If there is one word with which we can summarize the beauty of Buddhist thought, that word is Dharma. We cannot read a book about Buddhism without encountering this term, yet its definition is as slippery as its appearance is ubiquitous. In which sense is Master Han Shan using it when he talks about pursuing the Dharma in order to transcend life and death?

Everything in the universe is subject to change. There's only one exception: death always follows life. Isn't it strange that people haven't noticed this, that they conduct their lives as though they're going to live forever, that death is nothing to worry about? Of course if they really want to live as long as they obviously expect, they'd better pursue the Dharma. Life, death, and change itself are transcended in the Dharmakaya."
-  Master Han Shan (1546-1623)

If there is one word with which we can summarize the beauty of Buddhist thought, that word is Dharma. We cannot read a book about Buddhism without encountering this term, yet its definition is as slippery as its appearance is ubiquitous. In which sense is Master Han Shan using it when he talks about pursuing the Dharma in order to transcend life and death?

Of course we all know we're mortal, but how many of us choose to live with that knowledge, in full consciousness, day by day, moment by moment? Only the few who are truly enlightened. The rest of us unwittingly fight to distract our attention from the reality of our short lives: we attach ourselves to a career, seek friendships, join social groups, keep occupied with sports or hobbies or sex or reading, eating, talking or watching television -- anything to help us forget that we are mortal and that our existence in this world is so sadly brief.

But when the knowledge of death presents itself to us consciously and fully we are led inevitably to a final act of surrender. What we surrender is the unsustainable fight against what's real; through surrender we find salvation and we discover Dharma, that state of awareness that frees us from fears that arise from an imagined separation of self. Of all the definitions Han Shan could have used, he chose the most difficult one: the Dharma of this changing universe. He never studied physics and knew of no nuclear structures but he could observe the constancy of change and this, he decided, was one way in which we could transcend Samsaric Change and enter Nirvanic Permanence.

It is perhaps useful to look at a few of the more common definitions of Dharma -- doing so may help clarify Han Shan's meaning.

In its most ordinary sense, Dharma refers to things that are, of themselves, independent of our judgments. For example, a fried egg is a fried egg no matter what we might think or feel or believe of it. This notion of "fried egg reality" is outside our limited senses of taste, touch, smell, sound, sight, and thought. In Buddhist terminology, we would say it is outside the skandhas, those groupings of forms comprised of the material, the sensual, feelings, reflexes or instincts, and conscious acts such as thoughts. "Fried egg reality" is a transcendental reality, one that can only be visited directly with the mystic's inner eye. To the rest of us, it challenges the imagination to consider that there may be something beyond our interpretation of reality, something that does not depend on our senses to exist, something that is outside our mind's literal and temporal modalities. To act in accordance with Dharma, in this sense, is to act according to a higher principle or Law, one that is above our personal interpretation and evaluation. We might access "fried egg reality" exactly as we would access anything in the Platonic realm of Perfect or Ideal forms. And in this sense, also, we find our "nature in and of itself," that we are sentient beings, and privileged to be so. In addition, Dharma means that it is our duty to fulfill this nature in accordance with the specifications of that ideal. To do less than that is to immerse ourselves in samsaric illusion by limiting ourselves to frail sensory definitions. And this is exactly the problem: those senses are inherently limited. Even our thoughts are dependent on all previous thoughts and experiences and are thereby as limited as any other sense perception. Seldom do we break through these barriers into the realm of originality, the realm of genius, which already, by its name, seems a strange and mysterious spiritual state.

In the second sense of the term, Dharma is the law, the truth conveyed by the Buddha Himself. These are his teachings and when we follow them we follow the Buddhadharma: the path of virtue and righteousness that we recognize as the Eightfold Path: Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Meditation. The Buddhadharma gives us the law and we follow it. This brings us back to the meaning Han Shan had in mind when he spoke of a universe in flux; for through contemplation of this Dharma, we are able to distinguish Shakti from Shiva, Illusion (or Maya) from the Eternal; the changing from the changeless: we begin to understand life and death as elements of this flux and consciousness itself as the divine Will that is aware, permanent, and unmoved.

To Han Shan, to understand the ephemeral nature of phenomena (dharma-things) as they slip into and out of existence, and to understand the Logos of Power and that which obeys the Law through its very act of changing, was to apprehend Dharma in its most sublime meaning. Here, in what physicists still call "flux," we can begin to appreciate Master Han Shan's words. By looking inside the nature of this flux and not simply at the external manifestations, that part that we experience with our senses, we begin to transcend the very nature of change itself and thereby experience directly a changeless, formless, and timeless reality. In this reality we make a fully conscious discovery that we are immortal, i.e., that we are not separate, distinct, "individuals" but more like a hologram of which any fragment contains the whole. The entire universe is likewise "contained" within even the smallest part.

So, taken together as meaning ultimate reality -- as truth conveyed by the Buddha's teachings, and as righteousness, virtue, and duty -- Dharma means, simply, "reality." Not the reality we westerners tend to think of in empirical terms, as "of the senses" and of knowledge and memory, but rather as described by St. John of the Cross as the complete and total Reality that combines what cannot be known by the senses and mind with what can be known, i.e., the eternal and the ephemeral.

Our western approach to understanding reality has traditionally been through the study of science. We refer to the action of Dharma as Power -- the forces that create, in time, the "10,000 things" as Buddhism quaintly describes the myriad changing objects of the material/energy world. We then refer to the rules that govern the way that this Power is directed as Law. Together, they are one inseparable unit -- Power and the Law Power obeys -- for we note that forces are not self-directed, that they conform to the habit of behavior, i.e., to physical Law. While we admit to not knowing all the laws, we have no doubt that the material universe conforms to clear and concise rules of both predictability and unpredictability. So accustomed are we to this, in fact, that we tend to take the connection between law and its enactment for granted. We think of an airplane, for example, kept aloft by both the burning fuel (power) and by the lift created from the resultant wind or propulsion. The laws that govern the plane's takeoff and lift and keep it airborne are the laws of aerodynamics. Come safe landing or disaster, the plane can violate neither these laws nor the essential connection between Power and Law, a connection which is not phenomenological, but mystical.

It is in this intermediate realm that physics meets metaphysics: the interplay of Shiva and Shakti. Out of this, consciousness new insights have led physicists into new areas of exploration such as quantum physics, chaos theory, and string or M theory, each of which, in their own way, acknowledge this cosmic dance of the dharmas.

Dance of the dharmas -- While we will never be able to directly observe subatomic particles, we are aware that they exist through their short interactions with matter. We can imagine their cosmic dance as they enter the universe for brief moments by looking at the trails they leave behind in this photograph of an electromagnetic shower taken in the Fermilab 15-foot Bubble Chamber in 1978.

One of the earliest examples of a "flux dharma" in our western culture appeared in the literature of the early Greeks: "Everything is made of smaller things so there must be a smallest. We'll call this fundamental constituent an atom." Of course there were no laws governing the behavior of these atoms -- they were simply there in our minds to explain the existence of matter in ways that enabled us to conceptualize this nebulous thing called matter. The atom fit this need in the psyche for hundreds of years until, during the conclusion of the 19th century, revolutionary scientific thought and experiments from people like Michelson, Röntgen, Becquerel, Thomson, Plank, Millikan, Rutherford and Einstein overthrew the notion of an atom as the fundamental constituent of matter and set the groundwork for today's indescribably complex science, a science replete with distinct physical laws.

Yet the scientific community, at large, still seeks to find the lowest common denominator -- the smallest "building block" that it hopes will lead to a Grand Unified Theory, one that will explain the behavior of all phenomena and consolidate all the known laws into one. Some theorists think it may come from Superstring Theory, or M-Theory, which considers all matter to be, ultimately, composed of exceptionally small, string-like multidimensional "bubbles," whose shapes, or properties, are dependent on the specific resonance, or energy-state, of the string. The mathematics that describes these strings tells us that they do not exist in our physical universe, the universe of the senses, but cross over into multidimensional spaces which can only be concieved through complex mathematics, or exceptionally deep intuitive insight.

We have conceptualized the fundamental building blocks of matter to be so small, in fact, that we no longer have any tangible sensory input (e.g., from experiments) to even hint at a scientific validation of it. We are told by the experts that there is not enough raw energy on our planet to allow us to test Superstring theory with present technology. But Dharma says it doesn't matter since the quest of finding the Grand Unified Theory in Superstrings, or any other model of any kind, is like the proverbial dog chasing its tale. We're still stuck with outward manifestations which, while no longer limited to our sensory perceptions, are still limited to our mental ones. Thoughts, too, are part of the skandhas... the "heaps" of mechanisms and patterns by which we perceive and appreciate the illusions of the changing universe.

The Dharmakaya, literally, "truth body," is the principle that governs phenomena and is one of the three bodies comprising the Trikaya in Mahayana symbolism. Although physicists acknowledge that reality cannot be perceived directly by the senses alone since the senses are limited to functioning within three-dimensional space, they often fail to acknowledge that the mind, itself, and the thoughts and theories it construes, are limited in the same way. Yet something new has been evolving in recent years that is leading some scientific theorists to reconsider the old propositions of traditional scientific inquiry and lean toward a more intuitive approach toward an understanding of reality, an approach that begins to dovetail with venerated mystical spiritual practices, like Chan.

Michio Kaku, in Hyperspace, has suggested that Superstring theory can be considered capable of being validated based on its intrinsic beauty and mathematical elegance alone, rather than relying on the more traditionally accepted sensory "observables." He further conjectures that this "beauty," in and of itself, may be the underlying essence of reality. And Itzhak Bentov, who wrote in everyday language about the relationship between phenomena and consciousness in Stalking the Wild Pendulum, has added a new twist, bringing the Dharmakaya directly into the equation: "Our objective reality is composed of a void filled with pulsating fields. If we stop the pulsations of the fields, we get back to the absolute."

It doesn't require an understanding of modern physics to pierce the veils of the mind and get a glimpse of the Dharmakaya, yet science does show the Dharmakaya's footprint to those whose minds are adequately freed from constraints imposed by models and knowledge. When we see all physical and mental forms as constantly changing, the mind gains the ability to either grasp or release any of those forms. We see our friend, Sally, on the street one day and identify her as the same Sally we saw five years ago at a party, but, in fact, since that time most cells in her body have died and been replaced with new ones ... is she really the same Sally? The microcosmic flux may be less easily seen in the macrocosm on our time-scale, but it is only our degree of perception that is the limiting factor. We must even be careful when we say "I think …" when our thoughts are equally subject to the vagaries of change.

This changing universe is what must be transcended in order to gain independence from change itself. It is a mystical journey rather than one of the mind or body. And how we venture out on that journey is the domain of the numerous mystical traditions that have been preserved for thousands of years by many of our great world religions.

While conventional physics allows us to define the problem of Dharma, it doesn't allow us to solve it. Physics remains self-limiting in describing reality simply because it is constructed from our limited sensibilities and reasonings. We are all in our own "Black Box" from which our enlightenment wishes to free itself, but cannot, simply because the methods we so often use to try to free it are confined to the scope of the mind. So we turn to alternate methods. Many of those we look to are rooted deep within the symbolism of ancient yogic traditions dating back several millennia; some of them have embedded themselves in our Chan tradition.

