In my last post I brought up the idea that my failure to “grasp” or “have” some place, person, thing – or even my life itself – isn’t due to the inadequacy of my practice of presence or attention (although my practice is certainly inadequate!) but has more to do with the fact that phenomena are by their nature ungraspable. Impermanence isn’t something I’m doing wrong.
This point is on my mind again as I prepare for my upcoming class series at Green Gulch, The Practice and Problem of Buddha Nature.
It’s on my mind because as I enter into my study of this sticky and wonderful Dharma, I’m noticing that in the same way I can’t grasp Tassajara or Green Gulch or my family, I can’t grasp the Dharma either. Not because I’m not studying hard enough (although that, too, is certainly the case), but because the Dharma isn’t a fixed object – it’s not really an object at all.
When I* study the Dharma (*thanks, Jacqueline, for pointing out in a recent comment the priestly arrogance of the word “we” – the temptation lingers, but I am working against the stream…) – when I study or even just bring “Dharma” to mind, I notice that right away I’ve objectified it. Before I’ve even opened the book, I’ve assumed that there is some object the book refers to, some fixed referent. Without so much noticing, I imagine that there is a “Dharma treasure” out there that is fixed and permanent and graspable. Whether it’s the Buddhist teachings themselves that are that object I want to “really get a handle on,” or whether I imagine the teachings as a map to some real destination beyond them that I’ll capture, in either case the frame is wrong. Maybe a wrong frame is useful sometimes, but basically it’s misleading.
It’s misleading because it’s a lot more slippery than that. When Dharma at least begins to “fill my body and mind,” I can see that there really is “something missing.”
For one, Buddhism the tradition is nothing like a coherent whole. Not only are there sects and schools and lineages each with their radically different approaches, but even within a lineage, or in the words of one teacher (think Dogen Zenji, Suzuki Roshi), there are whole worlds of nuance and possibility and flexibility.
It takes a nineteenth-century style mystical contortion to hold all of these teachings to refer to one single stable object, and it’s a contortion that ends up not giving life to the traditions but stripping life from them (all texture and color subsumed, washed out, in the One, unrefracted White Light).
A tension-solving contortion isn’t the way I want to study. The way I want to study the Dharma isn’t to capture a fixed object – and anyway as a Buddhist in the postmodern era that dream is twice dashed – but to enter into this flow of possibility, this flow of inquiry.
More basically than the doctrinal or historical study of the Buddhist religion, the “True Dharma” itself – if it’s a true Dharma in any real, pervasive way – can’t really be an object. It can’t really be enshrined on a fixed and permanent throne somewhere distant, waiting for me find it. If it’s a true Dharma, it can’t be the kind of object that a subject like me would make. If it’s really the Way of things, then I can’t point to it somewhere, I can’t approach it as just another one of those things. So maybe I’d call it a “non-thing” – as negation-loving Zen-types so often do – but that’s just to make it into a new kind of object, long understood to be an even more pernicious one.
If I can enter the study without making the teachings be about some thing, then I can appreciate that the ten thousand doctrinal and practice tensions are not just a complicated but resolvable math problem. (With all due respect to math – I’m sure mathematicians know better than anyone that even the resolved problems aren’t really resolved, but still pulse with mystery….) It’s not a done deal, but an evolving, involving conversation. The Dharma is and has been simply a gathering place for people reflecting on the impossibly strange fact of life. It’s a café or a rave or, God forbid, a blog comment feed.
It’s not an object.
It’s a life.
Pounding the roofs of Green Gulch, a hard and overdue rain.