Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.
These lyrics bring to a close the Diamond Sutra, a discourse between the Buddha and Subhuti, one of his chief disciples. The images of impermanence and transiency provide an inspiring and memorable poetic sense to the Buddha’s teachings. Earlier in the text, his gently probing questions are intended to help his student recognize the intrinsically empty nature of things of the world.
But the recognition is not easy to come by. “Transiency” and “impermanence” are not obvious features of everyday objects: they do not lend themselves to “common sense,” they are not what our eyes and ears and touch report to the vigilant mind. Zen practice takes us beyond the limitations of common sense, beyond the strong forces of logic, appearances and stimulation that provide a limited view and create misunderstanding and delusion.
The delusion that Buddhism teaches about the unsubstantial nature of the world is non intentional. That is, we do not make a deliberate, conscious choice to fool ourselves about reality. Our ever-active thinking mind is unaware of the subtle, non sensuous true nature of things. Buddhism alerts us to this truth, motivating us to serious spiritual practice, to evaporate the fog of non intentional delusion, awakening our inherent wisdom.
At the same time, we can become captive to intentional delusion about the tactile, feeling nature of ordinary life. We see, read and experience unassailable facts of the world we live in. But we are at risk of purposely refuting the evidence, creating a fiction, an alternate world an artificial copy of our self.
Our everyday world continually confronts us with a nagging question: “What is in my best interests?” When our choice is in thrall to desires and cravings, to a wide-eyed ego on the lookout for material and emotional things to fill a perceived gap, we unwittingly create a life of tension and stress. Intentional delusion – pursuing our personal best interests at the cost of denying facts and evidence – is a hallmark of suffering.
But pursuit is not inevitable. We can find a change of heart, become oriented toward others and the entire world, not just toward ourselves. With a mind of generosity and compassion, we will come to know “My best interest is to be selfless.” The precepts – Buddhist principles of selflessness – were given to us by the Buddha and the patriarchs, knowing that it is there that we find our best interests. When we live according to them, intentional delusion dissolves.
Zazen is the silence of the mind, allowing us to see things as they are, to what is going on, to what is actually taking place in the unfolding of the universe. With the help of Zazen practice, we can see the true nature of worldly activity before we feel compelled to think about it. It is how we understand what is in our best interests in the long run. With a mind of silence, we see ourselves clearly, without distracting ideas, avoiding the hazard of creating fictional images. Our quiet mind also recognizes what is not in our best interests, revealing what we have been mistakenly clinging to.
Zazen is the antidote to delusions: to recognizing desires, biases and to what we have been stubborn about, to what has been holding us back from expressing our authentic self. Zen is the practice of no nonsense, of not fooling ourselves intentionally.
As Suzuki-roshi said:
When you are fooled by something else, the damage will not be so big.
But when you are fooled by yourself, it is fatal.
So let us continue our practice together, with determination and an unselfish attitude, to shine a light on delusion in all its forms.
Abbot of Kannon Do