Zen for Americans, by Soyen Shaku, , at sacred-texts.com
BEFORE entering upon an exposition of this stanza which I have selected for the subject of this morning's discourse, I wish to make a short preliminary remark concerning Buddhism generally.
In the study of Buddhism, one important thing which should be borne in mind by scholars is that the religion of Buddha has nothing to do with supernaturalism. Adhering to facts and their plain statements, Buddhists are always reluctant to give themselves away to personal authority or supernatural--which is, in fact, unnatural--revelation. Buddhism may therefore appear to some people rather flat, prosaic,
and unentertaining, lacking in the fertility and brilliancy of imagination--though this is by no means the case--and they call it sometimes a sort of ethical culture society and not a religious institution. For they think that no religion can exist without a belief in something extraordinary, miraculous, or supramundane which cannot be logically proved and individually experienced. But Buddha most emphatically insists that what he teaches is nothing unusual, being simply the recognition of a plain fact which can be attested by every mortal, that truth is not revealed to us from an unknown source, but is discovered by ourselves through the exercise of a faculty that can be acquired by all self-conscious beings, and that Buddhism is to be believed rationally and not blindly, to be believed because it is true and not because it has been proclaimed by some mythical personage. Whatever defects the teaching of Buddha may possess, I consider its rationality and matter-of-factness as one of its most characteristic and important features, distinguishing it from many another religion.
Further, this rationality of Buddhism is perhaps one of the many causes which make Buddhists remarkably tolerant and broad-minded toward their rival religionists. It is the pride of every conscientious Buddhist that the history of his faith is perfectly free from the stain of blood. When we of modern days turn over the pages of religious cruelty and barbarism, we are
struck with a bitter sense of irony. It seems incredible that a religion proclaiming the gospel of love could practise such inhumanity. But I regret to say that even to-day there are some who are so hopelessly dogmatic and fanatical as to think that the rose could be sweet and fragrant only under its own name, that truth loses its worth and verity when known by any other name than their own, and that they would fight even unto death in order to replace one set of superstitions with another.
Science is steadily making its progress in various fields of human knowledge, and our intellectual sphere is being constantly widened; while pious, God-fearing religionists are still dreaming of the by-gone days, when their forefathers were engaged in the so-called holy wars, or when they were conducting the most atrocious, most diabolical outrage against humanity called the Inquisition. These facts often make me pause and think of their ultimate significance, wondering how slow man's progress is in things spiritual.
However this may be, Buddhism through its rationality and matter-of-fact-ness has never been intolerant and narrow-minded. It has always borne in mind that howsoever many avenues there may be to the summit of enlightenment, the position once gained will allow us all, regardless of racial and national variations, to see but one universal. light of truth. The highest being is known under various names and appellations,
among various peoples on earth, according to their culture, education, and environment. Humanity, being essentially the same everywhere, it will sooner or later come to the knowledge of a supreme moral and spiritual power which governs the universe and whose commands we are compelled under penalty of annihilation to respect and obey. Whatever circumstances may lead to a difference of conception as to the details of its operation, the power of religion is fundamentally love,--love that does not exclude nor discriminate nor particularize; and this kind of love is realizable only when we recognize naturally and rationally and humanly the divinity of all existence and the universality of truth, in whatever divers aspects they may be considered and by whatever different paths they may be approached.
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Now to return to the subject-proper of this discourse. Buddhism views the world under two aspects, phenomenal and supra-phenomenal. In the phenomenal world, the law of birth and death rules supreme, and here is nothing that will endure forever. Everything that exists under the sun is fleeting; it passes away as rapidly as the swift ships or as the eagle that swoopeth on the prey. The sun that has risen will set, the mountains so towering will crumble, the turbulent ocean will be drained, and the earth itself will be shaken from its foundations. That which has been is no more, and that which is is changing
fast. Indeed, the world is no more than a constant flux of becoming. Therefore, the Buddha declares: "Transitory, verily, are things, subject to the law of birth and death; and things born are doomed to die."
Mutability or impermanence is one of the most universal facts of the world, and any one who has his eyes wide open will certainly have to recognize it. And this recognition, when logically carried out, will again certainly lead to nonattachment; and non-attachment will in turn bring out in us the desire for immortality. The reason why we cling to worldliness is because we are not thoroughly acquainted with its true character. Its superficiality, its vainglory, its illusiveness, its butterfly-like carelessness and capriciousness,--all this seems to have a peculiar fascination for the sensuous. They have no time to reflect deeply on the nature of these attractions, for they find themselves hopelessly involved in the whirlpool of vanities before they can at all think of extricating themselves therefrom. They look aghast at those who remind them of the mutability of things and of the evanescent nature of pleasures.
We can well imagine how desperate is the situation of an undisciplined, unreflective mind that almost mechanically pursues objects of sense as the moth follows the flame. But as soon as the mind is awakened to the real state of the phenomenal world, it is unspeakably mortified at its
past folly and infatuation, and it will gradually develop the desire for non-attachment or freedom, in which it becomes estranged from its sensuous surroundings.
