“If you do not give up on the way, another lamp of the law will be lit.” This is a sentence from The World a Gateway.
When the teacher dies, it is a great temptation to give up on the way. It is difficult enough with a teacher, how can one manage without one?
In Zen and the Sutras it says a teaching can help us to challenge our fixed assumptions, above all the fixed assumption that we must have a teacher…
When I read Nirsagardata saying that “our only problem is a case of mistaken identity: we think we are an individual, a person, when we are not an individual, we are intrinsically always and only the Absolute,” laughter came. It is either laugher or tears. But I think it could help, if one approaches the koans with the openness of humour, instead of gritted teeth and clamped fists.
I would like to recommend the chapter on the Vimalakirti sutra in Zen and the Sutras. It is said that the mind can set you free, I wonder if it would not be more exact to say that humour, an aspect of the mind, can set you free. Often, when a person comes to awakening, they burst into laughter.
Here is a taste of the humour in the chapter on the Vimalakirti sutra: At one time Buddha fell sick and asked Ananda to get some milk for him. Ananda took the begging bowl and went to get some. He knocked on a door and Vimalakirti answered it. Ananda told him the body of the Lord was sick and needed some milk. Vimalakirti answered: “ Reverend Ananda, you must not say such a thing. The body of the Tathagata is as tough as a diamond because he has got rid of all the instinctual traces of evil, and is just filled with goodness. How could disease or discomfort affect such a body?”
When Ananda heard this he wondered if he had misunderstood the Buddha. But then he heard a voice from the sky say: “Ananda, what the householder said was true. Nevertheless, since the Buddha has appeared during difficult times, he uses his skilful means to appear as an ordinary person in order to teach others. Please get me the milk.”
At another time Buddha wants one of his disciples to visit Vimalakirti to ask after his health. His illustrious entourage all offer, one after another, their excuses for not being able to go to visit the sharp eyed and sharp tongued layman. Finally Manjusri agrees to go. Then all the others fall in behind him to go along: eight thousand bodhisattvas, five hundred disciples and hundreds of thousands of gods and goddesses. Sariputra, who was with Vimalakirti, on hearing of these numbers, blurted out that they did not have enough chairs, – an understatement if ever there was one. And, he asked, where would they get food to feed them. Isn’t that perfect? Chairs and food, leaving no attention for the dharma, the exchanges between the layman and his visitors. How often is our attention on chairs and food when something ineffable is being offered?
In the question “who am I?” the purpose of the word who is to encourage you to bring prajna to bear. The question is an invitation to arouse the mind without resting it on anything. The questioning is the arousing, the arousing is emptiness. The questioning is not a formulation of a concept; the question is empty. One cannot rest upon anything. It is not so much that one has a question but that one questions. One does not try to answer the question, but rather arouses the need to know.
The above paragraph is one of those ineffable offerings it is so easy to miss, momentarily distracted by an itch, a pain, hunger. Manjusri and Vimalakirti talk about emptiness; Manjusri asks, “Where should emptiness be sought?” Vimalakirti replies, “Emptiness should be sought among the sixty-two convictions you have.” These convictions are all our everyday opinions, expectations, knowing what I know, what everyone knows, and so on.
Words give the illusion of separate and distinct things. They are a self-defense mechanism that defends us against the abyss of ourselves without any support, ourselves as intrinsically empty. Our practice is to awaken the faith that we do not need support.
We need not be afraid of emptiness. It is not an extinction of anything. We loose nothing in coming to awakening except our illusions. Although awakening is sometimes referred to as a death, it is the death of what separates us from ourselves and gives us pain. It is the death of death. Everything is fulfilled in awakening.
Albert introduces humour right at the beginning of the book, but a special type of humour: irony. He says that some parts of the sutras as well as Zen koans, can be called spiritual irony. Vimalakirti used irony, giving two seemingly contradictory teachings to someone to digest at the same time. No wonder nobody wanted to go ask after his health. If you don’t see the humour, it can be very painful, as those who have sat locked up in a koan can attest. We have irony in the paragraph above, where Vimalakirti says to look for emptiness in our everyday opinions and expectations, the constant running on of thoughts in our minds, when it seems that it is these very thoughts that are stopping us from seeing into emptiness, these very thoughts that we want to escape. Just as Joshu was told that everyday mind is the way when he wanted so badly to escape from that everyday mind.
We all want to earn merit for what we do. To be told, like Emporer Wu, ‘no merit, nothing to acquire, no resting place,’ is enough to ruin our day, if not our whole life. The sutra urges us to change our focus and see that ‘no merit’ is freedom, ‘nothing to acquire’ is freedom, and ‘no place to rest’ is freedom.