Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Buddhist New Year's Resolution

New Year is a time when we can reflect on the past twelve months, and make resolutions for the coming weeks. When we think back to the events of the previous year, it does us well to consider not only what happened to us, and what we did, but also how we thought, what our mind states were for the majority of the time. Were we skillful in the way we approached the world, or did greed, anger, and delusion color much of what we did? And, regarding our practice as Buddhists, did we keep the precepts well, did we meditate as often as we intended, and did we develop any wisdom? If we reflect wisely, we can see where our practice faltered, and therefore where we need to redouble our efforts over the next few months. And, here is where a New Year’s resolution can come in handy.

If our meditation practice has dropped off lately, we can make a commitment to a new discipline for the New Year, and if we’ve failed to live up to the way of life promoted in the Buddhist precepts, we can endeavor to fulfill them more readily in the near future. A simpler, but very effective, attitude to cultivate is openness. To be wide open for the world is a challenging but rewarding way to live this life, enabling us to let go of some of the egoistic elements that make us fall short of walking the Way with more purpose. Being open to the New Year and all that it will present to us seems both a wise & compassionate approach to things, and doesn’t involve much preparation or philosophical acumen. All we need is a bit of attention and simplicity.

All that we see, hear, taste, smell, touch, feel and think occurs in our awareness. This awareness isn’t me or you, it doesn’t have a name, and nor does it have an agenda to follow at the expense of others. It is the simple act of knowing in the present. And, if we associate with this knowing, rather than with the ego-personalities that we think we are, barriers start to fall. The barriers that separate me & you begin to crumble, and the barriers that separate this thought from that world start to dissolve also. The experience of duality is inherent in the notion of being a separate self, and to see that such a self is a delusion is to begin to let go of it. It isn’t always easy to do, and even less easy to sustain, but then the Buddhist teachings and practices exist to help in this process of letting go, so they can be employed in this task.

So, turn your attention around to that which is attentive: What does it look like? What does it sound like? Is it a thought or a feeling? The limits of the conditioned senses are where the unconditioned begins; a spacious awareness that contains all that is experienced. Simply by pointing a finger back at our ‘eyes’ right now, we can see this featureless knowing, and that because it is empty of self, it is full of the world instead. No separation, no conflict: Just the Buddha gazing at his own countenance. Surely, this is a New Year’s resolution worthy of a bit of effort, the right effort, to give our traversing of the Middle Way a little push into the future. And, when we see that there’s no separation between you & me, him & her, us & them, this & that, then we may have the wisdom to recite with conviction:

May all beings have a Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Stringless Buddhism

One day, Layman Pang addressed Zen Master Mazu, saying,
“A man of unobscured original nature asks you to look upward.”
Mazu looked straight down.
The layman said, “You alone play marvelously the stringless zither.”
Mazu looked straight up.
The layman bowed low. Mazu returned to his quarters.
“Bungled it just now, trying to be smart,” commented the layman.
(From the Recorded Sayings of Layman Pang.)

Layman Pang Yun, who lived in the 8th Century AD, met many renowned Zen masters, engaging in testing conversations that queried his understanding of Buddhism. Not some intellectual or philosophical understanding, however, but the direct comprehension of the Dharma, unaided by fancy scriptures. When visiting Mazu’s monastery, he apparently opened his Dharma-eye during one of these encounters. Later on, he had the above ‘dialogue’ with Master Mazu. I put the word dialogue in quotation marks for it is only the layman that actually speaks, whilst the ‘master’ remains mute. Pang Yun refers to himself as having an “unobscured original nature” – what is this? According to Buddhism, we all have it, but most of the time we remain oblivious to it, caught up in identifying with the obscuring unoriginal nature of the temporal ego. Seeing our “original nature” is seeing beyond the apparent self to that which lies ‘underneath’ it. By inviting Mazu to look upward, Layman Pang is suggesting a sharing of this vision; two empty heads gazing into infinity.

But the Master is having none of it and looks downwards instead. For, in the state of awakening, there is no up and down. Recognizing this, Layman Pang compares Mazu’s wordless expression of the Way with the playing of a soundless qin (a kind of Chinese zither). At this, the master looks up, for too much has been said already, and to continue to look down would start to ‘sound’ like dogmatism. There is no repetition due to attachment to views when living in the light of the Buddhadharma. Next, Layman Pang bows, recognizing the accuracy of the Master’s wordless teaching; but he was lingering too long at this point, for Mazu got up and walked away. Or perhaps the latter simply fancied a rest. Chinese language often omits pronouns in sentences, so it makes no reference to the subject of the layman’s next statement that someone “bungled it just now, trying to be smart.” Is he referring to himself, maybe using more words than he needed to, or is he commenting on the lack of verbal response of Master Mazu? Perhaps neither. Perhaps it is ‘I’ who am the smartass that bungles it by looking too deeply into the above extract. For, looking upwards or looking downwards, ‘it’ is right here, staring us in the face if we have the clarity to recognize it…

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Burn, Buddha, Burn

Most of us are familiar with the above photograph of a Vietnamese monk burning himself in protest at the treatment of Buddhist peace activists during the Vietnam War. Confronted with the sight of this image a number of reactions might arise in a Buddhist’s mind: admiration, disapproval, amazement, or simply confusion. Perhaps as one’s Buddhist practice deepens, one’s views towards this picture change (all things are impermanent, remember!), or maybe one has a collection of contradictory thoughts on the matter. Such confusion, along with many other reactions to the monk’s suicide, may be the result of a lack of knowledge regarding who he was and his motivations, and his historical context. Perhaps if we explore the origins of both his personal history and the wider history of burning monks, we may be in a better position to understand what was going on.

The monk in question was called Thich Quang Duc, and was about sixty-six years old when he performed his famous act of ‘self-immolation’ – the offering of oneself as a sacrifice, especially by burning. But, why did he do it? At the time, not only was capitalist South Vietnam at war with communist North Vietnam, but in the south there was much dissatisfaction with regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem. Discontent was rife amongst Buddhists, who not only objected to the government’s perceived aggressive attitude to the North, but also felt that they were treated unfairly by Diem’s pro-Roman Catholic policies. Himself a Catholic, the President was seen to promote Roman Catholicism in predominately Buddhist South Vietnam. This included favoring Catholics in the army, in the distribution of American aid, big business deals, and in religious rights. Diem had dedicated Vietnam to the Virgin Mary in 1959, and whilst Catholics were allowed to fly the Vatican State’s flag, Buddhists were banned from flying theirs. On the 8th May 1963, which was Vesak (or 'BuddhaDay'), a protest was organized by Buddhists against these and other actions of the government, during which Buddhist flags were raised. Soldiers and police fired into the crowd, and even launced grenades at them, killing nine of the protesters.

Thich Quang Duc had been a monk all his adult life, and was highly-respected, holding senior positions in the Buddhist clergy and responsible for overseeing the building of thirty-one new temples. Also, he was a dedicated meditator, having devoted three years as a young monk to solitary practice on a mountain retreat, and continuing to meditate and teach meditation throughout his monastic career. He also spent time in neighboring Cambodia studying Theravada Buddhism (he, along with most Vietnamese Buddhists was of the Mahayana variety). As the war in Vietnam went on, and the South Vietnamese government continued in its often violent anti-Buddhist policies, Thich Quang Duc decided to burn himself alive in protest, his supporters calling for equality for Buddhists and their organizations in the country. So, on the 11th June 1963, this elderly monk sat calmly on the ground in a busy Saigon street, while a colleague poured gasoline over him. Thich Quang Duc then chanted the name of Amitabha Buddha before striking a match and setting himself alight. Eventually, Diem was replaced as President, and later on, the South was deserted by its ally America, left to the invading communists from the North. Thich Quang Duc’s last words were left in a written statement:

“Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngo Dinh Diem to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organize in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.”

Whatever one makes of the above explanation of the monk’s self-immolation, it was not an isolated occurrence. Following his example, other Buddhist monks in South Vietnam did the same thing, in the hope of creating equality for Buddhists and Buddhism in South Vietnam at the time. In fact, monks had been burning themselves for centuries in Vietnam, often to ‘honor’ the Buddha. Nor are such incredible actions isolated to Vietnam. Self-immolation is well-documented in the records of Chinese Buddhism, and also extended to modern times, when a monk self-immolated in the city of Harbin in protest at the mistreatment of Buddhists by Mao Zedong’s communist forces. Not entirely surprising, as Vietnamese Buddhism is essentially imported Chinese Buddhism.

The book ‘Biographies of Famous Monks,’ compiled by Baochang in the sixth century A.D., chronicles many Buddhist monks and nuns who burnt themselves to death. Another Buddhist scholar, Huijiao, considered self-immolation as a bona fide way to propagate Buddhism, considering it to be a selfless act that potentially could improve society by discouraging pride and avarice amongst observers. Auto-cremation was not the only method used to sacrifice oneself, however. In imitation of the Buddha in the famous tale where (in a previous life) he gives his body to a hungry tigress and her cubs, Chinese Buddhists had also fed themselves to tigers. In one story, the Fifth Century monk Tancheng fed himself to a tiger to stop the creature eating the locals. Apparently, it worked.

As for a specific tale relating to self-immolation, there is the story of Sengming, a monk that had buly a temple atop a mountain that he named ‘The Heavenly Palace of Maitreya’ – Maitreya being the prophesied future Buddha. After spending many years reciting the Lotus Sutra, which makes reference to self-immolation itself, he was given permission by the emperor of China to burn himself. Following his auto-cremation, many miracles were recorded, such as healing, spontaneously blooming flowers, and a moving statue. Such actions were considered good practice, and as valid as meditating, chanting sutras, or building temples. Indeed, Pure Land Buddhists believed that it was a way to be reborn in Amitabha Buddha’s heavenly realm.

This view of self-immolation as a ‘holy’ act which could result in a fortuitous rebirth or even a giant step towards enlightenment seems to have some parallels with modern Islamic suicide bombers. Both Buddhist self-immolators and Muslim suicide attackers believe their self-destructive actions are of spiritual benefit, leading to an exulted state of being. The big difference being that the Buddhists in question never killed other people when taking their own lives, whereas the Muslim terrorist very much intends to destroy others. It’s interesting that in both types of religious suicide, supernatural beliefs in an afterlife appear to be a central element in the belief systems involved.

Thich Quang Duc is nowadays considered a bodhisattva by many Vietnamese Buddhists, and his picture remains an iconic and disturbing image of self-immolation for the benefit of others. But, considering the long history of self-immolation in Buddhism, going all the way back to the Buddha himself, his action cannot be considered in isolation, if we are to fully understand it. It is part of a continuing tradition of self-sacrifice in Buddhism, and as such, is something that all Buddhists might do well to reflect on. Could you, dear reader, ‘do a Duc’ and burn yourself to death for the sake of others? Do you even consider it a valid expression of Buddhist practice, or is it in direct contradiction to your understanding of basic Buddhist principles? Please leave your thoughts by clicking on the comments function below.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Mind II

“Mind precedes all mental states.
Mind is their chief; they are mind-made.
If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts,
Suffering follows like a wheel following the foot of an ox.

Mind precedes all mental states.
Mind is their chief; they are mind-made.
If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts,
Happiness follows like a never-departing shadow.”

It’s not by chance that this opening verse of the famous Buddhist book the Dhammapada centers on the mind. Buddhism itself is centered upon the mind; observing it, understanding it, and transcending it. Such transcendence is the realization of what some call the ‘Mind,’ ‘Buddha-Mind,’ or even ‘No-Mind.’ These terms are synonymous with the words Bodhi (‘enlightenment’) and Nirvana (‘blowing out’), and indicate the blowing out of the three ‘flames’ of greed, hatred, and delusion, which is the ultimate aim of Buddhist practice. In another well known scripture, the Adittapariyaya Sutta (‘the Fire Sermon’), the Buddha teaches more on these three impediments to awakening (an alternative translation of the term Bodhi):

“The mind is burning, mental states are burning, mind consciousness is burning, mind contact is burning, the feeling that arises through mind contact, whether it is pleasant, painful, or neutral, that too is burning. Burning with what? I declare that it is burning with the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion; it is burning with birth, aging, and death, with sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair.”

Earlier in the same discourse, the Buddha applied the same analogy to the eyes, ears, noise, tongue, and body; so, according to this sutra, all that we are in both body & mind is aflame with greed, hatred, and despair, not to mention the other afflictions referred to. This may sound extremely pessimistic, describing the very nature of our humanity as being inherently burdened with suffering. However, it is not negative, but empowering. For, as described above, if we can observe the mind as it truly is, and then understand it, we are in a position to transcend it, long with the suffering that accompanies it. Recognizing the three poisons and their affect on the human mind is the beginning of this process.

“Mind precedes all mental states.”

Like all states, mental or otherwise, mental states are conditioned. They are programmed, to use modern parlance, by all previous experiences, manifest in the current state of the mind and its contents. For example, if the present mood is an inexplicably annoyed one, it will have its origins in previous events and mental conditions, forming a negative substrate upon which present psychological phenomena occur. Although it may sometimes seem so, anger never comes from ‘nowhere,’ but instead lurks in the subconscious, waiting for a chance to burst free of its mental prison. Like a computer program, mental states run in preset patterns, dependent upon the mind, consciousness, mind contact, and feeling, as well as the physical world which the mental faculties are interacting with.

Buddhism has several words pertaining to the various aspects of the mind, the three main ones being citta, vinnana, and manas. Although all three are sometimes used interchangeably, corresponding roughly with the English word ‘mind,’ they do have distinct connotations. Citta is a general word for the mind, sometimes denoting the subconscious in later Buddhist philosophy; vinnana means consciousness or awareness; manas denotes the thinking mind, or intellect. In the twin verses being reflected on here, the word used is manas (sometimes rendered mano), and the aspect of the mind being focused on is the intellect.

