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.


Is That Zen?

After reading this article on What is Zen? I had the following thoughts.

Although it starts with the usual four lines attributed to Bodhidharma, it apparently presents only a shallow understanding of the first line (in his translation) about avoiding scriptures. The rest about seeing mind and becoming buddha remains a mystery. Instead there are rules, rituals and priests. And of course lots of sitting silently. Then in the second part there is some discussion about how Zen people should be nice, compassionate and socially engaged. So, if someone defines Zen like that, sadly Zen amounts to nothing more than an afternoon yoga class with some witty quotes pasted on the walls of the gym.

Let me offer a short commentary, to show how I like to think of Zen.

Separate transmission outside teachings.

That transmission not found in the teachings is from mind to mind. While this is easily confused nowadays with paper transmission, it actually means very simply understanding the Dharma. That is, whoever knows first hand that nothing can be attained has received that transmission. It has nothing to do with authorising people to perform ceremonies in black robes.

No reliance on words and letters.

Buddhism has a lot to say about language and its immense role in defining our reality of everyday experiences. Generally we see things depending on what we think about them, and what we think are conceptual constructs. Not relying on words does not mean being mute, it means seeing through the web of linguistic fabrications, or rather understanding them for what they are. Just words and letters. But without any essence or any real substance to refer to with them.

Points straight to your mind.

This is the primary message of the four lines. Look nowhere else but your own mind. Zen is the sudden path, the way of direct enlightenment. Everything else are just decorations and distractions to entertain us. First difficulty is to know what mind means. Mind is the totality of our experience. It is nothing hidden but readily apparent. The reason it can be easily missed is that instead of just looking at our present experience we prefer coming up with ideas and explanations, that is, relying on words and letters. What is obvious for everyone about their ongoing experiences is that they are coming and going. We cannot keep it. Experience is totally ungraspable. There is not a single moment we can stay with. While we can think about past events, imagine future ones and label presently occurring impressions, feelings and thoughts, that very thinking itself is momentary. The Buddha taught that attachment is the cause of suffering. When we look straight at our experience it is perfectly clear that it is actually impossible to attach to anything.

Become buddha by seeing nature.

Seeing the nature of mind, of the totality of experience, is enlightening the truth that appearances are already free from conceptual and emotional limitations. In other words, emotional and conceptual attachments are themselves ungraspable experiences. Nowhere to go, nothing to attain. That is perfect liberation, buddhahood. 


Neither Walking Nor Sitting

After reading this thread I was again a bit amazed how watered down and useless what people imagine Zen is. Of the four samadhis taught in Tiantai/Tendai, the fourth is neither walking nor sitting, and that is the one recommended for householders busy with everyday matters. That's because it does not require a retreat environment but can be used everywhere. The same is true for the essential practice of Zen that is often called non-thought. No matter what goes on, if there is no grasping of any experience as substantial, as oneself or as one's own, but because it is clear that everything that occurs necessarily passes away, the mind is naturally open and aware.

What often goes for Zen is nothing more than the Zen of humans and gods, while the Zen of the Tathagata is something unimaginable for such people. When there are so called practitioners and teachers who can only advise others to sit fixed in a certain posture for a while, they not only don't know anything about what Shakyamuni and Bodhidharma taught, they cannot even understand such simple methods devised for ordinary people as investigating a phrase.

This is not an issue because of some sort of doctrinal purity, but because when there is a way that can help people it is a shame if not used. The whole point of Zen is to be simple and direct, nothing complicated or difficult. But either it is taken as some sort of mystical puzzle (koans), or oversimplified as a physical training (zazen). So seeing the nature of mind as the primary directive of Zen is totally lost.

[I will now] elaborate on [this teaching]. Because for numerous kalpas we have not encountered the true teaching, we have not known how to turn back and find the [true] origin of our bodily existence but have just clung to illusory phenomenal appearances, heedlessly recognizing [only] our unenlightened nature, being born sometimes as an animal and sometimes as a human. When we now seek our origin in terms of the consummate teaching, we will immediately realize that from the very outset we are the Buddha. Therefore, we should base our actions on the Buddha's action and identify our minds with Buddha's mind, return to the origin and revert to the source, and cut off our residue of ignorance, reducing it and further reducing it until we have reached the [state of being] unconditioned. Then our activity in response [to other beings] will naturally be [as manifold as] the sands of the Ganges— that is called Buddhahood. You should realize that delusion and enlightenment alike are [manifestations of] the one true mind. How great the marvelous gate! Our inquiry into the origin of humanity has here come to an end.


