When we see the arising and fading of each experience – and more dramatically, see that there is nothing to get hold of as arising or fading – we see clearly that there is nothing to get hold of as ‘I’ or ‘mine.’ It’s clear, then, how stressful it is to pursue fictions about ourselves, others, and life.
Lately, for me, when confronting one drama or another in daily life, or one trivial pursuit, the question comes, ‘Is this how I want to spend this precious life?’ It’s no more than the snap of a finder, and I want to spend it arguing? Or, chasing ‘things’? I don’t think so. No thanks.
Bhikkhu Analayo in his latest book, ‘A Meditator’s Life of the Buddha,’ begins with the suggestion that we could consider, “how should we best formulate our own “noble quest”?
An Invitation to Intimacy
“Dying is easy
It’s living that scares me to death.”
– Annie Lennox, from the wing ‘Cold.’
Because culture – and nowadays, the culture of modern science – has such an over-bearing influence on attitudes to death, I approach the concept of death in a way that steps out of the usual seemingly implacable restrictions of ‘now’ and ‘later’: “Now I’m alive; later, I’ll be dead.”
All the dulling varieties of reactivity that arise with this limited approach are plain to see. People attempt every conceivable escape from wakefulness toward death – from gross to subtle. We climb mountains, drink ourselves stupid, accumulate things, make war, get famous (or try to), explore our dreams, or we watch TV – simply to forget the big questions. We even use spiritual techniques like lucid dreaming, mindfulness or meditation to fool ourselves into thinking we are cool with death. There is nothing wilier in nature than an untended mind.
And, the popular ‘seize the day’ (carpe deum) approach is limited; not because it doesn’t have its benefits, but because it doesn’t take into account certain core human experiences. When used as a substitute for contemplation, it impoverishes us. When young I was in sympathy with a sense-based version of “carpe deum” – which added up to: “Feel good, as much as possible,” basically. Eventually, I asked myself: “Do you know yourself? If you don’t know the nature of mind, then do you know who is seizing what?”
If you have not understood the mind, on what basis could you be free of death? Surely, death is intimately related to mind? In later years, I reframed my questions: “Surely death has something to do with the dissolution of the sense of being the ‘experiencer’ (of experiences of all kinds, including meditation), right?” And the insight into life and death got subtler with this exploration. Understanding, as Sue Hamilton-Blyth put it, “the constitution of the human being,” is core to understanding life’s true value. So, is it dying that scares us about living?
So, it isn’t satisfying for me, to simply leave death for later, as if death is only an ending, and not something which is here, now and sacred; something which actually contributes to the big Life process. But I’m getting ahead of myself, here, aren’t I? I acknowledge that I’ll need to demonstrate such sweeping affirmatives as this, with step by step experiential grounding.
So, to be personal, to explore the ‘more’ of this territory, I need to experience as much about the innerly nature of death and deathlessness as I can, while I’m optimally strong and clear, and long before the dissolution of the body. And, you’d be wise to ask, “How has he done that?” Some have responded: ‘How can you experience death, while you’re living? That’s ridiculous. Get serious.” While others have said say, “Wonderful. Go into it with all your heart, now, while you can. Be serious: realise the deathless.”
As a slight ‘by the way,’ I notice that the people who have this second approach are (generally speaking) more positive, more vibrant, and less selfish, than the first group. And, crucially for me, they are not flag-wearers or wavers; they’re more likely to be ‘citizens of the planet.’ The way they live reflects the wisdom of their views. Admittedly, there is a portion of this group who have a life-denying tendency (I’ll examine that later); but, generally speaking, you find less cynicism in the “deathless” group. Why is that? What does it say about their inner experience behind or under their concepts of ‘death’ and ‘dying’?
I do want to be open about the matter of the ‘deathless’ – because, I don’t want to put ‘isms’ before reality, and that includes Buddhism – but, when I started to examine ‘what dies,’ it seemed to me smart to give vigilant or careful heed to this group, who showed more genuine independence from consensus opinion than the others did. (The Vietnam War was raging at this time, and so I was suspect of what went as established opinion.) There’s a theme, here, isn’t there, of guarding one’s authenticity.
But, back to my topic of ‘then,’ and ‘now.’ If I examine my own use of the words ‘death’ and ‘dying,’ I notice that I can imagine ‘the later event,’ and I seem to believe it has some reality, in some way. How can this be? What can I believe or conceive about something which I haven’t experienced? So, how is dying ‘easy’?
Seeing the death of others mostly only means that ‘later’ thing. Later, like my dead relatives or friends, I’ll stop breathing, my blood will stop flowing, my body will go cold, my senses will cease functioning – things like that. I’ve seen that happen to others. This I can have no doubt about. One decade, one year, one month, one minute, one second – death of this gross sort is certain. Death, in the ‘over there’ sense,’ will definitely happen; I’m not arguing with that. However, you’ll see it, not me; because I’ll be on the inside of it. One is, in an important sense – that is, experientially – alone in this.
It’s obvious that death, as an experience, is always a ‘now-here’ event, not ‘over-there.’ Experiencing is always Now. Without this deeper encounter, I can use the phrases ‘my death,’ and ‘my dying,’ and the words won’t carry the felt texture of being inside dying, and inside death.
So, beginning in the seventies, I asked myself regularly, “Is there any way that, while living in all kinds of conditions (sick or ill, happy or sad, and so on), and while not missing out on a fully-lived, vibrant, real life, that I can know something about the dissolving of personal life, and so live free of the burden of that thought?”
It’s this understanding that the wise speak about; so, a few decades ago, I began to engage with the kinds of sensitising practices which they recommend, so to make intimate this great matter. When I say, ‘contemplative,’ this is what I’m indicating.
And, this is why, in recent years, I decided to concentrate on what the earliest Buddhist teachings tell us about this real-life happening – especially in the Nikāyas. That’s a central theme in my project. These early teaching do speak about the challenge, and they offer a pristine ‘present-moment awareness’ approach to death and dying: “Attentiveness is the place of the deathless; inattentiveness is the place of death.” (Dhammapada, 21) This approach is very simple, and very applicable to living now – it’s not just about the ‘later’ inevitable event. The other important thing for me is that this approach is very much a matter of ‘The work and its fruit is down to you.’
Not by means of [outward vehicles] can one go
To that place untrodden,
Where a self-tamed person goes
By means of a well-mastered, disciplined self.
– The Dhammapada, verse 323. Translated by Christopher J. Ash.
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.’
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!
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.”
Life is movement. As the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said: “The river where you set your foot just now is gone — those waters giving way to this, now this.” (Fragment 41); and: “The sun is new again, all day” (fragment 32). – Heraclitus. Fragments. Translated by Brooks Haxton.
Japanese Zen artist, Sengai (1750 – 1837): “Even before I can say it is like a lightning flash or a dewdrop, it is no more.”
It seems counter-intuitive, to find more life through being in touch with life’s evanescence and the certainty of death; by turning toward the unknown. Nevertheless, rather than become dispirited by the thought of death, by practising A Year to Live – for nearly two decades, renewing it yearly – I have increased my commitment to life, and not distorted it. My energy has turned toward more meaningful activities, relinquishing energy-draining pursuits, while there’s more love of life – and all this through the seeming irony of doing daily practices which remind me of the certainty of death.
I have been inspired all along, in my contemplation of death, by Guenther’s statement: “…the thought of death is rather a powerful stimulus that brings me back to myself as the unique occasion for the search for the meaning of life…”
What kind if meaning of life is there to find in the face of death? Is life meaningful, in itself – without the filter or buffer of belief systems? That’s a question I address experientially in this project.
Certainly, as a severely abused child, by the age of sixteen I tended toward the conclusion that there was no meaning to life. My companions all thought this. I became nihilistic; and, I often wished for death. Then, via the Beatles’ encounter with Indian meditation practice – which came at the very same time in which I found Socrates – I discovered the possibility of a more wholesome line of inquiry. The task became to find out for myself, the truth of consciousness.
Was there an uncharted land, I wondered, in my own mind? One which could confirm meaningfulness from within – not through the stressful activities of my outer world, with its prevailing industrial values, cut-throat competition, its genocides and wars? It seemed to me as a teenager that contemplation of life as it is in itself might be possible? Socrates, with his courage in the face of death, and his commitment to selfless values, was inspirational. And then, at seventeen, meditation presented itself, as a support for the actualization of this free, independent way of life.
Next, my encounter with Zen Buddhism at nineteen confirmed what Socrates had asserted, that a conscious practice of facing death is far from a wish for death; it is an affirmation of a reality greater than death. The Zen Buddhists speak of ‘the great matter,’ which is the inescapable presence of ‘birth and death.’ My reading of Zen suggested that, skilfully conducted, facing death brings an attunement to life. Zen writers suggested that one’s own wholeness was discoverable through facing death.
Such freedom is not to be found by merely believing some religious blather. There is no freedom in believing in some ideal fantasy of a heaven after death. For me, this freedom must be right here in this very difficult life of sickness, old age and death. We die. So, can we live creatively – not in immature defiance of death – but with open-hearted inclusion of death. The ‘historical’ Buddha (I’ll explain the apostrophes, later) suggested that we face these five things:
1. I am subject to old age. I am not exempt from old age.
2. I am subject to illness. I am not exempt from illness.
3. I am subject to death. I am not exempt from death.
4. There is alteration in, and parting from, everything that is dear and pleasing to me.
5. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions. They are my matrix, I am related through them, they are my mediator. I become the heir of whatever actions I do, good or bad.
– The Five Remembrances, Translated by Christopher J. Ash
Then, at some stage, during an instance of my A Year to Live practice I decided that this matter of being one hundred percent for death in life (while being one hundred percent for the life in death) was something worth unpacking slowly with others. So, I began a blog to share the enquiry into this irony that life is ephemeral, yet intrinsically meaningful. This series which you are now reading is an edited version of that sharing.
Each morning, the first thing I do is: I step out of bed, put my hands together in a ritual gesture before a statue of Kuan Yin, and I say this gatha:
“These twenty-four brand new hours, may be my last.
I vow – together with all beings – to live them fully,
and look on others with eyes of compassion.”
I am speak this from my body, with awareness in my body, so that I’m not simply mouthing empty words. As the Buddha suggested, in the Mindfulness Sutta, I am knowing the body in the body.
Remember, the meaning of words (and the meaning of our rituals) is what they do in us, how they shift our state of being. I check inwardly, after saying my little verse (which I adapted, if not took, from Thich Nhat Hanh), to see how the ritual has changed my body. Has it brought me home to the greater field in which I have my being, or what is it doing? I am waking up to more than the simple fact of the day: I’m inviting myself, first thing, to acknowledge the primordial quality of Being. Being is my ground. And, ‘together with all beings’ invites the bodily knowledge that this ground is the ground of everyone.
(I’m reminded, as I write this, of the marvellous words of English mystic Thomas Traherne (1636/1637 – 1674):
You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.)
My wife Joyce suggested an addition to my ritual, using a small glass bowl of water. Joyce shared with our local Year to Live group, that Rachel Naomi Remen, in her book My Grandfather’s Blessings, offers us a daily ritual that comes from Tibetan culture. Remen writes:
As the bowl fills, you reflect on the particulars of your life, whatever they are. The people with whom you share your time, your state of health, whatever problems you face, what skills and strengths you have, your disappointments and successes, your worries, your personal gifts, your personal limitations, your home, all your possessions, your losses, your history as a human being. As the bowl fills, you receive your life open-heartedly and unconditionally as your portion.
So, each morning I empty a small bowl into my plants, and I attentively refill it to the brim with water, reminding myself of Naomi Remen’s words. I also say a gatha of my own:
This water – from high in the sky, deep under the earth,
high in the mountains, deep under the sea –
this water runs through all beings, this water runs through me.
May I completely realise the Tathāgata’s true meaning.
The Tathāgata’s ‘true meaning’ refers to the core meaning that the Nikāya Buddha was pointing to, which is none other than this very life: breathing, pouring the water, saying the gatha, beginning the day; committing to awakening to true nature, endlessly.
I haven’t always seen the wisdom in ritual. But in the late nineties, my relationship to ritual took a powerful turn, after I read David Michael Levin’s wonderful philosophical book,The Body’s Recollection of Being (1985). In it, he conveyed that the purpose of ritual is to put our body into a a felt gesture that invites the felt sense of Being. So, for me, the ‘object’ is never ‘over there’; the statue to which I bow, for example, is in me and in the between. I’m activating interactive awareness. I am bowing to this big Being which we all participate in, to retrieve my connection to it, via the being of my bowing body. This body participates in Being. Human being can be a verb, not a noun phrase.
