BEING PRESENT: ZEN AND TRANSUBSTANTIATION

In my last post, “Art, Zen and Transubstantiation: It’s Like Kind of Crazy”  I discussed Marcel Duchamp’s fascination with “transubstantiation” and provided an interpretation concerning the meaning/impact of “Fountain”.  To quote a little known authority on not much of anything, (i.e. myself):

When Duchamp entered the urinal in a art show, he was obviously raising the question “What is it?”, or more to the point, “Is it art?” His point seems to be that it all depends on how “it” is seen by the spectators. If it is defined and perceived as art, (as if it were art) by viewers, then it will be perceived and responded to differently than if it is seen as “just a urinal”. If something is seen as “art” it brings forth a special mode of attention that is different from something seen as part of “everyday life”.

What is the special kind of attention associated with art? Those of you who have been reading my previous post know that is what I have been calling being “present/awake/alive”. (From “Art, Zen and Transubstantiation: It’s Like Kind of Crazy”)

I ended the last blog post with the assertion that Buddhist and more specifically Zen philosophers had been making similar proclamations for thousands of years; not specifically about “art” but life in general.  So I want to play some more with the concept of “transubstantiation” focusing on spiritual practices.

 

Let me start first with Christianity, since this is where the term “transubstantiation” was first developed. As I said in the previous post, the term refers to the idea that in Communion, the bread and wine are not just symbols of Christ’s body and blood but are his body and blood, although in another form. I went on to suggest that, later interpretations allow that the bread and body are symbols or metaphors for Christ consciousness and that what makes this real or true is the faith of the participants in Communion. In other words it is as if the wine was Christ’s blood.

 

The general idea of my last post was that by shifting our perception so that everyday life is seen “as if” it is “art”, we are more likely to be “present/awake/alive” with it.  Similarly, spiritual traditions can help foster this “as if” attitude and help practitioners develop a more comprehensive shift in consciousness.

However, It seems to me that the teachings in all spiritual traditions often foster a tendency to view a particular event or phenomenon as “fact” rather than as a metaphor/similie  (i.e. “as if”).  I can imagine that a great deal of confusion might have been spared, if over the years, Christ was seen “as if” he were the son of god” or that it was understood that that his teaching could lead to one’s transformation “as if” one was being “reborn” or “resurrected”.  It is my opinion that most enlightened Christians have discovered this “as if” perspective on their own and understand that their aim is to live their lives “as if ” they were Christ; in other words to develop “Christ Consciousness”.

I think the same kind of confusion can be found in some varieties of Buddhism as well, and much of this might be due to what the historical Buddha said or was said to have said.  For instance,let us look again at the Sutra, I mentioned in the last blog, where Buddha supposedly said the following to his student Subhuti, :

And why not? Subhuti, a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a ‘bodhisattva’. And why not? Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul.  I agree with my fellow student’s reaction to this when he said it “sounds insane”(see previous post and Discussion #3 in FORUMS).

The historic Buddha would often not answer questions such as “Is there a Self?”, presumably because he understood that by answering either “yes” or “no”, the interlocker could misunderstand the true nature of things…  I wonder whether if Buddha’s advice to his student Subhuti would seem less “insane” if he had said something like “a Bodhisattava should act as if both he or she, and all others, have no perception of a self………?”  My guess is that, if the words above is truly what the Buddha said to Subhuti, he was using language fitting for his students advanced understanding at the time and perhaps did not feel the need to signal that he was talking metaphorically.

I am currently reading “The Embodied Mind” which was suggested to me by fellow blogger Sean Voisen (The Koan).  This fascinating book draws on elements of Buddhist philosophy to solve several theoretical dead ends that current scientist’s working in the area of Cognitive Science have run into.  Their main point is  similar to that made by Buddha in the Sutra above; i.e. there is no scientific evidence pointing to anything substantial that we could call a “self”.  Their careful review of research and theory in the Cognitive Sciences leads to the same conclusion that is summed up by the authors in a quote from Tsultrim Gyamtso:

