Excerpted from a dharma talk with Zen Master Wu Bong in September, 1991
Question: I have a friend who has amnesia. Could you explain this in Buddhist terms?
WBZM: In Buddhist psychology, we speak of eight kinds of consciousness. The first five are sensory-sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. The sixth is mind consciousness, which controls our body, and the seventh is “discriminating consciousness,” which enables us to distinguish white from black or good from bad. The eighth consciousness is that which controls memory.
Sometimes these last three consciousness are split apart and don’t function together. The result might be amnesia, or perhaps a split personality. In extreme cases one personality doesn’t know what the other personality is doing. If you are practicing, however, you return to “before thinking.” Before thinking there is no first, second, third consciousness, etc. It is before any consciousness. If you keep this “before consciousness,” then amnesia and even a more serious kind of dysfunction can heal. The sixth, seventh and eighth consciousness can work together.
Practicing means you don’t use your consciousness; you let it rest. When your arm is damaged, you put it in a sling and let it heal. Otherwise you will damage it more and more. It’s the same way with your mind; if you leave it alone, it will heal. Leaving it alone means returning to before thinking. This is the purpose of Zen meditation.
Q: I have trouble deciding things. Is there some way practicing can help?
WBZM: I have a secret technique which I’ve been teaching for several years now. Take a coin (laughter) and throw it up in the air. By the time you catch it, you usually know what way you want it to come up. You don’t even have to look. Just do it.
From the vantage point of distance, most decisions are not so important Either way will be OK. Why you do what you do is most important-is it for me or for others? If your direction is clear, then your choice is also clear. But sometimes you cannot decide what is helpful, so flip a coin. It’s OK.
Q: My desires seem to come in two varieties: low elm, like “I want that cheesecake” or “I want that woman in a bikini,” and high class, like I really want to see peace in this world” or “I want to see my family flourish.” Is this the difference you’re talking about?
WBZM: Not exactly. We talk about desire versus aspiration. Every morning at our Zen centers we recite “Sentient beings are numberless, we vow to save them all.” That vow’s direction is for others. That is aspiration.
Desire means “for me.” You said, for example, “my family will flourish.” Why only “my family?” That is desire mind. But, “May all families flourish.” Not only human families. Tree family, cat family, dog family … Then there is no I, my, me. Or someone says I want enlightenment” That, again, is desire mind.
But suppose someone says I don’t understand my true self, what is this “I”? That question takes away desire mind. If you cultivate desire, desire will grow. If you cultivate Great Question, thinking calms down and desires disappear. Thinking itself is not a problem, but if you let your desires and thinking control your actions, then you do have a problem. Let’s say a feeling or an idea appears, and you know it’s not correct to act on it. If you’re practicing, you’ve learned to let what appears in your consciousness pass. If you’re not practicing, it’s harder to control your actions. Even though you know something’s not correct, you still do it. Or something should be done, but you don’t do it. Later you say, “Why did I do that?’ But the next time is not any different. When I was a university student, I remember vowing after each exam that the next time my preparation would begin well ahead of time. I was never able to keep that vow, which means that my laziness thinking was quite strong. I wasn’t practicing hard enough, so this lazy mind controlled me.
Q: You said “don’t check yourself, don’t check others.” What does this mean?
WBZM: When you are practicing, uncomfortable thoughts and feelings often arise. We are accustomed to running away from these things. One way we try to escape when we’re alone on the cushion is to check ourselves: “Oh, I am no good. I should not be thinking. I am a lousy Zen student.” Thinking about thinking is like putting a head on top of your head. Another way of escaping is to look at and judge others. It is much more amusing than dealing with our own predicament
Q: I saw a book named “If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him.” What does this mean?
WBZM: Zen means becoming independent. That is the Buddha’s teaching. Many people, however, become attached to teachers, attached to ideas, attached to words. It can be a kind of sickness. I heard a story about two friends walking down the street. One friend fell down, and the other one started to laugh. So the one who fell down said, “Look, that’s not very nice. In the Bible it says that even if your enemy falls into adversity, you must not laugh, or rejoice. His friend responded, “Yes, of course I read that in the Bible, but it doesn’t say anything about laughing when your friend falls down.” That’s a joke of course, but sadly we do attach to words, usually missing what they point at.
To be independent means that you find for yourself what the truth is. Don’t just take someone’s word for it, no matter how famous a person it is. If you attach to someone, you attach to someone’s ideas, judgments, opinions. So if you meet the Buddha on the road you must kill him. Those are good words! However, even more importantly, when you meet your own 1, my, me, kill them. Think of your life as a kind of a laboratory. You hear of a good formula. Don’t accept it automatically. Test it in your fife. If it really works, then use it, and teach it to others. If it doesn’t, throw it out Kill the Buddha, because you are the most important authority. That means that you must become Buddha. That means that your practicing is most important
Q: Do you mean practicing, as you people do here in this room?
WBZM: Earlier this morning I asked you “What are you?” You were stuck, and unable to answer. That is our practice. Formal practice, which is what we do twice a day in this room, is only a technique, albeit a very important one. We can easily talk about keeping a don’t know mind, but it is not always easy to actually do it. Even ten or fifteen minutes a day of formal practice can help us carry that practice into the rest of our life.
In your daily life, when you are doing something, do it one hundred percent. Then you are completely awake. If you are dreaming, wake up. Good dream or bad dream, dream of the past, the present, or the future, it does not matter. Become awake! Become an awakened one. Become Buddha.