The Three Jewels: Truth Without Irony: Part II

This is the second part of this article by Daniel Giloth. Since the article was so long, we decided to break it into four parts and post one section each week.


The second of the Three Jewels is the dharma. Dharma means several things. It means reality, 'things as they are'--in the sense of the Ten Thousand Things that Taoist poets refer to when they talk of manifestations of the Tao, or 'the Way.' Dharmas here are plural—the netbook I'm writing on, the weather, cilantro, pollen, a joke.

By the way, 'dharma' is sometimes used to include all other wise teachings or texts that clarify truths, whether they be the Beatitudes, Dante, Mohammed, or Tolstoy. Recently, the Zen Center hosted a Movie Night featuring the film “The Big Lebowski”, a film that contains many Zen themes. In fact, Jeff Bridges, the actor who plays Lebowski, and Zen teacher Bernie Glassman, explored these truths in a book called The Dude and the Zen Master. The dharma can show up everywhere, even in a Hollywood movie. In this sense, dharma can also include life's hard knocks—what people mean when they speak of a “life-lesson.” Dharma is the transmitted wisdom of people paying attention to what reality has to teach. In this sense, much dharma is relative, because reality—nature, history, society, even the human body—changes. Much of what is real and true is not static, but emergent.

For our immediate purposes, the dharma means the body of Buddhist teachings that has come down to us. Within Buddhism, there's a recurrent metaphor: a finger pointing at the Moon. The finger(s) are the teachings; the moon is the truth. It's important not to confuse them, because we're after the moon! Still, the pointing fingers—dharma, teachings—are valuable. They give us the benefit and wise counsel—often brilliance—of past Buddhist teachers and practitioners. They allow us to start where we are. And Buddhism, in my experience, has a huge wealth of pointing fingers. Some are millenia old, like the Four Noble Truths. Some are very contemporary, like Russell Delman's teachings on 'embodied awareness'.

One thing I like about the Zen Life and Meditation Center (ZLMC) is the eclecticism of the dharma taught here. This year there have been classes that apply Zen teachings to clowning and photography. On the other end, last year I participated at ZLMC in a six-month, line-by-line group study of the Heart Sutra—the most seminal text of Buddhism. Studying the Heart Sutra profoundly affected my life. When my brother was dying, unconscious on a hospital bed in April, 2012, I recited the sutra as a way to come to grips with his passing away. “Form is emptiness; emptiness is eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind.” With the finger-pointing of the sutra, I looked directly at what was happening. I realized that my brother Jon had not existed quite the way I'd been taught to think he existed, but was, like each of us, a nexus of conditions, a nexus that was coming apart. This didn't lessen my grief (I'm sad as I write this), but strangely made me appreciate his life and my relationship with him all the more. In this way, the dharma of the sutra changed my experience of his death.

The dharma sharpens our discernment of truth. Do we take it on faith or belief? No. We try it out and see if it bears fruit in our life. If it doesn't, we discard it.

When I was twenty, I carried the conceit that I knew better than most adults older than me. How else to explain how screwed up the world was? Perhaps this is an American tendency. Perhaps it is generally true of twenty-year-olds But many, many lifetimes have been lived before ours. Over time, genuine truth-seekers, some Buddhist, some not, have accumulated methods and tools for wisdom and tried to transmit them down through the generations. Not all that has come down to our time is wise; much is foolishness or relics of other ages. Still, it makes sense to use our innate wisdom as human beings to discern what are valuable pointers and have the discipline to explore the roads to which they point. Is it true, for example, that regular meditation trains my mind so that I have greater openness and clarity? Or not? It's a very simple thing to check out. While we should shine a light on everything with our own 'lamp', we don't have to completely re-invent a path to wisdom. We don't have to start from scratch; we have the dharma. We should allow that it might be true that the dharma—the ten thousand things, the teachings—is indeed a jewel. We should explore the dharma as a form of self-compassion. If it works, we should stick to it, and develop discipline. Why flail or drift around if we don't have to? Life is confusing enough.

To be continued with Part III. . .