Shiva sitting alone in lotus A glance at some photographs of art objects (2600-1900 BC) excavated from the ancient Indus River Valley civilizations shows us the time-honored symbols of Buddhism: the wheel of the Dharma; Shiva (Law/Yang/Logos/Male) sitting alone and Shakti (Power in the form of the tiger/Yin/Eros/Female) standing. We note also that words accompany these icons, and we can only imagine that they are sacred words . . . mantras. The elephant, for example, suggests Airavata, that is commonly depicted on the earth or root Chakra, the abode of Shakti, and is associated with the mantra Lam, the aindra-bija or sound element of that Chakra.

Of the most time-honored traditions in all Buddhist schools and many non-Buddhist schools alike, there is a common and highly esteemed practice for the spiritual inquirer who seeks deeper insight and understanding into the realm of the Dharmakaya: sound. The Surangama Sutra alludes to the notion that even the Buddha taught techniques of sound meditation as his own preferred methods for entering the Dharmakaya.

Relief carving shows the wheel of the Dharma, one of the most common symbols of Buddhism. Airavata, the elephant symbol, is commonly depicted on the earth or root Chakra, the abode of Shakti, and is associated with the mantra Lam. Sound meditation techniques encompass a wide variety of forms, from chanting various mantras and scriptures, to listening to the pulsating rhythm of the heart. Some techniques are more common than others depending on the specific school or sect; in the Chan tradition we acknowledge all forms as legitimate but emphasizing that it is the effort of the will to concentrate on sound that holds the key to success.

In order for the mind to transcend duality, it must first, through sheer will-power, become self-aware and view the macrocosm in the microcosm. It must engage the universal eye of Pure Consciousness: the Will behind vibration. It must discover the connection between Power and the Law Power Obeys. This is the Doctrine of Recognition: through practice of these techniques we transcend the illusion of fixed physical forms and perceive directly the flux of the Dharmakaya. The mind's inner eye no longer sees birth and death, but the essential nature of change itself.

While the Mahayana describes ultimate reality in terms of "voidness", the Doctrine of Recognition formally refers to it as Parispanda, a divine pulsation of consciousness or, as Paul Muller-Ortega describes it, as "the ecstatic throb that stirs the stillness of the absolute." Sound meditation through the chanting of mantras is the chief vehicle used to achieve the state of liberating wisdom, a state in which the practitioner becomes one with Shiva (Pure Consciousness).

While this model may be highly evolved and complex, it differs on the surface from the traditional Mahayana techniques used to bring the devotee to union with the absolute … but, model aside, the absolute is the absolute regardless of how we choose to describe it and regardless of the model we use to find it. It remains that sound meditation is an important and powerful vehicle for us as we move toward what the Buddha called supreme enlightenment, the abode of the Dharmakaya.

As a reminder, the success of any spiritual practice depends upon our willingness to follow steadfastly the particular model or approach used. Our Chan practice begins with humility, devotion, and a deep desire to move beyond our existence as pre-programmed, conditioned beings in a constantly changing, shifting world of forms, feelings, and thoughts. Whether we look at Kashmiri Shaivism, Kundalini yoga, Roman Catholicism, or traditional Zen and Daoist mystical practices, we find that the spiritual symphony is scored with mantras and other forms of sound meditations. Through mystical regimens we begin a new journey, one that starts with learning to concentrate the mind … one that guides us into ever expanding levels of awareness.

Sound meditation remains one of the most valued techniques and is still taught in Chan monasteries all over the world. We can illustrate the technique with a mantra: Om, mani padme hum, "the jewel is in the lotus." We begin by taking a natural and relaxed deep breath. As we exhale we say the words of this mantra slowly, hanging onto the "mmm" sounds a little longer than we would if we were speaking. We put our lips lightly together so that we can feel their vibration along with the resonance in the skull, jaw, and throat. A low, relaxed voice, is used and the mantra is repeated for a minimum of five to fifteen minutes. If we need to take a breath in the middle of the mantra, we do so naturally, without letting the attention slip away. While there are many levels of meanings to this important and sacred mantra, it offers a practical example of how sound meditation works. With devoted practice of this simple technique, we soon discover the jewel of understanding and the blossoming of Dharma wisdom.