Escaping the wheel of Samsara, and why you'd even want to
A central, and controversial, feature of early Buddhism is the doctrine of rebirth. In this article we'll take a look at what it meant in the time of the Buddha, what it means to us now, and how to make sense of it as 21st century practitioners.
The views presented herein are not what would be considered 'orthodox Buddhism' by the majority of practitioners worldwide, and no offence is intended toward anyone with a traditional understanding of rebirth. My aim here is instead to make these teachings accessible to people who don't resonate with classical Indian metaphysics.
The challenge of translating teachings across 2,500 years
Buddhism is a bit of a mixed bag sometimes. Certain aspects of it are clearly perennial and speak to universal human problems - for example, the notion of the impermanent nature of all things, that in the long run we are separated from everything we love and hold dear. Teachings which help us address our existential situation - the evidence of which we can easily see all around us - are clearly valuable.
But then there are bits that need a bit more translation to make sense. The concept of anatta, for example, is a tricky one. Usually you see it translated these days as 'non-self' or 'not-self', and teachers will typically talk about how our sense of self is a kind of illusion. But when we see or hear the word 'self', we tend to view it through the lens of Western psychology, influenced by Freud and Jung, with concepts like ego and id, shadow and Inner Critic. In the time of the Buddha these concepts didn't exist - and, actually, anatta was a rejection of the Indian spiritual doctrine of the 'atta' or 'atman', a kind of 'eternal soul' that was seen as a kind of 'fragment' of the divine Brahman. Indian religion at the time of the Buddha was typically concerned with how to reunite the atman with Brahman and escape the wheel of Samsara; Buddha was pushing back on that notion, by pointing out that, no matter what part of your experience you examine, you can't find this supposedly eternal, unchanging 'atman'. That would have been a striking, challenging statement in the context of a classical Indian spirituality that was built around this concept of atman. But since you and I probably aren't starting out with a clear idea of what the atman is and why it's so important, it isn't obvious why we really need to negate it.
Hence most teachers tend to do a bit of sleight-of-hand, and reinterpret the classical terms in a way that makes sense to modern audiences - while staunch traditionalists point out that by doing so we risk missing the point of what the historical Buddha was actually talking about, because we've 'reinterpreted' his teachings to the point that they no longer bear any resemblance to the origins of the Buddhist path.
With that in mind, let's take another look at that 'wheel of Samsara' that I casually threw in a moment ago.
Cyclic existence and rebirth
Many of the discourses of early Buddhism talk about a process of 'rebirth'. You live, you die, you are reborn in another body as another person. And, because life is suffering (the First Noble Truth), this means that we're doomed to suffer forever and ever. Which sucks. This endless cycle of rebirth into a world of suffering is called Samsara (literally 'wandering'). So what we want to do is escape Samsara and never be born again - which is why practitioners who have reached the third stage of awakening are called 'non-returners', because even if they don't achieve full awakening in this lifetime, they at least won't be reborn into Samsara yet again.
Wait just a second, though. There are a number of problems with this. One is that, if we don't have an eternal atman after all, then what exactly gets reborn from life to life? That's a particularly knotty problem that has troubled Buddhist philosophers for millennia, and led to a variety of creative responses and doctrines, many of which bring back a kind of 'eternal true self' in the form of Buddha Nature.
Leaving aside the philosophy, though, a more obvious objection for modern readers is 'What's so bad about being reborn anyway?' If anything, most of us would be quite happy to be reborn again and again and, effectively, live forever. Wouldn't it be cool to be still around in some form a thousand years from now, go into space and terraform Mars, and so forth?
But this latter objection highlights another crucial way in which our world view is different to that of the classical Buddhists. They saw time as cyclic, whereas we see it as linear.
What does that mean?
Cyclic existence is a pretty alien paradigm to us now (unless you're a fan of the reboot Battlestar Galactica, I guess), but it actually makes a kind of sense if you live in the natural world and observe the fact that everything comes and goes in cycles. In spring, flowers burst forth; in autumn, everything dies off; the following spring, the flowers are 'reborn' and sprout up again. In just the same way, old people die, and new people are born. So we can form a kind of naturalistic picture of the world in which rebirth follows death as naturally and inescapably as death following birth.
Now, when you combine the cyclic nature of existence with the troubling problem of suffering, we end up in a Groundhog Day scenario. We're born into suffering, life is suffering and death is suffering too - and then it happens all over again, basically the same as last time. In this world view, nothing ever really changes - we just suffer over and over and over. Ouch.
We don't think that way. The Western conception of history is shaped by the stories of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) in which things change. Adam and Eve screw up, and are kicked out of the Garden of Eden - never to return. The Israelites escape their slavery in Egypt and travel to the Promised Land - they don't just stay stuck in endless slavery for the rest of time. After you die, you don't come back to Earth for another go-around - you (hopefully) move instead to Heaven, where everything's great, there's no suffering and you live forever.
More conventionally, we talk about 'progress' - moral progress, cultural progress, scientific progress. The whole idea of science, actually, is based on the idea that we can improve and refine our ideas across successive generations of research and innovation. Humanity as a whole changes over time as we learn and grow.
In the context of change and growth - particularly if you see that change and growth as being pointed to or convergent on something better - then why wouldn't you want to be reborn? Right now things might be a bit rubbish but they'll be better in the next life! So the prospect of doing Buddhist practice in order to ensure that we won't be reborn seems pretty weird to us.
So what are we going to do with this? Attempt to convince ourselves that time really is cyclic after all? That's a hard sell - we're so steeped in a different world view that it's extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to retrain ourselves to see things in cyclic terms. Alternatively, we could ignore rebirth completely, as many modern Buddhists do - but then we can't help but squirm or fidget every time we encounter the concept in a discourse or teaching. Is there a third way?
Escape from Samsara in this very life
Many teachers point out that the Buddha often talks about the Eightfold Path as showing the way to liberation in this very life. Not just at the point of death - ahh, no more rebirths, so no more suffering - but even while we're alive. (In Zen you'll sometimes find the imagery of 'dying before your death' as a poetic, if slightly grim, allusion to the same thing.) By looking at the way the Buddha described this liberation, we can see another way of understanding Samsara - this idea of being trapped in an endless cycle - which accords much better with our direct experience, and isn't at odds with our world view.
We've all had the experience of trying to break a bad habit (or form a good one) - and finding it surprisingly hard! No matter how sincerely we want to stop eating unhealthy foods, we find again and again that the habit has taken over our behaviour, and there we are yet again, doing the very thing we said we were going to give up. We find ourselves trapped by ourselves, unable to break out of this recurring loop of behaviour.
The Buddha wanted to know what was going on here - why we do things we don't want to do, why we allow ourselves to be pushed around by our instinctive, habitual reactions to our environment. Why can't we follow through on our intentions? What actually happens in the moment when we lose our presence of mind and fall back into the same old habit yet again? And how can we cultivate that very presence of mind so that we don't lose it in the future?
That investigation, as simple as it sounds, is ultimately what led to the formulation of the Four Noble Truths, one of the most foundational aspects of Buddhism. The Buddha observed four key points:
And so it's precisely through cultivating this presence of mind - more commonly called mindfulness in Buddhist circles - that we can escape the cyclic existence of our habitual reactions, and be liberated from a kind of Samsara in this very life. This reclamation of our autonomy, this process of becoming more fully alive in each moment, is of value to everyone, no matter what we might believe about death, rebirth and the nature of time.
A handful of fingers pointing at the moon
One of Zen's most iconic practices is known by a variety of names - just sitting, shikantaza, Silent Illumination. This week we're going to take a look at how one of the great Zen masters of history, the 12th century Chinese Chan teacher Hongzhi Zhengjue, described Silent Illumination, and how the practice has come down to us today through a variety of different routes, leading to a family of related-but-subtly-different approaches.
Hongzhi's Silent Illumination
Hongzhi lived in the 11th and 12th centuries, and was a contemporary of Dahui Zonggao, another very important Chinese Chan/Zen master who formulated the style of koan practice which is most commonly used in Rinzai Zen lineages these days. Hongzhi didn't invent Silent Illumination (there are arguments that it can be traced back to the historical Buddha), but his conception of the practice has been hugely influential on the schools that came since. (The founder of Japanese Soto Zen, Dogen, refers to Hongzhi in his writings more than any other Zen master apart from Dogen's own teacher.)
Hongzhi describes Silent Illumination in this way (translations taken from Guo Gu's marvellous book Silent Illumination, which I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone interested in this mode of practice):
Sounds pretty nice, doesn't it? But what on earth is he talking about?
Returning to the source
The Silent Illumination that Hongzhi describes is known by many names in different traditions: Buddha Nature, the Ground of Being, primordial awareness (rigpa), mind-essence. If we're coming from a modern, scientific world view, we might instead talk about coming to understand the nature of our conscious experience, seeing how the brain weaves together perceptions of ourselves and the world from the data coming from our senses.
There's a deep paradox at the heart of this kind of teaching. On one hand, we're discovering the fundamental nature of our experience, our basic Buddha Nature. This is something we already have - it isn't something that anyone else can give us or take away from us. But then if we have it already, why isn't it obvious to us? Because the fact is that it isn't obvious to us without practice - if it were, we wouldn't need to practise! Typically speaking, instead of perceiving our Buddha Nature directly, we experience the world very differently, through many layers of identification, contraction and separation.
Before someone has done any practice, it's very common to be identified with our thoughts. We have so many thoughts, all the time, that it seems like we're always thinking - in fact, people often use the terms 'think about' and 'pay attention to' interchangeably, as if they're the same thing. So one of the first discoveries in a meditation practice is that they're not the same at all - we can pay attention to the physical sensations of the breath or the body without thinking about it at all. Thoughts are discrete mental events - mental images, mental talk or sounds, and depending on where you want to draw the line you might include emotions, intentions and so on as well. But all of these are simply events which come and go in our experience, just like the sights and sounds around us. We can pay attention to our experience even in the absence of thought.
The next layer down is the personality - our sense of who we are as people. This is formed at a very early age - notice how adults are always asking children 'What's your favourite food?' or 'What do you want to be when you grow up?', encouraging them to define themselves concretely so that the adult has a better sense of 'who the child is'. And, of course, there's a deep truth to this - we do have very deep, strong patterns in our thoughts, emotions and behaviour which can quite accurately be said to be an important part of who we are. But notice also that who we are changes significantly depending on the situation - who we are at work is not who we are at home, or when visiting our parents, or when hanging out with friends. As we move from situation to situation, we pick up and put down different roles - different aspects of our personality. So this, too, comes and goes - and, through practice, we can find a perspective in which those things are seen to be simply empty constructs of the mind, rather than 'really true' features of reality.
But this exploration can take us deeper still. Even basic features of our experience like time and space turn out to be empty constructs too - techniques that our minds develop to help organise our experience. (Again, you can see this in young children, who haven't yet developed a conventional sense of time or spatiality - they don't have an inner calendar that extends beyond 'now!' or a mental map of the world beyond their immediate surroundings.) And, at the deepest level, even the sense of duality - the clear, obvious difference between this and that, self and other - turns out to be just another mental construction. This is what Hongzhi means when he talks about 'relinquishing external objects'.
But hang on - who wants to go back to the mental state of a newborn infant? That sounds terrible!
Fear not. This practice does not require you to become dependent on a parent to keep you alive. You've already done the work of developing the mental models of time, space and duality; you've developed a sense of who you are as a person, and you've learnt to use your thoughts to solve problems. You aren't going to lose any of that.
What we are going to do, however, is break the stranglehold that these empty concepts have over us. We've seen the world through the lens of thought and conceptuality for so long that we tend to believe everything our thoughts tell us - and with that identification with thought comes a lot of suffering. Once we realise that we aren't our thoughts - they're simply mental events that come and go - negative thoughts lose their power over us, and we don't get so carried away by positive thoughts either. Similarly, as we see the emptiness of the personality, we can let go of our need to 'defend' our sense of who we are against threats and criticism. Ultimately, we can find the peace and beauty that Hongzhi describes.
OK, so how do we do it?
Here's the tricky part. Hongzhi wrote a lot about the experience of Silent Illumination, but he didn't leave much in the way of a method. In fact, at one point in his writings he even says that it can't be 'practised' because it's intrinsically complete. Again, this paradox comes up again and again in spiritual practice - in a sense, there's nothing to do, because you already have it. But - to borrow a phrase from the Tibetan Dzogchen teacher Lama Lena, it will not have been so until you notice it for yourself. So we still have to find a way to practise!
Different teachers have found different ways to point to the same destination. Here are three of my favourites, chosen in part because I like them and in part because of their diverse approaches.
Bankei: pointing out instructions
The Rinzai Zen master Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693) favoured a 'pointing-out' approach, where the teacher attempts to guide the student into an experience of Silent Illumination (which Bankei called 'resting in the Unborn' - compare with Hongzhi's 'This field is where birth and death do not reach'). The primordial awareness that we're trying to experience is always here, it's just 'covered over' by our usual way of using the mind, and so pointing-out instructions invite us to direct our minds in a different way, in the hope that we will notice what was 'behind' our usual perceptions all along.
In particular, it's very helpful to shift the 'centre of gravity' of our experience away from our 'attentional focus' - the 'laser beam' that we use to focus our minds on a specific, dualistic piece of what's going on - and toward our 'panoramic awareness' - the expansive 'floodlight' which effortlessly tracks everything around us at all times, regardless of where we're 'focusing'.
Bankei liked to point to a noise in the environment, such as the caw of a crow - he would point out that, even as his students were listening to his instructions, their 'Unborn' minds effortlessly noticed and identified the crow, without their having to do anything at all. Another approach is to 'spread out the gaze' - to allow the eyes to take in the whole visual field all at once, rather than focusing on whatever object we happen to be looking at. You can also do a similar thing with sounds, by listening to the whole sonic landscape as if it's a symphony, rather than picking out individual sounds.
Once you've noticed what's being pointed to, the rest of the practice is simply learning to rest there - at all times, in all circumstances, in stillness and in activity. (Sounds easy, right?)
You can find more about the Zen take on pointing-out instructions described in Meido Moore's book Hidden Zen. If you don't mind crossing the streams a little bit, the aforementioned Lama Lena has a great Dzogchen video on YouTube which features pointing-out instructions in that tradition.
Dogen: just sitting, no attainment
One possible drawback with the pointing-out approach is that it reinforces the idea that there's 'something to get' that you don't already have. The idea that there's something outside my current experience reinforces the very dualistic mechanism that we're trying to uproot.
The Soto Zen master Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) tended to emphasise a pure 'just sitting'/shikantaza practice - no thought, no analysis, no pointing-out instructions, no tricks or techniques to try to get anything special. Since the mind is already functioning at the base of our experience, there's absolutely nothing that we need to do to make it happen. In fact, anything we try to do just gets in the way.
So, rather than do something specific, we instead do nothing. We just sit - we don't think about anything (Dogen suggests that we 'think the thought of no-thought', which he adds is 'not like thinking' - let me know what you make of that!), we don't do anything, we don't try to make anything happen. Ultimately, the activity of the mind which obscures our view of the Buddha Nature settles down all by itself, and we see it clearly - but not as a result of our efforts.
Dogen even goes as far as to say that practice and enlightenment are the same thing - that there is no enlightenment apart from shikantaza. We just sit, doing nothing, letting our minds function naturally according to their intrinsic Buddha Nature - that's all.
Dogen's approach is exemplified by the Soto school - I'm a fan of teachers such as Brad Warner and Domyo Burk, and I hear good things about Steve Hagen too, but there are plenty of them out there.
Sheng-Yen: the method of no-method
People who are new to Zen practice - and, frankly, many people who've been doing Zen practice for decades - find this style of practice very difficult. It's ungraspable by its very nature. What are you supposed to do when you aren't supposed to do anything? What does it even mean to 'do nothing'? Is it OK to have thoughts - but then, aren't you thinking - isn't that doing something? But isn't stopping thinking doing something too? Aaargh!
The 20th century Chan master Sheng-Yen (1931-2009) was a big fan of this approach to practice, but after working with lay Westerners he realised that telling them to 'just sit' wasn't really working. So he developed a method - a way of approaching this methodless practice. I've written about Sheng-Yen's approach previously (and mentioned some other variations), but in a nutshell, he suggests starting with a firmly embodied approach, taking us out of our whirling minds and settling into our physicality.
We begin with relaxation, sensitising ourselves to our bodily experience and softening as much as we can. Then, we maintain awareness of the body as we continue to sit. This provides a gentle, broad focus for the attention in the early stages of practice. Yes, it's using the attention, and yes, it's a kind of doing, but it provides a vehicle for the mind to settle and become focused. In Sheng-Yen's language, we move from a scattered mind to a focused mind.
As the practice deepens and the mind settles further, we find that the panoramic awareness becomes more prominent in our experience. The practice shifts naturally from 'focusing on body sensations' to 'aware of body and environment together'. Sheng-Yen talks about this as moving from the focused mind to the unified mind. And, finally, as we approach true Silent Illumination, we shift to Sheng-Yen's final stage, 'no-mind' - as described by Hongzhi.
To learn more about Sheng-Yen's approach, his successor Guo Gu's wonderful book Silent Illumination is where I'd suggest you start.
Which approach is the right one?
Whatever works for you! All of the approaches are just means to an end - a handful of fingers pointing at the ungraspable moon of Silent Illumination. Every teacher you'll meet will have a slightly different emphasis, a slightly different sense of what's crucial to realising Silent Illumination, different language and terminology and so forth - but all these are just slightly different routes to the same destination. So don't worry about it too much. If you have a practice already, just keep going. If you don't, try out the practice styles above and see what you like!
Four ways to open the heart, and their evil twins!
Early Buddhism features four heart-opening practices, usually called the Brahmaviharas (which you'll sometimes see translated as Divine Abodes). The same practices also show up in Tibetan Buddhism as the Four Immeasurables. (The topic of heart opening is treated a little differently in Zen, which I'll probably discuss in a future article.) They actually seem to pre-date Buddhism, but are a central part of the early teachings, and an important asset on the meditative path.
I have a page on this website in the Early Buddhism section which describes the basic practice of the Brahmaviharas, so I won't repeat that material here - do check it out if you aren't familiar with them. What I'd like to do in this article is to dig a bit deeper into what the Brahmavihara practices are pointing to - how we, as 21st century people, can understand the sometimes strange and archaic language used to describe them, and how we can potentially miss the mark if we're not careful.
What the Brahmaviharas are and aren't
The Brahmaviharas are four qualities of the heart which can be cultivated through practice: metta (loving kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (resonant joy) and upekkha (equanimity). (See below for more on what these terms mean in practice.)
The key word here is 'cultivate'. These are practices, not moral commandments. The Buddha isn't saying 'you must be kind, compassionate, joyful and equanimous at all times or you're going straight to the Eight Hot Hells'. He's saying that these are good qualities to have - good both for you and for the people around you - and that it's a good thing to take active steps to cultivate those qualities, in just the same way that it's helpful to cultivate calm abiding (samatha) and clear seeing (vipassana).
In particular, it's better not to try to force anything. Don't go around trying to be kind, compassionate and so forth - honestly, it's usually pretty obnoxious when someone decides to make a 'project' out of being compassionate towards you and won't leave you alone until you acknowledge how wonderfully open their heart is. Don't do that.
Instead, look upon the cultivation of these qualities as you would cultivate a garden. You have a certain practice - planting the seeds and watering them - which creates the initial and supporting conditions for the growth and ultimate flourishing of the plants, but you don't make the garden grow through sheer force of will, and it's actively unhelpful to keep digging up the garden to see if the plants have started to grow yet. It's much more effective simply to follow the practice of tending the garden, and let the results take care of themselves.
In the same way, through diligent meditation practice over an extended period of time, these heart qualities will shine forth in a natural, integrated way; you will find your behaviour becoming naturally kinder, more compassionate, more open to the good fortune of others, and more stable and balanced in the face of strong emotions and difficult situations. You don't have to 'force' anything - and in fact it's better not to.
Near enemies of the Brahmaviharas
There's a classic practice manual which is at the heart of Theravada Buddhism (the tradition which developed out of the teachings of early Buddhism) called the Visuddhimagga (literally 'Path of Purification'); the Visuddhimagga is the source for many of the meditation practices which these days are typically attributed to the Buddha himself, since the actual discourses in the Pali canon are generally not enormously detailed in terms of specific practice instructions. By comparison, the Visuddhimagga goes into incredible (and often tedious) detail about every little aspect of practice, so, although it's a bit of a dry read, it can be a very useful sourcebook for fleshing out aspects of the path which are of interest to you.
In the case of the Brahmaviharas, the Visuddhimagga gives us both the traditional practice instructions of using a sequence of people and phrases to evoke each Brahmavihara (as described on my Brahmaviharas page). It also gives us 'near enemies' for each quality.
The 'near enemy' of something is another quality which looks pretty similar, but is different in an important way which subverts the practice. For example, early Buddhism teaches that grasping leads to suffering, and that a kind of detachment towards worldly things can free us from this suffering. But this healthy 'detachment' - in which our sense of wellbeing is not so bound up in factors beyond our control - can easily turn into a kind of indifference or even callousness. My first Zen teacher told a story of a time when his son was very ill; he was understandably very concerned, but a fellow Zen practitioner explained to him rather loftily that 'your problem is too much attachment'. For the avoidance of doubt, this statement - even if it was well-intended - was neither helpful nor compassionate. It was a demonstration not of an appropriate detachment but a near enemy of it.
Now, I took a look at the near enemies of the Brahmaviharas listed in the Visuddhimagga - and, to be honest, some of them were pretty puzzling. I've heard it said that emotions were understood (and perhaps even experienced) differently in the time of the Buddha - we're facing a 2,500-year cultural gap. So, rather than attempt to tease some relevance out of the Visuddhimagga, I'm instead going to walk through each of the Brahmaviharas in turn and try to give a 21st century interpretation of what they are, and how they can become twisted into near enemies.
Of all the Brahmaviharas, this one probably has the most translations, as different teachers try to find ways that don't sound nauseatingly sappy to half their audience whilst retaining enough force to inspire the other half. 'Loving kindness' is the most common translation, and it's the one that I tend to use myself these days, although when I started teaching I would cringe every time I said it and would often simply say 'kindness' instead. (Even today, if I'm talking to a room full of sceptical people, especially men, I'll tend to say 'kindness'.)
Other translations include benevolence, friendliness, well-wishing. From this constellation of terms, we can start to get a sense of what metta is all about. The basic attitude is one of wishing people well - but not because we believe (or assume) that they're not doing well right now. There's no 'corrective' quality to metta. It's more like this: do you like to be happy? You probably do, right? It's a good thing to be happy. And so it would be a good thing for other people to be happy too.
(Credit to my teacher Leigh Brasington for this approach to explaining metta. It's the best I've found, by leaps and bounds.)
The Visuddhimagga says that the near enemy of metta is greed, since 'both share in seeing virtues'. Meh. Personally, I see metta going wrong in a couple of ways.
One near enemy is a kind of 'faux niceness'. The person who always has a sugary compliment handy, often dressed up in 'spiritual' language so you can tell they're 'practising metta'. Such a person also often wants to tell you about all the wonderful things they've done which show off their strongly developed metta. Again, don't do this!
The other near enemy is to become a human doormat - never saying no to anyone. Metta is not about trying to 'like' everyone, and it isn't about being taken advantage of - it's about trying to relate to everyone, including the people we really don't like, with an attitude of kindness. The Thai Forest master Ajahn Sumedho uses the example of a belligerent, drunken person bursting into a meditation hall in the middle of a practice period, causing a ruckus and being generally obnoxious. It would be very difficult to like such a person in that moment - but you can still make the choice to respond with kindness (perhaps ushering the person out of the meditation hall in a tactful manner) rather than responding with cruelty (perhaps shouting, throwing things, mocking or attacking the person).
Pretty much everyone translates this one as 'compassion'. Sometimes you see 'empathy', but this term seems to mean wildly different things to different people (and is sometimes used as a very specific technical term), so I tend to stick with compassion.
The basic attitude of compassion is to recognise that suffering is a universal human experience. I suffer, you do too, and that will continue to be the case until we're dead or attain full, final enlightenment (which seems to be pretty difficult).
Compassion can be difficult to see and understand. Our heart's first, natural reaction to a situation is quickly obscured by the stories we tell ourselves about what's going on. An initial stab of self-compassion is replaced with either a tale of woe ('This isn't supposed to be happening to me!') or perhaps self-criticism ('I deserve this after what I did yesterday...'). But the basic attitude we're looking for is that initial flutter of the heart: this sucks! If metta is about how it's a good thing to be happy, compassion is the recognition that it's a bad thing to be unhappy, whether it's our own unhappiness or that of another.
The Visuddhimagga says that compassion has 'grief based on the home life' as its near enemy. Okaaaaay... There are two other options which - to me - seem much more common and problematic.
One near enemy is what we might call 'pity' - feeling sorry for that person over there, at a distance, perhaps with a subtle undercurrent of 'and I'm glad it isn't me!', or a judgemental quality ('well maybe he wouldn't be homeless if he didn't spend all his money on cigarettes'). True karuna is a recognition that suffering is part of the human condition; that which is in me which suffers is also within you. As our practice matures and the boundaries between self and other soften, we find ourselves responding more and more to 'suffering', as opposed to 'my suffering' or 'your suffering'.
Another near enemy is to allow our own discomfort in the face of someone else's pain to obscure what the situation actually needs. If a friend bursts into tears, we may feel anxious, conflicted or uneasy - and so might try to make the situation go away, telling them to 'cheer up' or distracting them with something irrelevant, not because that's what they need but because it makes us feel better. Sometimes the most compassionate thing we can do is simply to be with someone in their moment of despair, not saying or doing anything at all, but equally not running away or pushing away the situation.
Mudita has almost as many popular translations as metta, but in the case of mudita it's because we don't really have the concept in the English language. Stephen Batchelor has described it as 'the opposite of schadenfreude' - if schadenfreude is taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, mudita could be described as taking pleasure in the good fortune of others.
Personally, I like to look at mudita as the flip side of karuna/compassion. Both have a 'resonant' quality - and, in fact, you'll sometimes see mudita translated as 'resonant joy', 'sympathetic joy' or 'appreciative joy', to emphasise this way in which it emerges in response to something else. So if karuna is the heart's instinctive reaction on encountering suffering - 'oh no, this sucks!' - mudita is the heart's instinctive reaction on encountering joy - 'yay, this is great!'
Again, the initial momentary flicker of mudita is often quickly squashed by stories - 'huh, that person always gets nice things, what am I doing wrong?', 'it's all right for some, isn't it?'. And there are lots of situations that might make a particular person happy which we wouldn't necessarily want to celebrate in this way - if, for example, someone experiences pleasure from hurting others, it seems a little strange to say 'Hooray, the torturer is happy!' (In practice, it's likely that compassion for the victims would be the dominant response in that kind of situation anyway.)
The Visuddhimagga says that the near enemy of mudita is 'joy based on the home life'. Again, meh. In this case, there aren't so many common misunderstandings, because mudita is so rarely taught these days - very often people say they're going to talk about mudita but then just talk about 'joy' in general, as opposed to this 'resonant' heart quality. But perhaps a near enemy might be harbouring a kind of jealous appreciation of others - 'Oh, isn't that nice for you? You're so lucky to have that when so many others don't!'
Equanimity is the usual translation of this one; sometimes you see 'equipoise' instead, but if you didn't know what to make of 'equanimity', 'equipoise' probably won't help much either.
Wikipedia describes equanimity as 'a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind'. (Near enemies of upekkha may be jumping out at you already.)
