Under the rose-apple tree

Under the rose-apple tree

Monday, 7 March 2016

How Is the 2nd Discourse Connected with Emptiness?

How is the emptiness of the five skandhas, as taught in the 2nd discourse, connected with emptiness? 

I am not sure exactly what prompted me to ask the question, “How, exactly, is the Buddha's teaching connected with emptiness?” but I am glad that something did. Investigating the connection with emptiness seems to be a good way of leading oneself in the direction of greater clarity in regard to what the Buddha's teaching exactly is.

The Heart Sutra begins by describing the Bodhisattva Free-In-Reflection as he deeply reflects that the five skandhas – SHIKI, JU, SO, GYO, SHIKI – are totally empty.
The five skandhas are the five aggregates, or the five constituent parts, viz:
SHIKI = rūpa, bodily form, matter
JU = vedanā, feeling
SO = samjñā, perception
GYO = saṁskārāḥ, habitual doings
SHIKI = vijjāna, consciousness.
And so the Buddha taught the group-of-five in the 2nd discourse that the five skandhas are totally empty of anything that can be called a self.

Seeing this, the noble disciple grows weary of form, feeling, perfection, doings and consciousness; through weariness he becomes dispassionate, and through dispassion he is liberated, so that there is nothing more for him to do.

As they listened to this teaching, the group-of-five monks' minds, through not clinging, were freed from the polluting influences.

First Connection – Emptiness as a Principle

In the first instance, the five skandhas being empty of a self is the principle of emptiness. With reference to the five skandhas, which are empty of self, the Buddha introduces the principle of emptiness – though he does not yet speak explicitly of emptiness.

Second Connection – Emptiness as Dispassion

In the second instance, the Buddha says that the noble disciple becomes dispassionate. And being dispassionate (virāga) means being empty of rāga, being empty of redness, being empty of the red taint of passion, in short, being empty of passion. In the second phase, Gudo Nishijima would say, emptiness is the balanced state of the autonomic nervous system.

Third Connection – Emptiness as Liberation from Habitual Doings Born of Ignorance

In the third instance, the Buddha teaches the group-of-five that through dispassion the noble disciple is liberated. And this liberation, synonymous with arhathood, is described using the following traditional formula which occurs again and again in the Pali Suttas:

Khīṇā jāti
"Destroyed is (re)birth,
vusitaṁ brahmacariyaṁ
lived is the spiritual life,
kataṁ karaṇīyaṁ
done is what was to be done,
nāparaṁ itthattāyā’ ti 
there is no more of this mundane state." 

What exactly is the connection here with emptiness?

What, in actual practice, is the connection between the liberation in which nothing remains to be done, and emptiness?

This, for me, is where the teaching of FM Alexander has come in incredibly handy.

One vignette that stands out in my mind played out in the teaching room of Alexander's niece Marjory Barlow. She asked me to show her what I meant by the instruction I had been given in Japan to keep the neck bones straight by pulling in the chin. Marjory took one look and said, “There is no freedom in it.” And she was right – there was no freedom in it, and nor had there been any freedom in it. There had been a whole lot of fixing going on.

I have been going on about the Alexander Technique for more than 20 years now. To be frank, I seem to have recapitulated the situation circa 1961 when I was screaming from the pain of a twisted testicle, whereupon a locum doctor prescribed for me a course of antibiotics, and the screaming continued for however many hours it took for the testicle – its blood supply having been cut off – to atrophy. 

Considering the extent to which I have used anger as my fuel on this quest to get back to the real essence of what the Buddha taught, it is surprising that, if nowhere else, I have got, relatively unscathed, to the age of 56. 

When I came back to England at the end of 1994, aged 34, to train as an Alexander teacher, I did so because I intuited that it would be a step towards greater clarity in regard to what the Buddha taught. 

But my Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima wrote to me from Japan in 1996, "I hope you come back to Buddhism." Not only did he express this view, but he acted on it. Thus I found out in 1997 that Gudo and a small group of his Dharma-heirs had got together and made a joint decision, metaphorically speaking, to cut the rope from which a member of their team -- yours truly -- was distantly dangling. 

What is the secret of Zen? The secret of Zen is non-doing.

The secret of Zen is just to sit. And just sitting is sitting which is empty of -- or liberated from -- habitual doings born of ignorance.

This is the connection between the Buddha's teaching and emptiness which my late Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima failed exactly to see. And failing exactly to see this connection with emptiness, that noble disciple of the Buddha failed, on some level, to be liberated.

Thus, more than a pinch of cosmic irony was in play when Gudo wrote, in his Introduction to his own translation (using the term loosely) of MMK:
“Some individuals may insist that when trying to understand true Buddhism we should refer only to the words of Gautama Buddha himself as preserved in the most ancient strands of the Pali Canon, the oldest written records of Buddhism. [MC: Who exactly are those straw men?] But I cannot agree. Although Gautama Buddha certainly founded and established Buddhism, it is not by any means certain that the recorded texts reflect either what he actually said or, more important, how what he said was understood by those who learned directly from him. To be truthful I have begun to doubt whether Gautama Buddha's Buddhist teachings themselves have ever been properly understood.”
In Gudo's thoughts in his old age, the Pali Suttas were faulty but the true teachings of Gautama Buddha were contained in his own brain. In fact, it turns out that the true teachings of Gautama Buddha are very faithfully preserved in the Pali Suttas, while the thoughts in Gudo's brain were faulty. Those thoughts of his were fabrications, mental doings born of ignorance. When he wrote to me of his hope that I should come back to Buddhism, those words of his were verbal doings born of ignorance. And above all, when he used his fingertips in the Zazen Hall to pull the chins of his students several inches backwards, those doings of his were doings born of ignorance. 

So if anybody would like a conspicuous example of what Nāgārjuna meant in MMK26.10, voilà.

saṁsāra-mūlaṁ saṁskārān avidvān saṁskaroty ataḥ. avidvān kārakas tasmān ...
The doings which are the root of saṁsāra thus does the ignorant one do. The ignorant one therefore is the doer...

Fourth Connection – Not Clinging even to Emptiness

In the final analysis, the Mahākhandhako records not only what the Buddha taught but also what the group-of-five monks realized in their own practice and experience:

Idam-avoca Bhagavā,
The Glorious One said this,
attamanā pañcavaggiyā bhikkhū Bhagavato bhāsitaṁ abhinanduṁ.
and the group-of-five monks were uplifted and greatly rejoiced in what was said by the Glorious One.
Imasmiñ-ca pana veyyākaraṇasmiṁ bhaññamāne,
Moreover, as this sermon was being given,
pañcavaggiyānaṁ bhikkhūnaṁ anupādāya āsavehi cittāni vimucciṁsu,
the group-of-five monks' minds, through not clinging, were freed from the polluting influences,
tena kho pana samayena cha loke arahanto honti.
and at that time there were six worthy ones in the world.

To recap, that the five skandhas are empty of self is

1. The Buddha's first teaching of the principle of emptiness.
2. Not only a principle to be studied intellectually, but a Buddhist truth whose seeing is connected with the emptiness which is dispassion.
3. Liberation itself, as the Buddha taught it – an act of knowing emptiness, in which are caused to cease those habitual doings which are the root of suffering in saṁsāra.
4.  None of the above.  Even emptiness might be something to be abandoned. 

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