Tuesday, September 23, 2008
It's quite easy to intellectually establish that the past is a story we tell ourselves and that the future hasn't happened yet and thus all there is of it that actually exists, exists only in this instant.
But we are very busy creating fictions, rationalising the past, aspiring-to or fearful-of the future. We're always either regretting the shadows we've left behind or chasing rainbows of one sort or another.
Then this begs the questions of what we can say with any conviction at all is actually true? All that we can safely say that is actually real and therefore as true as its going to get is our experience right as it happens.
But then we insist on creating a narrative of the instant itself to categorize what appears. And we strongly believe our narratives, the constant flow of this narrative shifting pattern of memory and projection is what we call our lives.
This is a room in which we have gathered to study Buddhism together – your name is Donal and you're Emma and….
But this is just a narrative, a story we are telling ourselves. We can go further to categorize our room, to populate it with the visible and the invisible; chairs and curtains, air, minds and molecules.
But if even these discriminations, these categories are projections, a part of the narrative then what's left?
What can we call this appearing and disappearing of some undiscriminated somethingness of experience that seems to be our real lives.
Its difficult to say, in fact it’s impossible to say because language itself is a part of a discriminating procedure. So you end up with 'undiscriminated somethingness' or 'thusness' or 'one bright pearl' or 'things as it is....' Nagarjuna denies movement, denies process of any kind. The instantaneous nature of existence is a prism through which time is re-framed as without process.
But of course we have to speak, to live, work and converse and share ideas and emotions and tell each other stories because that is an essential part of being human. We have to operate with process, access memory, construct things based on plans - not because it is necessary to do so to live (we'll live whether we do this or not) but because we are human and our civilisation is like this.
Sometimes people hear this assertion of instantaneity and think it is some kind of instruction to wander about in an undivided, unjudgmental zombie-like state but this is not true. To deny the intellect, human thinking and emotion is a bit silly but perhaps there's a way to regard it.
What is human thinking I wonder? I for one do not know. It’s relationship to action which exists in a seperate dimension seems to be remote sometimes and then quite direct at others. I think this directness might be illusory but I’m not clear about this. It seems to be like a skill that we have over-valued to create our marvellous civilisations, over-valued at some expense, at the expense of real and immediate experience. We've developed to a point at which we almost value the filtered fiction of our lives more than the real one happening all the time we're thinking about it. To be abstract myself, it would seem to be a function of fear, a way to create solid ground under our feet and a way to grasp a world that can be dangerous and most feared in its unknowability.
Merely noticing that something else is going on beneath, above, around – permeating the world we’ve constructed changes the way we live. Something real is happening while we think abstractly about our world. This also changes the way we think... just to confuse matters. Our thinking becomes more simple, more rooted in real experience, less abstract.
Noticing that our rationalisations of the past are just stories, that the rainbows we are chasing are just that has some ability to free us from the 'mind-forg'd manacles' we constrain ourselves within.
Noticing that this multi-dimensional real experience only happens as it happens, to state the obvious it can only be real as its real.
Master Dogen says that the study of Buddhism is the study of the self, to study the self is to forget the self, to forget the self is to be realised by all things.
This ‘realised by all things’ sounds like a kind of inversion but without a constructed self and constructed narrative of our experience to sit within then where can we find a perspective from which to appreciate, to criticise or appropriate our experience, to build a fiction within. So, in fact, this ‘realised by all things’ is a description of a real state that we know if we practise zazen. A Buddha called people who realise this truth as having 'the bottom of the bucket fallen out.' They have no vessel in which to catch (or be caught by) their circumstances, they move freely without the weight and baggage of attenuated thinking and feeling.
Again this leads to a common misunderstanding, that Buddhism asserts ’no self’ – it doesn’t, it asserts no constructed self but the real self as just right bloody well here.
If we are free of the past and the future, if we are real in the instant of the present then we are free to respond quite stupidly and simply as our real life requires, without complicating matters.
But Mike (Michael Eido Luetchford) was saying at our retreat last weekend that we are absolutely the product of our own actions. Our lives, every little thing we have done has brought us here.
So, we are both bound by the causes we created in the past that have led us to this real moment – not only our causes but the interplay of many other causes as well – of the impossibly complex interweaving of forces in which we play a part – we are both bound by this but free in this instant to act freely, if we are free.
Our conscious experience, here and now, freed from the powerful tethers of the narratives we bind ourselves and everything else with with is profoundly and completely free.
(Given as a talk at Dogen Sangha London Tuesday 16th September '08)