Sunday, April 22, 2012

Zen Without Koans Like Christianity Without Christ

Zen without koans is like Christianity without Christ

A visiting Zen monk asked, “In the Rinzai School of Zen they introspect koans. In the Soto sect we are taught that introspecting koans in meditation only leads to intellectual understanding and diverts us from true, objectless meditation. Do you think that koans are even necessary in Zen?”

Louie Wing said, “Zen without koans would be like Christianity without Christ. The koan literature and practice methods are really the only major factor that distinguishes Zen from the other Mahayana Buddhist schools. If you are attracted to a path that does not utilize koans, fine, but why call it Zen?”

The monk said, “We don’t disregard koans; we just don’t use them for objects of meditation.”

Louie Wing said, “If you distinguish meditation from no meditation then you turn meditation itself into an object.”
The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing by Ted Biringer, p.151

Friday, April 20, 2012

Experience, The True Self, & The Individual Self

Experience, The True Self, & The Individual Self

Stating that dharmas are the fundamental constituents of reality is only meaningful in a context wherein the significance of “reality” is understood – and understood as somehow distinct from “dharmas.” As abstract generalizations “2+2” and “4” are merely two ways of stating the same thing; as experiential manifestations “2+2” and “4” can be distinctly different (e.g. a carpenter wants 2 nails at each end of a board, she calculates 4 nails per board). Therefore, we use the term “reality” for the actual manifestation of our experience of/as a “self.” For the only reality anyone has ever known is the experience of something (a thing, being, or event) or experience as something (a thing, being, or event) – the experience of “an other” or experience as “a self.” Thus, Dogen points out:

When speaking of consciousness of self and other, there is a self and an other in what is known; there is a self and an other in what is seen.

Shobogenzo, Shoaku Makusa, Hubert Nearman

One thing this means is that all three, “experience” (consciousness), “self,” and “other” presuppose each other, or in Buddhist terms, are interdependent. Therefore, to speak of “experience” is to speak of self and other, to speak of “self” is to speak of experience and other, etc. With this in mind, our initial statement (i.e. dharmas are the fundamental constituents of reality) could be accurately expressed as, dharmas are the fundamental constituents of experience, or dharmas are the fundamental constituents of self, or dharmas are the fundamental constituents of other – each of these expressions identify “dharmas” with the reality of “experience,” “self,” and “other.”

Nevertheless, it is difficult to deny that the term “self” seems, or feels more intimate, more meaningful, thus less alien and less abstract than “other” and “experience.” Therefore, we accept the Buddhist view that experience, self, and other are mutually inclusive and of equal status, and also follow Buddhism’s general practice of opting to utilize the term “self” as the primary metaphor for reality. To sum up and clarify; “self” (which presupposes “experience” and “other”) is the root metaphor of reality, thus the primary principle of Zen practice-enlightenment.

Before proceeding, a brief comment on a side issue related to the self as the primary metaphor of Zen is in order. It is axiomatic in Zen that authentic (i.e. intentional and effective) practice-enlightenment can only begin when the true nature of the self is experientially verified. Thus, the initial experience of true nature, often called “seeing true nature” (kensho), or “seeing Buddha” (kenbutsu), is naturally emphasized in Zen. The emphasis on an initial awakening, while perfectly understandable, has led many to over-estimate its import in the overall actualization of Zen practice-enlightenment – many have even concluded that it is the be-all and end-all of Zen. Here, then, let it be said that it is crucial to understand that awakening to the true nature of the self is the beginning, not the end of Zen practice-enlightenment.

Now, let us proceed by taking up what may be the thorniest question of all; who or what is it that we refer to as “we?” What is this “self” whose “true nature” the classic Zen masters are continuously urging us to awaken to? The majority of contemporary books whose subject centers on the “self,” books on health, psychology, religion (including Zen), and even self-help, show a marked propensity to avoid defining what it is they mean by the “self.” Like these books, the general population seems to assume that the meaning of “self” is self-evident. Nevertheless, when we compare how particular individuals explain their understanding of the self we find a multitude of differences and disagreements as well as a vast amount of obscurity, vagueness, and confusion. Because we view this writing, like all manner of expression, as a self-expression (i.e. an expression of the self, by the self, to the self) on the true nature of the self, we (i.e. the self) need to attempt to present a general outline of our understanding of the self here.

