Buddha's Words (Talk 05 of 13)
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | October 18, 2006
Transcribed by Murray McGillivray. Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum
It is important that Bhikkhu Bodhi, in his chapter on "Approaching the Dharma," talks about teachers, because it's noteworthy that in all traditions of Buddhism that teach meditation practice and transformation, teachers are an important factor. How we can make good and proper use of a teacher is an important topic for us to be clear on, and I suppose that we're not entirely clear on this yet. But we're working on it, because the whole institution - if that's what you would call it - of teachers and students is something that is embedded in the culture, and the ways in which teachers and students are embedded in Asian cultures, from which we receive Buddhism, are not from the same cultural matrix. So, in the end, we hope for guidance from our friends, from texts, and from teachings, and we trust time and collective wisdom to lead us to the right conclusions. But in the end, it's up to each one of us, to the best of our ability, to make our own determinations.
This is an excerpt from the Canki Sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya. Bhikkhu Bodhi gives it the title of "Steps Toward the Realization of Truth." In this sutra the Buddha is talking to a sixteen-year-old, very smart and talented Brahmin, who wants to know, "How can we verify truth?" As a Brahmin, he's received these ancient holy texts. He's been told that these texts are absolute truth, but he wants to know if they are really true or not.
The Buddha says the way you verify truth is by relying on your own experience, not on tradition, not on reasoning, and not on the reputation of the teacher, but on your own experience, knowing for yourself directly. But Bhikkhu Bodhi points out that this is not as simple as it sounds at first, because we might not be able to know those truths in the beginning by our direct experience. In other words, the truths that we're seeking are deeper truths than we are capable of seeing in the beginning of our practice. If we could see them right away, why would we need to study for a whole lifetime in order to see them?
So we're all capable of seeing these deep truths (of course, it might take us a while to sort out what we mean by "seeing" and what we mean by "truth"), but we don't have to be geniuses to realize that it's not right away. It's going to take time; it's going to take effort in our living, in our reflection, and in our practice. So that means that in the beginning we have to trust ourselves and to follow what seems true to us according to our experience now, according to what just makes sense to us, without a leap of faith or trust in somebody else. Then, over time, we will-we hope, and we can expect, I think-understand more deeply and more fully. When we understand more deeply and more fully, we will trust more deeply and more fully.
In the text, the Buddha makes a beautiful distinction between "the preservation of truth" and "the discovery of truth." If we have faith that something is true, and we say, "This is my faith," or, "This is what seems to me so far to be true," then this is the preservation of truth. In other words, we're being humble. We're recognizing our limitation. We honestly say, "I have faith in this. I really believe this is true. But maybe it's not." We do not say, "This is absolutely so," but "This is what I understand to be so."
I think this is really great. We should always have this attitude. No matter how much we come to see and understand, we should always preserve the truth in this way. As Suzuki Roshi teaches us, it may not always be so. I was talking to somebody the other day who studied with a Korean Zen master who always told him, "Don't ever get comfortable in your practice. Don't ever think you know." This is really the spirit of our practice, too. We're not trying to understand, we're just trying to understand. We should try to understand further, and we should be willing to be surprised and to give up the wisdom we have, when it turns out not to be the wisdom that's needed now. So the effort to keep on trying to understand is, I hope, a joyful and engaging effort. And we would always say, without any arrogance or any embarrassment, this is what I understand so far. This is what I have faith in so far.
In this text, the Buddha is also talking about the discovery of truth. Literally, the Pali means "to awaken to the truth." It seems as if awakening to the truth, or discovering the truth, is a more direct experience of the truth than preserving the truth. The Brahmin Bharadvaja asked the Buddha, "What is the discovery of truth?" and the Buddha replied:
A monk may be living in dependence on some village or town. Then a householder or a householder's son or daughter goes to him and investigates him (investigates the monk, in other words, the potential teacher) in regard to three kinds of states: in regard to states based on greed, in regard to states based on hate, and in regard to states based on delusion. And the person asks "Are there in this monk any states based on greed such that, with his mind obsessed by those states, while not knowing, he might say, ‘I know,' or while not seeing, he might say, ‘I see,' or he might urge others to act in a way that might lead to their harm and suffering for a long time?"
So he investigates, he watches the monk, and he sees if there are such states arising in him from greed. And then if he didn't see any, he would say,
There are no such states based on greed in this monk. The bodily and verbal behavior of this monk are not those of one affected by greed, and the dharma that he teaches is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, and to be experienced by the wise. This dharma cannot easily be taught by one affected by greed.
So that's the first thing that happens in the discovery of truth. You have to find a good teacher, and you have to investigate that teacher and see for yourself that the teacher stands up to scrutiny.
When he has investigated him and has seen that he is purified from states based on delusion (after seeing that he's purified from states based on greed and hatred) then he places faith in him. Filled with faith, he visits him and pays respect to him. Having paid respect to him, he gives ear to the teachings, and when he gives ear, he hears the dharma. Having heard the dharma, he memorizes it and examines the meaning of the teaching he has memorized. When he examines their meaning, he accepts those teachings as a result of pondering them. When he has accepted those teachings as a result of pondering them, desire springs up. When desire has sprung up, he applies his will. Having applied his will, he scrutinizes. Having scrutinized, he strives. Resolutely striving, he realizes with the body the supreme truth, and sees it by penetrating it with wisdom. In this way, Bharadvaja, there is a discovery of truth, in this way one discovers truth, in this way we describe the discovery of truth.
