Monday, December 21, 2009

Our True Belongings

Case # 2 of the Mumonkan (Gateless Gate) presents the case of Hakujo and the Fox. According to this koan, an old monk told Master Hakujo that he had once been an abbot of a Zen Monastery and was asked by a student if one who has experienced enlightenment is still subject to the law of cause and effect otherwise known as karma. It is said that the old man denied this truth and as a consequence was reborn for the next 500 lifetimes in the body of a fox.

In ancient China, being reborn as a fox was no small matter as the fox was thought of as a disreputable animal and evidence of a very low birth. To live the life of a fox was thought to be a very miserable experience - clearly one to be avoided if possible.

In effect, this koan raises the question of whether or not we can ever be free of the consequences of our actions. Is it always true that what goes around comes around? Do we always either directly or indirectly reap what we sow? In other words, are we really subject to the law of karma - the law of cause and effect?

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects thousands of uniformed services professionals; i.e., firefighters, cops, emergency medical personnel, veterans, etc., each year. It is a very difficult disorder to live with and not an easy way to go.

PTSD is characterized by a number of pernicious symptoms experienced by those who carry it. They include recurring, distressing recollections of traumatic events including images, thoughts, or perceptions of the horrific events they have perpetrated our encountered. Their dreams are haunted by post traumatic memories and their bodies triggered by internal and external symbolic cues associated with remembrances of death, destruction, fear and pain. The unintended effect of all of this is intense psychological suffering.

In time, they have difficulty sleeping, concentrating and are prone to irritability and angry outbursts. They are easily startled and increasingly organize their daily lives around efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, activities, places, people or conversations that might arouse the dreaded symptoms of this disorder. They become increasingly hypervigilant seeing threats to their well being at every turn. The loss of interest and participation in significant life activities is a common occurrence. They often sense a foreshortened future in regard to having a career, marriage, family, children or a normal life span. In severe cases, they drift into a sense of detachment from life and a restricted range of affect including an inability to experience loving feelings towards anything or anyone, least of all themselves. In other words, they become like the fox alluded to above.

When the old monk asked Hakujo whether or not someone who has experienced enlightenment is subject to the law of cause and effect, Hakujo answered by saying, "Such a person does not evade the law of cause and effect." Upon hearing this, the old monk was liberated from his fox body and was reborn as a monk once again.

But what is meant by the statement, "Such a person does not evade the law of cause and effect."? Ernst Mach, a 19th century physicist and philosopher, whose work helped Einstein develop his theory of relativity wrote the following regarding the notion of cause and effect, "There is no cause and effect in nature; nature has but an individual existence; nature simply is."

What happens to the notion of cause and effect when we are simply willing to be with the consequences of our actions just as they are without the desire to evade or avoid them? What happens when we are willing to "not wear a tearful face" and live out the truth of our lives no matter how difficult or heart rendering it is to do so?

I read that the Buddha said that the consequences of his actions were his truest belongings, the ground upon which he stood. The life of a fox is a full and complete life nonetheless.

Summing up his commentary on the koan of Hakujo and the Fox, Master Mumon writes a poem:

Not falling, not ignoring:
Odd and even are on one die.
Not ignoring, not falling:
Hundreds of thousands of regrets!

When we are willing to face our own music, even a hard life can produce the sweetest song.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Working without a net

Karl Wallenda of the famous Flying Wallendas spent his entire adult life defying death and gravity by walking the high wire without a net. Finally, at the age of 73, Karl fell to his death after decades as a high wire performer. Despite this tragedy, Karl lives on today as the most famous high wire artist of all time.

What drives someone to live their life without a net? Why is it that some folks, like Karl, abandon the security of a safety net and deliberately choose to risk it all each time they get up on the high wire? The answer may be found at the deepest depths of the human condition: the emptiness of self.

Philosophers, religous leaders, psychologists and other seekers of truth have been puzzling for centuries as to the ultimate nature of reality. More specifically, searching for the ultimate ground of being. The study of the ultimate nature of being is called ontology. Ontology is the study of "is-ness", "being-ness", "am-ness", etc., etc. Who and what are we anyway? And what is the true nature of reality?

(BTW, this might be a good time to go to the kitchen and fix yourself a sandwich if you are not into "heavy" dialogue and philosophy!)

Most of us would cop to the notion that we exist here and now, moment to moment. But who is this me or I that supposedly exists? The Buddhist teaching of sunyata asserts that ultimately we don't exist as a separate and distinct entity disconnected from and abiding in some "stand alone" juxtaposition to the rest of existence.

Huh? What did you say? I don't exist ... then who is that looking at me in the mirror then?

The answer according to Hwa Yen Buddhist Philosophy is ... well ... no one ... really. Apparently, that image in the mirror is nothing more or less than the coming together at this moment in time of a swirling, dancing, ever changing expression of all that is in this particular place somewhere along the space-time continuum. Once we begin to unpack ourselves we eventually arrive at emptiness. That is "no-thing-ness."

Hwa Yen philosophy informs us that our experience of "beingness" is an expression of our deep seated clinging and attachment to self. To my way of thinking, this is akin to something along the lines of fusion with a "sense of self" that arises out of the coming together of a myriad complex of conditions.

Having asserted this, Hwa Yen philosophy saddles itself with the burden of having to explain how it is that all things are devoid of self or beingness. Said another way, they need to explain how it is that things lack any definitive nature. In order to do this, Hwa Yen philosophy posits the notion of indeterminateness.

Here is how the argument goes: everything is indeterminate; things are such and such only in relation to so and so in a particular frame of reference. Their determinateness is found only in terms of certain conditions and within certain arbitrary realms. This fact of indeterminateness is also called relativity---x is x only in relation to y under certain conditions.

Pretty heady stuff - heh? Well not really. Think of the metaphor of a long corridor stretching away from you. Along the corridor are a series of standing lamps. When one lamp is turned on it emits x amount of light. When a second lamp is turned on, its light interpenetrates with the light emitted from the first lamp to illuminate even more of the corridor. With the turning on of each successive lamp, more and more light forms to illuminate the corridor. Each lamp in an of itself emits light which combines seamlessly with the light of the other lamps. Taken together, the interpenetrating light waves illuminate the entire corridor melding together without hindrance.

The illumination of the entire corridor comes into being as a result of the interpenetration of the light from each of the individual lamps. It is in essence a product of them all while at the same time not any one of them at all in particular. This metaphor points to the nature of our being as well. We don't actually exist independently except for the conditions that have come together like interpenetrating waves of light.

If you can buy that this is the actual state of affairs regarding our individual "sense of self" , then we come face-to-face with a most fundamental truth: we are just this moment without any ground of being that is "really there" supporting us.

We are all operating without a net. Isn't exhilarating up here on the high wire knowing that at any moment it could all change?