Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Avatamsaka Zen

“A student, through the inspiration of her teacher, instantly awakens to her true mind and realizes that she is ultimately no different from the Buddha. This occurs suddenly; it is the teaching of ‘sudden enlightenment.’ Hence it is said, ‘Originally, there is nothing,’ which means simply that one must not underestimate oneself, and lack confidence.
Even after attaining some realization, however, the student then relies on this awakening in order to cut off lingering mind-habits so that she can be fully transformed from an ‘ordinary person’ into a ‘sage.’ This development occurs gradually; it is the teaching of ‘gradual cultivation.’ For this reason is has been said, ‘one must polish the clear mirror from moment to moment.’ It is due to the student’s humility. This is why pride can be such a hindrance. Lacking faith in one’s own nature is the sickness of those attached to scriptural authority, whereas pride is the disease of those who practice only Zen meditation…”
“Capping Word:
The phrase, ‘must not give in and must not be proud’ can be viewed from two perspectives. From the simple perspective of the initial aspiration to awaken upon the Bodhisattva path leading to Buddhahood, it can be said that the cause already contains the myriad fruits of all the stages of the path including enlightenment itself. From the broad perspective of the Bodhisattva path, it can be said the fruits are inherent within the fundamental cause. In other words, all fifty-five stages of the path are already contained with a single act of initial faith.”

From The Mirror of Zen
By Grand Master Sosan
Adapted by Poep Sa Frank Jude Boccio
From translations by Boep Hoeng and by Mark Mueller

By Way of an Introduction

For almost as long as I have been interested in Buddhism, its thought and its practice, I’ve wrestled with some problematic aspects of the tradition, including contradictions and even, what to my mind at least, seemed like some misunderstandings of the Buddha’s teaching that had tainted the tradition. I hasten to add, ‘tainted for me.’ That some of these ideas had become doctrine within some of the sects is a given. I am just not so sure I’m willing to take them! And to add irony on to my situation in particular, I have, from the first, been drawn primarily to Zen, and at the same time, find myself at odds with a lot of its tradition!

So, what are my problems with Zen? There are quite a few, and many of them were addressed in various papers written as part of my Seminary training (such as this one) that either appear in this blog or will appear at some time in the future. For instance, the whole language of “patriarch-ism,” the issue of “transmission” and “authorization” which has been so abused, and the very fabrication of the myth of “lineage” back to the Buddha. Not to mention the “sudden/gradual” and other fraternal debates within the various schools of Zen are among those aspects of the tradition that I find distasteful. Ultimately, the core reason for all these issues and my distaste of them is the sectarianism and superior tone of much Zen polemic. Much of this Zen “grandstanding” has its basis in the politics of Chinese culture and the perceived need to establish “legitimacy” for the upstart, indigenous form of Buddhism. Of course, as all ‘things’ are empty of self-nature, Zen’s sectarian stance and superior tone is co-emergent with the sectarianism found throughout much of Chinese Buddhism which, to my mind, generally infected too much of East Asian Mahayana Buddhism.

What has appealed to me about the Korean Buddhist tradition is its history and general tenor of syncretism. Great teachers like Wonhyo and Chinul, in particular, have resisted the “one-practice” notion that arose in China, and which really took hold in Japan. While Korean Buddhism had its own petty squabbles over whether kyo (doctrine/texts) or son (meditation) was more important, again great teachers like the two noted above, as well as Grand Master Sosan, as epitomized in the excerpt from The Mirror of Zen quoted at the opening of this paper, enunciated what to my mind is a deeper understanding that is rooted in the core teaching of the Avatamsaka Sutra. A case may even be made that Korean Son Buddhism and Hwaom Buddhism are simply the same thing seen from two different angles.

Ironically, while Hwaom is usually considered as the philosophy behind Son practice, and Son is thought to be ‘anti-philosophical,’ the point I wish to make in this paper is that the teaching of the Avatamsaka itself points out the ultimate fallacy of thinking along such separatist lines. To read the Sutra is both practice and study. To sit in meditation is both practice and study. The Sutra is a description of the realization of practice. Practice is the functioning of the description. And reading itself is the functioning of the realization of practice. As the core teaching of the Sutra and Hwaom Buddhism enunciates over and over, all phenomena arise interdependently with interpenetration and no obstruction. Through reading the Sutra and sitting in meditation, this truth is made evident immediately, intimately, spontaneously and obviously.

The Avatamsaka Sutra & the Hua-Yen School

The Flower Ornament Sutra, (Avatamsaka in Sanskrit; Hua-yen in Chinese; and Hwaom-gyong in Korean) is one of the major Buddhist texts, perhaps the richest, most psychedelically grandiose of all Buddhist scriptures. Its language, filled with mesmeric repetition, incredibly sensual and overwhelmingly imagistic detail staggers the imagination and can bring the mind to a halt with its onslaught of verbiage in a way similar to how a hwadu, when really engaged, can feel like a snapping or breaking of the mind!

The legend tells us that the fullest extent of consciousness available to humankind, discovered by the Buddha and summarized in the Sutra, was beyond the understanding of even the most astute students of the Buddha. Realizing this, the Buddha spent his ministry teaching people how to prepare for this totalistic understanding of reality.

It wasn’t until centuries later that Nagarjuna is said to have recovered the lost teachings elucidated in the Avatamsaka. Because of his role in revitalizing the comprehensive teaching, Nagarjuna is regarded by many as “The Second Buddha,” and as an ancestor of all the major branches of East Asian Buddhism.

That’s the legend. In fact, we do not know with any real degree of certainty when or by whom the sutra was written. It is generally accepted by scholars that the text is a compendium of diverse writings from different hands within the Indian cultural sphere from the first and second centuries C.E. The text as a whole embraces a broad spectrum of material and cannot in any way be approached as a coherent philosophical discourse. It simply resists rigid systematization. Thomas Clary writes, “…it could variously be said with a measure of truth in each case that these teachings are set forth in a system, in a plurality of systems, and without a system.”

As is true generally of the great Mahayana scriptures, historical veracity is of little relevance in The Avatamsaka Sutra, although we do find the formulaic presentation of the teachings as having been revealed or occasioned by the meditations of the historical Buddha. The Avatamsaka Sutra, however, is mostly presented as being the discourse of trans-historical, symbolic beings representing aspects of universal and perfect enlightenment. The “character” of the Buddha shifts from an individual to a cosmic principle and the manifestations of that principle: Vairocana, or Mahavairocana, “the Great Illumination Buddha.” He does not hold the role of teacher in the Avatamsaka Sutra, but serves as an imprimatur of the teachings given by his retinue of advanced Bodhisattvas. We read about “the Buddha” as well as “the Buddhas” “representing enlightenment itself, the scope of enlightenment, or those who have realized enlightenment.”

Portions of this immense text were among the first Buddhist literature to be introduced into China beginning in the second century C.E. and The Avatamsaka Sutra went on to become one of the pillars of East Asian Buddhism. By the end of the fourth century at least a dozen separate translations from five books of the Avatamsaka had appeared. Translation work continued until there were more than thirty translations and retranslations of various books and selections from the sutra. The first comprehensive translation of the Avatamsaka was done under the direction of the Indian monk, Buddhabhadra (359 – 429) and the second, was completed under the direction of the Khotanese monk, Shikshananda (652 – 710). It is this latter version, more than ten percent larger than the earlier translation, and containing thirty-nine books, upon which Thomas Cleary based his English translation; the only full-length version in English as yet.

Eventually, a major indigenous school of Chinese Buddhism developed based upon the teachings of the sutra and named after the Chinese title: Hua-yen. This is an example of a feature unique to Chinese Buddhism. Unlike within the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition, in China we see the development of schools based upon the study of particular sutras, or even just one sutra in particular. In the Tibetan tradition, for instance, it is felt that sutras are too difficult to understand without approaching them through a comprehensive grounding in Madhyamaka and Yogacara philosophy. It is thought that the sutras are too poetic, unsystematic, vague and apparently contradictory to understand. Once mastered, Tibetan philosophy is then used as a hermeneutical tool in order to comprehend the sutras. In the great Chinese schools, the philosophy arises out of the reading of the sutras.

The Avatamsaka Sutra as such, is not a philosophical discourse. It is not so much “about” something, as it is an attempt to portray the cosmos as seen by a Buddha, or very advanced Bodhisattvas. It doesn’t promulgate a systematic ontology, but rather gives us a description of the phenomenological experience of a Buddha or advanced Bodhisattva. The cosmos as experienced by such a being is called the dharmadhatu, the “Dharma-Realm.” This is not the cosmos as perceived by un-awakened beings, but is rather the cosmos seen correctly. It is the cosmos where all phenomena are seen as empty, lacking any substantiality or self-nature (sva-bhava). This cosmos is the Buddha.
Clearly know that all dharmas
Are without any self-essence at all;
To understand the nature of dharmas in this way
Is to see Vairocana.

Hua-yen thought then, is less “philosophy” then the systematic explanation of the dharmadhatu, this very cosmos we live in, as experienced by an awakened or awakening being. A suggestion made by others, with which I agree, is that it is perhaps more useful to consider the metaphysics underlying the description of the dharmadhatu in terms of its instrumental value rather than as a system of thought for its own sake or as an object of belief or ground of contention. This is the intention that lies at the heart of this paper: to view Hua-yen thought and expression as practical exercises (as praxis) in cultivating new ways of looking at things from different perspectives, “of discovering harmony and complementarity underlying apparent disparity and contradiction. The value of this exercise is in the development of a round, holistic perspective which, while discovering unity, does not ignore diversity but overcomes mental barriers that create fragmentation and bias.”

The T’ang dynasty (618 – 907) was a period of remarkable ferment in Chinese Buddhist history. It was during this period that the four major schools of Chinese Buddhism either arose or were formulated. These are the T’ien-t’ai, Hua-yen, Ch’an, and Ching-t’u schools. The first two are usually recognized for their philosophy and the latter two for their meditational practices, but as this paper points out, this is a simplified reductionism. All schools of Buddhism, like all traditions of Yoga, rest upon the integration of theory and praxis. In addition to these four main schools, the San-lun and Fa-hsian are noteworthy since the metaphysical and psychological teachings of these schools were largely subsumed into the four major schools. Elements of each of these schools appear in Hua-yen, which makes sense considering the totalistic world-view of Hua-yen.

The Hua-yen school’s founding rests upon the work of five eminent monks: Tu Shun (557 – 640), Chih-yen (600 – 668), Fa-tsang (643 – 712), Cheng-kuan (738 – 839 or 760 – 820), and Tsung-mi (780 – 841). These masters wrote commentaries on the Hua-yen, as well as essays whose purpose was to crystallize the ideas of the scripture for transmission within the Chinese cultural sphere.

Tu-Shun’s work is concerned with the resolution of emptiness and existence and the interrelationship of all things; he introduces the concepts of noumenon (li) and phenomena (shih) and their interpenetration, which became basic terms of Hua-yen discourse. Chih-yen studied with Tu Shun and also wrote a commentary on the Hua-yen and other articles on topics found in the scripture.

It is Fa-tsang, whose writings so powerfully conveyed the Hua-yen worldview, who is often considered the school’s true founder. In fact, the school is sometimes referred to as Hsien-shou, the honorific name bestowed upon Fa-tsang by empress Wu, who appointed him a “National Teacher.” Fa-tsang was a member of the committee assisting in the translation of the Siksananda redaction of the Avatamsaka. He was a prolific writer whose contributions included commentaries and many doctrinal works dealing with approaches to the teachings and presenting detailed outlines of Hua-yen dialectics and contemplative exercises. Many of these exercises are strikingly similar to the “thought experiments” utilized by contemporary quantum physicists.

The final two Hua-yen dialecticians, Cheng-kuan and Tsung-mi were well-versed in the teachings of Ch’an, and in particular, Tsung-mi wrote a famous “Comprehensive Introduction to a Collection of Expositions of the Sources of Ch’an” (Ch’an yuan chu ch’uan chi tou hsu) which analyzes various trends in Ch’an teachings in terms similar to Tu Shun and relates the Hua-yen, T’ien-t’ai, and Ch’an teachings to each other.

Finally, while the above five masters are considered the founders of the Hua-yen school, the layman Li T’ung-hsuan made a significant contribution to the movement through his writings that were highly esteemed by Ch’an Buddhists. In fact, there are Ch’an histories containing records of people having enlightenment experiences from reading his works.

After this, it was the masters of the Ch’an school who wrote texts utilizing much that had been introduced by these six men. Shih-t’ou His-ch’ien (700 – 790) and Ma-tsu Tao-I (709 – 788), from whom all the major sects of Ch’an were descended use many themes from Hua-yen such as relativity, the essential unity and subtle distinction of form and emptiness, the totalistic view of the “nature of things” and the practice of the “oceanic reflection concentration” which is what the holistic awareness which is the basis of the Hua-yen experience is commonly called.

So, to begin to delve into the realization of the dharmadhatu, Hua-yen requires a metanoia, which is translated as “repentance,” “spiritual conversion” or “fundamental change of mind,” but which literally means a “turning around in the mind.” It is a reversal of the conventional way of perception. The Sanskrit term, pratiprasava has this same meaning. It requires us to actively turn away from our conventional perception, and look as if for the first time at the world around us.

Hua-yen begins with the core teaching evidenced in the quote above, that “everything is empty” (sarvam shunyam). A teaching often misunderstood outside Buddhism as a form of nihilism, it was equally as misunderstood within Buddhism as the “inner essence of things which could be perceived with special training.” The proper way to see emptiness is as a therapy to put an end to all attachment to views and philosophies! Emptiness does not mean nonexistence. Equally important to understand, emptiness is not some inner essence of phenomena that exists independently of phenomena. Emptiness does not exist apart from existents and is not an entity or substratum of phenomena. In fact, as emptiness is a device for breaking our attachment to all views, it is emphasized that we must remember that emptiness is empty: it really has no separate, autonomous existence independent from phenomena.

Hua-yen practice allows us to “perceive” the emptiness of phenomena through the contemplation of relativity, interdependence, and impermanence. Scriptures are not intended to present doctrines to be accepted or rejected as dogma, but are functional directives to provoke thought and reflection. One simple exercise that enables one to glimpse emptiness is by considering phenomena from different points of view. This is the relativistic approach.

