So I have been taking another dip recently into the Lankavatara Sutra. Before being supplanted by the Diamond Sutra by the 6th Ancestor of our tradition, this Sutra reputedly was the most prized. No one less than the founder himself, Bodhidharma, reportedly told his heirs that this book contained everything they needed to understand. Of course, you could say that about many books even within the Buddhist tradition itself, which has never had just one canonical text. Nevertheless, the Lanka comes highly recommended.
I read texts like this increasingly slowly as I practice more, or at least as I just get “a little older; a little more confused”. I will read a few lines or even just a phrase, and find myself unable to read on. I am drawn to just close the text and sit with it, or sleep on it. So was the case the other day with a particular line. I wanted to share it with the sangha this week.
After a preamble that sets a pretty cosmic scene (as these Mahayana sutras are wont to do), the text states: “To this the lord of three realms [the Buddha] replied, “Ruler of the Yakshas/to this jeweled peak/the teachers of the path have come/out of compassion for you they have taught/the way of self-realization/ and on the jewel-adorned peak/so shall you teach in future/For this is where practitioners dwell/ who delight in that which is present.”
It was that last line that especially grabbed me, but the whole passage is rich. I thought that it touched on some fundamental points. We are being made aware of what has been sacrificed and what we owe those who have worked to make wisdom teachings available in our time and place. Next, we are informed that we shall successfully inherit this task in future. Then we have a concrete instruction for what this might look like, how this impossible task might be performed. The first part says we practice, and we dwell. Second, the quality of that effort is not one of Sisyphean existential drudgery, but rather delight. And finally, what we delight in is presence.
This reminded me that a member of the sangha recently cheerfully balked at a term from one of our main service (chanting) texts, the Song of the Grass Hut (a poem from our direct ancestor, Shitou). The whole couplet is, “If you want to know the undying person in the hut/simply don’t separate from this skin bag here and now.” Skin bag was the offending term, and I agree. It’s not very polite! And in a fundamental sense maybe its not even super accurate, since this implies a kind of cut-off, inert sort of quality. The whole poem is talking about a solo practitioner; a hermit. So I think it is possible that this all could be misunderstood to over emphasize a sort of “self-reliance”. We probably have to watch out for this; some of us, anyway.
But I feel this couplet contains both a problem, and its solution, right in it. “If we want to know the undying person” indicates that great longing that takes us beyond ourselves. That great prayer, or vow, to awaken, to be better, to be kinder, to be more real. We want to know the “undying person”: that self that is not so contingent, so erratic, so fallible, so out of touch, so afraid, so unskilled, so full of craving, confusion, ignorance. We often have to get to know that person very well, unfortunately!
In the search for that other, “immortal” self – which some have called the Sage, some the Beloved, some God, some Mother, some Buddha or Great Mind or True Self, take your pick, or find your own – it is possible to feel that this work can’t be accomplished by this very person that we each are. Nevertheless, we are told to simply not separate from the body, and in this and many other places in the teachings, we are told we have already accomplished our Buddha Way, in some time or place, which is not fundamentally separate from right here, right now.
So we are perfect Buddhas, right now. And as our great teacher Shogaku Shunryu said, we can also use a little improvement. We realize we are not maybe that present sometimes, when we ought to be, or want to be. This brought to mind for me the modern psychological label for one way this process of splitting might be described: “disassociation.” We dis-associate. “Dis” is an old word once used for “Hell.” We associate in a hell-ish manner, perhaps? That language is strong, and I think all can agree this is certainly possible. But I think here we’re also talking about something that can be quite subtle. It likely starts so, at least.
So, we are instructed to just come keep coming back, to the breath, to the cushion, to the moment, to presence. I think we need to carefully investigate what real presence is, and what we are, just this particular skin bag here and now. How is it feeling? How is it responding? What is its vibe? Does something need tuning up? And can we trust that if we let go and just sit there, maybe that tuning will happen, or be made more possible? Can we be more present, more in tune?
But I think we’re familiar with people who are maybe forcing things a bit, or times when we have. Maybe they (or we) look together, but then snap one day. People can seem ok, but be sitting on a lot of uninspected baggage. Life has a way of revealing that situation to us, and it’s a good thing if we can be responsive; develop our response-ability. This means learning how to listen, and be flexible.
Zazen should be practiced in such a way that it is facilitating this, I think. If our sitting is just a practice in disassociating (and the teachers warn us of this) then we need to see this. Teachers can be helpful, and so can the sangha. It is important to sit with other people, just energetically maybe. We can take strength, and give support. This kind of direct giving and receiving is in itself a great cure for dis-associating.
If we look at the causes of disassociation, there nearly always is some sort of trauma at its root. These traumas can come from early in our life, or even from something subtle not so long ago that got stuck somehow in our systems. Processing such things can be difficult and subtle work requiring different modalities for body and mind, different places maybe, or even people. But it is likely that sitting quietly on a regular basis, allowing delight in presence, practicing not separating from this skin bag here and now, can be of some general help for almost everyone. This is why we are here, working together to make this available and an integrated part of our own practice of living