This is my second piece inspired by Vimalakirti, the only layperson in the Buddhist scriptures who lives from and manifests the empty middle way which I described in my last piece. He does this in several ways. In this post, I will consider the first.
Vimalakirti is an iconoclastic critic of all spiritual pretension showing us where we get caught by subtle attachments, whether it be to some idea of “right spiritual practice” or some idea of Buddha or some other spiritual being from whom we seek help. Two stories, which I touched on last time, out of 9th and 10th century China, show the impact of Vimalakirti’s teaching on Chan which later became Zen. In the first, two monks approach an overflowing stream during a break from their practice in the monastery on the hill at the same time a nun approaches during a break from her practice in the nunnery on an adjoining hill. Seeing that the water is too high for the diminutive nun to cross, the first monk scoops her up and carries her on his shoulders across the stream. He then puts he down and the monks and nun go their separate ways. The second monk immediately says to the first “How dare you carry that woman across this stream, when you know that during practice period, we are not allowed to have any contact with women?” The first monk replies, “Oh, is she still on your shoulders? I put her down when she left the stream.”
The second story is even simpler: A monk asked Wumen, “What is Buddha?” Buddha replied, “A shit stick.”
These monks were both being chided for “spiritual bypassing.” The first one is so caught by an idea of how he should be that he is unable to open up to the nun’s need in the current moment. The second one is so focused on finding a transcendent being, in this case Buddha, who will free him of his suffering, that he fails to realize that so-called “Buddha” is present in each and all components of his life.
How’s this all relevant to our own meditative practice? In both cases we are being reminded that we should not bypass the immediacy of our current experience including whatever thoughts and emotions we have, to attain a so-called “spiritual” goal. Often we use spiritual practices as a defense mechanism to protect us from feeling something we don’t want to feel. Instead, it’s possible for us to be with whatever problem that comes up, and as a result, become liberated from it.
Let’s say we have a major problem that’s surfaced in our lives. How can we explore it? Here are two complementary ways:
First, if we have powerful resistance to an emotion evoked by the problem, we might explore what’s keeping us from feeling it. I call this “shining our flashlight in the cave.” It’s so important to replace our judgment about what should or shouldn’t be with kind and attentive awareness of whatever we are experiencing. If we do this, it’s inevitable the deep hurt which precipitates all strong negative emotions will begin to heal and a movement toward solving our problem spontaneously begins.
And, of course, there are times when sitting with our emotion related to a problem feels too big or too painful. When this happens, we should switch from bare awareness to a compassion practice like:
“I see my suffering. And I hold myself and my suffering in my heart with love and kindness. May my suffering be eased.”
As we become more aware of and tuned into our feelings, we begin to draw on the natural intelligence of our bodily processes. Whereas thought can only take into account one item at a time, our sensational experience is capable of integrating a wide array of feelings simultaneously.
But we shouldn’t “dis” our thoughts during our attempt to open to a deeper level of being. In addition to allowing your heart to open, consider what you preconceived ideas or beliefs you might hold about your problem. How rigidly are you gripping them? Can you open your mind to examining different perspectives? Can you exhibit curiosity instead of judgment as you look at what’s in the next cranny of the cave?
If the problem or situation you’re contemplating seems too complex or disturbing, instead of by-passing it, you might even hang out in not knowing what to do.
Often, we jump to spiritual bypassing because we can’t tolerate having an unresolved problem lingering. If we just say, “I’m not sure what to do with this” or “I need more information,” this allows us to come back to it, continue to learn, and remain open to solutions we haven’t even imagined.
But what’s all this have to do with Vimalakirti? Only that in emphasizing the importance of not separating the sacred from the mundane, his teaching becomes a guide for our spiritual quest. And when we stop bypassing our everyday thoughts and emotions to “get somewhere”, our mind descends into our heart. Then, quite naturally, we embody and bring alive heart-mind through our words, actions, and interpersonal relations.
The more honestly- and bravely- we shine our flashlight in the cave, the more clearly we see ourselves. When this happens we settle into an intimacy with what is. When this happens, we feel connected, secure, and at peace, supported by all life.
I’d now like to talk about the mythological Buddhist layman, Vimalakirti, who is considered an embodiment of a life based on the second middle way, which became important with the rise of Mahayana Buddhism a half century or so after Buddha’s death.
The first middle way, which is carefully articulated in the Pali Canon lays out the ideal life of a Buddhist meditation practitioner as a mid-point between indulgence and austerity:
“Monks, these two extremes ought not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. There is an addiction to indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, coarse, the way of ordinary people, unworthy, and unprofitable; and there is an addiction to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.”
Extreme spiritual austerities were highly valued in Buddha’s time and during his six-year spiritual quest, he practiced many forms of self-mortification which including activities like starving himself. However, these activities did not help him get any closer to liberation.
After he did attain enlightenment he taught about a middle way, but this middle way seems severely austere by 21st century American standards, although it was not during the time in which he lived.
This early middle way was passed on from generation to generation and adhered to by serious meditators, predominately monks, nuns, and priests. It included celibacy, wearing discarded rags sewed together as clothing, staying away from money, and not eating after noon, all to aid practitioners in letting go of attachment to the world.
It is true that lay people were not expected to do these things but starting in India and continuing into China and Japan, there was the sense that when householders reached a certain age, they too could take up this way of life.
We can assume the celibacy mandate was violated frequently over the centuries, as it was in Christianity. Nevertheless, it endured until the Meiji Restoration in the late 1800s in Japan when both clerical meat eating and marriage were de-criminalized. Even my own teacher could never rise to a high rank within the Soto Zen lineage, because he had married.
However, this middle way is radically different than the middle way which developed 500 years later in early Mahayana Buddhism. It is personified by Vimalakirti, who had extensive wealth, as well as a wife and children.
This middle way, which was articulated clearly by the Buddhist teacher, Nagarjuna, is called the empty middle way, or the non-dual middle way. Its basic teaching is that the division that we make between good and bad, up and down, or any polarities, is incorrect and somewhat arbitrary, since all life is a flow of interbeing. Even the so-called “middle” is empty of a separate fixed identity, and consequently it includes all life within it.
While this teaching has been emphasized for the last 2000 years in Mahayana circles, the first middle way has carried such force that there are only a handful of examples after Vimalakirti of monks orlay people who are considered exemplary in their manifestation of this.
Nevertheless, there are many Zen stories which point to the importance of living from the empty middle. There is, for example, the encounter between Yumen and one of his monks:
“A student of the way asked Yunmen, “What is Buddha?”
Yunmen replied, “Dried shit stick.”
And there is the equally well-known story of one monk berating another one for violating the rule about not touching women by carrying a nun on his shoulders across a flooding stream. His fellow monk replied “Oh, is she still on your shoulders? I put her down when we left the stream.”
So, the teaching is there even though exemplars of it are few and far between. Vimalakirti is the first and only scriptural example of someone living and teaching from this empty middle. Since I have encouraged people I have ordained over the last twenty years to make their families and their careers part and parcel of their Zen practice, I find Vimalakirti’s life and teaching of special significance.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher