Wednesday, October 17, 2007

What Makes You Not a Buddhist (Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche)

This book is a very important distillation of the core of Buddhist philosophy. The book revolves around expounding the four seals, the quintessential teaching of the Buddha which state that:

1. All compounded things are impermanent.
2. All emotions are pain.
3. All things have no inherent existence.
4. Nirvana is beyond concepts.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche makes a note of his choice of words in translating the four seals into contemporary English. He indicates that trade-offs are often made in order to appeal to a broader audience that would better understand what is being said. Even though the words used do not capture the fullness of meaning behind the four seals, they are somewhat clearer to a Western audience. For example, the second seal speaks of emotions being pain. This is often given as dukkha (suffering) in the original Pali, and many Buddhist scholars have rendered this as "all compounded things are suffering." The underlying intention here is to signify that all things, when grasped at or clung to, ultimately bring emotional suffering.

The book has a light, almost flippant, quality about it. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche weaves threads of contemporary pop culture into his exposition of Buddhist philosophy, to make it more palatable and entertaining to the average person. The book reads as deep Buddhist thought interspersed with a smattering of amusing Western cultural observations, that really puts things into perspective: we see the spin surrounding consumerism and materialism for what it is. But the essence of the book is an exposition of core Buddhist philosophy. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche intertwines the story of the Buddha into the exposition of the four seals. He describes briefly the life of the Buddha, and his path towards realization.

So what makes you not a Buddhist? This brief excerpt summarizes the essence of the teaching and the book:

If you cannot accept that all compounded or fabricated things are impermanent, if you believe that there is some essential substance or concept that is permanent, then you are not a Buddhist.

If you cannot accept that all emotions are pain, if you believe that actually some emotions are purely pleasurable, then you are not a Buddhist.

If you cannot accept that all phenomena are illusory and empty, if you believe that certain things do exist inherently, then you are not a Buddhist.

And if you think that enlightenment exists within the spheres of time, space, and power, then you are not a Buddhist.

The book is organized into fours parts, with each seal taking one chapter. Chapter one is entitled "Fabrication and Impermanence." We discover what the Buddha found after a long time of contemplation: that every phenomenon we perceive is the product of many things temporarily coming together to create the illusion of an independently existing phenomenon. This illusion is dissipated when we penetrate to the truth: all that arises ultimately passes away, and that everything is in a state of continuous change.

After a long time of contemplation, [the Buddha] came to the realization that all form, including our flesh and bones, and all our emotions and all our perceptions, are assembled—they are the product of two or more things coming together. When any two components or more come together, a new phenomenon emerges—nails and wood become a table; water and leaves become tea; fear, devotion, and a saviour become God. This end product doesn't have an existence independent of its parts. Believing it truly exists independently is the greatest deception. Meanwhile the parts have undergone a change. Just by meeting, their character has changed and, together, they have become something else—they are "compounded."

The second chapter is entitled, "Emotion and Pain." Here we see what the Buddha uncovered concerning emotions and their relationship to suffering: that all emotions are suffering because they involve clinging to an idea of self. The Buddha taught that all emotions are ways in which we identify with a sense of self—whether those emotions are positive or negative. We tend to grasp after those emotions we call "positive," and push away those we call "negative." Whether we're grasping or pushing away, we're either trying to "increase," or "protect" ourselves. In either case, we're attached to a sense of self.

Siddhartha was also trying to cut suffering at its root. [...] He explored suffering with an open mind, and through his tireless contemplation Siddhartha discovered that at the root, it is our emotions that lead to suffering. In fact they are suffering. One way or another, directly or indirectly, all emotions are born from selfishness in the sense that they involve clinging to the self. Moreover, he discovered that, as real as they may seem, emotions are not an inherent part of one's being. [...] Emotions arise when particular causes and conditions come together, such as when you rush to think that someone is criticizing you, ignoring you, or depriving you of some gain. Then the corresponding emotions arise. The moment we accept those emotions, the moment we buy into them, we have lost awareness and sanity. We are "worked up." Thus Siddhartha found his solution—awareness. If you seriously wish to eliminate suffering, you must generate awareness, tend to your emotions, and learn how to avoid getting worked up.

A deeper analysis of the second seal reveals the root of emotions as suffering to be the nonexistent self. This sense of self is manufactured at an early age, and we are taught to think that our body, feelings, perceptions, consciousness, thoughts, and actions are who we are. This misunderstanding then permeates everything we do and experience. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche elaborates:

All of these various emotions and their consequences come from misunderstanding, and this misunderstanding comes from one source, which is the root of all ignorance—clinging to the self. We assume that each of us is a self, that there is an entity called "me." The self is just another misunderstanding, however. We generally manufacture a notion of self, which feels like a solid entity. We are conditioned to view this notion as consistent and real. We think, I am this form, raising the hand. We think, I have form, this is my body. We think, Form is me, I am tall. We think, I dwell in this form, pointing at the chest. We do the same with feelings, perceptions, and actions. I have feelings, I am my perceptions... But Siddhartha realized that there is no independent entity that qualifies as the self to be found anywhere, whether inside or outside the body. Like the optical illusion of a fire ring, the self is illusory. It is a fallacy, fundamentally flawed and ultimately nonexistent. But just as we can get carried away by the fire ring, we all get carried away by thinking that we are the self. When we look at our own bodies, feelings, perceptions, actions, and consciousness, we see that these are different elements of what we think of as "me," but if we were to examine them, we would find that "me" doesn't dwell in any of them. Clinging to the fallacy of the self is a ridiculous act of ignorance; it perpetuates ignorance, and it leads us to all kinds of pain and disappointment. Everything we do in our lives depends on how we perceive our "selves," so if this perception is based on misunderstandings, which it inevitably is, then this misunderstanding permeates everything we do, see, and experience. It is not a simple matter of a child misinterpreting light and movement; our whole existence is based on very flimsy premises.

The third chapter is entitled, "Everything is Emptiness." This is often given as anatta (no-self) in the original Pali, and many Buddhist scholars have rendered this as "all compounded things are non-self," or "empty of self." That is, no compounded phenomena has any inherent existence or is-ness. This follows quite naturally from the first seal and also from our modern physics, which states that everything is in a state of continuous flux. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche describes how Siddhartha was willing and able to see that all of our existence is merely labels placed on phenomena that do not truly exist, and through that he experienced awakening:

Although Siddhartha realized emptiness, emptiness was not manufactured by Siddhartha or anyone else. Emptiness is not the result of his revelation, nor was it developed as a theory to help people be happy. [...] Emptiness doesn't cancel out our daily experience. Siddhartha never said that something spectacular, better, purer, or more divine exists in place of what we perceive. He wasn't an anarchist refuting the appearance or function of worldly existence, either. He didn't say that there is no appearance of a rainbow or that there is no cup of tea. We can enjoy our experience, but just because we can experience something doesn't mean that it truly exists. Siddhartha simply suggested that we examine our experience and consider that it could be just a temporary illusion, like a daydream.

Siddhartha completely understood that in the relative world you can make a cup of oolong tea and drink it; he would not say "There is no tea" or "Tea is emptiness." If he were to say anything at all, it would be to suggest that the tea is not as it seems; for example, tea is shrivelled leaves in hot water. But some tea fanatics get carried away with the leaves and composing special mixes, creating names like Iron Dragon and selling small amounts for hundreds of dollars. To them it is not just a leaf in water. It was for this reason that some fifteen hundred years after Siddhartha taught, one of his dharma heirs, named Tilopa, said to his student Naropa, "It is not the appearance that binds you, it's the attachment to the appearance that binds you."

The classic Buddhist example used to illustrate emptiness is the snake and the rope. Let's say there is a cowardly man named Jack who has a phobia about snakes. Jack walks into a dimly lit room, sees a snake coiled up in the corner, and panics. In fact he is looking at a striped Giorgio Armani tie, but in his terror he has misinterpreted what he sees to the point that he could even die of fright—death caused by a snake that does not truly exist. While he is under the impression that it is a snake, the pain and anxiety that he experiences is what Buddhists call "samsara," which is a kind of mental trap. Fortunately for Jack, his friend Jill walks into the room. Jill is calm and sane and knows that Jack thinks he sees a snake. She can switch on the light and explain that there is no snake, that it is actually a tie. When Jack is convinced that he is safe, this relief is none other than what Buddhists call "nirvana"—liberation and freedom. But Jack's relief is based on a fallacy of harm being averted, even though there was no snake and there was nothing to cause his suffering in the first place.

