Saturday, July 27, 2013

Buddhism & This Glassy Essence

“Man, proud man! 
Drest in a little brief authority; 
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d, 
His glassy essence, - like an angry ape, 
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven, 
As make the angels weep.” 
(From ‘Measure for Measure,’ by William Shakespeare)

Sometimes life can be pretty complicated. Family ties (or Thai families!), friendships, work commitments, and even the needs of our pets can pull our attention in various directions. Having a religious or spiritual discipline can also become another commitment full of demands and complications that seem to clutter up our lives, adding to the mental maelstrom inhabiting mindfulness. Not that this is the point of Buddhism or any other spiritual way of life; such modes of existence are surely for freeing us from our bonds, not strengthening them further with rituals, recitations, dogmas, doctrines and intricate etiquette guidelines on how to behave towards others within or without a particular discipline. 

The first visit to a Buddhist monastery or temple, whether in the Occident or the Orient, can be a minefield of conventions dictating how to talk, walk, eat, bow, chant, and when to do such things. Having written the above, it might seem that the writer is veering towards a very common modern view of religious conventions which rejects them for being as troublesome as living without them, perhaps worse. But no, this isn't the case, for chanting, rituals, hierarchies and dress codes all have their place – without them, people often become libertines, doing anything and everything in the name of ‘spirituality’, however unwholesome those actions might be.

So, where is this leading us? If religious conventions add to our already complicated lives, how can we keep them in perspective? We do so with mindfulness (sati). But even being mindful takes effort and concentration, doesn’t it? It too can be another complication focused on keeping an eye on all the other complications. But it doesn’t have to be. It depends on what form mindfulness takes. An extremely beneficial practice that I’ve used for many years is the simplest of techniques, but can have the profoundest of effects on one’s level of mindfulness, and was called by its founder, Douglas Harding, 'the Headless Way.' This form of mindfulness simply involves reversing one’s attention from the many and varied objects ‘out there’ to that which is doing the observing. Using one’s finger, one can see what is meant by pointing back at where one is looking from and noting what one finds. Doing so now, I thing at all.

Well, one might well ask, what is the use of nothing – or no thing? Well, focusing on the gap at this end of the pointing finger enables the realization to arise that there’s nobody here. ‘I’ am out to lunch, as it were. Permanently so! Visual objects can be seen to arise and exist and cease in this awareness, which itself remains clear and calm, whatever’s going on ‘in’ it. And, this ‘seeing’ isn’t restricted to what one actually sees – which was Douglas Harding’s main area of focus – it can be extended to all the senses, including hearing and the mind. With eyes closed, it can heard that all sounds occur in a serene silence; as to thoughts, well they arise in an otherwise empty mind. Emotions can be experienced in this context also, allowing a detachment to develop towards them, stripping them of their power to dominate attention.

Strictly speaking, this isn’t a technique taught by the Buddha – at least no one I know has found reference to it in the Tripitaka, or Buddhist scriptures. Nevertheless, the senior Buddhist monk Ajahn Sumedho, himself a bit of an innovator when it comes to developing mindfulness techniques, did once write to me that ‘headlessness’ – which is a somewhat misleading term, by the way – is a valid form of mindful practice. Along with other ways of being alert, it leads to what he called ‘Ultimate Simplicity.' Combining Douglas Harding’s in-seeing technique with a tradition like Buddhism works well. The simplicity of the former blends with the often complicated system of the latter, creating a relaxed yet focused mindfulness as a base for all of the chanting, prostrating and the like. And this mindfulness, as Ajahn Sumedho has so often pointed out, is the “path to the deathless”, leading to the realization of Ultimate Simplicity.

As written above, some consider the term ‘headlessness’ and its variations somewhat misleading, and even Douglas Harding himself admitted in later life that he did have a head. With such a term, however, he and others were essentially pointing out the essential, using the initial impression of being without a head a kind of shock treatment into mindfulness of this moment. What’s really essential is what Shakespeare called our “glassy essence” that lies at the core of every conscious experience. recognizing this “glassy essence” – or naked awareness, consciousness, mindfulness, etc. – can be a liberating experience. It enables the viewing of all our experiences with a certain coolness, preventing us from overheating with our emotions, for instance. It can also help in discouraging identification with the body, as it is seen in relation to awareness rather than blindly taken to be one’s self. All those complications referred to above, along any others that one could mention, can be known in the impartiality of attention. It’s a case of the complicated being known by the uncomplicated.

Now, an important realization of Douglas Harding hasn’t been touched on yet, and it would be seriously amiss of the writer not to mention it. Going back to seeing the void (awareness) that’s here and the things that are there, can any distance or separation be detected between them? Not here. Again, try out this theory with some of the other senses such as hearing and thinking – is there anything between awareness and its contents, or are they one? When you look at someone’s face, in actual experience, is it face-to-face or face-to-no face? (Looking in a mirror can reveal the answer to this one, too.) With nothing to separate us, we become one. Your concerns are mine and so are the world’s. This is where compassion (karuna) and goodwill (metta) come in, for with no self-made barriers between us, I naturally care for you and you naturally care for me. Letting go of self-identification and living form direct awareness instead loosens the ego’s grip on consciousness, allowing it a freer experience of existence, and the suffering beings that inhabit it.

