Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Be Like Water

"Don't get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless -- like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; you put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; you put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend."

-- Bruce Lee

The shrine room here at Gampo Abbey perches on a cliff high above the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and it sometimes feels like you are in the steering room of a tall ship at sea, looking out at the ocean as it stretches below you into the distance. At this time of year, many chunks of ice, large and small, drift slowly northwards and out to sea.

A few weeks ago in this blog, I wrote about the Buddhist teaching of "anatta" (from the Pali language, or "anatman" in Sanskrit), meaning "no-self" or "selflessness." The gist of it is that, while we do appear here in some form, there really is no inherently existent, permanent "self" at the center of our experience, as we commonly assume there is.

Buddha suggested that we think about this paradox in terms of what are called the "two truths" -- relative truth and absolute truth. From the perspective of relative truth, we appear -- you're over there and I'm over here, and we seem to exist as separate entities. From the perspective of absolute truth, however, neither of us can be said to exist inherently and permanently. We appear for a certain time, in a certain form, with certain capacities and characteristics, due to a confluence of causes and conditions that are temporary.

Consider those chunks of ice floating in the water. Each one seems to exist as a thing unto itself, separate from the water, with its own distinct shape and form and even personality. Some are large and difficult to ignore, others are small and may slip past unnoticed. In a relative-truth sense, that is how it manifests. On the level of ultimate truth, however, the ice cannot be said to exist independently of the water or to have any solid identity that can be pinpointed. An iceberg arises from the water, is made of nothing other than the water itself, exists within the water, and melts back into the water. For a certain time, causes and conditions conspire to shape this water into a seemingly solid form that appears to have an identity of its own -- but at no time is the ultimate nature of the ice any different from the ultimate nature of the water in which it appears. Whatever relative form it takes -- water, ice, snow, rain, fog -- its ultimate nature does not change.

Even the largest, most distinctly shaped iceberg, capable of sinking ships, does not have an inherent identity that can be pinpointed. Where is its essential "icebergness?" Slice the iceberg into three pieces -- in which of the three pieces does its inherent self remain? Slice it into a billion pieces -- it's still just water.

The Buddha taught that this is how we exist. There is an ultimate nature of mind that underlies everything, or you could say it *is* everything, and yet it has no form that can be pointed to, no center and no circumference, no inside or outside. For a time, due to causes and conditions (what we call "karma"), this "unborn awareness" that has no form has frozen into a form that appears to us to be a self, just as the iceberg floating in the water appears to be a thing unto itself. But this "self" has never been anything other than the naked, original mind, the unborn awareness, from which it has arisen.

"In the boundless space of suchness,
In the play of the great light,
All the miracles of sight, sound and mind
Are the five wisdoms and the five buddhas.
This is the mandala which is never arranged but is always complete.
It is the great bliss, primeval and all-pervading. HUM
It is boundless equanimity, which has never changed.
It is unified into a single circle beyond confusion.
In its basic character there is no longer any trace
Of ignorance nor of understanding.
Nothing whatever, but everything arises from it.
Yet it reveals the spontaneous play of the mandala."

-- from The Sadhana of Mahamudra

We awoke here this morning to find the ground and the trees and the mountains freshly coated with two inches of pure white snow -- it looks like a Christmas postcard. Later in the morning, a thick fog drifted in from the sea and blanketed everything for a few hours. Later still, the fog cleared a bit and revealed, anew, the snow and ice and water.

No comments: