Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dependent Origination Revisited

In an online discussion forum, some one wrote: 

So for you Buddhists, could you please fill in the blank:

Humanity is dependently originated from the Earth.
The Earth is dependently originated from the Universe.
The Universe is dependently originated from _______________________.

I took issue with the phrasing, and wrote:  

Humanity is dependently originated with the Universe.
The Earth is dependently originated with the Universe.
The Universe is dependently originated with earth and humanity.
When asked to explain, I wrote:

The simplest phrasing of dependent origination is:

When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn't, that isn't.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

Imasmi sati, ida hoti.
Imass’ uppādā, ida uppajjati.
Imasmi asati, ida na hoti.
Imassa nirodhā, idha nirujjhati.

In simple terms:
When x arises, y arises.
When x does not arise, y does not arise.

What the Buddha is pointing to, in my opinion, is not that things cause one another, put that things arise together.  "Causation" is the tag we place between two events, x and y.   Now this is not a random arising, as you can see by the formulation: when there is no x, there is no y.  And when there is x, there is y.  Without this, the world would be random.   (One could say, this is because of the Tao!)

Second, there are no solid objects.  Boundaries are fuzzy.  We cannot draw a clear line between one thing and another.  So to say the earth is one thing, and the universe is another doesn’t make sense.  The earth is a part of the universe, and there is no clear dividing line. 

So let’s take a seed and a tree.  The seed arises, and the tree arises.  Without the seed, there is no tree.  But the seed did not cause the tree, did it?  No, there was also the sunshine, the soil, the water, the nutrients.  You also need space, time, a universe for all this to take place in.  And there is no clear distinction between the tree, the soil, and the sunshine.  The sunshine becomes the tree. The tree is linked to the sun.   Further, at what point does the seed stop being a seed, and become a tree?  With the first tendril?  The first part of the tendril? 

Likewise, with all things. 

Instead of earth and universe, let’s use finger and hand.  The finger is a part of the hand.  But it is wrong to say the hand causes the finger.  But without the hand, there is no finger.  However, the hand can exist without the finger.  But let’s say we take away all the fingers, is there still a hand?  At what point does it not become a hand?  They depend on one another. 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

No Thoughts or No Added Thoughts

There is a sense in the spiritual community that spiritual practice is opposed to thought.  In fact, some believe that the purpose of meditation is to eliminate thought.

Both Zen and Tao, perhaps drawing from the same source, cast a certain suspicion on thoughts.  Zen literature is full of masters telling their students to cut off thinking.  Some take this to mean that one should sit in a mental blankness.

James Swartz has pointed out the problem with this.  There are spaces between thoughts, natural spaces that occur without any sort of practice.  If the split moment of no thought between thoughts doesn't bring enlightenment, then why would we think that hours or no thought will bring enlightenment?

There is another way to approach no thought.  The warning against thinking doesn't mean we should cultivate a mental blank, but that we should not add thoughts onto what is already arising.  For example, if I am drinking a cup of coffee, I might be thinking about something else, like what I have to do today.  I might be thinking about whether I like the cup of coffee or not.  I might be thinking about the meaning of coffee generally.  In a sense, I am suffering when I do this, because I am running away from the moment.  The feel and taste of coffee is a mystery.  Once we try to capture it with words and phrases, it loses the mystery.

As we know from the opening of the Tao Te Ching, the Tao that can be named is not the enduring Tao.

The world presents itself as it is, in all of its wonderful glory.  We take this world, and then we add a layer of thoughts, concepts, and representations to it.  This is the descent into the word of form, the world of limitation, the world of suffering.

Yet to say that thinking itself is bad is taking thinking and adding another thought to it.  I would say, in the language of Zen, you are adding a head on top of your head.  Thought, like everything else, is a present forming mystery.  

So perhaps the Zen master's admonition to "cut off thinking" is not to stop the thinking process, but to stop the adding process, which is adding thoughts to things as they are. 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Original Sin, Original Ignorance

Buddhism is different from Christianity in how sin is defined.  In Christianity, sin is doing something wrong.  There is a rule, and you break that rule, it is a sin.  In fact, Christianity teaches that people are already born into sin, with original sin inherited from our parents.

Buddhism takes a different approach.  It teaches that we are born in ignorance.  We just don’t know.  When we do something wrong, it is because we are ignorant.  If we knew better, we wouldn’t have done it. 

Most crimes depend on us being ignorant of ourselves and of others.  Sin can be its own punishment.  If we are cold and cruel toward another, we become cold and cruel.  Our mind narrows, our emotions weaken, and we are worse off.  We are ignorant of others because we don’t consider their feelings, their inner states.  I don’t consider your suffering when I do something to you, because if I did, I wouldn’t be able to hurt you.

The path in Buddhism is to discover how our mind-bodies work, and what they are like.  Because the more we learn about ourselves, the more we learn about others.  Other people are just like us, only the content is different.  You and I both have thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations; we are both aware and have hopes and dreams, loves and losses.  They are different thoughts and feelings, but essentially we are the same.  As I learn about my pain and suffering, and then I see you in pain and suffering, I can easily put myself in your place.  I’ve felt your suffering.  If I know myself well enough, I can project myself into your situation and know exactly how I would feel.

This is the birth of compassion.  This may be why in Buddhism, wisdom and compassion and developed at the same time. 

Saturday, August 28, 2010

True Self and No Self

Anyone familiar with the spiritual writings of India will notice two distinct lines of thought.  There is the Vedanta line, which says that there is a true, unchanging, permanent self.  Then there is the Buddhist camp, which says there is in fact no self.  I once asked Shinzen Young, a meditation teacher, and his answer was they had the same experience, but half the holy seers called it the true self and half called it the no self. 

The key to fully understanding this mystery lies in long practice, and a close look at the teachings of Buddhism and Vedanta.  Here is an excerpt from Huang Po, which is part of his brilliant summation of Buddha nature:

All the Buddhas and all sentient beings are nothing but the One Mind, beside which nothing exists. This Mind, which is without beginning, is unborn and indestructible. It is not green nor yellow, and has neither form nor appearance. It does not belong to the categories of things which exist or do not exist, nor can it be thought of in terms of new or old. It is neither long nor short, big nor small, for it transcends all limits, measures, names, traces and comparisons. It is that which you see before you - begin to reason about it and you at once fall into error. It is like the boundless void which cannot be fathomed or measured. The One Mind alone is the Buddha, and there is no distinction between the Buddha and sentient things, but that sentient beings are attached to forms and so seek externally for Buddhahood.  

Now compare this excerpt from a modern Vedanta teacher, Ananda Wood:

Each Advaita prakriya (method) goes through this reflective and dissolving process, including
the witness and the consciousness prakriyas that we have been discussing. The witness prakriya is like ‘using a thorn to get rid of a thorn’. The ‘witness’ concept is like a big thorn, used to remove the little thorn of petty ego. The big thorn must come out as well, to achieve its purpose. But the same applies to the concept of ‘consciousness’ and to any other idea. ‘Consciousness’is also a big thorn, even bigger than the ‘witness’. It is not just the witness concept that must get utterly dissolved, in order to reach truth. So must the idea of consciousness – appearing in any form, signified by any name, intuited through any quality. In truth itself, not the slightest trace of ideation can remain.

Vedanta teaches that there are two types of Brahman, or ultimate reality: saguna Brahman and nirguna Brahman.  Sa- means with and nir- means without.  The gunas are the fundamental threads of reality--- sattva, rajas, and tamas.  Saguna means with attributes, and nirguna means without attributes.  Nirguna Brahman is real Brahman, and in Vedanta, Atman, or the individual soul, is Brahman.  So the true self, or atman, is nirguna Brahman, or Brahman without attributes.  Compare this to Huang Po’s one mind which is without form.

Now this is a fine intellectual theory, how can it help our practice? 

All the wise seers of India agree that the end of suffering, or happiness, is not found in the world of names or forms, or material objects.  Discovering this is the first Noble Truth: there is suffering.  In the experience of spiritual seekers, this often comes as a great disappointment or dark night of the soul.  As Huang Po says, ordinary people seek externally (in the world of objects and things, including mental objects and things) for Buddha.  

Any object is impermanent, unsatisfying, and not self.  This means that anything we can see, hear, feel, taste, smell, think about or feel is an object and will not provide us with what we are looking for.  This includes any and all states of mind, no matter how profound: bliss, feelings of oneness, feelings of peace and contentment, these are all objects (thoughts/feelings) that cannot last or provide lasting happiness.  Knowing this, we can immediately avoid many traps that seekers fall in, the largest trap being the idea that we can achieve a certain experience or mind state that will solve all our problems. 

Friday, August 13, 2010

Nowhere to Dwell

I've been thinking and meditating lately on the concept of anatta, or no self.  This seems counter-intuitive to Westerners like me, unless you seriously consider it.

Let's say I'm angry.  Alright, where is the anger exactly?  There it is, it is a hot sensation in my body, my vision is clear and focused, and my thoughts are repeating what made me angry to begin with.  But more properly, isn't it the body and the mind that are angry, where "I" am actually watching it all?

Simply put, there is nowhere to hang anything on.  There is no hook to hang labels such as "angry", "human," or even "Buddhist."

Let's say I'm holding a golden lion in my palm.  I reach my arm out to you so you can see it.  There is the lion, it is on my palm.  We can try to say it is like this, the palm is the self and the lion is whatever we want to attach to it.  But let's examine this more closely.  The lion is on the palm, the palm is on the arm.  The arm is on the body.  The body is on the ground.

All this hangs is in consciousness.  But consciousness, if you look closely, has no name or form.  It is not red or blue, it doesn't make any sounds, it is not sweet or sour.  Where is there then to hang any labels, or an idea of self?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Rule of Identity

Logically speaking, the East and West can be seen as follows:

West: A = A
East: A does not = A

The Rule of Identity is the basis for Western logic, along with the Rule of the Excluded Middle and the Law of Non-contradiction.  In terms of math and science, they work.  Using this logic, the West has harnessed the awesome power of nature to create modern lives which would rival the splendor of the highest ancient emperor.  Unfortunately, it has also allowed a level of environmental impact previously unseen. 

This rule does not exist in certain Eastern thought.  In Buddhist thought, A does not = A.  In the Diamond Sutra, for instance, you hear things along the lines of “Minds are not minds and that is why they are called minds.”  In Buddhist logic, there is no self, either in persons or in things.  This is due to the observation that nothing has an unchanging, independent nature. 

One classic way to demonstrate this is to take something into the sum of its parts.  A person’s body, for instance, isn’t a body but two arms, two legs, a torso and a head.  A head is actually a skull, skin, eyes, ears, and so on.  You will not find a head or a body in any one or even all of its parts. 

A second classic way to consider multiple points of view.  A person is too small to see if you see it from the moon, but huge from the view of the ant.  A person is one thing to his or her mother, another to the enemy, another to the song bird outside the window.

A third is the consider all the factors that shade into one another.  A person needs the earth, with the proper mix of air, soil, and sunshine in order to live.  A person cannot exist apart from a habitable environment, so how can one say that there is a person apart from that environment?

I’ve gone through many of these in my prior posts.

This isn’t to say that A = A should be discarded.  This is simply one view of things.  When an infinite number of variables are ignored, it does appear that A = A.  In a certain, limited, singular realm, this can lead fantastic results: airplanes, atomic bombs, and computers. 

This Buddhist view, one could say, is the rule of totality.  This rule also applies to practice.  In Zen, it is said that the dharma gates are infinite, yet I vow to enter them all.  This is totality.  How can I then say that one dharma gate is superior to another?  Yet on the other hand, one needs to consider also the limited view.  One needs to apply the right remedy to the right sickness.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Presence of God

One thing I've noticed about the nature of mind is that it likes variety.  It wants to keep experiencing different things, never quite content with what it has.  Always moving from one thing to the next, it is rare to have a moment of pure presence. 

Let us think a moment about the Western idea of God.  In a sense, God is the perfect being.  All present, all knowing, God simply rests in the moment.  The classic western idea of God is as this great being who we turn to to change things, to make them better.  A Holy Santa Claus waiting to grant wishes on the deserving.

When I was younger, I had an incredibly powerful experience of God.  God was not, as I had been led to believe, a person, but rather a presence.  A constant, steady, unyielding presence.  This was not a God of wishes and miracles, but a God of being.  I knew instantly that this was the true God of the mystics. 

Strange as it may seem, the true name of God implies this.  In Exodus, Moses asks God his name, so that he can tell the others.  God says his name is I AM.  In Hebrew, the sense is I Am, I was, and I will be, a sense of being that transcends all time.  Of course, the people, unsatisfied with this God of presence, constantly turn to man-made idols to worship.  They wanted a god they could see and talk to. 

A true mystic seeks to become like God.  It is taught in Western religions that all humans have a spark of the divine within, a godlike part of them.  Most people, in an idolatrous fashion, imagine some sort of subtle soul.  Yet to me, this spark of God is actually our inner presence.  This presence is formless yet existent, a complete paradox.

The idea of God will lead to different forms of religion.  If you imagine God as a powerful judge, then the religion will be narrow and judgmental.  If you imagine God as love, then religion will be one devoted to compassion and service.  The God of presence, however, neither judges nor serves.  The God of presence simply Is, and Is available always to those who seek Him.

How, then, to be like God?  Develop a sense of presence that is open and aware.  God does not interfere with our everyday lives.  God does not seek to destroy or suppress people.  Likewise, we should not seek to destroy or suppress our inner thoughts and energies, but rather bring a sense of presence to them.  This presence, in itself, is transformative.  Like the Tao, it does nothing yet leaves no thing undone.  

In the words of a Tibetan Buddhist, Jamgon Kantrul Rinpoche:

With constant, vigilant mindfulness, sustain this recognition of empty, open, brilliant awareness.
Cultivate nothing else.
There is nothing else to do, or to undo.
Let it remain naturally.
Don't spoil it by manipulating, by controlling, by tampering with it, and worrying about whether you are right or wrong, or having a good meditation or a bad meditation.
Leave it as it is, and rest your weary heart and mind.

Quote from

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Vijnana and Prajna

Vijnana, or disciminating consciousness, is the third link of the chain of dependent origination that binds us all to the wheel of life, death, and rebirth.  I've written much about this in prior posts.  As always, where there is yin there is yang, and the other side of the vijnana coin is prajna. 

In Buddhist language, prajna is usually translated as wisdom, or "greater knowing."  Another translation, which unlocks many mysteries of wisdom itself, it to translate the pra- as "bubbling forth". This is spontaneous, unconditioned knowing that springs forth from the Void fully formed. 

Vijnana, then, contains the goal oriented, logical, patterned, organized system of thinking that we associate with wordly intelligence.  Prajna is none of that.  Prajna is free from all patterns, conditions, and organized systems.

It might be tempting to think that the goal of spiritual practice is to go from vijnana to prajna.  In Taoist teachings, this sort of one over the other is imbalanced.  Prajna may be spontaneous and creative, but vijnana has its place.  If one were to undergo surgery, one would likely prefer the surgeon act according to logic and reason, based on her experience and medical learning rather than "just doing."  Vijnana is useful, even essential for dealing with the world.   

Vijnana and prajna can correlate to yuan shen and shi shen.  As seen there, the problem is generally that vijnana has outgrown prajna and must be brought into a harmonious balance. 

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Dual and Non-dual

Perhaps the greatest yin-yang is duality and non-duality. David Loy, in his book Nonduality presents the following translation of the Tao Te Ching Chapter 1:

The Tao that can be Tao'd is not the constant Tao
The name that can be named is not the constant name
Having-no-name is the source of heaven and earth
Having-names is the mother of the ten thousand things
Therefore, always have no intention in order to see the wonder
Always have intention in order to see the forms
These two things have the same origin
Although different in name
Their sameness is called the mystery
From mystery to mystery: the gate of all wonder!

According to David Loy, this alternates the dual and non-dual view. There is the nameless source, and the diverse named things. There is a state beyond labeling and intention, and there is a state full of things. Together, they make up the one Tao.

To connect this to personal experience, imagine sitting in meditation listening to a dog bark. There will be a bare sensation of the barking, generally followed by thoughts and feelings. There may appear in the mind an image of a dog, memories of dogs, emotional impulses of irritation or fear. Thinking "there is a dog barking and it is annoying me" is from the point of view of the ten thousand things. Having a field of awareness in which things arise and pass is from the point of view of unity, of non-dualism.

One important thing that this points out is that there is nowhere to go. The non-dual state is not something else. It is not full of light and bliss and angels singing sweet songs of divine delight. It is not on a different dimension or plane of existence. The ten thousand things and the nameless source are the same.

The difference between the two is the overlay of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, associations: the naming and labeling we generally impose on experience. In Buddhism, we would start with rupa, form. Form doesn't mean anything. It's not good or bad. It just is what it is. There is a sound of the dog bark, the sight of the moon shining, the feel of the wind blowing. To this would be added vedana, or feeling. I like the wind, but I don't like the dog. Then comes perception. There's that dog bark, that moon. Then come the reactions: the dog barking colors my mood, my thoughts turn to how I hate the dog barking, how I wish it would stop, to ceaseless talking about the dog. Then comes vijnana, discriminating consciousness.

This shows the progression in Buddhist terms from the nameless to the named.

With the Tao, we don't try to elevate one or the other. It does not say we should always remain without intention, without the mental and emotional overlay we place on things. It says to see the wonder, be without intention. To see the forms, be with intention. In true non-clinging fashion, we can move between both worlds.

