Having understood this body to be [vulnerable] like a clay pot,
Having settled into this heart as if it were a citadel,
attack the King of Death with the sword of wisdom,
and protect what has been conquered by clinging to nothing.
– Dhammapada, verse 40.
Wisdom in our sorrowing world is urgently needed. How come we aren’t talking to each other about what it might be, and how it might be nurtured species-wide? Let’s entertain the possibility that wisdom is far more accessible than previous cultures have led us to believe. What if we discovered in this inquiry that every human body is wisdom?
Wisdom regarding death and dying can transform humanity’s unexplored anguish, which discharges itself in destructive emotions. The tensions wrought by unresolved core questions – those that every child encounters, and puts out of sight – make their way into our behaviour.
How come we aren’t asking, while we still have enough ‘nous’ to nurture the inquiry: “What kind of experience does the word ‘death’ point to? Can we have a taste of the view of death from the inside? What’s death going to be like, anyhow?” Mary Oliver asks this, in her poem When Death Comes: “(W)hat is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?”
Most adults have seen what it’s like from the ‘outside.’ A verse from the early Buddhist teachings puts it this way:
All too soon will this body will lie in the funeral home:
useless, without mind, like a meaningless stick of wood.
– Dhammapada, verse 41.
We see this fact, with the bodily eye; but the heart’s eye – longing for depth, not surfaces – intuits the possibility of insight into death, and the ending of anguish. Zen teacher Aitken Roshi used to speak of ‘dukkha’ (a name for the most fundamental human suffering) as ‘anguish.’
This Dhammapada ‘stick of wood’ verse, by the way, is even more stark in its literal rendering: “This body will lie on the ground,” it says. In the Buddha’s time, the body might simply be taken to a charnel yard, and be left to rot and disintegrate out in the open. ‘Discarded,’ the original verse says. I changed the context to reflect a common process in Western countries – funeral homes and crematoriums – but, to be matter-of-fact about it: at some stage, our bodies, too, are discarded – understandably.
It’s interesting, also, to reflect that ‘charnel’ means ‘flesh’ (carnal). Charnel grounds and houses are (or were) about the meaty side of death. There certainly is this side of things – the surface layers of human life. It would appear that there are few ‘flesh grounds’ these days; but, even so: this body is still (in some respects, at least) “like a clay pot.” It’s fragile. It’s breakable. It’s vulnerable to all kinds of misadventure. That is not fresh news, of course; but, how little – oh, how little in our entertainment-obsessed world – have we penetrated to the true significance of this, all the way to the heart of birth and death!?
So, how come we aren’t wondering more openly, together, “Who or what in us dies?” (Who Dies? by the way, is a title of another of Stephen Levine’s books.) We can’t lose, by this inquiry.
Who has done her own work –
Being endowed with virtue and insight,
firm in the Dhamma and a speaker of truth –
people hold such a one dear.
– Dhammapada, verse 217.
Well… that is: can’t lose anything but our fictions; which I acknowledge we mightily cling to, as to a damn good novel plot. However, do allow, please, the possibility of not clinging, realizing your true nature, and “settling into this heart as it were a citadel.” Entertain the possibility of being thereby being better equipped for the meaty dénouement on the final page. If you have experienced the citadel aspect of awareness, you’ll know that it is rock-solid – wondrously, beautifully immovable. And, it’s unconditional. It is beyond corruption.
Insight into death can not only penetrate to the heart of birth and death, but can establish the citadel, and secure the heart’s gains, because:
For one whose heart is without affliction and perplexity,
who has abandoned good and bad, who is awake, there is no fear.
– Dhammapada, verse 39.
I’m working in this project at unpacking – in contemporary terms – a remarkable possibility present in all of us: that when we meet the essence of death we find a jewel – one aspect of which is the citadel.
(All translations from the Dhammapada are translated from Pāli by Christopher J. Ash, unless otherwise attributed.)
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” – Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind – Shunryu Suzuki
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 about something which I haven’t experienced?
You can’t say that seeing others die tells me anything important about death – except that I will come to that event, at some time. One decade, one year, one month, one minute, one second – it’s certain, but it’s all later, and it’s from the outside of the event. So, seeing others die tells me very little to make me intimate with death, really.
I use the words ‘death,’ and ‘dying’ and apart from seeing the bodies of others – that is, seeing the so-called ‘dying,’ and ‘death,’ of others – I still don’t have the faintest idea of what that is like, inside. If I don’t know what death feels like, if I don’t know what it’s like from the inside, then what meaning has the word in relation to myself? Very little, really. It remains an enigma. Seeing the death of others, mostly only brings this ‘later’ concept, not intimate knowledge.
I’ll stop breathing; my blood will stop flowing; my body will go cold; my senses will cease functioning; I will stop thinking and having emotions. I can think things like that, from the outside. I’ve seen that happen to others, so it’s clear. But, what’s that like as an experience?
I have witnessed a dying person having their ‘inside’ angle on the event – ‘an experience of dying.’ Can I know the essence of that, now, while living? Is there death at all, from the ‘inside’ angle? 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 life?
What do the earliest teachings, the Nikāyas – which are the classical pattern of the Buddhist teachings, the teachings closest to the historical Buddha – what do they say about this real-life challenge? This is not reality TV – a pathetic spectacle that depends on being displayed to the world, on others seeing it. One is, in an important sense, alone in this.
That’s where mindfulness comes in – because I can explore the very heart or essence of dying, in my own experience. It turns out that these early teaching have a lot to say about the challenge, and that they offer a pristine ‘present-moment awareness’ approach to death and dying. Their approach is very simple, and very applicable to life now – not just about the ‘later’ event, which I will certainly encounter.
It’s clear that the Nikāya Buddha sees a kind of three-tiered process happening. (These ‘layers’ needn’t be sequential; they can be seen as three levels that are always present, and with which we can familiarise ourselves.
I begin by examining how I am treating myself and others. I clean up my act. And, going deeper, being assured, I approach experience very differently – contemplatively. I listen and examine the teachings (the core of which are about consciousness, or citta.) I hold them up against my own experience, seeing if they work.
And, then in the last phase: I become the dharma, in a sense. Or, putting it differently, as I go deeper, seeing the nature of what is, I acknowledge that the dharma is not, has never been, separate to my life.
In this last, I’m reminded of a verse from a later Buddhist Gompopa who said:
May my mind become one with the dharma;
May the dharma progress along the path;
May the path clarify confusion;
May confusion dawn as wisdom.
(Looking at this, I wonder if it was meant to reflect the four noble truths teaching).
So, I’m saying, here, how there is a valid perspective, from which our learning can be said to have stages or levels – a development. (The test of its validity is that it works to bring more life). All of this development is a re-organisation of how we experience ‘time,’ ‘space’ and knowing. (I’ll expand these categories more clearly).
The Nikāyas say that as a result of re-aligning one’s pre-teaching, topsy-turvy perceptions with how things actually are (which you discover, as you inquire with an open heart), one knows the deathless – the unborn.
Who will master this earth,
the world of death and devas?
Who shall select a well-taught teaching
like an expert selects a flower?
A learner shall master this earth,
the world of death and devas.
A learner selects the well-taught teaching,
as an expert selects a flower.
– The Nikāya Buddha, Dhammapada, verse 44-45. Translated by Christopher J. Ash
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
Gotama’s pupils are ever awake:
day and night, constantly mindful in the body.
– Dhammapada, verse 299. Translated by Christopher J. Ash.
Let’s look, further, at this process of working with the dynamic, feeling body as the basis of our knowing. The value of directly knowing oneself experientially, supported by an attitude of kind curiosity, is inestimable. If you are dying, it can help in many ways – for example: to clear the mind of unneeded worries; to conserve energy; to awaken positivity; and, wondrously, to reveal the warmth and clarity of your very own awareness, even when in the midst of crisis.
The process we are exploring here is that which the Buddhists call ‘interdependent-arising,’ and, we can see how it works for us in enquiry. I offer a short section of a conversation, here – a fictional conversation between myself and someone inquiring. I’ll call him Kent.
Kent: “I’ve been feeling somewhat depressed the last few days.”
Christopher: “Right. That’s welcome. (A pause, while I check to see Kent’s response to my welcome.)
“Is it? Can you to be with the depressed part of you, like you were its friend?”
Kent: “I do try to do that usually, yes. I say ‘hello’ to the way it lives in my body. However, I slip away from it pretty quick.”
Christopher: “Oh, I see. So, could we say that at the moment a part of you doesn’t want to stay there for the depressed feeling? Is that it?”
Kent: “Something like that, yes.’ (Pauses, feeling in the middle of his body. Laughs) That part says ‘It’s a no-brainer. Who would want to sit with the ‘bog of eternal stench’?’”
Christopher: Wow! That’s a powerful image. Don’t let that one pass us by. Let’s keep that one near. It’s got a lot of energy.”
Kent: (Laughs) “Right. True, it does. (Mind you, you can thank David Bowie’s script writer for that.)”
