Monday, July 26, 2010

The Buddha's First Sermon

The Buddha delivering the First Sermon
Today is Asalha Puja, when Buddhists recall the giving of the first sermon of the Buddha, called ‘The Turning of the Wheel of Dharma Sermon’ (in Pali, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta). In this sermon, the Buddha presents the basic teachings of Buddhism in the form of the Four Noble Truths, which include the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to complete enlightenment. He also sums up this Path in terms of the Middle Way, an avoidance of the extremes of self-indulgence and self-torture. Not only is this sutra recited on Asalha Puja Day, but it is frequently chanted and reflected on by Buddhists across the world, for it contains the very heart of Buddhism. It is, therefore, well worth spending a few moments of our time reflecting upon this seminal teaching of the Buddha.
“These two extremes, bhikkhus, should not be followed by one who has gone forth: sensual indulgence, which is low, coarse, vulgar, ignoble, and unprofitable; and self-torture, which is painful, ignoble, and unprofitable. Bhikkhus, by avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata has realized the Middle Way, which gives vision and understanding, which leads to calm, penetration, enlightenment, to Nirvana.”
That the Buddha is addressing monks – both ‘bhikkhu’ and ‘one who has gone forth’ refer to monks - should not be interpreted that the teachings themselves are not intended for nuns and laypeople; it’s just that when he delivered this sermon it was to five fellow monks. For, although it is often argued that the Buddha’s teachings are more easily lived in a monastic setting, many householders have also benefitted from them, realizing Nirvana just as their baldheaded brethren had done. The word Tathagata is a title the Buddha often used to refer to himself in the scriptures, and it is usually rendered in English as either ‘the Thus Come One’ or ‘the Thus Gone One’, both suggesting a being that is spontaneously living in the moment.
As to the Buddha’s description of the two extremes that we should avoid, they are both described as being “ignoble and unprofitable.” They are ignoble in that they are not worthy of someone endeavouring to lead an enlightened life, and unprofitable in that they will prevent us from leading such an existence. Self-indulgence is singled out for further criticism; the Buddha stating that it is “low, coarse, and vulgar.” That lax morals and their resultant actions are not conducive to living an enlightened life is no big surprise, for even in more worldly lifestyles they are generally considered undesirable, so even more so for one walking the Path of the Buddha.
This avoidance of self-indulgence and self-mortification is dubbed by the Buddha “the Middle Way.” If perfected, this way of living “gives vision and understanding” and “leads to calm, penetration, enlightenment” and “Nirvana.” These benefits are listed in this order deliberately; it is no accident that vision precedes understanding and that both come before calm, which is followed by penetration, enlightenment, and finally Nirvana. Again, it is worthwhile giving our attention to this process so that we at least have a broad understanding of what the Buddha was getting at. In doing so, we may gain the insight needed to progress along the Middle Way far enough to meet the Buddha himself, for as he famously declared, whoever sees the Dharma sees the Buddha.
The first step in awakening to the Dharma (the truth of the way things are) is to obtain the vision that sees life as it really is, and not as we usually misperceive it. This involves a radical shift in our awareness, a kind of profound simplification that opens us up to be able to understand the Dharma, the way life is. This understanding, which is not intellectual, but can be expressed intellectually at least to a degree, is a wisdom that arises out of direct perception of the Dharma.
With this understanding comes the calmness that Buddhists are often – correctly and incorrectly – attributed with. This calm arises from knowing the way things are which allows for a certain acceptance of life as it is. For, if we know and accept life, then we will not be upset by its challenges and problems, but simply recognize that this is the way it is and act appropriately. Resting in this calm wisdom, we will then penetrate to the heart of the Buddha’s teachings, indeed we will fly like an arrow straight to the bull’s eye of the universe, seeing and knowing people and things just as they are, all flowing out of that which is neither a person nor a thing.
Next in the Buddha’s description the fruits of the Middle Way comes enlightenment, which is not so much seeing things as they are, but seeing ‘No-thing’ as it is. That is to say, it is seeing and living from the naked awareness of a Buddha. In this enlightenment, not only is the Dharma the Buddha, but so are we; there is no thing to separate “us” from “him.” Finally, the Buddha talks of Nirvana, a state of being that is literally beyond words, out of reach of the intellect, and so sublime that to even label it “Nirvana” should only be done with the knowledge that it is just a pointer and nothing more. Indeed, many Buddhist masters have often avoided mentioning Nirvana altogether, fully aware that much misunderstanding can arise from such talk. So, let’s swiftly move on to the next part of the sermon!
“And what, bhikkhus, is the Middle Way realized by the Tathagata, which gives vision and understanding, which leads to calm, penetration, enlightenment, to Nirvana?
It is just this Noble Eightfold Path, namely: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.”