In the case of this particular ritual, too – with “These twenty-four brand new hours, may be my last” – I am retrieving the true life of death. Where else does death have any reaity, than in my body – on my bowing body, saying my gatha? I am putting myself in the gesture of being “100% for life and death” (as the late Robert Aitken Roshi put it), an inward orientation which I take into my day in all its activities.
Here’s one sentence from Levin’s book – written, of course, in a philosopher’s diction. I start it off, by saying something firstly in my own language, which is: By the gift of com-bodiment,* ancient seeds in our bodies respond to the ritual gestures, sprouting spontaneously:
“from the body’s primordial participation in the wholeness of the field of Being, bearing within them the symbolic power to help us retrieve, from the depth of our own embodiment, the existential meaning of an authentic ontological understanding.”
He means that, as beings, we can dwell in an understanding of our belonging in/to/as Being. Anyhow, it’s a good way to arrive back from the bardo of dreams, into the bardo of waking awareness. May I, upon my waking into any bardo, whenever, be 100% with and for all beings.
* “The primordial participation in the wholeness of the field of Being,” I think, deserves a better word than ’embody.’ ”To ’em-body’ is to put something into a body. ‘Com-‘ says that something is ‘with’ the body. It’s there to be revealed. You might want to read Akira Ikemi’s Responsive Combodiment paper on this, stored at the Focusing Institute.
You are a lay follower in the time of Buddha, and you’re dying. You have a terrible illness, which has gotten worse in the last day. The splitting head, the gut pains. It’s clear which way it’s going.
During this week, a group of friends regularly gathers at your home. Some weeks ago, your peripatetic teacher, arrived from up north, from Kapilavatthu. He was happy to find your years of practice are serving you well. You talked about how you’re working with the pain of parting; how this deepens your inner work. He stays in your household, frequently joining your friends in their enquiries.
You understand that everything which you call the ‘world’ is of just such a nature that it breaks up – continuously; and, of course, that our bodies are always prone to change. Bodies are nature, and so they are vulnerable. Indeed, just last year, the great ascetic himself died, at age eighty – when his digestive system fell apart. You have no quarrel with nature.
With your friends, you’ve reflected during the week, on the teachings of the flourishing one. Together you recalled the time that he advised the arahant Girimananda. It was thought that Girimananda would die, but he didn’t; though he was perilously ill.
The founding teacher recommended that Girimananda be mindful of ten perceptions, and these included remembering how natural it is to be ill and die, because bodies are by their nature vulnerable.
You have done what you can medically, as your wisdom in the form of love would do. You’ve already made the effort to see that those you are responsible for – family and servants – will be cared for. You’ve reviewed your life, and are satisfied that you’ve completed what needs completing. You’ve ‘atoned.’ (That is, you are ‘at one.’) This way, you don’t wish for some other world, at all; either one to come, or one that could have been.
You company concurs that by remaining with what is actually present, rather than wishing for various kinds of ‘world,’ just in this way the deathless is near. Wishing for a world of any kind resists what is. It warms you to think of your friends’ love of the great way.
In the ten insights which were shared with Girimananda, you note to your friends, there is a lot of emphasis on how things are ever-changing. You look into form, vedanā, perceptions, fashioning tendencies, and consciousness, only to find an insubstantial play of experiences. Just as Anathapindika saw as he lay dying. That meditation – Anathapindika’s meditation, you call it – you feel joy to have such support.
You’re aware of breathing with your whole body, from top to toe, as you engage with them. And sometimes when the pains are intense, you breathe more particularly into the painful places, returning to your ‘whole-body’ breathing, when you can. Daily you and your friends meditate on emptiness, in the way taught by Sariputta to dying Anathapindika.
Each morning, as you meditate with them, you delight in the marvellous freedom of: ‘What is arising, is ceasing.’
