Bodhisattva life

It is taught that bodhisattvas should overcome two hindrances: afflictions (klesa) and knowledge (jneya). It is done through gaining insight into the emptiness of persons (pudgala) and phenomena (dharma). This can be translated to ordinary language as: emotional and conceptual attachments; meaninglessness/unimportance of persons and things.

Personal feelings

The more obvious type of attachments are about people and things we take personally. The strongest emotions of love and hate occur in relation to other people. That's why the precepts are primarily about organising one's behaviour towards fellow humans. As long as one is disturbed by various feelings, the mind is not calm, and an agitated mind is unfit for gaining insight. Therefore the prerequisites of wisdom are moral discipline and meditation. Discipline placates the outward actions, meditation calms down the inner disturbances. Then one can begin to look into the nature of body and mind, and see them to be nothing but momentary conglomerations of conditioned experiences, in other words: the four elements (the body consisting of solidity, liquidity, heat, movement), the five aggregates (physical impressions, basic feelings, perceptions, formations, consciousness) and the six sensory areas (visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tangible, mental experiences). That's all how the threefold training works.

What is good to understand is that no self in practice means not taking things personally. When something is considered the self (I am X) or belonging to the self (my X), it means attachment. The basic signs of that attachment are the feelings of defensiveness, fear, longing, craving, anger and love. Although the statement 'I am liberal' is fairly innocent, in the right circumstances lot of emotions and actions can occur from that single assertion of self, when one feels the need to prove something, defend something, convince someone, etc. Similarly, saying that 'this is my laptop' sounds commonplace and uninteresting, only until the moment when it is in danger of being damaged or when it is stolen.

While it doesn't make much sense to remove the pronouns from our vocabulary, what one can learn is that the self and its possessions are nothing more than concepts. That way the whole business loses its importance and it becomes clear how it's always us who make a fuss of everything based on misconceived ideas. And even when the loss of a beloved person hurts, or when we experience some illness, the feelings are not held on by baseless thoughts. (see: SN 42.11SN 36.6)

All is meaningless

The second hindrance is the one from concepts. This is eliminated by realising that not only there is no self inside/outside/as the body, but even the parts making up the body are without any substance to grasp. In other words, whatever that can be attached to are concepts, conceptual creations, words and names, mental fabrications. And since they are just concepts, not real objects, they have no importance, no value, no actual meaning. That is, we hold on to an idea because we believe that it carries a meaning, that it is somehow true, that it refers to something real, or the idea itself is the truth. But actually all words gain meaning only from their context, and that context itself is made up of meaningless concepts. It's not that there are no thoughts at all, but they are definitely without any value of their own. Since one thought is pointless, more of the same cannot create true meaning either. That's why the scriptures and treatises talk about the world as illusion, dream, mirage, magical apparition and such.

Already such

It should be understood that there is nothing to make empty, there is no new reality to discover. Our entire world of experiences is already such that it is without anything that can be truly clung to. If we just sit down a little and calmly see whatever experience happens, they always and inevitably just come and go. Bodily feelings, emotions, thoughts - come and go. And if you imagine that somehow there is a present moment that is real, just try to find it. The present moment is as theoretical as the past and the future. Or if you believe that there is a mind, an awareness, a watcher behind all experiences, just try to find it. That is really nothing but a concept. It's not just that there is no need to find something, there is nothing that could be found. Relax. No need to improve things, since they are already such.

Drink tea

Since the present mind, the past mind and the future mind are all ungraspable, with what mind are you going to drink tea? This whole post is made of words. Meaningless words that magically seem to be meaningful. Cause and effect are unavoidable, even if they are just meaningless concepts. That way we can do good without any worry. Save all beings without any concept of anyone saving anybody. That's the bodhisattva life.


Mystical Empowerment, Special Transmission

Why the need for so much hot air and self praise? Entire litanies of the speciality of whatever transmission - normally an artificially concocted list of a mixture of famous and unknown names - just to say how unique and wonderful the current living heir is. Or there is the other end of the same approach, loads of critical and denigrating words about everyone else, although this is not a popular style nowadays - except maybe online where "my vehicle is superior to yours" - one just has to read some works of people like Nichiren and Dogen to see that.

But what is it that one can actually learn after listening to an hour of "we are the champions"? The same thing as always: all appearances are unstable, unsatisfactory, impersonal and insubstantial. Because that is the true nature of the world. There is nothing more to see, regardless if you have gone through years of koan training, dark retreats, dozens of empowerments, a five-year Dharma course, or whatnot.

