The path of practice is deeper into suffering rather than away from it Barry Magid February 18th 2017

In Zen there exists a model of mind to mind transmission and the idea that the realizations of Shakyamuni Buddha and subsequent teachers are not different from one another nor from what we can realize today. When pictures of austerity come down to us as a vehicle for realization and insight we need to ask honestly are these models of behavior or psychological metaphors? Is it sufficient to take the lessons of realization or must we recapitulate the life leading up to that realization? Is the second patriarch standing in the snow cutting off his arm a good model for dedication? And what happens when we learn that story is, in fact, an amalgam of several different monks? What are the lessons of a lifetime of practice and where does it lead?

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Because we practice in a very old religious tradition, we may feel a tension between what we understand to be the contemporary practices and teachings of our tradition, and the stories about its origins, founders, the practice to maintain it over a couple of thousand years now.

Certainly in Zen there is a very strong emphasis on our practice yielding the same or comparable realizations in our time as were realized by Shakyamuni Buddha and all the successors between then and now. One dilemma is how we understand the stories that come down to us about Shakyamuni and about other Zen masters, how they lived, how they suffered, how they practiced in order to attain their realizations, and to what extent they become models for our own life and practice.

In the case of Shakyamuni, everything we know about him was compiled hundreds of years after his death, and it seems very, very difficult to accurately reconstruct much of anything about his real circumstances, although you have interesting if quite diverse attempts to reconstruct the historical Buddha by people like Stephen Batchelor and Christopher Beckwith, author of The Great Buddha, both with very interesting historical studies that just happen to contradict each other.

However, certainly in Buddhist tradition and Zen, there has always been a great emphasis on the role of austerity, often to the point of bringing yourself to the very brink of death, as part of the life of the Buddha and the life of subsequent teachers, and as we practice, we may not be sure how to take all this. Is it literal? Is it metaphorical? Are the insights achieved really dependent on nearly starving yourself to death or sitting without moving for interminable periods of time in order to have the real thing? Does it require something like that? Or are these metaphors for some version of the deconstruction of a psychological self, metaphorically described in these very literal, physical terms.

We may be very unsure about whether it’s sufficient to take the lesson of those realizations as a model for our life, or whether we have to recapitulate the life leading up to that realization. We have that obviously not just in Shakyamuni but in our archetypal story of the second Patriarch, who was said to have stood in the snow beseeching Bodhidharma to transmit the dharma to him, put his mind at ease, and finally cutting off his arm as a show of his dedication.

To what extent do we take this kind of story as a model of the dedication we ought to have if we’re really serious, so that we forever feel ourselves to be pale imitations of the real thing? And what difference does it make if we find out from a scholar like Faure that the story of the Second Patriarch was actually an amalgam of other stories, one about a monk who was famous for standing in the snow, and another monk whose arm had been cut off by bandits, and somebody putting together the story of the Second Patriarch, who decided it would be very impressive to combine the two and make this story of the dedicated monk who stands in the snow and cuts off his arm. It’s all very impressive, but the danger is that generations of students have compared themselves to a fairy tale, and it’s not just that, but that some go so far as to imitate the fairy tale. There’s apparently a real tradition in Japan, people whose parents would not let them leave home and become a monk, who would cut off a finger to demonstrate their intense sincerity, and that would persuade the family, and yes, they would have to let them go and become a monk.

In any case, it’s interesting to compare it to the case of Christianity and the life and teachings of Jesus. Part of the evolution of Christianity into modern times was an increasing emphasis on the teaching of Jesus, to see him as a great reformer, a great teacher, not so different from Buddha, maybe not so different from Socrates, someone who preached a message of love and care for the poor, and treating your neighbor as you wish to be treated yourself, all of these being very good and admirable lessons to make life more just here on earth.

Charles Taylor, the Catholic philosopher, said that for a long time in Catholicism, the crucifixion was absolutely the central fact about Jesus and the nature of what he was, but this whole trend of wanting to simply pay attention to the teachings culminated in a unitarianism, which saw Jesus as a very admirable teacher whose career was tragically cut short, with the crucifixion an unfortunate end to a brilliant career.

Now the dilemma, of course, is whether you’re going to see the crucifixion as the point or you're going to see the teaching as the point. But the crucifixion is something whose meaning exists outside of human time, and is not connected to making this world more just or more livable or bringing about more human flourishing. It has to do with issues of salvation and redemption and eternal life. Its meaning exists in eternity, not here and now.

The question, then, becomes whether our practice, Christian or Buddhist, gets in some sense watered down to a teaching of how to live a good, simple, fair, just, kind, compassionate life, or whether it is far more radical. Now Zen and Buddhism, by and large, as they evolved in China and Japan – in Zen terms, anyway – are much more focused on transformation and realization in this lifetime, although they’ve been culturally embedded in a discourse of reincarnation and karma and multiple lives of reward and punishment.

But within Zen, you have a sense that there’s a great culmination and immanence of being able to fully occupy this life and have this life be sufficient. This is the Zen of eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you're tired, chop wood, carry water, everything that you need is immediately present, and nothing is hidden.

What we have to understand is that those kinds of phrases, however, are really fairly useless as teachings, but they’re very interesting as expressions, as a picture of the culmination of practice, It’s very hard to usefully teach anybody to eat when you’re hungry, sleep when your tired, and they’d say, Well, I do that anyway. The real challenge is to deeply realize how sayings like that are the culmination of a lifetime of practice and represent the dissolving of the kinds of existential crises that bring people to practice in the first place. It’s what it looks like when all the problems have been solved or washed away and seen as empty.

What Taylor’s picture of the crucifixion and the story of the second patriarch might have in common, however, is that there’s something about practice that calls us to go radically beyond our ordinary sense of what’s good for us, or what counts as our flourishing. In Catholicism, there’s a sense that suffering itself has been sanctified, ennobled, by Christ’s sacrifice, so that the goal of our life is no longer escaping from suffering, but immersion in the suffering of the world and of others, and the ennobling of that suffering, not the escape of that suffering.

Certainly in Buddhism there’s something like that where our ordinary preoccupation is: How do we escape from the suffering in our lives, and Buddhism sets a little honey trap sort of promising a lesson in the cause and the end of suffering to lure us in, and yet once we’re inside we find out that the path goes deeper into suffering, it doesn’t provide some magical or transcendental way to escape it.

What these radical stories point to, for me, is a real deconstruction and transformation of our own picture of what counts as a good life and a flourishing. In Christianity, this is caught up with a language of another life, an eternal life, that is not necessary to have in Buddhism, and certainly not necessary to have in Zen. But there is this transformation of what this life is all about. What’s a good life? What are we practicing for? What are we living for? It has something to do with transforming our picture and our notion of suffering and its relief: cutting off of the arm or the sacrifice, or the asceticism. It’s saying that the things that you pursue, that you organize your life around in the usual way – you have that all backwards.

So where does this all bring us? I think the realization that we’re looking for is how to truly be at home in our life, and what that’s going to end up looking like, when we finally cease thrashing around and trying to climb out of our life and escape our life. Will we be something like – when you’re hungry, eat, when you’re tired, sleep, and when you suffer, suffer?

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