Monday, January 29, 2007

Buddhism can be regarded as a fairly negative religion, especially when reading the Mahayana teachings of emptiness. This can lead to many misunderstandings as to the nature of that emptiness and what enlightenment is. Often when one hears about a Zen master or someone who has had a satori experience there is a sense in which that person is enlightened, that they become a moral authority without peer. Yet there are also many instances of masters, from all traditions, behaving in ways that do not suit them. It is as though the teaching absolves them from moral absolutes by virtue of their own experience combined with a thorough disdain for the normal world in which the rest of us live. This can lead to people abusing their position in various ways, even leading to views that seem very much at odds with Buddhism's peaceful reputation, such as described in the book Zen at War.

Over the past year I have been slowly making my way through the Vimalakirti Sutra, which tells the tale of a layman known as Vimalakirti and describes his complete understanding of the doctrine of emptiness. At the start of the book he is pretending to be ill in order to encourage visitors to come and listen to his teaching. At one point in the book he is visited by a number of bodhisattvas from a different realm of existence where enlightenment is easy to attain. They go together to meet the Buddha from our realm and put to him a question as to how he can teach in this world when there is so much wrong with it. The Buddha's answer is interesting and it addresses something of the correct way to approach emptiness. That is, while we should hold on to emptiness as a method for understanding the nature reality it is important for us to remember the rules of the world around us, of what the best of us should try to be in our relations with others. Emptiness, in other words, is not some kind of all-purpose get-out clause for our actions even if we are enlightened, and more so if we are not.

"What is meant by saying that the bodhisattva does not dwell in the unconditioned? It means that one studies and practices the teachings on emptiness, but does not take emptiness to be enlightenment. One studies and practices the teachings on nonform and nonaction, but does not take nonform and nonaction to be enlightenment. One studies and practices the teachings on nonarousal [of causes], but does not take nonarousal to be enlightenment. One views things as impermanent, but does not neglect to cultivate the roots of goodness. One views the world as marked by suffering, but does not hate to be born and die in it.... One views the world as something to be cast off, withdrawn from, yet with body and mind one practices goodness.... One embraces the view of emptiness and nothingness, yet does not discard one's great pity.... One embraces the view that all phenomena are are void and false, lacking firmness, lacking personality... yet while one's original vow remains unfulfilled, one does not regard merits, virtues, meditation or wisdom as meaningless."
Chapter 11, Vimalakirti Sutra, trans. Burton Watson, 1997, Columbia Press.

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