An interview with scholar Mu Soeng and an excerpt from his new book, Trust in Mind
Bodhidharma, the Indian monk credited with bringing Ch’an/Zen to China, famously described Zen as direct transmission “without depending on words.” How can language describe realization, especially to someone who hasn’t experienced it? This poem is trying to articulate the experience of sudden realization through the language of nonduality. It’s speaking of emptiness, of nonduality, in a very nonideological manner. It’s not trying to put it into the context of any metaphysics or ontology. It’s just saying the experience itself is nondual, and that’s what life itself is all about. So I see the poem making a connection between the reality of our life and the realization into that reality that we have from time to time.
If we look at what actually happens in our meditation experience, we find that we can’t hold on to anything at all because thoughts, feelings, imagination are changing all the time. And that’s the experience that Sengcan is talking about, and that the Buddha is talking about: we try to hold on to our longings and clingings, and in the process we distort ourselves.
If we have a realization that this is what we’re doing to ourselves, and step out of that, then the question becomes: how do we live our lives? If we go through this radical deconstruction and find that we can’t hold on to anything at all, then the only choice is to very carefully reconstruct a life of upaya—skillful means. That’s the bodhisattva model: that the only thing left to do is live a life of skillful means, for yourself and other people.
What the Buddha was saying is that nonclinging is the means to freedom—or, as I like to call it, “psychological homelessness.” I think these are the two polarities of human life: psychological homelessness and greed. To me, the subset of longing, clinging, becoming—links eight, nine, and ten of the twelve links of dependent arising—is the core of the Buddha’s teaching. If this subset is directed toward psychological homelessness, that is how a life can be lived in freedom. The life of greed is a life of bondage.
In the book you suggest that most of us aren’t really looking for freedom or psychological homelessness so much as “solace for our conditioned existence.” In the Buddha’s time, his followers were wandering all over, and the rule was that they could not stay in any place more than three days at a time. That kind of physical homelessness cultivated psychological homelessness. In our bourgeois spirituality, we’re trying to accumulate some kind of resume that says, “I’m a spiritual person,” but we don’t want to lose our comfort zone, and we cling to whatever we do to create that comfort zone. To actually live a life of psychological homelessness is really difficult to do. One of the metaphors I use is that the Buddha was inviting us to throw all the furniture out of the living room, but all we really want to do is rearrange it. The biggest pieces of furniture are our views—about the self and the world.