Saturday, December 01, 2012

ARTICLE - The Difficulty Of Such A Thing


“ ‘If you want to attain such a thing, you should be such a person.

Already being such a person, why worry about such a thing’  

Can you say such a thing or not?  

If you can say this you attain the skin and marrow.
If you cannot say this, still you attain the skin and marrow.

Put aside for now whether you can say this or not,
and whether you attain the skin and marrow or not.
How is this suchness? ” *

As they progress a Dogen discourse can be like unfolding a piece of origami. What began as the recognisable form of a paper bird or boat, ends up as a square of paper, with a complex network of folds crossing each other in straight or diagonal sections. It becomes difficult to see what it originally was supposed to be? Deceptively simple questions suddenly turn around to confront or confound you. Answers, if indeed there are such, appear  open ended and suggestive digressions only.  It can be a bit of a mental wrestling match, where you’re thrown face down on the carpet breathing in the dust mites, without understanding quite how you got there, or why.  

After a while it becomes clearer how he is doing this; Dogen like any good wrestler uses the weight of his opponent's expectations to bring about their downfall.  Realising this, doesn’t necessarily prevent his quick footwork from causing you to be tripped up again and again.  I imagine that Dogen, looking  down kindly, would kneel down to take you by the shoulders and gently raise you up again. ‘Yes,’ he’d say ‘it is puzzling what we assume in our headlong desire to become fulfilled as human beings, let alone as Buddhists.  Being one thing, whilst wanting to become something else, there’s a difficulty in such a thing.’

The difficulty of such a thing, is only a two paragraph discourse, but it holds within it complex allusions. The seven line extract I’m using, begins  with a cryptic two sentence quotation from Yunju Daoying (a 10th century Chan Master ) the first line of which goes  :-

“If you want to attain such a thing, you should be such a person.”

The ‘thing’ we’re wanting to attain is that fundamentally elusive essence; Buddhahood. Daoying is emphasising that there is a huge chasm existing between our aspiration for Buddhahood  and our attainment of it. A chasm that can only be spanned by the gradual practice of self transformation.  We need to become ‘such a  person’ who could  manifest ‘such a thing’ the sort of person who could manifest the enlightened state.  Our wanting alone cannot guarantee anything.  Ironically it is this wanting, and the motivations that lie behind them, that have first to metamorphose themselves completely in name and form.  This is further complicated in the west, because we have a culturally complex relationship with our wants.
From early childhood I was told I couldn’t always have what I wanted.  No matter how noisily  I wailed, nor how many tantrums I flew into, Kicking and beating the floor with my legs and arms, whining that it was ‘not fair’, never worked. Everything I wanted as a child was dependant on my parents approval, which in turn was conditional on my own good behaviour. I had to show that what I  wanted was not a childish whim, soon to be replaced by a new and even more ardently desired thing. The more I wanted something, and could demonstrate that wanting, the more I felt that it was going to happen. Wanting became for me a form of wish fulfillment.

Such childish yearnings linger behind all our wants, even though we have now become adults. The language we use might be more sophisticated or refined but the impulse beneath it remains pretty constant.  There is an emptiness within our being, a form of existential hunger that constantly needs to be fed. An appetite for the fresh and new, that is never satiated.  We have already attained or acquired something, yet still we want something else, something more.  The lyrics to the song ‘Wanting Things’ poignantly expresses the unending nature of our wanting.

Tell me how long must I keep wanting things,
needing things, when I have so much?
there are many guys who have much less than me,
and they find more in life than I can see.

