Saturday, August 30, 2008

Karaniya Metta Sutta

This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove,
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be,
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short, or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to be born,
May all beings be at ease.
Let none deceive another
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings,
Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upwards to the skies
And downwards to the depths,
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down,
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed vews,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense-desires,
Is not born again into this world.

The Karaniya Metta Sutta - 'The Loving-Kindness To be Cultivated Sermon' - is one of the most beloved of Buddhist sutras. It is presented here for our contemplation, for in its short but succinct form, we have a priceless guide to becoming better beings. In the upcoming months, a series of reflections on the sutra will appear on this blog. The translation presented here is from the Western Forest Sangha Chanting Book, which can be downloaded from the following address: Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Zen & the Rediscovery of the Obvious

All eyes sternwards!

Douglas Edison Harding was an extraordinary man. Born in England in 1909, he grew up in a strict Christian sect called the Plymouth Brethren, apostatizing from the group at the age of twenty-one. This led to a search for the divine that culminated in an experience Douglas had about twelve years later when at the footsteps of the Himalayas, whilst serving in the British Army there. Douglas has given a vivid account of this experience in his classic little book On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious:

“Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. I forgot my name, my humanness, my thingness, all that could be called me or mine. Past and future dropped away. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khaki trouserlegs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in – absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not a head.” (‘On Having No Head’, pp.1 & 2)

From that moment on, Douglas was gobsmacked, as it were, spending the rest of his life exploring this headless experience and its implications, and sharing his insights with anyone who would listen. Facilitating countless workshops, he toured the world conducting experiments into our true nature as it appears in this present. He also wrote over a dozen books on the subject with such eye-catching titles as The Little Book of Life and Death, The Trial of the Man Who Said He Was God, and To Be and Not to Be, That is the Answer. Throughout these various activities, he continued to be an engaging and eloquent advocate of ‘the headless way’, even when in an article called *On Having a Head written later on in life, he admitted that in fact we do have a head, it’s just that we can’t see it. *Published in the book ‘Face to No-Face’ by Douglas E. Harding.

The central point of what Douglas often referred to as ‘seeing-who-we-really-are’ is that in place of a thing here at center, there is in fact no thing at all, as he indicated in the quote above. Sights, sounds, tastes, smells, tactile objects, and mental objects all occur in a void; ‘I’ am empty of a self, if the facts are really looked at with an unbiased and clear eye right now. Moreover, as Douglas always emphasized, in place of my self here there is everything else: ‘I’ disappear in favor of you, and you – if you look – are empty for me, too. This is a concrete manifestation of the famous words in the Heart Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism:

Form does not differ from emptiness;

emptiness does not differ from form.

Form itself is emptiness; emptiness itself is form.

Here is where the subtitle of On Having No Head comes in: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious. For, after his initial in-seeing, Douglas searched for parallels in traditional religion, but found very little to match his experience, until his discovery of Zen Buddhism with its scriptures such the Heart Sutra, and the remarkable statements of its masters. Zen Buddhism is known as the direct path to enlightenment, as well as the most demanding. In the words of its many teachers, stretching back over one and a half thousand years, exist myriad ways to present the Truth to those of us somewhat slow to ‘get it’. In On Having No Head, Douglas Harding quotes them with much gusto:

“‘Mind and body dropped off!’ exclaims Dogen (1200-1253) in an ecstasy of release. ‘Dropped off! Dropped off! This state must be experienced by you all; it is like piling fruit into a basket without a bottom, it is like pouring water into a bowl with a hole in it.’ ‘All of a sudden you find your mind and body wiped out of existence,’ says Hakuin (1685-1768): ‘This is what is known as letting go your hold. As you regain your breath it is like drinking water and knowing it is cold. It is joy inexpressible.’” (‘On Having No Head’, p.29)

In such enigmatic remarks Douglas had found references to his own headless condition, all be it encased in the language of an exotic oriental religion, very different to the protestant upbringing he had received as a child. The Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism, Master Hui-neng, is well known in Zen circles for talking of Buddhist Awakening in terms of seeing one’s ‘original face’, in which he said nothing is hidden and all things are revealed. Douglas equated this original face with his own ‘no-face’. But, enough of words; let’s look and see what Douglas and Master Hui-neng were talking about, and if our original face is indeed no face at all:

  • Point at your feet, noticing their shape, color, size, and opacity – you can’t see what’s behind them.
  • Next, point to your legs, taking the time to perceive their particular characteristics.
  • Look at your trunk, working your way up slowly to your chest, seeing too that it is made up of specific qualities that you can note.
  • Now, point at your face. On present evidence – not memory, imagination or what you think is here – what do you see? At this end of that pointing finger is there a shape? What color is your face? How big is it? And, finally, is it opaque like the rest of your body, or is it in fact clear emptiness?

Here, I find that behind the tickles and throbs of what my hands can confirm to be a face is no such thing. What my eyes tell me is here – a clear, awake no-thing or void – is my ultimate reality beyond the sensations of mind & body. It’s not so much that no head can be found on these shoulders, but that at its center is this aware emptiness. For, if a truth is to an ultimate, unconditioned truth, then it cannot by definition be true for some of the senses and not others, as Douglas himself admitted. And a truth that’s true from the viewpoint of the eyes and ears but not the hands is a conditioned truth, dependent upon certain senses and not others. I do have a face, but it’s somewhat like a mask that hides my original face – the no-face that’s revealed when present reality is observed without preconditions.

Again, superfluous words are beginning to cloud the issue at hand, so let’s return to the main point – ultimately, there’s nobody home, or as Douglas delightfully put it, I’m permanently out to lunch! Prior to coming into contact with Douglas and his teachings, I also had a ‘Himalayan’ moment, although it took place in a suburban sitting room as opposed to in the shadows of the tallest mountain chain in the world. At the tender age of seventeen I was reading a book called An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki (a favorite author of Douglas Harding’s) that was a gift from a friend, when something incredible happened. Upon reading a certain passage, just like Douglas in the Himalayas, all thought stopped. Indeed, initially there was no thought, no emotion and no one here to produce either. Just the bare experience of a book, hands, and a room. Pure silence reigned, whilst a gradual bliss seemed to fill the room. Then the first thought, which arose in response to a teenage fear of my mortality which had been concerning me a lot at that time; if I die now, it really doesn’t matter! Following this initial thought, other thoughts came, until the usual flow of the mind was restored.

That experience changed my life, but at first I didn’t understand what had happened nor did I know how to repeat it. A week later it occurred again while I gazed momentarily at a plastic bag caught on the branch of a tree as it fluttered in the wind. After that, ‘it’ didn’t happen again for some time - despite desperate attempts to reread the same passage of the book looking for a repeat performance - until I read On Having No Head, which someone had deposited in the local library, and viola! No more haphazard approach to seeing this void, just point home, to what Ajahn Chah called our real home – and the innate Buddha-nature reveals itself most clearly. But here’s an important point to take note of: it’s not really my Buddha-nature or original face, for ‘I’ occur in it, arising from it, but it is not part of me and neither does it belong to me – quite the reverse!

“Seeing Who I am Here is not only a case of surrendering personal will. It is a case of surrendering the person who has the will. So implicitly and in principle, this in-seeing that we are talking about is already total surrender because it doesn’t leave a speck of anything Here. It doesn’t even leave a person to exercise will, let alone will.” (‘Face to No-Face’ by Douglas E. Harding, pp. 144 & 145)

In the early Nineties I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Douglas Harding many times, even staying at his house a couple of times. (He often played host to people who wanted to meet ‘the Headless Man’.) Douglas made it clear to me that what he promoted in the shape (or ‘no-shape) of seeing-who-we-really-are is no different to what Zen Buddhism calls seeing one’s Buddha-nature or becoming awakened. In my humble experience too, these two different approaches to seeing our true nature have the same result. A major difference is that Buddhists have the whole history and culture of the Buddhadharma to support (or hamper) their awakening, whereas headless types are pretty much left to their own devices, which can result in many problems also, as Douglas himself acknowledged. And yet, what are these systems of awakening we can call the Buddha Way and the Headless Way, but conditioned phenomena, even if they point to the unconditioned? And that which is conditioned is by its very nature imperfect and limiting, which is why such great Buddhists as Ajahn Sumedho have said that ultimately even Buddhism must be let go of to reach what he called ‘ultimate simplicity’.

