By Johnathon Pendall
“‘Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form.’ Well, that’s kinda neat, but what the hell is this guy talking about? Guess I should pick up a commentary. Okay, now I get it. Things are interdependent and impermanent. That makes total sense. Awesome! I get it! Haha! I get it! Hahaha!” ~ Johnathon Pendall
What a schmuck that guy was. By that guy I mean me, or the me that was me then at least.
There I was, pouring through the Suttas and Sutras, accumulating a vast amount of knowledge. I was a walking encyclopedia. I could quote from dozens of Sutras, some of them very obscure. Yet I was still suffering; still stressed. I was doing it wrong.
Suttas and Sutras are meant to be studied with a meditative mind—fresh, crisp, tranquil and clear. We’re supposed to set down all our baggage while we’re studying a teaching. Buddha’s already brought a lot of food to the dinner table, we don’t need to bring our own.
If we bring our own food to the table, then we’re going to fill ourselves up on our own biases without tasting all of the dishes that are being offered to us. The Buddha and his monks practiced eating whatever was given to them. This is also how we approach the teachings.
Why is this important? Because if I don’t set down my baggage when receiving a teaching, then I’m going to skew it through my own lens.
I’m going to hear only what I want to hear, and I’m going to completely ignore anything that challenges my preconceived notions. Challenging our preconceived notions is kinda what our practice is all about.
“But that’s not right,” I say to myself. “What about the Kalama Sutta?” Oh yes, one of my favorites. It goes something like, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”
I love that quote. It seems to fall perfectly in line with American individuality, empiricism, stream-lining, pragmatism and self-reliance. Too bad that it’s a bogus quote that Buddha would NEVER have uttered.
The actual quote goes something like this:
“Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought. This contemplative is our teacher.'”
That paints a fuller picture, doesn’t it? The fake quote is typical of the perversion we call American Buddhism. Buddha would never tell us to trust our own reasoning and common sense because our reasoning and common sense are fickle.
Buddha encouraged us to neither accept nor reject anything until after it’s been thoroughly investigated. This doesn’t mean chewing on a teaching and then spitting it out if we don’t like how it tastes. It means chewing it, swallowing it, digesting it, and then taking a stool sample. Only then can I accept or reject a teaching.
The way to penetrate a teaching is to study with a bright, clear, loving heart and mind.
When I do that, I can study the Heart Sutra and taste the meaning behind the words. I don’t need to waste time reading and listening to countless commentaries on it. I don’t need to rely on a cult of personality to feed me their own views. By studying it with an open mind, all I may need is a nudge in order for insight to bloom.
One area of investigation that most Americans completely ignore is the mystical side of Buddhism. I used to gloss over all the talk about devas, realms, karma and rebirth. I decided that the Bodhisattvas were at best case, just normal people; worst case they were totally fictional.
I was wrong to approach the teachings in such a way. I was wrong to pick and choose without digesting them. Like it or not, there are mystical elements to Buddhism. If we really want to practice, we have to digest them instead of writing them off as cultural baggage.
Writing something off as cultural baggage is caused by my own cultural baggage—it’s Western Elitism.
Samantabhadra vowed to help meditators achieve higher jhanas. Was he a real person? Does he have the power to assist us in meditation? Easy for an American to shrug it off, but that’s not what earnest practice is about; that’s me not checking my baggage.
Through open investigation, I can come to a tentative conclusion. Even then, I can only arrive at the appearance of truth or fiction. If I take what my insights verbalize as the truth, then I’m going to argue with others and cause division. If I understand that verbalized insights are just appearances, then there’s no problem. I can speak my peace and then move on without a need to defend my position.
Any truth I can speak is only the appearance of truth. I can’t speak the truth or think the truth. The Sutras and Suttas also aren’t truth, they’re just the appearance of truth.
If I want to taste the truth, I have to investigate its appearance with a clear and unbiased mind, and a warm and open heart.
Editor: Dana Gornall
John is a Caodong Ch'an student in the Empty Cloud Lineage of Hsu Yun. His Dharma name is Feng Dao which means "Wild Way" or "Windy Way." He originally wanted to become a social worker, focusing on preventative mental health care, but writing is his passion. “Above all else, I’m just a writer. Words come, I write them, I drink coffee.”
Oppression and marginalization are key issues for John. “I was forced out of mainstream society at a young age by my peers. So I will always stand up for the underdog and criticize bullying, coercion, and any institution that relies on those tactics.” Asked about what the most pressing issue of our time is, he replied, “The environment. We’ve bullied the earth so much that it could almost be called marginalized.”