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!