August 24, 2013 § Leave a comment
In, “The Gateless Gate,” by Ekai, koan # 29 has two monks arguing about a flag. One said: “The flag is moving.” The other said: “The wind is moving.”
The sixth patriarch happened to be passing by and heard their argument. He told them: “Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving.”
This koan touches upon our everyday experience of assigning a reality to thought and imagination that they do not properly possess. Take the photograph at the top of this post as an example. Is it a flag? Is it a flag reflected in a window? Or is it a flag, at all?
In his painting, The Treachery of Image, shown below, the Belgian surrealist René Magritte’s raised these same questions.
The painting is of a pipe and passport under which Magritte painted the words, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). When asked about this he reportedly replied that it was not a pipe, as you could not fill it with tobacco. Yet to the masses looking at this painting it is a pipe. As an example of how our mind works, this shows that our ideas, or constructs, are often given greater reality than our actual perceptions.
Marcel Duchamp takes this a step further in his Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2; by showing the mind also animates its environment. In his 1912 oil on canvas, the conical and cylindrical elements are reconstructed by the mind into an image of someone walking down a flight of stairs. But is there, in fact, anything moving here at all but mind?
In its positive mode the mind’s ability to animate and impose substance where there is none, can give life meaning and give the impetus to turn dreams into reality. In its negative aspect it can cause great psychological suffering when invidious mental images and beliefs take hold to arouse fear and anxiety. An obvious example of this is where post-traumatic stress disorder creates a false conceptual world that is imposed over that actually perceived through the senses. When this happens, an individual reacts to threats long since passed as if they were still a current reality, making their life miserable.
Now one could think that a truly sane person realizes the unreality of his imaginings and deals only with what is actually perceived through the senses. That, however, would miss the vital point that without the mind’s ability to give life meaning, our world would be a hollow and despairing place. It is the mind’s ability to animate the world that makes us emotionally and psychologically fit. Sanity comes into question when the mind is left on automatic to assign reality to everything it imagines or thinks no matter how preposterous. The mark of a truly adjusted individual is one who has the ability to see the unreality in life while simultaneously appreciating its beauty.
From the Buddhist perspective Shikyo Eryo expresses these same ideas while attempting to explain Hakuin’s work. He writes,
“While the fundamental essence of Buddha wisdom is formless, each and every thing that exists in the actual world, in whatever shape or form, is reflected in it; it is as such phenomena that all things exist. Although they are originally devoid of shape or form, inasmuch as they appear as phenomena, they cannot be said to be non-existent; and although they appear as phenomena, inasmuch as they are essentially devoid of shape or form, neither can they be said to exist. Such is the mode of being that Buddha wisdom assumes. It represents the Dharma universe in its true suchness or ultimate reality, in which all existences are embraced within the one universal Buddha-mind.”
August 16, 2013 § 1 Comment
Surrendering to the August sun, I place my book aside and walk down to the beach. There’s a special place I like to sit after entering the water, a glacier flattened rock that lies just below the waterline when the tide is in. In spite of the heat my body rebels against the cooler water as I enter the ocean. Wading in I find my rock and sit.
In the distance a speedboat races to nowhere in particular. Beyond it are a couple of sailboats taking the wind. My mind wanders. I think I must have passed False Creek over three thousand times in the last fifteen years before realizing that anchored boats always mark the direction of the tide. An incoming tide turns a boat to open waters, while the out-going tide turns it’s bow to the shore. Interesting how the daily motions of the sea could go unnoticed for so long.
The waves kicked up by the speedboat reach me and bring me back to the moment. One by one they bump and slightly lift me off the rock. When a wave of anxiety hits I focus my attention as I’ve been taught. Holding the feeling in my awareness I gently assert it is just a product of the brain. It is just neurons firing away in some habitual manner from some long passed trauma, an automatic reaction to a false threat that has no existence outside my brain and therefore no real existence at all.
In the past my belief in the reality of the threat caused me much dread and apprehension. One day, however, I saw that the threat wasn’t true. This realization lasted only a moment but having once seen the truth I began to work on it. I began to see how my fears “leaked” into my perceptions taking on an appearance of reality that properly belonged only to the sights and sounds gathered in by my senses. But it wasn’t just my fears that tainted my perceptions. Everything I thought and felt bled out into the world. I was caught up in some waking dream, acting and reacting to what was predominantly only in my head. I had found illusion. I had found Māyā.
Māyā of the Vedantists is the physical and mental reality in which our everyday consciousness has become entangled. Māyā is held to be an illusion, a veiling of the true Self. But having recognized it in my own mind I found it possible to dispel the illusion, although a bit at a time and with much work still to come.
Every day waves of thought arise and fall, flowing out into the world where they take on a false sense of reality. When pleasant, it’s easy to rest in their dreamy consciousness and many people do spend much of their lives in this type of consciousness. But more often than naught fear contaminates perception and the world begins to take on a nightmarish quality. Anxiety, depression or a host of other emotional troubles arise for which we can find no solution. The solution eludes us because we seek it in a world where there is only illusion. We must stop seeking solutions in Māyā because in Māyā there is no truth.
Disentangling from Māyā takes time as habits and patterns built up over years are not easily brought down. It also takes courage because we must look directly at our greatest fears. It can be quite emotionally distressing to hold our fear and anxiety in consciousness but it is quite necessary if we wish to realize their falseness and unreality.