Mano refers to thought, or the mental process of conceptualization, which integrates and makes meaning out of the different percepts brought in through the different senses. This meaningful total ‘experience’ is the dhamma, viewed subjectively as ‘identification of an entity’ (nama) and objectively as ‘the entity identified’ (rupa).”
(Venerable Weragoda Sarada Maha Thera, ‘Treasury of Truth: The Illustrated Dhammapada,’ p.61)

So, if we take the intellect as that which precedes all mental states, what does this mean? It is the intellect that categorizes experience, classifying a tree as ‘tree’ and human as ‘human,’ etcetera. If the intellect does not do its stuff, a tree is no longer a tree, and a human no longer a human. They are simply aspects of what is, without any concepts or names attached to them. Therefore, the intellect precedes all mental states (and the phenomena that is experienced in the mind), coloring life with definitions and interpretations. The word used to refer to both mental states and phenomena in general is dhamma, as the Venerable Weragoda makes note of in his commentary quoted above. (This low-case dhamma is different in meaning to the high-case Dhamma, known more widely as Dharma, which indicates ‘the-way-things-are,’ ultimate truth, or the Buddhist teachings on this.)

“Mind is their chief; they are mind-made.”

The intellect is the part of the mind that identifies al things, including the self. That ‘I’ am ‘G’ and not Barak Obama is down to my intellect; that the President of the United States is not someone called ‘G’ is also down to the intellect. Without the intellect, we wouldn’t be able to use a computer, or a ballet paper for that matter. It is responsible for the ability to recognize a snake as a snake and a fallen branch as a branch – an important distinction in certain circumstances, no doubt! Intellect is the “chief” of phenomena in that it tells us what they are, enabling us to use them to our advantage. Without the intellect, we might pick a snake rather than a branch, with grave consequences. Experience is “mind-made” not in the sense that the mind literally creates it, like a kind of psychological creator-god, but in the sense that everything is given an identity and meaning by the intellect.

“If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts,
Suffering follows like a wheel following the foot of an ox.”

An impure mind is one defiled with the three poisons mentioned of above, tainted with their negative affects that create obstacles to seeing the Dharma, the natural way of things. Rooted in the delusion of self that comes from viewing this body & mind as a distinct person from everything else, we create the greedy and hateful conditions for our suffering to take seed and grow. ‘I’ am desirous of this or that and must have it at all costs, even if it means cheating or hurting others. Alternatively, ‘I’ intensely dislike something or somebody, and will go to extreme lengths to eliminate whatever it is from ‘my’ life. This process is discussed by the American Zen master Steve Hagen in his excellent book ‘Buddhism is Not What You Think,’ where he reflects on the same verses from the Dhammapada that are the focus of this article:

“In a corrupt mind, emotions and ideas arise, just as they do in a pure mind – but then we grab hold of them rather than let them pass through and sweep away. We hold them close and build all kinds of mental structures around them. We carry them around with us, identify with them, and put them on display.
In other words, a corrupt mind is removed from the Whole. It’s the mind of ego, a mind that views everything as though apart from itself. It’s a mind that gets caught up in greediness, selfishness, fear, longing, loathing, and grasping.”
(Steve Hagen, ‘Buddhism is Not What You Think,’ pp.148/149)

By “the Whole” Hagen means what Chinese Buddhists like to call “the Ten Thousand Things,” that is, the universe or all that we experience. It doesn’t seem to be any more mystical or mysterious than this. He isn’t suggesting a kind of divine Ego or Greater Self that is found at the heart of much Hindu thought, and can be yet another image to associate with, but instead is pointing at the entirety of existence in a holistic sense. And this is a useful way to picture the actual experience of seeing life as an undivided, interdependent unity, which is realized when the mind opens up into awakening.

For the impure mind, however, it is this attaching and clinging to emotions and ideas that helps to form the delusion of being a separate self. This, in turn, leads to the delusion of being a suffering separate self. It’s a vicious circle (or cycle) where greed & delusion breed the sense of self, and the sense of self then identifies with, and clings to, particular forms & processes. Being enlightened doesn’t eliminate pain & discomfort, but it does mean that there’s no one here to cling to these conditions and create suffering around them. In their place is a contentedness that is often simply called happiness by the Buddha:

“If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts,
Happiness follows like a never-departing shadow.”

Even when intense pain occurs, this underlying happiness remains, a kind of emanation that flows out of seeing that there’s no dividing line between here & there. For, when the pure mind (or ‘Mind’ or ‘Buddha-Mind’ or ‘No-Mind’) is realized, where the sense of ‘I’ used to be located, there’s now a void that’s full of everything & everyone else. An old lyric from the Beatles’ song “I am the Walrus’ comes to mind” “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together!” If ‘I’ disappear and am replaced with the universe, then suffering ceases to be ‘my’ suffering, but the suffering of the world, for which compassion arises spontaneously. Again, the words of Steve Hagen are useful at this point to illustrate the fluid nature of the mind when it has nothing & nobody to cling to:

“A pure mind enters freely into each situation, no matter what it is. We may feel sadness, remorse, or grief, but if our mind is pure, it all sweeps through. It doesn’t take hold anywhere; it doesn’t grind us up. There’s nothing in the mind to obstruct the emotion, so it doesn’t get caught. We feel no need to avoid it, block it, work it up into something bigger, or make anything else out of it.”
(Steve Hagen, ‘Buddhism is Not What You Think,’ p.147)

A pure mind can be realized in any moment, if the self can be let go of. To sustain this psychological freedom is usually not so easy, however; hence the myriad methods developed and cultivated by Buddhists over the centuries to complement it. The conditioned mind is quick to jump in and place its mask over the emptiness that is our true face. And this is a mask of death, and the cost of wearing it is to mistake the face in the mirror as the true self. There is no true self, only the awareness of all things arising in an endless spaciousness. But, to live from this mind/no-mind is the challenge that is all too often beyond the comprehension of human beings, for it is the mind that is trying to do the comprehending when it is the mind that must be let go of to see the truth! On this note, the last word can be with the late, great Ajahn Chah in the following quotation. If you have any thoughts on the mind, please feel free to live a comment via the link below this article.

“Follow this mind until we see it as uncertain and changing. The mind must clearly perceive itself, seeing that it has nothing that can be grasped. Then it will let go completely. The mind lets go of this very mind. It exhausts the mind’s ability to concoct thought, it becomes unconfused by any of this.”
(Taken from ‘The Mind Let’s Go of Itself’ by Ajahn Chah)

Note: Wondering why this article is entitled Mind II? Well, partly because it comprises of two verses on the mind, and partly because it is a sequel to a previous reflection on the same verses that appeared on these pages some time back. To access the original article, please click here: Mind To access the full transcript of Ajahn Chah's talk, please go to the following link: What the Buddha Taught (There's lots of good stuff by Theravada Buddhist teachers here, by the way!) Veverable Achariya Buddharakkita's excellent 'Dhammapada: Buddha's Path of Wisdom' and Venerable Weragoda Sarada Maha Thera's ‘Treasury of Truth: The Illustrated Dhammapada,'  can both be freely downloaded here: Buddhanet: Theravada Books

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Buddha & Science: Cognitive Research

In an age when science and religion often seem to be at loggerheads, arguing over creationism and evolutionism, supernaturalism and empiricism, and many other points of contention ending in ‘ism’, it is refreshing that science is exploring an area of interesting research: Buddhist meditation. On the whole, this is being conducted in the scientific spirit, based on research and results, rather than bigoted opinions (whether scientific or Buddhist). So, following on from a previous article inspired by the book ‘Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed’ by Donald S. Lopez Jr., this article will offer further reflections on some of the issues raised in this interesting book. (To read the original article referred to above, please click here: What Kind of Buddhist Are You?)

“Over the past twenty-five years, the effects of Buddhist meditation have begun to be measured by neurologists, adding a new dimension to the Buddhism and science discourse. Rather than pointing to affinities between particular Buddhist doctrines and particular scientific theories, research on meditation has sought to calculate the physiological and neurological effects of Buddhist meditation. Such research would seem to introduce a welcome empirical element to the discourse.”
(Lopez, ‘Buddhism and Science – A Guide for the Perplexed,’ p.207)

This is an important development in the scientific examination of Buddhist efficacy, for basing any conclusions on evidence rather than doctrines and theories, truly objective understandings can be reached. No longer can it be claimed that the benefits of Buddhist meditative practice are purely subjective experiences that cannot be independently verified. Science is beginning to enter into research into these areas, and seems to be saying that genuine psychological and physiological benefits are being experienced by long-term Buddhist meditators.

Fact-based research like this has implications for the ongoing dialogue between Buddhism and science, as philosophical and theoretical convergences between the two disciplines are now being complemented with actual evidence. Buddhism, in this light, can be seen as a practical path towards a peaceful happiness, both for the individuals involved and for the society that they are part of. Superstition and the supernatural, which have often infiltrated the more pragmatic Noble Eightfold Path, can be put to one side for at least a time, while the reality of Buddhist meditative practice is evaluated.

Not that superstition and the supernatural don’t have their place under the Buddhist umbrella; Buddhism is a notoriously variegated set of philosophies, religions, and practices, all of which have their uses within particular contexts. All roads eventually lead to Bodh Gaya. The aforementioned Eightfold Path, however, contains little or nothing that can be classified as ‘unscientific,’ being a way of life based on morality, meditation, and wisdom, none of which rely on belief in gods, demons, heavens, hells, ghosts, spirits, goblins, monsters, and the like. But what of the actual areas of research being investigated? In his book, Lopez writes:

“Research on meditation in the realm of cognitive science has taken two major forms. In the first, scientists seek to evaluate the efficacy (variously defined) of a limited number of types of meditation…regarding the phrase ‘Buddhist meditation,’ one might ask: what constitutes a particular practice as ‘Buddhist,’ as distinct from an element of larger yogic tradition found in a wide range of traditions, including Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Sufism, or contemplative practice in Daoism, Judaism, or Christianity?”
(Ibid. p.210)

In the West, the main forms of Buddhist meditation practiced have been vipassana from Theravada Buddhism, and zazen from Zen Buddhism, with a recent surge in practices employed in Tibetan Buddhism such as elaborate visualization techniques (as featured in the book by Lopez). As most of the neurological research taking place is occurring in the West, it is these forms Buddhist meditation that have been researched into. But, as well as some forms of ‘Buddhist’ meditation appearing in other traditions, as indicated in the above quotation, there is a much wider of variety of meditative practices to be found amongst Buddhists than indicated above. Nichiren Buddhists and Pure Landers use mantras as the heart of their mental cultivation, whilst ‘body-sweeping techniques’ are commonly used in Theravada Buddhism.

Meditation is an integral part of many Buddhists lives, both East and West. Whether in the Orient, the Occident, or elsewhere, nowadays Buddhist meditation is promoted as a way to spiritual liberation, psychological peace of mind, or as part of a healthier lifestyle. What kind of Buddhist meditation do you practice, if any, dear reader? And if you do, how has it benefited you? Do you have a regular meditative regime or are you more ‘spontaneous’ in your practice? Have you tried other meditative techniques than Buddhist, and how did they compare to your current practice? If inspired to reply, please use the comment feature below to leave your thoughts – who knows, someone may benefit from them.

“The second form of neurological research involves using highly trained meditators as informants in the laboratory, interviewing them about their experiences that can also be measured using brain imaging. Here scientists are exploring possible correlations between first-person experience and more standard scientific data.”
(Ibid. p.210)

What do you make of this form of research? As argued above, it can be seen as independent corroboration of the advantages of Buddhist meditation, which doesn’t just confirm the hopes of those in the early stages of their own Buddhist discipline, but also makes Buddhism a much more attractive proposition to those yet to be interested in it. This is surely a positive development in the spread of Buddhism to the West, which is dominated by scientific theories, methods, and technologies. Moreover, in the global environment which is becoming more interdependent with each advancing year, the teachings and benefits of the Buddhist Path will hold more sway with the secularists that often form the political, educational, and social elites of many countries across the world.

[Furthermore,] this form of research is predicted on the assumption – one that has long lain at the heart of the claims concerning Buddhism and Science – that Buddhist doctrine is the product of Buddhist insight, that the chief constitutes of Buddhist philosophy are the articulations of someone’s (usually the Buddha’s) experience in meditation. However, it can be equally argued that it is not meditation that produced doctrine but doctrine that produces meditation. These are some of the issues that might be addressed as research on Buddhist meditation proceeds.”
(Ibid. p.210)

Mmm, which came first, the doctrine or the egg, er, I mean meditation?! For most of us Western Buddhists, the doctrine definitely came first, at least on the intellectual level, with meditation practice following at a later date when we were convinced that it might do us some good. But, this doesn’t mean that meditation is created out of a set of teachings, and that the conclusions we come to as a result of Buddhist meditative practice is based on the doctrines we have previously learned. However, it is a possibility, and an interesting proposition worth investigating. Simply to reject it without careful (meditative) reflection would go some way to possibly proving it to be true, as we would probably be acting out of a doctrinal attachment. The very same kind of attachment to certain beliefs that could also affect our evaluation of the efficacy of our meditation practice! Certainly, as Lopez points out elsewhere in his book, the way most Buddhists describe their practice is in often convoluted terminology peculiar to Buddhism, like a kind of secret language of the initiated. This is something that this blog has tried to avoid; a task made easier by a certain propensity of the author’s to forget complicated theories and ideas!

One central aspect of Buddhism not covered in the book by Lopez is enlightenment. Not much, if any, scientific research has been done into this crucial part of Buddhist practice. But, then again, what exactly is enlightenment? Is it the culmination of the four levels of ‘noble being’ described in the Theravada Buddhist Canon, or is it the dzogchen of the Tibetan Buddhist, or the satori of the Zennist? Or, as this author suspects but cannot prove, is it that No-thing that can be said to lie behind all these various descriptions? So, with the many different views within the Buddhist world on what exactly enlightenment is, it’s no surprise that it has yet to be researched, but in time this too will no doubt come under the scientists’ gaze, and then things might start to get really interesting!

Why not a few more questions to leave you with, dear reader: Is Buddhist meditation entirely dependent on Buddhist doctrines, or is it possible to meditate without relying on the philosophical tenets of the Buddha Way? Is a balance between meditation and doctrine the ideal, or are Buddhist theories to be abandoned if they are not corroborated by (subjective & objective) experience? It seems here that a modicum of Buddhist teaching is required to start up and sustain Buddhist meditation, but that after a time, the teachings are there to complement the practice, not complicate it, with an ever-increasingly simple understanding of the world arising. So, what do you think on all this, dear reader – what is the relationship between doctrine and meditation for you? Which particular doctrines do you use in your Buddhist practice, anyhow: Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, or a combination of them? I look forward to your wise responses…

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Master Huineng on Meditation & Wisdom

The mummy of all Buddhas
(Master Huineng, actually)

“Meditation and wisdom are of one essence, not different. Meditation is the essence of wisdom, and wisdom is the function of meditation. At times of wisdom, meditation exists in that wisdom; at times of meditation, wisdom exists in that meditation. If you understand this doctrine, this is the equivalent study of meditation and wisdom. All you who study the Way, do not say that they are different, with meditation prior to and generating wisdom or with wisdom prior to and generating meditation. If your view of them is like this, then the Dharma would have two characteristics. This would be to say something is good with your mouth but to have that which is not good in your minds. “

(Master Huineng in The Platform Sutra*)

The key to this extract from the Platform Sutra is the word ‘understand’, for no ordinary understanding is meant by it. If we intellectually grasp the meaning of Master Huineng’s words, we have yet to penetrate to the heart of what he is saying. Indeed, from the conventional understanding of meditation, wisdom, and the relationship between them, to state that they are one and the same is unorthodox, and somewhat nonsensical. The Chinese Zen Master is referring to another kind of understanding, or a direct apperception of experience that precedes intellection.

When we see beyond these personalities that we apparently are, we tune in to something that transcends the differences between activities, opening up to the underlying unity of phenomena. As Master Huineng goes on to say in the sermon quoted above, if we gain this ‘understanding’, everything we do becomes a meditation, and wisdom accompanies each action. So, what exactly is this wondrous understanding? Well, no one can reveal it to another, only hint at it, hopefully sowing a seed that will later sprout into the flower of wisdom.

Hinting at that which lies beyond the reach of words involves much spontaneous invention, and what works for one may well not work for another. But, if the Platform Sutra is not to be a kind of fossilized scripture, we need to become this understanding that it makes reference to. One way to reach this understanding is to look for the face we had before our parents were born (an image that Master Huineng invokes in the Sutra). Enough words already, I hear him shouting. So, without intellectualizing, point at your ‘face’ right now, dear reader – what do you see?

*Published by Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai as ‘The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch’, & translated by John R. McRae. Available from the following link: Numata Center Digital Downloads

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

No Nuns Please, We're Buddhist!

Participants in the controversial ordinations 
Recently, the well known western monk Ajahn Brahmavamso sanctioned the full ordination of four Buddhist nuns at Bodhinyana Monastery in Western Australia. Nothing out of the ordinary there, you might think. Think again! According to traditional elements in Theravada Buddhism, fully ordained nuns (or bhikkhunis) cannot be ordained because there have to be several senior nuns present at the procedure, and as the Theravada Buddhist order of nuns died out centuries ago, no such nuns can be found. Hence, no fully-ordained Theravada nuns in such countries as Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand…until recently, that is.
Both in Sri Lanka and Thailand, movements have begun pushing for the ordination of Buddhist nuns and the re-establishment of the bhikkhuni-sangha, or order of Buddhist nuns. This has involved the presence of Mahayana nuns from China to conduct the ordination procedures, something that traditionalists in the Buddhist establishment of Thailand reject as being either illegal or inconsistant with the teachings of the Buddha in the Theravada Buddhist scriptures. Their opponents have countered that as the Chinese nuns involved follow a vinaya (monastic code) that predates Mahayana Buddhism and is essentially the same as the original code for Theravada nuns, it’s perfectly fine to ordain nuns in this way.
Four fully-ordained Buddhist nuns...or not?

These ordinations has led to Ajahn Brahm being removed from the list of senior monks in the lineage of his teacher Ajahn Chah, as well as the expulsion of Bodhinyana Monastery from the association of related monasteries. Many western Buddhists are upset at this move by the senior Thai abbots in the Ajahn Chah limeage, and it has caused something of a split in the usually calm & comradely relations between the senior western monks. Many people seem to be taking sides as though this were a kind of battle, either backing the ‘renegade’ monk Ajahn Brahm, or the more conservative Thai monastic leaders. The thing about battles, however, is that they can swiftly descend into full-blown wars, and decades (or centuries) of acrimony & animosity. Religious schisms have caused many rifts that last to the present day.

One voice of wisdom in all this is that of Ajahn Sumedho, the most senior western monk in the Ajahn Chah lineage. In a recent talk at Amaravati Monastery in England, he taught that rather than taking sides and identifying with our thoughts, we can associate with the naturally neutral awareness that is simply conscious of the issues and all the fuss arising around them. This emphasis on experiencing life from a viewpoint of mindfulness rather than via the ego has long been the heart of Ajahn Sumedho’s message – it’s a pity that some other senior monks in the Ajahn Chah lineage don’t seem to share this attitude right now…

Ajahn Brahm(avamso) oversees events

Ajahn Brahm is sticking to his guns on this issue, and his opponents in both the Thai & Western sections of the lineage appear completely attached to their opinions on the matter. Perhaps in the long run, this will be a good move for Western Buddhism, allowing women the same opportunities within the Sangha as the men. On the other hand, maybe it will alienate traditionalists from the reformers, much like the conflicts that have arisen with the worldwide Anglican Church regarding female ordination. One thing is for sure, however, and that’s that being mindful of our emotional & intellectual responses to a situation like this can only assist in a more peaceful resolution to present circumstances, even a kind of ‘friendly schism’ between traditionalists and modernizers, if it’s needed.
What do you think on this thorny issue, dear reader? Do you believe that Theravada Buddhism should modernize at all costs, or do you feel that traditional perspectives must be adhered to? Does every woman have an innate right to live the ennobling life of a fully-ordained nun, just as men can be fully-ordained monks? Perhaps you think it’s more complicated than that? Or do you take Ajahn Sumedho’s advice and view the whole situation from the detached perspective of awareness? Please leave your thoughts in the comments facility below. A further reflection, published over three years after this one & with a somewhat different conclusion can be read here:
More Nuns Please, We're Buddhist! Here are a few relevant links to the controversy:

The Buddhist Channel

Ajahn Chandako on the Ordinations

Buddhist Society of Western Australia Response

Forest Sangha Website Response
*The above includes an mp3 talk by Ajahn Sumedho worth listening to

Ajahn Sujato: Where Do We Go From Here?

Special thanks go to Gladstone, a regular commentator on this blog, who brought my attention to this issue.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Buddha & Science: The Secret (No-)You

Can you help Professor du Sautoy find the 'I'?

Recently, the BBC aired the excellent documentary ‘The Secret You’ which explored the question of self-identity from the viewpoint of modern science. The presenter was Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, who started the show by asking, “What makes me ‘me’?” He then announced that he was going to be the subject in a series of weird & wonderful experiments “to explore something that appears so simple yet is almost impossible to explain.” Du Sautoy revealed that as an atheist he neither believes in gods nor souls, but that what has traditionally been called the soul in many religions is equal to the modern scientific & philosophical idea of consciousness, and that his purpose in the program was “the search for consciousness” For Buddhists too, this search is a worthwhile exercise, as we endeavor to explore & understand consciousness in the pursuit of enlightenment, albeit through somewhat different means to Professor du Sautoy.

The first observation that du Sautoy makes regards the myriad physical sensations that he experiences on a moment to moment basis: “Without them, everything would disappear. Without them, I would disappear.” (An interesting point to note is that du Sautoy refers to his sense of self as “the ‘I’” throughout the show, which depersonalizes it, enabling a more dispassionate & objective approach than if he were to talk about ‘my self’ or ‘me’.) To explore this idea of a sensation-constructed world and the ‘I’, he visits the University of Portsmouth to observe the Mirror Self-Recognition Test, originally devised by Professor Gallup, who he meets a little later in the program.

Meanwhile, at Portsmouth University, the Test involved preschool children looking at a large mirror containing their reflection; a spot was placed on their cheeks and then it was recorded as to whether or not they touched their own face in response to seeing the spot on their mirror image. If they did not, this indicated that they had yet to recognize the image as their own, whereas if they reached for the spot on their cheek, this revealed that they were able to identify with the face in the mirror. Most children recognize themselves in the mirror between the ages of eighteen to twenty months old, which is when they are considered to be ‘self-aware.’ Prior to this, they seem to experience their mirror image as another child, unaware that it was in fact their own face staring back at them.

This experiment suggests that consciousness, or the quality of consciousness changes. It is not an unchanging, permanent ‘soul’, but rather the result of certain sensations and faculties interacting, the latter of which evolves into a mind that thinks of itself in terms of being a separate & unique personality. This coincides with the Buddhist understanding of self as something impermanent and forever changing. In the work of the British philosopher Douglas Harding, mirror experiments feature prominently (see ‘the Headless Way’ website linked to on the right of this page). In one such exercise, the experimenter is encouraged to see that whereas his reflection in a mirror is a limited person with a unique face, when attention is inverted, no such features can be found. Harding taught that this reveals the ‘no-thing’ that we truly are, as opposed to the thing (person) that simply appears to be here.

The above Mirror-Self Recognition Test was devised by Professor Gordon Gallup Jr. to test whether animals had a similar sense of self-awareness as humans. In research that he conducted, only chimpanzees & orangutans past the test, suggesting that such awareness is very rare in the animal kingdom. Interestingly, this ability to recognize themselves in the mirror is lost by chimps when they enter the last ten to fifteen years of their life. This may be related to the following reflections spoken by Professor Gallup:

“The price you pay for being aware of your own existence is to confront the inevitability of your own individual demise. Death awareness is the price we pay for self-awareness.”

Perhaps chimpanzees lose this ability to imagine themselves and possibly their own mortality late on in life as a mechanism to soften the blow of knowing that they will soon come to an end. On the other hand, it may be a way of making them more selfless in the context of their troop later on in life, more willing to self-sacrifice than the younger chimps. This would mean that the younger, fitter members would have a better chance of survival, and thereby contribute more for longer periods to the well being of the group as a whole. Whatever the reason may be, this lack of a sense of self mainly occurs amongst older humans as an aberration, such as senility or mental illness; most of us carry this sense of self and its eventual demise with us till the day we die. Unless, of course, we can transcend it in some way, such as through the realization that it is a delusion in the first place, as in the experience of enlightenment as promoted in Buddhism. This issue will be briefly approached later in this article.

Next, du Sautoy visits Imperial College London, where he talks with Dr. Stephen Gentlemen, who dissects a human brain, showing the different areas and explaining that as far as science understands it, consciousness is “a group of defuse nerve cells that project up to a relay station called the thalamus, and that sends projections out to all of the areas of the cortex [the surface covering of the brain]…Consciousness seems to be about a constant activation of the cortex.” This emphasizes the physical nature of consciousness, or at least its relationship to the physical brain, challenging the dualistic notion that body is unconnected to the mind (or ‘soul’), a common idea in philosophy & religion.

“Modern science can keep a body going, but how do you actually tell whether the ‘I’ is still inside that body, and alive?”

In the above comment, Professor du Sautoy reveals the common assumption – by atheists as well as religious types, it seems – that there is something somewhat ‘ghostly’ inhabiting the body. He relates that his wife was once in a coma for a short time, and that while she was unconscious there was no evidence that she was still there, that who she was is inextricably linked to being conscious. Thankfully, his wife recovered fully from the coma. However, in contradiction to du Sautoy’s comments, it seems that consciousness is not so much in the brain as on the brain, a network of nerve cells lying on its surface. Those aspects of the mind that are called the subconscious or instinctual are apparently located deeper inside the brain, just as our experience of the subconscious and our instincts appear at a deeper level of the mind than the conscious sense of being the ‘I’ that exists its ‘surface’.

Dr. Adrian Owen of the Medical Research Council researches the condition of people classified as being in a ‘behaviorally vegetative state.’ Patients are asked to visualize playing tennis while their brain activity is monitored; when areas in the pre-motor cortex part of the brain are activated during this procedure, this reveals that the person can respond to instructions, and that therefore they are conscious, despite being completely unresponsive outwardly. This has implications for the treatment of such people, for when they display the fact that they are conscious and able to respond mentally to instructions, it must not be assumed that they are immune to feeling pain, whether physical or emotional.

In deep meditation, we can also appear to be mentally absent & unresponsive to others, whilst perfectly alert within our meditative condition. We may hear outside noises but not react to them, settled into a blissfully peaceful state of mind. On other occasions, outer sense stimuli may be cut off completely as the mind goes deeper into itself exploring the recesses of itself. Whatever the level of meditation experienced, it’s fair to say that we wouldn’t say that it’s okay to mistreat meditators because they’re unresponsive to outer stimuli; similarly, those in vegetative states of mind deserve respect when being interacted with.

“My self [is] sitting in front of…me. But I have the illusion that I am three feet behind myself.”

In an interesting experiment in Sweden, du Sautoy dons the ‘Cyber Mind’ goggles that show him a camera view filmed directly behind him; this confuses his brain into thinking that ‘he’ is in fact sat several feet behind ‘himself’! Moreover, when another person wears the camera on his head, de Sautoy experiences himself as the other participant shaking du Sautoy’s own hand. In the program, the researcher Dr. Henrik [his surname is uncertain] explains that the brain is constantly trying to work out where it is, using all available data to answer this question. Du Sautoy notes that, “According to Henrik, my sense of a separate ‘I’ is an illusion created from my brain processing data from my senses.”

This relates to the age old question as to where consciousness resides. Is it inextricably linked to the body, presumably the brain, or is it something like an alien inhabiting the body but not connected to it? Throughout history, many accounts exist of people’s consciousnesses or ‘souls’ leaving the body and looking down at it, or/and traveling off to some other realm to engage in experiences that have nothing to do with the physical body. Are there hallucinations, dreams, or fantasies? Or perhaps there’s more to consciousness than we have (scientifically) yet to confirm. Of course, the view that the ‘I’ is an illusion created by the convergence of many different elements is noting new to Buddhists; that the sense of ‘me’ as a separate, permanent being is an illusion to be transcended has lead at the heart of Buddhism for millennia.

After this, du Sautoy is seen talking to Professor Christof Koch from the California Institute of Technology, who investigates the nature and relationships of the neurons in the brain. Professor Koch mentions experiments where it is revealed that individual neurons respond to particular pieces of information, explaining to some extent how memory works and how we recognize people and things. So, for example, in his research one patient had a specific neuron that ‘lit up’ every time a photograph of the American actress Jennifer Aniston was shown, whilst another patient’s individual neuron responded not only to a photograph of the actress Halle Berry, but also to her printed written name. Professor Koch calls these neurons ‘concept neurons’, stating that whilst each individual neuron is not aware, conscious emerges from a group of neurons interacting in response to a particular stimulus.

So, even specific memories can be located within the brain, revealing how each thought is dependent upon connections between different neurons in the brain, and that, therefore, if these connections are broken, we cannot remember something. So, when we feel bad about forgetting someone’s name – something that happens to me quite a lot – we might say, “It’s not me, it’s my neurons.” Whether this would excuse one in the eyes of the other is questionable, of course! This interdependency of thought is another aspect of modern scientific research that Buddhists have subjectively experienced for many centuries whilst meditating; that science and Buddhism are converging in their respective understandings of how the mind works is surely a future point of exploration for both scientists and Buddhists.

The next experiment for du Sautoy involved going to sleep with electrodes attached his head, charging the brain with small amounts of electricity to see how it responded. This was conducted under the direction of Professor Marcello Massimi of the University of Wisconsin and the University of Milan. This treatment was called Trans-Cranial Magnetic Stimulation (or TMS for short), and revealed that when awake (and conscious) the human brain reacts to a single point of electrical stimulation in a network of responses, whereas when asleep, localized activity only occurs in the vicinity of the stimulation. Professor Massimi stated that, “Consciousness is about the fact that our brain is a network talking to each other: connections. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” After encountering Professor Massimi, du Sautoy remarks:

“Am ‘I’ conscious, or are my neurons conscious? And, is there a difference?”

Again, we return to the theme that the conscious mind is a conglomerate of different mental processes coming together to construct the sense of self. Without these parts, there is no individual being to be called ‘I’. The Buddhist teaching of anatta (not self) seems to be corroborated by modern scientific understandings of how the brain works. The component parts of the brain that go up to make the ‘I’ are not, in themselves, individual persons, but elements in what becomes the sense of self. To experience the ‘I’ is to experience the result of all these converging processes; this ‘I’ is a kind of delusion formed from its myriad elements. It is this delusion of being a self that is to be transcended if we wish to experience what Buddhism deems the-way-things-are (the Dharma.)

After this, du Sautoy visits the Bernstein Centre for Computational Neuroscience, and takes part in an experiment where the brain is studied as the participant makes decisions to press one or other of two buttons. A brain scanner showed that du Sautoy’s brain accurately indicated which button he would press a full six seconds prior to he consciously knew which way he’s react himself and actually pressed the button. Professor John-Dylan Haynes who conducted the experiment remarked that our conscious decisions are shaped by a lot of unconscious brain activity that precedes it:

“The conscious mind is encoded in brain activity; it’s realized by brain activity. It is an aspect of your brain activity. Also, the unconscious brain activity realizes certain aspects of you. It’s in harmony with your beliefs and desires…Your consciousness is your brain activity, and that’s what’s leading your life.”

Du Sautoy is visibly shaken by this latest piece of information on how his brain works, for it reveals the experience of a conscious decision-making self into question, suggesting that rather than being individuals capable of free will, we are mental and physical processes that combine to produce consciousness and conscious ‘decisions.’ This echoes the ancient Buddhist teaching that states that everything in life is conditioned from previous occurrences, whether physical or psychological in nature. This teaching is commonly known as karma, literally ‘action’ in English, and revolves around the idea that whatever we do has consequences, and that whatever is occurring at the present moment is (at least partially) conditioned by previous actions. All this has much suffering intrinsically connected to it, and this negative side of life is unavoidable whilst we live under the delusion that we are separate selves. The goal in Buddhism, therefore, is to realize that which is unconditioned and rest in Nirvana. Du Suatoy, whilst not achieving the wisdom of enlightenment, has at least developed considerable understanding regarding the nature of the ‘I’. He concludes by saying:

“It [consciousness] is just the threshold, the final stage in a whole complex of brain activity. I’m unaware of most of it, but the tiny portion I feel…well, that’s ‘me’.”

Monday, November 2, 2009

Douglas Harding's 'Chiao's Dream'

Douglas Harding: no 'Chiao"

“Here, form is emptiness and emptiness is form.

Here is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue.

Here is no birth or decay or death.

Therefore the Bodhisattva ceases to tremble,

For what could go wrong?”

(‘To Be and not To Be’, p.171)

The above verse opens the short parable ‘Chiao’s Dream’ written by the British philosopher Douglas Harding, and found in his wonderful book ‘To Be and not To Be, that is the answer’. In the tale, the Buddhist monk Chiao has just finished reciting the Heart Sutra for the ten-thousandth time, and is very pleased with himself at this achievement. All this self-congratulating sentiment is dispersed by a novice called Tsung who has the temerity to ask what the sutra actually means. Chiao retorts by saying that much ‘hidden’ merit has been accrued through his endeavors, and that Tsung should go and sweep the floor of the meditation hall! That night, he has a dream in which the Buddha appears to him, and he makes the following appeal:

“Ten thousand times, O Holy One, I have recited your precious words announcing that form is emptiness. Ten thousand times! But the forms that this despicable monk comes across are full. Bark encloses solid timber, right to the heart of the tree. Broken stones turn out to be stone all through. Wounded men are plainly made of flesh and blood. Even empty pots are brim-full of air.”

(Ibid. p.172)

The compassionate Buddha promises to equip Chiao with his own “specimen form that is plainly empty” that will always be to hand, with many clues that will point the monk to it, even though others will not see it. Chiao is understandably overwhelmed with this enlightening gift, for as a Buddhist monk he would love to realize that which so many have failed to grasp over the many centuries since the Buddha had walked the Earth. Moreover, the Buddha arranges for Chiao’s eyes, ears, tongue and nose to be amputated, in line with the passage from the Heart Sutra quoted above. Although reassured that this will be beneficial and not painful at all, doubts remain in Chiao, in that he cannot comprehend exactly how his sample emptiness could be or contain anything without ceasing to be empty. In reply to the monk’s query, the Buddha reassures him with the following words:

“Only give it a trial, Chiao, and you’ll find it all makes good sense. Just now it may sound to you quite impossible, but I promise that you will be able clearly to see that your own absolutely speckles Void contains innumerable forms. Or rather that it is those forms, which are infinite in number and scope and variety. Your own personal parcel of emptiness, though small enough for you to handle all over, will be visibly packed with the blazingly colorful, gigantic, rip-roaring world. And therefore as big, if not bigger, than that world.”

(Ibid. p.173)

Here, the Buddha talks of how Nirvana is realized in the midst of Samsara, and that beyond the world of opposites they in fact merge into the seamlessness that is enlightenment. This Void contains all that is experienced, and because it is void of any separate substance, it is the very objects and processes that appear in it. On top of all this excellent news the Buddha reveals that wherever the monk goes he will be able to see the dissolving of duality whenever he chooses to observe the facts of the present moment. Chiao, however, has one more thing that troubles him regarding this matter, which is that the sutra states that there is no decay or death, and yet to his dismay he notices that he is made of “very perishable stuff indeed.” Indeed, the next morning when he awakes, the dream remains just a dream, and he fails to notice the “specimen form that is plainly empty” that the Buddha had promised would be his. He laments this to the novice Tsung who suggests that perhaps Chiao already possesses the boons offered in the dream, but that he fails to see them. The latter dismisses this idea as nonsense, preparing to recite the Heart Sutra for the ten-thousandth-and-first time, apparently incapable or unwilling of taking heed of the Buddha’s final words to him the night before:

“Instantly on waking, everything I have promised shall be yours, on these conditions. You must really want it, and you must let it in, open yourself to it, actually look at it and look out of it, instead of thinking about it and believing in it. In actual fact, it’s already yours anyway, unconditionally, whether you choose to let it in or not.”

(Ibid. p.175)

This charming tale of Douglas Harding’s is beautiful in its simplicity, which is most suitable when realizing the simplicity of the message it contains. This message hinges on the last quotation above, in which the emphasis is put on opening up to the way it is right now, focusing solely on the emptiness that lies at the heart of one’s being. But is Chiao correct in his assumption that this is no more than a pleasant dream, and that clinging to doctrines and rituals is more likely to lead to spiritual awakening than simply paying attention? Thanks to Douglas Harding, we neither have to rely on “thinking about it and believing in it” or disbelieving in it. We can test the hypothesis presented in this salient story by using techniques invented and promoted by a man that I was privileged to have met on several occasions. He was someone not so much full of himself, but full of the world, and because of this his words (and ‘experiments’) are all the more worthy of our attention.

Douglas Harding often used the word ‘experiment’ to describe his style of investigation into what he called “seeing who I really, really am.” These experiments do not require a laboratory or tertiary knowledge of the sciences; they do require an open mind, however, for if conducted in the shadow of long-held views & opinions, their results may well be misunderstood. Let’s start with one of the most basic experiments developed by Douglas, usually referred to, for reasons that will become obvious, ‘the Pointing Experiment’:

  • Point with a finger at what’s opposite you. Perhaps it’s a wall – or, considering this blog, a computer screen – and notice its shape, size, colors, and above all its opacity.
  • Next, point at your feet, carefully observing their shapes, sizes, colors, and whether you can see through them or not.
  • Then, point at your midriff, again noting its visual qualities.
  • Now, point to your face and – on present evidence, notice what you see. What colors lie at your end of that pointing digit? Can you discern a shape or size for what exists where ‘you’ are?
  • Finally, is this emptiness at your end of that pointing finger really empty? Look again, and see if it is filled with not only your raised hand, but also with everything else that you can see right now. On present evidence, is it true to say that where you thought your face was, there exists a myriad objects of varying colors, sizes, and shapes?

Do you get it, dear reader? At heart, you do not exist; instead there is a void that’s full of the world: “Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.” The objects and creatures, not to mention people, that you encounter exist in the light of this naked awareness, that itself is not a thing as such, and was therefore described by Douglas as ‘No-thing.’ Everything lives in this knowing, which itself is simply capacity for things and processes to occur in, without any sense of individuality or separateness. (Of course, unless this awareness is completely surrendered to, the sense of self will continually be reborn, with what Douglas referred to as a ding-dong battle between selflessness & selfishness.) One objection to all this may be that it is centered on the sense of sight, and anything dependent upon a particular sense cannot lead to true spiritual freedom. A second experiment might help to answer this apparently powerful argument: ‘The Listening Experiment’:

  • Close your eyes (you might want to memorize these instructions first).
  • Listen to the sounds that are occurring in your surroundings. Listen to their rhythms, speed, volume, and melodies. Notice how each sound has its own separate characteristics.
  • Turn your attention around to the listener. What audible characteristics do you find here, if any? Is it true to say that conditioned sounds arise in what might be deemed an unconditioned silence that is capacity for those noises to appear in?

Again, as with visual data, does not the nature of sounds differ to that which hosts them, in that the sounds have specific qualities, whilst the emptiness only finds form in the arising of audible things? This silence has the same (lack of) qualities that we noticed with the pointing experiment; it is the knowing that accepts all sounds for what they are, neither liking nor disliking them, but simply being the spaciousness in which they find expression. (It is the ego that has likes & dislikes, and that too can be seen to exist in the context of this naked awareness.) Alongside vision & hearing, the third focus for these short series of experiments will be thoughts themselves:

  • Close your eyes (you might want to memorize these instructions as above).
  • Observe thoughts as they pop up in your mind. What are they about? Are they clear & concise in nature or rather vague meanderings? How long does each thought last for, and does it give immediate birth to another, or are there gaps between them?
  • And what of that which is aware of thoughts? Is that a thought, too? How long does that last, and is it connected to a particular subject like thoughts are, or is it a simple awareness that simply notes the thinking process?

Here, thoughts are seen as so many mental mirages appearing and disappearing in the quiet space that sees them. It is emptiness itself, the capacity for things & processes to occur in, and yet no division can be detected at all – it is the thoughts that it contains. If emotions are observed in the same manner, they too can be seen to exist in this dispassionate void, as can the remaining physical senses of taste, touch, and smell. All phenomena can be experienced as arising in this formless, soundless, and thoughtless awareness, that, paradoxically is the very things that occur in it, as no separation can be found. And, in this transcendence of one’s self that includes all others, genuine happiness and compassion can be found. A happiness that is not the result of certain people’s actions or particular events taking place, but a quiet bliss that accompanies experience, and a compassion that is independent of the biases of the personality, but which goes out to any being in need that is encountered.

If all this sounds way too good to be true, or just a bunch of airy-fairy ‘spiritual’ talk, the challenge is to try it out. Do the experiments described above, taking as much time as you need to see what they are getting at, and then take that awareness and apply it to everyday life. Don’t be like Chiao, who knows every word of the Heart Sutra by heart, but has no inkling of how to apply its teachings to his life. In doing so, you may find that ‘Buddha Space’ to which this blog’s title partially refers; at the very least, you’ll have a new & interesting mindfulness practice to experiment with. You might even be surprised what you can achieve without any ‘you’ to get in the way, engrossed in the realization that “emptiness is form and form is emptiness.”

'To Be and not To Be, that is the answer' by Douglas Harding can be obtained from The Headless Way website, a link to which can be found to the right of this page.