September 26, 2017 § Leave a comment
The title of this post comes from Mumon’s comment on the koan “MU” in which he states that if you cannot pass through the barrier Mu then you are like a ghost clinging to bushes and grasses. The bushes and grasses he refers to are whatever we cling to that verifies our existence. They are our social standing, religious beliefs, money, habitual thoughts, various ideas and whatever else we use to establish a personal identity. That personal identity is the steady state self discussed in the last three posts. In the context of Mumon’s commentary, it is the ghost. It is therefore ironic that the loss of one’s personal supports is felt to be the death of self when this self is a ghost!
The steady state self has also been compared to a bubble floating on the ocean. As individuals we identify with our bubbles and fear their bursting. Yet when it does suddenly burst there arises the opportunity to realize one’s true identity as the ocean. This is why Tibetan Buddhists consider the moment of physical death to be so auspicious. It provides one last opportunity to realize our true nature, if it has not already been realized in the life just ending.
Of course, we do not wish to wait until we die before attaining enlightenment so we practice meditation to purify ourselves. That means eliminating attachment to whatever supports our personal identity and “completely exhausting,” as stated in Mumon’s comment, “the ways of ordinary mind.”
It may seem contrary to Mumon’s directions but one way of exhausting the ways of ordinary mind is to use its ability to think abstractly to make things simpler. An example of this is collecting all the things that go into making a personal identity and calling them ‘bushes and grasses’. Calling the self a steady state system is another example that, if done correctly, severs attachment to the self and it’s possessions. But while doing this we must not forget that these are just abstractions. As with pure science, when a more inclusive way of thinking comes along we must be willing to drop the old expression for the new. Otherwise we have just replaced one ghost with another.
One way to discover the inclusivity of a line of thought is to test it. Does it expand your understanding of Buddhist literature and make your meditation smoother? Does it help you throw away wrong knowledge and mistaken understanding? If so, it is a useful tool but remember that no matter how abstract your thinking becomes it can only take you so far. If you want heaven to tremble and the earth to quake you must go beyond thinking.
Mu, as a word, is the ultimate abstraction. It is the ultimate thought that includes within it all the philosophy and scriptures that have ever been written or ever will be written. It takes the one who uses it all the way to the highest reaches of human thought where he or she may touch the lowest level of Christ or Buddha consciousness (i.e., your true nature). It is so abstract that it even includes itself or, put another way, negates itself so that thought is left behind altogether.
Putting it in his most abstract terms Mumon wrote, “Do not construe Mu as nothingness and do not conceive it in terms of existence or non-existence.” It is, “All manifest, actual and alive.” And Life is never an abstraction.
A dog! Buddha nature!
All manifest, actual and alive.
But with the slightest touch of yes and no
Dead your body, lost your soul.
August 28, 2017 § 2 Comments
Steady state systems must continually renew their states to remain relatively unchanged through time. The reason for this is simple. Everything changes. There is nothing you can find in this world that does not change into something else over time. So for any state to remain relatively stable it must continuously counteract the changes taking place within and around it. This implies that there must be an underlying blueprint that determines the state to which a system will return. With the steady state systems that we identify as our individual selves, the blueprint is the self-image.
A self-image defines the boundaries of the self. It is the ego proper that says, “I am this and no other.” The ego can be quite persistent in rebuilding itself when its boundaries are transgressed. We’ve all had the experience of berating ourselves far too much over some faux pas or having some minor slight bother us throughout the day. These annoyances are the result of the ego trying to regain its self-image or steady state.
Self-images are maintained mostly by habit and repetitious thinking. In a previous post the idea of ‘loop thinking’ was introduced. By this was meant that the mind tends to think the same thoughts and reproduce the same feeling over and over again. As we go through the day we may catch ourselves thinking the same thoughts but do we realize that our viewpoints and attitudes are also just repeating thoughts? Do we realize that by thinking the same thoughts everyday that we feel the same feelings everyday? Or that the self’s sense of continuity is just a by-product of continuously thinking that you are ‘this, this, this but not that?’
A variation of loop thinking is storytelling. Storytelling involves the self’s relationship to others and the world and can be told in word or in deed. When done in word they are often told internally to paint our selves as heroes, victims or villains. When done in deed they manifest through our roles as parents, teachers, Christians, Americans, etc. Storytelling is loop thinking with an official end point but with the provision that the story can be retold again and again.
To maintain a steady state, the self must impose its self-image upon the true nature of an individual and a corresponding supplementary image on the present moment. Put in other words, a person will see the world in a way that supports his or her steady state. For example, if optimism is a fundamental part of your makeup then you’ll view the world as a hopeful place. Anything that contradicts that view will be considered an anomaly or just outright dismissed. It simply isn’t possible for the self to maintain a steady state without simultaneously maintaining a worldview that supports that state.