Anything that simplifies our complicated lives yet at the same time deepens our reflective experience of life has got to be a good thing, surely? Sitting at the computer now, it can be seen that there’s no one here typing these words, but that the words, the computer, the fingers, thoughts, sounds, etc. are all arising in awareness. And this awareness has no barrier between itself and the objects that occupy it: they are it and it is they. In this ‘fusion’ selfishness takes a vacation, and selflessness takes residence in the heart, with the experience of being a separate and (inevitably) selfish being let go of.

Related posts:

Note: The above Shakespearean quotation was a favourite of Douglas Harding's. If you are interested in finding out more about ‘headlessness’ or ‘Seeing’, please click here: The Headless Way

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ajahn Chah on Not-Self

When one does not understand death, life can be very confusing. If our body really belonged to us, it would obey our commands. If we say, "Don't get old," or "I forbid you to get sick," does it obey us? No, it takes no notice. We only rent this house, not own it. If we think it belongs to us, we will suffer when we have to leave it. But in reality, there is no such thing as a permanent self, nothing solid or unchanging that we can hold on to.

Buddha made a distinction between ultimate truth and conventional truth. The idea of a self is merely a concept, a convention-American, Thai, teacher, student, all are conventions. Ultimately no one exists, only earth, fire, water, and air-elements that have combined temporarily. We call the body a person, my self, but ultimately there is no me, there is only anatta, not-self. To understand not-self, you have to meditate. If you only intellectualize, your head will explode. Once you understand not-self in your heart, the burden of life will be lifted. Your family life, your work, everything will be much easier. When you see beyond self, you no longer cling to happiness, and when you no longer cling to happiness, you can begin to be truly happy.

The above wisdom from the Thai forest monk Ajahn Chah is taken from a wonderful book by Jack Kornfield & Paul Breiter, which can be read about here Review: A Still Forest Pool.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Buddhism, Stress & No-Stress

Look & see the place of no-stress!

*Stress is a big problem these days. Stress-related illnesses are common ailments in the twenty-first century. Modern life seems geared towards creating stress in us, whether it's at home, at work, at school, or at the supermarket. We are stressed out with the pressures put on us by our parents, partners, children, work colleagues, neighbors, and just about everyone else. We don't have to meet those that bother us, either: politicians, business moguls, and celebrities can cause irritation (or worse) to us. And it's not limited to human beings, either. Animals such as pets or strays can make us stressed. Even the weather can get us down, raining when we want the sun, dry when we want the rain, etc. 

Basic Buddhist teachings center around stress; its existence, its cause, its ending, and the way to achieve this ending. These are called the four noble truths - 'noble' because they lead to enlightenment, or the ending of all stress. In a tradition so profoundly concerned with suffering and its ceasing, its reasonable to assume that many ways have been developed to deal with stress. And this is indeed so, for there are various forms of meditation & mindfulness designed to this end, such as mindful breathing, mindful walking, mantra recitation, chanting, visualization, and plain old 'just sitting.' All of these practices can lead to discovering that spacious awareness that lies behind all our egoistic clinging and related stress. One modern, and it must be said immediate way to this end is called 'seeing.' We'll 'look' into it in this article. (Apologies for that rather weak pun!)

Seeing, or to give it its fuller equivalent, 'seeing-who-you-really-are,' was discovered & developed by the modern British philosopher / mystic Douglas Harding. Douglas - and I call him by his first name as I knew him personally - was not a Buddhist, although he was very keen on some of its teachings, especially some of those found in Zen Buddhism. 'Seeing' fits in with Buddhist practice nicely, however, as it does with any lifestyle, for it is one of those techniques that doesn't depend on specific knowledge or affiliation. It is, however, a very down-to-earth method, as Douglas was a very down-to-earth type of fellow - even if some of its terminology is somewhat, well, bizarre - but we'll come to that later!

In essence, seeing is a mindfulness practice. But, unlike most such methods which focus on a particular object such the breath or a mantra, this technique relies on the viewer observing the absence of any such object. It requires the commitment to take current experience as truth - based on present evidence alone. Thoughts or beliefs as to what one thinks should be experienced or found are a barrier to seeing the whole point of seeing, and if the method is to be benefitted from, all assumptions must be put to one side. Douglas called initial investigations into his technique 'experiments,' as he was very enthusiastic about science and the scientific method. So, having an open mind, and taking what one sees as the truth of this moment are essential to seeing, then, and if you are willing to commit to these undertakings, you are ready to conduct an experiment into 'seeing-who-you-really-are.'