Where the Buddha’s teaching on the Middle Way gives us a broad outline, the Noble Eightfold Path is a more detailed exposition of the route to enlightenment. Too detailed to go into here, the Eightfold Path is often summarized into the three trainings, Morality, Concentration, and Wisdom. Morality comprises Right Speech, Action, and Livelihood, and details how to live in harmony with the society and world we live in. Concentration includes Right Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration, and guides us how to cultivate both peace and focus, and includes meditation amongst its tools. Wisdom is made up of Right View and Intention, and it appears at the beginning of the Path, when we learn of the Way, and at the end of the Way, when it is an expression of our own understanding. To perfect the Eightfold Path is not to be fully enlightened, but to be perfectly ripened awaiting “it” to occur spontaneously.

“This, bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha, grief, lamentation, pain, sorrow, and despair are dukkha, association with the disliked is dukkha, separation from the liked is dukkha, not to get what one wants is dukkha. In brief, clinging to the five aggregates is dukkha.”

Here, the Buddha introduces the notion of dukkha, or suffering, which is a central idea in his teaching. Life is full of suffering, in the many ways that he describes above, and even when we are enjoying ourselves, suffering is waiting for the good times to end, so it can rear its ugly head. It has many levels of intensity, from mild irritation all the way up to full blown-agony, and from the egoistic point of view it is impossible to completely eradicate from our lives. The Buddha, however, is suggesting that a life without suffering is realizable, if we walk the Path, and the reason is that dukkha has a cause:

“This, bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of the cause of dukkha: The craving which causes rebirth and is bound up with pleasure and lust, ever seeking fresh delight, now here, now there; namely, craving for sense pleasure, craving for existence, and craving for annihilation.”

Craving is the cause of our suffering; because we desire life to be certain ways, when it doesn’t live up to our expectations we experience dukkha. Three basic kinds of craving are listed by the Buddha: craving for sense pleasure, for existence, and for annihilation. It’s pretty clear why desiring certain forms of pleasure will inevitably result in suffering, for as the Buddha stated earlier in the sermon, when we do not get what we want, we will suffer. As to craving for existence, this doesn’t only mean desiring to be alive, but also includes wanting to exist in a particular way or form, and when this is threatened or absent, we will suffer. Craving for annihilation causes suffering because while we are alive, the desire not to be, or not to be the way we are, will create dukkha. Furthermore, if we accept the theory of rebirth, even suicide is not a way out of suffering, for we will face the consequences of our actions in our next birth.

“This, bhikkus, is the Noble Truth of the cessation of dukkha: The complete cessation, giving up, abandonment of that craving, complete release from that craving, and complete detachment from it.”

This may sound a bit of a tall order, to say the least, for while we are alive as human beings, we will surely have desires that will sometimes be fulfilled and sometimes not, resulting on suffering. The Buddha, however, teaches that it is indeed possible in this very life to achieve “the complete cessation” of dukkha, for whilst on the conventional level of experience we are human beings, at the “deeper” or more fundamental level of being, we are ‘No-thing’ at all. It is human ‘things’ that experience dukkha, so if we let go of identifying with being these ‘things’, and realize the ‘No-thing’ that we truly are, we are realized from suffering, for ‘No-thing’ has no desires whatsoever, and therefore no suffering. And how are we to achieve this? The Buddha has already told us: the Noble Eightfold Path:

“This, bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of the way to the cessation of dukkha: Only this Noble Eightfold Path; namely, Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.”

 The Buddha goes on in the sutra to explain in some more detail how he used the Four Noble Truths as reflective tools to meditate on and achieve full enlightenment, but the gist of his teaching is contained above, and it is this which is recalled on Asalha Puja. If we can appreciate these teachings and then put them into practice, we will be walking the Middle Way of the Buddha established roughly two thousand years ago. This Path has many interpretations from Thailand to Japan, Tibet to Vietnam, not to mention all the newer forms arising across the globe today. If they keep to the well-trodden Path that the Buddha taught all those centuries ago, they will lead to the same place: no place at all. For, it is as this ever-present ‘No-thing’, this ‘Buddha Space’ that contains all, that we are freed from our desires and the suffering that arises from them. May all beings be truly happy!

For a previous reflection on the Buddha's first sermon, please click here: Dharma Day

Monday, July 19, 2010

Buddha & Religion: Islam

Thai Buddhists and Muslims living in peace

 Islam is an important global force in today’s world. Of the estimated six billion people on this planet, approximately one and a half billion are Muslims. The far mass of these people are peace-loving as are most of us, and despite the world media’s love of portraying the small minority of violent Muslims as the norm. These so-called Islamists are aggressive to non-Muslims and their fellow Muslims alike, and despite some claims – by their enemies as well as by themselves – that they constitute true Islam, the truth is that they represent Islam at large no more than gun-wielding communists represent the majority of the world’s atheists. Therefore, in this article Islamists will not be the focus, but rather the centuries-old and worldwide mainstream forms of Islam that will interest us here.

Islam is a monotheistic faith that began in Arabia in the seventh century and quickly spread across North Africa and the Middle East. Today, it is found across Asia and has sizeable populations in both North America and Europe. It is centered on the teachings in its holy book he Koran (or Quran) which is believed to contain the actual words of Allah (God), as revealed to the religion’s founder, the Prophet Muhammad. As it is so important to Islam, it would be a good place to start in a comparison of the Buddha and Islam. Resembling some fundamentalist Christians’ view of the Bible, most Muslims consider the Koran to be the perfect word of God, and therefore everything in it is true and to be followed to the letter. This dependence upon the word as an infallible source of inspiration is something that stands in contrast to the insight of the Buddha, which reveals the truth of this moment as it is, prior to language. Scripture, and other Buddhist teachings, exist to assist on our awakening, not to demand our unflinching belief.

In the Koran, it is made clear that God is one, that is to say He is beyond association with any image or form, including Jesus. (Jesus is considered a prophet in the Koran, but neither the Son of God nor God Himself.) Therefore, Islam is a monotheistic religion that teaches the only unforgivable sin that we can commit is to identify anything with Allah, which means Christians that belief Christ to be God are in deep trouble! From the Buddha’s perspective, this belief in a single divine being that is all-powerful creator of the universe is simply a form of wrong view that takes us away from the truth of this moment and into the realms of fantasy. Traditionally, moreover, gods are recognized in Buddhism but are neither eternal nor omnipotent, so the Koran’s description of God is in direct contradiction to the understanding of the way things are according to the Buddha.

In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate. All praise belongs to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds, the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate, the Master of the Day of Judgment. It is You we serve and to You we pray for support. Guide us on the right path, the path of those that You have blessed, not that of those with whom You are angry, nor of those who go astray.” 
(Koran, Sura 1.1-7)

Allah is not only creator but destroyer, not only the Compassionate bit also the Judge, and therefore there is as much fear of God as there is love for Him within Islam. Muslims believe that it is through God’s help that they can overcome life’s obstacles, and that if He chooses so, all their efforts will be in vain. It is up to every Muslim to follow the path of Islam, paying daily homage to Allah and living a righteous life, the reward for which will be eternity in paradise after one dies. This Muslim path is similar in some ways to the Buddhist Path, in that it includes a strong moral foundation to it, encouraging honesty and respectful behavior to others amongst other qualities. The emphasis on belief in Allah within Islam makes it very different to the Buddhist ideal of enlightenment, in which belief is irrelevant with the arising of the wisdom of the Buddha.

Part of the Muslim path to salvation is to perform the rituals of Islam and study the Koran. Like Buddhism, the Koran teaches that we are each responsible for our actions and thoughts, and that it is up to us to worship Allah or not. In this, there is a parallel in the Buddha’s teaching that we are all responsible for our own karma. The big difference is that like other theistic religions, Islam states that it is the Person of God that judges our actions as good or evil, whereas the Buddha taught that karma and its results are a natural process independent of any god or gods.

The ummah, or Islamic community is a crucial element in Islam, and in this it has similarities to the Sangha in Buddhism. Muslims are renowned for looking out for each other, and this communal spirit has its roots in the Koran, which teaches that the purpose of the Muslim community is to create a just and holy society. In the Koran, there are rules pertaining to marriage, inheritance and various other aspects of law which form the basis for Islamic law (sharia). The Buddha also taught that Buddhists should behave with wisdom and compassion towards each other. Here, there are parallels with Islam’s attitude to Muslim society, but an important difference is that Buddhists are encouraged to treat all beings with kindness, not just other Buddhists or even only humans.

After the Koran, the next most important source of Islamic teachings come from the Prophet Muhammad, who’s life and teachings (hadith) are also used by Muslims to guide them through life. He is seen as the perfect human, a devout God-fearing man who lived with complete devotion to the will of Allah. He was brave and led his followers in battle against their enemies, spreading Islam across Arabia, both in battle and in peace. Although discouraged from worshipping Muhammad, he is nevertheless as a role model for all Muslims, just as the Buddha is seen as a role model for all Buddhists.
“The most excellent jihad is that for the conquest of self.”

This has strong parallels with the following verse from the Buddhist Dhammapada:

“Though one may conquer a million men in battle,
Yet he is noblest victor who conquers himself.”

In Islam, it is the utter surrender of self to Allah that is the ideal that every Muslim should aim for, and it is the act of worship that he or she will achieve such abandonment. But worship is seen as merely rituals in a mosque, for it is in everyday acts that Muslims can also submit to Allah’s will, by obeying Islamic law and being generous to their fellow believers. There are similarities here with the Buddha’s teachings, in that Buddhists are encouraged to be selfless, putting the interests of others before themselves. Surrender for the Buddhist, however, is neither to God nor the Buddha, but to the way things are (the Dharma), which centre on the realization that there is in truth no substantial separate self in the first place. There is a movement within Islam called Sufism which has produced exclamations that seem to go beyond the usual Islamic ideas of surrender, however:

“O Lord,
If I worship You
From fear of Hell,
Then burn me in Hell.
O Lord,
If I worship you
From hope of Paradise,
Bar me from its gates.
But if I worship You for Yourself alone
Then grace me forever the splendour of Your Face.”
(Rabiah, 8th Century Sufi)

This Face of Allah may be seen as the very Original Face of Buddha, as described in Zen Buddhism, and then we are in the realm beyond words and concepts (and beliefs) where the Buddha and Islam may truly meet, if not merge. This ‘Face’ could well be described as No-Face, or the space in which all things appear. It is not your face nor my face, but the Face of all, and certainly not the particular features of any Tom, Dick or Harriet. Another equivalence in the above verse by the Sufi mystic Rabiah is that the idea that we do something not out of hope for reward, but that we do it for its own value, whether that be worshipping Allah or chanting praise of the Buddha.

What we see when we compare the Buddha with Islam are many differences but also many similarities. If we focus solely on those things that are unalike, then they may seem to be worlds apart and grounds for dialogue and coexistence may appear fragile to say the least. But, if we also bring to light the aspects of Islam that compliment the Buddha and his teachings, then we have reason to believe that Muslims and Buddhists can live harmoniously together in this world, as they have done in the past across Asia. Of course, there have been times of strife, as when Islam first conquered India, or recently in Southern Thailand where an atmosphere of mistrust has descended into brutal conflict. But, if we focus on the teachings of Muhammad and Sufi mystics such as Rabiah, then we nay find the way to allow the Buddha and Islam to coexist in peace, something that both have been famous for promoting.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Sealed Bag of Skin

The sealed bag of skin & its contents...yummy!

“This, which is my body, from the soles of the feet up, and down from the crown of the head, is a sealed bag of skin filled with unattractive things. In this body are: hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, membranes, spleen, lungs, bowels, entrails, undigested food, excrement, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, mucus, oil of the joints, urine, and brain. This, then, which is my body, from the soles of the feet up, and down form the crown of my head, is a sealed bag of skin filled with unattractive things.”  
(Reflection on the Thirty-Two Parts, Amaravati Chanting Book)
The above quote may seem more like something from a medical student’s textbook rather than from a Buddhist chanting book, but it is in fact taken from the latter. Based on an ancient teaching found in the Tipitaka (‘Pali Canon’), the oldest extant Buddhist scriptures, the above reflection is still chanted across the Buddhist world, and is especially emphasized in the Thai forest tradition and its derivatives in the West. In this context, it is used as a meditative reflection as well as a chant. From this perspective, it is certainly worth our attention, as the benefits are manifold, something not atypical of the various contemplative techniques developed throughout the long history of Buddhism.
So, in the introduction and conclusion of the chant, the body is colourfully described as “a sealed bag of skin” which is “filled with unattractive things”. These two descriptions of the body treat it much as a doctor would, in that it is being viewed with an objectivity that sees it as an impersonal thing rather than as a person. This is a central theme in the Buddha’s teaching on anatta (‘not-self’), which states that the body does not constitute a self, which is also true of the mind. With the wise dictum that we should take one step at a time, we are focusing purely on the body in this brief reflection. The medical theme holds true in another sense, also, which is that the doctor acts for the benefit of the patient; the reflection on the thirty-two parts also has our wellbeing at heart. Rather than healing the body, this reflection has our enlightenment as its prime aim; cultivating a dispassionate and factual attitude to the body can assist in this.
A commonly-employed meditation in Thailand (and in many other places, too, no doubt) is related to the part of this reflection that goes “from the soles of the feet up, and down form the crown of my head”. This meditation encourages us to be aware of the outer aspects of the body rather than the inner parts of the human form (the latter of which is rather difficult for most of us to investigate in our daily lives, unless we happen to work in a morgue!). The best way to understand meditation is to do it, so you may wish to read through the following instructions prior to sitting in a quiet environment and slowly working your way through each step of the process:
Focus your attention upon the top of your head, noting the sensations there, the temperature, anything else that you can feel in that area. Very slowly move your awareness from the top of your head to your ears – very sensitive parts of the human anatomy – and again become familiar with the sensations that are arising there. After a few moments of this, shift attention to your face, moving awareness across the various features there such as the forehead, eyes, nose, cheeks, lips, and chin. Next, turn attention upon the neck, again taking some time to become acquainted with every sensation that is there. Do the same with the shoulders, arms, hands, back, chest, stomach, abdomen, legs, and feet, being alive to the way each part of the body is in this present moment.
This body-sweeping meditation brings two main insights: firstly, the body is not the self, but rather a composite of various parts; secondly, and somewhat conversely, an increased awareness of the condition and needs of the body. As each body part is brought into full consciousness, not only its current condition is revealed, but also its possible needs. An example of this is when we focus attention on the shoulders, we may notice an uptight tension in them that was not apparent previously; they may require a massage or perhaps general relaxation levels need looking at. As to the central revelation of not-self, seeing the body in its constituent parts will reveal its impersonal nature; “it” is not “me”. Rather, it is a collection of sense data arising in awareness.
A problem that may occur during body-sweeping meditation is that the mind cannot focus on any one area of the body for long. This is more often than not a concentration issue, so we need to get back to basics and cultivate our concentration mediation practice first before attempting to do body-sweeping. Anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing) is a good way to develop the concentration needed to do body-sweeping slowly and surely. Getting frustrated and trying to force the mind to concentrate on the body will only exasperate the situation, so if the mind is unable to do body-sweeping, cultivate its concentrative skills first. The benefits of a concentrated mind will be crucial not only to successful focused meditations, but also for life in general. Be patient. For a previous article on Anapanasati click here: The Great Escape/Anapanasati
Returning to the quoted text above, it is advised to reflect upon the inner parts as much as the surface of the body. Body-sweeping is perfect for the latter, but for the former a slightly different approach is required. We need to use our imagination to envisage the inside of the body and its contents – unless we indulge in a rather messy dissection! Body-sweeping mediation can be adapted for this purpose, however, an example being the heart. We can focus attention on the beating of the heart as we reflect on that particular organ, becoming aware of the rhythm of the heart and its speed. It is worth noting here that monks and nuns have long used this meditation to reduce sexual feelings, and they therefore often advice laypeople against practicing this kind of meditation. For if in a sexual relationship, it is possible that one may lose interest in sex altogether, frustrating one’s partner!
Reflecting on this “sealed bag of skin” can be a liberating experience. When we see that the body does not constitute the self, we have removed a major barrier to enlightenment. Furthermore, the Buddha taught the Middle Way between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-punishment, and the wisdom that can arise from knowing and understanding the body can result in neither pampering nor ignoring it. Letting go of identifying with the body means that when someone says either, “You look great!” or “You look awful!” we will not react out of ego. Despite this dispassion towards the body, wise understanding of it will not result in it being neglected, for being fully aware of the body and its needs results in the appropriate care for it, giving it rest when it is tired and nutriment when it is hungry. After all, compassion, like charity, begins at home!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Buddha Search

 Ah, there he is...or is he?

Visiting a Buddhist temple here in Thailand recently, I wished to pay respects to the main Buddha image. Asking the temple attendants where it was proved to be quite illuminating, as they didn’t know. At first, I thought that they couldn’t penetrate my far from perfect Thai language skills, for when a Thai colleague repeated my request they referred me to a statue that was hidden behind an immense curtain. Gazing up at the enormous image, however, I did not see the Buddha, but the replication of a famous monk that the temple complex was dedicated to; apparently, there was some confusion on the part of the temple staff as to what constituted a Buddha statue! I went back to the attendants and told them that this was not an image of the Buddha. They argued that it was until I pointed out that it was the statue of a monk and not the Buddha. The penny dropped. One of the attendants pointed to a smaller building a short distance away and said that the Buddha image was to be found there. After a brief trek across very pleasant surroundings – the temple complex seemed to be a kind of Buddhist theme park with lots of camera-wielding tourists – we found the Buddha statue, wrapped in what looked like a gigantic polythene bag. Either it was a newly-delivered statue or some scoundrel was attempting to asphyxiate the Lord Buddha! I bowed to the Buddha and then walked back to the main area where the temple attendants were selling various trinkets and other ‘Buddhist’ memorabilia to visitors.

This event set off a train of thought; why did the temple appear to view the Buddha with so little importance compared to this monk, who was said to have had magical powers? Usually, in countries like Thailand where the more conservative Theravada Buddhism is followed, the Buddha is always the central effigy found in a temple, not hidden away in a side building. Now, there are all kinds of possible explanations involving superstition, devotion, specialization and commercialism to name but a few, any number of which may well be contributory factors. But, more importantly, this inquiry led on to another, more fundamental one: What is it to search – and find – the Buddha? Sure, statues can be useful and aesthetic objects that enhance our lives, but no one suggests that they truly are the Buddha. The real Buddha is that enlightened part of us that is to be found right where we are now, and has been so wonderfully personified not only in the person of the historical Shakyamuni Buddha, but also in other enlightened ones such as Amitabha Buddha. Images, concepts and emotions can be used to bring us closer to the Buddhas, but is it not the Buddha within that is the true Buddha that will transform our suffering lives into happy ones?

This living Buddha is harder to find than those dead images, however, and all of the 84, 000 ways to awakening are geared towards enabling us to transcend ‘us’ and find the Buddha. Even devotion to a monk as opposed to the Buddha can assist in enlightenment – as long as it does not descend into a mere business or sect. For, if a monk – or anyone else for that matter – is awakened then they exist as an inspiration to our own search for the Buddha. For those of us that prefer to look for ourselves, however, statues, monks, gurus, and esoteric practices may seem somewhat over elaborate. And, for such people, there are more direct methods which can be employed to discover the Buddha within. One such method is the direct enquiry employed and promoted by the late British philosopher Douglas Harding. Although not Buddhist himself, Douglas saw the emptiness that lies not only at the heart of Buddhism, but also forms the ultimate objective of many great Christian, Muslim and Hindu mystics’ lives. Douglas was very keen to draw parallels between such luminaries and their Buddhist counterparts, especially from Zen Buddhism. Huineng (638-713), Bankei (1622-1693) and D.T. Suzuki (1890-1966) were particular favourites of Douglas’ (and mine). Let’s employ a few of Douglas’ ‘experiments’ and see what we come up with. It might just be enlightening!

Looking at the objects in front of you, see their ‘thing-ness’, that is to say, their colours, shapes, sizes, and general solidity. Now, turn your attention around 180 degrees to that which is doing the looking. What colours, shapes and sizes do you see here? Furthermore, is what you see at this end of your pointing finger solid or transparent? Is it a separate thing that keeps out all other things ‘out there’, or is it a ‘no-thing’ that is capacity for all the things you see to occur in?

