Reversing the Light to Shine Within

In my readings of Buddhist and Taoist literature over the years, I have often run across variations of a certain phrase, “turning the light around,” translated differently with slight changes of meaning changes depending on the context. The phrase comes from the Chinese huiguang, “turn around light”.

MP8776In the Taoist classic The Secret of the Golden Flower (as translated by Thomas Cleary, 1991), “turning the light around is a means of refining the higher soul, which is a means of preserving the spirit, which is a means of controlling the lower soul, which is a means of interrupting consciousness.” In Ch’an, originally known as the Inner Light School, it’s a term for the process of meditation: “Now when you turn the light around to shine inward, the mind is not aroused by things.” (Lu Yan 829–874).

Huiguang is also linked in Ch’an to hua-t’ou, literally “source” and essentially refers to the mind in its natural state undisturbed by thought, but often associated with kung-an (Jpn. koan) practice. In the Korean Zen of Chinul, the phrase is “tracing back the radiance,”* a specific practice of seeing the radiant nature of the mind within the present moment and then tracing the radiance back to its source. Chinul connects the practice to a method associated with Avalokitesvara (“Hearer of the Cries of the World”) of tracing hearing back to its source within the mind.

Hsuan Hua (1918-1995), the great Chinese teacher who played a leading role in bringing Ch’an to America during the 20th Century, presents a different take on this phrase, one that shines a bit more directly on our state of mind in daily life, in his commentary, “The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra.”  In this treatment of the Heart Sutra, Hsuan Hua comments on a line or few words from the text with a verse he composed and then a short explanation. Here he analyzes the first three words of the “shorter” Heart Sutra:

When Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva

Verse:

Reversing the light to shine within,
Avalokiteshvara enlightens all the sentient beings; thus he is a Bodhisattva.
His mind is thus, thus, unmoving, a superior one at peace;
With total understanding of the ever-shining, he is host and master.
Six types of psychic powers are an ordinary matter,
And even less can the winds and rains of the eight directions cause alarm.
He rolls it up and secretly hides it away;
And lets it go to fill the entire world.

Commentary:

The name Avalokiteshvara is Sanskrit; in Chinese it is rendered guan zi zai, “Contemplating Ease”. To be at ease is to be happy about everything and to be without worries or obstacles. To be unimpeded is to contemplate ease. If you are impeded, then you are not contemplating ease. Reversing the light to shine within is contemplating ease. If you don’t reverse the light to shine within, you’re not contemplating ease.

What is meant by “reversing the light to shine within”? Regardless of what the situation is, examine yourself. If someone has wronged you, you should think to yourself, “Basically, I was wrong.”

If you say, “When people don’t act properly toward me, I don’t look to see whether I’m right myself; I just smash them right away, smash their heads in so that blood flows” – then you haven’t won a victory, but have only shown your complete lack of principles and wisdom. To reverse the light to shine within is to have principles and wisdom. Reverse the light and contemplate whether or not you are at ease.

I will explain the two characters zi zai, which together mean “ease”. The zi is oneself, and the zai is where one is. I’ll say it word for word. Are you right here (zai), or aren’t you? In other words, do you have false thoughts, or not? If one has false thoughts, then one (zi) is not right here. It’s very simple. To reverse the light to shine within is simply to see whether you have false thoughts. If you have false thoughts, then you aren’t at ease. If you don’t have false thoughts, then you are at ease. That’s how wonderful it is.

“The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra” with “Verses Without A Stand” and Prose Commentary of the Venerable Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua, English translation by the Buddhist Text Translation Society

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* Robert E. Buswell, Tracing Back the Radiance: Chinul’s Korean Way of Zen, University of Hawaii Press, 1991

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SBNR: Spiritual But Not Religious

MP2391“Spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) has become a popular expression. According to Wikipedia, it’s “used to self-identify a life stance of spirituality that rejects traditional organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth.”

