As you may know, according to Mahayana teaching, the Buddha has turned the wheel of the dharma three times. The first turning is his proclamation of the four noble truths, which address the samsaric nature of conditioned existence. We are invited to look at our life, to observe directly how suffering comes about, and to apply the suggested remedies. Although these truths are invaluable as expedient means, they are not really considered to present the full scope of the buddhadharma. The second turning of the wheel was facilitated by Nagarjuna in the second century AD and points to the inherent emptiness of all conditioned phenomena. It shows that whatever we observe has no real substance, is in constant flux and can never be grasped; again, an indispensable part of the dharma, but still of a provisional nature. The third turning is seen as the definitive teaching. Now, after having turned away from samsaric existence and having discovered our true nature within, we are encouraged to return to the world and to see things with the eyes of the Buddha. Suddenly the world reveals itself in the ten directions as one bright and precious pearl. In his own words, “How wonderful, how wonderful, all beings have the same virtue and wisdom as the Buddha!” It is a timeless expression of joy and gratitude. This was Buddha’s first utterance after his enlightenment, when he finally saw things as they really are. Therefore it is seen as the ultimate teaching. Of course it is followed by an expression of deep sorrow, “How sad that nobody realizes this.” But this comes only second.
Mahayana includes the truth of suffering, but it doesn’t necessarily start there. We take the enlightenment of the Buddha as our standard. All sentient beings are endowed with innate wisdom. Of course this wisdom is not really part of our direct experience yet, but we trust that one day it will. This takes a lot of daring. We are asked to question our present observations and put our faith in something that we have failed to see up till now. Rather than trusting what we know, we put our faith in what we don’t know. That is why faith is absolutely essential and stressed so much in the scriptures. Master Rinzai famously yells at his monks, “What are you lacking? The only thing you lack is faith!” It also explains the role of devotional practices. Complete enlightenment is our birthright, but in order to own up to it we need all the help we can get and this is where the Bodhisattva’s come in. Whether they are seen as qualities within or energies outside of yourself, unless you surrender to their great vision and compassion, you cannot become who you really are. You actually can do it yourself; it is just not the self you know.
Already in Buddha’s time people found it hard to really have faith in the fact that we all are originally already completely enlightened. Apparently he only taught “How wonderful, how wonderful” for about a month and then gave up because nobody understood. He turned to “How miserable, how miserable,’ because it was closer to everybody’s experience. And that eventually became identified with the first turning of the wheel. Yet if we would like to put the whole teaching in a nutshell, why not use the word “Buddha”, which means awakening, enlightenment, in other words very good news!
Looking at the three turnings of the wheel can help us recognize the various modes of meditation. Even if we have faith in our buddha-nature and hold it as a vision, perhaps because we had some insight we can’t forget, in terms of practice most of us need to first sit down, focus and realize our monkey mind. How miserable, how miserable! No Buddha in sight! At some point you discover that you cannot really find him by just thinking or feeling or using arms and legs. We need all faculties involved; we need to harmonize body and mind to address the real issue. Navigating the ocean currents, the captain of a great sailing vessel needs all hands on deck, and preferably working together! The breath does wonders here. Allowing our breath to breathe naturally, our whole system becomes breath including all of our thoughts, feelings and other sensations.
Now we are ready for the next gear and turn our own light inward, away from whatever we perceive. Rather than looking or hearing or feeling, we research the one who does all the looking and hearing and feeling. To study Buddhism is to study the self. But again, it only works if all parts cooperate; as if you have eyes all over your body and they all look in. Looking at what? That is a good question. If you see anything, you are back in the world of objects and that’s exactly what you wanted to turn away from. Looking at nothing then? Who would do that? The thing is, if you really do, something happens. If you loose yourself in the looking, give yourself totally to it, you discover that this very body and mind have no substance whatsoever. It’s all empty. No eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind, and no objects of perception either. How could one ever be so mistaken! It is a short-cut. If the “I” disappears, everything disappears. Body and mind drop off, and so does everything else; total freedom from form.
But of course we cannot stay there. And we shouldn’t. It is still only the provisional teaching. If you turn around again, and really look, you may see a totally different world. If you allow your buddha nature to do all the perceiving without interference, your whole life is a masterpiece. You may have thought it was a dead-ordinary boring poster; you’ve looked at it so often and never saw the fatal error in your observation. Suddenly this very same poster turns out to be a priceless painting. And it shines in all its true forms and colors defying all expectations. However profound this experience may be though, it is still wise to have it checked by a teacher. That also gives us confidence that something has really shifted. The further I have turned my own light inward, the clearer I can see what is happening right in front of me, and the more I can respond with love, compassion and appropriate action. A good teacher can verify whether you actually see with the eye of the Buddha or with the eye of a deluded sentient being.
I usually add a fourth mode of meditation, because even if you see with the eyes of a Buddha, it doesn’t mean that you can follow through on that in your actions. One may have great insight, but it still needs to be implemented in daily life circumstances. We call that Bodhisattva Activity. It is meditation in action, which enables us more and more to do the right thing at the right time in the right amount, coming from the right position. Needless to say, it is practice and we often stumble and fall. That’s why guidelines are needed; the Paramita’s, the Precepts, Dogen Zenji’s Bodhisatta Shishobo etc. They all help us to stay on track in navigating the Buddha Way. More about this later.