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I recently set two short Chinese Buddhist poems–in English translation–to music. “I Ask, ‘Who is the Believer?’” was the second of these poems. The words and music were presented in the January, 2017 issue of this Newsletter, together with a brief explanation of the teaching embodied in the poem.
I very much wanted to offer a recording of this piece in which people sing the words. I tried to find a local soprano who would be willing to sing the soprano part. This bore no fruit. So I bought an inexpensive microphone, transposed the music down a perfect fifth (from D-minor to G-minor), and Rev. Master Mokushin and I mustered our courage and gave it our best shot.
In this recording, Rev. Master Mokushin (singing alto) and I (singing tenor and a little of the alto) each recorded several tracks. We then combined these tracks in order to give a more choir-like effect. For recording and editing, we used software (“Audacity”) that people have very generously made available for free on-line.
I wanted a soft sound for the instrumental accompaniment in the bass clef. I tried a number of electronically-simulated instrumental sounds and eventually chose a more voice-like sound described as “Choral Oohs.” (Fortunately, it does not actually sound like someone saying “Ooh” in the background!)
In the January Newsletter, the text of the poem was presented in its simpler form. In the actual sung version, the text is expanded somewhat.
We would have liked to have been able to provide a greater range of volume for sound systems with small speakers, but we found that we could not avoid significant distortion when we amplified the recording. With more powerful sound systems, there seems to be a much greater range of volume. Headphones used directly from a PC seem to be somewhere in between. Also, check the volume settings for both the computer and the audio player.
I would like to express my gratitude to Rev. Master Mokushin for all the help and encouragement she has provided, and also to Rev. Bennet, who offered valuable technical advice and a willing ear.
One of the cornerstones of the Buddha’s teaching is that of no-self or no-soul.1 In Pali the word describing this spiritual truth is anatta and in Sanskrit anatman. The Buddha propounded this teaching in direct contrast to the prevalent teaching at the time of atman. The teaching of atman stresses that there is an unchanging, self-existent soul or self in every being that exists separately from the Oversoul or Brahman.2 And this “soul-thing” is embedded in a body of tainted corruption that it must be freed from so that it can be reunited with the Oversoul. Ascetics in the Buddha’s time–and still today–believed that liberating this soul-thing can only be achieved through extreme practices that punish the body and mind.
The Buddha first tried this approach of extreme self-mortification, eventually becoming recognized as one of the premier ascetics of his time. He practiced it so well that he nearly died by starving himself to death.3 Luckily for the world, he realized at that point that “by all these bitter and difficult austerities I shall not attain to excellence, worthy of supreme knowledge and insight, transcending those of human states. Might there be another path for Enlightenment!”4 And the path that his great enlightenment illuminated is the Middle Way between extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification that the various schools of Buddhism strive to practice to this day.
One of the foundational discoveries of his enlightenment experience was the insight that there is, in reality, no soul entity separate from the compassion, love, and wisdom of Eternal Reality, Eternal Truth; that everything is already of the Eternal.5, 6 And if everything is already of the Eternal, there is nothing to liberate and nothing to mortify. We simply need to “turn about in the seat of deepest consciousness”7and face It: we do not need to go anywhere, just turn around where we are right now. Turn around from the grey, phantasmagoric wall of greed, anger, and delusion that the egocentric self faces to see the grand, transcendent Reality of compassion, love, and wisdom of the Eternal only perceived with the eyes of non-self. The purpose of Buddhist training in meditation and Precepts is to effect this revolutionary transformation of consciousness.
It is safe to say that the Buddha’s teaching of no-self/no-soul is one of the more difficult for us to accept. No-self seems counter-intuitive: after all, here we are, in this body with its collection of thoughts and emotions, desires, joys and sorrows, its animal needs. It’s obvious that we have a self, it’s “common sense.” And in the materialistic realm of everyday experience we do, of course, distinguish “myself” from “yourself.” The mistake is extending that ever-changing, relativistic experience to a permanent, unchanging self.8
We know from experience that much of what we deem obvious and common sense turns out not to be so in fact; that much of it is merely our projections based on mistaken assumptions. In the realm of the physical world,
Ever since we discovered that Earth is round and turns like a mad spinning-top, we have understood that reality is not as it appears to us: every time we glimpse a new aspect of it, it is a deeply emotional experience. Another veil has fallen.9
There is a sense that, in the personal realm, we can ignorantly think that “the earth is flat and the center of the universe and the sun revolves around it:” we can think that we are only physical beings and the center of the universe and everything that lights our lives revolves around us. And despite all evidence to the contrary, we still convince ourselves that we must live forever.
The resistance to the teaching of non-self no doubt crosses cultures, since every human is hard-wired by evolution to strive to survive, to maintain this package of body-and-mind at almost any cost. It is the mistaken notion of a separate self, a separate soul that must be protected against annihilation that is the principle source of our suffering.10 Since its premise is mistaken, concepts based upon it are also erroneous, such as ideas of heaven and hells where a separate soul will dwell for eternity. The desire for the former and fear of the latter fills the background of our consciousness, whether we recognize it or not. Consequently, deeply accepting the reality of our mortality is our most important life’s endeavor, because that acceptance reveals the True, Eternal Reality that is the actual ground of our being.11 In Buddhism, the Fifth Law of the Universe says, The intuitive knowledge of Buddha Nature occurs to all.12 Unless we attempt to reconcile our intuitive knowledge of the Eternal with our limited mortal life, we will live divided lives. Uniting them in harmony alleviates our suffering, enabling us to live full spiritual lives and face death with equanimity. It is the source of wisdom and compassion, the blossoming of the lotus above the mud of mortality.
At one point in my training as a monk I intuitively realized that I was going to have to open myself up to this teaching if I were to go deeper spiritually. I grasped the concept, but I needed proof of conceptwithin myself. One avenue that is very helpful in this effort is the Diamond Sutra, which essentially describes the condition of shunyata, or emptiness of an ego-self. The very first thing the Buddha teaches his disciple, Subhuti, in the Diamond Sutra is, “No one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul.”13 Another critical tool in the effort to realize no-self is the teaching of Dependent Origination.14, 15 Ultimately, it is pure meditation that is key to unlocking the door to the Treasure House of no-self.
As I contemplated the teaching of no-self it occurred to me that a fundamental mistake we make when viewing ourselves is perceiving ourselves as an independent, self-contained entity. Although we go through life experiencing a constantly changing flow of thoughts, emotions, likes, repulsions, fears, joys, sorrows, and so on, we somehow convince ourselves that that ephemeral, ever-changing experience of action and reaction is who we are, is our personality, is our self. And we compose an ongoing narrative in which we are the central subject and everything else is external object and hence we live in duality, in tension. We spend the precious energy of our lives promoting and defending the hero (and sometimes, antihero) of our narrative: the fictional self.
The more we reinforce the unreal image of the self the harder and more self-protective it becomes. It is as if we secrete a calcified “shell of self,” metaphorically like this:
And the more we exercise habits of self-aggrandizement and self-protection this impermeable, calcified self grows larger and harder with time. But the sea shell’s superficial protection is only temporary, and so is the shell the self secretes. Death ultimately claims both.
Instead of a solid self, rigidly bounded by a projected personality, we are in truth an ongoing process, like this:
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This graphic image of an amobea is a nice visual metaphor for the actual workings of our psycho-physical self. Although it is a a single-cell organism and therefore a discrete entity, its boundary is nevertheless in flux and constantly moving and shifting, as can be seen in this video clip. It responds to its environment, altering and adapting as it interacts with conditions and forces outside itself even as it affects its environment itself. It is dynamic, and thereby more accurately reflects our own ever-changing state. And, it is vulnerable: there is no hard shell to provide it temporary protection from physical injury or ultimate demise.
For purposes that will be clear later in this essay, it is important to note that the cell operates within a liquid medium, without which it could not survive. It can be said that although the cell is not the medium it is operating in, there is nothing in the cell that is not of the medium; that everything that makes up the cell comes from the medium. And when it dies, it dissolves back into the liquid medium and its elements recycled.
As with verbal metaphors a visual metaphor like this has its limitations, and can only ever be a “finger pointing at the moon, ” since the Eternal is a Reality that exceeds all our words and concepts. Nevertheless, it can help us “perceive outside the box of self” and begin to apprehend that greater Reality.
If we are not a solid, impervious, “shell” of self encasing an eternal soul, then what are we? This question will be taken up in the next essay in this series.
1 “Apart from mind and matter which constitute this so-called being, which we know as man, there is no immortal soul, or eternal ego, with which we are either gifted or have obtained in a mysterious way from a mysterious being or force…. The forms of man or animal are merely the temporary manifestations of the life force that is common to all.” Rev. Master P.T.N.H. Jiyu-Kennett, M.O.B.C., Zen is Eternal Life (Mount Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey Press, Fourth Edition, 1999), p. 8. (Available for downloading at: http://www.shastaabbey.org/pdf/bookZel.pdf.)
