“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 Blest, Safety, and the Wonderful. 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 Blest (Siva) Siva, often rendered Shiva in Roman script, is the name of one of the main gods in Hinduism, being a member of the Trimurti (Hindu Trinity) that also includes Brahma and Vishnu. Here, however, when used as a synonym for enlightenment, it has the meaning of ‘blest.’ Awakening is the Blest because in the enlightened state we have all the blessings that we need. Not that being awakened means that everything goes our way; far from it. Rather, when we have transcended the delusion of thinking we are a separate self, we live in line with existence, and whatever is happening is what is supposed to be happening. Moreover, we are aware of the fact, although we do not constantly go around thinking, “Oh, everything’s okay because I’m enlightened,” but instead we simply live in tune with whatever’s going on in the present moment.
Existing in unison with life is not total passivity, however. On the contrary, when we need to act, we spontaneously do so, and when we do not need to, we don’t. And, this is not libertinism, either. For, when enlightened, compassion and wisdom naturally flow out of the spacious awareness at one’s heart, acting not for the good of a person presumed to be here, but for the benefit of all beings. It all comes down to self-identity in the end: if we act of the sense of being a self, then our thoughts, words and deeds will obviously be predominately selfish, whereas if we have no sense of being a separate entity, we will be acting for the benefit of everyone. All this may sound wonderful, you might think, but how do we experience it right now? Conducting the following exercise may help us to have a glimpse of living from spacious awareness in a state of acceptance instead of ego-based separation.
Observe your thoughts, noticing their ever-evolving forms, morphing from one train of thought into another; one moment you’re thinking about the electric bill, the next the state of the economy, and then what’s for dinner. (Not entirely unrelated subject matter, if you think about it.) Even if your thoughts appear to you as more profound than money and food, in the form of philosophical or religious concerns, for example, they still conform to the same basic patterns in your mind, flowing from one subject to the next. Often, as is human nature, these thoughts, whether mundane or metaphysical, are of a negative character. The world often appears very negative to us, doesn’t it? Now, turn your attention away from your thoughts to the world as it presents itself right now. Is it all that bad? (Obviously, if you’ve got a screaming baby or ranting relative near you at present, this part of the exercise will probably fall short!) Look at your surroundings – aren’t they ‘just-so,’ the way they are, and isn’t this intrinsically okay? Isn’t it your mind that decides things aren’t okay, based on your presumptions about the kind of world you want to live in? And, having realized this, even when the baby is screaming or a ranting relative nearby, that’s okay, too! If we can live in this wisdom, we truly are the Blest.
· Safety (Khema) For all beings true safety is very difficult to find; nay, it is impossible. As created beings, with these vulnerable bodies and minds, subject to all kinds of sickness, we cannot find respite from becoming ill at some point or another in our lives. As infants and children we are particularly susceptible to illnesses, as we are when we reach old age, a condition that has its own painful side effects. The body deteriorates, along with the mind, as time takes its toll on our persons. And, what’s the end of all this suffering? Why, it’s death: how comforting! Of course, we are not guaranteed to reach old age before we die, as we may contract a terminal disease, or be the victim of a fatal accident or attack. As individual, separate beings we cannot find a haven to protect us from life’s dangers. Moreover, even if we manage to avoid these three messengers of life’s intrinsic unsatisfactory nature for a long time, there are less dramatic ways that we suffer, as when we have a broken heart, or our loved one’s die, or when our desires are not satiated. Safety from these types of suffering is even harder to locate than the three messengers above. And, even if we don’t consciously feel endangered all the time, subconsciously we are well aware of our vulnerability, and this awareness affects every moment of our lives, tingeing it with unhappiness. Can we ever feel truly safe, then?
Despite the negative hypothesis described above – which is the first Noble Truth of the Buddha, by the way, that life is unsatisfactory – real safety is available to us. There is just one cost, however – that we surrender our sense of being a separate ego-self, and recognize the emptiness that lies at the heart of our being. This may sound awful at first, which is that we must give up our selfhood to be safe from life’s dangers, but this isn’t what Buddhism encourages us to do, in fact. It isn’t that we should commit some kind of suicide, but that we realize that we never existed in the limited and limiting way that we presumed we did. As an abstract idea, the giving up of the delusion of being an ego may well sound horrific, but as an experience it is anything but. It is the true Safety from suffering once and for all, because there’s no individual to suffer, and Emptiness cannot suffer. This Void isn’t some nihilistic nightmare, however, for it is full of the universe, and what’s more, it is aware of the fact. In this awareness is the sense of genuine Safety; that is to say, the absolute absence of any feeling of vulnerability, consciously or unconsciously. It is the Third Noble Truth of the Buddha, freedom from suffering.
· The Wonderful (Acchariya) “And I think to myself what a wonderful world.” There are many things in life that we might consider to be wonderful, several mentioned in the song just quoted, ‘What a Wonderful World, made famous by Louis Armstrong: Trees of green, red roses, blue skies, white clouds, rainbows and people’s faces, not to mention, “babies crying,” all of which refer to the joys of nature. And there are myriad marvels to be found in the natural world, all of which may inspire in their viewer a sense of wonder or delight. Conversely, there are just as many horrors to be seen in nature, of which Louis Armstrong remained understandably silent. Plagues, violence, earthquakes, droughts, tsunamis, and high infant mortality rates to mention just a few. If Louis had sung, “Babies dying” instead of the actual lyrics of the song, just imagine the macabre effect on his audience! In truth, then, the natural world which Mr. Armstrong presented as being so wonderful was equally as horrible, and therefore wasn’t that wonderful at all. But is the re another aspect of life that we might consider wonderful?
Perhaps the Wonderful might refer to the amazing achievements of humanity rather than to nature. We humans have done countless incredible things: populated the world, built massive cities, sailed the oceans, written beautiful poetry, created the Internet, and walked on the moon. These are all admiral accomplishments, and by no means rare in the history of humankind. Moreover, great displays of compassion and self-sacrifice are abundant both in historical records of the great and mighty, and in newspaper reports of otherwise ordinary folk. And, yet, again, the is another side to this story: people have also built and used the most horrific weaponry, tortured animals and humans in the most awful ways, raped, plundered and pillaged in the name of nationalism, religion, and plain old greed. We have created nuclear bombs that can apparently wipe out all life on earth in a matter of minutes. How truly ingenious! It seems that, as with nature, we humans are as terrible as we are wonderful, and that therefore we are not worthy of the title the Wonderful. So, is the Wonderful a chimera, a mirage fluttering in our imaginations and nowhere else?
To find the Wonderful, we need a radical alteration to our usual observational skills, however well developed we may consider them to be. Put simply, we must reverse our attention to see the Wonderful, right where it has always been – in the same place that we are looking out of. The Wonderful, despite Louis Armstrong’s best efforts, is not ‘out there’ but ‘in here.’ Or, at the risk of getting completely entangled in words, the Wonderful is both here and there, unified in a single Vision that incorporates the entire universe whilst at the same time completely transcending it. And, if this sounds just too amazing to be true, then ponder for a moment that this is probably why the Buddha dubbed enlightenment the Wonderful in the first place. But, enough of words, for the proof is in the eating…literally.
Please conduct the following exercise with a piece of food, maybe a fruit, a chocolate bar, or some other foodstuff that comes to hand (or mouth). To increase the mind’s focus on this exercise, closing the eyes is a good idea. Once this is done, place your chosen morsel into your mouth and chomp away. Feel the texture of it, and savour its taste, as well as its consistency. Take several more bites, being mindful each time of every second of chewing, tasting, and swallowing. Now, take another bite (if you’ve any left!) and turn your attention to that which is aware of the eating. Does this have texture, taste, or consistency, or any other tangible qualities for that matter? Is it not the case that awareness is pure capacity for the act of eating to take place in, a long with every other act of word, speech, or deed? And yet, there’s no gap between subject and object; no separate existence. The two are in fact one experience, of which we may adapt a famous Buddhist verse and say, “There is the eating, but no one doing it.” Here is experience without the interference of the sense self, and it is the Wonderful, for in it there is amazement at the perfection of this present moment, and no downside whatsoever. Bon appétit!
So, the Wonderful is nowhere but here. It is not in the amazing achievements of humanity, nor in the incredible richness of nature, for these are ephemeral and unreliable sources of wonder. True wonder is experiencing the unity of this moment, minus the interfering sense of self. It is in this very knowing of the-way-things-are (the Dharma) that we are truly blest, and can see thoughts for what they are, including any thoughts of self. This is genuine safety that never fails us, for there’s no one to experience failure! It’s encouraging too that any activity we are engaged in has the capability of becoming the subject for wise reflection. Eating, sleeping, shi- you get the idea! Let’s endeavour to be mindful of the present moment as it is right now, and then the Wonderful, Blest, Safety that is our underlying nature will continually flavour our awareness.