Friday, September 22, 2006

Seminary paper draft

I apologize in advance for what is probably a certain raw quality, and likely more words than I should use for this. I say this blog is about my journey in Zen, and I've said precious little about Zen this summer. Finally this morning I've found some words to put down on paper that summarize some of what I've been going through this last year. It's a pale shadow of the reality, but at least it looks sort of coherent, I think. Feedback is always welcome.

Background -- the Ratnaguna is known as the Verse Summary of the Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines. The version I'm using is Conze's translation. We studied it this last year in Seminary, and of course I'm very late in getting anything at all written up for it. Better late than never, right?


Beginnings of Ratnaguna paper

Wandering Freely Without a Home

Chapter II.v3. The Leader himself was not stationed in the realm which is free from conditions,
Nor in the things which are under conditions, but freely he wandered without a home.

When I first heard verse 3 of the second chapter of the Ratnaguna, I was struck by the phrase “freely he wandered without a home.” The concepts of wandering and homelessness were hugely appealing to me, even as I suspected that I was romanticizing the life of a mendicant monk. Perhaps the attraction lies in the word “freely” -- that sense of liberation from all attachments. Perhaps I was aware of feeling trapped by my life, and was longing for an escape, a different way to live. Perhaps the phrase tapped into a deeper longing for all-knowledge (see below).

I am currently engaged in an investigation of karma -- those conditions that have shaped my life in ways that I have been largely unaware of. This investigation began with acknowledging fear, a fear I couldn’t identify, but that was unmistakably there when I got quiet enough to see it. That fear contradicted what I believed of myself -- the calm, capable, confident woman who moves through her life always knowing what to do next. The fear was a crack in the façade, and continued practice has encouraged that crack to widen until I could begin to engage in a more thorough deconstruction of that carefully constructed self.

In the unaccustomed process of working with emotions and the body rather than with thoughts, I have also encountered thought-forms and am learning to recognize them. For me, one way they manifest is as sharp objects coming at me. So I’ll have an image of a knife, sword, machete, or even sickle, often cutting off my head, or an axe striking and embedding itself in my chest. What is that about? I struggle with the meaning, and have ideas about it, but gradually wonder whether it might be best just to recognize and acknowledge them as thought-forms and let them rise and fall, along with the thoughts, emotions, and body sensations that also come and go.

And so I am speaking of very basic Zen practice here, nothing so profound as the perfection of wisdom and all-knowledge. Right? And yet, “not stationed in the real which is free from conditions, nor in the things which are under conditions” -- what is that but basic practice? What is that but wandering freely without a home?

This morning it occurred to me that one feeling that has come up during this postulancy year has been that of being lost. It’s a part of the fear -- the fear of not knowing, of having lost something, of being disconnected from -- what? A good question. The whole idea of having lost something and being disconnected from something presupposes an attachment to that something. It suggests that there is something missing, something other, that it is somewhere else to get to, and then the wandering starts to take on a frantic quality. Being lost and wandering may look like wandering freely, but there’s a profound difference, and I suspect that difference is what so appealed to me when I heard the phrase for the first time.

The Buddha’s All-Knowledge

Many people ask how long does the training to become a priest take, and how are my “studies” going. I've been at a loss to describe for people what this training consists of. When I look at v. 7, I find a bit of a description of what education looks like under this system, or maybe more accurately what it doesn't look like.

Chapter II.v7. In the Buddha-dharma alone he trains for the sake of all-knowledge.
No training is his training, and no one is trained in this training.
Increase or decrease of forms is not the aim of this training,
Nor does he set out to acquire various dharmas.
All-knowledge alone he can hope to acquire by this training.
To that he goes forth when he trains in this training, and delights in its virtues.

My understanding of "all-knowledge" here doesn't mean that you know everything, but that you are open to whatever comes your way. It's a profound acceptance of all that is, and a way of seeing that everything is connected to everything else, and more that is difficult to put into words.

I've thought about trying to explore the differences between the kind of education that we practice in the Western academy and the kind of training I'm getting as a monk, but so far all I've been able to manage is just doing the training, without analyzing it too much. It's very different from what I’ve done in the past, as the passage above implies.

One thing that has been helpful to me in this past year is that I've taken a substantial break from teaching. I love teaching, but I think there are times when it's useful to step back and look at things differently. For me, it has been a time of integrating what I learned in the master's program I finished last year and working on making connections with what I'm doing now. It's an ongoing process, of course, and interesting. As I gradually begin to pick up some teacherly duties and activities, the practice will hopefully ground me in staying true to the dharma and in wandering freely without a home.


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