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Zen Meditation

By Ron Martin

Part 2

Chapter 3: Eternity and Immortality

Later a chapter is devoted to a question and answer session, which attempts to deal with some of the problems someone nurtured in the Western tradition is likely to encounter when studying Zen Buddhism. In the West we are so ingrained with the belief in a subject and an object that the Eastern view that an object is not a ‘thing’ but an ‘event’ is hard to grasp. Moreover, Eastern languages, such as Chinese, developed without any formal grammatical structure, unlike in the West, where this belief in a subject and a separate object went hand in hand with formal grammar. The question of ‘self’, or the idea that the self has an existence independent of the body and consciousness, therefore warrants a chapter of its own.

To some extent we are supported in this investigation by the Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, and more recently by Bishop Robinson (author of the book, Honest to God). During his meditations Eckhart lost all sense of a separate personal identity, or of contact with a personal being (i.e. a God ‘out there’) and in Honest to God the Bishop appeared to express a similar view. Nevertheless our cultural heritage and traditions strongly pull us in the opposite direction, so that even when we accept Buddhism as being the nearest mankind has got to understanding Absolute Reality we still confront the problem of what is ‘It’ that is re-born. Re-Birth is an essential part of the Buddha’s message, yet how can there be re-birth if there is not a ‘thing’ (self) to be re-born?

Perhaps it may help by drawing a comparison between our ‘selves’ and the four Seasons, which follow a similar pattern to human existence — birth, growth, decay and death. The Spring that occurs this year is not the same Spring that occurred last year, but nor is it entirely different. Indeed, it is heavily dependent on what happened in the previous year. If there had been a hurricane, wiping out many years of growth, it would clearly take more than a year to make good the damage.

As far as human life is concerned does this then mean that we are utterly at the mercy of past events? If it were not for consciousness this would be so, but consciousness gives rise to Dukkha (awareness of the unsatisfactoriness of dependence on conditions) and it is Dukkha that prompts us to seek a way of deliverance.

The Buddha showed us not only the cause of Dukkha but also a way out of it. This teaching is embodied in the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the completion of which is bound up with meditation. Thus, in all the major Schools of Buddhism, meditation plays a crucial role, since it enables us to concentrate on what it is that is eternal and intrinsically pure, as well as being void of any particularisation, so allowing us to break free from the burden of Karma. Of all the major Schools Zen is unique in not requiring an extensive study of religious literature — it is a direct pointing to the Essence of Life and all that exists, so an understanding of Buddhist terms used here may be postponed until later. (Some suggestions are given in the Bibliography at the end of this book).

Linked with the notion of Re-Birth are the imaginary problems of First Cause and Design. Clearly the Universe is not haphazard in the way it operates and life, itself, has an apparently miraculous intricacy. Surely none of this could have come about by mere chance — even Science recognizes a multitude of ‘laws’ governing everything that exists? But these laws are not laws in the legal sense; they are simply descriptions of the way things happen or behave; in other words they are eternal laws outside time. If, for example, an object is dropped it is the law of Gravity that makes it fall to the ground. Had it been dropped yesterday, or a 100 years ago, or a million years ago, the same thing would have happened. Similarly, if it should be dropped tomorrow, or a 100 years hence, or a million years hence, it would fall in exactly the same way. There never has been a time when Gravity was non-existent; it is eternal and yet Void — it is like the centre of a circle, it has no material existence, yet without this non-existence there could be no circle. All other laws of Science are similar; for instance, the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, but this was not ‘invented’ at a moment in time, it has always been and always will be the same, so the quest for a First Cause is unnecessary. Even if we have the notion of a God as the creator of the Universe we have merely pushed the First Cause back to something else we have to deem as being eternal — we might just as well have stayed where we were. What is more, should we go on to give other attributes to this notion of a God we are in even greater difficulties, but this is not the place to examine what these are.

So, if Re-Birth, First Cause and Design are all Void (in Buddhism, Sunyata) there is no independent ‘I’ to be re-born. The idea of an ‘I’ having an experience is therefore false, I am the experience. If ‘my’ experiences had been completely different ‘I’ would not be ‘me’ I would be someone else, both in terms of how I see myself and how others see me. Even my appearance would be different, because it partly depends on my experiences. Furthermore, if the science of bodily development is true ‘my’ body would also have been completely different, because every atom in our bodies is said to be changed over a seven year period and many new atoms are added to it from the moment of conception to adulthood and this development, also, is dependent on circumstances.

