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.

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The Wisdom of Anger

A wise person does not neglect the way of propriety.  Democracy means freedom and equality, and mutual respect.  Authoritarians and demagogues use people as a tool.  The American way was always supposed to be about appreciating people as an end in themselves . . .

Trying to gather my thoughts about this election has been difficult.  I was so angry.  I still am.  Problem is, Buddhists are not supposed to get angry.  We have this notion that we always have to avoid any display of emotion, that there is never justification for anger, and our words must always be kind and healing.

I don’t believe that every moment has to be a kumbaya moment.  Now and again, there is justification for anger and rather than be afraid of the anger, or be ashamed for feeling anger, we can use it.

If you are a Mahayanist, then you realize that Buddha taught a certain use for the energy of anger . . . the bodhisattva, like the peacock who can use poison to be beautiful, can use the heat, the fire of anger . . .”

So says Robert Thurman in a video “The Wisdom of Anger” (see below).  Japanese Buddhists have a term for what he is talking about:  hendoku iyaku – change poison into medicine.

The purpose of the Buddha’s teaching is to transform negative aspects of the mind.  I suspect that many Buddhists practice suppression rather than transformation.  There are situations when negativity has to come out in order to be an object for transformation.  Furthermore, we should keep in mind that there are two truths and they are not separate, except when they are.  Conventionally speaking then, anger directed toward injustice or the infliction of harm can be positive.

T’ien-t’ai founder Chih-i was one of the first Buddhist teachers to explain how good and evil are non-dual.  Ng Yu Kwan* tells us that Chih-i taught “good and evil do not make terms with each other, but are constantly in a struggle.  Good must overturn evil in order to prevail, and good can prevail only by the overturning of evil.  It follows that overturning evil is a necessary and sufficient condition for the prevalence of good.  But the overturning of evil does not imply extirpation of evil.”

Why not?  Because ultimately, good and evil are non-dual.  They are “different states of the same thing under different conditions.”  The keyword here is ultimately.  This is the view from ultimate truth and it is important for us to remember that even though the ultimate and conventional are mutually inclusive, there are times in the conventional world when it is necessary to use conventional means.

The fact is that in the Mahayana Buddhist way of expressing non-duality, things are dual sometimes.  There are situations when it truly is a matter of good vs. evil, us vs. them.

This post-election period is one of those times.  It is not wrong to identify the President-elect with evil, for what he represents – hate, misogyny, racism – are identified as evil states of mind.  We do not have to support the President-elect or unite behind him.  To do so would be like saying hate speech is acceptable, that using hate speech to win an election is something we can tolerate.  It’s isn’t.  Not in the America I was taught to believe in.  Freedom of speech and accountability for your words are not mutually exclusive.

Understanding inter-dependency (dependent origination) means taking responsibility for being infinitely connected to each other, so we want to avoid creating animosity with people whose views are different from ours and do out best to follow the ways of propriety and mutual respect.  Yet, we should not become enablers of their delusions, sold to them by demagogues and hate-mongers.

If we’re angry, we need not be ashamed of it or feel that it must be suppressed.  We can take the anger, temper it with wisdom, and then speak out, raise an objection.  Our country is in a fog.  Our protests can be the sunlight that burns off the fog.

 

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* NG Yu Kwan, T’ien-t’ai Buddhism and Early Madhyamika, University of Hawaii Press, 1993, 171

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The Homelessness of Thoughts

Some years ago while participating in a campaign to raise funds for homeless people around the world, the Dalai Lama said, “On some level, I am also homeless.”

He was referring to the fact that since 1959 he has been exiled from his home, but the statement can be taken another way because on some level, we are all homeless.

07192016The Buddha and his followers were part of the Indian tradition of parivrajakas, or “homeless ones,” men who had “gone forth” from householder life.  To use an old ’60s expression, they had “dropped out,” rejecting not only homes, but kinship, class, and even their clothes, casting aside usual garments for old clothes and rags.

The bhikkhu’s homelessness, however, is symbolic of a greater homelessness, that of life itself.  As everything in this world will eventfully decay and disappear, there is no real home for anything in this life, no permanent place for anything or anyone to stand. According to the Buddha, the same applies to thoughts

In the Ratnacuda Sutra, the Buddha says,

Thought is formless, unseen, not solid, unknowable, unstable, homeless.  Thought was never seen by any of the Buddhas.  They do not see it, they will not see it; and what has never been seen by the Buddhas, what they do not see and will never see, what kind of a process can that have, unless things exist by a false conception?  Thought is like illusion, and by forming what is not comprehends all sorts of events. . . .”

Wandering through realms of consciousness like a refugee, thought looks for a home.  Thought thinks that perhaps by clinging to this or to that, it can find one.  Thought forms attachments with name and form, with concepts such as “is” and “is not,” “self” and “other,” “me” and “mine,” and with emotions like envy, pride, and desire.  Thought forms these attachments in hopes of finding a home.  Thought wants to own a home.

However, ownership has its burden.  It is easy to become a slave to things owned, and a passage from another sutra encourages us to strive to become the master of our mind, rather than let our mind master us. Moreover, since nothing can last, ownership is really an illusion.  There is nothing to be owned.