As the Tao Te Ching says later:
Without going out the door, know the world
Without peering out the window, see the Heavenly Tao
The further one goes
The less one knows

Therefore the sage
Knows without going
Names without seeing
Achieves without striving

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Radical Acceptance


The next four lines of the Xin Xin Ming continue the thread of non-duality. I translate it as follows:

If there is one hundredth of a hair difference
Heaven and earth hang apart, separated by a barrier
Wanting reality to appear presently
Do not settle for following or going against

There are a few things to highlight in this segment. Discriminating, or creating difference itself imposes a barrier between heaven and earth, mind and body, subject and object. It is not that discrimination causes duality, rather, discrimination is duality.

Compare this to Zhuang Zi:

The knowledge of the ancients was perfect. How perfect? At first, they did not know that there were things. This is the most perfect knowledge; nothing can be added. Next, they knew that there were things, but did not yet make distinctions between them. Next they made distinctions among them, but they did not yet pass judgments upon them. When judgments were passed, Tao was destroyed.

As noted before, in Taoist writings the path of decent and ascent are the same path with different directions. Accordingly, if one wanted to obtain perfect knowledge, one would stop passing judgments, then stop making distinctions, than stop making things into object.

The Chinese character for wanting, 欲, is a bent, open mouthed figure. The idea is that this figure is empty, wanting to be filled. This is the perfect image of desire. There is an open space, our own inherent emptiness. Rather than accepting this, we seek to fill it, to solidify it, to become something. The rest of this couplet implies that reality will appear before our very face out of concealment. Again, it is not that we are gaining something, but that we are losing our discriminations, and from this reality appears naturally.

The next lines can be puzzling. It says not to follow or go against, to neither go with nor oppose. There is a lot of talk in ancient writings about following the Tao, or going with the flow or current of the Tao. The Xin Xin Ming takes an unusual stance here. We should not follow the Tao, or go against it. This itself is a discrimination, and therefore a barrier. As we learned from Lao Zi, dualities create one another, and apart from one another have no meaning. To follow the Tao, to oppose the Tao is another set of dualities.

This does not need to remain an abstract, philosophical idea. When we see something, initially we just see. When we hear, there is just sound. There is no view in the seeing or the hearing. The view comes after. I see the ocean, I am here it is there. I hear a bird. The bird is there and I am here. But if we look to raw experience, there is none of this. Reality just is. We impose a screen over it with our discriminating minds. Removing this screen, it appears as it appears.

Some people claim that non-duality is a form of nihilism, or believing in nothing. This is not what the Xin Xin Ming is proposing. Rather, it is proposing a radical acceptance of things as they are. Why radical? Because it goes against commonsense perceptions. People tend to think in terms of this and that, subject and object. Accepting both as they are, there is no subject and object, but rather a continuous subject-object.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Life is Suffering

One pointed criticism of the Buddhist path is that the first Noble Truth states that “life is suffering.” There is a classic picture of the three vinegar tasters where three individuals representing Lao Zi, the Buddha, and Confucius stick their finger into the pot of life. The Buddha tasted life as bitter, full of suffering. Confucius tasted life as sour, in need to rules and discipline. Only Lao Zi tasted the pot of life, and smiled.

However, this is a misinterpretation of the First Noble Truth. The Buddha didn’t say that life is suffering. The first Noble Truth is the Existence of Suffering. It is acknowledging that there is suffering in the world. This is followed by the Origin, the Cessation, and the Way to End Suffering.

Joy is a large part of the Buddhist teaching. In fact, it is one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment (the others being mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity). I’ve learned these factors are also a sequence: mindfulness leads to investigation, which leads to energy, which leads to joy, which stabilizes the mind in concentration, which creates equanimity, in which the truth can be seen. Without joy, there would be no motivation to practice.

It should be noted that the First Noble truth is not “There is suffering and suffering is bad.” It is simply the bare existence of suffering. In fact, if we can live according to the opening lines of the Xin Xin Ming, and accept life as it comes without picking and choosing, then this may be the whole of the path. There is suffering. Not, there is suffering which leads to a whole host of other actions. Just this, just “there is suffering.”

The poor reaction to this statement is to think that suffering is bad and we need to get rid of it. This is an unbalanced approach. The Tao is about harmony of yin and yang, not the promotion of one at the expense of the other. The Tao takes from the full and gives to the empty. When something rises to its peak, it begins to wane. This is the natural ebb and flow of the universe. Yet, still, we think we need to create a one-sided life that is full of joy and without pain. Yet joy and pain define each other.

The Second Noble Truth then traces the origin of suffering, to tanha, or craving. Again, keeping the Tao in mind, we do not eliminate craving by craving joy. This just creates more craving, and sets into motion the whole wheel of life and death. Instead, we are encouraged to eliminate craving by eliminating craving.

One way to do this is through radical acceptance, which brings us back to the first line in the Xin Xin Ming: Arriving at the Great Way is not difficult, if only there are no preferences. If we are able to accept everything as it is, then there is no craving. No craving, no suffering.

In my mind, this is the smile of Lao Zi. By accepting the vinegar of life for what it is, he can smile.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


There is an old Chinese story about a new farmer. The farmer has just planted his first field of crops, and was very excited. Day after day, he would go out to the field, and see… dirt. Where were the crops? As one day passed into another, he grew more and more impatient. Finally, one day, he came in from the field covered in soil, his fingers muddy, with tiny shoots covering his clothing. When he was asked what had happened, this farmer replied: “My crops were taking too long, so I was helping them grow.”

One important value in spiritual life is patience. For me, it is probably the hardest value to master. In our modern times, it is a cliché that we want everything NOW. We have the greatest power in this day and age than in any time before. From washers and driers, to dishwashers, to cars, to computers, we have the ability to get what we want fairly quickly. It is no surprise that this attitude finds its way into spiritual practice.

The ancient sages have told us that we have been living our lives incorrectly. For many years. Perhaps for many lifetimes. Eons. We have formed habits of thinking and acting that have cut us off from our true natures. What we need to do is to cut through these habits, dissolve these blocks, be free of our past actions. So what we do is plant these seeds in our spiritual practice. But these seeds need time to grow. They need to be tended to. They need to be nurtured and cared for. So we practice. Perhaps we dedicate time to meditate, to practice yoga or chi kung, to be mindfully aware. We read spiritual books, have talks with spiritual friends. Over time, these seeds will develop and sprout of their own accord.
The human body takes time to grow and develop. Kids don’t grow taller faster by hanging weights from their ankles. Flowers need time to blossom. You cannot cook a cake by doubling the heat and cutting the time in half. We need patience.

The Bhagavad Gita says: No effort on this path is ever wasted.

So why is it so hard to be patient?

I remember the first time I met real spiritual teachers. At the time, my body and mind were on fire. I smoked. I drank. I cursed and swore. I was on an emotional cycle of high highs and depressive lows. My body was full of tension and aches. I felt desperate, as desperate as I would have felt had I just spend a week in the desert with nothing to drink. I wanted it all to stop, right NOW.
I was told at the first meeting: You can’t skip steps. This was so disappointing to me. After years of soul searching, I was ready for spiritual practice. I was eager to dedicate the necessary month or two, a year perhaps, to master the teaching!

Of course, it didn’t work like that. Patience is hard because it requires us to face the fact that we are absolutely powerless. At a certain point, there is nothing we can do. The universe operates according to its own laws, not on ours. Things manifest in cosmic time, not according to our personal schedule. The ego with its thoughts about how things should be is frustrated when it meets the way things actually are.

It is said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in something. That requires a lot of dedication, a lot of time, a lot of patience. We tend to understand this in the material world. It takes a long time to become a doctor or lawyer, to grow a business or raise a child. Yet, suddenly, we think the spiritual world should be an exception.

Like the Taoists before us, let’s look to nature to see what happens when things grow too quickly. In the body, this is known as cancer. In the environment, a plant or animal that reproduces too quickly upsets the whole system. Rapid growth is often a mutation, a deviation, an unnatural occurrence. If you come from dark into light too quickly, you can go blind. If you go from the hot to cold too quickly, your heart can literally stop. The same goes for the spiritual world. Most of the spiritual horror stories I have heard almost ALWAYS begins with someone trying to get ahead quickly.

Sudden rapid growth can burn out the system, producing illness, depression, insanity, or other dark things.

One of my initial teachers, sensing my impatience, did give me one thing to accelerate my progress. “If you want to speed up your development, pay more attention more often.”

Beyond this, sometimes we just have to wait for the seeds to sprout on their own.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

No Separation

According to common sense, we and the world are two things. There is us, that is, our bodies, minds, feelings, and sensations, and then there is an external world of hard, solid objects. This is a standard, culturally accepted way of looking at things. In spiritual language, this is the subject-object split, or the gap between ourselves and the universe.

It is also entirely wrong.

Advaita Vedanta is often called “The Direct Path.” I call it the “Direct Experience Path,” since most of its modern techniques rely on how we directly experience the world. The modern sages of Advaita, much like the Zen masters of old, ask “What is this separation?”