Tell me how long must I keep wanting things,
touching things, that say please do not touch?
people that I meet seem to think I am strong,
but they don’t see inside of me,

So they don’t know I’m weak and often wrong
why must I keep wanting things,
needing things, that just can’t be mine,
can’t be mine, can’t be mine? **

Ah!, the recognisable pain of unrequited wanting, of not getting, of failing to attain the object of our desire. Unrequited love does exemplify the futility of our wanting. Once I had an infatuation for a man, that went on for many months.  It was a particular form of unrequited love, that had a creepy touch of desperation to it. It included many months of walking slowly and deliberately down the avenue, past where I knew ‘that the loved one’ lived.  Everyday on my way to and from work, hoping to just casually bump into them.  The tension was often unbearable. Most of the time it was indeed no show. On one crisp winters evening, I stood under a blue street light gazing up at ‘the loved ones’ house, desperately wishing for a glimpse. Balefully muttering their name as if this incantation would summon them.  I returned home to my one room bedsit and listened to, of all things, a far from cheery song by Morrissey. It went:~ ‘Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head, as I climb into an empty bed, oh well, enough said,I know it’s over, still I cling, I don’t know where else I can go,’ .Unsurprisingly this had the desired effect of causing me to weep heavily into the romantic pillow of my self pity.  I was in this deeply distraught state for weeks, until finally the penny dropped.  The depth that one loves, wishes or wants someone, or something, doesn’t necessarily make it happen.  Our wanting only papers over and disguises our inner frailty, those complicated feelings  around a sense of incompleteness. It is this emptiness that our wants attempt, and invariably fail, to fill. This is why wanting, but not getting, can be so painful.

Our lives as Buddhists are not exempt from the pain of wanting, but not getting. Of course we should know all about craving, but knowing doesn’t necessarily prevent us from falling prey to it. We can still harbour unrequited spiritual aspirations and ambitions, that often show themselves in resentments and criticisms of others. We may never reach our ambitions, they remain stubbornly conditional and consequently eludes our grasp.  We may want them, but we cannot love, wish or demand that they come to us. Daoying’s phrase makes it sound like its a simple linear process; the gap between wanting and getting being spanned by becoming.  Yet our wanting as Buddhists can be bedeviled by the dreamy imprecision of our desires. How we envisage changing or transforming ourselves in order to become ‘such a person’ is often mislead by the naive simplicity of our imaginations.

Wanting, but not getting may be painful,  but when our wanting does become getting, those moments of pleasure and delight can be deceitful, as Sangharakshita quite bluntly puts it  :-

“ The tragedy is not that we don’t get what we want,
but that we do get what we want,
and then we’re stuck with it,
and very often we find that it’s not what we wanted at all”***

As a teenager I found it difficult to decide on my future career. I just didn’t know what I wanted to be. I only knew what I didn’t want.  This is the cross that many teenagers, from any generation, have to learn to bear with. No one at that age ever wants to live an ordinary life. That seems so boring and a waste of time.  I was no exception. If I’d felt I’d had any choice, I wouldn’t have worked at all.  Unlike some of my contemporaries I enjoyed being at school, even though I was not that greatly gifted academically.  As the year for final exams loomed, questions about ‘what do you want to be’ kept being casually dropped into conversations at school and home.  I was evasive or kept quiet.  I didn’t really know what to say that might be reassuring.  So I stayed indecisive for quite some time.  Eventually I settled on going to Sixth Form College, as a sort of intermediate goal, whilst i worked out what to do.  Yet by the time my O level exams were over, I was heartily sick of studying and revision. Did I really want to go on to do more of this?  

The summer after my exams I spent mostly hoeing, pruning, trimming and weeding in my parents garden. Gardening was enjoyable and sort of fulfilling in a straightforward uncomplicated way.  Life, for once, did seem simple.  Being outdoors, I felt in touch with nature and that was what I wanted ~ to live a simple life in touch with nature.  To my parents consternation I aborted the plan to go on to Sixth Form in September.  Seemingly out of nowhere, I wanted to become a gardener.

