Roshi started this week’s Teisho by noting that our progress through Vasubandhu is taking longer than expected because there is so much meaning packed into each verse. In the previous verses, we went over the very architecture of consciousness. Roshi was so impressed with the specificity of mental processes described in these verses. It can be argued that this analysis has many similarities to modern scientific method – and all of this was constructed in the 4th century. Amazing! We can consider Vasubandhu’s analysis to be scientific as the conclusions are testable and repeatable across different times, cultures, and regions. In other words, what was true about consciousness in 4th century India is still relevant in 21st century America. Also, the conclusions generated by Vasubandhu in the 4th century would comfortably fit into any discourse in modern psychology.
Roshi mentioned that we have already covered the architecture and details of consciousness. So, why did Vasubandhu not stop with that? What else is there to say on the topic? Apparently, there is much more to explore. For instance, in verse 17 we are asked to consider concepts such as “self” and “other.” Do these really exist or are they simply different states of consciousness. This is one of the earliest texts where it is stated that this kind of discrimination really happens in our mind and that in the ultimate sense, there is no self and there is no other. Roshi likens the concept of “self” to a “basic program” running in the mind of all humans. From an evolutionary point of view, humans have found it useful to construct the fiction of a separate self and separate others. This makes a lot of sense when a tiger threatens our existence and we need to deal with it. However, Vasubandu reminds us that this “self” is really a construct and not reality. One may ask, if holding the fiction of a separate self and other helps us to survive, why try to disclaim it. Here Roshi and Vasubandhu were clear – the fiction is useful, but it comes at the cost of suffering! In other words, our suffering is due to the fundamental delusion that we are separate and isolated from the reality of all things.
Roshi next moved onto the concepts of “afflicted emotions” and delusions as blockers which hinder us from understanding why we suffer. The affliction comes because we break the world down into “me” and “other.” Doing this causes the mind to generate an ego which must be defended and protected. We expend so much of our energy on this. Now, in the practical day to day world, we know this may be useful – remember the tiger! However, our practice is to remember that this is still basically a delusion. As such, we give it the energy it needs to help us survive, but we do not promote it with energy and allow it to grow out of control. But what does this really mean? Roshi mentioned that another word for delusion could be “imaginary” or “projected.” This immediately conjures up the image of watching a movie in a cinema. Now, we know that the images on the screen are not real. However, we lose something if we stubbornly stand and say that the movie is a big lie. Of course, it is a lie, but we “suspend our disbelief” because we get value by immersing ourselves in the story. Vasubandhu simply is saying to understand that it is just a movie and that we should give it no more power than approperate. We can enjoy the movie, but it is not our true life. For instance, we cannot fall in love with a fictional character on a screen – they are not real.
It appears that all humans have bought into the “movie of day-to-day life”, but for many of us, we take it way too seriously! We totally believe in the projection of a discrete individual experience divorced from everything else. Another way to look at this is wrapped up in the word “truth.” What is your truth? What do you perceive and what is in your consciousness? This is your truth – but is it the real truth? Even more interesting, can we even perceive the real truth? We are so limited in our senses, mental capacity, past experiences. It seems very unlikely that we can really know the totality of reality. We slowly chip away at it, but to say our individual truth is “the truth” is the height of delusion. To be clear, Vasubandhu is not judging the quality of your truth – he is simply stating that what you perceive as reality is colored by your consciousness and thus can only be a projection.
Another way to look at it is that your mind and consciousness constructs the reality which you experience. Here Roshi gave the example of a story from the end of World War II. In this story, a battleship comes upon an undiscovered island. It happened that this island had inhabitants who have never interacted with anyone else. The officers of the battleship take a rowboat to the island to meet the natives. As they are discussing things, the battleship captain asks the chief of the tribe what he thinks of the large ship in the harbor. The chief, asks, “what ship? All I see is your rowboat.” The chief did not have the frame of reference for a huge steel ship, so he did not see it. Perhaps he thought it was another small island. The main point is that his “truth” could not accommodate the battleship. In the vastness of the “real truth” we are like those island natives. There is just so much we would not be able to process in our consciousness.
Now, the good news is that we can expand our consciousness and get closer and closer to the truth. This is not easy. This is the point of our practice. Roshi noted that we see things through an intellectual eye where everything is separate. A tree, the ground, water, wind, sunlight – all separate things. However, Vasubandhu keeps reminding us that they are all one including our mind perceiving it. It is not enough to simply understand this as a concept. One must believe it, feel it, and be it. The Heart Sutra states that there is no old age and death and no end to old end and death. Do you understand? Do you see it?
Tesshin Roshi wrapped up by stating that we need to hold our truth and “the truth” in our mind at the same time. We need to sit with both the “relative” and the “absolute” and realize that they are exactly the same. This seems very hard, but he counseled that it is just an exercise of imagination. After all, wasn’t it an act of immigration which brought us all to the Dharma after all. Faith is an act of imagination.