For example, while walking down the street, I see (with perhaps some repugnance) a pile of horseshit, which I make sure to step around. But for the flies buzzing around it, it’s a meal and place to lay eggs. And for the organic gardener down the street, it’s rich and precious fertilizer. Through this reflection, we see that things do not have fixed, self-defined nature of their own; what they “are” completely depends upon the relationships in terms of which they are considered. Even if we were to say that the shit is the sum total of its possibilities, we still cannot point to some unique, intrinsic, self-defined nature that characterizes the thing in its very essence.

Hua-yen points out that the same is true of space and time. To me, a kitchen counter is at a height conducive to working on and preparing my meal, but to a toddler, it is an insurmountable obstacle to her reaching the cookie jar. And while a day to me seems short, to an insect with the life-span of 48 hours, a day is half it’s life. (This doesn’t even get to the relativity that Einstein himself remarked upon as to how an hour with a beautiful woman at a cafe seems so much shorter than an hour in a traffic jam!). It is the direct perception of the relativity of measurements of space and time that is a key to understanding the Avatamsaka Sutra’s wealth of “inconceivable” metaphors.

Again, we miss the point of this exercise if all we take it to be is abstract philosophy. The point of the exercise is to awaken us to the way that our conventional way of seeing and thinking of phenomena, as things being just what we conceive them to be, blinds us to the fluidity and myriad possibilities we would never otherwise see! Even worse, our conventional way of perceiving fosters prejudices and biases in our dealings with the world, leading to potentially disastrous consequences.

Since what a thing “is” is dependent on the context of its relationships, and all things are ultimately in relationship with all other things, then each and every phenomenon has an infinite array of definitions of identity. In terms of the practical, everyday world, therefore, what a thing “is” depends upon or exists in terms of an assigned definition that focuses on the possibilities considered relevant to the needs and/or interests or conditioning of a specific group or individual. This filtering narrows down from its infinite nature of possibility the “thing” as it is conceived. So, as humans, we all agree that a pen is a pen. For a dog, it may be a chew toy, but for us it’s a pen. The problems arise when we forget that its nature as “pen” is not an essence, but pure conception. No name or definition can ever encompass its reality.

Now, when we consider that the world as we conventionally experience it, is nothing more than conceptions based upon perceptions based upon sensations, we see that we have no direct evidence for anything phenomenal beyond sense! There is no going beyond sense except by inference. As Cleary summarizes his explication of emptiness: “We cannot therefore directly ‘apprehend’ the objective world; we can only reflect impressions. This ‘emptiness of ungraspability’ is among the major avenues of contemplation leading to authentic appreciation of emptiness.”

The question arises regarding the nature of that ungraspable “objective” world. Generally, Indian Mahayana Buddhism, especially in the Madhyamika of Nagarjuna, has been reluctant to try to say what reality is apart from our ideas about it. The teaching of emptiness, as stated above, is primarily a therapeutic intervention, emphasizing a way of knowing. Emptiness is not something to be observed in phenomena. If there is something which may be called the “absolute,” it is not some transcendental spirit, entity or substance that stands behind – or beneath as some kind of substratum – the world of appearance, “but is really the mode of apprehending the world about us; as T.R.V. Murti said, the absolute is intuition or insight itself (prajna).” Thus, I believe it is a huge mistake, made by many Buddhist practitioners, to speak of emptiness as akin to the Vedantic concept of Brahman.

The next teaching, usually associated with the so-called “Consciousness Only” school of Buddhism, and incorporated into Hua-yen teaching is the doctrine of the “three natures” (trisvabhava). According to this teaching, the three natures of all phenomena are: the nature that consists of being dependent on another, in other words, the interdependent phenomenal world as discussed above. It is the world as conventionally conceived, and so is called in Chinese, “that which is clung to by total conceptualization;” the nature of being discriminated, sometimes called relative nature; the dependent nature now bifurcated into subject and object; and finally, the perfected nature, also called the “true” or “absolute” nature. This is, according to Fa-tsang, nothing else but the dependent nature perceived or understood, apart from the discriminated nature. It is not that the dependent nature, which is the phenomenal world, itself changes, nor is it that through the arising of prajna is some previously hidden essence or spirit within the objects of perception revealed. The change is a metanoia – it has taken place in the perceiver; it is her new nondual perception which is of highest soteriological value and function.

The example Cleary uses in Entry Into The Inconceivable is of a chair. The object we call “chair” can be something to sit on, something to stand upon to reach a higher space, something to hang clothes on (no matter what our housemates may say) or to stack books upon; it may be pieces of wood and cloth or plastic; it may be kindling for a fire; food for termites, and even a weapon for self-defense. What it “is” depends on the definition and use to which it is put. The chair as “a thing in itself” is simply a mental construction. This is its “dependent nature.” The chair as a conditional existence, being dependent upon its materials and construction, as well as the factors that define it functionally as a chair is its relative nature. And the nonexistence of a self-existent, self-defined “chair” separate from these conditions is the real or absolute nature of a chair.

It is here that one aspect of the genius of the Hua-yen teachers shines brightly. It is axiomatic throughout the whole of Mahayana thought, that the awakening to the perception of seeing things in the mode of emptiness (prajna) leads to a higher affirmation, marked by skillful and clear-headed action (upaya) and profound compassion (karuna). However, there can be little doubt that many Chinese Buddhists (as well as contemporary Westerners) felt that there was something negative about the doctrine of emptiness. Indian yogic and spiritual culture (within which Buddhism, after all, arose) have traditionally (outside the Tantric traditions, anyway) sought detachment (moksha or liberation) from this world (prakriti). The goal was to get off the cycle of samsara and reach nirvana. Early Buddhist literature (including some Indian Mahayana) is replete with passages that portray physical functions and the body itself, as well as other natural objects, as repulsive. While it is true that from the standpoint of prajna the world is neither desirable nor loathsome, the common strategy for liberation was to devalue the common elements of experience.

While it is ultimately a matter of emphasis, considering that “emptiness” and “interdependent origination” are synonymous, saying that something was empty was often done as a way to break one’s attachment by devaluing it; to see it as something intangible, as no more than an impermanent mirage or illusion not worthy of one’s attention, totally incapable of supplying any lasting satisfaction. This strategy -- abused and misunderstood -- has led to the misconception that Buddhism is an “other-worldly religion,” “life-denying” or “world weary philosophy.” At any rate, as Francis Cook elaborates, Indian Buddhists used emptiness as a weapon to demolish ordinary value and significance in and of the world, and once so demolished, a higher value and meaning emerged, expressing itself in the selfless career of the Bodhisattva.

The problem with this strategy, is that the power and effectiveness of the Bodhisattva were won at the expense of those features of experience which are most prized by most ordinary people. However, there was a latent potential within this doctrine of emptiness for a more affirming and positive approach to liberation that was brought to the fore by Fa-tsang and the other Hua-yen founders.

The Hua-yen teachers essentially discussed the doctrine of emptiness similarly to the Indian masters with the main difference being one of emphasis. That difference is that the Hua-yen masters chose to emphasize the point that emptiness is interdependence. AND, simultaneously, they emphasized that interdependence is emptiness. So, even for the Chinese, emptiness functioned as a way to critique the conventional mode of perception and experience, thus devaluing it. However, at the same time that the perception of emptiness abolished the clinging and grasping after independently existent selves or substances, there also emerged from this metanoia a very positive appreciation for the way in which things relate to each other in identity and interdependence. The Hua-yen masters interpreted emptiness in a positive manner without concretizing emptiness as did some other Mahayana schools, but neither did they fall into the greater error of even greater attachment to the world, nor did they abandon the basic Buddhist understanding of conventional experience as delusive and painful. So, by “positive,” I do not mean to infer that they see emptiness as some positive force or entity. What I do mean, is that in its emphasis on interdependent being (what Thich Nhat Hanh calls ‘interbeing’), Hua-yen was able to retain a positive, even joyous, creative appreciation of the absolute value of each aspect of this being. It is this celebration of each thing in its suchness that has always been one of the main appeals of Zen to me. Hua-yen and Zen are not content with simply demolishing false views; they wish to both give some idea of the ways things look to a Buddha and to help us see this very world as the dharmadhatu for ourselves.

The difference between the Indian and Chinese approach to emptiness is one that has great consequences not only for the styles of the respective traditions, but also for the ways of practice. Its implications are profound, since it emphasizes that the absolute is not an order of being completely distinct from the phenomenal order. Whatever reality is, it tells us, it is right here now, able to be seen if we can cease to make false discriminations. Samsara is Nirvana; what changes is the way of perception. This is the metanoia that Hua-yen encourages. The phenomenal world of interdependence is capable of being seen as “impure” when under the spell of deluded perception or as “pure” when seen in the light of prajna. But to see it as pure, which simply means to see it in its real aspect, is to see it as the interdependence and identity of its parts. There is nothing insignificant, mean or inferior, there is nothing to despise within the whole of existence, when it is seen properly free of all self-interest. Everything matters! Every item in the cosmos – this dharmadhatu – is of value, for everything is empty, and because of this, every particular phenomena contains and teaches that reality which shines from its (empty) heart!

The Fourfold Dharmadhatu

The first two aspects of the dharmadhatu are the particular (shih) and the universal (li). Other terms used for these two aspects respectively are: phenomena and noumena, relative and absolute, apparent and real, difference and sameness, events and principles, and historical and ultimate.

The first of the pair (shih), the realm of phenomena or the particular, is where all things are seen as “things,” distinct and different. All the myriad phenomena that are experienced in the empirical or conventional world are of this realm. Things and events are seen here as distinct and independent objects.

The second aspect (li), is the non-differentiated noumenon, which for Hua-yen is emptiness – again, not as an entity but as the non-self nature of all phenomena. It is the universal oneness of reality: all phenomena are empty. Now, for Hua-yen and Zen, this ultimate reality, glimpsed in meditation, which is often considered the goal of spiritual awareness and practice, is only half of the practice. What is required by Hua-yen and by Zen is for the Bodhisattva to integrate the perception of emptiness into the ordinary, daily activities and reality of the realm of the particular (shih). This is because, as discussed earlier, the particular and the universal cannot be regarded as two separate realms. They are interdependent: form is emptiness AND emptiness is form.

In his essay, "On The Golden Lion," Fa-tsang uses the metaphor of the golden lion to describe the dharmadhatu of shih and li. The lion shape is the particular and gold is the universal. He tells us that gold, lacking any self-nature, can be fashioned into an object such as a lion. The gold is li and the lion shape is shih. The lion is gold; it is not that the lion emanates from gold. Gold only exists in form, in this particular case, the form of a lion. There is no such thing as gold without form that then takes on one form or another. The phenomenal is the noumenal in phenomenal form. This is the third aspect of the dharmadhatu, the non-obstruction of li against shih (li-shih wu-ai) that is also referred to as the “mutual, nonobstructing interpenetration of the universal and particular. This is the realm where li and shih are seen as the inseparable unity. The particular is seen as an expression of the absolute, and the absolute as the testimony of the particular. Neither can exist without the other, and so taken together, they become a more meaningful concept. If we patiently look into any aspect of our lived experience we will see that the universal can only exist in the context of some particular situation. And, every particular context, when fully perceived, is seen to express the total universal truth. The particular and the universal completely inter-are without hindering each other.

The lion shape is only a shape. In itself the lion is unreal; there is only gold. From the point of view of gold itself, nothing has changed; it is still gold. And it is equally true that since gold always has some shape, the gold as gold does not obstruct its shape or form. It is only through form that gold can be, even though from the point of view of gold there is no lion form.

Since there is only gold, Fa-tsang continues, then when the lion shape comes into existence it is in fact the gold that comes into existence. Only from the conventional perspective does this seem paradoxical. Hua-yen reminds us that gold always has a shape, but that shape is nothing in addition to the gold itself. So if gold takes on a lion shape it ceases to be gold in the shape of a bar, for example, and takes on the shape of the lion. So when we speak of “gold,” we must remember that this is conceptual shorthand for “gold in x-shape” (a bar) and that when the golden lion comes into existence, that is, gold in lion-shape, we can say that gold comes into existence. Nonetheless, whether the lion shape occurs or ceases the gold as gold neither increases nor decreases. From the ultimate point of view, phenomena are the unborn.

So in the third aspect of the dharmadhatu (li against shih), we see how the realm of non-obstruction is reached by reducing all phenomena into noumena, not as some undifferentiated whole, but as a totalistic harmony of all antithesis that is both dynamic and unimpeded. But the first three aspects of the dharmadhatu are ultimately explanatory devices to approach the fourth aspect: the mutual, nonobstructing interpenetration of the particular with other particulars, or the non-obstruction of shih against shih (shih-shih wu-ai). Here, each particular phenomenon can be fully present and complementary to any other particular phenomena. This insight leads to a vision of the world as a field of complementariness rather than a world of competitive, conflicting, disharmonious beings.

“The gold and the lion are simultaneously established; all-perfect and complete,” writes Fa-tsang. This statement can be interpreted as representing the principle of Non-obstruction of li against shih or as the Non-obstruction of shih against shih. In the first case, the gold is li and the lion is shih: the two are mutually penetrating into and identical with one another. But in the infinite dharmadhatu, each and every phenomenon simultaneously includes all the rest of phenomena and noumena in perfect completion, without the slightest omission at all times. To see one object is to see all objects and vice versa.

Perhaps the most well-known expression of this vision of the cosmos is the image of Indra’s Net. The whole universe is seen as a multidimensional net with jewels set at every point where the strands of the net criss-cross. Each jewel reflects the light reflected in the other jewels in all directions. All of totality can be seen in each of its parts. What Hua-yen tells us is that this is no mere fantasy, but the way the universe actually is. Given this, what can it tell us about living in the Net of Indra?

As reiterated throughout this paper, Dharma is about practice, but practice is not merely what we confine to our cushions, nor is it merely our ritual practices. The teachings must give rise to a way of living in the world. The Bodhisattva must first act as if the vision of the Hua-yen were a certainty. Its teachings feature a range of holographic samadhi instructions to help clear away limited preconceptions, foster fresh perspectives and expand the practitioner’s capacities by expressing the reality of interbeing.

