Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Why Do We Prefer Pictures of Placid Nature As Images of Spirituality?

For images of spiritual inspiration and realization we tend toward scenes of calm and placid nature: blooming plum trees, ocean or mountain vistas, mushrooms sprouting in the moist mulch, birds soaring in the empty sky, etc. Why? Why not scenes of hurricanes, tsunamis, rivers flooding their banks, tornadoes ripping up the landscape, etc. since these must also represent spirituality? Nature has plenty of death and destruction that goes along with the placid. Isn't this preference for the placid a variation of the "God is good" feeling that just doesn't quite know how to deal with the absolute also being the source of the bad, the delusional, and the unreal?

In Buddhism this dilemma has historically come out in the debate over whether emptiness, the alaya-vijnana (eighth consciousness), or Tathagatagarbha are the source or fountainhead of both the "true" and the "false" or whether is it somehow so undefiled in its undiscriminated state that it can only be called the source for the pure and the good while false thinking and afflictions do not have their root in the emptiness of the alaya. Zen has traditionally gone along with the analysis found in the treatise called the Discourse on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana in which the true suchness of the one mind-nature is seen as the non-dual source of all dharmas, both real and unreal, both true and false. In other words, if the good and pure have their origin in the unborn nondual reality then so do the bad and the defiled. In the Christian frame of reference this is the recognition that God is the creator of both the good and the evil in the world. Bearing this ambiguity in mind is very difficult for most people and becomes “mind blowing.”

But as I see it, there is an underlying reason why we naturally lean toward placid pictures of nature as the representative images of our own true nature just as Christians are naturally biased toward assigning the "good" to God. It is difficult to put into words, but while the absolute is, in itself, non-dual and is the common ground of both poles of such polarities as peace and rage, creation and destruction, the true and the false, etc. as this non-dual reality appears to our awareness as a memory or intuition within the context of our dualistic discrimination it is the images of calm and unperturbed shining or brightness that most resonate with our memory or intuition of the vital presence of our own true nature. We know intellectually that our own nature encompasses both sides of any opposition, but our feeling is that one side is more representative of the absolute nature of reality while the other side is more representative of the relative nature of reality.

But even the bifurcation of the nature of reality into absolute and relative is already a post-discrimination polarity. And it is because this bifurcation is the underlying fact of our ability even to have post-discrimination consciousness, that we naturally, naively, and comfortably identify the absolute nature of reality as calm, peaceful, silent, pure, undefiled, good, shining, brightness while we associate relative reality as chaotic, noisy, defiled, bad, delusional, dark, etc. However, in order to see our true nature for ourselves as one tastes the ocean for oneself to know its saltiness, we have to let go of our tendency of polarizing and discriminating everything into categories of good and evil, calm and chaotic, silent and noisy, etc., and directly realize our pre-discrimination awareness.

And here’s where the mystery comes up: when we realize our non-discriminating awareness there is absolutely nothing realized and no one realizing anything, but awareness still functions and in that functioning again discriminates and in that discrimination we look back in remembrance upon that undiscriminated awareness as if it were clear, calm, silent, brightness, when in actuality it had in itself neither those characteristics nor their opposites. But in our post-discrimination awareness it just makes sense to characterize our sense of non-discriminating awareness that way.

This inescapability of our polarizing tendency of consciousness is brought to the foreground in the Zen koan called “The Buffalo Passing Through the Window” that is Case 38 of the Gateless Checkpoint (Ch. Wumen Guan, J. Mumonkan) collection of koans. It goes like this:

Wuzu said, "For instance, a water buffalo passes through the latticed window; the head, horns, and four hoofs all pass through completely. What is the reason the tail is not able to pass through?”

No matter how much we think or imagine that we are all the way and completely on one side of a polarity, there is always a bit on the other side. No matter how much we may think we are good, there is always a bit of bad left in us. No matter how much we may think we are bad, there is always a bit of good left in us. No matter how much we think there is light, there is a bit of dark remaining. No matter how much we think there is darkness, there is a bit of light remaining. But even if we intellectually understand this aspect of the mutual connection of the opposites so that the tail can never pass through in the world of the relative, we may still imagine a world of the absolute where our water buffalo can completely pass through the window.

When we realize the pre-discrimination awareness that is the falling away of body and mind, we may imagine that we have gone completely through the window, including the tail, into realizing the unborn, but lo and behold, the tail has still not gone through as demonstrated by our awareness once again flowing in the direction of discrimination and we “return” to the realm of relative discriminations as if the buffalo’s entire body has flowed back into its tail turning itself inside out. Yet no matter how much we may then think we have completely come into the world of relative discrimination, still our tail remains within the non-discriminating awareness that is the unconscious emptiness of our Buddha Nature that makes conscious discrimination possible.

So as we look at this world of things, if our awareness discriminates things as objects, we have gone through the window in one direction, but still our tail of non-discriminating awareness has not entered into discrimination otherwise there would be no cycles of transformation and every object would be eternally fixed in one form and no life could occur. And as we are able to look at things as completely empty of self-nature with our realization of the bright shinning non-dual awareness, we have gone through the window in the opposite direction, but still our tail, now of discriminating awareness, has not gone through and entered into non-discrimination, otherwise there would be no form at all and so no transformation, and no life could occur.

It is the genius of Zen that the presentation of the Buddha Dharma in volumes of words in the Avatamsaka (Huayen) Sutra, and in the many treatises on that sutra, describing the mutual interpenetration of the absolute (emptiness) and the relative (form) and the mutual interpenetration of all phenomenal forms, is presented in a pithy koan of two sentences through the image of the water buffalo passing through the window and asking what is the reason the tail can not pass through?

In Zen, we recognize that no matter how much we may aspire to present the realization of true suchness within a placid image of nature such as the serene Zen garden, we have not completely captured the true suchness of our mind’s nature within the image any more than the water buffalo has completely gone through the latticed window. And even with the recognition that both the serenity of nature and the howling destructiveness of nature equally represent the realization of true suchness, still the water buffalo’s tail has not completely gone through the window. No matter what image we may have, still the water buffalo does not go completely through the window. What enormous horns that water buffalo has, what a big head, what gigantic shoulders, what great hooves, and what a huge body, but that little tail, it makes all the difference swishing with life!

No comments: