Objectifying the Dharma

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 dynamic.

It’s alive.

It’s a life.

Pounding the roofs of Green Gulch, a hard and overdue rain.


7 thoughts on “Objectifying the Dharma

  1. It is also an object. In order to interact with anything we create objects. In order to think about anything we create objects. It allows us to learn, to interact, to exist. I can only write this response by constructing a mental model that represents Jiryu. Without that I have sensory data. It’s a useful trick. If I think that this model 100% accurate or Actually you then it’s a problem,

    Human nature involves grasping. Watch how your kid grows up, asks questions, tries to build a mental model of how the world works and then clings to that model.

    Watch and interact with Cats, Dogs, Horses, Cows, Squirrels….. What is their nature, their language. Can you learn to ‘communicate’ with them? Can you learn how they express emotions. Can you then respond appropriately? How o horses greet each other?

    Human Nature is not Dog Nature or Horse Nature but it is more so than it is Cactus Nature.

    I’m currently learning to run – I think biology says that is part of my nature worth expressing.

    At night in my bed there is no lover to grasp. That part of my nature I can see as not always expressible and that’s OK.

    Human males fight and compete and establish hierarchies – like dogs, horses, cats and many animals? Should I express that in some form? Acknowledge it? Repress it?

    Buddha Nature can be discovered in our bodies and minds. Words on a page are the graspings of one mind.

    Regardless, what are you going to DO with that nature?

    Being a father, lover, farmer and community member might be 90% of it. Fighting other tribes (rinzai vs. soto) and running after bison might be the other 10% of it.

    Can you live with who you are? Can you accept what it means to be human?

    Or is it better to write “101 Koans for Horses”?

  2. Wu-Men warned that Zen is a red-hot ball of iron that one can neither swallow nor spit out. I’m concerned that “it’s not an object” might be an attempt to spit it out, or, to put it in philosophical terms, to evade the tetralemma. Or to evade the koan, if you prefer.

    Suchness has been taught by many masters to be a non-deceptive perception, ungenerated, unchanging, partless, and without defilement. Nagarjuna calls it ultimate truth. Is it an object, or not?

  3. And then of course, the Buddha taught the four foundations of mindfulness, the fourth being mindfulness of dharmas.

    Throughout my daily mindfulness practice I experience body, feelings, thoughts and awareness of dharma, but not necessarily all at the same time. For me dharma is not an object or label it is a way of viewing, a mode of experiencing reality as a Buddhist, as taught by the Buddha.

  4. I remember Hogan san used to stop giving teisho if it rained on the roof while he spoke. Once, as it died down and the frogs began to chirp, he said, “This, this is the dharma, and these frogs are singing the heart sutra”. Best wishes from the trenches of public sector restructuring. How foreign are our worlds to each other, and how much the same JMJ

  5. Hi Jiryu,

    This class seems a perfect vehicle for many of the concerns that arise here on the blog. Although I won’t be able to fly down from Seattle (nor would you be likely to fly north to sit in on the class I”m teaching this winter and spring on Zen and American Poetry), but perhaps you might use the blog to post a basic syllabus and text list? Just a thought from “up” north.

    Lots of Dharma unfolding here in the rainy Pacific Northwest; here’s a poem by Chinese poet Yang Wan-Li, quoted in dharma brother Kurt Hoelting’s book The Circumference of Home:

    All my life I have heard rain,
    And I am an old man;
    But now for the first time I understand
    The sound of spring rain
    On the river at night.

    Deep bows,
    Ewan Magie

  6. Thanks, Mike and mesocosm, for reinforcing that “not-an-object” doesn’t reach either.
    Some further thoughts on the matter from Sallie King’s 1991 book “Buddha Nature”:
    “According to the Buddha Nature Treatise, both the view that Buddha nature exists and the view that it does not exist are to be rejected because both imply that Buddha nature is something capable of existing as other things exist… to so conceive Buddha nature is to make a category mistake; that is, to conjoin the kind of existence proper to things such as trees and stones with the very different kind of existence pertaining to Buddha nature. One thereby confuses the ontological status of Buddha nature with that of trees and stones. Buddha nature, unlike the latter, is not a thing in the world… To indicate this difference between the two uses of the term exist, the author refers to the existence of Buddha nature as aboriginal existence, emphasizing that it has no relation to the ordinary concept of existence or its negation.”

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