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The Dharmas are boundless
I vow to master them.
This is the third Bodhisattva vow and it is confusing like the other two. Most people in the West think that the word Dharma's in this vow means Buddhist teachings and some translations of theses vows directly translate this vow this way. But if you read up on ancient Buddhist philosophy the word dharma is used very differently. (Conze's Buddhist Thought in India is a good read on this subject) Dharma can be translated as sense object or sense experience. It can also be translated as a true constituents of reality. Buddhism taught from the beginning that the way the world appears to us is a delusion. It appears to us delusively because of our delusive way of thinking. It was understood that through meditation we could experience the world without delusion.. Such words as dharma and suchness referred to an experience of the world untainted by delusive thought. To experience the world without the taint of delusion was to realize the Dharma. Now we can understand how the word Dharma transformed into meaning the teachings of Buddhism. The Dharma refered not so much to the core teachings of Buddhism but the core experience of Buddhism. The true Dharma cannot be put into words but must be experienced.
There is an other translation of this vow which goes:
The Dharma Gates are boundless
I vow to master them.
I like this translation because the wording Dharma Gates better conveys what I think is the meaning of this vow. What is a Dharma Gate? Well anything can be a Dharma Gate and that is just the point. If we read many of the stories of enlightenment we realize that just about anything can precipitate an enlightenment experience, There are stories of people being enlightened by punches, shouts, the sound of a pebble being kicked, the sound of snow falling, the following of the breath, chanting, and on and on the stories go. Every experience every moment is a Dharma Gate. If we can for even a moment experience without delusion then we have mastered the Dharma Gate which is that moment. There is a Zen story (koan) in which Zen master Zuigon every morning sits upon a rock and says to himself "Master, let me not be fooled today." Such a strange story, but really it is just about a man who reminds himself not to be caught in delusive thinking. And is this not the same as the vow to master all Dharmas?
Again and again I come back to experience in my essays and these blogs, which is because Zen and Buddhism is really about experience, not a bunch of intellectual ideas. All the verbal teachings are peripheral, just helping point one towards the central experience of Buddhism, enlightenment. I know I know the first Noble Truth is "right understanding" but that understanding must start with experience otherwise it is just a bunch of words running through our heads and that can be dangerous.
I look around at the various schools of Buddhism and see that some of them have built large intellectual edifices, the "path" is laid out in explicit detail. Philosophic explanations of suffering, and delusion and the meaning of such words as "emptiness" are laid out in explicit detail. And there are also explicit behavioral rules. and many articles of faith such as reincarnation. For many, this is Buddhism and I guess this is what people want, this is how you build a religion. But this reminds me of a couple of old sayings:
"Organized religion is designed to prevent people from having a religious experience", and "the map is not the territory."
The core of Buddhism is that experience that Shakyamuni had 2500 years ago sitting in meditation under the Bodhi Tree. And he made it eminently clear that this is an experience that all people can have and that he was teaching people how to have this experience.
And then many people think that all a person needs to do is have an enlightenment experience and they are enlightened but that is also too much of a simplification. As the Sixth Patriarch of Zen put it, A person is enlightened when they have an enlightened thought and deluded when they have a deluded thought. All delusional thinking is not ended with one experience. The real trick is to learn to come back again and again to this clear un-deluded place of enlightenment. Remember, Shakyamuni practiced meditation throughout his whole life, returning again and again to that same clear state of mind of enlightenment.
Master a dharma, master a moment, how do you do that? Well, in meditation we sit until we clear our minds of all delusions which means pretty much empty our minds of all thoughts. But sitting on the meditation cushion is only a small portion of our lives. How do we master dharmas in our every day lives? The answer is simple but just as difficult as emptying our minds during meditation. Embrace each moment Simply do what you are doing without self consciousness, without extra thoughts. This is the practice, but sometimes it is a lot more then just the practice. The other morning I took a walk on a slightly foggy day and I was overcome by beauty and filled with joy. Is this not mastering a dharma. This is not practice. Thinking "practice" is to be self conscious. The true practice is to drop all thought of practice and to be absorbed in the moment. But it was also something more then just being absorbed in the moment because in that moment I knew that I was looking at myself, that the trees and plants, flowers, houses, Puget Sound seen through the mist, the mist itself and the people in the houses, the whole shabang was just Me.
In the second vow to end all desires and the third vow to master all dharmas I see the positive and negative aspects to the same practice and that same state of mind in which the practice is realized. The practice is simple to express, forget the self, drop all selfish desires, and embrace each moment, everything we do and feel and think. The realization of the practice is that state of mind in which without effort selfish desires are forgotten and each moment is naturally embraced.