December 31, 2016 § 2 Comments

dongyu-gatsal-ling-nunnery-calendar(Click on image to go to Dongyu Gatsal Ling website.)

Practice is the continuous movement from distraction to the present moment. Awakening from distraction to the reality of the moment is enlightenment. As Kosho Uchiyama said, “The only true enlightenment is awareness of the vivid reality of life, moment by moment.”

We only know life as vivid reality when we attend to it fully, without distraction. Until that moment, it seems as if life has placed a pane of glass between it and us. This feeling of separation comes from having attached qualities to the self that it does not properly have, like anger or loneliness. As these qualities are distinct and discrete it is falsely supposed that the self is, too. There arises the fiction of a separate body with its own life and own needs.

The belief that awareness requires a ‘somebody’ who is aware is, in the final analysis, just another thought. Like other thoughts, it distracts from the immediacy of the present moment with questions like, “How will this affect me? And, “What’s best for me?”

We can take that thought, that sense of self, into practice and observe it, just as we do with any other distraction. In observing what we thought was our self, the question will necessarily arise as to who is doing the observing. “Who am I?” we ask.

I, as observer, will ultimately be revealed to be no self, at all. As we step further back from what was thought to be a permanent, separate self our consciousness empties of thinkable content. To quote Tenzin Palmo, “the further back we go the more open and empty the quality of our consciousness becomes. Instead of finding some solid little eternal entity, which is “I”, we get back to this vast and spacious mind which is interconnected with all living beings. In this space you have to ask, where is the “I”, and where is the “other”.”

As Sri Aurobindo wrote it in the poem “Liberation”,

I have thrown from me the whirling dance of mind
And stand now in the spirit’s silence free,
Timeless and deathless beyond creature-kind,
The centre of my own eternity.

I have escaped and the small self is dead;
I am immortal, alone, ineffable;
I have gone out from the universe I made,
And have grown nameless and immeasurable.

My mind is hushed in a wide and endless light,
My heart a solitude of delight and peace,
My sense unsnared by touch and sound and sight,
My body a point in white infinities.

I am the one Being’s sole immobile Bliss:
No one I am, I who am all that is.


Past and Future are Cut Off.

June 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

Past and future

In the first chapter of Zen Master Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō he discusses time, telling us that past and future are cut off from this present moment. Using the example of firewood Dōgen writes,

“Firewood becomes ash. Ash cannot become firewood again. However, we should not view ash as after and firewood as before. We should know that firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and has its own before and after. Although before and after exist, past and future are cut off. Ash stays in the position of ash, with its own before and after.”

The typical understanding of time is that the present flows like a raft on a river from the past into the future. In this view, ‘before and after’ is primary to the present moment. Firewood comes before ash that, in turn, comes after firewood. Adulthood comes after childhood and before old age. Depending upon one’s personal temperament, life under the sway of time is either ceaseless becoming or endless dying.

Dōgen tells us that this is not how things are. The immediate moment or space you are in, he tells us, is primary. What is here and now does have a before and after but that past and future is cut off. Our only actual experience or reality that we know, in other words, is this present moment and not of something coming into existence or ceasing to be. As Dōgen wrote it, “firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and has its own before and after… Ash stays in the position of ash, with its own before or after.”

We may express these two views in terms of a motion picture. When we watch a movie we see one scene coming after another. When we examine the actual film, however, we discover that we were really watching a series of still images. Each image occupies its own position on the film with an image coming before and after it (except the first and last images, of course!) The before and after images, however, are ‘cut off’ from the center image by clear strips on the film. Every image is like this, having its own position and its own before and after.

Dōgen is not playing the cosmologist when he takes up the discussion of time. He is presenting us with a way to approach mindfulness and meditation.

The ordinary mind is continually thinking in terms of before and after. It is looking to the past for experience to draw upon and to the future for results. It is always occupied with a thousand desires and a thousand plans, searching and never still. This is the nature of temporal consciousness.

Dōgen presents us with an alternative to temporal consciousness that I call spatial consciousness. This consciousness is always here but is hidden by the noise of temporal thought and desire. To realize it all we need do is drop ‘before and after’ and stay with what exists now, in the present moment. We do not try to alter or deny it. Nor do we think of how it was in the past or how we want it to be in the future. We just stay with what is here in the present moment as it is. This is how we approach mindfulness and meditation.

Spatial vs. Temporal Consciousness

June 4, 2016 § Leave a comment

Stanley Park 2595

The story is told of a monk who sat in meditation. As he began he heard the evening bell toll. The morning bell then chimed with no sense of any intervening passage of time or loss of awareness.

This brief vignette serves to introduce the idea of temporal versus spatial consciousness. Temporal consciousness, as the name suggests, is awareness of change, of past and future. In meditation, for example, any sound we hear will arouse an awareness of duration, with a definite starting and expected end point to the sound.

