Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Lobster in the Tank

If you go to a seafood restaurant in the Northeastern US (maybe elsewhere), you may encounter what at first looks like an aquarium. But it’s only stocked with lobsters, and there aren't the typical deep sea diver toys, little castles, and fake seaweed as you might find in a common home aquarium. The lobsters are in fact packed really tightly, and sometimes fight leaving one or both without a claw, and maybe whatever other appendage a lobster might have that they can lose. It could be said that it’s just lobsters doing what lobsters naturally do, except lobsters aren’t typically crammed by the dozen into a 20-gallon tank. Maybe that makes them a little more irritable, like when in the evening rush hour on a subway, someone is just a little too close for comfort, and in this case “close” might mean no air gap whatsoever between him and you...and he had garlic for lunch.
The lobster tank always seemed a bit off to me. Seemed like going to a steakhouse and picking the cow you wanted your steak to come from. It seems like in both cases, this would be a really obvious violation of the old precept of not having anything killed specifically for your lunch. But, lest you fear this is going to turn into a pro-vegetarianism screed, it isn't. And likewise I’m also not endorsing omnivorism, so you can’t get any free passes justifying that either. If anything, this will be a rant against the number of “lobster tank-esque” moments we have all too often.
Virya is one of the Six Perfections, and it’s sometimes associated with “Right Effort” in the Noble Eightfold Path as well. It’s usually translated as diligence, effort, perseverance, and so on. The Sanskrit root is the same as the English “virility,” I think “strength” can work just as well.  We should practice as if “our hair was on fire,” as an ancient once said. If we extend our practice to beyond the cushion, we should live as if our hair were on fire, treating each day as the only day to do what needs to be done. If You don’t think strength isn’t part of your makeup, diligence, persistence, and effort will be short lived.
Most people think of Zen as a noun, or as a translation of the Sanskrit dhyana,, by way of Chinese Ch’an, by way of Korean Sŏn, and then Japanese Zen. Starting with dhyana, they all refer to seated meditation, but are also inclusive of the entire practice of whichever sect. That still leaves “Zen” as an umbrella noun, which in turn refers to various verbs--seated meditating, chanting, bowing, walking, practicing koans, holding a huatou, and so on. All of these on their own turn are actions. Even the “quiescent” or “silent illumination” end of things actively just sits. When fully done, it can take the fullest concentration and mindfulness as chanting or walking. When not so fully done, it might be the equivalent of lolling in a lounge chair, conceptual thinking, wandering thinking--with generally half-hearted effort.
The reason I prefer to refer to Zen as a verb is because the practice when done fully extends well beyond the edge of the cushion, covering the other 23 hours not spent there. It is active! Zen, being among the Mahayana schools of practice sets the Bodhisattva as a role model for the practitioner in addition to the Buddha(s). The Bodhisattva eschews entering the state of Nirvana until all beings have entered, according to some definitions. Once again depending on what text you refer to, there are stages of Bodhisattvahood (Bhumis), but we’ll go with ten:

  1. State of the joyous (Pramudita)
  2. The stainless (Vimala)
  3. The light maker/the luminous (Prabhakari)
  4. The radiant (Arcismati)
  5. The very hard to conquer/Difficult to cultivate (Sudurjaya)
  6. The turning towards/The manifest (Abhimukhi)
  7. The far going/Gone afar (Durangama)
  8. The unshakeable/The Immovable (Acala)
  9. The good mind/The good intelligence (Sadhumati)
  10. The cloud of Dharma (Dharmamegha)

In the Lankavatara Sutra, the Buddha spends a fair amount of time on the 8th Bhumi. It’s just past the turning point. Up to now, the Bodhisattva could say, “Yep, I’m good, let's bring on that Nirvana thing.” When the Bodhisattva hits #8, there’s no backsliding. There is a full commitment to fulfilling the Bodhisattva vows, entering into, assimilating, living the Dharma, for the sake of all beings. It’s not repeating the words of there being an infinite number of sentient beings and vowing to save them all, it’s gotten to the point where it has become, “I will help all people I come in contact with (throwing in whatever other sentient beings one might come across like lobsters and cows, for example). At this stage, the Bodhisattva is unshakeable in his/her determination only to help. No fame, no fortune, no vilification, no economic distress, nothing. You could call it “no gaining notion,” but also “no losing notion.” The notion of saving infinite beings doesn’t phase him/her any more than there being a notion of there being no beings, no Bodhisattva, nor any saving to be done. It’s just, “How may I help you?” And to do is to take fearless action.
That can be really liberating, even if a little daunting. Not being hindered by worry sounds great! Not having to second-guess ourselves because of what others might think--positive or negative--sounds like a pretty good deal. Of course, the “helpee” may be appreciative, may not notice, or may be angry for the “help.” Doesn’t matter. Takes some effort? Don’t care. People may think I’m a jerk? Meh. Likewise, people might think I’m really cool or smart? Likewise meh. If you carefully consider real-life situations where you’ve acted as a Bodhisattva, you’ll probably see that all of these potential outcomes have probably been the result of whatever the action amy have been, maybe by the same person, maybe by many. Considering Bell Curves, there's probably more “Meh” than “Magnificent!”
There’s good news in all this if you’d like a little validation before fully embarking on the path of the Bodhisattva. The 8th stage is also where we are without reservation on the path to Buddhahood. And this means that you are seeing your True Buddha Nature, which is as the Great Sages of the past have said, is indeed “Buddha.” You may think you’re at stage -1, and maybe a lot of the time, your are acting, thinking, and speaking that way. But in this fickle, ever-changing state of being/non-being, it's not out of the realm of possibilities that you are not only at stage 8, 9, or 10, but that you are a Buddha. And for that moment, there’s no backsliding. The next moment? Well, that’s the next moment. That kind of thing doesn’t bother the 8th Bhumi Bodhisattva anyway, so why worry?
What all this entails, whether it be Great Faith, Great Courage, or Great Doubt, practicing the Perfections, having the Immeasurables at the forefront of our minds, is a matter of discerning what the skillful action is at that moment. To be what a Buddha is, do what a Buddha does. We already know what that is. It will take effort, diligence, strength, and action. Can't help all beings without the act of helping, whatever form help may take at the moment. We have our choices though. We can strive to act as Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, or we can be lazy and live like the lobster in the tank, waiting for that hungry ghost trying to sate itself on us.