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Chicken & Egg Meditation
Mon, January 16 2012

Chicken & Egg Meditation

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Yesterday was very cold and blowing light snow, but we had 11 of us sitting together, anyway! We’re into the chapter, “Compassion,” in One Dharma . The core question that leads to large philosophical ones in this chapter is “Do we purify ourselves first, so that we can then take care of others? Or is it by taking care of others that we purify ourselves?

In Buddhist terms, shall we be arhants (the former) or bodhisattvas (the latter)?

During the history of Buddhism—one tradition arising as counterpoint to another--sometimes the arhant path has been emphasized, sometimes the bodhisattva path. But as Goldstein says, the Buddha was very clear about the compassionate activity that follows waking up. He specifically charged his group of awakened disciples to “Go forth. . .for the good of the many.”

Chicken and EggSo which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Do we behave compassionately in order to wake up, or do we wake up in order to become compassionate? (Might be a long wait, huh?).  Later in that section, Goldstein says that when we let go of needing to know answers to the unknowable, we can then simply take our steps, whatever they may be, along the path.

We were reading the quotation from Hui Neng, the Sixth Zen Ancestor, who says “We should work for Buddhahood within the essence of mind. We should not look for it apart from ourselves. He who is kept in ignorance of his essence of mind is an ordinary being. He who is enlightened in his essence of mind is a Buddha.”

That’s a pretty packed quotation. Whatever Buddhahood is, we’ll only find it within ourselves. I wondered what “essence of mind” means, exactly, and we spent probably far too much time trying to parse that one. As I think about it now, I’m not sure it’s possible to name it. “Essence” is probably the entire complex of sensations and associations that end up creating consciousness.

Goldstein uses another word, “Bodhicitta,” which means “awakened heart.” On the ordinary day-to-day level,  bodhicitta is compassion and the aspiration to awaken from ignorance so that we can live our lives for the benefit of everyone. On the ultimate level, it means going “beyond the concepts of self and other. It is the empty, aware nature of the mind itself.”

So, there it is, really. It doesn’t seem to be a matter of chicken and egg. It’s a matter of which level we’re looking at. If we were looking through a microscope (or a telescope) and adjusted for different levels, we’d see the same things very differently. True compassion—“com” = with, “passion” = feeling, (so, it means “feeling with”) —is fully available when the mind has gone beyond concepts of self and other. When there’s no separation in our minds between self and other, when we’ve seen through the fake barriers we’ve built to keep us separate, we “feel with” without even trying. It’s natural.

And when we haven’t seen though yet, our acts of compassion continually encourage our minds to soften the supposed boundaries between us and others.  We begin to shift our tendencies of mind.

Next week we’ll continue reading “Compassion” in One Dharma.    

Fleda Brown's picture
Poet and writer Fleda Brown reflects on the gatherings of her weekly meditation group, speaking to you as one who has long practiced meditation but still comes to the practice with a learner’s mind.
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