Is Is Not

Is Is not

Surangama Sutra Lecture 7 - Delusion Has No Basis: Five Layers of Turbidity

The center: a dimensionless point reaching everywhere and everywhen. We practice to arrive at this point where we already are. When “I” practices, though, the more I try to get out of the way the more I trip over my own feet. It’s the kind of problem we confront when we try to force ourselves to go to sleep - the effort riles us up. Sometimes when you’re having a nightmare and try to wake yourself out of it but fail, terror grips your flesh, bones and marrow.

We’re taught to practice meditation by thinking not-thinking, to practice qigong and tai chi with wu-wei, doing not-doing. I remember when I was a beginner this sounded attractive, but I kept looking for more specifics and got frustrated: tell me how to do this! Practice sometimes can be discouraging, exasperating, even maddening.

When Pūrna asks Buddha, “if we’re all fundamentally enlightened, why do we suffer from delusion?” Buddha responds with a parable: Yajñadatta looks into a mirror and sees a face with perfectly clear features. Yajñadatta becomes enraptured with this - and then goes mad, fearing he has lost his own head. Buddha reassures Pūrna that, just like Yajñadatta’s madness was an illusion with no basis in reality - he had never truly lost his head - our feeling that we’re not enlightened is merely delusion. Yajñadatta isn’t aware that he is mad; we aren’t aware our confusion is based only on confusion.

Buddha summarizes the issue: “the inherent luminous mind that understands is apart from ‘is’ and ‘is not’ and yet both is and is not.” Master Hua echoes this in his commentary: “If you can understand that within the Buddha’s Dharma there is no ‘is’ and no ‘is not,’ you can become enlightened.”

Does this clarify the matter for you, or do you find it confusingly difficult? Perhaps Layman Pang was studying the Surangama Sutra when one day he sighed and exclaimed:

“Difficult, difficult, difficult!” Pang said.
“Like storing ten bushels of sesame seeds in the top of a tree.”

His wife overheard him and responded: “Easy, easy, easy!
Like touching your feet to the floor when you get out of bed.”

Their daughter Lingzhao chimed in: “Neither difficult nor easy!
Like dewdrops sparkling on the tips of ten thousand grasses.”

I would comment: “Both difficult and easy!
As Ching Ch’ing says: ‘it’s easy to express oneself, to say the whole thing is difficult.’”

We’ve all had the experience of trying to do something which looks easy but which turns out to be difficult. We’ve had experiences where we braved something difficult which turned out to be easy. Difficult and easy complete each other as surely as sickness and health, delusion and enlightenment. Bewilderment and “aha!” are kissing cousins. The problem lies not in the ache and strain, the comfort or ease of our efforts at understanding. The problem lies in how our minds leap to dualistic opposites.

During my post-doctoral studies in clinical psychology I worked in a research project providing psychotherapy to people who’d suffered a traumatic loss of someone they loved. It’s common after such loss to be caught in swirls of emotions: grief, of course, but also anger at feeling abandoned by the loved one; release from the burdens of being a caregiver, but also guilt at feeling relieved. People who had the most trouble recovering from the death were unable to tolerate having mixed feelings - as if anger invalidated sadness, or relief felt from misery’s termination signaled a disloyal lack of love.

Increasingly, we live in an either-or culture. You’re either for me or against me; progressive or conservative; kind or cruel. Political parties’ spokespersons give diametrically opposed versions of reality. It reminds me of grade school fights on the playground: shouts of “Is so!” Is not!” “Is!” Is not!” devolve into wrestling on the ground, ear pulling, and tearful protestations of “he started it!”

The easy/difficult parable of the Pangs demonstrates a way out of the sufferings born of dualistic either-or. The parable is in the form of the tetralemma, an Indian Buddhist logic developed by Nagarjuna around 200 C.E. The tetralemma asserts all phenomena always manifest in four ways: is; is-not; both-is-and-is-not; neither-is-nor-is-not. In formal logic it’s written as





both A and ~A

Enlightenment ↔︎ Delusion

neither A nor ~A

Enlightenment ↔︎ Delusion

Everything simultaneously manifests each and all of the four possibilities. At this and every moment, you (and I, and all) are life; you are death; you are life-and-death; you are neither-life-nor-death.

This may seem like a head-scratcher, so you might want to approach it with your heart-mind rather than your open-shut mind. Your heart, with its four chambers, has room for all the blood that flows through your body, and whispers with the lungs to continuously circulate lifedeath to every realm of soma and psyche.

On the one hand, we have an intuitive sense there’s more to experience than “is” and “is not.” If you’ve ever been intimate with someone, you know there are times when you love them to pieces unreservedly even while some quirk of theirs is driving you crazy - and it’s that very quirk which also makes you smile and fills you with tenderness. At the same time, loving or abhorring is irrelevant to which of you is washing the dishes and which of you is drying them at that moment. (Of course, we can recruit our feelings to justify judgements about who should and shouldn’t be doing the dishes, and how good a job each is doing - but that way lies surplus suffering). The tetralemma frequently appears in our relationship to ourselves: when you say “I’m not myself today” which self is speaking from which of the four quadrants’ realms?

Nevertheless, when we apply analytical thinking to sort out our mixed experiences, we often convince ourselves the alternatives are mutually exclusive. We tell ourselves that if we love someone, we “can’t” hate them: when they die, we “shouldn’t” feel sad and soothed, and may get upset if we feel numb. Numbness is a very common initial reaction to death: we create suffering if we start worrying that feeling neither-sad-nor-soothed means we never truly cared about the deceased.

Our problem holding mutually exclusive possibilities owes a lot to Western thinking’s adoption of the rule of the excluded middle from ancient Greek philosophy. Basically this rule says something cannot be simultaneously both A and ~A (not-A). This seems to be common sense: something either “is” or Is not.” You’re alive, or dead - we say “you can’t be half-pregnant.” Anyone who has suffered through a tenuous fertility treatment or a miscarriage knows the cruelty of that statement.

We seek to escape from the tyranny of the excluded middle with in-betweens: the Greeks used the Golden Mean, we use kinda, sorta, -ish to qualify our statements. These fudge the excluded middle but still confine us within a linear dimension which can be misleading. Describing temperature as hot-medium-cold doesn’t adequately capture what it’s like to be at 12,000 feet of altitude on a glacial moraine under a cloudless sky: the temperature may be a “pleasant” 70º F. but the sun burns your skin while the wind blowing from the ice chills it. Poorly insulated by the thin air, your body leaches heat while your exertion makes you sweat. Your average temperature does not convey how you are hot-and-cold while also being neither-hot-nor-cold nor in between.

Halfway points and bland compromises are not the hallmark of the Middle Way. Being “nice” is not a compromise between cruelty and compassion. Zombies may be half-alive, half-dead, but they’re not an attractive option for liberation from the sufferings of birth-and-death.

The logic of the excluded middle has been a useful driving force for rational analysis and scientific thinking. Since the rise of quantum mechanics in the early 1900s, though, its usefulness has diminished. In the quantum realm a particle’s energy state and location is “smeared” across a realm of possibilities until it appears at one level or another, but never in-between. It’s common knowledge that light is both a wave and a particle; most people, though, don’t realize how this is fundamentally impossible. Particles are material substances; waves are energy flows which affect solid matter, but are not themselves material. Light is/is not a wave (A) and a particle (~A), both and neither.

Although many Buddhists like to point to quantum phenomena to justify Buddhist logic, we need to be careful. Quantum phenomena rarely appear at the macroscopic scales of our everyday experience. Biology is perhaps a better example, where the lines between ecosystems are fluid and shifting. Every human skin-bag contains more bacterial cells than cells with human DNA. Is this body mine, or foreign, or shared? Another example: there is little agreement on what constitutes “life.” Are viruses alive? How about a person in a coma, or a three week old fetus? Psychological phenomena also resist being parsed into an is, isn’t, and an in-between: when you are watching a movie, so absorbed in the film you do not hear somebody call your name - are you in the room with the other person, or in the film with the characters you identify with? During hypnotic analgesia, when you can answer questions but not feel a knife cutting into your flesh, are you “all there?” or not?

When you sit in meditation, if you try to sit still and not move at all, your muscles will become rigid and your body will tremble. If you instead relax, your muscles will on their own make subtle adjustments and let you settle into stillness. Meanwhile your lungs continue to expand and collapse and your heart beats. This is movement-in-stillness, stillness-in-movement.

The meditation of is/is-not: being fully present by dropping body and mind.

You might object: this is all very well but if I’m driving and someone crosses the street in front of me, that person is either there or not and if you run them over they will either be alive and uninjured, alive and injured, or dead. In reply, let me quote Buddha in this section:

the effortless path to enlightenment is the ending of both arising and perishing.

[but]…. This is a teaching that must be left behind,

and the leaving behind, too, must be left behind.

[This is] the Dharma that transcends idle speculation.

All of the Buddha’s teachings are skillful means. They do not destroy or oppose our ordinary ways of thinking and being: they fold and unfold them to reveal further dimensions to our being. The rule of the excluded middle’s either-or creates a flat two-dimensional plane. This can be a good field for exploration; for example, one form of mindfulness meditation cultivates awareness of our experiences as varying along a continuum of pleasant - neutral - unpleasant. Here we can contrast delusion with enlightenment, discriminate black from white and all the in-between grays.

The tetralemma expands our possibilities by implying a three-dimensional object with four faces, a tetrahedron. These multiple planes are more in keeping with our actual being in the world, where our experiences can also be simultaneously pleasant and unpleasant and neither pleasant nor unpleasant. The center of all four planes is a pivot point in a depth dimension. This center is not neutral: it is a dynamic balancing we (inadequately) label “equanimity.” Extending from this center we can rotate the tetrahedron to meet our immediate experience in whatever way fits the moment: sometimes with one face, sometimes another, sometimes with all four.

These explorations of “is” and “is not” may seem overly abstract, but they are central to the liberation from suffering which is at the heart of the Surangama Sutra. It’s crucial to expand our field of action if we want to walk the Way of practice-enlightenment. On this path, our hindrances are the gateless gate: our delusions of perception are our vehicles for realization. Dogen reminds us: the more enlightened we are, the more we realize how steeped we are in delusion.

During Zen meditation retreats we end our meals chanting: “may we exist in muddy water with purity like the lotus.” It’s a nice image, but it doesn’t quite convey the concrete reality. I’d never seen a lotus pond while I was growing up in New York, so I was very excited the first time I went to see one during a hot, humid summer in Tokyo. I was dismayed to see how poorly tended the pond was, its turbid waters clogged with muck: the lotus flowers drooped in the heat and were begrimed by the soot of the city. I recently took some photos of lotus flowers at a better-tended garden in San Francisco. When I got home and examined the results I had several pretty good pictures, but none of them quite lived up to the classic ideal image I wanted - I was tempted to Photoshop them so they’d look better.

If we get caught in dualisms of clean and dirty, nirvana and samsara, delusion and enlightenment, we may be tempted to photoshop ourselves and to prettify false images of practice. We need to become sufficiently dis-illusioned to enjoy becoming more aware of our garbage, so we can find consolation in composting. Since we practice in muddy waters it behooves us to learn some ways of navigating the turbidities that arise in our mind.

This section of the sutra describes five turbidities which arise when awareness, mind-consciousness, sense-consciousness, space, primary elements, and karma become entangled with each other:

  • the turbidity of time (We get confused by how we seem to go from a past to a future)
  • the turbidity of perception. (We get confused by how our representations of the world seem real )
  • the turbidity of afflictions (We get confused by how hurts seem to hinder us and stain us)
  • the turbidity of individual beings. (We get confused by how we seem to exist apart from everything and everyone)
  • the turbidity of lifespans (We get confused by how we seem to appear at birth and vanish at death)

Feelings of hurt, feeling there’s never enough time, feeling caught in the skin of an individual mortal person with compelling sensations and perceptions… - these cloud our minds and hearts. Clouds, though, do not block the vast sky of our being. The turbidities may seem to be inescapable truths, impossible barriers to liberation, fearsome rapids preventing us from crossing to the other shore. In truth, the river is both our flowing self and the stream which bears us. Every moment we are navigating this river of easy impossibility and impossible ease.

Practice-enlightenment mirrors the Pang family’s tetralemma of easy-difficult. Dogen expressed this in a poem:

Mind itself is buddha.

Practice is difficult. Enlightenment is not difficult.

Not-mind, not-buddha.

Enlightenment is difficult. Practice is not difficult.

Take heart! Your wondrous enlightened understanding knows the lotus does not bloom in the mud.

The lotus continuously blooms through the mud,

and the mud continuously blooms through the lotus.

blog comments powered by Disqus
Click on "Comments" to view comments posted by others.

To post a comment yourself, click on "Comments," then sign in. You can sign in with your Facebook, Google, Twitter or Disqus account. (You can obtain a free Disqus account at

If you want to create and post your own content to the blog, I can give you access and instructions: please email me directly or use the "Contact" button below.
If you already have access to create your own content, use the login link to access the blog Dashboard.