In Buddhism, “self” (Sanskrit: Atman, or Pali: Atta), like the Old English “aethm” and German “atem,” etymologically means “breath,” thus connoting “life,” “spirit,” “inspiration,” and perhaps most significantly “consciousness.” At the same time, “self” (sometimes used synonymously with “soul,” “ego,” “person,” etc.) is often used in a manner indicative of a “separate individual,” “particular being,” or “independent entity.” It is primarily in this latter sense of the term that the central tenet of Buddhist doctrine, “no-self” or “non-self” (anatman), is addressed. This tenet asserts, briefly, that no independent self (separate, enduring entity) exists.

As long as the term “self” is understood in a way that leaves unsettled the impossibility for a self to exist as an independent entity, it fails to qualify as Buddhist, and indeed must be considered non-Buddhist. Nevertheless, this does not mean that any and all notions of “self” are therefore rejected or prohibited by Buddhism – even the earliest and most conservative forms of Buddhism recognized the importance of, and developed sophisticated approaches to, the inarguably existent and dynamic experience of human subjectivity. It is fair to say that the culminating schools of Mahayana Buddhism all achieved elaborately comprehensive visions of the self that ably accounted for all aspects of subjectivity without violating the tenet of “no-self.”

Generously, and unabashedly borrowing and adapting from the Huayen, Tendai, and other Buddhist schools (as well as from Taoism and Confucianism), Zen developed and utilized a number of doctrines and methods to deal with a “self” that effectively harmonizes with “no-self.” And accordingly, whether in terms of “ordinary beings and Buddhas,” “false mind and true mind,” “guest and host,” or similar variations, the “self” gradually but unvaryingly realized an increasing potential of mythological significance. As with the term “soul” in Neoplatonism (only developing unhindered for much longer), it became, and continues to be possible in Buddhism to use “self” in speaking of the individual self (e.g. myself, yourself, herself, etc.) and the world self (e.g. the universe, great self, Buddha, etc.) at once, that is, to communicate meaningfully and truthfully about both the individual and the world. Of course, it remains possible for “self” to distinctly refer to one or the other; the ordinary, personal, or ego self, or the original, great, or true self. Which “self” (i.e. the individual, the world, or both) is meant in a particular instance is usually easily determined by its context.

Having noted the variety of dharmas that can be illumined by the term, let us now consider the actual nature of the several particulars designated as “self.” We will begin with the individual self, that is, the ordinary, personal, or ego self – the self we commonly identify as “our self.” Generally, the individual self is the subject of experience. To clarify, first note that any (and every) sense of “self” is by definition divided by a sense of “self” and “other than self.” Recall Dogen’s words above:

When speaking of consciousness of self and other, there is a self and an other in what is known; there is a self and an other in what is seen.

Shobogenzo, Shoaku Makusa, Hubert Nearman

It should now be clear that the content of experience (i.e. an “object of consciousness”) is experienced by the individual self as something distinct from, or other than the individual self. In short, then, the individual self is the “what” that is experienced as being independent of the content (object) of experience.

Now we are ready to consider the world self, that is, the universal, great, or true self – the self that Buddhism often identifies as “Buddha.” In general, the world self is the whole universe, the totality of existence-time. Whereas the individual self is the subject of experience as distinct from the object of experience, the “true” self is inclusive of both the subject and the object of experience. In the context of Dogen’s expression, the individual self is the self of “self and other” (i.e. the self distinct from the other); the world self is “what is known” and “what is seen,” which, as Dogen points out, is inclusive of both “a self and an other.”

We make haste to point out that the perspective of the “world self” denies neither the reality nor the significance of the “individual self.” In contrast to the assertions of some contemporary “Zen teachers,” the individual self is not illusory or provisional, but rather a real eternal constituent of the world self – is in fact wholly constituted of the world self. In short, while the world self is not wholly contained by the individual self (far from it!), the individual self is nevertheless wholly contained within the world self, thus wholly contained within the totality of existence-time.

I hope this is helpful.


