

Before physics, there was metaphysics. Science has taken us a long way down the road in answering some basic questions about our beginnings but it will never go all the way since it must, by its very construction, work within measurable dimensions. No one can measure the mind, yet we use the mind continuously. No one can put calipers around essence yet matter could not exist without it. At the heart, we are all connected yet the tie that binds cannot be seen.

For the moment I would like to demonstrate an irreconcilable conundrum between physics and metaphysics using the tools of science to resolve a metaphysical matter. We all firmly believe in the past, present and the future as constructs of time which we accept as real. Furthermore, we are convinced that we exist in the endless present. The past has gone. The present is not yet, so we are left with the present, by definition.

When we look up into the heavens at night we see the twinkling of stars. They appear to be real but when we consider the speed of light we know that what we are seeing is light which began the journey to our eyes from each of those stars many thousands of years ago. Some are said to be millions of light years from us which means that what we are seeing is something that may no longer exist. Said another way, the stars we see may, in fact, be dead but we wouldn’t know they were until millions of years from now. We don’t see what exists in the cosmos now. We see what used to exist, proving that you can’t always trust what you see.

That’s fine for distant stars but how about objects which are closer: maybe the moon, which is not so distant as a star but still far away. The situation hasn’t changed at all. It just takes the light a shorter time to reach us. And the situation is no different when an object is right in front of our faces. We never see what actually exists only what used to exist even if the time lapse is very brief (microseconds). The simple truth is that none of us can change what has already occurred. It is finished—already gone like a speeding bullet—by the time we perceive and process with our brains. And that is on a good day.

What about a bad day (or moment). A bad day (or moment) is when we are asleep at the switch—meaning lost in illusion, up there in our buzzing feedback loops, and don’t even notice what we perceive because we can only perceive something by paying attention, which we can’t do when we are day-dreaming, attached to our thinking processes and fixed beliefs. The absolute best we can hope for is to be awake, accept the fundamental flaws of perception, image processing and move the dial toward an awakened mind—into the metaphysical realm of the nameless.

Have a nice day. Or is it yesterday?
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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Who the heck am I?


The sky of mind

If you’ve been reading my blog, more than likely you’ve come to realize that I’m a strange bird. I don’t fit the ordinary categories and that disturbs some people, but the truth is neither do you. But what people believe overrides truth nearly every time. I haven’t always been so unorthodox, in fact, most of my life I was just like everyone else: screwed up but not aware there was any other way. So I want to tell you a little bit how I went from normal (and screwed up) to abnormal and at peace.

In 1964 I did a terrible thing: I went to Vietnam as a Marine and killed people. What I hadn’t bargained for was that it killed me—spiritually, emotionally and mentally. For years following my two years perpetuating socially acceptable mayhem on my own human family, I suffered greatly and was eventually brought to my knees, so full of despair that on a morning 16 years later I made a decision to either commit suicide or get to the bottom of my unexplained dilemma. Obviously, I made the choice of getting to the bottom of my suffering and this took me into strange lands.

I then went to live in a Zen monastery and subsequently experienced a profound awakening, within both the framework of Zen and Christianity. The result of that dual experience opened up a doorway into a realm I didn’t know existed and allowed me to live. I then made a pledge to spend the rest of my natural life passing on the lessons I had learned. So now I share my hybrid and unorthodox strangeness with whoever has ears to hear and a receptive mind.

I have now honored this commitment by teaching, leading meditation groups, and writing (this blog) and thus far six books, the latest of which is Impostor—Living in a world of Alternate Facts, which is available free of charge by clicking here. This is a part of my pledge: To give back what I’ve learned. There are many things I don’t know about and I steer clear of speaking and writing about such things. But I know a lot about transforming your mind, leaving behind a life of sorrow and discovering the wellspring of joy that lives within all people. I write about that, only. If I can pass on that, it’s enough because that can change your life and leave this world a better place.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Transformed Minds

In the letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul instructed his readers on how to discern God’s will, which we would have to consider, as he puts it, “pleasing and perfect.” The means by which this discernment was to be implemented was through mind transformation. Read it for yourself (Romans 12:2). For sure there may have been differences in how this prescription was offered from standard Buddhist teachings. However, Paul’s prescription is the same as what the Buddha taught—that unambiguous discernment is only possible through a renewal of mind: to purify and free the mind from self-centered discrimination.

It might be disturbing to both Christians and Buddhists to take the tack of mixing this instruction together under a common roof. Truth is the truth, however, and the genuine truth is not tied to anything. The truth that is linked is not truth. That would be relative opinion or alternative facts. How can it be said on the one hand that everything is relative and the next that everything is absolute? Actually, these positions are harmonious—The Middle Way: Not this, Not that. Not not this, not not that. To explain...

From the perspective of original mind there are transcendent truths and from the perspective of the phenomenal world, everything is relative. A “Dharma” means to comprehend or grasp transcendent truth—truth that lies beyond conditions of Christian, Buddhist or any other limitation. So on the one hand relativity is true and on the other hand, it is false—The Middle Way.

Yes, of course, this can become confusing but let’s return to mind transformation and renewal. What is there in our mind that needs transforming? And what is the result of such transformation or renewing? Let’s take this in reverse—renewing: to make new again. And how exactly is this renewing supposed to work? That question was posed to Jesus and his answer is recorded in the 18th chapter of Matthew (verse 3). In essence, he said, unless we change and become like little children the goal will not be reached. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus told his disciples that removing the impediment of discrimination was a necessary condition for entering the kingdom of heaven—becoming like little children. And what is the state of mind of little children? Well, we’d have to look at really little children since it doesn’t take very long before their egos begin to coalesce. Before that unfortunate emergence children still have their untainted original minds and they are like sponges soaking up, without judgment, whatever comes their way. It is a time of utter fascination where everything is new and wonderful! For little children seeing things as they are without bias is natural. They haven’t lived long enough to discriminate. Things just are what they are.

There are many ways to understand but a transformed mind is a mind made new again. It is a cleaned-up mind, made clear of impediments to clarity so that true vision is possible. So long as we cling to egocentric, my-way-or-the-highway positions we are not able to discern essential truths which come from God. So long as we remain stuck in one position or point of discrimination in opposition to others we are operating from a self-centered framework. We may take the perspective that some people are God’s people and others are not but Jesus never taught that, and neither did Gautama. Jesus taught that God causes the sun to shine and sends the rain equally to all regardless of discrimination (Matthew 5:44). And Gautama taught that within the realm of pure mind, all are equally buddha—without discrimination. And in a similar fashion, Jesus taught Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Do you want to know what God looks like? To know, first get rid of what defiles your heart and mind. With nothing clouding your sight, then youll see clearly the kingdom of heaven. Recently the Pope said“You cannot be a Christian without practicing the Beatitudes. You cannot be a Christian without doing what Jesus teaches us in Matthew 25.”

Transforming our mind has never been more needed than now. The mind which needs transforming (and thus renewed) is the ego-mind where discrimination and right vs. wrong rule the day. That mind is relative—completely dependent upon the center of self. A transformed mind is free of that limitation and able to discern God’s pleasing and perfect will.
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Saturday, May 20, 2017

A house of mirrors


It’s dark and you can’t see anything. Suddenly the lights are switched on. You’ve never seen light before so the glare hurts your eyes. Days go by but gradually your eyes adjust and what do you see? Everywhere you look you see people with smiling faces who seem to adore you and these people are exuding love and tenderness all directed at you. They tickle you. They feed you. They comfort you when you’re sad and play with you, and little by little you come to believe that you’re very, very, special. These people are your parents and friends and they are your mirrors.

That time is very special but it doesn’t last. Soon you move on and come in contact with other people. You and they relate to each other in the same way—as mirrors. You reflect them and they reflect you, and little by little each and everyone learns how to manipulate their own environment to glean the best outcome, the ego dance begins and our identity takes shape.

So long as anyone stays in that house of mirrors there is no alternative but to experience themselves as a reflection. But this manipulation game is complex and often times frustrating, fraught with anxiety, fear, and tension. The players don’t cooperate. They want their way instead of our way. Why are these people not adoring us but instead demanding that we adore them? Where are those adoring parents when we need them? Why can’t everyone just get along? Why can’t everyone see things as we do, think as we do, construct the world, as we want? 

And the ego dance begins to come unglued and we are lost, but what nobody realizes at that moment of loss; that identity crisis, is this is a blessing in disguise. Once that moment of disaster arrives we are ready for the mirrors to fall away and find our true natures. And then, at last, we become the wholly complete person we’ve always been: The one looking into the mirrors; not the one reflected,

Friday, May 19, 2017

Thinking Outside The Box.


From time to time its worth recycling some posts. This one in particular is such a post since it addresses the underpinnings of how life works, all of which is based on thinking. It happens so naturally we rarely connect the dots. The Buddha said, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.” So today here is a follow up post about thinking.

From the time of birth all the way to the end we never stop thinking. We do it while we are awake and while we’re sleeping. Only for brief moments is there a lull in this cerebral activity, and that is both a blessing and a curse. Because we think, we can imagine, and that allows us to create and invent things almost unimaginable. As we invent, others can experience and learn about our inventions and innovate improvements and create entirely new inventions. One creation serves as a building block for the next and the creative process expands geometrically. There would appear to be no end to our creative capacities. The only obstacle to this process is the one doing the thinking.

Thinking is a two edged sword. Not only does it equip us with problem solving skills, it also equips us with the capacity to create problems. Because we think, we can’t help thinking about ourselves and we do this based on the nature of thoughts. A thought is in simple terms a mental image; a virtual projection manipulated in our brains. The image is not a real thing. It is an abstraction of something real. We open our eyes and we see external images. We close our eyes and we see internal images. What we fail to realize is that all images are actually being registered in our brains. What appears as “out there” is in truth nothing more than a virtual projection being registered in our primary visual cortex where it is “seen” and based on this projection our brain tells us “out there.”

But this is not the end of the matter. These images are then subjected to cognitive processing and recording in memory.  Some experiences are pleasurable and others are not. When we experience pleasure we want to grasp and retain the experience and when it is undesirable we remember that as well, and do our best to avoid such events occurring again. This is a learning process, which we engage to do what we can to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, but we soon learn that such a thing is beyond our control. What brings us pleasure in a moment brings us pain in the next. Phenomenal life is constantly changing.

This fundamental desire to avoid pain and retain pleasure is a trap that ends up creating the opposite of what we seek because we attach our sense of worth to moving targets. As the objects of desire come to an end, suffering follows. What we set out to avoid soon comes our way. And out of this ebb and flow we develop a sense of ourselves. We wonder about the one doing the thinking and make flawed conclusions. When adversity occurs we imagine that we brought it upon ourselves which is true in many cases. When pleasure comes our way we imagine that we singularly created the conditions that made it possible. Gradually we form an image of ourselves, which we’ve learned to label an ego—a self-image that is no more real than every other abstraction produced by our brains.

All images are projections—the ones we see externally, which we presume is our real world of objects, the ones we see in our mindseye and the images we develop about ourselves. None of it is anything other than abstract images recorded in our brains, not much different than the images projected onto a movie screen. All of it looks real so we respond as if it were and that results in big problems, for ourselves and people with whom we share our world. Out of this flaw of perception and processing come certain conclusions. We conclude that we can trust some people and not others. We conclude that to survive and prosper we must hoard and save for a rainy day. We conclude that greed is good and we get angry when people draw attention to this flawed conclusion that jeopardizes our egotistical plans. Life then becomes a competition with winners and losers and things turn out the same way as before: the process works to deliver what we set out to avoid. We wanted to maximize pleasure and avoid pain and the result is the opposite because our aggressive lust leads us into isolation, alienation and jeopardy with the very same people we need to insure our desires.

