Walking in the hills the other day I was reflecting on the meaning of "Buddha Nature". I found myself asking "Since the Buddha Mind was originally the Buddha's mind what would he be like if he was here now?"
You can find the most immediate accounts of Gautama the man in the Pali Sutras. Ananda's outstanding memory allowed him to recall Gautama as a friend and preserve his talk. Although framed in an archaic form of storytelling, the person of the speaker still shines through.
Gautama was by nature princely, his mind was sharp, creative and highly original, he worked extremely hard establishing a new order of spiritual practitioners, rejecting caste. He was deeply involved in the politics of his time being an adviser and admonisher of kings and ministers. If you had met him you would have found a pair of siding intelligent eyes. If you were a Brahmin he would have skilfully led you into his way by redefining who you were with an irresistible appeal to your common sense and inner morality. He was ascetic, disciplined, totally positive yet deeply sceptical. Where others were idealistic, he saw through idealism to an acceptance of the illusory basis of human life, pride, shame, gain, egoism and the fear of impermanence. He had found a way through in personal experience and there had been no copying of others. It would be a meeting you would never forget. It would also, in spite of the severity of his message, almost certainly have been fun. The man's charisma must have been deeply infectious.
And now Chenrezi suddenly comes to town. A Bodhisattva has been touring Britain, chatting in princely style with senior ministers, high prelates and influential persons, playing croquet at a country hotel and appearing on the largest platforms in the land, speaking to vast audiences drawn from all walks of life, most of them not Buddhists but fellow travellers inspired by his humanity and positivity.
The Dalai Lama, in spite of his fame, titles, political position and Nobel Peace Prize, comes over as exactly what he claims to be - an ordinary Buddhist monk. To see him come on stage, hands clasped before him, with that slightly stooped, almost shy manner and surprised look, as if the occasion was a refreshing revelation to him, is to have the heart touched. Knowing the sad history of his people, the relentless balancing acts in which he is engaged with the obdurate Chinese communists, the awe inspiring solemnity of his high religious office and his deep learning, it is profoundly touching to see at once that here is a man with whom one could sit down to tea and open one's heart. His power of meditation shows. He is after all the current embodiment of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Chenrezi. He is perhaps the nearest person in our time to show us how the Buddha must have been.
So what did he say? Homely and straightforward, not complex, his was a simple appeal for goodness. His faith is that humans are at root loving, compassionate beings. Pointing out that, unlike Tigers, we have neither fangs nor claws but soft fingers and vegetarian teeth, he argued that our nature was at root peaceful like animals that pasture themselves gently in the world.
Yet, sadly, we are afflicted by karmic ignorance that gives us illusions of ego, creating needs for power, cravings for fame and antagonism to all who appear to threaten us. We forget that everyone is in the same boat on an ocean of mutual fear. Once we recognise that others are just as fearful and confused as ourselves there is a chance that empathy and compassion can arise.
Compassion is often mistaken as pity and tends to focus on those who, to use Mrs Thatcher's expression, are "one of us". That is not compassion, says the Dalai Lama. Compassion involves the recognition of sameness, an empathy for others that comes from a fearless openness of awareness and insight that even one's enemies are frightened too. Compassion is thus in a sense disinterested, impartial. It wishes well. It is also good for you. Indeed, to be compassionate is the best thing one can do for oneself. And why? Because compassion turns one's thoughts away from self onto others. The focus on one's own fears and prejudices is reduced and with that comes a calm of mind that is the root of creative reflection. It is the way to inner peace.
The opposite is hatred and hatred is the product of fear. Fear lashes out and becomes violence. Weapons are sought and arms races begun. The stupidity of it all is so apparent but still it happens. At every level it is essential to control hatred. Anger is sometimes beneficial for there is righteous anger, but generally speaking, anger allied to hate is nothing other than pure destructiveness. And the selfishness that underlies it is eating up our societies, our world community, our environment and ourselves.
The point is so simple - just the recognition that all of us have the same tendencies to fear and hate. Knowing this it becomes essential to try the other path, the way of compassion, hearing the other's viewpoint, talk and more talk, negotiation, permission to empathise. And this at every level, highest to lowest, in and out the marriage bed. It is essential to realise that Compassion is one's root nature from which hatred is a deviation. Down through time we have all been mothers of one another.
His Holiness has often spoken of his compassion for the Chinese. Indeed, the karmic fate for those who are cruel and destructive is severe. The torturers are in deep need of compassion and need also to learn what this word means. Human rights involve the granting of freedoms of self-expression and government that will foster understanding, empathy and compassion, especially between neighbours.
The Dalai Lama sees hope in the world. Not for him some world-ending scenario. He always sees the buds of May sprouting from wintry branches. He interprets the present chaos as the pain of growth towards new political expressions in which human rights will be respected and economic and political realities. He will continue to work towards this end even though his enemies, for whom he manifests such a studied regard, are perhaps the most blinkered in the world.