Equanimity can seem like the odd one out in this list. Loving kindness, compassion and resonant joy are all about experiencing emotions - being touched and moved by the situations we encounter in the world. Yet equanimity seems to be the opposite - being unmoved by what we encounter. Sometimes it can seem like developing equanimity might turn us into emotionless robots or mindless zombies.
But equanimity turns out to be key to the other three Brahmaviharas. Without equanimity, loving kindness can start to shade over into desire and grasping; compassion can quickly overwhelm us with the pain of others; and mudita can turn into a giddy, ungrounded mania. Equanimity is not at all about getting rid of emotions and becoming robotic - on the contrary, equanimity is actually what allows us to feel strong emotions without being swept away by them.
The Visuddhimagga says that 'ignorance' is the near enemy of equanimity, which sounds crazy until you interpret 'ignorance' as 'ignoring' - i.e. consciously turning away. Understood in this way, it's actually pretty good, although I would use the term 'indifference' to describe the mild version of this near enemy, and perhaps 'callousness' for its stronger manifestations. Equanimity gone wrong says 'Who cares?'; equanimity done well gives us the stability to say 'What should we do about this?'
Bringing it all together
Personally, I would say that all four Brahmaviharas represent naturally emergent qualities of an open heart. Loving kindness is the 'default' radiance of a heart which is not bound up in self-centred concerns; compassion and mudita are that heart's natural response to unhappiness and happiness respectively; and equanimity is the stability that holds it all together and allows us to feel these emotions deeply without losing our footing.
Please enjoy your Brahmavihara practice. It's good for you, and it's good for those around you too. What's not to like?
Remembering my teacher's teacher
Last Friday we received the news that Shinzan Miyamae Roshi, teacher of my Zen teacher Daizan Roshi and abbot of Gyokuryuji temple in Japan, passed away.
I never met Shinzan Roshi myself, but his presence is felt in every aspect of the Zenways community, from the calligraphies at the Dojo in London, to the enso in the Zenways logo (seen behind Shinzan Roshi in the picture above), to the teaching curriculum used within Zenways, to the format of the Breakthrough to Zen retreats that Zenways runs throughout the year. Even some of his turns of phrase have made their way into the Zenways lexicon.
So in this week's article I'd like to take a look at the life of this remarkable man, and see what suggestions Shinzan Roshi might have had for our own practice.
(Many of the biographical details given below are taken from Daizan's book Practical Zen, and the Zenways Press book The Zen Character: Life, Art and Teachings of Zen Master Shinzan Miyamae.)
Challenges in lay life and introduction to Zen
Shinzan Roshi was a child during the Second World War. Towards the end of the war, the Japanese education system had largely broken down, and the country began preparing for an Allied invasion. The young Shinzan found himself and a group of other young children taken aside by a teenager with a sharpened bamboo pole, to be given 'lessons' in 'killing Americans'. Then, with the sudden, shocking detonation of the two atomic bombs, the war was over. Abruptly, these young killers-in-training found themselves surrounded by American soldiers who would give the local children sweets and teach them to play baseball. This dramatic reversal had a profound effect on the young Shinzan, who said simply, 'I cried.' From that point onward, Shinzan had an affinity for Westerners, and it is perhaps because of this openness that our lineage exists in the West at all today.
As a young adult, Shinzan was determined to go into business, but unfortunately didn't have much affinity for it. He was a soft touch, never charging enough, never able to make enough money to keep the lights on. Two business ventures failed, the second one taking with it not only his own money but his parents' savings too. In despair, he even tried to commit suicide, but found himself unable to go through with it.
Then, one day, he gave a lift to a Zen nun who had arrived at a train station. He had never been particularly interested in Buddhism, but something about this nun impressed him, and she gave him a small book on Zen called Senshin Roku (On Purifying the Heart). This was his first proper introduction to Zen - and, not long afterwards, he ordained as a monk in the Rinzai Zen tradition.
Shinzan trained with several teachers, most notably the fierce and demanding master Itsugai Roshi at Shogenji temple, a training monastery also known as oni sodo, the 'devil's dojo'. Itsugai was a strong advocate of the central importance of kensho - seeing one's true nature, the first step along the path of awakening in Zen.
Shinzan had to prove himself to Itsugai. At first, he wasn't even allowed to attend sanzen, the interviews/encounters with the teacher which are so central to Rinzai Zen. But Shinzan was determined to experience kensho, and spent as much time as he could meditating. One day Itsugai noticed Shinzan walking back to the temple after a week spent meditating alone in a cave, and this clearly convinced him that Shinzan meant business.
Shinzan was given the 'mu' koan to work with. This famous koan relates an exchange between a monk and the master Joshu/Zhaozhou. The monk asks 'Does a dog have Buddha nature?', and Joshu replies 'Mu', meaning 'no' or 'not'. On the face of it, this seems straightforward enough - except that a central tenet of Buddhism is that all beings have Buddha nature. So why does Joshu reply 'Mu'? What does this negation signify? Itsugai challenged Shinzan to 'Bring me this mu!'
