Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Buddhist common sense

At work, I've been practicing a bit of brush art and doing the occasional Dalma-do (brush painting of Dalma Daesa, a.k.a. Bodhidharma). One Buddhist proverb quoted by Korean Seon (Zen) Master Seung Sahn is dong eop dong haeng, or "same karma, same action."

[NB: Pronounce "eop" somewhere between "up" and "awp." Pronounce "dong" with a long "O," and "haeng" to rhyme with the "eng" in "length."]

The character for karma, "eop," is actually a pretty decent rendering of the Sanskrit because the semantic field of "eop" includes "doing," "action," etc. "Eop" appears in Sino-Korean words like "jik-eop" (job) and "sa-eop" (enterprise).

The word "haeng" implies motion (as in "yeo-haeng," travel). It can also mean something like action or doing (as in "su-haeng," or practice).

I mention this because, as you can see from the overlapping semantic fields, it's possible to translate dong eop dong haeng as the ridiculously tautological formulation, "same action, same action." If you're all doing the same thing, you're, well, doing the same thing.

I love this. I think the proverb, as originally formulated, was probably intended to be just that commonsensical. I like to think that the best Buddhist truths aren't particularly Buddhist at all, but simply conclusions based on observation of and openness to the surrounding world and the workings of one's own mind. If you gather a bunch of English teachers together, you'll notice they all have, more or less, English teaching skills. Gather a bunch of Jason Bournes together, and you've got a group of people who can all kill without thinking. Same action, same action.

To me, religions are at their best when they stick to common sense. I don't have much patience for mystical cosmologies and pseudoscience. If there's One Guideline to Rule Them All, it's the question of how simple, clear, and ordinary religious truths can be. Find the ordinary in the Hindu realization that you are no more and no less than the All. Find it in the Taoist notion that the Tao is the spirit of the valley. Find it in the simplicity of the Shemah: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!" Find it in the Koranic proclamation that God is closer to you than your own neck vein. Find it in the claim that "Zen is just-this." Find it in the Jesus narrative, where a great man is portrayed as being of humble birth and dying an ignoble death, all the while motivated by something so simple and obvious as love.

It's because ultimate reality is so simple, obvious, and ordinary that we constantly miss it. If you'll pardon a quick trip into the holiest of canons, that of the original Star Wars trilogy, you'll see that Yoda rebukes Luke Skywalker: "All his life has he looked away, to the future, to the horizon! Never his mind on where-- he-- was! Hm!? What-- he-- was doing!"

"What are you doing now?" is a standard Zen question. In the context in which the question is normally asked, you're not exactly supposed to ponder it.

Can it really be this easy?



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