Looking in direct experience, we see six basic things: visual colors, sounds, touch sensations, and their internal counterparts, mental images, sounds, and feelings. If you and I are talking, I get a visual of your face and body (along with a blurred image of the room behind you), I get audio of your voice, I may reach out and touch you. If I like you, I will have pleasant inner feelings. If I don’t, I will have unpleasant inner feelings. There may be mental images/sounds that cross my mind when you talk. But this is how I experience you.

What I do not experience, in direct experience, is any separation at all. This is not to say that you and I are identical. In fact, thinking that unity means everything is identical is a mental trap, at least at a certain stage on the path. What I actually experience is a cluster of colors that I say is my body, and a cluster of colors I say is your body.

Take the body. We generally agree that the body is a single unit. This is not to say the hand is equal to the foot, or the arm to the leg. These different parts come together. They are one.

Now let’s examine a few definitions of separation and see if it holds to direct experience:

1. Objects are separated by physical space.

We know this isn’t true due to the body example. The foot and hand and separated by space, but still form a unit in the body.

2. Objects that are out of your attention cannot be a part of you.

The so-called physical world comes and goes. I am in my living room at one point, and in my bedroom at another. Surely, this is due to separation. But let’s examine that. Our thoughts come and go, but we consider them “our” thoughts. My appendix is outside my attention, but is still a part of my body. In fact, different parts of the body come and go into attention: I may forget about my big toe until I stub it, and then there it is in all its painful glory.

3. I cannot control objects, so they must not be a part of me.

This doesn’t work either. Consider your thoughts once again. Anyone who has tried to meditate quickly finds that their thoughts are not under control. If they were, as Francis Lucille points out, then you could fill your mind with happy, pleasant thoughts all the time. Additionally, when I say a word, say “boat”, your mind immediately conjures forth an image. You do not choose the image, you did not make a conscious decision whether it would be a word or a picture. If a word, you do not choose the size, type, or font. If a picture, you don’t draw it from scratch. It pops in, fully formed without any help from you.

Consider parts of your body you don’t control, at least not all the time. Blinking, breathing, the heart, digestion--- all of these proceed without our control as well. Anyone who has tried to learn a new physical skill will also clearly find the limits of their physical control.

4. I can’t feel objects, but I can feel my hand.

You can feel some parts of your body, some of the time. Few people can feel their tailbone without a lot of training. Or your cells. Your hair follicles. Many of our thoughts pass in our minds without arousing a significant feeling tone. On the other hand, if you see a child get injured, you may wince. If you see a dreary house on a rainy day, you may feel a little sad. The external world causes us feelings and sensations all the time.

5. The external world is constantly changing, so it can’t be me. My body changes much slower, and I see it all the time.

This doesn’t hold, either. If you cultivate sufficient attention through the day, you will find that you are always changing. Your mood, thoughts, habits all change. Talk to a spouse, significant other, or person of the opposite sex you are interested in. Now talk to a family member. Talk to a co-worker. You will find that you are much different in these situations.

The body changes, albeit slowly. Anyone who is old enough to read this can think back when their body was smaller. Everything changes. Thoughts change quickly. The body more slowly. The external world may change quickly or slowly. None of this indicates a separation.

6. Unified things share something in common. There is no link between my inner thoughts and a coffee cup.

There is a link. Awareness is the web in which all things exist. The thoughts appear in awareness, as does the coffee cup.

So what, then, is separation? It is an illusion imposed by the mind on your direct experience. In Advaita, they call this a “superimposition.” It is like cartoon cells. On one clear cell, you might draw the background. On a second one that overlays the first, you may draw a fish. The fish is imposed on the background. Likewise, you overlay your direct experience with concepts such as “me” and “you” “body” and “objects” and so forth.

In our lives, we have been told, directly or indirectly, that the world is made up of little independent objects. This is a lie that is placed on our direct experience. In reality, we experience a vast world of color, sounds, feelings and sensations. We just tell ourselves that some of these is an “I” and some of them are a “you.”

Now just realizing this intellectually is not enough. We have to keep seeing it, in direct experience, until the superimposition dissolves. These thought patterns are rooted habits, or sankaras, that can require time to erode.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Fork in the Road

Unlike many Buddhists, I believe that spiritual practice is driven by a higher power. Not like a personal God or anything like that, but a sort of hidden, unknown, mysterious power that I call “Cosmos” but could easily be called “Tao.” I’ve noticed that if I pay close attention, I pick up hidden signals through my daily life pointing me toward a teaching.

As a part of this practice, I like to randomly open spiritual books in bookstores and see what comes up. Most of the time, there is nothing special. The other day, I opened the book “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism” and found the following passage:

Q: Can you remove the watcher by force? Wouldn't that be the game of evaluation again?

A: You do not have to regard the watcher as a villain. Once you begin to understand that the purpose of meditation is not to get higher but to be present, here, then the watcher is not efficient enough to perform that function, and it automatically falls away. The basic quality of the watcher is to try to be extremely efficient and active. But total awareness is something you already have, so ambitious or so-called efficient attempts to be aware are self-defeating. As the watcher begins to realize it is irrelevant, it begins to fall away.
What struck me was the phrase "the purpose of meditation is not to get higher but to be present." In fact, it struck me as hard as a punch in the gut, which is literally how it felt. Of course, this is Spirituality 101, we all know that the purpose of spiritual practice is not to get high, it’s to…

Well, what, exactly?

When I first got into practice, my goal was to end suffering. This is because I was deep in the hot pits od suffering every day. Now as you walk down the road of practice, many exciting and boring things may happen. You may experience high states of bliss, a deeply concentrated mind, or even mystical experiences such as feeling one with the universe. As one encounters these, it can be very tempting to chase them. Generally, this tendency takes an “unconscious” form. We’re such conditioned “bliss junkies” that we may not realize just how far this addiction goes. In one sense or another, it colors all our life. We may crave excitement or peace, wedded bliss or the excitement of single life, feeling love with our kids or fearing their loss, but in the end, it seems to amount to the same thing: a craving for a certain state.

The rest of the excerpt suggests that the way forward is not a way of doing, but non-doing. One of the points of the book is that the ego tries to use spiritual practice for the ends of the ego--- becoming a better, happier, whatever type of person.

The way of the Buddha and the Tao, however, cannot be a way of doing, attaining, and achieving. As I quoted before, the TTC says:

Pursue knowledge, daily gain
Pursue Tao, daily loss
Loss and more loss
Until one reaches unattached action
With unattached action, there is nothing one cannot do
Take the world by constantly applying non-interference
The one who interferes is not qualified to take the world
What did the Buddha say? The Third Noble Truth: The end of craving leads to the end of suffering. Buddhism isn’t about gaining something, but losing something--- craving.

In fact, this is also what Trungpa is saying: we already have total awareness. The point isn’t to go out and get it, but to realize we already have it.

If you reach this fork in the spiritual road, you have a choice to make. You need to figure out the aim of your spiritual practice. Is it, as Trungpa says, to be present? Is it to achieve something? What is it?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Taste of Freedom

If Fate is stingy with me and thus affects my fortune,
I make my virtue ample, and greet my fortune in this way.
If Fate sends toil and thus affects my body,
I put my mind at peace and assist myself in this way.
If Fate brings obstructions and this affects my circumstances,
I make my Way and pass along with ease.
More than this, what can Fate do to me?

--- Hung Ying-ming, The Unencumbered Spirit trans. By William Scott Williams

Hung Ying-ming was a follower of the three great traditions of China: Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. It strikes me when I read certain ancient Chinese sages at how easily their minds allow many worlds to exist at the same time.

Now, when I look around, I see Tao vs. Zen, Mahayana vs. Theravada, formal practice v. informal practice, me vs. you, True Zen vs. Your Zen. It is no surprise; this existed in ancient China as well. There is something very human about making these distinctions, and then looking down at all other angles.

I remember talking to a Christian once about judgment. He was going on about how all other Christians were wrong about this, wrong about that. I pointed out that Jesus said: Judge not, lest you be judged. His response: my judgment is right. I’m judging by the rule of God.

So it goes with all things. Zen teachings tell us not to cling and crave, and off we go, clinging and craving in the name of Zen. Buddha told us not to crave, but what I do is not clinging and craving. What you do is craving. Of course, this is simply spiritual inversion.

I see the true taste of Tao and Zen as the taste of freedom. This is summarized nicely in the above quote. No matter what comes, there is a proper response. When one meets the world with the proper response, then there is always freedom. If one practices in the way suggested by Hung Ying-ming, then what can ever stop you?

Discrimination, clinging, craving--- these are fetters that bind us all. They create a prison of thoughts and feeling, a prison that can only exist within us. Is the bark of a dog a Zen bark, a Tao bark, or a Christian bark? If the tree in the courtyard my tree or your tree? It seems ridiculous when put in this way. These things only exist in human minds. In fact, this is the very thing the sages warn us about.