Thinking, thinking, thinking: it never stops from birth till death. It is both a blessing and a curse and we thus create both wondrous inventions and means of destruction. As a result life balances on a razors edge between greatness and evil. That’s life, so what’s Zen?

Long before there was science, of any kind, people were natural scientists and engaged in the scientific method. They wondered. They created hypotheses. They tested these ideas in various ways. They found out through trial and error what worked and what didn’t and they learned just like scientists do today. Now we have formal sciences and one of these is neurology: the study of the brain. Zen is the study of the mind and is conducted almost exactly as any science is conducted, through observation but not with tools. In Zen, the mind uses itself to examine what it produces: the coming and going of thoughts and emotions. When thoughts arise they are observed as unreal images. When they subside we are left with silence of what seems to be a definable observer, but in truth is simply consciousness.

We live in a time awash in technology and assume that it is based on electronics. But the principle of technology is much broader. Fundamentally technology means an application of knowledge especially in a particular area that provides a means of accomplishing a task. Anything from a simple hammer to charting the cosmos properly belongs to the realm of technology.

The common coin understanding of Zen is wrong. Ordinarily Zen is considered to be a branch on the tree of Buddhism but what many people dont realize is that Zen came first, a long time before there was such a thing as the religion of Buddhism. The original name for Zen was dhyana and is recorded in history as far back as 7,000 years. The Buddha lived around 2,500 years ago and used the mental technology of Zen to experience his enlightenment. Properly speaking it isnt Zen Buddhism but rather Buddhist Zen—the mystical form of Buddhism. All orthodox religions have mystical arms and all of them have meditation as a core principle. 

More than 300 years ago, Voltaire, famous French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher defined mediation in a way quite similar to Bodhidharma (“Zen is not thinking”). He put it this way: “Meditation is the dissolution of thoughts in Eternal awareness or Pure consciousness without objectification, knowing without thinking, merging finitude in infinity.” While Zen isn’t electronic, it is similar since our brain works by exchanging electrical transmissions and Zen is the most thoroughgoing technology ever conceived for fathoming the human mind.

Because of scientific advances that have occurred in our time, we know the human brain is the most sophisticated computer ever and is capable of calculation speeds a billion times faster than any computer yet built. Furthermore it is “dual-core,” computing in parallel mode with completely different methods. One side works like a serial processor (our left hemisphere) and the other works like a parallel processor (or right hemisphere). The left creates code and the right reads the code. The left is very good at analyzing, dissecting and abstracting while the right interprets and says what it all means.

Zen is the mental technology of using the mind to understand itself. The true mind watches the movement and arising of the code in order to grasp how the “machine” works. Everything perceived and processed is applied consciousness and is watched. There is a conditional and object-oriented aspect and there is an unconditional objectless aspect. Both sides of our brain have no exclusive and independent status. Only when they function together are they of much use. It is much like a wheel: the outside moves while the inside is empty and is the axle around which the outside moves. Our conscious subjective center is unseen and without form. Our objective nature has form and is seen.

In a metaphorical way, our brain could be considered hardware and our mind software. Software instructs the hardware how to operate. Together these two are mirror opposites and rely upon the other side. In Buddhist terminology this relationship is called dependent origination, which means they can only exist together. The two sides of our brain are mirror partners. An inside requires an outside. They come and go together. Neither side can exist separately. Everything can only exist in that way.