Seeing who we really are, at least initially, is as easy or as hard as we make it for ourselves. In time comes the living of the truth, and it’s then that all the past karma that we’ve done will need to be ‘worked off’, or let go of. It’s during this period that the real problems with living as we truly are rather than as we think we are will arise to challenge the more enlightened perspective of the two. We may have times when we consider ourselves fully awakened just like the Buddha, and other times when we feel as wretched as the worst egotist in existence. But these are conditioned states arising in the unconditioned realty of our true Buddha-nature, and as such are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not self. As conditioned things they will drop away of their own accord if we have the patience to let them be, resting as the unconditioned void in which they arise. And, as many followers of Ajahn Chah know, patient endurance was a quality that, like the Buddha, he emphasized to his disciples continuously.

Douglas certainly seemed to cultivate such patience himself, experimenting with and sharing ‘Seeing’ with thousands of people, not always to their liking, resulting in many instances of people questioning or rejecting his well-intended efforts. Indeed, he lived until the ripe old age of ninety-seven, still sharing this vision in his last years even though restricted to a wheelchair. An example to us all of the dedication and determination required if we want to live a life of awakening to the Buddha within us all. To end this limited account of the limitless, let’s return to the lively language of Douglas Edison Harding, propagator of Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious:

“For all of us, our two-way meditation is essentially the same, whatever sense we happen to be employing. Always the set-up is two-sided yet absolutely asymmetrical. That birdsong drops into the Silence here; the taste of those strawberries makes itself felt against this steady backdrop of No-taste; that horrid smell arises in contrast to this on-going absence-of-smell, to this Freshness; and so on. Similarly our thoughts and feelings appear only on the blank screen here which Zen calls No-mind, and leave no trace on it as they disappear. Just as, when I ‘confront’ you, it’s your face there presented to my absence-of-face here – face to no-face – so, whatever I’m taking in, I have to be free of: to be filled with water the cup has to be empty of it. The difference is total. This doesn’t mean that, engaged in our two-way ‘meditation for the marketplace,’ we think of all this: we just get on with the job of not losing touch with our Absence.” (‘On Having No Head’, pp. 58 &59)

The books mentioned in this article – On Having No Head, Face To No-Face, The Trial of the Man Who Said He Was God, The Little Book of Life and Death, and To Be and Not To Be, That is the Answer - are all available from the following website:

The Headless Way


Saturday, August 16, 2008

E-book Review: Intuitive Awareness by Ajahn Sumedho

Ajahn Sumedho: a truly awakened teacher

“In contemplating right understanding (samma-ditthi) I like to emphasise seeing it an an intuitive understanding and not a conceptual one. I have found it very helpful just contemplating the difference between analytical thinking and intuitive awareness, just to make it clear what that is, because there is a huge difference between the use of the mind to think, to analyse, reason, criticize, to have ideas, perceptions, views and opinions, and intuitive awareness which is non-critical.” (Intuitive Awareness, p.19)

The freely available e-book by Ajahn Sumedho Intuitive Awareness is a joy to read; full of the insight and humor that the abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery is famous for. The eleven chapters cover subjects from body contemplation to the sound of silence, and from the nature of consciousness to awareness of rebirth. They were all transcribed from spontaneous talks given by Ajahn Sumedho, and retain much of the vigor and liveliness he is renowned for. Throughout the book, he never strays far from the central theme of this work – mindfulness, or as he often describes it, intuitive awareness. Much of Ajahn Sumedho’s words revolve around making this clear consciousness the hub of one’s practice, remaining awake to the various thoughts, feelings, moods, and sensations that fill the mind’s attention. In doing so, the self-view (sakkaya-ditthi) dominates one’s perspective less, opening one up to the experience of life as it truly is: impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not self.

This awareness is non-critical, as opposed to the use of the mind to think, analyze, criticize, and perceive; as it includes criticism, it’s not that intuitive awareness is exclusive, but that it sees the critical aspect of the mind as an object. This is a non-discriminating attitude of mind that’s very different to the intellect and its myriad meanderings, and yet at the same time is inclusive of this aspect of the mind. Ajahn Sumedho relates intuitive awareness to the traditional Buddhist approach to mindfulness known as sati-sampajanna (clarity and mindfulness), which he says includes such mind states as confusion, uncertainty and insecurity. It is a clarity of awareness that simply recognizes that this is the way things are in this moment, even if that includes negative states like confusion.

