Monthly Archives: December 2015

Renewing a Vow

You know, I just spent two hours writing the rest of the fictional Honeyball sutta, and, at the end of it, I had my doubts that it was ready to go out into the world.

So, I ran it past Joyce, and at the end of that conversation, I decided to wait a few days, and to revise it in the meantime. And maybe I’ll look for some help from Kent and Melissa. Besides, as Joyce pointed out (and I had forgotten): it’s New Year’s Eve. That may not be the best time for this intricate matter.

The fiction, by the way, is based on my translation of the The Honeyball Sutta (Madhupindika Sutta), which is #18 of the Majjhima Nikaya (that is, MN18). I will post the final version of my sutta,  later. It’s a profound sutta about the freedom of voidness. I love it.

So, hoping that you will take care of yourself and others on New Year’s Eve, and have an relaxing, enjoyable New Year’s Day. I am using the occasion to refresh my healthily living habits. (I’ve definitely slacked off diet-wise, since the cancer operation last year.) And, I’m dubbing 2016 my ‘Year of Living Simply,’ in as many respects as possible.

I don’t sound, right now, like someone who, for the sake of deepening into life, is still exploring my hypothetical last few months to live, do I? Of course, that’s still going on. And, if I knew I were dying in a few months, would I still do that thing about ‘simplifying’? Hmmm… I’ll ponder that tomorrow, and if the answer is not ‘Yes,’ then I might drop it.

Me, tomorrow night? I confess that I don’t normally do New Year’s Eve, other than using it to renew my vows. It’s good for that. So, here’s raising my bowl of muesli to another deep, calm and peaceful and normal night.

On another note, it struck me powerfully, this morning – because I’m presently talking with someone about the interface of modern psychology and Buddhism – that it must appear really, really far-fetched, this claim we are making, that there is a species-wide delusion going on.

I thought for a moment that maybe I am just eccentric, weird, or obsessive, arguing that the species needs to notice that certain aspects of its cognitive functioning need urgent attention.

I remembered the response of a psychology lecturer nearly twenty years back. He thought I was plain wrong; because, after all, look at all the fantastic artistic and technological achievements.

And, Sir, what of the heart? Have we developed so much, really, in the art of loving? In the art of listening? In respecting those who are different to our mob? In the arts of peace. When we’re all making art, not war, then I’ll see it as he sees it. There’s my vow.

Given that the rest of the folks in this band of outsiders and eccentrics are really lovely, I celebrate their company for the remainder of my days. But, it really is a strange and ironic process, isn’t it, that the evolutionary gift of of our frontal lobes should be our greatest weakness? Right?

A Fictional Honeyball Teaching

It was in the forests near Kapilavatthu, the home town of the flourishing one, that a small band of bhikkhus counted themselves blessed. Here, was the teacher, himself addressing them at the end of the day’s abiding. He shared with them an incident from his day.

He had gone, he said, deep into the Great Wood, for the day’s solitary meditation; and there, he found himself a lovely bilba tree to sit beneath.

At some stage, though, the old brahmin Dandapāni had found him; and, of course, the old man tried to lure the teacher into an argument. “What do you teach, Wanderer? What’s your doctrine? What do you say?”

“My teaching is such that someone who enters into it is no longer beset by perceptions. He is confident, and free from craving for existence and non-existence. So, he no longer quarrels with anyone of any class or creed.”

The old man clicked his tongue, wrinkled his brow, and hurrumphed. Then, straight away he took his stick, and limped off, back the way he’d come.

The youngest bhikkhu asked, “What did you mean, Sir, by: ‘someone not beset by perceptions’? And, what does that have to do with not arguing?”

“Bhikkhu, if, when encountering manifoldness, there is nothing there to find delight in, nothing to welcome and get hold of, then right there, that will be the end of underlying unhealthy tendencies. This is the end of the habitual deep-seated tendency to desire being, and the end of ignorance.

“This is where all the violence ends – no arguments and quarrels, no accusations and tale-bearing, no falsities, and so no taking weapons up. This is where all these evil things cease.”

Then the teacher, without word more, got up from his seat, and went into his own hut, leaving the young bhikkhus silently staring after him.

They got up and went some distance away, where they delved into what they could of this teaching in brief. Then they got to wondering who could help them. They settled on Māhakaccāna, who they knew was nearby. Māhakaccāna was widely respected by the senior monks, he’d be able to expand on this.

So, off they set, to learn further the intricacy of the cessation of taking up of quarrels and lies, and of bars and blades. And, doesn’t our world need that.

On arrival, they exchanged friendly greetings and courtesies with Māhakaccāna, then they sat to one side. They told him what the teacher had said, and formally requested, “Please, Sir, can you expand this teaching for us?”

Māhakaccāna was surprised, “Friends – you heard this from the mouth of the flourishing one, and now you come to me? The teacher is the giver of the deathless; so, to ask me to explain this for you is like… well, it’s as though you were right there in the presence of heartwood, right at the root and trunk of a healthy tree, and yet, you passed it over for the branches and leaves.”

“You are modest, Sir,” one answered.

Māhakaccāna wasn’t giving up on their training. He said, “The well-faring one is the eye of knowledge. He is the speaker of meaning. On occasions like this, you should grasp your opportunity and question him. Take the matter up, when it is fresh. Take it up immediately, if the dhamma himself, brahma himself, is available.”

The bhikkhus acknowledged that he was right: “Yes, Māhakaccāna,” said one. Another added, “We do understand it’s as is said: ‘Knowing, the flourishing one knows; seeing, he sees.’ He is all that you say.”

A third one said, “And, we should have questioned him, true. We take your point about how we should approach our learning.

“However, we are here, now, with you; and you’re praised by the teacher and appreciated by your companions in the spiritual life. We would like you to analyse the implicit meaning of this, for us. Who else, right, now?”

Another said, “Please, walk us through it, friend Kaccāna!”

Māhakaccāna was silent a long minute, then he said, “In that case, friends, listen carefully. We will see what we can learn – together – from this teaching.”

And so he taught the young bhikkus in detail, in words which have been passed on for two-and-a-half thousand years – which I’ll share with you tomorrow.

Respect Yourself

Let’s take a break from No-Head Zen. I’ll bring it back later, if I live long enough. The point is to be oneself with confidence, to give up inauthenticity.

Complaining, hating, self-pity, guilt, wanting to be seen, leaning in too strongly in a conversation – all those energy-wasting activities – look into them and you find they’re fabrications, the results of ego’s shaping factors. They are a band of thieves, stealing precious energy. It’s like intentionally kicking your bare toes against a table leg, living inside such false self-assertion. Real confidence comes from non-fabrication.

Those two Zen practitioners, whom I told you about, who mocked Douglas’ way, weren’t they, too, inflicting wounds on their toes, with their ‘real Zen’? Here’s Thich Nhat Hanh, commenting on the Ch’an master Linji:

“Master Linji said that when we meet the ghost Buddha, we should cut off his head. Whether we’re looking inside or outside ourselves, we need to cut off the head of whatever we meet, and abandon the views and ideas we have about things, including our ideas about Buddhism and Buddhist teachings. Buddhist teachings are not exalted words and scriptures existing outside us, sitting on a high shelf in the temple, but are medicine for our ills. Buddhist teachings are skillful means to cure our ignorance, craving, anger, as well as our habit of seeking things outside and not having confidence in ourselves.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh. Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go: Reflections on the Teachings of Zen Master Lin Chi

That’s a good way of looking at headlessness, isn’t it? Linji:

“My friends, try and apply my insight. Sit still and cut off the heads of every retribution and transformation body of the Buddha. See that all bodhisattvas in the ten bodhisattva stages, all the fully awakened and wonderful awakened ones are just like shackles coming to imprison you. Arahants and self-enlightened ones are like the latrine pit. Awakening (bodhi) and nirvana are tethering posts for mules.”
– Translated by Thich Nhat Hanh. Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go: Reflections on the Teachings of Zen Master Lin Chi

Linjji says, in more practical terms:

“Put on your robe as a free person. When it is necessary to walk, walk. When it is necessary to sit, sit. Do not for a moment yearn for Buddhahood.”

Kindly, and with self-compassion, of course. We’d be just as inauthentic if we emulate Linji’s ‘beat ’em, berate ’em’ style. Leave that in the Tang dynasty. Once a Zen student, blinded by his conceit, grabbed me by the collar and shouted a Zen challenge in my face. Living in the head is painful dukkha. When we lack mindfulness, and act from unawareness, ironically, we are not respecting who we really are. If we can’t treat people well – can’t respect others – we haven’t got the point yet, and it doesn’t matter how many ‘koans’ we’ve ‘passed.’ I was a slow learner myself, in this matter of treating others well.

Can I share the etymology of ‘respect’? It’s related to the Latin ‘spectāre,’ which means to ‘look.’ We get ‘spectacles’ and ‘spectator’ and so on, from the same root. Can we really look, and see the beauty of the other? Most of us want to be seen, but can we see?

The Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra suggests, ‘See as if for the first time a beauteous person or an ordinary object.’

No-Head Zen (Part 3)

.

“But, there is, in this shaping of the self, an inevitable alienation. Since the child’s identity as an egobody is formed by a reflection, its constitution takes place through the other. This mediation, however, is only the beginning of a lifelong dependence on the presence of reflections, confirming, approving, rejecting, correcting, taking possession of the invisible spirit.” – Michael David Leven, The Opening of Vision.

By the time we are adults, we take our sense of sight for granted. We’ve put it in a little box on our shoulders, from whence we peek out at the world. I remember a former mentor puzzled about how “the sun’s light reflects off that tree over there, and light strikes the retina, and then it gets sent along the optic nerve, and then…

I was in wonder that he could think that’s how sight works. He didn’t understand that such a view creates separation – you end up looking out from a distant ‘narrow chink.’ I had written an essay during my psychology studies about the brain and vision, so it’s not that I didn’t know the biology. It’s just that, biology is useful when I go to an optometrist, not for experiencing the beauty of the eucalypts. We need to reclaim a deeper vision.

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is,
Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

– William Blake, poet.

At five years old, my daughter said to me, reflecting on her present-moment experience as we walked along the street – she looked about her at the trees, the fences, the footpath, and the flowers curling over the fence ahead:

“It’s strange, Dad….”
“Yes?”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter.”
“I’m listening, if you want to tell me.”
“Well… things don’t come to you, and you don’t go to things.”

In the Oghatarana Sutta, in the Samyutta Nikāya, a deva asked the Nikāya Buddha, “How did you cross the flood?” And he answered, “By not pushing forward, and not holding back.” Essence of mind is unmoving and unchanging, and yet it’s dynamic. But we ‘grow up’. And what does ‘grown-up’ vision do?

It gazes in a technological fashion, in a particularising mode – in subject-object mode. This is its habitual way, its obsession. Peripheral vision is lost, relegated as unimportant; and resting aimlessly in our sense of sight is considered unusual.

Sitting here writing to you, dear Reader, I look from my hand on the keyboard, my arm disappearing upward, and looking here, I find – here, there is no head. If I don’t grasp at things, I am wide open, one with the world. As Douglas says: ‘Built for love’ – in the way that babies are interactional, with room for everything, no obstruction. The Diamond Sutra says, ‘No hindrance in the mind and therefore no fear.’

It’s important to remember that we are focussing here on the sense of sight. And though we could examine ourselves from the point of view of other sensations (and find them equally empty of a fixed, separate, independent self.) I am confining myself to this one sense, because it’s relevant to understanding Douglas Harding’ ‘method’, his unique ‘skilful means’ (upāya).

Like Bāhiya, when we come home to our sense of sight as-it-is-in-itself, imposing no concept of seer or seen, then vision is marvellously unsupported (in that meaning of marvel that is related to ‘miracle’). Seeing is mysteriously self-existing in its luminosity, and cannot be said to have an origin: no ‘over there,’ nor a ‘here,’ nor an in-between – what IS has no coming or going. Try it. Take a look at who’s seeing, then drop the search. (Hint: Don’t look for a non-dynamic stillness. It’s a stillness which changes.)

Douglas Harding and the community around the world who practice his ‘way’, have come up with many ‘experiments’ that show us the obvious. Over the years I’ve heard of many other ways to invite open awareness, and so I offer here a couple of those invitations, from Buddhist sources, to come home to luminosity.

Paul Reps, in Zen Flesh Zen Bones, transcribed the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra, calling it Centering. Among its 112 exercises for accessing the non-conceptual ground, the Vijñāna Bhairava gives a number of readily accessible sight-based exercises. For example,

•    #51: ‘In summer when you see the entire sky endlessly clear, enter such clarity.’

•    #88: ‘Eyes still, without winking, at once become absolutely free’;

•    And there are many that apply to other senses or to any sense: #104: Wherever your attention alights, at this very place, experience.

(The Vijñāna Bhairava is an ancient Hindu tantric text, not Buddhist. They are wonderful processes. If you want to explore the powerful Vijñāna Bhairava practices, a really good place to start is Sally Kempton’s Doorways to the Infinite.)

The injunction is to become the seeing. ‘In the seeing, just the seeing.’ The seer, the seen and the seeing are inseparable in a luminous, creative emptiness. There is no difference here, to the Zen teaching that the ‘Three Wheels’ (of experiencer, experienced, and experiencing) are pure and clear.

Seer, seen and seeing mysteriously empty of any mark of identity. We rest in the seeing without any intent – no pushing forward, no holding back – and being intimate with seeing is present naturally.

‘Just step back’, Ch’an master Foyen told his listeners often. That is the effect of looking from the bright centre that has no head – as though one has stepped out of the world and suddenly, paradoxically, become intimate with all things – seen and unseen, at the same time. Foyen expresses the ‘witnessing’ effect of this practice:

‘Just step back, stop mental machinations, and look closely. When suddenly you see, nothing can stop you.’

If you are a ‘sitter’, then while you sit in meditation, as solid as a mountain you can let your gaze rest, with no special intent, in the manner of the Tibetan Dzogchen practitioners – with the eyes of compassion, Avalokiteshvara‘s eyes, as wide as an ocean.

This practice highlights the peripheral vision aspect of ‘headlessness’. Rest in that wakeful peace. It’s especially powerful if you have space before you; like a valley, the sky, or before the ocean from a cliff.

On the subject of peripheral vision: whatever you are doing – especially while walking – in a wondering, loving way, include the peripheral, be whole. Find a hallway, and walk slowly, mindfully down the hallway, as if you had no head. (Maybe now we can understand Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover!)

How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?

– William Blake, poet.

No-Head Zen (Part 3)

.

“But, there is, in this shaping of the self, an inevitable alienation. Since the child’s identity as an egobody is formed by a reflection, its constitution takes place through the other. This mediation, however, is only the beginning of a lifelong dependence on the presence of reflections, confirming, approving, rejecting, correcting, taking possession of the invisible spirit.” – Michael David Leven, The Opening of Vision.

By the time we are adults, we take our sense of sight for granted. We’ve put it in a little box on our shoulders, from whence we peek out at the world. I remember a former mentor puzzled about how “the sun’s light reflects off that tree over there, and light strikes the retina, and then it gets sent along the optic nerve, and then…

I was in wonder that he could think that’s how sight works. He didn’t understand that such a view creates separation – you end up looking out from a distant ‘narrow chink.’ I had written an essay during my psychology studies about the brain and vision, so it’s not that I didn’t know the biology. It’s just that, biology is useful when I go to an optometrist, not for experiencing the beauty of the eucalypts. We need to reclaim a deeper vision.

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

– William Blake, poet.

At five years old, my daughter said to me, reflecting on her present-moment experience as we walked along the street – she looked about her at the trees, the fences, the footpath, and the flowers curling over the fence ahead:

“It’s strange, Dad….”
“Yes?”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter.”
“I’m listening, if you want to tell me.”
“Well… things don’t come to you, and you don’t go to things.”

In the Oghatarana Sutta, in the Samyutta Nikāya, a deva asked the Nikāya Buddha, “How did you cross the flood?” And he answered, “By not pushing forward, and not holding back.” Essence of mind is unmoving and unchanging, and yet it’s dynamic. But we ‘grow up’. And what does ‘grown-up’ vision do?

It gazes in a technological fashion, in a particularising mode – in subject-object mode. This is its habitual way, its obsession. Peripheral vision is lost, relegated as unimportant; and resting aimlessly in our sense of sight is considered unusual.

Sitting here writing to you, dear Reader, I look from my hand on the keyboard, my arm disappearing upward, and looking here, I find – here, there is no head. If I don’t grasp at things, I am wide open, one with the world. As Douglas says: ‘Built for love’ – in the way that babies are interactional, with room for everything, no obstruction. The Diamond Sutra says, ‘No hindrance in the mind and therefore no fear.’

It’s important to remember that we are focussing here on the sense of sight. And though we could examine ourselves from the point of view of other sensations (and find them equally empty of a fixed, separate, independent self.) I am confining myself to this one sense, because it’s relevant to understanding Douglas Harding’ ‘method’, his unique ‘skilful means’ (upāya).

Like Bāhiya, when we come home to our sense of sight as-it-is-in-itself, imposing no concept of seer or seen, then vision is marvellously unsupported (in that meaning of marvel that is related to ‘miracle’). Seeing is mysteriously self-existing in its luminosity, and cannot be said to have an origin: no ‘over there,’ nor a ‘here,’ nor an in-between – what IS has no coming or going. Try it. Take a look at who’s seeing, then drop the search. (Hint: Don’t look for a non-dynamic stillness. It’s a stillness which changes.)

Douglas Harding and the community around the world who practice his ‘way’, have come up with many ‘experiments’ that show us the obvious. Over the years I’ve heard of many other ways to invite open awareness, and so I offer here a couple of those invitations, from Buddhist sources, to come home to luminosity.

Paul Reps, in Zen Flesh Zen Bones, transcribed the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra, calling it Centering. Among its 112 exercises for accessing the non-conceptual ground, the Vijñāna Bhairava gives a number of readily accessible sight-based exercises. For example,

•    #51: ‘In summer when you see the entire sky endlessly clear, enter such clarity.’

•    #88: ‘Eyes still, without winking, at once become absolutely free’;

•    And there are many that apply to other senses or to any sense: #104: Wherever your attention alights, at this very place, experience.

(The Vijñāna Bhairava is an ancient Hindu tantric text, not Buddhist. They are wonderful processes. If you want to explore the powerful Vijñāna Bhairava practices, a really good place to start is Sally Kempton’s Doorways to the Infinite.)

The injunction is to become the seeing. ‘In the seeing, just the seeing.’ The seer, the seen and the seeing are inseparable in a luminous, creative emptiness. There is no difference here, to the Zen teaching that the ‘Three Wheels’ (of experiencer, experienced, and experiencing) are pure and clear.

Seer, seen and seeing mysteriously empty of any mark of identity. We rest in the seeing without any intent – no pushing forward, no holding back – and being intimate with seeing is present naturally.

‘Just step back’, Ch’an master Foyen told his listeners often. That is the effect of looking from the bright centre that has no head – as though one has stepped out of the world and suddenly, paradoxically, become intimate with all things – seen and unseen, at the same time. Foyen expresses the ‘witnessing’ effect of this practice:

‘Just step back, stop mental machinations, and look closely. When suddenly you see, nothing can stop you.’

If you are a ‘sitter’, then while you sit in meditation, as solid as a mountain you can let your gaze rest, with no special intent, in the manner of the Tibetan Dzogchen practitioners – with the eyes of compassion, Avalokiteshvara‘s eyes, as wide as an ocean.

This practice highlights the peripheral vision aspect of ‘headlessness’. Rest in that wakeful peace. It’s especially powerful if you have space before you; like a valley, the sky, or before the ocean from a cliff.

On the subject of peripheral vision: whatever you are doing – especially while walking – in a wondering, loving way, include the peripheral, be whole. Find a hallway, and walk slowly, mindfully down the hallway, as if you had no head. (Maybe now we can understand Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover!)

How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?

– William Blake, poet.

No-Head Zen (Part 2)

 

The best day of my life – my rebirthday, so to speak – was when I found that I have no head. This is not a literary gambit, a witticism designed to arouse interest at any cost. I mean it in all seriousness: I have no head.

Douglas Harding, On Having No Head.

Eccentric as this statement may be, is it so fantastic when compared to the Heart Sutra? From the point of view of the absence of any ultimate, separate selfhood in anything, the Heart Sutra proclaims that in emptiness there is: ‘no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind.’ Obviously, from this angle, there is no head.

So why is this claim treated with scorn? In effect, Douglas’ practice is a form of vipassana; one that focuses on this one dharma-door, the door of sight; and goes deeply, non-verbally, through that door into the intuitive apprehension of the miracle of the nature of consciousness.

The Ch’an master, Lin Chi, said:

Your physical body made up of the four great elements doesn’t know how to preach the Dharma or listen to the Dharma. Your spleen and stomach, you liver and gall don’t know how to preach the Dharma or listen to the Dharma. The empty spaces don’t know how to preach the Dharma or listen to the Dharma. What is it, then, that knows how to preach the Dharma or listen to the Dharma?

What is it, then, that sees? Everything depend on ‘This.’

The sense of sight is, of course, our dominant sense – and one of the six ‘doors’ that play a powerful role in the creation of our mistaken notions of personal identity, our sense of ourselves as separate, absolutely independent beings. We understand the part played by body image in the making of who we are, and, although the occurrence in Western literature of the theme of the mirror as an agent of self-creation has more involved women as the creators and self-enquirers, men too, obviously, have their investment in how they look as objects to the sight of others, and themselves.

But try as you may, you will never see yourself as an object. If you think you can, just ask: Who then would be seeing the ‘you’ which you take yourself to be, at that moment?

Treat yourself as an object, define yourself as an object, but you can never find that object. After all, what you see in the mirror is the mirror – or, if you like, a reflection on the mirror surface – not yourself. Douglas’ activity is to inspire us to come home – to this side of the mirror.

This very common belief, that I am identifiable with things seeable, is, in the Buddhist view, ‘ignorance.’ Zen writer sensei D.T. Suzuki says in Essays in Zen Buddhism:

Ignorance is not merely not knowing or not being acquainted with a theory, system or law; it is not directly grasping the ultimate facts of life as expressive of the will. In Ignorance knowing is separated from acting, and the knower from that which is to be known; in Ignorance the world is asserted as distinct from the self; that is, there are always two elements standing in opposition.

In On Having No Head Douglas invites us to come home to our senses, and so to the wholeness of the essence of mind – to return via by the door of seeing to our ultimate Unseeability. He said:

This is not a matter of argument, or of philosophical acumen, or of working oneself up into a state, but of simple sight – of LOOK-WHO’S-HERE instead of THINK-WHO’S-HERE.

The Ch’an master, Lin Chi (d.866), frequently told his listeners of the truth of ‘no form’:

If you want to be free to be born or die, to go or stay as one would put on or take off a garment, then you must understand right now that the person here listening to the Dharma has no form, no characteristics, no root, no beginning, no place he abides, yet he is vibrantly alive.

Douglas Harding came to this discovery after directing his will for several months into the enquiry: ‘What am I?’ As a result, while walking in the Himalayas, he suddenly stopped thinking, and like Bāhiya, the ‘mind road’ fell away:

There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given to it. To look was enough. And what was found was khaki trouser-legs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating upwards in – absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not a head.

Douglas didn’t experience this as a nihilistic or deficient emptiness. For him, the experience of ‘no-head’ was a fullness:

It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything – room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them, snow peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.

Of course, what one gains, also, is the experiences of the tensions, squiggles and vibrations, which light up the space of awareness in a precise way; to which we can apply the designation ‘head.’ That’s intelligent, but it doesn’t establish a) a separate entity corresponding absolutely to that word.

Neither does it establish b) a source of the knowingness quality of all that experience, either, as a separate, findable entity. The knowingness that appears to allow everything to momentarily appear – that is not conceivable. Yet, experiencing the actuality of experiencing (the luminous squiggles of experience), this is luminously open and inseparable from the knowingness. The 6th Ch’an Patriarch Hui Neng rejoices; locking eyebrows with Douglas in the twentieth century Hui he says:

Learned Audience, the illimitable Void of the universe is capable of holding myriads of things of various shapes and form, such as the sun, the moon, stars, mountains, rivers, worlds, springs, rivulets, bushes, woods, good men, bad men… We say that the Essence of Mind is great because it embraces all things, since all things are within our nature.

 


 

No-Head Zen (Part 1)

It’s coming up to the birth and death dates of my ‘root guru.’ I mean, he’d be amused at the idea of being someone’s root guru, but there’s no doubt that Douglas Harding was the one who introduced me to the reality of the vast space of Buddha-Mind. There ought to be some way to say how important such a person is to one’s life.

Anyhow, Douglas was born 12 February 1909 and died 11 January 2007. Innumerable people throughout the world are in his debt. This and the coming posts are revisions of an essay published decades ago, called No-Head Zen. I dedicate what goodness there may be in this, to his memory.

“A man of old tells us that Yojnadatta thought he had lost his head and went looking for it, but once he had put a stop to his seeking mind, he found he was perfectly all right.” – Tang Dynasty Ch’an Master Lin Chi

Case: Sword in hand, the Emperor of the Tan Kingdom interrogates the twenty-fourth Ancestral Teacher: “Are you clear about the emptiness of the five skandhas (aggregates) ?”
“Yes,” replies the teacher.
“Have you crossed over birth and death?”
“Yes,” he replies.
“Can you give me your head?”
“This body does not belong to me, how much less my head?”
The Emperor beheads him. White milk gushes from the severed head. The Emperor’s arm falls.
– 13th Century Vietnamese Zen master, Tran Thai Tong.

In 1979 I was in England to attend a week’s talks by Krishnamurti, at Brockwood; so, I made sure that after the talks I would have time to contact Douglas Harding, the author of On Having No Head. Four years before, his book had irrevocably changed my life. Suddenly, while reading it, I could no longer find my familiar knowing-self, the self of body and mind. ‘I’ wasn’t to be found, anywhere.

It wasn’t all joy, though: ‘Who the hell am I?’, I asked, with more cogency than ever. Leaving a river in Australia, I went looking for water in England – accompanied by an enduring experience of a Source-who-sees-but-can’t-be-seen.

After leaving Brockwood, I enquired at the Buddhist Society of London, and there I found a man who obliged me with Douglas’ home phone number (he lives north of London, in Suffolk). The gentleman gave it to me with a superior smirk and the comment that, ‘You know, of course, that he’s a bit eccentric. It’s not true Zen, this On Having No Head stuff!’ He chuckled over a few more discouraging words, designed to give me a clear message that Douglas wasn’t to be taken seriously by true Buddhists.

I thanked him, and off I went. I made contact with Douglas and stayed with him overnight at his home in Nacton, doing some of his simple and powerful ‘experiments,’ looking directly into ‘This’ – looking into who we truly are. The next day I went walking in the peaceful Suffolk countryside, marvelling at the luminous shining world, and then went back to London, soon to go home to Australia – a blinking dhamma-eye half open, maybe, but at least turned in the right direction.

Many years later, Douglas came to Australia and I went to his Sydney workshop. Before I went, I mentioned the workshop to a long-time Zen student and his reaction was the same as the man at the London Buddhist Society – that is, condescension. It was, to him – all an amusing irrelevancy – and “not real Zen.”

So, what is Douglas’ approach to the Great Matter? Douglas Harding’s ‘Zen’ may not be orthodox, but it is consistent with the essential teachings of the Ch’an masters. Mind you, mere traditional consistency was not the point of Douglas’ sharing of his discovery, nor his sharing in the particular way that he did – via his ‘experiments.’

He generously shared his understanding of the essential matter of who we really are for no other reason than: He couldn’t have not shared it. He lived out of that presence which is the ground of all sentience. And, that ground couldn’t have him do it any other way than his own way. Douglas Harding was authenticity plus.

I would like to explore what his ‘Seeing’ practice does, and examine the consistency of Douglas’ written communication with the teachings of ‘Zen’ Buddhist teachers, and the Ch’an Masters. Douglas wrote several very practical books, after On Having No Head; but here I’ll quote that small, early work. In it, he says:

The best day of my life – my rebirthday, so to speak – was when I found that I have no head. This is not a literary gambit, a witticism designed to arouse interest at any cost. I mean it in all seriousness: I have no head.

Continued tomorrow…

Revision

The last line in Walshe’s translation didn’t work for me. I checked others and they didn’t make sense to me either, so here’s a fresh translation:

Those who go by names and concepts,
who abide in names and concepts,
by not discerning the naming-process,
they are under the yoke of death.
Having fully understood the naming-process,
one doesn’t conceive of one who names.
For, there is nothing (findable)
whereof one would say that ‘she’ or ‘he’ exists.

– Translated by Christopher J. Ash.

Speaking and Thinking as Gesture

We live inside the childhood belief that things exist on their side, by themselves, ‘over there.’ And we believe this is so, whether the ‘thing’ is a table, a tree, a person, or a thought. To the observer-self, they are all at the other end of a subject-object structure. And, as adults we continue to use words on the basis of this childhood belief.

Part of this process is the belief that words are names given to the objects in the world. We act as though the objects are there to be experienced and we just apply pre-given labels to them. The drawback with this is that, we don’t language our situations freshly. We tend to see old kinds in each fresh occurring.

Another part of the process is the role the observing self plays in this. I’ve spoken before about a special case of this called, by Tarthang Tulku, the ‘by-stander’ self. The by-standing self applies all the categories, does the ‘kind-making,’ according to its conditioning.

We are insulated, further, from self-discovery by a belief about language, which the by-stander self applies; which is, that we use words to communicate – as though that’s all they do. This communication theory is based on the idea that we are separate, and that words do something about the gap between us.

We have another defence, which helps to keep the system stable (and unexamined), and that is: regarding the trance which language helps keep in place – this subject-object dualism, which we have mistaken for reality – when we do get to think about it, or study it, we blame the trance on language. Humans have an odd way of blaming the ‘other’ in all kinds of circumstances, because they refuse to take responsibility for contributing to the problem.

Why would we do this? Well, perhaps one reason is that the game has gone so far, now, so that it is very scary to realise that we may be playing such a game. We’ve become so entranced – in exactly the way Narcissus did – with the dream of ‘self-existing self,’ that it looks like giving it up would be suicide. However, the situation is the opposite: our trance has bestowed a false meaning on the word ‘death,’ so while we are in the trance, we are as if dead.

To test my idea about the fear, consider this one small passage from Walshe’s translation of the Samiddhi Sutta in the Samyutta Nikāya. Sit with it, line by line. Pause after each line, checking to see how it is in there in the middle of your body. “I’m all okay in here, am I, with this?” Invite the felt-sense in the middle there. (If you take each line one at a time, your body will track the meaning, so you won’t have to keep the thread in mind.)

Those who go by names and concepts,
who abide in names and concepts,
by not discerning the naming-process,
they are under the yoke of death.
Having fully understood the naming-process,
one doesn’t conceive of one who names.
For, there is nothing
whereof one would say that ‘she’ or ‘he’ exists.

– Translated by Christopher J. Ash.

In this seemingly innocuous case of blaming the ‘other,’ I hear people say: “Language brings the subject-object division.” Or: “Language gives a sense of ‘thing-ness.” As if language acted on its own. Maybe the servant has taken over the master? Maybe that’s why we have so many zombie movies? And robot movies? Because we’ve given away our power to an idea that language acts on its own?

But, what if, instead we think of language as a gesture? Something new we do freshly in each situation, to carry the situation forward? What if we use the word ‘gesture’ to mean something very, very broad, here – and very alive, very present? For my purposes, right here, I say that this gesture of speech, which I give you now, is a manner of carrying my life forward, in a holistic way. How else would I want to live, if these were my last months?

The life of this person is not separate to your life. In carrying my life forward, I am carrying us all; just as you may carry us all forward, in reading and taking this in with your whole bodily comportment. Here, the words take on new depth. ‘Comportment’ now means, not something that you do with a possession, your body-as-thing; but it’s, rather, the way that your bodily intelligence responds as a felt whole.

Think of Bāhiya. The Nikāya Buddha carries forward the situation by offering the gesture of instruction. Bāhiya responds with the felt totality of his being. He became the master of his own mind, stepped out of the conceiving mode – and that mind was instantaneously free of the subject-object infatuation, released.

The Arahant (Part 2)

As we can see from the Bāhiya story, the transcendent ‘right view’ (sammaditthi) is not a simple opposition of ‘right’ concepts against ‘wrong’ concepts (micchaditthi). The crucial point is how the concepts are used. His right relationship with concepts invited a gap in Bāhiya’s object-making thought stream. Right view, then, is an alive, intuitive, non-conceptual understanding that, merges in the deathless; and, allows space for direct experience of both concepts and non-conceptual experiences.

A related aspect of the arahant’s consciousness is that although she has transcended the causal matrix, she does not evade its presence. She is also subject to normal human vicissitudes – whatever perturbation goes with having a human body, with its nervous system and its thinking, but without ‘the mental-emotional biases'(āsavas):

“This mode of perception is empty of the effluent of sensuality… of becoming… of ignorance. And there is just this non-emptiness: that connected with the six sensory spheres, dependent on this very body with life as its condition.’ Thus he regards it as empty of whatever is not there. Whatever remains, he discerns as present: ‘There is this.’ And so this, his entry into emptiness, accords with actuality, is undistorted in meaning, pure — superior & unsurpassed.“- Culasuññata Sutta. Trans. Thanissaro, Bhikkhu.

So, the arahant is one whom we could describe as ‘in the world, but not of it,’ as the Sufis say. She is a person not identified with or by any content – such as body, speech or mind. She or he is a person of ‘suchness.’

She, by not conceiving of any ‘thing’-substance to anything at all, has vanquished Māra, the bringer of death. We’ll see how that can be, in a post in the near future.

A well-known characteristic of the ascetic arahant is ‘homelessness.’ The mendicant arahants at the time of the historical Buddha abandoned worldly affairs literally. The mendicant Mahākaccāna, a prominent student of the Nikāya Buddha, however, proposed a figurative interpretation of ‘homelessness’ – no doubt so that it could be applied more widely:

And how, householder, does one roam about homeless? The desire, lust, delight, and craving, the engagement and clinging, the mental standpoints, adherences, and underlying tendencies regarding [the five khandhas], these have been abandoned…. so that they are no more subject to future arising. Therefore, the Tathāgata is called one who roams about homeless. (SN 22:3, Haliddikani sutta, trans. Bodhi, Bhikkhu)

While she is not identified with her five sentient processes, while she knows the limits of ordinary knowing and she knows a ‘beyond,’ and while she is in the world but not of it, the arahant nevertheless knows how to use language in the ordinary ways. She doesn’t avoid saying ‘I’:

Though the wise one transcends conceiving,
She nevertheless might say, ‘I speak,’
She might also say, ‘They speak to me.’
Skilful, knowing the world’s common usage
She uses such terms as nothing more than gestures.


– Samyutta Nikāya I.61-64 Translated by Christopher J. Ash

She knows words don’t create realities. (This, by the way, is an early seed of the later ‘two truths doctrine.’)

So, how does the great arahant, the Nikaya Buddha, the fully awakened one, the flourishing one, the well-gone one, how does he see the relationship of language to experiencing? Is that a valid question, or a modern preoccupation?

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