Friday, April 13, 2012

The Matrix—Illusory Mind

poster for The MatrixImage via Wikipedia
In his commentary on the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, Ch’an Master Sheng-yen said what might seem like a startling thing. He said, “The self (imagined self/ego) creates vexation, and the vexation, in turn, reinforces the sense of self...When there is no vexation, and therefore no self, the mind of discrimination is replaced by the mind of wisdom.”

What’s going on here is a psychic feedback loop. It’s the chicken/egg thing. Vexations and self arise together. Not one and then the next. Both arise together, instantly. Thinkers think thoughts. In this case the “thinker” is the imagined self who is thinking the thought of a self, which then thinks more thoughts. Feedback loop: one illusion creating another illusion, which creates the next, like one mirror reflecting another. It’s a house of mirrors all up there in our buzzing brains. There is no substantial and real “self” inside this holographic illusion. It is a mirage or as stated in the Diamond Sutra: “This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world: like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream; like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”

All of those notions about our identity obscure any sense of our substantial true self; the union and integrated aspect of our existence. The Ladder-Wall is the Union. It is not a Ladder or a Wall. It’s a Ladder-Wall: one inseparable thing. Form and Emptiness. Essence and non-essence. For thousands of years people having been attempting and failing to rid themselves of the flesh believing that the flesh was opposed to spirit. Even today certain religious sects engage in practices of flagellation. And within certain schools of Zen there are advocates, who press to rid themselves of all thoughts, which is a psychic version of flagellation. I’ll be saying more about this thrust in a later blog but for now I’ll just make a quick comment: nonsense! Essence is indivisible from both flesh and our minds.

As long as we are imprisoned within this holographic feedback loop we are unaware of what is real. We are like Keanu Reeves in the classic 1999 science fiction movie “The Matrix.” The film describes a future in which the world we know is actually the Matrix, a simulated reality created by sentient machines. Only our Matrix is self-created and it has been here forever. We are the sentient machines creating our own simulated reality. When we say to “Think outside the box”, the “box” is illusory mind: the Matrix; the realm of the self creating the self.

Like Keanu Reeves, we need to be de-programmed in order to break the grip of simulation. In Zen that is done by pursuing The Way. What’s “The Way?” It is a process that begins with waking up from the dream—realizing that we’re out of touch with reality, lost in the feedback nightmare and willing to engage something like a twelve-step program. The components of that program are (1) a form of confession where we take responsibility for the harm we’ve done to our self and others, either intentionally or not. Much of the harm is unintentional, but real nevertheless. How could we know inside the loop? (2) We accept the natural results of past actions and stop trying to wiggle out of resulting consequences. This piece is karma, receiving the results of our words and actions. (3) We adopt a set of moral principles, known as precepts which tilts karma in a positive direction, and (4) We begin and continue—for the rest of our natural lives—a routine practice of meditation, known as Zazen within which we watch the Matrix hologram happening and learn everything there is no know about it, especially how to detach from it.

Unlike Keanu Reeves we do this both with a support group (known as a sangha) and by our self. We don’t have to go to a confessional with a priest. We know (deep down in our moments of quiet honesty, when we can get beyond denial and blame) what we’ve done and whom we’ve infected. We know what judgments we’ve made, both of others and ourselves. It isn’t necessary for us to stand before others and announce, “I’m an alcoholic and I’m always going to be one.” This is a prison we can escape from with commitment, patience, diligence and perseverance. If we wish to escape we can. It just depends on whether or not we enjoy being “In the Matrix.” Some people don’t seem to care one way or another. Go figure! The entire process is sort of like taking an inventory of the mess in our houses, collecting the trash, dumping it out and doing the best we can to not continue creating a mess. Rather than garbage in/garbage out it becomes virtue in/virtue out: VIVO, which in Latin curiously means living that takes place inside an organism.

