Imagine that Nagarjuna was at a dinner, and he had the job of serving the dessert. “Ok, Bob, you and Mary, you both get pie. Now, Bob, you get pie, and Mary, you get no pie. Now Bob, you get no pie, and Mary you do get pie. Now, neither of you get pie.” And so the dinner is ruined. And he wonders why he sees all these dinner invitations go out and they all say, “And don't bring Nagarjuna. He's such a killjoy.”
The Three Dharma Seals are impermanence, no-self, and dissatisfaction (sometimes called suffering). I think it's pretty easy to wrap our heads around impermanence, things go impermanent on us all the time. It got to the point where the string on my mala didn't break, the mala just “went impermanent.” Have a bad day at work or an argument with the spouse, and unemployment or sleeping on the couch make suffering very obvious. But this no-self thing…just seems that “if I want pie, then I WANT PIE. The only way I'm going to be “one with the pie” is when it's settled in my stomach.”
I've been talking a corresponding with someone who is totally befuddled by “no-self.” He's gotten to the point where he's hesitant to use the word “I,” at least when speaking in Zen context. I'm not sure, but I can imagine him having some guilt in everyday conversation. “Who wants more pie?” “Me!” “I do!” “Er, hmmmm, um eh…” and Greg gets no pie.
And there's the rub. We hear we're “one with everything,” so technically eating pie should be satisfying, but right now, the lack of blueberries is causing me great dissatisfaction. But we keep hearing that “I, I, I,” “me, me, me," ”mine, mine, mine” is bad. “I'm so confused….er, somebody's confused, no, wait, All is confused! Now give me pie, and make it all better!”
“All beings are no-beings, thus are they called ‘beings’.” The Diamond Sutra teaches us this, but without a teacher, it's probably inscrutable, unless you're Huineng or Seung Sahn. The Heart Sutra says “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” Again, with no teacher, blank stares most likely ensue. There are a couple of problems most people have with these Sutras, starting with the paradoxes and apparent contradictions they have in just about any given sentence. The second is that they appear contradictory to “real life.”
All or any of those statements may be effective in giving the shock to the system that gives rise to the “Don't Know Mind” of being awake. Conversely, certitude is the gateway to hell. “Oh, no! Not another paradox!” Knowing and understanding don't serve a purpose. Given everything being in a state of flux, what is there we can successfully hang onto? If we take a step, will the ground be there to support us? Sure, in most cases, but there's always the possibility of the earth opening its gaping hungry-ghost-like hole and swallow us whole. Ask anyone who has lost a car in a sinkhole. Go to bed one night, your wife is there, wake up the next morning, she and the kids are gone. That's a concrete example of the rug, chair, and the rest of the house and everything you've come to expect to be there, and then not, all being pulled out from under you. The issue comes not from contradictions, or paradox, maddening wordplay, or general madness. Where is the “self” that can be assumed to exist predictably? Where is the self that exists in flux and paradox.
The Four Attachments are “Sensual attachment,” “Attachment to opinions,” “Attachment to rites and rituals,” and “Attachment to the idea of self.” Sensual attachment? As simple as “I like pie, pie makes me happy. No pie, no happy.” It's comfortable for home to be home, until home is no longer home. We assume it will be home, because it's always been, and it's been as predictable as foot hitting ground when walking. I get pie because I always get pie. But then, no home, no pie. Attachment to opinions? Name it, politics, religion, anything we’ve been warned against talking about at the dinner table. “Apple is better than rhubarb!” “Them’s fightin’ words!” Attachment to rites and rituals? Anything from, “I practice Soto Zen, and we face the wall, so you Seon guys are just plain wrong,” to “Dinner is always at 6:00, why isn’t it ready? And where's the pie?”
Attachment to the idea of “self?” All the above, plus anything else that shows “I” to be separate all the time from “you,” like I'm right and you're wrong. Note that it’s attachment to the “idea” of self. “Ideas” are something we make up in our heads. Conventionally, “I” go to work at “my” job. “I” sleep in “my” bed. If I find you in it, I may have an issue with it, not only because of my attachments, but because it’s incorrect behavior for you in this situation. It’s up to me to respond in appropriate way in turn to that though. Showing more “me,” will most likely get you to show “you.” It’s very easy to be threatened by someone else’s attachment the the “idea of self” when it comes in conflict with my “idea of self.” Even being hesitant to use “I” as the subject of a sentence does no good if there's an underlying “I” who secretly still is attached to it.
We need to admit to having attachments though, especially if we ever want to become non-attached, much like an alcoholic needs to admit to having a drinking problem before anything can be done about that. Denying attachment doesn’t help, and acceptance without realizing that change is possible and inevitable is likewise no help. Despite the inevitability of the object of attachment changing, unless we put in some effort, the change may not be a change into something more wholesome. Being a drunk and turning into a junkie isn’t quite as wholesome as being a drunk and recovering by whatever means keeps you from getting drunk again.
An alcoholic who is still drinking can’t help someone who is trying to get sober if he isn’t at least making an attempt himself at getting sober. A bodhisattva can’t be of much help to a sentient being unless there is active effort in an attempt to be less attached, especially to the idea of self. We traverse the path of the bodhisattva without attachment to the “idea of being a bodhisattva,” or the attachment to the idea that a bodhisattva can “save,” another being, or to the idea of “other beings” for that matter. Attachments are attachments, and as such are hindrances to uncovering the True Nature of compassion. Diligent effort is required, and once one attachment is shed, we need to vigorously cultivate the shedding, and also cultivate not creating new attachments, and then cultivate not clinging to non-attachment as well.
But let’s face it, we really like some of these attachments. Some have worked well, until they no longer do. What good is something that no longer works, even though we still want to think it does? We may fight against letting go of it, we may cling with all our might, dig our claws in, but it does no good. Just think, how does pie look if it's covered in claw marks?