Afterwards, someone asks about Girimananda’s perception of the ‘unattractive,’ and you reply, “When I see that all is transient, with no substance or own-nature, then I see that there is nothing of the six senses that can brings completeness. That’s the perception of unattractiveness. But, when that’s seen, neither does the functioning of senses obstruct anything. There is nothing to be added to the ‘now,’ nor could be taken away from ‘now.”
Indeed, what is this ‘now.’ These observations lead to a lively conversation about bhikkhu Arittha’s views on desire. He said that desire is not an obstruction. While normally you’d love to go into this, today you ask that they might finish this one later, at someone else’s home.
You are ill, your pains increasing, and you muster all the energy you can to be consciously present for the reality of your condition. Oh, yes, sometimes, your heart has some longing for abatement. But, still you mean it, when your closest friend, in a quiet moment, the two of you alone, asks, “If you died today, how’s that for you?” “I’m content,” you say. “I’ve done what had to be done.”
Can we speak and think (that is, can we ‘name’) with a lightness of touch, and yet also love precision? (Later we will explore where the healthy precision comes from.) Can we ‘name’ to nurture healthy lives, and avoid making the fundamental problems of human knowledge worse than they are? Of course we can; but we’ll need to understand the relationship of language to experiencing, first.
“All have gone under the sway/Of this one thing called name.” If we are seduced by our unskilful use of language – and by that I mean, language-use not in accord with the fundamental matrix of experiencing – then, we misuse our gift. Conceiving of things, in the way we do when influenced by craving, conceit and views, changes our way of experiencing the objects of our conceiving. Stated even more radically: However you conceive a thing, by that very thinking it becomes for you otherwise than it is.
The task, then, as the Nikāya Buddha presents it, is to disconnect our naming practices from a belief in the inherent existence of ‘things.’ It is neither the case that ‘things’ have a prior existence, and are there already to be named; nor that the naming creates them.
“Beings are conscious of what can be named,
They are established on the nameable,
By not comprehending the nameable things,
They come under the yoke of death.”
– Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda, Nibbāna – The Mind Stilled.
Try considering, instead, that our ‘naming’ can be a process way of using language. Quite radically, I propose (based on my reading of Gendlin) that language is what bodies do. Bodies gesture in this way that is peculiar to humans. Language is a self-reflexive gestural ‘strategy’ to work with experiencing; particularly, to carry our on-going interaction forward in a life-enhancing manner.
I take the view that language-use is a line of development; and an evolutionary gesture that needs its next step. By exploring this in our actual life, we might find that these gestures (our words) increase the power of experience. They change experiencing – one’s own, and that of one’s hearers.
We are well-compensated for the de-emphasising of our belief in ‘things,’ which this view entails. It is bondage to think that language establishes the existence of things – that the job of language is to establish ‘is’ and ‘is not.’ Freed from that yoke we step out, too, from under the yoke of death – for, what dies, if there are no absolute ‘things,’ and if there is only interaction, only process? An immeasurable dimension presents itself in the place of a fragmented world.
In a passage in the Anguttara Nikāya, the Nikāya Buddha says that “an arising is manifest, a passing away is manifest and an otherwise-ness in the persisting is manifest.” (Trans. Ñāṇananda) “Manifest’ I take to mean ‘occur.’
The profound personal realization behind this is that what is arising is ceasing. This ‘occurring’ is never established as anything existing; and, therefore can’t come from anywhere, nor go anywhere. That is, what is occurring has no tangible nature. We can say things arise, and that things cease; and that in the middle nothing becomes established. Are we willing, if we’d like to know what death is, to apply this to our personal existence?
I see a bird. The bird is looking back at me. Now, in the first moment, I don’t have any ‘bird’ concept, or ‘me’ (not ‘back’) – there is just the interaction. There’s no ‘here’ or ‘there,’ as well. If experiential space is named wrongly, then it becomes solidified into ‘mine’ and ‘not-mine’; and, ‘this’ and ‘here’ will be distinguished from the experience of ‘that’ ‘there.’ Anxiety arises.
But in the freshness of the first moment of intimate interaction, when I recognize the non-locality of experience, and I stay present for it, there is freedom to see the bird. The awakened factor if mindfulness is present. My heart is taking the beauty of its form, and its piercing, yellow iris. And, there’s the felt knowing of our intimacy. But, the ‘I’ who knows this has no location, and neither does the bird.
This spaciousness has the possibility of increasing our power of experiencing; but usually, by default, we make a ‘thing’ of space. By mistakenly naming experiences as existing in themselves, one makes ‘here and there’ in what has no ‘here’ or ‘there.’ One makes ‘mind’ into a personal box, with its locality, its limited contact, and its centre. And, the centre, we name as the perceiver; and whatever is outside the limit we name the ‘something contacted.’ For the Nikāya Buddha, there’s no such limit.
Much that I am saying is affirmed by the Nikāya Buddha in many places. For instance, in the Kālakarāma Sutta, a sutta which indicates the inner life of liberation, the Nikāya Buddha says the following (though not exactly in these words. I’m summarizing. You can find my complete translation here):
“I know things, just like anyone knows things, but I don’t cling to what I know. If you cling, you serve what you cling to. I live without conceiving of an independent reality in either the experiencer or the experienced. And, I don’t conceive of a reality elsewhere, an unexperienced something somewhere outside what is.
“Because of this, you can refer to me as one who is ‘such.’ And that is the supreme kind of person.”
It’s a lion’s roar: “A Tathāgata being ‘such’ in regard to all phenomena seen, heard, sensed and cognized, is ‘such.’” This way of being means that the liberated person (a tathāgata) is not limited by, defined by, nor identified by anything conceivable. As he says elsewhere, he is not identifiable by his form, his feeling-tones, his perceptions, his shaping factors or intentional factors, nor his consciousness. Hence, the concept of suchness.
When the Brahmin yogi Mogharāja asked, “By looking upon the world in which manner can one escape the eye of the king of death?”, the Nikāya Buddha answered:
“Look upon the world as void,
Mogharāja, being mindful at all times,
Uprooting the lingering view of self,
Get well beyond the range of death,
Him who thus looks upon the world,
The king of death gets no chance to see.”
– Sutta Nipāta, verse 1119. Translated by Ñāṇananda, quoted in Nibbāna: The Mind Stilled.
“As inquiry brings awareness, observation, and intelligence into play, we can see what attitudes support effective knowing.” – Tarthang Tulku. Knowledge of Time & Space: An Inquiry into Knowledge, Self & Reality
What attitudes support a person who is developing insight? What attitudes empower mindfulness? To sketch a preliminary answer, I’m not going to give an academic summary. That’s not necessary here. Instead, I’m sharing what I have learnt.
Firstly, the mindfulness practitioner values being a person. It’s important in mindful awareness to acknowledge that there is a particular being present. We must be careful of misapplying the teaching of no ‘self.’ The surest way to get confused around concepts of ‘self’ – I’ve seen some very dissociated Buddhists – is to apply this at the wrong level of experiencing; and so to make it difficult to have grounded contact with the body.
In the mindfulness approach it is better to remember the body. As it says in the Mindfulness Sutta: “There is this body.” Maintain contact with the body (which is the earth element), no matter how subtly you are experiencing ‘matter.’ The presence of a body is integral to appreciating the truth of being the unique person you are.
The Mindfulness Attitude
With this phrase, I am referring to several attitudes (states of mind) crucial to effective mindfulness. I use the phrase in the way that focusers speak of ‘the focusing attitude.’ As focuser and meditation teacher David Rome says:
“The key to success in this practice is something called “the Focusing attitude.” It is a capacity for gentle and brave self-caring, and it can be cultivated. Also known in Focusing circles as “caring-feeling-presence” or “self-empathy,” it is akin to the Buddhist virtue called maitri — loving kindness or friendliness directed toward oneself. It is a potent, poignant and at times quite magical way of making friends with oneself.” – Searching for the Truth that Is Far Below the Search, printed in Shambhala Sun, September 2004.
This warmth is a quality of mindful-awareness. But, here, I’ll comment on why we meditate or are mindful, at all; and, why we focus (or, ‘explicate felt meanings’). I do this to ward off any impression that I am suggesting that our meditation should be a kind of Focusing process.
In meditation, we are interested in knowing/appreciating the luminous and creative nature of the ground of mind. We are loving that luminous nature in itself – the nature of ‘experiential space’ and its ‘source.’
