In the ancient Chinese poems that we are studying in the current trimester (May-Aug), the oldest one from the 600s, Faith Mind (C. Hsinshinming), contains the stanza:


The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences; when love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised; make the smallest distinction however and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart

What was meant by heaven in those days may have differed infinitely from what it means today, but the notion of heaven’s separation from earthly life is something we can still appreciate, whatever our interpretation of the ideal of paradise, nirvana, or spiritual liberation. The point is still well-taken. Many people miss this life, anticipating a hoped-for afterlife.

Master Dogen reprises this idea at the beginning of his initial tract on Zen meditation (J. Fukanzazengi), after stating four conclusions about “tracing the source of the Way,” and questioning the wrong views held by the conventional wisdom of the day, he offers the following caveat:


However if there is the slightest difference in the beginning between you and the Way the result will be greater separation than between heaven and earth


This is one of the distinguishing points between Buddhism and other world religions and between Zen and science. From the beginning, the observer was part and parcel of insight into the true nature of being and the conditions of existence. Zen does not allow for the slightest separation of the so-called self and the universal Way. Nor does it pretend to offer an objective description of reality outside of what is accessible to the ordinary mind of any and all human beings. The Masters did not punt on the issue of personal responsibility for developing this kind of insight, deferring to an agnostic, theistic, or atheistic standpoint.

Attachment to philosophical or religious dogma are considered forms of addiction in Zen, just as necessary to overcome as dependency on so-called addictive substances. The lead-in to our weekly conferences during the first trimester of the year touched on this:


Core Discussion Topic—Don't sell intoxicants: Being Hooked to substances and things. Not every intoxicant is physical. Emotions and thoughts are addictive too.


Another core tenet of Zen is that it is all addiction. We are in a very real sense addicted to existence itself; withdrawal of any or all of the substances that sustain our lives—air, water, food, warmth, et cetera—will cause the onset of significant discomfort, the definition of the effects of an addictive substance. This kind of dependency comes with the territory, of course, born of body, mouth and mind.

Less obvious, and more insidious, is the addiction to our own views. The learned beliefs in certain interpretations of reality that accumulate from birth onward—and which in some wise may be said to precede birth, based on karmic principle—in a very real sense create the reality of the world we inhabit. And they may be, indeed likely are, what would have to be considered wrong views.

In studying D. T. Suzuki’s translation of Lankavatara Sutra, reputedly a favorite of Master Bodhidharma, and one of the theoretical underpinnings of the direct practice he transmitted to China (as well as the basis of the Yogachara, or Mind-Only teaching), we see that Buddha repeatedly challenges the very notion of this existence as a concrete reality­—an assumption that we all make, if unconsciously—and the bedrock of philosophy and science in his time as well as today. It is very difficult to relinquish our hold on this view, let alone accept that we are capable of waking up to the alternate reality of impermanence, insubstantiality, and imperfection. For those unable to attend the dharma talks or participate in the online conferences, the following will expose you to a few of the foundational tenets of Buddhism found in this long text. We are offered a peek in the tent of Buddha’s insight through his exhaustive discussion with his disciple Mahamati [insertions mine]:


Mahamati, there are some Brahmans and Sramanas [pundits] who assume something out of nothing, saying that there exists a substance which is bound up in causation and abides in time, and that the Skandyas [aggregates], Dhatues [sense realms] and ayatanas [objects] have their genesis and continuation in causation and, after thus existing, pass away.


This amounts to brief summation of materialism, the view that things actually exist in a concrete and substantial way. Buddha is setting the stage with the conventional wisdom.


They are those, Mahamati, who hold a destructive and nihilistic view concerning such subjects as continuation, activity, rising, breaking-up, existence, Nirvana, the path, karma, fruition, and truth. Why? Because they have not attained an intuitive understanding [of the Truth]. Because they have no fundamental insight of things.


Then he sums up the contrary view of nihilism, which holds that nothing exists in any real sense of the word. These views are ordinarily set in opposition to each other.


Mahamati, it is like a jar broken in pieces which is unable to function as a jar; again, it is like a burnt seed which is incapable of sprouting.


Thus the Buddha disposes of these two views, which have no utility.


Even so, Mahamati, their Skandhas, Dhatus, and ayatanas which they regard as subject to changes are really incapable of uninterrupted transformation because their views do not originate from the perception of an objective world as a manifestation of Mind itself, which is erroneously discriminated.


Buddha begins to differentiate his view in contrast to these two dualistic takes on the true condition of existence. Rather than an either-or position, he is making the more subtle point that the reality cannot be captured in these simplistic formulations. The fault is not so much in the logic—in one sense, both polar views have some validity—but the fact that these philosophers have no direct experience themselves of the true nature of their own existence, which clarifies the view that the world is a projection of mind itself. Thus they erroneously discriminate a separate, concrete reality, which must either be real or unreal. Continuing [insertions D.T.S.]:


If again, Mahamati, something comes out of nothing and there is the rise of the Vijnanas [cognition, discrimination, consciousness] by reason of a combination of the three effect-producing causes, we can say the same of a non-existing thing, that a tortoise would grow hair and sands  produce oil. [As this is impossible] this proposition does not avail, it ends in affirming nothing.


So here we have the unintended consequences of this line of reasoning, implying the resolution of both existence and non-existence in a larger reality.


And, Mahamati, it follows that deed, work, and cause [of which they speak] will be of no use, and so also with their reference to being and non-being.


Being and non-being may be considered the crux of the existential problem addressed in a roundabout way by philosophy; and somewhat subject to indirect proof through theory, math, and experiment in science; but addressed head-on in Zen as a matter to be resolved through action. Again from Hsinshinming Master Sengcan (3rd Patricarch in China)


Emptiness here Emptiness there

but the infinite universe stands always before our eyes

Infinitely large and infinitely small no difference

for definitions have vanished and no boundaries are seen

So too with Being and non-Being


After a lengthy dissertation on the dominance of dualistic thinking constraining our worldview, and a biting criticism of the foolish fears underlying it, the Master sums up the opposition of form and emptiness rather glibly, pointing out that whatever we may think, the reality is always in our face. The attempts we make to measure our experiences amount to a poor and ultimately doomed exercise in reducing the incomprehensible to something our feeble monkey mind can get its arms around. But the punchline, that at this remove all definitions and boundaries evaporate, including Being and non-Being, should hit us in the gut, right where we live. If there are no such definitions an boundaries in reality, our whole construct of reality is totally demolished. Master Sengcan then gives a final instruction, which cavalierly, but compassionately, dismisses the entire world of philosophy and other human endeavors:


Waste no time in doubts and arguments that have nothing to do with this


In other words, this great matter is not the most important thing in the world; it is the only important thing. This is in direct accord with Buddha’s dissertation on the fecklessness of logic devoid of experience:


Mahamati, when they argue that there is a combination of the three effect-producing causes, they do this by the principle of cause and effect [which is to say, by the principle that something comes our of something and not of nothing]; and thus there are [such things as] past, present, and future, and being and non-being. As long as they remain on their philosophical ground, their demonstration will be by means of their logic and text-books, for the memory of erroneous intellection will ever cling to them. Thus, Mahamati, simple-minded ones, poisoned by an erroneous view, declare the incorrect way of thinking taught by the ignorant to be the one presented by the All-Knowing One.


So as usual, the pundits and politicos of the time were apparently attempting to co-opt the more transcendent teaching of Buddha, to defend their own positions with hollow claims of sameness based upon spin. Apparently, doublethink preceded George Orwell by a couple of millennia. Buddha struggles to clarify where his insight differed from the norm.


Again, Mahamati, there are some Brahmans and Sramanas who, recognizing that the external world which is of Mind itself, is seen as such owing to the discrimination and false intellection practiced since beginningless time, know that the world has no self-nature and has never been born, it is like a cloud, a ring produced by a firebrand, the castle of the Gandharvas, a vision, a mirage, the moon as reflected  in the ocean, and a dream; that Mind in itself has nothing to do with discrimination and causation, discourses of imagination, and terms of qualification (lakshya-lakshana); that body, property, and abode are objectifications of the alayaVijnana, which is in itself above [the dualism of] subject and object; that the state of imagelessness which is in compliance with the awakening of Mind itself, is not affected by such changes as arising, abiding, and destruction.


Here he suggests that among the pundits there may be those who are capable of seeing beyond the cultural conventions and logical traps, to the emptiness of existence. These references to cloud, a firebrand ring, mirage, the reflection of the moon, and a dream, et cetera, are familiar poetic allusions found in the record throughout the countries of origin. He also suggests that against this background of constant and ceaseless change, there is the awakened mind, which is not affected. This is not to be taken as an admission of a soul or god-principle, however. Mind here does not imply a being, but is in conformance with the non-duality of being and non-being as we have seen above [definition insertions for clarity mine from Shambala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen].


The Bodhisattvas-Mahasattvas, Mahamati, will before long attain to the understanding that Nirvana and Samsara are one. Their conduct, Mahamati, will be in accordance with the effortless exhibition of a great loving heart that ingeniously contrives means [of salvation], knowing that all beings have the nature of being like a vision of a reflection, and that [there is one thing which is] not bound by causation, being beyond the distinction of subject and object; [and further] seeing that there is nothing outside Mind, and in accordance with a position of unconditionality, they will by degrees pass through the various stages of Bodhisattvahood and will experience the various states of Samadhi, and will by virtue of their faith understand that the triple world is of Mind itself, and thus understanding will attain the Samadhi Mayopama [unwavering concentration]. The Bodhisattvas entering into the state of imagelessness where they see into the truth of Mind-only, arriving at the abode of the Paramitas, and keeping themselves away from the thought of genesis, deed, and discipline, they will attain the Samadhi Vahravimbopama [highest Samadhi; all klesa destroyed as if by a lightning bolt] which is in compliance with the Thathagatakaya [true body of Buddha], which is endowed with the powers, the psychic faculties, self-control, love, compassion, and means; which can enter into all the Buddha-lands and into the sanctuaries of the philosophers; and which is beyond the real of Citta-mano-manoVijnaya [cognition, discrimination, consciounsess]. Therefore, Mahamati, these Bodhisattva-Mahasattvas who wish, by following the Tathagatakaya, to realize it, should exercise themselves, in compliance with the truth of Mind-only, to desist from discriminating and reasoning erroneously on such notions as Skandhas, Dhatus, ayatanas, thought, causation, deed, discipline, and rising, abiding, and destruction.


So here, Buddha establishes the Bodhisattva path as specifically parting from the deviant views of convention, that in order to be capable of actualizing the bodhisattva vow to save all others before oneself, it is necessary first to divest oneself of all self-centered delusion, including most crucially all beliefs based on ignorance and a one-sided take on reality. And that proceeding progressively to deeper or higher levels on the path of realization is inseparable from seeing through the deceptive nature of the mind that conceives of a concrete reality in conventional terms. Then he goes on to describe how such adepts will the be able to become skillful in helping others to enter into the same insight, and again reinforces this central point of compliance with the inconceivable.


Perceiving that the triple existence [past, future, and present] is by reason of the habit-energy of erroneous discrimination and false reasoning that has been going on since beginningless time, and also thinking of the state of Buddhahood which is imageless and unborn, [the Bodhisattva] will become thoroughly conversant with the noble truth of self-realization, will become a perfect master of his own mind, will conduct himself without effort, will be like a gem reflecting a variety of colours, will be able to assume the body of transformation, will be able to enter into the subtle minds of all beings, and, because of his firm belief in the truth of Mind-only, will, by gradually ascending the stages, become established in Buddhahood. Therefore, Mahamati, let the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva be well disciplined in self-realization.


Continuing to predict the arc of transformation of all who enter upon this Way, the Buddha expands upon the idea that all bodhisattvas will inevitably become buddhas, that is, fully awake. But it is all dependent upon becoming disciplined in self-realization. This passage then represents the provenance of the Bodhisattva vehicle, as well as the origins and import of the discipline of Zen meditation.


Then Mahamati said: Teach me, Bhagavan, concerning that most subtle doctrine which explains the Citta, Manas, ManoVijnana [cognition, discrimination, consciounsess]…which is put in practice by the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas; which is separated from the state of mind which recognizes a world as something outside Mind itself; and which, breaking down all the so-called truths established by words and reasonings, constitutes the essence of the teachings of all the Buddhas.


Mahamati, who begins to look a bit like a sucker for punishment, asks the Bhagavan [venerable] to further explain the doctrine, the main point of which he summarizes again in case it has so far eluded any in the audience. Of course, Buddha graciously accommodates him, the entire document running on for some 200-plus pages, single-spaced. Of course, the original was spoken, and memorized by those listening, so probably took place over the course of several days. Mahamati appears to challenge the Buddha from time to time, and also appears as if he does not understand, but of course he is acting as prime questioner on behalf of the others in the audience. These sutras may represent the earliest record of the talk-show format, the host interviewing a celebrity. 

The selections herein appear in Chapter 2: Collection of All the Dharmas, the longest chapter, in which Mahamati poses a long list of questions for Buddha to respond to for the sake of the others in the audience. I have quoted them in depth to outline the broad background for our practice of Zen. For anyone wishing to pursue this foundational teaching further, I will make myself available for personal discussion online, and recommend particularly Chapter 3: On Impermanency, which may be more accessible, equally pertinent to our practice, and is mercifully brief by comparison to Chapter 3. Any questions or comments welcome as always.