Who Am I? Reflections on Chan's Path
- By Fa Gong
- Mar 20
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Religion's ubiquitous "ism's" often leave me wondering about their relation to spiritual growth. I'm reminded of a famous Chan hua-toa, "If you don't really exist, why am I trying to save you?". Why, for example, if Buddhism and Taoism are merely ways of living in harmony with nature, and nature has us evolving toward enlightenment anyway, do we bother with "ism's" to hasten the progress? Perhaps we're instinctively wired to be involved in the process of nature - manipulating nature to maximize our own involvement in the process. It seems there are three ways to deal with nature: one is to let it work upon us (and I don't think a healthy human being is wired to be so passive); another is to completely try to override and dominate it (and that has always tended to be the norm, in religious terms, this is about philosophies that turn "The All" into a personal God, to be manipulated and bargained with); and the third is that we work with nature -- our evolving consciousness wedded to harmony with the world. And this, I speculate, is why we get involved with "ism's", involved both in a healthy way but also sometimes in a harmful way.
It seems quite important that we understand the difference between changing certain behaviors that are inappropriate verses changing who we are - my previous understanding of what was meant by "cultivation."
The popular notion of "change who we are … become better" is often associated with moral and religious perspectives - perspectives that are themselves locked into Samsaric realms. Kempis' great "Imitation of the Life of Christ" offers an example - but I begin to think the focus on "being different", or "better", somehow missed the point.
A famous Gestalt therapist wrote:
"It is a paradox that the more people try to be who they are not, the more they stay the same. Fundamental growth does not occur out of self-hate and self-rejection but rather from identification with the reality of who one is. The more one identifies with oneself, with one's state and one's traits, the more one can grow. . . . By accepting reality, energy that went into internal warfare can go into growth. People commonly inhibit growth by identifying with a false sense of self (eg. By identifying with a grandiose self-image) and/or being ashamed of the self as it is. Trying to actualize a false self keeps one from growing and being whole."
Religious extremists often seem to be victims of guilt, self-loathing and self-recrimination. Buddhism offers, in my view, a new light. The Path, which includes the precepts, is there precisely so that we never have to look at being different, being better, or feeling ashamed, guilty, or inadequate. In fact, the Path tells us to be precisely who we are. Completely. It tells us to avoid confusion, and to just take onboard a handful of specific reminders to help give us opportunities to grow spiritually along the way.
But essentially, it is a complete trusting in ourself, and who we are. We don't imitate Buddha, for his enlightenment is different from ours. We don't imitate Jesus for the same reason. We don't imitate any "higher" person; we don't behave in ways that are not us. Imitation serves only to take us away from ourselves. We just keep the precepts and trust in the Eightfold Path just as a young plant trusts in a trellis for support as it grows.
The Chan practice of "cultivation" requires that we completely discard trying to be something, or someone, we are not. We allow ourselves to be ourselves, as silly or irritating or embarrassing as it may seem. All that's going to emerge is truth … and ourselves. To try to imitate Christ, Buddha, or any social/religious image, merely reinforces the essential conditioning which tells us we are not good enough, we are imperfect, we are flawed.
To "cultivate" in the sense of imitation is the single greatest reinforcement of the single greatest illusion: that we don't have Buddha nature but must work hard to achieve it. In reality, we do have Buddha nature, and there's nothing to achieve except the inner realization of if. We just need to trust in it and keep the precepts and let nature do it's work.
Who is Buddhism for?
My feeling is that Buddhism should not be promoted as a faith for everyone. Buddhism is a path of last resort. The First Noble Truth, "Life involves suffering" is a mature observation, but an unhealthy belief, especially for young people.
Spending time reflecting on the issue of reincarnation is time spent trying to measure one's existence here and now through an abstract projection of the there and then. In Chan, it's an irrelevant distraction -- the ego's way of "being somewhere else." When a Chan teacher says "if you meet Buddha on the road, kill him! " he is referring to the importance of not forming attachments to others, however great they may be. "Buddha" here is an archetypal projection of all the hopes and dreams we have for the future, and for ourselves. Reincarnation, like the simple mental constructs of heaven and hell, is one of the biggest projections of all.
