Guo Gu Lecture

(Note: This is part of a new attempt to produce more content by simply writing it, worrying less about getting it "right.")

I went to a Chan Buddhist lecture on Friday 22 September, led by the venerable master Guo Gu. The master works and lives in Florida, teaching at Florida State University. He is of Chinese heritage, he speaks Mandarin, and he spent some time in Taiwan, but he grew up in the United States. Though he was a monk for some time, he found it to be an ineffective approach to practising Buddhism in his context, and he is no longer a monastic. Here are the intellectual points I take away from the lecture.

The master focussed on "The Platform Sutra," saying three tenets of (Chan) Buddhism are:

  1. No thought.
  2. No form.
  3. Non-abiding.

Regarding "no thought," the master said:

"Amidst thought, no thought." And that we should aim for a state of "no longer allowing thoughts... to reify us."

He talked about detaching our happiness from our thinking, and further about detaching our identity from our thinking. "Amidst thought" emphasizes that we will still think, and that we can accept and work within this reality. Yet "no thought" means that we ourselves are not our thoughts. Have thoughts, but not be thoughts. Use thinking, but not be bound by thinking. By "no longer allowing thoughts... to reify us," we (attempt to? according to me?) reverse the Foucauldian order of subjectivation, where we are created as subjects by (other people) thinking of us as subjects and then ourselves thinking it. Instead of our thoughts creating (reifying) us, we create our thoughts. It's not clear to me whether we intend to control our thoughts, but certainly we reposition ourselves as prior to our thoughts. We may not be able to think anything we want, yet we need not be bound by what we can think.

Regarding "no form," the master said:

"To engage with the world, yet not be bound by it."
"[Things'] true nature cannot be reified as things."
"Recognize, adapt to, wait for, create... causes and conditions." (How to work with form).
"There is great creativity, innovation, in no-form."

Indeed this is very similar to the first point, yet allows much greater exploration of how to exist in the world without being bound by it. That the true nature of any thing cannot be reified as any thing--how bizarre! Yet this is the same as saying that we will not let our thoughts reify us. If we as people (subjects?) are prior to and not bound by what we as people (objects? Our bodies?) think, then physical objects (other than "all sentient beings") are not representative of their true nature. (Not that I really know much about "true nature" at this point).

Yet one of the most important things the master expounded, and repeated several times, are the four ways to work with form. They are all strategies for handling causes and conditions. First, to recognize the causes and conditions behind something. Second, to adapt to those causes and conditions (For example, not buying something for which you don't have enough money). Third, to wait for causes and conditions to be right (For example, waiting to buy something until you have enough money). Fourth, to create the causes and conditions you desire (For example, choosing to save money regularly in order to have enough to buy something).

This reminds me of something Mao told me(???) about "need": if you want something to help others, you need it; if you want something for yourself, you may not need it.

Regarding "non-abiding," the master said:

"Non-abiding is just a very Chinese way of saying 'impermance.'"
"Externally, not be swirled by causes and conditions. Internally, to see one's true nature."

I'm not sure I can expand on this now. The meaning is obvious, which means I probably do not understand.

One of the master's closing statements in the lecture was to give us his motto (or one of them?): "IAG. It's All Good." I believe the idea being that, regardless of what happens, everything is... uh... good. The master said:

"Social injustice. That can't be good. You have to make it good."

This is something I've been wondering for a while. Chan Buddhists emphasize practise, yet appear to isolate themselves from the world. If the master encourages us to work with form but not be bound by it, to work with thought but not be bound by that, and to avoid abiding in anything, then we must confront things such as social injustice. What should be done about it? Clear instruction: "make it good."

So I don't know.