Tesshin used his talk this week to discuss the concept of “Saṅkhāra” which is fundamental to Buddhism. This is a tricky word to translate. The formal definition is “formations,” but this does not fully explain it. Tesshin prefers the definition of “that which has been put together and that which puts together.” Stated differently, we can contemplate Saṅkhāra as considering all the phenomena which come together to make something and how that very something contributes to everything else in the universe. This definition should make you immediately think of the unending chain of Karma and codependent origination. Simply stated there is nothing in the universe which is not comprised of other things and everything in the universe contributes to the formation of other things.
Tesshin mentioned that this is what the Heart Sutra is saying when it states that everything is empty. It is important to remember this, because the western term “empty” means something much more negative and this is one of the reasons people new to Buddhism consider it very nihilistic.
So how do we work with Saṅkhāra? First, we should realize that there are no absolutes in our existence. Things are always changing and transforming. However, in the West, we have been conditioned to think that we have complete, or near complete control over conditions. If you steal consistently, you will probably be having a conversation with a policeman. Alternatively, if you study hard, you will probably end up with a well-paying job. Even an infant can see that it has ‘control’ over things in its environment. It can cry and see its mother come running.
But if we think a bit deeper, we realize this is only an approximation of reality. We quickly realize that there are facts outside of our control. One may study hard, but if you are in a war zone, you may not end up with that “plum job.” In that same war zone, you may be forced to steal because there is no food available. Even in our life today, one may have studied hard but graduated into the Covid economy with far fewer jobs. We quickly see that we don’t control the situation entirely. Tesshin reminded us that these examples are not provided to make us depressed, rather they serve to remind us to look at the deeper karmic conditions which brought us to a given place. We are invited to go deeper than simply assuming we have complete control of everything.
Tesshin continued that there is even a deeper level than this. This is larger than anything we can directly and casually perceive. It is understanding absolute reality. It is the moon which the master’s finger keeps pointing at. It is the point where we simultaneously understand ALL the conditions in life and reality. It is so wide and deep! For most of us, our feelings, emotions, and state of being determine our world. The Buddha taught that our immediate condition drives our karma. If we want to step off the cycle of karma, we must remember that there is so much more than what is directly in front of our nose! This is really where our agency or control lies. This is the practice of working with Saṅkhāra.
Tesshin next used a personal example to illustrate this point. He commented that he is a pretty “mean” chef and looks forward every year to Thanksgiving. He was looking forward to a “properly socially distanced” gathering this year with family and friends. However, only a few days before the big holiday he learned that one of his children had contact with another child who tested positive for Covid. This means that Tesshin’s entire family must now quarantine. Furthermore, he learned that the infected child’s family knew of the condition but did nothing to prevent the spread. Needless to say, Tesshin’s immediate reaction was disappointment and anger as his holiday is now all but cancelled. He asked, how do you really sit with this? Like much in our tradition, it is deeply inspecting the situation honestly…
•Why am I angry?
•What are the conditions which led to this situation?
•What can I control and what was outside of my control?
•What are my attachment delusions?
• … and lastly, how do I choose to deal with the situation in this moment?
When we explore these questions, we see the depth of Saṅkhāra and we realize that our scope of agency is very small. Tesshin asked us to explore that this week.