This is Part I of a series of posts I plan to write inspired by a recent article at Lion’s Roar by Norman Fischer (here). The article is called, Everything is Made of Mind.
I recommend the article because it’s full of ideas that even today have a contested place and controversial history in East Asian Buddhism. I also recommend it because Norman Fischer presents these ideas in a masterful and thought provoking way.
Everything is Made of Mind?
Between you and me, I’m not sure at all about what everything is made of.
Yet, one of the reasons I enjoyed reading Everything is Made of Mind and why I continue to think about the claims it makes is because the article deftly summarizes a current of theory in Mahayana Buddhism that grew up around a ramifying family of concepts that are distinctive of the schools of East Asian Buddhism. And this current of theory is important to practice today.
This family of concepts includes the ideas of Original Enlightenment, Tathagatagrabha, One Mind, and Buddha Nature. Everything is Made of Mind presents this current of philosophically complex and historically contested theory in a little more than two pages. I think this is one of the articles strengths and weakness. And yet it is impressive.
Another thing I like about the article is that Norman Fischer states that despite the fact that his interpretation of The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana seems to suggest that “we give up practice altogether and somehow suddenly leap out of what we experience as suffering…”, he concludes that if we were to act on this seeming, we’d be mistaken because, he insists, “the entire culture of practice is necessary.”
Mostly, I like this article because reading it somehow shook me out of a kind of complacency. Its ideas have challenged me to think and write and speak more clearly about my take on what Mahayana theory means to practice.
Somehow it has forced me to think about the roll of suffering in life, teaching, and practice, and about my notion of enlightenment, and vow, with a new sense of urgency. In this sense, Everything is Made of Mind has been a gift.
Like a Tiny Drop of Dew, Reality is Funny That Way (Part I)
As I read the teachings or the Nikayas and Sutras, one of the Buddha’s key liberating insights is that it’s not possible to get a definitive handle on something called reality. Certainly not by way of words and concepts. My reading and study suggest that humanity will never enjoy consensus about what reality is, what it is ultimately made of, or on what it ultimately means. “Reality” is funny that way.
On the other hand, we humans seem to be able to successfully say quite a bit about how the stuff we meet up with in life works. So, we are interested in how the suffering we meet in life works. We’re interested in how it works so we can learn how to make as much of it as we can go away. As I read the teachings, the Buddha was not very interested in questions like: Is suffering real or is it an illusion? He was interested above all else in the conditions of its cessation.
We’ll begin and end with the Diamond Sutra.
The Diamond Sutra, a foundational text in the development of East Asian Buddhism, concludes with the Buddha instructing the reader on how to look at what he calls “conditioned existence.” Maybe the Buddha recited it, or perhaps he sang:
“Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”
“So is all conditioned existence to be seen.”
This vivid, little, powerhouse of a poem is packed with meaning. Yet what it means exactly has been a matter of debate and contention inside and outside the community of Buddhist practitioners ever since the little poem was written.
Before I talk about what I think it means, let’s look at the root text. Looking will help us understand both the poem and the three related take-away teachings of the Buddha that I’ll write about in Part II or this post.
The root text for the poem is the Phena Sutta. It’s located in the Samyatta Nikaya of the Pali Canon (SN 22.95). In this sutta, the Buddha gives a teaching on what anyone can observe and discover for herself if she’ll carefully and appropriately examine two sets of things.
The two sets of things he suggests we examine are first, the objects of our senses. This set includes all of what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel and think. The second set of things he suggests we examine is the set of things that give us the ability to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel and think. They are the human body, mind, and senses.
“Things” work more like processes than standalone, static things.
By appropriately observing the two sets of things, the Buddha believed that anyone eventually can and will discover that because everything is changing, including our senses and our perspectives, nothing can satisfy our natural human desire for a permanent state of unwavering happiness.
Specifically, in the Phena Sutta the Buddha says that if a person with normal senses appropriately examines, a bubble on a puddle, a mirage shimmering in the hot sun, or a magic trick, one will discover that each appears only when the conditions for its appearing exit.
That is, he teaches that these things are void or empty of anything internal to them that supplies them with the ability to appear independent of the conditions that make their brief and fragile existence possible. Stare at a glass of still water you’ve placed on your kitchen table. No matter how long you stare, a bubble will not appear on the surface of the water without some intervening cause.
Because Everything Depends on Causes and Conditions, Everything Can Change.
In other words, he teaches that when conditions are right, the objects of our senses appear. When conditions change, they no longer appear, just like the bubble in the class of water—or like a sky scraper, or a mountain, or a galaxy.
Likewise, the Buddha says that if anyone investigates how the senses work, they will discover that whatever we perceive, feel and think is dependent on conditions.
For example, changing the amount of available light changes what I can see. Changing the volume on the radio changes what I can hear. To grow old is to know intimately that our minds and senses are dependent on conditions.
Back to the poem from The Diamond Sutra
This is what the poem from the Diamond Sutra is teaching. All the conditioned existences that make up our lives are to be seen as such—they and we exist in exactly the same way.
Metaphorically speaking, everything has its own birth, life, and death dependent on conditions. Everything that exists does so in this way, and in no other. We are fragile, ephemeral, passing, and dependent on very many other things for our being, and so is everything else. Our flashing into and out of being is like lightening in a summer cloud.
This means everything is like everything else, from the Rocky Mountains to bubbles, from the Pyramids of Giza to last night’s dream.
So, as my reading of the Buddha’s teachings says, everything does exist, including suffering, just not in the way we thought. And this has real implications for the whole of life and practice.
In Part II of this post I will write about three interrelated Buddhist teachings that spring from the Buddha’s insight that life exists in a way that makes it like a dream.
You can read Norman Fischer’s article here.
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