Prepare to Die

Are you prepared to die?

The ancient samurai of Japan would prepare for death each day of their life.  The first line in the core text of bushido (”way of the warrior”), the Hagakure reads, “The way of the warrior is found in death.”

There is another line about when faced with life or death, the samurai should always choose death.  I don’t believe this is meant to say that death is to be desired, or that death is preferable to life, but merely that we should always be prepared for death, and unpacking it a bit further, that when we are confronted with hard choices, we should not be fearful of taking the most difficult option.

Being a samurai, a warrior, meant facing death on a constant basis.  Each day could be the last.  It is no different for us.  Each day could be our last, we could be hit by a car or…

Tao and Buddha-dharma practitioners endeavor to train and tame their unruly minds.  Pull the mind back into itself rather than focus on the external.  Death is a metaphor for facing the unknown, the difficult, the unavoidable.  Death is non-attachment.

We can love life and cherish it while at the same time be unattached to the “things” of life.  This detachment helps us to prepare for face ordeals.  An unshakable mind, that holds on to only itself, is prepared, when suffering arrives, to see suffering as a materialization of the Noble Truths.  Suffering, especially physical death is a natural phenomenon, a natural aspect of life.

Some methods early Buddhists had to prepare for death was to meditate on death, meditate next to a corpse, or spend a night meditating in a cemetery.  For us, it is enough perhaps to train our minds so that we are not afraid to think about death or talk about it.  We can also reflect on death, and meditate on impermanence, which is a powerful anti-dote to self-cherishing and attachment.

We should be aware that from the moment we are born the process of old age, sickness and death begins.  Of course, as we reflect on this subtle aspect of impermanence, we should also keep in mind what Dogen said in Genjo Koan (“Actualizing the Fundamental Point”),

[It] is an established way in buddha-dharma to deny that birth turns into death.  Accordingly, birth is understood as no-birth.  It is an unshakable teaching in Buddha’s discourse that death does not turn into birth.  Accordingly, death is understood as no-death.

Birth is an expression complete this moment.  Death is an expression complete this moment.  They are like winter and spring.  You do not call winter the beginning of spring, nor summer the end of spring.

Share

The Ringing of Subtle Wisdom

I was rereading the introduction to Tao : a new way of thinking by the late Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii, Chung-yuan Chang.  He was discussing the meaning of Tao when he noted that “In Chinese art, the soundless is more primordial than sound.”  I suppose that is correct, in the beginning there would be silence before sound…

In any case, he goes on to quote Heidegger (On The Way to Language):

The soundless gathering call by which Saying moves the world-relation on its way, we call the ringing of stillness.

Chung-yuan Chang comments, “It is this ringing of stillness that opens the mind of man to Eastern aesthetics… Thus, the question remains: How does one attain Tao?”  The Buddhist might ask, How does one attain enlightenment?

Chung-yuan Chang goes on to quote Chapter 38 of the Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

The highest attainment is free from attainment.
Therefore, there is attainment.
The lowest attainment is never free from attainment.
Therefore, there is no attainment.

Following this, he shares these words from the 4th century Buddhist philosopher, Shen Chao:

You may conceive of attainment as that which is able to be attained.  Therefore, there is attainment.  However, I consider attainment as nothing to be attained.  Therefore, attainment is achieved though non-attainment…  Subtle wisdom lies beyond things…”

Lao Tzu suggested that we understand Tao (and Buddhahood) by not understanding it, one of those paradoxical statements that Taoism and Zen (heavily influenced by Taoism) are well-known for.  Thing is, we shouldn’t be looking for attainment in the first place but rather “subtle wisdom.”  Attainment is an established ideal, while acquiring subtle wisdom is a practical process we call The Way.

The English word “subtle” corresponds with the Chinese character miao, which means “wonderful, mystic, clever, and subtle.”  Of these meanings, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i preferred “subtle.”  Paul Swanson, in Foundations of T’ien-T’ai Philosophy, states, “For Chih-i the word ‘subtle’ symbolized and summarized that which is beyond conceptual understanding and thus it is the word most appropriate to describe reality, which is ultimately indescribable.”

[Image: Chinese character “miao”]

Reality is that which is genuine, original or natural, as opposed to that which is artificial and illusory.  We are not trying to achieve something so much as we are trying to see through something.  We’re trying to see through the real and into the Real.

That’s why the Tao Te Ching says, “The Tao that can be told is not the infinite Tao,” and why the Heart Sutra says, “Within emptiness… there is no attainment with nothing to attain.”  And yet, the Heart Sutra also says that all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas practice in the way of Transcendental Wisdom and “awake to complete and perfect enlightenment.”  Huh?

Lama Govinda explains that is means “Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are not enlightened by fixed teaching but by an intuitive process that is spontaneous and natural.”

Introspection or meditation is the observation of subjective mental qualities.  It is not thought.  However, it is probably as far from thought as we can get.  Wayfarers should want to cultivate a mind that that does not seize and cling to things,  an open mind, a mind not fixed or locked, unreceptive to new ideas, lacking flexibility.  This may seem to be a very simple thing but actually it is quite difficult to realize on a ongoing basis.

Finally Chung-yuan Chang quotes Heidegger quoting Nietzsche:

Our thinking should have a vigorous fragrance, like a wheat field on a summer’s night.

If fragrance had a sound, it would be the ringing of subtle wisdom.

Share

Can Meditation Bring About a Process of Healing?

When we suffer we experience pain.  Whether it is mental, emotional, and/or physical, pain is a message that something is out of balance, that we are lacking harmony.  Healing is the restoration of harmony.