And nothing that is unreal can be a home, so in this way, there is no way to avoid being homeless.

To put an end to thought’s endless search for a home, we train our mind.  We train ourselves to think differently. This is one of the chief benefits of meditation, the way mindfulness helps us bring the mind into contentment and cease its relentless searching for itself.  Through practice, we discover the true nature of thought:

During his meditation, a [practitioner] will find that not even one of the thoughts arising in the mind stays for an instant . . . [He or she] will find that the past mind has gone, the present mind does not stay, and the future mind has not yet come. [The practitioner] will discover that it cannot be found anywhere after an exhaustive search of it in the three times. As it cannot be found, it follows that it is non-existent and that all things (dharma) are so as well.

T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i

We, and our thoughts, are homeless because we are searching for a home that doesn’t exist, a home that we can never own.  But when we let go of that, we realize that we’ve always been home, that home is all around us.  We might call it “abiding in the home of no-home.” When we open the front door and step in, we are home in the homelessness of Buddha-dharma.

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This is an edited version of a post published in 2012.

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The Mind-Field

Several years ago, Thich Nhat Hanh republished an earlier book under the title of Understanding Our Mind: 50 Verses on Buddhist Psychology. He interprets and comments on verses Vasubandhu composed on the nature of consciousness. Together with his brother, Asanga, Vasubandhu (fl. 4th century) was one of the principle founders of the Yogacara school, and is considered one the great Buddhist philosophers, revered in a number of Buddhist traditions.

Yogacara (“Yoga-practice”), along with the Madhyamaka, was one of the two major schools in early Mahayana Buddhism. This tradition, which emphasized philosophy and psychology, was also known as Consciousness Only (Vijnanavada) or Mind Only. Thich Nhat Hanh refers to it as Manifestation Only.

IMG_3820d4He states that “According to the teachings of Manifestation Only Buddhism, our mind has eight aspects, or we can say, ‘eight consciousnesses.’ The first five are based in the physical senses . . . the sixth arises when our mind contacts an object of perception . . . [the seventh] gives rise to and is the support of the mind consciousness . . . The eighth, store consciousness (alayavijnana), is the ground, or base, of the other seven consciousnesses. “

The first fifteen verses in the book are about the store consciousness. which functions “to store or preserve all the ‘seeds’ (bija) of our experiences . . . Everything we have ever done, experienced, or perceived . . . The seeds planted by these actions, experiences, and perceptions are the ‘subject’ of consciousness.” The store consciousness also preserves the seeds themselves.

The first verse Thich Nhat Hanh presents is as follows:

Mind is a field
in which every kind of seed is sown.
The “mind-field” can also be called
“all the seeds.”

Thich Nhat Hanh comments:

Our mind is a field in which every kind of seed is sown seeds of compassion, joy, and hope, seeds of sorrow, fear, and difficulties. Every day our thoughts, words, and deeds plant new seeds in the field of our consciousness, and what these seeds generate becomes the substance of our life . . . There are wholesome and unwholesome seeds in our mind-field.”

The Chinese T’ien-t’ai (Celestial Terrace) sect viewed the mind in more metaphysical terms than the Mind Only school.  They saw it as a substance that permeates all individual minds, as well as the entire universe. They went beyond the Mind Only teachings to propose a 9th aspect, or layer, of mind – the amala consciousness. Amala means “stainless”, “pure”, or “undefiled.” This layer of mind lies beyond the level of the store consciousness and is said to be free from any influences from past experiences, and, as it is a pure consciousness, it is also far beyond any sense of self, any notion of ‘I’.

Chih-i, the de facto founder of T’ien-t’ai, equated the amala consciousness with “true nature,” or what call Buddha-nature. Tibetan Buddhism describes this same quality of mind as luminous or clear light.

The Mind Only school maintained that only mind was real, everything else was illusion. T’ien-t’ai accepted this but they were not so interested in the workings of the mind, or trying to explain what consciousness is, as they were in how to contemplate the mind. Since all reality is a product of mind, or at least identical to it, then mind, which is easily accessible, should be the primary object of contemplation.

Chih-i taught contemplating the mind as a two-pronged process where the practitioner calms and empties the mind while also realizing the quiescence and emptiness of all phenomena (chih; stopping), and through observing the mind ((kuan; insight or seeing) realizes its luminous expanse.

So, when Vasubandhu says “The mind is a field,” we can see that as pointing to the expansiveness of mind, the sweep or range of consciousness.

It is important to note that we have been looking at the mind from the standpoint of ultimate truth, but we live in the realm of relative truth, where the things we have said are mere illusions have a worldly function.  The purpose of the all this, then, is to guide us to an understanding of mind. Again, it is not so much to understand what it is, but rather to learn how we can become the master of our mind, instead of a slave to our normal state of consciousness which is always preoccupied with conflicting thoughts and sensory perceptions, constantly in pursuit of subjective experiences and external objects.

These concepts can serve as a foundation for the critical work of disengaging our thoughts from their object oriented focus and placing them squarely in the present, without thinking about the past or anticipating the future. In this way, we can realize emptiness and get a glimpse into the luminous nature of consciousness.