Point at the scene in front of you, taking note of the size, color, shape and opacity of an object you can see. Next, point to another object near to where you are, answering the following questions: how big is it? What color is it? What shape is it? Can you see through it, or is it opaque?

Next, point at your own feet, asking and answering the same questions as above, before moving on to focus on your legs. Take a look at your torso, also taking the time to analyze its size, color, shape and solid nature.

Now, point your finger at your face – or at least where others see your face. What do you see? How big is it? What color is it? Does it have a shape? Is it an opaque thing, or the exact opposite? Pointing at where others see my face, I see no such thing. Right here, right now, this finger is directed not at a face or head, but thing whatsoever!

All the different sized things on display are in stark contrast to what I see here: they appear in the absence of any such thing here. Ditto colors – there are no colors here other than the colors of the objects arising in awareness. The same is true of shape – the ‘no thing’ here has no shape, as only things have shape, and there’s no thing here to have a shape! As to opacity, all the opaque objects that can be seen right now occur in this invisible no thing: its absence is their being. What do you see when you point at your ‘face’?

This 'no-thing' or 'no-face' is the 'original face' referred to in Zen Buddhism, which explains why Douglas was so enthralled by the sayings of the great Zen masters. It is the still center at the heart of human existence, and if we identify with it instead of various aspects of our body & mind, we no longer create that clinging desire that is the cause of so much stress in our lives. And, being open capacity for others, we are less likely to create stress for them either, rather being aware of their stress and need for freedom form it. In simple, everyday issues, seeing is a wonderful way to let go of so much stress in our lives, and to avoid creating more of it. It encourages an openness to life that is stifled by constantly acting out of the usual ego-centered lives that we live.

This author first came across Douglas and his amazingly simple method many, many moons ago, not long after taking up Buddhist practice. Indeed, teachings on selflessness, emptiness, interconnectedness, and compassion can make more immediate sense in light of seeing. And, seeing is a radical type of mindfulness that's easily applied to any of life's situations, lending a calm clarity in the face of life's vicissitudes. Over the years, the seeing technique has been returned to again and again, always appearing fresh and enlivening. It in no way conflicts with the Buddha's teachings, and is easily fused with Buddhist practice, complementing Buddhist forms of meditation nicely. There are other Buddhists that use seeing in their practice, too, including monks in the forest tradition found at Amaravati Temple in southern England.

It was mentioned above that some of the terminology of seeing is bizarre - at least from the conventional point of view. Let's look at some of the terms commonly used by Douglas in his books and by users of his method to this day. Seeing is often referred to as in-seeing, emphasizing the act of turning attention around to focus on who's actually doing the seeing - this is fair enough, but it may appear strange to someone unfamiliar with the technique, as well as seeming to ignore outer reality, which it certainly doesn't as everything is contained in this no-thing. Rather, in-seeing simply indicates the direction of attention, from which is seen there's no dividing line between 'in-here' and 'out-there' - it's all experienced here as one, inseparable reality.

Another term that might cause confusion or unease is headlessness. Seeing that there's no face (or head) to be seen here is quite often referred to in this way, and Douglas himself came to prominence as 'the headless man,' after the publication of his breakthrough book On Having No Head. However, it isn't that we don't have a head here - of course we do. I can see your head and you can see mine, but we don't have to live from the self-conscious awareness of as much, with all the self-obsession and neurosis that can accompany it. If we focus on the spaciousness that lies behind these fleshly masks, we're much less likely to be so concerned with our appearance as we normally are. (For those that might take the headless tag literally, just take a moment to feel your face and the head to which its attached: Yes, it can't be seen, but it can be felt.)

So, if we live, moment-by-moment from this seeing, what effect will it have on our lives, and the stress that we experience? Well, if we respond to the people we meet from the point of view of openness, rather than as headed fools, surely both we and those we encounter benefit. If no division is experienced between you and I, we are effectively one, and will work for our mutual benefit, rather than at 'loggerheads.' If this no-thing experiences a speeding car or a rainy sky, it doesn't mean that the walkway or an umbrella aren't sought, but there's no individually-originated stress involved. If the computer appears to be uncooperative and what should be a simple action cannot be completed, there's no desire-born stress coming up. Just an openness awake to its underlying reality, and alert for the endless possibilities life is currently offering. Why not incorporate Douglas Harding's deceptively simple technique into your Buddhist practice - who knows what you'll see?!

*Stress is one way of translating the ancient Indian Buddhist term anatta into English from the Pali language (Pali being a sister-language to Sanskrit). Other, equally valid translations are suffering, unsatisfying, imperfect, painful, angst, dissatisfaction. For the linguaphiles amongst you, it may be unclear why some of these renderings are nouns and others are adjectives - which type of word is the original, anatta? Well, technically, it's an adjective - the noun form is anattata - but in English translations it has been common to use nouns rather than adjectives. Using the important Buddhist principle of skillful means, this author uses whichever works best at the time… and causes the least stress!

Related posts: