November 24, 2014

Musings on the Corpse & the Skandhas

One of the challenges of Chan is that many students are often fatally handicapped by needing to have at least some degree of intellectual satisfaction before they will consider letting the intellect drop. Perhaps this is one of the occasions that Buddha referred to as requiring "skilful means" in teaching. While the "answer" to this hua tou is simply to disregard the possibility of a rational answer and to "turn the light within," perhaps some preliminary examination and response to the question from the perspective of the questioner is helpful.

I was once asked "doesn't asking the question 'who drags the corpse' imply a false duality between the body and the mind?"

Of course, at one level the question simply points to the limitations of semantics, and the very reason why Chan so characteristically dismisses such questions. In this world, our senses (including our "sixth sense", the discriminating mind) are the measure of all we know and perceive; they are therefore unable to address, much less answer, questions relating to the unknowable Absolute. Many Chan masters responded to such questions in their own distinctive manner: a slap, a hit, a shout of "kwatz!" Or maybe an instruction to wash their bowl if they had finished their rice . . .

These responses, of course, presupposed an appropriate "point of contact" between the enlightened teacher and the student who was approaching "sudden illumination." Sadly, I did not sense I was enlightened nor did I sense my friend was approaching that point of illumination. So at the risk of "being the shepherd who counts another's sheep," as Buddha referred to the unenlightened teacher who presumes to direct another to enlightenment, I reflected upon an appropriate response.

The most direct response was to point out that the question was no more than a distraction, an intellectual diversion thrown up by the ego which wanted to think truth could be found in the realm of samsara, in the presumption of "this" over "that," of "right" over "wrong," of "enlightenment" over "unenlightenment." The hua tou of "who drags the corpse" is a sword designed to pierce all this, a keen blade for cutting through to the heart of "who".

One of the challenges of Chan is that many students are often fatally handicapped by needing to have at least some degree of intellectual satisfaction before they will consider letting the intellect drop. Perhaps this is one of the occasions that Buddha referred to as requiring "skilful means" in teaching. While the "answer" to this hua tou is simply to disregard the possibility of a rational answer and to "turn the light within," perhaps some preliminary examination and response to the question from the perspective of the questioner is helpful.

My friend's questioning may well have led to a dismissal of the hua tou as a question unworthy of consideration if this premise of duality went unexamined. Sometimes Right View must be attended to before Right Meditation is embarked upon.

So, does the hua tou imply a duality between mind and body? The "corpse" referred to in the question does not simply refer to the physical body. As we practice this hua tou regularly, we soon realize that it's not simply the responses to (and identification with) the sensations of the body "dragged" by this ineffable "who," but also the ideas and thoughts that arise from this bodily consciousness. The Buddhist "sixth sense," mind, is also a part of this body, a part of this corpse. As all the six senses come together on this hua tou, a curious thing happens: we "see" the who and the corpse as the same thing - the duality vanished. The sense of an individual self vanished. It's this realization of unification that we are meantto find by this practice.

An integral aspect of the essential reality of "no self" is realizing that our form is not a unified and permanent whole, but a collection of interacting attributes that come together and move apart; a fluid but impermanent relationship of aspects. In Buddhist terminology, these aspects are referred to as the five skandhas -- "heaps" or "aggregates". The "corpse" that we carry is the totality of these temporarily-bonded skandhas.

But what exactly are these skandhas? Firstly, there is physical form (rupa), which needs little description. Secondly, there are our feelings (vedana), our emotions and passions. Thirdly, there are our perceptions (samjna), our tendency to notice, to label, to describe, and to perceive. Fourthly, there are our mental formations(samskaras) which are more difficult to describe, but might be recognized as ideas and beliefs which are formations based on feelings and perceptions, which create attitudes and perspectives unique to us. Finally, there is consciousness itself (vijnana). To describe this with any justice would certainly entail a long essay (if not a book) in its own right, but for our purposes we can refer to it as the personal storehouse of psychological energy and awareness that we refer to as "our own." It enlivens and animates the other four skandhas.

Together, these skandhas change, interact, coalesce and create the personal sense of "I." It is this manufactured "I," identifying with the corpse, that the evasive "who" of the hua tou hides behind.

Looked at this way, the skandhas are this corpse. There is no duality between body and mind in this hua tou. Body and mind are all part of this corpse, and the deepening examination of "who" it is that enlivens this corpse reveals a nexus of awareness that seemingly both transcends and "indwells" this body, this mind, these perceptions and feelings, this limited personal consciousness. The duality is, like all dualities, apparent: a product of our perception (one of the skandhas). This "who" is not a part of the personal self. It is not anything. It is a vajra sword, a technique to cut through to Absolute Mind. We use the word "who" as we look within, but we know we will not find anyone. How could we? Anything found would simply be another entity, another being limited by its own point of reference, its own beginning and end. But we ask "who," wielding this vajra sword, to pierce deeper into the Mind that lies within/behind our own personal self.

Where might this hua tou practice lead us as we continue to turn it over and over?

Every moment of every day, and not simply in seated meditation, reality -- the universe itself -- asks us this hua tou. Who are we? Who is it that responds to each thought, each perception, each feeling? The answer cannot be any of the skandhas for we are not our bodies, ideas, perceptions, forms or changing energies. There is something that lies beyond, and within. Who?

As we ask "who drags this corpse" and as we look deeper into this space of unknowing, we find that as our focus deepens, our words, and the corpse, falls away. Finally we are left with just who? And then ...

Disregarding self-image and self-satisfaction, avoiding hopes, dreams and fears, vanquish all memories of the past and thoughts of the future - recognize that they are all illusion. Then ask, without hesitation:

Who?

This is the practice.

May all beings be happy
May all being be free from suffering