Monday, November 29, 2010

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 25-26

“Mysteries and miracles -
There are no such things!
But when you fail to understand
The world's full of weird happenings

This is the phantom
Who deceives
Who makes us take the false world
To be real”

Buddhism, just like all the religions that humanity has developed contains much that modern people consider superstitious or even fantastical: Miraculous births, prophecies, mythical beasts, heavens, hells, gods, angels, demons, incarnations, levitation, reincarnation, teleportation, telepathy, telekinesis, and television! Many of the world’s religions require their members to believe in specific wonders such as Jesus’ resurrection, Muhammad’s ascent to meet Allah, Krishna’s defeating of demons, and the Buddha’s talking and walking immediately after his birth. Bankei (1622-1693), as the matter-of-fact Zen Master that he was, will have nothing to do with such beliefs. He states that “There are no such things” as mysteries and miracles, sounding rather like a modern sceptic who only accepts what is scientifically verifiable as true.

“Mysteries and miracles -
There are no such things!”

There’s more to Bankei’s statement than mere iconoclasm for its own sake; he is denying the authenticity of these beliefs, and therefore any importance we might attribute to them, for a specific purpose. And, his purpose is not to present us with an alternative view of the world to a supernatural one, at least not one based on a particular ideology, that is. Bankei wishes to demystify our experience of the world so we do not waste too much of our time on the miraculous, but instead pay attention to this present moment, as it is in itself. So, this is not attaching to any view as an alternative to the superstitious one, but rather experiencing reality. For, as he says:

“But when you fail to understand
The world's full of weird happenings”

When we know the importance of this moment, we will practice in accordance with that knowledge. Otherwise, when we “fail to understand” this, we think that “The world’s full of weird happenings,” and we are led astray from developing the mindfulness that results in the realization of what Bankei called ‘the Unborn.’ When we’ve already given up immersion in fantastic phenomena and committed our efforts to cultivating awareness in the present, we may forget that this is not so for most people. Most religious people in the world profess faith in the kind of magical occurrences cited above, preferring creationism to evolution and superstition to contemplation. And, because such amazing things are much more (inner) eye-catching than the world as it is, it’s very difficult for people caught up in such visions to let go of them and experience humdrum reality. Bankei uses colourful language to emphasize this point:

“This is the phantom
Who deceives”

The “phantom” of superstitious belief deceives us when we are under its spell, populating the world with all kinds of imaginary beings and powers that just aren’t there – or, if they are, aren’t that important to enlightenment anyhow. Psychologically speaking, this “phantom” is our own imagination, latching onto certain things we’ve heard and making them ‘real,’ at least to the extent that anything false can be. Moreover, the imagination itself is part of that other, greater phantom – the ego. The ego itself is a conglomerate of various parts, an important one being the will, of which the Buddha said, “It is will that I call karma.” It is the will that directs the mind in certain directions, also motivating it to cling to certain things and rejecting others, altering our perceptions of reality along the way.

“Who makes us take the false world
To be real”

When we believe the world to be inhabited with miraculous creatures and amazing incidents, we take the “false world” as experienced by the ego to be real. Furthermore, Bankei is prodding us to not only let go of fantastic beliefs, but to relinquish the egoistic experience of existence altogether. If we wish to experience the Unborn, first we must give up any incredible ideas we cling to, then, we also need to throw away the notion that we are a separate self living in the world, in competition with other people and animals for our survival.

This latter understanding of life is the scientific one, of course, and although it isn’t explicitly mentioned on the two verses examined here, Bankei knew only too well that this paradigm must also be surrendered if the Unborn is to be experienced. There can be nothing in the mind to act as a barrier between knower and known, for the two are in fact one, and this is the heart of awakening. Please take a little time now to experience this present moment free of all preconceptions, by doing the following exercise:

Firstly, imagine a miraculous occurrence, such as Christ walking on water, or the Buddha appearing a great distance from where his body is. (It can be some other supernatural happening, if you wish.) Really envisage it, seeing not only the event, but also the surroundings, any people present, etc. Secondly, imagine an ordinary occurrence, such as someone sinking in water, or being confined to their body. (It can be some other everyday happening, if you wish.) Thirdly, reflect on these two imagined events; in this present moment is either more or less true, or are they both products of the mind’s eye? In this moment, is this not the way of things; that is to say, right now isn’t life what it is, rather than our ideas of what of it is? And what do all these thoughts arise in right now? Is it a soul, a mind, or is it the Unborn, free of labels and limitations?

In truth, as the great Zen Master Bankei pushes us to see, life is not the way we envisage, whether that is supernatural or not. Life s the way it is and we superimpose our concepts of how it works for our own peace of mind. But, what happens when life contradicts those beliefs? We suffer. Bankei wants us to go beyond these suffering minds by seeing how they limit our experience of life, trying to chain it in a prison of views. Thankfully, if we take the time to observe our mind, we can see these chains for what they are, and break them with a mighty swipe from the Dharma sword. Then, they are known in their true context: the Unborn.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dukkha v.2

And ‘I’ am drowning again
In an aching sea of despond
One word bobbing up: “Ow!”

This ever-degenerating body
Rhythmically stabs the mind
With the sharp sword of Mara

Self burns in a fire of nerves
Pain exploding into awareness
A billion Buddha Lands ablaze

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 22-24

“You think that good
Means hating what is bad
What's bad is
The hating mind itself

Good, you say,
Means doing good
Bad indeed
The mind that says so!

Good and bad alike
Roll them both into one ball
Wrap it up in paper and then
Toss it out - forget it all!”

Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693) was an amazing Zen master. In simple, direct language he cuts to the chase, and reveals the heart of the matter with a pithiness to die for. Take the three verses under scrutiny here; firstly, he dispels any notion of being holier than thou; secondly, the master destroys all ideas of goodness being the point of Buddhist practice at all; and thirdly, he invites incredulity, apparently rejecting morality altogether! And yet, if we were to stop our reflections on these verses at this point, we would be missing at least half of Bankei’s meaning. For, as with any great Zen master or mystic, he requires our careful attention if we’re not to make fools of ourselves just when we thought our wisdom was shining oh-so brightly!

“You think that good
Means hating what is bad”

Usually, we do exactly what Bankei describes here: we presume that to dislike whatever’s bad is the height of goodness. For example, if we covet our neighbour’s ass, so to speak, we might fight such lowly feelings, classifying them as ignoble and destructive. And, depending on just how attractive our neighbour’s ass actually is, it might take a lot of aversion to our desires for them to be denied through suppression. Putting our neighbour’s ass aside for a moment, another important thing to note is that Bankei writes of what we “think” being good is. He is encouraging us to reflect on the value of thoughts compared to actions: Is thinking about what constitutes being good actually being good or merely thinking about it? You see, Bankei is a consummate Zennist, pushing us to open our Dharma Eye wider and wider with each word.

“What's bad is
The hating mind itself”

Here’s where Bankei really starts to challenge us. Not only is he telling us that to hate badness isn’t necessarily good, but that in hating what is bad, we are creating a divisive, unwholesome mind state. The Buddha taught that the three poisons, or unwholesome psychological roots, are greed, hatred, and delusion. Whenever one of these mindsets is present, we are creating bad karma, and negative results will be the eventual result. So, even when we have hate for something that itself is unwholesome, such as covetousness, we are still making a rod for our back, as it were.

“Good, you say,
Means doing good”

Conventional thinking dictates that good consists in doing what is good, and here is nothing out of the ordinary. And, moreover, Buddhist ethics agree with this appraisal, putting much value on keeping the five precepts, which involve avoiding the following actions: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking intoxicants. Now, a man of Bankei’s wisdom surely kept these as well as his monkish precepts, for virtue is the foundation of the Buddhist Path to enlightenment. Only repentant murderers, thieves, adulterers, liars and drunkards realize enlightenment. (This is one sure-fire way to tell if you’ve picked the wrong spiritual teacher; if he or she is indulging in any of the above, get the hell out of there!)

“Bad indeed
The mind that says so!”

Hang on a minute! Isn’t Bankei contradicting the point made above that he almost certainly was a precept-keeping monk who promoted virtuous behaviour? Not at all! The master is actually referring to “the mind that says so,” rather than the person that does so. He is concerned here with helping us to see beyond our attachments to both ideas of good and ideas of bad. This doesn’t mean that we can be anarchists or libertines, doing what the hell we want, for we will surely end up in hell if we do so! It simply means that we don’t cling to either. Certainly, on the conventional level of existence, if we do good, we will get good karmic results, and if we do bad, we’ll reap the negative results of that, too. However, if we do bad stuff, we also have the added barrier to enlightenment that we’ve created unwholesome mind states that’ll create barriers to the mind seeing beyond itself. Nevertheless, Bankei declares:
“Good and bad alike
Roll them both into one ball”

This “one ball” of Bankei’s means concepts or ideas. If we put all our ideas of what constitutes good and bad (and anything else for that matter) into a ball of assumptions, we are in a position to rid ourselves of it. We can do this by recognizing mental objects as they arise as just what they are, and not attaching or rejecting them. In meditation, for example, watching each successive thought as it arises reveals its ephemeral and ethereal nature, allowing us to loosen or let go of any attachment to it. Another technique is to look at that in which all thoughts occur, seeing again that they are transient and transparent phenomena. Whatever way we achieve this awareness, it is crucial to the realization of enlightenment, for the latter is not an idea or concept, no matter how good or profound a notion may be.

“Wrap it up in paper and then
Toss it out - forget it all!”

So, Bankei wants us to throw out all ideas of good and bad, leaving us free of any conceptual formations to be bound with. Not only that, he wants us to wrap this “ball” in paper first. The question arises here as to what particular kind of paper does the master have in mind? Is it wrapping paper we should use, making our notions at least look beautiful before we discard them? Or perhaps an old newspaper will suffice, covered as it is in the pathetic tribulations of worldly types? Then again, it might be that Bankei has no specific kind of paper in his thoughts at all – but he isn’t such a clumsy poet as that! No, by “paper” Bankei does indeed have one particular type of paper in mind: scripture. As a Zen Buddhist, he knew only too well that we have the tendency to cling not only to ideas of what’s good, but also to descriptions of the spiritual life. Therefore, even our attachment to our favourite sutra (or poem!) must be relinquished if we wish to be truly free. Are we ready to do so? Let’s see...

Think of a piece of scripture, poetry, a mantra, or treatise (etc.) that you consider to be holy, wise, inspirational, or some similar lofty quality. Focus your attention on your feelings towards it, taking in the depth of your appreciation of it. Now, see its physical – or digital – form as merely form, its words as simply words, and its concepts as only concepts. What are your emotions towards it now, if you have any? Turn your attention to that which is doing all this looking; on current evidence, does this have any specific form or concept attached to it. And, if it does, does that form or concept actually represent it accurately or not? What is it that surrounds all these thoughts and emotions? Is it describable in any way, or is it beyond any notional imagery? Who is it that is ‘doing’ all this, right now?

As long as we accept and fulfil the basic moral precepts that prevent us from doing any radical harm to ourselves or others, we are in a position to do what Bankei demands of us, and toss away all our ideas of good and bad. Doing so is a massive step towards real freedom, which is truly without conceptual constraints. And, once this is achieved, it can be combined with seeing who it is that observes this process. Thereafter, seeing who it is that lets go of our habitual clinging encourages further release, which in turn promotes extended insightful seeing: they are forever spirally deeper into enlightenment, leaving us without words or concepts, but naturally residing in our True Nature which is beyond notions of good and bad.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Buddha & Eckhart: Godhead, Buddhahead

Meister Eckhart

“The eye with which I see God is the very eye with which God sees me”
(Meister Eckhart)

Meister Eckhart (1206-1327) is one of the greatest and most original of Europe’s mystics, quoted by influential figures like Pope John Paul II and the Fourteenth Dalia Lama. Probably born Johannes Eckhart in Thuringia in medieval Germany, he held many high positions within the Roman Catholic Church, and was an extremely popular preacher and teacher to countless devout Christians. In his teachings, however, he did not always keep to orthodox interpretations of scripture and dogma, sometimes sounding exceedingly doctrinally unsound. Indeed, such statements resulted in Eckhart being charged with heresy, and posthumously being found guilty on several counts. From the perspective of Buddhism, it is the more controversial declarations of the master that interest us, for it is in such statements as the one quoted above that Eckhart and Buddha seem in profound agreement.

In the following extracts from Eckhart’s writings, we will travel with him into what he likes to call the Godhead, the indescribable depths even less imaginable than that of God, which according to the master is being itself. In our exploration of Eckhart’s musings on God, Godhead, and being, we will be accompanied by the great exponent of Japanese Buddhism Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. Suzuki, most famous for introducing the West to Zen Buddhism, gives us a somewhat different take on Eckhart’s insights which enable us to relate them more readily to the Buddha and his teachings. It is worth noting from the outset that both the Eckhartian understanding of God and the Zen experience of the Buddha as described in this article do not refer to the exalted individuals normally indicated by those titles, but instead indicates a genderless, incorporeal non-thing which lies at the heart of existence. Read Eckhart on this:

“Being is God…God and being are the same – or God has being from another and thus himself is not God…Everything that is has the fact of its being through being and from being. Therefore, if being is something different from God, a thing has its being from something other than God. Besides, there is nothing prior to being because that which confers being creates and is a creator. To create is to give being out of nothing” (Meister Eckhart)

Eckhart has a radical understanding of God compared to almost every other Christian one might meet or read. Even more than other giants of Christian mysticism and theology, his view of God is far removed from the conventional belief in an anthropomorphic deity sat on high. His God does not possess a flowing white beard and matching locks, nor does He perch on a celestial throne, barking orders at humanity and sending the odd plague or two to punish us. The Eckhartian version of God is being itself, the very “is-ness” of life (see the following quote below). Furthermore, He resides as the very being of each and every one of us, whether we profess the Christian faith, the Buddhist one, or another, or no faith at all. God is the origin of all, and at the fundamental level of existence He is us and we are he. What your average born-again or bishop would make of this description of God only, well, God knows!

In the above quotation, Eckhart argues that because Christians conceive of God as the Creator of all things, He must be in all things as their very being. If the essential being of an entity is not God, then it is not being either, and therefore some other quiddity must be the essence of all life, including what we deem ‘God.’ This argument is a kind of self-perpetuating loop, which can be easily criticized by any half-decent philosopher, but it isn’t the central point here. What’s important to recognize in Eckhart’s thinking is where he is coming from, rather than the efficacy of his theology. This is a consideration emphasized by the Japanese Zen Buddhist writer D.T. Suzuki, who was extremely keen on Meister Eckhart. He makes this point in the following observation:

“Mere thinking or logical reasoning will never succeed in clearing up problems of deep religious significance. Eckhart’s experiences are deeply, basically, abundantly rooted in God as being which is at once being and not-being: he sees in the ‘meanest’ thing among God’s creatures all the glories of his is-ness (isticheit). The Buddhist enlightenment is nothing more than this experience of is-ness or suchness (tathata), which in itself has all the possible values (guna) we humans can conceive.” (D.T. Suzuki)

The erudite Suzuki recognized that Eckhart’s vision was not an intellectual or philosophical one, but grounded in the German mystic’s actual experiences. God, for Eckhart, is not a belief; He is known at the very core of being, as the “is-ness” of life. Suzuki goes a little further, as we might expect of someone so deeply immersed in the wisdom of Zen, and states that the being that is God is “At once being and not-being.” This echoes another of Eckhart’s bold statements when he announced that “God is a not-God.” This tendency amongst Buddhists and Eckhart to use apparently contradictive ideas to describe the Indescribable is a kind of safety device so that we might avoid turning the Ineffable into a mere concept or belief. For, whilst we might say with some justification that God, or Buddha for that matter, is the being of us all, if we cling to such an idea as absolute truth, the real Truth has slipped through our grasp. Of this real Truth, Eckhart says:

“God’s characteristic is being…The most trivial thing perceived in God, a flower for example espied in God, would be a thing more perfect than the universe. The vilest thing present in God as being is better than angelic knowledge.” (Meister Eckhart)

Usually, when we perceive the universe from the perspective of a limited, individual, separate ego, we don’t see the big picture. Instead, we view life through the distorted lens of self, sometimes seeing the most beautiful of things with an embittered mind. By contrast, Eckhart argues that if we experience something “perceived in God,” that is to say from the viewpoint of pure awareness or being, then we know it as it is rather than as we might take it to be with our egoistic, dualistic notions. This pure awareness is God to Eckhart and Buddha to a Zen Buddhist like D.T. Suzuki (and to me!). Again, it is important to remember that this understanding of God and Buddha does not refer to separate beings but being itself, which is” without image,” as Eckhart explains below:

