Friday, July 25, 2008

Listening to the Void #2

One of the hallmarks of human culture is its use of music to express just about every emotion and reflect the many variegated expressions of human activity such as religion, sexuality, nationalism or just having good old fun. At present, Chinese Buddhist music is emanating from the notebook on which this article is being written, and in response, feelings such as pleasure, devotion and peacefulness are inspired in my heart. Music is a powerful thing.

I recall that during the first Gulf War when Baghdad was being bombed some Iraqis would dance and sing in front of news cameras chanting the name of their country and (then) leader Saddam Hussein. They were using music to show defiance towards their attackers and support of the Iraqi regime. (Of course, many, many more Iraqis did not dance and sing on the streets like this, so whether these individuals reflected the sentiments of their fellow compatriots or not is an entirely different matter.) National anthems are a similar form of music, evoking a multitude of images and feelings in relation to one’s country in the hearts of those that recite them. Similarly, music is also an expression of cultural identity, and here in Thailand there are several traditional musical forms reflecting the different regions and strata of Thai society, all performed in schools, universities, and via the media as an affirmation of ‘Thai-ness’.

Most of us who have grown up in the West are familiar with the singing of Christian hymns. Sung with much fervor and devotion they are an integral part of most church services, encouraging loving feelings towards God and are also an expression of Christian identity. Monastics in the West have used plainsong or Gregorian chants to cultivate similar feelings accompanied by a reflective attitude to the songs. Go to any professional football match in England on a Saturday afternoon and you’ll see thousands of people chanting the praises of their favorite player and his teammates. This isn’t restricted just to football, of course; most sports have music and chants associated with them. Rugby, for instance, is notorious for its tongue-in-cheek and rather saucy chants heard during matches. Singing can therefore be a kind of affirmation of who we believe ourselves to be, whether we are singing for our country or our religion or even our sports team.

Of course, we listen to music for another good reason too: it’s enjoyable. Millions and millions of dollars are spent across the globe every year on the best-selling albums, and radios blast out the latest songs of the newest talent to hit the airwaves, along with older classics from the last century and beyond. Music is found in barn dances, weddings, discothèques, raves, birthday parties, stage shows, and of course, on the television. Mp3 players, i-pods, and even most video games contain music. My wife just purchased a new mobile phone that not only allows her to listen to mp3s but also lets her listen to the radio. Apparently, she can even make and receive telephone calls on the thing!

Listening to traditional Chinese Buddhist chants can reveal an important aspect of music that is usually overlooked: the space in between the notes. For, if all the sounds were drones going on and on simultaneously, it would be very difficult to discern any melody or rhythm in music. (And – unless distorted by modern technology – the human voice cannot drone on for much more than a few minutes, anyhow.) Even in music that uses drone-style sounds such as Indian music, only one instrument is normally used to make a droning noise which is used as a kind of background hum to the tunes played over it. And those tunes all have gaps in between the notes.

Let’s look closer at those gaps in music, for they point at an important aspect not only of sound but of life itself. Choosing a piece of music that isn’t too boisterous or chockablock full of many, many different sounds, devote this time to sitting down with an attentive mind and listening carefully. This can be done in a formal meditation position or sat or led down quite casually, as long as one doesn’t move around too much or become dozy and fall asleep. (Although, if you’re tired, why not go to sleep and do this experiment when less drowsy?)

Keeping pretty still and with eyes closed to cut out any visual interference with this experiment in sound, pay close attention to the chosen piece of music. Take in the various instruments on the song, focusing on each one in turn, noticing the particularities of the way they sound. For instance, one can listen to a bass guitar, recognizing its typically low muffled sound, creating a beat alongside any percussion being played. Also listen to the space in between the tune the bass is playing and see that the space is every bit as present as the bass guitar itself, but that normally we don’t place our attention on it so it goes unnoticed. Can you hear how the space not only lies in the gaps in between the notes of the music, but that it also surrounds them, never really going away – where can space go?! Indeed, prior to the first sound of the song there is space, and after the last note of the music has died away, space is present also. Space is here before the arising of sound, during the sound’s existence and after it has finished. Now, if you listen to the sounds that are arising where you are, there is also this peaceful silent space.

Unlike music, space doesn’t give us anything to grasp hold of and identify with. We can’t use space to express our nationalism, nor can it be used to illustrate our love of Jesus Christ, Amitabha Buddha or Sri Krishna. Space doesn’t inspire particular emotions such as love, hate, desire, loneliness, nor does it encourage the attachment that accompanies such feelings. Space is an openness which is experienced as the peace at the heart of the most discordant noise, and a void into which all sound falls eventually. If we focus on space, rather than the sounds that occur within it, we experience a widening of the otherwise limited human perspective. It’s difficult to react with any strong emotions to spaciousness; it is a void into which everything that we cling to as me and mine falls into.

Yet this isn’t as awful as it might sound, for if we let go of our attachments to sounds, sights, thoughts, memories etc, we experience them as they truly are, giving them the chance to express themselves in the fullness of being without interference from our ego. Then, we might well find that genres of music that previously were not appreciated can be heard in a more expansive way, without the negative presumptions of the ego to interfere. In the same vein, focusing on space can also help us to let go of negative feelings towards other human beings and creatures, making us less egotistical and reactionary. And even this ego itself can be seen in relationship to the void in which it appears, and we can know ourselves as we truly are perhaps for the first time, courtesy of the spaciousness that lies at our center.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Dharma Day (Asalha Puja)

The Buddha delivers his first sermon

On the full moon of July Buddhists across the world celebrate Asalha Puja, or Dharma Day, commemorating the occasion of the Lord Buddha’s first Dharma discourse called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, or ‘The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma Discourse’. This discourse followed the Buddha’s Enlightenment, and was given to five ascetics that were former disciples of the Blessed One. Upon hearing this teaching, one of the five ascetics called Kondanna had his spiritual eye opened, and became the first disciple of the Buddha to enter the Noble Path of Awakening. In recognition of this realization, his name was changed to Annata-Kondanna: ‘Kondanna-That-Knows (the Dharma)’.

So, what exactly was the Dharma taught by the Buddha on this full moon day in ancient India that led the ascetic Kondanna to see life in a radically different manner to before? As it exists today, the sermon is a brief but systematic description of the very heart of the Buddhadharma. To begin with, the Buddha talked of the Middle Way between the two extremes of self-asceticism and self-indulgence, describing it as the Noble Eightfold Path:

“And what is this Middle Way?
It is the Noble Eightfold Path, that is to say:
Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. This is the Middle Way discovered by the Tathagata, which gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nirvana.” (Samyutta Nikaya 56:11, Pali Tripitaka)

The Buddha’s description of the Path begins with Right View for a good reason, for it is with Right View that the Buddhist Way can be first tread upon, used as a guide to one’s practice. Put simply, Right View is seeing the world from the viewpoint realized by the Awakened One himself – the Buddha – and living one’s life from this new vision. Right View is summed up in the famous teaching of the Four Noble Truths, which are as follows:

  1. Life is suffering
  2. Suffering is caused by desire
  3. Ending desire ends suffering
  4. The Path leading to the ending of suffering

The Path that leads to the ending of suffering is in fact the Noble Eightfold Path itself, so the Four Noble Truths contain the Path and vise versa, which a neat interdependence of the two aspects of Right View. Many people think that the Truths are negative with their focus on suffering, but Buddhists would respond that in the spirit of mindfulness – one of the eight aspects of the Path – recognizing the universal nature of suffering is simply seeing things as they really are, rather than through the rose-tinted glasses of naïve optimism. In any case, taken as a whole, the Four Noble Truths lead to the ending of suffering, so in fact they are a positive in that they point out the Way to the true happiness of Enlightenment.