Shinzan threw himself into the practice, and finally, late one night, he went up on the mountain behind Shogenji and shouted 'Mu!' with his whole being. In that moment, something happened. Shinzan would later say, in his simple English, 'I lost myself. After that, many koans, pass, pass, pass.' He had experienced kensho - Shinzan had seen his true nature - and the true world of Zen opened up to him.
Shinzan's controversial stances on kensho and social engagement
Kensho is a beginning rather than an end, and so Shinzan continued to train hard, progressing through the many koans in his lineage. As time went on, however, it became clearer and clearer that Shinzan's interest in awakening was relatively unusual. Many Japanese Zen temples are essentially family businesses which focus largely on conducting expensive funerals, and so many of the people who go to training monasteries like Shogenji have little interest in arduous spiritual training; they're simply there to become qualified as priests in order to take over the running of the family temple.
Shinzan was highly critical of those in the Zen world who lacked authentic insight - and, over the years, this stance ruffled enough feathers that Shinzan ended up outside of the mainstream of Japanese Rinzai Zen. Undeterred, he restored the former hermitage of the great 17th century Rinzai Zen master Bankei, set himself up there and hung a sign at the gate which read 'Training place for young and old people to realise their true nature.'
Kensho remained central to Shinzan's teaching for the rest of his life. His teachings would often begin 'The first priority is kensho. The second priority is kensho. The third priority is kensho.' However, rather than adopting an inflexible, one-size-fits-all curriculum, Shinzan recognised that different people had different needs, and so offered a range of practices to his students, including koan study but also offering Bankei's gentler style of practice, which has a close affinity to the Silent Illumination practice that I've written about on many occasions.
Shinzan was also determined that Zen practitioners should be engaged in the world, not cloistered away from it. (This attitude can be seen reflected in Zenways too - for example, their work with the homeless and imprisoned, some of which you can read about in the beautiful book Rough Waking.) In particular, after the sarin gas attacks instigated by the cult Aum Shinrikyo in the mid-90s, Shinzan worked with the notorious senior cult member Kazuaki Okazaki, a man who had committed terrible crimes in the name of the cult, trying to help Okazaki move beyond the beliefs Aum Shinrikyo had instilled in him. This was a profoundly controversial move at a time when the cult was regarded with deep fear and hatred throughout Japan, but Shinzan persisted nevertheless. Okazaki was ultimately able to move beyond his twisted world view, and became a Zen student of Shinzan's and a gifted artist (contributing a series of images to Rough Waking, mentioned above) until his execution in 2018.
Nari kiru: the heart of Zen
One of Shinzan Roshi's key teachings - and a frequent subject of his calligraphies - is the phrase 'nari kiru'. 'Nari' means 'become', and 'kiru' literally means 'cut off', in the sense of severing all ties. But what does this mean - is Shinzan pointing to a kind of renunciate stance on the world, casting off all worldly ties and retreating to a mountain hermitage?
Actually, it's the opposite, as can be seen from Daizan's preferred translation of nari kiru as 'completely becoming'. Shinzan Roshi is pointing to an attitude of total engagement with whatever situation is at hand. Very often, we're 'only half there' - partly engaged with what we're doing, partly thinking about something else. The nari kiru approach is to drop all distractions, let go of that part of ourselves that wants to think about what we're doing later on or how much we want this current task to be over with, and simply pour 100% of our energy into this, here, now.
Sometimes the Zen approach that Shinzan called nari kiru is described as 'engaging wholeheartedly' with whatever is going on, but a friend recently pointed out that this can make it sound like we're supposed to be enthusiastic about whatever we're doing, and very often in our lives we have to do things that we aren't at all enthusiastic about, so the 'wholehearted' attitude can be hard to find. An alternative suggestion comes from my friend's Zen teacher Domyo Burk, which is to think instead in terms of doing something 'undividedly'. Whatever is happening, we give it our full attention. We don't have to like it or be excited to do it - but we give the task our undivided focus nevertheless. In this way, we become increasingly present, increasingly absorbed in the moment-to-moment reality of our life, less and less distracted, less and less caught up in reactivity. We become free, not just in formal meditation, but in the midst of the very activities that make up our lives.
A final piece of advice from Shinzan Roshi
I'll give Shinzan Roshi the last word. Here is the closing passage from a talk given to his Western students concerning the Sixth Zen Ancestor Eno (Huineng in Chinese) and his fellow practitioner Myo (Huiming in Chinese).
'Soon Myo found his true nature, soon you will too. Please find quickly. You will be very happy and I will be very happy - and the world needs happy, awake people. Your practice is important.'
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.