Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 4.More Meditations

Chapter 9.Transcending suffering and karma

Bodhidharma makes clear that causes within this world cannot produce effects outside it; the Absolute can only conceivably be reached independently of the relative. Thus, the key to overcoming suffering and its underlying bad karma is not to be found in external rituals and deeds aimed at merit, but through an internal change of mind.

He insists that “invoking buddhas, reciting sutras, making offerings observing precepts, practicing devotions, or doing good works” are useless; only by “seeing [your buddha-] nature” can you “attain enlightenment”. As he explains:

If you attain anything at all, it’s conditional, it’s karmic. It results in retribution[i.e. reward or punishment]. It turns the Wheel[of karma]… Unless you see your nature, all this talk about cause and effect[i.e. acquiring religious merit]is nonsense.(P. 17.)

Thus, Zen meditation is not a way to change something, to annul our bad karma and its consequent suffering, but a way to awaken us to something that is already ever-present, something beyond karma, i.e. our “buddha-nature”. This is liberating, for:

Once a person realizes his original nature, he stops creating karma(p. 41).That which is truly so, the indestructible, passionless dharma-self, remains forever free of the world’s afflictions(p. 93).

It follows that: “The essence of the Way is detachment” (p. 47). In hisOutline of Practice[1], Bodhidharma describes how this spiritual path is treaded. He refers to “reason and practice”. By reason, he means meditations that “turn from delusion back to reality”; while by practice, he means: “suffering injustice, adapting to conditions, seeking nothing and practicing the Dharma” (p. 3)[2]. All four of these practices are about detachment, or non-attachment.

1.Suffering injustice”: when you encounter some hardship that seems unfair to you, tell yourself that somewhere in your history (it does not matter just where) you must have deserved it somehow. In this way, you neutralize the suffering that believing you are being unjustly treated gives. You transcend the academic and fatiguing issue of justice or injustice, and remain internally unaffected by relatively external circumstances.[3]

2.Adapting to conditions”: this does not refer to external adaptations to conditions, but again to an attitude of willingness to make do with any currently existing conditions or eventual changes of conditions. In this way, one is not at the mercy of favorable or unfavorable circumstances, but remains at all times mentally (i.e. more precisely, spiritually) prepared for and able to cope with whatever life dishes out.

3.Seeking nothing”: is a virtue based on the realization that you open yourself to negative experiences when you are dependent on positive experiences. Everything in this world that appears desirable comes together with other things that are undesirable. You may for a while find satisfaction in certain people or possessions; but sooner or later, these will turn into less pleasant experiences, since all things are impermanent. All data considered, it is more pleasant to remain aloof and serene.

4.Practicing the Dharma”: seems to refer to altruistic attitudes and acts. But even here, non-attachment is stressed, in order that egoism or egotism does not result from them. The aim is to transcend the distinction between self and other, to work for the good of all.

Thus, these four practices can be described as different forms of non-attachment. Not getting worked up over one’s supposed deserts; not preferring this to that, but being well able to deal with whatever comes; not pursuing sundry material and social things, thinking foolishly that one will find happiness by such means; and, on the positive side, being helpful to others.

Non-attachment saves one and all from suffering. It is attachment that ties us to karma and causes us to suffer; by non-attachment we immediately transcend this finite world and get to live our life from the infinite perspective of our buddha-nature (i.e. in nirvana). This buddha-nature is, of course, empty “like space”[4].

[1]This essay is also reproduced (differently translated) in D.T. Suzuki’s First Series of Essays on Zen Buddhism (pp. 180-183), under the name “Meditation on Four Acts”. Suzuki considers it probable that this essay was indeed written by the master. Moreover (pp. 183-186), he shows clearly how it was derived, sometimes word for word, from the earlierVajrasamadhi Sutra. But he goes on to show the novelty in Bodhidharma’s presentation, which made the latter’s version a specifically Zen document.

[2]At first sight these “four all-inclusive practices” seem intended to parallel the Buddha’s “four noble truths”, viz. the fact of suffering (i.e. that existence is suffering), the cause of suffering (it is due to attachment), the cure of suffering (removing the cause, becoming unattached), and the way to the cure (the prescribed eightfold noble path). But while the two sets are obviously associated, they are not identical. The Buddha’s foursome consists of three descriptive items and one prescriptive item; whereas, Bodhidharma list is altogether prescriptive (with three negatives and one positive).

[3]Note that I (unlike Bodhidharma) do not believe that universal justice necessarily exists. I agree however that one should strive to be as indifferent to the issue of justice as one can, because to get locked up in such concerns is definitely a spiritual retardant. Notwithstanding, the pragmatic wisdom of unconcern with justice for oneself ought not be taken to imply that one should be indifferent to justicefor others. The latter concern would fall under the fourth heading here, that of “practicing the Dharma”. One should obviously neither afflict other people with unjust acts, nor (as far as possible within one’s power) allow third parties to so afflict them.

[4]P. 43.

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