Before studying the self we don’t usually see that we are thinking the same thoughts or feeling the same feelings over and over again. We don’t see that we are clinging to a concept of what we and the world are as a way of continuing our own story. Nor do we see this as essentially a mechanical process operating to maintain a steady state system. We see it as our own self and any disruption to it as a threat to the self.
If, after studying the self for a while, we start to suspect that it is not truly who we are then we can start to let go. As Zen Master Dogen said, “To study the self is to forget the self.” And to forget means to let go. And that’s our practice. When repetitious thoughts echo that we’re not worthy, unreliable or incompetent, we let those thoughts go. When a story arises framing us as a victim, villain or hero, we let it go. All attempts to define us as something and keep us believing that we are that something, are let go and forgotten.
We sit, no longer a good person or a bad person. Not worthy or unworthy. Not a parent, not a teacher, not even a Buddhist. We are nothing. No one at all. Empty. “Sitting,” as Dogen said, “is itself the true form of the self.”
Yet in letting go, nothing is negated. Things still arise and fall but the self no longer seeks to change them into its own image. Instead, everything is just as it is.
To paraphrase the Diamond Sutra, the self is a bubble on a wave in an ocean that does not really exist. It is a steady state system connected to other systems in a vast ocean of systems. It does not truly exist, yet the ocean still heaves and thrills.
August 14, 2017 § Leave a comment
This post continues from the last on the idea that the self or ego is a steady state system. Note that a steady state is neither fixed nor locked in place. The self is not always sad or always happy. On the contrary, its thoughts and moods continuously rise and fall. What doesn’t change, what remains steady, is the system’s tendency to return again and again to a specific state of thought and feeling that is identified as the self. For instance, an optimistic person is one who continuously identifies over time with positive and cheerful thoughts.
Ayya Khema, in her book, “Being Nobody, Going Nowhere” wrote, “We’re all being reborn at every moment. Very few people have the mindfulness or the attentiveness to become aware of that. But we can become aware of being reborn…”
Being “reborn at every minute” is another way of saying that the self continually returns to its steady state. This happens in a variety of ways. The optimistic self selectively attends only to positive thoughts while ignoring or denying negative ones. Most of us maintain our steady state by only associating with people who hold similar views to our own. We may exercise or diet to maintain the image that we feel most defines our self and dress in a particular style to suit that self. We will also tend to avoid situations that require we act in ways that run contrary to our self-image.
On a level that few of us are aware of, the self will continuously impress or superimpose upon our true nature, images and feelings that define or limit it. Similarly, the self will superimpose upon the present moment its beliefs about the world. It does this to maintain a sense of continuity because your true nature, like that of the present moment, is constant change. So as each new moment is reborn, the self counters with its own rebirth by saying, “This is what I am and this is the way the world is.”
At its core, this superimposition is a lie that seeks to define your true nature and the present moment as something that remains relatively unchanged. Regarding this, you may have heard that a characteristic of the spiritual seeker is that he or she has a feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with the world. I suspect that this feeling arises from an unconscious recognition of this lie trying to break through to conscious awareness.
The life of the spiritual seeker may be defined as a continuous waking from lies to the truth. Put another way, the spiritual seeker is one who continuously works to unseat the false authority of the ego and what it says about the true nature of the present moment.
The self’s superimpositions can be quite subtle and it’s up to each seeker to realize their own particular hidden assumptions about themselves and the world. One way to do this is to be mindful of what it is you are telling yourself. Are you telling yourself that you’re unworthy? Are you walking about thinking others are out to get you or that the world is dangerous? Whatever you are continuously telling yourself is what you have to wake up from so you can see the world and your true nature as it really is.
One thing that I’d like to mention before closing this post is that it is not necessary to change your steady state self to realize your true nature. It is, of course, natural to want an end to suffering and we all have things that we’d like to change. We can continue to work on ourselves but in mindfulness meditation all you truly need do is realize the difference between your true nature and the present moment, and what is being superimposed upon them. Then continually work on not letting your superimpositions distract you from being who and what you truly are.
May 28, 2017 § Leave a comment
I am intrigued by the following description of Mae Chee Kaew’s inner activity before her enlightenment, found in “Mae CheeKaew. Her Journey to Spiritual Awakening and Enlightenment.” By Bhikkhu Silaratano.
The author writes that Mae Chee Kaew “began to meticulously scrutinize her mind’s extraordinary radiance, looking for any signs of imperfection. The luminous mind appeared unblemished, untroubled and exceedingly pure at first. But when she looked at it more closely she began to notice that an equally refined dullness occasionally emerged to tarnish that radiant, crystal-clear essence of knowing.”
Although it may not be readily apparent, what the author describes is essentially the same meditation practice that you or I undertake each time we sit.
Mae Chee Kaew’s meticulously scrutiny is analogous to the mental alertness that we aspire to in meditation. Her search for imperfection is our endeavor to wake up from distracting thought. And the dullness that tarnished her ‘crystal-clear essence of knowing’ is just a highly refined or subtle thought. Unlike Mae Chee Kaew, our thoughts are less subtle and our own knowing not crystal-clear. Nonetheless, when we sit in meditation we examine the same Buddha mind she did in the same way.
Whether a thought is coarse or refined, it still dulls awareness of the present moment. Whether the mind is clear or murky, it is still Buddha mind. Your mind is the radiant, luminous mind. All you need do to see this is wake from the thoughts that dull your awareness, the crystal-clear essence of knowing.
To quote Mumon from The Gateless Gate, if one sees this clearly “there is no Shakyamuni Buddha before him and no future Buddha after him.” That is to say, all concepts obscure the ever-present Buddha Mind, even the concept of Buddha. So when you sit, drop all expectation of ‘something else’ because the very mind you have right now is Buddha mind.
Dropping all expectation is returning to the present moment. In the present moment there is delusion and realization, practice, life and death, buddhas and living beings. When we sit with simple awareness, flowers die and weeds grow without clinging or aversion. When we stray into thinking, we return once again to the present moment, expecting nothing, seeking nothing.
Realizing that practice is simply stepping back on the path each time you step off, with no expectation of anything happening, may make you feel a bit like King Sisyphus. In Greek myth he was forced, over and over for eternity, to roll an immense boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down upon him. But if we awaken to the fact that this simple returning to the path each time we step off is the actualization of our own Buddha nature, then we are firmly on the path to realizing the luminous Buddha mind.
Upon her enlightenment Mae Chee Kaew’s said,
“Body, mind and essence are all distinct and separate realities. Absolutely everything is known — earth, water, fire and wind; body, feeling, memory, thought and consciousness; sounds, sights, smells, tastes, touches and emotions; anger, greed and delusion — all are known.
“I know them all as they exist — in their own natural states.
“But no matter how much I am exposed to them, I am unable to detect even an instant when they have any power over my heart. They arise, they cease. They are forever changing. But the presence that knows them never changes for an instant. It is forever unborn and undying.”
To quote Mumon, again, “If you understand this intimately, you yourself can enter the great meditation while you are living in the world of delusion.”
May 6, 2017 § Leave a comment
An oak tree in the garden stands on its own. It doesn’t seek a teacher to tell it where it must go or how to get there. An oak tree in the garden knows there are no enlightened ones and no enlightenment.
An oak tree in the garden doesn’t think this is what it must do or this is what it must achieve. It knows there is nothing to do and nothing to achieve. An oak tree in the garden knows there is no delusion and no realization.
An oak tree in the garden knows the fallen rain rising up through its roots. Yet it does not feel lack or something missing when, reaching its leaves, the rain returns to the sky. Within the oak things arise and fall yet all the while the oak remains unaffected. The oak tree in the garden is forever unborn and undying.
An oak tree in the garden actualizes itself exactly as it is in every moment. In delusion and realization, life and death, buddhas and living beings. It does not need to think about this. It does not need words to describe it. The heart’s message cannot be delivered in words.
March 16, 2017 § Leave a comment
Meditation may be described as ‘awareness waking to the present moment from all distraction,’ those distractions being mostly thought or thinking (includes emotion).
Initial instruction on meditation is to focus on some object, such as the breath, to steady the mind and develop concentration. After a state of relative calmness is attained and the novice no longer falls into fanciful reverie, the stage is set for deeper contemplation and insight.
Contemplation is more often linked with western mysticism but is also found in Buddhism. In its highest sense contemplation is a ‘power of knowing’ that comes from total concentration of one’s entire being on a single object, resulting in a fusion of the subject with the object. Western Contemplation is similar to eastern Samadhi that also results in fusion but just as there are various kinds of Samadhi, so are there different levels of contemplation.
As used here, contemplation is still a power of knowing but lacks the fusion of subject and object. In this type of contemplation thought is held in awareness for examination where, through an act of discrimination, insight into its true nature is revealed.