What, then, is there left to be a continuous ‘me’? Nothing other than consciousness, but consciousness in the abstract is not a person, it is one of the means by which a person is said to exist (i.e. it is one of the five Skandhas). We are, therefore, back to experience as being the only characteristic that gives us knowledge of human existence, and this ceases at death. When drugs anaesthetize the brain there is no consciousness; when the brain stops functioning (at death) ‘our’ consciousness ceases. At this point the Buddha’s doctrine of Anicca, Anatta and Dukkha converge into the Void (Sunyata). The Void is not nothing, it is no-thing and it is from the Void that all existence arises; it is the source of Re-Birth; it is the Essence of Mind as proclaimed by Huang Po and Hui Hai; and from the Tao Te Ching (as translated by Ch’u Ta-Kao) we get:

From eternal non-existence, therefore, we serenely observe the mysterious beginning of the Universe;
From eternal existence we clearly see the apparent distinctions.
These two are the same in source and become different when manifested.

Having experienced reality without concepts we are able to put all other mental activity into its proper place and this is what meditation does for us. Our greed for earthly goods and attainments; our hatred of perceived objects of hate and our delusions (concepts) about what exists are now seen in their true perspective. Compared with the experience of Absolute Reality they are trivial. What is more, since it is the Essence of Mind that is the basis of Re-Birth, and is therefore limitless in time, even an entire human life-span shrinks to virtual insignificance. When one Zen Master was asked what the experience of Satori (Enlightenment) was like he replied that it was like walking with one’s feet off the ground and another said that all that was left was to have a good laugh.

Chapter 4: Time and Timelessness

Our impression of time, as a sequence of events, arises from memory of past experiences, some of which have only just happened. We have not yet experienced the future, so this impression of time extends only into the past. We can, of course, anticipate an event that may happen tomorrow, or next year, and so extend time into the future, but this future event has no conscious reality until it actually happens — and there is no certainty that it will happen. Nevertheless, we are convinced that something will happen in the future, and since we cannot imagine a moment when nothing happened in the past, or nothing will happen in the future, our extrapolation of time has to extend from the present moment to infinity, both backwards into the past and forwards into the future.

Although we can have no conception of what infinity is like this view of time comfortably supports our theory of what existence involves. It enables some thing, or an event, to have a beginning and an end, and yet form part of a process that has no beginning and no end. Even the concept of God fits into this view of time — things, or events, that have a beginning and an end are not eternal but God, being part of the continuing process, or even being the continuing process itself, is eternal.

Some people have to make just one exception to this view of time — Man himself. They believe that there was a moment when they were born (or, if you like, conceived) and that before that moment they did not exist; but they cannot accept that there will be a moment when they cease to exist. For them the thought of dying is so hard to bear that in order to make it tolerable they have to believe that, for Man alone, there is a beginning but no end — that he has life after death that extends into the infinite future. (Clearly, there would be no point in believing in life after death if it did not extend to infinity, otherwise it would merely postpone, not eliminate, extinction). Others, finding this uniqueness of Man in relation to time too incredible, yet still wanting to preserve the idea of life after death, expand the exception to cover all sentient beings, and they may also introduce the concept of reincarnation, whereby the departed come back to Earth to live another life, in a continuing process of life and death. A still further development of this last concept envisages a kind of hierarchical scale, whereby the departed come back into a ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ grade of existence, according to how well they behaved in the previous life. (Mostly they do not bother to consider how animals, whose behaviour is presumably determined by natural instinct and not moral judgments, can move up the scale).

But, what is it these people want to preserve? Ask them what they consider to be the most important moment of their lives and the chances are that they will single out an event in the past that left the greatest impression on them, or was a major turning point, such that their lives took on a new meaning or direction. Some might say it was the moment they exchanged wedding vows; others, that it was when they started a career that settled their whole way of life, and a few might say it was the moment of “conversion”, when they “accepted Christ into my life”. Ask a hundred people this question and, although you may not get a hundred different answers, you certainly will not receive the same answer from them all. But, how many of them are likely to say, “Now — this very moment is the most important moment of my life”? Yet the Here and Now is not only the most important moment of our lives, it is the only moment of our lives!

We do not live in the past, nor do we live in the future, we live (experience) only the present moment, with all its complexities of sensations and memories — yet, even as we say “this present moment”, it is gone. It is so elusive that we cannot pin it down to a moment in time at all. Time is measured in days, hours, minutes and seconds, but how long is the present moment? One second? A hundredth of a second? A millionth of a second? We cannot imagine a period short enough to give a firm answer — and yet the present moment is always with us!

In other words, we find that the present moment cannot be measured in time at all — it is timeless. But, if the only reality we know (experience) is timeless, does this not mean that time, itself, is an illusion, just as the impression that grass possesses greenness, is an illusion? And if the present moment is timeless, yet is the only reality we know, how can it be preserved when the very notion of preservation involves time?

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