Friday, December 31, 2010

A New Year's Eve Message

Everything is empty!

Here we are on the brink of another year. We can use this opportunity to reflect over the past year, or to ponder the future. This can be beneficial, as long as our reflection does not turn into regret or resentment, and as long as our pondering does not turn to fear or worry. Whatever we do on the eve of 2011, we can do it with awareness. If we act from a state of knowing rather than nescience, we have a greater chance of doing it right, and even developing some wisdom.

Wisdom is needed in this world. Look at the sky ripped open, the still-hungry millions, the near-extinct animals, the war-mongering, and the general fear. On New Year's Eve, many of us will get out of our heads on alcohol and/or drugs, shutting out the suffering world, and burying our own miseries beneath copious amounts of intoxicants. This, however, will simply leave us with a hangover on New Year's Day, and no deeper understanding of the world, including those we claim to love.

Love is needed in this world. Not love based on lust, nor love that demands that people act and say the things we want to see and hear, but real love that allows people to be themselves, whether straight, gay, hip or nerdy, gregarious or solitary, or whatever. In this kind of love, we are open to the suffering both in ourselves and others, and therefore more able to respond appropriately, helping where needed. How can we approach the world with this kind of love?

Love and wisdom are two sides of the same coin. According to Buddhist tradition, they are the two wings of enlightenment. If we can see the world with wisdom, we will also develop love for it, for we will see that it is us, and therefore love it as we love ourselves. If we can feel the world with love, we will also develop wisdom towards it, for we will feel its suffering, and with this wisdom know the way out of suffering. We are enlightened together, as one.

So, after the hangover's worn off, or the incense sticks have burnt out, we might take the time to look back at who's living this life, and see the emptiness at the heart of all this oh-so precious existence. Seeing this emptiness, we have the means to develop the wisdom mentioned above, for when everything - including the thing called 'me' - is seen to be empty, we see it in a completely different way. And love is no longer reserved for this self and those close to it, but spread out to all we meet.

Anyhow, wishing you all the love and wisdom in the world for the New Year. Have fun tonight, and tomorrow? Take a few moments to see where all this stuff ('the world') comes from. It's a real eye opener!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Dukkha v.3

This pain pervades the whole world,
Saturated as it is in misery.
Images of suffering children merge
Into the spasms of these nerves.

A screaming babe, umbilical intact,
Aging parents adrift in the past,
Lovers sickened by their embrace,
Blackened mourners in the rain.

Happiness is a thin veneer,
Beneath which lies the truth.
This is the inheritance of us all,
Birth, aging, sickness and death:

In each moment of misery, however,
The lion's roar can be heard aloud;
Calling us all to awareness of
The promise of a cool breeze.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Buddha & Eckhart: On Detachment

"Now all thoughtful people should take note. No one is more cheerful than the one that lives in the greatest detachment." (O'Neal p.123)

The teachings of Meister Eckhart (c.1260-1327) have much in common with those of the Buddha. One subject upon which they have the greatest of convergence is that of detachment. As Eckhart says above, the detached person is the happiest, for to live without attachment is to live in true freedom. This is the heart of the Buddha's teaching, too, of course. There is a lot more to the teachings of the Buddha and Eckhart than that complete detachment that is enlightenment or salvation, of course, and in this brief essay the intent is only to touch upon such important aspects their teachings. It is hoped that the reader will find subjects in this essay for further exploration beyond these humble words, not only in the intellectual realm but also in the field of actual practice, whether grounded in Buddhism or Christianity. The focus of our study here is Meister Eckhart's own essay 'On Detachment.' It is found in David O'Neal's wonderful book 'Meister Eckhart, From Whom God Hid Nothing,' published by New Seeds Books. The page numbers after each quote refer to that book.

"The teachers praise love most highly, as Saint Paul does when he says: "In whatever tribulation I may find myself, if I have not love, I am nothing." But I praise detachment more than all love. First, because the best thing about love is that it forces me to love God. On the other hand, detachment forces God to love me. Now it is much nobler that I should force God to myself than I should force myself to God. And the reason is that God can join himself to me more closely and unite himself with me better than I could unite myself with God." (O'Neal pp.107/8)

Meister Eckhart never fails to surprise (or shock) us when we approach his words expecting typical Christian thinking. He was a complete original. Sure, he had influences such as the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus and Saint Augustine, but his teaching is nevertheless very much his own. The quotation above from his short booklet 'On Detachment' is a perfect example of Eckhart's originality; from the outset, he almost seems to be deliberately contradicting traditional Christian thinking when he contradicts Saint Paul and states that detachment is more important than love. What of "Faith, hope, ad love; the greatest of which is love"? (Another Pauline quote.) Meister Eckhart does this for a purpose, of course, and that purpose is not merely to shock or gain our attention, it is to highlight the importance of a detached mind in the contemplative life. In this, he is paralleling the Buddha who also extolled the centrality of detachment, exemplified by equanimity (upekkha), found in his discourses as one of the four 'sublime states' alongside goodwill, compassion, and empathy.

Equanimity is not to be understood as a kind of cool indifference to the suffering of others, but instead a calmness that sees things as they truly are, interconnected and conditioned phenomena. There is another side to detachment in the spiritual life, however, and it is this one that Eckhart refers to. This is a quality of mind that is not distracted by outer stimuli when it is engaged in absorptive meditation. This is known as samadhi in Buddhism, and is one of the three aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to enlightenment. From the viewpoint of the Buddha, Eckhart's teaching on detachment can be understood in relation to the Buddhist understanding of samadhi. By 'God,' Buddhists can understand him to mean Nirvana, especially when we read him characterizing God as a 'not-God,' or as a kind of transcendent nothingness, which he does elsewhere. When used as the focus for devotional practice, as with Christian mystics and Pure land Buddhists, for example, 'God' can also be this 'nothingness' personified, so to give something tangible to give one's love to. In this context, Eckhart's statement about loving God and being detached toward God make more sense to Buddhist sensibilities.

Eckhart shows great insight when he promotes detachment above love, revealing in Christian language what any experienced Buddhist meditator might know but cloaked in a different conceptual framework. We can see this by replacing some key terms in the above Eckhartian quote with Buddhist ones: Emptiness (Shunyata) can join itself to me more closely and unite itself with me better than I could unite myself with Emptiness. And, this is because Emptiness (God) can 'love' the practitioner or devotee more purely than the other way around, for there is nothing in Emptiness to remain separate to the latter, whereas when we try to love the object of our devotion, whether it be Jesus, Amitabha, or whoever, a trace of ego can remain, as a sense of being humble me worshipping Almighty God or Buddha. Eckhart has more to teach us about God/Emptiness and detachment in the following paragraph:

"Secondly I praise detachment more than love because love forces me to suffer all things for the sake of God, but detachment makes me receptive of nothing but God. Now it is far nobler to be receptive of nothing but God than to suffer all things for the sake of God. For in suffering man pays some attention to the creatures through which he has the suffering. On the other hand, detachment is completely free from all creatures." (O'Neal p.108)

What Eckhart seems to saying here is that it is better to merge into Emptiness first, rather than to try to love - or be compassionate towards - all creatures first. Again, he reveals his wisdom when he states that "in suffering man pays some attention to the creatures through which he has the suffering." Therefore, whatever love comes out of this creature-centered awareness will be tainted with self, whereas if we are receptive of nothing but God (i.e. Emptiness), out of this state of purity will pour true compassion for suffering creatures. Also, in the process of deepening one's knowing of God (or samadhi) all senses of other creatures and of being a creature should be left behind if the higher meditative states are to be realized. So, with Eckhart's help, we are recognizing that both the inward-looking eye and the outward looking eye benefit from putting God/Emptiness first, so that real love will follow, naturally flowing out of a freed heart, rather than forced out of a creature-focused mind.

We can see this now simply by looking backwards instead of forwards and seeing the Emptiness at our heart here and now. (Don't take my word for it, look back at where you are looking from and be completely honest about what you see.) If we recognize the Emptiness as our true being, rather than these limited and self-limiting egos, then we can see what happens when we meet people from this persecutive rather than the usual egotistic one. If 'I' die into Empty Knowing and am filled with you instead my own sense-of-self, then 'I' am really able to love you, for there is no me to get in the way. Try this in your own life, every time you meet someone, especially if there's been ill-feeling between you. What happens to that ill-feeling when you meet someone from your Emptiness rather than your ego?

"The masters also praise humility above many other virtues. But I praise detachment above all humility, and for this reason: humility can exist without detachment, but perfect detachment cannot subsist without perfect humility. For perfect humility tends to its own destruction; but detachment borders so closely on nothing that between perfect detachment and nothingness there can be nothing. Therefore perfect detachment cannot exist without humility. Now two virtues are always better than one." (O'Neal p.108/9)

Clearly, if we accept humility and detachment as qualities to be developed as part of a spiritual life, then to have both is superior to possessing only one, and this argument of Eckhart is pretty clear. But, does the Buddha encourage humility in his followers? Absolutely! Humility is the absence of such negative mental traits as conceit, arrogance, and vanity, which are all obstacles to awakening. Furthermore, humility is the non-association with the ego and all its self-delusions. In addition, the transcendence of the illusion of self is an integral part of enlightenment, with not only self-view (sakkaya-ditthi) let go of in the earlier stages of liberation, but also the much more evasive conceit (mana) relinquished at the final release from suffering. Combined with detachment, humility is a powerful mental condition needed if we wish to understand and let go of the attachment to both the notion and the feeing of being a separate, suffering self.

"I also praise detachment more than all mercy, for mercy simply means that man, going out of himself, turns to the failings of his fellow men and for this reason his heart is troubled. Detachment is free from this; it remains in itself and does not allow itself to be troubled by anything, because, as long as anything can trouble man, it is not well with him. In short, if I consider all virtues, I find none is so completely without defects and so applicable to God as is detachment." (O'Neal p.111)

What Eckhart is saying here is not that we shouldn't bother with mercy or compassion (karuna) at all, for as stated above with regard to humility and detachment, he considered two virtues superior to one; so, to have even more virtues must surely be even more advantageous to both the person displaying them and their recipients. What Eckhart is saying, however, is that mercy without detachment can be very damaging; an example of this is the so-called 'compassion fatigue' felt by many sensitive souls who observe the suffering of others in daily news reports. We can become numb to the suffering described and shown in the media; this is because compassion is coming from the ego and is therefore fundamentally limited in its capacity to take on the world's misery. If established in detachment, compassion is coming from the spaciousness of unattached awareness and therefore isn't piling too much onto the sense of self that will otherwise collapse in on itself.

"It is right that you know that to be empty of all creatures is to be full of God, and to be full of all creatures is to be empty of God. You should also know that in this immovable detachment God has dwelt eternally and he still dwells in it. And you should know that when God created heaven and earth and all creatures, that affected his immovable detachment as little as if the creatures had never been created. Indeed, I will say more: all the prayers and all the good works which man can perform in the world have as little effect on God's detachment as if neither prayers nor good works had ever been carried out." (O'Neal p.113)

This is one of those statements by Meister Eckhart that can leave us dumbfounded at his apparent arrogance: he appears to reject the long-established Christian practices of petitionary prayers performed to gain some advantage for either those praying or others or both. He seems to be claiming that such prayers do not even reach God, let alone get answered by him! It's as if every email that we send never reaches its addressee - what a horrid state of affairs! In fact, if we refer back to how Christ taught his followers to pray (i.e. The Lord's Prayer), Eckhart's vision of prayer is actually more orthodox than the widely-enacted petitionary prayers. This kind of praying is actually an acceptance of what is as the will of God, rather than petitionary praying which wishes to change current conditions. Eckhart calls this "the prayer of detachment:"

"But now I ask: What is the prayer of the detached heart? I answer that detachment and purity cannot pray. For if anyone prays, he asks that something be given him, or asks that God may take something away from him. But the detached heart does not ask for anything at all, nor has it anything at all that it would like to be rid of. Therefore it is free of all prayer, and its prayer is nothing else than to be uniform with God. On this alone the prayer of detachment rests." (O'Neal p.120)

As to good works, which Eckhart denies reach God's attention either, Buddhism is full of them: making offerings of food, money, medicine, shelter, clothing etc. to monks and nuns; charity for the poor and ill; and every day acts of kindness that make other peoples' lives that little bit more bearable. Is Eckhart saying that these are nothing to God? Apparently. But, he is not rejecting them completely, for just as in Buddhist teaching, good works have good results for Christians, too. But, Eckhart is talking of the meditative life here, and he wishes to help us go beyond ego-based good acts as well as ego-based prayers: and it is in detachment that he believes we may do so. If we can establish ourselves in detachment, then our prayers and our good works come from the spaciousness of non-attachment. They will not only be of more advantage to our spiritual development, but will also benefit others more completely because they have not been diluted by our inherently (but not always obviously) self-centered egos.

The detached heart, according to Eckhart, has "nothing at all that it would be like to be rid of." This a pure state of mind, for sure. if we examine our everyday minds for just a few moments, we will become aware not only of the outer worldly conditions (and people) that we'd like to see the back of, but also many, many elements within our own minds that are equally undesirable. Eckhart does not talk of some holy battle between good and evil, or God and Satan, here, however. He sees "the prayer of detachment" as the means to let go of all defiling aspects of our psyches that will open us up "to be uniform with God." In the final quotation at the end of this essay, Eckhart actually states that ultimate detachment is God, so if we are "uniform" with God, this seems to indicate merging with God as God, with no hint of separation existing. This sounds uncannily like some descriptions of Nirvana as being beyond all opposites and any sense of a separate, suffering self. This is the goal of meditative practice, however, and to achieve this we will benefit from further guidance, which Eckhart readily gives us:

"Now you should know that that a religious man that loves God uses the powers of the soul in the outward man no further than what the five senses require as a matter of necessity. And the inward man does not heed the five senses, except insofar as he is their guide and leader." (O'Neal p.116/7)

Here, Eckhart is touching upon what the Buddha called the aggregates (khandha). The big difference is that the Buddha included the mind as one of the six senses, for if there were no mind, there would be no consciousness of the other five senses. This difference between the Buddha's teaching and Eckhart's may well be down to the religious traditions from which they came; sixth-century B.C. Indian religion was much more psychological in focus than medieval Christian theology. Despite this difference, Eckhart is still teaching us to behave in ways that the Buddha also previously promoted. They both taught that we should look after our bodies, indeed, to realize enlightenment, we need strong bodies that can support our meditation, as shown in the Buddha's own acceptance of sustenance from a young woman prior to achieving full awakening. Eckhart is clearly encouraging us to do the same, but no more. To indulge in the senses is a no-no for him, just as it was for the Buddha, who encouraged monks and nuns to lower their gaze when traveling around, so not to become too caught up in the world around them.

"[Hence,] if the heart is to find preparedness for the highest of all flights, it must aim at a pure nothing, and in this there is greatest possibility that can exist. For when the detached heart has the highest aim, it must be toward the Nothing, because in this there is the greatest receptivity." (O'Neal p.119)

The detached heart (or mind) is able to realize "the Nothing" that opens us up to enlightenment. This "pure nothing" is a clear awareness free of any attachments to worldly objects, whether physical or psychological in form. As written above, this detached state is what the Buddha described as samadhi, and is a profound meditative absorption that cancels out any attachment to or identification with the world. Eckhatr's language may seem somewhat vague, as well as poetical, and whilst the Buddha is credited with producing much verse, he also produced much well-organized prose. Some of this latter literary style of the Buddha features another important Buddhist teaching related closely to detachment which is often translated as 'seclusion' or even 'detachment,' and is known in the original Pali as viveka. In the commentaries to the Buddha's actual teachings on viveka, this important concept is divided into a threefold system:
    1.    kaya-viveka: bodily-detachment
    2.    citta-viveka: mental detachment
    3.    upadhi-viveka: detachment from the roots of suffering

Eckhart certainly promotes the first kind of detachment, the seclusion form the world in its most distracting forms. As to the second kind of viveka, it is clear that he also taught of detached states that were free of mental distractions, too. And, as for the roots of suffering, greed, hatred, and delusion, these three states no longer exist when we are in the deepest of samadhis or meditative prayer. True enough, these are temporary states, for as soon as we come out of them we are back in the world of suffering, but they are a glimpse of full enlightenment which is the complete and permanent transcendence of the three causes of suffering, which is the ultimate goal of Buddhism. And, from reading Eckhart, it can also be the goal of the Christian life, too. For, as is revealed in the final quotation below, Eckhart recognized God, which Buddhists call nirvana, to be the ultimate detachment of all:

"It purifies the soul, cleanses the conscience, inflames the heart, arouses the spirit, quickens desire, and makes God known. It separates off the creatures and unites the soul with God. Now take note, all thoughtful creatures: the swiftest animal that bears you to perfection is suffering, for no one will enjoy more eternal bliss than those who stand with Christ in the greatest bitterness. Suffering is bitter as gall, but to have suffered is honey-sweet. Nothing disfigures the body before men so much as suffering, and yet nothing beautifies the soul before God so much as to have suffered. The surest foundation on which this perfection can rest is humility. For while the natural man crawls here in the deepest lowliness, his spirit flies up into the heights of the Godhead, for joy brings sorrow and sorrow brings joy. If anyone wishes to attain perfect detachment, let him strife for perfect humility, then he will come close to the Godhead. May the highest detachment, that is, God himself, assist us to achieve this. Amen." (O'Neal p.123/4)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 27-28

“Fame, wealth, eating and drinking,
Sleep and sensual delight -
Once you've learned the Five Desires
They become your guide in life

Notions of what one should do
Never existed from the start
Fighting about what's right, what's wrong
That's the doing of the ‘I’”

According to the records that exist, the great Zen Master Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693) was never much interested in worldly interests. Unlike most of us, he was obsessed with more spiritual concerns from a young age, which crystallized in the form of a question regarding the nature of the “Bright Virtue,” which was mentioned in a Confucian text he studied as a boy. His Confucian teacher could not explain exactly what this was, so the young Bankei turned to Shingon (Esoteric) Buddhism and then Zen Buddhism for the answer. And, through practicing Zen and suffering much ill health he was led to a realization of the “Bright Virtue,” which he dubbed the Unborn Buddha Mind. Deepening this experience and sharing it with others then became the main focus of Bankei’s life as a Zen monk from that point on. So, you see, he was never much concerned with he calls the “Five Desires” in the first verse that we will look at here, and it is because of this detachment from worldly hankerings that he was so able to talk to people so unswervingly of the Dharma, never getting caught up in any distractions.

“Fame, wealth, eating and drinking,
Sleep and sensual delight -
Once you've learned the Five Desires
They become your guide in life”

As ever, in this verse Bankei gets straight to the point, naming the Five Desires and the central importance that they play in life. This centrality can in fact be enlightening if we view them with the detachment that accompanies pure awareness, but unfortunately, most of us most of the time are anything but detached from them, and suffer the consequences. This is because these five are the objects of our desire, and it is desire that is the cause of our suffering. The Buddha taught us that to end our desires, or at least end our clinging to them, ‘snuffs out’ our suffering. (‘Snuff out’ is the most common translation of the word Nirvana into English.) Bankei, as someone who had realized the “Bright Virtue,” instead of running around after his desires (presuming he had them), was completely identified with the Unborn, and was able to use the Five Desires as a guide in life to teach his followers with. Let’s look a little closer at them, one-by-one:

•    Fame: In today’s global media, billions of people around the world are exposed to celebrities and the adulation that they inspire. Many of us have wished to be famous ourselves, either as pop singers, actors, sports stars, or TV ‘personalities.’ As the latter term suggests, much of this fame is based on interesting egos acting up for the cameras, either to attract lust, hate, or other ignorance-based emotions. In Buddhism, we’re encouraged to reflect upon lust, hate, and ignorance as they are considered to be the three main character-flaws that stop us living from our true nature. Desiring fame and all its benefits is to be lost in ignorance, as far from the “Bight Virtue” as one can be. One of these benefits is often wealth, to which we urn our attention next.
•    Wealth: Game shows with big prizes – especially lotteries that make their winners millionaires – are extremely popular television programmes. They appeal to our desire for financial safety, and inspire great despair when we don’t win, which for the majority of us is every time we play such games. Learning to be satisfied with what’s at hand is an important life lesson that most religions teach, and the Buddha also promoted this attitude. (Not that he was against commerce, but that it should be based on principles such as honesty and fair trade.) A proliferation of game shows and other property-gaining forms of entertainment suggests a spiritually sick society. Gaining perspective on wealth and its acquisition is closely related to awakening to our Unborn Buddha Mind, and realizing that if our basic needs are covered, there’s nothing to hanker after.
•    Eating & Drinking: One thing that the media could do for us is show ourselves what we really look like. In movies, TV shows, pop videos, and the like, nearly all the people featured are incredibly slim and attractive. In reality, of course, most of us in the affluent world are overweight, and many of us near-alcoholics or other drug addicts; a sizeable minority are in that sad latter group, which seems to be ever-increasing. As with wealth, having enough food and drink to live on should in theory be enough for us, but instead most of us don’t know when to say, “No,” often with unattractive and unhealthy consequences. Being obsessed with food and/or drink is a sign of deeper psychological problems, and comfort-eating or getting ‘out-of-it’ will not solve anything, at least in the long term. Seeing the Unborn at the heart of our being can free us from gluttony and drug-dependency, if we can make the commitment to awaken, and stay awake.
•    Sleep Indulging: in more sleep than we need can often be a form of escapism. It’s a kind of self-obliteration; turning the off switch so we don’t have to confront the horrible aspects of life. Of course, there are many other forms of escapism, such as mentioned above, especially if we live in relatively affluent societies, but these often do not contain the same level of self-annihilation that over-sleeping can. Sleeping to avoid our problems is a kind of impermanent suicide that we can repeat on a daily basis whenever things get too much. Seeing the Buddha Nature that’s ever-present will free any need to negate the sense-of-self, as it will have been transcended already.
•    Sensual Desires: This is the big one that can obsess us, and take up more of our time  than any of the other Four Desires, at least when thinking about it, if not actually doing it! By sensual desires is primarily meant sex, of course. Here are lots of sensual desires (including eating and drinking), but this one is often more destructive than the others. This is because sex is such a powerful desire, and the most extreme acts are driven by the lust for sexual gratification. Here in Thailand, sexual desire is everywhere to seen; in the media, the nightclubs, workplaces, the schools, and even the monasteries, sometimes! Seeking to satisfy our sexual desires will inevitably lead to suffering when we cannot do so, or when sex fails to live up to our expectations. Seeing our innate Unborn Buddha Mind can free us from attachment to sex, leaving us free to do it or not, neither dependent upon blind desire nor restricted by ideas of good and bad. This latter aspect of living from the Unborn is the subject of the following verse and commentary:

“Notions of what one should do
Never existed from the start
Fighting about what's right, what's wrong
That's the doing of the ‘I’”

It’s the libertine’s dream to find a philosophy or religion that supports their wanton behaviour. Many westerners seem to think that Buddhism is such a philosophy or religion: it emphatically is not. Distorted versions of Buddhism have long been invented by people wishing to justify their own conduct, and no doubt this will continue. Yet, the True Dharma remains, and if we discover our Buddha Nature and live from it, we will naturally live in line with Buddhist morality, without giving it a thought. This is what Bankei means by “Notions of what one should do never existed from the start;” the Unborn has no codified set of moral rules, for it is naturally compassionate and wise, and expresses itself accordingly. Living from the Unborn – and not from our egos – we also naturally act in line with these two central elements in Buddhist morality.

Furthermore, Bankei states that it is the ‘I’ that fights “about what’s right, what’s wrong.” This may well be a highly moral ‘I’ or ego that argues with others about what constitutes a virtuous life, but it is nevertheless an ego, and Bankei wants us to go beyond all limiting ideas and feelings of being a separate, suffering being. The Buddha stated that he taught only two things: suffering, and the ending of suffering. Everything that he trained his followers in, including morality, was to end suffering, which is another way to put ‘living from the Unborn.’ For, if we see our Buddha nature and then live from it, we will be transcending suffering and its main cause, desire. The Five Desires will then have no hold over us, and we will be able to live a virtuous life without the need of any notions of good or bad. We will be free of the greatest tyrant of them all; the sense-of-self or ‘I.’ But, how do we become aware of the Unborn Buddha Mind, let alone live from it? Well, the following exercise is a beginning, and it comes with a wholehearted recommendation.

If you have a pain, ache, or other unpleasant sensation in your body, you can use it for this meditation. If you do not, forced physical discomfort is not recommended, as the Buddha was no sadomasochist, and encouraged his followers to walk the Middle Way between self-indulgence and self-mortification! So, in this case, focus on an unpleasant mental object, such as a painful memory or current concern. It is best to do this reflection when you have a little time, say twenty minutes or more, so that you may first relax both body and mind. Some breath-meditation or zazen will do, or just sitting quietly for five minutes. After this initial period, turn your attention to the painful sensation. Notice its duration, rhythm, intensity, location, and any other characteristics that come to mind. Do this for at least another five minutes, if not ten or more, and then turn your attention around to who or what is doing the observing. Not your feelings or thoughts, for they are objects in awareness, but focus instead on awareness itself. How does the pain affect awareness, if at all? What is the nature of awareness, for that matter? Is it big or small, happy or sad, painful or comfortable? Or, is it the capacity for all these attributes and others to arise in? If you were to live from this naked awareness, as this naked awareness, what would your relationship be to that painful feeling you examined earlier, and to suffering in general?

You may wonder why there are so many questions in the above meditation and so few answers. (In fact, there aren’t any answers, only suggestions.) Well, the author of this blog cannot look for you, nor would he want to – he’s read some of your blogs! (Only kidding.) Truth is, we must all see the Truth for ourselves; even the Buddha couldn’t enlighten others. He could only show the (Middle) Way. Discovering the Unborn – and the Buddha used this term as well as Bankei – is the real beginning of the Buddhist Path. It is from this point that the journey takes on a truly transcendent aspect, whereas previously all we did was in preparation for this realization. Once we have glimpsed our Buddha Nature, it’s up to us to cultivate it, to drown into it and find that there wasn’t ever anyone to drown on the first place! But what a journey!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Review & Competition

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, 
but in the expert's there are few."
'Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind' is a wonderful little book. In it, the Soto Zen Buddhist Master Shunryu Suzuki presents us with an ever fresh view of Zen Buddhism, based upon zazen practice. Again and again, he brings our mind to recognize the importance of the beginner's mind, an attitude to practice that does not assume, consciously or unconsciously, that we know it all, let alone that we've done it all and gotten the t-shirt. In Zen, there is no t-shirt, only what Suzuki called the big mind (as opposed to our egoistic small mind). In the transcribed lectures that make up the main section of this book, he equates this big mind with the innocence of the beginner's mind which approaches the meditation cushion (and life) with an open, yet focused attitude.

"Big mind is something to express, not something to figure out. 
Big mind is something you have, not something to seek for."

Suzuki mixes advice on how to meditate with the realization that to meditate is enlightenment, at least when that meditation is the Soto version of zazen, or 'just sitting.' He references the great Zen Master Dogen throughout the book, but also mentions Rinzai (the founder of the other major sect of Zen Buddhism). This illustrates Suzuki's non-sectarian approach to Buddhism, which he emphasizes when he echoes Dogen in declaring that there's no such sect as Soto, and that true Buddhists are simply Buddhists, and nothing else. In the final chapter of the book, Suzuki addresses issues concerning the establishment of Zen in America, but even this potentially worldly issue is discussed from a contemplative perspective, ever keeping Zen in mind.

"I feel Americans, especially young Americans, have a great opportunity to find out the true way of life for human beings. You are quite free of material things and you begin Zen practice with a very pure mind, a beginner's mind."

Shambhala's 40th anniversary edition of 'Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind' also retains the preface by Huston Smith and Introduction by Suzuki's Dharma heir Richard Baker, and adds an interesting afterword by David Chadwick, another of Suzuki's students. In it, he not only chronicles the history of this amazing little book, but also includes anecdotes from those who knew, or met, Shunryu Suzuki. One such anecdote that stands out regards that great namesake and fellow promoter of Zen Buddhism in the West, Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, who has featured on these pages previously. When on a bus, Shunryu Susuki was asked if he was D.T. Suzuki, to which he replied, "No, he's the big Suzuki, I'm the small one!" As Huston Smith states in the book's afterward, it's nearer the truth to see the two Suzuki's as complementing one another in their efforts to spread the wisdom of Zen Buddhism in the Occident. And, in this regard, 'Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind' has played an important role itself in disseminating Zen across the world. Let's finish this brief review with one more quote from Shunryu Suzuki:

"Moment after moment, everyone comes out from nothingness. 
This is the true joy of life."
Now to the 'juicy' part of this blog entry. Shambala Publications have very kindly said that they will send a free copy of their 40th anniversary imprint of Shunryu Suzuki's 'Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind' to the winner of a competition run here on 'Buddha Space.' So, to win the book you must answer the following question, posting your answer in the comments section, linked to at the bottom of this article. The winner will be announced in the same section. Now, to the question itself: What does your beginner's mind look like right now? (The judge's decision will be final and no dialogue will be entered into after it is announced, unless some sort of bribery is discussed.) The closing date for entries is 31th December; so write on!

Note: All quotations are taken from 'Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind' by Shunryu Suzuki, and published by Shambala Publications, 2010.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On Awakening Part 2

“It is the Unformed, the Unconditioned, the End, the Truth, the Other Shore, the Subtle, the Everlasting, the Invisible, the Undiversified, Peace, the Deathless, the Blest, Safety, the Wonderful, the Marvelous, Nirvana, Purity, Freedom, the Island, the Refuge, the Beyond.” (Samyutta Nikaya 43: 1-44)

We continue our reflections on the Buddha’s above description of awakening, or enlightenment, by examining the Other Shore, the Subtle, the Everlasting, and the Invisible. The heart of these reflections are not the words themselves, nor the exercises imbedded in the text, but the experience to which they point. That the Buddha used so many different and differing words to describe awakening – he used many more than in the above paragraph – reveals the diverse expressions of it, and the many Dharma Gates to ‘enter’ it. Hopefully, we may stroll through such a Gate together and bask on the other Shore, in the Everlasting contentment of enlightenment.

