Monthly Archives: June 2016
Joyce sent out a quote from Pema Chodron which fits well with my post today:
“The key to working with what is so deeply unwanted, is to let go of the ideas, the thoughts, about how we shouldn’t be sick and what will happen to us if we remain sick.
Somehow we have to respect the illness, welcome it, enter into it…we surrender and say, okay, what have you to teach me…about letting go of control, about slowing down…about tasting the full experience of a moment…the light, the sound, the quality of our mood, of our pain, the sight of dust or birds or nothing special…respecting all that. It’s a kind of death, this illness, the best kind of death if we’ll let it be. It’s the death of old stuck patterns and opinions and habits and it makes way for something new to be born in us. Really, you can trust that. Something new will be born if you’ll let the illness show you where to let go your grip…And please don’t scold yourself for failing, ever.”
For the small child I was, the dukkha was in the lack of understanding, not in the bare fact of the encounter with death. The dukkha is in the fear. From a point of view, the encounter with death is inescapable. But, fear and bewilderment – they’re optional (at least for an adult.)
So, we’re talking about an unhelpful interpretation of dukkha. If we say that the bare fact of biological birth and death, and the illnesses that inevitably accompany human life, that these are dukkha – that is, that they are either representative of a universe out of whack, or are unsatisfactory in some way – then, either way, such a view only means we don’t like the universe as it is.
(And, more subtly, we are affirming death as existing as a ‘something’ and existing on its own side. We’re giving it ‘self-nature’ of a particular kind, and so getting caught in dualistic understanding. But this is a point I’ll take up later.)
Dukkha is not primarily about the way things are; but, it is mostly to do with our narcissistic reaction to ‘things as they are.’ (Ironically, our reactions are dependent on the fact that we have evolved enough to reflect on the way things are.)
Hence, we would mistake the level at which the remedy is to be applied. It needs to be applied at the level of our reaction to death, not on the literal or physical level of impermanence. It is this literalist reading – life stinks, and we need to not be reborn – that has led some in the West to think that the Nikāya Buddhism is life-denying and pessimistic. If we interpret the Nikāya Buddha’s message in this limited way, we trivialize his insistence that there is a way to end our egocentricity.
If the Nikāya texts are any sort of guide, we can see that the historical Buddha had insights at the level of interactional, bodily, experiential space that were exceptionally subtle. They are still powerful, today. The historical person was a human – Siddhartha Gotama – a person of such-and-such a name, and such-and-such a clan. He had ‘experiencing’ – his felt life – just like we do. Surely, it was this experiencing that he was interested in freeing from dukkha, transforming the ‘bad space’ of egocentric reactivity, into the peaceful non-resistance of the awakened heart.
However, Gotama’s interpretations of this experiences were inevitably framed within the concepts available in his time; even when he extended or refreshed that culture (as it appears that he did). Those concepts included the state of scientific knowledge of his time.
We humans have learnt much about our situation in two-and-a-half thousand years, and new perspectives from modern disciplines enrich our understanding. They can enrich the tradition, too. We can’t stop the process, anyway. I once read an ecologist saying that you can’t place an organism in an environment, without the environment getting into the organism.
Understanding the tradition is like that. It penetrates you, and it is itself changed by changing you. It is handed on by becoming the way you are, in body, speech and mind. So, it’s just the way of the universe, that if the Buddhadharma comes West, the West gets into it.
Nevertheless, the process is not arbitrary. If we grant that the Nikāya Buddha might be speaking from his non-conceptual knowledge, using old concepts freshly, and perhaps introducing some entirely new ones – and, that, in the process he is carrying forward the culture of his contemporaries – then we might see that the meaning of these texts needs to come to us in the same way. That is, it needs to be confirmed by our non-conceptual, experiential understanding. It needs to be re-affirmed and renewed in our bodies, and then explicated in idioms with which we can resonate.
Then, through a conversation with the tradition, we can verify individually, and contemplatively, that the Nikāya Buddha is talking about a distorted way of experiencing life, and hence distortions of our encounter with death. It’s this distortion which can cease.
The distortion is the result of unskilful thinking – thinking infected with patterns of error, with those of craving and grasping – which, as a result, give us the particular kind of sickness, old age, and death which is the subject of our fear and distaste. The Nikāya teachings say that the cessation of the delusional way of life is the cessation of that kind of death.
It is the task of this project to explicate how the distortions happen, and how they cease. And, to show how there can be both death and no death – without contradiction. That is, both these can be said without opposing each other. But, this will be a ‘process’ understanding – employing logic, but not founded in logic.
Attentiveness is the place of the deathless;
inattentiveness is the place of death.
The attentive do not die;
the inattentive are as though dead already.
– Dhammapada, verse 21. Translated by Christophe J. Ash
I can’t remember when I first realized that there was the event which we call death. When I was a child, I had to walk to school alone each day, and to cross the highway which ran through our town. There were no traffic lights. I vividly remember, a few occasions when I came to the highway, that there – with dried blood around its mouth and covered in flies – would be the corpse of a dog.
It bewildered me, that this stiff, foul-smelling, thing had been a warm animal earlier. Now it was this. It bothered me. How does a living thing become a not living thing? I couldn’t get my mind around not being.
When I was ten, I saw a little three-year-old killed at the local shops, not far from that same highway. I had seen him alive, playing in the dirt with his toy front-end loader. My friend and I had stopped and said hello to him; and then we walked on, to the general store (to collect the deposits on the bottles we’d scavenged along the side of the highway).
As we were leaving the store, there was a loud screech of tires, and a bang; and when I looked, there he was lying dead under a car. In this case, along with everything else, it was the suddenness that shocked me. ‘Out of the blue,’ as we say. The contrast between life and death was there in the time it took for a blink. And, it seemed to me at the time, that we didn’t know when any of us would die. The whole thing was incomprehensible, to me.
Why do we die, at all? The fact that, during the year before, I’d been taught that there was a God in the sky who would judge me some day, this only intensified the questions. So, there were some big incomprehensibles around, as I grew up – big impenetrable doubts looming over my world, .
As a even smaller child I asked questions like that. I asked at five years old, “Who am I?” and got no helpful answer. I wanted it to all make some sense, somehow. And, as my teenage years proceeded, relentlessly heading toward that frightening domain called adulthood, I became depressed by the big questions. “What is death? What’s the point of achieving anything, when you only die?” I didn’t realize that I was resisting this world, this life, that had death in it.
The resolution, though, is not in the direction of trying to answer the ‘What happens after death?’ question. So many of those kind of questions only lead to beliefs, and not to transformative insights.
Then, when I was nineteen I read in a book on Buddhism that such insights do occur; such insights as end the anguish of the search. I began to appreciate that the more important question is: “What happens before death?”
One day a student called Malunkyaputta confronts the Nikāya Buddha, and demands to be told the answers to several commonly debated philosophical questions of the time. They are questions like: What happens after death? Is there a permanent soul? And so on. He demands answers, and says he will leave the community, if he doesn’t get answers.
The Nikāya Buddha isn’t impressed. He says that he doesn’t answer such questions, because such questions are not beneficial – they don’t lead to the ending of dukkha. They don’t lead to peace, to nibbāna. On other occasions he says that these unanswerable questions inevitably lead to what he calls ‘a thicket of views.’
There is nothing more valuable in this work than an inexhaustible curiosity. We learn to foster questions in the right spirit, which lead deeper into present-moment experiencing. We ask questions which are forward-leading; for the change that curiosity itself brings, not for the accumulation of concepts, ideas, views, opinions.
“Answers are not the purpose of our questioning. When we learn how to ask fundamental questions in ways that are fresh and alive, we conduct into our lives an intelligence that applies directly to our own immediate circumstances. In activating this kind of inquiry, we can rely on the great masters and thinkers of the past for inspiration and guidance, but their answers cannot be our answers. We must each individually take up the challenge of knowledge for ourselves.”
– Tarthang Tulku. Visions of Knowledge: Liberation of Modern Mind
I need to explain how I see the central point about human discord. How do we translate ‘dukkha’? While it is true that ‘dukkha’ has a number of meanings, depending on its context (and that it’s so that the use of the translation ‘suffering’ has a flattening effect on the term), when it comes to thinking about the deepest layers of its meanings, we can find an experience-near meaning, after all; one which helps clarify the personality’s functioning in relation to dying and death.
The interpretation which I prefer is that one based on the etymology found in the Pāli English Dictionary. I like it because it makes the most sense of the family of uses that the word has, across all its contexts.
The PED says that the word is made up of ‘duḥ’ plus ‘kha.’ Those mean: ‘bad’ and ‘space.’ Some think that this refers to the space at the hub of a cart-wheel. Whatever the case, we can take it to mean: a bad space. And, if you like the wheel image, it means a badly functioning centre. It’s a space that doesn’t work well. That’s helpful, I find, for understanding the Nikāya Buddha’s use of ‘dukkha.’ There is death-dukkha because we are operating from the wrong kind of space.
If we aren’t aware of the space from which we know the deathless, then our understanding of the events which we name will be skewed. Birth, ageing, illness, death, getting what you don’t want, not getting what you do want; separation from what is delightful, and the fluctuations of the five sentient processes (of form, feeling-tones, perceptions, intentionality, and consciousness) – all these can be seen in perspective, when seen from a completely satisfactory space, a non-dukkha space.
With the realisation of the deathless, we see through all these life events as not what we took them to be. So, I take the Pāli ‘maranam dukkham’ to mean: “There is death-dukkha.” Without the vision of the deathless, there can only be a distorted relationship.
There is no suggestion, as far as I know, in the texts, that the Nikāya Buddha was experiencing dukkha when he had bodily pains, or when he was dying. Dukkha is created by our wrong relationship, our reactivity. With our everyday-variety narcissism comes birth-dukkha, illness-dukkha, death-dukkha, association-with-the-unpleasing-dukkha, separation-from-the-pleasing-dukkha, not-getting-what-one-wants-dukkha, and the dukkha of clinging to our five sentient processes.
This clinging, this is worth escaping – by recognising it, entering it with mindfulness and clear comprehension, comprehending its cessation, and establishing ourselves in the way of liberated understanding. The result is more energy for life.
Conscious human experience includes sickness, old age, and death; and, obviously, none of them are particularly pleasant. However, there they are. These touch everyone, in some way.So, it is claimed by many Western Buddhist writers that the ‘First Noble Truth’ is: old age, sickness, and death are dukkha. The most common translation of ‘dukkha’ is ‘suffering’ The Buddhist path is about ending dukkha.
Again, and again, I’ve scratched my head, wrinkled my brow, and bent down to understand this. Are they really saying that the mere fact of the event which we call death, this event is unsatisfactory, in itself? Are these writers and speakers, then, saying ‘life sucks,’ for no other reason than nature is like that? (I have actually heard that, from some Buddhists.)
Does it mean, then, that ‘escape from dukkha’ – which the Nikāya Buddha definitely recommends – means that we, being nature ourselves, need to escape from nature? Again, some people do believe this. I kid you not. To them, the Buddhist path means: ‘no more human birth’. This is their answer to what they see as cruel nature. What is happening, here? They can’t mean that human life is a mistake, a disease?
As you can hear, I’m not impressed with this approach; and I don’t think that such an approach could give rise to twenty-five hundred years of cultural transmission, as has been the case. For me, how could the evolution of life-forms be something we must escape, rather than carry forward in a healthy way? That human life is afflicted with some myopic habits which thwart its carrying forward healthily – that I can get; but the view that ‘being born is an error’ has more, I imagine, to do with the cultural, political, and social circumstances of the people who hold that view. It’s not about the big life we have here.
So, this project is asking: What is the Nikāya Buddha’s approach to death, given that we avoid thinking about death, and yet we all must die? What does he mean by the ‘deathless.’ He says that seeking the experience of a ‘deathless element’ is a saner response to the fact of death, than seeking solace in changeable things, things subject to arising and ceasing. So, what does ‘deathless’ mean to him?
“Suppose that, being myself subject to birth, having understood the danger in what is subject to birth, I seek the unborn supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna. Suppose that, being myself subject to ageing, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement, having understood the danger in what is subject to ageing, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement, I seek the unageing, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, and undefiled supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna.”
– The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, translated by Bhikkhu Nānamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi.
However, if I’m genuine about dialoguing with the texts, I have to account for a crucial text oft-quoted by these writers.; particularly this one from the Samyutta Nikāya, which on first blush seems to support the notion that the Nikāya Buddha has an anti-nature view and that Nibbāna, is a cure for nature. A common translation of this text goes like this:
“Now this, practitioners, is the ennobling truth of dukkha: birth is dukkha, ageing is dukkha, illness is dukkha, death is dukkha; being yoked with what is displeasing is dukkha; separation from what is pleasing is dukkha; not to get what one wants is dukkha; in brief, the five sentient processes subject to clinging are dukkha.”
– From the Samyutta Nikāya. Translated by Christopher J. Ash.
On the surface it does looks like he’s saying, ‘Nature is dukkha.’ This being so, escaping life would naturally be the outcome of ‘the ending of dukkha.’ However, it seems to me that this is a literalistic interpretation. And, a life-negating one at that. My approach does not assume that unpleasant experiences such as illness and death demonstrate some ultimate flaw in life processes; nor that they demonstrate, as is sometimes said, that life is tragic. These seem to me unprovable readouts. In this project, I will have to propose an experience-near, verifiable alternative understanding.
How will we investigate the matter of dukkha and the ending of dukkha? Of course, we can listen to the wise, and think logically; but, crucially, we must include and cultivate the grounding which our bodies provide, to know for ourselves the best way to approach this matter.
In a sense, I’m suggesting that we ground ourselves in nature; ask nature how it sees the matter of dukkha and the ending of dukkha. Such grounding carries our knowing forward in fresh and creative, and life-enhancing ways. Such knowing stays in relation to sickness, old age, and death. It doesn’t dissociate. This is wisdom.
Do you have a view on this? How would you ground your agreement or disagreement with my approach?
Being Here with Purpose
What do we mean by ‘knowing’ and ‘knowledge’? How do we know anything? Mindfulness, of course, is a kind of way to know. I’ve always been troubled by the feeling that there is more to mindfulness than ‘being fully present in the moment’; as though such present-moment awareness could be neutral with respect to accumulated knowledge.
For a start, the phrase ‘present moment’ points to time, and most people’s perceptions of ‘time’ start out by being shaped by their training (via their parents and their schooling). We bring those structures, and their further shaping activity to our mindfulness.
We are trained from very young to apply a particular temporal structure to experience; and, therefore to knowledge. This temporal structuring shapes our sense of reality. So, when we approach ‘the present moment’ we don’t do so without this unconscious shaping. This is something that mindfulness can, itself, reveal, of course.
In other words, one particularly illuminating thing about being mindful, if we stick to it, will be our failure – our failure within the present time structuring. The depth of ‘the present moment’ will involve an uncovering, by revealing our conditioned structuring of time, space and knowledge. If we are willing to experience a changed reality, then we can go deeper.
The secular mindfulness and meditation ‘movement,’ backed by cognitive science, psychotherapy, and a passion for independence from religions, frequently quotes Jon Kabat-Zinn on mindfulness: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.”
That ‘on purpose’ bit is important to note. Mindful attention is never without intention. Consciousness is always intentional, if by intentional I can mean: carrying-forward the life process of the organism, in some way. Attention is, by its nature, self-reflexive. Not even ‘pure’ awareness of our senses is without all the past moments of awareness carrying forward in this moment’s attention.
Consciousness is by its nature a kind of ‘kind-ing’ process. It is oriented to knowing ‘kinds’ of experience, and so consciousness ‘kinds’ everything it comes into contact with. Even something entirely new, something entirely out of the range of previous knowledge, is encountered as ‘that kind of thing’ – that is, it is of ‘an un-kinded kind of thing or process.’
That’s the nature of consciousness, and this is the reason why the Nikāya Buddha doesn’t see consciousness as providing completeness. So, if having a purpose is inescapable, we need to choose our purposes for mindfulness carefully.
If we think that there is some objective, un-kinded kind of way to have contact with a flower, a bird, a cloud, or another human, then that’s going to be an ideal that gets brought to each encounter. It seems to me that there’s no way around the fact that a flower is a flower precisely because it is in interaction with human consciousness. As Wordsworth meant, when he spoke of “all the mighty world/ Of eye, and ear,- – both what they half create,/ And what perceive…”
So, ‘on purpose’ gets to be important. What is the kind of motivation we have when we are ‘paying attention’? Are we mindful to improve our health and mental balance? That’s a positive motivation. Do I wish to go to the root of divisions in human society, by understanding the division-making in my own mind? That may have even more important ramifications, for the kind of society we create.
Do I practice mindfulness because I want to be true to human process, be a real human? Or, because I want to engage in purifying human knowledge processes and know the nature of mind?
To penetrate the depths of mindfulness, it won’t be enough to only cultivate relaxation, and less stress. These are good motivations in themselves, especially because they are aimed at a reduction of human suffering.
However, to know the roots of human freedom we need to go deeper. So, regarding ‘purpose’ – what kind of commitment will you cultivate? What commitment is needed to fulfil the species’ next step in human growth (remembering that you and I are its leading edge, because we are here now)?
Relaxation and stress reduction can help me to die more peacefully, and mindfulness in support of spiritual inquiry can turn death, the inevitable guest, into an opportunity to enter the deathless element, the unsurpassable host.
Why have I chosen the word ‘experiencing’ as the most fundamental touchstone for my inquiry? Firstly, I have looked for language that is experience-near. I’ve needed this for my own practice. I have needed to be very concrete in understanding my experience; so, I decided in the mid-seventies that if I was going to examine my experience in the light of the Buddhist teachings, I wanted a language that was precise and which resonated with my life. (And, this word has a special role in the work of Eugene T. Gendlin. So, as a ‘focuser’ it suited me, there.)
Then, to communicate with others, I’ve looked for terms which non-philosophers could – with a little effort – use. For us to dialogue about our everyday experiences, non-jargon is preferable, where possible. The word ‘experience’ suits.
Then, I was moved by Sue Hamilton-Blyth’s understanding of the teachings, in her Early Buddhism: A New Approach: The I of the Beholder, when she said that the focus of the teachings is on this indisputable feature of human existence: “that we all have our own perception of the world of experience, or, more simply, our own experience.”
That resonated with me. Everyone has experiencing going on, whatever the differences between us. For that reason, the focus of the Buddhist teachings is to understand human experiencing, so that human bondage is dealt with appropriately. We need to understand how we function for freedom to be realized. Inappropriate handling of our experiencing is the root of all the violence we have in the world. This makes understanding experiencing central to human flourishing.
Hamilton-Blyth’s understanding of the Nikāya Buddha’s quest echoed the question which had bothered me since childhood (having grown up in a violent culture), too; which was: “Why (is this violence happening)?” I didn’t have the language, but intuitively I knew there was something wrong with experiencing. The question became particularly cogent during the years of the Vietnam War, when I was in danger of being drafted into killing in a wrongful war. “Why is human experience the way it is, and how can I contribute to the change so obviously needed?”
These were reasons to do with our communal life. However, the thing that I particularly love about the word ‘experience’ – despite, or maybe because of the philosophical problems which it can raise – is that experiencing is so fundamental to us as individuals. A useful thing about the word ‘experience’ is that, in most contexts, ‘experience’ is synonymous with ‘knowing.’
It carries the sense that some basic all-encompassing kind of knowing is present in us, a basic knowing which makes us human; by which I mean, there is knowing present in, and relevant to, every possible situation and every possible aspect of oneself and one’s world (loka). This use of ‘experiencing’ is meant to point to something prior to the subject-object, self-other, and inside-outside distinctions. As such, it is not a ‘thing.’
Some might say that if experiencing is not a thing, then it is ‘process’; and, I’m okay with that provisionally. One good thing about the ‘process’ approach is that we can suggest that process can go either way: awake in process (wisdom), or asleep in process (non-wisdom), as I have suggested. So, why provisionally? Process (like experiencing) can’t be found, except upon reflection. It can never be a direct object. Who would be experiencing ‘process,’ after all?
It is in misunderstanding the ‘knowing’ quality of our experience that the hardened, dualistic divisions which limit us arise. The knowing goes astray with the introduction of a fictional entity, the false, thought-based separate-experiencer. That’s “the one inside me that’s in charge of the show” (as I heard someone say recently, when explaining what they meant by the word ‘self’). I call this the ‘false self’ – experiencing gone astray.
There are ego-processes of a healthy kind, and there are the ego-processes contaminated by the clinging to a false version of self. This I refer to as ‘everyday narcissism.’ This is important to understand, in terms of what or who dies; and in order to understand our fear of death.
“In being a process, rather than a static entity, knowledge is always in danger of becoming divided against itself by taking its intentional operations concretely and – even before it glides off into the rigidity of a subject-‘here’ and an object-‘there’ – setting up a counterfeit image of itself which actually is the source of any duality.”
– Tarthang Tulku. Time, Space & Knowledge: A New Vision of Reality
Those who thoroughly engage
in mindfulness of the body,
who don’t practice what shouldn’t be done,
and regularly practice what should be done,
conscious and clearly comprehending,
their toxic impulses fade away.
– Dhammapada, Verse 293. Translated by Christopher J. Ash
After my stay in hospital for the removal of my cancer, in 2014, when I returned home, a friend wanted to know how I had practised mindfulness during my stay in hospital. I replied by detailing a number of methods by which I had stayed in my body continuously, so as not to dissociate from present-moment experience.
I told her of methods I was able to call on, learnt over decades. After talking with my friend, I reflected to myself that all of them awakened space. I had used every means possible to be in spacious awareness in a loving way. Inviting the experience of space was a core thing, because with space comes enhanced sensitivity.
(And vice-versa, of course. Opening to the senses as they are, and to one’s whole-body sensing, brings space.)
Where am I going with this? I have been asking: what do we need to cultivate, to ask the big questions; and to hold the big terrors that can come with illness, death and dying? The broad answer is: mindfulness of the body, with specific attention to the feel of being.
When I was in hospital, most of the time, mindfulness of the body was in union with simple resting in Being. The experience of the body was rarely pleasant, with all the pains; but there was, nevertheless, a pleasant abiding in the heart of being alive. Resting in unsupported awareness, in union with mindfulness of the body, these each supported the other.
To be conscious of what I was experiencing – needles entering my skin, sending love and gratitude to my condemned prostate (for its years of healthy functioning), being wheeled on the gurney, receiving the anæsthetic mask (while hearing Mozart in the theatre), waking up in the recovery room, being woken in the dead of night, swallowing pills, painful trips to the toilet carrying the catheter, receiving the care of the attentive nurses – to be conscious and to clearly comprehend my situation with a positive heart, all I needed to do was be present without any desire for another world (of experience) than the one that I was experienceing.
This gave rise to the experience of space aware of space. It was all space. The needle and the flesh – space to space. It felt, most of the time, like a blessing, to be so present, and clear that I was present. And so peaceful. There was nothing for me to do, but to be there.
However, let me be clear about being there. Despite what I say about space – or, perhaps because of it – being present is a feeling thing. It’s a knowing from the inside of the body, in a felt way. It’s the aliveness, the warmth, the felt presence of a bodily existence. This kind of space is not dissociation.
One can be mindful of, and clearly comprehend, any experiencing – the body, the feeling-tones (pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral), the states of mind or attitudes, and the dynamics of your experience – if you welcome the whole felt world (loka), without possessing any of it.
Comprehension can occur, then, in different ways: about your being in the situation, about others being a part of your situation, and of what there is to learn about the functioning of your mental habits in the situation, and so on. This is the field of your responsibility – the clear comprehension which is present in Buddhist mindfulness. But this comprehension – in its more obvious and its subtle forms – is inseparable from unlimited space.
How does such comprehension happen? By some imposition of a rule, or conformity to a pattern made by others? No, by the felt bodily knowledge of one’s situation. Clear comprehension is not a dry ‘thinking.’ It’s knowing from inside the known.
And, sometimes – and this is, for me, the most precious experience – sometimes you are just effortlessly present, and you comprehend presence itself for the miracle it is. Mindful in the sense of being awake without effort or purpose; and, intimate with wakefulness itself. You are completely resting in a pure, total, warm presence whose light leaves nothing out. Conscious and clearly comprehending by being conscious awareness, without separation.
So, for the growth of our capacity to be intimate with living process as it occurs – for our ignorance to fade away – we need to cultivate spaciousness, which is a bodily-felt space. To do this, it helps to awaken mindfulness of the body – whole-body awareness – and, specifically, attunement to that band of experience called bodily-felt meaning.
I was shocked in the mid-seventies, to realise that I had grown up regularly using the word ‘mind,’ without any grounded experience of my mind. I was, I found, in need of a skillful means by which to make practical sense of the word. My mental health depended on it.
I’d suffered twenty years of formal education, and during my schooling no-one had suggested how I could investigate the experience toward which the word ‘mind’ pointed.
This realisation came at a time of crisis. Twenty-five years old, and I can’t find the mind. It seemed the most fundamental quest that could be; and yet, I was told by many people to just forget it, and get on with my life. Don’t ask impossible questions. Some people said there was no mind; that the word was just a convention. But, it was too late, for I couldn’t just stuff the issue down.
No-one in my culture had ever modelled the possibility of grounding words in experience. Even today, people are puzzled when I suggest that words are primarily for pointing back to experience; not for saying what ultimately ‘is’ or ‘is not.’
Indeed, the unquestioned widespread supposition still is that if words point, they point to ‘things’ things that somehow are there, in the way we perceive them. It is unusual to think that words are for pointing to experiences.
So, I’d use the word ‘mind,’ like anyone else, as though there was a something somewhere inside me. And, except for the vaguely unconscious convention that ‘mind’ is thoughts, there was otherwise no tutoring in exactly what kind of experience ‘mind’ might be.
Is it any wonder that I was depressed and suicidal by the time I left school. Our living awareness is the source of happiness, and I was as estranged as any Western teen from this source – if not more estranged than most.
So, how does one ground oneself, if one wants to know how the word ‘mind’ is being used? This matter of how we ground our knowing is very important if we are contemplatives; by which I mean people looking deeply into human life, to realise its potentials.
Once I discovered mindfulness and meditation, though, I had a way forward. Mindfulness of the body was my first way of grounding the search for knowledge and goodness in my own experience.
What emerges with this work is a growing capacity to become intimate with living process, as it actually occurs. We are able to access a fresh intelligence to ground this dialogue.
Dialogue? Maybe it will be useful to say that our intellects are dialoguing with reality, seeking to settle the matters of separation and division; and hence, to know completeness.
“You, Contemplatives, have been taught by me with this timeless teaching which can be realised and verified, which leads to the goal [of nibbāna], and which can be understood personally by the wise.” – The Nikāya Buddha, in the Majjhima Nikāya.
What grounds our knowledge? What kind of process in us, what kind of intelligence is it, that understands, realizes, and verifies this teaching of the deathless?
By what grounding can it be unpacked and made one’s own? Must it be believed? Or, perhaps, provisionally tried on? What would this mean, to ‘believe it provisionally’? What kind of relationship can we have with statements which appear to be made from a knowledge deeper than our own?
There are so many horrific things happening in the world due to beliefs. The evidence is available that Buddhists are not immune from this disease called ‘views and opinions.’ We too can make identities our of beliefs and create division in society.
If I write something like: “In close to the core of the human being is the fear of being alone with chaos, and this is at the entrance-way to the deathless,” and how will my listener verify this? How will she enter into a transforming dialogue with what I write or say?
If something is not immediately available for verification, how can the statement be used wisely? How will we know what is actually so, as compared to opinion, conjecture, or theory? This is the intelligent seeker’s situation, in relation to the Nikāya texts, too. We have to find a way to fathom the wisdom in the texts; a way which is not merely logical or academic, or based on other people’s learning.
Naturally, the living ‘wise’ are a support in our understanding; but even then, we will need to assess whether our teacher is sincere and has walked the talk sufficiently. There are as many deluded teachers in Buddhist settings, as there are in any faith group.
So, it seems we must develop our own ‘crap detector,’ to find our way forward in these deep matters.
Sometimes things aren’t clear, but the feeling is there, and it can change you. I was studying under a insincere Tibetan teacher years ago – an immature man. I felt something wasn’t right, but my fellow practitioners were telling me (and he was telling me) that I had to trust the guru. They believed that I couldn’t apply Western norms of behaviour to a superior being.
I didn’t buy it, and I left. I got out by giving some other reason, because I wasn’t sure exactly whether I was doing the right thing. It took me a while to shake off the trance. Once I was out of there and could be on my own, I could feel inwardly and acknowledge that it was his narcissism, and his emotional violence (presented under the guise of challenging our ‘egos’) that was making me fell ill-at-ease; as well as his obvious predilection for pretty women – the dakinis.
Thank heavens for trusting my bodily feel. It wasn’t easy though. The pull to not break the unity of the group, and to not cast ourselves adrift, is very strong. These things obstruct a clear-eyed assessment of the situation. Not quite having the skills to articulate my vague feeling of disquiet about the whole sham, I stayed in the group until I found some explicit reason to leave.
I hadn’t at this stage discovered Focusing. Once I found Focusing, I had a more reliable method of entering into the vague feel of situations here in my body, and of finding words for the bodily-felt meanings in there. At last! A crap detector.
Recently someone said something wonderful to me. I probably won’t do it justice, but her meaning was something like: ‘You’ve given me the words to help stay with when there aren’t words.’ That was brilliant. That’s what my Focusing teachers did for me.
The same thing goes for the texts, themselves. The Nikāya Buddha says something, and we have to find a way of grounding our inquiry, to find what is so, and what’s not. He is aware of this, of course, and occasionally addresses the dilemma with encouraging words – such as those spoken to the people of the Kalāma clan, in the striking Kalāma Sutta (in the Aṅguttara Nikāya):
“Come, Kālāmans, do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or with what has come down in your scriptures or with conjecture or with logical inference or with weighing evidence or with liking for a view after pondering over it or with someone else’s ability or with the thought ‘The monk is our teacher.’
“When you know in yourselves: ‘These ideas are unwholesome, liable to censure, condemned by the wise, being adopted and put into effect, they lead to harm and suffering,’ then you should abandon them…
“When you know in yourselves: ‘These things are wholesome, blameless, commended by the wise, being adopted and put into effect they lead to welfare and happiness,’ then you should practise them and abide in them.
Bhikkhu Nanamoli,. The Life of the Buddha: According to the Pāli Canon (p. 175). Pariyatti Publishing.
That’s helpful. This ‘knowing in yourself’ is a kind of knowing that can be trusted, that is different from those other ways by which we commonly ‘know’ something. It takes time to develop it, but it’s possible.
Yet, notice that it’s a delicate balance of placing ourselves under the wise, for instruction; and yet, of knowing for ourselves. Real teachers empower you to know for yourself.
After the above encouraging words, he proceeds skilfully to show them that they have this capacity; that they can trust their own experience in these things.
Elsewhere, in the Samyutta Nikāya, at the end of The Greater Discourse on the Destruction of Craving, this natural tension is present. He asks:
“Don’t you speak of what you yourself have known, seen, and understood for yourself?”
“Well done, Practitioners. So you have been guided by me in this truth, which is visible here and now, immediately effective, inviting inspection, onward leading, to be personally experienced by the wise.”
– Translated by Christopher J. Ash