Don’t separate the absolute from the relative Barry Magid April 15th 2023

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There seems to be some confusion this week whether we were going to discuss the chapter on Ancestors or the chapter on Simplicity in Kyogen’s book. At least I got confused. So I’m going to try to talk about both of them, to weave together some of the points in each chapter.

The overarching theme has to do with metaphors and how we use them and how we can get entangled by them. Some of you may have seen the obituary this morning in the Times for the cartoonist, Edward Koran. He used to draw wonderful cartoons for the New Yorker. They were often seemingly centered around some frumpy, middle-aged, bearded, wild-haired, academic-looking character, the kind of person you see on the Upper West Side all the time, and there was a description of a particular cartoon that I’ll describe here.

It was called the Landscape of Metaphors, and it depicted a bearded, balding academic, much like himself, carrying a book through a pastoral setting studded with signs. On a tree was “Metaphor for Growth and Change,” beside a bird was “Metaphor for Lyricism,” and on a trail leading to the distant hills, “Metaphor for Aspiration.”

We can look at that cartoon and laugh at it in a number of different ways, as if what it’s depicting is somebody who’s got their head so buried in the books that they can only see nature in terms of metaphors, in terms of ideas that they’re carrying around with them. Often we enter things like this instead, where, we’re told, we’re supposed to strip away all these metaphors and all these concepts and cognitive categories and see reality directly.

I always thought it was ironic and in some way paradoxical that there are two very distinct classes of people who think that they’re seeing reality directly or are preoccupied with that idea, and one of those are scientists, and the other are positivist philosophers who want to get rid of all metaphors and just have the facts, just perceive things just as they are, get rid of all the complications that language imposes on reality, and just get down to the pure data, a very scientific world view.

On the other hand, other people who talk about seeing reality directly are mystics, and they think that when you strip away all the concepts and metaphors, you don’t have the facts, but you have some kind of dazzling encounter with life as it is. Personally, I think that both groups are caught in the grip of a fantasy seeing reality directly, and it's as if, in a Wittgensteinian sense, we’re all in the midst of this language game, and one of the games we play is imagining that we can step out of the game and see the world free of language. But that’s just another move in the game that we’re playing.

Let me read a little bit of Kyogen in that spirit. Starting with what he says about our ancestors, he talks about his teacher, asking the question: Who transmitted to Shakyamuni Buddha? When we chant the linkage, we chant the names of six ancestors before Buddha. These are largely mythical figures, who retain this sense of lineage going back endlessly into time. But if we think of it in terms of a koan: Who transmitted to Buddha? We’re asking what did the Buddha awaken to? What will we awaken to? And how do we understand the connection there? Is it passed down to us like a relic that we keep in the family? Are we having the same experience? What would it mean to imagine that someone who lived in India twenty-five hundred years ago or so, was having the same experience that we’re having? Is there anything such as culturally or historically context-free experience? Do we believe enlightenment today is the same as enlightenment then?

There are lots of metaphors about that. Here, I think they mention wriggling their toes in Mahakasyapa’s sandals. Or in some koans they talk about your eyebrows entangled with Bodhidharma's and all the teachers that came before. But there’s a certain way in which the notion of sameness here takes on this fantasy of reality that you finally perceived directly, with an immediacy that is ahistorical and timeless.

Can there ever be such a thing? Kyogen says, “One answer to that question [of who transmitted to Shakyamuni], is that innate Buddha mind transmitted Shakyamuni Buddha. Buddha mind is always available, and practice is always available.” Now that’s a very interesting sentence. Buddha mind is always available, and practice is always available. Buddha mind and practice are set up in the grammar of the sentence as if they were both nouns, both describing things that are always available. But is Buddha mind the kind of thing that practice is? And what do we mean by Buddha mind? Where is that? What is that? Is it a thing? Or is it a metaphor?

See, I think it’s one of those phrases that we get used to encountering in books like this. And we sort of nod our head and say Oh yes, Buddha mind is always available. What the hell are we actually talking about? Do we think of Buddha mind or Buddha nature as a potential that resides in each of us to become enlightened? What would that mean? Does it exist in some timeless way in us or everybody?

