October 28, 2019

Suchness and the Necessity of Distinction

Have you ever heard things such as: "My zazen today was better than yesterday... or That retreat was better than this retreat. This state is better than that state. An hour of zazen is better than five minutes of zazen. Sitting in full lotus is better than sitting on a chair." Such ideas are pretty common among practitioners. I sometimes feel that it would be better if a retreat was more silent. Or that if I could practice in full lotus it would be better than if I practice in half lotus.  My mind also comes up with ideas like that but I have also learned in Buddhism that it is better to let go of such things and just return to my everyday activities without judging them. Did I just say "better"? Well, explanations of contradictions later, if you please.  

So as our mind wants us to evaluate and compare things all the time, there is this kind of dualism going on even among experienced practitioners of Zen. If you let go of all that dualism, you are holy... Seriously, our mind wants us to look at things in opposite terms, right and wrong, good and bad. So logically our mind tends to think that being twenty years old, slim and fit is better than being a hundred years old and attached to a wheel chair. But what is interesting is that from a strictly Zen point of view, or -  if you like -  from the strictest view of the truth, nothing is better than anything else. Being sick and old is as good as being just born. Having huge tits is as good as having tiny tits, etc. From that point of view sloppy zazen of a beginner is as good as an old zen master's zazen. Rainy day is as good as a sunny day, etc. The thing is, if we do not let go of even  the tiniest bits of dualism, we will be light years away  from the truth. Do you know the Shin Jin Mei, which is traditionally considered a work by the third Zen patriarch Sosan? Here is an excerpt:

The Perfect Way knows no difficulties
Except that it refuses to make preferences;
Only when freed from hate and love,
It reveals itself fully and without disguise
(trans. by D.T. Suzuki)[8]

According to this poem, there is no room for preferences in Zen. Logically, to practice zazen would be as good as killing ants or running around temples and screaming. To study the Way would be as good as gambling. To sleep with several people a week would be as good as living in a monastery. This problem is a very, very important part of Buddhist philosophy. Although the poem Shin Jin Mei tells us over and over again that there is no room for dualism in Zen, it does not tell us that there is the flip side of the coin.  If we stop evaluating things completely, it would be better if we leave the society and live in the mountains eating pine needles, dealing with no people whatsoever. But living in the society we have to take into account, and that is something Buddhism, even the Zen part of it,  has always taken into account, and that is the suffering of the world. So as we live in the world of suffering, or at least the world of conflicts, frustration, lack of wisdom, water or food, we must respect that part of the universe which consists of opposing forces. And from that point of view it is necessary to decide what is right and what is wrong. What is great and what is lousy. Essentially, and that is the point of Shin Jin Mei, practicing Buddha's truth is as good as spitting and coughing. But if it is only that, why bother with poems about Zen? So we must understand that both suchness, in other words no dualism, and opposing aspects of the truth are necessarily part of a sensible approach to the world. But when is it better to let go of opposing views such as right and wrong and when is it necessary to decide what is better? 

I injured my knee a few weeks ago and ever since I haven't been able to sit in half lotus. I have been sitting on a chair since and I hope I will go back to half lotus in a month or so. According to Shin Jin Mei, there is absolutely no difference between sitting on a chair and sitting in half lotus. So how do we get out of this entanglement? We have to learn to accept a kind of dual understanding of things. The usual, or social understanding of things, which says there is right and wrong, good and bad, nice and ugly... there is zazen and gambling and they are not the same. Zazen is great, gambling is bad. Buddhas are great and criminals are horrible. We must follow and accept that this world is somehow black and white - or bad and good - and we want to try to follow the white line, I mean to do good and avoid doing bad. Follow wise people and ignore the words of fools. Do our best and learn from our mistakes. Practice sincerely and admit we are sometimes wrong. On the other hand, the ultimate state is the state Shin Jin Mei describes. In this state at the moment of spilling soup there is no right or wrong. When I sit on a chair, there is no right or wrong, and that sitting isn't better than zazen or worse than zazen. When we bow in front of Buddha, we do not think Buddhism is better than Christianity. Trump is not worse than Gautama Buddha. Coca cola is as good as fresh mint tea. Because right now, at this very moment, things are just what they are. The universe itself, the truth itself , does not judge, and is not right or wrong, it is just what it is.

