The Insight of the Buddha.
The essence of the Buddha's teachings is summed up in the Four Noble Truths of his first sermon. The Buddha's quest was to find a way beyond personal suffering, not through reliance on dogmas, creeds or philosophies but in actual experience based in insight. He ruthlessly exposed the nature of life realising that, due to impermanence and death, life can never be apart from suffering. This suffering arises primarily because we crave permanence, ego-enhancing credentials and safety. To go beyond suffering necessitates going beyond this craving, an endeavour that demands an examination of the self. The Buddha proclaimed:
Life is suffering.
Suffering is due to wanting, and especially wanting the safety of permanence.
Suffering diminishes when this wanting is abandoned.
The Way is how to do it.
The key question is what is the Way? The Way cannot be told; it has to be experienced. We discover the Way through meditation which in Zen is called zazen. Through meditation we discover for ourselves that suffering is indeed due to self concern and that wanting originates from the desires of the self. In meditation we are examining the basis of this 'self'. What sort of reality has it?
Enquiring into the self encounters problems. Where is it? What is it? Who am I? What is a person? We begin in infancy with bare experience and gradually we infer that there is a person who is the subject and creator of this experience. The self is therefore an idea built up by the mind. It does not have an objective existence as external things appear to have. It is a reference point within the processes of our thought. By solidifying into an apparent entity, the thought that creates the self becomes the pivot around which all other thinking revolves. The way we think determines the quality of our personal world. In Ch'an we say:
If you want to meet the Buddhas
Of the past, present and future
Only perceive that all worlds of experience
Are created solely by the Mind.
Often we experience a sort of fog of muddled, anxious thinking that smudges over a purer consciousness. This is the effect of worrying self concern. to attain insight this has to be dropped so that basic awareness free from the notion of self is exposed.
Within the Ch'an viewpoint of Buddhism an 'enlightenment experience' arises when this screen or fog evaporates. Although such an insight contains the truth, continuous training is usually essential if such an insight is to be built into a way of life. Some Buddhists talk of many lives before enlightenment is reached but in Ch'an there is no need to talk of many lives nor of obtaining anything. The task is to blow away the fog. The 'suchness' of things is then revealed in direct experience without the bias of interpretation.
A Special Transmission.
In our habitual anxiety we use words and concepts and through these we communicate. Words express not the primary basis of experience but a secondary realm of interpretation based in labelling and argument. The actual basis remains prior to words, indescribably, ineffable. Only poetry may suggest it. It can however be experience.
Bodhidharma expresses this forcibly:
A special transmission outside the Scriptures
No reliance on words or letters
Direct pointing to the heart of humanity
Seeing into one's own nature.
The task of Ch'an is thus an activity not a matter of words, descriptions or arguments. This task may be approached and completed through meditation.
Meditation is the path to clarification. It has two aspects, calming the mind and insight into the nature of mind as a process rather than as a thing. Without a calm mind, insight cannot occur; without insight the nature of experience is not understood. Calming the mind usually comes first both for beginners and for experienced meditators. Insight arises when correct meditation is pursued. It may be a painful process, arduous, boring or stressful, since the habits and assumptions from which one is built must be challenged. eventually practitioners experience joy in a new depth and clarity.
Meditation normally requires a disciplined approach. It is practised both formally, sitting on a cushion, and also informally by a mindfulness of one's everyday activities, sensations and feelings. Nothing lies outside the realm of meditation. Anything that arises is grist to the mill.
There are various methods to calm the mind. The basic meditation for a beginner is mindfulness of breathing, following methods which are taught by practised teachers. An easy conscience, patience, work and concentration are also conducive to a calm mind. The opposites to these provoke a disturbed mind and personal turmoil. Turmoil also arises from years of conditioning, events in earlier life and in previous generations. We inherit difficult karma from before our own lifetime as it rolls down from one generation to the next. We are each responsible for our own karma in the sense that only way can do anything about it.
As an aid to mindfulness the Buddha suggests a number of guidelines known as the Precepts. Practitioners of meditation accept these as an orientation to life. There are various presentations of the precepts but the main focus is on doing good for others rather than the evils of self aggrandisement, killing, stealing, lying, damaging sex and intoxication which may lead to the other errors. The errors are regarded as serious mistakes rather than as sins. Bad karma may be corrected through the practice of good.
Insight arises when we abandon desire so that existential anxiety is greatly diminished or comes to an end. The thought process that endlessly generates the ego then comes to a stop. There is at such a time no thought creating self, no self concern and we have let go. Where have we gone? To ask this is to start worrying again. One allows oneself to abide in a freedom wherein the whole world reflects. Depending on our personal karma such realisation may be easy or very difficult.
With such insight comes the realisation that all our worries are inappropriate an unreal. One discovers a peace, a silence, a love, a vastness that is simple and spacious, without boundaries. Yet the though6t that one may have achieved something starts the ego up again and the insight disappears. As the great teacher Dogen said 'When the opposites arise the Buddha mind is lost'. Meditation is thus a training that needs to be worked at and practised. It is not something one talks about. It is something you do.
As we drop the self so we see others clearly. There is great pain in the world. Compassion for those in suffering arises with insight and one seeks to alleviate it in whatever way is appropriate to one's situation. It is also true that a feeling of compassion itself drives away egoism.
The Bodhisattva’s Path.
Deep training arises when Compassion and Insight mutually support one another. This is then the path of the Bodhisattva - one who seeks the release of others before himself or herself. It is the aim of the Ch'an practitioner to walk the path of the Bodhisattva in whatever way it appears in one's life circumstance. This may involve political or social activism, spreading the teachings (Dharma), social work or counselling or simply the support of anyone in need. The essence is to assist others to their own realisations. Compassion must however be directed at one's own suffering self. Unless one is working on one's own problems any work for others is likely to be inadequately understood.
In Ch’an the vows of one on the Way are:
I vow to liberate all sentient beings
I vow to cut off endless vexations
I vow to master limitless approaches to Dharma
I vow to attain Supreme Buddhahood.
Sometimes we may feel such vows go far beyond human possibility. Yet we do not enter any quest with the notion of stopping halfway. The Grail may be far away but there is no hesitation. A warrior does not enter battle with the notion of partly winning. A farmer does not plant seeds to see the crops half grown. Whatever the difficulties, the Zen practitioner persists in the courage of the warrior or in the faith of the skilled farmer. Each vow is a personal question, a ‘koan’, that lasts a lifetime. What is it to do thus?