If this man with all his cares can be so positive can we not follow his example? His infectious chuckle radiates warmth from platform, TV screen and newspaper. We should place that chuckle in our hearts and live towards others from such deep laughter.
Difficult - you say sceptically? Sure sure. That's what the Buddha said.
An edited and abbreviated text of the third and last lecture on this topic given to the Bristol Ch'an Group by John Crook on November 25th 1992.
The Sutra ends with the following words:
With nothing to attain
Bodhisattvas relying on Prajnaparamita
have no obstructions in their minds.
Having no obstructions there is no fear
and departing far from confusion and imaginings,
they reach ultimate Nirvana.
All past, present and future Buddhas
relying on Prajnaparamita
attain Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi.
Therefore, know that the Prajnaparamita
is the great mantra of power,
the great mantra of wisdom,
the supreme mantra,
the unequalled mantra
which is able to remove all sufferings.
It is real not false.
Therefore recite the mantra of Prajnaparamita:
Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha.
An alternative translation is given by Roshi Kennett in her metrical rendition from the Japanese.
In the mind
of the Bosatsu who is truly one
with Wisdom Great there are no obstacles
and going on beyond this human mind
he is Nirvana. All the Buddhas True
of present, past and future, they are all,
because upon Great Wisdom they rely,
the perfect and most high enlightenment.
The Prajnaparamita one should know
to be the greatest mantra of them all.
The highest and most peerless mantra too.
Allayer of all pain Great Wisdom is.
It is the very truth no falsehood here.
This is the mantra of Great Wisdom, hear!
Buddha, going going going on, going on
beyond, and always going on beyond,
always becoming Buddha. Hail Hail Hail!
In our two preceding talks we have seen that the Sutra expresses the Mahayana vision of ultimate emptiness. Not only are all the attributes of mind perceived as empty but the whole cosmos and all its components, the dharmas, are seen as empty too. The awakening to emptiness is the heartfelt realisation that no thing stands by itself with an inherent existence or solitary independent selfhood. Emptiness means that apparent things are empty of their thingness. Everything is in intimate relationship with everything else. There is a continuous flux of time and space in which all appearances flow in interdependent origination. "Form is precisely emptiness and emptiness is precisely form". This fluidity of process is itself empty and the ultimate process hidden beyond our understanding: it is ineffable, and experientially void. Yet, here the things are, right before our eyes, ears and under our fingers.
The flux of time appears to us as it does because our sense organs are structured to see them as we do. Birds, bees and bats do it differently. Their sense organs represent the objects of awareness to them in other modes than our own. These various interpretations of our universe allow differing sentient beings to find food, companions, objects and experience in their own ways. Emptiness thus is forms; forms are how emptiness is expressed in sentience.
There is then an emergence together of form and emptiness. Both present themselves together to our minds. The great Tibetan Teacher, Tsong kha pa, remarks that this two-sided vision is one of the most difficult realisations a Buddhist practitioner needs to comprehend. Yet, once the insight is seen, liberation from the attachment to things as such more easily arises.
As we deepen this perspective, we begin to see that there can be no separation between ignorance and insight, time and space, ageing and death or cessation of ageing and death and indeed, amazingly, no path, no wisdom or any attainment. All such words arise from the reifications whereby we dissect out experience into parts and events, creating a thingness of things where insight reveals an uninterrupted flow. When this is perceived one suddenly sees that there can be no attachment because there is actually nothing at all as a thing to be attached to. And with all attainments and paths seen as illusory there can be no loss or gain and therefore no fear, anxiety or worried concern. The mind, normally confused and troubled by such things, thus becomes free of them. There are no obstructions, only a great clarity. This clarity, in which all basis for attachments has been blown away, is called Nirvana.
The realisation requires meditative insight for the words alone can only convince intellectually, if at all. In meditation, a focus on any thing leads to its dissolution. Insight becomes curiously empty, vast spaciousness, vastness itself, unlimited. Names are no longer realities, just names. Namelessly the Universe unfolds.
And in this experience is a joy that comes from a release into freedom and a bliss that arises from gratitude. The three deep experiences of the Buddhist practitioner are emptiness, joy and bliss from which love and compassion arise as s/he contemplates the world in its encaging worldliness, a world to which we all return.
Those who have not had such a realisation should not dismiss its reality nor doubt their own potential. One practitioner at the Maenllywd was working on a koan during a Western Zen Retreat. Suddenly the meaning of the entire Heart Sutra became apparent as a single all-embracing insight. He was overwhelmed in tears of joy. Later his realisation was acknowledged by Shih-fu for he was so blessed as to be able to activate such insight again and again. For most of us such insights are mere glimpses highly tinged with emotion. We quickly become attached to them and want more. A depth of insight into emptiness has not yet materialised and ideas of attainment, path and goal still pester the mind.
We all have predispositions to create complex scenarios of attachment based on early experience. These samskaras arise because from the very beginning we attribute thingness to things and see them as objects for desire or rejection. Maybe the pattern of receiving mother's breast and the denial of it began the setting up structures of desire and satiation. These become more complex as circumstances unroll throughout life, the never ending elaboration of karma.
In Ch'an practice the samskaras make their appearance in the wandering of thought and emotion as we sit upon the cushion. Often we are warned about allowing the elaboration of wandering thought but, actually, once the mind has quietened down, much of it can be simply seen as clouds wandering across a sky. They come and go, we can learn to detach from them. This is cultivation in practice and it facilitates the possibilities of insight.
One Samskara in particular lies at the root of wanting and this includes the wanting of enlightenment experiences. This is the "thought that confers the I". If you watch your experience closely you will come to see that the emotional tone of your being is greatly determined by whether this "thought conferring I" is present or not.
To take a gross example, you may be having a jolly conversation when someone makes a remark that is a little critical of you. Immediately you feel the sensation we call "hurt". The remark has triggered your "thought which confers an I", your ego, and you respond defensively as if you were a fortress to be guarded. More subtly, you may be gently cruising on your cushion in a state of mild bliss and a seductive voice starts congratulating you. "Ah, this is it! Any moment now and its anuttara samyak sambodhi for me". Oh sad error. As nothing special happens, disillusionment spreads. Do we learn from this? Usually not. The "thought conferring I" is very deeply hidden.
To observe that it is this thought, almost alone of all thoughts, that is one's own deepest enemy requires persistence in self-examination. And also humility, for we are unlikely to dispose of it once and for all merely because of recognition. Yet recognition is the beginning of wisdom. When we set aside this thought, other thoughts are rarely troublesome. In fact, since thought is natural to the moving mind, thoughts can become inspirational and the instruments of wisdom.
The clarity that arises when the "thought that confers an I" is absent is a very precise experience. Once recognised, this clarity is a door to insight (prajna). Indeed it is the raft that takes one to the other side. All Buddhas of past present and future have or will uncover this understanding and it is what Gautama showed his companions in the Deer Park all those centuries ago.
The Sutra ends with what we may call a celebration. Ananda stands in for the experience of Great Wisdom and, once an association is made between the mantra and the experience, the repetition of the mantra becomes a means of cultivating its signification. Usually the mantra is translated as "Gone gone, gone beyond, absolutely gone beyond, Wisdom, Hail". Roshi Kennett stresses the present moment as "Going, always going on beyond". She emphasises the need for perpetual practice, ever present cultivation.
The going beyond the thought that confers the ego is the central feature of the meaning of the mantra. The emptying of the self of its thingness is now perceived as real and with deepening insight the emptiness of all things becomes ever more clear. Roshi Kennett also stresses that the mind that has gone beyond is itself Nirvana. There is no longer a mind or an ego that has Nirvana. Nirvana simply presents itself.
Does all this seem remote and distant? Well, take heart! It is not so far away. For example, try a change in language as a door to a fresh experience. We normally say "I" whenever we use a verb . Thus: "I have a head ache", "I am resentful", "I am cutting carrots", "I am enduring the heat and crush on the underground". Now try to rephrase yourself without the I. Thus: "There is a headache", "Here is a resentment", "There is a carrot cutting", "There is a hot crushed feeling down here". Such a change allows the actuality to be present without the possessiveness, the rejection or the desire of a needy self-attribution. Things are just as they are. Often they may still be troublesome but we can stop giving them an inflated importance as when the illusory me-ness of my feeling is the central pivot to experience. As Shih-fu says so often, "put it down. Let the Universe do it!" When you are out of the way there is no path and no attainment. You are looking directly at the moon and not at its reflection in the bucket. Try it.
This poem, parts of which were written at various times in the 1960's and revised now in 1993, is dedicated to Yiu Yan Nang, JP, now Deputy Commissioner of Labour, Hong Kong.
Reading a book of Chinese translations
I remember my Chinese friend,
bamboo breezes drift though my study,
moonlight on the terraced temple shines again.
Climbing to those high places
sometimes you picked flowers
and in the monastery monks disliked our intrusion,
tried to put us off, speaking of one infected
who'd died last night in the visitor's room.
Before the dawn the wooden clappers clacked
and in the shrine room I recall
the candles flickered along the wall
the golden images splendidly sat
there was no time at all in that
and now that all these years have flown
and after midnight I sit here alone
I see again the silvered lateen sails
that down the fishing moon's track trailed
as silently they put to sea
below the hill that sprouted guns.
Wearily I reflect, modern life
differs little from the time of Li po.
I too seek my mountain cottage,
winter winds strike the oaks and birches
and the rushing stream gurgles past the muddy yard.
Wood fire bums low
and by my candle I read some far-off words.
This is no bamboo mountain
yet here too the natural stillness
creeps from the stones and trees
as in my secret heart I discover
my lone home.
Thinking of you and the passing years
of war and waste, treaties broken
and pledges meaningless,
the rise in prices and the difficulty of travel,
passports and regulations,
I am comforted to know that old officials
in your ancient land also knew
the weariness of worldly noise,
that little changes in a thousand years
is proven true.
Time and space are endless
and only a fool finds a comfortable way.