The question for me is not whether a teaching or a practice is true, correct, or right--- these are illusion of the mind. The question is more properly: do these lead to freedom?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Spiritual Use of Internet Forums

I have come up with a simple exercise that can be used when posting on on-line discussion forums. On-line discussion forums can be a great resource full of different people from different places and cultures sharing insights with everyone else. On the other hand, they often fall into a bickering/fighting/arguing (or so-called “flame threads”) in which nothing is accomplished. This becomes the literary equivalent of two people with their fingers in their ears yelling at each other.

Discussion forums give us the opportunity to practice our spirituality in delayed time with real people. In my mind, it ranks somewhere between real time, real life interactions and just sitting there thinking about it on your own. You are allowed time to think before you reply, you can wait for angry moods to pass, and essentially put your best face forward to the world.

I have found the following exercise very rewarding in expanding my spiritual practice. When I read a post, especially one I disagree with, I ask myself:

Considering this from the other person’s point of view, how can I see that this post is right?
Spiritual teachings of totality tell us that things may exist at the same time without agreement, and neither one is really right or wrong. For one person on the earth, the moon may appear to be the size of the ball. To another standing on the moon, the moon may appear to be a large planet. If the two of them argue, we see this is quite useless. Each of them has a valid view from their perspective, even though they differ. The problem is when each states that their view is the complete or true view.

I find that when I disagree with someone, I have run into a limit in my own mind: my mind is too narrow to see another person’s point of view. By running through this simple exercise, I find that most of the time, I can see a valid point from the other person’s point of view. I find I have much less to disagree with. As a bonus, I find that I have expanded my own consciousness.

Try it and see. Once you practice this on-line, you can also take it into real-life.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Teachings of Totality

Both Taoism and Zen tend to value an open, flexible mind. There are many reasons for this, but today I want to explore totality.

There is an old Zen poem that goes something like this:

A beautiful woman
Is a delight to her lover
A temptation to the monk
And to the tiger, a good meal

When I first heard this poem, I thought it was pointing to the empty, relative nature of “beautiful”. The woman herself is really none of these. In a sense, this is true, as I will explain later. But this is only one side of the story. If we consider the teachings of totality, she is ALL of these things.

A more classic, philosophical example is a cup of coffee (Philosophical people and coffee are often found together, so it should come as no surprise when we see it used as an example). A cup of coffee may be a refreshing drink early in the morning. It may look white, with a handle, and filled with dark brown, aromatic coffee. Yet now if we look at it with an electron microscope, this cup of coffee is transformed into an ocean of electrons, spinning and shimmering like tiny suns in space. A cup of coffee is a universe in itself. Who is to say that around these little suns aren’t tiny planets, with cities and countries? Now let us look at the cup of coffee from a great distance. It is mere speck, a piece of dust.

So we know our experience of coffee depends on many things: having a human body and mind, having the coffee at the right time of day (morning for some, afternoon for others), looking at it with our naked eye instead of a microscope, and so on.

The problem comes in when we break off one view and forward it as THE view. If one person were to say, “Ah! A nice, warm cup of coffee!”, a physicist might come along and say, “Well, that’s not a cup of coffee at all. Actually, it is a pattern of vibrating molecules that exist near one another.” The first person may retort, “I don’t see any molecules, you must be wrong.” The physicist may say, “No, it is you who is wrong, you don’t have the right materials to see the truth!”

This sounds absurd with the coffee, but when we consider the beautiful woman example, we can see the revelation of a chilling truth. The temptation aspect of a beautiful woman may be seen as the only aspect, and I would wager that this viewpoint has been used to justify the suppression of women throughout the centuries. In fact, we may react to this view by believing that there is no tempting aspect of a beautiful woman at all. Many women (and some men) may see other women as beautiful, but not necessarily as tempting. But this, too, would only be a partial truth. A beautiful woman is both tempting and non-tempting.

To add another level of sophistication, we may then say, “Well, the temptation or non-temptation is not in the beautiful woman, but in the body-mind of the person who sees her.” This is true also. So now we can make absurd statements such as, “The beautiful woman is tempting, non-tempting, and neither tempting nor non-tempting.”

Nor can we necessarily say this is true, that she is both tempting and non-tempting. She is tempting to one person depending on their age, sexual maturity, culture, time, mood, clarity of eyesight, disposition, of mind, and a whole host of other factors. Also depending on these factors, she may be non-tempting. We see here the presence of dependent origination. The body-mind event of temptation, or non-temptation depends on everything else.

Perhaps we get a closer insight when the Buddha says things like, “There is neither one, nor not one, nor neither one nor not one, and not both one and not one.” He says things like this all the time in the Pali Canon.

An open, flexible mind should be open to seeing this from all angles. In Hua Yen Buddhism, it is said that the ultimate Buddhamind is omniscient. From a Buddhamind angle, all of these aspects would be realized at the same time. It is only in our smaller, limited minds that we see only one angle at a time. In Western terms, this a glimpse into the mind of God.

Ignorance prevents us from seeing all of these angles at once. It is simply a lack of knowledge, or to be more precise, a lack of knowing. In the West, we often think of ignorant as uneducated. We often assume that formal schooling leads to amassing knowledge. This is not the case at all. Ignorance, in my view, is better defined as narrow-mindedness, or seeing only part. The more parts you see, the less ignorant you are. In fact, a wise judge would be some one who could fairly hear both sides before making a decision. We tend to think of wisdom coming from experience, and experience is nothing more than knowing. A variety of knowing leads to wisdom.

Narrow minded people may be conservative or liberal, religious or atheist, Christian or Buddhist. On the other hand, all of these types of people may have open and flexible minds. The outer appearance, character, or trait of a person is only part of their identity and really tells us very little about a person. To hone in on this trait to the exclusion of all others doesn't make any sense.

This is why one good practice for expanding the mind is to consider the other side. If some one disagrees with you, it doesn’t mean they are wrong. It means there are two sides of the story, and in a sense, they may both be right (in a conventional sense). When we are able to truly see the other side, our mind opens, it expands. Having seen this, it is less likely to cling to the part it was clinging to before. Seeing the other side is not helpful for others, but it helps us in our spiritual progress.

Further reading:

The Buddhist Teaching of Totality: The Philosophy of Hwa Yen Buddhism

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Spirituality of Clinging and Craving

The key insights of Buddhist practice are expressed in the Four Noble Truths: there is suffering, suffering is rooted in clinging and craving, ceasing clinging and craving ceases suffering, and the Eightfold Path.

The Pali word here is "tanha", meaning desire, wanting, or thirst. I prefer thirst, because we've all been thirsty. It is a base, animal urge for something. Thirst captures it because it is an urge we feel very physically, in our bodies.

The problem is that what we crave doesn't last. It doesn't last because everything is impermanent. Because it doesn't last, is cannot satisfy. In fact, craving is at its most intense when the thing we want isn't there. Once we have something, after a short period of relief, we usually take it for granted and move on to craving the next thing.

Non-clinging, or non-attachment, is the golden thread that links classic, Pali Buddhism with Zen. No one does non-attachment like Zen. "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!"

In the classic Heart Sutra, it says:

Therefore, in emptiness there is no form, feeling, cognition, formation, or consciousness; no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or mind; no sights, sounds, smells, tastes, objects of touch, or dharmas; no field of the eyes, up to and including no field of mind-consciousness; and no ignorance or ending of ignorance, up to and including no old age and death or ending of old age and death. There is no suffering, no accumulation, no cessation, no Way. And no understanding and no attaining. Because nothing is attained, the Bodhisattva, through reliance on prajna paramita, is unimpeded in his mind. Because there is no impediment, he is not afraid, and he leaves distorted dream-thinking far behind. Ultimately Nirvana!

The Heart Sutra negates every classic distinction of Pali Buddhism. It negates the Five Skandhas, the Four Noble Truths, the 12 Links of Dependent Origination. When everything is negated, where is there left to stand?

Hui Neng was enlightened hearing the words of the Diamond Sutra, "You should activate the mind without dwelling on anything."

Zen Master Powha Sunim used to quote the Bible here: Foxes have holes, birds have thier nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head on it."

Uchiyama Roshi used to say, "Open the hand of thought."

One difficult thing about spiritual practice is this deep tendency to cling and crave to things. In fact, we often trade one clinging for another. Becoming interested in Buddhism, we may cling to Buddhism. Learning about mindfulness and attention, we may cling to mindfulness and attention. Learning concentration, we may cling to concentrate. One after another, the clinging remains, only the object changes. Many people believe this to be spiritual progress, but in fact they are only reinforcing this tendency to cling and crave.

Perhaps the worst clinging and craving has to do with the "Big Spiritual Experience." The "Big Spiritual Experience", or the "Cosmic Orgasm", is often see as the goal of spiritual practice and the sign of enlightenment. This would include "Becoming One with the Universe," "Everything Making Sense," or other such terms.

These experiences don't last. But the clinging and craving does. I think it is important to keep this in mind, even as we discover the wonders of Buddhism, Taoism, mindfulness, or concentration that, while useful, none of these things are the end all be all of spiritual practice.

