Meditating on the emptiness of our body

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We have the target, the body we normally perceive, the independent body. Here is my body appearing to me, existing from its own side, generating sky-2awareness of itself. It’s really there. Like a lump. A monolithic lump. Can’t miss it.

As Geshe Kelsang says in Joyful Path of Good Fortune:

We have a mental image of our body as something different from its parts. When we think “My body is attractive” we are not thinking “My feet are attractive, my elbows are attractive, my forehead is attractive …”, and so forth, but we apprehend an independent body.

And we believe with all our heart that this body we are apprehending does exist. Our life revolves around it. Could I point to it? Yes, of course I could, it’s right here isn’t it?!

Carrying on from this article on the four essential points.

At this point, once we have identified the negated object, we are ready to go looking for it using Steps Two to Four.

Ditching samsara

Just a couple of things first, though, before we continue. When we do this meditation on emptiness, it’s important to remember why we’re doing it. This would be because samsara sucks and we are trying to dissolve it away for everyone. How? By realizing it is empty of inherent existence.

I was thinking recently how innocent the term “samsara” might sound to the new ear. A Buddhist once ruefully told me he had named his two kids Sam and Sara before he knew better. Sweet kids, too. Samsara even has a perfume named after it. But there is nothing sweet about samsara. Monstrousara, evilara, deceptivara, sufferingara, cesspitara, crazyara, etc is more like it. A prize for the best word …

dissolving-body-4Also, when we do this contemplation, it is good to do it in our heart not our head, and not in a big hurry at first — for example after a little breathing or clarity of mind meditation, taking refuge in our own inner peace and pure potential mixed with the wisdom of Buddha.

Step Two: Ascertaining the pervasion

So if our body is as solid and real as it appears, if there is a body there appearing to me, then I will be able to find it if I look for it. In fact, the more I investigate, the clearer it’ll become. If there is mayonnaise in the fridge, for example, then a search should reveal it more and more clearly.

And if my body exists inherently or objectively — if it can be found outside the mind, existing from its own side, as it appears — then I must be able to find it or point to it without pointing at something that is NOT it. That’s only fair, isn’t it? If I’m looking for the mayo in the fridge, I can’t go pointing at the ketchup and say “Found it!”

And there are only two places where my body could possibly be — within its parts or somewhere else. No third possibility. Agreed?

(“Ascertaining the pervasion” is just a fancy way of saying that we become certain that our search pervades or covers everywhere our body could possibly be.)

So in this step we set up the parameters of our search so that we can know when to stop looking. I’m going to look for my body within its parts or somewhere else and, if I don’t find it there, I know I have looked everywhere it could possibly be and so there is no point in looking for it further.

lost-glassesFor example, if I have lost my glasses somewhere in the house, they are either in my bedroom or outside my bedroom. If I look in both places and fail to find them, I can conclude that there are no glasses in the house.

Once we are sure of this, we are ready for the next step in the meditation. We are going to look for the body within its parts and separate from its parts to find out, “Is my body really there, or is it just appearing to be really there?”

And we need to search “without prejudice”, as Geshe-la says in Joyful Path, not “Oh yeah, Buddha already told us that the body is unfindable, so I only need to go through the motions to come to that conclusion.” There is no point being half-assed about the search, but rather we can be like a child playing hide and seek — if anything expecting to find what we are looking for. Then the experience of not finding it — if that indeed is what happens — is all the more impactful, “What the heck?! Where’d it go? Are you telling me I have been grasping at an illusion all this time?! Phew, that’s actually seriously cool.”

Step Three: Ascertaining the absence of oneness

This is where we look for our body within its parts – is there anything in the parts of our body that matches up with the image of the body we’re looking for?

body-word-mat-2Is my back the body? No. It’s a back. My head? My arms? My internal organs? Etc. No. They are all just parts of the body, and the body is the part-possessor.

Each part is in fact a not-body.

What about if we add all these parts together? Eh voilà, a body?! No. We still only have a collection of not-bodies. If you collect a lot of not-sheep together, such as goats, you don’t suddenly, magically, get a sheep. You just have a bunch of goats.

(“Ascertaining the absence of oneness” is just a fancy way of saying that we become certain that our body is not one with, or identical to, its parts.)

The body is labelled on its parts, or imputed on its parts, like a forest imputed on a collection of trees, as explained here – but we can find absolutely nothing within the parts that corresponds to the body we are searching for.

Step Four: Ascertaining the absence of difference

If our body is different from its parts, then we should be able to get rid of all the parts and still be left with a body.

dissolving-body-2We can imagine our head, trunk, arms, legs, etc all dissolving away into nothingness. Is there anything left that is the body? No.

If you check, whenever we try to point to our body, we point at a part of our body.

(“Ascertaining the absence of difference just means we become certain that our body is not separate from its parts.)

Conclusion of our search

So, we’ve looked for our body everywhere it could possibly be found, as ascertained in Step Two — both one with or separate from its parts. And we have found nothing that corresponds to, or matches up with (“Snap!”), the vividly appearing body we normally cherish so much. This means that this body doesn’t exist — there is no body existing from its own side.

This absence of the body we normally perceive is the emptiness or ultimate nature of the body. It is a very meaningful absence, as explained here. It is the only truth of the body. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life:

It is almost as if our body does not exist. Indeed, the only sense in which we can say that our body does exist is if we are satisfied with the mere name “body” and do not expect to find a real body behind the name. If we try to find, or point to, a real body to which the name “body” refers, we shall not find anything at all.

emptiness of the car.png

Where is the car?

We should focus on this space-like unfindability or emptiness of the body – the mere absence of the body we normally perceive – for as long as we can. Every second we mix our mind with this emptiness we are reducing our ignorance that grasps at or believes in a real or inherently existent body, and are moving along the path toward permanent bliss.

It is worth it

You know, this meditation is not so difficult if you go through these steps. And when we get it right, there is nothing that compares with the relief and joy of meditating on emptiness. We can also see for ourselves how it is the truth. It might be the first time since beginningless time that we have been privy to the truth.

There is nothing abstract or airy fairy about this meditation. Emptiness is reality itself. It is going around grasping at things that are not there, things created by ignorance, which is our fantasy. The more we stop our self-grasping ignorance, therefore, the happier and freer we become. And when, for example, our body is ill, it no longer bothers us; which has got to be a good thing as I, for one, hate physical pain.

Out of space. More coming soon. If you like this subject, please download this free ebook, How to Transform Your Life, and read the chapter on Ultimate Truth – I don’t think there’s an easier explanation anywhere.

Related articles

What’s stopping us from dissolving everything into emptiness?

How to soar in the space of meditation

For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible

 

 

 

Reasoning our way into reality

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We have been making one crucial error since beginningless time. An error that is responsible for every bit of our suffering. And Geshe Kelsang sums it up with astounding concision in his latest book:

What does taking rebirth in samsara mean? It means that in each of our lives due to ignorance we grasp at our body or mind as our self, thinking, “I, I”, where there is no I, or self. Through this we experience the sufferings of this life and countless future lives as hallucinations endlessly. ~ Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra

We are not our body – we say “my body”, it is our possession. We are not our mind – we say “my mind”, it is our possession. We are neither a body nor a mind, we are a person.

Yet whenever we perceive our body or our mind we think we are totally in there. We conflate or identify ourselves as them. So when the non-me-body gets sick, we get unhappy, “I’m sick!” and when the non-me-thoughts get unhappy, we get unhappy, “I’m unhappy!”

We have thoughts, ideas, memories, etc; but we are not these. You’ve heard of all that mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy that’s around these days? A lot of it is based on Buddha’s wisdom that we are not our thoughts. When we observe our thoughts at the beginning of the clarity of mind meditation, for example, there is space between us and them. I don’t have to follow them, I don’t have to be helplessly swept up by them, I don’t have to identify with them, I don’t even have to think them. I can let them all go. Why? Because they are not me and I am not them.

I think we could also say “when” in the quote above, ie, “when there is no I, or self”. This is because there has never been an I or self to be found anywhere, ever – in the body, in the mind, in the collection of the body and mind, or anywhere else.one-day-son

There is also no body to be found. Or mind. Or other people. Or Trump world for that matter. Try pointing to it — you can only point at a version, your subjective version. 

There are no inherently existent or real things. When we look, we can’t find anything anywhere ever. We are left looking at space-like emptiness. This is because nothing exists from its own side.

Carrying on from There is nothing out there out there.

The emptiness of our body

To understand and believe this, we need to go looking for things ourselves. This doesn’t have to be too difficult if we know how.

And the way we can do this is through what is called “the four essential points” or steps, of the traditional meditation on emptiness, by which we can come to understand the true nature of our self, our body, and everything else. These are:

  1. Identifying the negated object
  2. Ascertaining the pervasion
  3. Ascertaining the absence of oneness
  4. Ascertaining the absence of difference

It is easiest to do this contemplation first with our body, perhaps because, as a physical object, it generally feels chunkier than our self or our mind and so is easier to examine.

Step One: Identifying the negated object

seek-wisdomWe start by ‘identifying the negated object”, setting up the target carefully so that we can then shoot it down with the arrow of wisdom. No target, no point shooting any arrows. In the case of the body, we need to bring to mind the body that we normally perceive.

Our body takes up an inordinate amount of our attention at the moment. We don’t like it when it is stiff, or puts on weight, or is sick. We like it when others say nice things about it, even if they’re not strictly accurate. We are a little bit obsessed with our own body, to be honest, and sometimes someone else’s as well, especially if there is any hope or fantasy of it commingling with ours. Attachment to bodies is one of the three main attachments of samsara (the other two being places and enjoyments).

(I’m not saying we shouldn’t take care of our body, of course. Please keep eating and showering 😉 But we can stop being quite so preoccupied with our body, abandon attachment to it, enjoying enormously the space, ease, and confidence that opens up when we do.)

What exactly is it that we are so attached to? What comes to mind when you think “My body”? You can use an exaggerated version first – for example, someone tells you, “Whoah, you’ve put on weight!” The fat-seeming body suddenly feels very real and solid, existing from its own side. Get a sense of that.

bodyThen what comes to mind when you think, “My body that is just sitting here”?

This is a real body, my real body. It seems to be really sitting here, a solid, singular, monolithic entity, independent of everything, including its parts, including thought. And I cherish and protect it above all else. I don’t want it to have the slightest pain or ugliness or insult. This particular body is very important, more so than anyone else’s. If a neighbor’s body is sick, “Oh, they’ll get over it.” But my body?!

You can also check out this first article, Body image: a Buddhist perspective for more on how to identify our body.

Okay, that’ll have to do for now. More on this emptiness meditation next time. Meanwhile, your comments are welcome, and you might also want to check out Introduction to Buddhism where these four points are explained very clearly.

Also, contemplating the dreamlike nature of reality (as described more here for example) helps tremendously in loosening us up and preparing us to think about emptiness logically, to reason our way into reality using analytical wisdom.

Related articles

Appearance and reality

The Non-Thingyness of Things

There is no depth other than emptiness

Body image: a Buddhist perspective

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Apparently, “body image” is how we see ourselves when we look in the mirror or when we picture ourselves in our mind. And how we think others see us. That sounds about right, as does flowersthe common notion that body image is related to self-esteem at all ages.

No surprises, really, considering we impute or label our sense of self on our body an absurd amount given that we have minds as well – thinking “I am ugly”, “Cor, I’m gorgeous”, “What must they think of my jowls?” And we limit others by identifying them with their bodies too, as explained here, even though all of us are infinitely more deep and interesting than a meaty pile of gristle and sloshing liquids could ever be.

If we are identifying our body as the cornerstone of who we are, basing our worth and value on our physical appearance, we are highly susceptible to insecurity, depression, emotional pain, and lack of self-confidence. And, at whatever age, this in turn interferes with our ability to live a happy, healthy, and productive life.

Selfie faces

I learned a new expression this weekend in Los Angeles – when someone took a photo of a beautiful young woman and me, she yanked the phone right out of his hands and said, “Hey, let me see that, you can’t post it, I need to make it Facebook-ready.” And she wasn’t talking about me, even though I needed a lot more photoshopping than she did. Obsession with the perfect body image has apparently reached epidemic proportions – girls everywhere are doing that duck face and fishy gape thing with their mouths and then photoshopping the image to lose ten pounds before they can possibly release it to their friends, even though their friends see them all the time and presumably aren’t fooled for a second.

Rigpa in Griffith Park.JPG

It’s not just my teenage nieces (who are already perfectly gorgeous without all that make-up if you ask me) – some studies say up to 91% of women are dissatisfied with how they look. (So, well done if you are in the remaining 9%, you’re doing something right 😄 ) Apparently it may be just as many men too, but they don’t want to talk about it – though I have spotted at least a few glancing covertly at themselves in shop windows and sucking in their stomachs. Not that they’ll probably ever do much about that extra weight around the midriff other than feel disappointed, any more than most of the 91% of women. But at least it looks like we are all feeling silently self-disgusted together 😉

Disclaimer aka embarassing story: I’m not even overweight, technically, but I recently found myself drinking only Nutribullet smoothies for several days in an attempt to dislodge some pounds so I could once again zip up the ex-jeans of an impossibly skinny friend, and just generally be more lean and mean. With the result that (1) I was ravenous and light-headed, (2) my smoothies were nowhere near as delicious, let alone filling, as they looked on the box (my carrot juice — how hard is carrot juice?! — was the consistency of cardboard and had to go straight down the sink), and (3) worst of all I found myself unusually preoccupied with the scales. Then one day last week I decided: “To heck with this! What a horrible waste of my energy. I’m just going to eat healthy (hey, lucky I’ve got a Nutribullet!), think about others instead, and let the rest take care of itself.” And then I thought, “I’m going to write an article about this body image thing.”

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RIP Leonard Cohen

Interesting, isn’t it, that we (me) spend almost no time worrying about anyone else’s food intake or weight?! That when someone else (other than my dad) puts on fifteen pounds it’s like, “Meh, you can lose that if you want, no big deal, I can’t even tell”, whereas when we put on five pounds it’s like a freaking catastrophe. The hours thinking about our own physical flaws can add up fast, but we are rarely so concerned about others’. No wonder Geshe Kelsang says that our body is one of the biggest objects of our self-cherishing. This is even when it is healthy, let alone when it is sick or ageing or dying.

So-called “distorted” or “negative body image” is a distorted perception of our shape, leading us to feeling self-conscious or awkward in our own body, and to a greater likelihood of depression, low self-esteem, and an unhealthy relationship with food.

(Sometimes this becomes extreme, as in the case of body dysmorphia and anorexia, in which case professional support is advisable until it is back to manageable levels. Just in case you are listening: You need your body to be healthy to help yourself and others, you are by no means alone in the struggle to get better, you are completely wonderful and wanted and needed, so please, please ask for help.)leonard cohen 2.jpg

In general, with meditation we can learn to dissolve negative thoughts and feelings away, and power up the mind with positive, affirming, and accepting ideas of who we are instead. We can understand that a person’s physical appearance says zero about their real worth, and that the beauty and kindness of the mind is so much more important and fulfilling. This’ll help us feel comfortable and confident in our own body, and not to lose all those fruitless hours to worrying uncontrollably about food or weight or how others are judging us. It’ll also save a ton of time spent on photoshopping, looking in the mirror, and over-the-top diets.

But sometimes we need to loosen our grip on our body first, undermine the bad habit we have of identifying with it so persistently. So, since an exaggerated preoccupation with our body is part of our ignorance that can and does cause a lot of us a lot of problems, it is really helpful to use the meditation on the true nature — the emptiness — of the body to get rid of it. I’d like to look at that in the next couple of articles.

Meantime, comments welcome! What helpful thoughts do you use if you notice you are spending too much time worrying about how you look? If you have never been bothered about it, what is your secret?!

Related articles:

What do you see when you look at a stranger?

Oh woe is me! How to stop distracting ourselves from happiness

Who do you want to be when you die?

For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible

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During an idyllic mountain retreat on the emptiness of the mind not long ago, we spent all weekend looking for our mind and failing to find it; and then I drove home. On the way I picked up a watery coffee in a garage, thought, “I guess I should just practice WIFI.jpgcontentment with this horrible coffee”, but then a few miles down the road was magnetically drawn into a passing Starbucks against my will. This was in a distant mountain town called, rather charmingly, Loveland.

A first-world problem

As it happens, giving into my attachment like that might have been a mistake. I walked from the car to the coffee shop, ordered my flat white, oh yeah!, and then glanced down at my hands. They were holding a credit card, but that was all.

I looked at my empty hands and thought “Oh dear, help!” The barista looked at me staring strangely at my empty hands and thought “That is a mad woman.” She just saw empty hands. But I saw a very significant object, the lack of car keys.

A very meaningful absence

driving-homeNew terminology alert! Bear with me for a moment …

Emptiness is also known as a “non-affirming negative phenomenon”. It is the mere absence of inherent existence or, to put it another way, the mere absence of the things we normally see. It is “non-affirming” because it does not affirm any other phenomenon.

For example, if I tell you, “My cousin is not female”, that would be called an “affirming negative phenomenon” as the object you perceive is the lack of my cousin being female with the implied observation that my cousin is male. (It is called a “negative phenomenon” not because it is bad, by the way, but because you have to negate something else to get to it, namely a female cousin).

But if I say, “There is no elephant in this room”, all that brings to mind is the lack of an elephant in this room, it does not imply there is a bishop, for example, here instead. You’re just left looking at a mere lack or absence of an elephant in this room, without any other object being implied or affirmed in its place.

Some absences or lacks can be quite significant. If you park your car, do some shopping, and then go back to the parking lot with heavy bags to find an empty space where your car was, what are you seeing? Are you seeing an empty space or are you seeing a lack of car? A mountains-1passer by will be seeing just an empty space, but you will be freaking out because what you are seeing is a very meaningful absence. Not dissimilar to the absence of car keys in my hand.

This sounds a bit technical, I know, but it is actually exceedingly helpful to know that “emptiness” (also known as “selflessness”) is just a mere lack of something. What exactly? Emptiness is the mere lack of everything we have ever thought existed! Knowing this lack is quite significant, to be honest – it is profound knowledge that will free our mind if we become familiar with it.

Why? Well, you know that thing you are worried about? It’s not there. That person you are so hung up on? They are not there. That body which feels sick, not there. The politics you are so mad at, not there. They only appear to be really there because of our ignorance. Everything exists in a state of freedom. Everything is mere appearance to our mind with no substantiality, nothing behind the appearance. So, change your mind, change your world.

It takes time to get a direct or non-conceptual realization of emptiness, at which point all our problems are over forever; but even a slight taste gives us a liberating sense of possibility.

Centered in the solution

After this recent article my dad said: “Still trying to understand what the following means. ‘Buddhas never focus on the problem out of the context of being centered in the solution.’”

mountains-3What is the solution? The simple answer is that it is the realization that everything depends upon the mind, so change the mind and the worry goes away. We already know this a bit because when we are able to calm down and get perspective, for example by taking a few minutes out to breathe and connect to the peace in our heartand perhaps connect to blessings, the situation always seems to improve, become manageable. This means not just that our perception of the situation improves, but the situation itself improves, because there is no situation outside of our perception of it, as explained here.

At its most profound, the solution is realizing emptiness, the mere absence of the things we normally perceive. Because the things we normally perceive are not there at all – which is a meaningful non-affirming negative or absence — we don’t have to get upset, worried, anxious, angry, etc., on our own or others’ behalf, any more than we have to get upset in a dream, if we only knew we were dreaming. For when we wake up, we realize that the situation that seems to be so real is not there — it is mere appearance with no existence from its own side. This doesn’t mean that situations, whether asleep or awake, don’t exist at all, but it does mean they exist in a state of fluidity and freedom, and that just by changing our thoughts we will change the situation.

My dad also asked what was mean by Nagarjuna’s quote, “For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.” You know that scene in Kung Fu Panda where Po defeats Tai Lung wuxi-finger-hold-1after a lot of tedious fist fighting. They are fighting each other “out there” to begin with — pretty tiring and tiresome if you ask me — but then with a little twist of Po’s finger, the Wuxi finger hold, everything is dissolved away in all directions. I find that a nice visual for the power of realizing that everything is empty and therefore depends entirely upon our mind, meaning we can change everything effortlessly and immediately if only we realize this.

Does that answer your questions, Dad? If not, let me know 😉

That’s why as soon as we realize we are mere appearance not other than the emptiness of all phenomena, like Buddha Heruka, we can send light rays out to purify and transform HUM.jpgeach and every living being instantaneously and effortlessly. For they are not outside the mind. (And I may as well point out that we are not outside our mind either, and nor is our mind outside our mind – a subject for another day.)

Emptiness — the mere lack of the things we normally perceive — can be accessed through searching for things with wisdom, through reasoning our way into reality in the traditional meditation on emptiness. You can read how to do this search in Transform Your Life and other books, and I’ll try to come back to it later if I live long enough.

Back to my predicament …

Back to my predicament in Loveland… Well, I ran out to look for the car keys and, dear reader, I had parked all of 100 feet away but they were nowhere to be found. Nowhere — even when another young barista decided to come out and help me comb the grass for them. So then, in my usual turn-to when I lose something, I started saying Tara mantras, requesting her help. Immediately a charming man appeared and, hearing of my predicament, helped me look and then said he’d stay and call people for me.

Because of course I had left everything in the locked car, including my phone. And mountains-2including, as it happened, every single telephone number that I might ever have use for. That is one moral of this tale. Failing to dredge up even one phone number from my computer-addled mind, we tried emailing the only two emails I could remember. To no avail. We stood there for a while, me foolishly, both wondering, and then a cop showed up randomly.

Happened they knew each other. And then the cop started googling for break-in companies because he said he was not allowed to break into cars himself any more. But then Tara blessed his mind or something, for he changed his mind, “Hang on, I think I have a colleague who will break in for us.” (Yes, he really said “us”.) So I then had one charming man and half the Loveland police department trying to solve my problem, and lo and behold they did break safely into the car. Whereupon I was able to call one of my usual guardian angels, who appeared a mere 45 minutes later with a spare set of keys. During which 45 minutes I managed to memorize all of 3 phone numbers, including my own, for future eventualities. I wonder if I still remember them …

Moral of the tale

Okay, what was all that about? That mini-first-world panic went to demonstrate:

(1) A great example of a meaningful absence.

(2) The kindness of strangers and how we ALWAYS depend on others, it’s just that we can forget that when seemingly ensconced in our comfort zone cocoons/cars.

(3) An external problem doesn’t have to lead to an internal problem and can even be a source of happiness. For I was happier after all this happened then before it started, and I was already in a great mood from the retreat. I could not help but feel the warm fuzzies due to those 5 Lovelandy men spending their Monday afternoon helping me. And in another twist there was a huge thunderstorm while I was waiting in the car, but instead of being a problem it actually cleaned the car beautifully from the red sticky dust of the unpaved mountain roads.

(If my skin had been a different color it may [or may not] have been a different story – I was conscious of that too; and it gave me some more ideas for an article I have been wanting to write on the subject of discrimination.)

More articles on the emptiness of the mind coming up soonish. Meanwhile, your comments are most welcome.

Related articles:

Emptiness of the mind 

The kindness of others 

The non-thingyness of things 

 

Your mind is empty (even if it doesn’t feel like it) …

Emptiness of the mind 1

Do you ever feel as if your mind is crammed full of thoughts you’d rather not be having? Or stuck in painful places, as if your thoughts

Emptiness of the mind 1are thinking you rather than the other way around? Dragging you around with them wherever the heck they feel like it, even when you’d rather be somewhere else? And seemingly fixed and intractable even when you’ve been trying your darndest to change them?

I don’t want to spoil the plot so soon into this article, but I think I have to … your mind is empty! And by that I mean not that it is empty of thoughts, as it probably isn’t very often. What I mean is that your mind doesn’t exist from its own side, it is not real — it is mere imputation or projection or appearance of mind.

This means that we can, and one day will, totally break free. As soon as we realize the ultimate nature of our mind, its emptiness, we will be able to do whatever we want with our mind.

In Geshe Kelsang’s 23 books, I would say that there are more actual pages devoted to the emptiness of the self, the body, and other phenomena; but he has touched on the emptiness of the mind in various places, giving us more than enough food for thought. So I have been wanting for some time to share some ideas because it is — perhaps literally — such a mind-blowing topic. And I find it incredibly helpful personally.

My plan is to talk some about the mind, then about emptiness, and then about the emptiness of the mind. I have no idea at this stage how long this will take or whether I will ever get to the end of it, but here goes …

Sunset Hill 4First, some chillin’!
  • Good idea, maybe, to start with a little meditation to get us into the mood for reflection. For this is a PROFOUND topic 🙂
  • Get into a relaxed position and simply enjoy that you are here doing this, whatever “this” ends up being. Breathe out whatever is on your mind, letting it go, clearing out the mind with each gentle exhalation. Allow your mind to quieten, become more still.
  • Then experience your inhalation as radiant, clear light that has the nature of peace, breathing it right into your heart chakra. You can mix your mind with this breath, allowing your awareness to be drawn down into the heart with it.
  • Feel that you are now centered in your heart, not your head. Gradually shift your focus so that you are simply enjoying a peaceful experience at your heart.
  • Within that space, we’ll do a thought experiment. Allow a thought of your mom to arise.
  • Ask yourself: “Where is this thought or awareness of my mother? What is it? Can I find it anywhere in the physical world? Does it take up space?” Sit with the answers that are appearing.
  • Let this thought dissolve into an empty like space, an inner clarity, in your heart. This has no shape, color, or physical properties whatsoever. And it is awareness, knowing or cognizing moment by moment. Abide with this sense of peaceful clarity for as long as you want or can.

From that brief thought experiment, what sense did you get of the awareness of your mother? Could you find it anywhere in the physical world? Or was it formless, immaterial, sort of a different dimension?

We subjectively know already that our consciousness is non-physical. How? Because we are using it day and night and can turn inward to observe it in our own experience, as in this brief experiment. All our thoughts are formless, they don’t take up space, we cannot find them in the material world.

The ghost in the machine?

Which begs the question, how do we not fall into Descartes’ mind-body dualism in which there are two distinct realities, that of mind and that of matter? Since Descartes’ time, Western psychology has been talking about the “problem of consciousness,” for formless subjective awareness cannot exist, it must be an optical illusion of the neurons or something, for if it did exist how on earth would it interact with matter?

ghost in the machineThis apparent problem of the impossible or unproven “ghost in the machine” has led generations of Western psychologists and philosophers to feel the need to reduce things to the material and come up with explanations of how the mind must arise from matter, or form, most notably the brain. If we cannot observe it with the five senses or equipment used by the five senses, it doesn’t exist.

This intellectually-formed reductionist or materialist view of reality has caused no end of trouble if you ask my opinion, not least fixating people on the life of this body alone; yet is based on an unnecessary assumption. No accident that phrases like “It doesn’t matter” and “It’s immaterial” or even “Never mind” have been coined; they are reflections of this dismal dismissal of formless awareness. However, immaterial awareness matters a very great deal, and in fact creates our entire reality. If anything, form arises from mind, rather than the other way around.world creates mind

According to Buddhism there is no problem with positing two primary realities, material form and formless mind, and these can easily interrelate, interface. In fact, they already do, for they exist in a state of mutual dependence. There is no need to fear a ghost bumping about in a machine.

There is no duality or separation between our mind and the world. Why? Because our mind and our world arise together.

Imaginary line

What this means is that our world arises as an appearance to our consciousness. We cannot find a material world outside of the mind. The world does not exist inherently or objectively, in the way that it appears to us at the moment. “Emptiness” in Buddhism means that the world, we ourselves, mountains, books — none of this exists from its own side, objectively, or, if you like, outside the mind.

And it also means that the mind exists in dependence upon its objects, the world it is perceiving. Which means, as I said back at the beginning, that the mind is also empty of independent, or inherent, existence. Which means you can learn to do whatever you want with it. (More on this later).

There is always a dependent-relationship between our mind and the world, the world and our mind. We are drawing a line between me and my consciousness over here and the world over there and, through this ignorance, we have duality. We experience an always moreorless disconcerting gap or separation between ourselves and our worlds.

mind matter dualityBut this is an imaginary line because matter and consciousness arise together — you cannot have one without the other. There are not two “distinct” realities, as in inherently existent realities — there are two realities that are mutually dependent. Understand this, and the whole problem of dualism goes out the window, leaving us with the possibility of a blissful, non-dual experience of reality.

I’ll attempt to share some practical examples in the next article on this subject. Meanwhile, your observations are most welcome.

 

Tired, yet, of living a cliché?

Buddha calling earth to witness

Buddha Shakyamuni

On the last day of the recent Kadampa Summer Festival, the life story of Buddha Shakyamuni was shown, as it always is, and well received.

Buddha’s story is a great story, and ours can be a great story too, if we stop thinking about ourselves in clichéd, samsaric ways. “Anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse,” as one dictionary definition of cliché has it.

Once upon a time, when I was experiencing a break-up from a fun and always interesting relationship that had lasted over half our lives, when my larger than life, handsome, previously devoted partner, like countless men before him, left for a baby with a younger woman, I turned for desperate comfort to my dear friend M. “What a cliché!” I wailed to him. “I don’t WANT to be a cliché.”

And M replied, “Everything in samsara is a cliché.”

This shook me out of self-pity. Point being, despite variations on a theme, despite any extenuating circumstances, we have been there, done that, countless times – no tee-shirt will ever be big enough to document it all. We even call the appearances of samsara “common appearances” or “ordinary appearances”. seen it all.jpg

We might think it is just us, we’re in a private world of forlorn hopes and dwindling dreams; but pretty much everyone I’ve ever talked to finds growing older distasteful at least from time to time. This is especially if they assumed that they would be an exception to the rule — that with the help of Botox or a great exercise routine or a good hairdresser or alternative healing or a lot of money or a predictable partner they could avoid life’s biggest clichés. But the end of collection is dispersion, as Buddha pointed out, the end of rising falling, the end of meeting parting. Everyone (who lives long enough) seems to feel at some point or another old or ill, or past it, overlooked, or useless, or unglamorous, haggard, or paunchy, or an object of increasing irrelevance or ridicule – and then basically ends up losing everything. Just in time to buy into the next series of clichés in our next life.

Samsara manages to be both unpredictable and banally predictable all at the same time. The details may be unpredictable, but the pattern is wearyingly monotonous.

The seven sufferings of samsara are all one gigantic cliché and we’re all going to be living this forever if we don’t decide to think outside the box, in fact until we realize there is no box. Like Buddha did.

I have been thinking a lot about Buddha Shakyamuni recently because I was very moved by Gen-la Dekyong‘s teachings at the US Kadampa Spring Festival 2016 and also by the fact that Geshe Kelsang loves watching the Life of Buddha, so much, for all its teachings. He Geshela life of Buddha.jpegsaid he is watching not actors but the actual life story and protagonists, and he said something similar after watching the Life of Atisha play. It is as if Geshe-la is watching the actual life story unfold in the present, which makes me think the story is eternally present really, the examples timelessly relevant.

