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!


Raju Kumar said...

"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"

- Is this something similar to "Brahman" of Advaita. Is there any difference between Moksha of Advaita and Nirvana of Buddha

Anonymous said...

what does awareness means? what is the difference of nothingness and no-thing?

G said...

In truth, Raju, I don't know if they are the same or not because I've not practiced Advaita Vedanta and then experienced Moksha. From the traditional descriptions of the two, it would seem that they do differ in that Advaita culminates in experiencing the state of pure 'I am' (which might correspond to what the Buddha called 'mana' or 'conceit'/the feeling of being a self or Self), whereas the Bodhi of Buddhism goes beyond even this. All this is conjecture, however, and it may well be that Advaita Moksha and Buddhist Nirvana are one and the same - after all, there is really only One!

G said...

Anonymous, it's fantastic that you are asking su h an important and profound question. Unfortunately, neither G nor anyone else can answer it for you! The only way you can discover the answer is to look for yourself. Furthermore, any intellectual investigation that you conduct will - surprise, surprise - supply you with intellectual answers.

If you really want to experience the answer to your questions regarding awareness, nothing, and no-thing, you need to carefully observe your own experience, as with the exercise in 'On Awareness' and others found throughout 'Buddha Space.' Regular exercises such as these, plus more traditional meditation practices can help us to really get to the Bottom of things, which is No-thing at all! Take a look and see...

Anonymous said...

G, i think nirvana and brahman are more likely the same except buddhism does not call brahman as self and God but the orientation is much some kind of a true self like buddha nature or no thing. no thing can be our "true" nature talking of zen, ajanh and buddhism.

Anonymous said...

no-thing at all? well nihilists and buddhists differ from their concept of nothingness. buddhists are just letting you know that it is the real nature of things back to nature without assuming something is annihilated. nihilists and atheists assume something like self is so real and needs to die....

G said...

In Buddhism, it is taught that it is the complete realization that there is no self in the first place to be annihilated that is Nirvana, Anonymous. Nihilists start from the assumption that there is a self, and then proceed to try to take it apart bit by bit. No-thing does not equal nothing, as far as the two are known here.

These are words and concepts, however, and whilst they may help us to get closer to the Truth, they are not 'it.' We need to look and see the truth as it is in this moment, and then such questions drop away by themselves as meaningless.

Dean Crabb said...

Dear Anonymous,

While I agree with G that it is best you explore meditation and come to understand these through experience I thought I'd give an explanation that may help. It is a tough question to tackle succinctly because words are a bit inefficient at describing the experience. With some understanding of this then you might one day be able to experience it through meditation. Just keep reminding yourself what I describe below is not a theory, it is an actual experience you can have and reveals a truth about the nature of life.

Awareness means the experience of being conscious and mindful. It is this experiencing of life you are having now. Look around the room - looking, hearing, breathing, watching ... this experience you are having right now ... this is awareness.

For some people it can be weird to be asked "What is awareness?" because it something that is always there but if a person has never bother looking then they won't understand what this means. A few weeks ago I was teaching someone meditation and I asked them to focus on their breath and they had no idea what I meant, they simply had not noticed they were breathing to know how to focus on it!!

The difference between nothingness and no-thing is only subtle but they are different experiences. Nothingness is a quality of this awareness, of this life experiencing you are having now. Like drinking water you can say a quality of water is wetness "Ah it's wet". Likewise a quality of this awareness is nothingness. Through meditation and examining this awareness eventually you come to realise one of it's inherent qualities is this nothingness. Again, it's an experience. Another word for nothingness is emptiness. So by nothingness and emptiness I mean you see, you experience, that all things have no lasting substance to their composition, there is nothing permanently solid part that makes us their nature, they are empty through and through. There is only the appearance of form.

No-thing is another experience and usually comes after the insight to emptiness/nothingness. Once there is the experience of nothingness then you start to realise and experience this quality in all things you taste, smell, see, hear, touch and think. You look around and realise all "things", all forms, are inherently empty, they have nothing as a permanent substance to their composition and nature. So this is a slightly different experience but derived from the same VIEW of life, derived from the same way of looking and experiencing life. So with this view you start to realise that all the forms and "things" you see and interact with are inherently empty, and hence there is no "things" in the world, there is only nothingness/emptiness through and through. So we say there are no forms, hence there is no-thing's. As G says "there is no-thing at all".

