Practising A Year to Live

Why Meditate?

Why do you meditate? Have you thought about it? I meditate because I’m alive. For me, it goes with being awake in this world. Meditating nurtures the process of being consciously alive. Meditation reveals that being alive is basically good. And, when I know I’m alive, I experience all kinds of positivity. To sit quietly, doing nothing but know one is alive – this enhances life.

What are the core aspects of being alive? Are we experiencing optimal aliveness? If not, why not? Why aren’t we appreciating and enjoying the miracle of existence so completely that we cannot but recognise that we already-always actually are this miracle of existence? Why cannot we see our beauty?

How is it, that humans are so violent towards themselves and each other, toward other species of plant and animal life, and even toward the mineral life and the waters of this small blue planet? Speaking from an ecological viewpoint for a moment, if we are the biosphere – which is obvious, isn’t it, at least logically? – then why are we treating ourselves so badly, destroying the life of forests, rivers and seas?

Precisely because we only get that fact logically, not directly touching it with our bodies! Meanwhile, the intellect divides what is undivided.

We live as members of a deeply divided species, divided in so many ways. You know them, these ways. I don’t need to enumerate, here. We need, then, a different a kind of consciousness to meet the situation we are in as a species – to end the divisions in consciousness would be wonderful and, at the very least, we need to live with a deeper kind of attention. We need, too, to awaken a consciousness that is big and generous enough to hold all the suffering we encounter when we truly open to what is in us and around us.

The meditative mind is crucial to all these things; sitting-meditation is a catalyst for a renewed consciousness and for profound shifts in identity. Meditation is a way we have to learn new ways to direct attention and even to change our habitual brains-states, and with regular practice to produce new human traits.

If you look closely, it becomes clear that ‘experiencing’ is core for all humans. No matter what one’s personal situation – or one’s background, or one’s congenital condition – sentience is core for human beings. How, then, has our ‘experiencing’ become degraded, so that we miss so much that is going on? Further, our habitual treatment of each other, worldwide, demonstrates that in large numbers we don’t know deeply that we are all equal in this basic fact of ‘experiencing.’ People treat others in appalling ways that could only indicate that they don’t get in their marrow that others are like them in the experience of suffering.

If I am ever to love my neighbour as myself, I need to learn to love myself. Meditating has been a major help in this, for me. Funnily enough, to sit quietly, forty-five minutes a day at least – openly, non-judgementally – to sit with myself ends my self-absorption. (Brain science has shown, by the way, that solo mediation activates social neuro-circuitry).

That’s certainly an important reason why I meditate – to be less self-preoccupied. What did Dogen say? “To study the self, is to forget the self.” The irony is that forgetting the self is knowing the self. And then, in that peace there’s space for ‘the ten thousand things.’

Just Sitting

13th-century Zen master Dogen said: “A Buddhist should neither argue superiority or inferiority of doctrines, nor settle disputes over depth or shallowness of teachings, but only be mindful of authenticity or inauthenticity of practice.”

Sitting meditation is to place your body in an authentic relation to being. You obviously can’t fake sitting, you are it. To practise unelaborated meditation, we can take to heart this simple instruction by the Buddha, in Sutta Nipata verse 1055, where he says to a spiritual seeker:

‘In every direction there are things you know and recognize, above, below, around and within. Leave them: do not look to them for rest or relief, do not let consciousness dwell on the products of existence, on things that come and go.” (Translator: Hammalawa Saddhatissa)

This is excellent training for death. That’s the heart of it: Do not look to things that come and go for rest or relief. Don’t land on anything. Or, as another master, centuries later, counselled: ‘Don’t perch.’ From the point of view of turning to the deathless, it’s not worth landing on anything.

If we take ritual as placing our body in a gesture that invites Being; that is, as a way of putting our body in the most intimate relationship with Being – while simultaneously being that very gesture of Being – then meditation is a living ritual.

Simply establish and maintain the ritual sitting in one place, and there’s nothing more to do, except relax all experience. Relax ‘body and mind,’ and sit resolutely in favour of simply being here, one hundred percent for whatever condition you are in. We needn’t be disturbed about disturbance (for discomfort is bound to come).

And, a note for any beginner who might find this way of sitting hard: give yourself the gift of five minutes a day, meditating this way, familiarizing yourself slowly.

Whenever our meditation is unelaborated, straight-forward, there we invite death and the deathless; because by simply being, we dissolve identification with whatever occurs. By relaxing our usual here-there orientation, and our self-other images, we get to calmly see into the heart of dying. What a blessing is that!

Combodying Gaia’s Body

The day the doctor told me that I had cancer, it was interesting to experience my reactions. My partner and I were conferring, as she drove into the traffic on the freeway. We were going back home to the mountains, from the doctor’s surgery.

She asked me how I was with the fact that my life was in danger. I felt inwardly, and I found there a feeling of tenderness. When I sat with it, it showed itself as a feeling for the whole world.  I knew (in there) that my world-wide social body was in much more trouble than my physical body was; and that my biospheric body was in a lot more trouble than my one little prostate could be. And, that my energy body was relatively peaceful. I was okay.

To come to terms with death, I live as fully as possible in my bodies – the most accessible of which are the gross body, feeling body, and subtle body.  Isn’t the word ‘death’ mostly associated with the thought of some kind of a body – usually with a gross body (that is, a physical body)? Yet, are we really putting our heart into living as bodies? I realised when I was in my late twenties, that I was living some distance from my body; or, at least, in the very tiny portion of it above my shoulders.

But what is the body which I am? Is it knowable, except as ‘this moment’s experiencing’? Discovering my tendency to ignore my mind, while lost ought night and day, I decided in the mid-nineties to more assiduously follow my breathing. And that’s how it’s been for the last twenty years. That single commitment brought my body more fully into the centre of my practice.

If I am with my breath, then I know I am present, because the body is always present. From there I can learn about all the ways I set up my ego-boundaries, which is where ego-death gets created.

(Not that tracking my breathing will help completely at the moment of death. There’s more to experience after the breathing stops; and this, too, you can verify while living.)

There are limitations, which I’ll go into later, to knowing the so-called ‘present’ and ‘present experiencing.’ Nevertheless, I have learned from my breath that any kind of body – gross, feeling, or subtle-energy body – is a self-organizing process within a larger mysterious process, which we call life. The body’s self-organizing is Life’s process, as well. Any body is of that larger life. And, this needn’t just be belief. We can feel directly and without doubt our belonging in the big process.

(Not that tracking my breathing will help completely at the moment of death. There’s more to experience after the breathing stops; and this, too, you can verify while living.)

There are limitations, which I’ll go into later, to knowing the so-called ‘present’ and ‘present experiencing.’ Nevertheless, I have learned from my breath that any kind of body – gross, feeling, or subtle-energy body – is a self-organizing process within a larger mysterious process, which we call life. The body’s self-organizing is Life’s process, as well. Any body is of that larger life. And, this needn’t just be belief. We can feel directly and without doubt our belonging in the big process.

Grounding myself in the flow of ‘body-as-experienced’ –  sensing into its condition in all conditions – helps me realize what the Japanese psychotherapist and Focusing trainer Akira Ikemi means, when he talks about com-bodying, rather than em-bodying. My OED says of ‘com-‘: “The sense is ‘together, together with, in combination or union’, also ‘altogether, completely’, and hence intensive.”Em-bodying‘ means to put something into the body, from outside it.

The way that I think of it is, that any body includes all which is not that body. Consider what the gross body would be, without its participation right now in the Earth’s water cycle, carbon cycle, and nitrogen cycle. Or, what would it be without the oxygen generated by the forests of the Amazon Basin? Breathing is always of the nature of inter-being.

The body is not one thing, and the environment another. They are in each other. Right now, feel into your body, and say gently to it, “I get that you are a part of the water cycle.” See how that shifts your sense of your self; how the feeling body responds. (Later, we’ll address the duality that appears to be inherent in this instruction.)

This, with many more aspects (including the social), is, to me, combodiment. This, if we are to save ourselves and flourish, together with our fellow species on this little blue planet, this we need to explore, to know, to feel intensely – that is, the presence of, this body as together with all that is, is a bodily being-together-with-all.

What makes death such a big deal, then? Is it not our clinging to patterns of experiencing, which are of thought. Yet, these very thoughts are mean to be aiding the body to carry forward in its life; and, they are always of the body. Out of the clinging we create our ‘personality’; centred not in process, but in the body being owned by a strictly-bounded ‘me’ and ‘mine.’ (More on this, later.) The body-mind is then split.

However, as a dynamic presenting of body-mind states, in reality I am never a static or objectifiable ‘thing.’ Whatever the body – gross, emotional, or subtle – they are each patterns of experiencing at differing levels of subtlety; a fact which only mindfulness of body-mind states can reveal.

The way of mindfulness of the ‘body’ reveals the body at ever more subtle levels. Knowing myself in this way, my perspective on death changes. At the gross level, this body deteriorates and stops functioning. From the subtlest perspective, though, all that is going on is that the universe is continuing its creative dance of collecting, extending, dissolving, and creatively varying itself. So, what is death, then, if it changes from level to level?

Mindfulness of the Body and the Deathless

The Deathless

Translated from the Anguttara Nikaya; from the Book of the Ones, by Christopher J. Ash

“Practitioners, one does not enjoy the deathless who doesn’t enjoy mindfulness directed to the body. One enjoys the deathless who enjoys mindfulness directed to the body. The deathless has been enjoyed, by those who have enjoyed mindfulness directed to the body.

“Practitioners, one has fallen away from the deathless who has fallen away from mindfulness directed to the body. One hasn’t fallen away from the deathless who hasn’t fallen away from mindfulness directed to the body. One has neglected the deathless who has neglected mindfulness directed to the body. One is bent on the deathless who is bent on mindfulness directed to the body.

“Practitioners, one is heedless about the deathless who is heedless about mindfulness directed to the body. One is heedful of the deathless who is heedful of mindfulness directed to the body. One has forgotten the deathless who has forgotten mindfulness directed to the body. One hasn’t forgotten the deathless who hasn’t forgotten mindfulness directed to the body.

“Practitioners, one hasn’t resorted to, developed and seriously taken up the deathless who hasn’t resorted to, developed and seriously taken up mindfulness directed to the body. One has resorted to, developed, and seriously taken up the deathless who has resorted to, developed, and seriously taken up mindfulness directed to the body.

“Practitioners, one hasn’t recognized, fully comprehended, and realised the deathless who hasn’t recognized, fully comprehended, and realised mindfulness directed to the body. One has recognized, fully comprehended, and realised the deathless who has recognized, fully comprehended and realised mindfulness directed to the body.”

Turning Toward the Body, Turning Toward the Deathless

“(A Year to Live) is not simply about dying, but about the restoration of the heart, which occurs when we confront our life and death with mercy and awareness. It is an opportunity to resolve our denial of death as well as our denial of life in a year-long experiment in healing, joy, and revitalization.” – Stephen Levine, A Year to Live

Some people express a fear that thinking and journaling about death might invite death – physical death. That is one fear that will arise in this practice, but the primary purpose of this practice is to turn toward what we fear; to explore, feel, think, sense into, and know one’s actual relationship to this kind of life – the  life of fear –  as well as death. We help others when we help ourselves in this way, too.

One way to work with the fear of facing mortality is to keep grounded in our life as actually lived; that is, to know yourself intimately in all your daily, bodily-based changes. That’s why, in this work, I place an emphasis on mindfulness of the body; and knowing the body in the body – not simply as a concept.

“Before we can leave the body effortlessly we have to inhabit it fully. A remarkable means of heightening life as well as preparing for death is to enter the body wholeheartedly, sensation by sensation.” – Stephen Levine, A Year to Live

So, during the practice of A Year to Live, we can clarify the Buddha’s term ‘the deathless.’ It came to me forcefully several years back, with a radical clarity, that “There is no death.” I then undertook a period of review, to be sure that I was seeing right, which has included checking with accomplished Buddhist teachers. I wish to demonstrate this radical claim to you, during this project.

My understanding of the body is the other most radical shift in thinking during this inquiry. To dwell in the body intimately and fully only happens after a thorough training; because, this ‘dwelling’ not just about being in contact with bodily sensations and actions – the organism has much subtler dimensions than these surface processes.

Because the body is a local representative of true nature – it is the intelligence of the universe manifesting in specific ways, gross and subtle – we can resolve the question of who or what dies by knowing ourselves directly. And so, for me, the enquiry naturally deepens into an understanding of human nature as being more about ‘process’ than about ‘content.’ It’s more about how we are in the world, how we interact, and less about ‘what’ we are.

While I glimpsed, forty years ago, that I could say rightly, “I am not my body,” on the other hand, it is also the case, and is helpful to realize, “I am only my body.” This is not the body of modern medicine – a constructed thing, or a machine. The body is a way of knowing.

This experience-near, process-oriented way to think of ‘selfhood’ naturally leads to a different understanding of death. When we able to see the real issue in ‘death’ as the loss of our identifications with self-images, then this changes what is important about death and being human. We then know what matters about living.

The Deathless turns out to be surprisingly near; nearer than your breath.

The Implicit Person

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.
Samiddhi Sutta in the Samyutta Nikāya (translated by Christopher J. Ash)

To understand ‘death’ correctly, we need to understand the role of language-use in our ‘mind-ing; that is, in shaping our experience of ‘mind.’ That’s an odd thing to say, I suppose – language and mind are intertwined. Hence, the issue is often not the death of our organism, in itself, which causes pain; but the ideas associated with that fact.
To put it another way, there is the kind of pain that comes with the actuality of death (for example, separation from loved ones), and there is the other kind of pain which is our reactivity. This second type is usually  not distinguished (in the untrained person) from the first; hence, there is much self-created pain about death.
We have two points: the fact of death, and our resistance to the fact of death. And, this resistance is tied up with imagining a particular status to our ‘I.’ That’s why, when writing about the five-year-old who cried “I don’t want to die,” I said: “Conceiving he would die, he conceived the cessation of his ‘I.’” Can you see how conceiving of ourselves, our fear of death, and language-use are intimately related?
So, we need to learn how we refer to ourselves. We have to see how language shapes personal experience. We’ll go into this, in depth, during this project; and, mindfulness of the body will be central to this exploration, because it grounds us in a reality greater than our conceptions (and our conceits).
There is a stream of spiritual practice that dismisses the personal dimension of our experience. My own path has been very much a path of understanding individuality, and including it in my understanding of what is going on here in the bigger life process. In the mid-seventies, due to unsupervised meditation practice, I had a dramatic loss of self – a form of depersonalization – and so over a long period of inquiry, I had to reclaim my ‘sense of self.’ The work of Eugene T. Gendlin – his Focusing method, and his Philosophy of the Implicit – helped in that reclamation.
There is a personal dimension which we needn’t deny in the realization of the ‘spiritual’ realities of life. The core thing was for me to realize that there is a valid dimension to experience which is indicated by the pronoun ‘I.’ And, this ‘I’ can be experienced all the way through to the impersonal dimension (for example, in what Jesus said in John 10:30: “I and the Father are one.”)
The issue was well expressed by A.H. Almaas (Hameed), founder of the Diamond Approach, in a conversation with the spiritual teacher named Adyashanti. I’d like, at the beginning of this project, for you to consider what Hameed says, because it addresses an important issue present at the intersection of modern psychology and mindfulness practice. Understanding this is an important corrective to the nihilist (mis-)application of Buddhist philosophy. It is also relevant to the understanding of death presented in this project, as will be clear later.

The facilitator of the conversation,owner and founder of Sounds True Tami Simon said to Hameed:
“… ‘in your own two shoes’  – stand in your own two shoes [you say]. But to begin, Hameed, tell us what you mean by this, this idea of ‘personalness,’ and how it fits into the Diamond Approach. And I know that this is a deep topic, and I’d love it if you would take your time, and really unpack it for us, from your perspective.”
Hameed answered: “I think it is one of those really mysterious things, and which I explored for years… which is, the fact that we are all…   I am… the Infinite, or the true nature, or the totality of Being. To know that, the individual consciousness is necessary. Total Being, Reality, cannot know itself, except through a human being, through a being.
So, for me, at the beginning – before we wake up to the fact that we are more than just an individual consciousness, that we are something very subtle, very profound and fundamental –  the individual consciousness is always present. … In fact there is no experience, no perception, nothing happens without individual consciousness. Individual consciousness is like the organ of experience.
So, at the beginning, basically what we do is that we not only identify with the individual consciousness, but we believe that individual consciousness is a separate entity. And, believing and identifying with the individual as a separate entity becomes what we call the ‘self,’ the ego self, which become quite an impediment and a lot of suffering, because fundamentally that’s not true –  simply, it’s a delusion.
So, as we wake up and realize, ‘No, I am not really a separate entity, and not a separate self; I am something that is nothing… that is everything… that is the nature of everything…’, that experience is still… (even though, in that experience of unity or transcendence, there is no hint of an individual, no hint of individual consciousness; because I’m feeling the happiness of Being itself – formlessness, no shape, no color, nothing) …this realisation is still using the capacities of the individual consciousness to know, to perceive.
So individual conscious… what happens here, it simply becomes implicit, instead of manifesting as an individual. … It disappears, in the sense that it is not in view… (And I’ve had many experiences of the individual consciousness actually dying, ceasing, coming to completely disappearing – nothing – all the way to complete coma. It’s gone. And then, when I come back, as the unity of Being. And that took me a long time, actually (several years!), to finally find that even though I am the unity of Being, I cannot neglect the individual consciousness, because the individual consciousness is the conduit through which all realizations happen.”
In this my present study, what Hameed is calling ‘individual consciousness’ will be equated with ‘body-environment’ interaction (Eugene Gendlin’s ‘body-en’). This approach gives us a way to feel into experience in a very grounded way, so avoiding the possibility of ‘depersonalization.’

Dialoguing with the Textual Traditions – 2

A person should not give himself away. He should not relinquish himself.”  – The Nikāya Buddha, in the Devasamyutta section, of the Samyutta Nikāya

Given all this, I have decided to dialogue with the texts, and not place my greatest reliance on some supposed historical Buddha. So, when I am saying where I learned something, then I will refer to the Nikāya Buddha, the Lankavatara Buddha, the Diamond Sutra Buddha, the Surangama Buddha, and so on; and my reader will not be confused about my Buddha, at that moment. My relationship with the Nikāya Buddha has spanned all my Buddhist life; it’s my favourite textual territory. Yet, in the early seventies, I learned a lot from my dialogue with the Lankavatara Buddha. And in the mid-seventies I learned a lot from the Surangama Buddha and the Diamond Sutra Buddha.

One reason why I chose this way of speaking, apart from the problems outlined earlier, is that I noticed that I would use the phrase “Buddha said…” to claim legitimacy for my views, whether the view was soundly based in experience or not. I’d use the name ‘Buddha’ to bolster my arguments. This is a kind of seduction, and so, upon discovering this, I abandoned the practice. And, I see other teachers arguing (sometimes fiercely) about what the Buddha said, as though they could know.

(By the way, in case you don’t know: ‘Buddha’ is a descriptive term, applied to a class of beings. It is not a proper name. What does it describe, then?

In the Anguttara Nikāya the Buddha says he is not a god (deva), nor any kind of heavenly being, nor is he a man. After perusing the etymology given in the Pāli-English Dictionary, I’ll accept ‘awakened’ as a reasonable translation.

Gotama was one in a line of Buddhas. By the end of this project, we might have a clearer idea of what this means, but for a start,: ‘not a god (deva), nor any kind of heavenly being, nor a man’ means he or she realizes that they are inconceivable. More on this later.

Whose victory cannot be undone, a victory not worldly:
by what path could one ruin an awakened one,
whose field is trackless, immeasurable
.
Dhammapada, verse 179. Translated by Christopher J. Ash)

So, back to our topic: Instead of saying ‘Buddha said…,’ I might say: “This is how I’ve understood the teachings; and, these are the set of texts which I hold up against my experience, to see if they can carry forward my life. In such-and-such a text, the Nikāya Buddha says…” I dialogue with the texts, and don’t claim to know what the historical Buddha said, thought or taught. That would not be a legitimate way to speak.

One further issue is whether one’s experience validates the texts, or the texts validate one’s experience. I would say it is ultimately the former. In respect of the latter, the texts may agree with my experience, or they question my experience (which I can be grateful for). And, they can only validate experience if I bestow some authority on them, which I can’t prove they have – except by appeal to bodily-grounded experiencing.

I think that would be an abdication of human responsibility, to grant the textual tradition the power to judge one’s experience. Nevertheless, my learner’s move is to grant them a provisional authority, and see in what direction my experiences change with that gesture. That’s why I talk, mostly, about the Nikāya Buddha, because I mainly use those texts to do this. They have proven to be profound guides.

My original blog morphed along the way, to become a dialogue with the earliest Nikāya Buddhist teachings on death. It seems that these texts are as close as we can get to the earliest Buddhist teachings (when augmented by similar texts in Chinese, called the Agamas). I began, part-way along in this project, to approached the Nikāyas with the questions: What did the Nikāya Buddha teach about death and dying? Was it of any interest to him, to live with full consciousness of death? Did he suggest some kind of preparation? And, as well – but, incidentally – I asked: What of the rebirth issue (a topic which brings controversy in modern Western Buddhism)?

(For this edited version of the original blog, for coherence, I bring in the theme of the Nikāya Buddha’s approach somewhat earlier than I did in 2015-16.)

Dialoguing with the Textual Tradition – 1

“With death, people lose/ What they conceive as “mine.”/ Knowing this, a sage should not/ Be selfishly devoted to what is “mine.”
Sutta Nipāta, verse 806. Translated by Gil Fronsdal. The Buddha before Buddhism: Wisdom from the Early Teachings (p. 64). Shambhala.

With my publication of the term ‘Nikāya Buddha,’ a reader asked me why I say that and not just ‘Buddha’? I thank that practitioner for being the occasion of this helpful digression. Why don’t I just say, “the Buddha said (or did, or thought)…,” or “the historical Buddha said (did/thought)…,” and so on, like other people? What does this expression “Nikāya” mean?

In what follows, I’ll try not to be too technical, and my account is not meant to be at all representative of scholarly views. It simply gives a rough sketch of what a practitioner is up against, if they begin to think about the way the phrase “Buddha said” works in us.  As experiential inquirers, how we relate to this phrase changes how we experience the texts. So, I’m not just making a mere scholarly point.

‘Nikāyas’ refers to five Buddhist volumes which were written down in the Pāli language. These are an important part of the very earliest texts, because they purport to contain the ‘discourses of the Buddha.’ (And, my Dhammapada translations, which I use frequently throughout this project, I translate from one of these Nikāyas, the Kuddhaka.)

The Nikāyas are claimed to contain the core teachings attributed to an historical person. His name was Siddhartha; and his clan name was Gotama. In the Nikāyas he’s usually referred to by his clan name, Gotama. He is said to have lived (roughly) in the fifth century BCE (before the common era; or, BC in the old terminology).

The period in which he is said to have lived was an oral culture, though; and these Nikāyas were passed on orally for several generations after his death. So, that’s several centuries before they were put into written form, probably at some time in the first century CE (common era; old ‘AD’). They’ve come down to us in an Indian language now called ‘Pāli,’ which is an offshoot from Sanskrit.

Most Western Buddhists are used to reading and hearing ‘The Buddha said…,” as though the writer or speaker is backed by the experiential authority of an historical person; but this can never be the verified. ‘The Buddha said’ can represent all kinds of reference points.

Firstly, although scholars use the phrase ‘historical Buddha,’ no-one can actually know if there was an historical figure corresponding to the man portrayed in the Nikāyas. It’s reasonable to assume this powerful and perceptive teaching arose because there was a particular individual, in a particular historical milieu, but we have only the Nikāyas themselves as evidence for this (and the Chinese Agamas, which are similar); and, furthermore, as I said, they didn’t come into existence (as written texts) until some time in the first century CE.

(By the way, it is thought by some scholars that – contrary to popular expectation – oral traditions do well in preserving these kinds of ‘texts.’)

Anyhow, we have no way of knowing for certain that the early Nikāya texts faithfully represent the teachings of an historical person. Again, it’s very likely that they do, or that they at least get in the ballpark of certain features of the supposed original teachings; particularly, regarding the core matters such as: the ‘three characteristics of phenomena,’ the certainty of liberation (i.e. the deathless or nibbāna), the ennobling realities (though, even this teaching has been challenged by scholarship, in recent times).

Then, secondly, to complicate the matter further, there are modern Buddhist cultures where the monks and nuns have never read the Pali Nikāyas at all, having been trained using texts written hundreds of years later, in Sanskrit . That is, later Indian and Tibetan traditions have their own version of ‘Buddha said,’ while referring to texts written much later than the (assumed) historical Buddha. These speakers seem to genuinely believe that the ‘Buddha’ said their favourite teachings, despite the gap of centuries between the time of ‘Gotama’ and these particular texts. These later texts – later Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese texts – according to the conventions of those cultures, put their teachings into the mouth of ‘Buddha.’

Consequently, the range of “Buddha said” is amplified greatly beyond what would be possible if we restricted ourselves to the era in Indian history when the Buddha (if he existed) was born (as I said, probably fifth century BCE).

So, as far as I see it, then, it’s more  helpful to specify the particular ‘Buddha’ to which I’m referring. For instance: the Nikāya Buddha, speaking from the 5th century BCE; or, the Lankavatara Buddha, speaking from the late 4th century CE. The Diamond Sutra is difficult to place, so let’s say that the Diamond Sutra Buddha is speaking from some time between the the Nikāyas and the Lankavatara Sutra.

And, there are more – the Uttaratantra Buddha, and the (likely Chinese) Surangama Sutra Buddha, for example. These are both obviously much later than the Buddha of the Nikāyas (who is also called the Shakyamuni Buddha, placing him in a particular kingdom of fifth-century India).

So, when I say, “Nikāya Buddha,” its that layer of textual history to which I’m referring, and to the Pāli texts (Suttas) in particular. And, of course, it’s my interpretation (and sometimes, my translation) of the Pāli texts. I only claim to place myself within, to dialogue with, and to invetigate my experience using, a tradition (and this not exclusively), rather than claim to speak for ‘the Buddha.’

The Matrix of Mystery

“(T)he thought of death is… a powerful stimulus that brings me back to myself as the unique occasion for the search for the meaning of life, and it makes me recognize the importance of this very moment, as it highlights the real possibilities that are still before me.” – Herbert Guenther.

I want to share some of the gift that contemplating death brings. Here’s how I experience something that seems to resonate with what Guenther wrote, in this passage.

I can be sitting at a my computer, I can be in a cafe, I can be driving my car, or talking to my partner – and a pristine, all-encompassing space opens. The thought of death can bring this opening. The certainty of my death, or the uncertainty about ‘when, where or how’ I will die – or, likewise, the thought of the certainty of the death of my loved ones – these contemplations can bring such openings. These ideas are one kind of “powerful stimulus.”

With the opening of that ‘space,’ my positioned (and positioning) ‘self’ dies, just like that. Dissolves. If I rest into the ‘gap,’ it is another dimension of being. A knowing is purely present, without any seeking or orienting. Acquisitions have ceased. I’m simply aware of the quality of openness itself, with its measureless ‘ing-ing’ (Gendlin’s expression). And, if I don’t scramble – that is, if I don’t make boundlessness a problem – if I relax and trust it, sigh into this unknowing knowing, then there is a meaningfulness that exceeds any of the phrases about it.

(We’ll look later at the designations in this. The ‘self’ dissolves’; so who is resting into the gap? What do ‘I,’ ‘self,’ ‘person,’ and so on, mean? It’s about the process of designation and it’s relationship to experiencing. Well explore it, later.)

Now, Guenther’s “…brings me back to myself as the unique occasion for…” is sweet, because the boundless, empty, still (paradoxical) presence is full of the magic of living. It’s called ‘ordinary mind.’ And this magic unfolds. Hence: “…the importance of this very moment…”

With this invisible matrix informing them, concepts can return, or function, to be a part of the unfolding, a servant of the bigger life, which is full of meaningfulness. This is a matter of ‘not two.’ It’s not about something on one side called the conceptual present which is different from the still, luminous, non-conceptual openness\on the other side. Not at all. The stillness doesn’t reject concepts, and concepts can serve the still field of possibilities.

This won’t make sense right now, but we’ll explore later: how the unfolding happenings (’time’) are never outside (or, never leave) the implicit, the invisible (timeless) womb of reality. (They never fully form, either, into ‘somethings’. In a sense we are experiencing virtual reality, already.) This will make sense of the Buddhist idea of ‘the Deathless’.

But, I’m getting ahead of our content. Returning to Guenther:

“…the real possibilities that are still before me.” So, this moment, purely present as it is, is full of possibilities, unfolding, “out of” this implicate matrix. It’s a poor metaphor, given what I’ve said about ‘not two,’ but refer back to your present, undivided momentary experience, and you’ll get a ‘feel’ for this. This ‘matrix’ concept is difficult to experience directly at first. Just get a holistic feel of it, be experiential about it, and in time it’ll gel. It will be integral to understanding how the Nikāya Buddha can say, “The attentive do not die.”

This no-inside/outside, always-happening unfolding includes the person who is aware, who is “the unique occasion” for the bigger life’s unfolding possibilities. What magic is that! I’m sometimes drunk on the wonder of it. It makes me laugh, and it calls Rumi to mind: “I didn’t come here of my own accord, and I can’t leave that way. Whoever brought me here, will have to take me home.” (Coleman Barks trans.)

Gratitude to Stephen

My first audiodharma teaching from any Buddhist teacher at all was from a workshop of Stephen’s. I heard it forty years ago on a set of cassette tapes. Stephen was supporting people who were confronting death, and people suffering grief and loss.

There were people who were living with terminal diagnoses; and, people grieving the loss of loved ones. There were people supporting those who had such a diagnoses; or who were in pain about their loved one’s diagnosis.

I could hear his compassion and his courage. His solicitous voice is still in my memory. His teachings penetrated my armour. He brought me to tears. Even though I wasn’t faced, at that time, with a life-threatening situation, even so, he brought me home to my own battered heart.

I, too, was one intensely in need of healing – of wounds of which I was at this stage barely aware. So, Stephen’s voice on those tapes held me, too. Even the silent, witnessing presence in those workshops of his wife Ondrea was a support.

On those tapes I heard him supporting people to stay for ‘what is’; to stay for their pain – their physical, mental, emotional distress. It was a revelation to me, to think that turning toward such unbearable pain, would be freeing.

He encouraged us to have faith in the more that we are, to have faith in what holds us from within; even as we hold others in the human pains of sickness, mental affliction, old age and death. Over the years thereafter I used his meditations (published in several books) for my own contemplation, and to guide others in theirs.

(Also, I credit the wisdom which I manage to bring to my marriage to the fact that I read his Embracing the Beloved. I believe it contributed to my finally being able to turn toward the suffering of intimate relationship, to stay and learn the lessons which marriage can teach; particularly, to embrace meeting my narcissism. “Narcissus,” he wrote, “is the perfect analogy for the imagined self that each brings painfully to relationship.”)

Decades later I still regularly “soften the belly,” as he used to advise. There’s hardly a month go by, without I encourage another to invite “a soft belly.” I still touch “a heart big enough to hold it all,” in the ways he taught.

Then, in 1999, I began using his book A Year to Live. So, a practice of getting ready for the inevitable. The book gives us guidelines for a year-long practice of bringing death into our lives – of squarely facing mortality, of taking it to heart.

I did my first ‘Year to Live’ throughout 1999, and ‘died’ as the year 2000 rang in. Allowing for a ‘’year off’ here and there (as if one could have a year off from death!) I’ve practiced it for at least twelve of the last eighteen years.

Stephen Levine, teacher, visionary and healer, died, with family around him, in his home in New Mexico, U.S.A, on 17th January, 2016. Thank you, Stephen. May all the Stephen elements in the universe, and those elements in all of us, flourish in wisdom and love.

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