Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: On Having No Head, by Douglas Harding

On Having No Head is very much a modern spiritual classic. As small a volume as it is, it contains the essential wisdom needed to enable the reader to escape the usual egoistic state of mind that we humans find ourselves in. The revelation that is elucidated so delightfully by Douglas Harding in its pages is a doorway into the freedom of enlightenment. In Buddhist understanding the realization that Harding presents to us is a Dharma gate, a Way to break out of the egoistic jail that most of us have lived all our lives. Turning our attention around 180 degrees as he encourages us to do is a powerful medicine to counteract the effects and causes of our suffering, and the reader of this review of On Having No Head is respectfully asked to bear this recognition in mind when it appears that Harding's teachings are being criticized. 

"Only I am in a position to report on what's here," he writes. And this injunction, as true for you and me as it was for Harding, should always be at the back of our minds as we explore his words. This attitude of Harding's is a firm rebuttal to anyone that might cling to Headlessness as a kind of orthodox 'Harding-ism' that must never be questioned or challenged. Hence the openness of criticism as well as praise of Harding's Way in this review. 

The book is divided into four chapters, the first three of which are so brief as to be almost shockingly bereft of any kind of depth. And yet this is highly deceptive, for in the vision that Harding describes there is an infinite variety of possible investigations and conclusions. Moreover, in Harding's practical and yet profound prose we have a work that hints at much more than it explicitly says, and in a manner that is sure to tickle us at frequent intervals. This lightness of touch is no doubt testament to the genuineness of Harding's 'Himalayan experience' and a life lived based upon it. For, no matter how serious life can get, and recognizing that spiritual awakening opens us up to the suffering of the world, there is a humor that derives from realizing our True Nature. Expressing the Truth of enlightenment in a way that is balanced with the concern for all beings' sufferings is the mark of an awakened one, and Harding was certainly one of those.

The book begins with a skillfully-rendered account of an experience Harding had in the Himalayas when walking there in his forties: he looked and saw that he had no head! As he writes in the first chapter of On Having No Head, this isn't merely a literary gambit to catch his reader's attention, but a description of what he actually experienced. A line drawing by the author illustrates exactly what he saw: khaki-colored trousers and shirt terminating in nothing above his chest; a spacious knowing filled with a vista of the Himalayas. As he states himself, such grandiose settings are not a prerequisite to seeing this simplest of truths, and you yourself can see what he means if you take a few moments to look for yourself:

Point at whatever is in front of you. notice opts shape, size, contours, colors and its solidity. Point at your legs, doing the same, working up your torso to your chest, taking note of what you see as you go. Now point at where your head is: what do you actually see? Don't rely on assumptions, or what you expect to find, but what do you really see right where your face should be at this moment? if, like me (and Harding), you see no head at all, no face, and certainly no brain, then you have experienced exactly what he describes in his book. And it is this experience which he claims is the heart of the spiritual life, Buddhist and other. 

In recalling the dramatic revelation that came to him among the Himalayas, Harding emphasizes that a crucial element in his "seeing into Nothingness" was that "just for the moment I stopped thinking." This lack of thought is a common theme in both Buddhist forms of meditation and in the experience - at least initially - of awakening or enlightenment. Not that the objective of Buddhist meditation is to kill the mind and become a kind of zombie, but that as a natural and unforced consequence of meditative practice, thoughts will die down and even cease altogether. When this happens, life can be experienced without the interference of the discursive mind, that is to say, reality is realized as it is, not as we normally misapprehend it. This is what Harding describe in his account of his 'Himalayan insight'.

Harding also writes of forgetting his "thingness" when seeing his "mindless emptiness". Usually, we experience life as a thing in a universe in a universe of things, some friendly to us, some hostile, some helpful, some dangerous, some life-enhancing, some lethal. No wonder, then, that when Harding saw beyond his "thingness" he felt "only peace and a quiet joy". These are common fruits of awakening to the unconditioned void that we truly are. As he points out, this enlightening experience is beyond words and beyond questioning. It is where all queries cease in the simple yet profound knowing that is "utterly free of 'me'.

This reviewer does have problems with some of Harding's claims, however, and an important one is found in the very title of the book, On Having No Head. Harding writes that because the colours and shapes of the various features of one's head cannot be seen, then they do not exist. He states that no eyes, ears, mouth etc. can be found here because they cannot be seen. But, they can be felt, however. And, why is it that Harding trusts his eyes more than his hands? Surely it is the same aspect of mind that recognizes a head when it seen as much as when it is felt. Contrary to this, however, he resorts to the visual sense alone to find out the truth of what lies where he is, for when feeling for a head, one's hand is seen to disappear also. Indeed, he writes that anything that gets too close to the void disappears into it. (Interestingly, distance is needed for this argument, despite the fact that elsewhere Harding states that there is no distance for the first person.) 

On the basis of his visual observations Harding concludes that there are two kinds of human being - headed and headless. Moreover, because he can see others' heads but not his own, he is unique amongst humanity, in his subjective experience. Instead of a head, he has (is) a "pure void". There's no distance or "twoness" to be see. All this is, to some degree, to misrepresent "the vision" of seeing our true nature, however, for as Harding argues to conceptualize about it is to veer from the experience itself. At best, Harding views his words as pointers to reawaken in himself the experience of the void, plus a way to communicate it to others. They are certainly not headless dogmas to be clung to by his students and followers. 

It is this reviewer's experience that the essential claim of Harding, that by looking 'home' I can see the No-thing that is my central reality is true. Just looking now can verify this. But this does not preclude a head being here at the same time; if sounds can arise in silence, then sights can arise in the invisible. I find that my humanity, which includes these thoughts as well as a head, are here; I can feel my face and understand my thoughts. It is what they occur in, this wondrous, silent spaciousness that is the revelation of Harding's book and of Buddhism, for that matter. In his words and the experiments such as the pointing finger described above, Douglas Harding encourages us to see the truth of what we really are. Reading this book, despite its shortfalls, has  undoubtably helped many in achieving this aim.

If this viewpoint is accepted, then the belief that there are two kinds of human being in the world - the headless first-person & those with heads (everyone else) - is refuted. From this perspective, there are not two kinds of human, but one, for the "humanness" we find within the headless void is recognized along with all other humans. Then, we can recognize both our shared human qualities, both good & bad, as well as our central emptiness, which is beyond all opposites & human suffering. Harding's method of exploring what we find 'at home' is adaptable to all the senses, as he often demonstrated in his headless workshops, and as this reviewer can attest, it is also compatible with Buddhist sitting meditation. As Harding encouraged us to look for ourselves, and not accept anything he wrote as dogma, it is up to each of us whether we find his no head hypothesis or this reviewer's headed experience alongside the essential No-thing.

On Having No Head is an incredible little book, which is not surprising, as it was written by an incredible man: Douglas Edison Harding. Both in his public life as writer and workshop host, and in his private life (which seemed intertwined with the former in actuality), he was a warm, intelligent, articulate, caring man. This reviewer can attest to both as he met Douglas Harding several times, even being invited to stay at his house, as many people were. Although he wrote many books after On Having No Head, the basics of his method & teachings are all here, put across in a delightfully matter-of-fact way. There are few books available that can have such an immediate transformative impact on the reader as this one can, and it comes strongly recommended by this reviewer.

The above book is available from the Headless Way website here: On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious

Friday, March 22, 2013

'On Zen,' by Daio Kokushi

There is a reality even prior to heaven and earth;
Indeed, it has no form, much less a name;
Eyes fail to see it; It has no voice for ears to detect;
To call it Mind or Buddha violates its nature,
For it then becomes like a visionary flower in the air;
It is not Mind, nor Buddha;
Absolutely quiet, and yet illuminating in a mysterious way,
It allows itself to be perceived only by the clear-eyed.
It is Dharma truly beyond form and sound;
It is Tao having nothing to do with words.
Wishing to entice the blind,
The Buddha has playfully let words escape his golden mouth;
Heaven and earth are ever since filled with entangling briars.
O my good worthy friends gathered here,
If you desire to listen to the thunderous voice of the Dharma,
Exhaust your words, empty your thoughts,
For then you may come to recognize this One Essence.
Says Hui the Brother, "The Buddha's Dharma
Is not to be given up to mere human sentiments."

Translated by D. T. Suzuki, and available for download in the following free ebook: Manual of Zen Buddhism.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Forest Walking V

Walking the forest path can lead to enlightening experiences. One such occurrence happened today when strolling through the woods of Wat Pa Nanachat (the 'International Forest Monastery'). Ambling between the trees, the mind settled into a meditative, alert state. Wether this condition was the result of cultivating such mental states through regular meditation or the natural influence of the forest's atmosphere is debatable, although this author suspects a combination of the two. Whatever the case of its causes, a serenity pervaded experience as my legs moseyed along the dirt path.

This mental quietude was an empty canvas for whatever perceptions arose, the trees slowly moving through awareness and out of sight. Butterflies flitted in their beautiful meandering dances, catching attention for a second or two before vanishing into the green surroundings. But what was really noticeable was the cacophony of sound filling the forest. Unidentifiable insects made all kinds of noises, some almost weighing down the trees with their loudness. Birds could also be heard, singing through the tropical heat. And, accompanying this natural orchestra was the tap-tap of my flip-flops on the track.

Turning awareness around to recognize the one taking in the sights and sounds of the forest, nobody was found. Yes, consciousness played host to the sense data currently on display, but no thought process or sense of 'me' accompanied experience. Legs moved and feet pressed against the flip-flops as they touched the ground. There were the sensations of itches and running sweat on the face, but no-one experiencing them; just the naked awareness of the moment. And, if we attend to this present moment carefully enough, what will we find here, at the centre of our universe? A small, self-obsessed ego, or something much more mysterious & wonderful? All we need to do is look & listen...

For similar articles, please click the following: Buddha Ear, Forest Walking, Forest Walking II, Forest Walking III, & Forest Walking IV.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Gravestone With No Name

The gravestone of the priest who founded Hokokuji, by his final instructions, records no name. There is just a great stone on top of the grave to mark the place. Thereafter many of the chief priests of Hokokuji followed this precedent of the founder, and there are many graves without any name on them.

Uesugi Shigemitsu, a student of Zen, once came to Hokokuji and paid his respects to Hakudo, the 5th master there. He said:
‘At this temple there are gravestones with no name. It will mean that future generations will hardly be able to tell whose graves they are.’

The priest said: ‘After they are dead, what would the line of priests of this temple want with names? Have you not heard that it is said: “The four great rivers enter the ocean and lose their name”?’

The nobleman said: ‘But with the years, the ground may change, and if they do not know the graves, their successors in the dharma will find it impossible to perform the usual worship at the graves of their predecessors.’

The Master said: ‘The spiritual gravestones of the line of priests of this temple are in the very depths of the heart of their successors in the dharma. If there is not in Your Hon- our’s own heart the spiritual gravestone of your illustrious ancestor, then worship before even a towering five-storied pagoda will be meaningless.’

The noble said: ‘Your Reverence is the chief priest of this temple of which my illustrious ancestor laid the foundation. Is then the spiritual gravestone of my ancestor in Your Reverence’s heart?’
Before he could finish, the priest seized him and threw him down under the pine tree among the graves, and said: ‘Look, look! Here is the spiritual gravestone, here it is!’ The noble grasped a meaning behind the words and said:

‘From the very depths of the gravestone without a name come the founder of the temple and the layer of the foundation, holding hands, clear before us!’

The above koan is extracted from a wonderful book by Trevor Leggett, a review of which can be read here: Samurai Zen

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Thai Buddhism: Meditate!

Mass meditation: which monks are really 'doing it?'

Meditation is often associated with Buddhism. Buddha statues are more often than not made in the cross-legged sitting position, inspired by the Buddha's enlightenment while sitting in such a position when he realized nirvana under the bodhi tree (enlightenment-tree). Indeed, meditation is considered a prerequisite to enlightenment. Not that everyone that becomes awakened to the Dharma (the-way-things-are) does so when sitting in meditation, but enlightenment is dependent upon mind states and realizations made whilst meditating. An example is that of the Buddha's ordained cousin, Ananda, who meditated all night before going to his bed. Just prior to his head hitting the pillow, his Dharma-eye was opened, and he was an arahant (enlightened one). Not that it is suggested Ananda was enlightened after just one sitting; he meditated for years before finally realizing complete awakening.

In Thailand, most people have meditated at some time or another. Or, at least, they have acted as if they were meditating. Let me explain; in Thai primary schools most children are taught to 'meditate,' or to sit with their eyes closed (most of the time). They aren't usually actually meditating, that is using a series of mental exercises to develop calm focus & wisdom, but are instructed on how to look as if they were. Thailand is a land where appearance is more important than substance. If someone looks and acts important, then they are. If someone acts as if they are meditating, then they are. Looks are everything. Just ask an average Thai woman, whose self-worth is so often dependent upon whether she is told she is beautiful or cute. 

Thai temples are normally all gold and bling, sparkling in the tropical sunlight. But, the true light of Buddhism is the nimitta ('concentration-object') that arises in deeper states of meditation. And this form of light is rare indeed. So, while Thailand's temples shine, darkness prevails in the hearts of most Thai Buddhists, including the mass of its monks, at least where meditation is concerned. Most Thais are concerned with merit-making rather than developing mindfulness & meditation, despite the Buddha praising the latter pairing as productive of much merit, let alone being crucial to the noble eightfold path to enlightenment. Morality is another important aspect of the path, and some Thais keep the Buddhist precepts as well as make merit by giving to monks. Meditation, however, combined with morality lead to wisdom and hence enlightenment. But most Thais, including monks, appear disinterested in making their minds fertile for awakening. Why?

Walking the noble eightfold path is not easy. It involves a lot of correct effort (which is one of the eight aspects of the path). It involves moral training in correct speech, correct action & correct livelihood, built upon the foundation of the Buddhist precepts briefly mentioned above. All this is quite challenging at times, and if this isn't enough, the stilling & focussing of the mind in meditative practices such as sitting meditation are necessary parts of the path, too. It's relatively to fake meditation, just sit with the eyes closed until you think nobody's looking! But actual meditative discipline is just that; a discipline. The mind will wander, it will struggle with boredom, agitation, and other mental hindrances. But there is light at the end of the tunnel, and perseverance will result in meditative success; calmness, contentedness, and clear insight, to mention but a few benefits. But all this takes dedication and a lot of time; most people - Thai or not - simply aren't willing to devote masses of minutes to sitting quietly watching their breath or their mind. 

As a foreigner (British) in Thailand, when it's mentioned that I meditate, the most common reaction is surprise bordering on shock - Thais just can't believe a westerner meditates. The second reaction is the one they most often give fellow Thais, which is a respectful recognition of something considered almost 'holy,' even 'magical.' Now, this writer makes no claims to be either holy or magical, but the benefits of meditation that he has experienced are manifold: peace, calmness, insight, confidence, conviction (in his abilities & the efficacy of the Buddhist path). Therefore, it seems such a shame that most Thai Buddhists have never really meditated, and hold some rather fanciful ideas of what it consists of. In this, they aren't that different to non-Buddhists.

If this article has sparked an interest in the noble eightfold path & meditation, I wholeheartedly encourage you to take them up. Try to find a Buddhist teacher to learn from, but if you can't, there are plenty of books and websites out there that can at least get you started in the right direction. (Explore the weblinks on the right of this page and the reviews of various books collected under the Reviews link, also to the right.) If you have meditated before, but have lost the habit (as happens to us all once in a while), why not give it a go again. Just a few minutes every day can make a big difference to our levels of contentment & mental health. Not to mention the lowering of blood pressure - allegedly! So, if you're a Thai Buddhist, you can invigorate Thai Buddhism through these practices, and if you're not, you can be one of thousands the globe over exploring the way to enlightenment. Feel free to contact me for further information or encouragement: knowing & experiencing the benefits of meditating on the path is a contagious undertaking!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Thai Buddhism: Monk Rockers

Monk Rockers: The new face of Thai Buddhism?

A part of traditional Buddhist life in Thailand is the short-term ordination of boys & young men. This has been seen as a right of passage, and men that have not gone through this procedure are considered 'unripe' in the sense that they are neither morally matured or ready for marriage. In modern Thailand, however, things are not quite that simple, if they ever were. For, many of these young men are behaving in ways that are breaking the rules for monks (patimokkha), and in doing so show Buddhism in a bad light. In a society obsessed with face-saving, appearance often appears more important than substance, and this attitude extends to religion, including Buddhism. So now, some more traditionally-minded Buddhists are complaining about the misbehavior of these naughty monks.

Part of the problem is the traditionally exalted position that monks have in Thai culture, in theory even higher than the King, though in practice this latter point too is probably more for show than actually 'true.' Monks are treated like gods, beyond criticism & correction, unless they openly step over the mark by getting caught having sex or dancing to music. The latter behavior has recently been exposed on the internet with pictures & videos displaying young monks singing & cavorting around like punk rockers - or should that be monk rockers?! Again, despite most Thais knowing that corruption & misbehavior exists behind the gates of Thai monasteries, if it isn't seen, it's not usually investigated. Monks rockin' in front of the camera is too much for most Thai Buddhists to stomach, however: it can't get more in your face than that!

But there's a deeper issue here, alluded to above. Thai monks are often not the paragons of virtue and meditation that they are supposed to be. Materialism is rife in Thailand's monasteries, many run as little more than businesses promoting themselves like Buddhist tourist sites where - for a price - visitors get get blessed or obtain the latest 'magic' amulet. All this goes completely against the spirit & monastic rules of Buddhism. Monks are supposed to devote their lives to studying the Buddha's teachings, meditating, and sharing both these with others. Performing rituals & blessings are secondary activities, and they should not interfere, let alone replace, the central monkish activities of reflection & meditation.

Because of the monks' high social status mentioned above, most Thai Buddhists would never openly criticize a monk. They would rather make merit for themselves & their loved ones and save face by not getting into any uncomfortable conversations regarding a monk's misdemeanors. The reason that Thais are starting to complain more openly about some monks' monkeying around is that Thai Buddhism is reaching a crisis point. Coupled with this, is the fact that some educated Thais that have been exposed to more critical, western modes of thinking are beginning to analyze many aspects of Thai society traditionally never questioned; and this includes those monk-rockers.

In the Pali canon (the Buddhist scriptures recognized in Thailand), there are accounts of situations where laypeople refused to interact with certain monkish communities that were behaving in unseemly ways. On at least one occasion a local lay community refused to even feed the monks, they were so disheartened by the latter's misbehavior. The Thai tendency to not challenge wayward monks is a cultural trait not found in the canon, and it is important that laypeople do not support such monks, as it will only encourage more of the same. And if this happens, as up to now it has, then more and more monks will behave in inappropriate ways, helping to destroy the Buddhist traditions of Thailand. So, Thai Buddhists, speak up & criticize wrong action in the monasteries…before it's too late and Buddhism will have all but died in this wonderful land!