Squaring the Circle of All-Encompassing Awareness.

November 19, 2016 § Leave a comment


There is a simple power that grows as we learn to just sit in the present moment. Each time we return to the moment from distracting thought and emotion this power grows. Each time we disengage from the constant chatter in our heads, it becomes stronger. At first we do not notice anything different. Yet behind the stories we endlessly tell in our heads there is a change going on. Deep within, adjustments are being made. These we need not attend to. In fact, we cannot attend because they are taking place in a realm beyond thought. All we need do to promote it is to just sit. This power is the power of awareness squared.

In mathematics, a square is the result of multiplying a number by itself. In life, awareness is squared when it becomes aware of itself. It is Life realizing Life! In meditation and mindfulness, awareness is squared when there is a continuous waking to the present moment from each distraction.

Waking is a good word as we are always aware but not always awake to this simple fact. At any given moment we experience many things. The breath, the pressures of clothe on the body or some distant sound. All lay within the awareness even though we are not attending to them. When we turn to these sensations we do not say we were unaware of them. We know we were. We were just not aware that we were aware.

In the practice of meditation and mindfulness we cultivate the awareness of being aware or, if you like, awareness squared. It starts with the simple act of focusing upon a single object or activity. As the mind settles on this activity it becomes aware of being aware of the item. This awareness squared is not long maintained, however, as the mind soon slips back into distracting thought and feeling. When the mind becomes aware of this distraction it brings its attention back to the meditation object or activity. Again and again this dropping from awareness squared to awareness and back again takes place, all with the aim of training the mind to remain mentally alert.

Over the course of weeks, months and perhaps years, practice unfolds as a matter of continuously returning to the present moment from each distraction. During this time many things are happening behind the scenes, not the least of which is the appearance that thoughts are becoming more and more numerous.

In spite of appearance, thoughts are not becoming more numerous. They are always arising in a manner that neither increases nor decreases their number. What in fact has happened is that the awareness of thought that has always existed has been squared. The mind has become aware of all the thought that has been going on all the time.

Just as certain sensations (as in the above example of clothes and sound) always exist in awareness, so the mind is constantly thinking. It takes an act of effort to be aware of this thinking and a continuous effort to maintain this awareness. Even with effort there is no initially awareness that these thoughts lack substance and exist only in the mind’s imagination. Only through constant practice does this awareness develop.

When the awareness squared has reached a certain level of maturity the mind will have a sudden insight and see that thoughts are just thoughts. They are not things that exist in the outer world but insubstantial dream illusion with no power to rule or dictate the terms of how you are to live and feel. For that brief instant the mind is free from the tyranny of thought.

If the ground has been properly laid there may arise a deeper awareness that the self, too, is just a thought or construct in the mind. The identification with thought will stop, if only for a moment, but there will remain a lasting Value regarding the true nature of self. The self is not thinkable. Identity lies outside the realm of thought where it sits watching the ever-flowing stream of thought.

This, by the way, is not the end of practice. It is just the first resting place along the Path.


The Moving and the Non-Moving

June 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

Absolutely Pure

In filmmaking, an immediate transition from one scene to another is called a cut. A gradual transition is called a dissolve with the start and end of the dissolve called a fade out and fades in, respectively. It is interesting to consider that these techniques may have evolved from the eye’s tendency to blink when we turn to look at something new. Blinking may be the natural way for us to fade out one scene and fade in another.

In Evans-Wentz’s “Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines” there is a section in the ‘Yoga of the Uncreated’ that refers to the analyzing of the ‘moving’ and the ‘non-moving’. When I first read this years ago I did not understand it. I thought it referred to some advanced practice I was yet unprepared for. I now think that the moving and non-moving is something that can be observed in meditation at any time.

Transitions similar to those in films are observable in meditation where one moment you’re attending to the breath and the next you’re lost in thought. If you carefully watch these transitions you’ll note they are quick cuts from one state to another. One second you are alert and concentrated, the next you’re in a mental world far removed from the present moment lost in thought and daydreams. We may consider these transitions as ‘moving’.

We are constantly moving from one thought to another, and one thing to another, throughout the day. In meditation we can observe this movement and thereby slow it down. Turning the awareness to that place where the movement starts does this.

The place where movement starts is nowhere other than your own mind where you are first distracted from your meditation. There you watch yourself transition from an alert meditative state to an alternate state that arises as you follow a thought. This transition is a quick one that draws and merges you into the thought so it might take a few tries to see it.

Becoming aware of this movement is the first step. Turning your awareness to it just as it starts is the next. Here is what Dayi Daoxin wrote about this in “The Fundamental Expedient Teachings For Calming The Mind That Attains Enlightenment.”

“…the moment when you realize this (movement) occurring then immediately concentrate on the fact that the place where it arises ultimately does not come into being. When this mind does begin to attach itself, it does not come from any place in the ten directions and when it goes there is no place at which it arrives.”

Through self-study you discover that the mind before it moves does not originate from any place. And when movement stops, it does not arrive anywhere. It is just ‘here’ all the time but you cannot see it directly. This is your mind before thought arises. It is non-moving mind and you are identical to it.

The moment you try to think of the non-moving it becomes the moving mind. Hence you can never conceptualize your non-moving mind but only obscure it with thought. Daman Hongren in his, “Treatise on the Supreme Vehicle,” puts it this way:

“Why is there no light? The light is never destroyed; it is just enshrouded by clouds and fog. The pure mind of all living beings is like this, merely covered up by the dark clouds of obsession with objects, arbitrary thoughts, psychological afflictions and views and opinions. If you can just keep the mind still so that errant thought does not arise, the reality of nirvana will naturally appear. This is how we know the inherent mind is originally pure.”

The originally pure mind is not lost. It is right here, right now. All we need do is stop following after thoughts and things, then it naturally appears.

On Tibetan visualization practice

January 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

(FYI: image is originally from “The Secret of the Golden Flower”  Click here to go to it.)Stage 4 meditation ii

A common Tibetan Buddhist practice uses visualization to hallucinate a central figure, usually a deity, out of which many other figures are then made to appear. When all these personages have appeared they are reabsorbed back into the central figure that is then reabsorbed back into the practitioner. The ultimate aim of this practice is to realize that all phenomena are but a dream illusion born from our imagination. A central part of this process is realizing the emptiness of the central and accompanying figures before they are reabsorbed.

In the West we have little time to spend on elaborate visualizations but in a way it isn’t necessary, as we already have created in our imagination numerous “others” to amuse and berate us. It only takes a little bit of self-observation to see that this is true. We are always imagining our self as happy or sad, worthy or unworthy, or in some other fashion as a “this or that” kind of person. Or that we often have on going dialogues with the image of some significant other like a father, mother or spouse (who often take positions opposing our own).

It is easy to see how others act as if their inner persons are real. An individual who was historically abused will often behave, for example, as if an abuser is still around when no such person exists, except but in memory.  What is not so easy to see is the strength of our own belief in these inner others and how it leads us to live a life of dream illusion.

In the Tibetan practice the solution to living in dream illusion is to reabsorb the inner personages back into the mind. This may sound mysterious but in fact it has its parallel in modern therapeutic psychology that directs us to make unconscious content conscious. The lesson we learn from the Tibetan practice is that it was only when our thoughts were identified as self or not self that they became autonomous figures. To reintegrate them we must reverse this process by realizing that the inner faces we put on our thoughts are not real people but our own imagining. This allows us to accept the thoughts we disowned, denied or projected out into the world and to reabsorb them back into consciousness.

Inner others are not the result of an overactive imagination. As social beings it is natural for the brain to present ideas as people. But the mind does not stop there. These others also serve as guardians of our mental health in that they act to prevent unwanted or dangerous thoughts from rising into consciousness. It is because of this that Tibetan practices emphasize the need to first realize the emptiness of these figures and the thoughts they represent before reabsorbing them.

There is a positive effect on consciousness that comes from realizing the emptiness of your inner others that has its negative counterpart when this realization is lacking.

Whereas before it seemed that your awareness was crowded by thought, this new state of consciousness has an open and spatial quality to it that creates a feeling of distance between you and your thoughts. When the effect is positive your mind is clearer and more open. When negative, the effect is like suddenly stepping off a cliff.

People who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can and do experience this “stepping into mid-air” effect quite strongly. It arises when their sense of safety is suddenly stripped away leaving them feeling completely vulnerable, exposed and terrified. Needless to say this can be quite debilitating.

Even if you do not have PTSD you still need to take care. Your inner others guard you from undesirable content by directing your attention away from the unconscious. Once you realize their essential emptiness they lose that quality. But as you have yet to realize the emptiness of the new content, encountering it can be as debilitating as a PTSD attack. It is advisable to expand your awareness in this new space gradually by nurturing the realization that the true nature of your unconscious is also emptiness.

Tibetan meditation and emptiness.

November 3, 2014 § 4 Comments

Geogia Bay 0097

While in Vancouver the Dalai Lama spoke of the need to have some realization of emptiness for Tibetan meditation to be effective.

Tibetan meditation involves visualization. An image of a deity is visualized with such force and lifelike quality that at times others may see it. Then, having created this tulpa, as it is called, it is withdrawn back into the meditator so he or she may realize their identity with the deity. Without realizing the inherent emptiness of that deity, however, the self fails to realize its own emptiness and lack of self-existence. The meditation thus fails in its intended purpose.

As realizing emptiness is a cornerstone of Buddhism I often remind myself of what science tells us about the elementary particle called the electron. That is, that it has no size.

Now I should qualify this remark by saying that some physicists do say the electron has size. They have even made extensive calculations to show what it is. But beyond theoretical calculations there is no evidence that an electron has size.  Furthermore, it does not matter in science whether an electron has size or not, as science only deals with relationships and interactions, not things!

A scientist can happily tell us about an electron’s spin, mass and charge without ever being bothered by the fact that nothing actually need be there for her observations to be correct. She knows that properties are a quality of relationships. Similarly, a Buddhist can tell us that form is emptiness without ever denying the validity of our experience.

Form and emptiness are not mutually exclusive whether you are a Buddhist or a scientist.

It is not easy to break the habits of a lifetime and accept that experience does not require the presence of a self-existent thing.  Today you might nod with agreement as you quote Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and ask, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? – (Act III, scene I).”  Through such questions you may feel justified in your belief that permanent, solid things exist “out there”.

But if you realize emptiness, even if only slightly or with one thing, then tomorrow you might say, “There is pricking. There is bleeding. There is tickling and laughter, poison and death. But who is there to be wronged? Why, therefore, seek revenge?”

A small realization of emptiness can chip away at your belief that there are things that have power over you. This can then be expanded to a realization that judgments of your own worth and value are also empty and therefore powerless to affect you. Fear will begin to dissolve. Your demons will lose their false power as your realization of emptiness grows.  Then, one day, you may apply this knowledge to your self and find emptiness there, too.  That your true self is no self.

So whether you find emptiness in contemplating the electron or see it in the stories you tell yourself everyday, use that seed of realization to slowly transform your life.  You have, after all, nothing to lose.

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama

October 26, 2014 § 2 Comments

The Dalai Lama at UBC

His Holiness the Dalai Lama was in town this past week. As my last few posts addressed emptiness when viewed with fear and avoidance, I thought I’d try to tell you what he had to say about it.

From the perspective of Tibetan Buddhism, a proper understanding of emptiness must include an understanding of concepts, self-existence and dependent origination. Once understood, this knowledge can then be applied to the Buddhist notion of no self. Of course, all of this would fill many posts so I shall try to be as brief as possible.

Simply put, something has self-existence when it exists on its own or independently of anything else. For example, most would say the moon exists whether we look at it or not, so the general belief held by humanity is that the moon is self-existent. A Buddhist would tell you, however, that an analysis of this belief would lead to a different conclusion.

Through analytic meditation the Buddhist would examine his or her experience of the moon to see that it is collection of concepts, or ideas about something, and not an actual thing in itself. Different concepts of the moon include those held of it before the advent of the telescope, the moon before humanity set foot on it and the moon as seen in it’s various phases. Considering the different ways of conceiving of the moon, “Which one, is any,” the Buddhist would ask, “is the actual moon?”

It is important to note that the Buddhist is not saying the experience doesn’t exist. The experience of the moon is a real experience but one that is organized by the conceptual mind. The conceptual mind takes a collection of experiences and organizes them together under one name. That ‘somewhat’ that appears in the sky at various times during the month in various shapes or phases, that telescopes tell us has craters and our astronauts say is made of dust and rock, are all organized under the general concept that we know as the moon.

In addition to creating concepts out of a collection of experiences, the human mind assigns these concepts a sense of reality that lends the appearance of self-existence.  This assigned self-existence is a matter of convenience that gives the world a sense of stability.

Consider, for example, how efficient it is to name a file and place it in a folder of similar items stored in your computer. Having done so, you know where it is or “exists”. All you have to do to find it is to look in that file. But suppose you didn’t name your files or make any folders. As more and more items are entered into your computer, finding them becomes more and more difficult. And if you couldn’t find any particular file, you’d begin to doubt its existence. In a similar way, the human mind assigns names and words to your experiences and files them accordingly, giving them the appearance of self-existence. But whether any thing does exist independently of the mind is a matter of philosophical debate, not proven fact!

This leads us to the Buddhist notion of dependent origination.

Dependent origination is said by the Buddha to be a very deep subject so I will try to cover it here only in relation to what the Dalai Lama said about emptiness.

An example given by the Buddha was that of a flame in an oil lamp. When the oil and wick are present, the flame burns. If either is absent, the flame is not there. This is a simple example of the principle of dependent origination. In it, the flames existence is dependent upon the wick and the oil. The experience of the flame is real but in itself the flame has no self-existence.

In his talk last Thursday the Dalai Lama briefly applied the Buddha’s reasoning to himself. If we were to look for His Holiness we would not find a self-existence that we could call him. We could find an arm or face, thoughts or feelings, but eventually we would have to conclude that the Dalai Lama, himself, was like a flame in an oil lamp whose origin was dependent upon other things that, in and of themselves, too, ultimately had no self-existence. Yet, said the Dalai Lama, when he pinches himself, he experiences pain. So what is that which experiences this pain? What is this no self?

Without answering that question the Dalai Lama went on to state that through the process of analytical meditation one can see how all things are dependent upon everything else, such that no thing can be said to arise independently or have self-existence.   And that if we introduce here the Buddhist notion of emptiness, we can see that emptiness does not mean nothingness but merely the lack of self-existence. There is form, but it is empty of self-existence.

There is experience. There is the conceptual organization of experience. Yet none of this, including the self, exists independent of anything else or with permanent form. Understanding this, the Dalai Lama went on to say, we can see what is meant when it is said that form is emptiness and emptiness is form.

*** Please note that the Dalai Lama’s visit to Vancouver was in association with the Tibetan Cultural Society of BC and organized in part to help the Society raise funds to sponsor the resettlement of Tibetans to Canada.  Click on the Society’s name to open a new window that links to their site if you are interested in this cause.

Buddhist Cartography: You Are Here.

April 14, 2014 § 5 Comments

You are here 0264

I was in Stanley Park looking at the park map when my friend asked, “If we are here, then who are these people by the restrooms?”

Site maps often show two figures to indicate restroom facilities while using a marker of some sort to tell us where we are. As these maps emulate the workings of the human brain it should come as no surprise to learn that the brain also has an inner marker that says, “You are here.” What might come as a surprise is that, as with the site map, there isn’t actually any “you” there at the tip of the marker.

Just as the brain creates inner maps of the outer world, so does it create a map of a self that relates to the world. And just as the maps of the outer world are not the actual world, nor is the map of self your actual Self.

Identifying with the map of self has us believing we are such traits as “unreliable,” “worthless” or “bad” when, in fact, our true nature is clear; just as the water of a lake is clear and only reflects the blue of the sky or the green of the forest.

Most of us have been reading our inner maps for so long that we have forgotten our true nature.   Mindfulness and meditation are two practices that train us to turn our attention away from these maps so we may focus, first, on the outer world and, then, our true nature.

In mindfulness we focus our attention on whatever task we are doing at the moment. This turns our attention outward and away from our inner maps. As we progress in this outer focus we become more aware of the inner maps that our brains have superimposed on the world. We begin to see the difference between what “is” going on in the world as opposed to what we “think” is going on.

As part of my practice, I see my inner maps as constructs of the brain that exist only in the brain. I find this a great help in seeing the unreality of thought, as whatever exists in the brain alone can have no real existence in the outer world. This has helped dispel many fears, false beliefs and delusions; and is quite consistent with Tibetan Buddhism where the essential point is to see the world is an illusion.

In meditation the awareness is once again focused away from the inner maps, but this time it is turned back upon itself, i.e., one’s clear, true nature.

Here words become misleading. There is no actual “back” or “upon” in any sense that implies an objective self looking outward at the world. To think there is some person, mind or soul being aware of itself merely replaces one map of self with another, subtler one.

The ultimate form of meditation is Dogen’s shikantaza where one just sits as awareness itself. However, before most of us can “just sit” we need to disengage from our inner maps.   We need to put our maps of self and the world aside.

As I mentioned above, I have found it helpful to see my inner maps as fabrications of the brain. This applies not only to the maps I superimposed over the physical world but to my map of self, as well.

The inner map I have of myself is purely a construct of this brain and body. I did not have this map before incarnating into this body and, upon taking a new form, any new map of self will be just as illusory and impermanent as the one I use now.

Ultimately, self is nothing more than a marker on a map that says, “You are here.”   The only truth of that marker is that it points to emptiness, which is your true nature and your real Self.

Buddha Nature.

June 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Doorway to the sky of mind

Enlightenment, as I use the word, is where the inner light of your own being shines unobscured in and through you out into the world.  Technically, that light is always shining just as the sun is always shining.  But as clouds of water vapor can obscure sunlight so, too, can clouds of ignorance and misunderstanding obscure the inner light.  In “August Meditations” I have been exploring clouds that appear in the sky of mind with the hope that through such exploration they will dissolve and fade away.

An obscuring cloud that seems to affect everyone is the belief that what we think about the world is, in fact, the world.  At best, though, our thoughts only represent the world somewhat accurately.  At worst, they can be complete delusion and fallacy.  To explore this I have touched on both Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Buddhist concepts of form and emptiness.  PTSD, to show the brain reacts to past trauma as if it exists in the present.  Form and emptiness, to show the emptiness of psychological form, i.e., thought.

There are two aspects of “form is emptiness”.  One is the more common meaning that nothing has any inherent nature.  That is, that objects whether of thought or that perceived through the senses, do not exist by themselves but are dependent for their existence on everything else.   The second is emptiness in the context of Buddha Nature.  This latter aspect sees emptiness as endowed with qualities of awakened mind like wisdom, compassion and clarity.

For the most part I have been writing on emptiness with the meaning of this second aspect.  Specifically, that such emptiness is realized when the obscuring clouds of mind are cleared away or, at least, a break in the cloud appears.  To me, a major obstacle to enlightenment is the false belief that our thoughts are self-existent things that have power to influence and harm us.  We see in PTSD how viewing the world as a dangerous place leaves an individual always on the defensive.  But even experienced meditators can fall prey to delusory thought.

The various meditations that aim to enlighten, especially in Tibetan Buddhism, are designed to awaken an individual from delusory thought.  They seek to have the meditator realize that thoughts are produced by mind and have no existence other than what the meditator has lent them.  “Gods, demons, the whole universe, are but a mirage which exist in the mind, springs from it, and sinks into it.” Writes Alexandra David-Neel in “Magic and Mystery in Tibet.” p. 287.

In meditation we are therefore told not to attach to whatever arises.  As our practice deepens we are to take this attitude out into the world, letting things arise and fall without being attracted or repelled by them.

If you believe some particular thought represents some real threat it will be difficult to do this.  But if you develop the attitude through daily practice that thoughts that create fear, depression, anger, lust, etc., have no substance, then those thoughts will gradually weaken.  The clouds will begin to thin and disperse.  Then, you are open to the emptiness of an awakened mind that shines with wisdom, compassion and clarity.  You will awaken to your true nature.  Buddha Nature.

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