In Taoism, everything is energy.  Pain and stress arise when energies are off balance or when they clash.  Taoism teaches how to achieve harmony.  Balance or harmony is also important in Buddhism, which holds that the main disturber of harmony is the false concept of “self,” “I,” or “ego.”

Both philosophies prescribe the same cure:  meditation.

Can meditation really bring about a process of healing?  That was the precisely the question posed to the great   philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti during a 1969 talk.  He answered,

“Most of us have had pain of some kind – intense, superficial, or pain that cannot be cured.  What effect has pain on the psyche, the brain or the mind?  Can the mind meditate, disassociating itself from pain?  Can the mind look at the physical pain and observe it without identifying itself with that pain?  If it can observe without identifying itself then there is quite a different quality to that pain…  The more you are attached to the pain, the more intense it is.  So that may help to bring about this healing, which is an important question and which can only take place when there is no `me’, no ego or self-centered activity.  Some people have a gift for it.  Others come upon it because there is no ego functioning.”

Krishnamurti considered meditation “the natural act [that] brings about the harmonious movement of the whole.” Healing is about becoming whole.

The word ‘whole’ comes from the old English ‘hale’, which means to be in good health, to be whole and healthy.  The original meaning of ‘whole’ implied “keeping the original sense,” “that which has also survived,” and “to heal.”  The prehistoric German root of whole is also the origin of ‘heal’, ‘health’, and ‘holy’.

To heal means to be whole and to be whole means to heal.

I don’t think we should ever expect to achieve complete wholeness or perfect harmony.  Because we are human beings, we will always be incomplete, imperfect.  Completion is the journey of life, and perfection, an endless further.

But we can expect to heal.  And naturally I am going to tell you that meditation, or what in the T’ien-t’ai/Tendai tradition is called kuan-ksin (Jp.  kanjin), “observing the mind,” is a powerful healing tool on all levels – mental, physical, emotional, spiritual and social.

“Meditation develops your innate energies. With practice, you can take charge of your mind and body, preventing disease before it arises. Shouldn’t everyone make an effort to learn something like this?”
– Yin Shih Tzu, Tranquil Sitting

Share

Wavelessness

Zhao De wrote, “If water is still enough, everything is reflected clearly.  If mind is calm, then wisdom grows.”

A key goal in the practice of Buddhist meditation is to develop a calm mind.  We call the practice mindfulness but mindfulness is also a state of mind.  And calmness does not mean absolute stillness.  There is movement in calmness.  According to the T’ai Shang Ch’ing-ching Ching (“Cultivating Stillness”), a text attributed to Lao Tzu, “Movement is the foundation of stillness.”

Sometimes we engage in metaphor:  Still water is our mind.  The stillness of the water is disturbed when the wind blows and makes waves.  Waves are our sufferings.  The nature of water is stillness, while the nature of waves is movement.

When we gaze upon a calm sea, we see that the surface is tranquil, smooth, waveless.  Because there is no surface movement to distort the reflection, in still water we see a clear reflection of things as they are.  A calm mind reflects the world without distortion.  In addition, this mind does not try to seize and cling to everything it sees, and when there are waves, it is not smashed by their impact.

You know the theory:  If a person’s mind is profoundly still, he or she becomes aware of their true nature and the real aspect of things.  Like still water, when the mind is calm it sends back a clear image of the non-duality of the world, and we discover that a wave is not separate from water; it is water, in movement.  It’s a rather obvious conclusion but remember water and waves are metaphors.

In meditation practice, to develop this non-dual realization fully, we consider the mind to be water and sufferings as waves, and we meditate to become waveless.

Being present in the moment, mindfulness is wavelessness.

Being aware, of course, that movement is also present.

A certain sage from Texas maintains that “Still is still moving to me.”

Share

Dreaming Butterflies

Chuang Tzu was a great Taoist sage during the Chinese era of the Warring States (475-221 BC).  Over the years, I’ve posted a number of stories from the book that bears his name.   And the “butterfly dream” is probably the most famous of those stories.   Hopefully, you won’t mind reading it again, or perhaps it is new to you…

James Legge, one of the first to render the Chuang Tzu into English, wrote in a footnote to an anecdote, “To sleep in untroubled ease beneath a large, sheltering tree can be a memory of a lifetime also.”

According to tradition, Chuang Tzu was a government official in a small town. While his duties kept him busy, he enjoyed sneaking off every so often to loll away an afternoon lying beneath a nice shady tree.

One afternoon, as he was dozing:

“I dreamed I was a butterfly, a fluttering butterfly just flying about. I had a great deal of fun, doing whatever I pleased. I did not remember I was Chuang Tzu. I was aware only of my happiness as a butterfly. Suddenly I woke from the dream and found myself to be Chuang Tzu. I could not figure out if Chuang Tzu had dreamed he was a butterfly or if a butterfly was dreaming he was Chuang Tzu. Between Chuang Tzu and the butterfly there must be some distinction. This we call ‘the transformation of things.’”

What Chuang Tzu means by “the transformation of things” is that with our ordinary mind we look at the world and perceive differences and distinctions between things.  This way of seeing is a delusion that is not unlike a dream state, and we want to transform our way of seeing.  With awakening mind, we realize that differences and distinctions have no real foundation; they are impermanent, transitory.  Through inner transformation we bring ourselves closer in harmony with the way of transformation of nature.  We find the balance between dreaming and waking states, the middle way in which a man dreaming he is a butterfly and a butterfly dreaming he is a man are both possibilities.

The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.

– Seng-ts’an, Verses on the Heart-Mind

Find more of my Chuang Tzu posts here.

Share