The entire universe, in infinite configuration and form is essentially empty. If you delve into quantum physics you arrive at nothing. If you go to the farthest reaches of space you arrive at nothing. Before the Big-Bang there was nothing. Now there is everything. Everything is the same thing as nothing. And this amazing awareness comes about by simply watching the coming and going of the manifestations of our mind. Through Zen we learn about both the subjective/empty and the objective/full nature of ourselves. And what we discover through this process of watching and learning is quite amazing. The primary lesson learned is that there is both an image that is not real and a conscious reality that watches the images.

We think in image forms. Thoughts are not real. They are abstractions, coded messages that represent something but are not what’s being represented. In our mindseye we see a constant flow of images and ordinarily imagine these images are real and in such a state of mind go unaware that there is a conscious faculty that watching this flow. That’s what being conscious of our thoughts means. There is one who is watching and there is what’s being watched. Neither of these (the watcher or the watched) can exist by itself. It takes both for thinking to occur.

On the left side of our brain is the image factory, creating thought images and on the right side of our brain is the one watching the images. It’s a marvelous system and both sides must function together. But since we have two sides, responsible for different functions, each side does things differently. The left side thinks in language (coded images). The right side “thinks” in pictures (interpreting the images). The left side talks but doesn’t understand and the right side understands but doesn’t talk. Together the two sides make a great team but individually they make bad company.

The problem with our world today is that we are predominantly left brain analyzers and have not been trained to make sense of what’s being analyzed. The imagined self (ego) is self righteous, self centered, greedy, possessive, hostile and angry. The problem with identity is that we assume that there is an objective and independent watcher doing the watching and we label that watcher as “me”—a self-image (otherwise called an ego). But here is where this must lead. So long as we see an image of ourselves, that image (ego) can’t possibly be the watcher because the watcher can’t see itself. So long as we see any images (self-image included) there is a difference between what is being watched and the watcher.

Education (in a normal sense) trains our language and analytics capacities but ignores the capacities that enhance compassion, creativity, and insight. Consequently we are out of balance aggressors, dominated by our egos and unaware that we are creating an abstract and unreal world that is progressively more and more violent and hostile.

The true person has no image dimension because all images are objective, whereas the true person is subjective consciousness. Subject/Object—two halves joined together into a single real person. One part can be seen (an image) and the other part can’t be seen (consciousness watching the image). An image isn’t real. It just looks that way. The consciousness part that is real—unconditionally the same in all sentient beingsis the part that can’t be seen. The entire time of remaining in this image-based realm, restricted by conceptual thought, is in fact a reflection of reality: a dream. When we move beyond thought to the reality of pure consciousness, we wake up into an imageless realm (the root from which all things emanate), that is too incredible to describe.

The Truth About Truth


In the early 1980s speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill coined the phrase “The Third Rail of Politics” as a metaphor for addressing a topic too hot to openly discuss for fear of committing political suicide. In that case the topic was the looming bankruptcy of the Social Security system. Today that third rail is about many other systems ranging from our healthcare system, even the forbidden conversation of the political system governing our nation. Sometimes in order to solve a thorny problem it is necessary to stick your neck out and risk getting it chopped off. Politicians, who depend upon the votes of the public for their survival, have more times than not chosen to say what they think the public wants to hear rather than what they need to hear. Every institution has their own “Third Rail” and Buddhism, as an institution, has one too: The Third Rail of Truth.

All of us think we know the truth (absence of falsity) and as a ordinary yardstick this works most of the time. So as a human society we have created norms and standards by which we measure the flow of life to determine whether or not something is true or false. It works loosely which means “most of the time”—but not all of the time. Sometimes what we thought was true turns about into “fake news.

Ancient Indians believed they knew about truth and expressed their beliefs in the language of their time (Sanskrit). The Sanskrit word “Dharma” has a variety of definitions. One definition is “that which upholds and supports existence.” The root “Dhr” means to grasp (like in “understand”). An alternate definition is “Truth” as in Dharmakaya (Truth Body), which means the real/absolute, unseen body of The Buddha which all acknowledged Buddhist sutras say is The Buddha womb from which everything is made manifest: the pillar of The Buddha. 

Many enlightened persons have used different names for this Truth Body. Huang Po called it “The One Mind,” without defining characteristics, Ch'an Master Linji Yixuan (Zen Master Rinzai) called it True Man without rank,” and Master Bassui Tokushō would simply ask, “Who is it that hears? I call it Mind Essence (Bodhidharmas choice). In an unexpected way these definitions of truth are not counter to the ordinary yardstick—the absence of falsity. But there are important subtleties to this understanding which open the “Dharma Gate” and allows the flow of wisdom, and one of the most critical subtleties pertains to attachment to truth itself. The question is both simple yet profound: Is truth absolute? Relative? Neither? Both? Transcendent to both absolute and relative? Easy to ask the question but not so easy to answer, at least in a way that doesn’t entail touching that third rail. But today we will rush in where angels fear to tread.

We pride ourselves as being moral people and as such we cling to ideas about what it means to be moral. This moral (sila) framework has been institutionalized with Buddhist precepts, one of which has to do with truth telling, so we use this as a guideline to govern our conduct. So how much of the truth do we tell? All of it? None of it? Some portion? Which portion?

Mark Twain, in his whimsical fashion said,“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.” Distortion seems to have now become the norm, even without getting the facts. Suppose we are talking about complete truth telling about ourselves. How exactly would that be done? Would we push the play-back button and share the second-by-second litany of every single moment of our present life? Do we share selected and edited versions? Edited according to what criteria? Who edits? Do you see the problem here? There is no solution to this dilemma when approached from the perspective of conditional reality. The matter is beyond comprehension.

In the sixth chapter of the Diamond Sutra The Buddha said an incredible thing regarding truth telling. He said, “..if these fearless bodhisattvas created the perception of a dharma (truth), they would be attached to a self, a being, a life, and a soul. Likewise, if they created the perception of no dharma (no truth), they would be attached to a self, a being, a life, and a soul.” To this Kamalashila wrote, “According to the highest truth, dharmas do not actually appear. Thus, there can be no perception of a dharma. And because they do not appear, they do not disappear. Thus, there can be no perception of no dharma. This tells us to realize that dharmas have no self-nature.” Let’s rephrase that: Truth does not have an independent status cut off from life. Truth is not a separate/abstract thing. Truth is a real thing which is reflected in the confused and unpredictable messiness which is life. Without wisdom this confusion becomes a Gordian knot so complex it is impossible to untie.

The ordinary way to fathom this complexity is to hold the feet of flow to the fire of inflexible standards and watch the sparks fly with the loud grating noise of friction. The infusion of wisdom turns this conflict upside down and allows the unfolding messiness to determine “expedient means” where the end (emancipation) dictates the appropriate (expedient) means. Life is not a one size fits all situation. Chi-fo (aka Feng-seng) says, “Before we understand, we depend on instruction. After we understand, instruction is irrelevant. The dharmas taught by the Tathagata sometimes teach existence and sometimes teach non-existence. They are all medicines suited to the illness. There is no single teaching. But in understanding such flexible teachings, if we should become attached to existence or to non-existence, we will be stricken by the illness of dharma-attachment. Teachings are only teachings. None of them are real.” To this Daoxin added, “Therefore the sutra (Nirvana sutra) says: ‘Since there are numberless (types of) capacities among sentient beings (the buddhas) preach the Dharma in numberless ways. Since the Dharma is preached in numberless ways, the meanings are also numberless. Numberless meanings are born from the One Reality. The One reality is formless, but there is no form that it does not give form to: it is called the true form. This is total purity.’”

This “One Reality” is of course the Body of Truth—the Dharmakaya: non-applied consciousness/Mind; the wellspring of all truth which is applied and conforms to the unfolding of life. Our ordinary human nature desires certainty and predictability, but life is fluid and complex. Every sentient being has a unique track of causal linkages and karma, which defines unique forms of illness. Daoxin said, “I expound this teaching (e.g., Essential expedient methods for entering the Path and pacifying mind) for those whose causal conditions and capacities are ripe for them...In the Prajna Sutra Spoken by Manjusri it says: World Honored One, what is the one-practice samadhi? The Buddha said, Being linked to the realm of reality (Dharmakaya) through its oneness is called one-practice samadhi. If men and women want to enter one-practice samadhi, first they must learn about prajnaparamita (e.g., perfect wisdom emanating from the unity of pure consciousness) and cultivate their learning accordingly. Later they will be capable of one-practice samadhi and, if they do not retreat from or spoil their link with the realm of reality, of inconceivable unobstructed formlessness.

To summarize this teaching. Truth is both absolute and relative. It is absolute within the realm of the Dharmakaya—the wellspring of all truth, where oneness reigns. And it is relative within the realm of our individual differences, where karma and causal conditions prevail. When our minds are pure (without retreat or spoilage; defiled with thought/non-thought) the Dharma Gate is opened and prajna flows freely. Prajna (e.g., wisdom) alone, the product of awakened awareness—the pipe-line from the Body of Truth—is capable of untying the Gordian knot of life’s complexity. Short of this we need guidelines, yardsticks and precepts and a tolerance for flying sparks and the loud grating noise of friction.
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Thursday, May 18, 2017

What’s there?

Seeing through the fog of delusion.
“Look straight ahead. What’s there? If you see it as it is You will never err.” These were the words spoken by Bassui Tokushō, a Rinzai Zen Master just before he died in 1387 in what is modern-day Kanagawa Prefecture in Japan. You might say these words were his chosen epitaph that summed up the essence of his life.

“Seeing what’s there” sounds incredibly easy. How could we not? We all have the same eyes and the world we see is the same world. Yet if we all saw the world “as it is,” instead of the way we would like it to be, or a way that confirms our preconceived beliefs and biases, it would be like Shunryu Suzuki referred to in his famous book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

There’s a fresh or innocent perspective when we see as a child sees: an honesty that is neither right nor wrong. In such a state of mind there is no axe to grind, imbedded beliefs to defend, nor convictions to uphold. Things just are, as they are. 

The Buddha referred to himself as the Tathāgata, a compound word composed of “tathā” and “gata.” Various translations of this Sanskrit word have been posed, one of which is called reality as-it-is. In this case the term means, “the one who has gone to suchness” or “the one who has arrived at suchness”—the quality referred to by Zen Master Bassui and Shunryu Suzuki: “Seeing what’s there.”

While apparently easy, in fact to see things as they are requires moving beyond the ideas we hold of ourselves and others, pride of ownership in positions to which we become attached, bigotry that colors clarity, fears of ego threat, and preconceived beliefs, all of which serve as clouded lenses through which we see. These ideas swirl around the ego, like a wheel swirls around a central axel. When these ideas are removed, the world appears just as it has always been. Here is how Ch’an Master Hongzhi put this to verse:

“Right here—at this pivotal axle,
opening the swinging gate and clearing the way—
it is able to respond effortlessly to circumstances;
the great function is free from hindrances.”

The challenge is to stay at this central core as the world swirls and changes around us. What IS easy is to become trapped in the allure of holding fast to dogmas of inflexibility, defending our points of view and responding in kind to insults, and attacks. The hard part is staying fully present in the ebb and flow like balancing on a surf board, leaning neither to the left nor the right. You can read an expanded version concerning such understanding by clicking here.

There are times, given their extreme nature, that dictate actions we might not see as virtuous. “Expedient means” may seem to violate teachings thought to be fundamental to our convictions, but as a prior politician once said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” He was no Zen Master but he did articulate the essence of seeing things as they were and calling for expedient means. After all is said and done the best advice for steering clear of conflict and getting sucked back into ego defense comes from Mark Twain: “Never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.” All of us can be stupid when we lose sight of what’s there.