That is an extremely foreshortened overview of the process. In point of fact it is a process that never ends. Because we live in a conditioned world, dust accumulates. We wash our clothes and clean our houses because cleanliness is more desirable than filth. The same thing applies to our inner house. Dust accumulates (emotional and psychic dust) and we need to keep it clean. If we bring in trash, due to bad karma, we suffer. If we become attached to fleeting stuff we suffer. If we live in the illusions of life we suffer. And all of that suffering makes us cranky and then we just make more bad karma. It is an inverted way of living, which must be turned upside down and shaken about.

And the truth is, none of this deep honesty is possible so long as we remain trapped in ego la-la land—The Matrix. Mr. or Mrs. or Ms ego is extraordinarily greedy and self-centered. From the perspective of our egos, everyone else is rightly to be blamed for our misery. Ego is very self-righteous. None of it is our fault. It has nothing to do with our own self-generated karma. It is someone else’s fault, but not ours. Inside this hologram of blame and self-delusion we experience life in competition and defensiveness. The world is either/or. It is either right or it’s wrong (and always my right and your wrong). This world runs according to hard and fast rules and inflexible boundaries and to deviate from the rigor entails fear, perceived threat and loss. There is never enough insulation in this realm, and to share with others is to diminish our share and thus increase our risk exposure. We build fences of all kinds to keep the bad guys out without realizing that the fences also keep us in. Threat is everywhere and there is good reason for the concern: everything is change. The storms will come and we better make sure our life raft is watertight.

Sound familiar? Who can question the exposures to risk and an unknown future? No one. Risk is a part of life but there is a huge difference between living hunkered down and walking tall. The ego, because it is an illusion, is rightly concerned with risk. It should know better than anyone. The ego is fragile and so too is our fleeting world. The alternative is to accept our wholeness—our integrated beingness, and to practice it moment by moment—a sacred act, not as a concept but as a reality. How is that done? This is a realm without multitasking. When we eat, we eat. When we talk, we talk. Whatever we do, we do wholly, in each and every moment, whether we like it or not. We just do it and let the illusions subside. It is a practice of being present with all of the grief, anguish, pain, sorrow and joy. We cry when we cry and laugh when we laugh and we do it with gusto. No illusions or expectations or wishes or overlays. We accept life as an un-gilded lily, without embellishment nor judgments nor any other forms of distortion or fabrication. Life just is. The Buddha called this “thusness” which means unobstructed acceptance, with faith in the integrated fabric of life: things as they truly are.

This might all sound like accepting everything as unavoidable, but it is not. When we accept our ego-less interdependence—beyond the Matrix, truly, we must see that we are united with all of life. There is no way to disconnect from the ubiquitous dimension of essence. We are glued to our collective world, like it or not, so unless we like living in a mess then we must do what we can to clean it up and join the living. We are not isolated and independent beings, severed from life. We ARE life and there is no way to have life without death; risk without vulnerability. They arise as an undivided partnership. When the world suffers we pay the price because we are members of a common family. When the world rejoices, we rejoice with it. We are not just our brother’s keeper. We ARE our brothers and our sisters. There is no way to sever the link of essence.

This is not some airy-fairy thing. This is reality, inseparable, indivisible and integrated and the only way to divide it is in the illusions of our imagination. That is where the danger lies: in the illusion of separation and independence; in the phony comfort of believing that we can be secure while the world around us is collapsing around our ears. No, this is not resignation, cynicism, defeatism or victimization. This is the polar opposite. This is a stance of engagement and responsibility, of doing what can be done but remaining hopeful without attachment to results.

The over-riding message contained in the Diamond Sutra regards the nature of enlightenment, and compassion. The Buddha was teaching Subhuti (one of his disciples) that the distinguishing mark of a true Bodhisattva is deep compassion that can only come about without any sense of ego or gain. There is no calculation or contrivance since a true Bodhisattva realizes that there is no difference between himself and others. Jesus said something very similar: “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” When we accept our ground-of-being relationship with life, the unavoidable conclusion is that we share common ground. We are in this together.
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