Ordinary thinking that is desire based is temporal by nature. When we think of something we want it is typically with the hope that the desire will be fulfilled in time. When we put this desire into words we use a subject/verb/object structure that suggests the notion of time, as in, “I want to see Africa.” Because of its temporal nature, desire based thought mars meditation as it takes us out of the present moment and into memories of the past or dreams of the future.

Opposed to the temporal is spatial consciousness. While the former implies becoming, the latter suggests being. Spatial consciousness is not dominated by thought of what was or what might be but is an awareness of what is, here and now. It is reflected in concepts that suggest immediacy, such as ‘identity’ and ‘now’. In contrast to temporal thinking, spatial consciousness is represented in sentences without an object, as in the assertion, “I am.” Or in the Zen phrase, “Just this.”

We might describe meditation as the practice of minimizing temporal consciousness while maximizing spatial consciousness. In practical terms, this means turning attention away from thoughts that suggest process, such as how we are doing or what we will do after the meditation, to just sitting in the awareness of our immediate space. At first we do this by focusing on a particular location such as the tip of the nose, a candle or the hara located just below the navel. As we progress we come to a point where we just sit, alert and aware in the space we occupy in the present moment. When the monk did this in the above story, time ceased to exist.

The Buddha said, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” If we do not understand that the past and the future are temporal constructs while the present moment is spatial, the Buddha’s meaning might elude us. Yet if we understand this then we understand that the present moment is our immediate surrounding. And it is this space only that we need focus on in our meditation.

A note, do not think that spatial consciousness is nirvanic consciousness. The latter transcends both temporal and spatial consciousness and is, properly, neither. Spatial consciousness, however, is more like nirvana than is temporal. By focusing on the spatial we are aligning ourselves with Nirvana and therefore in a better situation to let it lift and transform us.

No object awareness

May 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

Warrior Hand

A First Nations story tells us that one evening the Great Spirit was looking for a wife. To each prospective bride the Great Spirit held out his cupped hands and ask, “What is in my hands.” Many sought to see what was there but in the end each could only answer, “Nothing.” Only one saw the night sky though the spirit hands and said, “I see stars.” In doing so she solved the riddle and became the Great Spirit’s wife.

Picasso may have done something similar to the Great Spirit’s bride when he drew “Warrior Hand” (shown above) after seeing his distorted fingers through a glass of water. And in meditation we must do something similar. We must look beyond the contents of mind to recognize the awareness that contains them.

We often approach meditation in the same way as the unsuccessful bride or non-artist. We seek something where there is nothing, all the while missing what is there. That is, we seek some special knowledge or a subtle object to experience, when the true ambrosia is awareness.

We falsely believe that because there is the word ‘awareness’ that awareness must be an object we can see.  But there is no object that is awareness.  There is no object awareness to observe.

When we take this false belief into meditation we seek some special awareness that will reveal our true nature.  But there is no special type of awareness; there is just your present, everyday awareness. Hence the instruction when meditating is to just be aware of being aware, just be or just sit. Yet in spite of these clear directions we continue to look for something in the awareness rather than the awareness itself. And in so doing we become unsuccessful brides who live in a sea of stars, yet see naught.


November 1, 2013 § 4 Comments

sitting buddha

As I sit by the fire Dogen’s words flicker to light my thoughts, “We should know that firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and has it’s own before and after (while) ash stays in the position of ash, with it’s own before and after.”

With this Dogen invites us to the here and now where, “Past and future are cut off.”

Philosophers, scientists and science fiction writers have produced volumes on the subject of time.  H. G. Wells took the 19th Century reader into the far future in his work, “The Time Machine”.  Einstein taught us time flows at different rates in different parts of the universe.  Quantum physics tells us some particle reactions may flow backward in time.  While the cosmologist tells us that there is no particular reason the future should not flow into the past, instead of the way it does now, past into future.

But what is the past?  What is the future?

Recently, I came across the work of German mathematician Hermann Minkowski.  In 1907 he took the idea of three-dimensional space and added to it a fourth.  Three of the dimensions were assigned real number coordinates (think “x”, “y” and “z” for length, width and height).  The fourth, however, he treated as an imaginary number that “rotates” between the other three real dimensions.  Perhaps because this rotation could be either clockwise or counterclockwise, he realized this imaginary space could be reinterpreted as time.

It is important to note that treating one of a four-dimensional space as imaginary actually explains all of Einstein’s special relativity and all of quantum physics.  So treating time as an imaginary space does have meaning in mathematics and physics.

Pondering this, it occurred to me that if the rotation of an imaginary dimension around a three-dimensional space is the past and future, then the three-dimensional space is, itself, the present moment.   The world around you, in other words, is a spatial extension of that part of time we call “now”.

This is consistent with Einstein’s theory of relativity that no barrier between time and space exists.  Space can be described as time.  Time can be described as space.  Looked at this way, there is no here and now, the here is the now.

We cannot describe “now” as containing a little bit of the past or a smidgen of the future.  It is, as Dogen wrote, cut off from the past and future.

In our awareness of the immediate moment we are also cut off from the past and the future except, that is, through the memories and hopes for the future that arises in our imagination.

We cannot separate the awareness from the immediate moment that, in turn, is inseparable from the space about us.  So it follows that space does not stand alone, isolated from awareness.  As such, consciousness and space are not divisible!  Such a conclusion is, as I understand it, an expression of the Buddha Way.

In the Buddha Way, even when we don’t realize it, awareness, objects, action, and space are working together as one reality.  Subject, object and activity all arise together.  The runner, to use Nagarjuna’s example, is inseparable from the running.  The sitter, as Dogen says, and the sitting are one.





“The myriad things return to the one: what does the one return to?”

October 4, 2013 § 3 Comments

Virtual Particles3

In the vastness of the universe there arises everywhere what are called “virtual” particles, particles that appear out of the nothingness of space and immediately return to it in such a way that they are not considered to be “real”.

The distinction between real particles and virtual particles is not clear.  Virtual particles that last long enough would be called real. Conversely, if a real particle had a very short life span it would actually be called virtual.  Whether a particle is considered real or not depends on that indefinable something called time.

The Big Bang

Time and space arose together in the creation of the universe called the Big Bang.  The Big Bang is often described as an expansion from an initially small point to the present size of the universe today.  What’s often ignored in this description is the absurdity of postulating a beginning point as “small” when space itself had not yet been created.

As the universe is not expanding “in” anything its expansion must be considered as apparent, or relative only to itself.  That means the question of size is relevant only to an observer in the universe comparing present conditions to past ones.  From a non-relative, or absolute point of view the size of the universe has not changed at all just, so to speak, it’s content.

Put another way, the universe reflected in a dewdrop would be seen to be as vast to any intelligent microbe living in it as our real universe appears to us.  But, unlike the microbe, we have no “outside” for comparison.  And without an outside, there is no distinction between big or small.

The four forces

The forces that govern the interactions of all matter in the universe – gravity, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force all owe their appearance to the present temperature, or low energy state, of the universe.

At higher states, electromagnetism and the weak force have been found to be just two different aspects of the same force, the electroweak force.  At temperatures even higher, like those just after the Big Bang, it is expected that all four forces will be found to arise from one common, as yet unnamed, force.

Beyond this one ultimate force science can go no further, for science only deals with relationships and once all four forces have been unified all relationships cease to be.  This upper limit on science, and the question of the whether the universe is getting larger or just undergoing state changes in place, or whether particles are real or not, are questions for philosophy, not science.  Questions that ultimately only the mystic can answer, hence she asks,

“The myriad things return to the one: what does the one return to?”

Science has no answer to this question but if it did, it would necessarily have to postulate some “indefinable” from which energy, matter and the “four forces made one” arise.

Being indefinable one wonders why the scientist is reluctant to allow for the possibility that this ultimate reality is Consciousness.  And why, as a result, they would deny their own consciousness as part of that greater Reality.

Consciousness Is.

September 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Lighthouse 1838

Because science only deals with relationships, the scientist can only understand consciousness in relation to objects.  The scientific mind therefore explains consciousness in terms of its content.  To science there is only one type of consciousness: consciousness with an object and with a subject.

In meditation we turn our awareness away from the object back to the subject.  Meditation enables us to know consciousness without an object.  Consciousness without an object but with a subject is Nirvana.  As Subject, you are Nirvana.

Nirvana is not an object.  It is not a place you enter.  It is you as undefined, pure subjectivity.

Beyond Nirvana there is consciousness without an object and without a subject.  This is Pure Consciousness.

Pure Consciousness is indefinable because definitions demand the use of objects.  It is therefore not knowable in any conventional sense of the word because “to know” involves an act of a subject knowing an object.

Definitions of consciousness do, of course, exist. But if you look closely you’ll see that the definition either makes use of a subtle object or defines consciousness in terms of itself.  A common example of the latter is to define consciousness as the power of awareness.  But what is awareness if it is not consciousness?

Defining consciousness is not unlike defining time.  A physicist will tell you time is impossible to define without referring to it in your definition.  For instance, time is a measurement of “how long” (a reference to time) it takes for an object to move (movement involves a subtle notion of time) from one place in space to another (and space, as Einstein taught us, is inseparable from time). But just as we all know what time is even if we can’t define it, we all have some knowledge of what consciousness is, even if we can’t properly define it, either.

Consciousness without an object and without a subject is Emptiness.

Where there are no objects or form, and where there is no subject or self (i.e., the Buddhist notion of anatman) there can only be emptiness.  But though it appears as empty, Consciousness Is!

In many ways, trying to define Pure Consciousness is like trying to define Pure Love.  You can’t, because Pure Love also transcends both the subject and the object.  One can only grasp at it, as did Elizabeth Barrett Browning when she wrote that love is the depth and breadth and height one’s soul can reach,

“…when feeling out of sight

For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.”

(Number 43, Sonnets from the Portuguese)

Meditation to know one’s true nature is this same “feeling out of sight” for Being which knows no end because it has no beginning.  And it is ultimately only through ideal Grace that we come to recognize our true nature as Pure Consciousness and Pure Love.

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