Not all religious seekers find Ultimate answers. Some do, some don’t. I’d like to deal with both here. Rabindranath Tagore, the great 20th century poet of India who often wrote in English, expressed bewilderment of those who don’t find answers:
The first day’s sun has asked
At the manifestation of new being –
Who are you?
No answer came.
Year after year went by.
The last sun of the day
The last question utters
On the western seashore
In the silent evening –
Who are you?
He gets no answer.
The question “Who am I?” repeats itself over and over to the introspective mind. If a man has not asked himself this question at some time, and has not even been concerned with the meaning of existence, he has not lived. Like an animal, he has eaten and slept, and perhaps procreated, but he has made no effort to rise to true human status. Zen monks have always tried to penetrate the meaning of birth and death. Where there is birth, there is always death. Is there something unborn that does not die?
To those few fortunate ones who have received their answer, it has not come in words. It is an experience that is not describable, and so cannot be transplanted to another.
Perhaps the greatest saint Japan has known was the 12th century Shinran, persecuted and exiled to remote corners of the islands. Married at a time when monks did not wed, he was laughed at by many, but he eventually found his way in the belief in the saving power of Amida, the Buddha of Infinite Light.
During many years spent in meditation at the Tendai Monastery on the top of Mount Hiei (near Kyoto), Shinran found only despair. This was beautifully described by his grandson:
“Many moons passed as Shinran practiced contemplation on the moon of the three fold truth in the ten stage meditation. And the seasons’ flowers renewed their fragrance many times as he disciplined himself in pondering on the truth of one hundred words with one thousand modes of thusness. Then he reflected on the problem of emancipation and thought, ‘No matter how hard I try to calm the water of meditation, waves of consciousness arise to disturb it. However hard I try to contemplate the moon of mind-nature, clouds of illusion overcast it.’”
This is the description of a dark night of the soul. But eventually Shinran stopped trying, stopped using the power of Shinran, and gave himself up to a greater power: Amida Buddha. Long ago, at a time without beginning, Amida was a bodhisattva, an enlightened being on the way to buddhahood. At that time Amida made a vow to save all sentient beings, no matter how numerous they might be. That vow is still in effect. Giving up the self-power that had failed, Shinran (through his teacher Honen) learned to give way to the power of Amida. From then to the end of his life, he was serene in the faith that Amida’s vow would surely save him. He died repeating the Nembutsu – the short Namu Amida Butsu (Hail to the Buddha of Infinite Light) – that simple believers say over and over each day, knowing that if they call on Amida and rest secure in his saving power, they will be taken to the Western Paradise. This is called eko in Japanese, meaning that there is a merit transference from Amida, who endows us with merit power by crushing the egocentric and separative self of man. According to Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, constant repetition of the Nembutsu, said with firm faith, assures one of being reborn under ideal circumstances in the Pure Land, from where it will not be difficult (minus encumbrances) to reach complete Enlightenment.
This belief in the saving power of Amida is much like what Christians call Christ Consciousness. There is no doubt that such beliefs alter the level of consciousness, and it may be thought that the Pure Land (Western Paradise) represents this religious consciousness brought to a state of maturity.
In his writing Jodo Wasan, Shinran graphically shows how he found his way and how the specter of doubt vanished from his life forever. He wrote simply and powerfully:
Unhindered like space in the light cloud,
Free from all impediments,
None is there unblessed by the light.
Take refuge in the Inconceivable One.
He also wrote: “Unequalled is the pure, clear light. When we meet and trust this light, all our karmic bonds are renewed. Take refuge in the Ultimate Resort.”
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Twenty five hundred years ago, Gautama (prince of the Sakya people in northeast India) left his future kingdom, wife, and son to become a homeless mendicant. After wandering and almost starving for six years, he realized perfect Enlightenment and became the only Buddha of historic times. He was not a philosopher or a theoretician. In turning the wheel of karmic law, he tried to show the way for all beings to reach the enlightened state of the Buddha (nirvana) and to thereby end all suffering. His was a practical path of compassion, and much of what follows refers to his teaching, for he certainly was one who found Ultimate answers.
Many times we read accounts of fantastic psychic experiences of various seekers and saints. The uninitiated are fascinated with this razzle-dazzle, mistaking mental aberrations for Enlightenment. In truth, psychic experiences, no matter how desirable they seem, can be hindrances and represent the workings of a mind still bound by delusion. The Buddha told his monks that, if one has total mindfulness of the breathing process, he will see that each simple breath has extension in time – a beginning, middle, and end. After a while the turn to the next breath will become crystal clear. Then an experience of a simple mental image, like a star (usually blue) will show true absorption. Visions and images are indicative of a deluded mind. This will be disillusioning to many who want to read about or have lofty experiences. But it is important for the sincere meditator to remember. The Buddha said there are five hindrances that interfere with meditation: sense desire, anger, sloth (torpor), agitation and worry, and doubt.
Meditation enables one to know the mind and knowing it, to shape the mind, which in turn leads to a freeing of the mind. When habit patterns are broken and tendencies burned to ashes, there is freedom and stillness. But not before then. Until this is done, we have a state of mind somewhat like Tagore depicts, where there are questions without answers. When the mind is mastered, whether through the self-discipline of The Buddha or the complete surrender of Shinran, all doubts vanish and there are no more questions.
Mastering of the mind means mastery of the body. When the body is mastered, said The Buddha, the mind is mastered. The psycho-physical mechanism is one. Enlightenment can be approached through the physical side (as in Hatha Yoga or T’ai Chi Ch’uan) or through the mental (as in meditation or Japa). Both are valid. Each time there is a spiritual change, we have a physical change. A man is literally what his Intrinsic Energy (Prana) is. This Life Force changes as we cultivate ourselves – and as we cultivate ourselves, the Life Force changes.
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Leading the meditative life, we begin to understand what is meant by the Lotus Sutra:
“From the State of Emptiness, each man’s body is a body pervading the Universe, his voice is a voice filling the Universe, and his life is a life without limit.”
Cultivating this emptiness (living and acting without clinging, without compulsion, and without a seeking heart) is, of course, the task of Zen practitioners.
The aim of Zen is to free oneself from all conditions – however pleasurable or painful – while living in the midst of conditions. To do this means living in the here and now while transcending the here and now.
Nowhere has the task of meditation been better spelled out than by the great 20th century sage Ramana Maharshi, as quoted in his ashram’s fine journal, Mountain Path. Bhagavan Ramana said:
Better than spells of meditation
Is one continuous current, Steady as a stream,
Or downward flow of oil.
Better than viewing Him as Other,
Indeed, the noblest attitude of all,
Is to hold Him as the “I” within,
The very “I.”
Abidance in pure being,
Transcending thought through love intense,
Is the very essence
Of Supreme devotion.
Absorption in the heart of being,
Whence we sprang,
Is the path of action, of devotion,
Of union, and of knowledge.
Ramana goes on to give the following instruction to reach this end:
Holding the breath controls the mind,
A bird caught in a net.
Breath regulation helps
Absorption in the heart.
Mind and breath (as thought and action)
Fork out like two branches,
But both spring
From a single root.
Absorption is of two sorts:
Submergence and destruction.
Mind submerged rises again.
Dead, it revives no more.
We may ask, “How can we ‘kill’ the mind? How do we give ‘ourselves’ up?” Yet, Chan (Chinese Zen) says, “When nothing remains to give up, one has, indeed, reached the Source.”
The principle practice of Zen is, of course, zazen or sitting meditation.
What is zazen?
Zazen is NOWNESS.
How does one realize this NOW?
By harmonizing mind and body.
How does one harmonize mind and body?
By forgetting mind and body.
In what way is the self realized?
By forgetting the self, the self is realized.
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I’d like to close by quoting Professor Ogata’s fine translation of the famous Song of Dhyana by the great Japanese Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku. Dhyana is meditation, so this is the “Song of Meditation” from a Zen master. It never fails to knock me out whenever I hear it.
Song of Dhyana
All beings are primarily Buddhas. It is like water and ice:
There is no ice apart from water and there are no Buddhas apart from beings.
Not knowing how close the truth is to them, beings seek for it afar – what a pity.
They are like those who, being in the midst of water, cry out for water, feeling thirst.
Those who, for once,
Listening to the Dharma,
In all humility,
Praise it and faithfully follow it,
Will be endowed with innumerable merits.
But how much more so
When you turn your eyes within yourselves
And have a glimpse into your self-nature.
The truth permits no idle sophistry.
For you then
Open the gate leading to the oneness of cause and effect:
Before you then
Lies a straight road of non-duality and non-trinity.
When you come to understand
That form is the form of the formless,
Your coming and going takes place nowhere else
But where you are.
When you understand
That thought is the thought of the thoughtless,
Your singing and dancing is no other than the
Voice of the Dharma.
How boundless is the sky of Samadhi.
How refreshingly bright is the moon of the fourfold wisdom.
Being so, is there anything you lack?
As the absolute presents itself before you,
The place where you stand is the land of the lotus,
And your person, the body of the Buddha.
There is nothing to be added to this magnificent statement. Can there be any doubt that Hakuin (who said after his Enlightenment, “After that, seeing the things of the world was like viewing the back of my own hand”) found his answer?