103. Design & Zen Summary III

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Not unnatural,

Suffering is only change.

It’s not personal.

* * *

Continuing where we left off last time, in this segment we will look at the intersection of the Natural sphere with Buddhism’s Origin of suffering. The graphic illustrating correlations between the Four Spheres — Universal, Natural, Social, and Personal; and the Existence, Origin, Cessation, and Eightfold Path to cessation of suffering — is included again for your convenience and reference.

In the Repentance verse of Soto Zen liturgy we chant:

All my past and harmful karma
Born of beginningless greed, hate and delusion
Through body mouth and mind
I now fully avow

“Avow” does not commonly appear in our daily vernacular, but it simply means to admit openly, or to confess. Monastics apparently had a more rigorous routine for confessing and repenting specific transgressions they may have committed, violations of what were known in India as Vinaya, in Japan as Shingi, basically the rules and regulations of conduct in the monastic setting. We have Master Dogen’s version, as well as Master Keizan’s from a few generations later, the two being known respectively as the “father and mother” of Soto Zen in Japan. One factoid that people like to point out is that there were hundreds more rules for nuns than there were for monks. Interpret that however you like. Or do your research. Usually the Three Treasure Refuges verse follows on the heels of Repentance:

I take refuge in Buddha
I take refuge in Dharma
I take refute in Sangha

I take refuge in Buddha the fully awakened one
I take refuge in Dharma the compassionate teachings
I take refuge in Sangha the harmonious community

I have completely taken refuge in Buddha
I have completely taken refuge in Dharma
I have completely taken refuge in Sangha

The condensation of repentance into a catchall phrase represents not just our usual laziness, I think, but a recognition that we may be engaging in karmic actions without knowing it. So just in case, we fess up to whatever we may have done, and “accept all consequence with equanimity,” as another version has it. And then we take refuge in the Three Treasures, just for good measure.

The line that indicates the connection between Origin and Natural is that bit about karmic consequences stemming from our very body, mouth and mind, the “Three Actions” of Buddhism. Another version has “born of body, mouth and mind,” which I think captures the meaning more precisely. That is, most of our desires, attachments and aversions, some of which get us into trouble, come with the territory of being born as a human being. As such, they are not exactly our fault. But what we do about it is our fault, or may be to our credit. There is the implication that we can “pay off” our accumulated karma, like a bad debt. The good news is that if we recognize that we did not create, or design, this situation in which we find ourselves, we can perhaps redesign our approach to it, embracing its seeming contradictions. Its “Designer” may not be so “Intelligent” as some would have us believe.

When you take an unbiased look at the Natural conditions of our birth and growth as part of a species, certain obvious limitations and undesirable aspects emerge. Does it really have to be so messy? Buddha identified these causes and conditions of circumstance, the matrix of existence, variously, such as: the reification of self emerging through the process of individuation as a child; the conventional wisdom of the social milieu into which we are born; and the predations of aging, sickness and death to which we are all subject. The necessity for survival of the species is not a personal goal, but one of the species itself, as Schopenhauer points out in “The World as Will,” his treatise on how we usually get it all wrong. That we are fulfilling our heart’s desire in pursuing the loves of our life is a kind of category error, based on a primordial ignorance of how this existence thing really works. Very Zen.

That the Origin of our suffering may thus be regarded as Natural should precipitate a sigh of relief. But these biological facts do not relieve us of the necessity of now dealing with the actual experience of our desires, and the onset of angst, regret, hope, and disappointed expectations, that ensue. The rollercoaster of Social life inserts itself into the mix with little regard to our opinion. Once we have experienced all the highs and lows, however, they average out when we slow to a stop, and step off of the train.

One of the unfortunate dimensions of life in modern society, vis-à-vis these known issues of Buddhism, is that they are not widely recognized as such, nor are they ordinarily part of the early curriculum in Western countries. We do not expose our youngsters to practicing meditation. Usually a young person begins hearing about Eastern wisdom when they are in their late teens or early twenties, when the onslaught of hormones has long since had its sometimes deleterious, and even disastrous, effects. Especially with the advent of widespread online accessibility to what we call “pornography.” As one of the Supremes famously intoned, I don’t know how to define it, but I recognize it when I see it.

