by Wayne Ren-Cheng
The Diamond Cutter Sutra with lessons on emptiness, the potential of all phenomena, ourselves and the dharma is deep and profound in meaning, but direct in focus on Buddhist practice. One of the four-line gathas of the sutra is a teaching that points to the situationality of how we must react to life’s varied experiences to generate the positive consequences possible when applying dharma. Each situation and experience is unique and our reactions to them must also be unique, while, at the same time being true to our commitment to the Middle Path. The goal is the alleviation of suffering and the promotion of human flourishing. The ways to accomplishing that goal must directly respond to the situation and experience, not be responses built upon dogmatic rules or expectations.
There is one four-line gatha . . . Let’s take a moment to talk about just what is a gatha? Gatha is a Sanskrit term meaning “verse” or “hymn”. In Buddhist literature they are passages with specific meaning and intent that are taken from sutras. There may be a particular section of a sutra that offers a lesson that bears remembering. They are recited to remind the bodymind of the intent of an action or thought . . . from the Vajra Prajnaparamita Sutra that many Mahayana Buddhist practitioners recite often. It reminds us that dharma, like all other things, is subject to the impermanence inherent in all experiences. That the dharma is brought forth in the moment-to-moment experience. As that experience passes, so does dharma, only to come forth in the following moment as a different expression of dharma.
All conditioned dharmas
Are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, shadows,
Like dew drops and a lightning flash:
Contemplate them thus.
All phenomena are conditioned dharma. The capital “D” Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, join the small “d” dharma that encompasses all the activities of human beings and the world we inhabit. Eating, the clothes worn, walking through a city or a forest, sleeping, engaging in livelihood – these and all the rest of the world in motion are examples of the externally conditioned dharmas. The dispostions and habits of human beings are also conditioned dharma – form, feeling, thought, action and consciousness are internally conditioned. These are all dharmas and by coming to realization that they arise and fall we become empowered to make positive use of all phenomena.
These dharmas are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, and shadows. A dream manifests during sleep and is gone, often without a memory of it when one awakes. Illusions are created to fool ourselves, or to fool others and are seen through when reality is realized. Bubbles pop and are quickly forgotten. Shadows depend on something to shade the light so without a form there is no shadow. Dew drops glisten on the grass but after sunrise it is like they were never there. A lightning flash illuminates for a moment. Like dharma they are unreal states except in the very moment that conditions their existence and they change from form to emptiness awating their potential to arise again. By “contemplating them thus” we come to understand and accept that becoming attached to any phenomena isn’t useful for it will pass away, and that makes each succeeding phenomena unique.
This ideal of conditioned dharma can be accessible as part of a contemporary Buddhist practice by creatively re-describing conditioned as situational. Every phenomena is unique to the experience in that one moment, so our actions and thoughts must be unique to the moment. In Engaged Dharma this is how we come to realize the pragmatic use of the teachings of the Buddha. In the Buddha’s time the Dharma was conditioned by that particular cultural context, and today that Dharma must be applied in our cultural context. Then and now the dharma had to be applied situationally in order for it to have the encompassing and corrective effects the Buddha intended. We come to realize that dharma serves as both cause and effect.
We want to act with generosity, but we do so being mindful of the situation and determining what act of generosity is needed. While one situation may benefit from a gift of money, a similar situation may benefit from a gift of skill. This is what makes a continued practice necessary so that we learn with each unique moment. Patience is a positive characteristic to develop and way to act. Situationally though there are moments when the time for patience passes and action must be taken. Meditation is crucial to recognizing how we are, and how we want to be. Meditation is crucial to realizing how we can achieve that goal. Eventually meditation has to “get off the cushion” in order to have value in our experiences.
A passage from the Heart Sutra offers another view of conditioned dharma. “O, Sariputra, all dharmas are forms of emptiness, not born, not destroyed; not tainted, not pure, not increasing, no decreasing, and so in emptiness there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no mental formations, no consciousness; no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no color, no sound, no taste, no touch, no thought, no realm of sight . . .”
Dharma has no intrinsic or inherent qualities, it is empty until potential is realized. Those qualities arise when dharma acts as cause and/or effect. The Four Ennobling Truths can offer a platform for better recognizing the concept of conditioned dharma. There is suffering but the kind and severity of suffering varies greatly depending on circumstance. Suffering is a reality, suffering is conditioned. The cause of suffering is attachment and craving that comes in many forms depending on circumstance. Attachment and craving is a reality, attachment and craving is conditioned. Suffering can be alleviated because impermanence and causality are realities. Impermanence and causality empowers us in different ways depending on the circumstances that condition their arising and falling. The Eightfold Path is a guide to the alleviation of suffering. View, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, meditation and concentration are effective when we are aware of the conditioned aspect of any situtation or experience and apply it accordingly.