October 19, 2010

Enlightenment is the Three Poisons

James Shaheen and I got to spend some time with Bernie Glassman this weekend at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe. He is extremely charismatic, bursting with warm-hearted humor, and fond of jokes. I had recently been glancing through the book The Hazy Moon of Enlightenment and wondered if the sterner "Tetsugen Glassman Sensei" of the 1970s felt like another life to him now. His answer was yes and no, but mostly no. Here's a sample of what you'll find in Hazy Moon:

What is Enlightenment?: Dharma Dialogue
with Tetsugen Glassman Sensei

As you all know, the word Buddha means "awakened one," "enlightened one." Buddhism is a religion, a way of life, of awakening or of enlightenment. When he attained enlightenment, Shakyamuni Buddha exclaimed: "How wonderful, how wonderful! Each one of us, every sentient being, is the Buddha, is enlightenment, without exception." Each one of us here is enlightened, is the Buddha.

Now I'd like to ask you, "What is enlightenment?"

Q: Enlightenment is the three poisons: greed, anger, and ignorance. Greed: the desire to enlighten all beings.

Sensei: Anger?

Q: Anger at delusion. Ignorance: just don't know. Just don't know and keep that "don't know."

Sensei: Thank you for your answer.

Q: Thank you.

In What the Buddha Thought, Richard Gombrich discusses why the Three Poisons should actually be called the Three Fires, a reference to the three fires of the brahmin's household. The Buddha's early metaphors were often references to brahmanic (or we might say Vedic) ritual, or to Jain practices, but the memory of this was quickly lost, often as soon as immediately after the Buddha's parinirvana. Many of the Buddha's analogies or descriptions of experience were centered around fire: Nibbana/nirvana refers to the extinguishing of a flame, as is well known, and the khandhas or skandhas, which are usually translated as "aggregates," but which Gombrich says would more accurately be called "burning masses of fuel," in other words, fuel for the fires of suffering.

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