Christopher: “Yeah, a wise movie, Labyrinth. But you’re saying that ‘the bog of eternal stench’ fits… right… with what you’ve got there, right? Kent: “It does, actually – because, a part of me wants to run helter-skelter the other direction.”
Christopher: “Right. Sit alongside that ‘fleeing’ place and get a feel for what it says about ‘the bog.’”
Kent: “Hmm. Okay. Let me see… (Silence). Well, actually, he’s not running so hard, right now. I can feel the bog. (Pauses)
“And… it’s not really… it’s more like… a pit of sadness.”
Christopher: “Okay. When you are empathic with it, it’s more like sadness.”
Kent already has some skills, of course, in turning toward difficult emotions. He’s been doing this kind of inner work for a while, and if I say something, he feels into his body, to resonate my words with his bodily felt process. With newcomers, it might not go quite so quickly and smoothly.
Now, let’s have lay out what is happening here, using the terms which the Nikāya Buddha uses for such interdependent processes; along with some more terms from our general inquiry. This feeling of being ‘somewhat depressed’ is made up of dynamic layers – it’s not a thing.
We started with some level of conflict. The ‘conflict’ here is within the person. Depression indicates different parts with different agendas. Why do I say, ‘parts,’ or ‘sub-personalities’ – when, of course, no-one is made up of parts? (This is an axiom, for me: Reality doesn’t have parts.)
Sub-personality theory says that these energetic patterns have a coherence to themselves, and that they have distinct differences to other such patterns. So, ‘parts language’ helps to differentiate them, to embody them, and to relate to them.
When talked about in this way we feel the patterns more deeply, and also bring other powerful factors into our relationship with the patterns: particularly, compassion and non-identification.
Attention is the state of the deathless; inattention is the state of death.
The attentive do not die; the inattentive are as though dead.
Knowing this, the learned rejoice in attention,
delighting in the field of the noble ones.
– The Dhammapada, verses 21-22. Translated by Christopher J. Ash
I am certain to die. Dying, to me, is about losing all semblance of control over experience. The reason death will be easy is that it does me. I won’t be doing my death; any more than I am doing my living.
Right now, where you are – choose not to be conscious. Not possible, is it? So, you’re not doing your knowing – knowing simply is. Notice what that’s like to let your body have the feel of that fact. There is a death in this.
What has been a revelation for me, in the last couple of decades, is that there are three levels of ‘knowing.’ On the surface I know that I’m sitting writing this blog post to you. As you can imagine, I could describe all kinds of things about the experience. Let’s call this the phenomenal level. At this level, it’s reasonable to say ‘I’ am a person, a white, Anglo-Celtic, male, and so on. You know the kind of thing. This knowing is choiceless, while extremely transient.
However, when I look more intimately, experiencing the quality of knowing itself – the mere fact that I am experiencing anything at all – it gets trickier. Indeed, at the deepest level I don’t have the faintest sign of a knowing one. There is knowing, but it has no ground; that is, if ground means some location or signs, or anything that I can point to. I have no idea where knowing comes from (and suspect that that ‘comes from’ is not a relevant frame of reference). There are all kinds of wonders about the dark mystery encountered at this depth, but none of them establish any ‘something’ or ‘someone’ knowing.
However, between that mystery and the phenomenal level, there is another personal level of knowing. I can sense that I have a ‘ground’ of luminous, spacious, intelligence. It partakes of the mystery in one sense – because it is also non-locatable, and without form – but it is so palpably present as to have presence as one of its felt facets. It is luminous, in the sense of being an all-pervading knowingness.
(When my pain gets too strong to function very well, it can be helpful for me to meditate on this. I enter it from inside it, and explore its qualities as space and energy. At some point, I can say, “Yes, there is pain.” And, I can also say, “There is awareness of the pain.” Then, I can shift my attention to feeling into the awareness itself. And, I find that, doing so, and discovering the painless, spacious, luminous knowingness of awareness of the pain, then the pain is easier to be with. There have been occasions when the pain turns into love. That I cannot fathom.)
So, what, if anything does this have to do with ethics? Having discovered the deeper two layers of knowing has transformed my understanding of ethics. I used to think that ethics was about choosing the wholesome over the unwholesome. It looks like that when your value-programs are running on the surface (phenomenal), with no integration with the luminous knowing, and no sense of the fathomless, implicit mystery. However, with the introduction of this deepest beauty, the surface re-organises itself in alignment with the deep. Even though (being signless, remember) it cannot be said to be limited by opposites (wholesome or unwholesome, for example), the voidness element eliminates selfishness.
The selfishness manifested on the surface is a result of believing that there are only surfaces. (There are people who make a philosophical position out of ‘only surfaces.’ During one of my training modules, in my therapy training, a Brief Therapy trainer began his lectures with: “There is no such thing as depth.” This works in logic, but not in practice. Consider the ‘feel’ of ‘I’m feeling spacey’ and ‘I’m feeling spacious.’ Clearly, even experiential space has depth.)
I suggest that meditation introduces us to the felt experience of ‘depth,’ and with it comes a capacity to feel ethical values as qualities in your being, and to independently assess culturally transmitted values. This is a part of what the Nikāya Buddha meant, in the Mindfulness Sutta, by: “She is one who dwells independent, not clinging to anything in the world. This is how a contemplative dwells contemplating the body in the body.” The field of ethical action, then, comes intrinsically with wakefulness, and is not derived from culturally-imposed norms.
Not causing harm,
doing what is beneficial,
and purifying one’s mind –
this is the way of the awakened.
– Dhammapada, verse 183. Translated by Christopher J. Ash.
All experiencing is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind.
Speak or act with a debased mind and dukkha follows,
as the wheel of a cart follows the hoof of the ox.
All experiencing is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind.
Speak or act with a purified mind, and well-being follows
like a shadow which never departs.
– Dhammapada, verse 1-2. Translated Christopher J. Ash
The point about death and love. So, a child’s attitude to love is naturally narcissistic, and mummy’s or daddy’s death is about themselves, and not about mummy’s or daddy’s – or, the family dog’s – experience. To care about the other’s experience wholly, would require a level of empathy and compassion that has yet emerge. This is all developmentally beautiful, and not a fault in nature. It’s an unfolding.
Our growth, then, if we are to absorb the lessons of death, needs two wings: wisdom and love. In respect of love, we need the development of warmth toward others; particularly, of kindness, empathy, and compassion. Kindness brings appreciation for otherness, empathy brings understanding of the other’s experience, and compassion brings an embrace of their dukkha. (That is, to take the dukkha of another to heart.) Narcissism is the refusal to do this.
Since I mention Narcissus so often, I thought it would be a good idea to visit the myth. During my psychotherapy training, I absorbed the implications of the ancient myth, recorded and expanded by the Roman Ovid, in his Metamorphoses. The myth shed light, for me, on the precarious condition of civilised humanity. The story of Echo and Narcissus is a story that points toward the purification of love.
Narcissus was the son of a river god and a water nymph. When Narcissus was born, Tiresias the blind seer was asked whether the child would live a long life. Tiresias replied: “He will live to old age, if he never knows himself.”
As a youth, Narcissus was very, very beautiful, and his beauty was comparable to the gods, naturally. However, he was conceited. Too proud, too haughty, to return the love of others and callous and indifferent to the suffering of those who fell in love with him, he mocks them. When an Oread (a mountain nymph) named Echo falls in love with him, he rejects her heartlessly. When she prays to the goddess of love, Aphrodite protects echo from the pain, by making her fade away from the woods and mountains. out of grief, leaving only her voice, which is heard by all.
However, another of the mocked and spurned lovers, a youth in this case murdered by Narcissus, prays to Heaven: “May Narcissus himself love, and not gain the thing he loves.” The goddess Nemesis, she whom none can escape, the goddess of divine justice, answers the prayer. She guides him to a pool – a still forest pool, one that had never been disturbed by human or animal – where he meets his fate. As he bends to drink from the pool, he sees his own image there, and, thinking it is some beautiful water-nymph living there in the pool, he longs to possess it, to have its marble-like beauty for himself.
Not being able to attain the thing he loves, he grieves, and he dies there by the pool. When nymphs come to bury his body, they find that a flower – the species we call the Narcissus – has sprouted in the place where he has died.
In respect of the opposites, when a subtle person has gone beyond,
Then all restraints dissolve for that realised one.
– Dhammapada, verse 384. Translated Christopher J. Ash
In my own development, and with my interest in human change processes, I’ve found it really helpful to clarify the uses of the word ‘acceptance.’ For a long time it wasn’t clear to me what the relationship was between acceptance and the necessary actions which change our lives. You’ve witnessed in these pages, how careful I am to note that total acceptance of reality, doesn’t mean being inactive in changing your life for the better.
It was particularly necessary for me, as a Westerner, to understand this, because two of my trusted Buddhist traditions – Zen and Dzogchen – recommend non-interference as the highest spiritual practice.
The verses of the Zen text called On Believing in Mind used to frustrate me intensely, when our group recited them, on retreat. It was written by Seng-ts’an, the third patriarch of (Chinese) Ch’an, who died 606 CE. The opening verses will give you a taste of what frustrated me, perhaps. This translation is by D.T. Suzuki, and the full text of this long and profound poem, is here:
The Perfect Way knows no difficulties
Except that it refuses to make preferences;
Only when freed from hate and love,
It reveals itself fully and without disguise;
A tenth of an inch’s difference,
And heaven and earth are set apart;
If you wish to see it before your own eyes,
Have no fixed thoughts either for or against it.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
This is the disease of the mind:
When the deep meaning [of the Way] is not understood
Peace of mind is disturbed to no purpose.
[The Way is] perfect like unto vast space,
With nothing wanting, nothing superfluous:
It is indeed due to making choice
That its suchness is lost sight of.
Pursue not the outer entanglements,
Dwell not in the inner void;
Be serene in the oneness of things,
And [dualism] vanishes by itself.
Of course, we have here the same themes as we find in my many quotes from the Nikāya Buddha. On Believing in Mind, is in the same lineage, despite being written roughly eleven hundred years later in a far away country, and despite its Taoist flavour.
My difficulty, in those days, was the same as any intelligent Westerner’s would be. I thought: “I have to make choices in my life – as a householder, a parent, a teacher, a citizen in a democracy, and so on. And, as a person concerned about the ecologicial viability of human activity, there are things that matter to me, things I feel strongly about. It’s not good enough, to say (as I have heard a Zen Buddhist say) that Deep Ecologists don’t understand emptiness, if they protest the destruction of whales.”
And, I’m certainly not about to say that it’s fine to hand control of the U.S. military juggernaut over to just any fool (to wit, Donald Trump). So, what kind of ‘disease of the mind’ is it, to choose to discern and oppose ratbags? There must be a way to reconcile this, I thought; because, Buddhism, I reasoned, is a tradition that is supposed to help us end such ignorance, and my own aggression toward fools. So, how can a doctrine of radical acceptance help the ordinary person like me?
Eventually, I began to think that the poem was referring to different dimensions of mind. I reasoned that there had to be an understanding that took care of both the ‘outer’ layers of becoming, those layers of awareness involved in choosing; and, which also took care of the inner of the inner – Being itself – where surrender made more sense. It began to feel like heaven and earth could possibly be reconciled, after all. The doubt was resolved for me, when I pondered the second case of the Japanese Zen Mumonkan (which I’ll explain later). However, I also found a concept which helped, in an article by the French psychoanalyst, and interpreter of Zen, Hubert Benoit. And, it’s this I’d like to share with you today. (The article has been published in a few forms, but my copy was published in Parabola, volume XV, No.2 1990, Summer 1990.)
In the article, he speaks of: a temporal tendency, and an atemporal tendency toward being. He writes:
Thus I see that the two tendencies which are in me must have exactly opposite directions: the temporal tendency must naturally go toward constant modifying of my ordinary situation; the tendency toward “being” must go toward the total acceptance of this situation in each instant.
And, he notes that the problem for us is when our one hundred percent of our attention is given to the temporal tendency. The important thing to notice is that attention toward Being is in each instant; not hampered by time.
The tendency to modify my situation and the tendency to accept it would evidently be irreconcilable if they had to act on the same level. But this is not the case. The tendency to modify acts on the automatic level of my impulsive life; this happens first. The tendency to accept [however] acts on the level of conscious reflection, where I see myself, where I am subject for whom the impulses of my life are object. [My parenthesis.]
Different levels. I call them different perspectives on the unnameable, or different dimensions of the immeasurable. However, whatever we call them – this concept is very helpful. The point being that the tendency to being is dependent on releasing some of our attention (frontal cortex energy) for its purpose, for self-reflection on our total situation, our big situatedness. From that perspective, the life of impulse does not take up all of my attention.
So, my frustration was due to erroneous concepts, just as the Nikāya Buddha had taught Sakka. I had thought of acceptance as only opposite rejection; that is, that rejection could not be acceptance. On the surface level of experience, the impulse level, that makes sense. However, on the deep level of instantaneous awareness: Radical Acceptance does not hinder the life of the impulses, and its realm of temporal action. Pure reflection transcends and includes the life of impulse. (‘Transcend and include’ is an Wilberian ‘Integral’ concept.) So, it’s more like this (using a depth orientation):
And, so it is that some people have borne witness to feeling such a deep sense of complete joy while holding a dying loved one in their arms. Of course, on the level of impulse, there is the poignancy of loss, and in the depth of one’s being, found in combodiment, there is the joy of the whole life of Being.
