Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Middle Way Isn't Just the Middle

This weekend I was honored to be able to spend a lot of time around Sojun Mel Weitsman Roshi.  I was lucky enough to be asked to help prepare breakfast for him, my teacher, the resident students, and the Ino as well as a couple others the past two mornings.  It was wonderful to be around him and the others in a relaxed setting.

For those of you who don't know, Sojun Roshi is the abbot of the Berkley Zen Center and a treasured student of the famous and influential Shunryu Suzuki Roshi.  He's a very kind and gentle, insightful person who has obviously worked very hard at cultivating himself.

He's also realistic and modest enough to admit to us that while he is a priest, he's also a bad person sometimes, too. "Seriously?" you ask, "how is this possible? He's one of a handful of the most respected Zen teachers in the country if not the world."  Even so, he's still human and his practice continues after all these years just as ours does.

He admitted this as part of his dharma talk on Saturday morning at the Houston Zen Center in which he discussed a deeper dimension of what the "Middle Way" of Buddhism really is.

To begin his talk he brought up the first koan given to students in the Rinzai sect.  As I think I've mentioned before, Soto Zen doesn't use koan the same as Rinzai, but they're still a useful teaching tool that I've recently come to appreciate.

So the koan.  It's actually a pretty popularly known one, known even outside of exclusive Zen circles.
A monk asked Joshu, "Has the dog Buddha nature or not?" Joshu said, "Mu."
 Mu essentially translates as "no." It's not a literal translation, that's closer to "not any."  On another occasion the same monk asked again and Joshu replies in the affirmative.*

It is an accepted Buddhist concept that all beings, sentient or insentient, have Buddha nature so the initial negative answer wasn't what the monk was expecting which is probably why he asked again later.  The truth didn't change even though two opposite answers were given.

The reality or truth, Sojun Roshi said, is the Middle Way. Both answers are correct and neither are correct at the same time.  This is tricky ground because it is the use of dualistic language to explain a non-dualistic concept.  Language by definition is dualistic since each word is defined just as much by what it means as by what it doesn't mean, that's just how it works.  Not every word has an opposite, but each word both includes and excludes meaning.

Before whenever I thought about what makes the Middle Way, I thought it meant the mean between any two extremes, moderation  Everything he said lead me to understand that the truth of the matter is that the Middle Way isn't just the middle, but it's all inclusive.  The answer to the question of whether or not a dog has Buddha nature is yes and no because everything is interconnected, nothing is independent.  To say something is independent implies that it is separate from something else.

So because the dog has Buddha nature it doesn't have Buddha nature.  A tree is no different than a car, they're not exactly the same but they're not separate.  The nature of a tree depends on the nature of the car for its identity.

Sojun Roshi also applied this to truly live life is to walk the Middle Way among birth and death.  Each moment the self we are (as well as the whole universe) dies and is reborn as a new moment takes its place. This reminds me of the image used in Japanese swordsmanship schools of a piece of paper with the character for "life/birth" printed on one side and "death" on the other.  This is to remind us that the spacing that separates survival and death in an attack is the thickness of a piece of paper.  In Zen we live in this space sandwiched between birth and death.  It is not exclusive of birth and death but is neither birth and death.

See how the duality of language makes illuminating the truth so difficult?  Zazen is the practice of sweeping away the structure of definition and duality we've built up over the course of our lives.  There's no way to intellectualize our way to the heart of the matter since each thought we grasp at builds up new layers to hide the truth.  Our true nature is always there it's just waiting for us to settle the dust clouds we've kicked up by labeling and defining every new thing we encounter.  The common image used in Zen is that of the reflection of the moon (perception of the truth) in a pool of water (our minds).  Until we quiet our mind, all we see is the shattered multiplicity of the reflection.  Actively thinking just stirs up the water as we grasp at the reflection.

So everything is the same, without difference: comfort and discomfort, good and bad, right and wrong, you and me, matter and energy, true and false.  You name it (or don't) it's all the same just as much as it's different. 

Why worry about anything, what is there to fear?  You do what you do because it's what you can.  To truly experience the undiluted life, to be free of discontentment, we have to make the effort and investment to shake off our attachment to duality.  Excessive focus on the past, whether fond memories or regrets is leaning into death.  Focus on the future with dreams and worries is leaning into birth.  Neither is bad, we don't live exclusively from them, but we don't live in either of them.  We need to learn from our mistakes in the past and organize the future.  We have to see that our hesitations and fears are the product of our ego struggling to establish itself as perfect (and sometimes unconsciously just as oppositely tragic) .  Let yourself make mistakes, we all do.  Accept them and learn from them.

As we all stumble along our own paths, struggling to walk the Middle Way, we drift to the right and to the left.  Coming back to the middle is no more than an intention to not ignore either extreme, not trying to avoid either. 

*The previous explanation that I'd always heard didn't include the "yes" response.  Instead "mu" is a non-answer, telling the monk that he's asking the wrong question.  There is no answer because the question is irrelevant.  We can't find the truth by asking questions, it can't be given to us.  We have to find it on our own.  The Buddha found the truth through zazen, there was no one for him to ask questions.  For that reason, we sit.  Questions help us understand what we experience, but there is no new information.

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