On Duality, Steps & Stages, and our Innate Wholeness – Bodhi Pakshika Dharma – talk 1

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[Overview of Bodhi Pakshika Dharma]
This talk is a kind of pre-introduction to the traditional list of 37 practices (in 7 sub-lists) called Bodhi Pakshika Dharma which we’ll be starting to study together in Bellingham.

I got riffing on non-duality and the apparent tension between the sense on the one hand that we’re complete and whole just as we are, and the other hand that we have a lot of room to work and practice and grow.

And I didn’t actually get to talking about the point on the list but we did do a little ceremony for venerating and remembering the list which made it onto the recording. And you can also just download that as a separate sound file – here.

One of those talks where I strayed far from the notes but they are below in case anyone finds them helpful.  -Tim


Thank you again to the folks who gave talks while I was away on Wednesday night this summer. I listened some of Edie’s talk on the 8-fold noble path and also John’s on preferences – very practical grounded talks, really great. And I’m looking forward to hearing what Kate and Joan had to say if that’s on the recorder too. And I want to also thank Anita Feng from Blue Heron Zen Community who gave a really great talk on Saturday about the ways we build walls in our minds and a way of working with that. She chose not to be recorded but she did give us some handouts – maybe someone here has one. She had a nice teaching around the acronym face – F-A-C-E.

Tonight I want to introduce an important collection of teachings of the Buddha that’s called Bodhi Pakshika Dharma in Sanskrit. As you know many of the early teachings of the Buddha were given in list form. The 8-fold noble path Edie spoke about is an example. The Bodhi Pakshika Dharma is a list of seven lists totaling 37 points  that’s been studied in many branches of Buddhism as a guide to the path to freedom and joy. 37 steps on the path to liberation from the narrowness our minds and conditioning can create.

One of the qualities of the Buddha’s teaching is that he didn’t really have a single list or a single central teaching. Sometimes people say he did just to keep things simple, but not really.

The purpose of his teachings were singular – the release from stress and suffering into happiness and all of the positive benefits that brings for each person and all beings – that was the purpose but his expression of the path to this purpose really varied according to whom he was speaking to.

Sometimes the Buddha is compared to a doctor who is a really skilled diagnostician (I learned that word handing out with medical students!) who is able to quickly see where the person he’s working with is stuck in suffering and offer a prescription really tailored to that person.

This prescription usually included guidance in how to see and understand the situation and also some practice: something to do, or avoid doing.  Since it’s hard for us to see our experience in a new way, the Buddha often relied on metaphor and analogy as well as logical reasoning to help them move away from clinging and suffering and towards freedom. He also used psychic powers sometimes to get people’s attention which fits our rational frame.

Because of all of this the Buddha’s teaching vary tremendously. And because of the cultural differences and time differences and the problems of translation and language and the very odd reality (to us) that these teachings were transmitted orally for hundreds of years before they were written down. As so the details vary but the goal is always release. Freedom. Happiness. And not just the happiness of things going right, a deeper kind of happiness, perhaps contentment and acceptance come closer to the mark. And yet it’s not passive acceptance, it’s an active, creative engagement.

The ability to appreciate things as they are whole heartedly and completely. Release from all resistance, liberation from even the subtlest clinging and pushing away. A joyful engagement with the world of tears. There are many ways of saying this, each expression helping to point the way to something far beyond our usual mode and also not quite it.

The goal of Buddhism really is this kind of freedom. Our practice is not just a way to ease the pain of existence, it is that and it goes much deeper. And the Buddha taught that the road to his freedom through a deep and careful engagement with our actual experience, this is what the steps in the Bodhi Pakshika Dharma describe – how to practice with our experience.

Buddhism also takes a really important look at the way we divide things up. We think it’s this, or it’s that. I’m happy or I’m sad. I’m a shy person or I’m a gregarious person. I’m weak or I’m strong.  This is built into our language. The world “small” doesn’t mean anything without the world “large.” And the functioning of language influences our thoughts, our thoughts influence our deeds and understanding. And all of this dividing things in half divides us in half. And there is no real peace there.

And so in our practice we learn to start softening these internal mental divisions so that we too can be whole. Instead of this or that, it can be this and that. And Buddhist logic goes further: perhaps it’s not just this and that, can it also be this and not that, or not this and not that. Or all four at the same time, and not at the same time. This kind of talk is confusing to the mind that divides and categorizes and wants something neat to hold onto. But if we practice with this is a liberating kind of confusion. An encouragement to hold our knowing more softly.

The role of self and other in our practice is a great example of this divided thinking. The greatest division of all, the sages say, is the division between me and you, between self and other.

On the one hand it’s up to us. Up to me. There is no one outside of us who can make the effort to walk the path. No one. Sometimes we catch ourselves thinking that if we like Buddhist practice and love our teachers or read really inspiring books or wear the right clothing and jewelry that’s the same thing as actually practicing. But that’s a kind of resistance isn’t it? A kind of avoiding the actual actions of doing the practice ourself. So we have work to do. And only we can do it. It’s me. It’s this self.

And yet is that right? Is it up to me? Can I do the practice by myself? If we think “It’s all up to me” the others don’t matter. I don’t need teachers, I don’t need teachings, maybe I’ll go to the sangha when I feel like it but I don’t really need anyone,  the others don’t understand me anyway, that’s not right either. That’s just self-centeredness. That’s too narrow. There are many famous stories of Zen teachers dramatically pointing out how silly it is to think that “I” can do Zen.

And so for our practice to be effective in moving us toward freedom we practice holding both points of view. It is up to me. I do need to do the work, take the steps, get up and practice, be skillful in that practice but we must also include the others, listen to the others, ask teachers for guidance, practice with and for the others, because if we aren’t all practicing, no one is practicing. This division between self and other is of course a kind of trick of the mind.

Does that make sense?

And our attitude towards this goal of freedom can involve the same false dichotomy.

On the one hand we are all quite confused, caught in various kind of self deception, not so aware of our bodies and minds,  not so aware of how we affect others, don’t notice the ways we make the walls that separate us more solid, and all the time this central organizing principal of me, me, me we rely on is just not a dependable frame full of it’s history and psychological problems and conditioning.  It needs to be clarified and purified. There is much to do. And Buddhism includes this sense. We wouldn’t need the Buddha as a doctor if we weren’t all sick in some way.

On the other hand it’s very possible to feel right in this very moment that our actual lived experience is perfect. That all these problems are as substantial as smoke. That we are deeply fine just the way we are. On this very breath complete freedom is found. It’s right here. Don’t look any further away.

Our wonderful ancestor Dogen writes about this all the time – the leading section of the his practice instructions called Fukanzazengi are about this:

The Way is basically perfect and all-pervading. How could it be contingent upon practice and realization? The Dharma-vehicle is free and untrammeled. What need is there for concentrated effort? Indeed, the whole body is far beyond the world's dust. Who could believe in a means to brush it clean? It is never apart from one, right where one is. What is the use of going off here and there to practice?

And yet, if there is the slightest discrepancy, the Way is as distant as heaven from earth. If the least like or dislike arises, the Mind is lost in confusion.

So there are those preferences John was talking about, but it’s deeper than having some bad habit called “preferences” isn’t it? It’s a deep deep deep habit of dividing the world. Creating and believing in our own delusion and confusion and separation.

I’ve been enjoying a great overview book on Buddhism by Diana Winston called “Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens” – she talks in a clear way about the creative tension between this sense of how far we have to go and also this subtle and important feeling that we’re already there:

In Buddhism we talk about the potential for becoming enlightened, or of fully waking up. What does this mean?

In the Buddhist tradition, the Sanskrit word nirvana is used to mean a state of full awakening. The world literally means "coolness," and is associated with peace and freedom. Nirvana is seen as the ultimate goal of Buddhism - what the Buddha achieves under the Bodhi tree.