 Buddhism is not telling anyone that he should believe that he has a self or that he does not have a self.  It is saying that when one looks at the way one suffers and the way one thinks and responds emotionally to life, it as if one believed that there were a self  (Underline is mine) that was lasting, single and independent and yet on closer analysis no such self can be found.  ” (The Embodied Mind, pg 72)

Note the use of the term “as if”. What I have taken away from The Embodied Mind  is that we all tend to ignore the moment to moment variations in our thoughts, feelings, experiences etc. because of our need to have something stable to provide a sense of meaning.  It is this grasping which is the cause of suffering that Buddha said that we can overcome.  It is through meditation that we slowly come to see and accept then fact that our notion of being a Self is just a convenient fiction. And, when we begin to see this in ourselves we realize that this is also  the case for so called other “selves” as well, which seems to be what Subhuti was being taught by Buddha in the Sutra in queston.

 

Now even if one were to come to this understanding about the nature of the Self, he or she would still need to act, in some cases, as if selves exist.  This is why, I am guessing that the historic Buddha frequently refused to answer one way or the other when asked whether there was or was not a Self.  However, all of this suggests that we are  capable of holding both of these perspectives (the “self exists” and “does not exist”) and can become free to shift our perceptions regarding selfhood depending upon what is required by the current situation.

For instance, if you and I are together and I am fully present/awake/alive with you, I am not concerned about our past or our present and so, for all practicable purposes, neither you or I have or are “selves” in that moment.  I think that Buddha’s advice to Subhuti could be easily translated to simply say “to be a Bodhistava, “be present/awake/alive.” (Be sure to read “The Artist is Present“)

In the next post, I plan to look once more at the concept of transubstantiation and explore the possibilities more of incorporating the attitude of “as if” into our daily lives.

To leave a comment, click on the white bubble at the right of the title.  To make an anonymous comment, write “anonymous” when prompted for a name.  You can also send comments to me directly.

4 thoughts on “BEING PRESENT: ZEN AND TRANSUBSTANTIATION

  1. I’ve been following your blog for a while now, and I get a lot out of the things you have to say, and your subtle & perceptive perspective. So thanks!

    Would you say it’s correct to state that a good path to Awakening can be summed up as follows:

    A consistent meditative practice + The taking on of restrictions a la “precepts” in Buddhism in order to have an increased awareness of the patterns that make up a sense-of-self = Enlightenment

    The above is at least how I’m approaching my spiritual path (and feel is the takeaway message for me from your posts on this blog). I find that the “precepts” for me are rather personal habits which, once interrupted for a time period, reveal “truths” about myself. Which I guess is the same as slowly attaining (psychological) self-knowledge. But of course, this (taking on of “precepts”) must be complemented, I think, with a daily meditative practice that allows for more fundamentally transformative realizations through the deepening of one’s consciousness, and that also in a sense provides some cushioning while the mind gets shaken up and made tender by the deliberate taking up of restrictions.

  2. Steve,

    So a symbol can be a tool.

    I’m not sure some of your other conclusions are correct. In the earliest sutras the Buddha was pretty adamant that there is no permanent self. Also Mahayana sutras that mention bodhisattvas were written after the Buddha’s death so it seems unlikely that the Buddha said those words to Subhuti.

    Jon

  3. To Abby, Shoyu, Rashed and Jon.
    Thanks to you all for your comments. When I write these posts I usually don’t know where I am going or what I am going to end up saying. It is mainly a way for me to try to put my Zen experiences in word that make sense to me. When I get comments, I at least know that someone is reading what I write. When, as you all have done, I see readers thinking about what I write, it is gratifying.
    Jon, I don’t really know much about or seem to care very much about what Buddha actually said or did not say. As you will notice I took care in my post to leave open the possibility that Buddha did not actually say those words. The point is that that quote was attributed to him and could be a source of confusion. All I was doing was suggesting a way of understanding the idea expressed in the Sutra that makes sense to me. For the history behind my choice of that particular Sutra, you might want to read Discussion #3 in Forums. In fact your input to the discussion would be welcomed.
    Also I know your reference to a symbol being a tool came from the movie Kurmare, which we all saw together. I’d like to see how you are relating this to what I said in “Being Present: Zen and Transubstantiation”.