Set free in front, set free behind, and set free in the middle; gone beyond.
Mind freed everywhere, one will not approach birth and old age.
– Dhammapada, verse 348. Translated Christopher J. Ash
With the cessation of divisive perception, erroneous reflection ceases. With the cessation of tainted reflection, wilfulness ceases. With the cessation of wilfulness, unskilful preferences cease. And by the cessation of preferences, aggression and self-bias (selfishness) are overthrown, and all violence ceases. No angry ape – in the car, the office, the kitchen, the bedroom, in dreams, or in parliament.
Anger, rage, ill-will, egoistic displeasure (or, egotistical pleasure) – they all depend on selfishness (that is, on identifications involving ‘me and mine’). They also depend on rejection of reality as it is. The mind-set includes rejecting another point of view but one’s own hungry ape view. This means that being displeased with things-as-they-are is present. I’ve been wanting to write something about acceptance. The idea of not grasping means accepting the totality of one’s life, just as it is. That sounds crazy, to I-systems that have become so used to operating in the basis of deficiency.
So, I want to re-iterate an important qualification. Let’s say I have the unpleasant experience – for instance, a loved one is angry with me. What is the wise relationship to the experience? Firstly, I don’t push it away. I welcome it, thinking (to my immediate feelings): “Hello hurt.” That allows me sufficient pause, or dispassion. Dispassion, here, means unhooking to the habitual reactivity, and that I receive all my experience intimately, unmediated by how I think it should be. Reactivity means that I’m pushing it away. So, I fully experience the unpleasant experience. It is happening, after all. In respect of the other person, I may step away from them, perhaps; but I don’t deny my feel of the experience – which is knowledge.
It’s easy to misunderstand dispassion. It doesn’t mean not feeling. It means not indulging in the feeling, not adding a ‘me-story’ to it. Not adding legs to a snake. The bad experience is already happening. It’s an illusion to think that you may not experience what is already being experienced, what is already happening. ‘Ouch’ is just ‘ouch,’ and I needn’t make it into ‘this ouch is wrong, it shouldn’t be here.’ If I try to put non-pleasing feelings or sensations away, I am reinforcing the underlying division into ‘me’ and ‘my experience.’ I am strengthening the bystander experience of my life. I continue the severance from the greater life-process.
The hurt feeling, for instance, is already here as sensations arising in the middle area of my torso. We may think we are rejecting that person there (on the other side of the table, the end of the phone, in the back seat of the car, on the other end of an email, at the front of the class) when, actually, we are refusing is our present experience. That means a loss of vitality, because, pleasant or unpleasant, any experience has energy which can be transmuted. So, to be a warrior on the great way of self-knowledge, we turn toward intimacy with whatever our inner experience is, at any moment.
When we accept the limitations of our life totally, we find ourselves integrated in the present situation, beyond our ego-affirmation or negation. The limits imposed by our actual life are the real ‘now,’ not the one we think we should have. And, there our constructing activities, our fashioning tendencies, can end. We find ourselves in maximum spiritual freedom, at this limit of our becoming.
Sitting alone, resting alone, walking alone,
Untiring and alone,
Whoever has tamed oneself
Will find delight in the forest.
– Dhammapada, verse 305. Translated Gil Fronsdal
In the forest, at a rock concert, on a beach, in a prison, in a hospital bed, or in a royal court. This is a serious problem. Why aren’t we making it national policy to teach citizens to be alone in their own minds?
I woke up today a little muddy, and it took me a little while to get warmed to the day. The first thing that I did was invoke R.A.I.N. After the recognition, I accepted that I was muddy. And then I committed to being present anyhow. This freshened my attention at least. I naturally investigated what was happening in myself, and what I found was a feeling of being alone. This investigation quickly dropped below the surface and I noticed that I was with ‘a second.’ That is, that I was muttering to myself as though I was my own company. Sadutiyavihāri, means ‘dwelling with a second.’ That’s a way of avoiding feeling lonely which exacerbates loneliness.