The key motto of Zen is: Walk On.

Heart Sutra translated by Ron Epstein

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ethics of Emptiness: Part Three

Emptiness and Ethics

In the prior posts, I have discussed emptiness from an ultimate level, and ethics from a conventional level. Even in a universe where there is no ultimate right or wrong, the flow of the Tao favors the ethical person for spiritual advancement.

It was asked earlier: if there is no ultimate relation between cause and effect, what drives karma? Behind this, I detected the question, if the universe is empty, why be good?

The answer is that the Tao favors the virtuous. In fact, the word Te, 德, means on one level virtue. Other Taoists have interpreted Te to also mean the Tao of the microcosm. It is sometimes said that everything has its own te. It makes sense to take virtue as the fruit of one's inner te. Just as all phenomenon are rooted in the Tao, so all our actions are rooted in our te.

The Tao Te Ching, Chapter 38 talks about Te:

Therefore, the Tao is lost, and then virtue
Virtue is lost, and then benevolence
Benevolence is lost, and then righteousness
Righteousness is lost, and then etiquette

This is a map of the loss of true Te. The chain goes Tao --> Te --> Benevolence (Kindness) --> Righteousness (Justice) --> Etiquette (Ritual). (The words in parenthesis are Red Pine's translations.)

If we were to reverse the process, we might start with empty formality, then go to fairness, then kindness, then finally return to true Te. In a sense, one can see precepts or ethics as a sort of training. Having lost the natural accord with the Tao, and the wisdom to act, we have to follow these rules. This is like attaching training wheels to the bike. After a while, following moral rules should give rise in us a sense of fairness. This is more of a "feel" for how things should be.

Righteousness or Justice still has a gap between ourselves and others. It is a sense of objectivity, treating people impartially, like objects. This is something our courts often aim to do. But the next step is where it becomes more organic: Benevolence or Kindness. In my experience, true compassion comes from seeing others as ourselves--- it is a result of empathy. Once we know what it is like to be hurt, to suffer, to lose, to be stupid and wrong, we know exactly what others are going through when we them suffer, or lose.

Beyond this, one returns to true Te, then to the Tao.

One who has regained the true Te no longer needs rules. In fact, if we look at Zen classics, we often see Masters acting in strange ways. They may break the precepts, beat their students, or do things that seem odd to us. This include Gutei cutting off a boy's finger or Nansen killing a car in the Mumonkan.

In my mind, they are acting according to Te--- the right response in the right situation. This goes beyond simple moral codes or rules. What is right in one place may be wrong in another. In order to know the difference, we must develop wisdom.

When we hear of Taoists say that morality is unnatural, they are right. Moral codes are rigid rules imposed on us. They are not naturally arising morality. But we need to follow them until we recover our natural sense of morality. In our current state, we are lost, deluded, and confused. What we might think it natural is acting on impulse. As the saying goes, we must first learn to walk, often using external props and supports, before we can run. But once we learn to run, it would be ridiculous to use the props and supports we used before. Training wheels help us to learn to ride a bike, but once we have it, they just slow us down.

This is dangerous because it makes it impossible to judge the actions of enlightened beings. This reasoning has been used to cover up many horrible things in spiritual circles: gurus and masters sexually abusing their students, stealing money, or covering up drug and alcohol addictions. One should always keep one's common sense and knowledge of the ways of the world, especially with a teacher.

Lao Tzu's map shows us the way from rigid moral codes to a free, natural virtue. This can be seen not only in individual cases, but in societies and cultures. A society may start with a rigid and inflexible moral code, proceed to one motivated by justice and fairness, then one of love and compassion. Finally, we would have a society of enlightened beings, acting according to their natures.

This verse is the bridge between ethics and emptiness.

Tao Te Ching translated by Derek Lin

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ethics of Emptiness: Part Two

What are ethics?

Ethics are rules. They tell us what we should or should not do. Ethics are not about some abstract, ultimate notion of right or wrong (these concepts are empty, that is to say, fluid and dynamic). Ethics are based on practical observation. If you put your fingers in the fire, it will hurt. One ethical rule might be: don’t put your fingers in the fire.

Alistair Crowley dubbed himself the “Wickedest Man on Earth”. But even he saw the inner meaning of ethics in spiritual life. In his Liber Aba, Book Four, he writes about yama and niyama in Yoga:

They are the "moral qualities" and "good works" which are supposed to predispose to mental calm... Some of these are only the "virtues" of a slave, invented by his master to keep him in order. The real point of the Hindu "Yama" is that breaking any of these would tend to excite the mind...Subsequent theologians have tried to improve upon the teachings of the Masters, have given a sort of mystical importance to these virtues; they have insisted upon them for their own sake, and turned them into puritanism and formalism. Thus "non-killing," which originally meant "do not excite yourself by stalking tigers," has been interpreted to mean that it is a crime to drink water that has not been strained, lest you should kill the animalcula.
Of course, being Alistair Crowley, he takes it a step further:

But this constant worry, this fear of killing anything by mischance is, on the whole, worse than a hand-to-hand conflict with a grisly bear. If the barking of a dog disturbs your meditation, it is simplest to shoot the dog, and think no more about it.
But Crowley’s point is well taken. Anyone who has spent five minutes learning meditation knows that the mind is hard to control. It wanders, it talks, it dreams, it drifts. Swami Vivekandanda wrote, in his Raja Yoga:

How hard it is to control the mind! Well has it been compared to the maddened monkey. There was a monkey, restless by his own nature, as all monkeys are. As if that were not enough some one made him drink freely of wine, so that he became still more restless. Then a scorpion stung him. When a man is stung by a scorpion, he jumps about for a whole day; so the poor monkey found his condition worse than ever. To complete his misery a demon entered into him. What language can describe the uncontrollable restlessness of that monkey? The human mind is like that monkey, incessantly active by its own nature; then it becomes drunk with the wine of desire, thus increasing its turbulence. After desire takes possession comes the sting of the scorpion of jealousy at the success of others, and last of all the demon of pride enters the mind, making it think itself of all importance. How hard to control such a mind!

The wise sages of old knew this “monkey mind” well. With such a mind, how is it possible to investigate reality? The mind must be calmed, settled and soothed before it can be a proper instrument of spiritual investigation.

Another popular metaphor for the mind is water. Zen masters like to talk about our minds like a cup of water with dirt in it. When it is stirred, the mind is unclear. But if you let it settle, the dirt dribbles to the bottom and the water is clear.

The sages, both Buddhist and Taoist, discovered that the first step on the spiritual path is the practice of ethics.

The simple rule behind ethical conduct is this: immorality is agitating to the mind. A mind that is hooked on sense pleasures never rests. It is looking, looking, looking; waiting and hoping for the next pleasure to come along. A mind that is full of hate is no longer an open, sensitive mind: it hardens, shrinks, tightens. Everything that is considered morally “bad” is rooted in this.

In Buddhism, the three root poisons are greed, hatred, and ignorance. In Buddhist psychology, once the mind comes in contact with forms (rocks, trees, flowers, faces) one of three instant feeling reactions arise: a pull toward (craving the pleasant), a pull away (aversion from the unpleasant), or nothing at all (neutral).

This movement of the mind are the roots of the three poisons. The three poisons are greed, hatred, and ignorance. These three movements become the axle of the Wheel of Life, powering the entire engine of life, death, and rebirth. A craving mind, a resisting mind, or a numb mind are incapable of seeing clearly. Seeing clearly is the foundation of realization.

Through thoughts, words, and actions, the mind develops habits of acting in a certain way. Over time, these actions wear a groove into the mind, just as a stream wears a groove into rock. Eventually, the path becomes so well worn and smooth it might hardly be noticed.

Ethical conduct seeks not only to calm the mind, but to ensure it is a healthy mind. Lao Tzu pointed out that the soft tongue survives longer than hard teeth. The nature of the mind is to be soft, flexible, flowing. Habits harden, deaden, and slow the mind.

So it could be said that when some one commits a sin (the word for sin in ancient Greece meaning "to miss the mark"), they are the first victim of the act. A murderer in the act of killing kills a part of himself: the mind becomes less sensitive, harder, less resilient. A thief will find that she gets no rest. The reward of the morally upright is a calm, clear mind and a good night’s sleep.

This is where Crowley was wrong. Killing the dog that disturbs your meditation will harden the mind, making true meditation even more difficult.

So why is ethical conduct given first? When the mind is agitated, restless, and unclear, nothing will be seen. In order to collect and cool the mind to the point where it is able to see even basic spiritual truths, it is given a moral code to follow. This code itself will help the mind calm down. Then one can begin meditation properly. However, meditation, investigation, or contemplation without a solid moral foundation will be useless because the mind will be upset and whirling.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Ethics of Emptiness: Part One

What is Emptiness?

Emptiness can be used to mean different things. In the West, when we talk about emptiness, we tend to mean “nothing”. For instance, if a cup is empty, there is nothing in there: no water, no coffee, no tea, no anything.