Looking here and now, I can’t see a ‘me’ at my centre, but what is found is extremely fascinating – an alert void that contains, or is one, with all that can be seen. It is invisible, without any limited and limiting forms. All things can be seen within it, and it is neither confined nor defined by those things. It is that very emptiness that is the absence of me, and yet it contains those elements usually taken to equal ‘me’ along with all other things. It rejects not one thing, being completely open to them all. This openness is the impartial acceptance of everyone and everyone as they are right now, which the attitude of the Buddha. This is no coincidence, because the peaceful nonjudgmental heart that lies within us all is the Buddha. If we are searching for the Buddha, here ‘he’ is!

Listen to the sounds in your vicinity, hear their ‘thing-ness’, that is to say, their volume, rhythm, tone, and general audibility. Now, turn your attention to that which is doing the listening. What volume, rhythm, and tones do you hear here? Furthermore, is what you hear at the heart of all sounds audible or silent? Is it a separate thing that blocks out all other things ‘out there’, or is it a ‘no-thing’ that is capacity for all the things you hear to appear in?

If sounds are paid close attention to, they are just as efficacious as seeing in revealing the no-thing that is revealed through searching with an open mind. I cannot hear a ‘me’ here anymore than I can see one. Sounds arise, exist and die away in this ever-present silent void, which prefers no one sound over any other, simply being capacity for them to exist and be heard. Indeed, their being heard is their very existence. And, it is this equanimous silence that is the space in which they are heard. Pleasant or unpleasant, all sounds are given space to exist with this silent awareness. This is the impartial Buddha that hears the cries of the world, indeed the cries of the universe. All noise is accepted here, for there is no one to object to some sounds deemed nice and attach to others considered disagreeable. (Such thoughts and feelings of like and dislike still occur in the unenlightened mind, of course – until that mind dissolves into its inherently unbiased clarity.)

Watch the thoughts and emotions in your mind, notice their ‘thing-ness’, that is to say, their intensity, subject matter, morphing, and general mentality. Now, turn your attention to that which is doing the thinking and feeling. What intensity, subject matter and morphing do you notice here? Furthermore, is what you perceive at the heart of all thoughts and feelings mental or unimaginable? Is it a separate thing that contains all other things ‘in here’, or is it a ‘no-thing’ that is capacity for all the things you think and feel to exist in?

For some, it is much easier to accept that the self is not the body. They may well believe that it is thoughts and emotions that make up the human being, perhaps even containing some kind of seat of consciousness within the mind that many consider to be their eternal ‘soul’ or essence. This quite natural identification with being ‘me’ is the way that the human mind works for most of us, most of the time – until something happens that jolts the mind out of its usual assumptions of who and what the self is. Therefore, when the mind and its contents are experienced as arising in the void rather than from some central control centre, eternal or not, the association of self with mind is loosened if not broken altogether. (In traditional Buddhism, there are degrees of awakening such as the partially-enlightened ‘stream-enterer’ who has let go of the idea of being a self and the fully-enlightened ‘Arhat/Bodhisattva/Buddha’ who has let go of the feeling of being a self as well.)

Perhaps the reason that the Buddha is so hard to see is that we don’t really want to look. We fear what we will find: A great big nothing. But, the truth is that a great big no-thing lies at our heart, and the hyphen in these two words makes all the difference. The Buddha did not teach nihilism, the idea that there is literally nothing beyond these atoms that constitute our physical being. But, neither did he teach eternalism, the idea that there is a separate eternal ‘soul’ that survives death. He taught the Middle Way between these two extremes which attaches to no dogmas regarding this crucial question and leaves it up to experience to reveal the truth. Examining our own being with an open mind can enable us to experience this no-thing that contains all things. This is not a depressing event –unless we react from the ego – for we actually discover the unborn and undying nature that is the Buddha. To attach labels to it is of course troublesome, and none those that have been employed here should be taken as literal. Rather, they are figurative pointers indicating what is found to be here when all our assumptions and preconceived ideas and beliefs are put to one side. The search for the Buddha needn’t be so troublesome after all.

For more on Douglas Harding and his 'experiments', please click here:  The Headless Way