However, many misconceptions surround the words nirvana and enlightenment. Some people imagine: "If I reach enlightenment, the world will explode into white light," or "I will become one with everything," or "I will have omniscience and know how to help all beings on the planet." Or "If I reach nirvana all my problems will be solved," or "I will be extremely powerful and loved."

Some schools of Buddhism say every time we have a moment of awakening, like those moments of self-awareness….when we are fully present here and now, we are having a "little nirvana." In that case, to reach nirvana, all we have to do is practice waking up in our lives as much as possible for a moment of time. The late Thai master Ajahn Buddhadasa, who coined the phrase "little nirvana," said:

Nirvana can be present here and now by taking your breath in cool and letting it our cool. It is the realm that cools down the heat, quenches the thirst, and extinguishes the suffering existing in our daily life - automatically without us being conscious of it. It really is a nourishing process for our life all the time.

Another Buddhist school considers nirvana to be the eradication of three mental "weeds" - greed, hatred and delusion. These nasty plants "grow" in our minds, and upon enlightenment, are finally ripped out at their roots and can never grow again. In their place, generosity, love, and wisdom thrive. They say that the plant is uprooted in stages, a little at a time; more like weeding a garden over the seasons, for many years.

Still other schools of Buddhism say that in truth we are already enlightened, it is our true nature, but we have forgotten. Often this existing enlightenment is called our Buddha-nature - the whole, radiant, inner self that cannot be changed by anything external. In some traditions, our minds are compared to the vast, blue sky, extending as far as the eye can see. However, at times clouds and rainstorms pass by and cover up our true nature. The Zen master Hakuin said, "Although there are countless teachings that instruct us how to obtain enlightenment, the ultimate instruction is there is simply no teaching that is superior to the true practice of awakening to one's own nature."

How do we make sense of these seemingly contradictory teachings? If I am already enlightened, then why do any spiritual practice? Or if I have a lot of work to do to free my mind from greed, hatred, and delusion, then how could I be already enlightened?

I like to hold both views together. On the one hand, I diligently practice meditation and waking up in daily life, while remembering the incredible human potential of full awakening. Imagine, one day my mind may be completely free from all greed, hatred, and delusion! As I practice, I get more and more tastes of a free min.

On the other hand, as I develop on my spiritual path, I remember that an awakened heart and mind is true human nature, how can it be otherwise? I try to accept myself exactly as I am. I remind myself that even if I don't feel enlightened, being awake is the natural condition of mind, which I can experience from time to time, and through practice, increasingly more often. Whatever I encounter on my path, no matter how challenging, cannot possibly cover up the pure radiance of my heart.

I thought that was a nice description of holding these two sides. Much of what we are learning here is stop dividing things in half. Take seriously that we are deluded and need to practice, that practice leads to more freedom, and take up this path with the spirit that it’s really okay. Whatever happens, whatever results, whatever my experience is, it’s workable, it’s my experience, it’s not a problem, it’s just this life emerging in just the way it needs to emerge according to causes and conditions. And here I am. Right there.

So the description of this work of freedom I want to introduce tonight is a list of lists that the Buddha mentioned many times in different contexts and most poignantly he brought it up on his death bed while surrounded by his students. After 40 some years of practicing with them he just brought them right back to the basic instructions all over again. We’ll talk more about karma and skillfulness in the next talk, but that’s what was at play for him then and always. What actions will lead to more freedom and joy, what is skillful here? “Ah, I will remind the sangha to practice the steps to awakening, to stay on the path.”

Here’s a few paragraphs from the sutra describing the Buddha’s death – which is called the Parinirvana in Buddhism, the final, or ultimate, entry into the stillness of nirvana:

…"Oh monks and nuns, I say to you that these teachings of which I have direct knowledge and which have made known to you-these you should thoroughly learn, cultivate, develop, and frequently practice, that the life of purity may be established and may long endure, for the welfare and happiness of the multitude, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, well-being, and happiness of gods and humans.

And what, oh monks and nuns, are these teachings? The are the four foundations of mindfulness, the four right efforts, the four constituents of power, the five faculties, the five powers, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the noble eight-fold path. These, are the teachings of which I have direct knowledge, which I have made known to you, and which you should thoroughly learn, cultivate, develop, and frequently practice, that the life of purity may be established and may long endure, , for the welfare and happiness of the multitude, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, well-being, and happiness of gods and humans."

Then the Blessed One said to the monks and nuns, "I exhort you: All compound things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness. The time of the Tathagata's Parinirvana is near. Soon the Tathagata will utterly pass away."

And having spoken these words, the Happy One, the Great Master, spoke again saying in verse:

My years are now full ripe, the life span left is short.

Departing, I go hence from you, relying on myself alone.

Be earnest, then, O bhikkhus, be mindful and of virtue pure!

With firm resolve, guard your own mind!

Who so untiringly pursues the Dharma and the Discipline

Shall go beyond the round of births and make an end of suffering."

And so in there he listed off seven lists which were later called in Mahayana Buddhism the Bodhi Pakshika Dharma.  Bodhi means awakening, Pakshika means things relating to, and Dharma has the wonderful double meaning of both the Buddha’s teaching and the actual flow of our experience. So Bodhi Pakshika Dharma means the way of working with Buddha’s teaching in accordance with the reality of our actual lives that leads to awakening. And my sense is to leave that phrase untranslated. I’ve been reading two different books on this – one by the wonderful contemporary American monk in the Thai tradition Thanissaro Bhikkhu and other other  by the great 20th century Chan master Shen Yen. Thanissaro calls this path “The Wings to Awakening” which is wonderful , and Sheng Yen’s translators decided on the less prosaic but more literal “Things Pertaining to Bodhi”. But I think skillful use of non-English terms can help us to open up a little so let’s see if we can engage with the Bodhi Pakshika Dharma together tonight and for a while. We will see if it’s helpful to us individually and as a community. I think it will be.

Remember Suzuki roshi’s wonderful way of expressing this kind of “either and” thinking around our awakened nature and how far we have to go: “All of you are perfect just as you are, and you could use a little improvement.” My hope is that by working systematically together through this list of lists, and really practicing with it we can experience both halves of this non-dichotomy. Feel into our perfect nature and work with our minds and hearts on that improvement in way that’s skillful and creates the conditions that help us be more free. More happy. More connected. We each need that, we need that as a community, the world needs that.

And I probably gave away at some point the inner-most secret of Dharma teachers. Teachers teach about what they most need and are struggling with. So I’m right with you too. May this practice bring benefit to all.

So to close tonight I actually don’t even want to read or explain anything more about the Bodhi Pakshika Dharma! Instead I want to do a practice where we bow with each of the 37 steps of this path and then I’ll give it to you as a hand out. You might chose to continue this bowing and chanting practice at home, or just read over the list several times and see what strikes you. You might also consider reading one of the two books I am studying. If you look at the entry on our website about the October 13/14 study retreat it has references. The Thanissaro book is free for download online.

About Nomon Tim Burnett

Spiritual Director and Zen priest Nomon Tim Burnett has been a student of Zoketsu Norman Fischer since 1987 when he was a resident at San Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm. After sitting practice periods at Green Gulch and Tassajara Zen Monastery, Tim helped found the Bellingham Zen Practice Group in 1991. Tim was ordained as a Zen Priest by Norman in 2000 and received Dharma Transmission in July, 2011. A person of wide-ranging professional interests, Tim has been a botanist, carpenter, elementary school teacher, writer, and computer programmer. In addition to his work at the Spiritual Director of Red Cedar Zen Community, Tim is Executive Director of Mindfulness Northwest.
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