Of course, the Buddhadharma is a highly-evolved set of teachings that include much, much more than the Middle Way and the Four Noble Truths, and in this light a broader perspective than the Buddha’s first sermon will reveal much. To start with, the Buddha followed the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta with the Anattalakkhana Sutta (‘the Characteristics of Not Self Discourse’). It is this teaching that led Annata-Kondanna and his four companions to become fully-fledged enlightened beings, after which they became the first five monks in the Buddhist tradition. The Anattalakkhana Sutta centers on the realization that all of the five aggregates that we usually take to be our self are in fact empty of any such self. The five aggregates are:

  1. Form: the body
  2. Feeling: good, bad, & indifferent feelings
  3. Perception: memory & recognition
  4. Formations: thoughts & other mental objects
  5. Consciousness: that which is aware of the above

Here, the Buddha taught that all five aggregates are not self in that they cannot be made to be the way we might like them to be; they belong to nature, not us. Also, the Blessed One revealed that they are not self because they lead to suffering, and are impermanent. He taught that every one of the aggregates, whether internal or external, coarse or fine, inferior or superior, far or near, should be understood with Right View as “This is not mine, this is not what I am, this is not my self.” (Samyutta Nikaya 22:59, Pali Tripitaka)

Letting go of the delusion of selfhood is what the Middle Way exists for. Through developing the eight aspects of the Path we can transcend the delusion that each one of us is a self consisting of the five aggregates and identifying with one or more of those aggregates as being our core self. The body, for example, despite our earnest wishes gets sick and old; eventually falling apart either gradually prior to death or somewhat more swiftly following the grim reaper’s call. This holds true for the mind too, as feelings constantly change according to the stimuli present and our preferences. Feelings are fleeting things, never staying around for long morphing into something else usually without our consent or knowledge. Perceptions, formations, and even consciousness itself can all be seen to come and go of their own accord and rarely at our behest. They are expressions of nature, and as such do not make up a permanent, separate individual self.

Getting to the heart of the matter, as one might expect from its title, the Heart Sutra describes much the same teaching as contained in the Anattalakkhana Sutta, with an emphasis on the fact that all phenomena are empty of substance or self. An extremely popular and influential yet brief teaching from the Chinese Tripitaka and the Tibetan one, it has inspired countless East Asian Buddhists to reflect on the true nature of things as no thing at all. It does so in a style very different to the more systematic and logical language of the Pali Tripitaka:

“Form does not differ from emptiness, and emptiness does not differ from form. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form; the same is true for feelings, perceptions, formations and consciousness.”

All things are without self: they are empty. In this way, they are emptiness, and emptiness is also all things or selves. This understanding of emptiness is applied to all five aggregates of being, revealing the self-idea as a folly based on identifying with one or more of the aggregates as comprising a self, rather than recognizing that in fact they are empty of any such thing. Such threads of teaching run throughout the Buddhist scriptures, transcending differences of time, culture and place. Whether it is the Buddha’s first sermon or whether it’s a much later Sutra, the core of the teachings are derived from the Dharma itself, reflecting its brilliant light across the world. Here’s an extract from one of those later Sutras, which continues the themes found in the above examples:

Then Mahamati to the Blessed One, “Why is it that the ignorant are given to discrimination and the wise are not?”

The Blessed one replied, “It is because the ignorant cling to names, signs and ideas; as their minds move along these channels they feed on multiplicities of objects and fall into the notion of ego-soul and what belongs to it; they make discriminations of good and bad among appearances and cling to the agreeable. As they cling thus, there is reversion to ignorance and karma born of greed, hatred and delusion is accumulated. As the accumulation of karma goes on they become imprisoned in a cocoon of discrimination and are thenceforth unable to free themselves from the round of birth and death.”
(Chapter One, the Lankavatara Sutra, the Chinese Tripitaka)

Again, in this teaching there is much to found in common with the basic teachings found in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. When referring to “names, signs and ideas” leading to “the notion of ego-soul”, this Sutra echoes the Buddha’s teachings on the five aggregates, once more drawing our attention to the fact that our apparent selves are in reality composite of various parts, and when this self-centered view is let go of, the light of Nirvana shines through the illusion of self. Wisdom is here represented as the non-discrimination between this and that, between you and me, between self and not-self; without clinging and the desire that causes it, there is no ego-soul left to suffer.

