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Seeing Things as they Actually Are

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 11/22/1997
Location: Tassajara Zen Center
In Topics: Everyday Zen

Drawing on teachings from quantum physics and Manjusri Bodhisattva, Zoketsu encourages us to see things as they actually are, that is, full of empty space.

It's nice that so many of us could find the time today to let go of all our concerns and accomplishments and problems, and just sit here together for a weekend. I went out for a short walk a little while ago and there was some light rain falling. And I thought that our zazen practice is very much like the rain. Like the rain, it is steady and nourishing and it will soak everything in our lives. It moistens seeds that have been buried inside us for a long time, and when they are moistened these seeds will exert themselves and they will sprout. Although both zazen and rain have the property of being sometimes stormy and troublesome, both are necessary. Rain falls because that is its nature, rain doesn't need to struggle or question itself, rain never doubts or complains, it simply falls completely, all the way to the end. And our zazen practice is also like this.

When we sit in zazen for a long time we get to see many, many things within the small circle of our awareness. We see breath coming and going, we see thoughts arising and passing away, we see emotions, we see various sensations in the body, we see the workings of sight and sound, touch, taste. As Dogen says, "We see many things, as far as our eye of practice can reach." But what we can see and sense with the apparatus of our sense organs, and in Buddhism a mind is counted as a sense organ, what we can apprehend with our sense organs is not the whole of what our actual experience is. This is where our human challenge, and human problem comes in, because we human beings are born with a little bit of arrogance. We think that we can see and know ourselves, and that we can see and know our world. Then seeing and knowing our world, as we think, we can evaluate it, and we find it lacking, our world and ourselves. So we feel that we need to, somehow, change our world, or change ourselves, and we suffer for all the desire and lack, for all our craving and confusion.

But all of this is based on a very limited assessment of what our life is. We believe this limited assessment through and through, it's so ingrained in us, but it just isn't really so, or I should say, maybe, it's not only so. The world we see is certainly a real world and a true world, but we simply don't see it in its full dimension, and we are not able to see it in its full dimension. Our six sense organs can't reach there. But when we sit with a strong commitment to our sitting practice, with a strong commitment to returning, in a really radical way, just to the present moment, putting everything else aside, by bringing everything else right here, to the present moment, without any gap, without any distance, we can appreciate and have a real feeling for the vastness that is contained within our little circle of awareness. What we see as our thoughts are not only our thoughts, what we see as our emotions are not merely our emotions, what we think of as our seeing and hearing isn't just some limited seeing and hearing. Everything is here, moment after moment. There are worlds on worlds created and destroyed with each and every breath.

When we appreciate this we won't be so stuck on our individual problems. We will still have problems, of course, and we will still work with our problems. We'll still make choices, act on those choices, and live the consequences of them, but we will be able to see all of this in a more full way, and appreciate it more deeply, and therefore relate to it with greater peace and competence.

I know that many of us in this weekend sitting are working toward receiving the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts, and we're studying them and contemplating them. The precepts are like this too: something very small and very simple that opens out to vastness. The precepts can sound like rules or restrictions, but actually they are more like meditation practices, and there is almost no end to what we can understand about our lives through appreciating these precepts.

The first three of the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts is the Triple Refuge, as we have chanted last night, and we will chant this evening after our sitting is over, the Refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. These Three Refuges are the most fundamental of all the Sixteen Precepts, and all the others are included in these three. When we say we take refuge in Buddha-Dharma-Sangha in means, literally, that we return to Buddha-Dharma-Sangha, we return to our fundamental beginning, admitting to ourselves that Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha is nothing other than our own body and mind. And again, when we appreciate that this is actually the substance and essence of our own body and mind, then our problems, our issues, although they are still there in our lives, don't feel the same way, are not taken in the same way.

At Tassajara recently, our monastery, we've taken to doing a practice that was done in Japan by Uchiyama Roshi, this practice of what we call "silent sesshin." That means sesshin with no dharma talk, no dokusan, no service, nothing. Everybody faces the wall, no relief. I was talking to one of the students at Tassajara about this, and she was saying that, after having done many sesshins where there was a dharma talk, she noticed that when the usual time for the dharma talk would happen she would be looking forward to the dharma talk, and that there would be a little entertainment, and a little break in the zazen. So I realized that part of my responsibility in giving a dharma talk is to give a little entertainment and relief, and hopefully that it would be slightly educational, at least a little bit.

Now I'll have a little break in the dharma talk just to give you some entertainment and a little education, by telling you about this book review, that you should probably know about. Maybe you already know about this. This is a book called "The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes and its Implications," by David Deutsch. Do you know this book? It sounds like a very interesting book. Just a little book review, just in case, after the sesshin is over, you need some book to read.

