A Flash of Lightning in a Summer Cloud: A Zen Reflection on Passingness

A Flash of Lightning in a Summer Cloud: A Zen Reflection on Passingness May 24, 2018





The Diamond Sutra is one of the standard texts within the Zen schools.

With the stories of the Buddha’s awakening and Bodhidharma’s coming to China the story of Huineng, the “sixth ancestor” completes a trilogy of foundational accounts mixing legend and history and presenting the unique school that is Zen. And significantly, the last of these accounts has Huineng achieve his great insight upon hearing a line from the Diamond Sutra.

The Diamond Sutra is one of about forty texts that collectively comprise the Prajnaparamita cycle, central documents to Mahayana Buddhism, of which Zen is a part. Me, I find it a delight that the oldest extant printed book is in fact a copy of the Diamond Sutra.

But it is one part of the Diamond Sutra that has caught my heart this morning. It’s the gatha, or brief verse at the end of the text.

So you should view this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightening in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom and a dream.

I am uncertain of the source for this translation particularly which is included in the Boundless Way Liturgy Book. But it is popular and can be found around the inter webs.

Other versions include:

As stars, a fault of vision, as a lamp,
A mock show, dew drops, or a bubble,
A dream, a lightning flash, or cloud,
So should one view what is conditioned.

(Edward Conze)

As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space
an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble
a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning
view all created things like this.

(Red Pine)

All composed things are like a dream,
a phantom, a drop of dew, a flash of lightning.
That is how to meditate on them,
that is how to observe them.

(Thich Nhat Hanh)

In her lovely reflection on the gatha, Barbara O’Brien notes how some believe this verse wasn’t originally part of the text. And, indeed, it is also found in another document within the Prajnaparamita literature, the Perfection of Wisdom in 500 Lines.

There is something magical about how it is both part of something ancient, and yet, is also independent. Some of the images are as old as Buddhism. In the Arakenanusasani Sutta, we hear the Buddha saying:

Just as a dewdrop on the tip of a blade of grass quickly vanishes
with the rising of the sun and does not stay long,
in the same way, brahmans, the life of human beings is like a dewdrop

And in the Phena Sutta:

Form is like a glob of foam;
feeling, a bubble;
perception, a mirage;
fabrications, a banana tree;
consciousness, a magic trick —
this has been taught
by the Kinsman of the Sun.
However you observe them,
appropriately examine them,
they’re empty, void
to whoever sees them

But, even as it is ancient, there is something immediate about it, as well.

For me the gatha is call to noticing the passingness of life that most captures me in the moment. Not the moment. This moment. And with that immediacy it recalls the three marks of existence that are foundational to the Buddhist message.

The first of these is anitya, a noticing that all things are impermanent, existing for a moment and then passing away. The second is anatman, the noticing that nothing has a special essence, all things are composed of parts that are themselves insubstantial, or more accurately have no abiding substance. Things exist within their moments in way similar to the contemporary wave/particle theory, where from one angle quantum entities are particles and from another waves. However, this is a way of perceiving at the psychological/spiritual level of human consciousness, where our grasping tightly after things that have no enduring substance, is dukkha, that sense of discomfort, of sadness, of hurt that seems to mark so much of human existence.

So, some look at this world of flux and constant motion and see nothing but sadness. We and everything we love will pass away. But, in fact that view is missing something quite lovely, beautiful, and, most important, real.

For me the Diamond Sutra gatha is not a call to seeing “life is nasty and then you die.” That is a truth. But, it is partial. And to see only that is a great sadness.

Here, yes, we find a world in motion. Everything and everyone are/is birthed through a confluence of events, and exist only for a moment. And, yes, nothing has substance in the sense of standing outside the flow of causality. What we perceive as a person or a thing is a snapshot of a moment. But. And. Still. Everything is in motion.

Dukkha arises as a side effect of our wonderful human ability to notice and distinguish. The side effect is to reify, to make what we’ve perceived and distinguished something “permanent.” When, of course, nothing and no one is ever permanent. Hence what follows our grasping and holding too tightly that which of its nature is in motion is hurt. Can’t be done, and therefore that hurt, and a pervasive anxiousness that spoils our lives.

And. And. The good news is not a list of how to not care, but rather a middle way between thinking only motion exists or that things and people have eternal substance, that invites us into a larger and healing view. In fact this is more than a view, it is a new way of living.

Here I find that gatha taking focus. Cause and effect are not two things. But, actually, neither are they one. Rather the universe is rising and falling together. And even as we notice our aging, our faltering, we can, when we find the eye of awakening, also see the world unfolding as a mystery and a joy. A dance.

When we see into things as they actually are we encounter a beautiful dance of creation, where we rise and fall together, where our love matters because it is our giving our attention to the precious and passing.

To use the language of the West we become the eyes of God, our seeing the divine seeing, our holding without grasping becomes a divine holding, because we are nothing less than the moment being known. Actually it becomes a sort of unknowing, because our sense of self and other are loosened, and we experience each other’s joy and sorrow as our joy and sorrow.

And with that shift life takes on an aspect more important than words like “meaning” or “meaninglessness” can touch. Instead we are invited into that flashing lightning, that summer cloud, the dream that is reality.

So you should view this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightening in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom and a dream.


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