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.