Overcoming the inner critic with emptiness
The story above, case 6 in the collection of koans known as the Gateless Barrier, represents a pivotal moment in the history of Zen. Sometimes called the 'flower sermon', it is the moment when the first 'transmission' took place - when Kashyapa was formally identified as the Buddha's successor.
We'll talk about lineage and succession more when we get to case 22, in which the Buddha's chief attendant Ananda asks Kashyapa what exactly the Buddha transmitted to him. This week, however, we're going to go in a different direction.
The language of the koan
These koans were written and compiled many hundreds of years after the time of the historical Buddha - the Gateless Barrier was a product of the Chinese Sung dynasty, and is believed to date from the early 13th century CE. By comparison, the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, lived in the 5th century BCE - so we're already talking about a distance of almost two thousand years.
So the koan begins by situating us in time and space - specifically ancient times, and on Spiritual Mountain, which is also known as Vulture Peak. (I must admit, I've only ever heard it called Vulture Peak, so I'm not sure why Thomas Cleary, whose translation I used above, went with Spiritual Mountain instead.) Vulture Peak was one of the historical Buddha's favourite retreat sites, and was located in Rajagaha, modern-day Rajgir. Many of the discourses of early Buddhism mention Vulture Peak, and many of the sutras of the later Mahayana tradition are also set there, including the Lotus Sutra and Heart Sutra.
Next, we have the Buddha's mysterious floral gesture, which we'll get to in a minute. Nobody knows what to make of it, except for one member of the assembly - the 'saint Kashyapa'.
Early Buddhism had four 'ranks' or 'stages' of awakening - stream enterer, once-returner, non-returner, and arahant, literally meaning something like 'deserving' or 'worthy'. In the Pali canon, arahantship is commonly presented as the goal of the spiritual life, when suffering is finally eradicated, and those who become arahants often mark the occasion by uttering the phrase 'Done is what needed to be done.' The term 'saint' is sometimes used in Western translations to refer to arahants, perhaps because it indicates someone of significant religious attainment, although I have to say it's never done much for me!
In any case, the story is presenting Kashyapa as a highly attained practitioner - and clearly he's a cut above the others, because he alone breaks out in a cheeky smile (or perhaps a goofy grin? Who knows) at the Buddha's gesture.
Buddha then teases the other practitioners in the assembly, giving them a long list of all his cool attainments - the treasury of the eye of truth, the ineffable mind of nirvana, the most subtle of teachings on the formlessness of the form of reality - and then indicating that Kashyapa has those things now too. At just such a time, wouldn't you feel a stirring of envy, a sense that 'I want those things too!'
Gimme the goodies!
First, the treasury of the eye of truth. As an aside, those of you familiar with the great Soto Zen master Dogen, who founded the Soto lineage in Japan, are probably well acquainted with his vast and largely impenetrable book Shobogenzo - whose title translates as 'treasury of the eye of truth'. So one approach to discovering this treasury is to read and understand Dogen's works. Good luck - you'll need it!
Really, though, this is a rather grandiose way of saying that Buddha has learnt to see the world in a certain way, free from the obscurations which ordinarily cloud our vision. Another way of saying this, in the language of early Buddhism, is that Buddha has attained Right View. But what is that? Fear not, we'll get to that in a minute.
Next, Buddha talks about the ineffable mind of nirvana. Nirvana is the Sanskrit equivalent of the Pali term Nibbana, and both words literally mean something like 'extinguished', in the sense of a candle whose flame has been blown out. There are many explanations (and, arguably, several different conceptions) of nirvana - one way of looking at it is that the fires of greed, hatred and confusion have been extinguished, and the ineffable mind of nirvana is what remains in their absence, free from reactivity and able to respond effortlessly to whatever circumstances arise. It is ineffable because it can't be said to be like something in particular - it isn't a strategy, or an altered state of consciousness, or a particular theory about how to be in the world. It's simply where we find ourselves when we finally see clearly - in other words, when we have this Right View, this Shobogenzo.
But how do we learn to see clearly? Here the Buddha offers his 'most subtle teachings on the formlessness of the form of reality'. Here the Buddha confirms that the Matrix was right all along - there really is no spoon. This is the famous Buddhist teaching of emptiness.
The story of the nun Vajira
There's a story from early Buddhism (Samyutta Nikaya 5.10) in which a nun named Vajira is sitting in meditation in the spookily-named Dark Forest, when Mara shows up and attempts to scare her into giving up her practice.
Mara is a kind of tricksterish devil figure in early Buddhism who periodically shows up and tries to tempt practitioners away from their course of action. It's common to read Mara literally, but that doesn't always work for modern audiences, and Stephen Batchelor has suggested that, instead, Mara may meaningfully be taken to represent our inner voices of criticism and doubt.
Let's see what Mara says to Vajira:
Then Mara the Wicked, wanting to make the nun Vajira feel fear, terror and goosebumps, wanting to make her fall away from samadhi, went up to her and addressed her in verse:
Who created this sentient being?
Where is its maker?
Where has the being arisen?
And where does it cease?
These are some of the Big Questions - who created all of this, and where are they hiding? Where did my eternal soul come from, and what happens to it when I die?
Now, Buddhism usually recommends avoiding grand metaphysical questions, in favour of examining our own state right here in this very moment. But this kind of metaphysical speculation was very common in the time of the Buddha, and one could easily imagine a practitioner in the Buddha's assembly wondering from time to time if they were missing out on something vitally important, following a teacher who dismissed these huge questions that the other teachers of the day focused on so much. (FOMO isn't just a modern phenomenon!)
