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ESSENTIAL Teachings of the BUDDHA (pt 9):
Traditional, Zen and Tibetan Perspectives on the Eightfold Path of Nirvana
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ESSENTIAL Teachings of the BUDDHA (pt 9): Traditional, Zen and Tibetan Perspectives on the Eightfold Path of Nirvana (37 min.) MP3
Transcript of a talk delivered by Brother ChiSing and Ven. Tashi Nyima
October 14, 2012 - Dallas, Texas

Brother ChiSing: Thank you, dear friends, for your beautiful practice. So now, I would like to share some more on the four noble truths and the eightfold path that we began last week.

So to start off with, I just want to share that there's a wonderful free book online that you can read on the noble eightfold path by Bhikkhu Bodhi who currently resides in a wonderful monastery in New York, which I visited recently. He's a wonderful American monk, who is very, very, very wise and he's a great writer--he writes many wonderful things. This is an excellent introduction into the Buddha's teachings on the four noble truths and the eightfold path; you can actually get it online for free. Just Google, "Eightfold path, Bhikkhu Bodhi."

Last week we started to talk about the four noble truths and we talked about suffering, its causes, the possibility of cessation of suffering and causes of suffering and that there is indeed a path to the cessation of the causes of suffering and therefore the path to the cessation of suffering. Last week I also talked about the difference between pain and suffering: pain is inevitable, suffering is an option. I also talked about causes: craving, aversion and delusion. Different schools of Buddhists think of different parts of these as more primary than the others. Some say, "Craving," some say, "Aversion," some say, "Delusion," but I'm part of the school that thinks that delusion is the mother of them. But it doesn't really matter. They are all causes of suffering.

What are we deluded about? In the Theravada tradition what we have are the three dharma seals of, "Impermanence," "non-self," and "suffering," but in some of the Zen traditions, instead of, "Suffering," they just list it as, "Nirvana:" three characteristics of existence. And the wonderful Tibetans kind of lump it all together so instead of having three, we now have four. I actually prefer four, because it is more inclusive. "Impermanence," "non-self," "suffering," and "nirvana," represent three-- four characteristics of existence and also four ways of looking at existence to help us overcome suffering.

Last week I talked about impermanence so I think I'll start now with, "Non-self." I believe that there are at least three levels of meaning for, "Non-self," at least. I'm going to share with you the simplest understanding of, "Non-self," and then I'll share just a hint about the second deeper meaning of, "Non-self," from my own experience. You really can't fully understand it if you haven't experienced the insight into non-self--only when you experience it can you understand the second deeper meaning. Of course the third, deepest meaning, I think you really only understand when you are fully enlightened so I can't really talk about that.

So the simplest meaning that we can all understand in the meaning of, "Non-self," is to understand the term, "Non-self," to be that what we consider ourselves is also made of what is not considered ourselves-- in other words, whatever we think of as ourselves is actually made completely made out of non-self elements, so another way of saying that is, "Interbeing."

In other words, when you think of, let's say we have Bobbie sitting here, we think of Bobbie as a self and yet this self that we call Bobbie is made completely of non-Bobbie elements: her existence in this form is made of other things that we don't consider, "Bobbie," and yet are integral to, "Bobbiness." For example the existence of her mother and her father are integral to the existence of this which we call, "Bobbie." The existence of the sun at the right distance from the planet Earth is also a part of Bobbie's existence. The fact that the moon is exactly in the spot that it's in in rotation around the planet Earth, creating life as we know it on the planet with its tides and all of that and the plants growing and everything, all of the cycles including women's cycles based on the moon--that's also a part of what we call, "Bobbie." The existence of oxygen in the air… without that, there would be no Bobbie as we know her.

