This is a continuation of the previous blog on an idea I am calling Poetic Realization. If you have not read the previous blog maybe you should begin there.
Having tea after the Sunday morning sit the question came up, what were the Three Turnings of the Dharma and is their a forth? This idea of turnings is something the Tibetan Buddhists talk about. It is rarely talked about in other schools of Buddhism. The story of the three turnings goes something like this.
When the the Buddha began teaching he recognized that he needed to mold his teachings for the existing mentality of the people he was teaching. This first formulation of the teachings can be found in the Palli Cannon and is today practiced by the Theravada Buddhists. It is known as the "small vehicle" because it's focus is on the individual and the individual's desire to relieve themselves from suffering.
Then as his students became more advanced in the path he changed his teachings and started talking about the Bodhisattva who practices so that all people can be liberated from suffering. And there was a new philosophic focus with concepts like "emptiness." and the non-dual perspective. This produced a whole new body of teachings found in the Mahayana Sutras. It was called the "large vehicle" - Mahayana in Sanskrit- because no longer was the emphasis on the individual's personal practice to relieve personal suffering, but rather the very need to drop the personal perspective and see the Dharma as transcending the individual. This is the second turning of the Dharma. The Mahayana has many schools and is found throughout Northern Asia. Zen is a Mahayana School.
Keeping to the theme of this story, the Buddha never completely shared his full understanding in public discourse but saved his deepest teachings for one on one teaching to his best students. This body of teachings was for many many years privately passed from teacher to student until it emerged in a body of literature called the Tantra's. I have to say that I am no expert on the Tantra's but my understanding is that these esoteric teachings are about the use of certain "powers" in initiations and meditation. These teachings have become very important in the Vajrayana Schools of Buddhism in Tibet and other parts of Asia. These schools are also a subset of the larger Mahayana community.
I think there is another way to view the Three Turnings of the Dharma which is probably historically more accurate. Each of the three turnings was a formulation and then reformulation of the teachings in response to a particular time and place, and also the growing experience of the many practitioners.. This ability and willingness to reformulate itself is one of Buddhism's great assets. As Buddhism moves into the Western World there is an other reformulation of Buddhism that is happening. Why am I writing about this? True deep Buddhism never fix's the meaning of words and doctrines. Words and doctrines are temporary skillful means attempts to express the inexpressible. Only deep experience can reveal a true understanding of Buddhism. Words can direct us on a path towards that experience and maybe they can point out that experience and understanding that comes from that experience but not literally only metaphorically, only poetically. This is what I call poetic liberation.
When Zen entered China it was entering a land with a deep love of poetry. In adapting Zen to China and later Japan a new formulation of Buddhism emerged using words poetically as metaphors for enlightened understanding and experience. And a new powerful tool combining metaphor and meditation emerged called the Koan. I think we can justifiably call this a fourth turning.
Now I have caught up to the previous blog. Typically the first Koan given a student is Mu. Mu is a word meaning no. The story goes that a student asked the Zen master Joshu, "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" The response was Mu. Right away we understand that this Mu is not a littoral no because Buddhist doctrine tells us that all beings have Buddha Nature. Of course Buddha Nature is another big question. All of this swirls in our head as we try to understand Joshu's response. Again and again we bring our teacher an intellectual answer and it is always rejected. Maybe we have heard that if we give a good shout MU we will pass but again the answer is rejected. We have to bring something else to the teacher. Eventually if we drop any fixed dualistic meaning for MU, and our dualistic understanding, all of a sudden Mu will make perfect sense.
This whole process of Koan Zen pushes the student, never letting him or her sit on their lorals, never settling on a comfortable understanding of Zen and meditation. This process works on the student to break down their dualistic thinking, and pushes their meditation to go deeper and deeper eventually setting up the conditions which allow the student to see through their dualistic thinking to the non-dual. What are these conditions?
One condition is a temporary suspension of dualistic thinking, verbal and emotional. There must also be a deep detachment from dualistic thought based on the fixed meanings of words. Lastly there is still the inner search for deeper meaning and a sort of directed energy that has built up in this search These last two conditions are where the koan is important It is not quite enough to just temporarily stop verbal thought in meditation because without a deeper detachment from dualistic thinking, when the meditation is over the dualistic thinking will start up again.
