Tesshin opened this week’s talk relating a discourse Pope Benedict on world religions. The Pope critiqued Buddhism as being far too nihilistic and depressing. Is this fair? If we look through the Buddhist literature, we will see many poems which on their surface look rather grim. Below are just two examples. What are we to make of this?
The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.
– Li Bai, an 8th century Chinese poet
I came once to sit on Cold Mountain
And lingered here for thirty years.
Yesterday I went to see relatives and friends;
Over half had gone to the Yellow Springs.
Bit by bit life fades like a guttering lamp,
Passes on like a river that never rests.
This morning I face my lonely shadow
And before I know it tears stream down.
Today I sat before the cliff,
Sat a long time till mists had cleared.
A single thread, the clear stream runs cold;
A thousand yards the green peaks lift their heads.
White clouds—the morning light is still;
Moonrise—the lamp of night drifts upward;
Body free from dust and stain,
What cares could trouble my mind?
The clear water sparkles like crystal,
You can see through it easily, right to the bottom.
My mind is free from every thought,
Nothing in the myriad realms can move it.
Since it cannot be wantonly roused,
Forever and forever it will stay unchanged.
When you have learned to know in this way
You will know there is no inside or out!
– From Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the Tang Poet Han-shan
Tesshin contrasted the surface “gloominess” of Buddhism with the “good news” of western traditions. We in the west also know impermanence. Everyone dies after all – we all know this! However, in the west, we are given the hope of perhaps going to a better place after death. Buddhism does not offer this hope, so is the Pope correct in his criticism?
Tesshin asked how humanity could understand the entire universe. We know so little. In this regard, Buddhism is quite modest in its claims. It states that the only thing we can know is Karma (cause and effect) and impermanence. Any musings beyond these “laws” is speculation and will not emancipate you from suffering.
Tesshin related a Tibetan meditation practice he participated in a few years ago to explain how focusing on impermanence can liberate. The meditator is first invited to imagine a person they love, someone they hate, someone famous, and someone infamous. The list can include anyone who has had a large impact on the meditator’s life. The next step is to imagine one-by-one each person naked – not just removing clothes, but any adornment. To be clear, imagining the person naked is not meant to excite, but to make the participant realize the intrinsic similarity of the group of imagined people. We all have bodies, after all! The next step is to remove “external attributes” including hair and skin. Participants are instructed to do this slowly one person at a time. At this point the body’s musculature is exposed in the imagination. Again, participants are encouraged not to imagine pain and suffering or “gore” – rather that the skin, hair, and nails simply dissolve gently away. At this point the bodies look even more similar as “external features” have been wiped away. The meditators continue this exercise as they remove muscles and internal organs. Eventually only skeletons are left in their imagination. The participants are then invited to travel inside the bones – deeper and deeper. At some point, inside the bone, we only see the atoms comprising the bones. As we know, atoms are comprised mostly of empty space – and this is where the meditation takes us after hours of concentration – understanding that the people who have so much impact on life are mostly nothingness!! At this point Tesshin stopped and asked the group to seriously consider this fact. Not only are the people who impact us highly similar – they are similar in the fact that they are mostly nothingness!
Do you understand? Do you understand the deep liberation which is gained by understanding this impermanence and emptiness? It is not nihilism, but rather freedom from clinging and grasping. Yes, we can love, but we are not destroyed when that ends. Yes, we have pain and suffering, but this also is so very fleeting.
This is what the Buddhist poets throughout history are trying to get us to see! Yes, we sit on the “Cold Mountain,” of suffering but once you have understanding “You will know there is no inside or out.” If the body is mostly nothingness then “[It is] free from dust and stain” If you truly realize this then the “mind is free from every thought, Nothing in the myriad realms can move it.” “What cares could trouble my mind?” Do you see it? Can you imagine Han-shan jumping up and down to tell you the good news??? If you really understand this, you are liberated from suffering – nothing in the world can trouble you! You are free from clinging, free from grasping, free from suffering! What could give greater hope! Tesshin quipped this is why the Buddhist literature is so full of poetry!!
Tesshin wrapped up the talk by reminding us about the Day of Zen which will be held on the 24th of August. Please see our events page for details and please be sure to email firstname.lastname@example.org to RSVP so that we can make sure we have enough food and supplies.