Because there is the existence of rain, there also is the possibility of Bobbie. Without rain there would be no water on the planet, we wouldn't actually be lacking, none of us, but we wouldn't be here in this form. Without the trees and the vegetation and the green things of the planet, there wouldn't be a, "Bobbie." Without the structure of the universe the way it is: Time, space, matter, this particular manifestation as Bobbie would also not exist in this form. Also, not just physically, but also emotionally and mentally what we understand as Bobbie mentally as we relate to her, speaking English--she would not have that kind of mind that communicates with us in English if she had not also had language from the culture that she grew up in. Her intelligence, which is very very high, would not be in existence as it is now without all of the education that she went through and all of the books that she read and all of the things that she learned in her experienced life.

Also, her current belief system would not be in existence as it is right now without previous teachers in existence in history, such as the Buddha and others who have influenced her understanding of life and all of her spiritual teachers and teachings she's learned. So you can see that without these other things that we don't even see as Bobbie, but without those, there is no Bobbie and therefore on a very deep level of understanding, realize that, actually, Bobbie is in everything, that everything is Bobbie in a sense, so what we think of Bobbie as separate from everything else is actually a diluted way of thinking, because actually who she is the entirety of existence, the entirety of reality, the entirety of the universe, taking a Bobbie form just as the entire universe is taking a Cornell form, a Tashi form, an Ann form, etc.

So the most simple understanding of, "Non-self," is to see that there is no such thing as a separate solid self that has nothing to do with everything else but that in fact, what we think about as self is actually made up of everything else, that you are not just a being, you are an interbeing. Your existence in this form at this moment is completely dependent on other causes and conditions--completely dependent on everything and everyone else in existence, all simultaneously cocreating reality together. That's one simple way of looking at the concept of, "Non-self."

Now a little bit deeper understanding of, "Non-self," I think you will understand, experimentally, when you have what the Japanese Zen call, "Kensho," that glimpse of enlightenment or an opening, a breakthrough into reality just for a few moments. In Japanese Zen when you have a great breakthrough and a final one that's what we call, "Satori," which would be the equivalent to enlightenment. I'll give you a little hint, but I don't really think it's useful to share too much about it because it's best for you to actually experience it for yourself, but when I had that opening and glimpse experience a few years ago, I was just meditating about myself and all of a sudden I thought I was a bubble that just popped, very gently, unobtrusively--popped! What this feeling was, all my life I was identifying myself with this body and even this mind and personality and all of the aspects of our mental condition and at that moment I completely was released from that identification.

When we identify with this body and mind, it's like a bubble: we think that the air inside the bubble is completely different than the air outside of the bubble, but really it's all just air and when the bubble pops, there's only air. In the same way, when your identification with self just pops for even just a few moments for a glimpse of true nature, you realize, "Oh, who I really am is just simply this, it's just beingness, or emptiness, spaciousness, vastness," there's no words for it, it's just reality; you're just simply pure consciousness of our pure reality and the feeling that moment from you was, "Oh my gosh, hahaha, all this time I thought I was this body, this mind… oh my goodness I thought there was a self in here somewhere," no, no, there's no self-- there's no separate self, there's only this one.

Of course, at that moment, I wasn't using human language like this, I wasn't saying the words, "Oh there's only one." You don't need to. So when you have your own glimpse, you will understand on an experimental level, so that's all I'm going to say and I don't think it's helpful to say anything more than that. Of course, at the most ultimate level, I have no idea how I would even teach it because I haven't even experienced it and I always go with what my teacher says; he says, "Don't ever teach anything you haven't experienced for yourself first," so if I haven't experienced it, I'm not going to teach about it.

So now, we already talked about the nature of suffering where there's a difference between, "Pain," and our story around the pain which creates mental and emotional suffering on top of the ordinary physical unpleasantness of life. Then, of course, Nirvana, which means, "To blow out, to extinguish." It's actually a very positive word. Some people think nirvana means, "Oh man, it's a negative thing, you know, blow out, non-existence, you know," but actually it's more referring to blowing out delusion, blowing out the causes of suffering, blowing out unreality and awakening to reality-- it also means, "Perfect peace," and, "Contentment with everything just as it is."