I remember how moved I was when young, by a phrase Krishnamurti used: to be utterly psychologically alone. ‘Alone,’ etymologically, means ‘all one.’ A sense of unity, with no companion. I can’t remember where K. said that, but here’s a passage by him on the topic:
We are never alone; we are surrounded by people and by our own thoughts. Even when the people are distant, we see things through the screen of our thoughts. There is no moment, or it is very rare, when thought is not. We do not know what it is to be alone, to be free of all association, of all continuity, of all word and image. We are lonely, but we do not know what it is to be alone. The ache of loneliness fills our hearts, and the mind covers it with fear. Loneliness, that deep isolation, is the dark shadow of our life. We do everything we can to run away from it, we plunge down every avenue of escape we know, but it pursues us and we are never without it. Isolation is the way of our life; we rarely fuse with another, for in ourselves we are broken, torn and unhealed. In ourselves we are not whole complete, and the fusion with another is possible only when there is integration within. We are afraid of solitude, for it opens the door to our insufficiency, the poverty of our own being; but it is solitude that heals the deepening wound of loneliness. To walk alone, unimpeded by thought, by the trail of our desires, is to go beyond the reaches of the mind. It is the mind that isolates, separates and cuts off communion. The mind cannot be made whole; it cannot make itself complete, for that very effort is a process of isolation, it is part of the loneliness that nothing can cover. The mind is the product of the many, and what is put together can never be alone. Aloneness is not the result of thought. Only when thought is utterly still is there the flight of the alone to the alone.
– Jiddu Krishnamurit, Commentaries On Living, Series II Chapter 20
We don’t dwell alone. We not only habitually seek outer company, but when ‘alone’ we fill our minds with ‘a second self’ and people our inner world with others, constantly.
In the Nikāyas, there’s a phrase: “saddhā dutiyā purisassa hoti”; which means that there is faith in ‘a second self.’ An inner companion made from desire. There’s a shorter expression, too: Sadutiyo, which is (literally) “with a second.” Elsewhere the reference is to taṇhā-dutiyā, which is both “connected with thirst (craving),” and “having thirst (craving) as one’s companion.” This is the root of all the sub-personality suffering. This is the work of saṅkhāra – fashioning tendencies.
In Shakespeare’s Richard II, in the fallen king’s soliloquy in Pembroke Prison, we have a good example of this, and a great expression, too, of the conflict-dukkha involved. I take the beginning and the ending of the passage:
Like Richard II:
I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.
My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father; and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts,
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humours* like the people of this world, [* dispositions]
For no thought is contented. The better sort,
As thoughts of things divine, are intermix’d
With scruples and do set the word itself
Against the word….
Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king’d again: and by and by
Think that I am unking’d by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: but whate’er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.
We so rarely let our minds be still, silent, un-locatable and alone, because we are afraid to become nothing. However, the nothing we become is no more than the nothing we have always been, so it’s not so bad. And, it doesn’t take sitting on a cushion, in meditation to appreciate the still mind. With training, we can do it frequently while in activities throughout the day.
Remembering the conversation between the Nikāya Buddha and Sakka, here’s how that Buddha describes a person who unhooks from the mental habit of peopling his or her inner world, in the Migajāla Sutta (Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation.) It starts “Now, there are forms cognizable via the eye…”
“There are sounds cognizable via the ear… aromas cognizable via the nose… flavors cognizable via the tongue… tactile sensations cognizable via the body… ideas cognizable via the intellect — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing — and a monk does not relish them, welcome them, or remain fastened to them. As he doesn’t relish them, welcome them, or remain fastened to them, delight ceases. There being no delight, he is not impassioned. Being not impassioned, he is not fettered. A monk disjoined from the fetter of delight is said to be a person living alone.
“A person living in this way — even if he lives near a village, associating with monks & nuns, with male & female lay followers, with kings & royal ministers, with sectarians & their disciples — is still said to be living alone. A person living alone is said to be a monk. Why is that? Because the craving that was his companion has been abandoned by him. Thus he is said to be a person living alone.”
Thoughts don’t only people this world, they make it a little world. Mindfulness expands our world to infinity. This is what the Nikāya Buddha means in another passage, from the Bhaddekaratta Sutta. (MN131). This version is translated from the Pali by Thich Nhat Hanh:
We must be diligent today.
To wait till tomorrow is too late.
Death comes unexpectedly.
How can we bargain with it?
The sage calls a person who
dwells in mindfulness
night and day
‘the one who knows
the better way to live alone.’
– From Our Appointment with Life: Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone.
Post-script: After writing this, I read a poem by Gary Snyder, pertinent to the theme of being truly present at all times, and of the expected scariness of such a naked state of mind:
The Earth’s Wild Places
Your eyes, your mouth and hands,
the public highways.
Hands, like truck stops,
semis rumbling in the corners.
Eyes like the bank clerk’s window
I love all the parts of your body
friends hug your suburbs
farmlands are given a nod
but I know the path to your wilderness.
It’s not that I like it best,
but we’re almost always
alone there, and it’s scary
but also calm.
– Snyder, Gary This Present Moment: New Poems
“It is perception, consciousness, that is the source of all the basic obstacles [to peace]”
– the Buddha of the Sutta-Nipāta. Translated by Saddhatissa.
Today’s post looks at the finer detail of how the angry ape plays such tricks as would make the angels weep. (Measure for Measure, II.ii) He could be driving a car next to you, today. She could be you, at the office. It could be your sister, brother, mother or father, your cousin, or best friend, who dumps on you today. The ape is anyone in conflict with reality.
Here’s the general breakdown of processes involved. Conflict situations depend on selfishness – that is, on identifications involving involving ‘me and mine.’ They depend on rejection of ‘what is.’ One clings to one’s own strongly held view. Naturally, then, being displeased with things-as-they-is (sic) is present. This has a feel like: “It has to be my way.” Or, “I hate it when….” Or, “Why me?” Under this clinging is the will to exist in accordance with how I think – not with how isness is; but with how isness should be, for me. “This shouldn’t be happening to me!” Though, of course, it is actually happening, irrespective of my preferences. But, my rule is that things like this are not to happen to me!
So, in a conflict with someone, when angry or enraged, our less conscious views include that we are boundaried selves (located objects) in a surrounding environment. The environment is a hostile or dangerous not-self ‘out there.’ There’ll be a lot implied, here, depending on one’s innate character style, and one’s life-experiences. One’s very existence can even feel, on the basis of this ego-system, threatened by an off-hand comment or the toot of a horn! However, all this is not something irreversible, because the reaction, however strong, is merely dependent on habit-energy. It goes deep, of course, and it is warrior’s work to turn toward your own ‘stuff,’ and to approach it with a learner’s mind.
Though one conquers in battle
a thousand times a thousand men,
one is the greatest war-hero
who conquers just one’s self.
– Dhammapada, verse 103. Translated Christopher J. Ash
The most profound learning is engaged in, when one encounters the field of the fundamental habitual splits, created by grasping and naming. The split is in the holistic ground of primordial experiencing. The split can be summed up this way: a separate ‘perceiver’ is imagined to exist ‘in here,’ over and against the ‘perceived’ there. The good news is: because this is about experiencing, then this can be understood in our own experience, and we can establish contact with wholeness.
“Anger, confusion and dishonesty arise when things are set in pairs as opposites. The person with perplexity must train himself in the path of knowledge. The recluse has declared the Truth after realization.’
– Sutta-nipāta, verse 868. Translation, Saddhatissa.
‘Experiencer and experienced’ is a fundamental dualism, which gives rise to many kinds of ‘this and that.’ ‘I/not-I,’ ‘exist/not-exist,’ ‘here/there,’ ‘this way’/‘that way,’ ‘inside/outside,’ and so on – all arise.
When angry, look for the sense of a bystander perceiver in ‘here,’ with a perceived problem-one over there. The other is an object, at this point. That is, something ‘thrown’ (-ject) over there (ob-); which is also something ‘fallen out’ from the primordial ground. The Oxford English Dictionary says that the word object means literally a thing thrown before or presented to the mind or thought. This is what rejection and selfishness do to interactional life of undivided multiplicity – they split it up.
It happens incredibly quickly, and only mind-training gets to the root of this. It can be done, though. To that end we train ourselves in calm and inquiry (samatha-vipassanā), opening up new ways of experiencing. The world is usually experienced as a world of bits dispersed all over the place, with our intentions seeming to be the only factor of coherence. This kind of world has to be devalorised through insight into its actuality – how it actually works – which leads (if skilfully done) to developing inner powers of compassion and wisdom; and, realising the power of the wisdom beyond wisdom. This profound inner guidance takes over as we deepen into the way of discovery.
Swans travel through the sky –
the leaders direct their course with inner power.
The wise are guided from the world,
having conquered Māra and his army.
– Dhammapada, verse 175. Translated Christopher J. Ash
Regarding the dynamics of personality-formation and its maintenance (paṭiccasamuppāda), there are many texts showing this in the Buddhist Nikāyas. There are several perspectives given of this dynamic. For instance, in The Sakka Panha Sutta, the Nikāya Buddha (teacher of gods), is questioned by the powerful god, Sakka. He asks the Buddha about the causes of conflict everywhere. ‘Why there is there all this violence? People want to live good lives, but they end up in all kinds of conflict.’ The Buddha’s answer is: “It’s due to rejection and selfishness.” Sakka then continues the enquiry, going deeper step by step, until the root cause is found. I’ll summarise the points made in this particular sutta, with a little commentary, tomorrow.