"The Master took the high seat in the Hall. He said: 'on your lump of red flesh
is a true man without rank who is always going in and out of the face of every one of you.
Those who have not yet proved him, look, look!"
This is a statement taken from the teachings of Rinzi and often given as a Koan. Rinzi, noted for his unusual teaching methods used language very freely and here seems to have presented us with a perplexing statement. In doing a little research on the internet I read a few commentaries on this koan and none of them seemed to go to the full depth of this koan. In Zen we often talk about the "true self", understanding our true self, finding our true self etc. This seems in contradiction to the Buddhist teaching of no self but we shouldn't be surprised with this seeming contradiction. Some how this delema resolves with a whole new way of viewing the self which is what this koan is all about.
One may start with the phrase true man of no rank and think: "We are always ranking ourselves, sometimes superior, sometimes inferior to those we interact with. Sometimes this ranking is conscious, often it is subconscious, but either way it effects our emotions and responses. On the other hand the enlightened don't think this way and see others as well as themselves as equals without rank. Instead the enlightened clearly see each situation and respond accordingly."
These thoughts may be a good beginning but they don't see the full depth of the Koan. What about this True Man going in and out of the face? Sensations and food come in through the face and what goes out through the face, words, spittle, disgorged food? What is Rinzi talking about? And also why is he bringing in the lump of red flesh?
We read "on your lump of red flesh is a true man" and we may immediately think that there is a separation between the lump of red flesh, our body, and the true man, our true selves. Beware of falling into the trap of mind body dualism. Buddhism is not a dualistic philosophy. We are not our body but we are also not not our body. This reminds me of many years ago when I was at a retreat with Baba Muctinanda the Hindu Guru. In his talk he tells us that we are all just bags of piss and shit. Many years later Harada Roshi in a talk tells us that we are bags of bile and puke. Why would they speak this way? Maybe they as well as Rinzi wanted to break down the idea that we are just this body. Be careful, if we alternatively think that we are just our minds then we are truly in trouble. If we think, "I am what I think," then we become attached to our greed anger and confusion, and then what hope do we have. We are also not not our mind.
Now we return to the "true man without rank who is always going in and out of the face of every one of you." Who is this true man, is it us, is it separate from us? Every which way we turn we fall into dualism. Rinzi says look look prove it to yourself. The inscrutable nature of the koan, the process of confronting the teacher again and again keeps pushing us. Boundaries have to be dropped. Fixed ideas have to be dropped. There we sit in meditation experiencing things like we always experience things but some how it is different because now we experience without boundaries. From the sounds that go in our ears, the sights that go in our eyes, the smells that go in our noses, and the breath that goes in and out of our body, we cannot separate ourselves.
Truly deep meditation is often described as a state of equanimity where all sensations. all things, are seen as equal. In this state of mind we simply observe without adding thoughts to our observation. We may also say this is a state of mind where everything is without rank. This state of mind which we call samadhi is not quite enough, somehow a profound change in understanding needs to take place and the koan points directly at this new understanding. Here is where the unique and poetic use of language in Zen has it's power. The phrase true man without rank references this completely different understanding but it all hinges on our understanding of the word man. This dualistic word must somehow be understood with a non-dualistic understanding.
In samadhi all our conceptual boundaries which divide perception into this and that are down. This is a state of Zero not a thing exists, because we are without even a single thought. But then if we look we can perceive everything is a single thing, One. This One includes not only what we sense out there but also our selves, this body and mind. We become everything but also everything becomes us. We have entered the non-dual. Rinzi's use of the word man is a personification of the non-dual It represents the identification of our true selves with everything. with the One. The One is our true self, it is the True Self, it is the true man without rank. Look look don't you see him? You just need to practice more.
If you truly see the man of no rank you shouldn't have a problem with this koan. You have undergone poetic liberation and the obscure language of the Zen Masters should start to be clear. I hope this essay has demonstrated reasonably well what I mean by poetic realization. Good luck in your practice.