Is Buddhism of actual importance to our age?
How I see Buddhism Lecture given before the Buddhist association of Bonn, on August 19th, 2007?
Consider for a moment the following: Within the short time of our communication here, hundred of thousands of people are being born or are dying. These occurrences are so self-evident that we hardly take notice of them. Nevertheless they belong to the few really important indeed they are the most important events of all, for the individual as well as for the whole of mankind. Now it is amazing how the language circumscribes this important fact with no exact rigorously unyielding, appropriate word – with the word suffering.
Did you ever notice what force is appealed to characterized and expressed in this world? The thought and action of all mankind have turned and are always turning around this dynamic process. And does it not determine the tendency and final purpose of every religion, philosophy, of all ethics essentially? Does not the whole of medical science centre on this conception? Could medicine subsist at all without the power of suffering?
Somehow, slowly creeping and unexpected suffering successfully outwits the human life with its destroying, decomposing effect: sometimes just at a moment when man thinks himself altogether free from suffering. When he is in his prime, in the full vigour of his life, he nourishes the illusive idea that the beauty and perfection of his individuality could never be destroyed. Imagine fully the power and violence of such a tragedy: how the force of suffering proceeds without regard or pity under so many masks. For instance when it forces man to glorify mourning and pain (its characteristic marks) into something exalted and sublime in art and poetry; and in singing (the sweetest form of the language) the most deeply felt sorrows!
Yet, astonishing as it may be, there exist counterforce’s enabling man to stand this power of suffering and without resignation too. How strong and effective it ever may work – finally it is nothing but one form of the lawfulness of life and by no means comprehends or perhaps exhausts the human essence in its totality; it is rather the most efficient, successful stimulus for learning to employ the faculties and forces in such a manner as to see and know suffering as it really is – some evanescent process. The other form is to be and remain free of suffering.
In historical tradition, the first man to deal with suffering, its origin and overcoming it, purely with means of cognisance, was the Buddha. He explained how, with the use of the faculties of intelligence, of reason, of will, understanding, joy, tranquillity of mind – to name but some – sound humanity is awakened and man, by evolving these powers, is enabled to joyfully, quietly and with clearconsciousness, experiences the state of liberation.
It is about this way of life, form of life, that I want to speak to you today. The actual importance of a thing begins for us, obviously, with the use we can make of it in our practical life. Now, suffering is certainly the least “practical” thing in the world. It paralyzes our energy, keeps us in the spell of fake hopes and despair, convulses our feeling and perceptions, and our thinking and conscious processes propel us downward in a whirl of peaceless entanglement. Thus it makes us, in the literary sense of the word, a lamentable, helpless caricature of what we really strive for and could also attain by lawfulness. Everybody may have tried honestly and repeatedly, according to his special nature, to clarify what I want to show you next. So you may take it for a proof of your experiences as well as mine and let it be, at the same time, encouragement never to yield in the endeavour of putting en end to suffering.
You are acquainted with the comprehensive and precious Buddhist literature and have read it more or less intensely according to your gifts; you know by heart one or the other verses from “song of the monks”, one or the other aphorisms from the “path of verity”, you have discovered some parables as specially proper, especially helpful to your own striving. I remember here, e.g. the wonderful comparison with regard to five groups of individuality: physical form resembling a bubble of foam; feeling raindrop; perception a mirage; thinking resembling the apparently solid, but actually hollow and void trunk of the banana-tree; and consciousness as resembling the juggler practicing his deceiving tricks in the plain light of the open market (Samyutta Nikaya 22). And now, you are giving way to a certain state of mind which makes you – alas, for so short a time – forget the world, life and sorrow. Soon, however, you may come to ask: why can I not find even here the constant trust and support I longed for, because, such a desire is based on an error. Trust and strengthening are not to be attained by giving way to ever so noble feelings, ever so clear thoughts. Trust and support result from the equalization of the human faculties and forces. But this balance is disturbed if man does not discern and make use of this own specific potential of force. No arguing, no sophistry, no logical reasoning will be of any help. The measure of the individual life-potential cannot be pressed into rigid schemes, altered by rites or ceremonies, or defined by standards and scales. Attentiveness and always attentiveness is the only means of discerning it.