But can a mortal secure anything approaching eternity in this phenomenal realm? If everything here is subject to the irrefragable law of birth and death, we cannot in any way give satisfaction to our inner craving for things everlasting and immortal. Buddhism knows this our spiritual demand and teaches us that there exists a region which is supra-phenomenal and of which the spirit can drink to its satiety.
This supra-phenomenal world has no material limitations and therefore is not subject to the law of birth and death. As it is thus transcendent, it is beyond the reach of pain and pleasure, which is the pendulum that regulates the motive and conduct of the sensuous man. This latter is therefore unable to have even a glimpse of this heavenly region that lies beyond. He only who has freed himself from the shackle of phenomenality is no more affected by its mutability, and he is said to be living on the higher plane of existence. The mountains may be removed from their foundation, and the oceans may be exhausted, but a spiritual man will be above all such material vicissitudes, living a life of eternal peace. He calmly reviews the course of existence as it comes and disappears. He serenely abides in the realm of supra-phenomenality. He
sees the lamp of eternity shining through the mist of transiency. He rises from the howling tempest of birth and death. Physically, he is, and will be no more, but spiritually he is living forever, unborn and imperishable. Because he has founded his kingdom in the Pure Land; where the waves of being and non-being beat no more; where the veil of ignorance and misery no longer hangs low; where the transitoriness, of particulars is forever gone; where love, pure and infinite, embraces, absorbs, unifies every separate existence; and where joy inexpressible flows from the well of eternal peace. Therefore, the stanza above recited concludes with this line: "The termination of birth and death is bliss."
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Now, the question again arises, Is this supraphenomenal absolutely separated from the phenomenal world? If so, how can we of the latter ever expect or aspire to raise ourselves to the higher level of existence? If not, how can the supra-phenomenal be the phenomenal, and vice versa, seeing that they each have apparently irreconcilable characteristics? Learned Buddhist scholars will tell us how the identity of the supraphenomenal and the phenomenal can be metaphysically established, and that our mental constitution demands this oneness, or, otherwise, a dualism, which inevitably results, will destroy the fundamental harmony of our logical reasoning. But we who are aiming at the practical
result of religious discipline would better eschew the theoretical part and be content with our inner individual experience. We would best avoid theorization and state the verdict of Buddhism on this problem rather dogmatically, which is: All depends upon our spiritual condition. If it is irreproachable and immaculate, supra-phenomenal is phenomenal, phenomenal is supraphenomenal. Both are one and the same. Our earthly life is most exalted, most sacred, most divine, most religious. But if the spirit be defiled and corrupted, even a manifestly holy life is no more than gross blasphemy. All hinges on how we keep the spirit, pure or impure. Buddhism is thus thoroughly idealistic, as every true religion ought to be. It teaches the purification of the heart as the beginning and the end of an religious training.
Therefore, the heart holds the key which opens either the portal of sensuality or that of spirituality. In fact, these different portals do not exist objectively. The universe is one and the same for the just as well as for the unjust, but they approach it from various points of view and color it with their own inner pigment. Some are ignorant and selfish, and they interpret life accordingly. Others are simple-hearted and defilement-free, and thus they read the world. Conventionally, a distinction is made between the two worlds, supra-phenomenal and phenomenal, or sensual and spiritual, or worldly and
saintly; in reality this is our own creation. Let us be free from delusion and sensualism, and things will present themselves in their own true color and form.
The termination of birth and death, pain and pleasure, desire and satisfaction, in short, of all sorts of dualism, does not mean to escape from the world and to lead an ascetic life, nor does it mean to commit suicide and put an end to existence, which is thought the root of all evil. Buddhism understands by the last line of the stanza recited at the beginning of this discourse the purification of the heart from all its selfish desires and defiled sentiments arising from ignorance and prejudice. For the self is no more than an illusory existence, and the separation of "me" from "thee" is fata morgana, and those who believe in their absolute reality are said to be confused. The heart essentially free and pure becomes contaminated as soon as it is caught in the meshes of egoism, and the result is the production of the three venomous desires 1 and the five consuming passions. 2 Of course, it would be madness to deny the relative reality of objects of the senses; no one can refute it. But if we go one step further and declare that their reality is final and ultimate, we logically put ourselves in the most awkward position and morally stand on the most unsteady ground. The irreconcilable egoism which characterizes
the life of the ordinary man is no more than the natural outcome of this fatal realism. To be saved, we must lift the veil of ignorance and come out into the realm of "calm radiance," which is the abode of the enlightened.
The conclusion of the whole affair, then, is: The world is characterized by mutability and impermanence; those who do not rise above worldliness are tossed up and down in the whirlpool of passion. But those who know the constitution of things see the infinite in the finite and the supra-phenomenal in the phenomenal, and are blessed in the midst of sufferings and tribulations.
111:1 A sermon delivered at the Buddhist Mission of San Francisco, November, 1905.
111:2 Translated into English:
119:1 Avarice, hatred, and infatuation.
119:2 Inordinate desires arising from the five senses.