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The Way Followed by the Mind

Chih-i, founder of the Chinese T’ien-t’ai school, was one of the greatest Buddhist philosophers. Some have put him on a par with Nagarjuna and I would agree but add that at least in the beginning Chih-i was merely attempting to clarify Nagarjuna’s philosophy for a Chinese audience. During the time I spent practicing Nichiren Buddhism I developed an abiding interest in Chih-i’s work, since Nichiren viewed Chih-i as his spiritual ancestor and incorporated the T’ien-ta’i teachings into his own system.

Lately, I’ve been studying a section of Neal Donner’s 1976 translation of Mo-ho Chih Kuan, Chih-i’s monumental work on Buddhist practice. Donner renders the title of Chih-i’s work as “Great Calming and Contemplation”, while the Thomas Cleary translation has it as “Great Stopping and Seeing”, which I prefer.* In the Nichiren traditions (most of which reject the mode of practice Chih-i explains in the text) it is known as “Great Concentration and Insight” (Jpn. Maka Shikan).

In any case, the Mo-ho Chih Kuan was one of the most important non-Indian works of Mahayana Buddhism, influencing the development of the Ch’an (Zen) meditation, as well as practices in other traditions. It was actually the first comprehensive meditation manual written by a Chinese Buddhist, although to say that Chih-I “wrote” this work is a bit of a misnomer, for it was compiled from his lectures after his death.

The section I have been studying deals with bodhicitta, a subject I have blogged about on several occasions in recent months. Bodhicitta, the “thought of awakening”, is the aspirational wish to realize awakening for the sake of all living beings. It’s the first step in the bodhisattva path.

According to Donner, the Mo-ho Chih Kuan essentially charts “the progress of the religious practitioner from the first arising of the thought of enlightenment (bodhicitta) – when he realizes the possibility of Buddhahood within himself – to the final absorption into the indescribable Ultimate Reality, beyond all teaching, beyond all thought.”

At the beginning of the section on bodhicitta, Chih-i defines the term: “bodhi [awakening] is here (in China) called the Way” while citta “is here called ‘mind’, that is, the cognitive mind.” Donner says “Chih-i understands the bodhicitta as ‘the Way followed by the mind’” and translates the complete term bodhicitta-utpada (utpada = ‘production’) as “arousing the great thought,” while Thomas Clearly in his translation uses “awakening the great mind.”

Buddhist practice is aimed at the transformation of sufferings into nirvana. Traditionally, a crucial first step in practice is the taking of vows (vrata) which are said to form tendencies opposite of those that bind us to hard-to-eliminate negative thought patterns and habits that produce suffering.

If action is dependent upon intention, then we can counter negative patterns with purer intentions, the purest of all being the wish to realize awakening for the sake of all living beings, the essence of bodhicitta or the “thought of awakening.”

The first instant of thought in which a person conceives of the desirability of attaining awakening for the sake of others is identical with awakening itself. Chih-i says, “Even a beginning practitioner becomes a refuge for the world” if he or she understands the profound meaning of bodhicitta.

Of course, it doesn’t end there. Once generated, the subsequent determination to actualize the thought that nurtures the aspiration sets in motion the conditions that make it possible for positive tendencies to be strengthened and negative ones to be lessened. The seeds of negative potentialities reside deep within the consciousness, and it is from there, the depths of the mind, that a new concentrated thought pattern, bodhicitta, is aroused, starting the process through which we transform sufferings into nirvana for both self and others.

Chih-i says,

We call bodhicitta the “cause and condition for awakening because it is through this as a cause that sentient beings come to experience the Buddha, and it is through this as a condition that a response is aroused toward them in the Buddha.”

Chih-i may or may not have had an external, eternal Buddha in mind; however, we can understand this as referring to Buddha-nature. Bodhicitta is the cause that awakens the Buddha-nature within, and constantly arousing this wish to realize awakening for one’s self and others is the condition that enables Buddha-nature to reach full maturity.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that in this modern age only the Tibetan traditions focus seriously on bodhicitta. This seems a shame, since it was an all-important concept for such great Buddhist thinkers including not only Chih-i, but also Nagarjuna and Shantideva, all of whom offered teachings that resonate with us today. The “thought of awakening” should be easily embraceable in this present time of reason because it is a non-metaphysical concept, as the Dalai Lama, who frequently teaches on bodhicitta, explains,

Bodhicitta or the altruistic aspiration to attain Enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings is a state of mind which cannot be cultivated or generated within one’s mental continuum simply by praying for it to come into being in one’s mind. Nor will it come into existence by simply developing the understanding of what that mind is. One must generate that mind within one’s mind’s continuum.”

In other words, it’s not magic. Bodhicitta is the mind that follows the Way by working at it.

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* Neal Arvid Donner, The Great Calming and Contemplation of Chih-i, Chapter One: The Synopsis, The University of British Columbia, 1976; Thomas Cleary, Stopping and Seeing, A Comprehensive Course in Buddhist Meditation by Chih-i, Shambala Publications Inc., 1997

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