"Householder Chan"

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"Householder Chan"

Post by DesertDweller » Thu Feb 26, 2015 5:34 pm

Dear Friends,
This is all going to sound quite naive, and part of it will be intentionally exaggerated to carry my point, but there is something I'd like to hear your thoughts about:

In Chan/Zen texts the ideal is held up for one to be completely unattached to anything whatsoever--even enlightenment. Besides the koan-like difficulty of the idea that one should not seek enlightenment, how does non-attachment work on a more mundane level, practically speaking? Personally, I have come around to the conviction that the Chan masters are correct: i.e. enlightenment is impossible unless one simply surrenders everything, severs all attachments, destroys any idea of like/dislike, attraction or aversion, etc. This is always what both fascinated and terrified me about Buddhism, especially when I was younger and first learned about it. But now, having lived with my desires for 36 years, I sincerely believe that the only way out is to surrender them all. I can also understand and appreciate the Shin perspective that such enlightenment is basically impossible in this age, and the best we can hope for is rebirth in the Pure Land.

Nonetheless, I am not a Shin Buddhist; it is Chan that speaks most deeply to me as a practical and direct method. It makes sense to me; I can see that it represents a real "way out". I see clearly how my attachments are the cause of my suffering, and that these attachments are all the work of my ego-mind. But I live in the world! I'm married, with kids, and an academic, which means that I constantly must dive into the universe of concepts and "ideas." In fact, the attachments that cause the most suffering for me personally are not food/sex/luxury-related but the subtle ones related to a "lust for concepts and ideas"--for instance, besides fiction and poetry, I enjoy reading books about religion, especially Buddhism, and thinking about them! I enjoy reading Zen discourses and Sutras, and reading about Buddhist history. I enjoy philosophical and metaphysical treatises, and feel that I would actually suffer if they were taken away from me. But I also realize that much suffering arises in my thinking of all the books I want to read, and the idea that I'll never be able to read them all before death! So this love of "ideas" can be a rather excruciating attachment, although it's the most hidden. Still, I realize that ultimately the problem isn't these things themselves but the thoughts and attachments to them. Sometimes I think that we get more enjoyment out of our desires than out of the things we desire, and this is partially the reason why it's so difficult to surrender all desire!

I have written all of the above to give an idea of the sort of paradox I feel that I am facing. I'm not really interested in hearing things like "Chan isn't for you, then, buddy," but rather positive insights into how people sever their attachments--both subtle and gross--while living in the world, as householders, workers, academics, businessmen, parents, spouses, etc. I believe that this is possible, by the way, though I also know that it is most difficult. From my present non-enlightened perspective, having no attachments seems, rather cartoonishly of course, to mean that I should burn all my novels throw away my computer and tell my wife that I never want to do anything anymore when not working are doing household/parenting business except sit in my room and face the wall. Anything I have the least inclination for or enjoyment of is out--this includes most food items except for water and bread crusts once a day. No movies, no books, no comfort of any kind. I know that this is an extremist view, and that a monk in his cell can easily have as many, if not more attachments than a householder.

The question, then, in its essence: How to enjoy life without in any way nourishing ideas of attraction/aversion, like/dislike, happiness/suffering? Is meditation the key to eventually eliminating this?

Apologies for the long post.
In gassho.

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Re: "Householder Chan"

Post by Astus » Fri Feb 27, 2015 9:37 am

First of all, I really like your question. It is the most important one for any householder who wants Chan.

As I see it, this idea that one should be free of all attachments is a misleading one. The solution is not in reducing one's life to the bear necessities. The source of suffering is the idea of permanence, substance, meaning, importance, etc. Attachment is wanting things to be in a specific way, and that desire is based on concepts that declare what is true and what is false, what is good and what is bad ultimately. It is this projection of absolute reality that creates the duality between ordinary life and ideal life. Emptiness means that whatever supreme concept we have of ideal life is nothing but a passing thought.

It can be really difficult to know what "kleshas are bodhi" stands for. Either we are attached to something or not, there is no third option. Either we live a pure life or an impure one. But to see that this tainted realm is itself the pure land, that often feels nothing but clever sophism. What should be understood is there is nothing beyond this present reality. All humans can do are eat, shit and sleep. Whether you eat a seven course meal or a single bowl of rice makes little difference. Trouble comes one we want to force an ideal life on our ordinary one. And religious ideals are not much different from secular goals. We can dream about how sitting crossed leg facing the wall the whole day is the ultimate achievement, but that's just another false idea.