In the chapter called Intuitive Awareness, Ajahn Sumedho goes on to relate a story from his early days as a Buddhist renunciate, when he was considering how to let go of thoughts as a way to quieten the mind and achieve some peace in his practice. But, he says, there is no way to pacify the mind like this: just let it be and watch, and the mind will die down by itself:

“My insight came when I was a Samanera (novice monk).’ How do you stop thinking? Just stop. How do you just stop?’ The mind would always come back with ‘How? How can you do it?’, wanting to figure it out rather than trusting the immanence of it. Trusting is relaxing into it, it’s just attentiveness, which is an act of faith, it’s a ‘trustingness’ (saddha).” (Ibid. p.21)

Ajahn Sumedho also makes reference to the asubha (not beautiful) reflections used in Buddhism to quell sensuous desires by focusing on the less pleasant aspects of the human body. But he suggests that it’s not a case of hating or disliking the body that’s important in this kind of practice, but simply to become alive to the more unattractive nature of the human form, such as its pus and excrement. He makes an interesting reference to the practice of watching autopsies, which he notes can be pretty shocking as the body is cut up. Aversion can arise to the smells and appearance of the corpse, but if this shock is transcended, a cool feeling of dispassion can arise.

This cool awareness is not a cold one however, for it can just as easily be experienced by practicing metta (loving-kindness). Metta is not a kind of fuzzy feeling of love however that’s only available to those that we fond of, Ajahn Sumedho points out that metta should be applied to those we dislike or even hate. This is perhaps impossible on an intellectual level, but because metta is an emotion that’s not part of a discriminative process, it’s intuitive. He says that metta is non-critical, like intuitive awareness itself, and isn’t about dwelling on the reasons for hating somebody, but rather includes the feeling, the person, and one’s self. Metta isn’t about figuring things out: it’s about being open and accepting this present moment.

“When you try to conceive metta as ‘love’, loving something in terms of liking it, it makes it impossible to sustain metta when you get to things you can’t stand, people you hate and things like that. Metta is very hard to come to terms with on a conceptual level. To love your enemies, to love people you hate, who you can’t stand is, on the conceptual level, an impossible dilemma…Metta is not analytical; it’s not dwelling on why you hate somebody. It’s not trying to figure out why I hate this person, but it includes the whole thing – the feeling, the person, myself – all in the same moment. So it’s embracing, a point that includes and is non-critical.” (Ibid. p.25)

Ajahn Sumedho also talks about the Buddhist body-sweeping exercise, where one directs attention to slowly observe the body from head-to-feet and back again, becoming aware of its every sensation. This can a difficult practice, for as Luang Por relates, it can be easy to overlook the neutral feelings associated with the body and only focus on the pleasant or unpleasant feelings. This can give an imbalanced understanding of the body, however, and learning to be conscious of the more indifferent bodily sensations such as how the clothes rub against the skin, or the tongue touching the palate in the mouth, can reveal a more complete picture of what this body actually is: it’s like this. All this points to an important insight of Ajahn Sumedho’s: consciousness reflects like a mirror. It doesn’t only reflect the beautiful, but reflects the ugly too. It reflects anything that’s present: the space, as well as everything that’s in it.

There are many personal details from Ajahn Sumedho’s monastic career as well that add another dimension to Intuitive Awareness, revealing his close relationship to his mentor Ajahn Chah, his analysis of his own personality traits, and his contemplative life as lived in both Thailand and England. We read of the poignant and amusing incident involving a bag of sugar and a fasting Venerable Sumedho – engineered by the ever-insightful Ajahn Chah! He also relates another episode from his early monastic life, when Ajahn Sumedho was a vegetarian and was trying to avoid eating anything with meat or fish products in it (which is not something expected of Thai Buddhists usually). Now, one day another monk who aware of the young Venerable Sumedho’s preference for vegetarian food gave him only a spoonful from the vegetarian dish. So incensed was Ajahn Sumedho that he splattered a lot of strong-smelling fermented fish sauce over his fellow monk’s food!

A really important aspect of this book is that it’s not a scholarly work revolving around complicated Buddhist philosophy and psychology (although Ajahn Sumedho does display admiral knowledge of Buddhist doctrine). Instead, the forest monk focuses on the meditative life as lived by real people with real problems and concerns, as reflected in the title of one of the transcribed talks: When You’re an Emotional Wreck. In this section of the book, the ajahn skillfully relates intuitive awareness to being open to any emotions or feelings that are present in the moment:

"Notice what it’s like when you open to emotional feeling, to moods, without judging it, not making any problem out of it, whatever its quality is, whether it’s emotional or physical, by learning to embrace it, o sustain your attention by holding it without trying to get rid of it, change it or think about it. Just totally accept the mood your in, the emotional state, of the physical sensations like pain, itching or whatever tensions, with this sense of well-being, of embracing.” (Ibid. p.59)

This pragmatic attitude of Ajahn Sumedho when conveying the Buddhadharma is an important factor in making Intuitive Awareness a true gem among the plethora of books on Buddhism available nowadays. It’s a work I have referred to many times, and I will return to it again and again over the coming years as an aid to my own mindfulness and meditation practice. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. To download this brilliant collection of Dharma talks, please go to the following address:

Intuitive Awareness by Ajahn Sumedho

Saturday, August 9, 2008


"I gotta have faith..."

Faith can sometimes seem a bit of a dirty word in Western Buddhist circles. Whilst wisdom, compassion, kindness, peace, and a whole other range of qualities are considered most desirable by the average Western Buddhist, faith is somewhat looked down upon. One reason for this may be that a large proportion of Westerners that are drawn to the Buddha Way are those who have read of it first, often with the study of Buddhism continuing to be a major part of their Buddhist practice. In contrast to this, the average Asian Buddhist was raised from a pre-reading age to follow Buddhism, and instead of studying it first and then living it, they live it first and then study it, if at all. Theirs is often a faith-based practice, unlike their comparatively intellectual Western counterparts.

Another contributing factor to this occidental preference for a more rational form of Buddhism is that the major forms of Buddhadharma in the West are those that often put less emphasis on faith, such as the Theravadin, Zen, and Tibetan sects. (This, of course, could itself be a result of the previous point made regarding Western Buddhists above.) It is worth noting here that the most widely practiced type of Buddhism in Asia, in terms of both geographical spread and numbers of followers, is Pure Land Buddhism, which is the most obviously faith-centered form of Buddhism practiced today. In his commentary on a Sutra of Pure Land Buddhism, Master Xuan Hua has said:

“Faith is the first prerequisite, for without it one will not make the vow to be reborn in the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss, and thus will not realize the objective of this Sutra. You must have faith in yourself, the Land of Ultimate Bliss, cause and effect, and noumena and phenomena.”
(Master Hua, ‘The Buddha Speaks of Amitabha Buddha Sutra’, p.56)

In Pure Land Buddhism, the main figure of attention is not Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, but Amitabha Buddha (‘the Buddha of Infinite Light’) that resides in the Western Paradise. This paradise, known as Sukhavati in Sanskrit, is a heavenly realm where devotees of Amitabha are reborn to continue and complete their journey to enlightenment. In the practice of Pure Land Buddhism, much faith is placed in Amitabha Buddha to assist the practitioner, the former reciting the name of Amitabha over and over again as a mantra. This is done either in Sanskrit as Namo Amitabha Buddha (‘Hail to the Awakened One of Infinite Light’), or more often, in the vernacular tongue, taking the forms Namo Amituofo in Chinese and Namu Amida Butsu in Japanese. Of course, reciting a mantra like this can have positive meditative results in this lifetime, whether the object of devotion actually responds or not, but faith is nevertheless an important component in the success of this method, whether resulting in this lifetime or the next.

Another recipient of many Buddhists’ faith in the Far East is Guanshiyin Bodhisattva, the so-called ‘Goddess of Mercy’, often compared to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as in Catholic worship. Guanshiyin, in fact, is a female incarnation of a male Bodhisattva known as Avalokiteshvara, or ‘the Lord that gazes (compassionately on all beings)’, and is the epitome of compassion. He features as the vehicle of compassionate wisdom in the Heart Sutra, teaching the famous lines, “Emptiness is form, and form is emptiness.” As Guanshiyin (or Guan Yin for short), she is the focus of devotees pleas for help when they are in danger, seriously ill, or dying. It is said that if her name is recited with absolute faith she can endow a childless woman with a baby much more successfully than any modern fertility treatment. Her mantra is primarily chanted in Chinese, although there are other versions in other languages, and it is, Namo Guanshiyin Pusa – ‘Hail to the Bodhisattva-that-hears-the-cries-of-the-world!’

Guan Yin: the Goddess of Mercy

Even the more cerebral kinds of the Buddha Way such as Zen and Theravada take on predominately faith-based forms for most of their oriental adherents. Living here in Thailand, I know only too well the wide variety of things that Buddhists get up to in the name of their religion, some of it in line with Theravadin doctrine, much of it not. Faith takes many forms in this hotpot of spiritual – and not so spiritual – practices, including talismans, ‘black magic’, predicting lottery numbers, and ‘love potions’ to make the object of someone’s fancy fall in love with them!

There is another kind of faith in Thai Buddhism, however, which can also be looked upon as conviction. It is a firm belief that in the person of the Buddha, the body of his teachings, and the sincere adepts of the Way, there is a lot to have faith in that can inspire one’s own walking upon the Path. Without such faith or conviction in the efficacy of Buddhist methods, it’s easy to get lost along the Way, perhaps even drowning in one’s own sea of doubts. Many Western Buddhists could truly benefit from a dose of oriental faith, as indicated in the following quote from the former abbot of the International Forest Monastery here in Ubon, Thailand, Ajahn Nyanadhammo:

“Faith is the fuel, the energy which propels us on the spiritual path. For many Western people this quality is actually not very strong when we come to Buddhism, because we often come to Buddhism with the approach of having rejected religions of faith, religions which demand belief. We’ve come from a rational, intellectual and logical appreciation of Dhamma; and so we find it difficult to develop those faith practices like recollection of the Buddha, recollection of his teachings, or recollection of the Ariya-Sangha. And that can be one of our weaknesses – that our strong intellectual side is out of balance – so our practice can be very dry and formal.”
(Ajahn Nyanadhammo, ‘The Power of Faith’ p.4)

Whatever the reasons for the comparative lack of faith in Western Buddhism, it doesn’t seem an overly wise attitude of us Westerners to have. Surely, faith is an important part of being Buddhist as Ajahn Nyanadhammo points to above, which serves to bolster the practice of the Way with the strength of conviction. Of course, such faith needs to be balanced with insight; otherwise we run the risk of being ‘born-again Buddhists’, running around trying to convince everyone else that Buddhism is for him or her when we haven’t considered the issues deeply ourselves. Buddhists, perhaps, are more fortunate in this regard than some others in that in the Noble Eightfold Path we have the tools to combat the dangers of creating an overzealous and simplistic faith. Such tools include mindfulness, meditation, and an understanding of the Four Noble Truths.

Faith can help overcome those doubts that can neither be proven nor disproved. Rebirth, for instance, is a part of the Dharma that many Westerners have problems accepting, whereas in Buddhist Asia it’s taken for granted that this lifetime is not an isolated event. Simply accepting that we are not only reborn moment to moment as can be seen in the movements of both mind and body, but that we are reborn life to life allows the mind to let go of a lot of tension that otherwise takes up valuable space in our minds. Again, this isn’t the blind faith demanded in many theistic religions, but an extension of the insights that arise out of meditating on the nature of being human. For example, in meditation thoughts can be observed to die and then be reborn in different forms, yet continuing the same thread of underlying ambience of their previous incarnations. And what of the everyday mental occurrence of reoccurring thoughts, such as when yesterday’s ideas pop up in the mind again today, apparently from nowhere; are they not a kind of mental rebirth, too? Having faith in the existence of rebirth does not have to be without basis, then, and the Buddha himself discouraged us form believing something without investigating it first.

We all need a bit of faith!

So, do you have faith in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha to help you lift yourself out of the nescience of the unenlightened state? Perhaps putting your faith in either Amitabha Buddha or Guan Yin is not ‘orthodox’ enough for you – at least form the Theravadin point of view, that is! For this simple Buddhist here, reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha has had good results (in this life at least!), and in truth if such recitation had been more consistent over many years, perhaps I would be further along the Buddhist Path than I am. As Master Hua mentioned the talk of his quoted above, faith is a prerequisite for successfully and completely traversing the Buddha Way, and this isn’t restricted to those devoted to Amitabha worship or Guan Yin devotion. All of us, whether Theravadin or Mahayanist, whether Buddhist or not, can benefit from having more intelligent faith in our lives. And, if as Buddhists we lack faith, then why are we practicing the Way at all, if we don’t believe in the existence of Awakened Ones, karma, rebirth, and the efficacy of the Noble Eightfold Path?