When we resist these realities of our physical conditions, impermanence, non-self, suffering, and nirvana, we cause ourselves suffering. What we don't realize is that even in the midst of all of this here, nirvana is always available, there is that deep possibility of awakening to truth right in the midst of all of this suffering, craziness, and delusion. Don't despair, because nirvana is part and parcel to the whole shebang. There is a path and that path is the eightfold path, so we've got three parts of this eightfold path.

The first is the path of wisdom, which is, "Right view," which is, really, the four noble truths, so the first of the eightfold path is the four noble truths, and the fourth of the noble truths is the eightfold path, so there is a link so you can't miss it. So wisdom is comprised of right view (which is the four noble truths) and right intention, which is one way of translating it--basically you intend to have certain thoughts of renunciation and good will and etc. The second part of the eightfold path is virtue, right speech, right action, and right livelihood. The third part of the eightfold path would then be, mind training and meditation. This would comprise a right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Right effort, in here, basically means, "When you have enlightened thoughts, you want to sustain it and when you don't have them, you want to make them happen." When you have unenlightened thoughts, you want to calm them down and when you don't have unenlightened thoughts, you want to prevent them from occurring, so… "Right effort."

I may let Tashi go into more detail than that, there's more details, but you can always read up on it-- basically I want to conclude my part of the Dharma talk so that Tasha has at least some minutes as well, if he likes. I want to give you a little Zen twist on the four noble truths. How I taught it is, basically, the basic way of understanding it which the Theravada tradition also teaches, but there's a Zen twist on the four noble truths. In the normal understanding of the four noble truths, you have a problem, that problem is suffering. Suffering is a problem. You have a cause of suffering which leads to the result of suffering, so you have, ""A," leads to, "B,"" you have a craving, aversion, delusion, that leads to the condition of suffering, and then you have the possibility of the cessation of suffering--so in other words you, right now you are in suffering but there's a possibility of going to non-suffering, ok? The fourth is, "There is a path to this cessation of suffering," so in other words, if you do, "A, B, and C," then, "Yay, nirvana!"

That's the normal understanding, but the Zen understanding is this: "Suffering? Not a problem." Suffering is not a problem, it's just part and parcel of everything just as it is and so that's why there is this Mahayana saying, "Samsara is nirvana, nirvana is samsara." Now this sounds crazy to the Theravada Buddhists, but hear me out, suffering is not a problem! We're only making it a problem, but we need all of the suffering because without suffering, we cannot actually become awake to our Buddha nature. In other words, everything is actually perfect, already including the suffering; it's all part of the package of making Buddhas. The whole universe is a Buddha-making machine and both the bliss and the difficulties in life are all a part of the ingredients.

So suffering is not actually a problem, it's just part of what we have to work with to bake our cake of enlightenment, and the causes of suffering leading to suffering… no, that's not actually the case, rather, it is that craving itself is suffering, it doesn't lead to suffering, it is a manifestation of suffering. Aversion doesn't lead to suffering, aversion is an expression of suffering. Delusion doesn't lead to suffering, delusion itself is an expression of suffering. Can you kind of see how, in Zen, we eliminate time--you know, "This leads to that," "Past to the present to the future," in Zen it's all eternally present, "Now," time, so there is no time and that's why we eliminate cause toward effect. There is no cause and effect, it's all now and then.

Right now, we're in a state of suffering and we want to go into a state of non-suffering, that's not the Zen understanding. Rather, in the very midst of suffering existence already is nirvana, in samsara is nirvana, in other words, within this very moment, is nirvana--right now. There is nothing you have to do to get there; it's already here. Even just if, maybe right now, it's just covered up, in your awareness, it's covered up. But it's right here, already. So it's not like you have to do something to get there but even in the midst of it, it's there.

Let me give you a little practical example. When we go through a suffering and go through a problem or difficulty and we want to get a solution out of it--and you know that's sort of what we want to do when we have a goal and we want to strive for that solution and so we think of the problem as something bad. We think of it as bad, we don't want it, we want to get rid of it; and yet if we just change our attitude toward it, in a Zen way we see that actually within this very difficult situation there's already a jewel, so our practice is to find the jewel that's already within the difficult situation, ok?

So in every difficult situation you are going through, can you find the jewel in it--the lesson that's there, the wisdom that's there? The compassion that is potentially there that can arise. The insight that can arise, so instead of seeing all bad and all problem, see that, well, in the very center of this difficulty, or what we consider bad, there is this, jewel, there is this gift. So see everything, even the difficult aspects of life, as a gift, an opportunity to find that nirvana within it.

The fourth noble truth, you know, we say, "You know, that, 'A,' 'Plus,' 'D,' 'Plus,' 'D,' 'Plus,' 'C,' 'E,' you know, 'Etc.,'" then if you do this path it will lead to nirvana, lead to enlightenment, lead to happiness. But in Zen, because there is no time, it's all timeless now, in Zen, we say, "No, because you are already enlightenment, it expresses. Then the enlightenment that you are expresses as right view, it expresses right thinking, it expresses as right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration, and therefore, just the expression of the path is already the expression of enlightenment. That would be the Zen twist on it, so instead of doing right action or all of these right things, to try to get you to enlightenment, rather, the attitude is that, "No, you already are enlightenment, you already are Buddha nature in expression, and now, just naturally allow that right action to flow forth and manifest from the truthiness of who you are.

We're not doing it to try to get a goal, we're just naturally doing it, because that's who we really are, that's what a Buddha does. A Buddha just naturally wants to have right mindfulness, right thoughts, right action, right speech, right everything. This path is not a path to somewhere, it is the embodiment, expression, and manifestation of who you already are, so that's just a little Zen twist, ok?

So anyway, we have a few more minutes left for Tashi to give his perspectives on anything or if he wants to go into detail, I give a very broad, general outline. Also you can do the Zen way of silence too. [Audience laughs] Thank you.

Ven. Tashi Nyima: There's been a long debate amongst Buddhists about the gradual and the sudden approach to enlightenment, and there was actually a formal debate in Tibet between the followers of Indian Buddhists and Chinese Cha'an (That's the Chinese, "Hashang Mahayana") and in that debate in the Tibetan version of it, the Gurarta approach prevailed and not because there is no understanding that time is a concept… … … time is, but time is an observation. Time is a sequence of observation.

Two people can watch the same accident, for example, unfold and when you ask them what happened they can actually give you a different version of the accident, right? And it's all as though they were watching and they noticed different details at different moments and in their mind, that's the order in which they happened but it's actually not the order in which they happened, it's your every day noticed-thing.

So time is a conceptual aberration; however, ordinary beings, we accept time, we live in time, we work in time, we cultivate spirituality (or we hope so), in time, so therefore the Buddha and His primeness gave many different approaches to His teachings: "The gradual, the semi-gradual, the mixed-gradual and southern, the southern, the many different approaches," and all of them are wonderful. What we need to understand, however, is that there is a particular approach that is less stupid to us and that attempting to follow divergent paths simultaneously leads to confusion, so it's like, if you go, I don't know, to an ice cream parlor and they have, what, 50 flavors, it's probably not the brightest idea to get a serving of all 50 at the same time, even although we may want to, or maybe we don't like 50, maybe we like 42, it's not the best idea.

The best idea is to actually select something and enjoy fully; the same thing is true of a spiritual path, and I'm just going to focus on this one image that is very often used in Buddhism worldwide. It is an image of the raft or the boat and in Ancient India, for example, to go from one side of a very large river to the other side, you took a raft or a boat and when you get to a particular crossing place, there may be many boats that are available for hire, and these boats all have their own owners and their own tribulations and they have their own looks and so some of them are pretty and some of them are ugly and some of them are big and some of them are small some are sturdy some are not. Some look rather rigidly, some look like they will withstand anything, some are very popular with the locals, some not so popular, so when you get there, there's probably some boats that you can figure out, "This one's not going to make it, right?"