It is said that we must embrace our fears but little is said on how this is done. To me, embracing means holding a thought or feeling in the awareness, as you would hold a butterfly in your hand. You would not hold the butterfly to too tightly lest you injure it, nor would you hold it too loosely lest it fly away before you could examine it. Fear, or any other feeling toned thought for that matter, must be held in the awareness in the same way without obsession or repression. It is essentially a meditative practice like any other except that the object of the meditation is an anxiety, fear, depression or some other emotion.
I found it very useful when so holding a fear to gently assert that it exists only as neurons firing in the brain. This strips the emotion of the false belief that it exists in the outer world. Now it may take time for the full effect of this process to reach fruition, and I must advise that at times I felt pretty miserable doing this. But each time I did, it made the next time that much easier. And as you progress you’ll note that your fears and other emotions are gradually being withdrawn from the world around you back to where they actually exist, in your brain alone.
When you begin to see that all thought and emotion exist in the brain and not in the outer world then one more thing happens. You begin to see that your self, or ego, also exists only in the brain. It, too, is false and not the real you. In seeing this, Māyā dissolves and you realize your true Self is that ocean of pure Consciousness you’ve been sitting in all along.
August 10, 2013 § 2 Comments
The morning sun brightens the floor and the air is still cool as I arrange the cushions. Practice has begun even before I sit.
Getting comfortable, my first instinct is to relax my shoulders made habitually tense from generational trauma. I check my breathing. Experience has taught that it is best to place the tip of the tongue on the roof of the mouth and inhale gently though the mouth. I don’t know why but breathing through the nose whilst meditating irritates my sinuses. I used to feel uncomfortable about this, as breathing through the nose is the preferred method in all books on meditation. Small thoughts can be as irritating as a mosquito in the dark. I was therefore quite pleased when I read in Khenchen Thrangu’s “Vivid Awareness,” that Khenpo Gangshar recommended breathing through the mouth.
As with most meditations, I notice my mind is initially calm but within moments my thoughts get to feeling abandoned and start asking for my attention. But to follow them would defeat the meditation and, besides, there is a distinctive feel that comes with just being aware that doesn’t arise when following thoughts. Just being aware has a subtle “soft” energy to it that is snuffed out by thinking.
One of the first books on spiritual practice that I ever bought was Paul Brunton’s, “The Secret Path.” It was early April and in spite of the evening’s forthcoming activities for which I should have been preparing, I sat instead with that book. In the first few pages Brunton described meeting a sage who spoke profound words but of greater importance was the “silent flavor of spirituality that emanated from him.” Brunton went on to write of “tranced stillness,” a “beautiful and serene presence” and “exalted moods whose fragile bodies are as gossamer.” I fell asleep.
Not fifteen minutes later I awoke with a profound energy filling my body. The energy accompanied me throughout the evening’s activities, at the end of which I went outside to gaze at the Milky Way. In those days the lights of the city were faint so you could still see that broad band of milky light spanning the sky from south to north. As I looked upward I could feel the energy fading but it had filled me for some five hours. The soft energy mentioned above is a toned down version of the energy I felt that April night.
Of late, my meditation consists of turning inward and focusing on my sense of self, that feeling or sense of an “I” somewhere in the mind. In zazen the stress is placed upon correct posture, just sitting and being present. We are not to engage with thoughts but every time we find ourselves lost in them the instruction is just to return to our posture and just sit. In so doing the mind will eventually stop resisting and begin to settle down, eventually reaching a state where nothing is happening.
When turning attention on the sense of self my aim isn’t to see the self. That isn’t possible, for consciousness can never turn around and see itself any more than an eye can turn around and look at itself. But in gently holding the sense of self in mind I find that I am slowly becoming aware that whatever I am, it isn’t a self. There isn’t a “me” being aware of some object I call myself. There is just observing.
I dimly see that there is no separation in just observing. Without the sense of self there is only just sitting, just breathing and just movement. Just observing is, then, not static. It is an unfixed, dynamic that is everything and no-thing. It is true nature, the true Self that is no self. And therein lies mystery.
So is zazen identical to observing that is never observed? If I say, “Yes,” then I’ve misled you into dualistic, conceptual thinking. So take Dogen’s advice and take the correct posture and just sit and be present.
August 5, 2013 § Leave a comment
I’m hanging out this Monday listening to music by Marina Kanavaki. I’ve been moody all morning from mourning all night. Sunday’s left me dry trying to figure out what’s forever undefined. Time for some black tea, I think.
I walk the floor and pour water into the pot. Seems all I do is pour but this empty vessel is never filled up. Plugging in the kettle I reach into the pantry and take out some baked clay someone formed into a cup. It is the space within that makes it useful, said Lao Tsu. Into that space I place the tea bag and wait.
How slow the moments go as I wait for the kettle to boil.
Ready at last I pour, better stop short than fill it to the brim. Add honey and let the tea steep… something mysteriously formed.
As the steam rises I wonder which has the form. Is it the tea, or is it the cup alone?
I take a sip. It doesn’t feel “cuplike” on my lips. Is the tea beyond form? Or is this what Hakuin meant when he wrote, “Form, is the form of emptiness.”
I drink my tea, savoring every drop until the cup sits empty. Lao Tsu’s words rise up in my thoughts again, “Though the body dies, the Tao will never pass away.”