Last month, we explored the first of 59 lojong slogans (we’re going to be at this for quite some time!)– “Train in the preliminaries”. As folks who regularly hit the cushion and who are committed to being awake during a time in which the easiest thing to do might just to be to go back to sleep, you’ve probably been training in the preliminaries for some time.
And looking at the larger world, it seems that to one degree or another, training in the preliminaries has been a key feature of the last month–women everywhere have cemented connections to make sure that the new administration knows that women’s rights must be respected. This initial coming together and marching for social justice has been a vivid exercise in training in the preliminaries of compassion and non-violent resistance. Across the country and around the world, families are grappling with a new relationship to the ideas of democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of movement–are we the America as represented on the Statue of Liberty (“Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”)? If not, what will we become? What can I do about it? Training in the preliminaries has been a key theme of these first few weeks of 2017.
So what next? It’s strange in a way that the Tibetan lojong masters transitioned straight from this idea of preparing to get started, of taking baby steps, to the second stage of Lojong–the next 9 slogans–which they categorized under the heading, Train in Empathy and Compassion. I say it’s strange because to truly train in empathy and compassion, one has to engage in Buddhism’s tenet that is most difficult for many to understand–emptiness. From training in the preliminaries to emptiness. We’re being thrown into the fire rather quickly! But such is life, right? There’s no time to lose. Might as well jump right in.
As you’ve sat with our first koan, Bodhidarma’s Vast Emptiness, perhaps you’ve found yourself wondering, what exactly does emptiness mean? Thich Nhat Hahn–known affectionately as Thày–describes emptiness thusly:
If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. We can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, “inter-be.”
If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. So we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.
Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, the sheet of paper is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also, so we can say that everything is in here in this sheet of paper. You cannot point out one thing that is not here—time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything coexists with this sheet of paper. That is why I think the word inter-be should be in the dictionary. To be is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is. Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source.
Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think that this sheet of paper would be possible? No, without sunshine nothing can be. And if we return the logger to his mother, then we have no sheet of paper either. The fact is that this sheet of paper is made up only of “non-paper elements.” And if we return these non-paper elements to their sources, then there can be no paper at all. Without non-paper elements, like mind, logger, sunshine, and so on, there will be no paper. As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.
We are the same way. Who were you before the day of your birth? What were the atoms that you now comprise doing before they got together to form the pattern that is you? When did your life actually begin? When does it end? What part of you is discrete–unrelated to other living things–exclusively you? What feeds us? Who nourishes us? What are each of us without the forces that sustain us–the nutrients, bacteria, enzymes, minerals, gases? And who made us? And what comprised them? If we look closely enough, we’ll find that we too are made exclusively of non-person elements–we are empty of an exclusive self. We inter-are with everything.
So what at first glance seems nihilistic–emptiness–actually turns out to be a teaching about connectedness, of boundlessness.
So, how does this relate to compassion?
Norman Fischer puts it like this:
If the basis on which we establish compassion is shaky, all our efforts to change our way of thinking and behaving will also be shaky. [Vaughn comment–we’re left with just trying to be nice, which isn’t really compassion.] If our basic sense of what we and others and the world are isn’t clear and accurate, if our fundamental assumptions are false, we won’t be able to proceed successfully to change our deeply ingrained habits. So it does turn out that we do need to begin by contemplating the profound nature of self and other [So please keep working with last week’s koan!]. Because if you change the leaves and branches but leave the roots intact, you run the risk of reverting to type.
And the type we risk reverting to is being “caught in the self-centered dream”. By understanding–realizing–emptiness, we wake up from the dream of separateness, and we are confronted with the fact that if we want to awaken spiritually–the desire known in Buddhism as bodhichitta–what we actually awaken to is a heartfelt concern for others–empathy, sympathy, and compassion [Peg calls it the outer turn in practice]. And there are two levels to this, both of which are essential–absolute bodhichitta and relative bodhichitta.
Here’s how Norman Fischer describes absolute bodhichitta vs relative bodhichitta:
Absolute bodhichitta is absolute love, love that’s bigger than any emotions, bigger than any object, so big that there is not lover and no beloved (the two merge into one under absolute love’s force). Love that amounts to a total vision of life is love itself. Within such love there can be no loss, because this love is so big it includes everything–even absence–so that nothing can ever be lost. Absolute bodhichitta is the empty, perfect, expansive, joyful, spacious nature of existence itself. Nor is it something that we have added on to existence. It’s always been there in life, as life’ it’s always been the nature of how things are. Love has been there all along, but we’ve been so convinced by our smallness that we have failed to look around and notice it. Maybe we could say that absolute bodhicitta is like God, who is always present everywhere, even in absence, and that our awakening to absolute bodhichitta is our coming to know that there is nothing but God and there never was anything but God and there never will be anything but God, and that everything is always held and always has been held, and that we are always loved and have always been loved and so has everything and everyone always been loved.
In contrast to this exalted state and exalted view, relative bodhichitta involves our doing a bit of work. Relative bodhichitta is when I roll up my sleeves and get on with the business of actually loving somebody. Relative bodhicitta is when I try to do something, help somehow, to offer encouragement, support, food, clothing, better laws, improved political systems, and so on. With relative bodhichitta we make efforts that we are successful at or unsuccessful at, we suffer losses and cry over those losses, our hearts are broken and we grieve, or we take delight in our own delight and the delight of others. With relative bodhicitta we try to defend our friends and those in need. There is no end to the work demanded by relative bodhicitta. Sometimes we take on very big projects that cause us to make a big effort for years, maybe decades or a lifetime. But relative bodhicitta is a project without end, so that when we are successful at one small part of the job, we are happy but don’t have unrealistic expectations: tomorrow we will have to start all over again with the business of helping, of righting wrongs, of healing the sick, mending broken hearts.
You may be feeling exhausted just hearing about relative bodhicitta, but actually relative bodhicitta is the antidote to fatigue because it is built on a foundation of absolute bodhicitta. If relative bodhicitta is an endless task, absolute bodhicitta is the endless peace that underlies that endless task. So it’s okay. In Zen, we frequently chant four vows, the first of which is “Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.” What a commitment! Who in their right mind would make such a vow? And yet people who come to Zen centers routinely chant this vow after every lecture, even the first lecture they attend. Maybe they do not notice what they are saying. On the one hand, the vow seems like another extravagant and paradoxical Zen expression. Not really. The vow is quite sensible when you think about it: endless need matched perfectly by endless love, endless caring–and this is not something we have to somehow laboriously produce: it is already what we are and how the world works.
Absolute bodhicitta: but we don’t really need to worry about it because even if our helping doesn’t do any good, it’s still okay because of the big love that’s everywhere and that heals anyway, no matter what we do, so we can drop the desperate idea that everything is up to us. Everything is up to us, but the big us, not the little us, and the big us can take care of it all because it is already taken care of. And because of this, we can love, we can do our best to help, and we can work really hard, but without having to be burned up by our concern.
And the two bodhicittas depend on each other as two sides of a coin. Without abosolute bodhicitta, relative bodhicitta will become forced and we will become angry and worn out with all of our caring and all of our helping; we can even become furious with the very people we are helping. “Look at all the help I’ve given you, how come you haven’t improved one bit? What’s the matter with you? How come you are not grateful? Where is my reward, my prize? At least the smile I was expecting, where’s that?” So helping can become really exhausting and disappointing. That’s why we need absolute bodhicitta to sustain us.
And without relative bodhicitta, absolute bodhicitta becomes a kind of grand abstraction, a big, lofty religious idea with no substance to it. What good is really big love if we never love anyone, if we never support anyone? And when we do love someone, when we do support someone, we become awakened, thanks to that person or those people. We become liberated from the [self-centered] dream. We become truly and lastingly happy.
So, the first slogan for developing absolute bodhicitta (and the second of the fifty-nine slogans) is:
- See everything as a dream.