Two of these samadhis are the “lion emergence” samadhi and the “ocean seal” samadhi. In the first, upon every single hair tip abide numerous buddha-fields containing a vast array of buddhas, bodhisattvas and liberating teachings. In the “Ocean Seal,” awareness is like the vast ocean surface, reflecting and confirming all phenomena in the universe. Waves of phenomena arise and distort its clear reflectivity, but as soon as the waves settle, the clarity is there.

Recitation of the Avatamsaka Sutra itself can open the mind to its visions and has been a long-respected practice, either for individuals or groups. But perhaps the most important way that the Hua-yen can help us practitioners is its emphasis on integration of glimpses into the ultimate with the particular difficulties and challenges of our everyday situations. In this way, we can avoid the trap of seeking and grasping at blissful absorption in emptiness. Attachment to the ultimate is considered the most pernicious attachment, but attending to the conventional realities of our world with the sense of awareness of the totality balances our practice and informs our sense of wholeness. Ordinary life is the way of the Buddha, and Hua-yen, like Zen, reminds us of this important, and often neglected or forgotten truth.

One Hua-yen tool for bringing the universal into our everyday experience, which I have found quite helpful, are gathas, mindfulness verses which include practice instructions to be used as enlightening reminders in all kinds of everyday situations. Thich Nhat Hanh calls them, “bells of mindfulness.” Specifically, Chapter Eleven of the Avatamsaka Sutra, “Purifying Practice,” contains 140 distinct verses to encourage mindfulness in a variety of circumstances from awakening from sleep, to the whole process of eating; seeing a large tree, flowing water, flowers blooming, a lake, a bridge; entering a house; giving or receiving a gift; meeting teachers and other kinds of people etc. These gathas use the various situations to encourage mindfulness and remind us of the fundamental intention to help ourselves and others more fully express compassion and wisdom. Here’s one example from the Avatamsaka Sutra:
If in danger and difficulty,
They should wish that all beings
Be free,
Unhindered wherever they go.

Traditionally, a selection of such verses has been recited in East Asian monasteries before and after bathing, brushing teeth, taking meals, using the toilet and many other activities. Thich Nhat Hanh and Robert Aitken have written versions of gathas to meet our contemporary environment, such as driving, using the telephone and surfing the internet. While studying with Thich Nhat Hanh, I was encouraged to make up my own gathas, especially for situations where I might fall into aversion, greed or delusion. Living in New York City at the time, I had a strong aversion to riding the subway. So I wrote the following gatha to use whenever the opportunity to ride the subway arose. I must say, it literally transformed the experience for me!
When stepping into the subway car
I look at all those with me
Black, White, Red, Yellow, Brown
We are truly all in this together.

Hua-yen descriptions of the dharmadhatu point to the experience of wholeness that is one of the joys of sitting practice. From the perspective of Zen, meditation practice is not about attaining some special, new state of mind or being, but rather about fully awakening to the inherent completeness of this present bodymind. Hua-yen and Zen point to the embodiment of this sense of wholeness in our everyday activities, and the expression of this perfection and clear awareness amid ordinary life.

The Korean Connection

The justly celebrated “Ocean Seal” (haein do) of Uisang (625 – 702) the first master of Korean Hua-yen (hwaom) Buddhism “has been acclaimed by Chinese, Korean and Japanese masters alike as being the most masterful distillation and condensation of Hua-yen thought.” Uisang’s “Ocean Seal” encapsulates both in form and content the core vision of the Hwaom school, which the Korean tradition calls the “round” (won), or “all-embracing” view. It is a poem composed of only 210 Chinese characters, arranged in 30 verses of 7 characters each, with 4 sides, 4 corners, and 54 angles, concentrically patterned like a winding maze. It is a literary mandala, beginning and ending at the center.

This poem has been accorded such respect that in some of the kyo monasteries it has been awarded as a kind of certificate of achievement for monks who successfully complete their course of study. It is regularly chanted in some monasteries such as Haeinsa or Ocean Seal Temple in Kyongnam, Korea, as a dharani, with the intent of eliciting the supreme visionary experience of haein sammae or Ocean Seal Samadhi, the content of which includes both li-shih wu-ai and shih-shih wu ai.

According to Uisang’s poem, one enters the dharmadhatu, described variously as “round, interpenetrating, non-dual, unmoving but originally still, nameless, formless, and without distinctions, not attached to self-nature but manifested according to causal conditions, such that ‘One is in All and Many is in One.’” Thus, in one particle of dust is contained the ten directions, and incalculably long eons are identical to a single thought instant, whereupon particular phenomena and universal principle are completely merged without distinction and samsara and nirvana are harmonized together, although these interfusing and mutually identical realms are not confused but function separately… Thus, in accordance with the round-sudden teachings of Hwaom concerning original enlightenment and sudden awakening, the moment one begins to aspire with their heart, instantly perfect enlightenment is attained.”

Uisang arranged his poem so that both the first and last characters (Dharma and Buddha) are located in the center of the seal. His autocommentary says:
Question: For what reason are the characters at the beginning and end put in the center?
Answer: So to express that the two positions of cause and effect…in the dharma-nature school of Hwaom are both in the Middle Way.

In this elegant way, Uisang illustrates the key doctrine of Hwaom Buddhism that start and finish, or cause and effect are both in the same position in the Middle Way. They interpenetrate harmoniously free from all obstructions. In this way, the Seal illustrates the fundamental teaching of the Avatamsaka Sutra that the Fifty-two stages in the path of the Bodhisattva (i.e., Ten Faiths, Ten Abodes, Ten Practices, Ten Returnings, Ten Bhumis, Equal Enlightenment, and Wonderful Enlightenment) all interpenetrate without hindrance so that the very first whisper of faith through the elucidation of bodhicitta (the thought or aspiration to awaken for the sake of all beings) already contains as its contents all the subsequent stages. The first, last and all intermediary stages, representing past, present and future, all occupy the same position in the center of the Middle Way. It is this Hwaom doctrine, whereby a first stage Bodhisattva of newly arisen faith (the supposed ‘cause’) and a final stage Buddha of Wonderful Enlightenment (the apparent ‘result’) fully interpenetrate through unobstructed simultaneous mutuality, which establishes the foundation for the meditative experience of Sudden Enlightenment.

And with this, I conclude my paper with the original point expressed by Master Sosan: “In other words, all fifty-five stages of the path are already contained with a single act of initial faith.”


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Monday, August 9, 2010

Is the Body Beautiful

Predictably, but nonetheless sadly, the ‘debate’ sparked by Judith Lasater’s letter to Yoga Journal in the September issue regarding certain ads featuring nude or semi-nude women has degenerated (mainly) into a discussion about nudity. On one hand, there are those yogis who are questioning the values implicit in advertising per se, and the use of the nudity of – let’s call it as it is – white, thin women to sell product. These yogis, and I am one, feel that the true transformative power of Yoga is in it’s critique of appearance over substance and of its criticism of the assumption of status-quo values in contemporary hatha-yoga, and in Yoga’s primary purpose of waking us up from conditioning. As the Buddha said, Yoga “goes against the stream.” Yet, unthinkingly, the purveyors of such ads – and their defenders – simply adopt and accept mainstream, status-quo values and then think they are being ‘progressive’ while those of us questioning this are ‘prudes’ or repressed!

