Thursday, June 18, 2009

The lenses we use to see the world

Each culture collects, shapes, and transmits different ways of knowing, different ways of experiencing the world. We may refer to them as different metaphysical systems, different philosophies, or different world views. Some lenses are better for experiencing and understanding larger phenomena and expressing big picture notions. Others are useful for appreciating the details. Some have to do with intuition and others with the physical senses. Various religions are subtypes of lenses within a larger spiritual lens. Science is another kind of lens.

I have spent a significant portion of my life trying to find the correct lenses to properly examine or appreciate various phenomena and the ideas resulting from experiencing them. Some say that they have found a lens superior to all others, but they have always ended up revealing some kind of distortion. That is to be expected, since it is this distortion, this difference in magnification and reflection, that gives those who use them a distinct perspective. But is there a lens that we all can share? Is there a lens that we can always use, even while using other lenses for particular tasks?

Having searched the stores of human wisdom, so far only one perspective recommends itself. The only universal lens is LOVE - agape, caritas, bodhicitta. And the good news is we don't need to find or shape such a lens. It is a part of all of us, and it is always clear and unscratched, if we have the courage to look.


Which reminds me of a section of the Platform Sutra of HuiNeng. After a figure named Bodhidharma went to China he became widely regarded as a great Buddhist master who could directly see and act upon the true nature of things, which is to say he had realized and actualized the teachings on form and emptiness. Form here refers to phenomena, including anything we can perceive with our senses or conceptualize in our minds; emptiness refers to lack of intrinsic or inherent qualities, that is, it refers to the fact that all form is inter-dependent and transient. Emptiness also refers to potential, the potential upon which existence is based. Hence all forms are interconnected through cause and effect by way of emptiness. The upshot is that all things, including all people and every moment, are fleeting and unique, irreplaceable and therefore valuable beyond measure; it also implies a fundamental equality of all people as well.

Bodhidharma was recognized as the first Patriarch or Ancestor of Chan (which became Zen in Japan). All ordained Chan or Zen teachers trace their lineage of Dharma Transmission back to the Patriarchs. According to the Platform Sutra, an illiterate country bumpkin named HuiNeng was in the market one day when he heard someone recite part of the Diamond Sutra, a dense text on the teachings of the Buddha, and instantly woke up to being enlightened. He eventually had an audience with the Fifth Patriarch, who recognized HuiNeng's insights but sent him to work in the monastery's kitchen pounding rice, ostensibly to avoid jealousy from his long time students. When we was ready to name a successor the Fifth Patriarh asked all of his students to write a verse showing their awareness of the Buddha's insight, warning them that pondering and reflecting would do no good, that it had to come from the very moment it was composed.

The less senior students decided to defer to Shen Hsiu, the most senior student of the Patriarch. Shen Hsiu wrote a verse which other students began to recite, and one day Hui Neng heard it from the kitchen and upon learning of the test, asked to write a verse of his own (or because he was an illiterate rice pounder to have someone write it for him). Below is verse written by Shen Hui, followed by the verse written by Hui Neng. While Shen Hui's version reflects a conventional understanding of form, Hui Neng's reply demonstrates his grasp of emptiness. Hui Neng would be named the successor and become the much celebrated Sixth Ancestor/Patriarch of Chan (or Zen).

The body is a Bodhi tree,
The mind like a bright mirror stand.
Time and again brush it clean,
And let no dust alight.

Originally Bodhi has no tree,
The bright mirror has no stand.
Originally there is not a single thing:
Where can dust alight?

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