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Kannon (Guan Yin)

Right Thought or Purpose

Second Step on the Path

    Who is it who has dragged this carcass here?

         - Chinese Hua-tou (thought puzzle)

Nobody gets anywhere in Buddhism without understanding from his scalp to the soles of his feet that samsaric life is bitter and painful, the First Noble Truth. And why is life so hard? Because in our egotism we crave so many foolish things. This is the Second Noble Truth. Can we get out of the mess? Yes. This is the Third Noble Truth. How? We kill the fool who craves. We kill it by tearing it away from the people, things and ideas it clings to as it parasitically tries to drain from these sources some substantive identity. The tearing-away process is the painful wounding of the ego, the harsh Right Purpose of the Fourth Noble Truth's Eightfold Path.

When we're young, our craving for status serves a biological imperative. Social success insures successful breeding and survival of the stock. That's how nature programmed us; but once we have played out our biological programs, we're entitled to retire from the everyday cruelties of competition and to live in the perfect peace of spiritual fulfillment.

We have to awaken from the dreamy illusion that we are the sum of people and things with which we have identified. People who have spent enough time in swamp water hear the reveille clearly. They need a few instructions and a little direction but require no further prodding. Others, who are new to disillusionment, are usually not so fortunate. Their egos have to feel a bit more of the pain of alienation and humiliation. They need a good Chan master who has a big heart and a strong stick.

"Who is it who has brought me this carcass?" the Chan master demands to know. His student trembles. This is Buddhism's principal challenge and there is no way to avoid it. "Who am I?"

Ask a swamp dweller "Who are you?" He answers, "I'm nobody. I'm less than nothing." And he's not being modest. Ask him again after he's made it even halfway up the Path. "I'm the most blessed man on earth," he replies without resorting to hyperbole. He is radiant, humble, compassionate, joyful. He is a budding Buddha. His fool is dead. It died in the Swamp along with everything else he used to value.

Many Chan newcomers, however, act as if they intend to climb the Path while still embracing their old strategies, titles and possessions. Like gentlemen contestants in a leisurely sport, they require material comforts - books, recorded music, video, telephones, computers, as well as quality garments and suitable accommodations. They need a supporting entourage and of course, a gallery. Where is the sport if their efforts are not appreciated by family, friends, colleagues, lovers, scapegoats and other prized companions?

Now the Chan master wants to know, "Who are you?" And the foolish newcomer answers, "I'm John Doe, scion of the Doe family." Whack! The Chan master hits him with the stick. "That's a name, a lineage, you dolt! Who are you!?" He tells the student to get out and to come back the next day with a better answer.

During subsequent interviews, the contestant tries to identify himself in a variety of ways. He tries his occupation or his membership in a social rank. He is somebody's son, father, husband, or brother. He attempts to distinguish himself by his net worth or by his nationality. He sees himself as somehow being a unique individual by virtue of his creed or his address, by his personal achievements, traits or physical features. And each time he offers a false identification, his master strikes him with his stick and charges him with stupidity.

By design, this humiliation does not take place in private. Chan masters are notoriously loud, gruff, and indiscreet. Everyone within a radius of fifty miles will know that the poor, oafish student is an Oaf of the First Magnitude.

May we suppose that by presenting ourselves as religious persons we have legitimatized our fool? If, when our master asks who we are, we reply, "A humble servant of the Lord," our master, when he stops laughing, will hit us with his stick.

Faking it, we may add, constitutes an impertinence deserving of many whacks. A person who replies, "I am a Buddha" without having discovered this fact through Satori had better be able to run fast.

No ego identification is valid. We do not vanish if our money or possessions disappear or if our titles are taken away or if we are suddenly unable to perform some meritorious act or other. If we lose a leg, our humanity is not diminished by a proportionate loss. If we are stricken with amnesia we are not genetically altered. Let all this and more be taken from us, yet while we live and are conscious, we remain. The ego is a series of fictitious characters. In none of its aliases does it exist. Ultimately we find that all we are is a complex human covering of a single Buddha Self.

Detachment is a yielding of status, a surrendering of pride. We live our lives clamoring for recognition, sinking our emotional teeth and claws into other people whose identity is always prefixed by the possessive adjective "my" - my fans, my wife, my son - the doctor... And just as we define and sustain ourselves by such human possessions, we try to suck the quality from material possessions, and assimilate these qualities to ourselves.

Sometimes we develop a collector's mentality and desire expensive or rare objects just for the sake of possessing them. "I have something nobody else has. As it is unique, I, its possessor, am unique." Art or artifact, it does not matter what the class of object is. Believe it or not, there are people who collect toilet seats. Our surprise by such a category should not be increased by learning that Charles, Prince of Wales, numbers himself among these strange collectors of privy memorabilia.

We are convinced that the quality of our possessions magically adheres to us. A man who deems a Ferrari superior to a Ford, deems himself, as a Ferrari owner, superior to a Ford owner. He wants an attractive car so that people will be attracted to him - yet he fully expects that all will love him not for his possessions but for himself. He is certain, as he looks through the parking lots of life, that he has few equals. And if it should happen that the monthly payments on the Ferrari are bankrupting this particular man, so what? He does not swagger less.

A woman argues with her hairdresser about the undulation of a particular tress. She claims that it proceeds in a direction which makes her look unattractive. She is very fussy about her hair. It is her best feature. Not until the perverse curl is reversed is she satisfied with her appearance. And if it should happen that this woman weighs three hundred pounds and grotesque rolls of fat cascade down her torso, is she less fastidious about her coiffure? No. Her ego has attached itself to her hairdo. Her self-esteem is in her curls.

Sportscars and stylish hairdos are worthwhile if they increase a breeding adult's attractiveness; but when procreative considerations are nonexistent, such flashy displays usually indicate that the ego is serving no other instinct than its own self-preserving vanity.

This is an essential difference between youth and maturity. We expect young people to crave attention-gaining things. A sixty year old woman driving a Ferrari is strange to us. A spiked, punk hairdo is sort of engaging when it is worn by a sixteen year old boy. We would, however, very likely refuse to dine with a sixty year old man who wore one. On the other hand, when we find young people taking vows of chastity and poverty and retreating to a cloister we wonder what is wrong with them.

For how long can an ego safely reside in a possession? Sometimes in samsaric permanence. We have all met collectors who will pause in their accretions only to receive Extreme Unction. While passing on, they direct the priest's attention to their latest acquisition. As many attorneys can verify, there are hosts of vain women who name in their wills the particular hairdresser they want to coif their corpse. We even occasionally hear about sportscar owners who stipulate that they be buried in their Porches.

Usually our love-affairs with things do not last. Deciding that our happiness depends upon getting the flashy car in the dealer's window, we proceed to make the investment and to project a huge hunk of our self-esteem onto the pretty piece of machinery. But as the novelty wears off without our level of contentment having risen a notch, our desire to form a permanent relationship with this particular ego-vehicle wanes. Though we once had vowed with our blood to maintain it as we would a nuclear missile, we soon drain the egotistical juices out of it and leave it desiccated at the curb - a quarter-inch of road dirt on its body and oil in its crankcase the color and consistency of asphalt.

On the path we ruthlessly examine each desire. Why do we want a particular thing? Whom are we trying to impress or attract? How can our self-worth be seen to reside in this or that object?

The problem of false identities extends naturally to strategies. Here, too, we are confused.

The first thing that a person with no Swamp experience does when he looks over the list of Six Worlds' strategies is to sigh with relief that (thank God!) he doesn't practice Chan of these abysmal sorts. But there is a little test which must be taken. The test is simple: he has to ask three people who know him best which of the six categories they would put him into if they absolutely had to put him into one of them. If all three separately confide that probably he is a Titan, or an Angel, etc., he should give the unthinkable some thought.

Sooner or later, each of us has to face his truth.

Can it be true, wonders the Devil for example, that he is just a clotheshorse? Have people been laughing at him... as in the story of the Emperor's new clothes? Is it possible that everyone regards him as an empty-headed, posturing manikin? Here he thought he was ready to espouse the Bodhisattva Ideal only to learn he is not yet divorced from Samsara! Well! What to do? He is not what he thought he was. But if not this, what?

The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism
Chapter 12: Right Thought or Purpose, Page 1 of 4