Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Nothing to Do

It has been a long time since I thought it prudent to put anything down here. Life has brought interesting times. As in the Chinese curse, "[m]ay you live in interesting times." Interesting times, indeed.

One of the hardest things about Soto Zen meditation, or zazen, is that it requires one to put aside the samsaric mind completely. The samsaric mind, the wandering mind, is constantly looking for something. A thought. An experience. A state of mind called enlightenment.

Like a stubborn Zen master, zazen gives this mind nothing to eat. When sitting, one merely sits, although silently and with attention. But beyond a few basic pointers on form and some rudimentary attention, we are left with nothing to do.

It can infuriate the mind conditioned to doing. The mind likes to pick and choose. In zazen, nothing is picked and nothing is chosen. Things are allowed to be, exactly as they are. No more, no less.

The good news is that the burden is lifted. Because there really is nothing to do, there is nothing to gain. Without gain, there is no loss. Without gain and loss, there is no stress. And without stress... well, that must really be tasted to be believed.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Kyoto Dreams

Even in Kyoto—

hearing the cuckoo's cry—

I long for Kyoto.

--- Basho

Ancient Buddhist teaching has taught that consciousness (vijnana) is a story making machine. It connects the dots, makes patterns, and turns wiggly black letters into fully formed words and sentences.

Think about it. We have a steady stream of sensations coming in. Colors come in through the eyes. Sounds come in through the ears. Internal and external sensations light up the body in vary shades of light and dark, pain and joy. Yet we do not experience a series of drips and drops. We experience a smooth, continuous flow of experience that appears to carry from one moment to the next.

Consciousness, or the mind, creates a story. In fact, this is its job. It can help us. If we were confronted with a confusing jumble of sights, sounds, and sensations, it would be hard to avoid the attacking tigers and find the right types of plant to eat.

The problem is that we mistake the story for the reality. The story is a dream that consciousness creates from the bare facts of what we experience. Over time, we begin to believe the dream. We think in terms of self and other, good and bad, this and that. We create a separation between ourselves and what is happening. This leads to suffering.

To undo this process, it is important to look at the bare facts. When we are sitting, we are often tempted to dream our time away thinking about what happened to us yesterday or what we're going to do later. We tell ourselves stories instead of developing insight.

The same thing happens at night when we dream. We get so caught up in the story, even if it is completely bizarre. We believe the dream is real. We may try to change or manipulate the dream to make it more pleasant. But spirituality isn't about changing or manipulating the dream. It is about waking up. One way to wake up in a dream is to examine the dream closely. For example, in a dream if you see an oak door with a brass handle, and you look away, and look back, the door will often change. Maybe now it is a white plywood door with a different handle. When this happens, we are often "jarred" into realizing we are in a dream.

The same goes for waking life.

One meditation secret is stop feeding into the story. Look at the thoughts. Shift away from the narrative and to the alphabet. What is a thought? Where does it begin? Where does it end? Is it permanent? Is it satisfying? Is it really me?

I've heard from too many people who spend all their mediation time dreaming up stories. This can go on for months and even years. A little actual practice goes a long way.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Full emptiness, empty emptiness, and an empty mind

The word emptiness is often thrown around in spiritual circles, in different contexts, leading to confusion.  For purposes of this post, I will distinguish between three types of emptiness:

1.  Emptiness as the source.  This is the root in Taoism, represented by the character wu.  It is an emptiness that is potential, but is unrealized.  Without attributes, it gives rise to all things. 

2.  Emptiness as openess.  This is more of emptiness is the Buddhist sense.  In Chinese, it is represented by the character kong, which also means open.  In Madhyamaka philosophy, it is emptiness of self nature, i.e. and independent and enduring subtance.  Another way to put this is that things depend on each other and are open to change.

3.  A blank mind.  Many people when they hear about meditation think of a blank mind. 

The Taoist may state that all things arise from wu.  The Buddhist may state that all things are kong.  However, it is important not to confuse the two.  Under traditional Taoist cosmology, Tao gives rise to wu chi, wu chi to tai chi, and tai chi to the universe.  According to the Book of Balance and Harmony, arising goes from subtle to gross.  The physical world arises from the energetic world, which arises from the spirit world, which arises from the uncreated.  Contrary to materialism, which says that the mind arises from physical processes, the physical processes arise from more subtle energies. 

An astute observer will think here of Huang Po and other Chinese Chan masters and their teachings of the pure or original mind. 

However, when a Buddhist says that the mind is empty, they are referring to the lack of a closed, independent, unchanging nature.  Here, emptiness is a lack.  It exists only as a mental concept.  So when a Buddhist says a table is empty, it doesn't mean that the table is not there in some way.  It just means that there is no "table" substance--- there are only parts of a table.  And looking in these parts, there is no table nature there either.  The table is nothing more than an arrangement of parts. 

Some people, when they hear of emptiness think that they must make their minds blank.  Some masters have stated that a cultivated mind is empty of thought.  I can attest from experience that as one cultivates ethics, mediation, and right living, thoughts tend to become quiet and less in number.  Patanjali starts his yoga sutras by stating that the aim of yoga is ending the modification of the mind. 

Accordingly, people wish to jump to the end. 

Because of this, people think that if they make their mind empty, they will achieve the same thing the masters are talking about.  However, they are mistaking the outer appearance for the inner nature.  A mind becomes empty of thoughts naturally when it stops clinging to things.  This is why Hui Neng said that no mind means freedom from thought in the midst of thought, not a lack of thought.

A forced emptiness is sterile.  I believe this is what the masters criticized as dead tree zen.  A mind in a forced state of stillness is not responsive.  The Taoist virtue of natural spontaneity is lost.