I say this is predictable, because for years Yoga in this culture has been reduced to the movements and postures of hatha-yoga. As the 10th century Garuda-Purana warned, “if the postures of hatha are practiced outside the meditation of raja, the postures become an obstacle to liberation.” Today’s contemporary sell-out glorification of ‘the body’ only proves this. Yoga teaches us not to identify body or mind as 'self.' The physical-oriented approach to hatha-yoga so prevalent in the contemporary hatha-yoga movement all too often strengthens practitioners' identification with body. One problem with this, of course, is that whether from age, injury, or illness (not to mention death!) one day you will not be able to practice the postures you may have taken pride in achieving. What happens then?

Elsewhere I, and others such as Roseanne Harvey and Charlotte Bell, have tried to get the debate back on track by pointing out that the original letter and subsequent interview with Judith Lasater, were not about any particular ad or model, nor about nudity. As she says on her Facebook page, “‘Yes’ to nudity and the gorgeous human body; ‘no’ to using it to sell yoga!”

But here, I’d like to take a tangent and address this notion of ‘the body beautiful’ that even Lasater seems to accept, at least based upon the above quote. Is the body beautiful? Really? Is it only beautiful? What yogis like the Buddha point out is that such concepts themselves are conditioned and empty of any inherent nature or essence. For all those who think they are being progressive and perhaps even transgressive in arguing that these ads are beautiful because they portray the ‘beauty of the human body,’ I ask, “Really? Then why not portray a 64 year-old man with a bit of a belly-roll?” How about a nice nude shot of the character George Constanza from Seinfeld? Would you then argue for the ‘beauty of the human body? As much as I would like to think one would, why is it that I doubt it? Because our ideals of “beauty” are culturally and biologically conditioned. Folks somewhat facilely use abstract concepts and fail to see that they are caught in them.

And, for the sake of argument, let’s posit that they do see beauty in a 64 year old, round man (or even in George!), let’s analyze their position more clearly. They say the body is beautiful. I don’t argue that, but I do say we need to also remember (be mindful – the word sati, which we translate as ‘mindfulness’ actually means to remember) that it isn’t only beautiful and is often gross! This body they celebrate takes quite a bit of maintenance. Just go a week or two without bathing, and tell me how ‘beautiful’ you think the body is.

As everyone seems to be harping on Kathryn Budig, the model in an ad for a ridiculous product called “Toesox,” let’s look a bit more closely. Say you think she has lovely hair. What if you found even just one of her hairs in your soup? Would you feel the same about that hair? Considering that she is naked, how about if it were one of her pubic hairs? Still celebrating the ‘beauty of the human body?’

See, what Yoga offers us is a clearer, more complete understanding of reality. The surface and general form of the body we feel is beautiful because of our biological conditioning. Unfortunately, even in this day and age, most images of beauty presented by mainstream media are white, thin and female. This is cultural conditioning. But the great yogis point out that the body is inherently neither beautiful nor disgusting. As the Heart of the Prajnaparamita Sutra declares about reality, it is “Neither produced nor destroyed; neither pure nor impure; neither increasing nor decreasing.” Get that? Not pure; not impure. It’s the coming together of many causes and conditions that create what we think of as ‘beauty.’ And the coming together of other causes and conditions that create what we think of as ‘ugliness.’

The next time you catch yourself thinking someone has beautiful eyes, contemplate briefly if the beauty is really inherent in their eyes. Would you think they were beautiful if s/he plucked them out and handed them to you? Or is beauty created (conditioned or constructed) because they are in their ‘proper’ place, they are balanced and relatively symmetrical, and the rest of her face is pleasing etc. All phenomena arise interdependently. This is what is meant by 'form being empty.' We need to ask, “empty of what?” And the answer is “empty of an inherent self-essence.”

If we merely stop and proclaim the beauty of the human body, we fail to go deeper; we fail to see reality and so we get caught in grasping and clinging. Freedom – the purpose of Yoga practice, remember? – is to go beyond conditioning. This does not mean we stop appreciating the human form. What is changed is the quality of our relationship to the body, and to all beings. Going beyond the surface, we reach a much deeper intimacy. My wife told me of a dream she had years ago, before we had really made any commitment to each other. She dreamt her guts were spilling out, and she was experiencing some mortification that I was seeing them. And she felt an upswelling of love and gratitude as, with no sign of repulsion, I helped her to put her guts back in place. I share this only to offer a vivid image of the kind of unconditional love Yoga offers us. When she shared this dream image with me, I knew her intuitive mind had revealed a truth about my love for her. But in order to open to this kind of love, we need ‘to see things as it is,’ as Suzuki Roshi would often say. And advertising NEVER shows us things as it is!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Going Against The Stream: The Not-Self Teaching of the Buddha

The Buddha is alleged to have said, in regard to the Dhamma he discovered, the following: “This Dhamma that I have attained is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise.” (MN: 26; 19, Ariyapariyesana Sutta, Bodhi, 2005: 69) He is also reputed to have said that his teaching and yogic practices “go against the stream.” (Levine, 2007: 17) By this it is meant that much the Buddha teaches, and what he asks us to practice, goes against the stream of our conditioning: the biological, environmental, cultural, and social conditioning we are all heirs to. His Dhamma is often what we might call, “counter-intuitive.” For instance, when we experience anger, the conditioned (natural) reaction to the discomfort and pain of anger is to either attempt to repress it or express it. Both strategies are designed to “get rid of it”: to avoid feeling the anger. But the Buddha suggests the third, counter-intuitive approach of feeling the anger non-reactively, in order to investigate its characteristics. In seeing the true nature of anger, he tells us that we can free ourselves from anger and find the freedom to creatively respond to the situation.
Most students do not want to hear this. They find it difficult to understand how opening to experience, just as it is, can ultimately lead to freedom. But of all the difficult to understand, subtle and profound teachings of the Buddha, perhaps none has presented as much difficulty as his teaching of anatta or not-Self. The idea that there is no Self to be found in phenomenal experience seems so counter-intuitive to most people that it borders on the nonsensical and irrational. But most of this difficulty is due to unquestioned assumptions, as well as misconceptions and misunderstandings of experience. The Buddha offers the teaching of anatta in order to question these assumptions and to make clear the misconceptions and misunderstandings through the yogic practice of mindfulness meditation.

Perhaps the most basic unquestioned assumption people tend to hold that is challenged by the teaching of not-Self is that they have a Self and they know what it is. Until they are asked what it even means to say “I have a Self,” or “I am a Self,” they have rarely given it much thought. When finally asked, they tend toward statements referring to an “inner life.” Cognitive scientists have shown that the felt sense of an “inner life” is based on a fundamental distinction between what they call the Subject and one or more Selves. “The Subject is the locus of consciousness, subjective experience, reason, will, and our ‘essence,’ everything that makes us who we uniquely are. There is at least one Self and possibly more. The Selves consist of everything else about us – our bodies, our social roles, our histories, and so on.” (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999: 268) For most people, what Lakoff and Johnson call “the Subject” is what they mean by the “Self.” Often, they distinguish this “Self” as their “True Self” from their “small self.”

Cognitive science seems to say that this “Subject/Self,” or as I notate it, “Self/self” distinction is far from arbitrary, but in fact expresses apparently universal experiences of an “inner life.” The metaphors for conceptualizing our inner lives are grounded in universal experiences (from learning how to manipulate and control objects as well as our body, to the disparity we may feel between our conscious values and the values implicit in our behavior, to the inner dialog and internal monitoring we engage in) that appear to be unavoidable, arising as they do from common experience. What is most revealing about this is that each metaphor conceptualizes the Self (Subject) as being person-like, with an existence separate and independent from the self (body/mind/social roles etc.). Thus the Self takes on a metaphysical import.

“…the very way that we normally conceptualize our inner lives is inconsistent with what we know scientifically about the nature of mind. In our system for conceptualizing our inner lives, there is always a Subject that is the locus of reason and that metaphorically has an existence independent of the body. … this contradicts the fundamental findings of cognitive science. And yet, the conceptualization of such a Subject arises around the world uniformly on the basis of apparently universal and unchangeable experiences. If this is true, it means that we all grow up with a view of our inner lives that is mostly unconscious, used every day of our lives in our self-understanding, and yet both internally inconsistent and incompatible with what we have learned from the scientific study of the mind. (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999: 268)

The neuroscience researcher, Antonio Damasio, in The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, describes how the sense or feeling of an inner self that is conceptualized as “an observer, a perceiver, a knower, a thinker and a potential actor” arises. (Damasio, 1999: 10/11) Briefly, he asserts that first there is a totally unconscious “interconnected and temporarily coherent collection of neural patterns which represent the state of the organism, moment by moment” which he calls the “proto-self.” Then, a “second-order nonverbal account occurs whenever an object modifies the proto-self.” This “core self can be triggered by any object” but it too is transient, ceaselessly recreated for each and every object with which the brain interacts. (Damasio, 1999: 17/174)

However, the traditional notion of self is linked to identity and the collection of unique facts that characterize a person. Damasio calls this the “autobiographical self” that depends upon “autobiographical memory that is constituted by implicit memories of multiple instances of individual experience of the past and of the anticipated future.” (Damasio, 1999: 174) Each of the two higher order “selves” requires the lower order ones in order to manifest.

"When we discover what we are made of and how we are put together, we discover a ceaseless process of building up and tearing down…. It is astonishing that we have a sense of self at all, that we have – that most of us have, some of us have – some continuity of structure and function that constitutes identity, some stable traits of behavior we call a personality….

… the brain reconstructs the sense of self moment by moment. We do not have a self sculpted in stone and, like stone, resistant to the ravages of time. Our sense of self is a state of the organism, the result of certain components operating in a certain manner and interacting in a certain way, within certain parameters. It is another construction, a vulnerable pattern of integrated operations whose consequence is to generate the mental representation of a living being." (Damasio, 1999: 144/145)

From this apparently universal and inescapable intimation of an “inner self,” the notion of an indwelling “ghost,” “spirit,” or “soul” became part of many folk traditions. (Feuerstein, 1996: 17) In India, this led to the concept of the Ātman defined by Georg Feuerstein as:

“Self” or “self.” Since Sanskrit does not have capital letters, the context alone determines whether the empirical self, or ego personality (jīva) or the transcendental Self is intended…. The word ātman, though primarily a reflexive pronoun, has been used to denote the transcendental Self since the time of the ancient Upanishads. As such it is a key concept of Hindu metaphysics, notably Vedānta and Vedānta-based schools of Yoga…. The problem is that the Self is by definition not within reach of the mind and the senses…. As the archaic Brihad-Āranyaka-Upanishad (3.7.23) declares in a well-known passage, the Self cannot be grasped because it is the grasper, the seer of everything. In other words, the Self reveals itself only to itself. Hence the Shiva-Samhitā (1.62) states: “The renouncer of all volition certainly beholds the Self in the Self by the Self.” (Feuerstein, 1997: 42)

We are not who or what we think we are. This is the evidence of scientific research, as well as the hypothesis and assertion of the Indian religious/spiritual/yogic imagination. As Stephen Cope summarizes it, “the single most pervasive theme in yogic scriptures and folktales: Our true self remains deeply hidden, incognito, submerged beneath a web of mistaken identities.” (Cope, 1999: xix)

At the time of the Buddha, as it is now in many spiritual traditions, the spiritual quest was seen primarily as the search for, the realization of, and the liberation of one’s “True Self” (Sanskrit ātman; Pāli atta) from the misidentification with the “small self.” As we have seen from the above, the sense of an “inner life” led to the postulation of such an entity thought of “as a person’s permanent inner nature – the source of true happiness and the autonomous ‘inner controller’ of action.” (Harvey, 2001: 79)

"To feel that, however much one changes in life from childhood onwards, some essential part remains unchanged as the ‘real me’, is to have a belief in a permanent Self. To act as if only other people die and to ignore the inevitability of one’s own death, is to act as if one had a permanent Self. To relate changing mental phenomena to a substantial self which ‘owns’ them – ‘I am worried… happy… angry’ – is to have such a Self concept. To identify with one’s body, ideas, actions, etc., is to take them as part of an ‘I’ or Self-entity." (Harvey, 2001: 79)

The Buddha too, agreeing with the larger Indian tradition, taught that we are not who or what we think we are. However, he differed from them in saying that the Self sought by his contemporaries did not exist. By analyzing what we consider as a ‘being,’ ‘individual,’ an ‘I’ or a “self,” the Buddha came to the startling, counter-intuitive understanding that no such permanent, unchanging, independent, autonomous entity can be found to exist.

What he found is that what we call a ‘being’ or ‘self’ is in fact a combination of ever-changing physical and mental forces or energies, which may be divided into five groups or aggregates (pañcakkhandha). (Rahula, 1974: 20) They are the ‘form aggregate,’ the ‘feeling aggregate,’ the ‘perception aggregate,’ the ‘volitional formations aggregate,’ and the ‘consciousness aggregate.’ The Buddha says: “So long as I did not directly know as they really are the five aggregates subject to clinging in four phases, I did not claim to have awakened to the unsurpassed perfect enlightenment…. But when I directly knew all this as it really is, then I claimed to have awakened….” (SN 22:56; III 58 – 61, Bodhi, 2005: 335)

In directly knowing the four phases of form, its origin, its cessation and the way leading to its cessation (and the same for the other four aggregates), the Buddha saw that all five aggregates are impermanent and conditioned, dependently arising upon causes and conditions and falling away with the falling away of causes and conditions. The view of “self” or “identity view” arises when the “uninstructed worldling” takes form as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self, or self as in form. These same four possibilities are possible for each of the other four aggregates. When one does this with any one or any combination of the aggregates, identity view comes to be.