Focusing, though, is on this side of the door to the source. We spend some time being intimate with some kind of experience, ‘sitting next to’ it, sensing the ‘more’ that lies beneath the patterns, and usually naming it with carefully-chosen language – to be clear about what we are experiencing. I’ll say more later, but this is broadly the difference between the two areas of human functioning.
Balancing Peace and Investigation
However, in both cases we need a relaxed, warm attitude toward experiencing; a non-judgemental, accepting attitude. Being at ease with whatever comes brings peaceful stability (samatha) to the mind, which turbo-charges our capacity to looking deep into experiencing (vipassanā). (One without the other is imbalanced.)
We’re developing the attitude of confidence like the Nikāya Buddha on the night of his awakening, when he touches the earth, calling it to witness his right to be here, dwelling in truth.
Harmlessness, Positivity and Non-Judging
“Established in peace, gentleness and presence of mind, they have reached the essence of discernment and learning.” – Nikāya Buddha, in Kimsila Sutta.
Mindfulness is a non-violent, insight-oriented approach to your experiencing. The Nikāya Buddha is very positive, and asks that we be positive toward our inner work. For instance, always establishing joy as a quality of the awakened mind. Or, another instance: in the early stages of Mindfulness of Breathing In and Out Sutta (Ānāpānasati), we invite gladness and joy, before looking more deeply.
He has the attitude of welcoming experience, no matter what it is. He tells his son Rahula to meditate in imitation of earth, water, fire, and space; which all openly accept what comes. We are taking an attitude of non-harm – friendly (Pāli: metta; Sanskrit: maitri) and being non-judgmental toward experiencing.
Make your mindfulness about knowing that you are alive. Being empathic with one’s experience is possible. This means respecting the feelings and points of view of the false-‘I’ system, with its ‘blocking processes’ (traditionally called ‘hindrances.’) Respecting isn’t the same as ‘following,’ of course.
We don’t disconnect from present-moment awareness and from contact with our breathing body. We don’t collapse, in the face of our negativity. We keep our the vigilance (another ‘mindfulness attitude). So, what I mean by ‘non-judgmental’ is that we don’t take sides in the arguments that go on in our thoughts.
Hence, toward everything we maintain our attitudes of kindness, compassion, love of inquiry, and the love of truth – because these protect us from losing perspective on why we are here. “You should remember and explore: the spiritual life…” (Kimsila Sutta)
Intimacy and Feeling as Knowing
I always think, here, of the advice in the Mindfulness Sutta: to know the body, the feeling-tones, the mind-states and so on in the body. I take it to mean from inside the experience, and not at an intellectual distance. In the Mindfulness of Breathing In and Out Sutta (Ānāpānasati), for instance, an important word patisaṃvedī, usually translated as ‘knowing’ or ‘experiencing,’ means primarily, ‘to feel.’ Hence, this means to know something intimately, directly, and as felt in the body. It is to know something from inside it. This, too, is part of the mindfulness attitude.
Loving the Truth
“You need to love the truth. Delighting in truth, devoted to the truth, standing in the truth, with awareness of how to investigate the truth.” – Nikāya Buddha, in Kimsila Sutta
In the spirit of curiosity and inquiry, we put ourselves under truth. It doesn’t work to approach truth with conceit, ambition, or grasping. Mindfulness is a process of awakening appreciative intelligence. So there is an attitude of openness and of learning. Often, in the meditative and contemplative literature, this the where the experience of ‘not knowing’ is praised.
“One should go about free of conceit, self-possessed.” (Kimsila Sutta)
Many meditators make thought into an enemy; but, it’s important to value words in our awakening process. Again, in the Kimsila Sutta we read:
• “Value the opportunity when a dharma-talk is happening, and listen carefully to well-chosen words.”
• “Understanding is the heartwood of apt words. Self-possession is the heartwood of understanding. When a person is hasty and careless, his discernment and learning don’t flourish.”
• “Don’t misuse the truth. Use true, beautiful words to guide yourself.”
• “You should remember and explore: the spiritual life, the teachings and their meaning, and self-discipline.”
My recommendation is that after each thing you say to yourself in meditation and mindfulness practice, refer to the middle of your body. The body knows the difference between words of the ‘false self’ and the words of the person you are sitting in meditation. Investigate this difference.