Anyway, I hope that helps.

Jagaro (Dean Crabb)

Anonymous said...

great! dean and G, what a great blog this is. dividing into the depth of void dean, so no thing is the newly profound experience then nothingness is the "real" nature of things? how does hinduism and buddhism differntiate the notion life is an illusion? by the way what is the role of awareness to enligtenment?

Dean Crabb said...

Hi Anonymous,

"Diving into the depth of void dean, so no thing is the newly profound experience then nothingness is the "real" nature of things?"

In simple terms yes. It is the realisation and experience that it is underlying nature of all things, a quality of all things. Emptiness is form, form is emptiness. They are not different. Essentially before we just thought everything was form form form and didn't understand this distinction. So we come to experience "Ah, so everything is actually form and emptiness!"

"How does hinduism and buddhism differntiate the notion life is an illusion?"

I don't know anything about Hinduism to comment on this. I can only say that the experience of life for all of us is identically the same. Buddhism and Hinduism are explanations and practices to come to realise this. Whether you call yourself Hindu or Buddhist, if you bite an apple the experience is the same regardless of what religious practice you subscribe to.

"By the way what is the role of awareness to enlightenment?"

Ooo, another complex question. You've worded your question in quite a complex way so I'll answer it based on the way you've asked it. The role of awareness here depends on one's view, one's experience of the life at their current stage of spiritual development. If you understand Right View then awareness and enlightenment are the same. That is, awareness IS the view of enlightenment.

If you haven't yet had this experience (and understanding) then practising awareness is a way of coming to realise this experience of enlightenment. Hence why we practice meditation and mindfulness. In this context awareness has a role, a purpose. This is the role or purpose of awareness.

This is a common question after enlightenment "Okay great, big life changing experience, but what is the purpose of this enlightenment?" We then start to realise the role awareness and meditation played in bringing us to this point of enlightened insight. With this we realise what our practice of meditation was doing for us all along. But once we've reached that point is awareness and enlightenment different? Here the role of awareness and enlightenment are the same. This is Right View. Once you have Right View all the other things start to make sense and the rest of your life falls into alignment - Right Action, Right Speech, Right Intention, Right Mindfulness etc.

It's like riding down the river on a canoe. You paddle paddle paddle the canoe like you want to get to the ocean, and eventually you get to the ocean and you realise then ocean and river are the same source of water and you had been riding it all the way, you just didn't realise it. That is the role of awareness to enlightenment.

I hope that helps.

Jagaro (Dean Crabb)

Anonymous said...

G, weekly reading your blog makes me wear my spacial googles as i delve deeper into the vastness of the void. cosmic blog indeed. jagaro, so awareness or being aware means being aware of the real nature of things? taking into account that everything is one and the same form emptiness you me krishna jesus? awareness = enligtened observation.....

Dean Crabb said...

Dear Anonymous,

Essentially yes. You can describe it anyway you like. If you are in a canoe and I am in another canoe, we'll both arrive at the same ocean, but we could describe our journey and what we see along the way differently, but we are still both travelling on the same source of water.

So descriptions aside, it is important to remember everything we've discussed here is an actual experience that can be realised through meditation. Please go away and practice this in meditation and don't just think about it.

Jagaro (Dean Crabb)

G said...

Dean & Anonymous - thanks for making this blog much richer with your exploration of the Void: Fantastic!

Anonymous said...

G, i once thought nirvana and nothingness are the same but there is a subtle difference like an double edged sword. reading dhammananda's book what buddhists believe, nothingness is nihilism yes nirvana is nothingness but it is not the complete picture. nihilism falls into the delusion of views. it assumes the existence of a self which buddhism never promotes. nirvana is "nothingness" or no-thingness but buddhism makes it clear there is no annihilation since there is no self to begin with. anyway, it is just the end of suffering. buddhaspace is one hell of a blog, it helped me understand nirvana even more. it is nothingness but not in a nihilistic sense... the buddha is free from views taking views is a wrong part because you assume they really exist. all just existed like mirage...

Pedram said...

Interesting post, I'm a first time reader, but I'll be back.

G said...

Anonymous - 'I' don't understand Nirvana, so congratulations if you do! ;-)

Pedram - Nice to have you aboard. "I'll be back" sounds a bit ominous, however; you're not a terminator, are you?!

Only kidding. Thank you both for your kind words.