What we commonly, and mistakenly, assume to be the goal of our spiritual quest, is to be someone else, somewhere else. We think we will have reached the goal once we become that projected "someone else" of our ideals. Ironically, we start out that way but, if we keep with it, we end up back where we started -- the path always leads back home, back to being ourselves. Even Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is "here." If we are "here" too, we'll be in it!
Do we have any? Is anything we do anything other than the sum total of everything past? When we do, feel, or think anything, is it possible for us to have done, felt or thought anything else? Would that not have required a different set of precursors?
The Buddhist view is that we have not five, but six senses, and the sixth is mind itself. What is a sense? It is a way of perceiving, and receiving information. In Western culture, mind is a part of us -- it is us, in fact: "I think, therefore I am." In Buddhism, mind is a sense no different from our sense of touch or sight. Our thoughts do not come from us, they are received and perceived by us. We do not have thoughts, thoughts happen in our minds and we then perceive them. Our thoughts are no more "us" than the person we see, the apple we touch, or the noises we hear.
"We do not live life, life lives us." a teacher told me once. We think all our thoughts and feelings are expressions of who we are. We think that we are our thoughts, that we are our feelings. In fact, we are not. We perceive the thoughts and feelings that come along, as the result of our conditioning.
Yesterday I sat talking with a friend. Halfway through a point he was making, I decided I didn't much enjoy his company, and I didn't like what he had to say. The first and most typical explanation for this opinion would be simply that it just reflected who I was. In fact, as I examined this opinion that had just leapt into my mind, I traced it back to looking over his shoulder at a woman talking to a friend. I recalled she had used a certain mannerism to highlight a point she was making. On further reflection, it occurred to me that this was very similar to a mannerism an old girlfriend of mine had used when she was making opinions with which I disagreed, and which annoyed me.
In one quick and casual glance, a whole range of emotions had come to me. Conditioned responses, with which I was not immediately consciously aware, were the real cause of my sense of discomfort. Unknowingly, I assumed it was to do with my friend, and more importantly, with "who I was." Without awareness, I would just have thought: well, that's who I am. In fact, it was not me at all -- just a series of conditioned responses that arose when I saw something out of the corner of my eye!
Bodhidharma took his radical Chan message to Emperor Mu when he first arrived in China. "I have done all these great and wonderful things", said the Emperor. "I have opened orphanages, hospitals, schools and temples. What merit have I accrued for this?" Bodhidharma laughed, and replied "None at all."
Was he right? Could the Emperor have done anything other than what he did? No. And so merit could not accrue. And so, if before us we have a mass murderer, a rapist or a pedophile, can we say he is a bad person? Was it possible for this criminal to do anything other than what he did?
My grandmother used to tell me, "There are no such things as bad people, only people doing bad things."
The Bodhisattva Ideal
Is it pointless to try to grow, to develop, to improve ourselves if all our actions are pre-ordained and there is no merit to be gained?
We will do what we will do because such is the impetus behind us at the time. If we were to say "I will start my fitness training today, and I will swear off unhealthy food and exercise more", we will succeed or fail depending entirely on our past conditioning and habits, and our views about ourselves and our future.
If it is time for us to achieve that goal, we will. If it is not time, we won't. This doesn't mean we don't try -- trying itself is something we must do, when we feel the impetus to. Whether we succeed or not is another thing. We constantly try to change ourselves, but rarely do we succeed in any major way unless we put an immense amount of effort and willpower into it. But the reason we so often fail is that we are engaging the self to change the self. It is like pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. Not too effective! If we are not ready, we are not ready. Research indicates that nearly 98% of people who lose weight on diets put that weight back on, and usually more, within a year. A similar percentage of people who win huge amounts of money in the pools are back to where they started before too long. The conditioning and the views these people hold about themselves are far stronger than temporary changes in condition. The key to successful transformation is, as the Buddha taught, to relinquish our attachment to things, and especially to who it is we think we are. We detach rather than trying to take control, rather than trying to attain. Lao Tzu often emphasized this:
Never, I notice, succeed.
The world is a mysterious instrument not made to be handled.
Those who act on it, spoil it.
Those who seize it, lose it."
So we move forward as best we can, reaching toward the light between the branches to guide us out of the forest. We don't know where we're going but once we know how to recognize the signs that are so abundant once our eyes are open to them, we have a chance of discovering our own Buddha Nature, our own real Self.