Tuesday, May 8, 2018

What’s there?

Seeing through the fog of delusion.
“Look straight ahead. What’s there? If you see it as it is You will never err.” These were the words spoken by Bassui Tokushō, a Rinzai Zen Master just before he died in 1387 in what is modern-day Kanagawa Prefecture in Japan. You might say these words were his chosen epitaph that summed up the essence of his life.

“Seeing what’s there” sounds incredibly easy. How could we not? We all have the same eyes and the world we see is the same world. Yet if we all saw the world “as it is,” instead of the way we would like it to be, or a way that confirms our preconceived beliefs and biases, it would be like Shunryu Suzuki referred to in his famous book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

There’s a fresh or innocent perspective when we see as a child sees: an honesty that is neither right nor wrong. In such a state of mind there is no axe to grind, imbedded beliefs to defend, nor convictions to uphold. Things just are, as they are. 

The Buddha referred to himself as the Tathāgata, a compound word composed of “tathā” and “gata.” Various translations of this Sanskrit word have been proposed, one of which is called reality as-it-is. In this case, the term means, “the one who has gone to suchness” or “the one who has arrived at suchness”—the quality referred to by Zen Master Bassui and Shunryu Suzuki: “Seeing what’s there.”

While apparently easy, in fact, to see things as they are requires moving beyond the ideas we hold of ourselves and others, pride of ownership in positions to which we become attached, bigotry that colors clarity, fears of ego threat, and preconceived beliefs, all of which serve as clouded lenses through which we see. These ideas swirl around the ego, like a wheel swirls around a central axel. When these ideas are removed, the world appears just as it has always been. Here is how Ch’an Master Hongzhi put this to verse:

“Right here—at this pivotal axle,
opening the swinging gate and clearing the way—
it is able to respond effortlessly to circumstances;
the great function is free from hindrances.”

The challenge is to stay at this central core as the world swirls and changes around us. What IS easy is to become trapped in the allure of holding fast to dogmas of inflexibility, defending our points of view and responding in kind to insults, and attacks. The hard part is staying fully present in the ebb and flow like balancing on a surfboard, leaning neither to the left nor the right. You can read an expanded version concerning such understanding by clicking here.

There are times, given their extreme nature, that dictates actions we might not see as virtuous. “Expedient means” may seem to violate teachings thought to be fundamental to our convictions, but as a prior politician once said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” He was no Zen Master but he did articulate the essence of seeing things as they were and calling for expedient means. After all is said and done the best advice for steering clear of conflict and getting sucked back into ego defense comes from Mark Twain: “Never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.” All of us can be stupid when we lose sight of what’s there.

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