•    The Other Shore (Para) In Buddhist language, ‘the Other Shore’ indicates that enlightenment is opposite to nescience: it is the absence of delusion, which is ‘this shore’ upon which we usually reside as deluded beings. In other words, our ego-centered minds are this side of the river of life, whilst the awakened mind is the other side. ‘This side’ suggests familiarity, in the sense that for most of us self-delusion is the typical state of affairs, but ‘the Other Shore’ indicates the impersonal nature of awakening. It is in this sense of an impersonal awareness that we are freed from the prison of self, and this is achievable every time we recognize the Void that’s always been here, but that we have foolishly neglected for much, if not all, of our lives. This is living on the ‘Other Shore’ of enlightenment, as we see beyond the sense of ‘I,’ that is. One slip and we’re back on ‘this shore,’ wondering how to get back over ‘there.’ (Of course, the journey is no journey at all if we simply see through the delusionary selves that we appear to be, as we gaze backwards into the depths of awakening….)

•    The Subtle (Nipuna) Our true nature is so subtle that most of us, most of the time, are never consciously aware of it. Even great minds – perhaps especially great minds – also live their whole lives having never once knowingly seen their true face, only that mask-like one that appears in mirrors and photographs. I wrote perhaps especially great minds because it is so often the intellect, so proud and arrogant, that overlooks the obvious as too obvious to be the truth. Therefore, the greater the intellect, the more that it has at stake when considering the simplicity of awakening to our true nature; and we must give up every preconceived idea when seeking out the Buddha within. This inner Awakened One is indeed to be called the Subtle, for it exists as the very heart of each and every one of us, undetected by our outward-gazing minds. But, one glance inwards to that which lays beyond our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and in an instant the Buddha is revealed, with a great big invisible smile on his face. But what on earth is an invisible smile, you might well ask. It is a glistening knowing, stretching from here to eternity, and lighting up every moment with its innate and subtle bliss.

At this point, you may well still be confused as to precisely what the Subtle is, and how we are to know it. Subtle truths often require subtle means to be pried out into the open, and you may find the following exercise too blunt for your particular situation, and yet I insist that if done with sincerity, there’s only one outcome possible, albeit not the one that any of us imagine it might be. Close your eyes and listen to the sounds around you. Take your time, making sure that each sound is given enough time to be fully known. How many different sounds can you hear near you; animals, people, machines, the wind, your own breath – acknowledge all of them in turn. Having spent a while on this, turn your attention inwards and listen for you hear here. What do you hear? Right here, no inner sounds are heard, just an expansive, all-inclusive silence. True, it is full of the noise of life, such as the animals, machines and wind that were mentioned above, but in itself it is hard to grasp in that it has no audible form to take hold of, but if we take the time, it can be detected, despite being rightly dubbed the Subtle.

•    The Everlasting (Dhuva) Hands up who wants to live forever? Come on, be honest…Put another way, who has ever felt the fear of death, perhaps quite intensely at one time or another? Immortality has been highly sought apparently ever since people became aware of their own propensity to die. Even today, after more than a century of modern science declaring that we cease to be upon the demise of the body, most of the world’s population clings to their beliefs in an eternal existence. Some see this endless existence in terms of reincarnation, whist others look forward to perpetuity in some heaven or paradise. All of these are built on the assumption (the hope?) that it is the individual that survives this mortal coil, in some form or another. Whether as a spirit, mind, or resurrected being, there’s this idea that it is ‘I' that outlives this current life. The Buddha taught that the Everlasting is not an individual, however, but rather an impersonal, indefinable No-thing that can, nevertheless, be experienced. Indeed, he insisted that to experience the Everlasting was the whole point of human existence, and that if we do not taste its nectar we have not truly lived at all.

Look at a time piece showing the passing of time. Herein lies the problem; we are subject to time’s irrepressible march onward, with which our bodies grow old and die. Now, we can wish for immortality, or we can actually seek it out right now, whilst we still live. If we do the former, we are pinning our hopes on unproven beliefs, whereas if we take the latter path, we are seeing for ourselves if there is any part of us that might survive death. Look at that timepiece again. Examine your hands; are they the same as they were five years ago, or ten years, or twenty, or more? Look at your thoughts and your personality – are they not subject to time also, constantly changing and (let’s be honest here) at a certain point in life, deteriorating towards the final farewell? On the other hand, if we look at that in which all form and mentality occur – this spacious awareness, that is – is this subject to the tyranny of time as well? Does it show signs of aging at all, or is it the Everlasting? In fact, is this awareness not devoid of any personal features that might age or deteriorate? Is it not the No-thing that unlike things cannot die because it is not made of mortal stuff in the first place?

•    The Invisible (Anidassana) Everything that we usually perceive is visible, if not with the eye, then with one of the other senses, hearing, taste, smelling, touch, and thought. (The Buddha recognized the mind as a sense, or group of senses, along with the physical senses.) Many physical objects appear invisible to us because they are too small, but with the assistance of wonderful scientific inventions such as the microscope, we are able to see them. Other objects are indeed invisible to the eye, but can be ‘seen’ with one or more of the other senses, so smells that cannot be perceived with the eye can be known via the nose. Ditto with the other physical senses, and even those mental objects and processes that the physical senses cannot perceive, the mind can know. All things are thus ‘visible’ with one or other of the senses, sometimes with the help of artificial devices. There is, however, what the Buddha called the Invisible, and this is no thing at all.

If we turn our attention away from the mind and its contents (including what we perceive of the world), and refocus it upon itself, we discover the Invisible. Awareness, which is here used as a synonym for attention, is without any kind of form. it cannot be seen with the eye anymore than it can be heard, smelt, tasted, touched, or thought of. It is completely hidden from view. And yet, when attention is reversed, it is not simply nothing that is discovered, but No-thing. This is not a mere play of words, and the author is no philosopher able to bend language to mean anything he wants. If you do not believe what you are reading, simply look around and pay attention to attention; it is invisible, but nevertheless somehow ‘seen.’ Awareness can be aware of itself, without the help (or interference) of the senses. It is the Invisible that is not dependent upon physical or mental conditions, but simply ‘is.’

Here, on the Other Shore, the ordinary, everyday world is still visible; in fact, it is in the context of this mundane existence that the Invisible is to seen, lived from, and shared. That it is the Subtle, does not mean that it is out of reach, but that we may overlook it (as most of us do), and that once seen it is easily lost. Once seen, however, the Door remains open if we look with a pure intent, not with the intent to gain something for this thing we mistake for a self, but to let go of every single thing that prevent s us from being No-thing at all.

Monday, December 6, 2010

On Awakening Part 1

“It is the Unformed, the Unconditioned, the End, the Truth, the Other Shore, the Subtle, the Everlasting, the Invisible, the Undiversified, Peace, the Deathless, the Blest, Safety, the Wonderful, the Marvelous, Nirvana, Purity, Freedom, the Island, the Refuge, the Beyond.” (Samyutta Nikaya 43: 1-44)

The ultimate point of the Buddhist Path is enlightenment or awakening (‘Bodhi’ in the Sanskrit and Pali languages), the experience that the Buddha (‘the Awakened One’) had under the Bodhi Tree roughly two-and-a-half millennia ago. Also known as Nirvana (Nibbana in Pali), it is the subject of heated debates between Buddhists of different persuasions who argue over its exact meaning, and as to how easy or difficult it may be to experience.  If we understand the words attributed to the Buddha, as quoted above, we may come closer to a true understanding of enlightenment, free of conceptual arguments. Let’s examine the first four synonyms for awakening found in the quote above: the Unformed, the Unconditioned, the End, and the Truth:

•    The Unformed (Akata) All things have form, from the largest star to the smallest microbe; we may need a telescope or microscope to see such objects, but it is undeniable that they possess forms. Fortunately, we don’t need such instruments to observe that everyday things have form; we can simply look around us. Look at a wall, and its form is readily revealed; touch it, bang it, smell it, or taste it and its form is most apparent, also. (It would probably be best not to do some of these actions in company, however!) Observe your own body, and its form is discernable, with all its wonderful (or not so wonderful!) curves and bumps. But, you may justly ask, where is the Unformed to be found amidst all this form? Not in the world of things, that’s for sure; our initial explorations have clearly shown this. There’s one place we haven’t looked yet, and it comes as no real surprise when we remember that the Buddha taught enlightenment lies within us and not somewhere in the world. This place is right where you are now; in fact it is you – the real you that lies beyond all those physical and mental aspects of your individual being, that is. To see the Unformed right now, simply point at your body, noting its form, and then point at where you are looking from – what do you see there? Do you see any form whatsoever, or is it formless at your end of that pointing digit?

•    The Unconditioned (Asankhata) All things are conditioned; they have myriad different influences that determine their present state. By contrast, No-thing has no such conditioning factors to be found, for it is out of time, and therefore nothing can have preceded it to condition it. Just one look at most people’s faces can reveal their ethnic as well their familial origins. Take a look at a picture of yourself and your relatives and note the similarities, often accentuated as we get older. Particularly in the face we can see dead giveaways as to who our immediate family are; the length of the nose, eye colour, shape of the mouth and size of the chin are all facial elements conditioned by our parent’s genes. There are no genes in our Original Face, however, and this can be seen when we gaze back and look at who (or what) is looking: No-thing. Are there any features to determine genetic heritage here? Is not the Unformed also Unconditioned, as the Buddha claimed, free of any limiting characteristics?

•    The End (Anata) Enlightenment is often referred to as ‘the End’ by the Enlightened, from the Buddha right up to modern sages such as Ajahn Chah and D.T. Suzuki. But, one might reasonably ask, the end of what, exactly? Nihilists will claim that the End that Buddhism promotes is the death of self, along with the realization that beyond this world there is absolutely nothing. Many Buddhists, especially modern atheistic ones as well as some Theravada Buddhists, also hold to this materialistic interpretation of the Buddhist teaching of ‘the End.’ Such views, however, are opinions based on thought processes, not experience, and do not even agree with either Mahayana or Theravada scriptures and commentaries when closely examined. (The Buddha stated that by ‘the End,’ he meant the end of suffering, and more specifically, the end of the three poisons - greed, hatred, and delusion - that cause it.) All of this is still on the level of theory, however, and although Buddhism is full of intricate theories describing the way things are, all these notions really exist to point to, and to back up, direct knowing of the Dharma and not merely philosophizing about it. By the End is also meant the end of all philosophizing: armchair philosophers beware!

So, if the End is to be known experientially and not only intellectually, then what are we to do? Well, that’s what the Noble Eightfold Path exists for, with its emphasis on Sila (Morality), Samadhi (Concentration), and Punya (Wisdom). Full awakening or enlightenment comes out of the traversing of this Path, but as we have limited space and time here, we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with a glimpse of that lovely state in which all defilements have ended. Look at your thoughts, as they are arising in this moment. Take as long as you can doing this, say for five minutes (although five years would be better!), and then look at what is doing the looking: What do you see? Do you see another created thing or a spacious No-thing, empty of itself yet full of your thoughts? The same can be done with sights, sounds, and other sense objects. Things – including psychological states such as greed, hatred, and delusion – stop right here, where the self should be, but where instead there is No-thing at all. This is the End all right; the end of thinking that I am merely ‘I,’ and discovering in actual experience that the sense of being an ‘I’ is indeed a delusion, just as the Buddha taught two-and-a-half thousand years ago.

•    The Truth (Sacca) What is truth? I had cereal for breakfast this morning: this is the truth. But, it is not the Truth that the Buddha wants us to discover for ourselves, but one of the myriad, perhaps infinite, relative truths that empirical evidence can vouch for. That the earth orbits the sun is another truth, and although I cannot see this for myself, nor ever remember seeing it, I have enough information to belief those experts that say that it does. This, also, of course, is a relative truth, relative in that it refers to things and not that which lies beyond their influence. The Buddha, on the other hand, encouraged us to look for ourselves and discover that which is neither a thing nor a process, and therefore Buddhist teachings are not the ultimate Truth, but simply point towards it. This ultimate Truth is revealed with enlightenment or awakening, and involves a radical reversal of who (or what) we believe ourselves to be.

If we close our eyes and touch our surroundings, what do we truly know of our immediate environment? Here, the floor is hard but smooth, the wall hard and rough, the cushion is soft and pliable, and the air is cool upon the skin. With the brain’s assistance, these tactile senses can be known for what they truly are; a varnished wooden floor, a grainy concrete wall, a stuffed fibrous cushion, and a pleasant breeze. This is the truth of this present moment, in the form of tactile sensations comprehended by the mind. But this is not the whole story, for to give a truly accurate description of the current situation, one more element is required: awareness. Without awareness, there would be no knowledge of the present moment at all, whichever sense is focused on. Moreover, this awareness has no signs attached to it to indicate that it is a thing. Unlike the floor, it is neither hard nor smooth, nor is it their opposites. It is the same whichever of the six senses (including the mind) that we apply to awareness: it is the unequivocal Truth that does not alter. Unlike things which are of limited forms, awareness is not restricted thus, and can be aware of anything that comes its way. It is the No-thing that contains all things, and this is the Truth.

So, whether we observe the Unformed via sight, the Unconditioned also by looking in, the End by watching thoughts, or the Truth via touch, we find the same spacious awareness that’s capacity for all to occur in. Moreover, the Unformed, the Unconditioned, the End, and the Truth are four of the synonyms used by the Buddha to describe awakening, or enlightenment, which we have just glimpsed. Not that all this makes us Fully-Awakened Ones just as he was, but it’s a darn good start!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 25-26

“Mysteries and miracles -
There are no such things!
But when you fail to understand
The world's full of weird happenings

This is the phantom
Who deceives
Who makes us take the false world
To be real”

Buddhism, just like all the religions that humanity has developed contains much that modern people consider superstitious or even fantastical: Miraculous births, prophecies, mythical beasts, heavens, hells, gods, angels, demons, incarnations, levitation, reincarnation, teleportation, telepathy, telekinesis, and television! Many of the world’s religions require their members to believe in specific wonders such as Jesus’ resurrection, Muhammad’s ascent to meet Allah, Krishna’s defeating of demons, and the Buddha’s talking and walking immediately after his birth. Bankei (1622-1693), as the matter-of-fact Zen Master that he was, will have nothing to do with such beliefs. He states that “There are no such things” as mysteries and miracles, sounding rather like a modern sceptic who only accepts what is scientifically verifiable as true.

“Mysteries and miracles -
There are no such things!”

There’s more to Bankei’s statement than mere iconoclasm for its own sake; he is denying the authenticity of these beliefs, and therefore any importance we might attribute to them, for a specific purpose. And, his purpose is not to present us with an alternative view of the world to a supernatural one, at least not one based on a particular ideology, that is. Bankei wishes to demystify our experience of the world so we do not waste too much of our time on the miraculous, but instead pay attention to this present moment, as it is in itself. So, this is not attaching to any view as an alternative to the superstitious one, but rather experiencing reality. For, as he says:

“But when you fail to understand
The world's full of weird happenings”

When we know the importance of this moment, we will practice in accordance with that knowledge. Otherwise, when we “fail to understand” this, we think that “The world’s full of weird happenings,” and we are led astray from developing the mindfulness that results in the realization of what Bankei called ‘the Unborn.’ When we’ve already given up immersion in fantastic phenomena and committed our efforts to cultivating awareness in the present, we may forget that this is not so for most people. Most religious people in the world profess faith in the kind of magical occurrences cited above, preferring creationism to evolution and superstition to contemplation. And, because such amazing things are much more (inner) eye-catching than the world as it is, it’s very difficult for people caught up in such visions to let go of them and experience humdrum reality. Bankei uses colourful language to emphasize this point:

“This is the phantom
Who deceives”

The “phantom” of superstitious belief deceives us when we are under its spell, populating the world with all kinds of imaginary beings and powers that just aren’t there – or, if they are, aren’t that important to enlightenment anyhow. Psychologically speaking, this “phantom” is our own imagination, latching onto certain things we’ve heard and making them ‘real,’ at least to the extent that anything false can be. Moreover, the imagination itself is part of that other, greater phantom – the ego. The ego itself is a conglomerate of various parts, an important one being the will, of which the Buddha said, “It is will that I call karma.” It is the will that directs the mind in certain directions, also motivating it to cling to certain things and rejecting others, altering our perceptions of reality along the way.

“Who makes us take the false world
To be real”

When we believe the world to be inhabited with miraculous creatures and amazing incidents, we take the “false world” as experienced by the ego to be real. Furthermore, Bankei is prodding us to not only let go of fantastic beliefs, but to relinquish the egoistic experience of existence altogether. If we wish to experience the Unborn, first we must give up any incredible ideas we cling to, then, we also need to throw away the notion that we are a separate self living in the world, in competition with other people and animals for our survival.

This latter understanding of life is the scientific one, of course, and although it isn’t explicitly mentioned on the two verses examined here, Bankei knew only too well that this paradigm must also be surrendered if the Unborn is to be experienced. There can be nothing in the mind to act as a barrier between knower and known, for the two are in fact one, and this is the heart of awakening. Please take a little time now to experience this present moment free of all preconceptions, by doing the following exercise:

Firstly, imagine a miraculous occurrence, such as Christ walking on water, or the Buddha appearing a great distance from where his body is. (It can be some other supernatural happening, if you wish.) Really envisage it, seeing not only the event, but also the surroundings, any people present, etc. Secondly, imagine an ordinary occurrence, such as someone sinking in water, or being confined to their body. (It can be some other everyday happening, if you wish.) Thirdly, reflect on these two imagined events; in this present moment is either more or less true, or are they both products of the mind’s eye? In this moment, is this not the way of things; that is to say, right now isn’t life what it is, rather than our ideas of what of it is? And what do all these thoughts arise in right now? Is it a soul, a mind, or is it the Unborn, free of labels and limitations?

In truth, as the great Zen Master Bankei pushes us to see, life is not the way we envisage, whether that is supernatural or not. Life s the way it is and we superimpose our concepts of how it works for our own peace of mind. But, what happens when life contradicts those beliefs? We suffer. Bankei wants us to go beyond these suffering minds by seeing how they limit our experience of life, trying to chain it in a prison of views. Thankfully, if we take the time to observe our mind, we can see these chains for what they are, and break them with a mighty swipe from the Dharma sword. Then, they are known in their true context: the Unborn.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dukkha v.2

And ‘I’ am drowning again
In an aching sea of despond
One word bobbing up: “Ow!”

This ever-degenerating body
Rhythmically stabs the mind
With the sharp sword of Mara

Self burns in a fire of nerves
Pain exploding into awareness
A billion Buddha Lands ablaze

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 22-24

“You think that good
Means hating what is bad
What's bad is
The hating mind itself

Good, you say,
Means doing good
Bad indeed
The mind that says so!

Good and bad alike
Roll them both into one ball
Wrap it up in paper and then
Toss it out - forget it all!”

Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693) was an amazing Zen master. In simple, direct language he cuts to the chase, and reveals the heart of the matter with a pithiness to die for. Take the three verses under scrutiny here; firstly, he dispels any notion of being holier than thou; secondly, the master destroys all ideas of goodness being the point of Buddhist practice at all; and thirdly, he invites incredulity, apparently rejecting morality altogether! And yet, if we were to stop our reflections on these verses at this point, we would be missing at least half of Bankei’s meaning. For, as with any great Zen master or mystic, he requires our careful attention if we’re not to make fools of ourselves just when we thought our wisdom was shining oh-so brightly!

“You think that good
Means hating what is bad”

Usually, we do exactly what Bankei describes here: we presume that to dislike whatever’s bad is the height of goodness. For example, if we covet our neighbour’s ass, so to speak, we might fight such lowly feelings, classifying them as ignoble and destructive. And, depending on just how attractive our neighbour’s ass actually is, it might take a lot of aversion to our desires for them to be denied through suppression. Putting our neighbour’s ass aside for a moment, another important thing to note is that Bankei writes of what we “think” being good is. He is encouraging us to reflect on the value of thoughts compared to actions: Is thinking about what constitutes being good actually being good or merely thinking about it? You see, Bankei is a consummate Zennist, pushing us to open our Dharma Eye wider and wider with each word.

“What's bad is
The hating mind itself”

Here’s where Bankei really starts to challenge us. Not only is he telling us that to hate badness isn’t necessarily good, but that in hating what is bad, we are creating a divisive, unwholesome mind state. The Buddha taught that the three poisons, or unwholesome psychological roots, are greed, hatred, and delusion. Whenever one of these mindsets is present, we are creating bad karma, and negative results will be the eventual result. So, even when we have hate for something that itself is unwholesome, such as covetousness, we are still making a rod for our back, as it were.

“Good, you say,
Means doing good”

Conventional thinking dictates that good consists in doing what is good, and here is nothing out of the ordinary. And, moreover, Buddhist ethics agree with this appraisal, putting much value on keeping the five precepts, which involve avoiding the following actions: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking intoxicants. Now, a man of Bankei’s wisdom surely kept these as well as his monkish precepts, for virtue is the foundation of the Buddhist Path to enlightenment. Only repentant murderers, thieves, adulterers, liars and drunkards realize enlightenment. (This is one sure-fire way to tell if you’ve picked the wrong spiritual teacher; if he or she is indulging in any of the above, get the hell out of there!)

“Bad indeed
The mind that says so!”

Hang on a minute! Isn’t Bankei contradicting the point made above that he almost certainly was a precept-keeping monk who promoted virtuous behaviour? Not at all! The master is actually referring to “the mind that says so,” rather than the person that does so. He is concerned here with helping us to see beyond our attachments to both ideas of good and ideas of bad. This doesn’t mean that we can be anarchists or libertines, doing what the hell we want, for we will surely end up in hell if we do so! It simply means that we don’t cling to either. Certainly, on the conventional level of existence, if we do good, we will get good karmic results, and if we do bad, we’ll reap the negative results of that, too. However, if we do bad stuff, we also have the added barrier to enlightenment that we’ve created unwholesome mind states that’ll create barriers to the mind seeing beyond itself. Nevertheless, Bankei declares:
“Good and bad alike
Roll them both into one ball”

This “one ball” of Bankei’s means concepts or ideas. If we put all our ideas of what constitutes good and bad (and anything else for that matter) into a ball of assumptions, we are in a position to rid ourselves of it. We can do this by recognizing mental objects as they arise as just what they are, and not attaching or rejecting them. In meditation, for example, watching each successive thought as it arises reveals its ephemeral and ethereal nature, allowing us to loosen or let go of any attachment to it. Another technique is to look at that in which all thoughts occur, seeing again that they are transient and transparent phenomena. Whatever way we achieve this awareness, it is crucial to the realization of enlightenment, for the latter is not an idea or concept, no matter how good or profound a notion may be.

“Wrap it up in paper and then
Toss it out - forget it all!”

So, Bankei wants us to throw out all ideas of good and bad, leaving us free of any conceptual formations to be bound with. Not only that, he wants us to wrap this “ball” in paper first. The question arises here as to what particular kind of paper does the master have in mind? Is it wrapping paper we should use, making our notions at least look beautiful before we discard them? Or perhaps an old newspaper will suffice, covered as it is in the pathetic tribulations of worldly types? Then again, it might be that Bankei has no specific kind of paper in his thoughts at all – but he isn’t such a clumsy poet as that! No, by “paper” Bankei does indeed have one particular type of paper in mind: scripture. As a Zen Buddhist, he knew only too well that we have the tendency to cling not only to ideas of what’s good, but also to descriptions of the spiritual life. Therefore, even our attachment to our favourite sutra (or poem!) must be relinquished if we wish to be truly free. Are we ready to do so? Let’s see...

Think of a piece of scripture, poetry, a mantra, or treatise (etc.) that you consider to be holy, wise, inspirational, or some similar lofty quality. Focus your attention on your feelings towards it, taking in the depth of your appreciation of it. Now, see its physical – or digital – form as merely form, its words as simply words, and its concepts as only concepts. What are your emotions towards it now, if you have any? Turn your attention to that which is doing all this looking; on current evidence, does this have any specific form or concept attached to it. And, if it does, does that form or concept actually represent it accurately or not? What is it that surrounds all these thoughts and emotions? Is it describable in any way, or is it beyond any notional imagery? Who is it that is ‘doing’ all this, right now?

As long as we accept and fulfil the basic moral precepts that prevent us from doing any radical harm to ourselves or others, we are in a position to do what Bankei demands of us, and toss away all our ideas of good and bad. Doing so is a massive step towards real freedom, which is truly without conceptual constraints. And, once this is achieved, it can be combined with seeing who it is that observes this process. Thereafter, seeing who it is that lets go of our habitual clinging encourages further release, which in turn promotes extended insightful seeing: they are forever spirally deeper into enlightenment, leaving us without words or concepts, but naturally residing in our True Nature which is beyond notions of good and bad.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Buddha & Eckhart: Godhead, Buddhahead

Meister Eckhart

“The eye with which I see God is the very eye with which God sees me”
(Meister Eckhart)

Meister Eckhart (1206-1327) is one of the greatest and most original of Europe’s mystics, quoted by influential figures like Pope John Paul II and the Fourteenth Dalia Lama. Probably born Johannes Eckhart in Thuringia in medieval Germany, he held many high positions within the Roman Catholic Church, and was an extremely popular preacher and teacher to countless devout Christians. In his teachings, however, he did not always keep to orthodox interpretations of scripture and dogma, sometimes sounding exceedingly doctrinally unsound. Indeed, such statements resulted in Eckhart being charged with heresy, and posthumously being found guilty on several counts. From the perspective of Buddhism, it is the more controversial declarations of the master that interest us, for it is in such statements as the one quoted above that Eckhart and Buddha seem in profound agreement.

In the following extracts from Eckhart’s writings, we will travel with him into what he likes to call the Godhead, the indescribable depths even less imaginable than that of God, which according to the master is being itself. In our exploration of Eckhart’s musings on God, Godhead, and being, we will be accompanied by the great exponent of Japanese Buddhism Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. Suzuki, most famous for introducing the West to Zen Buddhism, gives us a somewhat different take on Eckhart’s insights which enable us to relate them more readily to the Buddha and his teachings. It is worth noting from the outset that both the Eckhartian understanding of God and the Zen experience of the Buddha as described in this article do not refer to the exalted individuals normally indicated by those titles, but instead indicates a genderless, incorporeal non-thing which lies at the heart of existence. Read Eckhart on this:

“Being is God…God and being are the same – or God has being from another and thus himself is not God…Everything that is has the fact of its being through being and from being. Therefore, if being is something different from God, a thing has its being from something other than God. Besides, there is nothing prior to being because that which confers being creates and is a creator. To create is to give being out of nothing” (Meister Eckhart)

Eckhart has a radical understanding of God compared to almost every other Christian one might meet or read. Even more than other giants of Christian mysticism and theology, his view of God is far removed from the conventional belief in an anthropomorphic deity sat on high. His God does not possess a flowing white beard and matching locks, nor does He perch on a celestial throne, barking orders at humanity and sending the odd plague or two to punish us. The Eckhartian version of God is being itself, the very “is-ness” of life (see the following quote below). Furthermore, He resides as the very being of each and every one of us, whether we profess the Christian faith, the Buddhist one, or another, or no faith at all. God is the origin of all, and at the fundamental level of existence He is us and we are he. What your average born-again or bishop would make of this description of God only, well, God knows!

In the above quotation, Eckhart argues that because Christians conceive of God as the Creator of all things, He must be in all things as their very being. If the essential being of an entity is not God, then it is not being either, and therefore some other quiddity must be the essence of all life, including what we deem ‘God.’ This argument is a kind of self-perpetuating loop, which can be easily criticized by any half-decent philosopher, but it isn’t the central point here. What’s important to recognize in Eckhart’s thinking is where he is coming from, rather than the efficacy of his theology. This is a consideration emphasized by the Japanese Zen Buddhist writer D.T. Suzuki, who was extremely keen on Meister Eckhart. He makes this point in the following observation:

“Mere thinking or logical reasoning will never succeed in clearing up problems of deep religious significance. Eckhart’s experiences are deeply, basically, abundantly rooted in God as being which is at once being and not-being: he sees in the ‘meanest’ thing among God’s creatures all the glories of his is-ness (isticheit). The Buddhist enlightenment is nothing more than this experience of is-ness or suchness (tathata), which in itself has all the possible values (guna) we humans can conceive.” (D.T. Suzuki)

The erudite Suzuki recognized that Eckhart’s vision was not an intellectual or philosophical one, but grounded in the German mystic’s actual experiences. God, for Eckhart, is not a belief; He is known at the very core of being, as the “is-ness” of life. Suzuki goes a little further, as we might expect of someone so deeply immersed in the wisdom of Zen, and states that the being that is God is “At once being and not-being.” This echoes another of Eckhart’s bold statements when he announced that “God is a not-God.” This tendency amongst Buddhists and Eckhart to use apparently contradictive ideas to describe the Indescribable is a kind of safety device so that we might avoid turning the Ineffable into a mere concept or belief. For, whilst we might say with some justification that God, or Buddha for that matter, is the being of us all, if we cling to such an idea as absolute truth, the real Truth has slipped through our grasp. Of this real Truth, Eckhart says:

“God’s characteristic is being…The most trivial thing perceived in God, a flower for example espied in God, would be a thing more perfect than the universe. The vilest thing present in God as being is better than angelic knowledge.” (Meister Eckhart)

Usually, when we perceive the universe from the perspective of a limited, individual, separate ego, we don’t see the big picture. Instead, we view life through the distorted lens of self, sometimes seeing the most beautiful of things with an embittered mind. By contrast, Eckhart argues that if we experience something “perceived in God,” that is to say from the viewpoint of pure awareness or being, then we know it as it is rather than as we might take it to be with our egoistic, dualistic notions. This pure awareness is God to Eckhart and Buddha to a Zen Buddhist like D.T. Suzuki (and to me!). Again, it is important to remember that this understanding of God and Buddha does not refer to separate beings but being itself, which is” without image,” as Eckhart explains below:

“You should know Him without image, without semblance and without means. – ‘But for me to know God thus, with nothing in between, I must be all but He, He all but me.’ – I say, God must be very I, I very God, so consummately one that this He and this I are one ‘is,’ in this is-ness working one work eternally; but so long as this He and this I, to wit, God and the soul, are not one single here, one single now, the I cannot work with nor be one with that He.” (Meister Eckhart)

It is clear from reading these passages that Eckhart sees the point of the spiritual life as a kind of union or submerging into ‘God.’ Mainstream Christianity would have nothing to do with this, considering such statements as “God must be very I, I very God, so consummately that this He and this I are one ‘is’” as heresy. For most Christians, Eckhartian mysticism is light years away from their ideas of resurrection and eternal – but separate – life with God, either in heaven or on a New Earth. In contrast to this, Eckhart surely seems closer to the Buddha’s teachings regarding transcending all dichotomies and realizing Nirvana right here and now. And, if there was any doubt as to the depth of union between God and the I in previous quotes from the master above, let’s examine one more:

“God’s is-ness is my is-ness, and neither more nor less. The just live eternally with God, on a par with God, neither deeper nor higher. All their work is done by God and God’s by them.” (Meister Eckhart)

According to Eckhart, not only are we unified with God at the level of ‘is-ness,’ but we become one with Him. What’s more, my is-ness is as great as God’s; how’s that for heretical assertion? (And yet, remember that at the top of this article it was mentioned that Pope John Paul II, not exactly an original theologian, actually quoted Eckhart on occasion. Presumably, it wasn’t one of the sayings we’re scrutinizing here!) Interestingly, we could change some of the terminology from Christian to Buddhist and it still works: Buddha’s is-ness is my is-ness, and neither more nor less. Or, recalling the quote at the top of this article: The eye with which I see Buddha is the same eye with which Buddha sees me. Despite these strong parallels, some Buddhists may still object that Eckhart’s God does not equate to the Buddha; but what of his understanding of Godhead?

“God and Godhead are as different as earth is from heaven. Moreover I declare: the outward and the inward man are as different, too, as earth and heaven. God is higher, many thousand miles. Yet God comes and goes. But to resume my argument: God enjoys Himself in all things. The sun sheds its light upon all creatures, and anything it sheds its beams upon absorbs them, yet it loses nothing of its brightness.” (Meister Eckhart)

God is the active, alive aspect of being in us and all things. Godhead, on the other hand, is pure No-thing, not even manifest in us as the empty heart of our being. As Eckhart intimates elsewhere, Godhead is only experienced – if that’s the right word – in deep states of prayer akin to Buddhist meditation, which correlates to the experience of complete Nirvana with the absence of outer sense data. God isn’t so evasive, and “comes and goes,” and, “enjoys Himself in all things.” This sounds like the active side of Nirvana, that is to say the awareness of Buddha Nature in the midst of the world, as opposed to only in rapt meditation. To clarify Eckhart’s distinction between God and Godhead, let’s read more of D.T. Suzuki’s analysis of Eckhartian mysticism:

“God comes and goes, he works, he is active, he becomes all the time, but Godhead remains immovable, imperturbable, inaccessible. The difference between God and Godhead is that between heaven and earth and yet Godhead cannot be himself without going out of himself, that is, he is he because he is not he. This ‘contradiction is comprehended only by the inner man, and not by the outer man, because the latter sees the world through the senses and intellect and consequently fails to experience the profound depths of Godhead.” (D.T. Suzuki)

The inner and outer man, as Suzuki establishes, are different because of the direction of their attention: the outer man gazes outward into the world of things (including himself), while the inner man dares to peer inwards beyond even his own mind into the depths that lie beyond all things. This is achieved through dedicated and focused attention that never wavers in its search for the ‘is-ness’ of existence. Once recognized and then let go of, this is-ness reveals its ultimate nature as nothingness, or the No-thing. All things and processes cease in the deep void of Godhead/Buddhahead. Coming out of this state, the world is experienced in relation to its is-ness or suchness (tathata). This suchness is where the Buddhist designation Tathagata (‘Thus-Come One’) comes from. To be enlightened, whether as a Buddhist or an Eckhartian, is to live in awareness of the is-ness that we come from. This is freedom from suffering, liberation from the ego-delusion, and ultimate happiness.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 19-21

“Having created
The demon mind yourself
When it torments you mercilessly
You're to blame and no one else

When you do wrong
Your mind's the demon
There's no hell
To be found outside

Abominating hell
Longing for heaven
You make yourself suffer
In a joyful world”

The message of the seventeenth century Zen master Bankei Yotaku can be both direct and modern in language. In the above three verses, we have ample evidence of both qualities, giving the words an immediacy that grabs the heart’s attention, pulling us back into the present moment, which is right where we need to be if we wish to experience the Unborn Buddha Mind, the Wonder that Bankei’s teachings consistently point to. Here, the master uses the age-old concepts of demons and hell to illustrate the nature of the egoistic mind, which is the true origin and location of our suffering. He pulls no punches laying the blame where it lies right from the outset:

“Having created
The demon mind yourself”

There are two important points to attend to in these two lines; firstly, that there is something Bankei calls “the demon mind,” and secondly, that we create it for ourselves. A demon is a tormented, evil being that cannot desist from doing wrong and selfish things. It is used here to characterise self-centred thoughts, hence, “the demon mind.” Another important aspect of this mind pertinent to this reflection is that it is also the contraction of what Bankei describes as the Unborn Buddha Mind, mentioned above. This is our natural state, unmoved and unmoving, whereas the delusion-based demon mind is a movement of mentality away from the Unborn. Furthermore, this movement is created by the mind; it does not come from without. True, it is influenced by outside forces, but it is mental processes themselves that forge the sense of being a separate being that necessarily suffers.

“When it torments you mercilessly
You're to blame and no one else”

All kinds of negative thoughts and feelings go around and around these ego-minds of ours. In fact, we cannot have one without the other, for the tormented contents of the demon mind are its very parts; it grows out of, and is constructed of, thoughts and feelings of ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine.’ Every time we identify with our emotions and notions we build up the sense of being a ‘me’ with all the torments that accompany such an idea. Here are a few examples of the kinds of harmful mental states that the demon mind is involved with: anger, frustration, agony, regret, torment, hatred, sadness, jealousy, greed, superiority, inferiority, and delusion (including the delusion of being an ego-self). Being the cause of, and subsequently the product of, such negative mindscapes as these, the demon mind is caught in a perpetual loop of self-made misery. We cannot blame the Devil, Mara (the Buddhist counterpart of Satan), nor anyone or anything else for our anguish. It is always a case of psychological D.I.Y.

“When you do wrong
Your mind's the demon”

At first glance, these lines may seem to be merely a repetition of the first verse, but if we look closely, we can pick out the word “do,” which adds a new dimension to these musings of Bankei. Previously, he related our suffering (“torments”) to our mind (“demon mind”), whereas now he turns his enlightened attention to our actions. Everything we do comes from the mind, for as it says in the first words of the Dhammapada, “Mind is the forerunner of all things.” Some may object that although it is obvious that premeditated actions follow the mind, spontaneous deeds have no previous though. This is not so, however, for as modern neurological research is confirming, the subconscious mind precedes any act that we do – consciously or unconsciously – sometimes by several seconds. And, the subconscious parts of the mind are conditioned just as the conscious parts are; so, whenever we do “wrong” or selfish things, we do so from our “demon mind.”
“There's no hell
To be found outside”

Bankei now turns his attention to a place that most of the world’s religions and mythologies attest to the existence of – hell. He boldly declares that hell is not “to be found outside,’ a pretty darting statement for a Buddhist monk of the seventeenth century to make. This is because most Japanese Buddhists at that time – and probably at this time, too – believe in the actual existence of an external place called jigoku (‘hell’ in Japanese). Not wishing to affirm nor deny such claims, here we can at least recognise, just like Bankei, that right now it is the inner hell that is of more immediate concern to us. This psychological Hades is part and parcel of our suffering existence, rising out of our unwholesome thoughts, speech, and actions, colouring everything we experience with the taint of Mara.

“Abominating hell
Longing for heaven”

We know, either through tuition or intuition, what is basically right or wrong, most of us putting kindness, politeness, generosity, compassion, altruism, peacefulness, and honesty under the heading ‘right,’ and hostility, rudeness, miserliness, cruelty, selfishness, violence, and dishonesty under the heading ‘wrong.’ Bankei is not promoting an amoral attitude to life here, but pointing out that attaching to what we like (“longing for heaven”) and fighting what we dislike (“abominating hell”) is not enlightenment. This does not mean that we abandon our moral precepts, but that we do not psychologically cling to them, thereby reinforcing the sense of ego that covers over our actual Unborn Buddha Mind. For, while it is better to be moral than immoral or amoral, the enlightening position to take is to do good without desiring heavenly rewards. This avoids the arising of guilt from selfish deeds, whilst at the same time transcending any sense of a ‘me’ doing any good deeds.

“You make yourself suffer
In a joyful world”

According to the Buddha Dharma, doing bad has worse repercussions than doing good, but clinging to either type of actions creates a screen between what we really are and what we think we are. What we think we are includes notions of a good person, a bad person, an animal, a soul, a body, a mind, or any other separate entity or thing. What we truly are is none of these, but an ineffable ‘No-thing’ that lies behind all our notions of good, bad, heaven, hell, deity and demon. If we can see through these various delusions, we will break through to the “joyful world” that Bankei writes of. This joyful world is neither some heaven above us nor hell below us, but is here where we are in the present moment, waiting for us to see it. To do so, all we need do is look at the world with a pure eye, a Buddha Eye, and it will be revealed to us; please conduct the following exercise and see if “a joyful world” springs up before you.

