Tesshin Roshi started this week’s talk by describing the part of the morning service in a Zen temple where all the names of the ancestors are chanted. The list is pretty long and the chant can go on for over 10 minutes. During this chant, the main goal is to read out all of the names without messing up any of them! Roshi reminded us that each of these names represents a great master. If we were to study the teachings of these teachers it would take decades and decades and we would only be scratching the surface.
The message clearly is that our tradition is broad and deep. How should a student get their arms around such a deep body of knowledge? To help, Roshi related the story Hillel – a great Jewish teacher. A student once challenged him to teach the entire Jewish tradition standing on one foot. Hillel responds that the entirety of the faith is doing good to others – everything else is commentary. The commentary is important, of course, but we should never lose the key message when studying everything else. It is the same thing with Zen, of course. Our tradition is all about the elimination of suffering for all beings– everything else is commentary.
Roshi reminded us, however, that it is still important to study the tradition and understand the nuance and commentary. Over the next few weeks, Roshi will explore one of our most famous teachers – Vasubandhu. Vasubandhu was a Buddhist monk and philosopher, born in Peshawar (in present-day Pakistan) Vasubandhu is one of the founders of the Yogācāra school of Buddhism, and his many philosophical and religious works have been highly influential in Buddhist thought including Zen. One of the works of Vasubandhu is called the “Thirty Verses.” One thing to note about this teacher is his heavy usage of the term “Consciousness.” This term was not really used commonly in Buddhist thought before.
For this week’s talk Roshi explored the first verse. In this verse, Vasubandhu states that …
The metaphors of “self” and “events” (dharmas) which develop in so many different ways take place in the transformation of consciousness (vijñāna): and this transformation is of three kinds
What does he mean by metaphor and in the transformation of consciousness? The thing about a metaphor is that it is always in context. Roshi gave an example. “The world is a pale blue marble.” This only works if you know what a marble is. In a very real way, a metaphor is a tool, but it is not real. It is like the finger pointing to the moon, but not the moon itself.
Roshi remarked that Vasubandhu is saying the same thing about the metaphors of “self” and “events.” They all take place in our consciousness. They are useful tools, but are not real in any sense. We are born instinctually to use these tools, but our practice reminds us that they are simply metaphors to help us. The world is nothing other than the constant transformation of our consciousness. In a very real sense, this is a gift as it reminds us that our suffering is mainly in our mind and as such, we have a concrete way to overcome it for ourselves and for others.
Roshi finished his talk by noting what distinguished the great line of teachers was their willingness to not just teach but continuously practice. The great teachers of our lineage understood the key message of Zen which is that there is suffering and that our practice can eliminate that suffering. They practice first and foremost – the teaching emanated naturally from a life of practice. Vasubandhu is one of these great teachers. He reminds us that suffering is in the mind, and as such, if we practice we can get control of the suffering, and if we can do this we can serve as an example to others.