When I was growing up I went to school and eventually I went to medical school and became a doctor. When I was six or seven years old, before I had ever thought about medical school, did I have innate doctor mind? Did I have an innate potential to become a doctor that was inside me, like a genetic predisposition or capacity, just waiting to come out? Is Buddha mind a latent capacity like the capacity to learn medicine? Or being endowed with perfect pitch, is it something you already have? Something you have to develop? Does it depend on conditions? Is it the same for everybody who’s going to become a doctor?

Practice is always available? What does that mean? Practice today is certainly not what practice was when Shakyamuni was living. We don’t practice the way he did, we don’t practice the way they did in China or Japan. There are lots of differences. There are many things we do that bear a family resemblance. Practice of zazen comes down to us in ways that are very complex and are both the same and different, what we think we’re doing and how we do it.

See, one way we try to naturalize, demystify some of the language about Buddha mind, is to try and say that what we’re doing is practicing in a way that allows us to simply be present in this moment. And there are people who’ve been doing that for centuries, each in their own way, each awakening in a sense to a very different moment, and putting their experience of that awakening in very different religious and cultural contexts.

But there’s something very basic about sitting still and being quiet and just being present, that has the potential in human beings to be very transformative. And that some way or another, over thousands of years in many different cultures, the kinds of transformations that occur from being still and silent and present, is something that we keep rediscovering and recreating and passing along, in one cultural container or another.

We use metaphors like Buddha mind to describe something of the nature of that transformation, where the ordinary and the extraordinary suddenly intermingle, or the whole distinction between the ordinary and the extraordinary dissolves. And the ordinary, which we typically experience as insufficient or lacking or not special in some kind of way, suddenly we have that old duck/rabbit shift and it’s experienced as lacking nothing, with nothing hidden, just the most complete and special thing in the world.

Nothing is changed, yet everything is experienced differently. Somehow that is the capacity in human beings that gets tapped in all sorts of different ways, through all sorts of disciplines, over and over and over again. Once we encounter that collision of the extraordinary and the ordinary, it’s very hard to put into words, or maybe it’s all too easy to put into metaphor, what is happening, which all sorts of descriptions of that get multiplied, and eventually they get concretized as if there was some new big cosmic mind that we’re getting in touch with, some kind of metaphor that people create around those kinds of experiences.

Now, the poem about Simplicity is written by Sekito Kisen, who also wrote the Identity of Absolute and Relative, the Sandokai, which we chant regularly. This is a particular kind of metaphorical context, where the ordinariness of a simple grass hut, a lone hermit monk living this life of utmost poverty or simplicity, is also described as the locus of the realization of Buddha mind.

Let me see if I can read a few lines here. He starts by saying:

“I’ve built a grass hut where there’s nothing of value.”

Of course it’s going to turn out that he’s going to say, What’s in that grass hut is the greatest possible value. People ask,

“Will this hut perish or not?
Perishable or not, the original master is present,
not dwelling south or north, east or west.
Firmly based on steadiness, it can’t be surpassed.”

And there we get another metaphor about Buddha mind. Who is the original master? Right? That can be a kind of koan for you. Are you the original master? Do you feel like an original master? What’s it supposed to feel like?

Again, we get a sense that we’re trying to talk about the immediacy of the present moment, which has this simultaneous characteristic of being timeless and impermanent. Just this. The internal present, as people say, the fleeting present. Somehow they’re one and the same. But when we talk about Buddha mind or the original master or our original face, we reify the experience of presence into a thing that we think we have to find and discover either deep inside ourselves or out there someplace or in some special state of consciousness. Depending on the metaphor we create, we go off looking for it in a different direction.

I think the last two lines of this poem are really where he sums everything up, where the crucial point is for us is to try to encounter ourselves. If we want to know the undying person in the hut, don’t separate from this skin bag here and now. The undying person in the hut, the original master, Buddha mind, all these things that we create as a metaphor and then sometimes concretize by thinking there’s a real thing someplace.

Don’t separate that abstraction that you’ve idealized and think is it, from this skin bag, from this body, from this most imperfect relative thing. Don’t separate the absolute from the relative. Right? It’s the same message as the Sandokai, but in much more concrete terms of a person living in a hut. In that hut, there’s an ordinary old man; in that hut is the Buddha dharma. Same or different. Right? Don’t separate the original master from this old skin bag. It’s all about this moment. It’s all about the immediacy of now. See, it’s the only place Buddha mind is to be found.

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