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Buddha's Words (Talk 13 of 13)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Dec 19, 2007
In topic: Early Buddhism
Thirteenth of Series of talks on the Pali Canon based on the book "In the Buddha's Words" by Bhikkhu Bodhi
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Buddha's Words (Talk 13 of 13)

By Zoketsu Norman
Fischer | December 19, 2007

Transcribed, abridged, and edited by Murray
McGillivray and Barbara Byrum

Every time we study this early Buddhist material, it seems that we talk about the vast difference between the non-dual, open, indefinable approach of Zen – of Suzuki Roshi – and these texts from early Buddhism. The Zen style of explanation and understanding is suspicious of language’s mesmerizing properties, which is why it always seems paradoxical. It doesn’t want to give you some piece of language to hang your hat on. The Zen approach is that language is dangerous; you get stuck there.  The early Buddhist texts are more rational and step-by-step.  There is a very clear approach that you see in all of these teachings.  There are the four stages of spiritual attainment, each one very distinctly defined in how it’s different from the others, and so on and so forth. It seems like night and day when you hear Zen teachings and hear these kinds of teachings.

When you refuse to make hard and fast definitions, it has the advantage of keeping things very open and very spacious.  But this is also a disadvantage, because it keeps things more mysterious and hard to grasp. Sometimes it may be too mysterious, and that’s not a good thing. As an antidote to that ungraspability, we might want to have a better idea of what’s going on? What is the path? Where is it going?

So you could see how there would be a desire to have a map. But then when you have a map, you spend too much time worrying about where you are on the map – too much time measuring your progress or lack of it. That gets in your way, and you end up spending more time looking at the map than looking around at the scenery. And as I’m sure everyone here knows, having heard me talk about all this stuff many times, I don’t take all the stages and the lists too literally. I’ve studied them all my life, and I find them fascinating and really useful. I think we do have to know these basic teachings, but I see them as expedient means.  They’re true things, but we don’t need to be too fixated on them or take them too literally. They are just the Buddha’s attempt – or if not the Buddha, whoever actually wrote these things down and edited them over the generations – to describe and codify the spiritual life, so that we can better live that life. So I’m grateful to them for doing that.

In Zen you always hear, “You are already Buddha!” I’ve always liked the sound of that. Doesn’t that sound good? You like that, we all like that. It sounds good, and on some level we believe it. I think we really do believe it, especially living in America where it’s part of our ideological heritage that life is sacred and every human being is a full participant, a full citizen. So it makes a lot of sense to us that we are already Buddha. But when you start taking an honest look at your life, you see that, “Well, I may be Buddha, but I need some improvement. I actually do need to change somehow and grow somehow, even if I am Buddha to begin with.” And then naturally you think, “Well, how do I do that? What kind of change could I expect to see in my life?”

So these teachings, which are in this chapter about the stages of the spiritual path, help us and give us a good idea of how to go and what to expect. We have confidence in our basic goodness, in our capacity. Whoever we are and whatever our level of intelligence or energy, we all ought to have confidence in our basic goodness and in our capacity for spiritual awakening. And based on that confidence, have a sense that we could develop, we could change, and we could grow. And so that’s what these teachings are about.

When the four stages are outlined, they’re usually mapped against the two lists of the ten fetters – the ten things that bind – and the five powers. So as you go through these four stages of spiritual development, you are, on the one hand, loosening the bindings of these ten fetters, and on the other hand, strengthening these spiritual powers. So you start out being a Stream-Enterer, and then you advance to be a Once-Returner, and then a Never-Returner, and finally an Arhat. An Arhat is the one who has perfected the five powers and completely gone beyond the ten fetters.

The Stream-Enterer, the first stage, is when you really catch fire with the practice, or, as they say, your dharma candle is lit. Once the candle is lit, it doesn’t go out. You come to the place in your life where you have jumped into the stream of the practice, and the stream is rushing to the ocean. So you may be really far from the ocean, you may be completely mixed up in many ways, but it’s not an insignificant thing that you jumped into the stream, because there you are, you’re inevitably going to the ocean. 

The word “arhat” is fascinating and one of the most profound things in Buddhism, I think. The word “arhat” means “the worthy one.” To be an arhat is to be worthy. It means “worthy of receiving offerings.” I think this is a profound thought.. It’s a very deep spiritual insight that arhats, the ones who complete the path, are simply called, “the worthy ones.” I think that it is a very, very deep human thought that I believe we all share in varying degrees—whatever our psychological makeup is. I think we all share this deep human thought that we’re not worthy, that we are basically unworthy. When it really comes to the really important things, none of us measure up. We’re not wise enough. We’re not pure enough. We’re not good enough. We all understand our basic vulnerability and our basic corruptibility. We take ourselves to be, this separate, isolated, and limited self.

When we become arhats, “worthy ones,” we throw off that vision of ourselves that is so ingrained. In other words, that’s the whole of the path, to see who we really are and to throw off this deeply ingrained vision of ourselves as insufficient and vulnerable and sinful. Then we realize, “Oh, we are the worthy ones!” And that’s the ultimate result of the path. We know ourselves as we truly are, basically worthy.

So the arhats are the ones who overcome the five higher fetters.  One of the fetters is the subtle clinging to a self. A second one is desire for becoming in this world. A third one is desire for becoming in another world. The fourth one is restlessness, and the fifth one is ignorance, not knowing the truth, not knowing the way things are.

So those are the five higher fetters that are only eliminated at this last stage of the path. You can see that these five fetters really amount to one basic thing. We can’t completely let go. We’re holding on, seeing that somehow there is a self, a subtle sense of person we can persist in being, and that there is an ongoing experience in this world, or some other world, that we could possibly possess. We are ignorant of the fact that everything is empty, so there isn’t anything to hold onto anyway; therefore, trying to hold onto what we can’t hold onto makes us subtly restless.

This subtle self-clinging is not what we would call egotism. We’ve already overcome that in the stages of stream-entry, once-returner and never-returner. So by the time we get to those levels we’re already developed spiritual people. But this last one is very sneaky and subtle. In other words, we can be quite developed spiritually here, and we can have overcome the strong desires and passions that mess a person up in life, but it doesn’t go all the way. It’s not until this final stage that we completely let go, which means we see the utter emptiness of ourselves and of the path. In other words, we see that there are no accomplishments, that there is no path that we have been on. And that’s freedom, and seeing it in such a way that you could never be fooled again. You would really be at peace. There would be no more restlessness, no more confusion.

The five powers are faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. So these are practices that we are all working with now and that we’ll work with our whole life through, all the way till the end. Faith, because there’s no end to our having real faith in the spiritual path, really knowing that there’s no other way. This is really true. Energy – so that even if you’re in a bad mood, and you don’t feel like it, you know, “Well, that’s fine. I could be in a bad mood, maybe I don’t feel like it, but that’s not where I’m living. Where I’m living is in my energy to practice, so I’m continuing.” Mindfulness - basic awareness. Concentration: meditation focusing the mind. 

Wisdom:understanding our lives as they are.

So these are practices that are a lifetime’s work. We all have been developing them, and we will keep developing them. There’s a dynamic interplay between our work on the cushion and our work off the cushion, as we go back and forth working on these five powers.

Now in Mahayana Buddhism – Zen is a Mahayana school – arhatship is not the goal. The goal is compassion, love, and basic altruism. This is what Mahayana practitioners aspire to. We aspire to be not an arhat but a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is not one who is no longer reborn like the arhat, but one who will choose actively to be reborn.  You’re reborn on the basis of vow, the altruistic vow to continually be reborn until all beings are free and happy.

So in the bodhisattva path, instead of the five powers, we have the six paramitas which we’ve studied before. And it’s interesting to compare, when we’re talking about arhats and bodhisattvas, the five powers and the six paramitas. Giving, morality, energy, patience, meditation, and wisdom are the six paramitas. This is pretty close to the list of the five powers. The only one in the list of five powers that’s missing from the six paramitas is faith. The five powers have mindfulness and concentration, which I think you could say are roughly the equivalent of meditation in the six paramitas. So the six paramitas are lacking only one thing, which is faith. But added on instead of faith are generosity, ethical conduct, and patience. When you think about it, these three factors that are present in the six paramitas and not present in the five powers are all social practices. Generosity is giving to others; morality is essentially non-harm of oneself, but also non-harm of others. What patience means in the bodisattva path is to be patient with others, to be non-reactive, non-angry, non-hateful. 

This leads me to one other point I want to make about aspiration and goals. When we look at these four levels of spiritual attainment, we’re looking ahead to something that we consider to be a very, very lofty aspiration and goal, even allowing for the somewhat different goals in Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. Still, in either case we have a very high aspiration and a very high goal. And again, this is quite different from the usual way of speaking in Zen, which I would say emphasizes goal-lessness, or throwing away all goals and all aspirations, and just more fully entering the present moment of our lives. This seems to be the opposite of having aspirations for going forward. We are down here on the ground, where we’re actually living and trying to work out our destinies. 

I think that aspirations and goals can really be helpful, which is why I want to study this stuff, and we keep coming back to it. The problem with aspirations and goals, of course, is when we don’t understand the point of them. The point of them is to give us a sense of direction, to give us a way that we’re going, and some inspiration. But somehow we often think, “Well, if I aspire to such and so, and I’m not now there, then woe is me, and what’s wrong with me?” So we use the aspirations and the goals in exactly the opposite way that they’re meant to work. Instead of spurring us on, they hold us back. So we say, “Oh no, I’m not an arhat. So what am I? A useless, rotten person.” We say this instead of, “Oh, let me go forward toward arhatship, no matter how far away it may be!”

The other thing about aspirations and goals that just occurred to me – and I think this is really so – is that our aspirations and our goals are vehicles for our affections, because you feel a beautiful sense of wonder and affection—happiness, you know—for these beautiful possibilities in your life. And in a way you could say that the spiritual life in all traditions has always been about human perfectibility, going as far as possible in the direction of being a really good human being. And as we all know, this can be a very grim endeavor, as we beat ourselves over the head for all of our shortcomings, and when we try to smash ourselves into the mold of some sort of pre-ordained sense of goodness that can become a very humorless and soul-less occupation. Spiritual practice, I think, only works when it’s based on affection; when it’s based on positive emotion that is pulling us along the path; and that is making us feel good and happy as we walk the path wherever we are. In other words, to have a positive sense of really loving peacefulness and valuing it with a sense of warmth and really loving compassion. We think, “Wow, compassion is really great, and the more I grow in compassion, the more happy I am!” To think that goodness is wonderful, and that it gives you a warm feeling to contemplate. To see the path itself as something that we have a positive emotion about and that we enjoy. Our very capacity to develop these qualities that we’re aspiring to is a treasure. We have this in ourselves. What a fantastic thing! And we feel grateful.