Thursday, March 29, 2012

Tracking a koan.


A story is told in the Platform Sutra of a conversation held between Daman Hongren (fifth Chinese Chan patriarch) and Dajian Huineng (sixth Chinese Chan patriarch). Huineng was an illiterate, unschooled commoner who upon hearing the Diamond Cutter Sutra, realized enlightenment and subsequently sought out Hongren. When Huineng met the patriarch he was assigned the lowly job of rice-pounder, where he remained for many months before proving his worth to Hongren.

The conversation between the two was thus: Hongren—“A seeker of the Path risks his life for the dharma. Should he not do so?” Then he asked, “Is the rice ready?”  Huineng—“Ready long ago, only waiting for the sieve.” Two questions, a single short answer which reveals the nature of enlightenment—both sudden and gradual. Sudden since awakening happened quickly but fullness required the sifting of life’s sieve—The rice was ready but the lingering, residual chaff had to be blown away by the winds of life.

The insight flowing from this conversation is enhanced through the lens of an ancient Greek word for perfection. The word is “Teleios” which means having reached the finale—the logical culmination of maturation. It is rather like birth. First we come into this world and then it takes many years of living to reach maturation.

More than thirty years ago I came to a realization of my true self but I too needed further shifting to fully grasp the magnitude of what had occurred. It is one thing to experience profound transformation and it is another to allow it to flower and revolutionize your life. Besides, the initial experience was so contrary to the ordinary that when it happens I barely know which end was up. It took time to absorb the experience, allow it to infuse me and to settle in.

One of the key ingredients for me of this settling in period concerned this business of “mu” and “shin”. Mu is of course the Japanese word for “no” and you find Mu in the the koan about Jōshū’s dog.

“A monk asked, ‘Does a dog have a Buddha-nature or not?’
The master said, ‘Mu (No)!’”

When I lived in a Zen monastery this was my koan and for a long time it made no sense at all. In Zen you are taught that Buddha-nature inhabits all sentient beings, one of which is a dog. So how could it be that Buddha-nature infuses everything but not a dog? But as life sifted me it began to become a part of who I was and ever so slowly I understood. What I came to understand concerned variations on Mu. One of these is the obvious negation no. An alternative is nothing meaning the absence of something. And another is no-thing (which is similar to nothing but more precise, meaning not a thing). These latter two can be combined which rounds out the correct Buddhist understand of emptiness, which the Buddha said IS form. Seen in this combined manner, emptiness becomes more than just the absence of form. It then becomes the wellspring of form. Mu is not a phenomenal thing. Instead it is the soil for all things. If it was a thing then it could not be all things.

The Heart Sutra says form is emptiness. That is a profound equation but it rattles our brain. In a way this is the premier koan. We all think we know what form is. It’s the measurable stuff that surrounds us. We can sense it in every way. But emptiness is an entirely different kettle of fish. How can you perceive that? The truth is you can’t perceive emptiness. You can only experience it and the reason is actually quite simple (but only when you understand—before that it makes no sense). Emptiness is who we truly are. It has no discernible properties but all form emanates from there and all form is infused with the indelible dimension of the ubiquitous power of creation, which is emptiness. If emptiness had discernible properties it would be limited. Buddha-Nature (your true nature) is not limited. Buddha-Nature is emptiness and it is you.

I was helped to fathom this when I learned a few things about the Chinese and the Japanese language. Every culture sees things a little differently and these two languages see life in ways that are radically different from the English perspective. From a Western point of view we have a heart and we have a mind. We see these as two separate and different matters. Not so with the Chinese and the Japanese. To them the heart and the mind are one integrated whole so they call it XIN (Chinese) or SHIN (Japanese) and both of these terms mean heart/mind—the integration of thinking and emotions. That was one piece of the puzzle.

The next piece concerned the seeming dichotomy between illusion and reality and here again the cultural framing played an essential role. What we ordinarily consider real is what we can perceive, whether internally or externally. We see the objective world of form and the fabrication of thoughts and consider both real. But there is a problem here: both our thoughts and the outside world of form are constantly changing and both lure us into identity attachment and thus suffering. That part is the illusive dimension of XIN/SHIN, otherwise known as form. But the Buddha had said that form is emptiness so in essence he was saying that we could only perceive the manifestations but not the source of mind. In fact this is what he had said in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra:

“Seeing the actions of body and mouth, we say that we see the mind. The mind is not seen, but this is not false. This is seeing by outer signs.” Elsewhere he spoke of finding the fire of mind only by seeing smoke.

When we go looking for mind we find nothing and this is where Zen shines because what we aim for in zazen is a cessation of form, long enough to experience the lack. Bodhidharma had said: “That which exists, exists in relationship to that which doesn’t exist.” And Rinzai’s teacher Huang Po, was particularly lucid in his teaching about the relationship between abandoning form and finding yourself. In the Chun Chou Record, he said: “To say that the real Dharmakāya of the Buddha resembles the Void is another way of saying that the Dharmakāya is the Void and that the Void is the Dharmakāya ...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.”

One of the fascinating aspects of Zen study is to begin to patch together apparently disparate pieces into a seamless tapestry of meaning. When we arrange all of these pieces, a picture emerges centered on this notion of Mu and Shin and what it reveals is this equation: “Mu shin=Shin”, where the first part “Mu shin” (the absence of thoughts and emotions) is joined to our true nature (Shin) which is formless/the void/true mind/the Buddha/yourself. Formlessness is lacking form. It is emptiness itself: “…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.” And that is who we are.

Now the really curious thing about my own awakening is what was taking place within me while I was immersing myself in Mu practice. Yes I had been given the Jōshū’s dog koan and yes I was following the prescribed method but there was a much deeper internal koan occurring that had been haunting me for many, many years and there didn’t seem to be any way to either get rid of it or make rational sense of it. That koan was the mind bender: who am I? So while I was immersing myself in dogs, this deeper koan was down there underneath. It didn’t seem to be even slightly related to dogs or Mu but what happened was that the answer to my who am I? question emerged as the solution to the Mu koan because the answer to one is the answer to the other.

I had been struggling for years, believing all the time that I was a worthless excuse for humanity and in my moment of awakening I realized that I was already Teleios (perfect). I knew, at the most fundamental level of me, I was perfect, had always been perfect and would never stop being perfect and slowly, ever so slowly the winds of life began to blow away the chaff of the terrible part of me. I was coming home.
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