What's being said is that first of all you have to find a good teacher, and then you have to take responsibility to check that teacher out. You shouldn't just assume that the teacher knows what he or she is talking about. You have to really pay attention to his conduct, and see whether the teacher is reliable. And that means over time, not just today or next week, but over a period of time. It takes a long time, actually, to feel that someone is reliable, because you have to observe them in different kinds of situations. Sometimes powerful teachers have very gross manifestations of greed, hate and delusion, but usually it's subtle, so you have to pay attention.
How do we know that someone is a good teacher? You say, "I can't really know! It looked to me like that was some really shoddy conduct there, but who am I to judge the great guru's behavior? Maybe there was some hidden teaching in that." People say these things. So, yes, you could say that we never know for sure about anybody's conduct, whether a spiritual teacher or not. Yet, at the same time, we do see the teacher in operation as a human being, and we do get a feeling after a while. We have to trust our gut: this person is a reliable person, trustworthy human being-or not.
As Akiba says, it is probably a safe assumption that any human being has some delusions and attachments. In other words, everybody has some human character and conditioning. So we ought to look for this in our teachers, and we ought to make sure that they understand this - that they themselves are aware of their shortcomings and their character flaws. It may be that we can't ever be entirely confident in our judgments here, but the text implies two really important things: first, you have to take the responsibility to investigate, and second, whether you're entirely right or not, you have to be the one to decide whether or not the teacher passes the test. It's really up to you. Even though the teacher may be a great Buddha, and you may just be an ordinary person, when it comes to investigating the teacher, you are the authority for yourself. Who else could be the authority?
But once you decide that the teacher is a good teacher for you, then you have to put your faith in the teacher. You have to let the teacher more or less be the boss; otherwise, how could you learn, if you didn't put your faith in the teacher? However, letting the teacher be the boss does include disagreeing with the teacher sometimes, or even arguing or refusing to do something that you're asked to do. In the end, if it's not possible for you to let the teacher be the boss, then you should find another teacher, or maybe no teacher. The teacher has a big responsibility, too, but when it comes to your practice, you're the one who's responsible. The teacher can never be responsible for your practice. In other words, you find the teacher, you investigate, you put faith in the teacher, and you visit the teacher. You have to show up, and you have to ponder and reflect on the teachings. Then, it says, desire springs up, you apply will, you scrutinize, you strive, and then finally you "realize with the body the supreme truth and see it by penetrating it with wisdom."
What does all this amount to? You show up, you take in what's being taught, you ponder it, you evaluate it for yourself, you verify it for yourself, and you make it your own. You find your own way into it. That's why I'm always asking, "How do you see this?" Because until you make it your own, it's not the teaching. If you're just repeating what somebody else said, or imitating the teacher, you're not really making it your own. So you have to verify for yourself.
When you have your own understanding, desire arises, because now you really see that there's something here to be done, and you have an enthusiasm and a zest to want to do the practice and take it deeper. You really want to practice. You find it delightful, because you want to make the effort to really solidify and strengthen this understanding that you're beginning to realize. This effort and striving will bring forth what is called here "the discovery of truth."
I think it's very important that it says here "with the body." It's kind of surprising in a way, don't you think? This point is emphasized in our particular tradition. When you practice for a long time, you really see how much practice is the practice of the body. We have an understanding, a knowing, that's deeper than the mind, deeper than the perceptions, deeper even than the heart or the emotions. That doesn't mean that the mind and the perceptions and the heart and the emotions are not important, it just means that that knowing goes all the way through to the body, so that it pervades our whole living, our whole mind, our whole heart. In this way we find some sense of ease and joy and love, just in living our life.
Wherever we are in our body, that's where the practice is; that's where the truth is, in every daily act. For us, especially in the Everyday Zen way of practice, we really honor that. Whatever our job is, whatever work we're doing, whatever our relationships are, we understand that we're practicing the truth. In this way, the Buddha's teaching is not something external to us. It's not something that the teacher presents that we're supposed to master. Buddha's wisdom is when we enter fully into our own living through our own breath and our own body. This is the kind of practice that we emphasize in Soto Zen: just sitting, just standing, just walking, just bowing, just chanting.
After the Buddha says all this, he says, "And this is not yet the final discovery of truth." Then the Brahmin says, "Well, what would be the final arrival at truth?" The Buddha says,
The final arrival at truth lies in the repetition, development, and cultivation of those same things, and in this way, there is final arrival at truth, in this way one finally arrives at truth, in this way we describe the final arrival at truth.
In other words, the final arrival at truth is not some other place or some other thing. It is just the repetition, the ongoing practice, the ongoing cultivation, the ongoing development of that which we realize with our bodies. So we could say that we don't know if we have any religious experience, but we do know that we touch the truth with our body. And maybe there isn't even any truth, but that hardly matters, because we know through our practice that we are touching something essential to our human life with the body, and we feel our whole body suffused with wisdom. We know how much difference this makes in the poignancy of our living. But it's not final. The way we make it final is to realize that there is no "final." We keep on practicing. We repeat and repeat, we develop and we develop, we cultivate and we cultivate - not newer and deeper and higher teachings, but just over and over again. The final truth may be the recognition that truth - or whatever we call it -simply goes on and on and on, without boundary in time or space.