Monday, April 16, 2012

Dharmas and the Self (or Not-Self; Anatman)

Dharmas and the Self
[This article was revised and adapted from the Flatbed Zen Newsletter – available at our sister blog, The Flatbed Sutra Zen Blog]
Our usage of the term “dharma”
In Buddhist literature the term "dharma" has many meanings; its meaning in a particular instance is usually most clearly discerned by its context. The meaning of the term "dharma" concerning us here is one of the most common –– that is as a general signifier for distinct particularities, occasions, or entities; any specific datum that can be singled out, pointed to, imagined, etc. Thus, a human being is a dharma, so is a minute, a century, a unicorn, a flower, a phone call, a rock, a dream, a universe, and an imaginary friend. In short, the usage of the term “dharma” in this post is confined to its indication of particular things, beings, and instances.
Dharmas: The Fundamental Constituents of the Self
Dharmas (particularities) are the first thing with which Zen doctrine and methodology must be concerned. The Buddhist doctrine of emptiness (shunyata) is commonly regarded as the starting point for Buddhist study. The Buddhist teachings on emptiness elucidate the truth that all dharmas are empty of self (own being); thus, these teachings presuppose an understanding of the Buddhist notion of dharmas. It is the insight of dharmas as the most fundamental constituents of reality that the doctrine of emptiness accounts for; Buddhism affirms dharmas as the true nature of the world and self, and appeals to the teachings of emptiness to account for the reasoning thereof.

The self, or non-self (anatman), has been identified with dharmas since the earliest Buddhist teachings. This identification remains central in all Buddhist traditions. While details and emphasis regarding the nature of dharmas often varies widely among schools the fundamental insight is the same – the self is constituted of dharmas and is actualized by dharmas. In short, dharmas are not only what the world and the self is, they are the means whereby the world and the self manifest.

In experiencing the world of dharmas the self experiences itself; in truly recognizing this, the self verifies that she is of dharmas, and abides within dharmas – when dharmas are truly seen as dharmas the division between “self” and “other than self” is absent (i.e. reality ceases to be conceptually divided into “self” and “not-self”).

As the essence and form of the self and the other, dharmas are autochthonous; that is, dharmas originate in and inhabit the location and time in which they are experienced. The source of the self, then, is also its homeland; the myriad dharmas. The dynamics of the self-luminous, self-generating (autochthonous) nature of dharmas is comprehensively treated by Dogen’s teaching of “self-fulfilling samadhi.” The focus of the present post is that all dharmas are real and all realities are dharmas – thus dharmas are their own reason (dori), their own cause and effect, their own meaning, their own value.

This is, of course, inconsistent with the prevailing world view which has an inherent propensity to regard all manner of dharmas as mere representatives of a reality rather than reality itself. This is most apparent in notions about language; words, names, teachings, etc., which are commonly viewed as symbols that only represent, stand for, or point to “realities,” but lack intrinsic value in themselves. The same reasoning, however, is central in nearly every arena of human interest. This results from the almost universal acceptance of the “representation” theory of knowledge presupposed in nearly every field of modern science as well as those of the arts. Just as words, names, reports, etc. are regarded as mere representatives for “real” things, beings, or events (i.e. dharmas) in the (objective) world, so too perceptions of the world are regarded as representatives – reconstructions – of the “actual” objects (i.e. dharmas) that exist in the “real” world.

For example, according to the common view the flower seen is not the “real” flower but a re-presentation of it created by the mind (or brain) with data provided to by the senses, in addition to the mind’s own capacity to “fill in” gaps not provided by the senses due to inherent limitations of the sense organs (e.g. the eyeball’s limited peripheral range, physical blind spots, etc.).

There is no account offered for why it is that the mind (or brain) is “smart enough” to fill in the “rest of the picture,” but is not smart enough to “get the picture” without going through the effort of filling in gaps… And, for whom does the mind make all this effort to provide the “representation” to? Well, according to the scientific theory, the mind creates the representation to provide it to itself.

When, in addition to this na├»ve, irrational conception of knowledge, we consider the widely accepted notions about the nature of thought (and emotion), it is easy to see the reasons for the massive intellectual, emotional, and spiritual poverty of modern civilization. Where Buddhism regards thoughts as dharmas perceived by the mind (which is regarded by Buddhism as a sense organ), the common view regards thoughts as unique, even vastly different from other perceptions – where the common view regards the perception of a flower as not the “real” flower but at least a representation of a real flower, thoughts are not even considered as representing anything real. Further, in the modern world view the reality and reliability of thought is commonly subjected to serious doubt, and often regarded and treated as inherently misleading.

Now, if thoughts are unreliable, and language and perception do not present reality to us, what means could reliably provide any knowledge of the “real” world? Notice also; if thought were truly unreliable then any notion (i.e. thought) about our inability to perceive reality could not be trusted – moreover, if such a notion could be verified, it would, thereby, render itself unreliable!

