12 July 2010

A Bit More on Method

While our sangha's physical location and other logistical matters are still sorting themselves out, I think it appropriate to take this as an opportunity to explain a bit more in this space on the earlier topic of method and wisdom working together in Buddhist practice. As I suggested before, this is a way of doing things that comes directly from the Lotus Sutra.

As it happens, the Lotus teaches this through the skillful means of parable and poetry. I'll touch on two examples here.

The first is the parable of a son who has forgotten his identity (this in Chapter 4 of the sutra). In truth, he is to be the inheritor of limitless wealth and capacity for action. He takes himself to be something very different, a wretch suitable only for the worst of tasks. Two kinds of truth apply in this man's case: his ignorance has created a kind of reality for himself (he is, in truth, a very poor man); his fundamental nature is very different from that reality.

In his wanderings, this poor man stumbles into his father, who recognizes him immediately. This recognition business is significant: ignorance cannot recognize wisdom or itself, but wisdom recognizes ignorance and itself for what they are. This seems natural, on par with the Peter Principle. The wise one is compelled to help the poor man, who responds with fear and aversion. Consequently, the wise one devises a scheme to bring the ignorant one into recognition of the reality of the situation and bring him to his original inheritance, which is his already.

The wise elder sets the poor man to work on a task he could accept, shoveling shit for years on end, slowly giving him greater responsibility on his estate until the ignorant man is no longer ignorant but fully competent to learn the truth about himself. He does, he gets it, and inherits the whole thing. Was it necessary to do all that dirty work in order to come into that inheritance? Yes and no. No, he was the heir to the estate the whole time regardless of his state of mind or his beliefs about himself. Yes, because he would have rejected it otherwise, in effect avoiding his education or his responsibility to his situation. The father's wisdom led him to contrive this pedagogy, this method, to achieve a specific end. Buddhist methods are like this. Wise ones intervene in particular situations to achieve particular ends. We practice those interventions until our wisdom recognizes our ignorance for what it is, and also recognizes itself as wisdom.

Later in the Lotus, we learn of the bodhisattva activities of Avalokiteshvara, whose name is sometimes translated as the Regarder of the Cries of the World (this is Chapter 25, especially great for chanting & reading out loud). I think if you just read the thing you'll see just what I'm getting at here; it's a fine piece of literature in its own right. The lesson is repeated again and again: however a situation needs to be met, the bodhisattva meets that situation in just the appropriate way. If someone needs to be taught by a man or a woman, then as a man or a woman the bodhisattva will manifest. The logic of the interaction is the same in each case: wisdom recognizes ignorance and understands its needs, then meets it head on, drawing deluded beings toward a recognition of their own situation for what it is. Why am I standing here waist deep in my own detritus, with this shovel in my hand? Who put me up to this?

The moment of wisdom is that recognition of one's inherent nature as inseparable from the Buddhas, of one's own capacities as inseparable from the enlightened capacities of the Buddhas. The moment of skillful means lies in transforming a crappy situation into a context for this recognition, or for preparing the ground for that recognition. Just keep going.

To tie all this up, I would like to add that there is a certain kind of comic timing to all this. Brook Ziporyn in many of his writings explains the teaching of the Lotus Sutra through an analogy to a joke: first there is a set-up that sets out a pattern ("three guys walk into a bar..."), and second comes a punchline that changes the meaning of the set-up while exploding the expectations that its pattern established ("the Aristocrats!". Imagine this in the voice of your uncle Louie: So this guy's shoveling this crap for all these years and then come to find out he's a prince the whole damned time! It is not an exaggeration to consider this teaching as a very serious pedagogy of pranksterism, of a particular kind of situational self-awareness.

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