Friday, May 20, 2016

A Second Experiment in Awareness

With eyes closed, listen to your inner buddha...

Following on from a previous post that featured an experiment in awareness, here’s another (albeit brief) exploration of what the British philosopher Douglas Harding called ‘seeing who we really are’. The previous experiment focused on awareness in relation to the visual sense, this one features the auditory sense.

Close your eyes. Listen to an external sound, maybe a dog barking or traffic passing by. Notice its volume level, its pitch, and whether it’s constant or intermittent.

Next, focus awareness on another noise, this time something closer to you; perhaps music, voices, or a whirling fan. Again, take note of the specific characteristics of the sound, observing them one by one.

Now listen to a sound emanating from yourself. Your breath will do, as it enters and exists from your body. How loud is it? What’s its tempo: is it long and slow or short and swift.

Finally, turn your attention to that in which all these various sounds occur in. Can this said to be loud or quiet? Intermittent or constant? Is it fast or slow? Here, all audible phenomena arise in a silence. That they have particular qualities is the very stuff of what they are made of, but the silent awareness in which they are born, live and die is peace itself, a tranquility that hosts everything.

So, as with the experiment in awareness in the last post, if you don’t do it, but merely read about it and think about it, you’ll miss the whole point. If you did do it, but still appeared to miss the whole point, there’s no harm in repeating the exercise, is there?

This experiment is one of many pioneered by Douglas Harding, a wonderful man that I had the pleasure to meet several times in the Nineties. He himself continued to tour the world promoting ‘seeing who we really are’ to anyone who showed an interest well into his own Nineties, passing away at the ripe old age of Ninety-seven in 2007. His vigor and enthusiasm for what he also called ‘in-seeing’ – in this instance ‘in-listening’ might be more appropriate – reflect some of the benefits of practicing this technique in mindfulness.

Buddhists, if we are open-minded to the experiments and their results, can find great use in them. They naturally lend themselves to everyday mindfulness, enlivening each and every moment that the space here is paid attention to, as well as being conducive to meditation practice. Sitting and just looking at the spacious awareness to all that is seen, or listening to all that is heard, is a simple and insight-producing activity. It reveals something about our nature, as it is in this very moment, rather than from reading a book or philosophizing (as useful as these endeavors can be).

What exactly does it reveal, however? It shows that beneath (or alongside) all the things that exist in human experience, whether they be visual, auditory, mental or whatever, there is this peaceful knowing that not only is aware of everything, but is also somehow one with them. This means that whatever distracting or upsetting things are happening in awareness, awareness itself remains no such thing; it is the no thing that is host to all things. Isn’t it worth a look – or a listen?

Thursday, May 5, 2016

An Experiment in Awareness

Look at what Arnie's pointing at...and be 'terminated!'

The central way to establish mindfulness in Theravada Buddhism is through the various satipatthana, or ‘frames for mindfulness’, which comprises focusing attention on one of four types of phenomena: the body, feelings, the mind and mind objects. Contemplation of the body includes the well known practice of anapanasati, or ‘mindfulness of breathing’, where one keeps attention on the in and out breaths, developing concentration and insight into the nature of the breath. Another long-established type of meditation is zazen, as promoted in Zen Buddhism. As with mindful breathing, zazen has become a very popular form of meditation in modern times.

An alternative to the above traditional awareness practices, is to turn attention around 180 degrees and look at who or what is experiencing the world right now. This technique, though surely not unknown prior to the twentieth century, was discovered and developed by the British philosopher and writer Douglas Edison Harding. It’s a startling simple and direct way to cultivate mindfulness and insight, and probably for this reason is often overlooked or undervalued.

To have any understanding of this technique does not come from reading about it, however, but arises from actually doing at least one of the experiments promoted by the late Douglas Harding. Here’s one of the simpler experiments:

Point at the scene in front of you, taking note of the size, color, shape and opacity of an object you can see. Next, point to another object near to where you are, answering the following questions: how big is it? What color is it? What shape is it? Can you see through it, or is it opaque?

Next, point at your own feet, asking and answering the same questions as above, before moving on to focus on your legs. Take a look at your torso, also taking the time to analyze its size, color, shape and solid nature.

Now, point your finger at your face – or at least where others see your face. What do you see? How big is it? What color is it? Does it have a shape? Is it an opaque thing, or the exact opposite? Pointing at where others see my face, I see no such thing. Right here, right now, this finger is directed not at a face or head, but thing whatsoever!

All the different sized things on display are in stark contrast to what I see here: they appear in the absence of any such thing here. Ditto colors – there are no colors here other than the colors of the objects arising in awareness. The same is true of shape – the ‘no thing’ here has no shape, as only things have shape, and there’s no thing here to have a shape! As to opacity, all the opaque objects that can be seen right now occur in this invisible no thing: its absence is their being. What do you see when you point at your ‘face’?

Hopefully you did the experiment above, rather than just reading the instructions and intellectualizing about them. Douglas Harding’s experiments are entirely based on doing them, otherwise they probably sound like so much gibberish! If you did do the experiment, but didn’t quite ‘get it’, you can always do it again, this time making sure to accept only the facts of this moment rather than what you imagine to be where ‘you’ are.Why do this particular form of mindfulness? Well, over the years, I’ve found it to be a pretty good technique for getting beyond many of the ego-based emotions and hang-ups that can dominate much of human thought. Looking back here and seeing that nobody’s home, when practiced over years, can alleviate much personality-produced angst, as well as the kind of self-consciousness that blighted my own youth. Also, with less of me here to get in the way, there’s a natural openness to all the people that appear in this naked awareness, with nothing between us to separate 'me' from 'them.'

As I’ve written before, some of the insights that have arisen in this mind in relation to what Douglas called ‘in-seeing’ do differ from some of his conclusions, along with many of his ‘followers’. Being brought up in a strict Christian environment, Douglas later related ‘seeing-who-we-really-are’ to a theistic view of life, describing this experience as seeing (and being) God. As you might expect of a Buddhist, I don’t experience the space here as any kind of deity, as such, but that’s not to say that Douglas’ ideas are completely at odds with my own views. One man’s God might be another man’s Zen, or one woman’s Brahman could well be another lady’s Nirvana. Enlightenment ain't to be found in words!

An important point that I would make as a Buddhist is that ‘the Headless Way’, as this technique is widely known, is not a stand-alone practice. Douglas and his many friends have often seen it as such, referring to religious tradition when it fits in with the ‘headless’ experience, but rejecting conventional spiritual life when it seems to suggest that there’s more to enlightenment/salvation than merely looking ‘home’. Seeing the void at the centre of ‘G’ is only part of the Buddhist Way that I practice however, and many insights have arisen over the years that have come from traditional Buddhist teachings and endeavors, rather than from ‘in-seeing’. The two complement each other nicely, and that’s the Way it works out here.

So, if you got the point of the experiment and saw what Zen Buddhists call “Your Original Face (before you were born)”, why not stick at it for a while and see what insights arise. If you wish for further information on this efficacious mindfulness technique, please click here: The Headless Way.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Shunryu Suzuki on Zazen

Shunryu Suzuki (鈴木 俊隆, 1904-1971)

Today I am sitting in Los Altos. Tomorrow morning I shall be in San Francisco. There is no connection between the "I" in Los Altos and the "I" in San Francisco. They are quite different beings. Here we have the freedom of existence. And there is no quality connecting you and me; when I say "you," there is no "I"; when I say "I ," there is no "you." You are independent, and I am independent; each exists in a different moment. But this does not mean we are quite different beings. We are actually one and the same being. We are the same, and yet different. It is very paradoxical, but actually it is so. Because we are independent beings, each one of us is a complete flashing into the vast phenomenal world. When I am sitting, there is no other person, but this does not mean I ignore you, I am completely one with every existence in the phenomenal world. So when I sit, you sit; everything sits with me. That is our zazen. When you sit, everything sits with you. And everything makes up the quality of your being. I am a part of you. I go into the quality of your being. So in this practice we have absolute liberation from everything else. If you understand this secret there is no difference between Zen practice and your everyday life. You can interpret everything as you wish.
A wonderful painting is the result of the feeling in your fingers. If you have the feeling of the thickness of the ink in your brush, the painting is already there before you paint. When you dip your brush into the ink you already know the result of your drawing, or else you cannot paint. So before you do something, "being" is there, the result is there. Even though you look as if you were sitting quietly, all your activity, past and present, is included; and the result of your sitting is also already there. You are not resting at all. All the activity is included within you. That is your being. So all results of your practice are included in your sitting. This is our practice, our zazen.

(The above is excerpted from ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’ by Shunryu Suzuki. A review of this incredible book can be found here.)

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Buddha on Clear Comprehension

"O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu, in going forwards and in going backwards, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in looking straight on and in looking away from the front, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in bending and in stretching, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in wearing the shoulder-cloak, the (other two) robes and the bowl, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in regard to what is eaten, drunk, chewed and savored, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in defecating and in urinating, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in walking, in standing, in sitting, in sleeping, in waking, in speaking and in keeping silence, is a person practicing clear comprehension."
(Buddha, extracted from the Satipatthana Sutta)

*Notes: The satipatthana are the 'focuses of mindfulness,' a group of meditation & mindfulness practices found in ancient Buddhist texts; clear comprehension (sampajana) is a method to develop mindfulness through the day, during everyday activities; a bhikkhu is a Buddhist monk, and as monks are being addressed in this discourse, it is the word found here, but nuns & laypeople are also encouraged to practiced clear comprehension, and can benefit just as much from its use as monks.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Buddha's Feet

Walking meditation reveals our true "buddha-feet"

Walking meditation is not so very well known in the West, but is a common practice in the traditional forms of Buddhism found in Asia, and is known as kinhin in Japanese and cankama in Pali. In the forest tradition of Northeast Thailand many well-known monks, such as the renowned meditation master Ajahn Mun, have used the latter method to cultivate enlightening mind states. In Wat Pah Nanachat (the International Forest Monastery) in Ubon Ratchathani, walking meditation is used by many of the contemplatives, and is been promoted by its former abbot Ajahn Nyanadhammo in the excellent pamphlet ‘Walking Meditation’ downloadable here. Here’s an instructive extract from this short work:
“In this method, while walking place all your attention at the soles of the feet, on the sensations and feelings as they arise and pass away (this is assuming that you are walking bare footed, as most monks do. Although light soled shoes can be worn if necessary.) As you begin walking, the feeling will change. As the foot is lifted and comes down again into contact with the path, a new feeling arises. Be aware of that sensation, as it is felt through the sole of the foot. Again as the foot lifts, mentally note the new feeling as it arises. When you lift each foot and place it down, know the sensations felt. At each new step, certain new feelings are experienced and old feelings cease. These should be known with mindfulness. With each step there is a new feeling experienced – feeling arising, feeling passing away; feeling arising, feeling passing away.”
Walking meditation is a useful alternative (or complementary) technique with regards to sitting meditation, the classical physical position for Buddhist meditative practice. In ‘Walking Meditation,’ Ajahn Nyanadhammo states that many monks and nuns have realized insight and enlightenment whilst practicing walking meditation. He also says that in the Forest Monastic Tradition every part of life is an opportunity to meditate, not only when doing sitting meditation. So, cankama can be used as an integrated aspect of Buddhist practice, allowing the various processes of life to be investigated and understood as impermanent, imperfect, and impersonal.

I personally find walking meditation effective for establishing mindfulness in the mornings, and in his book ‘Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond,’ Ajahn Brahm states that Buddha himself used cankama early in the mornings (a lot earlier in the mornings than me!). He also tells a story from his own life that illustrates the potential power of walking meditation. Early in his monastic training, Ajahn Brahm was doing cankama and was so absorbed in this practice that he lost track of time and missed the beginning of an important ceremony. Another monk came to fetch him, but had great difficulty arousing the young monk from the deep state of concentration (samadhi) that he had developed, so much so that he took quite some time to come out of the feeling of beauty and peace that had arisen during his walking. Ajahn Brahm states the following in the same book:

“As your mindfulness increases, you will know more and more of the sensations of walking. Then you find that walking does have this sense of beauty and peace to it. Every step becomes a “beautiful step.” And it can very easily absorb all your attention as you become fascinated by just walking. You can receive a great deal of Samadhi through walking meditation in this way. That Samadhi is experienced as peacefulness, a sense of stillness, a sense of the mind being very comfortable and very happy in its own corner.”

There are many variations of walking meditation, but one simple method to begin with is the following:

  1. Find a suitable place for cankama. This can be outside, perhaps positioned between two trees as in the practice of forest monks, or indoors, say in a corridor or longish room. I use the sitting room in my house, which is about seventeen steps long – in the forest tradition it’s often up to thirty paces long.
  2. Do cankama barefooted if possible, as this heightens the sensation of the feet touching the ground, which is usually the main focus of attention.
  3. Establish mindfulness prior to beginning to walk. This can be done by holding one’s hands in anjali (palm-to-palm, as in prayer) and reciting a brief Buddhist phrase, perhaps remembering the Three Refuges of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
  4. Holding one’s hands in front of one’s self walk at a comfortable pace, neither too fast nor too slow, enabling one to be mindful of each step.
  5. Keep looking about a meter and a half in front, avoiding looking at this and that.
  6. Focus awareness on the feet, noting the different sensations as each foot is placed on the ground and then rises from it, much as one might focus on the breath.
  7. When you reach the end of your meditation path, turn around and stand still for a few moments, re-establishing mindfulness before resuming walking.
  8. To begin with, do cankama for about fifteen minutes, longer if it’s comfortable. Eventually, half an hour to an hour will become possible without losing mindfulness.
Using walking meditation this way, we can lay the foundations of a steady and alert mind which can be of benefit away from the meditation path. A sense of beauty and peace may arise that accompanies every step that we take, making the simple experience of walking a deeply pleasurable one. We may find that there is an increase in the general alertness of our actions as well as with regards the feeling of walking itself. Then, wherever we are, we will be walking with Buddha’s feet of wisdom.

The above post is a revised version of a post that first appeared on this blog in September 2009. A review of Ajahn Brahm’s great book ‘Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond’ can be read here.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Contemplation of the Mind

Knowing the mind leads to freedom

“But how does the disciple dwell in contemplation of the mind?

Herein the disciple knows the greedy mind as greedy, and the not greedy mind as not greedy; knows the hating mind as hating, and the not hating mind as not hating: knows the deluded mind as deluded and the undeluded mind as undeluded. He knows the cramped mind as cramped, and the scattered mind as scattered; knows the developed mind as developed, and the undeveloped mind as undeveloped; knows the surpassable mind as surpassable and the unsurpassable mind as unsurpassable; knows the concentrated mind as concentrated, and the unconcentrated mind as unconcentrated; knows the freed mind as freed, and the unfreed mind as unfreed.”

(Buddha, from the Maha-Satipatthana Sutta)

Monday, February 22, 2016

Buddha Ear

Buddha statue, Wat Pah Nanachat, Ubon, Thailand

Above is a picture of a Buddha statue: observe the really long ears. Attractive, aren't they? Such ears are a sign of a Buddha according to Buddhist tradition, and are said to indicate both the heavy earrings that he wore as a prince prior to becoming a buddha, and that as a buddha he is all-hearing. Such symbolism can be used wisely as a subject for reflection, contemplating the wondrous qualities that the Buddha possessed, and being thankful that he taught the Dharma to "those with little dust in their eyes" - or should that be ears?!

Those ears can be a source not just of inspiration, however, but they can encourage us to practice, too. For, apart from looking pretty, what are ears for? Well, listening! Just as the Buddha is considered to be all-hearing, so can we learn to listen more carefully, cultivating precious wisdom in the process. And this can work on at least three important levels. Firstly, if we listen like a buddha, that is with attention, we will become better listeners, improving our relationships with others, as well as enabling us to understand the world just a little bit better. Secondly, we can use the faculty of listening to develop mindfulness, a useful tool in both worldly activities and in meditation practice. Thirdly, if we use our ears to listen in the opposite direction to that which they usually do, we will discover something truly amazing!

