“stopping” words

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We have a danger before us – in this practice – in that, despite what the Heart Sutra and other teachings tell us, we think there is something to be gained from this practice. We think, as Greg mentioned to me once, there’s a carrot out in front of us, and we’re the donkeys, and we’re chasing after the carrot. And many of us call the carrot awakening, or enlightenment, or clarity, or something that we think we don’t already have. And something that we can get, that we can gain, through sitting on the floor, or in the chair, or having our knees hurt, or whatever it is that we experience during the physical exercise of our practice.

What I’d like to put before you this evening is that there are words in our language, particularly if we’re engaged in this kind of spiritual practice, that can actually present obstacles to our continuing openness and exercise of our practice. And two of the most notable of those words are awakening and enlightenment.

We tend to take those as destinations, as the end of the journey, as some place like the top of Mount Everest (although you can reach the top of Mount Everest if you’re crazy enough to set out on the journey). And we kind of have to be crazy to set out on this journey, too, especially if we set ourselves some imaginary goal or imaginary ending point that we want to reach. And these are what Zen Master Albert Low called “stopping” words – words that stop us in our quest, our journey along the path.

Here’s a selection from Albert Low’s book Zen and the Sutras. He’s talking about a selection from the Diamond Sutra which, along with the Heart Sutra, some people have called the quintessence of Buddhist teaching. It’s not that long; it’s not hard to read. And you might want to check it out. The Diamond Sutra is basically a dialogue between the Buddha and his disciple, Subhuti. The Sutra says,

Buddha also asks Subhuti: “Has the Tagathata (meaning has Buddha) attained the consummation of incomparable awakening?” And Subhuti responds, “No.”

It’s almost like asking, “does a dog have Buddha nature?” This first koan in the Mumonkan has a monk asking that question of Joshu, to which the Master responds, “No.”

Albert Low writes that “consummation of incomparable awakening” could be said to be the goal of Buddhist practice. How then can Subhuti say that Buddha has not attained awakening? How can the founder of Buddhism – this whole approach to living, which is what it is more than a philosophy, more than a religion, it’s an approach to living or a living experience (at least in my view) – how can Buddha not, according to Subhuti, have attained awakening?

Then Low says: “awakening suggests something final, and absolute. The idea of attaining suggests that one goes from a state of deficiency to a state of fulfillment.” So, he’s saying that if we use the word “awakening” and try to set that up as the destination for what we’re trying to do, that means that we are somehow today, now, in this moment deficient, and that there is something that we can gain, we can attain. Awakening, however, is beyond all conception, and can be neither final, nor temporary. So that means awakening, in those terms, is something that’s not even an end. It’s not something that we can expect to attain before we die.

Today, in this moment, absolutes are imposed by language. We must see through the “stopping power” (he puts that in quotes) of words in order to be free from them. And this includes words such as awakening and enlightenment. He’s telling us is that if we come to this practice with the expectation of attaining some state of superhuman, super-spiritual experience of being alive, we are effectively cutting ourselves off at the knees, because we’ve set up some goal, some destination, some endpoint, some image, some intimation, some picture of where we think we need to be, in order to have a full experience of being alive, of being here, of being with one another, of being in the world. We set that up, and can we ever get there? Because after all, where is there?

If we conjure up in our minds and in our beings some image of what an awakened or an enlightened person is or looks like then what have we done? We’ve just painted a picture. You know, we’ve painted ourselves as some, I don’t know. Some Denzel Washington or some Halle Berry or some Elizabeth Taylor or some Tyrone Power, some Dalai Lama or some Desmond Tutu, or some other person that perhaps we know, some person that we’ve run into or that we admire. And what is that? That’s just that person’s experience in his or her only own everyday life. And as another koan says, it’s not about setting up some imaginary end. It’s about everyday mind. It’s about ordinary mind. It’s not anything exciting, necessarily, or earth-shaking or earth shattering. It’s just everyday mind. And if we can keep that in mind, then we never close ourselves off to possibility.

And I think that’s what this practice is all about: keeping ourselves open to possibility. And possibility is infinite. I don’t say possibilities, although possibilities may be out there for all of us. But the whole notion or paradigm of possibility is boundless. It’s endless. If we try to define what possibility looks like by giving it a name, such as awakening or enlightenment, if we try to characterize something that somebody says is a teaching, then we’ve set up something that’s not even in ourselves. How do you recognize the truth of what is being said? All that words, and therefore teachers, can do is reflect back to you your own light.

Now, this may be unsatisfying to us. We may want to really taste that carrot that somebody’s dangling in front of us. But what we ultimately discover, as we take these steps along the path that we’ve chosen to walk – what we ultimately discover is that the truths we’re seeking are already resident within us, and within everybody else. We discover those truths underneath all our conditioning, and all our definitions, and all the images that we may conjure up inside ourselves. Those truths are the same among all of us. And we already have them. We already know them, we already are those truths.

So, it’s not that we can’t have a reason to come and sit here for an hour or an hour and a half, or several days if we’re on retreat, not that we can’t have something that we’re longing for, or seeking after. It’s okay to have that in our minds. And yet, we have to be careful not to try to set up some kind of concrete goal that we name as awakening or enlightenment or kensho or whatever we want to call it, because as soon as we name it, we limit it. We block ourselves off from the openness that is possible for us to experience. If we can take those boundaries off, if we can remove the definition, if we can dissolve the image, or the boundaries of the image that we set up, we remove the limits.

So, this is just about recognizing the power of “stopping” words, words like awakening or enlightenment or a teaching or truth, or whatever. What’s incumbent upon us is to remain open to the realization which comes from inside, the realization of what our true nature, what our true being or not being, is about – what it is. What is it that makes us up? Who am I? What am I? What is the world? What is the sound of one hand? What is mu? What is the source of mu? What is my face before my parents were born? All of those totally nonsensical questions that have no meaning to our left brain, to our intellectual selves. We have to recognize that for us to even engage those notions, we must remain open to possibility – the possibility of a world that has no edges, of an experience that has no edges, no boundaries, as Ken Wilber termed it.

So that’s my offering for the night. “Stopping” words: awakening, enlightenment. Beware!