Sentient Beings are Buddhas

Our reality, our life is this present world of experiences. Every moment we have visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile and mental experiences. That is where we and our whole world exist. The first five we call the bodily senses and impressions from the material world, while the last one is the inner world of mind. And they all exist as conscious phenomena that we systematise in a conceptual framework, like objective and subjective.

What we can readily tell about our experiences is that they are universally impermanent, changing moment by moment. While we form a mental narration, the story of our life, all the time, that exists only in the realm of abstract concepts, and the actual experiences are always passing away without a moment delay. That means that whatever we like or dislike, consider as this or that, they are all without exception mental concepts, ideas and thoughts. At the same time, those very thoughts are also just passing away every moment.

Problems therefore are only our own making, just like everything else. To be mesmerised by the illusory world is to get lost in thoughts and ideas. It is illusory in the sense that it's built up by concepts that are themselves without any basis, thoughts that just come and go. Getting lost means thinking that there is a graspable essence in concepts, that they are important and real. Awakening from the dreamworld thus means seeing that all experiences are impermanent and insubstantial, that thoughts, concepts and ideas are ephemeral and unstable.

Although us, the world, this whole reality of experiences are already changing every moment, if that is not understood and seen clearly, we fall into the web of illusory concepts. Once the actual nature of everything is clear, there is no more reason to worry or fear, and simultaneously we can be open and embracing towards all that happens. That is the world experienced not in a narrow, self-centred, obsessed way, but as something alive, vivid, loving and peaceful.


True Nature of This Mind

Thoughts are what define whatever experience we have, both physical and mental. We have labels, categories and associations that build our thinking, and thinking is what gives shape and meaning to all our impressions and at the same time controls and guides our actions and reactions. Thinking is what our personality is made of, it is behind both our feelings and behaviour. From the intimate level of family relations to the global stage of international politics, from our attitude towards our own body to the construction of megacities - they are all regulated and formed by thinking. Past experience and future expectations are present as thoughts. All in all, the spatial and the temporal, the inner and the outer world are what thinking makes them to be.

Therefore, if we want to go to the very root of whatever problem we may have, we have to look at our thinking. As it has been summed up before, it is us who call something a problem and it's not the thing itself that says so. The raw experience without concepts is meaningless and ungraspable. It is meaningless as it has no definition and no relation to anything without names and ideas. It is ungraspable because both past and future exist only in our mind, and this present moment itself is just a theoretical measurement that cannot actually be pinpointed as anything in particular.

Thinking as a type of experience is also meaningless and ungraspable. Thoughts come and thoughts go, if we let them. However, we regularly select certain thoughts as important and substantial, concepts that are presumably relevant for us. This habit of choosing and rejecting is our conditioning, a result of past learning and repetition of similar thought patterns. The older we get the more fixed certain patterns become and they also grow in numbers, that's how we can easily cope with various situations in life, except when something unknown happens. But even in case of an event that is foreign to us we habitually try to rely on past knowledge. Only very rarely, when we are strongly forced to come up with a new perspective, do we reluctantly change our mind. In other words, the personality - a set of habitual thinking patterns - prefers the known and familiar over the unknown; it wants permanence and not change.

The illusion of stability is the basic mistake that makes us feel dissatisfied and powerless whenever we encounter change. And change is all there is. There is not a single moment of life that stays for another moment. Thus the constant struggle to project our habitual thinking on our experience and manipulate both our inner and outer world according to our preferences. In order to be free from this basic tension and existential uncertainty we need to let go of the desire to control everything. Control here means both defining, interpreting and integrating experience, and manipulating, changing and regulating the objects of perception. The wish to control is based on the belief in stability, that there are a fixed person and a fixed object.

To remove this urge to control everything we have to discover for ourselves that the reality created by our thinking is nothing else but our thoughts. Thoughts that are themselves without any meaning or substance. Once it is clearly understood and perceived that thoughts are actually ungraspable it comes naturally that the whole personality and the entire world built of and on nothing substantial. It doesn't mean that nothing exists, it's just that it doesn't exist as we have imagined it. And that makes all the difference between being stuck in habitual thought patterns and being free from the ideas of permanence. Thoughts come, thoughts go. Thoughts build personalities and worlds. It is exactly because thinking is alive and changing that construction and destruction, connecting and disconnecting, that is, life is possible.