Friday, September 13, 2019

Breaking Our Addiction to Emptiness

The ten ox-herding pictures are a sort of training guide for practitioners of Zen Buddhism; describing the path to awakening.  The story they tell is an allegory where a small boy represents the Zen student, and a wayward Ox represents the student's mind.  

In the pictures, the boy and his ox start off in the market place.  But the ox is untrained, and it runs away into the wilderness.  The boy chases after it and uses a stick to train the animal so that it'll obey commands.  

The stick represents the conventional teachings of Buddhism that help us train our minds (keeping the precepts, accumulating merit, studying sutras, etc.)

Eventually, the ox disappears completely, then the student disappears completely, and finally, the student returns to the marketplace.  

It's that last part that most practitioners find difficult.  I've met many people over the years who started Buddhist practice because they want to leave the marketplace; if not literally then at least philosophically.  And the idea of going back to it sounds terrible; so they don't.

Instead, they use the teaching of emptiness, as represented by the boy and ox disappearing, as an excuse to distance themselves from everyday life.  They are the people in Buddhist groups who say things like, "Who's asking the question?" when someone wants to learn more about the Dhammapada.  Or if someone posts about the death of a relative, they respond by saying, "Death is an illusion."

These individuals think they're being helpful, but these types of quips suggest a rudimentary understanding practice.  Yes, if we walk the path long enough, then we realize that life is empty.  But if we continue walking after this realization, we realize that all sentient beings live within this emptiness.

Thus, like the boy in the ox-herding pictures, our journey ends right where it began; in the messiness of everyday life

And the goal of our practice isn't to escape the marketplace.  Rather, it's to live in the marketplace more skillfully. Thus, we understand that death is an illusion, but we still give our condolences when someone dies.  We know that the mind is ephemeral, but we still answer questions when asked. 

And we never make the mistake of thinking the absolute teachings of Buddhism are more important than the conventional ones.

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Breaking Our Addiction to Emptiness