Let me show you a practical example. You all know Buddha’s word: “Adhering is the root of suffering” (Majjhima Nikaya 15). How can you make use of this word in your daily life?
You experience this adhering as the root of suffering if you have lost a beloved friend: the pain of separation, the whole depressive force of suffering becomes effective. Only if you learn how to let die away the dreary, weakening always connected with mourning, will Buddha’s word become a help. If you clearly see that loosing the beloved person and being separated from him means on now account the weakening or, perhaps, the loss of your power and that it is silly to mourn since it is impossible to change the unchangeable lawfulness. Such cognisance may help to melt away the painful spasm so that the disturbed volume of force can more easily and quickly redress the sound proportion with the individual potential of force.
Let me give you another example in order to show how in daily life adhering can be experienced as the “root of suffering” and how it may turn out to be of great help in overcoming suffering if antipathy, disgust at a person or thing become so intensive that you can see no way to free yourself other than turning away from it. In this case, you have also experienced “adhering as the root of suffering”, at the same time however the relief which is given with the turning away. But if you should see in the turning away nothing except the elimination of an annoying disturbance, right use has not been made of your attentiveness.
To see only the annoying in whatever disturbances you have, does not lead to right cognisance and its consequence: successful practice of Buddha’s word: “Adhering is the root of suffering.” Something is “annoying” only if we lack the concentration of life force. And here my question is: Who can bring about this concentration for you? In other words, can you, with this method of turning away, win a concentration of life force? A hundred times you may turn away – and always you will be slipping back into your own faults.
But what is to do?
Man must be carefully attentive lest the concentration of life force be troubled by whatever sentiment, whatever perception or thought, lest it be drawn into regions where the disturbed force of life would exhaust itself in a permanent circling around desire, mental images, speculations (either pro and contra) and that – instead of forming a sound resolution – man is taken by anger and indignation, deploring his unfavourable circumstances bitterly; or talking and talking them over again, writing and reading, musing, painting restlessly, in short: making his adverse circumstances the very pole of his entire conduct in which he comes to see even a helpful – but in truth illusive – medicine against “adhering, the root of suffering”. In this connection I remind you of the impressive description the Buddha gave to Sariputta: “Once I was resting at a fork in the road. And shepherd boys came spitting at me, throwing at me excrements, passing their water over me and drilling sharp blades of grass into my ears. But, Sariputta, I could not remember one evil thought arising in me at that time” (Majjhima Nikaya 12). This is no doubt one of the greatest examples of the concentration of life force and its result – equanimity of mind. To find here the right practical application for the individual does not seem so very difficult, even nowadays.
Now examine your own organism quite unbiasedly! It is the expression of perfect, immutable lawfulness. And I am asking once more: Why don’t you acknowledge this lawfulness? In childhood you were not able to, since energy, intellect, willpower, and understanding could not yet be used in the right way.
Think it over: Could there exist any human being with whom from the moment of conception, by taking food and nothing but food, a something has come to shape itself in a perfectly systematic way into what we call our organism and later on our individuality? The organism is the very factor of order for your life, no matter how we treat it. Its lawful order of the sense-organ processes cannot be altered by you or anybody else without injuring the whole course of life. Likewise nobody can exchange his sense organs or replace one organ by another. It is no doubt possible to support the working of the organs through a suitable assistance, though impossible to alter their functional capacities, in the long run.
Now consider yourself. Do you employ the “sixfold sixness” – of the sense organs of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking – with necessary attentiveness? Or are you rather inclined to carelessness in using them? Are you really clearly conscious of the functions of your senses? Maybe your reply is: I cannot, I am not a monk, a nun who see therein their main life work. – How thin then is this objection when you only observe the fact that you as well as the monk and nun can but live by using these sense organs. Or is the lawful functioning of the sense processes solely applicable for monks and nuns? No!
“The cooperation of eye, form and working consciousness is visual contact. The distinct visual contact is visual sensation. The distinct visual sensation is visual perception. And the fully distinct visual perception is visual concept” (Majjhima Nikaya 148). Likewise with the remaining five sense processes. Especially important is the participation of consciousness in the occurring visual contact, hearing contact a.s.f., without which a functioning of the organism could not be possible. Man would fall senseless and, with continuous unconsciousness, die.
This lawfulness guarantees the reasonable use of the organism for every man, without respect of person, profession, or name. But attentiveness is the indispensable postulate as it is the guarantee for the reasonable use of the sense organs too. Lawfulness is incorruptible, not to be influenced by either desire or craving, nor experiments of any kind. Lawfulness would react with rejection only otherwise and man would realize, sooner or later, that it is impossible that way.
Freedom from suffering presupposes the unconditioned acknowledgement of the lawful nature of our organism. But it is not at all unconditioned acknowledgement if we continuously weaken the organism by overstraining one sense or the other (how fair the purpose may be, on the other hand); if we permanently fail to understand the symptoms of fatigue as warnings for reasonable use, if we insist upon carrying through our will, our opinions in order to perhaps evade occasional inconveniences or to get advantages or to feed our personal ambitions.
With impartial consideration, everybody must see that the fluctuating life force never allows this functioning of the sense organs to be separated from the totality process, as something independent. Also, special care for every single process cannot guarantee a self-dependent sound functioning. Life is no mechanical synthetic, no central or self-directed occurrence. Every moment it is totality, dynamic cooperation of uncountable manifestations’ of forces which maintains to life’s end their lawful order as individuality (= indivisibility, i.e. indivisible occurrence, efficaciousness, fluctuation of forces.
Beside the order of the sense organs, there is some further order through which the functioning of the sense organs is given its unity, purport and value, and which is attacked likewise sharply, pitilessly, and recklessly by the force of suffering. This is the regulation of the processes of the five groups: bodily form, sensation, perception, forming of conceptions or thinking, and becoming-conscious or the experience of “I” (Samyutta Nikaya 22). The working combination of the five in health as well as in illness decides the rhythm of life and is the constant controller and caller: be attentive, be on the alert! Never forget what being a man means, namely being endowed with intelligence and understanding, with will, energy, insight and judgement! You have the never failing potential for suffering – sensation – with its grandiose simplicity, the grandiose triad: well-being, woe, neither-wellbeing-no-woe or neutral, which works more precisely, more speedily, more spontaneously than the most perfect electronic – this offspring of you brains!
Now we are confronted with a second astonishing phenomenon of our language: that we are accustomed to name ourselves with one single word – “I” – comprising in it all processes of our life force, good or bad, positive or negative, joyful or sorrowful ones. The peculiar thing is that, here also, it is the matter of a disguise of the force of suffering, so that everybody need attentively take care in order to perceive the pranks and tricks of such a camouflage and to raise the hiding place in which the force of suffering retires – namely: the process of thinking – into bright light of consciousness.
For a successful striving against suffering, thinking can become a mischief maker not to be underestimated, as you will know from many personal experiences. Nobody has the faculty of clearly thinking from the first moment on, the physical forces, sensation, perception, conception and becoming conscious are still but one chaotic pressing. Therefore the developing human – you, your own, the Buddha – looks instinctively for a secure, firm support. This offers itself with the experience of “I”. Everything seems to encourage him in this: I stand, I see, I hear, I think, I will, I can … “I” grows to be the great measure for life.
Soon, however, man learns that this measure is without a reliable scale. There are millions and millions of “I’s” who more or less have, or at least think they had, standards of their own which they want to employ and use successfully. This could perhaps be corrected by some organizing or educational endeavours. But in a short time these endeavours disclose themselves indeed as well meant, but impracticable. We can organize solely with the help of some secure, legitimate and reliable correlative. But most alarming is the statement that there is none. Hence the beloved, carefully cultivated and caressed “I” reveals itself as a highly recalcitrant quantity “X”. Sometimes this does not suit him, sometimes that; now he is too hot, now too cold; now things go too quickly, now to slowly; this moment he thinks himself well understood, the next fundamentally mistaken. In short, far from being a secure correlative, “I” becomes a plainly frantic chaos of heterogeneous desires: I will not get ill – and am getting ill; I will not get weary – and am falling down with fatigue; I am sick and tired of living – but I know not what life really means; I am ardently in search of the grand, the beautiful, the sublime – and, in my carelessness, “I” am overpowered by suffering in the form of joy, by the ugly in the form of the beautiful, by bad luck in the form of luck. And still, this great grotesque, this diabolic-satirical play is but a grandiose error sprung from wrong thinking and cognition. Quiet, objective consideration, however, shows that the individuality, this indivisible, inseparable occurrence of totality, affords a power stronger than that of suffering.