The Buddha offered a critique of this by saying that if any individual aggregate or combination of aggregates were self, they would not lead to affliction, and it would be possible to control them saying “Let my form be this; let my form not be this… let my feelings… let my perceptions… let my volitional formations… let my consciousness be this; … not this.” (SN 22:59; III 66 – 68, Bodhi, 2005: 341)

In another teaching, the Buddha compares form (the body) to a lump of foam; feeling to a water bubble rising and bursting on the surface of water; perception to a shimmering mirage; volitional formations to the trunk of a banana tree; and consciousness to a magical illusion. He says a wise person “with good sight” would inspect, ponder and carefully investigate these phenomena and would come to see each of them as “void, hollow, insubstantial.” He ends by saying that when this ‘emptiness’ of any essential core or substantiality is truly seen, the practitioner becomes disenchanted with the aggregates, which leads to dispassion and thus the release of grasping and clinging. And through dispassion, the mind is liberated. (SN 22:95; III 140-42, Bodhi, 2005: 343 – 345)

The Buddha’s not-Self teaching does not deny the conventional usages of the word ‘self’ as in reflexively speaking of ‘yourself’ or ‘myself.’ What we call a ‘being’ or a ‘self’ in this conventional manner is simply a consensual, convenient name or label we apply to the collection of the five aggregates, each and every one of them impermanent and constantly changing. There is nothing behind the changing flux, no permanent substance or entity that can be rightly called ‘I.’ There is an empirical ‘self,’ but no metaphysical ‘Self’ to be found. This is the ‘autobiographical self’ Damasio speaks of.

"A ‘person’ is a collection of rapidly changing and interacting mental and physical processes, with character-patterns recurring over some time. Only partial control can be exercised over these processes; so they often change in undesired ways, leading to suffering. Impermanent, they cannot be a permanent Self. Suffering, they cannot be an autonomous true ‘I’, which would contain nothing that was out of harmony with itself. While nirvāṇa is beyond impermanence and dukkha, it is still not-Self. Though it is unconditioned, it has nothing in it which could support the feeling of ‘I’-ness, for this can only arise with respect to the conditioned khandhas and it is not even a truly valid feeling there." (Collins, S., 1982, Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravada Buddhism, pp. 98 – 9, as cited in Harvey, 2001: 80).

It is clear from the preceding that the Buddha, and the Buddhist tradition accepts the existence of a conventional, empirical ‘self’ understood to be the unique aggregation of physical and mental factors (the khandhas) that are individually and collectively impermanent, ever-changing, dependently conditioned. What is not accepted is that there exists within or without these physical and mental factors a permanent, independent, autonomous Self, individual or ‘I.’ There is no mover behind the movement; no thinker behind the thought.

This all seems to agree with the most contemporary findings of cognitive and neuro-science, as shown above. Science helps explain how the feeling that “Self” exists can arise based upon conditions. The Buddhist tradition also offers an explanation. Mahāyāna Buddhism built upon the not-Self teaching to emphasize the ‘emptiness’ of all phenomena of any self-nature (sva-bhava). That all phenomena are empty of self-nature means they are all inter-dependently arisen. That all phenomena are inter-dependently arisen means they are empty of self-nature. Contemporary physics tells us that because all phenomena are ‘coreless,’ each part of the universe contains the whole and each part depends on all the other parts. An object’s mass – it’s resistance to movement – comes from the influence of the entire universe. (Ricard, M. & Thuan, T., 2001: 70)

In the book, The Quantum and the Lotus, we ‘sit-in’ on a discussion between Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and Trinh Xuan Thuan, a professor of astrophysics. In an interesting and very telling exchange, Ricard begins:

R: Phenomena are interdependent because they coexist in a global reality, which functions according to mutual causality. Phenomena are naturally simultaneous because one implies the presence of the other. We are back with ‘this can only be if that also exists; this can change only if that also changes.’ Thus we arrive at an idea that everything must be connected to everything else. Relationships determine our reality, the conditions of our existence, particles and galaxies.

T: Such a vision of interdependence certainly agrees with the results of the experiments I’ve just mentioned…. This is extremely disturbing for physicists.

R: I think that we have a good example here of the difference between the scientific approach and Buddhism. For most scientists, even if the global nature of phenomena has been demonstrated in rather a disturbing way, this is merely another piece of information, and no matter how intellectually stimulating it may be, it has little effect on their daily lives. For Buddhists, on the other hand, the repercussions of the interdependence of phenomena are far greater.
The notion of interdependence makes us question our basic perception of the world, and then use this new perception again and again to lessen our attachments, our fears, and our aversions. An understanding of interdependence should demolish the wall of illusions that our minds have built up between ‘me’ and ‘the other.’ If not only all inert things but also all living beings are connected, then we should feel deeply concerned about the happiness and suffering of others…. Thus knowledge of interdependence leads to a process of inner transformation, which continues throughout the journey of spiritual enlightenment.

T: So the interdependence of phenomena equals universal responsibility. What a marvelous equation! It reminds me of what Einstein said: “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.’” (Ricard & Thuan, 2001: 71 – 72)

The not-Self teaching offered by the Buddha is not meant to be a philosophy to adopt, a belief to accept or simply a ‘good idea.’ It is not, even, as such, a denial of the existence of a permanent Self. Like the body of the Buddha’s teaching, the not-Self teaching is meant primarily as a practical teaching aimed at the overcoming of attachment because the clinging and grasping after phenomena that are by nature impermanent, and ever changing, causes pain (dukkha) and is itself painful.

To grasp at not-Self and emptiness as concepts, failing to see that the teaching is just the means to accomplish the task Einstein refers to in the quote above, to break through what Georg Feuerstein calls “the Self-contraction,” can lead to much confusion and suffering. “In the Maharatnakuta Sutra, the Buddha says: ‘It is better to be caught in the idea that everything exists than to be caught in the idea of emptiness. Someone who is caught in the idea that everything exists can still be disentangled, but it is difficult to disentangle someone who is caught in the idea of emptiness.’” (Hanh, 1993: 33)
To engage with the teaching of not-Self, we must first bring into awareness what we may have unconsciously identified with as Self. Apparently, cognitive science shows us that all human beings develop a sense of some ‘inner self’ behind their thoughts, feelings, emotions, perceptions, consciousness and actions. This sense of self arises so naturally that we rarely question it. Once we bring the unquestioned assumption into the light of inquiry, we are then asked to carefully, mindfully observe all experienced phenomena until we can see for ourselves that nowhere can be found any such entity.

Many people, when they hear the Buddha’s teaching on not-Self and emptiness find this frightening and disturbing: “You mean I will cease to exist?” But as I’ve attempted to make clear in this paper, such a question itself is based upon the false assumption that an ‘I’ ever exists at all. The Buddha did not teach, as many spiritual traditions do, that we must destroy the self, but that this idea of a self is illusory to begin with, based upon ignorance of reality. When this ignorance eases, so too does our misperception of self. When that has been clarified, there is no basis for fear. Through continual practice we get to taste ‘drops of emptiness,’ intimations of freedom from the attachment to self. Either through many such ‘tastes,’ or through an intense and deep draught, one’s life may be transformed. Ultimately, it isn’t a matter of letting go of self or the idea of self, but rather, the idea itself dissolves, letting go of ‘you.’

The final step of the Ānāpānasati Sutta is patinissaggā, meaning to throw back or to give back. We give back or return everything to which we have been attached. The Buddha tells us that the highest understanding is to take nothing as self or belonging to self. In describing this step, Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu says “Throughout our lives we have been thieves. All along, we have been stealing things that exist naturally, that belong to nature, namely, the sankhāra. We have plundered them and taken them to be our selves and our possessions…. Don’t claim anything to be ‘I’ or ‘mine’ ever again!” (Buddhadāsa, 1997: 97)

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