Part Six - If Not Now, When?
Some form of nascent confidence in the existence of an unconditioned reality, a ‘greater self’, and Enlightenment needs to fuel our desire for practice. Though often our day to day practice is dealing with the consequences of more mundane experiences. How do you experience the unconditioned? What do you need to do to develop a ‘greater self’? In what manner do you practice in order to attain Enlightenment? These are not questions easily held uppermost in our minds, but examining our day to day experience is not a distraction from them, but the route to their answer if looked at with honest, clear awareness. There are almost as many answers to these questions as there are people. It is to some extent a matter of temperament and disposition, what and how we practice. Within Buddhism there are three basic areas for practice; – Meditation, Ethics and Wisdom. Each tradition reverences the Buddha, studies his teachings, and supports each other in practice, in their own culturally distinctive manner. Buddhism has had two and a half thousand years to develop a vast range of practices, teachings, and most of all lists. I’ve already mentioned a few here:- the three laksanas, four viparyasas, five skandhas,and the eight lokadharmmas. The breadth and comprehensiveness of them is staggering, but it can equally confuse and overwhelm. To practice effectively means to remain aware of that immense breadth, whilst choosing to focus on a few specific practices. Otherwise our effort will be dispersed thinly over too wide a range.
Cha`n/Zen Buddhism focused practice primarily on the act of Meditation. Which didn’t mean ethics and wisdom were ignored altogether. Meditation requires a basic ethical sensibility, an ability to discern positive and negative mental states and be aware of what they will lead to. An expanding sense of awareness and emotional sensitivity to ourselves and others, requires an insightful, wise eye to guide them. How Cha`n/Zen conceived this practice as working, fell into two opposing schools, the ‘gradual’ or the ‘sudden’ paths to Enlightenment. Either, a slow step by step application to practice over time, or an intense desire to break through in this very moment. In reality the ‘sudden’ could only be approached by dedicated, if intense, ‘gradual’ practice. Whilst the ‘gradual’ slow wearing away, would eventually lead to a ‘sudden’ breakthrough. The apparent dichotomy was really only paper-thin, but great debate and entrenched divisions emerged nonetheless.
The ‘gradual’ and the ‘sudden’ schools of practice aren’t absolute descriptions of how the path works. Pure Consciousness will manifest in one moment of our awareness that will exist here. The future evolution of that awareness becomes a distraction if too much emphasis is given to it. Dispersing energy and effort away from that singular moment. Experience in the past, present or future, our place in Time and Space, is something that at the moment of awakening, seems to be gone beyond.
But, lets not get ahead of ourselves here, we need to plan ahead and think about the future, don’t we? What would happen if we didn’t? We all need carrots, we all need sticks, we all need future goals to aim for, and a means of getting there. We need something to motivate our practice. If we decide that ‘Binding one’s Self without a rope’ is a good thing, then even that decision is predicated on an imagined future benefit that will result from doing so. If it is our desire to achieve the state of Enlightenment, it would be natural to think of how and when, and this gradual incremental model of progress does help most of us. This doesn’t change how & when it will happen though - how it will happen is through being here - when it will happen is through being here. Enlightenment appears to occur through truly being here.
There could be immense spiritual benefits to be gained from ‘Binding one’s Self without a rope’, but how on earth would we begin doing that? It would seem to start and end by focusing on an ever deeper awareness of the impermanent, unsatisfactory nature of our Selfhood. By observing this closely, perhaps we will eventually see how it does, in effect, run counter to reality. Abandoning the need to defend and promulgate it, is a process that can only happen gradually. ‘Binding one’s Self’ has to be achieved ‘without a rope’ - gently, kindly, almost surreptitiously, without creating any further gross negative consequence or condition. When Dogen said ‘without a rope’ perhaps he was simply meaning practice ‘without creating a future negative consequence’.