It endows with the faculty of practical seeing, a practical experiencing: “Soundness is the highest good and extinction of delusion is most sublime well-being, happiness, highest bliss” (Majjhima Nikaya 75).
Soundness that is vital energy attentively checked and gathered with the use of the sense organs and the five groups.
Extinction of delusion that is the state of liberation from the compulsive erroneous idea: this “I”, condensed in the conscious process, were mine, is myself. To see things like that, means to convulse the practice of the five groups, and the whole individuality and means senselessly opposing an incorruptible Lawfulness. If life could indeed be exhausted in nothing but the power of suffering the necessity of the transistoriness of the five groups would be the sole manifestation of life force. Neither of us would be here, then. Life would be one single frightful outcry from misery and pains. But it is not! For the force of suffering (as perishableness) has for its antithesis freedom from suffering (as immortality).
Confidence is the root of such practical knowledge, its basis being quiet, sensible envisaging of the reality. And yet, all the positive human faculties and forces would not suffice for the labour necessary here, were there not what is called “equalization” in the Buddha-Dharma – evolution, the unfolding of those faculties and forces. Having confidence means to examine this power of evolution carefully. It enables man to operate the strong and at times exceedingly strong force of evolution in thoughts, words and deeds for the benefit of himself, of others, of both of them.
Now, thinking, as you may often come to find, has two aspects: one of cognition and one of greed, the latter making man rather easily blind - face to face with reality. He cannot become aware of the fact that what he is taking for something constant, abiding – in short for his “I” – is but the culmination of the physical processes ever changing, arising and passing away, of sensation, perception, conception and of their compilation in the conscious process of “I”. Man cannot – or will not – see and understand that in the course of life-dynamics nothing static, steadfast is to be found and that the moment of consciousness always again brings about the delusion of “I am”. Though he is shown by reality with utmost clearness a permanent becoming and passing away; though to be born and to die are evidently the polar manifestations of the stream of “life” – man sticks to his illusion. Should he test himself in earnest he must agree that there cannot be made any valid, convincing objection against lawfulness and that it is rather the idea of his strong and wilful individuality could possibly be without essence, without substance, hollow and void which fills him with fear and anxiety. It is the erroneous thought: This “I”, this belongs to me; this is mine, which man takes for constant, for the very heart of his individuality. Whereas the present shows him in every phase of life that emptiness, nothing less the nought, is rather force.
The thought of “This is ‘I’, this is mine, this belongs to me” is so strong, rigid and comprehensive that it incessantly blocks the whole process of becoming-conscious. Here again every judicious person is offered a field of rich activity. The thought of “I am” has restlessness for its consequence. How could it be otherwise, since the strain of will (to make possible the impossible, to turn dynamic into static, arising and passing away into something permanent, into an immutable “I am”) must overcharge any human force potential, in the long run! The nervous system as well as metabolism is confronted with impracticable demands.
What can be done?
Not relax in the activation of will, energy, intelligence and reason! Carefully observe and control the physical process of breathing, though on no account practice childish trainings of respiration which, in the long run, would bring restlessness and disturb a perfect concentration of life force! Cut out every urge in restlessness, keep constantly at hand those four faculties and forces! Strive to become quiet and remain quiet!
Only then, the increasing emptiness, the emptiness of the conscious process will evolve into strong force of pacified thinking, of a higher happiness. Happiness flows through the whole organism, joy and stillness contribute to the strived for concentration of life force which is, at the same time, intensification of strength. The waving, restless ocean of thinking has lost its might. Under the control of attentiveness “the thoughts are coming consciously, consciously they are holding on, consciously they are fading away” (Majjhima Nikaya 123).
