Encompassing & Corrective Mindfulness: A Diamond That Cuts Illusion
Ven. David Xi-Ken Shi
Well before the T’ang dynasty in China and Hui-neng’s time (the Sixth Ancestor 638-713), the conventional wisdom was that enlightenment could only be experienced after a significant practice of mindfulness meditation in some depth. Many teachers today still believe this, and it is the major difference between the Soto and Rinzai Zen lineages. It also reflects the difference that many teachers make in their own understanding of what the body-mind state of enlightenment, or deep awakening, means. Sometimes I think that if a teacher talks to much about what enlightenment is, especially in mysterious ways, they have shallow understanding of satori. You will find that recognized Buddhist masters will rarely speak about their own experience in public. This is the position that Ven. Wayne and I also take, as any discussion ABOUT enlightenment only adds to confusion because in our Western culture, the word ‘enlightenment’ is loaded with metaphysical meaning. It is not a subject that should be taken lightly, and should be reserved within the special teacher/student relationship.
Hui-neng, however, maintained that prajna (transcendental wisdom) is inseparable from the mindfulness experience. He believed that neither a state of enlightenment, or a deep mindfulness practice, could be understood without the other. I would only add, that one can have a very successful and rewarding meditation practice without any concern for their own enlightenment. This is why many Zen teachers stress that making enlightenment your goal in meditation, or even in the study of Buddhism, is a waist of time.
There are three forms of discipline in a Ch’an (Zen) practice. The first is an understanding of the moral, ethical, and psychological teachings gained from the Four Ennobling Truths, that leads to the intentional effort of following the precepts. The second is a dedicated mindfulness meditation practice, and the third is development of transcendental wisdom that fosters the awareness of the importance of the social-self. Hui-neng said that for true understanding, we must know that awareness gained during meditation is not different from transcendental wisdom gained in other aspects of our Zen practice. When we are fully aware in each moment, either on the cushion or off, transcendental wisdom is unfolding itself in every single aspect of our lives, in everything we do.
This is the original teaching of Hui-neng, and it marks the beginning of true Ch’an Buddhism. For you see, everything is teaching us and pointing to what Siddhartha discovered as the Dharma. All we have to do is open our minds-eye. While we are going about our every-day-life, Zen lessons are there. This intuitive mind infuses everything we do. But interestingly enough, this is also something that we do not have discursive knowledge of. We can not attain realization of the nature of the Universe just through study and some cushion time. We need to engage the world around us in order to experience for ourselves the reality found in what we are being taught about Buddhism. This intuitive knowledge comes from our body-mind interacting together. It is not just a mind thing. We ought not to sit here and think about what enlightenment is, or to think “I must get enlightened”. This thinking is a great impediment. Put it down. To have some degree of awakening is wonderful; to think about it is terrible. Great doubt and not-knowing is what we bring to the cushion. We may see it in an instant, or it may take several decades, or not at all. It doesn’t make that much of a difference. An enlightened mind still has to function in all the ways it did before a state of awakening. What we see is not different, how we see is. Our Zen practice is a practice of endurance and patience. Forget about gaining anything, we are simply trying to see clearly so we can live a life full of happiness and compassion for all beings.
What does seeing clearly mean? It doesn’t mean that you look at something and analyze it for complete understanding. When we see clearly, when we look at a flower and really see it, the flower speaks back as another expression of the Universe, and not different from our own. Our connectedness is realized. When we can truly experience this, we are experiencing transcendental wisdom. The flower and you have dissolved into something way beyond what we can even use language to express, but we can experience it anyway. This wonderful intuitive wisdom infuses everything we do, if we just open ourselves up to it, and forget about all our egotistical distractions, or what we want next. We are one with everything when we have developed the body-mind state that no longer experiences the self as separate from the planet we stand on. We see things through the conceptualizing of color and form, and yet we do not see them in their true essence, because we separate ourselves from what we see. We have something blocking our view, something that refuses to let go.
We are training ourselves in the practice and study of Buddhism so that our thoughts and emotions do not disturb our ability to get unblocked. When we cultivate a mind that is clear, we are ready for the Universe to express itself to us. Any moment can be an awakened moment. An opening. Hui-neng had an awakening when he heard the words from the Diamond Sutra that said, “Depending on nothing, realize your own mind.” For Hui-neng it was these words, you must have your own experience of the study and practice of Buddhism, don’t think thoughts that have been given to you by anybody else, including me. Depend on yourself. Your own experience of your inner self is what Zen is about.
By clarifying our minds we can abandon our delusions and enlighten ourselves. Realizing we are a part of the whole Universe, not separate, our body-mind becomes as clear as crystal, and all the Dharma is revealed. There is noting mystical about it. It requires hard work, time, and a good teacher. It is as natural as switching on a light. Just to learn to breath goes a long way in developing a clear mind-state. And with a clear mind we can find the real meaning in the precepts. To keep the precepts does not mean following a set of rules. It is giving ourselves to a way of life, a path of compassionate action that expresses itself in everything we do. Our practice of zazen purifies and gets our awareness ready so that the precepts are not really necessary. So the power of this practice we are engaged in, helps us keep the precepts without self-consciously trying to follow a set of rules. If it comes from a mindful state of being, from the intuitive wisdom we cultivate, it can be done.
All the work done in practice, all the hours spent on the cushion, all of this is important, but the one and only commandment is the intuitive response to how our lives are when we cease to do harm, do only good, and do good for others. When we pay absolute attention to this, we will be enlightened to our own natures and how we fit into Universal being.
It is important that enlightenment is not about learning the secrets of the Universe. In the Culamalunkya Sutra from the Majjhima Nikaya the Buddha said, “Many statements I have left unsaid. Why have I left them unsaid? Because they are not helpful. They are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to peace, knowledge, awakening, nirvana.” Siddhartha was not as concerned about understanding how the Universe worked as much as he was about learning how we humans work within it. When he was ask to reveal universal secrets, he remained quite. He never even said whether he knew the answers. This often frustrated some of his followers. Why did he not speak? Because other-worldly matters did not matter on the path of awareness. Instead, the Buddha taught the path of self awakening, compassion, and peace. He taught about the importance of human happiness, and developing behaviors that promoted human flourishing. It is these things the Buddha said we should devote time to.
If we take this to heart, as we sit on our cushions, our awakening will not be far behind.