Examination of this type is not so much an intellectual process as an observational one. Imagine, for instance, watching some people off in the distance. You can see they are doing something but don’t know what. So you watch, hoping it’ll all make sense. Although there may be some silent attempt to put the activity into context, by and large thinking is suspended as you wait for the situation to reveal itself. This inquiring observation without thought or prejudgment is what is meant by examination.
Where discrimination comes in lies in the above mentioned ‘silent’ attempt to put the activity into some context. To put something in context requires it be discriminated from all things that it is not. Discrimination is used in meditation, for example, to see the difference between distracting thought and the present moment. In contemplation, this act of discrimination is taken further to reveal the true nature of thought.
Higher contemplation doesn’t develop until the mind has attained a certain level of calm and is able to hold an object in mind without distraction. But as the word is used here, it is possible to contemplate those complex aggregates of thought that arouse intense emotion. In fact, many times one can do nothing but attend to bothersome thoughts and feelings during meditation.
At times when emotions are intense, walking away is sometimes necessary. But when the mind has developed sufficient strength it becomes possible to hold complex aggregates of thought and feeling up for examination. The aim is not to psychoanalyze but to discriminate them from what is actually going on in the present moment. In so doing thought is eventually seen to be of the same stuff as a dream, a dream from which one may wake.
By fully separating what is going on in the head from the outside world, the difference between the two is seen and a certain degree of freedom attained. Then the full power of contemplation may be turned upon the ego or self. Not to compare it to the outer world but to That which is contemplating this self. This is Contemplation in the higher sense that leads to Self-Transcendence and the eventual realization of no self or Identity with Suchness.
February 23, 2017 § Leave a comment
When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation a monk asked, ”What do you think about, sitting in steadfast composure?”
Yaoshan said, “I think not thinking.”
The monk said, “How do you think not thinking?”
Yaoshan said, “Non-thinking.”
This brief Zen story may seem abstruse but when ‘thinking not thinking’ is interpreted as not following thought, it falls into place with meditation as the practice of continuous waking from distraction to the present moment.
We come to realize the extent of our distraction only after some attempts to practice being in the present moment. We find that our days have been spent watching thought play out on an inner screen. The stories we’ve projected about life, what people say about us, and what we think about ourselves, we’ve taken to be real. And we come to see that we’ve been interacting with these stories more than we have to the actual world.
To stop this we must first create an intention not to follow thought or, as Yaoshan said, ‘think not thinking.’ One way of doing this is described in the yoga aphorisms of Patanjali. He described thoughts as waves that have a certain force that must be countered by opposing waves of thought. Hateful thoughts, for example, are to be countered with thoughts of loving-kindness. By continually creating opposing waves of thought, the mind is eventually stilled.
In other practice thoughts are simply labeled as ‘thinking, thinking, thinking’. Emotions are identified as ‘fear, fear, fear’ or ‘boredom, boredom, boredom’, etc. The same is done with other distractions such as noises or physical discomfort. All distractions are labeled and the attention is returned to the present moment. In this way the mind uses thought to not follow thought.
Labeling thought has its place with simple distractions but there are more complex aggregates of thought and emotion that are not so easily named. These are the thoughts that are identified as self, and they naturally arise with thoughts that stand in opposition to the self. In psychology these opposing forces have many descriptors like the id and superego, the inner child and internalized parent or the underdog and the top dog. However they’re called, the conflict they produce may often make it impossible to simply sit and be in the present moment.
Holding these opposing forces up for thoughtful examination often helps to clarify and resolve conflicts. The aim is not so much psychoanalysis but a genuine attempt to realize these forces as merely thoughts that do not need to be followed or obeyed. When, for example, an inner parent has you feeling like a child again, by continually comparing your inner situation to the outer, i.e., the present moment, you come to realize that the parent exists only in your mind. Seeing this clearly means there is no need to follow the parent’s dictates, if they are not appropriate to the situation. It may have been in part related to these conflicts that Zen Master Dogen said, “Sometimes you study the way by casting off the mind. Sometimes you study the way by taking up the mind. Either way, study the way with thinking, and study the way with non-thinking.”
In the beginning of practice it is necessary to use thought to stop following thought. But when the intention not to think has become so established that it is carried out without thinking, as in a habit, thoughts are dropped automatically. Awareness of the present moment then arises naturally. That moment may still contain thoughts but they remain off to the side, so to speak. This alert awareness is non-thinking.
Non-thinking is not some far off goal. Whenever we are alert and momentarily not following thought; that is non-thinking. Whenever awareness is centered in the present, this is non-thinking. These may not be states that occur often in our practice but they are something we can experience today. And that is our practice, to take our isolated moments of non-thinking and turn them into a continuous string of never ending pearls.