Chuan Zhi Shakya
Distractions often pose the greatest obstacle to meditation.
Perhaps it's because that, as a group, Zen practitioners tend to be scientifically
oriented: the distractions which most affect us are those fascinating new theories
that connect religion to science, particularly as regards creation. Counting the
breath from one to ten and then starting again lacks a certain panache - compared
to pondering the age of the universe!
Recently, Space Daily ran a news story
about a group of cosmologists in England who proclaimed (gasp!) that the universe
is not 13 billion years old as we had thought, but is likely 14 billion years
old! The long engaging article is intended to convince the reader that this is
indeed something of significance
something that needs to be considered
So we muse
14 billion years and not 13 billion years
as we had thought. That's a considerable difference, 13 to 14. The immensity of
the numbers eludes us. If someone were to tell us the time and costs involved
in making a planned drive from Anchorage, Alaska to San Diego, California, and
then stopped to correct his destination, saying, "No
I'm all wrong.
It's actually Chula Vista, California, a few miles south of San Diego," we'd
think this a bit absurd.
There's a practicality involved, one that we can
relate to in our own lives, a sense of judgment and discrimination as to significant
and insignificant, a proportionate comparison. When we can't make such a comparative
judgment, the numbers soar into a stratosphere of imagination.
We become caught
in the samsaric net of phenomenology. Instead of shrugging off these engaging
topics, and leaving them to cosmologists to worry about, some of us begin to wonder
... hmm, 14 billion years old
all those protons, electrons, positrons, gluons
and intermediate vector bosons and all those pi-mesons in my body are14 billion
years old, not 13 billion as I had thought as recently as yesterday. What are
these cosmologists trying to do? Confuse me? A few years ago the universe was
15 billion years old
and now 14. Frankly, I liked the 15
billion age better. It made more sense to me. And to a lot of others, too ...
And before we know it we're mired in samsaric thoughts, forgetting that the
most important sensory organ from which we have to liberate ourselves is the egotistical
mind. We can readily see how in practical terms the mind attaches itself to forms
our VCR player breaks and we get upset, our friend dies and we cry, our
bodies get sick and we get depressed or angry - but it is not so easy to see how
the mind attaches itself to ideas and other thought-forms. We create an elaborate
array of beliefs and opinions which provide a storehouse of "assets"
with which we can identify and define ourselves; and, should anyone question these
valued opinions, we revert to argument, anger, and, sometimes, violence. The ego
knows no bounds in defending its turf.
But while any object, mental or physical,
can be used as a seed for contemplation and meditation, we know that we shouldn't
form ill-considered and pointless opinions about the object of our musings. In
meditation we form connections that give us insight. We see patterns and relationships
- none of which requires an opinion. We don't have to defend our point of view,
because we don't have one. In the same way, we read sutras to contemplate their
wisdom not to argue about their meaning or value. We understand that a line
of scripture opens up many paths that may invite our contemplation. The line may
lead a dozen people to a dozen different realizations, but the relative merits
of those paths and destinations are not subjects for dispute.
As long as we
continue to look toward science or toward any other exterior form as a vehicle
for our salvation we stay mired in the realm of samsara. We foolishly continue
mistaking things that are perpetually in a state of change as things that are
fixed and final. We forget that, while change is, itself, real, those things that
change cannot be real: However much they taunt us with their fluctuating light
and form, they are perpetually vanishing. When we understand this on an intuitive
level, we realize that there is nothing we can hold in our hand and legitimately
say, "This is real."
Then what is real? In the material world, only
when time stops does change stop, and when change stops there is zero entropy,
a state we cannot survive to appreciate. It is only when we transcend the material
world that we glimpse what is truly Real, outside of time (eternal) and always
true. Only in this reality do we enter Zen's precincts.
Recently, after a
scientific forum, a few of the attendees got together for coffee and I was asked
what Zen's stand was on Creation. I stared at the man who asked the question with
that blank expression that we call "a deer in the headlights." As if
I hadn't heard it the first time, I was asked the question again. What is Zen's
stand on Creation? "Well," I muttered, "there's Power and the Law
power obeys. What else do we need?" This satisfied no one, so I said, "The
Word is the coming into being of the edict." This still elicited zero response.
