Leaving open space in which grace can act Barry Magid November 10th 2012

When someone asks, what do Buddhists believe? They might be told that Buddha’s teachings are summed up in the Four Noble Truths: Life is suffering, there’s a cause of suffering in desire or attachment, that suffering can be ended, and the way to end suffering is through the Eightfold Path. And when that is explained to a person, they might say, That’s very interesting. Is there more? Or does that really sum up the whole thing? And you say, Well, there’s also the Heart Sutra, and they say, What does that say? That says there is no suffering, no cause or end of suffering, no path, no extinction, no wisdom, no gain. And everything that they have just been told as the Noble Truth, is negated in the Heart Sutra, and that ends saying, This is the truth, not a lie. So we’re presented immediately with two sets of seemingly contradictory truths: one that lays out a whole description of the way things are, what the nature of human nature and suffering is supposed to be like, and another that undercuts all that in a way that may be hard to understand.

There’s a whole way in which the teaching and practice of Zen is about undercutting or deconstructing any notion at all that we have about who we are, what our life amounts to, what’s right or wrong with it, what we should do about any of it, and it’s a process of looking at our very ideas of what is self, what is Buddha, what is suffering, what is the practice. This kind of anti-foundational or deconstructed side of practice gets summed up by the Master who says, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” And we’re constantly encountering the Buddha on the mind-road, we’re constantly summoning up some picture in our own mind of what Buddha is or, more mundanely, who we think we’re supposed to be. Then over and over we have to examine that and try to subtract it over and over again.

This move is parallel to all sorts of places in Western philosophy and religion. We shouldn’t think that Buddhism is necessarily unique in that. When Nietzsche says, “God is dead,” he’s trying to say something very similar to “Kill the Buddha.” He’s trying to say, take what’s most foundational and subtract that. The contemplative tradition in Christianity, to which Thomas Merton belonged, was called the apophatic way, the way of subtraction, of constantly taking any image you have of God, negating that, trying to leave an open space in which grace could act. You could not have that open space as long as it was filled with some devotional picture of God or of morality. You had to create a space of emptiness.

Wittgenstein’s philosophy was called analytic because he thought the job of philosophy was not to put forth propositions about the way life is or how we should behave, but to analyze our on-going mode of language and thought and see how we entangle ourselves. He made an analogy between what philosophers do and what Freud did: we analyze, we take apart the images, the ideas we have that are getting us all tangled up. It doesn’t put forward something in its place but allows us to see how we’re tripping over ourselves in our very attempt to relieve our suffering.

We have to enact this process over and over in every sitting. In every sitting we will inevitably have some picture of How is it going? Are we doing it right? Are we maintaining our form, our posture, our breath, our attention in a certain way? There will be an endless process of comparison. We have to endlessly come back and identify and watch how we think we’re doing, how we think we ought to be doing, and always return to what’s happening: How does it actually feel? What is our mind? What is this moment? What kind of picture or form are we trying to put it into?

The calligraphy there over the top of the stairs, that happy looking fellow, the inscription says, “Have a mind like tofu in a round bowl that’s round and in a square bowl that’s square.” It simply fits into whatever form or whatever shape each moment presents. In fact what we see, as we said, is that we have a lot of tofu spilling over the sides. And we don’t really allow it to stay contained by this moment. This moment doesn’t quite fit, it’s not big enough, too small enough, it’s just not quite what I had in mind, so something is always spilling over onto the sides. Some teachers say we constantly have to wipe the mirror clean of dust. This morning I’d say we just constantly have to wipe off the tofu that we’re spilling on the floor.

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