Guiding Teacher Konin Cardenas's latest teachings, on the meaning of meditation and how to address the question of whether it's working, are published in this month's issue of "The Lion's Roar," a national Buddhist magazine formerly known as the "Shambhala Sun." Enjoy!
Are you taking Wednesday off for a #DayWithoutAWoman, a nationwide event demonstrating the solidarity of women? Then come to the Empty Hand Zen Center for tea, talk and meditation led by Guiding Teacher Reverend Konin Cardenas. We'll enjoy each others' company and discuss the Zen teachings of liberation and equality for women. 4:00 pm at 45 Lawton Street, New Rochelle, NY
Check out Guiding Teacher Konin Cardenas's teachings on parenting in the latest issue of Buddhadharma magazine! She is the teacher representing the Zen school in the "Ask the Teacher" column in this quarter's issue. It's not online yet, though. So you will have to find it in hard copy at a store near you.
In recent days I’ve had quite a few encounters with the inescapable sufferings of illness, aging and death. While there are many Buddhist teachings about these experiences, one in particular stands out to me lately. It is the koan of Master Ma. The case goes likes this:
Master Ma was unwell. The Head Monk came to him and asked, “How is your venerable state these days?” Master Ma replied, “Sun-face Buddha, Moon-face Buddha.”
The student’s question can also be understood as, “What is your condition?” or “How are you?” It may be an inquiry into the Master’s health, into his awakening, or into his enlightened nature. The Master’s response incorporates a reference to the Sutra of Buddha Names in which it is said that the Sun-face Buddha lives for 1800 years, and the Moon-face Buddha lives for one day and one night. So it’s easy to interpret this dialogue to mean that the Student is inquiring about whether the Master’s awakening is intact, and the Master responds with a phrase that means that whether he lives for a long time or a short time, he will always be a Buddha.
However, that view might not reflect the teaching of this dialogue. First, it’s helpful to investigate the practice of a Buddha. What is the practice of a Buddha? Whether long-lived or short-lived, a Buddha’s practice is to point all beings toward their true nature, and to embody true nature. This means that a Buddha is practicing all the time, demonstrating an awakening life by living an awakening life.
Next, it’s helpful to investigate sickness and death. What is the practice that is appropriate to sickness and death? Shakyamuni Buddha instructed his disciples to study sickness, aging, and death as a means of developing insight. Specifically, he encouraged them to study corpses and places where cremations took place. To what end? According to the Buddha, studying the inevitable decay of the body would offer insight into impermanence and, therefore, into the teaching of no self. It would also lessen the practitioner's concern with the appearance of the body.
So, putting all that together, I believe that Master Ma’s reply actually means something like, “Whether for a short time or a long time, illness is simply something else to practice with when you are a Buddha, which is right now.” That is to say, any kind of suffering is simply something else to practice with because you are already with the capacity to realize Buddhahood.
This kind of insight is invaluable. This is Right View. The problems of your life are simply the material for your practice. And the joys of your life are equally material for your practice. It is up to you to turn them in that way.
It brings to mind a time many years ago when my daughter taught me a lesson. She was about seven years old, and had taken to giving her best friend her belongings. Shoes, toys, books, clothes – all ended up at Alicia’s house. And I, as the purchaser of those items, was a bit distressed about it. I wondered why my daughter didn’t have enough shoes, when I’d gone to the trouble of buying her plenty of them.
So, one day, I sat her down and asked her why she was giving away her things. Without saying so, I wondered whether she didn’t like the things I was buying her, or whether perhaps Alicia’s family didn’t have enough money to buy her shoes. My daughter’s reply was astonishing. She said, “Mommy, to me, those are just my old shoes or toys that I don’t even play with anymore but, to Alicia, they are a gift. It makes her happy.” I was speechless. Here was my daughter talking about practicing sympathetic joy, one of the four Sublime Abodes, while I worried about the details! In one sentence my seven year old had reminded me that I could choose to see life as a problem or as a practice.
And so it was with Master Ma, who told his disciple not to worry about his illness, but to practice with it. I try to walk in his shoes even today.
When events in your life provoke fear or anger or any number of other difficult feelings, it's tempting to turn away. It's tempting to think that you can or should just withdraw, or put up a wall, or do your best to dismiss the things you can't understand. However, the history of mankind has shown that these responses do not work. For thousands of years, people have experienced pain and dissatisfaction as a result of their efforts to separate from others.
A fundamental teaching of Buddhism is emptiness, the fact that nothing comes into being permanently or independently. All things and all people must come into being, momentarily, in dependence on other people and things. That is to say, emptiness also means inseparability. There is no way to be separate. This is consistent with the laws of physics, as well as the Buddha's teachings.
Yet the illusion of separation is deep and pernicious. It begins with our sense of our own bodies, which develops during infancy. And it continues into adolescence and beyond, as we develop an identity, a fixed view of self. Often times our identity is based on who we are not. We remind ourselves that we are not our parents, we are not our friends, and we are not our spouses. We remind ourselves, over and over again, that we are a certain kind of person, one that is defined at least in part by our skin. Is this really true?
Ultimately, there is no escaping the fact that this sense of difference is flawed and that it leads to difficulty. For example, when you see a star at night, that is a wave or a particle of light contacting your sense organs, the eyes. According to the Buddha, this creates a moment of eye consciousness. Then your brain sets out to identify it and to construct thoughts and feelings about it. So this tiny particle, which has traveled billions of miles and many years to reach your eye, effects both your body and mind in tangible ways. Thus, you are physically and mentally connected with, inter-being with that star across space and time. And due to the length of time that it takes for that light to reach your eye, the star may not even exist anymore. Yet, you are aware of its presence. How could you be separate from the stars?
And so it is with your relationship to all other beings on this Earth. You may think that reinforcing the separation is going to help, that it will lessen the pain and loss. You may think that building a mental or physical wall, or withdrawing from the situation will improve the situation. However, in the long run walls must come down, and withdrawal only compounds our loss.
It is for this reason that the early Mahayana sutras teach about emptiness and the path of compassion together. Take the Diamond Sutra, for example. When Subhuti asks the Buddha how to control his thoughts, the Buddha replies that he should make a vow to save all beings, even while acknowledging that there are no beings to be saved. That is, we train the mind through compassionate activity that is in accord with the fact of emptiness. We know that to be human is to appear, in any given form, only for a flicker of an instant. One who deeply understands the implications of that will work to help others see it, so that they might have less confusion and suffering too.
Thus, when the events of life make you want to withdraw, it's the best time to step forward into the divide. It's the best time to remember that we are all human, and we are all more or less confused about how life really works. Despite that confusion, we are all also part of the vast fabric of reality, and therefore part of one family. Like the stars, we have a finite time to shine. So let's shine while we can.
Zen practice is sometimes described as the study of the self. This description, in part, arises out of the old story of an interaction between Bodhidharma, Zen's first ancestor in China, and the student who later became his dharma heir, Huike. The story can be found in the koan collection "The Gateless Gate," Case 41.
In the story Huike says that his mind is not at peace, and he asks Bodhidharma to help him with this. Bodhidharma agrees to help saying, "Bring me your mind, and I will set it at rest." However, after some time, Huike responds by saying, "I have searched for the mind and finally it is unattainable." To which Bodhidharma replies, "I have thoroughly set it at rest for you." (Translation by Thomas Cleary)
Thus, our earliest Zen role models were engaged in the study of the self, the study of how best to live in a human body and mind. This is the study of what we mean when we say "body and mind." This is the study whose culmination is setting the mind at rest. And when this study yields a result that points to the limits of human conceptual capacity and to the boundlessness of mind, then it begins to show us how we can rest. It's ironic really, particularly when placed in the context of a Western society that highly values the intellect and its capacity for investigation and categorization. Yet, it can be a deeply satisfying experience to come face-to-face with the knowledge that you can't figure something out. That fact is fundamentally a good thing.
In order to see it as a good thing, though, a practitioner must have the courage to face the facts and then consider the potential responses. That is, if you encounter the limits of your concept of mind and react in fear or complacency, then you have missed the opportunity it presents. To say that it is enough simply to lead your life whatever way you like, because it is impossible to understand, is also to waste a whole lifetime of opportunities. So what might be a skillful way to study the self?
Shakyamuni Buddha gave us a pointer about this kind of practice in his teachings called "The Dhammapada." In this text the Buddha teaches:
Though one may conquer a thousand times a thousand men in battle, yet she indeed is the noblest victor who conquers herself.
The Buddha speaks of conquering one's self, meaning to stop being fooled by one's sense of separation. And what to make of the military reference? For me, it points to the value of courage, perhaps the most important attribute of a warrior. That is, in the study of the self you must have courage - the courage to face the conditions of your life, to face the conditions in the world, to face the nature of suffering and of inconceivability. In fact, the great bodhisattvas, enlightening beings, are usually referred to as mahasattvas as well. "Mahasattva" is a Sanskrit word that can be literally translated to mean "great being" but its roots and connotation provide more nuance. The term mahasattva originally referred to the large cats - lions and tigers - as noble, courageous beasts. Later it came to be associated with people who were also noble and courageous.
So today I encourage you to have the courage of the big cats. I ask you to consider how you might find the courage to face your life, to face a world which seems to be separate from you. I encourage you to face the desire to separate from the world, and to have the courage not to turn away, but to turn toward it. Study the desire to build a wall and have the courage to step across that divide, toward a self that is incredibly more vast than any wall could contain.
A complete expression in this moment,
one that is spontaneous and unique,
while fully embracing all things.
The enso is used in Japanese Zen Buddhism to illustrate all things complete and harmonious in each moment. It is also a demonstration of the simplicity and harmony of the teaching of Zen, a tradition that views words and concepts as somewhat inadequate in their ability to express the true nature of reality.
Thus, the art of painting came to be used in the service of wisdom.
Drawing circles in the air and on the ground had long been a form of teaching in Chan Buddhism. We hear of it in the form of koan stories. For example, in "Book of Serenity" case 77 entitled "Yangshan's Enough," we read:
The monk is demonstrating that all things are embraced in the enso. Carrying it like Atlas, he is also demonstrating that each of us fully encompasses the whole world. This is because we are inseparable from it, through the function of emptiness that pervades our experience of the six senses. Yangshan agrees. In his verse comments, Tiantong, says this about it:
In great appreciation for the circle of the Way, both literal and figurative, Zenkei Shibayama Roshi published, in 1969, a large-format book containing reproductions of three centuries of enso, and the accompanying calligraphy and art. Some enso are painted in a clockwise direction, others in a counter-clockwise direction. They begin the stroke at various points on the circle. Each one reveals a bit about the individual who painted it. No two enso are identical. It reminds us that an enso blossoms from a particular moment in time, and thus its variation is great.
And so it is with our lives. No matter in which direction you go, you are still in the midst of the activity of great Buddhadharma. All the while, you are a unique instance of causes and conditions, and thus the variation in what you experience is great. Never forget this and you are assured of great harmony.