Posted in emptiness, Uncategorized

Emptiness

The story is that the Buddha gave the first turning of the Wheel of the Dharma, the first set of teachings, just after his Enlightenment. This teaching consisted of the Four Noble Truths.

And later there was a second turning. In the second turning the Buddha taught the Perfection of Wisdom teachings. This was a collection of numerous sutras designed to teach us about the true nature of reality, that all things are empty of inherent existent, that nothing exists apart from everything else, including us.

And later there was a third turning. The third turning was that Emptiness, far from being a nihilistic concept, can actually be explained as Buddha Nature, that we and all things are intimately and fundamentally connected.

It’s important to keep the Four Noble Truths in mind when we think about Emptiness. To truly understand Emptiness is to overcome our suffering. We can use analogies to help us think about Emptiness, but the only way we can really understand it is to experience it directly through meditation practice.

To say something is empty of inherent existence, we aren’t saying that it’s not real. We are only saying that things don’t exist independently and separately from other things. Everything is interconnected and dependent on everything else. In this way the entire universe is connected. The Buddha once described all things with the Indra’s Net analogy. This teaching is part of the foundation of the Huayan School of Buddhism, one of the precursors to Zen. He described all things as reflective gems reflecting each other in a giant net that encompasses the entire universe. In this way, all of the gems bare the reflection of all of the other gems.

Indra’s Net reminds me of a Mirror Maze I went to in Branson earlier this year. I was surrounded by mirrors. I could see myself in the mirror in from of me. But, because of the way the mirror walls and corridors were set up, I could also see myself in all of the other mirrors. My reflection was boundless and infinite.

The hope is that if we can see everything as empty of inherent existence then we can see ourselves in that way too. When we cling to this notion of a separate self, then we think of the things and people around us as “others”. It’s in this division that our suffering arises. It’s our continual conflict of self versus other. If we can drop this sense of duality and see that all things are connected, then we can overcome these negative emotions. To see yourself as one with everything is to love everything.

According to the doctrine of Emptiness any belief in a permanent reality is based on an assumption that makes no sense.

This whole teaching leads us to an understanding of another deep Buddhist teaching, Dependent Origination. That’s just the concept that things don’t exist on their own. We are all woven together in Indra’s Net and any separation that we perceive is a delusion. Our existence is connected to the existence of all other things. Looking at ourselves as separate beings who are alone is a mistake that leads to wrong views. Understanding that we are one with our environment is helpful to us.

Emptiness, in some ways, represents our potential. How many of our limitations are a result of how we perceive ourselves? If we are vast and interconnected, if we are boundless like the sky, then we aren’t held back by the ways we define ourselves. We are the universe.

 

 

Posted in tattooed buddha, zen

The Flower and the Smile

It’s said that the lineage that we call Zen started in a place called Vulture Peak.

It’s said that it started when the Buddha was silent, in the space between words—it was the teaching of no-teaching. His students asked for a teaching, as they did many times. Instead of speaking, as they expected, he just raised a flower. It was a white lotus and he just held it up and showed it to everyone.
The symbol of the Zen tradition is the Enso, an empty circle drawn with a brushstroke. I humbly suggest that the symbol should be a flower instead.

All of the assembled students were just confused and disappointed, as we can imagine we would be, except for one. His name was Mahakasyapa.
Mahakasyapa smiled.

The point is usually said to be that the dharma isn’t something you hear or read. It’s experiencing this moment as it is, purely and directly. Everyone else was waiting for some great philosophical teaching. Mahakasyapa just sat there and experienced the Buddha raising a flower. At this point, the Buddha declared that Mahakasyapa was his chosen successor, that he had attained enlightenment just as the Buddha himself had.
Mahakasyapa was an important historical figure. He convened the first council after the Buddha’s death, where everyone got together to recite and share the Buddha’s teachings that they had memorized. In Theravada temples he’s sometimes depicted in art hanging around with Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and attendant.

Is this story true?

If it is then the Zen lineage passed through 27 teachers without anyone really talking about it, until Bodhidharma took the lineage to China and replanted it, where it then changed a little to become more like the nature religions of Taoism and Confucianism (as Buddhism often does when it enters new cultures).

Here’s an explanation that I think is more likely:
There were Buddhists who traveled to China to spread the teachings of the Lankavatara Sutra. In those days that was really how different groups of Buddhists defined themselves. They didn’t have rigid lineages like the ones that exist now. It’s said that the Lankavatara Sutra is the one that Bodhidharma brought with him.
Once these Buddhists arrived they encountered resistance.

They learned from the Buddhist sects that had already formed in China: Huayan, Tiantai and Pure Land. In these sects different things became emphasized to make the teachings more acceptable to Chinese culture. A history was created to embody authenticity—not fabrication, mythmaking. Fabrication implies negative or selfish intent.
We might view mythmaking as lying in the modern world, but only if we don’t realize that expecting stories to be literally true is a new idea. Things can be meaningful by being true in a non-literal sense and that’s how things have been throughout much of human history.
It could be argued that the Zen tradition formed in response to those other forms, as an effort to create a Chinese form of Buddhism that was more in line with the Buddha’s original teaching. Pure Land, with it’s chanting and wishing for rebirth in heaven, and Tiantai, with it’s focus on secret and mysterious teachings, seem very different from the Buddha’s three simple trainings. Huayan is the closest, and it’s easy to see how much it influenced the Zen tradition. Huayan, inspired by the Avatamsaka Sutra, is known for being a little more philosophical, mystical, and positive than Zen. Zen is known for being more down to earth. I think those lines are very blurry. If you look for philosophical and hard to understand Zen teachings you can definitely find them.
Zen lineages can be strict and sometimes I wonder if I’d like Huayan more. I would have certainly loved to study with a Huayan teacher if the lineage hadn’t already died out.
I think the Zen tradition formed the same way that other religions always seem to, not from one guy looking at a flower. Rather, I think it formed from a slow process of accumulating teachings and being influenced by the other forms of spirituality that were around.
Plenty of people will tell you they think the flower and smile story literally happened. I don’t think so, but I think it doesn’t matter.