I’ve spent a fair amount of time as what might be called a Zen hard-ass. I see a website for a Zen center that says that meditation will result in peaceful calm equanimity, and I want to shake somebody. I’ll think to myself, “How can you say that?!? There are no results, and making promises that can’t be kept just sets people up for a feeling of failure, maybe even contempt for the Zen center or Zen practice itself!” To some extent that is false advertising; it’s not like sitting mindfully on a cushion will unequivocally bear any fruit, at least maybe not in the meditator’s time frame. There are no guarantees of peace, calm, or Enlightenment just because you sit on a cushion once a week or read a book.
And yet, I can’t deny that with practice, maybe in one instant, maybe in an instant that takes many lifetimes to roll around, peace, calm, equanimity, and yes, even Enlightenment may actually result. Meditation can be like the medication that is meant to treat one thing, and ends up having a beneficial side-effect. We get on the cushion because of some sort of suffering, and maybe that suffering is relieved through our practice, but “Hey, what made me suffer is still there, but at least now it doesn’t make me suffer...at least not right now, anyway.” A minoxidil of the struggling self, where not only is the ulcer relieved, but “Hey, look at that, I’m not bald anymore!” And that’s OK.
Bodhidharma spoke of perceiving our True Nature as Enlightenment, or Awakening, or simply “Buddha.” Mazu spoke of “Mind is Buddha.” Sengcan spoke of the Great Way as “easy for those with no preferences.” As Zen practitioners, quite often we can seemingly make things “difficult” for ourselves, argue with the idea that “Ordinary Mind is the Way,” and sometimes mistake what we think is our true nature for True Nature.
When one begins practice, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the paradoxical, sometimes contradictory statements that the Great Sages have handed down to us. Our inability to understand must mean that we are “bad Buddhists.” We hear about Buddha Nature at some point, and contend that it’s either impossible, or maybe possible for someone else, but certainly not for “me.” We might hear about “no mind,” and assume that implies that if one is sitting in meditation and thinks at all, then we are meditation failures. And maybe we hear about Zen practice as the direct perception of reality. Shortly thereafter, the Heart Sutra comes along and tells us that all perceptions are “empty.” “Damn. This is hard. My ordinary mind is anything but the Way.”
And none of these thoughts we might have are inherently “wrong,” but maybe the way in which they are “right” isn’t readily apparent. When it comes to “True Nature,” as a result of practice, we get to the point where we can observe our thoughts, then eventually judge the thoughts as empty, and live in the realm of the Absolute, at least while we’re on the cushion. Once back in the “real world,” it’s back to greed, anger, and delusion, only to be seen in retrospect back on the cushion, with the distinct possibility that some self-scolding will begin. The wrong-ness of the behaviors I’ve mentioned may seem dualistic, that there’s “not-good/not-bad,” and therefore I’m spouting heretical views to say that there is wrong-ness. That there are “wrong” actions is undeniable.
Upon investigation of those thoughts from a classic text standpoint, maybe do you have a point, but only to a certain extent. If you want to pick and choose the teachings justify that view, then you can come to that conclusion; if you want to pick and choose teaching that refer to not picking and choosing, then it becomes a moot point as to whether I’m right or you’re right, because that’s being. “Oh hell, there’s another kalpa in the realm of hungry ghosts” for having picked and chosen is as dualistic as saying, “Oh goody, I didn’t pick and choose, Great Way here I come!”
It’s easy to come to the conclusion that in radically accepting ourselves as flawed, that stopping there is the attainment of True Nature. “I’m a jerk,” we say, justifying our perceived jerkiness as True. And while it’s true that you’re a jerk, or that I’m obnoxious, or that others are really delusional and would be a whole lot better if they practiced meditation, it may not reflect “True.” Being an obnoxious, delusional jerk is as much a part of reality in its totality as being kind, loving, tolerant, and wise. Seeing our True Nature doesn’t just mean accepting that we’re jerks. It does mean that we can accept it, seeing it for what it truly is--constantly changing--and taking steps to be not-a-jerk. Seeing the jerk within gives us the freedom to be that jerk, to see that we needn’t be a jerk, and that I’m not a jerk every minute of every day and will be forever, or that just seeing being a jerk is not actually running the whole race. We accept reality for what it is, see that not only will it change on its own, but that we can be an active participant in the changing. In the perspective of interdependence of all phenomena, when I change just the slightest bit, the entire universe changes. When the universe changes, I cannot help but change--causes and conditions differ, reactions and adaptations to those causes and conditions change, and as there’s no “universe + 1 (me)”, I’m a part and the whole of the change.
When I see that I can hate, and that I also can love, that’s truth--reality. But when I see that my True Nature, yours, and the Nature of all phenomena, is not to think that seeing that I can hate means it has to stop there, attaching to the notion that there’s any permanence to that particular momentary reflection of reality. So far as direct perception of reality goes, letting go of notions, perceptions, and nature as real things is the Great Way. True Nature isn’t a thing, or a concept, something that can be attained, noticed, not attained, or not noticed. It can be said that it’s both attained and not attained, noticed and not noticed, but that’s getting into the territory of the conceptual. “To Call it a thing is not correct,” as Nanyue said to the Sixth Patriarch. When we look past “True Nature” and simply act truly naturally, then there is correct True Nature, truly natural ordinary mind Buddha-Nature.
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