Under the rose-apple tree

Under the rose-apple tree

Thursday, 3 March 2016

How Is Seeing Straight Connected with Emptiness?

How is seeing straight (samyag-dṛṣṭi) connected with emptiness?

Seeing straight (or “right view”) is one of eight branches of the eightfold middle path which the Buddha set out in the first discourse, known as the Setting Rolling of the Wheel of Dharma – Skt: Dharma-cakra-pravartana-sūtra. 

The conclusion of Nāgārjuna's MMK, expressed in its final verse, is that there is no such thing as a right view; rather the Buddha taught the Dharma in the direction of abandoning all views (sarva-dṛṣṭi-prahāṇāya). For this reason I avoid the usual translation of samyag-dṛṣṭi as “right view” and prefer the translation “seeing straight.”

But there are such thing as wrong views – in which phrase “wrong” might be superflous, in the sense that all views are wrong views. The connection between seeing straight and emptiness relates in particular with the two views -- the polar opposite views on causality which the Buddha clarified in detail in the fourth discourse, and later, again, in the Kaccāyana-gotta-suttaṁ

In Chinese/Japanese those two views are known as

常見外道 (JOKEN-GEDO), lit. “constancy-view off-of-the-way," and 

断見外道 (DANKEN-GEDO) lit. “cut-off-view off-of-the-way.”

means constancy, eternity.

 means severance, being cut off.

 means seeing, view.

外道  is given in the dictionary as: non-Buddhist teachings; non-Buddhist ; heterodoxy; unorthodoxy; heresy; heretic ; demon; fiend; devil; brute; bad person ; type of fish one did not intend to catch.

These definitions of 外道 are all very unfortunate., stinking as they all do (with the possible exception of the fish) of religious intolerance. 

I remember my Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima proclaiming, circa 1992 or 1993, just after he started studying MMK in Sanskrit, that the Buddha's teaching (“true Buddhism”) is not a religion but a philosophy. At the time I was under the strong impression that the Buddha's teaching was just to sit, but I duly noted the conclusion that my teacher had come to that the Buddha's teaching was not a religion. 

Habitually, however, my teacher continued to manifest in his attitude what certainly looked like religious intolerance. He tended to dismiss anybody who did not agree with his own view (= “true Buddhism”) as a non-Buddhist. This eventually came to include me, who my teacher felt had abandoned true Buddhism in favour of the FM Alexander Technique. I turned out in the end, evidently, to be the type of fish my teacher never intended to catch. 

I most certainly do not believe in God, but if I turn out to be wrong in this non-belief, I will agree with believers in Him that He must have a great sense of humour. Because cosmic irony is everywhere at play. 

The Sanskrit word rendered into 外道 (GEDO) and thence "non-Buddhist," was probably  tīrthika or para-tīrthika (MW: “the adherent of another sect”). The Pali equivalent is titthiya (PED: “an adherent of another sect”). 

Again these definitions in the Pali and Sanskrit dictionaries are unfortunate in their implication that followers of the Buddha's teaching belong to one sect, whereas a follower of other teachings belong to "another sect." 

As the Dalai Lama has truly said, “Sectarianism is poison.”

This echoes what Zen Master Dogen emphasized in Shobogenzo. People who claim to be followers of Master Dogen's teaching, and in the same breath proclaim themselves to belong to the Soto Sect, might not necessarily know what they are talking about.

As reflected in the following verse from the Dharma-cakra-pravartana-sūtra, spoken by the Buddha after he had Set Rolling of the Wheel of Dharma, sectarians in the Buddha's view where more or less on the level of Māra:

Gambhīraṁ durdṛśaṁ sūkṣmaṁ Dharmacakraṁ pravartitaṁ,

The deep, hard-to-see, subtle Dharma-Wheel has been set rolling,
Yatra Mārā na gāhante sarve ca paratīrthikāḥ. 

Which the Māras, and all the sectarians, cannot grasp.

This rant against sectarianism, however, is itself somewhat of a digression. The question I have set myself, the question to come back to it, is: 

How is seeing straight (samyag-dṛṣṭi) connected with emptiness?

And the most obvious answer, to come back to it, is that seeing straight is in the middle way between two extreme views of causality.