It is ironic that the most natural of functions in the Natural sphere — that of reproduction of the species — becomes so distorted in its intersection with the Social realm of human behavior. But that discussion may be better left to the next segment, on the conflation of the Noble Eightfold Path with the Social sphere. For now let us just shake our heads at the willful blindness built into our concept of childhood, and our feckless efforts to control the process of maturation into an adult. It is a compelling example of the Social sphere interfering with the Natural sphere — the biological facts of existence — thereby exacerbating the Origin of suffering, our ignorance-fueled craving. What’s the matter with kids today?

One could argue that the Origin of our suffering is Universal, as is its existence. The role of Nature in the Universal scheme of things is intricately intertwined with the origin of life on this planet, and the possibility of life on others, in the “Goldilocks Zone” near — in astronomical units — to another star. Speculations as to the arrival of intergalactic spermatozoa in the form of ancient comets or meteors, delivering the foundational chemistry of organisms to our waiting, fertile planet, like sperm to egg, model the entire cosmos as analogous to a kind of organism, giving birth to stars, as in the famous “pillars of creation” image from NASA’s Hubble telescope, to the spark of life itself. These analogies are examples of our proclivity to find familiar patterns in the strangest of new information, now flooding in as images from the far reaches of science, thanks to the Hubble, and now the Webb, telescopes. Another is the familiar trope about developing fins at one stage of the fetus in the womb:

More than just a catchy phrase, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” is the foundation of recapitulation theory. Recapitulation theory posits that the development of individual organisms (ontogeny) follows (recapitulates) the same phases of the evolution of larger ancestral groups of related organisms (phylogeny).

These cultural memes also indicate the comprehensive nature of the Ignorance, capital I, into which we are born, rather than into sin, according to Buddhism. Not the kind of willful ignorance that we have to learn, which can be considered a kind of sin, I suppose, if not against God, then against our original buddha-nature. Willfully ignoring the “compassionate teachings,” for example, as the Buddha’s legacy is characterized. They are compassionate in that they consist of descriptions of the suffering innate in existence, as well as our tendency to make it worse; as well as prescriptions for what to do about it, such as the Noble Eightfold Path. Which will be the subject of our next segment, in its relationship to the Social sphere.

Meanwhile, wrapping up our meditation on the Natural Origin of suffering, it is, or should be, transparent that there is no Existence without change, and so “change” is interchangeable with “suffering.” Everything that we see, hear, smell, taste, feel — and yes, everything we think — is the effect of change. We are literally hearing the sound of suffering, like Avalokiteshvara. And we are seeing it as well as feeling it at all times, in every moment. If nothing were changing, we could not perceive it. We never breathe the same breath twice, and we can never have the same thought, twice, though it may seem that we do. This is natural, and this inexorable, instantaneous change, is the true source of our suffering. Get used to it.

The fact that some forms of change provide welcome relief in our lives, while others seem to deliver more stress, should make it clear that dukkha is neutral. Suffering is not being inflicted upon us as a kind of punishment, though it may be considered a kind of test. Zen recommends embracing what life brings us as a natural consequence of our existence as a sentient being, even though we may not enjoy it at the time. Don’t worry, it will change. This does not mean, however, that we should not do anything about it, to improve our circumstances. This and other dimensions of behavior in the Social realm will be one focus of the next segment, reviewing the Path in its eight dimensions. Stay tuned.

* * *

Elliston Roshi is guiding teacher of the Atlanta Soto Zen Center and abbot of the Silent Thunder Order. He is also a gallery-represented fine artist expressing his Zen through visual poetry, or “music to the eyes.”

UnMind is a production of the Atlanta Soto Zen Center in Atlanta, Georgia and the Silent Thunder Order. You can support these teachings by PayPal to donate@STorder.org. Gassho.

Producer: Kyōsaku Jon Mitchell

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