Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 42-44

“The mind that’s not conditioned
Is originally unborn
What is unconditioned doesn’t exist
That is why there’s no delusion

Though the years mat creep ahead
Mind itself can never age
This mind that’s
Always just the same

Wonderful! Marvelous!
When you’ve searched and found at last
The one who never will grow old -
‘I alone!’”

In the teachings of the 17th Century Zen master Bankei Yotaku we have the words of truly amazing man. He cuts through the delusions of the ego-mind with the sword of wisdom that leaves us in doubt who is the victor! And, with this incredible master’s ‘Song of the Mind’ poem, verse after verse acts as such a sword. If we are brave enough, we may offer up our necks, and leave behind our egotistical existences that are built on delusion and suffering. It seems a fair swap, but there’s effort involved – such as doing the exercise in italics below – and an open mind is required, for the wonderful and marvellous truth that awaits us is not like anything we might have imagined. So, without further delay, let’s sharpen that sword!

“The mind that’s not conditioned
Is originally unborn”

This is the heart of Bankei’s message to us, for when he uses the word unborn in reference to the mind, he is referring to what he frequently liked to call ‘the Unborn Buddha Mind.’  All things that are born (or anything that comes into being for that matter) are conditioned. We are conditioned by our genes, inherited from our parents, as well as by the people and events that we have encountered during our lives. If someone comes from a devoutly Christian family, he or she will probably be conditioned (or brainwashed!) into sharing the beliefs of their parents; someone born to a Buddhist family will be similarly treated, turning out to be ‘a chip off the old block.’ It depends where and when we are born as to how we will be conditioned. If one person is bitten by a dog at a very young age and traumatised by the experience, she or he may well be conditioned to have very different attitudes towards dogs than someone else that had very positive experiences with any canine companions. So, in very simplistic terms, we’ve seen how conditioning may well make one person a dog-hating Christian, and another person a Buddhist dog-lover.

Bankei is not describing the mind that can be conditioned in such ways, however. He is pointing to an aspect of our being that is beyond the reach of any conditioning factors. This is the aforementioned Unborn Buddha Mind. Elsewhere, the Master taught that, “The body, being created, has a birth and a death, but the mind, which is originally the Unborn Buddha Mind, does not.” (Taken from the Hoshin-Ji Sermons, a collection of teachings given by Bankei in 1690) Of course, the brain, as part of the body, is also conditioned and has a beginning and an end; the everyday, deluded mind is also conditioned by many, many factors, and has a limited life span. The Unborn Buddha Mind, on the other hand, can be seen to be without any features that require conditioning factors; it is unconditioned.

“What is unconditioned doesn’t exist
That is why there’s no delusion”

Here, Bankei deepens his teaching somewhat, making it necessary for us to pay a little more attention to exactly what he is saying. The Unborn Buddha Mind is unconditioned, as we established above, so, the Master instructs us, it doesn’t exist. Now, if it doesn’t exist, why give it fancy names like the Unborn Buddha Mind – just call it nothing. But nowhere does Bankei – or the Buddha for that matter - describe the Unborn as simply nothing. As it is unconditioned, however, it is unlike any thing we can imagine. The Unborn Buddha Mind is ultimately indescribable, and therefore, in the conventional sense of the term, it does not exist. In conclusion on this point, we can say that the Unborn both exists and does not exist, for although it doesn’t exist in the conventional understanding of the word, it nevertheless is, and it can be known and experienced, as we will hopefully explore below.

Delusion, like all other things and processes is conditioned. Bankei tells us that because the Unborn Buddha Mind is unconditioned, there is no delusion in it. This is the reverse of the traditional way that Buddhists approach this matter, for usually we describe delusion first, then its dissolution, which leaves the unconditioned shining brightly beyond the grasp of all nescience. This illustrates Bankei’s unique teaching style, and his lack of fear when dealing with ideas that most would dogmatically cling to as doctrines that cannot be tinkered with. If it can help us realise the Unborn and transcend delusion and suffering, Bankei doesn’t care too much if it is unconventional. Indeed, this is how we might sum up the wonderful teachings of this most distinctive of Zen masters: unconditioned and unconventional!

“Though the years may creep ahead
Mind itself can never age”

The ordinary, worldly mind is subject to aging, as is everything in this world. The (Unborn Buddha) Mind is extraordinary not ordinary, however, and it is not of this world. It knows the world, for sure, and in thus sense is not ‘otherworldly,’ as such. If it were at the mercy of time, the Unborn would have to be redubbed the Born, for everything that is born (comes into being), must age and then die (cease to be). In meditation, we can observe the (ordinary) mind to be conditioned; each thought has it predecessors, along with other conditioning factors such as the prevailing mood of the mind when the thought arose. That which observes this process is something else altogether, however, and if we turn our attention to it instead, we may reconsider our views on what this life is, and what we truly are. (See the exercise below for more on this.)

“This mind that’s
Always just the same”

Everything changes, that’s one of the basic teachings that the Buddha left us with. Watching the mind in meditation or just peering out of our window we can observe this ongoing process. The physical world, its contents, and the individual mind are all subject to change just as they are aging and death. Our bodies are not the same as the day we were born, nor are our minds. The places where we were born have changed also; perhaps they no longer exist at all. The Unborn Buddha Mind has no individual, conditioned elements to change, however. It is unchanging. It’s somewhat akin to space; whilst the objects that inhabit space may alter, space itself remains the same space. There’s nothing to change. The Unborn (or ‘Buddha Space’ as we might call it) is the same today as it was when the world came into being and will not have altered one iota the day that the earth finally comes to an end. (So, if the doom-mongers are right this time – they’ve been wrong every time previously – it doesn’t matter if the world ends in 2012, because the Unborn Buddha Mind will still be here! Not long to wait to find out, anyway. The clocks ticking down...)

“Wonderful! Marvelous!
When you’ve searched and found at last
The one who never will grow old -
‘I alone!’”

In the oldest extant Buddhist scriptures, known as the Pali Canon in English, the Buddha uses many synonyms for enlightenment, some of which are also used by Bankei. The most famous of these is the ‘Unborn,’ which in Pali is Ajata. Another such word is the ‘Unconditioned,’ which is Asankhata in Pali. Wonderful and Marvelous are also synonyms used by the Buddha for Nirvana, being Acchariya and Abbhuta respectively in the original scriptures. Whether or not this is a deliberate ploy by Bankei to lend an orthodox flavour to his Dharma soup or not is debatable, since he would not have had access to the Pali Canon in 17th Century Japan. That he uses words like wonderful and marvelous to describe finding the Unborn is most appropriate, for it is indeed a wonder, and it’s a marvellous feeling to see it after looking every but here, where it was all along.

“The one who never will grow old” is the one right here, of course; not the conditioned body and mind, but that which is awake to their fleeting presence. For, Bankei is bringing our attention to the most important of Buddhist teachings: the Unborn Buddha Mind is this very mind right here and now. The difference between enlightenment and delusion is that the Unborn does not cling to desires, and therefore does not create delusion and suffering. When this is realized, the Unborn is revealed to be the very core of our being, nowhere else. In it is no division, no separation, and what’s more, my awakening is your awakening, and our awakening is the Buddha’s. Why? Because it is “I alone” that is enlightened.

“In heaven and on earth, I alone am to be revered!” announced the Buddha upon his birth – or, at least, that’s how the traditional myth goes. This statement could be read as being particularly egotistic, until we analyse it a little closer. It is not the conditioned ego (or mind) that the Buddha is declaring should be revered, but the Unconditioned. Now, whether we take the birth story of the Buddha literally or not is up to each individual, but that’s not the crucial point in all of this from the Buddhist perspective. The important thing is that we realise the No-thing that lies beyond the reach of aging and death, delusion and suffering. It is this “I alone” that we need to discover and live from if we are to awaken fully to the reality of this life. So, without further ado, let’s now use thinking to examine the facts of this moment in an open-minded manner.

For better focus, it’s a good idea to do this exercise with the eyes shut, so the visual world does not interfere with our observations. Having closed your eyes, take a few moments to calm the mind down. If you don’t know how to do this, one way is to watch the in-breaths and out-breaths as they pass the nostrils, putting your full attention on them. Do this as long as it takes for the mind to quieten down a little, focussing on your breathing. Next, turn your attention to your thoughts. Sometimes when we do this, they get shy and hide for a while! But, the mind being the mind, it can’t keep quiet for long, so once thoughts do start popping up in your head, take a good, long, unhurried look at them. What are your thoughts right now? How many different ones did you have in past minute or do? Is there a recognizable pattern in your thoughts, one leading to another and so on, or do they seem random and unpredictable? What ever your answers to these questions, isn’t it the case that your mind flits from one thought to the next, forever changing its direction like a psychological eel. Now, turn your attention around to that which is observing those thoughts: does it have any characteristics or conditioning factors? Does it appear to change, or is it its contents that change? Is it ‘loud’ like the thinking mind or quiet in its peaceful awareness of the mental processes?

Now, if you found in the above exercise that the conditioned mind was revealed to be a changing set of phenomena, but that that which watched those fleeting thoughts was consistant and silently alert, isn’t it possible that the latter is in fact that very Unborn Buddha Mind that Bankei is so keen for us to discover? Is it not unconditioned and without the delusion of being a separate, egoistic self? Is it not ageless and unchanging? And, if we recognize that it possesses all these qualities, is it not fair to declare that it is both wonderful and marvellous? Then, along with Bankei and the Buddha, we too may announce that it is “I alone am to be revered!”

Please click the following link to go to the homepage of 'Buddha Space,' where this article originated: http://buddhaspace.blogspot.com/

Monday, April 18, 2011

On Awakening Part 7

“It is the Unformed, the Unconditioned, the End, the Truth, the Other Shore, the Subtle, the Everlasting, the Invisible, the Undiversified, Peace, the Deathless, the Blest, Safety, the Wonderful, the Marvelous, Nirvana, Purity, Freedom, the Island, the Refuge, the Beyond.” (Samyutta Nikaya 43: 1-44)
We conclude our reflections on the Buddha’s above description of awakening, or enlightenment, by examining the Island, the Refuge, and the Beyond. The heart of these reflections are not the words themselves, nor the exercises imbedded in the text, but the experience to which they point. That the Buddha used so many different and differing words to describe awakening – he used many more than in the above paragraph – reveals the diverse expressions of it, and the many Dharma Gates to ‘enter’ it. Hopefully, we may stroll through such a Gate together and bask on the other Shore, in the Everlasting contentment of enlightenment.
·         The Island (Dipa) If we live on an island, we have a natural barrier against invasion and enslavement. Just ask the Japanese about the attempted invasions of their islands by the Mongols who had already conquered the great Chinese Empire. Ditto the British Isles, which have been free of outside invasion for nearly a thousand years. These are physical islands, of course, but when the Buddha uses the term as a synonym for enlightenment he is not referring to a lump of land surrounded by water. He is referring to the Island that separates us from invasion from the Kingdom of Death.
Despite what most of us might think, we cannot die. There’s nobody home to die! The Island of the Buddha cannot be invaded because it has no physical form to be invaded. We are forever free when we discover that we already live on this Island for not only is it unconquerable but it is out of the reach of time itself. It is neither subject to time nor space, and as such is beyond the imagination of even a great mind like that of Albert Einstein. For, whilst he was a genius when we consider the world of things and processes, he appeared to be trapped by his own grand intellect. Indeed, the simpler the mind, the easily it may recognize the Island upon it which resides. To locate this Island, let’s examine another of its titles: the Refuge.
·         The Refuge (Sarana) It might surprise some people that the Buddha called enlightenment the Refuge, considering that he also taught that the Three Refuges are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. There’s no contradiction here, however, because the latter Three Refuges exist to assist us in awakening, and are therefore refuges in which we can awaken, whereas awakening itself is the final Refuge of enlightenment. That the Three Refuges are not abandoned after enlightenment is for the benefit of other suffering beings, so that they may be lead to awakening also.
So, what is the nature of the Refuge? To know this, let’s review the general idea of a refuge and see extrapolate from this what a supramundane refuge would actually be. If we know what we’re looking for, perhaps we’ll have a chance of recognizing it when we see it. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines the word refuge as “a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or trouble,” and, “something providing such shelter.” In addition, the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus has the following words listed after refuge: shelter, protection, safety, security, asylum, and sanctuary. Quite a list and it’s difficult to imagine anything that might fulfill all the above requirements to be considered the Refuge. But, there’s a clue in that last sentence: thing. According to the Buddha, no thing could ever be a true and lasting refuge from the unsatisfactory aspects of this life; but this doesn’t mean that we should give up on our search, for what if there is a ‘no-thing’ that is the true Refuge?
Things are limited by their very nature, and can therefore never be 100% refuges, and this includes the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, for whilst they are refuges on the way to awakening, they are still imperfect and impermanent like all other things. Only enlightenment itself is out of reach of suffering, and is therefore the Refuge that we need to discover if we wish to let go of our delusions and sufferings. You see, enlightenment is not a thing, and is therefore not limited; it is the No-thing that protects from the world’s terrors and tribulations. But, where is it?
Now we’re getting down to the crux of the matter, so we’d better pay good attention, hadn’t we? It’s already been written that the Refuge is not found in things, so we cannot look for it in the world around us; it’s made up of things, some big, some small, some to our liking, some not, but all things. Turning our attention around to ourselves, we might consider the body, but this too is made up of things, some beautiful, some best forgotten. Neither the world nor the body is the Refuge, both composed of imperfect things that are cause of suffering. The physical world is no real, true refuge; not as the Buddha used the word, anyhow.
What of the mind? If the Refuge is not to be located in the physical world, perhaps it is in the mental one? Looking at emotions, are they things that are incapable of being the Refuge? For sure; we are pulled all over the place by our emotions, experiencing highs and lows, and much suffering to boot. They are no true Refuge. Thoughts, too, are not free of disturbances and problems. Memories can be very vexing indeed, and dreams can leave us screaming in the night. No, the mental as well as the physical is not the Refuge – it looks as if we’ve failed in our search for enlightenment; it doesn’t exist!
But wait; consider abandoning our quest just yet, for we need to return to that very important word once again: thing. According to the Buddha, the Refuge is the No-thing beyond all things and processes, so of course it isn’t going to be part of the world, the body, or the mind. It can’t be seen, heard, touched or thought. It’s invisible, intangible, unthinkable, and beyond logic. Moreover, it is right here! Point a finger back at where you are looking from and note what you see - a face, a head, a body, a world? Or, do you see a great No-thing that is host to all that you see, hear, touch, and think? And, is this No-thing limited by any kind of features, or is it a spaciousness that’s untouchable by the sufferings of the world and the apparent self?
Going back to the dictionary definitions of a refuge, can we say that this No-thing lives up to those descriptions or not? Is it a shelter from the influence of the three poisons, greed, hatred, and delusion? Is it a protection and place of safety, in which we find true sanctuary from the pain of the world and the mind? Well, to find out the answer to that, we need to recognize this No-thing and then live from it, cultivate it, die into it. Only after many years of living from ‘it’ can we decide if the Refuge has been found: so we’d better get started!
The Beyond (Parayana) The Beyond that the Buddha wants us to discover is that which is beyond suffering. It is beyond the desires and attachments that cause suffering. It is beyond any identification with anything being a self that I might call mine. It is beyond time and space and the limitations of all processes and things. But, as well all these characteristics, the Beyond has one more to be recognized: it is beyond any description whatsoever. Every word that the Buddha used to point it out was merely a pointer; nothing more, nothing less. There are no doctrines or dogmas that can trap it and define it; it is beyond all limitations, including any that might come from over-dependence on the Buddha and his teachings. Hence, the Zen declaration, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!” But then, the Beyond is even beyond any ideas of killing or not killing the Buddha…
So, the Beyond that leaves behind desire and suffering is the final Refuge which nothing can harm, for it is itself ‘No-thing.’ This Island that cannot be invaded by the miseries of an unenlightened life turns out to be timeless, too; there isn’t a clock to be seen. It is, as written of previously in this series of reflections, the Deathless, and as such not only cannot age but cannot die either. It is the Unconditioned Everlasting that the Buddha also named Nirvana, and it isn’t as far away as we usually think it is. In fact, with the help of the exercises that have appeared in these reflections on Awakening, it is immediately knowable and liveable in the here and now for anyone to discover.
Looking is one thing, however, and seeing another. I might look at you but not see you because of dim light or camouflage. Moreover, even if I do see you, I might not recognise you, and then walk right past you – much to your relief! The Subtle, as the Buddha called it, isn’t much to look at, and yet, if recognised and given sustained attention, it will transform our perceptions and understandings of who, what, and why we are. We need resolve to keep at it, however, for unless we achieve full enlightenment very swiftly, the mind’s old habits born of delusion and fed by greed and hatred will kick in with a vengeance. All manner of doubts and difficulties will arise, but if we stay focused on the Truth that lies at the heart of every sentient being, we will see every noisy piece of suffering fade into this Wonderful Peace.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Buddha and Eckhart: On The True Spiritual Life

