Void Diagrammatics – Nagarjuna

 

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When one link has been stopped, the link that follows does not manifest. And thus the mass of suffering itself is brought completely to an end.
– Mulamadhyamakakarika      

The human mind is capable of amazing feats of organization and complication. The concepts it utilizes permit a wide range of abstract thought. By abstracting, labeling, and categorizing, this mind is capable of making new and ever more refined behaviors. This ability has proven to be incredibly useful for humans in crafting adaptive cultures.

However, we also pay a price for this ability. Firmly situated in our concepts and traditions, we confuse our ideas with the cast of the absolute. Much of our thinking is influenced by an uncertain bedrock of habit and culture. Personal and collective madness ensues when we treat our projections as the sole criterion with which to judge reality. We become enamored by our thought and unable to assume other perspectives.

In the Zen Buddhist tradition, there is a strong emphasis on personal investigation. What happens when every belief, word, and thought goes under the chopping block? Through frequent study and interrogation, the student can discover a lack of any fundamental anchor for existence, referred to in Buddhism as emptiness. Emptiness is elaborated on in the writings of Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna’s philosophy is a sustained and penetrating inquiry into how humans understand reality. His works are a firestorm that raze our cherished gods to the ground.

According to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism:

Nagarjuna . . . Spoke of a middle way between the extremes of existence and nonexistence, sometimes also referred to as the middle way between the extremes of permanence (Sasvatanta) and annihilation (Ucchedanta). For Nagarjuna, the ignorance (Avidya) that is the source of all suffering is the belief in Svabhava, a term that literally means ‘own being’ and has been variously rendered as ‘intrinsic existence’ and ‘self-nature.’ This belief is the mistaken view that things exist autonomously, independently, and permanently . . . His approach generally is to consider the various ways in which an entity could exist, and then demonstrate that none of these is tenable because of the absurdities that would be entailed thereby . . . The purpose of such an analysis is to destroy misconceptions (Vikalpa) and encourage the abandonment of all views (Drsti). (562)

His analysis is found in one of his classic works, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika). Nagarjuna is a guide through the strange lands outside opinion, which he shows by way of meticulous critique. He removes the rigid underpinnings of thought, including such dualisms as self/other and observer/observed. Nagarjuna creates a chain reaction, and shows how liberatory consequences follow as we strip the concepts we use to the bone. An excellent example of the type of dialogue Nagarjuna uses is found in a lengthy examination of categories in “An Examination of the Aggregates”:

Separate from the cause of form, no form is found. Separate from the so-called form, the cause of form also does not appear.
If, separate from the cause of form, there were a form, this form would be by consequence without a cause. But something that’s without a cause is nowhere to be found.
If, separate from a form, there were a cause of form, this cause would be a cause without effect. But causes that have no effects do not exist.
If form exists, a cause of form is unacceptable. If form does not exist, the cause of form is likewise unacceptable.
Forms bereft of causes are untenable, indeed they are! And thus concerning forms, conceive no concepts of whatever kind.
To say the fruit is like the cause is unacceptable. To say the fruit’s unlike the cause is also unacceptable.
With feelings and perceptions, conditioning factors, consciousness, with all things, and in all respects, apply the same procedure as with form.
In arguments concerning emptiness, all statements made to counter it are not replies at all, for they exemplify the thesis to be proved.
When emptiness is set forth and explained, all statements made to show its faults, reveal no faults at all. For they exemplify the thesis to be proved. (Root Stanzas of the Middle Way, 15-16, Padmakara Translation Group)

Nagarjuna is providing us with a way of analyzing concepts, and showing how this can be used across all of language. Nagarjuna often begins with a category we typically use, in this case “form.” He shows how attempting to separate the words “form” and “cause” leads to disastrous consequences. There cannot be an independent form separate from the form/effect, which would be an acausal appearance from nothing. There also cannot be a cause that lurks “behind the scenes” without creating effects. Since he has shown that one cannot establish a preexisting cause for form, or an independent form without a cause, he goes on to eliminate other concepts that are linked to form in a similar way. This goes on throughout the Mulamadhyamakakarika, as Nagarjuna shows that even our most carefully constructed foundations are hewn from rotten wood.

It becomes clear from this type of analysis that these categories are socially useful for communication, but do not accurately capture the character of what we experience. Binary relationships allow us to sketch maps of reality, distilled into simplistic chains of concepts that allow the human mind to organize cause and effect. These concepts are easy prey for Nagarjuna’s wide-ranging explorations, as he uses linguistic tools against themselves, logically analyzing these conceptual maps and showing their inadequacy.   In an empty reality, everything mutually links with something else for its own conditions, and no phenomena can live an independent existence. We ascribe far more importance to our beliefs and preferences than they are entitled. We also habitually treat ourselves as if we are independent and try to manipulate reality accordingly.

Defilements, actions, and embodied beings; agents and the fruits of action are like cities of gandharvas. They’re like mirages or dreams. (Ibid., 58)

When we hold our assumptions rigidly, we create suffering. Part of Buddhist insight is to see into our own minds and how we create many of our own problems. It is our inability to notice the conceptual and meaning-making processes of our own minds that contribute to further suffering. Since no life escapes suffering, the way that we relate to it has important consequences. Nagarjuna’s texts are revolutionary in their ability to undermine what we think we know. Once we  have ceased attaching to our beliefs as intrinsic aspects of reality, we no longer have to suffer when things inevitably change. We also connect with the universe in ways that cut much deeper than superficial beliefs.