The first view is known
in Pali as sassatadiṭṭhi, eternity-view, eternalism;
in Sanskrit as śāśvata-dṛṣṭi, eternity-view, eternalism;
in Chinese/Japanese as 常見外道 (JOKEN-GEDO), lit. “constancy-view off-of-the-way.”

The second view is known
in Pali as ucchedadiṭṭhi, cut-off-view, annihilationism, nihilism;
in Sanskrit as uccheda-dṛṣṭi, cut-off-view, annihilationism, nihilism;
in Chinese/Japanese as 断見外道(DANKEN-GEDO), lit. “cut-off-view off-of-the-way.”

In the middle way between these two views is the Buddha's teaching of dependent arising.

In the eternity view, an entity that exists independently, as a thing unto itself, or as a Being unto Himself – the supreme example being God – would be immune to change. According to the teaching of dependent arising, no such thing exists. No such Supreme Entity exists. All things that do exist are empty of independent existence as things unto themselves. A flower, to use Tich Naht Hahn's memorable example, is full of the sun which shone on it, full of the cloud that rained on it, and full of the gardener who dug the soil for it. A flower is full of the whole Universe. It is empty of only one thing: its own independent existence as a flower. And because of lacking such an immutable and separate existence, a flower is a very transient thing, not eternal. 

In nihilism, at the other extreme, when God has been destroyed and people turn out not to live and work together, as first hoped, happily ever after, then for a while nothing may seem to have any meaning. Even the most beautiful of things -- having been loved, for example, in a flower bed in a garden, or having been loved between the sheets in a double bed -- is empty of her own independent existence as a beautiful thing. That being so, illusions of perfection having been dashed, what is the point now of getting out of bed in the morning and bothering to make any more effort? 

According to the teaching of dependent arising, it is precisely because all things are empty that all things are amenable to change. And because all things are amenable to change, we can all progress, or regress, in the direction of deepening our understanding of the four noble truths.

So seeing straight, philosophically speaking, is intimately connected with emptiness -- in the sense that dependent arising and emptiness are synonymous. 

At the same time, in his Instructing of Kātyāyana, before he gets onto the philosophical teaching of dependent arising, the Buddha seems to begin by cautioning against emotional attachment to the conception that I have/am a self.

Thus when Kātyāyana asks “Seeing straight, seeing straight, is spoken of, Venerable Sir. In what way, Venerable Sir, is there seeing straight?”, the Buddha answers first with reference to the emptiness of no self:

“This one [who sees straight] does not tend to join in and become attached, does not tend mentally to take a position, does not tend to identify and unconsciously go along with; he neither attaches to [the view], nor takes as a position, that 'I have a self.'”

This is as per the second discourse, in which the Buddha causes the group-of-five to understand that the five skandhas to which we cling ignobly, and with which we identify as if they were our self, are in fact totally empty of anything that could be called a self.

There again, the aspect of not becoming attached is also connected with emptiness as praised in the third discourse – emptiness as dispassion, emptiness as a condition in which the fires of afflictive emotion have stopped burning.

It is not until the fourth discourse that the Buddha outlines one by one the twelve links in the 12-fold chain of the dependent arising of suffering.

So seeing straight and emptiness may be connected with each other in many ways, but for the present, on the basis of the first four discourses, I submit that seeing straight is connected with emptiness in these four ways:

1. Seeing straight is connected with noble, i.e. selfless, motivation.

2. Seeing straight is connected with a dispassionate condition of body and mind.

3. Seeing straight is connected with deep philosophical understanding of dependent arising, in the middle way between two views.

4. Seeing straight, in the final analysis, is connected with sitting in lotus as an act of knowing emptiness -- i.e. not only philosophical understanding of the dependent arising of suffering, but physical realization of freedom from those habitual doings which are born of ignorance. 

In other words, because seeing straight (samyag-dṛṣṭi) is itself dependently arisen, it is inseparable from...
thinking straight (samyak-saṁkalpa),
talking straight (samyag-vāk)
true action (samyak-karmānta)
making a clean living (samyag-ājīva)
true endeavour (samyag-vyāyāma),
true mindfulness (samyak-smṛti), 
balanced stillness (samyak-samādhi).

Again, because this seeing straight (samyag-dṛṣṭi) is thus inseparable from true mindfulness (samyak-smṛti), it is inseparable from the act of knowing which, having gone to an empty place, is to sit, crossing the legs, directing the body up, et cetera...

And just this act of knowing (jñānasyāsyaiva), which is inseparable from seeing straight, which is synonymous with seeing reality (tattva-darśana), which is inseparable from reality realizing itself (tattva-darśana), is what Nāgārjuna is referring to in MMK26.10-11, when he writes:

saṁsāra-mūlaṁ saṁskārān avidvān saṁskaroty ataḥ |
avidvān kārakas tasmān na vidvāṁs tattva-darśanāt ||10||
avidyāyāṁ niruddhāyāṁ saṁskārāṇām asaṁbhavaḥ |
avidyāyā nirodhas tu jñānasyāsyaiva bhāvanāt ||11||

The doings which are the root of saṁsāra thus does the ignorant one do. The ignorant one therefore is the doer; the wise one is not, because of seeing reality (tattva-darśanā). In the cessation of ignorance, there is the non-coming-into-being of doings. At the same time, the cessation of ignorance is because of the bringing-into-being of just this act of knowing (jñānasyāsyaiva). 

Verses 10-11 of MMK chap.26 thus, to my mind, contain the ultimate answer. They are akin to e = mc2. But how useful is it for a child to know that a formula like e = mc2 is the answer? Not so useful, unless the child understands the process that led Einstein to the conclusion which e = mc2 expresses

So one way of seeing MMK is as containing Nāgārjuna's workings leading to the conclusion expressed in MMK26.10-11.. And so what I am doing now, with  this study of the first four discourses and related teachings, is a sort of laying the ground in preparation for showing the workings that led Nāgārjuna eventually to write: 

The doings which are the root of saṁsāra thus does the ignorant one do. The ignorant one therefore is the doer; the wise one is not, because of the realization of reality (tattva-darśanā). In the cessation of ignorance, there is the non-coming-into-being of doings. At the same time, the cessation of ignorance is because of the cultivation of just this wisdom (jñānasyāsyaiva). 

Post Script

"What is seeing straight in four phases?" That is the kind of question I often asked my old Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima, in the process of translating Shobogenzo into English. The Shobogen (True Dharma Eye) of Shobogenzo (True Dharma Eye Treasury), indeed, is a kind of poetic description of that instrument of seeing straight which is Zazen. 

My teacher's answer, I think would have been along these lines: 

1. At the first phase, seeing straight is the viewpoint of the will to the truth. 

2. At the second phase, seeing straight is a kind of intuitive reflection of the autonomic nervous system, when the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves are in balance. 

3. At the third phase, seeing straight is a state of action in which there is no separation between subject and object. 

4. At the fourth phase, seeing straight is just the realization of reality (tattva-darśana) in Zazen. 

What I have done in the above post is endeavor to clarify further how these four aspects of seeing straight are connected with emptiness. 

If I have succeeded to any extent, to that extent credit should go to my Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima who pointed me in this direction. At the same time, in a strange twist of irony, the credit has to be shared with several Alexander teachers whom my Zen teacher evidently regarded as non-Buddhist fiends and brutes. 

Sometimes I give myself a laugh while I am sitting by hearing Alexander's instruction "to let the neck be free, to let head go forward and up," and I remember Gudo Nishijima walking up behind  his victims in the Zazen Hall, putting his fingers on our chins, and pulling our neck columns back several inches, so that the spine might be "kept straight vertically." 

The doings which are the root of saṁsāra thus did the ignorant one do. 

What wisdom is, in the end, I do not know so decisively. But I know it is not that. 

Truly to understand what I am getting at, one way or another, people reading this will have to understand why I have continued to criticize my Zen teacher so severely. My teacher had in abundance the will to the truth of a noble person. He did not lack for compassion. But when it came to the knowing of emptiness, in terms of the non-coming-into-being of habitual doings (saṁskārāṇām asaṁbhavaḥ), he was not as wise as he thought he was.

So one side of the story was a fault in my teacher's teaching. But the other side of the story has to do with the strength of my reaction to sensing that fault, seeing that fault, and being unable to get past that fault. 

Did I deserve to be caused to suffer so bitterly in the ignorant hands, and in the service, of a teacher as unskilfull and as arrogant as all that?

You bet I did.

Then why, even now, do I continue to feel so angry? If I am willing to confess that I was only getting my just deserts, wherefrom all this continuing anger towards a person who was not as wise as he purported to be? 

The answer to that question, I am sure, is related with my medical history -- maybe a story for another day.

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