"Dear children, you must know that true spiritual life leads to perfect freedom from self and all things." (The quotations in this article comprise the sermon 'Innocent's Day,' as found on page 59 of David O'Neal's wonderful little book 'Meister Eckhart, from Whom God Hid Nothing.')

As is often the case with the Master Eckhart's instructions, he gets straight to the point, and so shall we. He states, in contrast to conventional ideas of what the fruits of a Christian life are, that the results of a successful spiritual practice result in the destruction of the delusion of self and, as he puts it, all things. Let's start with the former: the "perfect freedom from self." Does this not echo an important part of the Buddha's teaching, anatta (the reality of there being no self)? Moreover, in enlightenment, we are freed from identifying with the delusion of being a self, which also seems to be what Eckhart is getting at. This is radical statement for a Christian priest to make (especially in the medieval ages), for the usual beliefs were that the goal of the spiritual life was resurrection and salvation of the self, to live for eternity as a separate self in the presence of a separate God. Indeed, this apparently forms the central hope for the majority of Christians to this day, which may be one reason why Eckhart's teachings are not more widely known and followed.

The Master also mentions that perfect freedom from "all things" is achieved at the end of a true spiritual life. Again, this doesn't seem to be the mainstream doctrine of the Christian Church, whichever denomination or order we amy consider (apart from the Franciscans, perhaps, to which Eckhart did not belong - he was a Dominican priest.) Often, modern Christian preachers will declare that if someone believes in Jesus enough, "all things will be given unto him." This is taken by such preachers to mean that if we have strong faith in Jesus, we will get whatever we desire (or covet, perhaps). Wanna new car? Have faith in Christ enough and you'll get one! Eckhart rejects this idea, however, just as he does not teach that good Christians will have everything they want in heaven; instead, he states that they will be free from all things, desired or otherwise. This parallels the Buddha's teaching on equanimity, in that Buddhists are encouraged to see beyond greed, hatred, and delusion to the freedom that lies beyond.

 "One cares nothing, seeks nothing, has nothing, wants nothing for oneself, but frankly resigns oneself to eternal law, always so clearly shown to the discerning but which none may know unless he is inwardly atoned and outwardly obedient to the discipline perfectly exemplified in our Lord Jesus Christ."

Not caring or seeking after anything is of course freedom from desire, which the Buddha taught is the cause of our suffering. He also taught the Dharma ('eternal law'), available to any discerning mind. Now, it can be argued that there are substantial differences between the laws promoted in the Bible and those revealed by the Buddha, but if we look beyond the details of biblical and Buddhist precepts, we may find that they point to similar, if not identical spiritual ends. This certainly seems the case with Eckhart's teachings on such matters. To be "inwardly atoned," as he puts it, means to be emptied of self so that the purified soul (or mind) may receive God (nirvana), which, as Eckhart explains elsewhere, is achieved through intense prayer (meditation). Outward obedience to discipline can mean to one's order, sect, Church, or monastery, etc., and is demonstrated by both Jesus and Buddha, whose lives illustrate the way to what the latter called 'the deathless.'

"Those who live this life, they verily attain to unity, and to know the truth one has to dwell in unity and be the unity."

By "this life" Eckhart of course means the spiritual life that we are examining, which he sees as being tied up with what he calls "unity." Unity suggests a lack of differentiation, a state of peacefulness without opposites or conflict. And yet, by his words we are not to take this unity as something we acquire, for although he states that it should be attained, known, and dwelt in, he also declares that it is something we should be. Interestingly, if we change the word unity to 'nirvana' in the above quotation, it works just as well. A synonym for nirvana used by the Buddha is 'non-diversified,' which is another way of saying 'unity.' In meditative terms, it indicates a mind not distracted or in conflict with itself, which is one of the main aims of both Buddhist meditation and Eckhartian 'prayer,' and is a prelude to enlightenment.

"He who is at all aware of his own mind knows nothing of God's."

As above, we could easily make sense of this statement by inserting a Buddhist word: He who is at all aware of his own mind know's nothing of Buddha Mind. Whilst some Buddhists may have doctrinal difficulties with the idea of Buddha Mind, for those that accept it, the above quotation from the Master should surely find strong parallels with their own beliefs or experiences regarding Buddha Mind. For other Buddhists, we might use a more impersonal term like 'no-mind' or (again) nirvana. Either way, Eckhart's letting go of awareness of the egoistic mind and diving (dying) into what remains is indicative of certain stages of meditation, where the personality is surrendered into a greater reality.

 "By the fact of his knowing and seeing, he is not void."

At first glimpse, this statement will offer some difficulty for the complementary comparison of Eckhart's teaching and the Buddha. This is, of course, because the Buddha taught that emptiness (or void) is at the heart of us all. However, elsewhere Eckhart himself has written of God that he is empty of any particular characteristics, and that he is a "not God," so, in the sense of being "not void" in the above statement, we need to look for an alternative meaning than. In other words, by "his knowing and seeing" the spiritual aspirant is not void of what, exactly? Void of God, or in Buddhist parlance, void of nirvana. In this interpretation, it is another way of saying that whoever achieves true knowing and seeing sees God, Buddha, nirvana, or whatever word or concept we wish to attach to the ultimate ground of being. (Now, it may be that this reflection appears a little awkward or doesn't 'ring true' for the reader; that's perfectly okay. These reflections on the teachings of Eckhart and their relationship to the Buddha's philosophy aren't meant to be dogmatically accepted, but considered in an open-minded manner. If they are beneficial, that's great. If not, then they can be let go of. This goes for any etchings that we encounter, Buddhist or other.)

"The highest knowing and seeing is knowing and seeing, unknowing and unseeing."

Here, Eckhart seems more like an enigmatic Zen master than a Christian priest. What on earth (or in heaven!) does he mean by saying that knowing and seeing is the same as unknowing and unseeing? Well, the clue is in the word "highest." He seems to be stating that in meditative or contemplative heights of rapture, knowing and unknowing merge into one, as does seeing and unseeing. Moreover, in his theology, as in Buddhist teachings, the ultimate (or 'highest') aim of spiritual life is a kind of knowing but not conventional intellectual knowing as popularly understood. The same goes for seeing and unseeing. We do not 'know' or 'see' enlightenment, but it is 'known' (or 'seen') or else it would not have been talked of by such luminaries as the Buddha and Eckhart; there would be nothing to talk of. To pursue the Zen analogy: it is known and yet not known; it is seen and yet not seen; it is, and yet not is. If we try to 'know' or 'see' this in the conventional sense of these terms, we will fail miserably. Eckhart is encouraging us to go beyond the limited knowledge and senses of the egoistic self.

"To know anything of self is to know nothing of God, and he who wants God to be his is putting an obstacle in his own way."

To know about the self is know about a set of conventional, worldly, truths. There is immense value in this kind of knowledge, and both the Buddha and Christ taught us to cultivate this type of wisdom. It is a crucial step to understanding others , society, and the world, and shouldn't be dismissed lightly. But, Eckhart assumes that we understand this already. He is building on top of this conventional wisdom with something more profound. In essence, he is telling us that we must empty ourselves of the sense of being a self if we wish to know God, which is echoed in the Buddha's instructions on how we can realize enlightenment - we must let go of our attachment to the sense of self if we want to experience nirvana. However, as many Buddhist masters have taught, if we attach to the desire for enlightenment, this will itself be an obstacle to our achieving it. It seems that both nirvana and God cannot be grasped by either an egoistic mind nor one that hungers to possess them. Selflessness is the way for both Christian and Buddhist.

"'He who wants God to be his is in danger of spiritual pride,' so says one of the saints."

Or, in Buddhist terms, 'He who wants nirvana to be his is in danger of spiritual pride,' so says one of the enlightened ones! The parallels here are self-evident, so we will move on.

"With the righteous soul, the more God is to her the less he is hers, for God is all his own."

In other words, if we desire God, cling to God and thirst to know and possess him, we will never have him. God cannot be grasped, and neither can enlightenment. This is the same argument as two sentences previous, and we might accuse Eckhart of needlessly repeating himself if we didn't know that this is such an important point that both Christians and Buddhists need to bear in mind when practicing meditation or deep prayer. In the Tipitaka, the Buddhist scriptures, we find much repetition also. Some of this can be explained by the early oral transmission of teachings and the need for repetitive phrases for the ease of remembrance, but this does not explain the reassurance of certain themes again and agin throughout not only the Tipitaka but also throughout the history of Buddhist teaching. Much-repeated subjects are repeated because they are important, and therefore we shouldn't take Eckhart's words on spiritual desire lightly!

"The right humble spirit is little in itself, because the way of truth is made known to it."

By "little" the Master means that the self (delusion) is reduced to next to nothing (or actually nothing), and that the path to salvation (enlightenment) is revealed. When the truth of the-way-things-are (The Dharma) is known, then egoism goes out the window, replaced by the knowledge that these apparent selves are not much when compared to the greater reality that opens up in spiritual awakening. To be "humble" here indicates this lessening of self-importance and differentiation from all else. In conventional truth, we are conditioned beings completely dependent upon each other and the world around us for our existence, whilst in ultimate truth, what we are is not a self, a we, and is the antithesis of egoist conceit, whether dressed in religious garb or secular clothing.

"True spiritual poverty leads into it."

To be truly poor doesn't necessarily mean a lack a material possessions, although for some it does. The ideal of the Buddhist monk is someone with little more than their robes to their name, and in Christianity there is the example of the Franciscans who ideally lead a life of strict poverty. This relates to the earlier statement above where Eckhart mentions "perfect freedom from self and all things." It is a "spiritual" poverty, not always a material one, although perhaps we (and the world's millionaires) should recall Christ's declaration that "It is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than it is a rich person the kingdom of God"! Then again, who's to say that Jesus was not extolling spiritual poverty when he said this; no doubt many Christians have held this view, perhaps Ecklhart amongst them.

"The soul will find no more profound humility than that of our Lord Jesus Christ, who himself declared, 'I am not of myself.'"

Perhaps this statement, with its promotion of Jesus,  will stick in the throat of many Buddhist readers more than any other in this article, but only if we view it in dogmatic terms (as many Christians will, of course). On the other hand, we can see the words of the Buddha and Eckhart as tools to awaken with, as when the Buddha described his own teachings as a raft to cross over to the 'other shore' of enlightenment. If we do this, then we can simply replace the words 'Lord Jesus Christ' with 'Lord Buddha,' and the sentence will be much more appealing to the Buddhists amongst us. Either way, the final words of this Eckhartian sermon are themselves a perfect summation of its contents and meaning. Both the Buddha and Christ shared this view: "I am not of myself." Whatever self we take ourselves to be, we are not that. Enlightenment - or salvation in the eyes of Eckhart - is a transcending or letting go of any sense of self, and in the end, this is what the spiritual life is all about, whether we are Buddhist, Christian, or neither.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 39-41

“People have no enemies
None at all right from the start
You create them all yourself
Fighting over right and wrong

Clear are workings of cause and effect
You become deluded but don’t know
It’s something that you’ve done yourself
That’s what’s called self-centeredness

Grown used to the conditioned world
Grown used to the world of transience
When you become deluded like this
You’re the one that’s losing out!”

When we consider the words of a great Zen master like Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693), we should approach them with both respect and awareness. Respect should be present because these are the teachings of a man that dedicated himself to the alleviation of ignorance and suffering in both himself and others. Awareness is needed because if we don’t pay attention we are likely to miss the central point of what he is telling us. Furthermore, awareness turns out to be the essential ingredient when enlightenment dawns on us, stripping away the nescience that darkens our ignorant minds. In the following reflections on Bankei’s verse, there are quite a number of technical Buddhist terms in the ancient Sanskrit language. Please don’t be perturbed by them, and if it assists in your appreciation and understanding of this commentary, ignore them. They are included to show that there is a thread of enlightened truth that runs through the teachings of both the Buddha and Bankei, mainly for the benefit of those who might doubt such matters. In the end, however, it is the exercise included towards the rear of this piece that the proof of the pudding lays. Eat on!

“People have no enemies
None at all right from the start
You create them all yourself
Fighting over right and wrong”

Bankei, having rediscovered his original nature and then lived from it, knew something very basic to the human condition – we are our own worst enemies. Not just in the sense that we are often mean to each other – although this is a major side effect – but in the way that we create conflict first in our own minds. “Mind is the forerunner of all states,” as the Buddha declares in the Dhammapada, and this is exactly what Bankei is getting, too. The mind makes all manner of things its enemies:  insects, traffic, bosses, relatives, countries, and computers, not to mention the weather (the latter especially in Britain!). It doesn’t stop here, of course, for the mind is divided against itself, and when confronted with the mundane decisions can come into conflict with itself: the red dress or the blue one; cereal or toast; the comedy or the drama? At the level of personality, the mind can be its own worst enemy as well, at loggerheads whether to be friendly or firm, submissive or assertive, mysterious or readily available.

Right and wrong can refer to specific decisions that we make, and to which personality traits we consider preferable, but they clearly also indicate morality.  Is it right or wrong to eat meat? Is it right or wrong to use violence to defend one’s country? Rather like personality traits, or, as part of what we consider to be those traits, comes our moral attitudes, whether they be liberal, conservative, left wing, right wing, or just plain barmy! Psychologically, we can have serious and debilitating battles over these issues, tearing ourselves in two (or more) over which qualities and opinions we deem right and which ones wrong, and all inside these meatballs that sit atop our necks! And, should such conflicts spill out into the world, we may end up losing our topknots altogether, either on the gallows or at the hands of a crazed zealot. We are, indeed, the creators of our own worst enemies.

“Clear are workings of cause and effect
You become deluded but don’t know
It’s something that you’ve done yourself
That’s what’s called self-centeredness”

There are three key terms in this verse which form the heart of its meaning. The first of these is “cause and effect,” which references the Buddhist understanding of how everything we do has consequences. This is related to the word karma, which translates as ‘action.’ In this sense, an action has a result, so that if I stand in the rain, I get wet. In Buddhism, it goes further than this, for the results of actions are believed to not always be immediate or obvious, so that the ramifications of what is done now may crop up much later in this life, or even in future lives. Furthermore, karma and its results can be interpreted psychologically, so that the state of the mind now affects its condition later on. When we meditate and develop mindfulness of our thought processes, this psychological aspect of karma becomes most apparent, and Bankei, being the wise Zen master that he was, was no doubt well aware of this particular understanding of cause and effect.

The second term to come to terms with in the above verse is “deluded.” This word has its equivalent in Buddhist parlance as avidya in Sanskrit, the Indian philosophical, religious, and literary language which will be used here. Delusion is as an important word to understand as is karma for the serious Buddhist, but it has not caught on in the west like the former term. Perhaps this is because avidya is even harder to swallow as a concept than it is pronounced as a word. The Buddha taught that avidya lies at the foundation of our suffering, and it only completely dies away with when we realize full enlightenment. But, you may well ask, avidya is delusion of precisely what? Well, the delusion of self, or, the false understanding/experience that I am a separate self. The opposite of avidya is vidya, and is the realization of anatman, which means ‘not self.’ Put simply, anatman is the realization that none of the things that we normally take to constitute a self, do not, and that in truth there is no self here to suffer. This is related to the Buddhist idea of emptiness (sunyata).

The third important term in the above verse is “self-centeredness.” This can be equated with the Buddhist words satkaya-drsti (idea-of-self) and mana (conceit-of-self), and relates to the concept of anatman, which is its antithesis. When we live with the idea and feeling of being a separate self with its own concerns and biases, there is bound to be conflict with the world which does not always fit in with our individualistic plans. If others are perceived to be spoiling our plans, adverse reactions can – and usually do – arise, causing much strife. If two extremely self-centred personalities come into conflict, the consequences can be equally extreme, resulting not just in strong and offensive language, but even violence or death.

