Wonder of wonders!
Thus, awakening mind — nothing to remove or attain,
Buddha nature — awareness and peace,
Is present in you. Still, it is stuck in a cage of inventions.
Any notion of practice clouds the heart of the matter.
In this verse, the instruction is in the last line: any notion of practice clouds or distorts the heart of the matter.
The heart of the matter is buddha nature, of course — the potential for awareness, peace, freedom, presence, whatever you want to call it. Buddha nature has been a contentious idea for a long time. Witness Joshu when he was asked whether a dog has buddha nature. His "Mu!" has echoed down the corridors of time for centuries.
It’s easy to develop an abstract idea of buddha nature as something that is present in all beings. That interpretation has repeatedly provoked a refutation of buddha nature, namely, that it implies a self, a soul, some kind of concrete entity that negates the notion of non-self. “You Mahayana essentialist!” is an epithet that has been hurled at me on more than one occasion. Such problems arise only because a poetic expression is taken literally and everyone engaged has lost touch with the experience that the original expression is pointing to. Buddha nature, though it has evolved into a philosophical or theological concept, refers, first and foremost to an experience.
Instead of positing a potential for awakening (a position that all too easily leads to the rigidity of belief), I find it more fruitful to start with what I’m feeling, what I’m sensing and what I’m thinking. And just sit.
I sit because there is a longing in my heart. Whether I call that a longing for freedom, for peace or for knowing, it doesn’t matter. It’s there. it’s a felt sense. I can try to put it into words, but the words always fall short.
Further, the longing is often paradoxical. It takes me to places that I would not necessarily choose to go. One person wrote to me describing how it was now possible for her to feel a pain that she hadn’t known was there. She didn’t understand the pain but it seemed to want to be felt. When she just let herself feel it, she felt both more complete and more at peace, despite the intensity of the pain. Others have told me that they discover a peace, a freedom, that is different from anything they imagined and anything that they felt worthy of.
This is what I mean by paradoxical. Where that longing takes us may be radically different from where we think we should be going, where we want to be going or how we are used to being.
If we have any notion of practice, we inevitably have an agenda: this is what I’m going to do and this is what is meant to happen. That agenda prevents us from from listening deeply and letting that longing resolve itself it its own way, in its own time. Its resolution may be no resolution, but that is still its resolution.
This takes us back to the box, of course, though here Jigmé Lingpa calls it “a cage of inventions”.
When I sit, quite often I’ll notice that I’ve been following a train of thought, thinking about something. When I recognize that, I come back. If the distraction is insistent, it’s usually because I’m not feeling something in my body. I reconnect with my body and, lo and behold, there it is — something that I didn’t want to feel. Sometimes I experience a deepening peace and clarity. Hope often springs up, hope for some kind of insight or transcendent experience. I now know those hopes are just thoughts, and they don’t have the power they once had. The same holds for fear, the fear that all my efforts are pointless. Sometimes I experience nothing special at all. Sometimes my body is uncomfortable and it’s difficult to sit for the whole period. Even so, I don’t think in terms of good days or bad days, just, “that’s what happened today”.
How is it possible to practice this way? “Absolute confidence in our fundamental nature,” says Suzuki Roshi. I don’t for a minute think he means that we have a fundamental nature. That, again, is an example of how a poetic expression is taken literally.
When I read Suzuki Roshi’s words, or say them to myself, my body straightens, I feel a strength and determination that seems to come from inside but it’s not certain that it does. My mind clears and I have a direction — though it may be hard to put it into words. I practice from there. Where does this capacity come from? That is buddha nature.
Where does it lead? Mu! I have no idea. The heart has its longings. This way is a response. The rest is not my business.