“You should know Him without image, without semblance and without means. – ‘But for me to know God thus, with nothing in between, I must be all but He, He all but me.’ – I say, God must be very I, I very God, so consummately one that this He and this I are one ‘is,’ in this is-ness working one work eternally; but so long as this He and this I, to wit, God and the soul, are not one single here, one single now, the I cannot work with nor be one with that He.” (Meister Eckhart)

It is clear from reading these passages that Eckhart sees the point of the spiritual life as a kind of union or submerging into ‘God.’ Mainstream Christianity would have nothing to do with this, considering such statements as “God must be very I, I very God, so consummately that this He and this I are one ‘is’” as heresy. For most Christians, Eckhartian mysticism is light years away from their ideas of resurrection and eternal – but separate – life with God, either in heaven or on a New Earth. In contrast to this, Eckhart surely seems closer to the Buddha’s teachings regarding transcending all dichotomies and realizing Nirvana right here and now. And, if there was any doubt as to the depth of union between God and the I in previous quotes from the master above, let’s examine one more:

“God’s is-ness is my is-ness, and neither more nor less. The just live eternally with God, on a par with God, neither deeper nor higher. All their work is done by God and God’s by them.” (Meister Eckhart)

According to Eckhart, not only are we unified with God at the level of ‘is-ness,’ but we become one with Him. What’s more, my is-ness is as great as God’s; how’s that for heretical assertion? (And yet, remember that at the top of this article it was mentioned that Pope John Paul II, not exactly an original theologian, actually quoted Eckhart on occasion. Presumably, it wasn’t one of the sayings we’re scrutinizing here!) Interestingly, we could change some of the terminology from Christian to Buddhist and it still works: Buddha’s is-ness is my is-ness, and neither more nor less. Or, recalling the quote at the top of this article: The eye with which I see Buddha is the same eye with which Buddha sees me. Despite these strong parallels, some Buddhists may still object that Eckhart’s God does not equate to the Buddha; but what of his understanding of Godhead?

“God and Godhead are as different as earth is from heaven. Moreover I declare: the outward and the inward man are as different, too, as earth and heaven. God is higher, many thousand miles. Yet God comes and goes. But to resume my argument: God enjoys Himself in all things. The sun sheds its light upon all creatures, and anything it sheds its beams upon absorbs them, yet it loses nothing of its brightness.” (Meister Eckhart)

God is the active, alive aspect of being in us and all things. Godhead, on the other hand, is pure No-thing, not even manifest in us as the empty heart of our being. As Eckhart intimates elsewhere, Godhead is only experienced – if that’s the right word – in deep states of prayer akin to Buddhist meditation, which correlates to the experience of complete Nirvana with the absence of outer sense data. God isn’t so evasive, and “comes and goes,” and, “enjoys Himself in all things.” This sounds like the active side of Nirvana, that is to say the awareness of Buddha Nature in the midst of the world, as opposed to only in rapt meditation. To clarify Eckhart’s distinction between God and Godhead, let’s read more of D.T. Suzuki’s analysis of Eckhartian mysticism:

“God comes and goes, he works, he is active, he becomes all the time, but Godhead remains immovable, imperturbable, inaccessible. The difference between God and Godhead is that between heaven and earth and yet Godhead cannot be himself without going out of himself, that is, he is he because he is not he. This ‘contradiction is comprehended only by the inner man, and not by the outer man, because the latter sees the world through the senses and intellect and consequently fails to experience the profound depths of Godhead.” (D.T. Suzuki)

The inner and outer man, as Suzuki establishes, are different because of the direction of their attention: the outer man gazes outward into the world of things (including himself), while the inner man dares to peer inwards beyond even his own mind into the depths that lie beyond all things. This is achieved through dedicated and focused attention that never wavers in its search for the ‘is-ness’ of existence. Once recognized and then let go of, this is-ness reveals its ultimate nature as nothingness, or the No-thing. All things and processes cease in the deep void of Godhead/Buddhahead. Coming out of this state, the world is experienced in relation to its is-ness or suchness (tathata). This suchness is where the Buddhist designation Tathagata (‘Thus-Come One’) comes from. To be enlightened, whether as a Buddhist or an Eckhartian, is to live in awareness of the is-ness that we come from. This is freedom from suffering, liberation from the ego-delusion, and ultimate happiness.