All human beings without exception are in reality homeless. It’s a mistake to think we have a solid home. – Kodo Sawaki, The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo (13) 

Humans have no unyielding position or identity in a changing reality. With practice at pushing our own beliefs and personal limits, we find an existence that does not accept reductive interpretations. Repeated observation and analysis yields a reality that does not conform to any concept we utilize.

The more I meditate, the more I feel that all language dissolves, and any kind of category feels like a mere shadow, a construct of a mind that cannot help but try to divide and conquer. Nagarjuna liberates us from our own minds, and in collapsing its edifice, he helps to reconnect us to everything.

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The Unbounded in Creativity, Ethics, and Philosophy

The tree of life is precisely in the middle of the garden, conveying all waters of Creation, branching below, for that flowing, gushing river spreads into the garden, whence waters branch in many directions. Receiving them all is the ocean, from which they emerge in numerous streams below, as is said: watering all beasts of the field (Psalms 104:11). Just as they emerge from that world above, watering those towering mountains of pure balsam, subsequently upon reaching the tree of life, they branch below by paths in every direction.
– The Zohar

Broadly understood, meditation and spirituality ask for exacting individual scrutiny. We uncover the dark soil inside, leaving nothing untouched by contemplation. Here we find something seething, gibbering, and incredibly complex. This complexity, vibrating in time, destroys any chance we may have of a reality that conforms to our expectations, plans, and ideas. However, this is simultaneously a rent that allows us to choose new moments and new questions. This feeling of universal complexity and change has revised my understanding of the human domains of creativity, ethics, and philosophy. I would like to explore how this has occurred and how it helps illuminate our own capabilities. This is found in every moment: participation in raw creation with the entire universe.

Paying attention to our experience can result in the apprehension of universal unfolding. Eihei Dogen referred to that state as “the flowering of the unbounded,” using the metaphor of “flowering” to describe the persistent expression of all phenomena. He describes the flowering of space as part of Buddhist truth in his essay, The Flowering of the Unbounded. Alternately translated as “Flowers in Space,” this essay ranks among other essays in Shobogenzo as some of the most significant contributions ever made to global religious literature. Dogen describes these blossoms as follows:

Seeking the radiance and form of this blossoming is what your investigation through your training should be all about. What Bodhidharma calls ‘the resulting fruit’ is something that one leaves to the fruit: he describes this as ‘what naturally comes about of itself’. ‘What naturally comes about of itself’ is his term for mastering causes and being conscious of effects. There are the causes of the whole universe and there are the effects of the whole universe; there is our mastering the causes and effects of this whole universe and there is our being conscious of the causes and effects of this whole universe. One’s natural self is oneself. This self, to be sure, is ‘you’, that is to say, it is the four elements and the five skandhas of which you are comprised. Because Bodhidharma is allowing for ‘a true person devoid of any rank’, he is not referring to a specific ‘I’ or to some ‘other’. Therefore, that which is indefinable is what he is calling ‘a self ’. This natural state of ‘being as it is’ is what he is acknowledging. The natural state of ‘being as one is’ is the time when the Single Blossom opens and Its fruit results: it is the occasion when the Dharma is Transmitted and one is rescued from one’s delusions.It is within this context that the World-honored One spoke of the flowerings within Unbounded Space . . .

On the other hand, those folks who pay attention to very little and see even less are unaware that petals and blossoms with their varied hues and brilliance are to be found within everything . . . Only the Buddhas and Ancestors have known about the blossoming and falling of the flowers of Unbounded Space as well as that of earthly flowers. Only They have known of such things as the blossoming and falling of the flowers within the human world. Only They have known that such things as the flowers in Unbounded Space, earthly flowers, and the flowers within the human world are all Scriptures; this is the standard by which we investigate what Buddha is. Because what has been taught by the Buddhas and Ancestors is this flowering of Unbounded Space, the realm of Buddha and the Teachings of Buddhas are therefore synonymous with the flowerings of Unbounded Space. (Shasta Abbey Translation, 554-555)

This feeling emerged more strongly the more I practiced and reflected, and concepts cannot do it justice. The blossoming of space mentioned by Dogen is around us, continuing the primordial creation. Light dapples on every surface, constellating itself into beautiful shapes. Each breath effloresces with every mouth speaking in tongues. Experience points back to itself within the foam of becoming.

The moments in that experience frequently shift its potentials. New frontiers branch in innumerable crystalline patterns. Existence pulsates with creative discoveries as we are delivered over to a sweeping movement beyond ourselves. Creativity itself seems to follow this free-form growth. Associations reach out and interpenetrate as unique opportunities present themselves. Returning different each time, creativity sloughs itself and redounds. Creation simultaneously embraces and presses against barriers and divisions of every kind. This is what it means to be a creative agent -choosing, enacting, flowing like a spring. We are an “infinite ocean of effulgence” and these choices matter, given unceasing weight and force.

There are authoritarian strains that slither into our minds, offering us transcendence. They attempt to install their own process as the sole operation, attracting converts and changing them into vectors. The result is their world as the logos, of their opinions becoming the basis of shared reality. What is not discussed is that these beliefs and methods are a haphazard creation like any other. The construction of experiments, interpretation, and chance turns all contribute to the process. Anomalies make every situation unique.

However, what if we wish to return to the process to obtain another result? The author’s continued mining of their own potential creates their style. However, since these can naturally be limiting, the author may need to transform themselves again and again. There is always the chance of removing artistic limits and crashing the gates of what we had only assumed. Rekindling the act of creation is a fire that inheres in every form. The surface moves like a porous net, sliding us through into being, carrying us to the other shore.