Just stay out of those, but among the remaining ones there's probably a good number of ones that will make it, they will make it across, so then you have to exercise your judgment about, which is the one that is best suited to your needs? Is this one faster, does this one provide more amenities, and, you know, I like cushions, I like whatever it is, or this one has the kind of people that I like onboard, I may go with them, or you can choose in terms of the actual captain whose piloting this thing. "Well you know I trust this guy." "This one doesn't look reliable." So there are many ways of choosing a boat, but the point is that you have to choose one, right?

You can't just stay on the ship and say, "Oh that's a pretty boat, oh that's a pretty boat, oh that's a pretty boat, oh that's a great boat, oh that's a great boat…" You can spend your entire lives cataloging boats and actually Buddhist academics often do that, right? They spend entire careers saying, like, "This is what this one said, and this is what this one said," and they never do anything about it.

We have so many Buddhist studies programs in the United States full of non-beliefs or non-practicing Buddhists, so, sooner or later we have to choose a boat and it really doesn't matter which one it is, so long as it's a legitimate one, not one that that's making water right away, not one that has a dumb guy at the controls, but once you choose one, then what happens? Others may be on either side of you while you are trying to cross that river but it's not very wise to start jumping from boat to boat. You are probably going to fall off into the water and once you have made a choice, the prudent thing is to stay in the boat, you know. But if your boat starts making water, by all means, try to get into another one.

But generally, in practice, it's not a good thing to be jumping. Why do I say this? Because there are many general different schools and they are all wonderful. In Tibet, in the nineteenth century and twentieth century there was a great movement holder, "Remeh," meaning nonsectarian. A lot of people think that nonsectarian means eclectic; it does not mean eclectic. "Eclectic," means, "To mix and match things." Mixing and matching leads to confusion and often leads to indigestion. "Remeh," means that you respect all paths, you consider them worthwhile, viable, but you choose on your own and you travel on your own. That is the safest way, and some people think we are too traditional in that sense but it is very safe approach.

Like right now, for example, I'm sure, and believe me I know very little in Texas, but I'm sure if I'm to drive to Austin, there's more than one way of getting there, right? Some may be longer, some may be more scenic, some may be more direct, some may be more bogged. If you actually are going to go, rather than just talking about the ways of getting to Austin, you have to choose one way and travel that way, right? So the Tibetan tradition is to explore, look around, evaluate, use your judgment, follow the Buddha's instructions, confront what you are taught against your recent understanding and experience. If it is suitable for you, adopt it, if it is not suitable for you, leave it aside and look for something else, but once you find that which is suitable for you, then peruse it and peruse it with dedication and peruse it with concentration and peruse it as if your life depended on it.

Your spiritual life depends on it. I'm sure you are familiar with these food courts, you know what a food court is, right? You go and you sit in the middle and there's all kinds of chairs and then, you know, you have all sorts of different things around you. You can get a slice of pizza to go with an order of French fries a Greek salad on this side, Chinese food at this thing, then they have, you know, German wieners on this side, and it doesn't really bode well for your digestion, right?

All of these things may or may not be suitable food, but they're not suitable food together, so look at all those options, you have many options. The Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas in their kindness have given us many different, wonderful approaches and most of them work, both of them work, but sooner or later we are going to have to choose how we're getting to where we're going, so I encourage you to explore, to look, to study, but to also make a concerted effort to practice in one consistent way. We have a story inside, Spanish speaking countries call it, I don't even know how to translate it, [sastrembos Thredoved], "There, I guess there."

One unfaithful tailor started to tailor dresses and suits for everybody but never finished any of them, so although he was excellent, nobody was ever pleased with him because he just started things. All these things look wonderful, but finish that and get on to the next one. So let us not go as the unfaithful tailor, but I will choose a path and follow it with heart, with dedication, with integrity, and with whatever that may be. It may be a gradual path, it may be a semi gradual path, a southern path, but make your choice and live it and you will see the results. They all work. They just don't necessarily work together.

Transcribed by Jessica Hitch

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