As practitioners of meditation, our goal is to enable our chattering mind to slow down and sink into our hearts, so we are no longer imprisoned by a single point of view or feeling. I call this opening up into Heart-mind or Buddha Nature.
Any time we are experiencing a di-lemma, we are caught between two thoughts, beliefs, or points of view. In tetralemma practice we first move beyond a single point of view to experience its opposite. Then we embrace both, and finally, we let go of both.
This is referred in Buddhist literature as opening up to emptiness or sunyata. Emptiness, however, is just another limiting word. The most apt Sanskrit synonym for sunyata is a-svabaha, “without own being.”
As the early Mahayana scriptures continually remind us, we can only appreciate that nothing has its “own being” by realizing specifically that there is no light, no dark, no birth, no death, no thing to be named and no one to name it. There is only the dynamic interbeing of all life.
Nagarjuna, the master of tetralemma practice, suggests a simple method for liberating us from our fixations: looking carefully at how we use words so we can be aware of the contradictions that are always present. For instance, in Zen there is the well-known koan, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” But this statement has an inherent contradiction. The answer is, Yes, because all things have Buddha nature and at the same time No, because all things have no nature. Solving the koan is simply dismantling the structure that holds the statement together. We could even say that all koan practice is about dismantling the contradictions we face every time we think or speak so we can appreciate no-thingness- or a-svabaha-interbeing, itself.
Nagarjuna’s method is to analyze things so closely we are no longer stuck on any one thought, feeling, or belief. “Emptiness” then, becomes a perception or practice, not a belief, since as Nagarjuna says, “To believe in emptiness is the biggest mistake of all.” One who clings to words is dead, one who attaches to sentences is lost.
Yet in daytime it is light, at night it is dark. My name is Tim and my wife’s is Linda. How can this be so? Interbeing manifests itself in infinite ways. Language and linguistic conventions are a necessary and valuable component of life. And an essential part of being human is becoming well trained in one or more languages. In English grammar, we’ve got “I, you, standing, sitting, here, there.” The grammatical demands of some indigenous cultures (as Benjamin Whorf suggested in the mid-20th century) seem different, since each grammatical scheme reflects inter-being in a different way.
Nagarjuna points out the distortions that are inevitably existent when we are captured by any linguistic convention. How can there be a “here” without a “there?” How can there be a “there” without a “here?” How can we distinguish here from there? Where does “here” begin, where does “there “end?
In his discussion of “Fire and Fuel” for instance, Nagarjuna methodically goes through the tetralemma: 1) Fuel cannot be fire and fire cannot be fuel, 2) Fuel cannot not be fire and fire cannot not be fuel, 3) Fire cannot be dependent on or independent of fuel, and 4) Fuel cannot be dependent on or independent of fire.
Here’s an experience a friend of mine had with a Japanese Zen teacher many years ago in which he seems to employ Nagarjuna’s teaching.
My friend went to Japan because he wanted to practice at a monastery where he could immerse himself in Zen meditation and not be distracted by the ceremonial component which has supplanted meditation in so much of Japanese Zen. Instead, he wanted to focus on shikantaza or “just sitting,” to fully open to heart-mind. He found just the right place, one that emphasized long periods of “just sitting.” However, he didn’t realize that he would be there during tourist season, a time when the monastery welcomed and took care of guests. Much to his dismay, he was sitting less than we did even at our home Zen center in San Francisco because of all the rituals associated with serving guests.
He complained to the teacher, reminding him that he come all this way to practice shikantaza. The teacher responded, “Oh, you have big misunderstanding of shikan. It’s very important, but it takes many different forms, not only shikantaza, but shikan wash dishes, shikan serve guests; all are just as important.” He meant that whatever activity you do, just fully engage with that single activity without judging or evaluation.
My friend sighed to himself but did his best to follow the teacher’s instructions. One morning, he mistakenly went through the wrong door after breakfast and there was the teacher reading the newspaper in his little alcove, and at the same time listening to the radio and sipping coffee. My friend was aghast and blurted out, “What are you doing? I thought you said whatever activity I do, just fully give myself to that activity, so called “shikan.” And the teacher replied, “Oh, you still have a big misunderstanding. Right now, I’m reading the paper, drinking coffee and enjoying music on my headphones. It’s all shikan.”
This is a good example of the Middle Way as taught by Nagarjuna and his successors; the empty middle way, in contrast to the historical Buddha’s Middle Way, which is living your life between the extremes of asceticism and luxury. Instead, living between these extremes is inadequate. Not living between them is also inadequate. Living between them and not living between them is inadequate, too. And finally, neither living between them nor not living between them is also inadequate. What’s left is the wonderful freedom of Interbeing.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher