225 – Cómo Relacionarse con Los Placeres Mundanos como Budista – Parte 1
226 – Cómo Relacionarse con Los Placeres Mundanos como Budista – Parte 2

This is Part 2 of my discussion of how to relate to worldly pleasure as a Buddhist, assuming you are not living a completely renunciate lifestyle. In the first episode I defined what I mean by “worldly pleasure,” and then discussed five drawbacks of such pleasure as described in Buddhist teachings, and in our own experience. In this episode I talk about how, if we can engage worldly things with the mind that sees impermanence, we are not only inoculated against the many usual drawbacks of worldly pleasures, we can use every encounter we have with the world as an opportunity to practice deeply. Not only that, we actually end up engaging worldly pleasures with more appreciation and awareness.

Read/listen to Part 1 first.

 

 

Quicklinks to Article Content:
The Mind That Sees Impermanence Is the Mind of Enlightenment
Embracing Life with the Mind That Sees Impermanence
Enjoyment of Worldly Pleasures with the Mind That Sees Impermanence

The Mind That Sees Impermanence Is the Mind of Enlightenment

The “mind that sees impermanence” is not just an intellect which has learned the objective fact that things change, and nothing lasts forever. Such understanding may help us a little, but it doesn’t stand up well in the face of our fierce human delusion that everything and everyone else might be impermanent, we aren’t. After all, we can’t be, right? It’s unthinkable. Oh, and everyone and everything we care about will more or less stay the same, too.

Through practice, we need to face and accept the impermanence of everything in our lives, including ourselves. We need to become intimate with this reality in a visceral, personal way. This realization is facilitated by many aspects of our Buddhist practice, including meditation, mindfulness, and Dharma study. Essentially, we form the intention to turn and face the reality of impermanence instead of fighting it or denying it. We do our best to see it instead of looking away, and it shows up in the turning of the seasons; in children as they quickly grow; in the aging of our bodies, and in the poignant way each and every one of our worldly pleasures, no matter how small, come to an end. Most profoundly, impermanence manifests in the ever-changing flow of our being, within which there is no inherent, enduring self-nature. After seeing it clearly, we then do our best to accept impermanence, because anything else is delusion.

When we truly get a taste of how ephemeral everything actually is, our absorption in worldly pleasures looks to us, as Zen master Dogen wrote in Fukanzazengi, like “wasteful delight in the spark from a flint stone.”[i] I’ve always liked that image, because it suggests that delight isn’t a bad thing, it’s just that some of our delight is based on delusion. I picture a small child seeing a spark from flint stone as someone is trying to light a fire. The child leaps and squeals with delight, thinking the spark is a sign of something great to come. Maybe the child can grab the brilliant spark, take it home, and keep it in a jar! Maybe the spark will grow and something even more spectacular will happen! But, of course, that’s it. The spark is remarkable only for an instant. We can certainly enjoy it, but it’s silly to get carried away by it.

According to Dogen (and many other Chan and Zen ancestors, of course), the mind of enlightenment is intimately connected to a deep recognition of impermanence. In “Gakudo Yojinshu,” Dogen writes of Bodhi-mind (Bodhi meaning “awakened;” this translation by Yuho Yokoi):

The Bodhi-mind is known by many names, but they all point to the One Mind of the Buddha. As Nagarjuna said, “The mind that sees into the flux of arising and decaying and recognizes the transient nature of the world is also known as the Bodhi-mind.” [Dogen continues] Why, or how, then, can we call this transient mind Bodhi-mind? When the transient nature of this world is finally recognized, the ordinary selfish mind ceases to arise; as well as the mind that seeks after its own fame and profit – this is Bodhi-mind.[ii]

This Bodhi-mind is what the enlightened layman Vimalakirti has access to, as described in the Mahayana sutra that bears his name (composed around 100 CE). It’s extremely significant that Vimalakirti is a layman, with a family, a house, a livelihood, and regular dealings in the world, but his understanding of the Dharma is presented as being second only the Buddha’s. The Buddha’s renunciate disciples admit they are not up to task of debating Vimalakirti, as he always ends up embarrassing them in public. How is it Vimalakirti is able to maintain and manifest such an admirable practice, even though he is surrounded by worldly pleasures? He explains (italics in brackets are my insertions):

“A Bodhisattva should contemplate living beings just as a magician regards the people he conjures. A Bodhisattva should contemplate living beings just as a wise man regards the moon’s reflection in water, his face in a mirror, a mirage, an echo, clouds in the sky, a mass of foam, bubbles in water… [Vimalakirti goes on to list many things which do not exist, like a sixth skandha, and then lists many things which are nonexistent, like] …the permanence of lightning… a sprout from a burnt seed… a blind man who can see form… the tracks of a bird’s flight in the sky… and a fire without any smoke. A Bodhisattva should regard living beings in this way.”[iii]

It may sound strange and even delusional to suggest a bodhisattva should regard living beings as not existing! Beings clearly exist! What’s meant in this teaching is that beings don’t exist the way we think they do. When we encounter beings, we imagine them (and ourselves) with autonomous existence, possessing within them an inherent, independent, enduring self-nature. That is what is nonexistent, like the tracks of a bird’s flight in the sky. And the appearance that each being has at this moment, the real form they take, is as ephemeral and ungraspable as an echo.

 

Embracing Life with the Mind That Sees Impermanence

What do we do with our realization of impermanence? It may inspire us to live a simpler life, to do less chasing after worldly pleasures. This is probably a positive thing. Hopefully we will not respond to impermanence by withdrawing from the world and shutting down emotionally, out of fear of getting hurt. That is not the intention of the Buddhist teaching at all, because that would be a self-centered action based on an incomplete recognition of impermanence (if we truly awaken to impermanence, we see the self has no permanence either, so there’s nothing to protect).

Instead of shutting down, we are asked to engage with the world as a bodhisattva. In the Vimalakirti Sutra, just after Vimalakirti describes how a bodhisattva should contemplate living beings as ephemeral and not inherently existing, Manjushri asks him, “Having contemplated living beings in this way, how should a Bodhisattva practice kindness?” This is a good question! Once we recognize how all beings and things and empty and ephemeral, where does the warmth of kindness, compassion, and generosity come from?

Vimalakīrti replied, “Having contemplated living beings in this way, a Bodhisattva then thinks to himself, ‘I should teach this Dharma for the sake of living beings.’ This is true kindness. Bodhisattvas practice the kindness of ultimate stillness because nothing comes into being. Bodhisattvas practice a kindness free of agitation because they are free of affliction… Bodhisattvas practice a kindness free of contention because nothing arises. Bodhisattvas practice the kindness of nonduality because they do not associate with internal or external. Bodhisattvas practice indestructible kindness because it is ultimately inexhaustible. Bodhisattvas practice enduring kindness because their mind is unwavering… Bodhisattvas practice boundless kindness because it is like empty space. [iv]

In other words, when we engage with beings and things with the mind that sees impermanence, the mind of a bodhisattva, it makes true kindness possible. Compassion and generosity flow freely, unimpeded by self-concern and attachment to preconceived notions.

 

Enjoyment of Worldly Pleasures with the Mind That Sees Impermanence

Ironically, engaging worldly pleasures with the mind that sees and accepts impermanence enables us to enjoy them more fully – without leading to the five drawbacks to worldly pleasures I discussed earlier.

mind that sees impermanenceBuddhist teacher Jack Kornfield tells a story about his teacher, Ajahn Chah:

One day my teacher Ajahn Chah held up a beautiful tea cup, “To me this cup is already broken. Because I know its fate, I can enjoy it fully here and now. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.”  When we understand the truth of uncertainty, we become free.

 

The broken cup helps us see beyond our illusion of control. When we commit ourselves to raising a child, building a business, creating a work of art, or righting an injustice, some measure of failure as well as success will be ours. This is a fierce teaching.

