The real meaning of negation

The Heart Sutra teaches us the method of training by which we can see Emptiness in each one of the steps which, whatever our attitude to life, we are being forced to make. At present we keep doing the same things over and over again in the endless round of mundane good and bad, built up on the ego illusion. We may happen to do good, we may happen to do evil. How could such a great man do something so strange, how could such a man do something so wrong! … This is all part of the round.

Step by step retreading the same paths, impelled by the deep-rooted karma, such is our life. The spirit of Mahayana Buddhism is to discover life’s real meaning.

Against our anger rises. To discover in the very midst of it the world of light is the meaning of the phrase ‘the passions are the Bodhi’. Profundity means (technically) to penetrate to the real form under the illusion, the truth in all the lies, and when the true character of the self is realized in the religious sense, that is the knowledge of ultimate Emptiness: a fire to negate everything.

The profound Prajna Paramita negates self In Zen, negation means to drop, to throw all away. By this power of renouncing, the power of the knowledge of ultimate Emptiness, we complete a training which carries us across to Nirvana. Master Dogen says: ‘Just discard and forget body and mind, and throw them into the abode of the Buddha; then following the movement of the grace of the Buddha, without use of force or fatiguing the mind, leave birth-and-death and be Buddha. ’

The important thing is to see right through to the reality of the illusory self. This is why body and mind are to be discarded and forgotten. The Zen way of meditation is renouncing. Renouncing itself has to be renounced, and so it is no renouncing. Religion is not something imposed. The effort to throw off body and mind has to be renounced, and so it is no renouncing. Not renouncing, and yet not without renouncing—that is the real renouncing. It is not something done at the instance of another.

To look through to the real form is to penetrate to one’s reality, free from self-deception. This is the true renunciation; not trying to throw away, and yet throwing away all the same. When we can gaze steadily at our ignoble self and understand, this is itself the principle of renunciation. When you really come to a deadlock, it is renunciation. To change our condition from this to that is not renunciation, which never implies switching from A to B. When there is complete realization of the true character of one’s self, there is a feeling of throwing the self away, and that is the principle of renunciation. When we have penetrated to the bottom of this illusory self, not without negating, and yet not negating, there is the power of the knowledge of ultimate Emptiness and the self is thrown aside.

Through the power of ultimate Emptiness, of renunciation, there can be a change to a state which leaves no track. When self has been thrown away, when the discipline matures, there is a crossing to Nirvana. This is the method of the practice of the Bodhisattva Kannon.

An illustration of the wheel

Long ago in China lived the poet Sotoba, who speaks of his own experience in the poem:

In two years transferred through three provinces,

I grow old without regret:

Round and round like an ox

Step by step treading the old footmarks.

In a bare two years to be transferred three times is not pleasant, but it happens even to a man of rank so high. He was probably transferred as prefect. Gradually he grows older, but though not especially regretting that, he sees in his life the image of the ox, going round and round endlessly like that ox working at the grain mortar. In ancient times the farmer used an ox to work the Pulling at the it would pace round and round times without number, going round ceaselessly, never knowing any end. It is just like us—yesterday too we were happy and sad, laughing and crying, and the day before just the same. Ten years ago it was the same, twenty years ago the same. Step by step treading the old footmarks—our present actions are no more than retreading those old footsteps where we trod before.

But Sotoba’s point is not simply this being dragged along and nothing else. He is not the man just to be dragged helplessly along. What is this dragging? It was explained before how by the force of the past karma one becomes angry though resolved against it, how one’s cravings arise against one’s All are dragged by their past karma. Just to be dragged along means to be sorrowful when it is sorrow, to laugh when it is laughter, to be angry when it is anger, to clutch when it is craving. But there is nothing in that sort of life, and it is not Sotoba’s point. He is hinting at a training which reveals a real meaning at each step. We ourselves, however we try not to be pulled, cannot help it. Still, I who yesterday was just pulled helplessly along, today come to hear of the Buddhist teaching, and now in each step as I am pulled I find a world of true illumination. In this is the glory of Mahayana Buddhism.

by Abbot Obora of the Soto Zen sect

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