(Follow this link to see the May 2021 Priory Newsletter where this was published.)
Bodhidharma’s “Outline of Practice” starts by saying that we can either enter the Dharma by “reason” or “practice.” Last time I talked mostly about the entry by reason and what that might mean. Entry by “reason” is more like entry by “just letting go of everything,” by giving oneself wholeheartedly over to the mind of zazen. D.T. Suzuki’s translation concludes this section with:
“He will not then be a slave to words, for he is in silent communion with the Reason itself, free from conceptual discrimination; he is serene and not-acting. This is called Entrance by Reason.”
Before we move on to the next section, I want to point out what “not-acting” means, since it relates to the mind of meditation and not necessarily directly to action in the world. Not-acting, in the sense of meditation, refers to the activity the mind undertakes to either push away or grasp after some thing or sensation or thought. Keizan says that in meditation there is “no need to activate body, no need to activate mind.” When we grasp or push away, we are activating the mind or body: we can learn, through practicing the Buddhadharma. to find this serene place of “not activating” body or mind, the place of “not-acting.”
As we begin to look at the next section, it is useful to note that these two means of entry are not really separate and to note that they intertwine with each other. The next section begins with (and, again, I am using the Red Pine translation):
“To enter by practice refers to four all-inclusive practices: Suffering injustice, adapting to conditions, seeking nothing, and practicing the Dharma.
First, suffering injustice. When those who search for the Path encounter adversity, they should think to themselves, “In Countless ages gone by, I’ve turned from the essential to the trivial and wandered through all manner of existence, often angry without cause and guilty of numberless transgressions. Now, though I do no wrong, I’m punished by my past. Neither gods nor men can foresee when an evil deed will bear its fruit. I accept it with an open heart and without complaint of injustice. The sutras say “when you meet with adversity don’t be upset because it makes sense.” With such understanding you’re in harmony with reason. And by suffering injustice you enter the Path.”
We enter the life of the Dharma by practice when we study our minds and try our best to adhere to these four practices. There is a verse that encapsulates these four practices from a song we sing at the festival ceremony in memory of Bodhidharma that goes:
Acceptance of suffering
The seeking of nothing
These four practices correspond to the Buddha’s four noble truths: the truth that suffering exists; the truth that there is a cause of suffering; the truth that there is a cessation of suffering; and the truth that there is a way, a means, to take steps to find the cessation of suffering.
So, the first practice: suffering injustice. Suffering injustice, or the acceptance of suffering, is a very difficult thing to practice on the ground, in an instance by instance way, in our actual life. It is one thing to accept that there is suffering “out there” in a general way, but when it comes right down to it, when we ourselves are in the midst of specific suffering, it is another matter to accept, with an open heart and without complaint, the suffering that we are experiencing. Bodhidharma’s advice for those [of us] who search for the Path, when we encounter adversity, is to accept responsibility for it: this is not usually our first reaction. Instead of thinking, “this adversity makes sense,” we think “this must be someone else’s fault; I am a good person, or at least a not very bad person, so that other person over there, if they would just be kinder or wiser or more skillful, then my life would be ok.”
(Before I continue, I want to emphasize that taking responsibility, in the way that the Dharma teaches and that Bodhidharma is talking about, is not about blaming or judging ourselves. I will talk about this in more detail below, but I wanted to say this at this point to highlight that there is a different way of understanding taking responsibility in the realm of Dharma practice.)
The reality is, as long as we are in this world, we will only encounter other limited human beings. These other human beings, no matter how enlightened they are or what fine characteristics they have, cannot take away or prevent our suffering; they cannot prevent or take away the consequences of our choices. Also, they cannot do the work of finding enlightenment for us; if we want to know what the Buddha knew, for ourselves, we will have to go there on our own. “The Buddhas do but point the way.”
This practice of suffering injustice is very difficult and, for myself, it often takes at least a few tries to get to it; it is difficult, but it can be done.
While this teaching is pretty simple (if there is suffering in me, I can take responsibility for it, I can accept it), there are some obstacles to it and people of our era have a very difficult time with it. One obstacle to taking on this practice is that we are trained by worldly influences to look outside of ourselves for the source of our suffering. When we hear this teaching about suffering injustice, we jump to the conclusion that having this attitude (that we can take responsibility for our suffering and its cause within us) means that other people’s wrong actions are then somehow justified and we should somehow capitulate to their wrong actions. We can think that we are being told that it is the victim’s fault; this is not it at all.
I look at this teaching as if it were just for me, as if it were the medicine only for what is going on in my own mind. The matter of the wrongness or rightness of another person’s actions and how to respond to them is a different question; from the point of view of Dharma practice, an important but secondary question. Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett taught that Buddhism is a religion for spiritual adults, for people who take responsibility for their own suffering. At some point, we might need – it might be essential – for us to ask the question, “how do I respond to the harmful actions of another person?” This first step of taking responsibility for our own suffering, helps immeasurably in clarifying this other question: right now, how can I accept… with an open heart and without complaint of injustice the suffering that is arising in me? Far from enfeebling me, this acceptance of my own responsibility is profoundly empowering and makes clear that my peace of mind is not dependent on another person’s delusion or enlightenment. Taking responsibility may actually lead us to the necessity of speaking out, and gives us the grounding to do so effectively.
Another thing that can get in the way of our practicing the acceptance of suffering is that sometimes a thing happens to us that is not the direct result of a mistake that we have made. Taking responsibility in this kind of case is simply to continue the training of our mind and to do the work needed to let go of duality and practice compassion; taking responsibility in this kind of case is to accept that in this world, sometimes bad things happen and we may not see the reason why. Training the mind in this way does not stand in the way of taking steps to hold another accountable if that avenue is open to us and seems good; taking responsibility just cuts the entangling tie between us and another person who has caused us harm.
One thing that is very important to remember when training our minds to take responsibility is that Buddhism and the Buddha have no interest in judging us. When we make a mistake, subtle or coarse, on the spiritual level, we feel the consequences of it; what we feel will vary depending on what we have done, but we will feel it. If we don’t feel it now, we will feel it later. It is said that the law of cause and effect on the spiritual level has no law-giver. That we receive negative consequences for negative actions is not the result of some other being’s judgement, it is the law of cause and effect. This is equally true of positive actions and thus, we can freely give compassion, forgiveness, kindness and forbearance even to those who have not “earned” it from some worldly point of view.
This is true for every being in existence.
One of the things that we might feel is a sense of shame for doing a thing that we sort of knew better than to do. Maybe a little bit of this shame is warranted or normal, but we all too often turn it into a feeling of judged guilt and a sense that our mistake is evidence that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. This extra judging is like pouring salt on a wound and is another level of mistake that we can learn to not do. This extra shame and judging can also get in the way of our practicing the acceptance of suffering.
When we are plagued by this this extra suffering caused by being judged, either by our own selves or by someone else, being accepted by another is such a relief, that we can think that suffering will stop when we stop the judging (mostly, we think, when we get others to stop judging us). Of course, if we were to stop judging each other, a lot of suffering would go away, but, there is still the matter of accepting the consequences of the thing that started us down the path of judging. There are many things in life that, through our pettiness and ignorance, we judge ourselves and others for, that are completely irrelevant to our spiritual peace: it matters not one whit what color, sex, sexual orientation, weight, level of intelligence, state of health, or whole host of other characteristics we might have are, and, to our great relief and the relief of others, we can just let go of judging those things.
But our suffering does not stop here with this judging or not judging. The Buddhadharma invites us to look into our lives more deeply to see how we are acting now, and have acted in the past, on greed, hatred and ignorance – including the ignorance of getting all entangled in the discriminative or judgmental mind. When we take refuge in the Three Treasures, we are, in effect asking them: how do I create suffering and how can I stop it? Because we are configured as we are, with the kind of minds that we have, the answer to that question will often arise as something like “do this, not that.” Practice acceptance, don’t be judgmental. Take responsibility, don’t blame others for our suffering. Practice letting go and giving, don’t insist on getting your own way without considering the effects. Practice loving-kindness, don’t be angry. It doesn’t really work to just practice the positive things if we do not recognize that we are also doing the negative things. We need to recognize the negative things and stop doing them.
Because of this “do this, not that” quality, when our friends and loved ones, or the sangha and our teachers, or just life itself, points out to us that we are pursuing actions, thoughts or behavior that create suffering, we can feel judged and this can be deeply painful. Sadly, it seems to be the case that if one of our characteristic habits of mind is the habit of being harshly critical of others, then this feeling of being judged can be profoundly amplified (I know this from bitter personal experience).
When we try to accept suffering, we can feel a kind of discouragement or despair: we see that we have some suffering but do not yet see what we can do to work with it, what we can do to change it. We might even believe that we can do nothing about it, because we have “always been this way.”
But by taking Bodhidharma’s advice to accept [suffering] because it makes sense, and wholeheartedly taking refuge in the mind of meditation, we put ourselves into the best possible place to apply the other aspects of the Buddhadharma which in turn helps us to make sense of the suffering. We can let go of fear or downward looking despair in the confidence that the Buddhadharma is a reliable help for us. We don’t have to despair because the acceptance of suffering is a means of entering the path, the path to dealing with our suffering in a real way.
To be continued ….