Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Wheel of Ease of the One Vehicle

"Those who cultivate practice by their own realization of the noble path abide in the ease of manifested things and do not abandon skillful means."

This quote comes from the Lankavatara Sutra, or as I like to translate the title, the Sutra of Going Down to Lanka.  The line is from Gunabhadra’s Chinese translation 修行者自覺聖趣現法樂住不捨方便 (T16n0670_p0510b29), and it is found in section LXXXII as the sections have been labeled by convention in the English translations by D.T. Suzuki and Red Pine.

D. T. Suzuki's translation:
[Therefore], the Yogins, while walking in the noble path of self-realisation and abiding in the enjoyment of things as they are, do not abandon working hard and are never frustrated [in their undertakings].
Red Pine's translation:
Therefore the practitioners who cultivate their own realization of Buddha knowledge dwell in the bliss of things as they are and do not abandon their practice.

In the Lankavatara Sutra, this line is a declaration, from the perspective of the One Vehicle, of what spiritual practice is about for the bodhisattva follower of Buddha Dharma. Here, the word "ease" is the Sanskrit term "sukha," the opposite of "duhkha."  Sukha is the ease of riding in a wheeled vehicle such as a wagon, cart, or chariot with a balanced and centered axle-hole, while duhkha is the disturbance, difficulty, sorrow, and suffering of riding in the vehicle with an off-centered and unbalanced axle-hole.

“Living is Duhkha” is the First Noble Truth.  When we initially hear of the Four Noble Truths, with the Third Truth of the Extinction of Duhkha, many of us think that Buddhism is about leaving the world of manifested things altogether behind in order to fall into the bliss of extinction where there is no phenomena appearing at all. Because the First truth is the formula that Life is Duhkha, people believe that the Truth of the Extinction of Duhkha means that life is extinguished.  However, this is a mistaken notion.  This misunderstanding is how Buddhism gets the bad rap of being nihilistic. The extinction spoken of in the Third Truth is the extinction of duhkha, not the extinction of life itself in the ultimate sense of the extinction of all manifestation.  
The truth is that both before and after awakening, we, the living, always abide in manifested things. But before awakening we conceive of life as abiding in the suffering (duhkha) of manifested phenomena, while after awakening we perceive life as abiding in the ease-and-comfort (sukha) of appearing phenomena. What is the difference? When we perceive manifested things with the dualistic filters of cognitive consciousness, such as "good and bad", "right and wrong", etc., then our axle-hole is off kilter and we are in for a bumpy ride. When the axle-hole is centered without the distortions of bifurcated and polarized conceptualizations, then we abide in ease and comfort as we ride through the very same landscape.

To carry the metaphor further, when our axle-hole is unbalanced and off center, then the ride is always bumpy and we can’t tell the difference between the bumpiness of the wheel and the bumpiness of the ground, regardless of whether we are travelling on the road or off-road.  This is the meaning of the truth that Life is Duhkha because our ride is always bumpy and this constant bumpiness becomes a constant stressor because the bumpy duhkha is always present whether the road is smooth or not and we never get to really experience the smooth ride between the bumpy parts of the road.  Because we never experience the smooth road, we believe in the delusion that life is always bumpy since for us it is always bumpy because our axle-hole is off center. This is the meaning of “Life is Suffering” because we are confused about the unnatural distress of our off-centered wheel with the natural bumps in the road of life.

When duhkha is extinguished it means that the axle-hole is centered and balanced and the wheel is turing with the ease of sukha.  When we are “abiding in ease” (sukha-vihara, 樂住) rather than in duhkha, we are able to distinguish when the bumpy is from the ground and not the wheel, then even the bumpy ride experienced differently.  When we have extinguished duhkha and are “abiding in the ease of manifested things” (drsta-dharma-sukha-vihara, 現法樂住) we are able to realize the meaning of Zen Master Yunmen’s saying, “Every day is a good day.”   Every day is good because now we can truly experience the meaning of both smooth and bumpy without the overlay of the constant bumpiness of our off-centered wheel. 

The meaning of “not abandoning skillful means” (不捨方便) refers to the bodhisattva’s vow to not abandon life after the extinction of duhkha but to practice skillful means to assist others to extinguish duhkha.  The first is called nirvana with remainder, while the second is nirvana without remainder.  From the perspective of the bodhisattva’s vow, it is the last remaining part of selfishness to believe that one can extinguish duhkha for oneself alone and not for everyone.  In the Buddha’s awakening, he does not declare that he has realized awakening for himself while others remain unawakened, but that he and all beings are awakened together.  If  “one who cultivates practice” (acarya, 修行者) abandoned skillful means, it would mean that they were abandoning the awakening of others as well, under the deluded view that one person could be awakened without all beings being simultaneously awakened.   The nonabandonment of skillful means is a hallmark of the One Vehicle as also taught in the Lotus Sutra.

The phrase their “own realization of the noble path” (自覺聖趣) occurs eight times in the Lankavatara. The noble path (aryagati, 聖趣) is the path of those who have their own realization of noble knowledge (aryajnana, 自覺聖智). To understand the term noble path we must know the meaning of the worldly six paths (six gati, 六趣) that are the six courses of transmigration on the Wheel of Karma (karmacakra, 業輪). The six paths are how we go through the six worlds in which rebirth takes place: hell, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, titans, and heavenly beings.  The six are sometimes called five paths (五趣) when the titans (asuras) are counted among the ranks of the heavenly beings (devas) as one path.   These paths (gati, alternatively: way, course, going, deportment, arriving at, destination, etc.) are the primary fruit of karma (acts, ).

It is a great and unfortunate misunderstanding about karma to say that everything that happens to us is caused by our own acts, i.e, our karma. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Buddha taught, karma is only one of the handful of factors related to what happens to us. However, the primary result of our karma is the path (gati, destination) that we arrive at on the following turns of the karma wheel of birth and death. If we act like a devil then we will eventually be reborn in hell, if we act like an animal we will be reborn as an animal, and if we act like an angel we will be reborn as a being in heaven (deva). Once we are born in one of the six paths, then the several other factors, of which our karma is only one, act as particular causative forces for what happens to us.  This teaching of how to avoid a rebirth in the realms of hell, hungary ghosts, and animals and how to attain rebirth in the realms of the humans, asuras and heavenly biengs is called the teaching of humans and heavenly beings (sometimes "the teaching of Gods and humans").  What Buddhism adds to this teaching of "reaping what we sow" shared by all religions, is the teaching called the turning of the Wheel of Dharma.

Our turning on the Wheel of Karma is the meaning of duhkha as turning around an off-centered axle-hole, and so another name for the Wheel of Karma is the wheel of suffering (duhkhacakra, 苦輪).  The teaching of the Buddha Dharma is to save us from the predicament we find ourselves in when we realize that we are endlessly turning in the wheel of suffering and this is what we equate with living.  The realization of the Buddha Dharma is called the turning of the Wheel of Dharma and means that we are liberated from the Wheel of Karma, which is liberation from both hell and heaven as well as the other four paths of rebirth.  Whereas the Wheel of Karma is the Wheel of Suffering (duhkha), the Wheel of Dharma is the Wheel of Ease (sukhacakra, 樂輪).  In Zen, this turning of the Wheel of Ease is called "having no no affairs" (無事, Ch. wushi, J. buji).

However, the two Wheels of Karma and Dharma are actually the same wheel.  When the wheel’s axle hole is off center then the turning is called the suffering of karma. When the wheel’s axle hole is centered and balanced then the turning is called the ease of Dharma. This ease of the turning of the Wheel of Dharma is an ease that transcends the dichotomy of ease and unease, because it is the dichotomy view (vikalpa, 妄想) of things that is the false conception at the heart of our suffering and which knocks our turning wheel off center.  This dichotomous view of life stems from the factor of consciousness that the Lankavatara Sutra calls the seventh consciousness or manas.

The manas or 7th consciousness is the aspect of consciousness that bifurcates or polarizes our undifferentiated awareness so that self-consciousness can evolve (pravritti, ).  This process of evolution by dichotomous polarization is how consciousness constructs the reflected image called self in its worldview built from all the bricks and mortar of dualisms like inside-outside, high-low, existence-nonexistence, life-death, good-bad, right-wrong, etc. The process of turning around (paravrtti) our awareness to penetrate this veil of polarization to directly realize the undifferentiated awareness of the storehouse of consciousness (alayavjnana) is the centerpiece of the Lankavatara Sutra and is called one’s own realization of noble knowledge.

By the incalculably long habit of our evolution of consciousness, the Wheel of Karma turns upon the bifurcation of its off center axis.  It is by the turning around of this evolving process (the paravrtti of this pravrtti) that our awareness is able to see through its grasping at its own dichotomously false conceptions to realize that all such dichotomous conceptions are nothing but the discriminations of mind. 

The Lankavatara Sutra teaches that when this turning around is personally realized then consciousness is transformed at its root and is called noble knowledge (aryajnana) or Buddha knowledge (buddhajnana),  because it is no longer confused or deluded by the bifurcation process of consciousness.  When our habitually dichotomous consciousness prevails, then we are turned on and by the Wheel of Karma leading us to rebirth in the six paths, but when we are liberated from the polarization process of our own consciousness and perceive that all discriminations are only mind, then the six paths (gati) are transformed into the noble path (aryagati) and we are not separate from the turning the Wheel of Dharma. 

The Buddha’s One Vehicle can be recognized by the elements in this single sentence.  The One Vehicle teaches that Buddha Dharma is all about our personal realization, not about what we can conceive by reading or hearing teachings, because no matter how refined our conceptions are, they are still based on the bifurcation of false thinking if there is no personal realization. What is realized in our own realization is the noble path of the noble knowledge that everything perceived is only mind and thus we are able to abide in the ease of manifested things as we no longer abide in the wheel of suffering. And because we are abiding in the ease of manifested things instead of retreating from the world of manifested things, we can exercise the Bodhisattva vow of not abandoning the skillful means of relating to others.  


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