This existential unease that can drive us to philosophy and religion is the understanding that life is in general meaningless and without any real basis. The error most people make is that they look for some supreme truth beyond the present realm of experience. But as the Buddha taught, even the highest heavens are impermanent and unreliable. In other words, even the deepest meditative trance and the most wonderful realisation are meaningless and without essence.

As human beings we have bodily senses, we have emotions and we have thoughts. That's our complete realm of experience, our life. Senses, feelings and concepts are all temporary. Whether we enjoy our situation or hate it, does not matter. it will pass anyway. In fact, right in this present moment we cannot hold on to a single experience even for a millisecond. It's all inconceivable.

So, instead of labeling one idea as true and arranging, measuring, judging everything else relative to that, we need to realise that there is always a network of associations without any true centre. Our attention constantly moves from one thing to another, and whatever happens to be in the focus, that becomes our true world, our self, the most important thing ever. Ignorance comes in the moment we explain it to ourselves as the only truth, that is, we build an ideology, a personal story.

Facing everyday events may give us the desire that we want only the good states, the good moments, the good situations. Actually, that's what we and everyone else wants. This cannot be helped. This is life itself. Life without this basic intention to want the good things is an imaginary dead state. Instead what we should see is that nobody else but us label things as good and bad, we are the ones driven by our conditioning to highlight one thing and forget about the rest. That is the work of our conceptual network of associations. It's not good or bad, it's just how we are. We may not like how our nose looks like, but that's just how it is. The moment we want an ideal nose instead of the present one, we fall into a big trap. Because while we can go for surgery. our actual problem lies in this feeling of "not good". Changing the object, reshaping our nose, our mind, whatever, does not change the cause of the problem, that the present experience is labeled as not good. However, the Buddha says that it is never good, it is unsatisfactory, it is suffering. It is never good because we want it to be something else, something ideal, meaningful, substantial, self.

Chan is seeing the nature of mind, that is, the reality of our present experience. What we can easily see is that it is changing no matter what we do. If we want it not to change or change in a specific way - i.e. want the ordinary to be the ideal - we only strengthen this feeling of unease and pain. Practising Chan is the practice of not setting up and following ideologies and personal stories. However, there is no clear recipe but just a general instruction. First one has to clarify the nature of mind, then go on from there and face whatever comes on the basis of that. That is, acting without raising the mind. Then life is just ordinary.
1 Myriad dharmas are only mind.
Mind is unobtainable.
What is there to seek?

2 If the Buddha-Nature is seen,
there will be no seeing of a nature in any thing.

3 Neither cultivation nor seated meditation —
this is the pure Chan of Tathagata.

4 With sudden enlightenment to Tathagata Chan,
the six paramitas and myriad means
are complete within that essence.

1 Huangbo, T2012Ap381c1 2 Nirvana Sutra, T374p521b3; tr. Yamamoto 3 Mazu, X1321p3b23; tr. J. Jia 4 Yongjia, T2014p395c14; tr. from "The Sword of Wisdom"

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Re: "Householder Chan"

Post by DesertDweller » Fri Feb 27, 2015 6:31 pm

Thanks for your reply Astus. I found it to be quite excellent and well-considered. You really addressed what I was trying to get at.
Attachment is wanting things to be in a specific way, and that desire is based on concepts that declare what is true and what is false, what is good and what is bad ultimately. It is this projection of absolute reality that creates the duality between ordinary life and ideal life.
I really think this is the key to the whole matter. This "wanting things to be a specific way" is what really torments us, especially when our very society is organized around this "wanting", i.e. privileged assumptions concerning "the good life", beauty, love, relationships, family, "security," "comfort," "enjoyment," etc, etc. This privileging was present even in traditional societies, and in our own modern world it's simply out of control since we have electronic media and advertising constantly bombarding us with certain values opposed to others. These sink in and affect us all, become subconscious assumptions of "Truth," and we consequently suffer whenever they are the least challenged.

