Knowing when to ‘assert’ and when to ‘give-way’ are important attributes for any spiritual traveller. As human-beings, we can find ourselves in all kind of circumstance as the day unfolds and our life progresses. Much of this will be mundane, but occasionally reality will take a shocking turn for the worst! No one saw the Covid19 pandemic arriving and virtually everyone was taken by surprise – despite numerous horror films over the years expressing narratives involving dystopic futures on a planet ravished by some type of illness, plague or other torturous device! Usually, such story-lines involve society collapsing back into an armed feudalism where brutality is the order of the day. Only the strong survive by preying on the weak. Of course, due to poverty and asymmetric economic development around the world, many people already live in these hellish conditions. I would add that even within the so-called ‘civilised’ areas of the world – killing and barbarity still exists – although it is hidden to a far greater extent (like a bad dream that people would rather forget).
Most people grow-up in the world learning to survive. Indeed, this is a crucial and necessary skill. It is not the skill of the huntsman or gathering skills of the scavenger – but rather the ability to navigate the character and personality of our fellow human-beings. Children can be cruel and adults can be deceptive – for many these observations are facts of life. This imbalance in the inner and outer environment must be dealt with in one way or another. Ch’an is not an easy undertaking because it requires a devoted self-effort to take on our own inner world before we set about attempting to make changes in our outer worlds. Many will attack and ridicule any attempt at self-discipline – but for the world to be a better place – self-discipline is exactly what is required. Looking within with clarity and steadfastness eventually develops to looking without with wisdom and knowledge!
Our personal circumstance can vary wildly through our lives. Many will experience poverty, homelessness, abuse and all kinds of deprivations – whilst others will experience only affluence and relative well-being, etc. The point is that regardless of the differences that define our outer existence, the empty mind ground is exactly the same for all beings! Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) lived a life continuously ‘gazing’ at the empty mind ground without any deviation whatsoever! More to the point – Master Xu Yun integrated his expedient self (or that which will eventually fall away) with the permanent and ever-present empty mind ground! Regardless of the situation he found himself in, or the circumstances he had to traverse – Master Xu Yun judged human reality not from the ego infected with greed, hatred and delusion – but rather from the pure and clean empty mind ground which underlies all reality and permeates the universe without end! Knowing where to place oneself in the phenomenal world - so as to maximise compassion, wisdom and loving kindness – is exactly possessing the skill of ‘moving’ and remaining ‘still’ in all situations!
The Buddha explains clearly, in every expression of his teaching, that consciousness and physical matter are not two different things, even though they may be viewed as two distinct expressions of the same underlying reality. This understanding avoids the traps of ‘idealism’ and gross ‘materialism’, which are both declared errors by the Buddha. It is not that the mind does not exist, or that the physical world does not exist – both definitely do within an interpretive context – but that attachment to one view or the other is unhelpful when it comes to meditational development and the cultivation of wisdom. Furthermore, within the Four Noble Truths, it is clear that ‘consciousness’ in the chain of becoming has ‘physical matter’ as its basis (I.e. matter, sensation, perception, thought formation and conscious awareness). If this was not the case, this chain would read ‘conscious awareness’, ‘thought formation’, ‘perception’, ‘sensation’ and ‘matter’ - but it does not. This is the error made by DR DT Suzuki in his commentary upon the Lankavatara Sutra, which is perpetuated by those who think the Yogacara School is ‘idealist’ - when in fact the founders of this school begin their analysis by firmly stating that they agree with the Buddha when he says that the human mind is ‘impermanent’. Besides, genuine Buddhist training is as much in the mind as it is in the body, with ‘sila’ (morality) being the control of thought and physical behaviour. The ‘stilling’ of the mind is as important as the ‘stilling’ of the body, although the former supersedes the latter with regard to transformation and perception thereof. However, for a human mind to be functional, it must be existent within a living body. As to what might happen ‘before birth’ and ‘after death’, the Buddha remains ‘silent’, with many people utilising the metaphysics of religion to fill in this void...
The body is disciplined so that the mind may be ‘focused’. The Buddha teaches a type of Yoga, or at least a path that is recognisably ‘Yogic’ in origination. One of the first lines of the Patanjali Sutra reads ‘Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness.’ (Feuerstein 1989). Yoga is also an umbrella term used to describe a profound mind and body training that generates a permanent psycho-physical transformation. This is not a ‘subjective’ delusion, as the Buddha warns against this misidentification of inner awareness, and neither is it a hedonistic attachment to external pleasures (or pain) depending upon the conditionality of an individual. The Buddha advocates a non-identification with thought (and feeling), and a detachment from all physical sensation. Although there is a stage whereby the mind becomes free of surface thought (and a ‘stillness’ is experienced), nevertheless, eventually the process of thought is re-born in the mind but in an entirely ‘new’ manner which no longer ‘obscures’, ‘confuses’ or induces any form of ‘suffering’, etc. (The post-enlightenment situation is controversial and open to debate.)
Being a ‘Bodhisattva’ requires an individual to become truly ‘universal’ in perception, understanding and empathy. The conundrum of personal suffering must be solved before the suffering of the entire world can be taken on without any form of hindrance. To be a genuine Bodhisattva, is to be able to take responsibility for every single mode of suffering that exists in this world and the worlds beyond. Universal suffering is not limited to only that which humans feel – but necessarily includes ALL suffering everywhere. Furthermore, the committed Bodhisattva willingly takes on the suffering of past, the present and the future. The ‘intention’ is to be with those who are experiencing suffering, and to spiritually offer support and sustenance to help them through that which most would find difficult to experience or even face. How this is to be achieved is entirely dependent upon circumstance as there is no single method that meets all requirements. This is not an easy ability to achieve or function to perform. This is why Buddhist monastics in China take the ‘Bodhisattva Vows’ as well as the ‘Vinaya Discipline’ as part of their spiritual responsibilities.