Buddha statues, Wat Tai, Ubon, Thailand

Looking at the first benefit of being good listener, we can examine the example of the counsellor. Counsellors need to be good listeners. They need to be able to create a welcoming space around what is being said to them, so that the speaker feels that they can reveal their fears, worries, and mistakes without being jumped on. The speaker should feel that they are not going to be judged by the counsellor, but instead be listened to in an attentive & open manner. This has been evident in this writer's role as counsellor for the students in an international program in which he works, where it became apparent that if really listened to, the students would be more likely to express their true feelings. Then, there is a starting point from which these problems could be discussed and hopefully some positive conclusions reached.

Although we do not all work as counsellors, good listening skills can be of use to us in our everyday lives. We can have more fulfilling relationships with this around us if we are truly listening to them, for they will feel more appreciated. Moreover, if we really listen to others, we are actually able to hear what it is they are getting at; then, if we are inclined to do so, we can respond in ways that are pleasing to them. We will benefit from this by being appreciated more ourselves, and people will be more favorable to our requests. Everyone's a winner!

Buddha statue, Wat Pah Nanachat, Ubon, Thailand

The second point above was that we can become more mindful through developing our listening skills. Here, another aspect of this writer's experience can be used for the purpose: language learning. Both as a teacher of English language & learner of Thai, listening has been central to any success. Reading books about a language that we are learning certainly helps in its acquisition. The learning of reading & writing skills are largely dependent upon the usage of text books and other written materials, as is grammar. Speaking & listening skills are equally important for those wishing to be fluent in the language that they are learning, and being able to listen well is crucial to both. Indeed, much study is dependent upon listening to a tutor - how many difficulties have students caused themselves by not paying attention in class? Such lessons can be applied to many skills that we learn in our lives, whether in education, at work, or elsewhere.

Mindfulness is made much of in Buddhism. Whole sutras (discourses) are devoted to it, such as the Satipatthana Sutta, in which instructions are given by the Buddha on how to cultivate mindfulness to the point of enlightenment itself. Meditation, of course, plays a central role in Buddhist approach to awakening, and being able to 'listen' with the mind is an important ability in this regard. If we can really hear what is going on in the body, we can understand it. Ditto the mind, and it is then that real peace & the wisdom that comes out of it can be experienced. 

Now we come to the main point of this article: that of the third remark regarding listening made above, which was that if we reverse the direction in which we normally focus our listening, an incredible discovery awaits us. This is no idle talk, either, merely written to gain your attention - it is the plain, unadulterated truth of the matter. For, on the whole, we direct our listening faculty outwards not inwards. Along with all the other four physical senses, we grow up aiming it at the world around us - after all, that's where all the interesting stuff happens, right? Wrong! This is what we are taught, what we come to believe and assume. But in truth, if we are resourceful enough to about-face with our attention, we can bring to light something absolutely fantastic and probably completely unexpected. And listening is a powerful way to do so.*

Buddha statue, Wat Tai, Ubon, Thailand

What on earth could this 'something' be? Well, if the word 'something' were to be replaced with the somewhat more satisfying 'no-thing,' would that help? Possibly not as yet! The trouble is, that what's being written about here is not easily discussed. This isn't because its highly complicated or involved; quite the reverse. The problem here is that it is so simple, so utterly obvious what we're going to reveal, that it's rather easy to overlook it. In fact, this is what we do on a daily basis. We'd be buddhas otherwise! But, in fact, each of us possesses what might be dubbed 'Buddha Ear,' and conducting a simple exercise can reveal what all this prattle is about. Hopefully, the above waffling has whetted your appetite, rather than spoilt it. So, without further ado, it's time for us to actually do some 'reverse listening,' and hear what we hear. To this end, there are some instructions below, which this writer humbly requests that you carry out. If you do, it will surely be worth your while!

It will be worth your while remembering the main points of this exercise so that you don't have to keep reopening your eyes, which will distract from the exercise somewhat. In a comfortable, quiet place, sit or lie down (the former is preferable if you think you might fall asleep!). Close your eyes.  Listen to the sounds arising at this time, noting each one in turn. Next, turn your attention around to the listener. What can you hear right where you are, now? Take at least a few moments to really focus on that, before opening your eyes. 

At first, you may have thought that there weren't many sounds, or even that it was completely silent. This is rare, however, even if you live in the countryside. But, when acclimatized to your audio environment, you may have become aware of many more sounds than you ever dreamed of. Birds, insects, or other animals, the wind in the trees, running water or falling rain. Apart from natural sounds, there's a multitude of human-made noise that we aren't always aware of: voices, traffic, TVs or radios, music, fans, air con, heaters, cookers, ringtones, washing machines…you get the picture. All this sound is coming from the usual direction, however - 'out there.' Right now, we're more interested what we can hear in the opposite direction. So, when you'd exhausted all the sounds that you could identify, what could you hear where you were? Your breathing, perhaps? Well, technically, that's still part of the external world, and not right where your ears are. Listening to the listener, what did you notice? Here, I notice…silence. An awake, alert, open silence…full of the external noises that it's aware of. Is it the same where you are? If you're not sure, or even if you are, please take your time doing the following exercise, carefully noticing what you can hear.

Again, it will be worth your while remembering the main points of this exercise so that you don't have to keep reopening your eyes. Close your eyes. Listen to the sounds that you can presently hear, one by one. This time, note the particular characteristics of each sound, rather than simply labeling them. Are they loud or quiet, rhythmic or erratic, pleasant or unpleasant, near or far, fast or slow? When you've done this with every noise that you're aware of, turn your attention around to the listener. What qualities can you ascribe to the that which is hearing all of this? Is it loud or quiet, rhythmic or erratic, pleasant or unpleasant, near or far, fast or slow? Or, is it completely without audible characteristics? 

Now, do you feel cheated? After all this talk of 'Buddha's Ear' and discovering something amazing, are you disappointed? If so, please don't give up just yet! So, what did we find out? That the heart of the listening experience is silence. But, as mentioned above, it's not mere empty silence, is it? It's full of outer sounds, and, more importantly for our purposes here, it is full of awareness. It is an awake silence, alert to its contents. It is the emptiness at the centre of being, and it is not self; it is impersonal. Sound familiar? For any Buddhist, they should do, for emptiness and not self are the core teachings of Buddhism. Of the two main branches of Buddhism, Theravada tends to emphasize not self (anatta), whereas Mahayana stresses emptiness (shunyata), but they are different ways of describing what is essentially the same experience. 'Buddha' means 'awakened one.' Awakened to the way-things-are & the no-thing that lies at the heart of all things. Silence is not a thing, and yet all (audible) things arise in it. Furthermore, the silence that we can experience within ourselves is alert to what's going on. This is the Buddha's Ear: awakened silence. 

Buddha statue, Wat Pah Nanachat, Ubon, Thailand

If we spend time with Buddha's Ear, listening to the alert silence as well as the noise that occurs in it, the benefits are potentially fantastic. There's the worldly pluses mentioned above, from being a good counsellor to being a great student. But, more impressive than these, is the realization of our true nature within; silent awareness. And this is where it gets really tasty. If we live from this silence, which is impersonal and beyond suffering, then there is no suffering. Contentment is realized, not based on external conditions - the likes and dislikes of the individual - nor arising from manipulations of the personality. But instead coming from this inner emptiness. As mentioned earlier, any of the six senses can be used, and then we might label this experience as 'Buddha Mind' or 'Buddha Eye' (both of which which have been used historically by Zen masters), 'Buddha Body,' 'Buddha Mouth,' and 'Buddha Nose.' Admittedly, some of these sound a little daft, but if we actually experiment with these senses, we may well find that they are as valid descriptions of our inner reality as 'Buddha Ear.' Keep listening!

*In fact, any of the five physical senses can be used for the purpose, and so can what Buddhism deems the sixth sense, the mind. But, listening will do the job for us now, as it is a particularly striking sense for many of us, closely following vision (which has featured on these pages previously).