2 “What in general is suggested by Soul, Self, Ego, or to use the Sanskrit expression atman, is that in man there is a permanent, everlasting and absolute entity, which is the unchanging substance behind the changing phenomenal world. According to some religions, each individual has such a separate soul which is created by God, and which, finally after death, lives eternally either in hell or heaven, its destiny depending on the judgment of its creator. According to others, it goes through many lives till it is completely purified and becomes finally united with God or Brahman, Universal Soul or atman, from which it originally emanated. This soul or self in man is the thinker of thoughts, feeler of sensations, and receiver of rewards and punishments for all its actions good and bad. Such a conception is called the idea of self.” Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Chapter VI (New York: Grove Press; Revised edition, 1974)
3 “And I, intending to touch my belly’s skin, would instead seize my backbone. When I intended to touch my backbone, I would seize my belly’s skin. So was I that, owing to lack of sufficient food, my belly’s skin clung to the backbone…”. Narada Thera, The Buddha and His Teachings, p. 17 (http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/buddha-teachingsurw6.pdf)
5 “The term ‘Buddha’ does not imply ‘God’ any more than do the terms ‘It’, ‘Substance’ and all the other terms we use such as ‘Eternal’ and ‘Lord of the House’. ‘It’ and all the other terms should be understood as that which, within every fibre of our being, we know as THAT WHICH IS UNBORN, UNCHANGING, UNDYING, UNCREATED, frequently called IT…. In the case of the doctrine of anatta, that there is no separate, egocentric self outside of the TRUE ‘I’, or TRUE SELF, which is the UNBORN, UNDYING, UNCREATED, UNCHANGING.” Rev. Hubert Nearman, O.B.C., translator, with an introduction by Rev. Master P.T.N.H. Jiyu-Kennett, M.O.B.C., consultant and editor. The Denkoroku, (Mount Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey Press, Second Edition, 2001), p. xiv. (Available for downloading at: http://shastaabbey.org/publications/)
6 “The so-called self, that allegedly unchanging and perpetual element within us, is only a delusion projected by a confused mind.” Garma C.C. Chang, The Buddhist Teaching of Totality. (The Pennsylvania State University Press: 1971), p. 77.
8 “On the common-sense level, Buddhism has no quarrel with the existential conviction of self, which of course includes the autonomous decision-maker. It is from the viewpoint of higher truth and liberation that atman is denied.” Chang, op cit., p. 79.
10 In writing of the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth, Narada Thera in his classic text The Buddha and His Teaching (op cit.), says that one of the three aspects of clinging and therefore suffering is the attachment to existence (bhavatanha) (p. 61). (The other two are “simple attachment to all sensual pleasures” and “attachment to non-existence.”)
11 “What people usually think of as their ‘self,’ ‘soul,’ or ‘spirit’ is actually an impermanent combination of several components. Some components, such as the ego, the sense of self, the body image, and the like are personal and individual but are continually changing and do not survive death. Another component, the Buddha Nature, because it is one with the Buddha Essence of the Universe, is unchanging and eternal and yet, for the very same reason, is neither personal nor individual…”. “The Five Laws of the Universe,” footnote 2, in An Introduction to the Tradition of Serene Reflection Meditation.
12 “Cosmic Buddha. The Buddha Shakyamuni said, ‘There is an Unborn, Uncreated, Undying, Unchanging.’ A term for the Dharmakaya, Eternal Nature, Buddhahood or Amitabha Buddha. The Buddha who appears in every place and time and in all beings; also called by various other names such as Vairocana Buddha, Amitabha Buddha, Dharmakaya, Buddha Nature, Lord of the House, That Which Is. It can be revealed by genuine training but It cannot be explained as existing or not existing or in any other dualistic way.” “The Five Laws of the Universe,” footnote 1, in An Introduction to the Tradition of Serene Reflection Meditation.
15 “The teaching of Dependent Origination is a magnificent tapestry within which both the causes of suffering and the causes of spiritual conversion are displayed.” Rev. Master Koshin Schomberg, Dependent Origination. This booklet is recommended as a clear and insightful teaching on Dependent Origination and is available at: http://northcascadesbuddhistpriory.org/DepOrigination/DependentOrigination.PDF
Serene Reflection Meditation Refuge
Rev. Master Mokushin, Dean of the Serene Reflection Dharma Association, spent a week with us in March. We were pleased to have her and appreciated her expertise with several maintenance projects.
Temple resident Joanne has started to work the soil for the vegetable garden and plans to plant some fava-beans this week-end. Temple dog Loki enjoys supervising her.