The Sun, Sky and Sea

I was sorting through some old papers the other day and ran across something I printed off the Internet about ten years ago that I thought would be nice to share with you today. It’s the last paragraph of a dharma talk given by Ven. Jen-chun, founder and guiding teacher of Bodhi Monastery (in New Jersey) and the Yin Shun Foundation, a charitable foundation, who passed away earlier this year.

If you want to practice the Mahayana path, you should contemplate the sun, the sky, and the sea. In the morning, when the sun has just risen, contemplate it and try to allow your mind to be that luminous. Take time to contemplate the sky and try to achieve a mental state that is like empty space – clear and without obstruction. Go to the seashore and contemplate the boundless capacity and unobstructedness of the ocean. If you engage in these contemplations, they will benefit you. On the other hand, if you allow yourself to be governed by the environment and pulled this way and that, you will not attain the Mahayana path.”

Now, as always, we don’t want to take this literally. I can just imagine someone reading this and thinking to themselves, oh rats, now I have to get up at dawn and contemplate the sun if I want to practice Buddhism. No, what we want to do is try to capture the spirit of these words and Jen-chun is asking us to be like the sun, the sky and the sea – to make our minds bright, clear and vast.

I thought the other day that the destruction of the self – that notion of a permanent, independent ego-entity – is actually just the realization of a sense of the infinite within the mind, to become infinite by recognizing that we already are.

Some 2500 years after the time of the Buddha and there is still much confusion and disagreement in regard to the teachings on the concept of the “self.” And yet, nothing could be clearer than this short statement from the Sunna Sutta or “Empty Sutra” found in the Samyutta-Nikaya:

Sunnam attena va attaniyena ya – Empty is the world, because it is void of a self and anything belonging to a self.”

Both attena and attani relate to the Pali word anatta, which is normally described as “no-self” or “no-soul.” The statement above is virtually the same as the one in the Heart Sutra, in which Avalokitesvara “sees” that the five aggregates are sunyata-svabhava or “empty of own-being.” But the self is not just the skandhas. Svabhava refers to a being-ness, essential nature, which is unconditioned and not dependent upon anything to come into existence, a spirit or soul that, unchanged, continues on after physical death. It’s also the sense of self, the sense of “I”.

This notion of self-hood is ignorance. The view from self is narrow, limited, egocentric – finite.  Buddhism encourages us to free our minds, to break through our limitations in thinking so that we can see ourselves, paraphrasing John Donne, as a piece of the universe, a part of the main.

Or, like Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath,

Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then . . .”

Realizing the infinite in a deeply intuitive way goes beyond merely recognizing the vastness of existence, as one would admire a beautiful sunrise, a clear blue sky or sea. And yet, for Rabindranath Tagore, whose phrase “the endless further” is used as the title of this blog, the appreciation of beauty, apprehending the truth of beauty, was a path to the infinite.

In Prabhat Sangit (“Morning Songs”), he wrote of his first realization of the infinite. For Tagore, it was a mystical experience:

One morning, I stood on the balcony of our Calcutta house and looked at the gardens of the free school. The sun was just rising behind the green branches of trees, and I looked on. Suddenly, I felt as if a layer was removed from my eyes. I saw an effable beauty, I felt an inexplicable joy within the depths of my own being and I found the whole universe soaked in it. My discontent vanished instantaneously and a universal light flooded my entire being.”

Perhaps he was thinking of that maiden voyage into the infinite, when he wrote this poem:

The same stream of life that runs through
my veins night and day runs through
the world and dances in rhythmic
measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy
through the dust of the earth in
numberless blades of grass and breaks
into tumultuous waves of leaves and
flowers.

It is the same life that is rocked in the
ocean-cradle of birth and of death,
in ebb and flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the
touch of this world of life. And my pride
is from the life-throb of ages dancing
in my blood this moment.

Are you infinite? Have you ever been infinite? Not necessarily awakened but beautiful . . .

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