Friday, October 21, 2011

Morning Stars and Oak Trees


There has probably never been a human who didn’t wonder about their own identity and how they fit into the world. This matter is what drove Gautama to endure an ascetic life nearly to the point of death, only to surrender the quest and then experience his revolutionary enlightenment that has since shown millions the way to freedom. During the time of his life the Indian culture was deeply divided between those who believed in Brahman as the embodiment of permanence and those who saw life as transient and thus meaningless. The issue of Atman (permanence) vs. anatman (impermanence) was central to this conflict and to Gautama’s awakening.

Upon his enlightenment, Gautama saw the morning star and shouted, “That’s it! That’s it! That’s me! That’s me that’s shining so brilliantly!” From the vast distance of 2,500 years it seems arcane to consider what exactly he meant. Was he actually saying that he was the morning star?

There is a clue in the Mumonkan to this mystery contained in case 37—Chao Chou’s, The Oak Tree in the courtyard. “A monk asked Chao Chou, What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west? Chao Chou said, ‘The oak tree in the courtyard’.” If that is the clue then it isn’t a clear one, but it is there when we look closely and consider the circumstances which prevailed during Gautama’s time—the Atman/anatman debate, which is still a central issue.

What do we humans see when we open our eyes? We see objects and we consider them “real.” Just as important is what we don’t see (and consider “unreal”). Our reasoning is universal, and wrong. We assume that what we can perceive is reality and without realizing it we take up the Atman position—things are permanent. Or we take the opposite point of view by realizing that all things are transient and thus impermanent (anatman). We see reality as an either/or proposition and have the same mind-set for ourselves. What we perceive of ourselves is an objectification: a self-image which we view with our subjective faculty and call that projection “my self” (and assume that we are really the seer/Atman). The obvious logic here is duality—object vs. subject; seer vs. seen. One part permanent (the subject which sees and is indefinable yet real) the other part vaporous (the object which is seen, definable yet unreal). What we don’t do—but Gautama did, is put the two parts together. He saw that He and what he perceived were not two separate dimensions but instead One dimension comprised of two aspects, which he called The Middle Way.

This is a most difficult matter to comprehend but is vitally important—the coalescence of two aspects into One whole Subject/Object. Think carefully about this matter. So long as we see our selves as either permanent OR impermanent we are left adrift. If permanent then we conclude that we must be God, which alone is permanent and we are filled with aspects of denial of the impermanence of life. We pretend Nirvana where none exists. If impermanent then life is worthless and we adopt a hedonistic posture which leads to the three poisons (greed, anger and delusions—suffering). Neither conclusion works.

When Gautama said, “That’s it! That’s it! That’s me! That’s me that’s shining so brilliantly!”, he was acknowledging the fusion of opposites—The Middle Way. He was not one vs. the other. He was both the seer and seen, just as we all are. We are neither isolated and estranged from life nor are we the singular force which eternally compels and creates life. We are Nagarjuna’s union of convention and ultimate. We are both the seer or the morning star and the star or an Oak Tree in the Courtyard, or the rising and setting of the sun, or any and every dimension of our individual existence. In that sense our life is just our life, each and every moment and nothing more. It is not the star which arose yesterday nor the Oak Tree of tomorrow. Whatever meets our eye each changing moment is what we are, and not, and it was this reason that Bodhidharma came to China—To establish this unity. This Middle Way of the Buddha is how we make sense, and peace, of our identity and our world.
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