The book review begins with the very common experiment in physics that everyone knows about, he refers to here as "the musty old Two Slit Experiment." You all, of course, know about the Two Slit Experiment, right? Personally , I never heard of it, but he says that everybody knows. Fortunately, the reviewer explains the Two Slit Experiment: "If you aim a beam of photons at a photographic film, then you obstruct the path of the particles with a piece of cardboard with two holes punched through it. Then you close one of the two holes, and the photons will travel through the other hole that is still open, and leave a spot on the photographic film." So far so good, right? It makes sense – the photons go through there and make a spot. "What happens when you open up the second hole?" Well, you would think that the photons would flow through both holes and you would see two spots, side by side, corresponding to the two holes. Of course, you don't see two spots. "Opening both holes causes the photons to trace a complex interference pattern, an alternating configuration of light and dark bands representing the presence and absence of photons." This is very strange. Why should that be so? He says, "Opening both holes somehow prevents a particle from landing in places that it was previously free to go."

The physicist John Bell said of this puzzling, and now, oddly familiar (except to us) situation, that "it is as though the mere possibility of passing through the other hole affects the particle's motion and prevents it going in certain directions." The mere possibility of passing through the other hole affects the particle's motion and prevents it from going in certain directions. This is easily explained, at least mathematically, by quantum theory. Quantum theory can explain this, although when you try to translate it into everyday words and experiences, it defies logic, and certainly defies human language. This caused the physicist Neils Bohr to say, "We must be clear that, when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as poetry."

Nevertheless, in this book, "The Fabric of Reality," David Deutsch takes on the job of trying to explain, in ordinary words and language, this and other phenomena. David Deutsch argues in the book that, "If we are to take quantum theory at face value, we are led to conclude that our universe is one of many, in an ensemble of parallel universes that physicists have come to call the Multiverse." Deutsch believes that the photons in the Two Slit Experiment are prevented from landing on certain parts of the film because they are being interfered with by "invisible shadow photons from another universe." Which is what you would think if you were to follow the mathematics of quantum mechanics, so this is not science fiction, it is totally based on mathematics and experiments.

This Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics was first put forward decades ago by the physicist Hugh Everett, as one way of explaining quantum mechanics. Suppose you want to measure a sub-atomic particle's position. According to quantum theory, the undisturbed particle is in a peculiar state of limbo. This is before you measure it. Before you measure it it's in a peculiar state of limbo in which all the possible positions that it might assume exist, simultaneously. Only when the particle is measured does it snap into a precise location. There is no reason that the particle chooses one place and not another, the choice is random. Everett proposed another, equally plausible in terms of the mathematics, but also counter-intuitive, way of thinking about the situation. This was that when the particle is measured the universe splits into multiple copies. In each of these universes the electron takes on a different position. We just happen to be stuck in only one of these multiple worlds.

Anyway, I thought you should know about this, so if you go home tonight and some one says, "Did you waste your time entirely?" you say, "No, no, I learned about quantum mechanics, a little bit."

In Buddhism, we call this practice of seeing the actual fabric of reality beyond our limited vision of it, the Practice of Seeing the Empty Nature of All Phenomena. Or sometimes in Zen we call it the Practice of Seeing the Essential Nature of All Phenomena. Sometimes we call it the practice of Suchness or Thusness. Or we could just say in ordinary, everyday talk, seeing things as they actually are, not seeing them with our limited projections.

And in Buddhism there is a mythical figure who embodies the practice of seeing things as they are, and this is the Bodhisattva Manjusri. Manjusri is a wonderful practitioner. I don't know if you've ever looked at images of Manjusri and seen the iconography. We have a really big Manjusri, life size I guess, on the altar at Green Gulch. And this Manjusri at Green Gulch, and all depictions of Manjusri, are depictions of the Manjusri that is sitting in your seat: the Manjusri that is making an effort for this whole weekend, to see things as they really are. To appreciate but not be limited by that which appears in this small circle of awareness.

All depictions of Manjusri are very handsome, or beautiful. Manjusri is always good-looking. This is because it is our limited views that make us ugly. Once we go beyond them, once we hold them in the light of the multiplicity of our real world, we always become beautiful. Another thing about Manjusri is he's very well-dressed. He has a very decorated, ornamented garb. I don't know if you have this here in Canada, but there's a big fad now in our area where I live, of beading. Do you have this? Beading, the bead stores? My wife is a great beader. She has boxes of beads, and she makes beads. You can make beautifully elaborate beads, strands all intricately woven together. She has made some beautiful ones, and very intricate ones, but none of them are as spectacular as the beads that Manjusri Bodhisattva wears. Tiers of beads on his or her chest, beautiful beads. Manjusri also has brocade, decorated robes, and long hair. Always, Manjusri has long hair, which is tied up in a bundle on top of his head with some sort of a fancy ornamental fixture in the hair. Manjusri reminds me of a very famous poem by Anne Waldman called "Putting Makeup on Empty Space," because Manjusri is empty space, and we are empty space, and it's a wonderful thing, the idea that we would decorate empty space, just for the fun of it.

It's really true, of course, that we are empty space. We look at ourselves and we see the object that we seem to be. But really, between each and every particle and each and every atom of our physical body, it's really true, according to science, that there is a lot of space in there, a lot of empty space. Our whole body's existence as it is depends on a vastness of empty space.

I was reading in the Science Times the other day, and I don't know exactly how this works, but there's DNA and it's made up of, I guess, chromosomes or something. Parts, right, that are all twisted together to make up a little piece of DNA. It said in there that if you could take the DNA in the body of a little baby, and instead of having it all knotted up in each cell, spread out the strands of DNA, that it would, in one baby's DNA spread out in that way, would reach from the Sun to the planet Pluto (which is the farthest planet from the Sun) seventeen times. I don't know how many miles that is, but it's rather astonishing to think of such a thing. But this is what they figured out mathematically.

The Manjusri in our zendo is holding a teaching staff something like this one, and he holds it kind of like this: he doesn't wave it around or brandish it, he holds it very, very delicately aloft, almost as if he's not holding at all but just supporting it in his fingers delicately so it won't fall down. Almost as if he doesn't really think it's his. More typically though, Manjusri figures are holding in one hand a sword, brandishing a sword over their heads. This is the famous sword that is often referred to in the Zen school, the sword that takes life, the sword that gives life. It takes life and gives life because it cuts right through our limited views of you and me, self and other, life and death, good and bad. But, as I say, the Manjusri in our zendo at Green Gulch holds a teaching staff which has a little flower on the end of it.

Another thing about Manjusri Bodhisattva, the bodhisattva who embodies this practice of seeing things as they really are, beyond limited views, is that he's usually depicted as being youthful. About 16 years old is the classical age for Manjusri. He is depicted as a young person because the wisdom of Manjusri, the wisdom of seeing things as they are is not an acquired wisdom. It's not the wisdom of experience. Being older and wiser has its place, and it's a good thing, but Manjusri's wisdom is not like that. Manjusri's wisdom is like the wisdom of rain falling: it just comes fresh, as a kind of surprise. It's not the result of hard effort or long study.

Suzuki-roshi, who founded our San Francisco Zen Center, in a phrase that he used for the title of his book, and now a very famous phrase, called this wisdom of Manjusri the wisdom of Beginner's Mind. Just seeing everything freshly, just seeing everything in its full dimension, with wonder, without judgement, and without pre-thought. Very often, little children see the world like this quite naturally. They can see the magic in the endless possibilities, the endless connection, in each and every thing that they confront. That's the way that Manjusri sees things also, except that Manjusri's a little bit older, so he has the ability to act on this vision, with energy and passion and accuracy.

The actual word Manjusri means "noble, gentle one." Manjusri's wisdom and youth cause him to be like that, and also I know that the Manjusri that is sitting in your seat is like that too, noble and gentle. The world "noble" in English comes from the Old English language, the Old English root "gno-," like in "gnosis," or "notice," or "recognize," and it means "to know." And Manjusri knows, the source of his nobility is that he knows the real nature of body and mind, that body and mind is non-different from everything else, and limitless, and full of empty space, fundamentally empty space. Knowing this gives Manjusri a kind of quiet dignity of forbearance, to be able to see clearly and endure all mental states, including suffering, knowing that all problems are already solved, and that there is no coming and going, no birth and death to worry about. This makes Manjusri supremely gentle and makes his life a life of noble ease. The Prajna Paramita, in referring to this kind of wisdom of Manjusri, says, "It's the wisdom that gives us the patience with dharmas that fail to be produced." This is our world, full of things that have never been produced, although they seem to have been.

There's a sutra called "The Prediction of Manjusri's Attainment of Buddhahood." In that sutra Manjusri is asked by someone, "What is Enlightenment?" or "How do you attain Enlightenment?" He gives an extremely knowing and gentle response to that question. He says, "I do not urge any sentient being to progress toward Enlightenment, because sentient beings are already Non-Existent, and devoid of fixed self. In actual fact, Enlightenment and sentient beings are already the same, non-different from each other. This non-difference we call Emptiness. In Emptiness there is nothing to seek."

The Manjusri sitting in your seat, in parallel universes all around, above, and below you, sits beautifully peaceful, secure in his or her noble understanding of Nothing-at-All. All we have to do is take a step into our lives, completely into our experience, without a gap, without holding on, without holding back, without interpreting, without desiring, without fixing. Just stepping into our experience, no matter what it is. And when we do that Manjusri can come forward and realize his practice through our lives and activity, completely.

So, I have a great hope that for the few hours remaining in today's sitting, and for tomorrow's sitting, and actually for the rest of our lives and then beyond that, that we can all make a strong vow, in all seriousness, to continue this practice of Manjusri Bodhisattva. Really, I think it's what makes our lives worth living. It's what makes our lives beautiful and possible and beneficial. And all we need to do – it's so simple you know – is sit up straight with alert awareness of posture and breathing, resolving to be with each and every breath the best we can, greeting each thought and sensation clearly as it arises, and then gently returning to posture and breathing without getting lost. And that's really all we need to do. It's very simple: whatever arises in the context of doing this, whatever happens is fine. Whatever it is, it's part of our path. There are no mistakes, there are no problems, there's only this moment of practice, and each moment, no matter what it may bring, is a new, even an endless, possibility.
Transcribed on 10/08/00 by Colin MacDonald