“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.