There is a section of the Surangama sutra called “Instructions For Practice” where Ananda, one of the Buddha’s chief disciples, says that we trainees, Ananda included, in all our confusion and distress, are like a knot and he asks the Buddha to explain how we might untie that knot. Reading this discussion – which is about a bit more then just this aspect of practice – it struck me how one important dimension of doing practice, really is just like untying a knot.
In the discussion, the Buddha takes up a scarf and ties six successive knots in it, “… one on top of the other…”. He says that we are like that scarf and shows that you can’t untie the knot (even though there are six successive knots, since they are tied one on top of another, they look like one knot) just by pulling on either end of the scarf. The Buddha asks Ananda, since you can’t untie the knot by pulling on one end or the other, how would you untie the knot?
Ananda says “… you must pull on the scarf from within each knot. Then they will come undone.”
The Buddha continues by advising Ananda to choose one sense faculty – each of the six knots represents one of the six sense faculties: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind – and work on untying that faculty first. (In the zen tradition, we focus mainly on the sense faculty of the mind.) The Buddha says that because the knots were tied one at a time, they must be untied one at a time and that when we work on untying this knot of the self, we come to understand and develop a deep kind of patience through our application of meditation.
So, there are a few of important points here. First, we as human beings are like a tangle of successive knots; it may just be six, or it may be six hundred – for me it often feels like six hundred – but either way, our project, or, as I say, one dimension of our project, as Dharma practitioners, is to untie those knots.
Second, we can really only untie the knot that is right in front of us. We might be aware that there is some really vexing aspect of our life that causes a lot of difficulty, but we can’t quite get to it: we can only work on what is in front of us right now. Untying the knot in front of us, will help to clarify the knot untying process and help us in the future with the next knot.
Third, in order to untie a knot it doesn’t really help to pull from either end. I think of pulling from either end as either looking for the solution in external circumstances (blaming them?) or through judging ourselves. Instead of pulling from either end, we must pull from the center, we must sit still – sitting still is our powerful way of pulling on the knot – right in the middle of the thing, right as it is arising.
And then fourth, there is the matter of patience. In some of the translations of this sutra, there is a technical phrase “the patient endurance of the uncreate” or anutpattika-dharma-ksanti which can also be described as a deep faith in Unborn reality. This is described as the end result of untying our knots but we also partake of a little bit of that patient faith when we sit still in the midst of our suffering. When we voluntarily decide to accept, sit still in, or pull from the center of, whatever suffering we encounter in our lives, we are giving expression to a little of that patient endurance of the uncreate. We can decide to patiently bear what comes our way and when we do that voluntarily, with even a little brightness, we are giving expression to a little bit of what we aspire towards.
Somehow that voluntarily part is important in this: we have to choose to do this practice. Rev. Master Jiyu used to quote that line, “the Buddhas do but point the way, thou must go alone” and described Buddha Nature as waiting patiently for us to turn toward it. It is excellent, even essential, for us to practice with good friends and teachers; it is mildly ironic that one of the most important characteristics of good Dharma friends and teachers is that they point us back to ourselves. The path of the Dharma is right beneath our own feet and we can walk that path. We don’t have to get a new life, we can learn to patiently work with the life we have been given.
(If you are interested in the whole discussion, it is in chapter 5 section 3 and 4 of the Surangama sutra; I used the Buddhist Text Translation Society version. Also, Dharma Master Sheng Yen has an excellent commentary located here.)