Sunday, February 7, 2016

Contemplation of Feelings

Watching our emotional masks can be liberating.

"In experiencing feelings, the disciple knows: ‘I have an agreeable feeling’; or: ‘I have a disagreeable feeling’, or: ‘I have an indifferent feeling’; or: ‘I have a worldly agreeable feeling’, or: ‘I have an unworldly agreeable feeling’, or: ‘I have a worldly disagreeable feeling’, or: ‘I have an unworldly disagreeable feeling’, or: ‘I have a worldly indifferent feeling’, or: ‘I have an unworldly indifferent feeling.’

Thus he dwells in contemplation of the feelings, either with regard to his own person, or to other persons, or to both. He beholds how feelings arise; beholds how they pass away; beholds the arising and passing away of feelings. ‘Feelings are there’: this clear awareness is present in him, to the extent necessary for knowledge and mindfulness; and he lives independent, unattached to anything in the world. Thus does the disciple dwell in contemplation of feelings."
(Buddha, from the Maha-Satthipatthana Sutta)

Note: This post was originally posted on Buddha Space on 27/01/2014.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Buddha's Finger

Buddha's finger is pointing - at what?

The central way to establish mindfulness in Theravada Buddhism is through the various satipatthana, or ‘focuses of 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, which is largely based on ‘just sitting.’  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, colour, 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 colour 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 analyse its size, colour, 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 colour 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 at... no 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 colours – there are no colours 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.'

Now, 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 my self 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 endeavours, rather than from ‘in-seeing’. 'Buddha's finger' pointing home complements Buddhist meditation & other practices so well; at least, that's the experience 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.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Mindfulness of Breathing

Buddha's hands in meditation posture

“Herein the disciple retires to the forest, to the foot of a tree, or to a solitary place, seats himself with legs crossed, body erect, and with mindfulness fixed before him, mindfully he breathes in, mindfully he breathes out. When making a long inhalation, he knows: ‘I make a long inhalation’; when making a long exhalation, he knows: ‘I make a long exhalation’. When making a short inhalation, he knows: ‘I make a short inhalation’: when making a short exhalation, he knows: ‘I make a short exhalation’. ‘Clearly perceiving the entire body, I shall breathe in’: thus he trains himself; ‘Clearly perceiving the entire body, I shall breathe out’: thus he trains himself. ‘Calming this bodily function I shall breathe in’: thus he trains himself; ‘Calming this bodily function. I shall breathe out’: thus he trains himself.

Thus he dwells in contemplation of the body, either with regard to his own person, or to other persons, or to both, he beholds how the body arises; beholds how it passes away;
beholds the arising and passing away of the body. A body is there this clear awareness is present in him, to the extent necessary for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives independent, unattached to anything in the world. Thus does the disciple dwell in contemplation of the body.”

Note: The above is taken from the Satipatthana Sutta, an ancient mindfulness & meditation discourse attributed to Buddha. This section describes the basic meditation technique called anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing), a practice still used in many Buddhist traditions from Thailand to Japan, Tibet to California. The above instructions can be tried out by oneself if no meditation teacher is available, perhaps for five to fifteen minutes at first. After becoming settled in this practice, the time may be increased and the benefits, both in body & mind, can increase exponentially. (Such benefits may include physical & mental relaxation, calmness, and an increase in focus levels. Further instructions can be found throughout the Internet by searching for the key words satipatthana, anapanasati & mindfulness of breathing. Further note: As he was addressing monks, in the original text Buddha uses the term bhikkhu (Buddhist monk) not shravaka (disciple); also, this is why the text above uses ‘him’ not ‘her.’ Mindfulness of breathing is a simple technique that anyone can utilise, whether monk or nun, layman or laywoman.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Buddhist New Year's Resolution

Buddhas and sentient beings grow out of the One Mind and there are no differences between them. It is like space where there are no complexities, and is not subject to destruction. It is like the great sun which illumines the four worlds: when it rises, its light pervades all over the world, but space itself gains thereby no illumination. When the sun sets, darkness reigns everywhere, but space itself does not share this darkness. Light and darkness drive each other out and alternatively prevail, but space itself is vast emptiness and suffers no vicissitudes.
(Zen Master Huangbo Xiyun)

All the thoughts, feelings, and events of the past year are gone; now they are fleeting memories in the present moment. Reflecting on exactly where they arise, in the clear void of the Buddha Mind, they resemble sunlight disappearing into the darkness. Look into this Mind, and see its shining clarity at the heart of one’s being. Remaining as this spacious awareness, know the ephemeral nature of all things, including those memories; let them disappear into the void. Now, turn to face the New Year with this facelessness. What better resolution could there be than to rest in this knowing?

The e- book quoted in this article is available for free download at the following location: ‘Manual of Zen Buddhism’ by D.T. Suzuki

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Yoshiro Tamura on the Selfish View of the Self

Yoshiro Tamura (1921-1989): Don't be self-ish!

The selfish view of the self is a matter of seeing the self as fixed and unchanging, as a kind of absolute, and then seeing and judging other things on that basis. In other words, it is false subjectivity; it is deluded and clinging. In reality, nothing like an unchanging, fixed, absolute self exists. In other words, the self is a self-less self or a self-emptying self. A self that sees itself as impermanent sees things as they are. To know the true appearance of the self as a self-less self or a self-emptying self is to see things phenomenologically in accord with the way they are. It is, in brief, to be genuinely objective.

The selfish view of things involves seeing things as fixed and unchanging and then clinging to them. It is, in brief, a false objectivity. It is also deluded and involves clinging. In reality no unchanging fixed things exist. In other words, things are without independent reality; they are empty of independent reality. To know the true appearance of things as being without independent reality is to have a phenomenological mind, one free from clinging to objects, and conversely to be able to participate in the reality of objects from a phenomenological or non-selfish perspective. In this way, emptiness is not a matter of falling into nihilism but of enabling both objects and the self to exist and live as they should.

Yoshiro Tamura was a Japanese professor considered the leading authority on Tiantai, Tendai & the Lotus Sutra. The above quotation is taken from Tamura's excellent book ‘An Introduction to the Lotus Sutra,' published by Wisdom Publications: A very accessible work on the subject of the Lotus Sutra.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Ajahn Viradhammo on Buddhist Training

Ajan Viradhammo (1947-present): Good intentions

Two points that I find very helpful in training are: 1) to see cause and effect, and 2) intention. We can always reflect upon cause and effect, asking, for example, “What is the result of my practice? How long have I been practising and what’s the result? Am I more at ease with life than I was ten years ago? Or a year ago? Or am I more uptight?” If I’m more uptight, then I need to consider my practice! If I’m more at ease, then also I should consider my practice.

So we look at cause and effect, asking quite simply, “What is the result of my life, the way I live my life?” Not as a judgement, saying, “There I go, getting angry again.” That kind of attitude is not reflective.

Instead notice: The way I speak – what’s the result of that? The way I consume the objects of the sense world, whether it’s ideas in books or ham sandwiches: What is the result of that? What is the result of my sitting meditation?
What’s the effect on my mind and body, on the society around me? These are things we can contemplate. It’s simple, but very important – to see what works and what doesn’t work.

It’s because we don’t understand that we make mistakes, so the trick is to make as few mistakes as possible, and not to make the same mistakes again and again. Yet sometimes we have this blindness, and we don’t see why we have suffering in our lives. Ignorance blinds us. So then what can we do? Wherever there is suffering or confusion, we can begin to look at that pattern in our lives. If we look at this whole pattern, we can discover the causes of suffering, and begin to make intentions to not allow those causes to come up all the time.

Let’s say I’m a person who is always making wisecracks. I watch people cringe, I begin to notice that no one likes me, and end up hating myself. So I reflect: This kind of speech brings me remorse and regret. This kind of speech brings other people suffering. And then I see: Ah, that’s the result. So then what can I do?

Now this is when it’s important to know the difference between remorse and guilt. Remorse is a healthy response to inappropriate action or speech or thought. It’s a healthy response, because it’s telling me, “This is painful.” But most of us probably turn that into guilt.
There is remorse, but also an inappropriate amount of self-flagellation. This is the unhealthy nature of guilt.

For me, it seems that guilt is a kind of cover-up of the pain. I numb the pain, covering it over with these thoughts of guilt: “Yes. You are rotten to the core, Viradhammo!” But this is self-view. What does it feel like when we just go to the pain? If I say something which is unkind to someone, and then see them get hurt, I think: “Oh, I did it again!” – and there’s the jab. There’s the pain. There’s the result of my action.

The above is extracted from the book ‘The Stillness of Being,’ freely downloadable from here. Ajahn Viradhammo has been a Buddhist monk since 1971, having studied with Ajahn Chah & Ajahn Sumedho. He is currently abbot of Tisarana Buddhist Monastery in Canada.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Takamaro Shigaraki on Namu Amida Butsu

Takamaro Shigaraki (信楽 峻麿, 1926 - 2014): Namu Amida Bu(tsu)!

When we earnestly call the Buddha’s Name with a fullness of heart while listening to the Dharma, our lives gradually become directed toward the Buddha. However, as our recitation of the nembutsu deepens, there is an eventual reversal in the direction of that nembutsu. When we say the nembutsu, we are directing ourselves toward the Buddha as we call out the Buddha’s Name and think on the Buddha. However, at the same time, we also awaken to a movement in the opposite direction. That is, we hear the voice of the Buddha that is directing itself to us, as it names itself and calls out to us. Here, a transcendent religious experience takes place, which we awaken to at the deepest level of our consciousness.


Normally, we are always trying to cram ourselves full of things. We are constantly filling ourselves with self-attachment and ego, and so we are unable to see or hear anything truly. However, when our selves gradually become emptied, then the eyes of our mind will open and we will finally be able to hear things for the first time. And we are able to hear other persons’ voices of distress and pain as well.

When we come to know keenly and fully that the current state of our existence is false, then we will become able to hear what we had not been able to hear up until now. We will be able to see what up until now we had not been able to see. Within this structure, finally, we become able to hear the voice of the Buddha within the nembutsu. This is how saying the nembutsu works in Shin Buddhism.

Notes: Nembutsu is the recitation of ‘Namu Amida Butsu (literally, ‘Hail to Amitabha Buddha’), the final syllable of Butsu often being dropped; Shin Buddhism is a branch of Pure Land Buddhism in which Amitabha is called upon for salvation; Takamaro Shigaraki was a Japanese Buddhist philosopher and Shin Buddhist priest and former president of Ryukoku University, Tokyo, Japan. The above quotation is taken from Shigaraki's wonderful book 'Heart of the Shin Buddhist Path,' published by Wisdom Publications. A very important work on the subject of Shin Buddhism.

For more on this subject, click here: Shin Buddhism