Working for the Scunthorpe & District Parks Department was my first ever job. I think on seeing this gauche, spotty teenager arrive, my work colleagues decided to test my metal. On my first day they gave me a hard,if not Herculean, task to do.  It was to take a hoe and clear all the tufts of grass and moss from a patch of ground. The ground, however, was part tarmac, part mud, part gravel pit.  It was, in short, a bloody arduous job. After two days, I’d earned myself a hand full of blisters, and I’d  changed my mind about becoming a gardener.  I’d imagined making the world into beautiful gardens, full of evocative forms, colours and aromas.  I had wanted to do inspirational things with a hedge clipper.  I didn’t want hard unrewarding physical graft.  What was the point in wasting time trying to make a rough piece of ground into a rough piece of ground, with no weeds.   That wasn’t what I envisaged being a gardener was like at all. Gardening I’d thought was something altogether more... nurturing.  Daoying says nothing about the process of becoming ‘such a person’ where we are mislead by our faulty thinking or deluded notions, he just says :-

“If you want to attain such a thing, you should be such a person.”

How we become what we think we want is always an exploration, an ongoing negotiation with reality.  I had to try becoming a gardener to discover that it wasn’t right, this wasn’t what I wanted.  The actuality had proved to be far different to how I’d imagined it. How we envisage being a gardener, or being a Buddha or Bodhisattva, is inevitable distorted by our inexperience, the lack of insight and basic  naivete.  So it is, therefore, understandable that we might misconceive how it is to become ‘such a person’ who could manifest Buddhahood.  

Quite often how we conceive the spiritual path ahead, is the real problem.  If you imagine the path ahead as though you’re stood at the bottom of a very steep mountain face looking up, then the goal will seem lofty and distant.  Inevitable you’ll be looking for shortcuts via some time saving higher teaching or initiation?  Lets get to the top of the mountain via a ski lift, rather than doggedly climb up. Climbing can seem hard and dangerous task, a real graft, and that’s a worldly, not a spiritual thing, isn’t it?  Like clearing a piece of very rough ground of weeds.  Sometimes our spiritual imagination is just too conditional, limited and short term in its scope.

For example, look at Zen gardens, these don’t appear instantaneously. The designers of these gardens, may never live to see their work come to full fruition. It took centuries for some trees to grow into full maturity, and generations of cultivation for the gardens to develop their simple beauty and formal grace.  Gardeners applied their energy,  because they thought it was worth it.  They were bequeathing something of beauty, and something of themselves, for future generations to admire and remember. Their imaginations extended well beyond their own individual life span. There was a need to cultivate patience and persistence, but also to transcend their own desires and wants, particularly for immediate gratification, if they were to succeed as gardeners.

In the west, we can be impatient as spiritual practitioners. Our culture places great emphasis on effort being instantly rewarded. The whole thought of putting a lifetimes energy into something we would not reap the benefit of, would seem ludicrous. Even if we couch it in terms of creating positive karma for a future rebirth, this is always going to be contentious because both are unprovable as hypotheses.  Regardless of how we conceive it, as this lifetime only, or many lifetimes, there is still a need to cultivate patience and persistence in our practice over  weeks, months, years, of this immediate life. This is how it is, when we’re walking ‘the gradual path’ to Enlightenment, to becoming ‘such a person’ who will someday manifest Buddhahood.  Transformation can be a slow and an imperceptible process, which is why the ‘gradual path’ can seem for westerners, like being on an endless journey perched on top of a camel.

Then, just as we’ve adjusted our viewpoint to this idea of gradually becoming ‘such a person’, the second line of Daoying’s quotation appears as a dramatic about turn.
‘If you want to attain such a thing, you should be such a person.
Already being such a person, why worry about such a thing’

Hang on a minute, you have Buddhahood already, so why worry! Why bother with all that hard graft then, if we just have to realise what we are already?  The quandary given us here, is a central and recurring one in Zen Buddhism. This idea of already being what you are trying to become is encapsulated by the model of Buddha Nature. What is the purpose of practicing a ‘gradual path’ over time, when Buddha Nature is located in you at this present instant?  What then is the role of practice, in becoming something  that you already are?