Not everyone is taken with the idea. Some time back, I was encouraged to read Dispirited: How contemporary spirituality makes us stupid, selfish, and unhappy by David Webster. Here are his opening words: “When someone tells me that they are not really religious, but that they are a very spiritual person, I want to punch their face. Hard.”

When someone starts a book off with something like that; I want to throw the book down. Hard. Which is not easy to do when you’re reading an excerpt online. Suffice to say, I didn’t purchase it.

The book description on Amazon says, “Dave Webster’s book is a counter-blast against the culturally accepted norm that spirituality is a vital and important factor in human life. Rejecting the idea of human wellbeing as predicated on the spiritual, the book seeks to identify the toxic impact of spiritual discourses on our lives. Spirituality makes us confused, apolitical and miserable . . . “ Regardless of what kind of spirituality it may be, I gather. Evidently, the author suggests we replace “spirituality” with “atheistic existentialism, Theravada Buddhism and political engagement.” That sounds fine, but I have reservations about his overall premise.

Now, according to a recent study done in the United Kingdom, SBNR people are not necessarily stupid, selfish, and unhappy but they are likely to develop a “mental disorder,” “be dependent on drugs” or “have abnormal eating attitudes,” like bulimia and anorexia. So says a paper published in the January edition of the British Journal of Psychiatry. Michael King, a professor at University College London and the head researcher on the project says, “People who have spiritual beliefs outside of the context of any organized religion are more likely to suffer from these maladies.”

I’m not buying this guy’s line either. All SBNR really amounts to is a rejection of organized religion as the “sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth,” as we read above. What’s the problem with that? Additionally, the study separates the “spiritual” from the agnostic or atheist, but as we all know, not every person who is agnostic or atheist belongs to an organized group. Few do, as a matter of fact.

I think what is happening here is a subtle change in the meaning of a word. Words are often the name for several different referents, and consequently, have different meanings. In some cases, over a period of time, there is a change in the words used to represent a referent, and conversely, a change in the meaning of a word and its referents. I think “spiritual, but not religious” simply represents a change in the meaning of the word “spirituality”. The problem is we don’t have new words for the referents to go with it.

That, however, is a secondary problem, the real crux of the matter is that we are hung up on self and group identity and designations. I’m spiritual. I’m religious. I’m Zen. I’m not. Who cares?

Haggling over the meaning of words and clinging to designations are two activities that are considered impediments to the Buddhist path, because words and designations are ultimately sunya, empty. The preferred method of action would be to open our minds and enlarge our understanding of these things.

With that in mind, here is an interesting take on the word “spititual” by the great teacher, Hsuan-Hua, a Chinese Ch’an monk and founder of the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association. It’s from his explanation of the Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra. The Chinese character shen means “God, unusual, mysterious, soul, spirit, divine essence, lively, spiritual being.” Interesting, a word like this does not appear in the Sanskrit version of the sutra. The phrase in question simply reads “maha-mantra” or great mantra. The Chinese character miao or a Sanskrit equivalent is not found in either version.

heartsutra-siddham
Heart Sutra in Siddham script with the seed syllable “dhih” in the center.

What is the meaning of spiritual? “Spiritual” is inconceivable. The meaning is just about the same as “wonderful;” nonetheless, “wonderful” (miao) has the meaning of “unmoving,” while “spiritual” (shen) has the meaning of “moving;” there is a kind of movement. The wonderful is unmoving, yet moves everything totally and comprehends everything totally. It doesn’t function through movement. However, if the spiritual doesn’t move, then it is not the spiritual. The spiritual must move. The same word appears in the compound shen tong, which means psychic power; the Chinese literally is “spiritual penetration.” The “penetration” means a going through; there is movement. But in the wonderful there is knowledge without movement.

The Buddha teaches and transforms living beings in other Buddha-countries to realize the Way and to enter nirvana. He knows everything. The wonderful is right here; without using movement, he knows. But with the spiritual you must go to the place to know about it. The spiritual gets to wherever it is going like a rocket going to the moon. When you arrive on the moon, you know what the moon is made of and you know what the creation of the moon was about.”

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