However, Vajira is a good practitioner, and she's sufficiently on the ball not to fall for Mara's tricks. Instead, she quickly recognises what's going on, and thinks to herself:
This is Mara the Wicked, wanting to make me feel fear, terror, and goosebumps, wanting to make me fall away from immersion!
Here we see a key benefit of a well-developed mindfulness practice - when unhelpful, parasitic trains of thought start to spin up in our minds, we learn to see them coming and dodge out of the way, rather than getting sucked in.
Then she replies:
'Why do you believe there's such a thing as a "sentient being"?
Mara, is this your theory?
This is just a pile of conditions,
you won't find a sentient being here.
When the parts are assembled
we use the word "chariot".
So too, when the aggregates are present
"sentient being" is the convention we use.
Vajira understands the Buddha's 'most subtle teachings on the formlessness of the form of reality', and as a result she knows that asking questions about entities like eternal souls is a waste of time. As a result, she dismisses Mara's promptings, with the following result:
Then Mara the Wicked, thinking 'The nun Vajira knows me!', miserable and sad, vanished right there.
Poor old Mara.
OK, so we've traded one difficult story (the koan) for another (the sutta). But stay with me, I promise it's all related.
How is Vajira able to dismiss Mara's questions? Because she has attained Right View - she has learnt to see things clearly. In particular, she knows who she really is - and as a result knows that she isn't the kind of 'thing' that Mara's questions are aimed at. Mara wants her to worry about where her eternal soul came from, where it's going after her body dies, who created it, and all that stuff. In other words, Mara is presupposing that there's some kind of fixed, permanent, essential 'Vajira' which we can ask questions about. In the time of the historical Buddha, it was widely supposed that we each had an atman, an eternal soul, which was on a journey from life and life through the endless cycle of rebirth, and so it was quite reasonable to ask questions about it and speculate about its fate in future lives.
Buddhism suggests a different approach, based on observation. Buddha invites us to look at the components that make us up - just as a chariot is made of parts, such as wheels, an axle, and so forth. Honestly, I don't know a lot about chariots, so let's use the example of a car instead. A car has wheels and tyres, doors, seats, an engine and all sorts of other bits. When all of these parts come together, we say we have a car. When those parts disperse and end up thrown into a disarrayed heap in a scrapyard, we don't have a car any more. So where did the car go? Moreover, the car seems to be able to withstand a certain amount of change in the parts - when you replace a tyre, you probably don't feel that you have an entirely new car. But if you take away all the parts, there's nothing left, and certainly no car. So, again, what exactly is the car? We clearly have a car - we can get in it and drive it around - but you can't put your finger on a specific part which is 'the car'.
When we're talking about cars and chariots, maybe this is kinda curious, but there's a big 'so what?' factor for most people. But stay with me, because this kind of analysis becomes truly powerful when applied to the self.
Vajira says that 'when the aggregates are present' we talk about sentient beings. The Five Aggregates are a way of describing the parts that go together to make up a person. We have:
Now, this list is offered as a suggested starting point. It works for me, but maybe for you there's an all-important sixth bucket of experience that's missing. That's fine - you can have six aggregates if you want, or twenty. The point really is first to convince yourself that each of these aggregates is in some sense part of who you are, and second to convince yourself that there isn't some other secret part left out of the list.
Once we have a list of aggregates we're happy with, we can apply the same analysis as we did with the car. When all of these parts are present, we can say that there's a person. When the parts are dispersed or missing, we don't really have a person any more. So where did the person go?
Moreover, just as you can change the tyres on a car, notice that each of the aggregates can change. Our bodies visibly change over time. As we grow older, we tend to find sweet things less pleasant and other flavours more pleasant. As we learn, we gain new concepts - and forget others. Time and experience changes our inclinations and attitudes. And consciousness comes and goes every day, at least when we're sleeping well. So where's the person? As with the car, it isn't that you don't exist at all - if I believed that, I wouldn't have much motivation to write this article - but you're likely to find that it's very hard to put your finger on exactly where this 'you', which seems so obvious and self-evident, actually is. Can you actually find it, or is it simply a kind of optical illusion?
Analytical meditation on emptiness of self
The following exercise is stolen wholesale from Rob Burbea's excellent book Seeing That Frees, although it's a traditional meditation that can be found in many sources.
Given the aggregates as a satisfactory list of 'parts' of the self, we can then look for this 'self' in various places, and ultimately discover that it cannot be found in the way that we might imagine. And in the process, we can find out who we really are.
Here are seven possibilities we can explore in our attempt to find the self in relation to the aggregates - and, again, feel free to add and explore more possibilities if you don't think this list is complete!
To do this, set yourself up in meditation and maybe spend a few minutes settling the mind. Then take each of these questions in turn, exploring them deeply in whatever manner you like, until you're totally convinced that a fixed, unchanging, identifiable 'self' is not to be found in the way that's being proposed.
The all-important 'so what'
It's not too difficult to get a kind of intellectual sense of the emptiness of the self, but we need to spend time with this, really thoroughly convincing ourselves, going past the level of 'mere philosophy' until it touches us on a deep, visceral level. Because when you really grasp the emptiness of self, it changes your experience of yourself in very important ways.
Consider the following negative thoughts, which so many of us are prone to:
'I'm not good enough.'
'They don't like me.'
'I don't deserve this.'
'Will I ever be happy?'
'Why is this happening to me?'
All of these thoughts - all of these whispers of Mara - presuppose a solid, fixed 'me' at the centre of the story. When we know beyond doubt that that simply isn't how things work, we can make the same move Vajira did - and Mara, miserable and sad, will vanish right there and then. When we see the world as it is - constantly in motion, dynamic, alive and beautiful - you might even find yourself smiling along with Kashyapa the Elder.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!