“Inner stillness” is not the silence of death from unconsciousness, not darkness. It is, on the contrary, the fair shining light of cognition in clear-consciousness. Then the sensible and judicious can see: “If this is – then that too; if this is not – than also not that” (Udana I, 3). Is this (namely the illusory thought “I am”) – then is that (namely liberation from suffering).
With attained stillness of thought the individual is free to survey the great string of efficacy, chain of efficacy, which the captive in “I am” sees as causality, as the Nidana chain or Paticca Samuppada. He does not consider that in transistoriness no “living” creative force is inherent. Creative power is embedded in transcendence, in the unfathomable, incomprehendable. Human creations are certainly manifestations of this transcendental power not to be defined. But they are subject to transistoriness. He who has stilled his thought sees furthermore that the illusive thought of “I am” is also ignorance. Is ignorance –then the three great processes of our individuality (breathing, speaking, thinking) are appealed to as “mine” and “belonging to me”. Likewise with the remaining parts of the Nidana Chain: “Are the three great processes of breathing, speaking, thinking – then is becoming-conscious. Is becoming-conscious – then the intellect divides the indivisible individuality into mind-corporeality. Is mind-corporeality - the six domains come to work. With these coming to work, contact is given. If there is contact, then thee is sensation. If there is sensation, then there is thirsting and craving. If there is thirsting and graving, then there is apprehension. If there is apprehension, then there is coming into existence. If there is coming into existence, then there is being born, and if there is this, then there is growing old, growing ill and dying (Samyutta Nikaya XII; Digha Nikaya XV).
For the captive of thinking, this indivisible life-suffering process always comes to pass under the compelling thought: that is “I”, that is mine, that belongs to me, namely this working string, this Paticca Samuppada. And it is all the same whether the series is looked at, valued and treated as 12, 10 and 8 links or as the two pole points only: coming into existence and dying. It is not solely a matter of methodical, intellectual knowledge but of the practical ending the illusive, compelling thought: this is I, this mine, this belongs to me. In other words, it is the matter of the realization of the anatta truth. Purely intellectual cognition is still hanging on and adhering, it is blocking evolution, the equilibrium of the saps and forces.
He who has been able to quiet down his thinking comprehends this working-chain as the greatest force in the world. He can see it thus, because he has experienced it himself. He who is under the spell of the illusory “I am” can but understand the simply unconquerable mass of suffering as alpha and omega, meaning and substance of his life. He knows well the shock produced by suspicion that this monumental building, this force-concentration of suffering – “I” – might fall in, might perish. Again, it is anxiety caused and fed by the right in it self notion of this structure of suffering to be hollow and empty! No doubt it is, but hollow and empty of “mine” and “belonging to me”. The total experience of emptiness is, in truth, liberation from spasm of thought and consciousness and no loss of force is connected with it.
Finally every Buddhist meditation serves to attain this emptiness.
Thus the founder of Chan and first Patriarch, the Indian Prince Bodhidharma, could answer the question of Emperor Wudi: “What is the Holy of Holiest in Buddhism?” with “There is nothing of holiness, it is emptiness”.
Without the very experience of both great forces, suffering and liberation of suffering, man can but face the flaring up of cognisance, whether flash-like or slowly developing, devoid of understanding and nearly helpless, seeking and reproachfully, complaining and accusing, until he is lived to see it. Then, he has definitely gone beyond Hinayana and Mahayana, Chan and Amithaba, Dharma and Abhidharma. Such a one has, to say it plainly and without pretention, gone the way of liberation from suffering with or like the Buddha. He has attained his end.
That is how I, in broad outline, see the Buddha-Dharma. That is how I have lived it since 37 years.
I hope my words might help you see that the Buddha-Dharma has, in truth, something to say to the man of our age. Its concern is, purely and simply, the human problem of the cognisance of suffering. And what age can do without that!
Let me finish with the brotherly Buddhist salutation:
Bliss and happiness to all sentient beings!