The thing is we should not stick to ideas about right and wrong, but we need to know what is right and wrong. When we study and practice Buddhism, we learn from teachers what the right understanding of Buddhism is and what the wrong understanding is. There is the right way to sit in zazen, with your spine vertical, shoulders relaxed, you sit straight and you should not move too much. It is wrong to crouch or lie down and say it is the same as zazen and there is no need to sit up straight. But once we sit in zazen, it is necessary to forget right and wrong, and just do our best here and now. We already know how to sit, so now it is time to sit only, without judgment. When I sit on a chair, I do not think it is zazen or it is not zazen, it is good or it is bad, it is better or worse. It is just what it is. But if people say they can practice Buddhism by walking, dancing or cooking, without practicing zazen, it is wrong. Here we deal with wrong directions.

Basically everything Buddhist teachers say, within a dharma talk, are not intellectual opinions, they are directions. And the directions must lead to the truth. Dogen, strictly speaking, he wasn't  telling us his opinions when he discussed dharma. He gave directions. Directions are not opinions. He said yes to a person who said the right things about dharma and no to a person who said the wrong things about dharma. He approved a certain gesture or action and disapproved of another gesture or action. Those were directions, not the truth itself. So teaching Buddhism is not about being right. Zen is not a "good practice" or the right way of life. It is just what it is. But to get there where things are just what they are, beyond human judgment, a very strict, precise, and seemingly dualistic path, or instructions exist. And a very precise kind of practice is necessary. There are many directions, so many approvals on the one hand,  and a lot of  criticism on the other hand, in sayings of Buddhist teachers. Zazen is not something which is good to do or bad to do. Buddhism is not something better than chemistry or knitting. But Buddha Gautama was a guy who noticed it is possible to see the whole mess of human civilization, I mean both mess and its grandeur, from a completely different point of view, actually abandoning all views and just experiencing what cannot be described, practicing what cannot be replaced by words or knowledge.  He discovered reality itself. Reality free from human points of view, free from right and wrong. But discovering this reality he did not say there is no right and wrong, or that directions are not necessary. On the contrary, as soon as he decided to teach the truth, he began to tell people what the path to the truth is and what is not, which is good for others and which is not good... etc. There was a huge burden on his shoulders. In a way, he knew there was not much to say about reality, but people had thousands of questions so he gave thousands of directions, out of pure love and care for his disciples.  

Ultimately, the goal of Buddha's teaching is to liberate people from the ties and bonds of intellect, so that they could experience reality completely here and now, without ignoring the suffering and the causes of suffering of this world. Often it is necessary to reflect on the situation of the world, or somebody's state.  Here and now sipping tea you don't have to worry about the suffering of the world, but when discussing philosophy or religion, it is necessary to reflect on the suffering of this world. There is a huge difference between being trapped in the intellectual thought on the one hand, and using one's intellect to look for, to find or to show the path to freedom and responsibility at the same time - free responsibility and responsible freedom. Freedom from intellectual traps and bonds on the one hand, and responsible attitude towards the problems of this world on the other hand.

What is this free responsibility and responsible freedom? Loads of terrible things and actions and loads of beauty, and not just natural beauty, but also beauty created by human genius happen in this world.  When we see something beautiful, we should forget everything and completely enjoy the experience. When we see something terrible, it is natural to cry or feel frightened. Or do something about it, be it recycling or have a speech or get glued to railing. So enjoy the freedom to be sad or happy, act or not act, according to the situation, according to your true consciousness, but don't forget to enjoy your cup of tea or a cheesecake, despite the suffering going on in this world. If you cannot really see or taste or hear, there is immediately much more suffering in the world, so become an island of wisdom and freedom from intellectual traps and live freely and responsibly, freely responsibly, whenever possible. And forget names and judgment when you sit in zazen, and just sit, without a religion, philosophy, society, past and future. And do not allow even the most beautiful poems and the most terrible things happening in this world steal away the poetry of your own moment here and now.

No comments: