Yearbook 2007



Yushin (Italy, 56yo, Zen Master)

I) The titles

The title of my presentation has been pilfered from the English translation of Dasheng Qixinlun, or Treatise on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna, which I consider the most important literary contribution to the development of Mahāyāna in East Asia. In translation, the sentence I had in mind reads like this: “The process of actualization of enlightenment is none other than [the process of integrating] the identity with the original enlightenment”. For those who understand Japanese, the text is this: 始覚 は 即ち 本覚‘に 同じき を もって成り. I used this quote to have a chance to introduce this ancient text, but, to judge from my own experience, it would have been more accurate to speak of a “process of melting -- rather than integration -- of the individual identity into the absolute”. Perhaps I should have used another heading for this presentation after all!
In the same line of thought, I would like to congratulate the organizers on the choice of a very appealing title for this colloquium. The “universality of Buddhism” is truly a magnificent subject.
But what do we mean by universality? At the risk of imitating Lapalisse, “universality” derives from “universe”, which, in turn, literally means “that which is only one”, or, “that to which there is no alternative”. Does it refer to “something that is forever, everywhere, for everybody” and, if so, is universality a property of Buddhism?
Or do we want to say instead that Buddhism is a particular form of universality? After all, to be actualized, the universal must become particular, it must take on a specific form.
Yet again: how can we look for universality in Buddhism? Buddhism does not exist: it is a figment of our imagination. It is a fiction. There is nothing that I can grasp – even conceptually – and bring before you and say: “Here it is, this is Buddhism, what do you think?”.
We can say the same about the Buddhists. We are not an anthropological category, or an ethnic group, or people who share the same aspect, whom someone can put under a magnifying glass or display pinned to the bottom of a showcase.
To begin addressing some of these issues, we shall explore the ways in which Buddhism and universality overlap. We will outline the historical process that, starting centuries ago and reaching up to our own times, brought a part of mankind to give universality the names of buddhadharma, fofa (仏法), fodao (仏道), buppō (仏法) and buddhism; in other words our hypothesis is that buddhism is one of the languages spoken by Universal. Be aware, though, that buddhism is not a Buddhist term. It was dreamt up by the British. After they conquered India, they found it convenient to classify the Indian religious experience and, for simplicity’s sake, they came up with these three categories, jainism, hinduism and buddhism.

II) The journey of mankind towards the absolute

Let’s go back to where it all started.
The archaeological finds of Harappā and Mohenjo Daro, on the Pakistani banks of the Indus have confirmed what years ago could only be conjectured. Before it was finally brought down by foreign conquerors, called Arians -from arìh, the Sanskrit root for “foreigner”- a highly complex culture flourished in this area; a culture that, at that time, went further than any other in developing the capacity to enter into communication with the absolute through the body. I am talking of a practice that plies the body to a religious end, that makes it the place, the very spot where the earthbound and the infinite meet.
In this culture, the early growth of Religion, its very birth perhaps, coincided with the process whereby the shamans turned ascetics. In this process, they developed the capacity to enter into contact with the absolute through their bodies, thanks to special practices and bodily gestures that they had identified through trial and error as the most effective to establish that contact. These practices centred on the cross-legged position, which had been proven even earlier than 1000 b.C. to be the most conducive to transform the human body into the abode of god. At least for what concerns its physical aspects, this is the origin of what many centuries later would be called yoga, “unity [with the absolute]”, and after an equally long evolution, of what we now call “zazen”.
Through one of the paths taken in the long and original process of refining the Dravidic cult of the Mother Goddess, this culture also built the foundations of the religious pantheon that contributed the figure of Śiva and many centuries later bestowed to Buddhism the figure of Avalokita Īśvara, latterly Kuanyn and, more recently, Kannon or Kanzeon. From the original core of protoyoga and protoshivaism also bloomed the practices that, many centuries on, led to tantrism, to Vajrayāna and Tibetan Buddhism, to Shingon, and so on and so forth.
When Śākyamuni withdraws into the forest, he enters a space that had been inhabited for centuries by ascetics, the śrāmaņa, “those who strive” searching for the absolute through their bodies. And this is not enough.
When he who would become Buddha, the Awakened, he who penetrated and revealed to himself the gateway to the new gospel -- which consists in allowing the world to fade away instead of trying to abolish it – when Buddha began his apprenticeship of the Upanishad and of the Sāmkhya with the forest teachers, that world had expanded to include many new elements, the most important of which I will speak of presently.
After the gradual expansion of the neolithic settled communities, the most ancient civilization, complete with a religion, a writing system and complex government structures so far discovered by archaeologists, had two separate centres, in Mesopotamia and in Egypt. The protracted interaction between these two highly refined cultural hubs in the end brought to the development of the languages, the writing systems, the myths and the religions that constitute the embryo of a large part of our own intellectual and symbolic world today.
This bipolarism lasted about two millennia in a relative balance, until the migration towards Egypt and Europe of Semitic and Accadic peoples gave origin respectively to Hebraism and the Greek and Latin civilizations, which in turn, constituted the hotbed from which Christianity and Islam rose in more recent times. Here, from the very beginning, Religion meant above all gnosis and ethics. At the time of king Sargon the Great, in 2350 b.C. the Accadian’s empire extended from the Mediterranean in the West almost to the edge of the Gandhara region in the East. Then, in a later period, the Veda and the Upanishad sprouted from the knowledge rooted in the Avesta.
The complex of religious ideas that flows from the Avesta and emerges refined and structured in the Veda, shared the insight of a relationship between man and the absolute which the Upanishads express in the very forceful statement “so ham” “I am That”. The awareness that there is a gesture, a bearing of the body that moulds it after the absolute was matched by the conscience that human nature in its essence is in God.

III) The trace of words

The most ancient (written!) vestige of a moral statement in the deepest religious sense is to be found among the aphorisms of the Egyptian Amen-en Apt, who lived during the eight dynasty (1500-1360 b. C.): «It is better to be a beggar in God’s palms than a rich man under the shelter of a roof”. The moral ethics shared by all Indian religious forms before the coming of the Buddha is very similar to those developed by the civilization that was born between the Euphrates and the Nile.
So here we have the three basic early elements -the practice with the body, deep religious knowledge and moral ethics – which, in several combinations and articulations, made up the Indian religious world. This includes Buddhism; no ancient sutra fails to exalt ethics, ascetics and deep wisdom, with lofty results in the literary and religious fields.
The gradual refinement of language brought to light words that, once, consolidated, now allow us to follow the history of religious thinking. In ancient times, the basic note concerning the practice was naishkramya, “not beginning” “not commencing”, “letting go of”. Much later, as language became subtler, thanks to the texts of the prajñāpāramitā, -which, with the Lotus Sutra constitute the maturity of the enculturation of Buddhism in India- we encounter the Diamond Sutra with its invitation to “give rise to a non sustained thought”: a positive and therefore completely unusual statement that calls attention to a connection-less thought, one that breaks any links with logic and the reality of the phenomena.
In the early years of Buddhism’s Chinese adventure, the insistence that came from India on the need to keep at sitting had a very rapid diffusion because of its affinities to Daoist mysticism, which preached “resting in the mould of the Sky” or “sit like spent ashes”, “sit like a dry stick”, and thanks to the insistence of Chinese culture on the significance of “learning with the body”.
But when it was breaking into China, the “stay seated”, the practice, usually called dhyāna, had at least ten centuries of history in the Vedic and pre-Vedic religious culture and six centuries in the Buddhist tradition. Not only had the inner posture of that “stay seated” reached high levels of refinement. Also, by that time, profound - and at times irreconcilable – differences had grown solidified, between the Buddhist and the other Hindu traditions, and within the Buddhist tradition itself concerning how to bring to life this act that may seem always the same.
Therefore, in China, the “stay seated” in the Buddhist tradition for a very long time did not have a clear and coherent development. The words employed to describe that form of sitting kept changing for centuries until translations from ancient Buddhist texts began to put things back in order. But it was only starting from the fourth/fifth century that the “stay seated” we have learnt from the Japanese Zen tradition, was finally grasped and handed down from one generation to another. Linguistic archaeology, which examines the footprints left by words, witnesses the progressive unfolding and the in-depth elaboration of the Indian tradition that was brought about by the Chinese appropriation of the Lankāvatārasūtra, of the Lotus Sutra, of the Nirvana Sutra, of the Sutra of Vimalakirti, of the Diamond Sutra and of the Heart Sutra. This process led first to approaches somewhat swinging between the emptiness of the Mādhyamika school and the idealistic phenomenology of the Vijñānavāda-Yogācāra and then to the autonomous and original production of important texts, like the Dasheng Qixinlun already quoted, and the Zhengdaoge, The song in witness to the path. So we go from Niutou (“Oxhead”) Farong’s “there is neither spirit nor Buddha” to its antithesis, “be spirit, be Buddha” by the great Mazu Daoyi. In the process we walk by Shitou (“Rockhead”) Xiqian who, describing his own inner experience, said : «The boundless sky does not hinder the floating white clouds». Let’s recall also the “shine in silence” championed by Hongzhi Zhengjue. To arrive, in the 13th century, to Tiantong Roujing and Dōgen’s “free yourself of body and mind: body and mind freed”. In more recent times, we have heard Uchiyama Kōshō's “open the hands of thought” and “to sit zazen: end-all” the well known “motto” of his predecessor Sawaki Kōdō. And here we are now.
While following the traces of the words between naishkramya and Uchiyama, we have neglected the two other faces of the triad that have always composed the universal as it can be expressed in human terms: the shape of the body and the moral ethics. Insofar as the former -the “stay seated”- is concerned, there is a painstaking string of information and face-to-face transmissions along the centuries. Therefore those who, like we, belong to Dōgen’s school can be serenely confident that the way we sit is probably the most refined way possible in this art. Insofar as the ethics is concerned, instead, I am afraid there are problems.

IV) Ethics: is it optional?

Buddhism in isolation does not exist. It has neither a substance that can be grasped nor clear boundaries. Since it is not of “this world”, it would be invisible if it did not cover its nudity. It has to change appearances at every cultural setting it comes into contact. This capacity and necessity to adapt has resulted in the emergence of many local forms of Buddhism. It is so that, perhaps one should not speak of “buddhism”, but of “buddhisms”, in the plural. Of course, these forms may well be different in their external manifestations, but are identical at the same time, and it could not be otherwise, for they all sprout from the very same tree. So, when Buddhism came to a new life in China, it has used the Chinese clay.
At the end of the long and difficult process we mentioned above -hundreds of years where the inner forms of sitting were deeply experienced- the way of “stay seated” born during the Śākyamuni waking under the bodhi-tree has not changed, except insofar as the dress and the body shape of the practitioners.
For what concerns the knowledge around the relation between man and the absolute ... you all know that China was not in any way lagging behind India. The ancient and profound Buddhist knowledge could be born there again, if any, even fresher. Only the ethics question remains. The fact is that, West of the Himalayas, the concept of ethics, of right and wrong, of good and bad is profoundly different from the concept of ethics that was influential East of the Himalayas. Therefore, when Buddhism spread through the bones and marrow of the Chinese culture, this difference penetrated deeply into its flesh.
To keep within the time allotted to me, I will give only one example among the many that come to mind. In the Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki Dōgen writes: «Therefore an ancient said: ‘Empty inside, following along outside’». This phrase is drawn from the last chapter of the Zhuangzi. The first part of this sentence expresses the transcendental wisdom that zeroes in what is the highest potential of being human which is in letting oneself be empty. This deep and formless wisdom can be easily assimilated to Nāgārjuna’s middle way, which, in turn, derives from the middle way championed by Buddha in the Dhammacakkapavattanasutta. But the second part of the sentence quoted above, which we can traslate also as “meekly yielding outside” has nothing to do with the Buddhism we have mentioned above: the invisible one that lives in and through us all.
The suggestion that we should go meekly with the flowing reality instead of cutting through it and turning it over like a plough does to earth, is often doubtlessly very wise. However, with equal certainty, it is a product of the confucian-daoist ethics, based on ancestors’ veneration, on obedience to the established order, on the aversion to defying it, and on the attempt to go along with– rather than to distinguish oneself from – the eternal flowing mutation of each and every thing. It is the type of sentence that best expresses the principles of the social ethics dominant since centuries in the area influenced by the Confucian culture, whose sway over the far Eastern people make them seem to us particularly compliant and submissive.
This particular enculturation explains why, when we speak of the inner attitude that characterizes the life of a zen practitioner – of “kokoro”, as the Japanese say – we are always reminded that gratitude towards our instructors and obedience towards all elders are among its essential and universal imperatives. These are undoubtedly good suggestions, above all insofar as they contribute to maintaining peace in a closed and centralized community. But they are not at all universal. For instance, in the early Indian communities, the vow of obedience was mandatory only for those of very young age, who were entrusted to a tutor, upādhyāya o ācārya, before their ordination. The obedience to precepts was and is a personal matter. They are tools for monks' liberation -this is the meaning of bhiksu pratimoksa. Quite another matter is the obedience to those rules that are mandatory because they are required for the smooth functioning of a monastery.
To conclude: sometimes what is presented as “buddhist ethics” is in reality Confucian, amoral and often nomocratic. The ethics that constitutes one of the three pillars of Buddhism is quite another thing. It is not made up of normative injunctions, but is the difficult search for virtue in everyday’s life. There is only one, firm, uncompromising commitment to friendliness towards everything and everyone. A dramatic example of this demanding form of ethics beyond formulae and norms is the story of how “Nanquan Puyuan cut the cat” mentioned, among others, by Dōgen in the Zuimonki, where, quoting from the Blue Cliff Records , he explains: «When the great-function [the universal, we could say] manifests itself no fixed rules exist».
I should like to point out that I insist that moral ethics, with knowledge and body practice, is a precondition for Buddhism to be universal, not because this is some kind of Buddhist dogma or because the Indian, or Western, influence over early Buddhism makes this implication unavoidable. It is what the experience of generations of men and women deeply, assiduously and unselfishly committed to religion tells us in the clearest possible terms. For instance, we have all made this experience; with the heart full of hate, or after causing pain and having fought bitterly with our wives, or husbands, we practice a zazen that, for a longer or shorter period, is without universality, except for the universality of the ancient, endless prattling of our minds. Zazen practitioners realize that, in the deep, the spirit of maitrī, karunā and ahimsā is of the same substance as zazen and that zazen permeates our lives with the same fresh and light spirit. But also the opposite is true. It is that spirit present in our life that produces the open-mindedness required for our sitting and our living to be one with the universe. Instead, an immoral and evil life generate a zazen that, at best is some kind of physical exercise. Hate, greed and envy harden the soul. From the religious point of view, evil is all that keeps us apart, all that encircles us in a sham segment of reality, cuts us off from the infinite and prevents us from melting into it. Self-centeredness, greed and attachment are drives that close in the area of “me”; they prevent this “me” from bursting all boundaries. Clearly, if we want to give a chance to this effort to free human nature from its limits, we must also give up those forms of behaviour and motivations that push in the opposite direction. As a result, generosity, kindness and goodwill are the normal virtues of a religious life. This is so simply because there is no other way. Or, better, because all other ways push us farther and farther away, instead of leading us nearer the sea in which we wish to immerse ourselves to be water in water. This dynamic relation between life and zazen is not underlined only in the ancient sutras, like the Dhammapada. It is also explained in much detail in the already mentioned Dasheng Qixinlun, a treatise produced in the VI century a.D. by an author whom all scholars now believe to be Chinese.
To avoid all misunderstandings, let me make clear that my words are not critical of Dōgen’s zen, but of the attempt to export the form in which Buddhism was shaped in one cultural area as if this form were the Universal. Dōgen knew that the Confucian ethics was not up to the task of placing and keeping us tuned in to the divine in our soul, because that ethics pertains to the field of human relations, and to the social behaviour: “soto shitagau” (外従う) means “outside, in the sphere of the world, give into”.
Dōgen’s authentic thought is clearly expressed in works like Shōbōgenzō Bodaisatta Shishobō or the Tenzo Kyōkun, Instructions for the zen cook which recommends that three forms of love should mould all our existence, both when conditions are such that one should obey others as when it is instead necessary to rise up against them or even to exercise command over them.
I would also be misunderstood if I was believed to be saying that, since Buddhism is an Indian matter, only Indian cultural categories can contain it. It is not so. From the very start Buddhism presents itself as paţisotagāmin “[that who] swims against the tide, goes upstream” and this is true both in the deeper sense of “giving up the aimless wandering (samsāra)”, in the sense of “keeping apart from the flow of thoughts and desires”, and in a the more self-evident sense of “being always a foreigner, an alien to every way of thinking”. Buddhism does not belong therefore to any culture in particular. Even in India it had to become enculturated, and it took more than three centuries. Almost as much as it took in China.

V) Zazen is not enough for zazen

As we already said, Universality does not exist in the naked, if it wants to become visible, it has no choice but to cloth itself with what is supplied by the culture within which it is (re)born at that time. The thing is that, dressed up that way in that instant may be particular, but is truly universal. However, if we act on the presupposition that the specific form in which the infinite reveals itself in that moment is authentic and good, and try to transplant it, to give it life in another environment, where culture and sensitivities are different, that which was authentic Zen at home, it no longer is: it is an ethnic play-acting empty of any religiosity and universality.
I am not thinking only of the tea ceremonies portrayed as if they were “zen rituals”, of the oriental-looking decor of meditation halls, the somewhat silly, incessant repetition of Japanese or Chinese terms in Western contexts that clash head on with these mannerisms. I am referring to more significant forms of this incongruence. Western culture has made individualism, the pursuit of uniqueness and originality the yardstick of man and the standard value of its existence. To portray meek obedience and conformity as the perfect and doctrinally appropriate embodiment of the emptiness preached by the Middleway is the opposite of an attempt of enculturation. If we do this, we are advocating neither for Buddhism nor for universality but for a cultural project, that is foreign to the context in which we propose to nurture it. Over the long run, the enthusiasm for things foreign is certain to be replaced by rejection and boredom.
Universal is in the effort to redefine what is universal over and over again. Universal is the capacity for universality that is born again and again in every person that begins to live it, or, more generally, in every generation that (re)discovers it, interpreting it anew in the light of his culture. The opposite of “universality” are imitation and the adoption of conventional and orthodox views. We can talk of universality in Buddhism only when every man, every generation and every culture can develop his own Buddhism, and, at the same time, no Buddhism excludes the other, when every mountain is visible by all others.
Side by side to very strong expressions, like “zazen shitara oshimai!”, it is opportune to place emphasis with equal strength on the two other elements of man’s endeavour to sink into the universal. The awakening to the emptiness of the self is the state of impermanence in which the world fading away to the world in the world becomes one with nirvāņa. The other is a spiritual ethics that consists in constructing a vibrant reality of the same substance as that of the world while the world fades away: “Make haste in doing good; check your mind from evil; for the mind of him who is slow in doing good delights in evil”.
Without awakening to the fading world and spiritual ethics, even if “the correctly transmitted dharma from Buddha to Buddha and from patriarch to patriarch has always been just to do zazen” and “zazen itself is the posture of awakening”, zazen may end becoming a technique for psycho-physical relaxation or a tool of those who want to become “someone” or something “special”.
Mauricio Yūshin (悠心) Marassi
(Translated into English by Mr. Carlo Geneletti)

Se la vita non fosse
che questa vita
avrei già rinunciato.
Per questo imparo
a farne a meno.
E a vivere quest'unica vita

If life were this life only
I would have given up already.
That’s why I learn to go without
And live this only life


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