Tesshin Roshi continued our discussion this week on Huineng and the Platform Sutra. (Red Pine translation)
To reiterate, Roshi suggested that we could consider Huineng a rebel and a renegade as he did so much to change the established Zen tradition even though many of his contemporaries considered him uneducated and unsophisticated. Roshi noted that an interesting aspect of Zen is that it fosters an ongoing discussion between masters separated by time. He mentioned that masters like Dogen and Huineng were separated by a large period of time, but Dogen can still comment, debate, and agree or disagree with Huineng’s work. The interesting thing Roshi noted is that this running conversation comes all the way down to us. We are part of the great discussion of enlightenment!
Roshi next mentioned that at the end of the Platform Sutra there was a section where Huineng gave some advice to practitioners. What is interesting is that Huineng directed this advice to both monks and laypeople. He did this because he considered monks and lay practitioners in the exact same category. This is very unusual for teachers of this time who mostly directed their teachings to monks.
Roshi next read the Red Pines version of this advice as follows …
People who truly follow the Way don’t consider the faults of the world those who consider the wrongs of the world only add to their own I don’t condemn the faults of others my own wrongs are what I’m after just get rid of thoughts about wrongs and all your afflictions will shatter.
Sometimes we get distracted trying to figure out the big problems in the world. We tend to tie ourselves up into knots worrying about big things like climate change, social justice, and evil in the world. These things weigh down our lives and we find that there is little that we can do to solve these problems. However, what if the solution is to be improving yourself and your actions continuously? Huineng is clearly telling us to focus on our own issues and problems first before we take on the entire world!
Roshi then gave some examples of this. If you are angry at someone, you could indulge your anger and find all kinds of faults with the other person. However, what would happen if, instead, you stopped for a moment and applied a different perspective? That other person could still be wrong and terrible, but they are still a person! They are still the same “thing” as you are, and as such deserve some basic level of understanding and compassion. This does not mean we are passive to all insults – it simply means we “tweak” our response to be skillful – always remembering that our overall goal is to alleviate suffering for all beings.
So how do we tweak our thoughts? Roshi suggested that when the desire comes to focus on the faults of others, simply turn the mirror a bit towards ourselves instead. Focus on those things which will make you a better person. If someone commits what you consider an evil act, consider if your life is in perfect order before you react. Have you said hurtful things in the past? Did you ever indulge in malevolent acts? Have you been careless in your relations with others? It is a simple thing to be mindful of your faults, but it actually ends up being a huge change in your life.
It is the same thing with the problems of the world. We can spend a lot of energy worrying these things. Roshi gave examples like domestic abuse, the Ukraine war, climate change, and social justice. Our first reaction is to worry ourselves sick about these problems and endless talk about simplistic remedies – yet nothing changes! However, if we search ourselves deeply, all we have done is increase our own blood pressure. We have not really helped the situation in any meaningful way. Roshi again suggested that we turn the mirror inward a bit. Instead of complaining about domestic abuse, one could donate some time, money, or supplies to the local women’s shelter. Instead of keeping oneself up all night about climate change, one could educate themselves about the climate and find ways to be more efficient with consumption. One could even invent a way to help others to do this! These “small” solutions will not be very visible or “flashy” but they will incrementally help. Think back to the Bodhisattva vow. We vow to save all beings. How could we do this? It is impossible. Yes, it is, but small acts of compassion multiplied over many years and many mindful individuals really add up!
Roshi then stopped and considered a few concerns with this line of thinking. The first is that if we stop focusing on the faults with the world, will we become complacent and apathetic? Should we not correct others when they are clearly wrong? Should we not address all that is wrong with society? Roshi mentioned that this is one of these Zen puzzles where multiple answers can be right at the same time. Yes, we need to be concerned with the world, but we need to keep things in perspective. We need to focus first on things that we can change right here and now with ourselves. Only then should we address the faults of others or the world. Our practice is very much like this. We start with our own mind first. Once we can control our own mind our behavior and actions naturally provide a good example to others about what skillful behavior can look like. The more we practice, the more others are influenced and the cycle of good karma moves forward.
Another point about this teaching Roshi mentioned is self-compassion. People who are conscious of the problems of the world tend not to give themselves too much compassion. Roshi reminded us that we cannot tend to the world’s problems if we are endlessly criticizing our own efforts. How can you be expected to solve the world’s problems if you spend all of your time criticizing your efforts to save the world? Give yourself a break! Roshi wrapped up by mentioning that this is why practice is so important. It allows us to get in tune with our mind and allows us to see when we are needlessly wasting time worrying about things we cannot control or tearing ourselves down with excessive criticism.