 

We may lose our best piece of pottery in the firing, the charter school we work so hard to create may fold, our start up business may go under, our children may develop problems beyond our control. If we only focus on the results, we will be devastated. But if we know the cup is broken, we can give our best to the process, create what we can and trust the larger process of life itself. We can plan, we can care for, tend and respond. But we cannot control.  Instead we take a breath, and open to what is unfolding, where we are. This is a profound shift, from holding on, to letting go.  As Suzuki Roshi says, “When we understand the truth of impermanence and find our composure in it, there we find ourselves in Nirvana.” The impermanence of the glass is inherent in its existence, just as our own deaths are inherent in ours.[v]

When we are dependent on worldly pleasures for our happiness and we’re still unable to recognize and accept how incredibly conditional and ephemeral they are, there is inevitably self-interest mixed in with our enjoyment of even the simplest and purest of those pleasures. When we boldly face and learn to accept impermanence, including the impermanence of our self, we can open our hands and experience things as they are. People and things come into our life for a time. We can enjoy them as blessings, without creating a narrative about how we deserve them or earned them, and therefore can count on them being there for us far into the future. In the face of impermanence, worldly pleasures are even sweeter, in a poignant sort of way. This encounter with a loved one will never be repeated. This state of vitality and relative health is a blessing to be enjoyed, today. Right now, we are safe, fed, and sheltered.

When we can hold something with full realization and acceptance of its impermanence, it is extremely clear how precious it is. This preciousness, which can so easily recede from our consciousness, is obvious, simple, and radiant. We need not feel desperate or even sad when we experience this. We may be aware that we will be sad in the future, when things inevitably change, but that seems a small price to pay for our current experience. For example, I am happy for my practice when I fall asleep with my arm around my husband with a very real sense of how we will be parted by death, sooner or later. Rather than allow myself to be drawn into a sense of dread or anxiety about this, I can remind myself that our time together is finite. It will go much quicker than we expect. One more day together is precious; much better to appreciate it as a blessing, with open hands, than to worry about the fact that I will inevitably lose this source of worldly pleasure.

So… the moral of the story is to cultivate the ability and willingness to see the impermanence inherent in all the things and beings we have in our lives. And if contemplating that impermanence is frightening, depressing, or confusing, to look deeper. The reward is the ability to truly appreciate everything we encounter.

The moral of the story is also that we do not have to retreat from appreciation of worldly pleasures in order to live an enlightened life. However, we must diligently turn the lens of practice onto our relationship to all things and all beings. Learning to see and accept the impermanence of all things and yet to enjoy them fully is a wonderful practice opportunity.

 


Endnotes

[i] https://www.sotozen.com/eng/practice/zazen/advice/fukanzanzeng.html

[ii] Gakudo yojin-shu by Eihei Dogen (terebess.hu)

[iii] Buddhist Text Translation Society; Kumarajiva, Dharma Master; International Institute for the Translation of Buddhist Texts. The Vimalakirti Sutra: A Bilingual Volume with Cross References between English and Chinese – Translated from the Chinese of Master Kumarajiva (pp. 90-91). Buddhist Text Translation Society. Kindle Edition.

[iv] Buddhist Text Translation Society; Kumarajiva, Dharma Master; International Institute for the Translation of Buddhist Texts. The Vimalakirti Sutra: A Bilingual Volume with Cross References between English and Chinese – Translated from the Chinese of Master Kumarajiva (pp. 90-91). Buddhist Text Translation Society. Kindle Edition.

[v] Kornfield, Jack. The Wisdom of Insecurity. https://jackkornfield.com/the-wisdom-of-insecurity/

 

Picture Credit

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

 

225 – Cómo Relacionarse con Los Placeres Mundanos como Budista – Parte 1
226 – Cómo Relacionarse con Los Placeres Mundanos como Budista – Parte 2
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