Delivered at the 2012 Universalist Convocation at Murray Grove
Lanoka Harbor, New Jersey
19 May, 2012
James Ishmael Ford
Let me start with an anecdote, a conversation between two old hands on the Zen way collected in the twelfth century Chinese spiritual anthology, the Blue Cliff Record as case eighty-nine. Joan Sutherland and John Tarrant’s translation.
Yunyan asked Daowu, “How does the Bodhisattva Guanyin use those many hands and eyes?” Daowu answered, “It is like someone in the middle of the night reaching behind her head for the pillow.” Yunyan said, “I understand.” Daowu asked, “How do you understand it?” Yunyan said, “All over the body are hands and eyes.” Daowu said, “That is very well expressed, but it is only eight-tenths of the answer.” Yunyan said, “How would you say it, elder brother?” Daowu said, “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.”
I’ll return to this in a minute or two.
I’ve been asked to address Buddhism’s universalism.
I’m honored, but also daunted. As with all the great world religions that have been around a while, and Buddhism was first expounded by its founder some five hundred years before the birth of Jesus, giving theologians a lot of time to argue over points fine and large, as well as introduce a wrinkle or two, there isn’t one view of what Buddhism is.
Even the lauded and justly so, four noble truths of universal hurt, of how that hurt arises though grasping after that which is in flux as if it were permanent, of the proclamation of a healing perspective, and a path to find it including a sustained discipline of presence, insight into our deep connections and a commitment to a life of harmony with what is, find different Buddhists concerned with different issues, emphasizing this or that.
There are two, and from some perspectives three distinct families of Buddhist thought in our contemporary world, the Way of the Elders, the Great Vehicle, and some break out from the Great Vehicle, the Diamond Way. Each of these blessed with numerous sub-schools.
But I will assert all are universalist in the sense that all teach a universal reconciliation, and a belief no one is left behind. But just what that means and when is different for different Buddhists.
So, I belong to a subset of the Great Vehicle school that formed in China and is in part influenced by another Chinese religion, Taoism. It is called Zen. Zen means meditation and so it is a Buddhist school devoted to a small cluster of meditation disciplines. Further more my study has been within the Japanese variation of that school, through attention to both its major subsets, Soto and Rinzai. Meaning I represent a hybrid third force of Japanese derived Zen that has been Westernizing, Americanizing for a little more than half a century. I also come here from what is probably best described as the liberal wing of Zen, that is I am agnostic, in fact leaning strongly against believing a central assertion of world Buddhism, that the conditions created within an individual’s life result in the formation of a specific new life. So, I know jargon laden, but for those with some sense of Buddhism’s scope, having set where precisely I stand within the Buddhist world, it is from that specific Buddhist perspective that I can share some thoughts with everyone here today.
Within the Zen that I practice we have two disciplines. The one may be summarized as sit down, shut up, and pay attention. Its technical name is shikantaza, usually translated as just sitting, but sometimes more poetically as silent illumination. I believe it is the universal solvent of the spiritual life. It is extraordinarily difficult to just sit down, to just shut up, and most of all, to just pay attention.
So, another discipline, koan introspection, has arisen within Zen. And for me it is joined with silent illumination as the heart of my life. It traces to early medieval China, and probably starts with a Taoist drinking game, repurposed as a formal spiritual discipline. The word koan translates as “public case,” as in a legal document. It is a brief anecdote, often turning on a conversation between two Zen teachers, or a teacher and a student, maybe a fragment from classical literature or folklore or maybe even a poem.
What all koans share is a stance about reality, about who and what we really are, together with an invitation for the student of the Zen way to appreciate and express that reality. It really isn’t all that difficult. There are only two premises. And they are expressed most succinctly, I feel, in one of the Great Vehicle sacred texts, the Heart Sutra, as “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” If that isn’t clear the sutra expands, “form is exactly emptiness and emptiness is exactly form.”
Form is the world we live in, where you and I are discrete, and our actions have consequences, where all actions have consequences. But, at the same time, the very same time, something else is there, too: empty unity. We can see what this empty unity is from a number of angles. One way is as the sum total of all actions, where we, you and I and every other discrete thing are joined within a web of relationships. Another is from the bare assertion there is no essence to anything, we, again, you and I every other discrete thing are all empty, or perhaps it is better to say, we are all boundless.
One way of expressing how this comes together that one of my teacher’s teachers liked to use, drawing upon a bad math analogy was to suggest each of us, you me, a cockroach, a star, are the numerator in a fraction. And, zero, that empty unity, is the denominator. Another is how we, each of us in our discrete identity presents into the world, but we have no bottom, our back is boundless. Each of these descriptions is an attempt at pointing toward an existential reality.
So, each of us are individuals, unique and never to be repeated. And each of us are part of a whole, an expression of that whole, which is itself without shape or color or substance. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. And, the invitation is to know this for our selves, like someone drinking water and knowing personally whether it is warm or cool.
This is the soteriological project within Zen Buddhism, to know for ourselves how we are individual, and precious in our uniqueness, and yet at the very same time bound up together within a garment of destiny, as Dr King so beautifully expressed it.
Knowing this down to our bones and marrow is a healing thing. It brings a saving perspective. But that finding is what we’ve always shared, what we’ve always been, only clouded by our false sense of unique separation, and our forgetting our connection, our true family, if you will. Knowing it, not only do we find our own healing, but we discover a way of living in this world that is healing, that is reconciling.
And, so, back to that story, a koan, I shared at the beginning of these remarks about a conversation concerning the archetype of compassion. Perhaps for some here, the image of Mary can be helpful. This koan is collected in two twelfth century Chinese anthologies of spiritual guidance, as chapter eighty-nine of the Blue Cliff Record and as chapter fifty-four in another twelfth century anthology, the Book of Serenity.
The matter turns on a conversation between two brothers who will both become renowned masters of the Zen way. They studied and taught between the end of the eighth and through the first half of the ninth centuries, if you know them, difficult times, in which they found the wisdom to live full lives. There are numerous stories about these teachers of the way of liberation, individually and together. I count both Yunyan and Daowu, although particularly Yunyan among my guides, the people who have led me to my own personal knowing of my precious, passing existence, and how it is united with all other existences as a profound openness.
In this anecdote, the younger, Yunyan asks his brother who has already walked the way a great distance, “Why is it the Bodhisattva Guanyin (the archetype of compassion, of caring in this world, of love manifest) has so many hands and eyes?” His brother Daowu responded, “It is like someone sleeping, in the night, reaching behind her head for her pillow.” To these words Yunyan said, “I understand.” When asked what precisely was his understanding he answered, “Our bodies are covered with eyes and hands.” Daowu replied, “Almost. You’re eight tenths of the way.” Then, when asked what is the more complete response, was told, “There are only eyes and hands.”
Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.
And this is the universalism presented within Zen Buddhism.