Saturday, July 30, 2011

Self Esteem

Unfortunately the practice of Zen can take on an esoteric quality with practical manifestations remaining unseen and therefore not useful. Fathoming essential Buddhist truths can be difficult and incorporating these truths into everyday life is even more difficult. Our task is not to meditate endlessly toward no end. Meditation is intended to reveal truth/bodhi (e.g. awakening). If it doesn’t accomplish that end it falls short. Today I want to make an attempt to bridge this divide and underscore both a pressing current need and Zen’s answer, and my analogy for this attempt will be a tree.

A tree is an amazing plant. It grows from a tiny seed into a giant structure. The “life blood” of a tree is the sap, which moves throughout the trunk and limbs delivering essential nutrients from the soil. If any part were missing—trunk, sap or ground—the tree would not be a tree. All three parts are needed. From the outside the sap is not seen and neither is the flow of nutrients. All we see is just the outward form.

In a sense we are like a tree. We too have discernible attributes. Our outward form is clearly seen and we have an inner world with psychic and spiritual attributes. And exactly like a tree we have an unseen ground with unseen attributes. The analogy works as far as it goes but what is the application to everyday life?

In our contemporary world there is an extraordinary attempt to fashion dust into permanence. Specifically, the thrust is to reinforce and transform something, which has no substance into something, which does. I’m referring to self-esteem and in so doing we are functioning like a tree, which grows in the air. This thrust is doomed to failure but rather than allowing it to die a nature death, we attempt to shore it up with devastating results and consequences. How so?

There are two primary sutras, which define Mahayana Buddhism and therefore Zen. They are the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra. The fundamental message of both sutras addresses the true nature of the Buddha, and us, as both form (with definable attributes) and emptiness (without definable attributes), which sadly is a broadly misunderstood proposition. The common-coin understanding of emptiness is vacuity, which is not what emptiness means from a Buddhist perspective. What emptiness does mean is lack of intrinsic, independent substance. In other words things arise dependent upon time, conditions and other things. The most basic expression of this definition is “form is emptiness”—every and all forms, however they may be defined. This notion is called dependent origination.

The majesty and ultimate power of this arrangement is what distinguishes Mahayana Buddhism from all other forms and was the centerpiece of Nagarjuna’s ministry. He reasoned that if this dependent origination proposition had any validity, emptiness must itself be empty: Empty emptiness. This idea takes some digestion before it hits home.

The undeniable conclusion of dependent origination is that everything is relative and to relate to things which are empty of substance (such as a self) as if it has substance is a doomed proposition. Everything at the conditioned level is subject to this conclusion.

Likewise the opposite of the conditional is the unconditional, which is not subject to relativity, defining attributes or impermanence. But doesn’t this arrangement defy dependent origination? Indeed it does (almost) and here is where Nagarjuna shines. Empty emptiness means that dependent origination itself is empty (of independent, intrinsic substance) and the opposite which arises with dependent origination is independent origination: The realm of the true Buddha otherwise know as the Dharmakaya (from the Sanskrit “Dharma” meaning truth and “kaya” meaning body=Body of Truth). Such Sanskrit names have little practical value to 21st Century people but there is a realm, which does have value; which is timeless and transcends all language. This is the realm of our own mind, which is not subject to artificial reinforcement and is readily accessible to everyone. Everybody has a mind (even though nobody can find it). We get hung up by names and thus lose the significance of the message. Zen Master Huang Po gave us a helping hand in unraveling the language. He said the Dharmakaya is the void and the void is our mind.

What this means has vast implications for practical reality and self-esteem. The nature of Buddha (Buddha-Nature) has three parts, two of which have definable attributes and are subject to conditions. The conditioned parts are the Nirmanakaya (physical body) and the Sambhogakaya (reward or spiritual body). These parts are born and pass away and it is at this level where we experience everything—sadness, joy and everything else. Within the conditioned realm karma rules and if that is the whole story we are without hope because the conditional realm is governed by discrimination—forced to choose between one thing vs. another. Fortunately this is not the whole story. The third part—the Body of truth—is unconditional and beyond karma. This is the true never-born, never-die realm of the Buddha (and us)—the basis of all life.

So if the “self” of the conditioned realm is vulnerable and insubstantial (without hope) what does that suggest regarding self-esteem? It simply means that a tree (and us) rests on the ground where true life and genuine identity is found. To try to shore up the “dust” of an insubstantial self and convert it into a substantial self is an impossibility! But there is no real division between these two realms. There is only one realm with both discernible attributes and non-attribute attributes. We are one whole thing, not two just as a tree is only one whole tree with both seen and unseen attributes. Our mind is not divided.

The result of this artificial shoring-up is much like trying to counter disease by destroying the immune system. An artificial self is a foreign body, every bit as toxic as a virus and our immune systems are designed to rid us of these foreigners. This is a natural process that allows life to continue and flourish. A virus is very, very small and can’t be seen without the use of a powerful microscope. On the other hand an artificial self is quite discernible, albeit in a delusional way. In fact it is so prominent that it over-rides and masks our true nature leaving us with a firm belief that what we perceive of ourselves is our true nature. The death process at the conditional level is painful and we don’t like pain so we resist or hold on for “dear life” not realizing that this conditional death is critical to realizing true, unconditional life. What most of us fail to see is that suffering plays a vital role in our own awakening. Bodhidharma told us “Suffering is the seed, wisdom the sprout, and Buddhahood the grain.” We all hate to suffer so we resist the lesson. This manner of speaking sounds strange and esoteric but regardless; it is a practical reality with vast implications. What we fail to notice is that our suffering occurs because we refuse to let die what must die and that emancipation can only occur through this death (of what is unreal).

The bottom line for self-esteem is to allow nature to progress and let the artificial self die so that we can access our own body of truth—our primordial mind. When this “awakening” occurs we realize that our power for transformation is dependent upon what is unconditional. It is this true-body (without definable attributes) which fuels and enlightens our conditions and guides our way through wisdom/prajna. We are thus both conditioned and unconditioned—neither insubstantial nor substantial, but both. This is the Middle Way of the Mahayana—between both form and emptiness.
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