A mind that does not cling is ready for anything, on the other hand, can respond to everything.  This sort of mind attains the best of wu and kong.  It is open and pregnant with possibilities. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

E = mc2

Matter is frozen energy.
--- Einstein
All beings by nature are Buddha,

As ice by nature is water.
Apart from water there is no ice;
Apart from beings, no Buddha.

--- Hakuin
Paul Brunton drew the connection between modern physics and ancient wisdom many years ago.

It can be hard to see the relationship between matter, which is solid, and energy, which is free flowing.  Yet the ancient sages, and modern physicists, do just this.  In fact, modern physics tells us the entire material universe can be drawn back to a single point of intense energy.  The solid world we see around is is simply caused by the repuslive fields around particles--- since atoms are mostly empty space. 

So why is hard to accept that all things are consciousness, as the Hindu masters have taught?    And not just Hindu masters.  Taoist sages have already drawn the ascension from the material to ethereal, converting jing to chi to shen to Void.   

In fact, one might think that the modern temperment, freed from the past prejudices toward form, would be uniquely prepared to understand this truth.  Perhaps we are too close to the truth.  The Vedantins often say that the only reason we know impermanence is that there is a part of that stands apart from change. 

Indeed, changelessness guides us toward the real.  If I saw a person for an instant, I would write that person off as a hallucination.  Not real.  It is only when a person lasts, through time, that I am to believe that such a person exists. 

Yet, taking a larger view, is there really so much of a difference between a mental image that lasts for a flash, or a human being who lasts for eighty years?  Not in the span of billions of years.  In such a span, each of us is but a flash.  Unreal.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Chaos, Beginnings, and Energy

Lately, I've been facing  a lot of changes.  A new job at work, new interests.  When I was in college, there was a poster in a coffee shop that had a Chinese pictogram on it.  It said:

Chaos.  In the beginning of something new, there is chaos.  Before a wise person becomes great, they must first look foolish to the crowd.

I have found this to be true.  Often, the spiritual life is about cultivating sattvic qualities: a clear, undisturbed mind.  This is fine for the monk or the swami, but not for those of us making our way in the world.  For us, we need to learn to pay attention during intense times of activity, or rajas.

For me, these new beginnings have brought a lot of energy.  It is good, in that this energy has spurred a lot of creative activity.  But it has also made my mind-body restless.  This is not a bad thing, for it allows me to remember what it's like to have such a mind-body.  And it also remind me that the elements of experience are still the same.  It doesn't matter whether you are calm or agitated, all things are empty.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Path to Heaven

Know that which has form to be unreal and the formless to be permanent.  Through this spiritual instruction, you will escape the possibility of rebirth.

--- Astavakra Samhita (trans. Swami Nityaswarupananda)
The scripture here gives us a key. Whatever has form is unreal. Finding the formless is the path to the real.

So what is form? Form is something that has qualities: colors, sounds, scents, tastes, or feeling. Physical objects have form.

Throughout history and cultures, sages have often directed our attention to formless things as pointers to the truth. In Taoism, there is much talk about water. In Christianity, there is light. Tibetan Buddhists often talk about space. 

In Hindu thought, the spectrum of existence is arranged from the absolute formless (nirguna Brahman) to absolute form or matter (prakriti). It is said that the formless gives rise to the form. This happens in a series of stages from the most subtle to the gross. The more subtle a thing is, the higher up on the spiritual hierarchy. Why? Because it is more like the highest.

The same goes for Taoism. The highest, the Tao, is without form. The lower end of creation is the 10,000 things. Creation goes from the Tao, to the one, to yin and yang, to the five elements, to all things. Returning to the Tao is ascending the ladder from form to formlessness.

In Christianity, the first thing that is created is light. Light on the first day, whereas the bodies of light (sun and moon) are created on the fourth day. The heaven and earth start out “formless”.

Accordingly, physical matter being mostly form is at the bottom. Thoughts are higher because they are less substantial. Awareness is higher because it even more formless than thought. Intuition is ranked higher than intellectual knowledge because it has less form.

Seen in this light, one can clearly see the pathway to return to the source.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Brain and the Mind

The brain and the mind is an interesting subject and a great personal question for me.  The question is:  does physical brain create the mind?

Obviously, the brain and the mind are linked.  Damage to the brain can effect the functioning of the mind.  Meditation can impact the brain.  The materialist conclusion is that the brain produces the mind.  However, others have pointed out that correlation does not mean causation, as we have explored in the posts on dependent origination.  The most we can say is there is a correlation between the brain and the mind.

An intriguing, alternate suggestion is that the brain is a receptor for the mind.  Under this theory, the brain is essential to the full functioning of the mind, and damage to the brain can affect this functioning.  The analogy is between a radio and the music.  The radio does not create the music, it transmits it.  However, damage to the radio can impair transmission.  This theory can be traced back to William James, the famous pragmatist.

Ferdinand Schiller proposed that the purpose of the physical brain was to limit consciousness, to focus it on on the physical realm.  According to Schiller, "Matter is not that which produces consciousness, but that which limits it and confines its intensity within certain limits."  Simple and course machinery allows simple and course manifestations of consciousness, i.e. animals and insects. In this way, matter is like a circuit that conducts the energy of consciousness in a certain way.

This is very much in line with the concept of upadhi in Advaita.  Upadhi limits infinite consciousness.  This is a type of creation by limitation, and may at first sound counter-intuitive.  But consider water.  Water in its raw, pure form is too much for us to use.  We need to limit it, through dams or canals, or with hoses.  Then we can use it in a specific way.   

Of course, this is just something to ponder.