120 - Dogen's Four Ways Bodhisattvas Embrace Living Beings - Part 5 - Identity Action

Next week I’ll be taking a break from my busy life and all of my projects in order sit Rohatsu sesshin, a week-long, silent Zen meditation retreat. Every sesshin ends up feeling different, but based on my experience of the past 25 years, I anticipate next week will shift my whole perspective on life in a very important way. After spending the half-a-year since my last sesshin immersed in the relative aspect of life, the absolute aspect of life will come to the fore. Consequently, I’ll regain balance and see everything in a much larger context. In this episode, I’ll talk about what that feels like, and the value of awakening to the absolute aspect of reality when what you most want is to be is an effective agent for positive change in the relative world.

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
Active and Contemplative Practice in Dynamic Balance
Absolute and Relative, Essential and Contingent
Setting Ourselves Up to Awaken to the Absolute
Attachment to Experiences
My Typical Experience of Sesshin
Awareness of Both Aspects of Reality
The Practical Value of Awakening to the Absolute

Active and Contemplative Practice in Dynamic Balance

As may have become obvious to you if you’ve listened to many episodes of the Zen Studies Podcast, I’m wholeheartedly dedicated to fulfilling my bodhisattva vow to free all beings in an active way. That is, meditation and study and reflection are lovely and helpful, but I think it’s important to remember we’re not just practicing in order to relieve our own suffering, or to make our own lives more pleasant or fulfilling. A key element in Mahayana Buddhism is seeing ourselves as “being in the same boat” with all living beings, as I discussed in the last episode (120 – Dogen’s “Four Ways Bodhisattvas Embrace Living Beings” – Part 5 – Identity Action). Our welfare and happiness are not separate from that of all other beings, so working for the benefit of others is not something we do only after we’ve taken care of ourselves. As Dogen says in Bodaisatta Shishobo:

“Foolish people think that if they help others first, their own benefit will be lost, but this is not so. Beneficial action is an act of oneness, benefiting self and others together.”[i]

At times I think Zen and Buddhist practitioners err on the side of internal or personal development, and consequently neglect literal, tangible, active bodhisattva service. It’s certainly open to debate how much of a problem this is, but I feel like it’s one of my jobs in this lifetime to remind practitioners – and Dharma teachers – that at least half of our practice, for most of us, is taking action in the world.

This episode is a bit of a departure for me, then, because it argues for the value of putting aside all activity in order to awaken to the absolute aspect of reality. Ideally, I think the active and contemplative aspects of our practice are in dynamic balance – one side informing and challenging the other. Of course, if you’re one of the rare people inclined to make contemplation the main endeavor in your life, and you’re more or less free of practical responsibilities, that can be a lovely and fruitful path. There’s a long tradition of it in Buddhism. Most of us, however, either have worldly responsibilities or want to take an active role in the world, so it’s valuable to understand how setting aside time for contemplation – far from conflicting with our activities – actually makes us more effective and resilient.

Absolute and Relative, Essential and Contingent

In short, I want to talk about how it helps our work in the relative aspect of reality to awaken to, and cultivate a deeper awareness of, the “absolute” aspect of reality . I’ll briefly review what we mean, in Zen, by the terms “absolute” and “relative,” but I’ll try to keep the philosophical discussion to a minimum because I want to get to what “awakening to the absolute” means in experience and practice.

The idea is that reality has two aspects. “Shih” () in Chinese, commonly translated as “the relative,” is the aspect of reality we’re usually aware of, and involved in. In a relative sense, the universe is full of phenomena: Beings, objects, forces. Phenomena are bound together by natural laws of causation, and operate within the three physical dimensions and the dimension of time. In a relative sense, we function within a largely-independent physical body, and interact with other beings and phenomena. We have a sense of self, take action in the world, and experience the consequences of our actions, as well as the consequences of the actions of others. Our mind works to make sense of phenomena, so we create names, labels, and theories about how the world operates. We do our best to seek happiness and avoid suffering, but everything relative is subject to change, and has a beginning and an end. The relative aspect of reality is all things: Wonderful, terrible, exciting, depressing, beautiful, tragic, inspiring, and stressful.

The other aspect of reality is Li (), commonly translated as “the absolute.” Unfortunately, that term fails to evoke much until after you have a sense of what it actually means. Actually, most terms for the absolute fail to deliver much in terms of meaning unless you pair them with a corresponding term pointing to the relative. So, just as there is relative and absolute, there is “difference and sameness,” “contingent and essential,” “many and one,” “conditional and ultimate.” The “absolute” on its own, then, is sameness, oneness or unity, and what is essential or ultimate. Despite all these words, of course, it’s not all that easy to grasp what it’s all about!

Adequately conveying the absolute aspect of reality in words is impossible, because language is a tool of the relative. Language compares, differentiates, names, and defines. Still, we can’t communicate or understand things as human beings without language, so we use language – and other tools, such as art, poetry, ritual, and other practices – to point toward the absolute, the way you would use your finger to point at the moon. Your finger doesn’t capture or convey or substitute for the moon, but it can allow someone else to experience seeing the moon.

To offer a little in the way of finger-pointing, the absolute is the “right-here-at-this-very-moment” aspect of reality. This moment, of course, cannot be grasped, as it is instantaneous and constantly flowing. Nonetheless, there is our direct experience, which does not need to be grasped or defined by language or conceptual thinking. If the relative is about relationships reaching out throughout space and time, the absolute is the truth of our dimensionless, boundless, lively manifestation, centered in our lower belly.

Shunryu Suzuki referred to the absolute aspect of reality as “things-as-it-is,” capturing beautifully how all phenomenal things manifest in the absolute sense just as they are, and just where they are, but as infinite parts of a vast, unified tableau. It feels a little bit like it might if you could freeze the universe in time and wander through it in three dimensions, appreciating the constellation of phenomena at that particular moment for exactly what it is. At such a moment, labels and concepts are irrelevant and unnecessary, because such labels and concepts are about relative relationships. Boundaries and agendas similarly lose their meaning, because in the absolute sense there isn’t one thing versus another. The surprising thing is that “things-as-it-is” has a luminous, miraculous, and precious quality because it is utterly free from any expectation it should be otherwise. This preciousness is unconditional, which means even the terrible things in world are included and subsumed in it.

(If you’re interested in studying more about absolute versus relative in a philosophical way, see Episode 74, and my “Handy Dandy Chart of Absolute and Relative.”)

Setting Ourselves Up to Awaken to the Absolute

Sesshin (silent retreat) at Great Vow Zen Monastery in Clatskanie, Oregon

Different spiritual traditions have different ways of priming the human body, mind, and heart to awaken to the absolute, or to liberating insight, or to the divine. In most forms of Buddhism, meditation is our central practice for this, and in many traditions, we also have the practice of prolonged, intensive meditation retreats. For example, next week at Rohatsu sesshin, we’ll maintain silence throughout, not even making eye contact with one another, and we’ll sit zazen for at least 8 hours a day. Activities are kept to a bare minimum – basic cleaning and cooking tasks, mostly – and those of us without special responsibilities simply follow the retreat schedule. The most complicated decisions we need to make are ones like whether to take a nap or a shower after lunch, or whether to have another cup of tea before evening meditation. Apart from caring for our own bodies, everything else is taken care of for us. Our only job is settling into stillness and silence, letting go as much as possible of all of our relative concerns.

The idea is that it’s really hard to awaken to the absolute aspect of reality when you’re in the midst of daily life and dealing with lots of responsibilities and activities. This isn’t because “the absolute” is so obscure, or transcendent, or supernatural, or out-of-reach of ordinary mortals, or anything like that. The absolute is just a subtle, often-missed aspect of the reality we’re always in the midst of. We miss it because of habit; after a lifetime of focusing on the relative aspect of reality, we’ve formed an elaborate mental map of it. We mistake that map for reality itself. We fiercely and sincerely believe we need to maintain and defend our mental map diligently. Without our map, we’re convinced, the universe and everything in it, including us, will disappear like a puff of smoke, or go to hell in a handbasket. Because, remember, we believe our map is reality.

Our mental map of relative reality includes obvious things like narratives about who we are, who other people are, how the world works, how our life is going, how we have been wronged, and what we need to do next. Our map includes concepts about things like happiness, meditation, right and wrong, spiritual insight, and the absolute. However attached we may be to our narratives and concepts, they are the easiest parts of our mental map to identify and practice letting go of. More challenging are aspects of our mental map that seem to us absolutely foundational and essential – core values, foundational beliefs, and a basic sense of self. And it gets even more subtle than that: our mind imposes a faint filter of interpretation over even our immediate experience, telling us how it relates to the overall unfolding of our life. Even this subtle filter keeps us bound to the relative, although this isn’t an all-or-nothing deal – as the mind calms down, as we let go of the grosser levels of our mental map, the absolute starts to shimmer through the filter in certain moments. After all, it’s difficult to maintain our map 24-7, especially when we’re sleep-deprived and meditating 8 hours a day.

The whole setup of a silent meditation retreat, then, is meant to support your process of letting go of your mental map of the relative aspect of reality. We step away from involvement with our jobs, families, pleasures, and projects. We forgo reading and writing, let alone computer use or keeping up with the news. We minimize and simplify our activities, responsibilities, choices, decisions, and social interactions. In the ensuing silence, we turn to face our minds, hour after hour, day after day. The cruder aspects of our mental map, compelling at first, gradually bore us and we let them go. The subtler aspects keep us trapped for a while, but then for a moment there’s a lapse in our map and we recognize in what way it’s just a map. If we’re lucky, we enjoy a few moments of feeling boundless, or perceiving the luminous preciousness of things-as-it-is.

Attachment to Experiences

Now, it’s typical, perhaps unavoidable, to get attached to cool spiritual experiences, whether they happen in meditation, in retreat, or at some other time. If you don’t think you’ve experienced the absolute aspect of reality, you may long to do so. If you have had a cool experience or two, you’ll probably keep trying to recreate it, and probably won’t have much luck. Sadly, openings to insight just don’t seem to work that way. Generally speaking, the harder you try to achieve some experience of the absolute, the more it will elude you – because trying hard entails use of a relative mental map, including a sense of yourself before and after an awakening experience, a belief in what it will take to attain it, a self-interested longing, and a whole host of other things. And employing your mental map isn’t going to get you where you want to go.

It’s not a matter of will whether we can manage to let go of our mental map long enough to perceive the absolute aspect of reality. All we can do is patiently and diligently apply ourselves to our practice and see what happens. The trouble with talking about absolute and relative and awakening and all this stuff is that we immediately start making a relative mental map about practice, and imagine there are things to be achieved. Our map is not reality. In reality, humbly applying ourselves to the practice with passionate determination but no fixed agenda ends up transforming us, whether we have special experiences or not. It’s mysterious, but that’s okay. Accepting we can’t mentally map this stuff out is part of the practice.

My Typical Experience of Sesshin

Let me get more personal about what I anticipate happening for me next week, at sesshin, because it will lead into my points about why awakening to the absolute helps us be more effective and resilient when taking action in the world. Every sesshin is different, of course, and it definitely works best not to enter sesshin with any expectations. Still, after having done an average of two sesshin a year for the last 25 years, I’ve come to recognize a typical pattern.

For the first couple of days, much of my eight-hours-a-day of zazen will be filled with thoughts about my relative concerns and projects. I’ll think about the climate crisis and how I should best respond. I’ll outline blog posts and podcast episodes about the responsibility of Dharma teachers to help their Sanghas face the crisis. I’ll remember my gutters need cleaning, and imagine doing it. I’ll relive the plots of TV shows and movies I’ve watched recently. Then I’ll rewrite the same blog posts and podcast episodes. I’ll imagine new organizations I could create to help people connect with the Dharma, and then I’ll compose a blog post about how to let go of the need to create new things all the time.

Interspersed with all my thinking and planning will be periods of intense drowsiness, given I’ll be getting by on six hours of sleep a night instead of my usual nine. Typically – and this is the case for many people – there’s a “hump” day in sesshin, usually the second or third day, which feels pretty miserable or dull and basically unrewarding. Sitting zazen for eight hours on a hump day is eight hours simply to be endured; it’s best not to do too much reflection on your hump day about whether the whole endeavor is worth it.

In order to get past the discomfort of the hump day, which is really my body and mind resisting the process of sesshin, I have to surrender to the practice fully, and give up my expectations and ideas. When I’m able to do this, things become easier and more spacious. My sense of time becomes centered on the here-and-now, so there are fewer moments I stop and think, “Oh my lord, four more days of this?” There’s just going to the zendo, getting up for walking meditation, sitting again, going for meals, doing silent work practice. There’s just a pain in the knee, a patch of sunlight moving slowly across the floor, a tasty bowl of tofu.

The relative aspect of reality recedes, slowly but surely. The details of my regular, daily life don’t disappear entirely, but it’s like they’re part of a much larger landscape I can now perceive. I still love, and intend to take care of, all the people and beings and things in my life, but now I’m reminded of another thing I care about just as much: The ineffable experience of universal liveliness – That Which Is Beyond Words, but is pointed at by the terms God, divine, absolute, and suchness.

For the most part, experiences I identify as tasting or touching or glimpsing the absolute are moments here and there throughout the day, during meditation and at other times – moments when my sense of self becomes lighter, when my mental map fades away for a bit. At these moments, there is just sitting, just walking, just pulling weeds… things-as-it-is appears miraculous, luminous, precious, and utterly normal, all at the same time. I get a sense that most of the time I’m walking around in a dream, and it’s only at these moments I’m fully awake.

Awareness of Both Aspects of Reality

When I’m awake, the regular activities of my life outside of sesshin look strangely – and wonderfully – optional. The compulsion for self-preservation, from this larger perspective, looks perfectly natural, but also sad and delusional wherever it causes suffering instead of liberation. My longing to save the world similarly looks natural – what else is a bodhisattva to do? – but only part of a grander scheme of things. I come to understand what is meant in the prajnaparamita sutras when they say bodhisattvas tirelessly dedicate themselves to saving every last living being, but without conceiving of any being who is saving, or is to be saved:[ii] Loving function does not depend on a mental map. Our mental map has practical use at times, but attachment to it – mistaking it for reality itself – only causes suffering and gets in the way of effective and skillful action.

A bodhisattva is grounded in an expanded awareness of reality that includes both of its aspects, relative and absolute. In such a reality, the miraculous, luminous, preciousness of life is untouched by the arising and passing away of whole universes. This truth provides strength and resilience and joy. At the same time, the miraculous, luminous, preciousness of life only exists in manifestation, and therefore every last living thing – actually, every last thing, whether technically considered “alive” or not – is also infinitely precious. This truth awakens compassion and the energy for tireless, selfless service.

The Practical Value of Awakening to the Absolute

As rewarding and inspiring as “identifiable” moments of awakening to the absolute aspect of reality are, they aren’t really the most important thing. Practice works on us at all levels – physical, mental, emotional, subconscious, unconscious… after many days of sesshin my whole being is tuned differently, whether I perceive it to be so or not. The few insights or cool moments I’m conscious of having experienced are just the tip of the iceberg of the change that’s happening with deep practice. And, as Zen masters will point, out, any moment we stop and think, “Oh wow, this is the absolute aspect of reality,” isn’t really – or at least, not entirely. As long as we conceive of ourselves and our experience, we’re still employing a mental map.

That said, there is immense practical value in setting aside time and space for contemplative practice in order to awaken to the absolute aspect of reality. After sesshin, I’m generally more sane, stable, and positive. I’m less reactive and caught up in drama. There’s space for possibility around my personal predictions about what’s going to happen to me, my life, and the world around me. I’m grounded in something that can’t be shaken by success or failure. I hold my own concerns and passions more lightly, and my shortcomings and delusions with a sense of humor. All of this makes me better able to do all the stuff in my life sustainably, effectively, skillfully, and even – most of the time – joyfully.

These great results aren’t guaranteed, of course. They’re a general association with practice, just like benefits such as getting sick less often, or having greater stamina, are associated with exercise. You don’t go for one hike and then evaluate whether it was worth it based on whether you feel significantly better immediately. You recognize the value of a healthy habit over time.

In closing, I’ll say that awakening to the absolute isn’t something that’s limited to sesshin, or week-long, silent meditation retreats. They’re the most effective tool I know of for helping us let go of our mental map and experience reality more directly, but we make this effort in microcosm every time we meditate, or engage in some other contemplative practice. We build our relationship to the absolute aspect of reality whenever we make time and space in our busy lives to let go of our agendas and open up to the dimensionless, boundless, lively manifestation, centered in our lower belly.

 


Endnotes

[i] Tanahashi, Kazuaki, trans., ed. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2010.
[ii] Pine, Red. The Diamond Sutra: The Perfection of Wisdom. Berkeley, California: Counterpoint Press, 2001.

 

120 - Dogen's Four Ways Bodhisattvas Embrace Living Beings - Part 5 - Identity Action
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