Tesshin Roshi continued our discussion of the Thirty Verses of Vasubandhu over the past two weeks. He started by remarking on the power and usefulness of having a Sangha when trying to understand Buddhist literature. Roshi remarked that when he first studied Vasubandhu’s verses, he found it to be way too esoteric to be useful in his personal path. However, over time he has come to appreciate Vasubandhu as he has discussed and taught the material over time.
It is an interesting aspect of spiritual literature that what is originally seen as esoteric and non-therapeutic changes as it settles into the mind. Roshi remarked that this is why we study the literature our whole life. It is not about mastery and memorization, rather it is about revisiting an old friend. We note how the passage changes – not because the text changed, but because we have changed.
After the introduction, Roshi read a few of the opening verses. It is important to note that when Vasubandhu the term “consciousness” he is not talking of something mystical. Vasubandhu is very concerned about the day-to-day issues of our life. His teachings are meant to be very practical. With that in mind, Roshi read the first few verses to us…
1. 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:
2. Maturation (vipāka), that called “always reflecting” (manana), and the perception (vijñapti) of sense-objects. Among these, “maturation” is that called the store-consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna) which has all the seeds (bījas).
3. Its appropriations, states, and perceptions are not fully conscious, Yet it is always endowed with contacts (sparśa), mental attentions (manaskāra), feelings (vedanā), cognitions (saṃjñā), and volitions (cetanā).
4. Its feelings are equaniminous: it is unobstructed and indeterminate. The same for its contacts. Etc. It develops like currents in a stream.
At this point, Roshi chuckled and admitted that the language was a bit dense. In essence what Vasubandhu is stating here is that everything we experience is the expression of karma. We are only here at this moment in time by virtue of our “Karmic Package.” Roshi also mentioned that it is not just our individual karma, but our parent’s karma, and their parent’s karma. If we really think about it – everyone’s karma throughout all space and time have affected us and brought us to this particular spot. We are connected to everyone, everywhere, and everywhen via karmic traces. Nobody stands outside of this web. This is the “no-self” which Vasubandhu is trying to get at. It does not mean we do not have self-consciousness. It simply means that this consciousness is connected to everything else. All these karmic “seeds” end up in our “store-consciousness.” Perhaps this is what we mean in when we use the term “collective unconscious” now-a-days.
Vasubandhu next talks about “Projection” of sense objects on our consciousness. Here Roshi notes that the things we think are so real are processed through our senses. However, this processing is very much affected by our current state of being – both physical and mental. Roshi asked us to consider whether a fly and a human would perceive a strawberry in the same way. So if a sense experience effects our consciousness in such a powerful way, it stands to reason that each sense has its own consciousness. Note, this does not mean your eyes have their own sentience – rather it practically means that the way your eyes are constructed directly affects your consciousness. It is the same with all your senses. Imagine that you were a dog with 1000 times better smell than a human. Your conscious state of being would be totally different. To test this simply walk a dog! You will notice that their head is close to the ground smelling everything. The dog is probably thinking that humans are so foolish to walk past so much valuable information!!
Vasubandhu also adds two more consciousnesses beyond the five senses. These are Perception and Mental Volitions. Simply stated, in addition to how you sense the world, your karmic store colors everything you experience. Your history, your culture, your past triumphs and defeats – everything affects your consciousness. All of this is in the “store house” or our consciousness.
Roshi stopped here and asked us to consider the value of all of this theory of Vasubandhu. To help us see why this is important, Roshi related a situation which occurred this past week when he received a call from a clergy colleague facing some deep challenges in their life. This person was totally despondent and no amount of praying really seemed to help. Roshi applied the practical teaching of Vasubandhu and told his friend that they are in the situation they are not because of a single “sin”, but due to many decisions taken by the person and others in their life. It is important not to focus and fixate on one particular action. The only way to fix the problem is to forget about past actions and start making new decisions. In other words, to change your situation, you need to change your karma.
The following week Roshi continued his discussion of Vasubandhu. The next set of verses talks about the obstructions of our consciousness. This includes…
•View of Self
•Confusion of Self
•Pride of Self
•Love of Self
Roshi noted that all of these obstructions have the “self” as a common thread.
Roshi next noted that sense stimulus affects our consciousness through mental attention. This is why Vasubandhu notes that this is as important as our sense consciousness. If we are not attentive to the world around us, there nothing happens and there can be no transformation. In our modern culture, people think Zen is all about “zoning out.” This is exactly the opposite of what is really going on in Zazen. In meditation, we are open to everything around us. We are not relaxed or in a trance – rather we are at peak awareness. This awareness includes feelings and emotions. We do not practice to become robots – rather we need to connect with our feelings and understand them in context to the wider arc of karma. If you are suppressing your feelings, then you are not practicing Zen!