This can be confusing when we hear Buddhists say everything is empty. A hammer is empty—then why does it hurt when we smack our fingers? Rain is empty--- then why do we get wet?

Some Buddhist schools take this to mean that nothing exists at all. In my experience, this tends to be the minority view. Rather, emptiness in Mahayana Buddhist thought tends to be a very special kind of emptiness. It is emptiness of a self.

Ok, so what is a self?

When we talk about a self, we mean something that endures, doesn’t change, and is independent of everything else. Like an impossibly hard diamond. It is the idea of an immortal soul of some sort, some underlying real, actual substance that exists separate and apart. In the West, the philosopher Plato popularized the idea of an idea: that everything has its perfect self essence that exists apart from its material manifestations. Every circle is a reflection of a divine perfect circle. This sort of thinking became very well entrenched in the West.

Buddhist and Taoist thought goes against this. In both Buddhism and Taoism, the universe is a fluid, dynamic, changing place. There are no objects, there are movements. There are no things, there are open, changing, flowing containers. A good way to test this is to try to find the self. A classical example is a chariot. A more modern example might be a car. Where is the car in the car? Well, a car has doors, four wheels, an engine. But then you think, what if I remove the engine, do I no longer have a car? Or if it has three tires instead of four?

You can take a car apart and sort it into neat, interesting piles, but you will find no “car” there. You will have an assembly of parts. And if you look at each part, you will find parts of parts, and so on.

On the other hand, there certainly seems to be “something” there. You can get into your car and drive it to the beach or the grocery store. If you tell me I have no hand, I will slap you.

You can do this with all things, including yourself. Try it and see what happens. Most people, except children, shy away from this sort of analysis. We don’t push ourselves this far. Yet this is what Buddhism is all about: pursuing an investigation to the end.

In Buddhist philosophy, there is the concept of two truths. There are ultimate truths (there is no car) and conventional truths (I can get in and drive my car). Even though there is nothing like a “car”, we can still get to work every day. It is important when thinking about things to make this distinction. If you confuse one level with the other, than you may step in front of an empty car to find it smashing into you.

A second point is the inter-relation between all things. A car doesn’t jump from the Tao fully formed. A car is assembled, but some one has to mine and refine the metal. Some one has to put together the pieces. Some one has to transport the car from the factory to the dealer. Some one has to grow food to feed all these people. The sun and earth must exist and be ripe for the food to grow. Behind each car is a factory, a team of workers, farmers to grow food to feed the workers, real estate agents, homemakers, garbage men, lawyers, doctors, societies, civilizations, planets, sunshine, gravity, stars--- the whole universe goes into making that car. One might say, in fact, that a car manifests the whole universe.

If, in fact, there were permanent, enduring selves, then nothing would be possible. If there was an essential metal that existed apart and unchanging, you could never mold the metal into a car. It would always be metal. Likewise, sunshine and expelled air would never become a tree.

As Lao Tzu said:

Thirty spokes join in one hub
In its emptiness, there is the function of a vehicle
Mix clay to create a container
In its emptiness, there is the function of a container
Cut open doors and windows to create a room
In its emptiness, there is the function of a room
Therefore, that which exists is used to create benefit
That which is empty is used to create functionality

One thing that should be clear, but may not be, is that the form and emptiness are both required to have anything at all. Emptiness gives the cosmos its flexibility. Form gives the cosmos its existence. If everything were completely empty empty, all the way through, we wouldn’t have anything at all. If everything were enduring selves, we would have a static universe. Again, it is the middle way that is the way to go here. The Heart Sutra says: Form is emptiness. But it also says, emptiness is form. These are not two.

Tao Te Ching translated by Derek Lin

Thursday, February 18, 2010

More on Non-Causation

Ida Heckler wrote, in response to The Dreaming Question:

I think I can follow you to an extent; however, even if X does not cause Y, isn't Y's existence dependent on the arrival of X? Isn't this a correlation between the rising and passing of X and Y?
One interpretation, I had written, of the Buddha's formula on dependent origination is that there is no cause. This is very tricky territory, and requires a little more explanation.

Imagine walking through the forest on a pleasant, summer day. Here and there is the twitter of a robin, or the song of a blue jay. You can smell the fresh spring, and feel the sun quietly warming your face. You might come to a clear path and see on this path what appears to be a rope. This rope might shimmering, as if flowing from one side of the path to the other. Curious, you look closely. Ah! What appeared to be a flowing rope is in fact a line of ants marching one after the other. If you look very closely, you will see a tiny space, or a gap between the ants. What appears to be one seamless thing from afar is actually, at a closer look, a series of ant - no ant - ant - no ant.

Likewise, in our experience, there seems to be a flow of one thing into another. With practice and meditation, it is possible to take a closer look at things and see how they arise in this manner.

Our experience is a series of events that we may string together in the form of a story. We may see a red face, hear a loud voice, and see a hand move rapidly. Or we may see some one yelling at us in anger. If you look closely, you cannot find where exactly this anger abides. Just like the rope, it doesn't exist--- it's really a bunch of ants.

A Taoist might say that what appears to be cause and effect is simply a play of the Tao. Things arise and pass into the Tao, just like sparks rise and pass from a fire. But from a human angle, we may string these things together into a story called "causation", "self", or a many other things. We may see the sparks are interacting with one another, causing one another. But in the end, it is just the lila, or play of the cosmos.

For the more logical among us, there is an excellent story on just this written by Louis Carroll. You can find it here.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Yin and Yang


The characters for yin and yang show us the sunny and dark side of the hill. This is important because there is only one hill.

Yin and yang is very important in Taoist thought. Yin and yang is the original expression of creation. Many polar terms can be seen as yin and yang: male and female, heaven and earth, king and servant, the universe and humanity. In the West, we tend to think of these as opposites, and try to increase one at the expense of the other. We value good over evil, wealth over poverty, winning over losing. In ancient Chinese thought, things were more fluid. Yin and yang were open categories. Accordingly, a tree might wither in autumn, become bare in winter (yin), blossom in spring, and flourish in the summer (yang).

I think this idea is closely related to another: the macrocosm and the microcosm. In English, these words mean the large and small cosmos. The great Tao, 道, is expressed in the te, 德, of the individual.

Taoist alchemy often speaks of reversion, of turning things backward. The explosion of creation gives rise to the 10,000 things, but it also casts them apart. Reversing this process returns us to the original Tao.

One of the main ideas of alchemy is to bring fire below water. Now what does this mean? Fire rises, water descends. If fire is over water, then fire disperses and water is lost. If water is over fire, then the fire heats the water. This is the idea of alchemy.

Where this gets confusing is when one fails to distinguish the level one is speaking.

In one system, yin might refer to the body, and yang to the mind. Often, mind flies out into the world, and the body is forgotten. However, by bringing the mind back into the body, mind and body come together. This is a standard first step in martial arts.

In another system, yin may stand for yuan shen, and yang for shi shen. Shi shen flies out into the world and is lost, where yuan shen is forgotten. By calming shi shen and expanding yuan shen, true attention is stabilized.

A third practicioner may come along and point out that heaven and earth do not refer to these things at all. Rather, heaven refers to the dan tien between the eyes, and earth to the dan tien below the navel. The upper energy flies up and is lost, the lower energy descends and is lost. The idea is to bring the upper energy to the lower, and the lower to the upper. This way, balance and harmony is restored.

Who is right?

The laws of Tao should apply equally to all situations. Accordingly, all of these may be correct in their particular context.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Yuan Shen and Shi Shen


Yuan shen and shi shen.

The character yuan, 元, stands for head. It stands for the source, the root, the original, the raw. Shi, 識, is a complicated character. You can see the character, 言, speech in the root, along with the character 織, weaving. It is a weaving of speech, a network of words. There is nothing less natural and more man-made than language. In my mind, speech not only refers to external speech, but internal dialogue as well.

Shen is a large word in Taoism. It can mean gods, spirit, ghost, and consciousness. Yuan is the original shen, and shi is the conditioned shen. Original shen is what we are born with and have all our lives. Shi shen is acquired. The shi shen develops as we interact with the world. It is the sum of our learning, experiences, and language.

There is a yin-yang duality between them. I say a yin yang duality, because in Taoist thought, duality is actually a unity. In this case, I was taught that as shi shen develops, yuan shen decreases. As a child, one starts out at 90% yuan shen, 10% shi shen. As one develops into an adult, forms habits, beliefs, and opinions, and learns language, we become 10% yuan shen, and 90% shi shen.
Thomas Cleary has indicated that when the Zen masters talk of mistaking a thief for one’s own son, they are speaking about the shi shen.

Another way to look at it is that yuan shen is the raw material, and shi shen is the finished product. Yuan shen is like the trees in the grove, and shi shen is like the table, chairs and furniture.

