Beyond Mind and No Mind
One of the traditional duties expected of a minister is making calls to hospitals and elder care homes. However as the years pass, what was once a contractual duty becomes a privilege carried out in gratitude because it does bring home clearly the reality that is our human condition.

A person does not have to visit hospitals and elder care homes to witness the circle of life, however. It is all around us at all times. In fact, as we say in Buddhism, you are that circle of life.

This circle of life involves the total person: the heart-mind, bodily form, the formless, culture, social context, for example.

It is widely accepted that the physical form ages and passes away. That process we see in others is also taking place in us minute by minute down the years until the time of the passing of our own body. It is then returned to the earth where it gradually dissolves back into its elements. This is the process of the body becoming non-body, or as the Buddhist philosophers would say, it is form becoming non-form.

This is widely accepted as a normal part of life, often referred to popularly as “death”. Most religions have volumes to say about this.

But there is another side to the living experience that is definitely avoided—that is the mind becoming no-mind. This is often a taboo topic because it is so hard to bear this happening to those we love, and yes even to ourselves!! So we comfort ourselves, in a kind of self-serving strategy with theories of having a non-physical part that lives forever and is furthermore superior to the body.

But this assumption is challenged when we observe patients in hospital or elder care who have indeed lost their minds. It may have been an automobile accident or stroke. In the 70’s when I went to the Institute of Buddhist Studies in California I saw many people wandering the streets who had lost their minds to drugs. There was literally no one at home inside their heads anymore!

Then there is the problem today with those suffering mental sickness wandering our streets in Winnipeg because of lack of support from the care system. In the 70’s the California government simply closed down mental care institutions and all the patients ended up on the streets of Berkeley and San Francisco. It is not that bad in Manitoba as yet, thankfully.

Thus, we have somewhat overcome the taboo of openly discussing death to set up systems of support and comfort for those who face form becoming no-form. But the process of mind becoming no-mind is still taboo. The sufferers have many stones laid in their path to getting much needed care.

It is frightening, is it not, this possibility of losing the mind? We must however be aware that not only is the losing of bodily form a natural and inevitable process of life, so too is the process of the mind becoming no-mind. Both the form becoming no-form and the mind becoming no-mind are the rule, not the exception. But how do we cope with this reality we share together? Religions do not have volumes to say about this because those with no-mind have no capacity to believe whatsoever. Or because the process of mind becoming no mind impacts the way we think itself, even about the topic of religion!

In our Buddhist teachings the first step is to take advantage of the Dharma teachings when you encounter them. You may never hear them again, due to unforeseen circumstances. In fact every time you come to the temple may be the last chance you hear the Dharma. Take advantage of every opportunity to encounter the Dharma, like reading this article, for example.

The second step is to take the Triple Refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The Buddha is the enlightened one who has seen the way living beings actually live, and the way from there to nirvana, the Pure Land. The Dharma is the force that sustains us in life as it is lived on the every day level, feet on the ground. It is also the teachings of the Buddha that guides us in this realistic view of the life process. The Sangha is the community of those who live together in the Truth of the Dharma.

The third step is reciting the Nembutsu - Reverence for Infinite Life and Light, Awake. It is the essence of the Dharma. It is beyond form and no-form, beyond mind and no-mind. Those without a mind, but still have a living body, are embraced. Those without a body (whose bodies are paralyzed or who are in a coma) are likewise embraced, as are those minus both body and mind, as are those of us who fortunate enough to still have both body and mind intact

As Shinran has reminded us in one of his poems (Wasan) "The Dharma of the Nembutsu":
“…is a great torch in the long night of our unknowing. Do not fret, therefore, if your own wisdom-mind is lacking. The Dharma of the Nembutsu is also a ship that carries us over the ocean of birth-suffering-death. Do not worry, therefore, if your own karmic burden is heavy.”

Here is that quiet, persistent force that sustains us no matter where we are on the circle of life, whether form or no-form, mind or no-mind. That is the cause of deep gratitude.

Namo Amida Butsu,

Sensei Ulrich
December 20, 2009