By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei
The medieval Chinese Zen Master, Huang Po, made this statement, “If one does not actually realize the truth of Zen in one’s own experience, but simply learns it verbally and collects words, and claims to understand Zen, how can one solve the riddle of life and death?”
“Reality as realized in one’s own experience” is a powerful statement reflecting the importance of the difference between knowing something, and understanding it (prajna). They are not the same, and are 10,000 miles apart when your Buddhist practice has no floor. So, if this old Ch’an monk has mind-vision, and the study of Zen by verbal clues and language alone does not constitute an understanding of it, then what is he talking about? To study Buddhism we will need to consider what understanding is.
Consider that understanding is different from knowledge as something that we are always doing as we engage everyday experiences. So, as we eat, perform various tasks at work, even our thoughts are all ways of understanding as they presuppose the need for us to use various components and dimensions of our experience in order to perform them. Understanding is our awareness of the world around us; the way each of us is embedded in this world and oriented to it, and engaged with it. Understanding also implies degrees of comprehension, intelligence, ability to reach an agreement, and is fundamental to our ability to show compassion and sympathetic action.
Although particular dimensions of understanding differ from individual to individual and from culture to culture, it is always there as the essential background out of which we live, work, and find meaning in our lives. Understanding is a term of comprehensive scope. Its comprehensiveness is in a way correlated with our ability to reason. With reason and the validation of our experiences with what we are working to understand, comes wisdom. The only thing which may not be an object of our understanding, which can not be thought about in any clear way is the concept of “nothing”. Not all things may be knowable to us, as the Buddha said many times in his direct teaching, but even the skeptic who limits or completely doubts our power to understand the abstract is usually willing to admit that things beyond our knowledge can be in themselves understandable. It is like interpreting the meaning in shadows. This consideration of understanding extends, therefore, to all things knowable and not-knowable, subject to all kinds of human thought as a process. This is yet another of those paradoxes we encounter as we engage and awaken to the broader meaning of the Buddhist principles.
In any discussion of either knowledge or understanding, the notion of “right opinion” can arise. Some consider right opinion to be just as useful as understanding when we consider that our opinions generally emerge after a period of working to know what is right about a specific set of circumstances or getting to know the facts about a subject of interest. From a pragmatic perspective, our opinions matter because of their ability to influence other’s actions. While this consideration might seem to be logical, Socrates thought it was problematic because opinions are less stabile a thought process than is the understanding achieved from a more rigid process of applying human reason. Opinions are often formed from a specific ground of personal preferences, while understanding is achieved from the interplay of Universal realities and the deep thought process when void of delusional filters. Socrates regarded understanding to be so much more important than simply knowing what “could be the truth.” Remember that all things in our causal Universe are subject to change, even our state of understanding, so to consider something to be “absolutely true” could set us up for disappointment or despair. Another example of suffering. When the body-mind has adequate grounds for its judgment, when it knows what it knows and why, it gains the certainty of wisdom. We are still challenged by the reality that our human nature must still confront the difference between the probable as well as the certain. As Buddhists we must avoid trying to know absolutes. In addition, human perception can be a tricky thing. The first step in knowing is in how we use our body-mind senses and the knowledge we gain from vague experiences that depend on ideas formed by our memory and imagination. So, as we encounter everyday situations we work to take in the facts revealed to us in this moment and relate to them from our own experiences in order to first test their validly, and second test them against our own established worldview. From there we work to integrate them into our memory so, over time, we might validate them with our ever expanding personal experiences. This is how we learn, flourish, and gain a deeper understanding of the world around us. The hard part is to know how to judge whether what we are experiencing is worthy of assimilation.
Cultural understanding as well as self-understanding are inextricable linked. If we have truly engaged the dharma, we have also encountered our own ideas on the matter of what is real at the same time. If we have truly understood the lesson, we have understood ourselves in light of them. Going further, if we understand what understanding entails, we will sense our immersion in the open space of what it means to be human and thus solve Huang Po’s riddle of life and death.
“Contemplate on this, I will.” Aptly said by master Yoda himself. Now it’s your turn.