To simply do away with this "preferring" and "wanting things to be a specific way" seems to me to be the very root issue. As you say, simply going out into the woods, living in a cave on a subsistence diet isn't really the solution. I suppose part of the solution, on a modest level, would involve finding a way to not obsess so much over preferences and anticipated pleasures in our daily lives. It's something I'm trying to really focus on, personally. These are all really small and seemingly insignificant things, but I find they really build up and have a negative affect over time. For example, if a person's spouse goes to the store and buys ice cream and cones for dessert, this person may end up spending much time idealizing and anticipating the pleasures of that night's dessert. He will linger over his imagination of how the ice cream will taste, how good it will make him feel, how happy he will be after eating it, how life from then on will be hunky-dory, etc. Then, when he actually eats the ice cream, it is at best a mild let down and at worst a source of depression. Then, after watching some TV and cheering up, he thinks about something else and moves on to idealizing that next thing--those breakfast pancakes for tomorrow morning or whatever. Now he can sleep soundly! So the solution here would be not to stop eating ice cream or pancakes, but to stop obsessing over our imagination of them and simply enjoy them when they come and let them pass without regret. That's sort of what I get from reading Thich Nhat Hanh, anyway. And how much of our suffering as "householders" might be reduced in this way. Yet it is ever so difficult in practice, since this fantasizing about our desires, dreams and hopes has become a deep-seated habit over years. To simply "eat the ice cream when it comes" is, strangely enough, rather terrifying to the ego. . . .

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Re: "Householder Chan"

Post by Dan74 » Wed Mar 04, 2015 5:46 am

Hi DesertDweller,

I also think that you ask a good question, a question relevant to each one of us, but my take it a bit different to Astus's.

I'd approach this renunciation dilemma from two sides. The first side is the practical one. We all have attachments that are harmful without even any deep analysis or clinging, like say addictions, bad habits of thought and action, etc. No one is going to argue against renouncing those, so best to start with them! If you find yourself reading your Chan books when you should be doing other things, things that you've accepted responsibility for but don't fulfill it, time to examine one's attitude and renounce to some extent.

The other side of renunciation, the renunciation of the sort of stuff you mentioned in the OP, like common pleasures, for householders happens through insight, I think. As practice progresses, you may realise that alcohol even in small quantities affects your mind in a way that is not conducive to clarity and insight (or not, as the case may be) and give it up. You might lose interest in certain movies or music, etc. In my experience it happens as the mind becomes more sensitive and while some will label it attachment to stillness etc, there is time and place for this kind of practice and it's not until much much further down the road, that a practitioner reaches the kind of equanimity necessary to be unmoved by powerful negative stimuli.

So my suggestion approach your desires and attachments in practical way and through practice where we bring clarity and attention to these states. Even in bed, it's possible to take a mindful breath and become aware of the various competing emotions and sensations. Develop clarity about what you are doing. What drives you. What it really feels like. With clarity and attention, comes insight. Ultimately this is what releases us, not any ideas of renunciation.

Astus's suggestion of learning to accept life just as it is (not in a passive resigned sense though) can also be helpful. But again doing so is a matter of careful practice and insight, in my experience.

All the best!!!


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Re: "Householder Chan"

Post by DesertDweller » Thu Mar 26, 2015 8:24 pm

Sorry I've been MIA for the past few weeks from this thread, friends. I've been brooding over these things and have inexcusably failed to respond to the last post in good time. Rest assured that I have found all this advice quite useful. You bring up some excellent points in your post, Dan74, especially the important suggestion that all this simply takes time--it takes time for insight to develop, and patience while it does. It's what to do in the meantime that is challenging, the correct method, etc. One always wants to feel that one is "on the right track", and not a "rock soaking in cold water." And in the absence of a real teacher, it requires a lot of faith and careful treading. I think the two key words that I am taking away from this thread--and this is being continually emphasized in my readings--are "emptiness" and "insight". It seems that the skill of acquiring insight into emptiness is really the key to the whole path, a la the Heart Sutra and the "practice" of prajna paramita. Let's hope I develop some insight into the best way/s to develop this insight!

Thanks again, friends.
Best wishes.

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Re: "Householder Chan"

Post by Dharma Flower » Sat Jun 17, 2017 11:26 pm

What are the usual daily practices for a home practitioner of Ch'an? I appreciate your help.

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