Now, what does Bankei say of these key concepts of cause and effect, delusion, and self-centeredness? He states that we are the cause of our own deluded self-centeredness and the resultant suffering that thereby arises. Because we attach to the ideas and feelings of being a self, and live ignorant to the process of cause and effect, we suffer, and cause others to suffer through our selfish behaviour. Moreover, he teaches that we have become deluded; it is not our original, natural state. This gives us hope, for if our original mind is the origin of the suffering one that we experience – and associate with – now, then it must be possible to rediscover it and let go of our delusion and suffering. Here, we can see the psychological aspect to these teachings alluded to above, and in his diagnosis, Bankei, like the Buddha before him, hits the cause of our suffering firmly on its egotistical head!

“Grown used to the conditioned world
Grown used to the world of transience
When you become deluded like this
You’re the one that’s losing out!”

In this verse there are two terms that are worth defining, but luckily they mean the same thing. They are “the conditioned world” and “the world of transience.” Both can be summed up with the Buddhist term samsara which literally means ‘flowing on,’ and indicates ‘the round of rebirths,’ and, by extension of that concept, ‘the round of suffering,’ also. When we live identified with being a separate self, we see this self as living in the conditioned world, largely at its (non-existent) mercy. Furthermore, as part of this world, we too are conditioned and therefore limited by it. The Buddha described this situation as the process of pratitya-samutpada, in which natural forces, both conditioned and conditioning, flow on through this existence. The Buddha also taught about an escape from this conditioned world, also, which we will come to a little later.

The other term used in this verse is “the world of transience.” In other words, this life lasts only a short time, a fleeting moment on the cosmic scale, and is therefore impermanent, too. It’s a sobering fact to reflect that not only are all individual creatures impermanent, but also entire ecosystems, indeed entire worlds. Not only are our thoughts and emotions temporary, but also the bodies that host them. In fact, the world itself will not last forever, as no planet does, and even the sun that it orbits will one day – in a few billion years – expire. Indeed, the two predominant theories in modern cosmology predict that the universe itself will eventually end, either in a ‘big crunch’ (the opposite to a big bang), or in an entropic cosmic expanding and fading into nothingness. To identify as being an ephemeral being on an impermanent world, in a dying universe is ultimately...unsatisfying (duhkha).

This quality of existence as being unsatisfying lies at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching, as he saw it and variant meanings of the word duhkha (suffering, angst, misery, etc.) as being the main problem in human life. If we transcend duhkha, we no longer live unsatisfying lives, and in the process no longer construct a suffering, ignorant self dependent upon a transient and conditioned world. The Buddha also declared that it is possible to achieve this, for as he put it, there is an unconditioned (asamskrta) as well as the conditioned (samskrta), and the unconditioned is without form and limits, and is therefore without duhkha. He did not, however, state that it is in knowing all the Sanskrit lingo and related philosophical summersaults that we realize the original and unconditioned, but that it is in direct experience, out of reach of the intellect. Of course, in preparing us for enlightenment, for that is what is being discussed here, some knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings are helpful, and also when sharing this vision they come in pretty handy, too. But the experience of awakening itself is not a result of knowing this or that philosophical concept, for it is beyond all concepts. We must learn a little to lose all – and when we have lost all, we will know ‘it.’ It is in the hope of having at least a glimpse of this awakening to the unconditioned that the following exercise has been included in this article. Please try it out with an open mind, and see if the unconditioned is revealed.

Look at your hand. See its shape, its colour, its solidity. Turn it around, and note the physical sensation of this action. To deepen the sense of the manifest nature of it, feel it with your other one – if you don’t have another one, a foot can be used for the same purpose, or nose, etc.). Look at what your hand is connected to – hopefully your wrist! Trace the veins that run to and from your hand, carrying vital blood. See how your hand grows out of, and is conditioned by, the rest of your body. Take a further moment to consider how your arm is conditioned by your DNA, and by human evolution (or whatever form of creation you believe in!). You are examining a completely conditioned thing. Now turn your attention around to that which is observing your hand. Actually look closely and see if it has any features whatsoever. Is there any shape, colour, or solidity here? Is that which observes your hand (and the rest of ‘you,’ including your thoughts and emotions) completely unconditioned? Is it not formless awareness that takes in your mental and physical sensations and either identifies with them, or not? And, reflecting on Bankei’s teachings on self-made enemies, does that which is unconditioned also have enemies?

If we live from the unconditioned rather than as conditioned individuals, both the Buddha and Bankei argue that the conditioned world will take care of itself, naturally, and all that’s left to do here is to keep on recognizing that there’s nobody home. Such a nobody has no enemies, self-made or otherwise. There are no inner demons to haunt one’s self, because there’s no self to be haunted in the first place. This conditioned and transient world flows on under its own steam, and there’s nobody here to suffer the consequences. This isn’t to mean that these thoughts, feelings, and bodies should be ignored or abused; quite the opposite. When there’s nobody here to be separate to the rest of the world, the world is seen for what it is, interrelated and dependently-arising. And, all those that make up its body deserve respect and care, all equal expressions of a living, loving organism spinning in the void.