Art is the minister of nature, nature is the daughter of time.
– The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz

Authors and musicians are not the only ones who can be considered creatives. We all create, in the sense that our actions take on their own life and effect others. Although meditation helps us dispense with a continuous, transcendent law, it seems that the more we notice the effect of our actions the more important they become. Our actions embrace all existence. Every cruel word or deed fashions itself into a crown of thorns for us to bear, nailing others to a possible cross of suffering.

We must take responsibility for the reality we are helping to make. The importance of ethical behavior in this regard becomes even more clear. Seeing events growing in time like a child, our ethical needs may change in an instant. Ethics emerges spontaneously, with branches into other configurations of experience. It is therefore important to question our own assumptions about the behavior of others, as humans are not carved out of our ideals. We cannot expect a person to act similarly in any given moment. However, if we look in the present to see the individual needs of others, we may have a better idea how to proceed.

In unbounded space, philosophy also takes on a different meaning. Since philosophy reflects on and engages existence, it buds out of dynamism, creating different ways of understanding. Other forms of culture help philosophy reinvent itself at each stage of development. Philosophy embodies the unbounded through a liberation of its own refractory potential. Explanations become multivalent, capable of changing themselves depending on one’s perspective and situation.

Philosophy can order or deform depending on its conceptual applications. The complexity of universal processes have no need for uniformity. Each person may have individual desires that allow for unique solutions. To create a “perennial” philosophy relevant for all times and persons thus seems unnecessary. Other elements of the cosmos may remain, eclipsed in unknowing, or utilized in unpredictable ways. Philosophy “opens the sieve to allow chaos in,” if chaos becomes a placeholder for disintegration and freedom past the bounds of our conception.

Unbounded space is this freedom at its purest. The universe consumes, alters, and expands its own connections simultaneously. These connections create unique spaces for diversity and accession, which we are able to partake in. This is the freedom found in ethics, philosophy, and any creative enterprise we set in motion. To find this freedom to create is part of our potential, as well as that of the unbounded, blossoming forth as time and space.

A Path Unknown To Any Vulture

Turning away and touching are both wrong, for it is like a massive fire.
– Dongshan

One crack and all knowledge is dissolved.
The struggle is over.
I follow the ancient Way, not lapsing into doubt.
Dignified bearing and conduct
that is beyond sound and form;
no trace remains of my passing.
Those who have mastered the Way
call this unsurpassable activity.
– from “Xiangyan’s Great Enlightenment”

Coming to Zen is to come to a basic unknowing. There are no texts that structure the kind of insight Zen offers. It is a rupture that evades thought, indicating the place at which the practitioner and the rest of existence co-occur. Zen brings the entrails of time and space squirming into the light.

It is interesting and highly symbolic that becoming a monk is known as “home-leaving.” To take up Zen is to leave home in more ways than one. It is not only leaving one’s family and former life. We also leave our projections behind. What is constitutes itself instantly as “a path unknown to any vulture.” There is a depth to that path that cannot be known or understood through theory. Instead, we forsake theorizing to begin our own unique inquiry.

When they seek the source of this practice, the student is often thrown into a more confusing position than before. Confronting the behavior of experienced Zen monks, and the lack of belief system, easy answers do not materialize. No respite is offered. We are told to simply sit in position, breathe, and follow the room exhaling in tandem.

These sitting periods compound our questions. Zen deals with these questions in surprising ways. It does not deny their importance for the spiritual seeker. Rather, it sees them as superficial and incomplete. Zen does not succumb to grand theories. Its questions arc interminably with no explanation of existence as a guarantee. Many metaphysics amount to a story we have provided for ourselves, and little more.

Gazing into our thought for long enough gradually reveals our ignorance. The Koan is one of Zen’s most important tools in helping to show us this. Since the mind hungers for explanation and security, the koan seems confusing on the surface. Continued practice, however, reveals their depth and breadth.

The Koan may display some of Zen’s insights in action, or present us with a situation to which we are asked to respond. They grab us and our base assumptions by the throat. Many Zen koans that I have read place emphasis on one’s present, concrete reality. That moment is a source of freedom, explanation, or experience. These koans are directing our attention to that moment:

Yuezhou Qianfeng was once asked by a monastic, ‘Bhagavans in the ten directions have one path to the gate of nirvana. I wonder, what is the path?’
Yuezhou drew a line with his staff and said, ‘It’s right here.’

Discussions such as these are attempting to approach the student in way that does not appeal to reductionist, idealistic thinking. Masters try to show us this in experiential ways. Rather than getting entrenched in a discussion on gradations or paths, Yuezhou hits the student with a physical, embodied answer. This is displayed in Zen literature frequently. An example of this, from Cultivating the Empty Field, utilizes a gorgeous description of natural detail:

A person of the Way fundamentally does not dwell anywhere. The white clouds are fascinated with the green mountain’s foundation. The bright moon cherishes being carried along with the flowing water. The clouds part and the mountain appears. The moon sets and the water is cool. Each bit of autumn contains vast interpenetration without bounds. (41-42)

The present that Zen teachers want us to appreciate is not capable of being fully understood. Beneath our opinions is something immense, which can be intuited through examination. Unknowing is explicitly demonstrated in Shitou’sAsk the Pillar”:

Shitou was once asked by a monastic, ‘What is the significance of Bodhidharma’s coming from India?’
Shitou said, ‘Ask the pillar.’
The monastic said, ‘I don’t understand it.’
Shitou said, ‘I don’t understand it either.’

Integral to this understanding is what has been referred to as suchness. Suchness does not designate a stable entity that we close ourselves around.  It reflects our intuition into a more consistent effort. Zen teacher Taigen Dan Leighton elaborates on how this word describes an adjustable, engaged practice:

Known in Sanskrit as tathata, this suchness is described in Indian Buddhism as ultimate truth, reality, the source, or the unattainable. Experientially, this suchness might imply the direct apprehension of the immediate present reality, harking back to early Buddhist mindfulness practices of bare attention. So, in varying contexts suchness may refer to our clear perception of reality, or else to the nature of that reality itself. (9)

No codification can hold us at this point. Suchness is to practice at the precipice, existing in transformation. As described in a line of the Four Great Vows: Dharma gates are countless, I vow to wake to them. Dharma gates demonstrate the truth, allowing us to awaken in every lineament of the entire world.

A grove of trees invites us in. They speak in melodies, in the thrum of sun and wind, and the throb of blood in universal channels. This time we brim with compassion for all things. Reality fills itself in a newly imagined flood, each act merely a beginning. Our center dissipates throughout the universe and we come once more to unknowing. For when we really begin to question, all dividing lines begin to crack. Thoughts, opinions, and beliefs become like gossamer strands.

As streams of fluid chaos, we navigate what we are in every sensation. Zen takes hold of this movement, and everything flourishes without our understanding.

Aetheric Mind

Zazen is not a way to escape from life by being mindful of something that is apart from the human world; it is the practice of being present in the real stream of time and looking directly at life itself.
– Dainin Katagiri

To learn to attend is a beginning. To learn to attend more and more deeply is the path itself.
– John Tarrant

Meditation is an activity that helps us clarify our own experience. In the process it helps us inquire into some of our deepest concerns. How does one practice meditation, and what does its experiences have to teach us? Since I am most familiar with Buddhist meditation techniques, I will focus on how its methods attempt to help us understand our existential problems. In a later article I hope to address how different religious traditions absorb and direct meditative practice.

Buddhist meditation encourages us to develop our attentional faculties to their fullest. As this attention becomes even more defined, we turn towards the bustling complexity of our bodily experience. We then temper this attention into a killing edge to slice through preoccupations of the self. Our incredible capacity for wisdom is unlocked through ordinary feeling and action, “carrying water and hauling firewood.” It seems that meditative attention gets us closer to a subtle truth that becomes too distant when wrapped up in human conditioning. When that habituation begins to recede, we may begin to have feelings of a cosmos that remains powerfully susceptible to change. A decaying, frightened shell is replaced with beautiful, emergent matter.

Buddhist meditative practice can be utilized in different ways. An outline that agrees with my perception of it is used by James Austin in his book Meditating Selflessly:

As Buddhist meditation practices slowly evolved from the ancient Yogic traditions, they began to train attention in two mutually reinforcing ways. The resulting generic categories are often described now as concentrative meditation and receptive meditation . . . [In concentrative meditation, we] make a mental note to monitor how consistently we can sustain our span of attention. In psychological terms, these are short-term tasks that exercise our working-memory skills. Concentrative meditation includes these several willful efforts to sharpen our focusing, select its target(s), modulate its intensity, and monitor its progress. Our choices are deliberate. We’ve chosen to concentrate on one small area while excluding all other items . . . In contrast, receptive modes of meditation are more nuanced . . . They are entered into by a more passive, non-doing open approach. [42-43]

Both of these approaches enrich each other. They constitute the same trajectory, pushing us outward. Human awareness cannot readily stay with what is present at first. It is more used to long-winded chains of egocentric and associative thinking. By narrowing our focus on certain parts of experience, such as the breath, we create routes for attention to return. Attention grows stronger the more we repeat this process, and with practice we find ourselves able to maintain that attention in the midst of the hive-mind’s insect chitter. This lets us learn to use our attention in different ways, and begins to bring that attention towards things we usually screen out.

In order to begin experimenting with focused attention, sit in a quiet room in a position that encourages a straight spine. Meditation cushions can be very helpful but are not strictly necessary. Do not exaggeratedly push your chest forward nor allow it to cave in. One can position their legs in a variety of ways. This includes a regular cross legged posture which is the easiest to adopt. Also available are the half and full lotus, where one or both feet are allowed to rest on the opposite thigh. Chairs or other aids are acceptable as long as they help proper positioning. You may have to work up to positions that are initially uncomfortable to you, but trust yourself to know when a posture is damaging you. Make sure that your hips are above the knees.

Begin to relax and choose something to direct your attention toward. The breath is often selected for this purpose and is very useful, but you may select other bodily sensations as well. There seems to be a difference of opinion on closed or open eyes, so find what works best for you. Although fantasies and thoughts arise, don’t follow them. Simply become aware of them and do not explore their possible implications. Go back to the focus when you notice that thought has engulfed your attention.

It will be necessary to do this often. You will quickly notice that your attention wavers frequently. The mind stays with the focus for a short time until a thought presents itself. The mind then quickly changes tracts and moves into abstraction. All meditators have experienced this in their practice. Continue the exercise as much as you can in the span of time you have allotted. Just as a musician must build their abilities through repetition, continually return to your focus. Give yourself license to experiment and enjoy yourself.

The next form of meditation to integrate with your practice is closer to “just sitting” or Zazen. We observe anything that arises as our experience without concentrating on anything in particular. Nothing is turned away. In the book Roaring Silence, a good description of this is: “meditation isn’t; getting used to is.”

This brings us back to the Tibetan adage: Meditation isn’t; getting used to is. When it is said that meditation isn’t, what is signified is that meditation is not a method of doing. It is a method of not doing. One does not involve oneself in doing anything. One does not instigate anything or impose anything. One does not add anything or elaborate anything. One simply remains. One simply maintains presence in motiveless observation. When it is said that getting used to is, what is signified is a practice in which one is simply getting used to being. One acclimatizes oneself to the undefined dimension of existence. We are unused to our own enlightenment, so meditation is a way of “getting used to” it. In terms of deep-rooted attachment to thought, one is getting used to nonreferentiality. One is getting used to being referenceless. (Loc. 938-950)

Sit in a quiet room in a position similar to that described in the attention-based exercise. Notice your own tendency to speculate, fantasize, and abstract from the present. Once this has gone on a short time, pull back on active involvement in your own thought. Observe the closed loop of thought, and start to shift your awareness to different parts of your sensory field. Try to detect everything, whether thought, emotion, or sensation. Learn all that you can about your own body and mind. Continue this way throughout the amount of time you have dedicated to sit.

The importance of this type of awareness cannot be overstated. It can give us an appreciation for how thought is only one element of our experience and need not take priority. The more we engage in meditation, the less important our thoughts ultimately become. Sensations become intensely as they are without any need for further description. Doing both of these forms of meditation over time also helps create a firm attention with which to notice personal sensations and patterns. Through attention you will understand the implications of how you help order your own experience. In doing so, you will begin to unseat such seemingly self-evident concepts as suffering and happiness.

We are encouraged in both of these forms of meditation to observe everything that we experience. One can notice, through disciplined recognition, that each phenomena that presents itself can appear similarly. Some phenomena instantly appear and disappear. Other sensations are similar to a wave pattern, in that the sensation does not stay the same over time while it occupies perception. There are distinct variations in that feeling before it fades. When you realize this, you are primed to recognize what are referred to as the “three marks of existence.” This triad claims that all things are “impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self.” This is a very simple formulation that is borne out as we become more aware.

Impermanence is to recognize that no feeling stays in one form forever and continually changes. Since these feelings are impermanent, they are unsatisfactory because they continually move from one state to the other. They cannot create a firm basis for what we take to be lasting pleasure or displeasure. We lay the groundwork for our suffering when we try to make these cascades and thresholds permanent. This is reflected in the concept of no-self, which shows that we cannot be organized into a stable self that is disconnected from this change. This self erodes along with everything else. We no longer need memories, opinions, or sensations to form a self who experiences. Experience then seems to unwind, obeying its own laws of motion.

Meditation can help us be more cognizant of how we reach out to effect the universe. This is a cornerstone for changing one’s attitudes in daily life.  Meditation also shows us our own existence, ultimately reframing our search for truth and meaning. Our task with it is open-ended: to continually be with everything that arises while finding effective ways to act. The simplicity and challenge of this type of practice is contradictory to notions of acquisition and spiritual progression. To borrow a phrase from philosopher Alain Badaou, it is “infinite and rigorous.” This is what has been referred to as the continuous circle of the way, your own life as it is continually expressing itself in the present. There is no closure to it which goes on for us as long as we live. Meditation can help corrode the distinctions we try to draw between it and the rest of life, until the two bleed together into just this. Seeing that reality is to return again and again in a spiral without end.

Shunya

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible.  Had you not seen it all from birth and bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a muddled field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part.  Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

     – Cormac McCarthy

 What is it the lurks beneath the apparent facade of everyday experience?  Are there terrors that dwell in the mountainous regions of dark matter?  Or is there a beneficent, all-loving God who has our best interests close at hand?  Upon looking inward, is there nothing beneath the unfolding of phenomena?  A cavernous void with no fixities?  These questions catalyze our inquiry, prompting our exploration of the world.

Searching for certainty, we may attempt to describe this reality and discover an island in a perpetually roiling sea.  In setting these limits, we also attempt to distill their essence into systems we create.  Thought builds a temple with the graven image of the symbol.

Global religion and philosophy have attempted to smooth the contours of the world, totalizing it and advocating for their own justifications.  Some religious movements and practitioners claim their personal holy book as the sole source of revealed truth.  Initiation into these schools of thought may amount to little more than absorption and regurgitation of doctrine. However, throughout their histories, many of these disciplines have had works that attempt to look seriously into the limitations of their own beliefs.  Some seekers have had experiences that diffuse reality beyond the grasp of human understanding.  Rather than aborting this procedure, and attempting to find an unassailable position for thought,  they follow this radiant outflow to its terminus.  They join with the rippling swells of the cosmos.

In Buddhism, this aconceptual experience of reality is termed shunya, which is translated as emptiness or voidness.  This points us towards an iconoclastic strain of feeling that prompts a complete revolution in our understanding of reality.  Through our questioning, and in the fruition of our meditative practice, we may come to feel this firsthand.  It is described and experienced as the total unfolding of the universe moment by moment, without any form of conceptual or experiential restraint.

This can completely change our philosophizing, denying the all-encompassing reach of human reason.  Reality undulates, unfettered by how the human mind carves up its experience.  It severs the necessity of our concepts and embraces the ambiguous.  Importantly, it also turns our lives, language, and experience inside out.  Our words and actions do not denote a separate abstract self or reality.  They become part of the original creation itself.  In the immeasurable and empty center of zero, existence spills into actuality, united by the circle’s never-ending line.  

In Red Pine’s commentary on the Heart Sutra, he describes the line in which Avalokiteshvara, Boddhisattva of Compassion, perceives the emptiness of all things:

Here, Avalokiteshvara looks at the skandhas and sees that they are empty, or shunya.  The Sanskrit word shunya means ‘hollow,’ ‘void,’ or ‘zero.’  What is hollow, void, or zero is the existence of a self.  But if there is no self-existence, there is is also no non-existence.  According to Mahayana Buddhism, this is the second greatest of all delusions, the belief that nothing exists.  Emptiness does not mean nothingness.  It simply means the absence of the erroneous distinctions that divide one entity from another, one being from another being, one thought from another thought.  Emptiness is not nothing, it’s everything, everything at once.  This is what Avalokiteshvara sees. 

 Emptiness also has parallels across many different religions.  Meister Eckhart, a Christian mystic, describes human concepts as being unable to measure up to God.  The graces of God become their own kind of language:

I can briefly summarize this copious introduction by saying that God’s speaking to us is nothing else but God’s becoming known to us through his gifts (gifts and inspirations, either of nature or of grace) that raise us up and irradiate our minds by his light.  This is utterance, speech and word in the most proper and pleasing sense; its exterior utterance, speech and word does not measure up to it.  (Classics of Western Spirituality, 115).  

 Rather than a basis in despair, emptiness is the fertile loam in which always begins.  It indicates that which has no name and perpetually overflows all our limitations, leading us towards the limitless.  I will explore this experience from two poles.  The first is how meditation and emptiness alters the human experience and enactment of language.  When language no longer denotes a stable reality, it liberates our actions to be truly situational and all-embracing.  It also releases us from accepting any conclusions to our inevitable and often necessary world-building.  Secondly, I will describe what happens once emptiness breaks down this linguistic experience of the world, which puts us more in touch with flowing truth.  The universe can then be said to not only be empty of any overarching concept or principle, but also empty of any constant form.  As said in the Heart Sutra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form.


 

One possible way of looking at the human process of conceptualization is that we partly operate on abstraction.  We create increasingly elaborate conceptual frameworks that we use to navigate and survive.  It does not appear that humans could do without these concepts.  They allow us to make useful distinctions between what is safe and dangerous, communicate this to others, and extrapolate from past experience.  Tempering these experiences into memories, we continually update our working models of the world.  These frameworks are what we constantly reference in our day to day life as something unremittingly existent or “real”, overlooking their largely provisional nature.  We can witness ourselves while we meditate as we incessantly label all experience.

We run into problems when we attempt to take these temporary frameworks and turn them into something static.  Some philosophical, scientific, and religious models encourage us to do just this: to passively accept the results of their search for truth as somehow given, omniscient, or permanent.  Concepts, while extremely practical and sometimes effective, seem to operate contingently and without the necessity to make them into eternal law.  Abstractions are a double-edged sword, screening out even as they allow us the ability to think.  The experience of emptiness seems to disclose something beyond thought that is always unfinished and processual.

In understanding the moment to moment arising of experience, we can see how concepts and frameworks remain incomplete.  Thought reflects on our perception of the past, and remains bound to it.  Conceptualization cannot remain in tandem with the speed of present experience.  This is increasingly realized during meditation as we attune ourselves to life’s constant development.  It always remains possible that the present negates all our old maps, and our understanding of things changes completely, making everything unrecognizable.

An excellent example of using language to express its limitations and point beyond itself can be found in Eihei Dogen’s Mountains and Waters Sutra:

Even if you have an eye to see mountains as grass, trees, earth, rocks, or walls, do not be confused or swayed by it; this is not complete realization.  Even if there is a moment when you view mountains as the seven treasures’ splendor, this is not returning to the source.  Even if you understand mountains as the realm where all buddhas practice, this understanding is not something to be attached to.  Even if you have the highest understanding of mountains as all buddhas’ wondrous characteristics, the truth is not only this.  These are conditioned views.  This is not the understanding of buddha ancestors, but merely looking through a bamboo pipe at the corner of the sky.

Robert K.C. Forman, mystic and religious professor, has an extremely interesting account of how this use of language “deconstructs” our habitual modes of conceptualizing:

. . . I have linked up a perceptual object with a phrase or word in an automatic or habitual way.  This process is well documented.  When we encounter the same thing over and over again, we tend to pigeonhole it without looking at it in detail.  These are perceptual ‘automatisms.’  They allow us to save psychic time and energy and ‘see’ only what we generally need to see.  The categories in whose terms we ‘see’ with, our automatizations, are determined by our set, concepts, context, needs, etc.  On the other hand, some language serves to undo such automatized connections between words and perceptions . . . Sundering perceptual automatizations help us deconstruct perceptual experiences . . . Taking such expressions seriously, the key process in mysticism seems not like the horse of language pulling the cart of experience, but rather more like unhitching the experience-cart from the language-horse.  Mystical experiences don’t result from a process of building or constructing mystical experience, we’ve suggested, but rather from an un-constructing of language and belief.  It seems to result from something like a releasing of experience from language.  Some forms of mysticism, in other words, should be seen as decontextualized. (Mysticism, Mind, Consciousness, 98-99).

This realization allows us to reflect on our use of theorizing, in which categories remain subject to change.  Possibly seeing through the screen of words allows us to notice how they contrive human action.  They can prevent us from acknowledging the enormous diversity all around and within us.

Considered as emptiness, language becomes part of the ripening of all reality.  The one who comprehends this can use language in a startling and reflective manner, mutating it into new and diverse species.  It can be then used actively as a form of expedient means.  This is where language is changed into different patterns to fit the audience and can best serve the unique needs of each individual’s awakening.

Once a seeker has begin to experience reality in this way, the change in perception can be cataclysmic.  We see language in a different light and become its adept, deploying its capacities without ascribing privileged status to any single thought.  It is equally important to remember not to “get stuck on emptiness” as a concept.  This would hinder the way that emptiness encourages us to examine and render transparent all of thinking.  Once this happens, we no longer depend on habit and abstract conviction.

This removal of linguistic barriers prompts a changed view of the world.  Without stable abstractions to adhere to, the universe becomes a wild place, irreducible to any entity.  Signifiers such as emptiness, the universe, chaos, and God all seem to reveal this radical openness.  In the Zohar, a work of Jewish mysticism, God emerges from the enigmatic Ein Sof, meaning “there is no end.” Ein Sof is the zero through which reality is birthed, the infinite nowhere which is always becoming apparent.  The Tao as the mysterious source of existence has similar connotations.  A passage from the Tao Te Ching reads:

The valley spirit that doesn’t die
We call the dark womb
The dark womb’s mouth
We call the source of Heaven and Earth
As elusive as gossamer silk
And yet it can’t be exhausted

Many of these mystery traditions reference the “bright darkness” about which nothing can ultimately be said.  One description of this reality comes from philosopher Quentin Meillassoux, and his excellent work After Finitude.  His work details what is described as an “absolute that would not be an absolute entity,” or a reality which undermines any sort of stability.  The absolute is the cosmos in its perpetually shifting nature.  He describes this as “hyper-chaos”:

Our task was to uncover an absolute that would not be an absolute entity . . . The only absolute we have managed to rescue from the confrontation would seem to be the very opposite of what is usually understood by that term, which is supposed to provide a foundation for knowledge.  Our absolute, in effect, is nothing other than an extreme form of chaos, a hyper-chaos, for which nothing is or would seem to be, impossible, not even the unthinkable . . . We have succeeded in identifying a primary absolute (Chaos), but contrary to the veracious God, the former would seem to be incapable of guaranteeing the absoluteness of scientific discourse, since, far from guaranteeing order, it guarantees only the possible destruction of every order.

 Hyper-chaos points toward a transmuting, nonlinear cosmos, a chaos not only limited to chaos.    These words that attempt to move beyond themselves draw our attention to a world that is free of these concepts and cannot be fully contained within them.  Certain Zen dialogues seem to reference this, with masters regularly confounding their students’ intellectual expectations.  In the commentary for the following Koan, this is called “intimate talk,” with teachers precisely pointing at the deep, profound, and mysterious reality of which they are a part:

Boshui Benren said to the assembly, ‘Normally we don’t want to confuse descendants by talking about what is before sound and after a phrase.  Why is this so?  Sound is not sound.  Form is not form.’
A monastic said, ‘What is sound that is not sound?’
Boshui said, ‘Can you call it form?’
The monastic said, ‘What is form that is not form?’
Boshui said, ‘Can you call it sound?’
The monastic would not say another word.
Boshui said, ‘Let me say that if you understand this, I will approve that you have entered the place.’ 

It takes time to acclimate to this lack of reliance on systems, symbols, and concepts.  Once we fathom this and harmonize it with our practice, it becomes a fount of inspiration.  Changing states of affairs offer countless ways to partake in what is.  It seems that “there is no end” to the novel and unexpected, in which life  can be felt as a perpetual source of realization.  Experience this infinity for yourself, engaging in the sincere expression of your being beyond all words.

A Hammer to Strike the Earth, A Scream to Rend the Sky

Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, and even on the Mount, nothing.   – St. John of the Cross 

A monk asked Chao-chou, ‘has the dog buddha nature or not?’
Chao-chou said, ‘Mu.’

Mu is a hammer to strike the earth and a scream to rend the sky.  It is an open palm, a thunderclap, and a bank of foaming clouds.  Most of all, it is simply MuSimple, direct, and profound, Mu invites the student to fully experience their own existence.  It is not something that can be expressed through familiar territories.  Instead, it distorts and undermines our own certain foundations.

Although it means “no,” or “negation,” Mu resists all of our attempts at easy definition.  Once taken on by a student, the intellect scrabbles for a foothold.  Generating this tension we arrive at the Great Barrier.  The teacher will not let us pass without a reply, and we throw ourselves headlong into Mu’s great ocean. The teacher, understanding what we are attempting to do, summarily rejects all of our answers.

The monk in the koan is ourselves, always grasping at an authoritative interpretation of reality.  Mu only flows through our fingers like sand.  We strain for an answer, the understanding examining the question from every angle, drawing up vast schematics.   The mind seeks its limits in scripture, philosophy, and previous experience, dredging up former skeletons from their graves.

In our practice, we bring a mountain of speculation, hoping to set our lives upon a new system, and fashion a new set of chains to bind ourselves.

In a sense the unlimited assemblage is the impossible.  It takes courage and stubbornness not to go slack.  Everything invites one to drop the substance for the shadow, to forsake the open and impersonal movement of thought for the isolated opinion.  – Georges Bataille

The more the intellect attempts to ground Mu, the more it finds uncertain purchase.  The student has reached a point where they cannot proceed.  The trail veers off in uncertain directions.  We lift our gaze and look upward.  The answer stares us in the eyes, and reaches out its hand to touch our own.

The Mu koan is an embodiment of Zen practice. It doesn’t dwell in bounded concepts but in its very incomprehensibility.  Rather than giving the student a system to assimilate, it draws the seeker deeper into their own lives.  There is no fixed abode, and like life, Mu admits of unparalleled inventiveness.  Rather than parroting old responses, Mu asks us to display a new understanding, rooted in the newness of each moment of experience.  Free from our concepts, we are pulled into each new moment divested of the past.

Eihei Dogen expressed this understanding in one of his discourses on practice-realization. He indicates this using startlingly direct language.

It is not in the realm of ordinary people or sages.  Thus it can neither be measured by the intellect of those who are wise, nor guessed at by the wisdom of those who have knowledge.  Neither can it be discussed by the intellect of those who are beyond wise, nor can it be arrived at by the wisdom of those who have knowledge beyond knowledge.  Rather it is buddha ancestors’ practice-realization, skin, flesh, bones, marrow, eyeball, fist, top of the head, nostril, staff, whisk, leaping away from making.

Mu explicates itself atop mountains, deep in the earth, and everywhere.  It is bound up in all our responses to the questions of life.  The ideas of past and future cannot encapsulate the moment as it swells outward in all directions.  The complex situations of life cannot be done justice by discursive thought.  Mu gestures us towards what Dae Gak has called “the power of possibility in the unknown” :

The nature of all existence is change.  This does not mean change into the familiar, but in spite of the familiar into the unknown.  This is the heart essence of Mu practice.  This is the bone of these Mu ashes left by JoJu for us to investigate, to manifest again and again, and make vibrant and brand new, alive.

As we throw ourselves headlong into Mu, we notice the question becoming more transparent, until that question arises to embrace everything that is.  It is this ambiguity that we carry with us throughout our lives, always unresolved, incessantly questioning, beating like a heart.

Bring this question forward, until doubt infects your whole being, and Mu runs through the veins and arteries of the world.

Nothing to Attain

I have been trying to get back to the local Zen Center every week, after a short hiatus. We do 50 minutes of Zazen (seated meditation), combined with some chanting and Kinhin (walking meditation). After the practice, some of us were talking in the kitchen and a student (I unfortunately can’t remember her name, all credit due to her) asked a pretty insightful question referencing the Heart Sutra and practice in general. This question was along the lines of: “If there is no attainment and nothing to attain, why do we sit?” I think this is a pretty common question that arises as we sit, especially as we continue to grow in our practice and the discursive mind begins to seek answers to questions such as these.

A similar question supposedly motivated Eihei Dogen in his own process of inquiry:

As I study both the exoteric and the esoteric schools of Buddhism, they maintain that human beings are endowed with Dharma-nature by birth. If this is the case, why did the Buddhas of all ages – undoubtedly in possession of enlightenment – find it necessary to seek enlightenment and engage in spiritual practice? (Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, 22).

This is a profoundly challenging question. If we are the very embodiment of truth and enlightenment is an expression of our original nature why do we sit in Zazen? Is this like the koan where we are polishing a tile to make a mirror?

Let us examine the passage from the Heart Sutra the student is referencing and then I’ll try to give you my understanding of this.

The passage (taken from Red Pine’s translation) is:

No suffering, no source, no relief, no path;
No knowledge, no attainment and non-attainment.
Therefore, Shariputra, without attainment;
Bodhisttavas take refuge in Prajnaparamita
And live without walls of the mind.

The Heart Sutra is an essential Buddhist text that directly inclines us to the heart of truth. This is the truth of our lives, of the present, and of reality. Buddhism is realistic, and derives directly from lived experience. It is a very concrete approach to truth that is not limited to any particular concept or metaphysic. In our meditative practice, the concepts we form about reality begin to fall away, and the immeasurable complexity and richness of the world become starkly apparent. We no longer have to relegate the whole of the world to our opinions about it, and no longer need to take refuge in systems and frameworks of our own devising.

The Heart Sutra is thus a critique of these concepts, and proceeds to negate each in turn. Proceeding through “no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind;” and come to “no knowledge, no attainment and no non-attainment.” The present opens, teeming with life.  It becomes clear that reality is unfettered by the symbols we traditionally use to describe that experience. Throughout our practice we begin to see our concepts as fundamentally incomplete. We “live without walls of the mind,” open to the boundless possibilities for action in each moment. A vast field opens up, and we become more flexible and fluid.

The Heart Sutra is thus an antidote to our mind’s constantly seeking security in concepts such as “attainment.” When we say that we will “attain” enlightenment, we divorce ourselves from the present reality. We project enlightenment into a state in the abstract, that will be realized in the future.

Asking what exactly we mean when we use concepts such as englightenment can help us as we look into ourselves.  Taking apart this question and exploring it should be gone into deeply and taken to the end.

At the same time, we will not be able to understand the feelings that gave rise to works such as the Heart Sutra without a regular meditative practice. This is similar to how no amount of reading, writing, and intellectualizing about fitness will make someone a stronger athlete. One must begin by looking into the particulars of their own situation. We sit in order to aid us in this process of inquiry, as sitting is one method that allows us to investigate our reality. This understanding will not be brought into our lives without some kind of practice. An example of this is brought out in Genjokoan:

Mayu, Zen Master Baoche, was fanning himself. A monk approached and said ‘Master, the nature of wind is permanent and there is no place it does not reach. Why, then, do you fan yourself?’
‘Although you understand that the nature of wind is permanent,’ Mayu replied, ‘you do not understand the meaning of its reaching everywhere.’
‘What is the meaning of its reaching everywhere?’ asked the monk.
Mayu just kept fanning himself.
The monk bowed deeply.

The actualization of the buddha dharma, the vital path of its authentic transmission, is like this. If you say that you do not need to fan yourself because the nature of wind is permanent and you can have wind without fanning, you understand neither permanence nor the nature of wind. The nature of wind is permanent; because of that, the wind of the buddha house brings forth the gold of the earth and ripens the cream of the long river.

This passage describes and directly points to actualization and action in the present moment, the becoming-real of the monk’s interaction. In our practice, we bring this understanding and appreciation for action into our lives. Sitting in Zazen helps us to see this with more clarity. It is important to remember that there is “nothing to attain” even as we do our best to practice. In this way we always come back to and appreciate whatever is arising in our lives in the present moment, without arbitrarily separating ourselves in thought. Paradoxically, we attempt to attain something in order to realize there is nothing to attain (in the way we have conceptualized it) and begin to feel the truth of it for ourselves.  Zazen helps us remember the truth of who and what we are.

We embody this understanding, always coming back to the present and caring for this reality. This is the beauty, completeness, and blossoming forth of our own lives.