Dogen struggled with this issue himself, he refers to it as his ‘Great Doubt’. In the end, searching for an answer, he traveled to China, eventually to find an answer to it through his Master Ju-Ching.  Dogen was Ju-Ching’s disciple for three very intense years, and described  the nature of his time with him as :-

“when a person meets a person, intimate words are heard and deciphered”

The answer then to any ‘Great Doubt’ is an intensely personal thing. Ju-Ching, tailored his teaching to mirror Dogen’s personal character and conditioning.  The answer being slowly teased out and deciphered from his own heart and mind.  That answer was then for Dogen’s eyes only. There is no universal answer to fit everyone, because our experience and conditioning remains unique to us. Dogen’s answer was for him alone, as will be ours. The problem for each of us is how to discover that answer.  When Daoying says :-

‘If you want to attain such a thing, you should be such a person.
Already being such a person, why worry about such a thing’

he is unsettling the mind and heart, to start searching and questioning how you can become ‘such a person’ who will manifest Buddhahood.  

Even a cursory look at Buddhist teachings, would rightly lead you to believe there is an answer there for most things. It seems self evident from two and a half thousand years of application, that the practical cultivation of meditation, ethics and  wisdom, as a ‘gradual path’, will in the end bear fruit.  This is after all what the first line of Daoying’s quotation states. The second line, really only shifts the emphasis.  He doesn’t say there’s something wrong with this mode of practice, just that there’s no point in worrying, or getting into a state about our supposed progress along a spiritual path.   Particularly, if the whole metaphor of ‘a spiritual path along which we travel’ is seen as a representation, not a description.

Sometimes the willful emotion behind our wanting to attain ‘such a thing’, becomes a real barrier to our becoming ‘such as person’.  Daoying is implying that, because the spiritual path is not really like an assault course, just relax. Don’t put undue pressure on yourself, take your time, any brutal mental effort will be entirely counter productive. He’s not eradicating the need for practice, but stressing we consider the emotional tone of how we practice, as much as what we practice.  To make progress it isn’t simply about the application of a method, it also requires sensitivity and receptivity in its execution. So be more relaxed and patient, whilst remaining purposeful and diligent in your efforts.

In my family, any meal would consist of three courses; a savoury followed by dessert and concluded with cake. But the greatest of these would be cake. Now cake recipes in my family, have been handed down through each succeeding generation. One such recipe that I have is Easy Sponge Parkin ( Parkin is a name for ginger cake, used in the North of England )    It’s a very simple recipe, easy to make and bake.
Easy Sponge Parkin
2 Cups of Plain Flour / ¾  Cup of sugar / 3 tsps of Baking Powder / 1 Level tsp of Bi-carbonate of Soda / 2 tablespoons of Golden Syrup / 5ozs of margarine / 2 Good tsps of Ground Ginger / 1 Good Cupful of Milk.
Sieve all dry ingredients first. Put them all in a baking bowl. Make a slight hollow in the middle and add margarine cut into pieces and then add the syrup. Pour on BOILING Milk. Mix very quickly and pour into a greased square tin, lined on the bottom with greaseproof paper. Put straight into a slow oven  ( 150 – 160 degrees ) for 40 /45 minutes approximately.

Over the generations recipes develop variations. Some changes are inherent in the recipe, in that they are dependant on how ‘a good cupful’ or ‘a heaped  teaspoonful’ might be interpreted. It might come about through changing the measurements from Ilbs to Kgs. Other adaptations arise from successful experiments. The version given to me by my Mother specifies that she prefers ‘ to use 1 Tablespoon of Golden Syrup and 1 Tablespoon of Black Treacle’ because ‘It gives added flavour and colour.’   

My Grandma, made this recipe countless times over her one hundred and two years of life.  After all those years of making It rarely came out anything other than perfect every time. Made by other family members it’s proved more variable.  There appear to be periods when no matter how you are, it sags in the middle after being taken out from the oven.  This might be the result of many things, too much Syrup /Treacle in the mix, not enough Baking Powder, an oven too hot or too cold, the attentiveness and state of mind of the Cook, who can tell ?

