“Whatever we are thinking or feeling we must know it. This knowing is called Buddho, the Buddha, the one who knows…who knows thoroughly, who knows clearly and completely. When the mind knows completely we find the right practice.”
(The Teachings of Ajahn Chah, p.302)
“It is the knowing of [that] change that we call Buddha and in which we take refuge. We make no claims to Buddha as being ‘me’ or ‘mine’. We don’t say, ‘I am Buddha,’ but rather, ‘I take refuge in Buddha.’ It is a way of humbly submitting to that wisdom, being aware, being awake.” (Ajahn Sumedho, ‘Now is the Knowing’, p. 10)
Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Chah’s great American disciple, prefers to use the impersonal term knowing rather than knower like his master. The reason is clear from reading his words above. If we attach to the idea of being the knower, and the knower in turn as being the Buddha, then we’re one step away from confusing the ego with the Buddha, and that would be worse than solely defining the Buddha as that historical figure represented in so many statues. So, the knowing is the Buddha; being awake to the way-things-are, the Dharma, is the Buddha. This awakened state is the same in us all. It is the same knowing that the historical Buddha had in ancient India, the same as Amitabha Buddha has in the Western Paradise, the same as Master Hua and Ajahn Chah had last century. And it is the same as you and I have right now, if we are fully awake to this present moment.
To become alive to the Buddha in this way, or to take refuge in the Buddha as Ajahn Sumedho emphasizes above, is not an ego-boosting experience. It is a humbling one, as the American forest monk notes. The ego, along with all its faults and failings arises, in what we can call the Buddha Mind, but in itself is not that Mind. Moreover, there aren’t two minds present, either. So, how could we best describe the Buddha Mind? The Ninth Century Chinese Zen Master Huang Po does as good as could be hoped:
The key phrase here is “This Mind is pure and like space has no form.” Again, there’s no way to mistake the personality with the Buddha, for can we say that the personality is pure and without specific form? G’s ego – ‘my’ ego – is certainly not pure, and is made up of specific forms, or habits, memories, attachments, dislikes, and so on. And yet, it is nowhere else than right here where this ego-personality exists that the Buddha Mind is to be discovered. Being fully awake to the mind’s personality is to see through it, to the transcendent Mind that lies behind it. Another way to describe this transcendent reality is as Emptiness, or the Void. It is the Spacious Empty Buddha Mind that is void of all characteristics while at the same time playing host to them!
Okay, you might well agree that this sounds great in theory, but what about in practice? (And it is in relation to the practice of the Dharma that Ajahn Chah made his statement regarding the Buddha at the top of this article.) Clearly, to believe the statements above intellectually is a beginning, but only in the sense that a countdown is the beginning to a rocket’s journey to the heavens. And we’ve all seen those countdowns that end in a failed liftoff, with the rocket left stationary on the launch platform. We need a way to see the Buddha Mind for ourselves, to experience the awakened state that the great masters of Buddhism have identified with the Buddha himself. Time for an experiment!
Closing your eyes, take a few moments to calm down, perhaps focusing attention on the breath at first, watching each in-breath followed by an out-breath. Allow the mind to settle on the breath (or whatever other meditation object you have chosen). Next, turn your attention to the mind itself. Watch the internal narrator, that part of the mind that likes to constantly pass comment on the present situation. Perhaps it is moaning. Or maybe it is stating how unusual this current activity is. Whatever is being said right now by the inner narrator, just be aware of it, neither attaching to the thoughts that are arising, nor rejecting them. Do this for several minutes, noting each thought and any emotions that accompany it. See how thoughts and feelings are forms, with distinct ‘shapes’ and life spans. Now, focus awareness on that which is aware of those thoughts and emotions. What is it like? Does it have a form, a shape, or accompanying emotions? Or is it simply the spacious awareness that is the openness for all phenomena to occur in? Could this be the very Buddha Mind itself, the unconditioned no-thing that’s aware of all the conditioned things – both mental and physical – that it plays host to?
Perhaps you ‘get it’. You are aware of this knowing that is neither a thing nor a process, but at the same time is not separate from the things that it’s awake to. And yet, as is the nature with the mind, questions arise about this naked knowing. The most basic one being perhaps, “So what?” In other words, what exactly are the practical benefits of seeing this Buddha Mind? For, if in becoming aware of the Emptiness at the heart of experience, nothing radical changes in our lives, investigating and meditating on it seem rather pointless, don’t they? Let’s look into this.
Firstly, returning to the focus of the above experiment, that is the human mind, becoming alive to the Buddha within reveals the inherent impermanence of thoughts and feelings. Seeing their nature thus, they can duly be let go of, no longer coveted as being precious and central parts of one’s identity, but as mental processes, coming and going in the spacious Buddha Mind. And, in this revelation, arises a detachment to them. They begin to lose their power to cause suffering in the mind in which they occur, as they can be experienced without clinging or aversion. This isn’t to say that such thoughts and feelings become irrelevant; the one in which the Buddha Mind is known is not a kind of emotionless robot. On the contrary, when observed with dispassion, mental phenomena become somewhat fascinating, as the knower watches the patterns that they weave.
Secondly, if the body is seen in relation to the Buddha Mind rather than the ego, it can be known without the narcissistic attachment that so often blights human existence. Looking at this body whilst not losing sight of the spaciousness in which it is known, reveals it to be a wondrous organic contraption that deserves care and attention for sure, just as one cares and nurtures exotic plants or animals. But it is not my body: it belongs to nature, and will follow its own natural course of aging, illness and death. Knowing and accepting the body to be this way transcends the habitual attitudes that produce identification with it. It is appreciated and cared for, but not taken to be me, and therefore more valuable than other bodies, which leads to the next point.
Thirdly, all beings and their bodies – if they have such things – are experienced as being born, existing, suffering, and dying in this spacious Buddha Mind. They are worthy of compassion, of love and assistance, no more or less than the one here. All beings that have minds that are unaware of the true Buddha Mind suffer. They suffer from believing that they are separate beings from the Knower, the ailments of the body and the mind being their ailments and not merely the arising of natural phenomena. Being awakened to the living Buddha increases the love and compassion in this suffering world, and we become more sensitive and responsive as a result.
Fourthly, and no less important than the three other radical consequences of seeing-what-we-really-are, is the happiness that it produces. Perhaps happiness isn’t the right word here: let’s use bliss, instead. Knowing the Buddha Mind right this moment is blissful. The tensions and pains of thinking oneself to be a self, an ego, drop away when the Void is paid attention to. After all, a Void cannot suffer. This bliss isn’t like worldly bliss, however. It’s not akin to sexual bliss or emotional highs, both of which have their opposites in sexual frustration and emotional lows. The true bliss that comes from knowing and meditating on the Buddha within goes beyond such worldly concerns, for it is the bliss of knowing Emptiness, and transcends suffering.
So, here, right now, if we look with an open mind, is the Buddha Mind, the Void that is at once liberated form worldly suffering and liberates those with worldly suffering. It is aware of, and yet blissfully untouched by, the vicissitudes of life. And, it is found in the teachings of great teachers like Ajahns Chah and Sumedho, along with Master Huang Po and others, who point to the freedom and bliss of knowing the Buddha. Not the Buddha that we acknowledge in ritual, but that part of the historical Shakyamuni Buddha that ever shines for all to see. We simply have to look.
The three books quoted in this article are available for free download from the Internet at the following locations:
‘Now is the Knowing’ by Ajahn Sumedho
'Manual of Zen Buddhism' by D.T. Suzuki