The common world view misses the mark by presupposing that an “objective” world or universe exists independent of (and generally impervious to) subjective experience. The “representation” theory implies that human beings are forever barred from any direct experience of “reality” and therefore inexorably confined to speculating about the true nature of a world. The reality of the “objective” world, according to this notion, can only be inferred through the analysis of perceptions, assumed to “re-present” real objects of that world, constructed by the mind (or brain) from impressions that are assumed to be after-effects of the “real” world’s influence on the sense organs.

The Zen perspective is diametrically counter to the common view. Zen refuses to engage in mere hypothetical speculation, much less accept it as first principle of truth. More, Zen discourages such speculation by deriding the folly of unnecessarily entertaining conceptual notions that are inherently unverifiable, thus irrelevant. Recognizing that any “reality” existing independent of human perception would, by definition, have no influence on human existence, Zen exhorts us to focus on the one reality that is actually relevant to human existence. Zen calls our attention to the myriad dharmas – the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, tactile sensations, and thoughts – constituting the only reality that has ever actually been experienced; the world and the self being experienced here and now.

To recognize dharmas as the source, manifestation, and destination of the self and the world is to see the ultimate significance of even the most prosaic things, beings, and events. Corollary with this recognition is an intimacy of kinship with each and all dharmas – a natural identification with the world, a certain understanding that the self and the myriad dharmas are of one family.

In recognition of the primacy of dharmas, we strongly encourage practitioners to follow the guidance of the classic Zen masters who frequently return to, emphasize, and insist on the importance of maintaining awareness of the nature of dharmas and the implications of that nature. To this end, we now summarize the main points here observed concerning dharmas, and follow this with a few clarifications.

A dharma is a fundamental constituent of reality apart from which nothing exists; if it exists, it must be a dharma, and if it is a dharma, it must exist.

A dharma is an actual and particular instance of reality, an observable (i.e. intelligible) phenomenon in/of space and time.

A dharma is autochthonous, its origin is precisely the location and time (uji; existence-time) of its appearance; all things (i.e. the world and the self) have their source in dharmas, a dharma is its own source.

Some Clarifications Concerning the Nature Dharmas

To preclude some of the more common misunderstandings related to the points discussed, a few brief clarifications on the nature of dharmas is merited here.

First, the description of dharmas as the fundamental constituents of reality is meant unconditionally, thus, it does not leave open the possibility for the existence of a “force,” “essence,” or “nature” more fundamental than dharmas. Because dharmas are always particular, they are usually referred to in terms of “elements,” “constituents,” or “units,” rather than “natures,” “forces,” or “essences.” This usage of terms, however, should be regarded as undermining the primary significance qualifying dharmas as being “most fundamental.” The primary purpose of pointing out dharmas as the most fundamental elements of reality is to clarify that dharmas are not constituted of anything more fundamental than themselves. In short, dharmas are not “made up of” more basic elements or any subtler essence, nature, or force. Insofar as any essence, nature, or force is existent, it too must have its source in, and thus, be qualified as a particular dharma. The significant implication here is that as fundamental instances of reality, dharmas cannot be understood, explained, or defined by, or according to any “other” constituent whatsoever, elements or essences. In sum, dharmas are not made of anything other than what they are – dharmas are dharmas through and through.

Next, recognizing every phenomenon (i.e. every form, sound, smell, taste, feeling, and thought) as a dharma, and every dharma as an actual and particular instance of reality has several crucial implications. One, it makes it incumbent to regard every dharma as of equal status concerning the authenticity of its actuality (true nature); the import being a total absence of superiority and inferiority among dharmas concerning their true nature. Two, it renders as unnecessary any obligation to account for any evolutionary or developmental process whereby dharmas experience some form of progression or sophistication from a primordial or elementary condition; being “as they are” from the beginning, dharmas are impervious to reductionism from the start. Three, it puts an end to any and all debates involving speculative notions of unknowable realities or unverifiable laws and forces; if something really exists, it is a dharma, hence, an observable, intelligible phenomenon.

Finally, to acknowledge the truth of the autochthonous nature of dharmas is to recognize the fallacy of all forms of nominalism; no dharma can be the mere representative, symbol, or signifier of a reality other than itself. Every dharma, including words, names, ideas, perceptions, signs, mental images, and anything else that can described, pointed to, or singled out in any way is – as it is – an instance of existence-time, a manifest expression of Buddha. The import here is that dharmas are their own reason (dori), their own cause and effect, their own meaning, their own value.

I hope this is helpful.