Close your eyes and imagine doing something good, noting all the feelings and thoughts that the mind produces in relation to it. Next, do the same whilst imagining doing something bad. (These can be actual events that took place or purely imaginary ones. The former may give more concrete responses, however, more readily reflected upon.) Re-examine both imagined acts and the mind’s reactions to them, but this time seeing them as what they really are; fleeting thoughts in awareness. Ultimately, is the good deed any different to the bad deed in its relation to naked awareness? Ditto, both sets of mental responses. Open your eyes and look around you. Do ‘solid’ objects have any more or less reality to them than thoughts? Right now, are you a separate suffering being or the Buddha Eye seeing all things as so much ‘Mind-stuff’ occurring in the Unborn Buddha Mind?

According to Bankei, the demon mind is the unenlightened mind, and the Unborn Buddha Mind is the enlightened Mind. He also encouraged his followers by emphasizing that to realize the latter is as easy as listening or looking without attachment. This is exactly what the exercise above is aimed at. This world is neither heaven nor hell. But it is what it is, and is seen as such if we look with our clear Buddha Eye and not the demon mind. And, what it is in truth is a joyful world full of wonderful and terrible things, all arising in the No-thing of the Unborn Buddha Mind. Not joyful in the worldly, egoistic sense understood in ordinary psychological terms, but from the viewpoint of the Awakened One. Why don’t we wake up from our dreams of heaven and hell, and live from this Vision?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Buddha, Self, and No-Self

“Suffering exists, but no sufferer can be found.
Actions exist, but no doer of actions is there.
Nirvana exists, but no one who enters it.
The Path exists, but no traveler can be seen.”
(Visuddimagga, 513)

The Buddha taught that there is no permanent individual self (anatta), and that if we fully realize this for ourselves we will be enlightened just like him. The important word here is ‘realize,’ for if we merely hold the view of not-self, we will not actually be enlightened, but rather clinging to a concept. The concept, or view (ditthi) of not-self is, from the Buddhist perspective, an improvement on the self-view (atta-ditthi), but it is still a pale imitation of the real thing. Believing something is one thing, but knowing it is another and the Buddha stated that if we really wish to escape the claws of suffering, we must realize what the extract above by Buddhaghosa describes as “Suffering exists, but no sufferer can be found.”

The Buddha’s teaching on not-self is unique among the world’s great religions, with all the other major faiths making the assumption that there is a soul or self of some description or another (atta-ditthi). They take as true what Buddhism classes as the eternalist view (sassata-ditthi), which is one of the two extreme views criticized by the Buddha. Eternalists believe that there is a permanent, individual soul in each of us that lives forever, either being reborn life-to-life, or being sent to heaven or hell upon physical death. Hinduism is an example of a faith that postulates that an eternal self reincarnates through a myriad lifetimes, with Sikhism and Jainism promoting essentially the same idea. The three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – tell us that we have undying souls that either end up in heaven or hell after death, depending on our behavior during just one life upon this earth.

The other main form of self-view is the annihilationist view (uccheda-ditthi), which states that although everyone does indeed have a separate self, it does not precede or survive this life. This is essentially the materialist view that modern scientifically-influenced people hold, such as the Darwinists and other non-religious people. The difference between this view and the Buddha’s is that annihilationism still presumes the existence of a real self (atta), whereas Buddhism declares that there has never been a self (anatta). The Buddhist understanding of no-self will be explored a little later, but first, we have a brief excursion to make into a third group of false views that the Buddha listed which, like him, denied the existence of a permanent, separate self, but unlike him, also denied the law of karma.

The first of these three anti-karma beliefs is called the inefficacy-of-action-view (akiraya-ditthi), which states that because there is no self, no karma and no karma results, our actions are meaningless and without any karmic consequences. The next idea is that of the view of non-causality (ahetuka-ditthi), in which the believer in no-self holds the opinion that things happen purely by chance, without prior conditioning factors, and that in turn our actions have no direct influence on future occurrences, either. The last false understanding of there being no self and no karmic process is called the nihilistic view (nattika-ditthi). Nihilists suppose that the universe is empty not only of any self or karmic process, but that it is also therefore empty of any meaning. It doesn’t matter what we do, because there’s no one to suffer our wrong doings and no one to benefit from our virtuous behavior. As with the annihilationist view, nihilism has gained a certain popularity with some modernists, among them anarchists and materialistic hedonists, who feel that they can do whatever takes their fancy as nothing really matters anyhow.

“This world, Kaccana, for the most part depends upon a duality – upon the idea of existence and the idea of nonexistence. But for one that sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no idea of nonexistence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world with correct wisdom, there is no idea of existence in regard to the world.” (Samyutta Nikaya 12:15)

As his words to the monk Kaccanagotta illustrate above, the Buddha held what he considered the Middle Way between the extremes of eternalism (“the idea of existence”) and annihilationism (“the idea of nonexistence”). In this quote, by the word “world” the Buddha means the world as it is experienced, in other words, all sense data that is received, interpreted, and reacted to by the mind. It is existent in that mental and physical phenomena are apparent, and yet it is nonexistent in that there’s no distinct self here experiencing it all. In this light, it is worthwhile rereading the verse from the Visuddhimagga found at the top of this article, as long as you see that there is in truth no one actually doing the reading!

With the teachings on karma and dependent arising (paticca-samuppada), the Buddha also avoided the extreme positions taken up by those holding ideas like the inefficacy-of-action view, the view of non-causality, and the nihilist view. Karma and karmic fruition describe existence in terms and actions and their consequences; that is to say, whatever we do, say, or think has repercussions far beyond this present moment (although they certainly influence current events also.) Recognition of karma and its results negates the idea of non-causality, as well as giving nihilists pause for thought. The Buddha’s radical, and like anatta unique, teaching of dependent arising also leaves those with the inefficacy-of-action view much to ponder, in that it describes a clear and logical set of conditioning factors that give order and meaning to life. Here’s a typical description of dependent arising as given by the Buddha in the Pali Canon:

“On ignorance (avijja) depend the karmic formations (sankhara); on the karmic formations depends consciousness (vinnana); on consciousness depends mind-and-form (nama-rupa); on mind-and-form depend the six sense-bases (salayatana); on the six sense-bases depends contact (phassa): on contact depends feeling (vedana): on feeling depends craving(tanha); on craving depends clinging (upadana); on clinging depends becoming (bhava); on becoming depends birth (jati); and on birth depends decay-and-death (jara-marana)." (Samyutta Nikaya 12.2)

From this description of the process of dependent arising it can be seen that the Buddha espoused a very detailed alternative to the non-causal and meaningless philosophies we have been examining. Whether we accept (or even fully understand) dependent arising, the step-by-step nature of its progression from ignorance (of the way things truly are) to eventual decay and death has a certain appeal that can leave the nihilists and other hedonists seeming rather inattentive and shortsighted. If we are to be attached to views, surely the Buddha’s Right View which includes karma and dependent arising makes more sense to both the mind and heart than the views of the eternalists, annihilationists, and thir ilk. (This article is not the place to explore dependent arising in more depth, but if there is interest on the part of this blog’s readership, it certainly can be the focus of a future post.)

Returning to the Buddha’s conception of karma and rebirth, some readers may be wondering how, if there is no permanent, separate self to be reborn, rebirth takes place, and also who, if there is no such self, it is that performs actions and receives their results. Well, a highly-detailed account of dependent arising was the Buddha’s main response to this question, but in the modest environment of a blog, a somewhat simpler explanation will be attempted! It is aspects of the mind that are reborn rather than a soul or personality, as such. Mental habits, attachments, and thought processes not only traverse time and space by ‘popping up’ in our brains during this life, but can also enter an embryo or foetus, a bit like radio waves or electrical impulses traversing the ether to be received at some future point. According to the Buddha, karmic results can also manifest (in relation to the mind-elements that created them) in future lives, as well as in the present one.

Another way in which the Buddha nullifies self-view is with his teaching of the five aggregates (panca-khandha), which he stated comprised the entiety of a person, leaving nothing to be considered as a permanent, separate self or soul. The five aggregates are as follows:

• The aggregate of corporality (rupa-khandha)

• The aggregate of feeling (vedana-khandha)

• The aggregate of perception (sanna)

• The aggregate of mental formations (sankhara-khandha)

• The aggregate of consciousness (vinnana-khandha)

The first aggregate of corporality means the body, that is, the physical components that make it up; the second aggregate of feeling indicates those emotional responses to mental and physical stimuli, the three basic forms of which are pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral; the third aggregate of perception refers to the recognition of objects, both mental and physical, and includes memory; the aggregate of mental formations applies to any psychological qualities, including volition, concentration, faith, compassion, delusion, hate, and envy; the aggregate of consciousness is that awareness dependent upon one or other of the other four aggregates, such as consciousness of feeling envy. As the following quotation points out, in his teaching of the five aggregates, the Buddha leaves no room for a separate, individual soul or self:

“Now, if anyone should put the question, whether I admit any theory at all, he should be answered thus:
The Tathagata is free from any view, for the Tathagata has understood what corporeality is, and how it arises and passes away. He has understood what feeling is, and how it arises and passes away. He has understood what perception is, and how it arises and passes away. He has understood what mental formations are, and how they arise and pass away. He has understood what consciousness is, and how it arises and passes away. Therefore, I say, the Tathagata has won complete deliverance through the extinction, fading away, disappearance, rejection, and getting rid of all opinions and conjectures, of all inclination to the vainglory of ‘I’ and ‘mine.’”
(Majjhima Nikaya, 72)

It’s interesting to note in the above words that not only does the teaching of the five aggregates cancel out self-view, but it also negates any views of whether the self exists or doesn’t exist, for as written at the top of this article, the Buddha taught that we need to realize that there is no permanent separate self if we wish to awaken to reality. Clinging to the view of not-self (anatta) is not enough: we must see this Truth and then live from it to really benefit from it. Otherwise, we are caught up in the realm of views, which as the Buddha declared, he did not enter into to. Transcending both self and all views, we fulfill the words from Buddhaghosa’s verse that opened this exploration: “Nirvana exists, but no one that enters it.” Bon voyage, no one!