Monday, September 18, 2017

Forest, Meet Tree

The Buddha's teaching of anatman, or “not-self” is often troubling and/or misunderstood by practitioners, both seasoned and novice. A number of techniques have been used to allay the fear of losing “my self,” by the Buddha and subsequent sages. As with all teachings, the use of Upaya, or “skillful means” is crucial. The Buddha was addressing bhikkhus, not standard householders, and as such, their capacity for understanding anatman is likely to have been more advanced than that of lay people.

So, what is a skillful way not to cause more suffering with the teaching of not-self? Certainly, having just described the human condition as characterized by dissatisfaction and that there was a means to relieve this dis-ease, immediately introducing as horror-inducing a concept as annihilating “me” doesn't seem to be a reassuring approach, especially if you throw the word "emptiness" in on top of that. What a hollow feeling! If one looks at the Five Skandhas--Form, Feelings, Perceptions, Impulses, and Consciousness--seeing that they in and of themselves do not comprise a permanent entity shouldn't be too threatening. All of them are constantly changing, de facto pointing to their not lasting permanently, i.e., obviously being impermanent. These five heaps haven't any Self-Nature or permanence of their own, therefore are characterized by emptiness, so added together it can't be expected they would somehow comprise something permanent. If one looks at the Buddha's teaching directly, he doesn't so much say that there isn't a “self,” as that the Skandhas aren't it.

The Relative/Absolute approach may be less threatening to the much clung-to need for “identity.” In the relative, you're you, I'm me, and we'd see that truth if I went to the bank and tried to make a withdrawal from your account. In the Absolute however, where do you end and I begin? From 30,000 feet, vegetation may seen, but as to whether that's grass or trees may not be so obvious. Coming in closer, tress may appear, but not necessarily whether they're pines or oaks. Closer in still, that they're oaks becomes evident, closer in still, individual trees, and so on down into bark, xylem, phloem, and finally to individual cells. At what point can we see the forest for the trees? And while a plant cell doesn't make a mighty oak, neither can the oak exist without the individual cell. The cells are the Relative, the patch of vegetation is the Absolute. The tree only manifests through the cells, the cells only manifest through the tree.

In the Ananda Sutta as translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the Buddha and his cousin and attendant Ananda have a dialog:
"Ananda, if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism [the view that there is an eternal, unchanging soul]. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism [the view that death is the annihilation of consciousness]. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?"
If one were to look at the totality of the Buddha's teaching of the Dharma, it doesn't stop at personal liberation. It isn't an annihilationist (you don't exist) No Self, and likewise is not an eternalist the Self is an unchanging, permanent entity, it is the Middle Path between either of those extremes. And what is the preeminent aspect of the teaching, and from a natural selection standpoint, the most important is being selfless rather than self-centered.

The Diamond Sutra refers to “all beings are no-beings, thus are they called beings.” The Bodhisattva vow is to save all beings. The Buddha says in that Sutra that anyone who thinks of him/herself as a Bodhisattva is not a Bodhisattva, because that reflects a belief in a self, an entity, a soul. It could also be inferred that thinking of oneself is a Bodhisattva is also an egotistical exercise, thinking of oneself as superior to the other beings who need saving. And yet, in a self-less mindset, the Bodhisattva saves all beings.

A Huayan approach to all this might be that “all beings” includes oneself, and that all beings are totally dependent on ALL beings, with no line dividing the Bodhisattva from other beings. Thus, do to the interdependence, the "individual" contains all beings, just as the more obvious ALL contains the "individual. There is no tree without a cell, a cell is no-cell unless it is a tree. Dogen Zenji's teaching of "Actualizing the Fundamental Point" contains:
"To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly." (Translated by Robert Aitken and Kazuaki Tanahashi, Revised at San Francisco Zen Center)
As much as anything, this typifies the journey the practitioner takes--clinging to the notion of self, seeing through that via meditation and analysis, seeing the interdependence of all beings, then seeing there be no need to cling to a "self." In not clinging, there is no worry of self/no-self, just join the world and do no harm. The tree doesn't care if it's in a forest, the forest doesn't care about trees, the trees just do what trees do, the forest does what forests do, and that is all perfect the way that is.