I don’t wish to further labour the analogy I’m trying to make here. I trust you can see for yourself the parallels. Interpretation, personal temperament and circumstance can all affect the effectiveness of any recipe or method, whether we are cooking, or meditating.  Neither my Grandma, nor past Buddhist Masters, like Daoying or Dogen, are alive now to advise us when things don’t go quite as expected. We do have the suttas, the discourses and commentaries to refer to. If we are lucky, we will have an experienced teacher to guide us in how to ‘cook’ ourselves. Yet a method of practice, like a basic cake recipe, can only be experienced and made by you. It is us who has to suck it and see how things turn out, to make our own mistakes and learn from them. What I’m trying to say here is that, like a recipe, no method of practice is foolproof... and unenlightened practitioners can be foolish.

Inherent to any method or recipe are the stages you pass through by which you gauge progress.  First, you assemble and check you have all the ingredients, which you mix together in a particular sequence. When all the ingredients are thoroughly integrated to a thick creamy consistency you transfer it from the bowl to a baking tin. Then put it in a hot oven to bake for a specified time, at the end of which you remove it. When it has cooled, the result will be ready to eat. Buddhism has formed many descriptions of the path, whether it is the Three or Eightfold Paths, or the four dhyanas of form and formlessness, or the Ten Bodhisattva Bhumi’s. These lead us into conceiving spiritual progress as this ascending hierarchy of states of consciousness, one emerging from the other. Its like mountain climbing as metaphor. We start from the bottom of the mountain and ascend slowly to the top.

Methods of practice can seem on first reading like infallible car manuals, but it may be better to view them as operational models. An ‘Ascending Hierarchy of States’ or ‘Buddha Nature’ are both operational models that can help or hinder the comprehension of our actual experience.  Neither model necessarily describes experience or Reality as it really is. All models tend to have their up and  downsides.  The ‘ascending hierarchy of states’ model brings a strong sense of direction and purpose to any practice. Presenting enlightenment as this state of being as somewhere round the corner just beyond our daily perception and experience. One consequence of this can be a tendency to feel this mountainous universe requires a huge effort to climb. It can lead to wilful effort, or introduce an unhelpful element of strain into practice. The ‘Buddha Nature’ model, presents Enlightenment as being very close,still beyond our perception, but much more intimate with daily experience than we currently realise. Enlightenment here, is a state of being that is both absent and present in our experience at the same time.  This can make the direction and purpose of practice difficult to ascertain, or be clearer about how to progress. No progress is progress. Learning how to just be is everything. Both models are perpetually in danger of turning themselves into being an actual thing. The model becomes the master. Whatever model thats chosen, its mood, attitude, spirit and zeitgeist will inform what our practice is,  like the weather dictates our style of dress.  

So when Daoying says :-

‘If you want to attain such a thing, you should be such a person.
Already being such a person, why worry about such a thing’

he is juxtaposing these two models, as though both have validity and both are flawed, and that that is entirely OK.  Why does this always become such a cause for concern or agitated debate?  Perhaps it’s not really a question of methods versus models. Perhaps its that we expended so much anxious time and energy over the attaining of ‘such a thing’, whichever model it is that we use.?  Ultimately at the point of Enlightenment, we neither attain nor realise it, we become ‘just so’~ how it actually is. But ,how we envisage the path before that, what is moving us towards the goal, does affect what we practice and how we subsequently interpret what we experience. Though it may on the surface seem like he’s extolling the ‘Buddha Nature’ model over any other, he appears to really be saying hang loose with any model or method of practice you are using. Stay provisional and flexible.

These lines are what are known in Koans as capping verses, the starting point. What follows this is Dogens exposition. It was common practice in Chan and Zen Buddhism to take a quotation from an accepted Master, and to either write a commentary based on it, refute it, extemporise on it, or try to improve it.  Whilst not a formally structured Koan in the classical Zen mode, Dogen constructs a discourse with a very similar overall effect. Producing an intellectually perplexing and confounding space, where concepts prove useless. In what follows Dogen appears to juggle all four styles;to improve, extemporise, refute and comment simultaneously.

“ ‘If you want to attain such a thing, you should be such a person.
Already being such a person, why worry about such a thing’  

Can you say such a thing or not?  

If you can say this you attain the skin and marrow.
If you cannot say this, still you attain the skin and marrow.
Put aside for now whether you can say this or not,
and whether you attain the skin and marrow or not.
How is this suchness? ” *

Immediately he pins you to the spot, in an unsustainable position with one line.

“Can you say such a thing or not?”

Perhaps its your pride responding first. What it wants to say ‘Yes, you can, I know you can’, but then doubts start to dawn on you. You’re not exactly clear about what Dogen is really asking? Is he asking, is it possible to hold these two opposing viewpoints simultaneously?  Is he asking, is it possible to resolve this apparent dichotomy, if so how?  Is he asking, is it possible to ever understand this?  Is he asking, is it even possible to say such a thing ?  Does his question really have one single answer at all?  You turn back to check Dayong’s lines to see if you’ve really understood them. One simple questioning sentence; ‘can you say such a thing or not?’ creates an absence of certainty, highlighting our habitual need and pursuit of it. This forces us to step out of our defensive shells and risk humiliation. We either get it wrong or acknowledge that we simply have no idea, that we don’t know.  Whatever we believe we know, whatever answer we might compose in our minds, will reveal our essential spiritual ignorance and places us in the shade of unknowing. This is where he wants us, facing our ignorance on uncertain shaky ground. So he can then go on to make the whole question of our knowing or not knowing, utterly  irrelevant.

“If you can say this you attain the skin and marrow.
If you cannot say this, still you attain the skin and marrow.”

By referring to attaining ‘the skin and marrow’ he is pointing towards a famous discourse Zen, between Bodhidharma and four disciples.

The  Venerable Bodhidharma was about to go back to India.
He said to his students,
"The time has come. Can you express your understanding?"
One of the students, Daofu said,
"My present view is that we should neither be attached to letters, nor be apart from letters, and to allow the Way to function freely."
Bodhidharma said,
"You have attained my skin."
Nun Zongchi said,
"My view is that it is like the joy of seeing Akshobhya Buddha’s land just once and not again."
Bodhidharma said,
"You have attained my flesh."
Daoyu said,
"The four great elements are originally empty and the five skandhas do not exist. Therefore, I see nothing to be attained."
Bodhidharma said,
"You have attained my bones."
Finally Huike came forward, made a full bow, stood up, and returned to where he was.
Bodhidharma said,
"You have attained my marrow."
Thus he transmitted the Dharma and robe to Huike.****

So ‘attaining the skin and marrow’ appears to refer to different levels of attainment and transmission of true Insight. There is literally the thin surface skin of reality and the grasping the real marrow of it. Bodhidharma would appear to imply that there is and is not a particular ‘thing’ that is being transmitted or attained. That ideas like skin and marrow, outside or inside; surface or depths; known or unknown; seen or unseen, the icing, the cake and its gooey filling, are all different sorts of conceptual confection. All of Bodhidharma’s disciples show him the decorative icing, not the cake itself. Some show themselves as being nearer the mark than others. So by referring to this tale Dogen is being at his most playful here. Deadly as a cat pawing and tormenting a mouse, though he’s not quite ready to finish you off, yet.     

Imagine, for a moment you’re taking part in a hugely popular TV Quiz show called KOAN.  Each week, a few selected contestants from around the world, all vying for the much wanted prize. The prize, is an all expenses paid, one way trip of a lifetime to a mystical kingdom, that isn’t a kingdom, that state of called Nirvana.  A state, that many people for countless centuries have sought, but few have found.  If you win, you’ll be whisked there in an instant.  Though the format of the show changes, the quiz questions remain cryptic and puzzling. They tend to attract contestants who like crosswords or 3D Sudoku. Week after week, they try to answer the questions logically, by rational deduction, or even, in one case, by applying the principles of transactional analysis, none have succeeded.  The questions are not really questions in the accepted sense. They’re  full of misleading statements, irrational metaphors.   The first round question  is :-

‘If you want to attain such a thing, you should be such a person.
Already being such a person, why worry about such a thing’

Every week it’s this or a very similar question, one that apparently turns back in on itself.  In order to attain something you need to be something that you already are, so why worry?  An onscreen debate ensues between contestants and the quiz master, where no one appears to know what they’re talking about, let alone win. Yet everyone, miraculously, gets through to the second round. Today the second round question is short, but not sweet :-

“Can you say such a thing or not?”

You have ten seconds to start speaking. If you are still remaining silent when the final buzzer goes off, a large pile of pungent smelling goo, reminiscent of excrement, falls on top of you, to uproarious laughter and canned applause.

Some contestants, the moment the start buzzer goes, speak rapidly in something between a gabble and a trance.  One stumble or error and a large spray gun covers them in a thick covering of glue.  Then a industrial dustbin full of rubbish from a local Chinese restaurant is emptied over their heads. The quiz master, is a rather smarmy, supercilious man, ushers all the contestants to hobble back to the front of the set.   Announcing rather grandly that they are all still winners because the  next thing it says on the card is :-

“If you can say this you attain the skin and marrow.
If you cannot say this, still you attain the skin and marrow.”

All the contestants are both astounded and relieved. They jump and raise there hands in the air, as much as their goo or glue will permit. They all thought it was a knock out contest where the winner takes it all. Now it seems no one wins or loses.   

Dramatic tension builds, there’s a background sound of  thunderous drum rolls and synthesizer drones. The lights in the studio dim and spotlights pick out each contestant. The quiz master steps forward into the brightest of all the spotlights.  In a hushed tone he says ‘This is the final question, answer this and Nirvana, Buddha Nature will be yours, you will have become such a person. So pay very close attention to what I am about to say’

“ Put aside for now whether you can say this or not,
and whether you attain the skin and marrow or not.
How is this suchness? ”

There is a pause, and then the lights go out for a very long time.  Then the quiz masters voice resumes speaking over the darkness. ‘We’ll take a  break now, to find out who won, see you after the commercials’. Only they never do return to the show. Instead they rerun old episode of ‘The Waltons’ or 'Wonder Woman.' The media speculates all the following week about if there was a winner, who it might have been and what their answer might have been.

But on a more serious note :-

“How is this suchness? ”

with this sentence,once again, subverts our expectations. All along we’ve been led to believe he was a exploring how you become ‘such a person’ who manifests ‘such a thing’. ‘Such a thing’, we knew was a  euphemism for Buddhahood, whilst ‘such a person’ was one who will manifest Buddhahood.  Attaining Buddhahood appeared to require work.  At least, this is what we were led to believe.  If we want it, we needed to put in some effort, to mold ourselves to its apparent shape and form.  Yet what is the shape and form of Buddhahood?  How can we know what it is we need to become ?  How can we imagine what it’s like to be a chicken, when we’re still only an egg?  It’s like saying ‘I want to become a plumber’ without ever having met one or seen what it is that they do. Even an enlightened master can never describe what enlightenment is, only  how it feels, how it is to them.  What we’re overlooking here, is what Dogen has now brought to the fore, what is the exact meaning of ‘such’.  There’s been ‘such a thing’, ‘such a person’ yet what is this suchness?

Its a funny word ‘such’, quite an innocent, unassuming, almost throwaway word.  It comes to mind and trips out of the mouth without much thought at all.  It’s usually tacked on to a description or a designation, more often than not a derogatory one. You are; such a twerp; such a perfectionist; such a muse; such a film buff; such a good mediator; such an anxious person; such an idiot; such a smarty pants; or such an arse hole.  We categorize ourselves, and other people, as being like such and such a person.  ‘Such’ attempts to capture the essence of who we are, of what we embody, because we are ‘such a….’  So ‘suchness’ is who we, a noticable defining quality.