To read the original e-books quoted above, please go to:

The Heart Sutra by Master Hua

The Power of Faith by Ajahn Nyanadhammo

Friday, August 1, 2008

Knowing The Buddha

“Whatever we are thinking or feeling we must know it. This knowing is called Buddho, the Buddha, the one who knows…who knows thoroughly, who knows clearly and completely. When the mind knows completely we find the right practice.”
(The Teachings of Ajahn Chah, p.302)

Ajahn Chah was very keen to lead his listeners to become aware of what he called “the-one-who-knows”. This knower is the very heart of one’s experience, aware of each moment and the contents of the mind. Moreover, it is aware of the mind itself, as well as the thoughts and emotions that come and go like motor vehicles on a busy freeway. According to Ajahn Chah, this knower is the Buddha himself, alive in us in every moment. Not the historical Buddha, of course, that wondrous man that lived and taught the sublime Buddhadharma over two-and-a-half thousand years ago, but rather the Buddho, the quality of being awake to the present. Indeed, according to many Buddhist scholars, the word “Buddha”, usually translated into English as Enlightened One, is apparently more accurately rendered Awakened One. To be fully awake, then, is in some fundamental sense to be the Buddha, the Knower-of-the-World – one of the titles of the Buddha.

“It is the knowing of [that] change that we call Buddha and in which we take refuge. We make no claims to Buddha as being ‘me’ or ‘mine’. We don’t say, ‘I am Buddha,’ but rather, ‘I take refuge in Buddha.’ It is a way of humbly submitting to that wisdom, being aware, being awake.” (Ajahn Sumedho, ‘Now is the Knowing’, p. 10)

Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Chah’s great American disciple, prefers to use the impersonal term knowing rather than knower like his master. The reason is clear from reading his words above. If we attach to the idea of being the knower, and the knower in turn as being the Buddha, then we’re one step away from confusing the ego with the Buddha, and that would be worse than solely defining the Buddha as that historical figure represented in so many statues. So, the knowing is the Buddha; being awake to the way-things-are, the Dharma, is the Buddha. This awakened state is the same in us all. It is the same knowing that the historical Buddha had in ancient India, the same as Amitabha Buddha has in the Western Paradise, the same as Master Hua and Ajahn Chah had last century. And it is the same as you and I have right now, if we are fully awake to this present moment.

To become alive to the Buddha in this way, or to take refuge in the Buddha as Ajahn Sumedho emphasizes above, is not an ego-boosting experience. It is a humbling one, as the American forest monk notes. The ego, along with all its faults and failings arises, in what we can call the Buddha Mind, but in itself is not that Mind. Moreover, there aren’t two minds present, either. So, how could we best describe the Buddha Mind? The Ninth Century Chinese Zen Master Huang Po does as good as could be hoped:

“This Mind is no other than the Buddha; there is no other Buddha outside Mind, nor is there any Mind outside Buddha. This Mind is pure and like space has no specific form. As soon as you raise a thought and begin to form an idea of it, you ruin the reality itself, because you then attach yourself to form.” (‘A Manual of Zen Buddhism’ by D.T. Suzuki)

The key phrase here is “This Mind is pure and like space has no form.” Again, there’s no way to mistake the personality with the Buddha, for can we say that the personality is pure and without specific form? G’s ego – ‘my’ ego – is certainly not pure, and is made up of specific forms, or habits, memories, attachments, dislikes, and so on. And yet, it is nowhere else than right here where this ego-personality exists that the Buddha Mind is to be discovered. Being fully awake to the mind’s personality is to see through it, to the transcendent Mind that lies behind it. Another way to describe this transcendent reality is as Emptiness, or the Void. It is the Spacious Empty Buddha Mind that is void of all characteristics while at the same time playing host to them!

Okay, you might well agree that this sounds great in theory, but what about in practice? (And it is in relation to the practice of the Dharma that Ajahn Chah made his statement regarding the Buddha at the top of this article.) Clearly, to believe the statements above intellectually is a beginning, but only in the sense that a countdown is the beginning to a rocket’s journey to the heavens. And we’ve all seen those countdowns that end in a failed liftoff, with the rocket left stationary on the launch platform. We need a way to see the Buddha Mind for ourselves, to experience the awakened state that the great masters of Buddhism have identified with the Buddha himself. Time for an experiment!

Closing your eyes, take a few moments to calm down, perhaps focusing attention on the breath at first, watching each in-breath followed by an out-breath. Allow the mind to settle on the breath (or whatever other meditation object you have chosen). Next, turn your attention to the mind itself. Watch the internal narrator, that part of the mind that likes to constantly pass comment on the present situation. Perhaps it is moaning. Or maybe it is stating how unusual this current activity is. Whatever is being said right now by the inner narrator, just be aware of it, neither attaching to the thoughts that are arising, nor rejecting them. Do this for several minutes, noting each thought and any emotions that accompany it. See how thoughts and feelings are forms, with distinct ‘shapes’ and life spans. Now, focus awareness on that which is aware of those thoughts and emotions. What is it like? Does it have a form, a shape, or accompanying emotions? Or is it simply the spacious awareness that is the openness for all phenomena to occur in? Could this be the very Buddha Mind itself, the unconditioned no-thing that’s aware of all the conditioned things – both mental and physical – that it plays host to?

Perhaps you ‘get it’. You are aware of this knowing that is neither a thing nor a process, but at the same time is not separate from the things that it’s awake to. And yet, as is the nature with the mind, questions arise about this naked knowing. The most basic one being perhaps, “So what?” In other words, what exactly are the practical benefits of seeing this Buddha Mind? For, if in becoming aware of the Emptiness at the heart of experience, nothing radical changes in our lives, investigating and meditating on it seem rather pointless, don’t they? Let’s look into this.
Firstly, returning to the focus of the above experiment, that is the human mind, becoming alive to the Buddha within reveals the inherent impermanence of thoughts and feelings. Seeing their nature thus, they can duly be let go of, no longer coveted as being precious and central parts of one’s identity, but as mental processes, coming and going in the spacious Buddha Mind. And, in this revelation, arises a detachment to them. They begin to lose their power to cause suffering in the mind in which they occur, as they can be experienced without clinging or aversion. This isn’t to say that such thoughts and feelings become irrelevant; the one in which the Buddha Mind is known is not a kind of emotionless robot. On the contrary, when observed with dispassion, mental phenomena become somewhat fascinating, as the knower watches the patterns that they weave.

Secondly, if the body is seen in relation to the Buddha Mind rather than the ego, it can be known without the narcissistic attachment that so often blights human existence. Looking at this body whilst not losing sight of the spaciousness in which it is known, reveals it to be a wondrous organic contraption that deserves care and attention for sure, just as one cares and nurtures exotic plants or animals. But it is not my body: it belongs to nature, and will follow its own natural course of aging, illness and death. Knowing and accepting the body to be this way transcends the habitual attitudes that produce identification with it. It is appreciated and cared for, but not taken to be me, and therefore more valuable than other bodies, which leads to the next point.

Thirdly, all beings and their bodies – if they have such things – are experienced as being born, existing, suffering, and dying in this spacious Buddha Mind. They are worthy of compassion, of love and assistance, no more or less than the one here. All beings that have minds that are unaware of the true Buddha Mind suffer. They suffer from believing that they are separate beings from the Knower, the ailments of the body and the mind being their ailments and not merely the arising of natural phenomena. Being awakened to the living Buddha increases the love and compassion in this suffering world, and we become more sensitive and responsive as a result.

Fourthly, and no less important than the three other radical consequences of seeing-what-we-really-are, is the happiness that it produces. Perhaps happiness isn’t the right word here: let’s use bliss, instead. Knowing the Buddha Mind right this moment is blissful. The tensions and pains of thinking oneself to be a self, an ego, drop away when the Void is paid attention to. After all, a Void cannot suffer. This bliss isn’t like worldly bliss, however. It’s not akin to sexual bliss or emotional highs, both of which have their opposites in sexual frustration and emotional lows. The true bliss that comes from knowing and meditating on the Buddha within goes beyond such worldly concerns, for it is the bliss of knowing Emptiness, and transcends suffering.

So, here, right now, if we look with an open mind, is the Buddha Mind, the Void that is at once liberated form worldly suffering and liberates those with worldly suffering. It is aware of, and yet blissfully untouched by, the vicissitudes of life. And, it is found in the teachings of great teachers like Ajahns Chah and Sumedho, along with Master Huang Po and others, who point to the freedom and bliss of knowing the Buddha. Not the Buddha that we acknowledge in ritual, but that part of the historical Shakyamuni Buddha that ever shines for all to see. We simply have to look.

The three books quoted in this article are available for free download from the Internet at the following locations:

‘The Teachings of Ajahn Chah’
‘Now is the Knowing’ by Ajahn Sumedho
'Manual of Zen Buddhism' by D.T. Suzuki