By Daniel Scharpenburg
“Illumination has no emotional afflictions. With piercing, quietly profound radiance, it mysteriously eliminates all disgrace. Thus can one know oneself; thus the self is completed. We all have the clear, wondrously bright field from the beginning. Many lifetimes of misunderstanding come only from distrust, hindrance and screens of confusion that we create in a scenario of isolation. With boundless wisdom journey beyond this, forgetting accomplishments. Straightforwardly abandon stratagems and take on responsibility. Having turned yourself around, accepting your situation, if you set foot on the path, spiritual energy will marvelously transport you. Contact phenomena with total sincerity, not a single atom of dust outside yourself.”*
Hongzhi wrote this in the 12th century. He was a Buddhist teacher in China, in the Ch’an tradition.
The passage is titled, The Misunderstanding of Many Lifetimes. I didn’t quite understand it when I first read it, but at the same time it immediately struck me as Truth.
It’s about enlightenment and our true nature. This is the heaviest topic there is in Buddhism, but I think Hongzhi has made it a little more accessible than most teachers, especially most teachers from that time period. It’s also about authenticity, which I think is a very important topic. I’m going to see if I can unpack this passage in a way that is simplified and easy to understand.
“Illumination has no emotional afflictions. With piercing, quietly profound radiance, it mysteriously eliminates all disgrace.”
When we have illumination, or when we see things clearly, then we aren’t held down by our afflictions and disgrace. I think in this case these words mean our emotional baggage and our neuroses—the things that really prevent us from making the best choices and appreciating the things we have in life.
If we can see things clearly, then we can see through the stuff that’s holding us back; we can see the world as it really is and ourselves as we really are. That is the point of clarity. At times we tend to sort of resist clarity. Facing ourselves means facing the bad parts too and we don’t want to do that, and looking clearly also requires putting down our distractions. We love being distracted so we don’t always want to do that, or at least it doesn’t come to us naturally.
“Thus can one know oneself; thus the self is completed. We all have the clear, wondrously bright field from the beginning.”
We’re already there. Whether we see it or not, we’re all part of a connected whole. We’re all the same. When we look deep within we see that we’re not alone. We tend to either see ourselves as very bad or very good which are incorrect ways of thinking. Sometimes we get caught up in thinking we’re not good enough, or we’re unworthy, or other people are much cooler than us.
Hongzhi is telling us that we are good enough. We have the, “clear, wondrously bright field from the beginning.” We aren’t broken, or at least no more broken than anyone else. We all have clarity at the center of our being. That’s the bright field.
“Many lifetimes of misunderstanding come only from distrust, hindrance and screens of confusion that we create in a scenario of isolation. With boundless wisdom journey beyond this, forgetting accomplishments.”
“Lifetimes of misunderstanding” is a metaphor. Our hearts are closed because we’ve been kicked in the heart. We’ve all suffered and so we’re all closed off from the world around us and from other beings. When we close ourselves off it creates more and more isolation. We are filled with confusion and distrust and that makes us feel alone. The part about “forgetting accomplishments” is about our obsession with ourselves. We’re going to be happier if we stop being so obsessed with ourselves all the time.
“Straightforwardly abandon stratagems and take on responsibility. Having turned yourself around, accepting your situation, if you set foot on the path, spiritual energy will marvelously transport you. Contact phenomena with total sincerity, not a single atom of dust outside yourself”
I’ve said before that the Buddhist path is really about being really genuine. We’re trying to slowly become real. The stratagems he’s talking about are those ways we try to avoid being real. We try to come up with ways to present a false version of ourselves to the world. More than that, we present a false version to ourselves as well.
We can make endless excuses, but this path challenges us to face ourselves, fully and completely and to just be real. That’s hard to do—for some of us it may be very very hard. But there is a relief on the other side. There is a relief in just shifting our focus away from misrepresenting ourselves and toward being genuine. When we do that, we can move through the world with sincerity.
In a world full of fake people, people who don’t know how to be honest and real, be genuine. Be as honest and open and real as you possibly can. We’re not going to succeed all the time, and that okay. We’re just trying our best.
That is how we make the world a better place.
*Quotes are taken from “Cultivating the Empty Field, The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi” by Taigen Dan Leighton.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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