Buddhism claims that the many difficulties in our life arise due to our ignorance. We fundamentally misunderstand our life, and as a consequence the decisions we make, the values we cherish and the goals we pursue are based on mistaken views. What is our basic mistake? We believe we have a permanent self. Our every action is colored by this misunderstanding.
Buddhism promises a way out of our suffering, but it does not offer us a fresh set of beliefs to replace our current views. It makes declarations about our self and our world, but it doesn’t want us to blindly accept its teaching. Instead we are invited to study the teachings, put them into practice and then draw our own conclusions. When we see the validity of the teachings through our own experience, things change.
Central to the Buddhist understanding is the teaching of emptiness or zero. We are accustomed to thinking in terms of persons and things, but Buddhism firmly rejects this perspective. Reality is emptiness, our true self is selfless and everything is always changing — never fixed. This teaching is radically different from the conventional viewpoint. But a mere conceptual understanding of this teaching is sterile and ineffective. We must practice the teachings to realize their truth in our lives: only then will we be free. Peace, love and compassion are our birthright, but we must practice the teaching to claim it.
Tathagata Zen emphasizes the importance of studying dharma activity. In Buddhism there is only one reality, which is called the Dharmakaya. The Dharmakaya is perfect emptiness and complete unity. It is true love and the origin of everything.
But the Dharmakaya is not fixed. It is always spontaneously dividing itself into two essential components — Tathagata and Tathaagata — then reuniting. When Tathagata and Tathaagata separate, the three worlds of human experience — past, present and future — arise. As Tathagata and Tathaagata reunite, past, present and future disappear into the Dharmakaya. This is perfect time. The cycle of unifying, separating and reunifying gives rise to our self, our world, space and time.
While the Dharmakaya is the only reality, Buddhism recognizes two truths. There is the ultimate truth of the Dharmakaya and there is conventional truth, the world of human experience. But it is a fundamental mistake to look for peace, love or freedom in the fleeting world of human experience.
When Tathagata and Tathaagata separate, there is expanding (past) activity and contracting (future) activity. Between them lies the present (the union of minuscule amounts of Tathagata and Tathaagata). The three times can also be seen as components of human experience. Subject is past activity, object is future activity and the present is the distance between past and future. Tathagata Zen teaches that human experience always has these three components: subject, object and distance.
Subject and object are much as you might expect. Subject is the origin of our thoughts, memories and emotions. Object arises in the form of sensations generated from the world around us. Both subject and object are dynamic activities, however. Subject expands to embrace object, while object contracts to embrace subject.
This interaction is apparent in a clear relationship. A loving mother selflessly gives herself to her child, while the child gives himself or herself to the mother. A loving couple selflessly give themselves to dancing with one another. A well-trained basketball team skillfully executes a fast break. This dynamic relationship of mutual giving is the root activity in every clear experience.
Distance is the third component of experience. Distance is self-aware consciousness: it is what can say, “I am.” Distance is the moment between past and future in which consciousness arises. It is the distinctive characteristic of human experience, and the point where confusion and suffering can arise. How consciousness arises is explained in the teaching of the five skandhas. Briefly stated, innumerable interactions of Tathagata and Tathaagata in the present moment give rise to the five skandhas; the fifth skandha is consciousness.
The essential point is that our self-conscious awareness is distinct from both the subject and the object. Thoughts and emotions may arise in our consciousness, yet our awareness of them is not tied to them. We are not bound to act out the thoughts and emotions we experience. We all can remember being aware of a thought or emotion, yet not acting on it., This means we are intrinsically free in the midst of their arising and is the basis for maturing our behavior and understanding. Yet, for most of our lives we have identified with our thoughts and memories. We will have to work long and hard to recognize that our awareness is distinct from them.
Buddhism has devised skillful means to break this identification and free us. Two essential practices are mindfulness training and the practice of non-attachment. Awareness and detachment go hand-in-hand. As we become more aware, we see where we continue to get stuck. When we free ourselves from an attachment, we can more clearly see what is happening. But it is one thing to know the theory of the teaching and another to recognize it in the zendo. We truly understand only when we live it in our daily interactions.
As we mature in our practice, distance manifests its true nature – zero. As zero, distance is clear space in which our inner world of thoughts, memories and emotions meets and interacts with the outer world of sensations. If we are not awake to subject and object, we will unconsciously act them out. If we attach to subject or object, our manifestation will be partial and biased. Through frequent and committed practice we gradually clear the distance and realize the dynamic natural balance between subject and object. There are no shortcuts here. It will likely require years of practice, with countless stumbles and mistakes along the way.
It is important for us to be free from subject or object, but we can also attach to our awareness. In fact, this is the stickiest attachment. We are prone to attach to our self-awareness, as when we are self-consciously aware we are dancing with our partner or making a presentation in front of a large group of people. Attaching to our self-awareness solidifies distance rather than dissolving it, impeding the meeting of subject and object.
The totality of our consciousness is awareness of our content: subject and object activity. Seeing a tree is our consciousness as “seeing tree.” Feeling love, it is our consciousness “feeling love.” We are aware of our content, but not separate from it. In fact, our content is our consciousness.
We complete the natural movement of subject and object towards each other when we realize our content is our self. When we discard our doubts and resistance, we can embrace our experience as our self and disappear into experience. Seeing a flower, we die with the flower. Feeling sad, we die with the sadness. Embracing our content as our self, we disappear into the union of subject and object and return to our foundation – true love.
When we clearly give ourselves to our content, we disappear in our manifestation. Aware of subject, we manifest subject, and disappear with subject. Aware of object, we manifest object, and disappear with object. Everything disappears in love. There is nothing to agonize over or evaluate. We disappear into union with everything.
But remember, nothing is fixed. Again the Dharmakaya divides itself and we are born together with subject and object as a new moment. However, having disappeared in love, everything is different. Subject is not subject; subject is our self. Object is not object; object is our self. There is no doubt, no confusion and no suffering.
A large body of Buddhist teaching painstakingly explains in great detail what we have quickly passed over. For each of us it is our life’s work to study and practice the teaching, resolving our doubts and apprehensions. Ultimately, the entire teaching can be summarized into one essential practice: dissolve the distance.
Whatever the situation, dissolve the distance. If we are confused and wonder what we should do, dissolve the distance. If we don’t dissolve the distance, we will remain caught up in our personal self. Buddhism is very clear about this. Our true self is no self. Our true foundation is zero. Our true self is not subject, not object and not our self-awareness. Our true self is the union of subject, object and distance.
Don’t get caught in ideas of self or others, right and wrong, appropriate or inappropriate. All these views are illusions in the realm of distance. True peace and compassion are the natural activity of the whole cosmos interacting spontaneously with itself. Let go of the self, dissolve the distance and surrender to the embrace of the entire world. The Dharmakaya is the realm of true love, true relationship.
As long as there is distance, all you will find are dreams and nightmares.