It's important to understand that by switching on the light and demonstrating that there is no snake, Jill is also saying that there is no absence of the snake. In other words, she cannot say, "The snake is gone now," because the snake was never there. She didn't make the snake disappear, just as Siddhartha didn't make emptiness. This is why Siddhartha insisted that he could not sweep away the suffering of others by waving his hand. Nor could his own liberation be granted or shared piecemeal, like some sort of award. All he could do was explain from his experience that there was no suffering in the first place, which is like switching on the light for us.

The fourth chapter is entitled, "Nirvana is Beyond Concepts." This final seal is of particular interest, as it is not explicitly stated as one of the three characteristics of existence in the original Pali Suttas. Namely, anicca, dukkha, and anatta, which correspond to the first three seals. However, this last seal can be seen to follow naturally from the first and third seals. If all conditioned phenomena are impermanent, empty, and without inherent existence, then we cannot label things as if they truly exist: a rock, a tree, a cloud. All these things are actually processes, verbs, not things. In fact, there are no things to speak of, and that includes more complex processes such as you and I. Everything is process. This is also the realization of modern quantum physics: even the tiniest detectable particles of matter are not permanently enduring and indivisible parts, but continuously moving and interacting fields of energy (which aren't things). In other words, there are no nouns, no real things, just labels signifying those apparent things as conveniences of language. And so it is with this thing we call Nirvana—it is beyond words, labels, and concepts, and like everything else, lies directly in the field of experience—a state of mind. But because we understand this, we can talk about Nirvana as if it were a thing, in order to facilitate communication as a matter of linguistic convention.

When Siddhartha became enlightened, he became known as the Buddha. Buddha isn't a person's name, it is the label for a state of mind. The word buddha is defined as one quality with two aspects: "accomplished one" and "awakened one." In other words, one who has purified defilements and one who has attained knowledge. Through his realization under the bodhi tree, Buddha awoke from the dualistic state that is mired in concepts such as subject and object. He realized that nothing compounded can permanently exist. He realized that no emotion leads one to bliss if it stems from clinging to ego. He realized that there is no truly existing self and no truly existing phenomena to be perceived. And he realized that even enlightenment is beyond concepts. These realizations are what we call "Buddha's wisdom," an awareness of the whole truth.


In Buddhist texts, when these questions are posed, the answer is usually that it's beyond our conception, inexpressible. Many seem to have misunderstood this as a sly way of not answering the question. But actually that is the answer. Our logic, language, and symbols are so limited, we cannot even fully express something so mundane as the sense of relief; words are inadequate to fully transmit the total experience of relief to another person. [...] While we are caught in our current state, where only a limited amount of logic and language is used and where emotions still grip us, we can only imagine what it is like to be enlightened. But sometimes, with diligence and inferential logic, we can get a good approximation [...]. Using what we have, we can begin to see and accept that obscurations are due to causes and conditions that can be manipulated and ultimately cleansed. Imagining the absence of our defiled emotions and negativity is the first step to understanding the nature of enlightenment.

As the Buddha said in the Prajnaparamita Sutra, all phenomena are like a dream and an illusion, even enlightenment is like a dream and an illusion. And if there is anything greater or grander than enlightenment, that, too, is like a dream and an illusion. His disciple, the great Nagarjuna, wrote that the Lord Buddha has not stated that after abandoning samsara there exists nirvana. The nonexistence of samsara is nirvana. A knife becomes sharp as the result of two exhaustions—the exhaustion of the whetstone and the exhaustion of the metal. In the same way, enlightenment is the result of the exhaustion of defilements and the exhaustion of the antidote of the defilements. Ultimately one must abandon the path to enlightenment. If you still define yourself as a Buddhist, you are not a buddha yet.

This idea is beautifully captured in one of the more well-known teachings of the Buddha: that the path, the vehicle, is a temporary device that allows us to cross over to the other side—like a raft that carries us across a turbulent river. It may even be uniquely tailored to our specific circumstances. However, once we've crossed over, we don't carry the raft on our backs—having served its purpose, we toss it away.

In this book, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche has provided us with a drop of much needed clarity in an age of confusion and information overload. In his exposition of the four seals he has swept away much of the confusion surrounding the many schools of Buddhism. He has helped us to understand what is essential by relying on the original teachings, life, and experience of the Buddha.

Now, where did I put my raft? See you on the other side.

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