The Dharma is an amazing gift that the Buddha and his successors have left to the world. It illumines the darkest aspects of our lives with the wisdom that can help us to free ourselves of the attachment to the idea of self that blights human existence. Dharma Day is great opportunity to reflect on this wondrous gift and how best we can respond to it, not just today but over the coming years of our lives. For, without the Buddhadharma where would we be? We’d be caught in the trap of delusion, being born life to life without any idea how to escape this suffering existence. Homage to the Dharma!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Master Xu Yun & Layman Pang

Zen Master Xu Yun
“When I chop wood, I chop wood;
and when I carry water, I carry water.”
(Layman Pang, died 808 C.E.)

Master Xu Yun, who is said to have lived for one hundred and twenty years, passing away in 1959, was a great Zen monk. He mastered Zen – or Chan as it’s known in China – over many, many years, having superb disciples such as Master Xuan Hua. As with Master Hua, Master Xu Yun was renowned as a wonderful orator, explaining the Way of the Buddha in all its profundity with a wit and the common touch. An example of his ability to share the Buddhadharma with such humor and universal appeal was his teachings on Layman Pang. And, as the following quote shows, he wasn’t averse to learning from the example of a layman if that layman was steeped in the Dharma – and layman Pang sure was steeped!

“Sometimes ordinary folks get the idea that the meaning of Chan is so profound that only men and women who’ve been ordained in the Dharma can possibly fathom it. But that’s just not so. Actually, we priests often feel that we’re in way over our heads. And every now and then, while we splash about, trying to look good treading water in our nice uniforms, along comes a civilian who zips by us, swimming like an Olympic champion. Such a civilian was Layman Pang. He would have won Chan’s gold medal. He’s been a hero not only to centuries worth of other laymen, but also, I confess, to every priest who’s ever studied his winning style.”
(Master Xu Yun, ‘Empty Cloud’)

So, what was Layman Pang’s “winning style”? Pang Yun (to give him his full name) was a master of ‘natural Zen’, applying the Way to every day life, whether in a monastery staying with monks, or living the life of a layman, with a wife and daughter. Indeed, his family was crucial to his own understanding of Zen, as the following incident shows. One day, Pang Yun expressed his frustration at trying to master Buddhist teachings, moaning how difficult it was to his wife. She retorted that in fact it was easy, for whilst her husband had been studying words, she had been studying the grass and the Buddha Nature that’s reflected in every dewdrop. Ling Zhao, their daughter, was passing by and remarked that they were just two old people foolishly chattering, to which her father asked what her experience was. She said:

“It’s not difficult, and it’s not easy. When I’m hungry, I eat. When I'm tired, I sleep.”

This response, along with the quotation from Layman Pang himself at the top of this article, are two of the most pondered over statements in the history of Zen Buddhism, and yet they are from two members of the same family, neither of whom was a monastic! Master Yun’s readiness to learn from such worldly (and yet non-worldly) people is a sign of his own wisdom. And this wisdom was not solely expressed in the somewhat paradoxical language of Zen, for Master Yun could also explain the Dharma – the way things are – in more traditional Buddhist style:

“Fundamentally, our four elements are void and the five aggregates (skandhas) are non-existent. It is only because of (our) wrong thoughts which grasp (everything) that we like the illusion of the (impermanent) world and are thereby held in bondage. Consequently, we are unable to (perceive) the voidness of the four elements and (to realize) the non-existence of birth and death. However, if in a single thought, we can have an experience of that which is not born, there will be no need for those Dharma doors expounded by Shakyamuni Buddha.” (Master Xu Yun, ‘Discourses and Dharma Words’, p.53)

This experience of the unborn, a synonym for enlightenment in Buddhism, is what drove Layman Pang from his home to tour the Zen monasteries of China, seeking out the guidance of the masters that resided in them. He met many of the famous teachers of his time; famous in Zen circles to this day, such as Master Ma Zu, with whom he had some illuminating conversations. In fact, on their first meeting, the Master had a profound effect on the layman. Pang Yun asked where he could find a man who was unattached to material things, to which Master Ma Zu replied, “I’ll tell you when you’ve swallowed West River in one gulp.” Master Xu Yun sees this as the decisive moment in Layman Pang’s cultivation of the Way:

In grasping that one remark, Pang was able to complete his enlightenment. He saw that Uncritical Mind was not enough. His mind had to become as immense as Buddha Mind; it had to encompass all Samsara and Nirvana, to expand to Infinity’s Void. Such a mind could swallow the Pacific.”
(Master Xu Yun ‘Empty Cloud’)

One day, Layman Pang approached Master Ma Zu and stood over him, asking the monk to look up. Master Ma Zu looked down, however, to which the former said, “How beautifully you play the string less lute!” Master Yun interprets this to mean that by gazing downwards like the layman, Master Ma Zu was acknowledging that there was no difference between them, in that they were actually one and the same being. For some reason, Master Ma Zu then looked up, and as he brushed past Pang Yun, the latter remarked that the monk had bungled things, trying to be clever! Layman Pang stayed with Master Ma Zu for some time, until he realized he had no more to learn from him. It all sounds so immediate, so easy, doesn’t it? That we all had the abilities of Layman Pang! So why is it that we don’t latch on to the unborn more readily? Master Yun has made the following observation:

“It is only because of our insatiable desires since the time without beginning that we now drift about in the sea of mortality, within which there are 84,000 passions and all sorts of habits that we cannot wipe out. (In consequence), we are unable to attain the truth and to be like Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who are permanently enlightened and are free from delusion.”
(Master Xu Yun, ‘Discourses and Dharma Words’, p.67)

Pang Yun and his daughter Ling Zhao grew old together, traveling around China, becoming legends of Zen Buddhism. Their last abode was a cave in a mountain. Layman Pang new it was time for him to die, so he sat on the rock which he used for meditation and prepared to pass away as the midday sun would pass overhead. Ling Zhao, however came into the cave and told her father to go outside and look at the eclipse of the Sun that was occurring. He went out to look at this extraordinary event, but saw no such thing, just the passing of midday. Returning to the cave, he found his daughter dead, sitting upright on the rock, to which he said, Oh that girl! She was always ahead of me.” Layman Pang did pass away himself one week later. The last words of Layman Pang are contained in the following poem, which is a perfect summing up of both his and Master Xu Yun’s teachings to finish with:
“Vow to wipe out all that is;
Beware of making real what is not.
Life in this (mortal) world
Is a shadow, an echo.”
(ibid. p.73)

The two books referred to in this article are available for free download from the Internet at the following locations:

Empty Cloud: The Teachings of Master Xu Yun

Master Hsu Yun's Discourses and Dharma Words

More poetry by Layman Pang is featured on the excellent Buddhist blog 'Stuttering Buddha' here:

Verses by Layman Pang

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Listening to the Void #1

Douglas Harding - "Hear who you really are!"

“All conditioned phenomena
Are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, shadows,
Like dew drops and a lightning flash:
Contemplate them thus.”
(The Buddha, in the Diamond Sutra)

Alongside the brilliant Buddhist monks such as Ajahn Chah and Master Hua, there is another teacher that will appear on these pages from time to time. Although not a monk, nor indeed a Buddhist as such, this man had something very important to share with all enquiring Buddhists, not to mention anyone else for that matter. His name was Douglas Edison Harding, an English philosopher, author, and workshop leader that spent the last three decades of his life dedicated to sharing what he called “seeing who we really are”. He will be referred to herein as DEH.

The workshops led by DEH were mainly geared towards seeing our innate unborn reality using experiments based on the visual sense. Hence, the emphasis given to seeing who we really are. But, as DEH admitted himself, any method that reveals a universal truth cannot be dependent on only one sense, for then it wouldn’t be a universal truth, merely a partial one. With this in mind, DEH did develop a few other experiments that related to other senses, including the mind. For now, however, we will focus on another of the physical senses; hearing. Here is an experiment in awareness developed by DEH:

Closing your eyes, listen intently to any sounds that are arising in this present moment. Notice the particular qualities of each sound: their pitch, length, volume, rhythm, etc. Dwell for a short time on each individual noise, taking the time to recognize its characteristics. Next, turn attention around to listen to the listener. Can any such qualities be associated with that which takes in all these various sounds? Or is it the case that whilst the things heard have a range of particulars that mark them out, the listener is without any such characteristics. Here, there is no pitch, no length, no volume, and no rhythm etc. Here, is a silence alive with the sounds that it hears, but which itself is devoid of any such marks. Those things arise in an alert no-thing that is spacious awareness.

