Three Attitudes for Practice III
In my final piece on three attitudes that inform our practice, I want to discuss what I call the “Shattered Mirror” approach. We have been experiencing more shattered mirrors in this past year as Americans than I can ever remember. Dogen, who lived in a culture at least as fractured as ours said, “A greatly enlightened person is nevertheless deluded— to understand that is the quintessence of practice.”
What did he mean by this? Contemporary Buddhist leaders of Dogen’s time like Shinran believed that they were living in the fallen age which Buddha is supposed to have predicted; the third age, in which any awakening a person had would have no lasting effect.
But this was not Dogen’s sentiment at all. For him and for me, enlightenment is not the absence of delusion and delusion is not the absence of enlightenment. Delusion and enlightenment have no fixed nature. They are separate yet indivisible, like two sides of the same coin.
“Great enlightenment is ever intimate with delusion,” Dogen said.
Our primary meditation practice is to shine an unwavering light on each of our delusions. The ability to shine our light of awareness on a delusion with absolutely no judgement is already enlightenment. In my first book I pointed that even though our flashlight sheds light within the cave beneath our surface level of existence, the cave extends forever. There are always undiscovered nooks of anxiety and crannies of fear and doubt. All you need to do is shine your steady, calm, flashlight inward and you will gradually penetrate the cave’s depths. Even when you have a strong desire to run away, can honor your commitment to stay and explore―not with your head, but with your entire being, with gentle, kind awareness?
Anxieties begin to dissolve. They may disappear entirely for a while, but there’s always another cranny you haven’t seen yet. And your flashlight never runs out of batteries!
To quote Dogen again, “Great enlightenment is ever intimate with delusion.”
About 20 years ago I worked with a guy I will call Dan. “Before I started practicing, my relationships with women were always difficult,” Dan explained in a one-to-one visit. Things would get all tangled up. So, he would back off. Then the woman would back off. Then he needed her to be close. She’d come back. And then he needed more space, and he would back off again.
He added that in his current relationship, he didn’t feel so tied up in knots. “The problem is, I don’t know how much is due to zazen and how much is that I am still distancing myself for protection.”
Distancing is associated with suppressing, repressing, or denying feelings. People confuse distancing with detachment, which I talked to him about.
He began inviting his feelings in. As he did this, he realized how abandoned he felt when his new partner moved away and how overwhelmed he felt when she got close. As he kept shining his light on his experience the glue which held his feelings of abandonment together began dissolve and he felt a lightness he had not experienced since he was a child.
Dan discovered, as many others have, that ironically, intimacy is the best path to detachment. When we practice bare awareness of whatever drama is dominating our consciousness, the intensity recedes, because we are just stopping, looking, and listening to the movie that is appearing on the screen of our consciousness.
I am not talking about oneness of light and darkness; I am talking about interplay. This type of intimacy sensitizes us to the complexities of our problems. We are able to just be with them, with compassion and kindness. As Dogen says, “When the dharma does not yet completely fill your body and mind, you think that it is already sufficient. When the dharma fills your body and mind, you think that something is missing.” When you kindly hold your frailties like a wounded bird or animal that you love, you see that enlightenment is ALWAYS intimate with delusion.
And of course, we need to distance ourselves sometimes. We need to go into a neuromuscular lock to protect ourselves from being harmed and that’s both necessary and perfectly okay, but please don’t confuse it with genuine detachment.
When we are patiently and persistently intimate with any coagulated thought-emotion regardless of the pain, dis-identification occurs on its own and our pain miraculously dissolves. But if fear pushes us away, it is not detachment, it is distancing.
Furthermore, light is always mediated by darkness. There’s no universal light that we just melt into, where there’s no trace of ego left for the rest of our lives. We need a healthy ego. It’s a wonderful manifestation of Big Mind or Heart-Mind.
Since we are allowing natural interplay to occur, we don’t have to conquer darkness or despair or even struggle against them. Maybe you can see that this third attitude or approach is more nuanced than bright mirror or no mirror, and you don’t have to suffer from the tyranny of the single description.
A semi-mythological figure from China is Butai (J. Hotei), who carried a sack full of oranges around with him to give to kids and homeless people. When he was asked about the fundamental meaning of life, he dropped his sack. And when he was further asked, “How do you live this meaning,” he picked up his sack and walked away.
“We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing,” said George Bernard Shaw.
I worked with a woman several years ago who was an “advanced” meditator. She was going through a divorce and was consumed by suffering and discouraged about her meditation. Before she and her husband broke up, she had many bright mirror experiences in her meditation. But now she said, dust clung to her mirror regardless of how long or effortfully she meditated. She had taken a class when we studied Hui Neng. In a one-to-one she had with me, she said, “I realize this is all made up, that there’s no mirror mind, but I am still continually suffering.”
I knew she was a musician and had an auditory orientation, so I encouraged her to take some deep breaths with me as I rang the meditation bell a dozen or so times. When her face and shoulder had softened, I asked her, “Are you suffering now?” When she replied, “yes” I asked her to hold her suffering. Then I said, “How about embracing both your suffering and your no suffering?” I watched her for a couple of minutes until she quietly exclaimed “This is great. I feel like I am holding my twin boys. One has been really misbehaving and the other is just being sweet, but I love them both equally.”
As Dogen said, “A greatly enlightened person is nevertheless deluded.”
This happened during a long winter in Minnesota that never seemed to end.
A few days later she emailed me the following poem:
“Snowfall after snow fall,
Delusion piled on delusion,
I continue my practice forever.”
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher