Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Core principles

leaving back southImage by CowGummy via Flickr
There are certain core principles which define any human endeavor and this is true of Buddhism. One of the core principles is dependent origination which underscores nearly all Buddhist thought. Another is impermanence and yet another core principle is emptiness, which is an aspect of dependent origination and serves as the basis for the Heart Sutra—Form is emptiness; Emptiness is form.

To many, this equality between form and emptiness is confusing. It seems impossible that form, which is perceptible, can be the same thing as emptiness which is imperceptible, yet the Heart Sutra tells us they are the same thing. Dependent origination helps us to understand, which says that nothing exists as a mutually discrete entity, separate and apart from anything else. Instead things arise and cease to exist simultaneously—Rain and water are one; a mother and a child are one. Neither rain nor a child can exist separate and apart from a source. These are just two examples among an infinite set of pairs. The ultimate pair is form and emptiness; Nothing is more fundamental than that—Everything else is a subset.

It would be impossible to separate rain from water or a child from a mother. This is easy to understand. What is not so easy to understand is that all forms are paired with emptiness. Buddhism teaches that all phenomena are impermanent and simple reflection affirms this. No-thing lasts and to cling or resist the impermanence of form creates suffering, thus bliss is not to be found in phenomenal life. So where is there a source of hope? Our hope lies imperceptibly beneath impermanence at the heart of decay. And what is that heart? Huang Po (Japanese—Obaku; 9th century China) was particularly lucid in his teaching about this. In the Chün Chou Record he said this:

“To say that the real Dharmakaya (the Absolute) of the Buddha resembles the Void is another way of saying that the Dharmakaya is the Void and that the Void is the Dharmakaya...they are one and the same thing...When all forms are abandoned, there is the Buddha...the void is not really void, but the realm of the real Dharma. This spiritually enlightening nature is without beginning...this great Nirvanic nature is Mind; Mind is the Buddha, and the Buddha is the Dharma.”

From Huang Po’s perspective there is a bonded connection between phenomena and this One Mind—They too are the same thing. Neither can exist apart from the other. Hear what he said about his connection...

“To gaze upon a drop of water is to behold the nature of all the waters of the universe. Moreover, in thus contemplating the totality of phenomena, you are contemplating the totality of Mind. All these phenomena are intrinsically void and yet this Mind with which they are identical is no mere nothingness. By this I mean that it does exist, but in a way too marvelous for us to comprehend. It is an existence which is no existence, a non-existence which is nevertheless existence.”

To the ancients, to find the true essence of life, it was necessary to cast off body and mind. “When all forms are abandoned, there is the Buddha.” In an unexplainable way Mind is no-Mind, which is of course the teaching of the Heart Sutra—Form is emptiness. This Void/Emptiness is the ground out of which impermanent forms arise. It is Buddha-nature (Buddha dhatu—womb of the Buddha: Our essential nature). And the pearl of hope contained in this understanding is that while phenomenal life blows away like dust in the wind, our true nature never passes away. Our intrinsic nature is both natural (phenomenal and finite) and transcendent (noumenal and infinite). We are both form and emptiness. To savor just the impermanence aspect of Zen without transcendence is to suck on an empty clam shell and imagine a full stomach.
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