The Path of Emptiness
Buddhism most likely entered China during the Han dynasty via missionaries from India. As a tradition, it was quickly absorbed into the culture of China and the wisdom of its practices recognised by spiritual practitioners across the land. The Chinese are a pragmatic nation and so their practices often incorporate elements from all three of the great religions of China: Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism; they see no need to view them solely as individual traditions that cannot live alongside one another. Indeed, one of the main Northern sects of Daoism, the Quan Zhen (Complete Reality) school is primarily characterised by its acceptance of a shared truth that exists between Daoism and Buddhism.
Much of the shared understandings between Daoism and Buddhism are baed in what the Buddhists call ‘anatta’ or ‘without-self’. Though this may actually sound as if Buddhists are denying the reality of a being we can personally identify with, the teaching is actually based upon the realisation by a person entering stillness that ‘self’ neither exists nor does not exist; instead, focus upon such a concept from any direction will ultimately lead to a form of attachment and thus incorrect view. The ‘traps’ of internal study are to either over-identify and indulge the ‘false sense-of-self’ we may have or to deny it and thus step away from the vital essences of life that support and nourish our undeniable physical and energetic existence. The essence of such teachings are essentially that phenomena neither exist nor don’t exist; the true path, the middle way, lay between affirmation and negation. Since the phenomena cannot be focused on, for fear of aversion or attraction arising to a defined state, we instead focus on the ’cause’ that may lead to the ‘effect’; essentially, this is what the Daoists entitled ‘walking the path’.
The Four Noble Truths
The basis of Buddha’s teachings were that there were four noble truths that applied to the entire of human being. These truths are as follows:
- The Truth of Dukka
- The Truth of the Cause of Dukkha
- The Truth of the Cessation of Dukkha
- The Truth of the Path that leads to the Cessation of Dukka
Dukkha is a disturbance; a ripple in the pond that is distorting the still nature of the waters surface. It more literally means ‘bad wheel’ and implies a wonky wheel on a cart that is always there, making the journey unpleasant; no matter how beautiful the scenery along the way, the wonky wheel is always disturbing your contentment.
The four noble truths provide a detailed breakdown of the nature of the human condition with each of the four truths serving to show us firstly what is wrong with the human condition (Truth 1), what is the cause for this wrong (Truth 2), what needs to change (Truth 3) and then, finally, a method for doing so (Truth 4). All Buddhist methods are based upon these four tenets and though they appear simple; they are quite beautiful in their intricacy.
Bodhidharma & Shaolin
By the sixth Century, Buddhism had been developing in China and even the emperor himself had taken an interest in its teachings. Hungry for knowledge, he was pleased to hear of an Indian monk who had wandered into China. This monk was Bodhidharma, the legendary founder of the Chan school of practice. The emperor brought the monk to his palace to meet with him but legend has it that the monk could not effectively communicate the teachings of Buddhism to the emperor and instead left and travelled to the Shaolin (small forest) monastery in Henan province. The monks of Shaolin gave him a home in their mountains and legend has it that after seeing the monks practice, he identified several errors in their methods. Retiring to a small cave shrine for nine years, he meditated and contemplated on how to effectively assist the monks in their spiritual endeavours.
The result of Bodhidharma’s contemplation was the production of two important classical texts; the first was the Yi Jin Jing (muscle-tendon changing classic) and the Xi Sui Jing (marrow washing classic). These two texts discussed how to transform the nature of the body and mind through systematic internal training so that a person could attain enlightenment and, ultimately, freedom from the cycle of Samsara. These texts are interesting as they essentially read as a blend of Buddhist and Daoist methods and indeed many scholars believe Chan Buddhism to be highly influenced by Daoist methods. Whatever the truth of their origin, the two texts were seminal in both the development of the arts that then developed out of Shaolin as well as the Daooist alchemical arts that most certainly absorbed the teachings of the two scripture into their methods as well (though this is rarely recognised by many practitioners of Daoist arts).
One of the most important aspects of Buddhist study is the application of Metta and the development of the mindset which underpins this concept. Metta is most easily translated as ‘kindness’ and is, quite simply, the practice of kindness and open-heartedness to others. Put others before yourself and be kind in everything you do. This is a practice in itself. Combine kindness with manners, decency and honesty, and you are already on a good path of self-development alongside the rest of your practice. What are the enemies of the above states? Mean-ness, rudeness, selfishness and dishonesty. It is of great importance that we work towards training these harmful traits out of our being if we are on the path of cultivation. Spiritual development and internal practice without some kind of self-developmental safeguards is always going to be a risky path that can lead to a love of power and manipulation; this was long recognised by traditions such as Daoism and Buddhism and for this reason, the practice of kindness is heavily emphasised.