Sesshin Lecture Given at Camp New Hope, NC, October, 1994
by Sojun Mel Weitsman
I may never finish with the Heart Sutra but I think you should continue to study it on your own. I recommend the Tiger’s Cave (ed. Trevor Leggett) which has a commentary by Abbot Obora who takes the Heart Sutra phrase by phrase, not as a technical commentary, but based on life itself so it’s talking about how to live Prajña Paramita from a point of view of a Soto Zen abbot.
"...no ignorance and also no extinction of it, until no age and death and also no extinction of it." Within that sentence lies the twelve-fold chain of causation which is a cycle, a circle, called the circle of conditioned co-production or conditioned arising. It means that one thing gives rise to another, which is Buddhist philosophy in a nut shell.
Because everything is dependent on something for its existence, and nothing exists independently, there is no magical or sudden appearance of things without a cause. There are no miracles in Buddhism. Life itself is miraculous, but there is nothing that happens out of the realm of causes and conditions. For whatever happens, there’s got to be a cause and it’s cause sets up other conditions, and it’s also a condition for something else. So each thing, being the result of causes and conditions, is, itself, another cause or another condition for something else. Everything is bound together through causes and conditions, and everything is always affecting everything else. Whatever we do has both close effects and far reaching effects. We say that, in some way, the energy of an action continues endlessly. Energy is intercepted by causes and conditions and takes various forms. The phrase quoted above describes the cycle of the twelve conditions leading to rebirth. On this cycle you can pick out a beginning anywhere, but the beginning here is ignorance.
The twelve-fold chain starts out with ignorance, ignorance being the cause of our karmic life. Birth in the womb begins with ignorance, but ignorance has two meanings depending on how you look at it. Next is the formation of the embryo; and then there is feeling or awareness; and then there is individuation; and then there are the six sense fields; and from all this comes contact with the world; and from contact with the world sensation arises; and from sensation comes the thirst for life...thirst, desire, lust, and craving. Then from that comes clinging or attachment, hanging on to what our desires focuses on. Desire is called the basis of suffering because it leads to clinging to that which cannot be clung to. Then comes the growth and continuation of what we call a self or an ego. Through desire, clinging, craving, an ego is formed, and this individuation (actually, individuation is a separate issue which we call the ego and a false sense of self.) All of these lead to another birth, old age and death, and then the cycle continues over and over again. So this is a short, very succinct explication of the twelve-fold chain.
The earlier Buddhists, the Hinayanas, felt that in order to get free from this round, or this chain, of suffering, you had to eliminate the causes of it, and that makes sense. If something hurts you eliminate the cause of the pain; it is very logical. If you are sitting in zazen, that’s a lot of pain. Well, the logical thing to do is to get up and walk around. The early Buddhists said the thing to do is to let go of clinging; and in order to let go of clinging, you have to let go of thirst. In order to let go of thirst, you have to let go of sensation. In order to let go of sensation you have to let go of contact; and the rest, until you finally get down to ignorance which is the cause of all delusion. Ignorance and delusion are actually synonyms and can be used as synonyms. They tried to eliminate all causes of suffering until they eliminated life itself, and for them nirvana was extinction—extinction of all the causes of suffering—because, if you have life, you are bound to have suffering. So, for them, nirvana was to extinguish all the causes which lead to suffering, and end rebirth on the cycle.
But later, Mahayana, Buddhists didn’t buy this idea because, for them, the causes of suffering and the problems of life itself will never go away. To eliminate life itself in order to be free of suffering is a kind of life-denying goal. When the Western scholars started studying Buddhism in the 19th century, before the discovery of the Mahayana’s texts, they read the Hinayana scriptures. To them Buddhism was a very pessimistic religion. For Mahayana Buddhists, the path is to find nirvana within our life of suffering. In other words, we are not trying to eliminate all the causes of suffering. Of course, one should not do something foolish in order to create suffering, but no matter how much we try to avoid the cause of suffering, we are always in the midst of it anyway. Life is not just suffering; it’s also joy. If you have suffering then you also have joy. So the Mahayana way is to find the joy of life within the suffering. And within our passions is also our salvation. So instead of escaping from life, in Mahayana, and in Zen, especially, you face life completely and become one with it completely. This is Dogen’s way, which is to be one, completely one, with our activity. Not to try to escape from life, but to be completely one with life. Actually, there is no birth and death; this is the Mahayana understanding.
"Old age and death"...birth, old age and death is a continuum, and the end of old age and death is a new birth, which is not to be avoided. We can look at old age, and the cycle of birth, old age, and death as the cycle of life. But we can also see it as the cycle of life from moment to moment, the cycle of birth and death from moment to moment. So each that each moment is a moment of birth and death, and within all that is a whole lifetime. Within each moment there is a whole lifetime, and the death of this moment is the birth of the next moment. In zazen we live our life from moment to moment. We get to the point where life is just being lived from moment to moment on each breath. When you inhale, that's coming to life, and when you exhale, that's letting go of life. Each breath is a moment of birth and death, and birth and death is continuous, moment to moment.
So, when we talk about birth and death, there are two levels of birth and death. One is the level when we say, "I was born in such and such a time and I will die in such and such a time." That's one cycle. Another cycle is birth and death as happening on each moment, continuously, in a never ending cycle. Rather than eliminating all of the causes of suffering, our way is to find our true nature, or our true grounding, or our eternal momentariness, within our activity, whether that is suffering, or joy, or any activity.
This is why we do zazen. In zazen we don't discriminate between suffering and joy. Within our suffering, or within our pain, is joy. And within our joy is pain. But, underneath, or in the center, is complete stillness. The ground of being. That's why we sit zazen: in order to settle on this ground of being, which is equanimity, or non-discriminating and settled mind. If we know how to experience and settle on clear mind, Big Mind, Buddha Nature, this continuous moment, then we can extend that into our daily life. That's what we practice in our daily life.
© Sojun Mel Weitsman, 1999