Reflections on Guanyin

I recently completed a seven-day recitation retreat on Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion, at City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Here are some thoughts on the experience.

The core of the buddhist disciplines is putting it into practice. There are many approaches to buddhist philosophy and science: the eightfold path, the seven-step method for developing radical compassion, the six perfectionizers, the five yogic stages, the four noble truths, the three principal paths, the two collections, and developing single-pointed concentration, to name but a few. As many as there are approaches to practice, there are presented even more ways of discussing them: teaching, admonishing, and encouraging alike.

I’ve spent weeks parsing through the Platform Sutra, a text which cannot be apprehended with the intellect alone. Master Huineng has an unconventional approach of inventing creative new definitions for established buddhist terminology, and providing wildly heterodox explanations for his unique interpretations of classical buddhist teachings. He leaves his students in a state of shock and instability. Dumbfounded, the disciples are susceptible to the “direct teaching”: a method which overwhelms the intellect altogether and puts one in a state of nonconceptual awareness, thus experiencing a nondual state of consciousness.

Buddhist practices, whether they be gradual or direct (or neither), are intended to trigger this awestruck state of nondual, nonconceptual awareness. Major realizations however are not caused, rather they are cessations; not an acquisition of something, but a stopping of mistaken perspectives. With the Guanyin session, we’ve started to sample this process, and get a taste for subsuming the intellect in practice to realize a deeper fundamental state of mind.

One purpose of ritual is to overwhelm the senses and wear down the conceptual mind’s need to grasp and order the outside world. In the Buddha Hall, we are overwhelmed with bright lights and thousands of golden Buddha images. In the ceremony, repeated twice each day, we rhythmically chant fantastical stories of the enlightened beings’ capacity to save suffering creatures from torment. We beg them to rescue us, and chant their powerful names until we lose track of ordinary time and space.

Of course, the Buddhas cannot really save us; they can only teach us how to save ourselves. Thus we practice the techniques taught to us: keeping a commitment to morality, a willingness to help others, an urgency to drop confusion and affliction, the desire for higher knowledge and wisdom, and–crucially–to trigger nonconceptual, nondual awareness. This final step is the main event, for which all the other practices and teachings can merely provide support. The ceremonies and meditations only function when the heart is consumed with love and compassion for others, and the mind is open to extraordinary possibilities for consciousness.

This is why we enter the Buddha Hall each day and chant the sadhanas and mantras. We deepen our resolve, demonstrate our commitment (primarily to our own selves), strengthen our capacity for altruism, and release our attachment to our personal comfort and self-importance. It is only under these conditions, in this crucible, that we can be open to powerful states of personal growth and transformation along the path of the Bodhisattva Buddhas’ ideal.