Nobody owns that Dharma. And there are at least two reasons for that. First is that the Dharma is the truth, the reality. That is how things are, and nobody can do anything about that. Either one clarifies this Dharma for oneself or not. Others cannot do it for you. Second reason is that every descendant of Shakyamuni Buddha is the transmitter of the same insight into that nature of reality. Actually, every tradition upholds the very basics of the four noble truths (etc.) as the authentic and original doctrine of the Perfectly Awakened One. Words and styles vary, but practically it's the same thing everywhere: things are impermanent, don't attach.

Some may object that one needs a reliable teacher in order to be able to realise the Buddha's teachings. That is partially true. The reliable teacher everyone needs is Shakyamuni Buddha. That's the first refuge. Then there is the third refuge, the community. What makes the community a refuge? That it maintains the Buddha's Dharma. So, if a teacher - a community member - teaches in agreement with the Dharma, then it is an authentic teaching. What is the Dharma? It is what the Buddha taught. Not too complicated.

I can only rejoice that so many great teachings and teachers are accessible nowadays. It just requires internet connection. And I am happy for all sorts of traditions, as they all transmit the Buddhadharma in diverse forms and styles. There is hardly enough time even just to know about all the resources, not to mention in depth study. At the same time, the essentials of the path of liberation can be learnt in just a few sentences. Or even just one sentence.

vayadhammā saṅkhārā, appamādena sampādethā 
(All fabrications are subject to decay. Bring about completion by being heedful.)

(You should always single-mindedly and diligently seek the way out of all the moving and unmoving dharmas of the world, for they are all decaying, unfixed appearances.)

Dogen said about that last saying of the Buddha: "disciples of the Tathagata unfailingly learn this [instruction]. Those who do not practice and learn it, and who do not know it, are not the Buddha’s disciples. It is the Tathagata’s right Dharma-eye treasury and fine mind of nirvana." (Shobogenzo, vol 4, p 321, BDK Edition)


Rebirth and Liberation

Thoughts come and thoughts go. Is there anything that stays in your experience? Still, there is cause and effect. That is, patterns of thinking that make us do this and that. That is karma. Since the mind is not the body, nor is it made by the body, it does not begin with one's current birth, nor does it end with one's corporeal death. The motivation of becoming someone is the root cause of being born again and again. Learning not to grasp, and release one's habitual patterns is the way to be free from compulsive actions.


Zen and True Self

Enlightenment is a human experience, knowing clearly that all experiences are impermanent, without self, empty. That no matter what occurs within the six sensory areas, they all just come and go. The problem is that we imagine this and that as real, independent and permanent - that is, we reify experiences, idealise self and things - and so grasp at them, want to keep them, or get rid of them. This is falling into hope and fear, attachment and rejection, love and hate. Thus we end up always dissatisfied as reality does not match our ideas. And so zazen is "When various thoughts arise in your mind, do not become caught up by them or struggle with them; neither pursue nor try to escape from them. Just leave thoughts alone, allowing them to come up and go away freely." as taught on the Soto Zen website. Or as Okumura - disciple of Uchiyama - writes: "In zazen we simply allow any thought, feeling or emotion to come up and then we simply let them go away; we actually do nothing." What more do you think should be there? What else could there be to be realised but the realm of complete freedom?

Linji said, "You who come here from here and there all have a mind to seek buddha, to seek dharma, to seek emancipation, to seek escape from the three realms. Foolish fellows! When you’ve left the three realms where would you go?"

Dogen writes in the Bendowa: "How could we say, on the contrary, that the body is mortal but the mind is eternal? Does that not violate right reason? Furthermore, we should realize that living-and dying is just nirvana; [Buddhists] have never discussed nirvana outside of living-and-dying."

Although there are various Chan teachers who say that there is a true self and a real mind, it is a mistake to take it as something separate and independent, because then it would have nothing to do with life. When there is talk about buddha-mind as the pure self, it is just the natural knowing and aware quality that is without attachment.

Jinul writes in the Secrets of Cultivating the Mind: "In the womb, it is called the body. In society, it is called the person. In the eyes, it is called seeing. In the ears, it is called hearing. In the nose, it distinguishes scents. In the tongue, it takes. In the hands, it grabs and holds. In the feet, it walks and runs. It manifests all over, including everything; countless worlds are collected in a single atom. Perceptives know this is the Buddha-nature the essence of enlightenment. Those who do not know call it the soul."

The reason Bankei calls it the Unborn is because it is not born as this or that sate of mind. That unmoved mind is the wisdom that sees emptiness. But it is not outside of this everyday world. Everybody uses this mind. It's just that they believe that it is this or that, that there is a permanent perceiver and doer. But it is quite the opposite.

All beings have buddha-nature, since it is nothing else but the awareness that makes us all sentient. The mistake is to believe that awareness is substantial, while actually it is empty. There is no mind beyond appearances. Awakening is awakening to this.

When it comes to being called eternal, there are two things to consider here. One is the Platform Sutra where Huineng corrects a monk, saying that appearances are what eternal and buddha-nature is impermanent. The second is that essence and function - to use expressions common in Zen - are not two. In fact, the highest level in Huayan/Kegon is the interpenetration/non-obstruction of phenomena with phenomena. This is what Nagarjuna talks about when he says that emptiness and dependent origination are one and the same. This is one the Heart Sutra says that the aggregates and emptiness are no different. Dogen talks a lot about this, or rather he almost always talks about this.

It's not just the past and the future mind that cannot be grasped, but the present mind is also ungraspable. Finally, a nice quote from Dogen's Kuge, on there being nothing beyond illusory flowers:

"Because [stupid people] attach to this theory, they have concluded that the triple world, the six states, the existence of the buddha-nature, and the nonexistence of the buddha-nature all do not exist, but are deludedly seen to exist. They excitedly consider that if we could stop this deluded cloudedness of the eyes, we would not see this floweriness in space, and this is why we say that “space is originally without flowers."


Absolute is Relative, Relative is Absolute

The teaching of the two truths is meant to point out that what common people believe to be absolute is relative. Once phenomena are understood as relative, that is the absolute truth. That is, as long as one grasps at words and concepts as something real and independent, that is taking the relative as absolute. Once it is obvious that words are just words and concepts are just concepts, that is seeing the absolute. It is not the case that we should find some absolute beyond the relative, rather just know that the relative is relative.

For interpreting the teachings, there is the distinction between neyartha (figurative) and nitartha (literal). Literal is mostly where there is an explicit teaching on no-self and emptiness, figurative is the rest. The two truths of samvrttisatya (conventional) and paramarthasatya (absolute) are similar, however, conventional stands for dependent origination and absolute for emptiness. Still, there can be a literal teaching that talks explicitly about conventional reality, and there can be figurative teaching that means emptiness. Also, dependent origination and emptiness are actually one, but conventionally talked about separately.


Mind Only or Real? It's the Same!

There are different levels of meaning. The confusion comes from assuming that they are contradictory or exclusive instead of complementary and inclusive. That is, the reality of Amitabha and that all appearances are mind only are not opposing views. In fact, they perfectly support each other. For those who naturally inclined to viewing Amitabha as a real entity, they are gradually introduced to the teaching of emptiness, if they are open for it in this life. For those who prefer everything as empty, they definitely have to understand that there is no emptiness besides dependent origination, and the Pure Land path is real and effective exactly because reality is mind made. An important difference is that while relying solely on buddha-remembrance leads to birth in the Pure Land, failing to see that there is no emptiness besides appearances leads only to some higher heavens at best, or to lower realms if one also denies the functioning of karma.


Harmonising Mind and Body

Zen is about internal attitude, not behavioural precepts. The instruction of "neither taking nor rejecting" cannot apply to physical activities, just consider how we must be able to tell the difference between edible and inedible objects. Zen (and Buddhism in general) pertains to the problem of existential dissatisfaction generated by emotional and conceptual attachments. On the physical level of precepts, what one is recommended to follow are rules based on cultivating harmlessness, goodwill and compassion. Thus, one saves all beings without the concept of beings, gives without the ideas of giver, gift, and receiver. In other words: eat when hungry, sleep when tired. Daily activities and ordinary experiences are not the problem, people already know how to dress, wash the dishes, do their job - and if not, information and instructions are readily available from many sources. Problem arises if we feel dissatisfied with our life, when we are bothered by the weather, others, the colour of the sky, and such. Suffering is when we don't find our place, can't find the meaning of life, when we are stressed and frustrated by whatever event there is because we think it should be something else. Neither taking nor rejecting is opening up to whatever happens, not making issues out of non-issues. 

If it itches, scratch it. Don't blame the world for the itch, don't be afraid of scratching, don't feel guilty because you scratched it. And if it is not the right time to scratch, don't get angry.