I tried to be more specific. "In the beginning God said, 'Let there be light,
and there was light.'" Everyone laughed. I said, "Look, does consensus
about the Big Bang settle the problem of creation? And what would that have to
do with religion? Religion ultimately concerns itself with the practical aspects
of divine fiat - and those aspects commence with each individual man's view of
his place in the universe. There are practical considerations that take precedence
over sophomoric discussions." They wanted an example.
"Look at it
like this: let's say that a group of monks dwell in a pleasant mountain monastery.
They have everything they need but from their windows they can see a field of
berries in the distance. A chasm separates them physically from this field, but
not emotionally. They desire the berries. Especially when the berries are in season,
they are all the monks can talk about. The Abbot says, "What shall we do
about those berries?'
"Some monks sit around for hours discussing the
ways they could build a bridge across the chasm - for them an engineering impossibility.
Still they discuss the impossible and the improbable. They speculate endlessly
about a subject that cannot deliver them to the berries. Discussion disintegrates
into argument. Three monks, however, are oblivious to the bridge controversy and
concentrate on their daily chores and meditation routine. Soon these three are
the only monks in the monastery who are truly happy. The Abbot summons them to
an assembly and says, 'Tell everyone your secret for remaining happy in all this
fractiousness.' One monk says, 'I admire the berries as I admire the moon. I don't
need to touch or to consume either.' The second monk says, 'I obliterate the berries
from my vision. They are a momentary, shifting form of matter. There is nothing
permanent about them so why should I concern myself with what is conditional and
impermanent.' And the third monk says, 'When I went into town last week, I saw
some of the berries in the marketplace. I bought a few. They were ok
special.' These three monks were Zen monks. The others were wasting their time."
I ended the creation discussion there with the three happy monks.
with the simple discovery that we are not the individuals we think we are. We
are not our bodies; we are not our mind; we are not our mental images of ourselves.
We are not related in any way with sensual experiences. This is not something
to believe, but something to experience.
Entry into Buddhism always begins
with the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path which is contained in the last
Noble Truth. To follow in the Buddha's path is to internalize each of the Noble
Truths. Rather than hold them as beliefs, we consider them as givens
as absolute knowledge. Just as we would not say, "It is my opinion that the
earth revolves around the sun," neither do we say "I believe that life
is bitter and painful." We simply know it is because we've realized it, we've
figured it out or else we know that nothing else makes sense. The Second Noble
Truth tells us that the cause of this bitterness and pain is desire that
persistent quest for ego-gratifications - and we accept this, too, because we've
realized it. The Third Noble Truth tells us that we can find a way not only to
survive the suffering, but to prevail over it, to triumph over life's adversity.
And that Way, says the Fourth Noble Truth, is to follow the Eightfold Path. The
Buddha is telling us, 'Deal intelligently with your problems. Use common sense.
Know what it is that you are seeking - Liberation from suffering! - and then employ
the means to secure it. Some desires you must banish from your mind; some desires
you must destroy by dismantling them and seeing them for the evanescent things
they are; and some desires you must demote until they become mere curiosities
that you may, if you wish, satisfy without emotion.'
Science appeals to our
sense of knowledge of the material world but Buddhism does not. Science engages
the material world in every aspect; but Buddhism is content to transcend material
considerations. Our goal is the inward goal. As the great spiritual Alchemists
used to say, "Our gold is not the common gold."
Just as we can't
swim and drown simultaneously, we can't be looking in the material realm for a
salvation that can only come from the spiritual one.
There is no gap to fill
between science and mysticism, as many writers want us to believe. Nor are science
and mysticism at opposite ends of any spectrum. The two simply have no relation
to each other. When we learn how to meditate, we discover that the process of
concentration stops time, and, stopping time, the phenomenal realm ceases to exist
for us. We become enveloped in a Universal Consciousness which is, by its nature,
outside of time and space.
In meditation, the span of fourteen minutes holds
no more meaning than the span of 14 billion years.
While we pride ourselves
on our scientific accomplishments, it's important not to let the novelty and excitement
distract us from looking deeply into ourselves. We are not prohibited from thinking
about cosmology. We are prohibited from using theories to gain ego-status or to
distract us from spiritual goals.
In Zen, we forget about impossible bridges
to ephemeral berries, and strive always to maintain a practical approach: To us,
how the world was created is not so important as that the world was created. It
is all a dream from which we must awaken.