After I’d abandoned the job at the Scunthorpe & District Parks Department, I did go to Sixth Form College, as I’d originally planned.  There, in my late teens, I suddenly became inspired to become an artist.  I had some talent, so it was not inconceivable I could be ‘such a person.’ Once in the world of Art and Art College, I discovered there were actually an infinite number of ways to be an artist. There was no prescribed way of being ‘such a person.’ The only real prerequisite was to be something distinctive and individual, expressed either through your work, or through your way of being yourself.  At Art School, and in Art generally, the distinction between these two is blurred.  So saying you want to be an artist, isn’t like saying you want to be a plumber.  It’s a way of being, without a specific job description.

I arrived at Art School in the mid seventies, during the musical and cultural explosion that was Punk. This opened my eyes to some very different perspectives on how to be, and live one’s life. I admired people who bravely stuck two fingers up to convention. I hung around on the fringes of radical revolt and social defiance, voyeuristically observing it all whilst not getting my fingers wet.  I look at photographs of myself then, and see myself affecting this outward appearance of a punk. I wanted to be ‘such a person’ who could be defiant and rebel. Though I wore safety pin chains braided across my waistcoat, none went through my cheeks.  The brightly coloured rugby or Hawaiian style shirts, which were New Wave rather than Punk, were let down by the out of fashion, hippy flared trousers.  At heart, I looked like a rather conventional person trying not to be.  I went to Art School believing I wanted to be an artist, and came out as a rather unadventurous Graphic Designer.  I found I wasn’t really up for rocking the boat once I’d got into it.

In the process of trying to be ‘such a person’  who was an artist, I  learnt a little about  what I really was.  My life, like most peoples, could be seen as a series of different attempts to be such and such a person. Like a child trying on a succession of borrowed coats, crying out to its parent, ’so who am I now?’ Eventually when we do find something that we’re reasonably happy with, we carry on trying to be that most of the time. Whatever it is that we are wanting to be, we never pause to ask why we should need to be anything. What is it all about this be-ing?  How is this suchness, what is this suchness, why this suchness?

Before finishing let’s briefly return to Daoying’s two sentences,

“If you want to attain such a thing, you should be such a person.
Already being such a person, why worry about such a thing”

The first sentence, one could say is all about our need to be something. The second sentence, is all about not needing to be anything.  In the former, ‘suchness’  has a defining quality that needs creating.  You need to ‘be such’ a person, in order to attain ‘such a thing’  In the latter, ‘suchness’ is a way of being that requires no qualification, or effort to be attained and as such it is already present.  It is as though ‘suchness’ is a self-definition beyond self-definition. It stands free of being attained or not, and of any associated reflection or comparison.   So when Dogen asked :-

“How is this suchness?”

he sort of knew that it was unanswerable.  

Yet, just because something cannot be described, doesn’t mean it can’t be sensed.  ‘Suchness’ appears only to show itself in the rear view mirror of Buddhahood. It has to be intuited, even though it stands beyond our current experience. Yet without that intuition, and any trust and confidence we develop in it,  we’d never want ‘to attain such a thing’ or ‘be such a person’  in the first place. This discourse appears to take us on a roller coaster ride around the issues of practice, attainment and suchness, and bring us back full circle to practice. For without practice any understanding or attainment of the skin and marrow of suchness, will stay an imaginative ideal only. We return to the ‘gradual path’ of diligent practice, though perhaps held more gently.  The issue of being one thing, whilst sensing we could become something else, is a really slippery thing to hold onto, without wanting to fix it and stop it moving. There are real difficulties that dance in attendance around our desire to attain such a thing as Buddhahood. The difficulty in such a thing, appears to be in remaining nimble footed.

  *  Dharma Hall Discourse No38 – The Difficulty of Such a Thing.
 from Dogen’s Extensive Record , the Eihei Koroku
 translated by Taigen Dan Leighton & Shohaku Okumara
 Published by Wisdom Books 2004.
**    Written by Bacharach & David.

***   Peace is a Fire by Sangharakshita

  Published by Windhorse Publications 1995

        Originally taken from a Seminar on The Precious Garland

****  True Dharma Eye,Master Dogen’s Three Hundred Koans,
       Translated by John Daido Loori.
       Published by Shambhala Publishers 2005.

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