Think about it. Everything is always arising and passing. That’s the nature of everything. In fact, in any given moment, can you pinpoint an exact now? As soon as something happens, in that very instant, it’s passed away. It seems like just yesterday that Henry sat in his diaper in front of that fireplace warming his stuffed puppy and his baby doll. Now it is, well.. now. Where did those years go? Where are the years to come hanging out right now? For that matter, when and where is right now if it is never in the same spot, always passing away? Do you sense time passing? When you sit back, doesn’t it seem like we were just here last week? And each of us. We must each be a little different than we were last week. And what about 10 years ago? 30 years ago? No trace remains of the me that was me 50 years ago. Where did that Vaughn go? And since the present moment is constantly slipping away, we really can’t be sure exactly where–or when–right now is. As Norman Fischer puts it, “And since this is so, you have to wonder whether [now] was really here to begin with…. And this is more than a thought, it’s also a feeling. If we stop for a moment our busy activity and actually take stock of ourselves as we really are right now, feel our life at this instant, we can note a wistful sense of unease at time passing.”
Paraphrasing Norman Fischer further… The slogan, “See everything as a dream,” is pointing out that we really do live our lives as if we’re in a dream–trying to grasp hold of something that isn’t really there. Right now as we sit here, it’s evening. The sun is setting. We assume that earlier in the day happened, but did it? How can you really be sure? Surely you woke up this morning, you got ready, you worked, and poof! The day rocketed by and the past is totally gone! There are memories of earlier in the day–some possibly vivid–but they’re just memories, not concrete facts. We may find others who would agree with us that today actually happened, but what proof do we actually have? Mass illusions are certainly possible–and our current state of political affairs attests to that. Everything is like this–it’s a memory–even while it’s happening. Brain science note… the brain registers experience a moment after the experience happened. Actual experience is very hard to pin down, and the closer you look, the stranger our experience of experience actually feels. When we observe experience, just sit and focus on something, anything and try to sense how our mind is perceiving the moment we’re really brought face to face with the fact that life really is like a dream.
So here’s what we’re going try tonight, and something you may want to tinker with this month. It’s a little odd, but here goes… When you’re in the middle of meditating, try to notice the moment a thought begins. Also, try to notice the exact moment when a thought ends. What you may find is that this is impossible. Thoughts don’t begin and they don’t end. One moment you’ll find, there are no thoughts there and then, voila! in no time, a thought appears fully-formed smack in the middle of its expression. You don’t know where it came from, it just appeared. And then, it’s evaporated, and you don’t know when it even started to fade. It just vanished. It’s impossible to catch a thought before it appears and it’s impossible to see it end. And it’s equally impossible to see your own mind, impossible to see the contents of your mind because everything is like a dream that appears and disappears.
The important thing about this slogan is to know that it is good news, actually. The effect of practicing “see everything as a dream” is relief.
“The same relief that comes when you wake up from a nightmare and your whole body suddenly relaxes because you realize that the dire situation you seemed to be in a moment ago is actually okay, it was just a dream. Your anxiety disappears, and you immediately lighten up and relax. Even the worst things can exude some lightness: “Yes this is terrible, this is not what I wanted, not what I’d hoped for, not what I’d worked for, maybe even what I had feared. But also, it’s not that bad. It is like a dream. It’s happening and not happening. Soon it will be in the past. So I can look at it differently, I don’t need to validate all of these dire thoughts that only make matters worse. Maybe I don’t need to be so worked up about it. Maybe I can just figure out how to deal with it without that extra measure of anxiety and freak-out”.
To practice this, first, try the experiment above where you try to catch the origins and endpoints of thoughts. Don’t beat your head against the wall trying to do this, because as you’ll likely find out, it’s not possible to do. Still, it may help you see that your internal landscape is much more dreamlike than you think. Then, between now and next first Thursday (notice how quickly that will go!), meditate with it, repeat it to yourself, apply it in your daily experience, and notice how it begins to change things for you. “When you find that you are upset or angry, when you are having a day when you are mad at yourself or someone else and you are hammering on yourself or complaining about someone else for some reason, you can remember to see everything as a dream, and your mind will snap into a more alert presence and you will find that you can lighten up to some extent. Everything is passing: every problem, no matter how tough, is already solved, even as it’s developing.”