The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics (review)
Zen Buddhists take refuge in the Buddha, in the Dharma, and in the Sangha. These terms can be more easily understood as “realization, truth, and harmony.” Dharma may be seen as a cosmic law of cause and effect, of one thing depending on another thing depending on another thing, within “the infinite, dynamic web of endless dimensions.” When expressed, this law is karma.
Nothing is independent, but rather, intimate in relations. Everything exists in the context of something else existing or not existing, potentially existing or not existing. In such an interconnected universe, the one who clearly sees the nature of reality is a Bodhisattva. “’Bodhisattva’ is a compound Sanskrit word that means ‘enlightenment-being. There are three implications of the term: a being who is enlightened, a being who is on the path of enlightenment, and one who enlightens beings… Learning to accept the role of the Bodhisattva is the nature of Buddhist practice.”
Buddhists view people as not being above the rest of nature. They are not separate from animals, rocks, clouds, trees, mountains, rivers. They grow out of a “net of relationships,” just as the movement of stars and ocean waves. People rationalize their identities and “other” identities into categories of “I and you, we and it, birth and death, being and time,” desensitizing themselves from accepting the changing flow of life. “But if you can see that all phenomena are transparent, ephemeral, and indeed altogether void, then the thrush will sing in your heart, and you can suffer with the prostitute.”
When one sees clearly, one can cultivate compassion and reverence. One can learn to love those who need love and those who give love back. In the First Precept, one should not kill. Likewise, one should encourage life to flourish, not thinking of harming others, for one cannot survive alone. One lives for others as others live for one, interrelated in both the community and nature.
The three poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance dissolve families, communities, and nations, not love and compassion and caring. These poisons “blight the grasslands, deplete the soil, clearcut the forests, and add lethal chemicals to water and air. In the name of progress, some say. In the name of greed, it might more accurately be said.”
To a Bodhisattva, destroying nature or people for idealized progress is not the way. “The practice of peace and harmony is peace and harmony, not some technique designed to induce them.” Rather than searching for a means to achieve a vague notion of peace or justice, to directly serve others is to forget the self, to forget the self is to serve others. This can only be done now, not later or under the guise of a lofty abstraction.
To be peaceful is not only to be a peaceful person now, but to never ignore the implications of the world. “The practical way to practice not-harming begins with a lifestyle that acknowledges all the implications of popular Western culture, and popular Eastern culture too… When I look at my camera, and in tiny print I read, ‘Made in Singapore,’ I reflect upon the women who are employed at the factory there for low wages, who have no room in their lives for anything creative. I reflect upon the American workers who have no jobs because the factory has moved to Asia. There is no quick remedy for this injustice, but awareness is the beginning of Right Action.”
When the mind is at peace, it does peaceful things. When the self is forgotten, one (or nobody) serves others. When there is no self, everything is boundless. There is no thought of obtaining or taking away from other people. There is only a full appreciation for what is.
While the modern world grows in economic inequality — where stockholders care about increasing quarterly profits as workers in third-world countries are exploited and subdued in impoverished neighborhoods — principles such as not-stealing and not-killing come from a mind that sees “the transparency of all things.”
When one sees the world clearly, one is not deluded enough to indulge in a selfish lifestyle while the poor starve without electricity or clean water. To buy an expensive coat while a child shivers nakedly in the dirt, to drink to excess while a village is bombed under orders from a government. These destructive events will impact anyone who is sensitive to living. Instead of selfishness, a Bodhisattva knows the preciousness of simple things. To carelessly use objects and time and people, despite claims about justice and peace and truth, is insidious.
Nothing is isolated or alone in the world. Everything depends on everything else. All relationships are grounds for deepening one’s own spiritual practice. Even the most difficult romances can be enlightening teachers. Immersing oneself in life, seeing everything as clearly as possible, involves the forgetting of self. In forgetting the self, one joins in on the dance. Without self-consciousness, balanced before all things.
From the great silence of awareness, there is no deception, cheating, gossip, and disloyalty. To work for peace, one is peace. To feel compassion, one is compassion. One responds to the dynamic conditions that arise in life, learning what is destructive or not, and how to prevent suffering. For example, to not be a liar, don’t lie to oneself or others or be complicit in lying. “Not only must I not work for an ordinary advertising agency, but I must not swallow advertising lies either. Not lying means no complicity with lies.” Avoid what damages relationships, what causes suffering in families, communities, and nations.
Begin with oneself.
While responding to each circumstance — which changes in context — see the entire picture. Do not choose honesty over compassion or kindness over honesty, for example, out of convenience. Open oneself to all feelings and make friends with them. Do not neglect one aspect of life while affirming another. Be truly transparent. Understand the poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance — how they destroy a society, how they cause the suffering of others, from air pollution to heroin, from wars manufactured for oil to the “corporations dumping carcinogenic insecticides on Latin American populations.”
Silently be aware of the ephemeral world. Notice its relative aspects — good, bad, light, dark, pleasure, pain. Look at everything without judgment. It is easy to see something distasteful, disgusting, dark, or scary, and reject it. Simply say, in the same sense of “he has blue eyes” or “she is a pianist” what has happened or is happening. The world is made of intricate relations. Clouds and streams and trees and stones, sunlight and wind and water and earth. There is no self, because there is no self that is isolated from everything else. One is nurtured from the world just as the world is nurtured from one. There is truly nobody that is “other,” even though old perceptions may be fixed on othering, on putting people in categories of good and bad, right and wrong. People often concentrate on their past or on another person’s past, unable to let go of who they were, of how they felt, of what they believed to be true. They “participate in the continuation of their faults” without acknowledging a person as they are or could be.
“Like Frankenstein, we create monsters with words, and while our creations have no fundamental validity, they fix images in the minds of all, including those whom we gossip about. Even when we can support our condemnation with data, we may be preventing growth. With growth, insecurity becomes true love. With growth, conceit becomes leadership. But if negative qualities are fixed in everybody’s heads, growth is made very difficult.”
From the Platform Sutra, if one condemns the world, that is one’s own condemnation. To be arrogant is to show others that one doesn’t feel at ease, so self-praise must be conjured up. Abusing others then is a means to establish a false sense of security.
To be open, to be modest in understanding, is to accept the teachings of everyone and everything. From the insight of a child to a mangy dog, from the wind to a cruel dictator, there are always lessons for those who learn to see. Likewise, one must look within to see their own shadows and not only pretend that they possess the light. To see everything — without comparing, judging, resisting, and craving — is to realize what is.
“By not praising and abusing others, by using yourself in concert with others to realize the potential of the biotic community, you are saving all beings. And, as Hui-neng says, saving all beings is saving them in your own mind. When your mind is one with all mind, then comparisons are half-truths at best, and your work is the work of the world.”
The more one knows the transitory nature of phenomena, the more one knows nothing. Without delusions of mine and his, ours and theirs, without the divisions that arise in the comparative mind, without the separate self, there is emptiness. Most people speak in abstractions of wanting peace, love, justice, and truth, but do they speak from an empty center, one free of fixed categories? They desire justice for them, truth for us, but they are caught in their allegiances. In a trap of abstractions, they think, they think about thinking, they think about action, they think about their actions, and so on. Working from self-centeredness more than from emptiness. They do not see a universe in a flower.
“It is important to cultivate as best you can your own empty ground of action and expression, so that you are not blown about by the reactions of others. Then when you come forth with your response, you will learn clearly whether or not you are being self-indulgent, and this can be your whetstone.”
As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed.”
Be open in awareness, tender toward all feelings, thoughts, and sensations. Without a desire to defend one’s image, without a need to judge or complain, one is open to growth. One surrenders to a unique moment every moment. Don’t block what is happening, don’t resist the dance. Become the dance. Whether it is in teaching a child or feeding a homeless person, whether it is in sweeping a floor or building a house, everything is precious, ready to be taken care of.
There is eternity in the unfolding moment.
“’Eternity’ does not refer to beginningless and endless time, but rather to the great timeless void of which we are formed. It is another word for nirvana — not something to be achieved, but the fundamental, potent emptiness that is our essential nature.”
One does not stand apart. One is fully absorbed in action and intention, simultaneously. There is no expectation or conceptual posturing. Everything is integrated into a “purity of action” without self-consciousness. There is no outside goal. The path is the goal. To value something as worth saving, whether a flower or a person, is to be deluded by a mental category. It is to rank something as a beautiful thing or an ugly thing, a good thing or a bad thing, rather than realizing what it is.
“Not dwelling upon colors, not dwelling on phenomena of sound, smell, taste, and touch, but dwelling in nothing at all, we bring forth that mind. And in a Sangha of mutual trust, we find skillful means to bring forth that mind, steadily and steadfastly, in the midst of our poisonous world.”
A mind of emptiness is vast and nothing special. It is unfathomable, nameless. People are prevented from realizing this emptiness because of their attachments to ideas, because of the poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance. To be realized is to be compassionate with other people and their suffering, knowing them in yourself, knowing yourself in them. To be selfish is to never be at rest, consumed endlessly in defensive thinking, unable to sleep, hating, judging, blaming. There is never any peace.
“If you foolishly seek peace through alcohol, you end up sedating yourself, harming your body, and destroying what peace there may be in your family. If you seek unity in the universe through a multinational corporation, the unity you achieve is your greed with that of many others. The search for peace and unity is correctly the search for realization of the empty, infinite self and the empty, infinite universe — free of concepts, with all things appearing as their own reason.”
From emptiness, one saves what can be saved — using what resources one can, using whatever skills there are to be used. There is no true inside or outside. There is no division between people, birds, lakes, and deer. Energy manifests in matter of all types — interrelated and coexistent in a process of becoming, in the ephemeral. All objects and creatures, Gary Snyder once said in “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution,” are necessary in a vast interrelated network. “The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.”
To have a social revolution, action springs from awareness. Whether it’s in letting go of hatred and envy, standing with equanimity on the front lines of a violent opposition, or in giving to those in need of help, one must be wise. In this fathomless universe, to be aware of the interpenetration of all things, makes one responsible for preserving what is so precious.
“Breathing in and out, you let go of poisons and establish the serene ground of the precepts. You release defenses of the self and the mind comes forth boldly with the count of ‘one,’ ‘two,’ ‘three.’ Focused and serene, you are ready for the instruction by the ten thousand things.”
From breathing in and out, in and out, seeing all that is, one is already divine, intimately connected to life. Only people are not always aware of their true nature. “Thus, we live selfishly and create poverty, exterminate Jews, and bomb innocent peasants; we drug ourselves with chemicals and television, and curse our fate when the cancer of human waste appears in our own precious bodies. We ignore the near, intimate fact that heaven lies about us in our maturity, and thus we cannot apply any of its virtues.”
To not be intimate with life is to be distracted. It is to be self-preoccupied, consumed with abstractions. While concepts can be used effectively in a practical and ethical way, they should never use the person. Falling into a net of ideas is to be caught once again. One should not look “out there” for a solution to a problem that is happening here, now.
Often people impose upon the environment, on other people, because they live in abstractions. They believe they are here and everything else is out there. They perceive an inside and an outside, being aligned to one group and not another, to one idea and not another. When the self is forgotten and everything simply is, then there is no lording over nature, no superiority over plants and animals. Delusions of humans being separate from nature, ideas of them as better than other animals and people, has led to the poisoning of rivers, cutting down of trees, slaughter of endangered species, depletion of minerals, extermination of indigenous populations, disruption of ecological balances, endangering the entire planet and future generations.
To practice being with rather than excluding people into us and them, he and she, me and you, from serving the poor and hungry and homeless, from speaking to politicians and police officers and corporate leaders, from forming movements based on an interconnected consciousness, from respecting mountains and rivers and streams, from being open, truly open to the intimacy of the moment, is to achieve nothing, being nowhere. From nowhere, there is peace within. The woman or man of peace, feeling compassion for the suffering of all things, helps in communities that others wish to destroy.
To serve them is to be forgotten, to be forgotten is to serve them.
Because they are us and we are them.