In the West, when we hear that the thinking/speaking mind is an obstacle, we tend to jump to the conclusion that it needs to be destroyed, killed, or gotten rid of. We Westerners tend to take a similar approach to medicine: hack, slash, and radiate. The Chinese way is more holistic. Shi shen is useful. After all, one cannot very well sit on a tree or store dishes in the branches. On the other hand, the limited, formed nature of shi shen means it is limited. A chair cannot give birth to another chair.

The problem as I see it is when this shi shen comes to dominate. In the words of the golden flower, the general replaces the true master. Yuan shen is pushed to the back and forgotten.

As Hui Neng said:
Freedom from form means nonattachment to form in the midst of forms. Freedom from thought means having no thought in the midst of thought.

Both Zen and Taoist masters have dedicated time to those who simply seek to extinguish the thinking mind. After all, these are not two entirely different things, but the ends of the same pole.

Seen in this light, Taoist literature makes more sense. The emphasis on letting go, stopping, calming, and collecting would all work to redevelop the yuan shen. This is also the first step in traditional Buddhist practice.

Hui Neng quote adapted from Thomas Cleary, The Sutra Hui-Neng, Grand Master of Zen

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Light Appears

The Xin Xin Ming continues:

但莫憎愛 洞然明白

Only do not hate or love

Correct realization appears

The next two lines of the Xin Xin are interesting. Through the Chinese characters, we see the journey of the sun. The sun rises with the character 但, but becomes covered in 莫. But then, in the next line, it breaks through, clear and unobstructed.

I translate these to mean, only do not love or hate and correct enlightenment comes through. The character for love here is the xin dancing. The character for hate is the heart piled on, i.e. covered over.

This leads to a key ancient Chinese concept: that our essence is good. The goal of spiritual practice is not to become something, but to uncover something. As the Tao
Te Ching says:

Pursue knowledge, daily gain
Pursue Tao, daily loss

Ignorance covers our true nature like the clouds blot out the sun. Behind the clouds, the sun is shining, and pure and bright as ever. The job of a spiritual cultivator is to remove the layers of ignorance that have accumulated over our own original sun. Cultivation is not about adding on. It’s about taking away.

This ignorance leads to both loving and hating, picking and choosing. When this stops, then enlightenment suddenly appears. In the Chinese characters, the 洞 is water pooling in a cave. The cave doesn’t pull the water in, the water just settles there, naturally. So, too, is it with wisdom knowledge.

As the Tao Te Ching continues:

Loss and more loss
Until one reaches unattached action
With unattached action, there is nothing one cannot do
Take the world by constantly applying non-interference
The one who interferes is not qualified to take the world

Tao Te Ching translated by Derek Lin.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Dreaming Question

Gurdjieff used to say that it was important for a person to have an aim. One person might want to become a general. Another, to acquire the ability to read minds. The best and highest, he said, was to become master of oneself.

I have been thinking recently about my question. I'm sure everyone has a question, at least for a while in their life. When I was younger, the question usually was, how can I get bliss? But now, older and wiser, I am coming to see that these the things of the world don't last, so they will not provide lasting happiness.

I believe my question is as follows: does the mind create matter, or does matter create mind (or some other combination)? I believe that solving this riddle will, in effect, solve many other questions: what is the meaning of life, who am I, what happens when we die. If the mind, or a mind, creates the universe, then this would suggest there is life after death, I am a spiritual being, and when we die, we probably do something else. If matter creates the mind, then we are nothing more but advanced robots. When our power goes out, so do we.

I am struck that how I formulate this question that it tends toward the two extremes the Buddha preached against: eternalism and nihilism. The Middle Way falls between these two, neither one nor the other.

The Buddha also taught a doctrine called "dependent orignation". Under this teaching:

When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn't, that isn't.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

Imasmiṃ sati, idaṃ hoti.
Imass’ uppādā, idaṃ uppajjati.
Imasmiṃ asati, idaṃ na hoti.
Imassa nirodhā, idhaṃ nirujjhati.

This is a very interesting formulation. The Buddha did not say X causes Y. He said, X arises, and Y arises. When there is no X, there is no Y. I compare this to sitting at a computer. A green light comes on, then a red light. Other lights appear. Then a green light, and a red light. After a while, we may be tempted to think that the green light causes, or gives birth to the red light. This is clearly not true. If so, why is this not the case with all things? Why do we think that a seed causes a flower? At what point, exactly, does the seed pass away, and the flower arise?

If you were to follow this track to its root (which is a very Buddhist thing to do), you might get to a point where the universe is simply arising and passing from the Void. The Advaitins say this is just the case, except that instead of Void, they say Consciousness.

Other Buddhist schools deny that there is any universe outside the mind. The mind creates the universe. One of the best explanations of this theory comes from Berkeley, in his Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous. Berkeley carefully shows that we can never know anything beyond subjective, mental impressions. It is an intriguing concept, found especially in Chinese Buddhist schools. A Taoist may say of course, the Buddhists are replacing the Tao with Mind!

The other night, I had a dream about these two thoughts. In my dream, it was pointed out that the spontaneous arising theory was a school of Ancient Buddhism, based on the Pali Canon. The mind-only school represented a refinement of this idea (although not necessarily a final refinement). In the first case, the cause was unknown, in the second the cause is revealed.

And why not? Buddhist teaching itself is subject to the laws of change. I suppose in the end, the resolution of this question will depend on my experiences.

Monday, February 1, 2010

On Discrimination

In the Xin Xin Ming, it is written:


I translate this as: Arriving at the Way is not difficult, only hate picking and choosing.

The Ancient Zen masters of China were always warning about the discriminating mind. In English, the word discrimination comes from the Latin, discriminare, which means “to divide.” If you look closely at the characters in the Xing Xing Ming, you will see that picking and choosing consists of two characters: 揀擇.

揀 is an image of a hand splitting apart a bundle, and taking one thing from the bundle. 擇 is an image of a hand, and an image of an eye spying on a criminal. My research tells me it means to “pick over”, which makes sense. If I were an ancient Chinese watching a criminal, I would be watching to make sure he didn’t do something to me.

The third link in the chain of dependent origination, the Great Chain that binds sentient being to the Wheel of Life, is vijnana. Vijnana is usually translated as consciousness, but this is a loose translation. Vi- means to divide, as in vipassana, dividing awareness. Jnana means knowing. I prefer to translate this as “discriminating knowing”, or “discriminating mind”.

What all these have in common is dividing. Splitting. Breaking. Smashing. Picking and choosing is tearing out the chunks of life we like, and rejecting the parts we don’t. This division is known as “duality”.

The mystic sages and philosophers of old were always talking about unity. All is one. Become one with God. This is especially evident in Taoist thought, where all things are linked by the Tao, which is their source and root. It is not something to accept intellectually, but to be explored in meditation and contemplation. If we investigate this thoroughly, we find this to be true, and the more we investigate, the deeper the truth becomes. We live in a universe, after all, not a poly-verse.

So when there is picking and choosing, we are carving up this essential unity into pieces (the Buddha cleverly uses this ability in service of the truth, but this is a topic for another time). The problem is, experience doesn’t come in chunks. It comes as a whole. The rose doesn’t come as simply a pretty color and a nice scent, it comes with stem, thorns, and sometimes, bees. A sunny day can provide gentle warmth, but it can also make us hot and thirsty. When we cut reality up, we are not seeing things as they are (which is one way to translate the Buddhist word “dharma”). Buddhism teaches that we crave the pleasant, reject the pleasant, and become numb to the neutral. This is a problem because what is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral is all mixed up. And as Lao Zi would be quick to point out, pleasant and unpleasant define each other. You can’t have the good without the bad. Yin and yang always appear together.

The discriminating mind divides the undividable. And it divides according to the whims of the ego: that ragtag jumble of likes and dislikes we’ve acquired during our life. We try to create, on earth, our own vision of heaven. Some one who likes punk will blast punk out of their stereos. Some one who likes classical music will find punk offensive, and complain when the neighbors play it too loud. We try to surround ourselves with our likes, keep away our dislikes, and avoid the neutrals when possible. As the world is in a state of constant change, so must we constantly recreate this personal heaven. Our ego jerks us around our whole lives trying to finding lasting happiness. Jesus warned his disciples not to build their houses on the sand. The entire shifting, changing, phenomenal world is nothing but one big sandbox.

So what’s the solution?

John Blofeld wrote that the Taoist accepts things as they are, one at a time. I like this summary--- it is very elegant and piercing. The Buddha said that we must realize the true nature of our desires, the source of our suffering. A Christian may be told to put all things down and follow God. God’s will, not my will, be done.

There is a Zen koan about a monk who spent years searching for enlightenment. He traveled high and low, through the great plains and cold mountains of China. The monk studied with many teachers, read many sutras, and experienced many states of meditation. One day, he found himself in a marketplace, listening in on a conversation between a butcher and a customer. The customer was asking the butcher for the best cuts of meat.

The butcher replied, “All of my cuts are the best.” Hearing this, the monk achieved enlightenment. As the Third Patriarch tells us the way is easy--- if we can only get rid of picking and choosing.