More Meditations

Transcending suffering and karma

Bodhidharma makes clear
that causes within this world cannot produce effects outside it; the Absolute
can only conceivably be reached independently of the relative. Thus, the key to
overcoming suffering and its underlying bad karma is not to be found in external
rituals and deeds aimed at merit, but through an internal change of mind.

He insists that
“invoking buddhas, reciting sutras, making offerings observing precepts,
practicing devotions, or doing good works” are useless; only by “seeing
[your buddha-] nature” can you “attain enlightenment”. As he explains:

you attain anything at all, it’s conditional, it’s karmic. It results in
[i.e. reward or
punishment]. It turns the Wheel [of karma]… Unless you see your
nature, all this talk about cause and effect
[i.e. acquiring religious
merit] is nonsense. (P. 17.)

Thus, Zen meditation is not a
way to change something, to annul our bad karma and its consequent suffering,
but a way to awaken us to something that is already ever-present, something
beyond karma, i.e. our “buddha-nature”. This is liberating, for:

Once a
person realizes his original nature, he stops creating karma
(p. 41). That
which is truly so, the indestructible, passionless dharma-self, remains forever
free of the world’s afflictions
(p. 93).

It follows that: “The essence
of the Way is detachment” (p. 47). In his Outline of Practice[1],
Bodhidharma describes how this spiritual path is treaded. He refers to “reason
and practice”. By reason, he means meditations that “turn from delusion back
to reality”; while by practice, he means: “suffering injustice, adapting to
conditions, seeking nothing and practicing the Dharma” (p. 3)[2].
All four of these practices are about detachment, or non-attachment.

Suffering injustice”: when you encounter some hardship
that seems unfair to you, tell yourself that somewhere in your history (it does
not matter just where) you must have deserved it somehow. In this way, you
neutralize the suffering that believing you are being unjustly treated gives.
You transcend the academic and fatiguing issue of justice or injustice, and
remain internally unaffected by relatively external circumstances.[3]

Adapting to conditions”: this does not refer to
external adaptations to conditions, but again to an attitude of willingness to
make do with any currently existing conditions or eventual changes of
conditions. In this way, one is not at the mercy of favorable or unfavorable
circumstances, but remains at all times mentally (i.e. more precisely,
spiritually) prepared for and able to cope with whatever life dishes out.

Seeking nothing”: is a virtue based on the realization
that you open yourself to negative experiences when you are dependent on
positive experiences. Everything in this world that appears desirable comes
together with other things that are undesirable. You may for a while find
satisfaction in certain people or possessions; but sooner or later, these will
turn into less pleasant experiences, since all things are impermanent. All data
considered, it is more pleasant to remain aloof and serene.

Practicing the Dharma”: seems to refer to altruistic
attitudes and acts. But even here, non-attachment is stressed, in order that
egoism or egotism does not result from them. The aim is to transcend the
distinction between self and other, to work for the good of all.

Thus, these four practices can
be described as different forms of non-attachment. Not getting worked up over
one’s supposed deserts; not preferring this to that, but being well able to
deal with whatever comes; not pursuing sundry material and social things,
thinking foolishly that one will find happiness by such means; and, on the
positive side, being helpful to others.

Non-attachment saves one and all
from suffering. It is attachment that ties us to karma and causes us to suffer;
by non-attachment we immediately transcend this finite world and get to live our
life from the infinite perspective of our buddha-nature (i.e. in nirvana). This
buddha-nature is, of course, empty “like space”[4].

This essay is
also reproduced (differently translated) in D.T. Suzuki’s First Series of
Essays on Zen Buddhism (pp. 180-183), under the name “Meditation on Four
Acts”. Suzuki considers it probable that this essay was indeed written by
the master. Moreover (pp. 183-186), he shows clearly how it was derived,
sometimes word for word, from the earlier Vajrasamadhi Sutra. But he
goes on to show the novelty in Bodhidharma’s presentation, which made the
latter’s version a specifically Zen document.

At first sight these “four all-inclusive practices” seem intended
to parallel the Buddha’s “four noble truths”, viz. the fact of
suffering (i.e. that existence is suffering), the cause of suffering (it is
due to attachment), the cure of suffering (removing the cause, becoming
unattached), and the way to the cure (the prescribed eightfold noble path).
But while the two sets are obviously associated, they are not identical. The
Buddha’s foursome consists of three descriptive items and one prescriptive
item; whereas, Bodhidharma list is altogether prescriptive (with three
negatives and one positive).

Note that I (unlike Bodhidharma) do not believe that universal
justice necessarily exists. I agree however that one should strive to be as
indifferent to the issue of justice as one can, because to get locked up in
such concerns is definitely a spiritual retardant. Notwithstanding, the
pragmatic wisdom of unconcern with justice for oneself ought not be taken to
imply that one should be indifferent to justice for others. The
latter concern would fall under the fourth heading here, that of
“practicing the Dharma”. One should obviously neither afflict other
people with unjust acts, nor (as far as possible within one’s power) allow
third parties to so afflict them.

P. 43.

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