Sitting at my desk now, I can hear the fan humming behind me, the subsequent wind blowing in my ears, the tick-tock of the clock, my wife ironing in the next room, and the tapping noise as I type on the keys on my notebook. All these sounds are arising in what can only be described as no sound at all. Rather, it is the very absence of sound that allows them to be heard, just as it is the absence of vision that allows sights to be seen, and the absence of thinking that allows thought to be known, etc. On presence evidence, as DEH so often pointed out during his long and productive life, all phenomena can be heard, seen, thought, etc. as occurring in the unknown knower.

This unknown knower is the one unchanging factor in our ever-changing identities. It is without form, whereas everything else that we experience as being either self or not self is delineated by its very form. It is timeless, whereas everything else that we experience is governed by time, growing older by the second until finally dying. That tick-tock of the cosmic clock finds no one here to call time on, if the evidence is examined carefully. And this relates fundamentally to the question put to us by DEH: what use is a life if it is lived without ever looking to see who’s actually living it?

The Buddha taught that all created things – and this includes bodies and minds – are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self. That things are impermanent is self-evident, in that we can observe how they decay and eventually die away. Sounds can be observed in this light too, as they arise, exist, and then cease. Everything is unsatisfactory in that it cannot satisfy us forever. Eventually, anything will come to bore us, disgust us or simply cease to satisfy us. Even those things we presently enjoy will become abhorrent to us if we have too much of them for too long. Imagine listening to your favorite song for a thousand years – you’d be sick of it after a thousand minutes! As to being not-self, can we control our bodies not to age, not become sick and not to (at some point) die? And anyone who’s meditated will know how the mind thinks what it thinks despite the will’s best efforts to control it. Both body and mind do not truly belong to the self: they are on loan from nature, and will go their own natural way in time.

The Buddhadharma also points to the void, the emptiness that is at the heart of all phenomena. Beyond all the myriad things that go to make up a living being, there is that indefinable no-thing that is neither impermanent nor unsatisfactory; indeed it is the absence of self that reveals what some – including DEH & many Buddhists – have deemed our true Self. Here, we begin to fall into the nebulous region of defining that which is devoid of characteristics. A hopeless task if there ever was one. Self, no-self, void, God, Tao, Zen, emptiness, Brahman, Mind, Buddha Nature – the words will always fall short of the reality, for the reality is beyond the grasp of the mind and its concepts. Talking of words, here’s another experiment to test out true nature in this moment:

Close your eyes. Say a word, any word will do, but let’s take the word ‘Buddha’ as an example. Speaking out aloud, ‘Buddha’, notice the various qualities of the word and the voice pronouncing it. Repeat this several times, each time focusing on the nature of the word and your voice. Now say the word again, but this time listen to that which is aware of ‘Buddha’. Is that which listens made of two syllables like the word it is conscious of, or is it empty of such qualities? Repeating the word again, can the listener said to be of such and such duration or consisting of particular sounds like ‘Buddha’? Take some time over this, becoming aware of that which is spoken and that which is listening.

DEH was keen for those that did his experiments to find out the answers to this research for themselves, and I’m not about to tell you how it is for you. In truth, how could I, for I can only really know the truth as it’s presented here, where I am. You, on the other hand, can see the way things are right where you are; it is up to each and every one of us to ascertain whether the sounds that we make and those that are around us are part of a real, enduring self, or as quoted from the Diamond Sutra at the top of this article, are as “dreams, illusions, bubbles, shadows, like dew drops and a lightning flash”.

Returning to this moment, the sound of a Thai soap opera can now be heard: not the most edifying of sounds! And yet, if the silence that is ever-present in the present is attended to, even the cackles and screams of demented soap characters can be easily tolerated as ephemeral phenomena in the void. There’s a saying in modern parlance which goes, “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings”, and yet even she, as a being made of various aggregate parts, is bound to become forever silent. And if you listen to her warbling, you can also hear that very same silence which is located in the one place we would normally never think of looking: right here.