Meaningless Meaning

Cherry Blossoms Nembutsu91

“ A reporter from a local newspaper came to our house to interview my wife about the Japanese tea ceremony. This report continually asked, “What is the meaning? What for? Why do you do that? What is the purposes for that?” This kind of question was directed at everything in the making tea – at every gesture, every implement. Without thinking or deliberating, my wife finally replied, “No meaning. Meaningless meaning. It is purposeless purpose.”  – Gyomay Kubose

Purposeless purpose, Meaningless meaning, what does this mean? I have been finding the syntactical structure a lot lately, effortless, effort, purposeful purposelessness, etc. So I have been thinking about this for a little while now and even though it made an abstract sense when I first read it, I wanted to dig a little deeper. I love the story of the reporter and Sensei Gyomay’s wife. I can see both of them talking past each other. I think there maybe two aspects of meaning and purpose, one a utilitarian aspect and another a more existential or religious aspect.

The reporter, in our above quote seems to me to be trying to understand the utilitarian purpose of each act. It would be similar to a reporter asking a dancer what is the purpose of all those gyrations across the stage when you could simply walk across it. As if the purpose of dancing was simply locomotion, as if the purpose of the tea ceremony was to make a cup of tea., which it is but which it isn’t. A utilitarian perspective, that everything must have a purpose, is binding and stifles creativity, it can’t transcend its objective of “finding purpose” and value is then only found utility.

Is it that we are looking to get past meaning and purpose because meaning or purpose are dualistic? When we get past the conceptual binds of purpose and meaning do we then find being? Is it through the embrace of meaninglessness, tapping into the spontaneous outflow that we are free to experience being? Are Meaning and Being paradoxically within the meaninglessness? D.T. Suzuki wrote that, Maybe then, religion is a way to experience an expansive “being- ess”.“It may sound strange to hear that one can…live in purposelessness. Everything we do in life has a purpose, but in the religious realm we become conscious of realizing purposelessness, meaningless meaning and meaning itself.” allowing us to get past conceptual meaning to experience non-conceptual being-ness? True Being, living in naturalness, is like what Gyomay Sensei writes, “… the flower itself cannot help but bloom as it does – there is no intention,” “When you love you love. There is no purpose. Why do you ask for meaning? Is this spontaneous activity the ground of pure being? Here is something I read regarding this same idea in regards to Amida Buddha from D.T. Suzuki,

“Meaningless meaning is this: there was no telelogical intention on the part of Amida when he made his 48 vows . Everything expressed in them was the spontaneous outflow of his great boundless compassion, he great compassionate heart, embracing everything and extending to the farthest end of the universe.”

Again in the words of Gyomay Sensei, “… the flower itself cannot help but bloom as it does – there is no intention,” “When you love you love. There is no purpose. Why do you ask for meaning? There is just doing, effortless doing. This reminds me of the Chinese Wei wu wei, or action without action, effortless doing. I have heard that the enso of Zen is the representation of wu wei.

Here is the same teaching from the Post Modern composer John Cage but instead to the Tea Ceremony he is applying the same concepts to writing music,

What is the purpose of writing music? One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds. Or the answer must take the form of a paradox: a purposeful purposeless or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life–not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.”

~John Cage

Also in the teaching of Emanuel Kant who believed that the thing that makes beauty, beauty is not purposiveness…but something’s ultimately being without a purpose.

Meaningless meaning makes intuitive sense to me , it is a way to free meaning from the conceptual to the experiential. The experimental is valued over the conceptual, in the Mahayana and I like the way that this idea is applies to the nembutsu by D.T. Suzuki wrote that,

“ Namu-Amida-Butsu” is “meaningless meaning,” and if we try to give it some kind of meaning, or start to think that some significance should exist within it, then the six-syllable Name is no longer one’s own, and floats away up to the highest clouds.”

And as I recently heard in talk given by Dr. Mark Blum, that the illogic of the nembutsu is its logic. So there is something profound in this construction.

May we all embrace the meaningless meaning, the purposeless purpose, the effortless effort and the logic of the illogical.

May it be so,

My Blind Self: a poem

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vii.

 

My blind self
pierced by Amida’s light
illuminated and dissolved
into the great ocean of compassion

into the Oneness of life –
Palms together, embraced

just as I am.
Each step with the Buddha,
my truest self, my Amida self –

the deep flow of the oneness of realty –
all beings one with me,
palms together

and bowing,
 

“namu amida butsu,”
“namu amida butsu,”

embraced just as I am.

The Bowing Bodhisattva

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One of my favorite parts of the Lotus Sutra is the story of Bodhisattva Never Disparaging.  This Bodhisattva was said to have lived in the mythic past and he did not devote his time to reading or reciting the scriptures, but simply went about bowing to people,  bowing in reverence to everyone he met and honoring their inherent Buddha nature.   We don’t know his real name because Never Disparaging was a title given to him by others as a dig because he always would bow deeply and say, “I have profound reverence for you, I would never dare treat you with disparagement or arrogance.. “ and then bow again.  I can imagine him walking up to people today on the street and bowing, “ I bow to the Buddha nature within you, one day you too will be a Buddha.”  We would probably name him Crazy Bowing Guy Bodhisattva.

 

The practice of gassho illustrated in this story, the honoring of others inherent Buddha nature, is essence of the way of oneness and can be applied not just to other people but to all things. The practice of bowing is a tangible practice that can help us cultivate a non-dichotomous reality when we come to understand that,  “The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are the same.”  It can also help us realize the interdependent nature of all things and is the true spirit of namu amida butsu.

 

I have a friend who practices bowing. One example he shared was that whenever he exists a street car or bus he bows to the driver to thank them – some smile but most ignore him or wave him off.  The same was true for Bodhisattva never Disparaging but even worse.  According to the Lotus Sutra not everyone was appreciative and some would get so angry they would try to hurt him.  I remember times in my past that I didn’t want others to tell me how good I was or about my “potential” mostly because I was doing certain things that were far from where I wanted to be. It would make me realize how far I had fallen. Like Dulcinea in Don Quixote who curses him because of his respect and courtly love for her only makes  her suffering greater because it now she has become so much more aware of being nothing more than a prostitute.

 

Many of us suffer from inferiority complexes, self-hate, feelings of worthlessness and a constant mantra of harmful self-talk.  We may have compassion  for others  but rarely does it reach back to ourselves.  Because of this it can be hard to see the inherent goodness within ourselves or acknowledge the reality of our own capacity for evil.  We build our identities  around so many false narratives, that our “self”  is nothing more than a teetering house of cards.  When something challenges those narratives we push away not wanting to acknowledge it, we retreat into our self-imposed ignorance.  This does not stop our Bodhisattva from bowing.  allowing his humanity to shine forth upon us.  He is still bowing toward us. Maybe he knows that the simplest things can get passed the myriad of landmines we place to protect our egos, knowing that arguments, judgements, reasoning, will never be as effective as a heartfelt, humble bow of a Bodhisattva.   With humble compassion and without judgement, Never Disparaging Bodhisattva invites us to realize our Buddha-nature welcoming us,  as he helps us to realize  “The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are the same.”  He is bowing right now before each of us,

 

“ I have profound reverence for you, I would never dare treat you with disparagement or arrogance. Why? Because you are all practicing the bodhisattva way and are certain to attain Buddhahood.”  Lotus Sutra – Chapter 20

 

Not knowing is the most intimate.

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From a young age many of us are afraid to be someone who doesn’t know. Maybe we are afraid to be seen as dumb and therefore unacceptable, so we wing it and hope the other person doesn’t see that we actually don’t have a clue. This is not just anecdotal, studies have shown that when children are giving unanswerable questions, they makeup answers, to seem like they know rather than to be found not knowing. This habit sticks with as we grow up, for some of us they become the three hardest words to say. We all know that feeling; usually half way through, when we realize we really have no clue what we are saying and how much easier it would have to simply say, “ I don’t know”. Instead we find ourselves five years old again, dancing around with our made up answers, again hoping no one will notice.

To act as a “knower” is fraught with challenges and pitfalls. Deciding that we know this is the way it is.”….. has a tendency to close us off to a myriad of other possibilities. We become fixed in our ideas and perceptions, our world gets smaller and smaller. Another problem with knowing and being afraid of not knowing, is we can never really be confident that what we know is reality. To paraphrase Mark Twain. “…they think they know something that just ain’t so.”

To be clear, the knowing I am referring to is not confusion or paralyzing doubt and it is not knowing in opposition to not knowing as in not knowing the capital of Nebraska, or even a set of propositions such as the four noble truths. When I say “I don’t know” I am talking the spirit of openness and curiosity a “I don’t know! Let’s find out!” or “Let’s keep going and see what happens,” it is the not knowing of faith. Suzuki Roshi wrote in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “With beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert mind there are few.” Beginner’s mind is the essence of not knowing”. For those trapped in “knowing” the vista is limited, the questions are answered, all is settled, the world is fixed, but in the end, the light at the end of the tunnel is not more knowledge but the Dukkha Express and it is coming fast.

So how can we cultivate the non-dual spirit of “I don’t know”? The first thing is to simply being willing to not know, to let go of the knowing. I have found the world is lighter when I am free of having to know, I am more patient, less stressed, open. Here are two concrete things we can do to cultivate the not knowing.

First there is a good practice suggested by Buddhist teacher, Gil Fronsdal, is to attach “I don’t know” to as many thoughts as possible. For example, when thoughts arise like, this is good or this is bad or I can’t handle this; these become, I don’t know if this is good or I don’t know if this is bad or I don’t know if I can’t handle this. As he says, “the phrase “I don’t know” questions the authority of everything we think.” It allows us to be free of fixed ideas, it can create curiosity and allows an openness to creativity.” He goes on to say that this simple phrase can help us challenge tightly held beliefs and can “pull the rug out from under our most cherished beliefs.” Not knowing opens the world to us, it makes a way for us to be compassionate, patient, kind, honest and help cultivate equanimity.

The last thing that we can do to cultivate the essence of “I don’t know” is bowing. James Ishmael Ford has written about not knowing and how it relates to the act of bowing.

“Don’t know. Not knowing. That is the ancient spiritual practice of bowing in a nutshell…The bow, I suggest, can open our hearts, can take us places we never dreamed of, to a palpable, transformative, endless world of possibility called not knowing. This is what I really want to underscore: this not knowing has endless creative possibilities, to throw in another metaphor, one or two simply aren’t enough for this place, this moment when we surrender to not knowing, when we bow to life: we discover a well that apparently is bottomless, bubbling with life-giving waters.”

I raise my hands in gassho and bow to each of you.

I would like to close with the words of Zen teacher of the 9th century, Dizang, “not knowing is most intimate.”

Namu Amida Butsu.

Spiritual Community and Spiritual Ego

339N09319_7XC5Q-1050x700As a fellowship we and focus on similar values and ideals that we see and feel as important, worth while.  We also look for commonalities within and without the group. We find strength and refuge in our common values and ideas.   At the same time in expressing and practicing these commonalities, we also identify those that are different than our own, we separate ourselves and may even set ourselves up to be somehow better than the other group or at least not as “self-righteous”. I think this is what Shinran is speaking about when he talks about us being “foolish beings”  When we  really look at such comparisons, we realize that it is the same type of spiritual egotism  thing that we are trying to distance ourselves from.   Rev. Roland K. Tatsuguchi, in referring to Shinran’s teaching has written that. “Our efforts to do good, upon deep reflection, are constantly tainted by our pretentious spiritual egoism, regardless of whether we be monks or ordinary householders.”   The “ego” separates us from others and is an obstacle to compassion, the same is true of our spiritual egotism.

Let me give an example.  When our Sangha was just starting a friend was participating with us and he and his girl friend really like the community.  Then he stopped coming.  I asked him why and he said in effect,  because you are like all the others, you think your way is the better way and people were disrespectful of others’ Christian’ beliefs, even laughing at some of the things others believe.    I remember being confounded by this comment, then after talking with Linnea I came to realize my own blind spots.  It wasn’t that anyone was being outright mocking or even demeaning, but there was this general attitude that our way is better, and then  there was laughter.  It is good to remember that laughter can heal and laughter can hurt. Remember being laughed at as a child?

I don’t think that anyone meant to come across that way or meant to hurt anyone.   Many of us come from different traditions, and for some it may feel more of an “escape” from a tradition.  Some of us were deeply wounded by the experience and in expressing our own issues, wounds, experiences, our self justifications, our blind passions, we may unknowingly come across as intolerant or even be intolerant.

Honen and Shinran taught us about our foolish natures, that we are full of blind passions.  I think sometimes these can be manifested in our collective group thinking.  We want to be special or at least not like those who have hurt us.  Don’t get me wrong, I think that is helpful to feel a tradition, a  path or belief is the best way to lead one’s life, at the same time it is important to understand that this “path” is not the only way to express the oneness of compassion.

There was a Jodo Shin minister who had the kanji for “fool” engraved on one of his prayer beads to always remember his true state.  I think this is a great example of a humble attitude, to be aware of our “spiritual ego”.  It is hard to see that even our attachment to our  “foolishness” and trusting in Other-power instead of Self-power can also become  a “spiritualized ego”.  The idea that Shinran is better and more humble, because Shinran called himself a fool, and depended only on Other-power instead of hours and hours of meditation can be just as much of an attachment to a “spiritual ego”.  I know that this is something I need to work on.

I want to remember that I too am a foolish being, that I will get it wrong a bunch of times,  and As Jeff Wilson has written

 “  There is one advantage to realizing that you’re never going to get it right: you do begin to stop expecting everyone else to get it right too, which makes for less frustration when other people turn out to be just as human as you are.” 

This can be applied to those outside of our sangha and to each of us within our sangha.

Here is something I found written by Sebo Ebbens.  It expresses what I think is an ideal for a spiritual community and something for us to practice.

“To me what’s important is that I want the sangha to be a spiritual community where we support each other in following our own path, in our practice as well as in our daily lives, while maintaining respect for each other’s personal paths. Our path is a difficult one. It is a solitary path. But if we are members of the sangha, this is the path we have chosen. In that sense the sangha is a spiritual community and not just a social club. The sangha does not function as a spiritual community if we can no longer say what we think because that isn’t done. Or where we can hide behind what is done or not done or behind what someone else says. We develop for ourselves what is done and what is not, within our own tradition. That makes us a living spiritual sangha… The principal characteristic of the community is that it helps you to realize your human potential and to express yourself in the real world, whether within or without the community.

May we honor each and every journey with respect, honor and compassion and may we be compassionate and humble traveling companions.

 Namu Amida Butsu. 

Christopher  “Myoshin”  Ross-Leibow   –  Practice Leader