June 9, 2017

The Buddhist Bridge

Last time I was trying to explain that our isolated concepts or ideas have no meaning or value and that only once we connect them to something real, we can speak meaningfully or discuss philosophy meaningfully. Now I have another point of view that could help us understand the problem of ideas and values in Buddhism.

There are two basic aspects that we could use to look at everything Buddhism deals with. Firstly, it is the essential point of view. Essentially, there is nothing to teach or learn, everything is already clear and understood. There were no great or mediocre teachers in the past, as they had nothing to pass on. They had nothing to pass on as everything was already clearly manifested in front of everyone. When we practice zazen, there is nothing to attain and it is waste of time trying to attain some kind of peaceful state of mind or some kind of enlightenment. As we are all already enlightened perfectly, why should we try to be even more enlightened. That is nonsense.  But this point was something that master Dogen wanted to sort out, why practice zazen, when we are already buddhas. So he traveled to China to look for a master who would explain this to him.

On the other hand, there is ignorance, suffering , confusion, looking for the truth, hope, past and future, life and death, beautiful things and ugly things, dirt and purity, right and wrong. These things, the world of differences and the problems connected to these differences is sometimes called samsara. Sometimes it is called karma. It doesn't matter what you call it, but this aspect is very important and we cannot ignore it. People do suffer and do look for answers. Even if you tell them they are buddhas they will have doubts and look for the truth, which is absolutely natural. So when Buddhist teachers address suffering, they often talk about great teachers, talk about how beneficial zazen is, talk about the truth and buddhas, talk about balance and honesty. We are living in the midst of these problems, pain and confusion, we can see it everywhere we look. But at the same time, we can see the truth and brilliance everywhere we look, too. The Buddhist goal is to provide a bridge from suffering to balance, from confusion to clarity, from ignorance to wisdom.

Anyway, many people make the big mistake and believe that the point is to cross the bridge, burn it and forever live in eternal nirvana, wisdom and enlightenment. That is not what Buddhist practice and philosophy is like. Buddhism teaches us to build the bridge and actually maintain it carefully. Never leave the world of ignorance and suffering, confusion, delusion and problems, but at the same time always have this link, this bridge to the bright side of things. We have to embrace both, both darkness and light, profane and holy, in fact they are not separate, they are the same, essentially. So our task as Buddhists is to maintain and look after this bridge. practice zazen not in order to get onto the other shore, like the sutra says, but let zazen and the teachings be the bridge and keep the bridge in a good state. Always see the link between right and wrong, bright and dark, obscured and clear. Once we become completely stupid, it is just one part of the bridge, but you cannot separate this from the opposite end which is wisdom. So completely stupid people are wise and vice versa. If we understand nothing, we understand everything. The evil is not evil itself. The real evil is losing the bridge, getting stuck in evil. Getting stuck in the stupid state or getting stuck in the enlightened state.

So practicing zazen is not a task to cross the bridge and become enlightened. Feeling balanced or attaining balance thanks to zazen is great. The fact that there were brilliant teachers in China in the past is wonderful. But if we get stuck in the wonderful state of zazen or stuck in admiration of teachers of past and present or future, if we become enlightened and get stuck there, if we become some kind of buddhas who are obviously enlightened, then it becomes a Buddhist parody. So build a bridge and look after it. If you come across a teacher, fine, if you come across a student, fine, if you feel balanced, fine, if you feel confused, fine. Just don't forget to move around the bridge freely, once at this end, another time the other end. It is this dynamic, never stopping movement, this flexibility, that is important to look after in our Buddhist life.  

June 7, 2017

Floating Isolated Concepts

Actually, I don't think I explained the problem of dead language very well last time. But it is always a challenge to explain such things, you can never get it perfectly right, it is always a kind of attempt to get close to what you mean...

I think we could say if there are some isolated floating concepts in your head, like buddha, truth, masters, right, wrong... if these words are isolated concepts without any connection to real life, we may be locked, these floating, isolated concepts are trying to lock our mind so it cannot think freely. Let's forget about Buddhist words for a while and take the word "love". If you get stuck thinking about "love", if you think what love is or what love is not, you cannot express actual love. Love becomes a dead concept in your head, but you firmly believe it is something absolutely real. It must exist somewhere, but you don't think it is happening now. So you are sitting next to a lovely person in a cafĂ©, but if you are stuck with the idea about love, you either think that it is love going on in front of you or you think it is not love. But either the idea of love or not love is not actually love. When you forget about love, love can happen. Actual love. Love, actually. Not dreams. And it is the same with buddha or awakening. There are words "buddha" or "awakening: and there is actual buddha and actual awakening. The latter doesn't depend on our ideas about such things. When you open your mind, there is buddha, there is awakening. When you ask yourself : "Is this awakening?" You may be trapped. But when a sincere student asks a teacher sincerely and their mind is open, it is also awakening. There is no difference between asking where the salt is and asking what awakening is.  But when you don't believe the salt is in the kitchen, you cannot taste it. When you don't believe you are awakened, you cannot experience yourself completely. Of course, when we act, we naturally forget our sticky concepts and the awakening is there. But when we start to think about it, when we get stuck again, intellectually, we could say, awakening is gone. But even saying awakening is gone is only an idea. Has anyone ever seen a gone awakening? Gone awakening may be a big delusion. Awakening that has just appeared may be a great delusion. So if these are only words, if we only deal with concepts without any connection to our real experience, this article is a big piece of junk. But when we open our minds, if these words help to open our minds and move from concepts to experience, then such words, such teaching may be helpful. But teaching is never helpful if it is only formulas, concepts or ideas.                      

We should not forget that Buddhism doesn't teach ideas, it uses ideas to teach our own experience, to teach our everyday life. So what I think or what you think is not as important as what we experience. So if we have an idea what Buddha is, we should forget it. Then we can act and express what it is freely. When we have an idea what love is, we should forget it, too, and then we can express it everywhere we go. It may seem that because I am angry with some of my students at school, I don't like them. But I don't think "I don't like them". Because I just act, I actually love them. I am angry because I love them.

At the end I would like to quote master Shunryu Suzuki, who said: "We don't practice in order to become buddhas. We practice because we already are buddhas." So when Buddha Gautama attained the truth he realized he had always been a buddha. But that concept of buddha didn't bother him any more. Before he was asking what the truth is, but later the concept of truth was not something to worry about. So because we already are buddhas, we don't have to worry about the truth. And because we are already buddhas, we may have some questions about the truth. When we ask openly, when we learn openly, we attain openly. When we attain openly, there is nothing to stick to, nothing to point to. Nowhere to stop and get stuck. So then it matters whether we have washed our bowl yet or not. Such things matter the most.  



June 6, 2017

Dead or Alive? Will the Language Say?

When we come across various terms in Buddhist philosophy, we may wonder, what does that mean? What does buddha mean? Some people may argue what buddha is, what buddha nature is, what the truth is... Maybe we have noticed that arguments based on smart ass attitude never enlighten anyone. Intellectual arguments about the truth, buddha, awakening etc are useless.  I remember when I began to study and practice Buddhism, I always wondered "What does buddha mean? What am I? What is my true self?" I kept asking and asking, over and over again. It was very frustrating, because I couldn't find any useful answers to my questions. I was practicing within a Korean Zen school which stressed working with such questions, so we were challenged by the teachers, all the time, we had to answer questions like Who are you? What would Buddha do if... ? But I couldn't answer these questions and I was desperate. So they tell you things like: When you wake up, you will be able to answer. Until you wake up, you cannot answer. So that was a kind of relief, right... But then to make things really confusing, the teachers would tell us that we already are buddhas.  As if that helped at all...  So I was looking for answers, and I somehow believed that there are nice, correct answers to such questions, but now I understand there aren't  any nice, fixed answers to any of such questions. The answers are not something intellectual and they never stay the same, the shape of the answer changes according to the context or situation... all the time.

Many years later, this year, I had a kind of misunderstanding with my teacher, about the value of great Buddhist teachers. My teacher pointed out that I may overestimate the value of Buddhist teachers. I was confused... how can you overestimate the value of authentic teachers from the past or present? I think my teacher thought I was a bit too idealistic. And that's true, I was. But I needed to solve this puzzle. For sure the Chinese masters like Nansen, Baso or Joshu were great teachers, right? And I cannot help it but Kodo Sawaki or Shunryu Suzuki to me, based on what I read about them, were great teachers. Even master Dogen praises teachers he never met, for example master Wanshi. And I am not only looking with respect at masters I never met, but also real, living teachers I met. And again, I am sure they are great teachers. But saying so, is that idealistic? I was thinking about this for a few days after the misunderstanding with my teacher and suddenly noticed there is a loose screw in the whole concept of great teachers of the past and present.

The problem whether master So and so was a great teacher or not is not whether he or she was great. The problem is how my mind or your mind processes the linguistic task of dealing with the phrase "great teacher". It is the same with words like buddha, truth or enlightenment. These are loose, freely available linguistic concepts anyone can use and talk about as much as they like. But how we process, how we deal with the meaning of these words is what matters the most. I would say there are a few ways to process a philosophically challenging term. The first mode is something I would call "no idea". If you hear the word nirvana for the first time, you have no idea what it is. The second mode is something I would call "confusion". You already heard the word nirvana a few or many times, but still it makes no sense.  The third mode is something I would call smart ass mode. You think you are familiar with the term and can explain it to others clearly, without having a clue what nirvana really is as you lack real experience, in other words, you have never practiced nirvana or if you practiced nirvana you didn't notice it was nirvana. Another mode is something I would call free language. You are free to use words any way you like as long as it fits the broader context and what you actually want to say. Usually this free language is pretty logical and rational, so it is not free in terms of something like "I can say anything I like and it doesn't have to make sense".  So if you want to speak about buddhas, nirvana and awakening, you need some sound, or at least some kind of philosophical background plus the freedom of your mind to speak or write in a way that is based both on philosophical reasoning within the tradition you follow and your actual experience as a practicing Buddhist.   This sounds very complicated but it is just speaking or writing without being trapped in isolated nests of concepts or acting like a cocky smart ass who has read everything and been everywhere. It is just freely using words in order to point to our experience as such, our experience without words, our original not knowing, something we need to return to regularly, and which is something people in general return to regularly, otherwise they would go nuts. We Buddhists somehow stress this experience of returning to our original self, so not only we don't go nuts, hopefully, but we are aware of the value of the experience when we don't know anything and don't understand anything. Paradoxically, only then we can somehow talk about Buddhism, so some kind of primary stupidity is really necessary.                  

When I pointed to the great masters of past and my teacher reacted somehow critically, considering my remarks idealistic or silly, or whatever he thought, I was being a victim of isolated concepts floating in my head. It  was like asking "What is the great being we call buddha? Where can we find the great being called buddha? I hear there are great beings called buddha but are they here with us? I hear there were great teachers in China, masters Dogen praised, but are there great teachers like that in the 21st century? Should we be like great masters from China or can we just live our life without worrying about those great masters?" So we can notice that I was dealing with some kind of idea about some kind of teachers. But when we carefully look into the teachings of these great or not so great or whatever you call them masters, when we carefully investigate what their teaching actually was, we cannot find any great enlightened masters who impressed heavenly beings and buddhas. All we find, when we look carefully, is a bucket of ice cold water, or a whisk or a bowl of rice. Those people were living in reality and they were teaching reality. If master Dogen called  them great, he wasn't trapped in concepts, he wasn't a victim of idealistic dreams about great masters of the past. Master Dogen was telling us, and is still telling us, through his writings, that we must not get stuck in ideas about greatness or profanity. Just noticing the greatness of these masters, we have to quickly make another step and investigate what kind of water they drank and what kind of rice they ate. We should investigate if their shouting was real or something we only dream about. Today I was cycling along the river and got soaked as the rain got heavier and heavier. In the end I went back to a metro station near the center, completely wet and cold and was looking forward to a hot bath back at home. I had a hot bath. I might not catch a cold. So these are examples of something that is more real than stories about old masters. They did experience reality but we can notice what that reality was, it was everyday life reality, not some kind of great reality. They were great because they denied their greatness. If they hadn't denied their greatness and talked about their own greatness, we would never read about these great masters. Now I am saying "great masters" but what does it mean? If we get stuck, we cannot taste water and cannot have a hot bath. Even if we step into the bath and get soaked, as we are dreaming about Buddhist masters, we miss the experience of Buddhist masters. Just as we have a hot bath, without saying so, master Baso and Nansen come back and shout like crazy.

So it is important to notice how we may be entangled in ideas and concepts when we study Buddhism. I think everyone can boldly move from the original confusion, carefully avoid the stage of smart ass, and use Buddhist terms freely, as necessary. You can help me understand the meaning of life, if you speak sincerely and based on your experience. I may help you understand the meaning of life, if I speak sincerely and based on my experience. What is buddha? There are lots of books, good or bad, clever definitions, confusing explanations, intellectual arguments, but no matter what we say, we cannot miss the point if we really have a hot bath, can we?