Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Who stands before me?

Our true identity
One of the most profound and hallmark stories concerning Bodhidharma, the figure who is credited as the originator of Zen, occurred in China during 6th century C.E. during a conversation with Emperor Wu. The Emperor had invested himself in many ways to promote Buddhism and thus felt deserving of special merit. He said to Bodhidharma, “I have built many temples, copied innumerable Sutras and ordained many monks since becoming Emperor. Therefore, I ask you what is my merit?” In response Bodhidharma replied: “None whatsoever!” Emperor Wu then responded with, “What then is the most important principle of Buddhism?” Bodhidharma answered: “Vast emptiness. Nothing sacred.” Shocked by his answer, the Emperor then said, “Who is this that stands before me?” Bodhidharma: answered, “I don’t know.”

Without doubt, to students new to the practice of Zen, this story must seem bizarre. How on earth could such apparent ignorance be considered profound? To sweep away the cloud that covers over the significance, we must explore a common dimension of human nature: The desire to be somebody special, and the corresponding quest to be involved in doing something we all consider important that moves us toward that goal of specialness. So long as we are not doing whatever it may be we consider as important, the more guilt we feel. For many, we begin in childhood with feelings of inadequacy. Some people are so consumed with “doing” they become obsessive compulsive, doing the same thing over and over to experience some relief. The rest of us, at very least, feel uncomfortable thinking that we are wasting valuable time by not doing something.

Two points: Who is consumed with this desire? And what’s the difference between “being” and “doing?” Let me address the second point first, the issue of beingness which concerns Bodhidharma’s unknowing. He seemed to be saying he didn’t know himself, and if anything is central to Zen it is the unveiling of our true nature. You really can’t understand this issue without the other part of his answer: “Vast emptiness. Nothing sacred.”

At the level of vast emptiness there is indeed nothing special, or the opposite: specialness. Instead there is nothing whatsoever, yet within emptiness, is completion. That state of mind is the base upon which everything we do is based. Without “beingness” it is impossible for “doingness” to exist, thus the catchphrase, “Be here now.” We have been so conditioned to think that just being without the expression of acting in some way toward our goal, is to be considered as a useless bum. There is special significance in being present—fully present in the moment, but the question is “who is being present?” The knee-jerk (and unexamined answer) is, “Me.” But this “me” can be expressed both in many definable terms (which are mere clothing upon a mannequin, changing moment by moment, depending on changing circumstances) or the indefinable true person that we are, neither special or not.

So then we come to the first point of the “Who,” to which Bodhidharma answered “I don’t know.” Why does that make sense, whether we know it or not? It makes sense simply because emptiness—the realm of completion and the lack, is the same realm lacking definition. Nobody, not even a Buddha can define what is essentially indefinable except to note the obvious: doing and being are essential partners. If this is the case, then how are we to know, not only ourselves but also other people? The Buddha himself pointed to the answer with his statement in the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra when he said, “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.” In other words we not only know who we are, but we also know who others are, not just by what is said but by how actions speak louder than words alone. Our words and actions together define the person that stands before us all.
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