Think outside the box

I love that Prince Siddhartha had everything a man could ever want, and certainly far more than I could hope for in this life; yet he still walked away from it because he saw that it was built on a deceptive illusion, the utterly shaky edifice of the sufferings of sickness, ageing, death, and uncontrolled rebirth.

I mean, who amongst you has all the things he had – such as exceptional good looks, the most beautiful spouse in the kingdom, a whole harem of other glamorous people eager to please you, a really nice palace, riches and worldly achievements beyond compare, crowds of adulating Prince Siddhartha.jpgvillagers bowing at your feet?! Are you set to become a king or queen anytime soon?!

Prince Siddhartha didn’t even know, technically, that he was going to find the solution, but he decided he had to do it anyway. So if he could do it, I reckon we can develop renunciation for our relatively paltry objects of attachment, especially as Buddha did figure out our escape for us. Not to say that we have to abandon anything external, for that is not in fact renunciation; but we can abandon our attachment and turn our attention to the solution for the existential predicament we find ourselves in. Vis a vis, realize that the things we normally see — those common appearances that we normally buy into as if they are the only pathetic choice we have — don’t even exist.

Calling the earth to witness

Buddha and marasThen there is that great scene when Buddha is sitting under the Bodhi Tree and is attacked by Maras — first appearing as enticing women and then as terrifying demons. And Buddha is entirely unbothered, he stays in undistracted concentration, he can see through the whole hallucination. He is infinitely more interested in blissful love and profound illumination. He is unbelievably cool.

Maybe we see that scene as something allegorical, and not even that relevant to us, just indicating Buddha’s extraordinary qualities as he showed the manner of attaining enlightenment.  But I think it shows us a powerful way to deal with our own delusions or maras when they arise. After all, sure, in the play we can think that those enchanting women are too abstract to be tempting; but if all the people we ever really lusted after were to appear in front of us and say, “It’s always been you I love! I’ve been an idiot! Come with me!” might we not be tempted?! But Buddha saw right through them.

And when those same maras then tried to scare him, again we might think that is something abstract; but what are those maras? All are appearances created by our own scary delusions of anger, attachment, jealousy, self-loathing, loneliness, fear, anxiety, or existential despair arising as if out there, in front of us, trying to attack us, to overwhelm us. Think of the scariest appearances to your mind, your most feared enemies, those who have the greatest power (you think) to upset you – a neglectful parent, an off the rails child, a sneering rival, a bullying abuser, a ruthless boss, a dismissive ex, or plain old sickness, ageing, wrinkles, and death. But they get nowhere because we, like Buddha, can see right through them.

And at no point did Buddha identify with these appearances. At no point was he overpowered by them. He understood they were maras with no function other than to harm him. He accepted they were appearing, but instead of fighting them he saw right through them. He saw they were mistaken appearances, saw they weren’t even there; and with his love, concentration, and wisdom he called the earth to witness that he had overcome them all.Buddha calling earth to witness

Buddha understood that none of these maras was outside his mind, so they all disappeared permanently the moment his final obstructions were lifted. In that moment, he became an omniscient being.

It’s kind of encouraging, don’t you think, that all this happened minutes before his enlightenment. No excuses, then, to think, “Bloody hell, I’ve been practicing Buddhism for six years already and I’m still being assailed by maras!” Looks like maras trying to scare or ensnare us might be the order of the day until the very last minute.

But, like Buddha, we can call the earth to witness that none of these phantoms has any hold over us whatsoever. We are waking up. We are learning to see everything as it is. We can finally do (and have) what we want because we realize that everything is created by our minds.

We can be like this. For hallucinations can only harm us if we buy into them, if we believe in them as being real, as existing independent of the mind. Ven Geshe-la says in How to Understand the Mind:

We mistakenly believe that our body that we normally see actually exists and, because of this, we experience sufferings of the body such as sickness as a hallucination, as a mistaken appearance, as like a dream. p. 311

beautiful heartHave you ever imagined what it would be like to not be hallucinating at all – not your self, not others, not your job, not your objects of desire, not anything? What will appear to you once common, banal appearances stop appearing? What will you choose to manifest or appear from the bliss and emptiness of your own mind, understanding the dreamlike nature of things?! This experience will be inexhaustibly joyful and meaningful, I think, and enable us to help everyone else in cosmically original, effortless, ways.

Over to you, comments welcome.

 

Beneficial believing

hallucination 1

To carry on from here, I want to add that conventional reality is not just a question of agreeing with each other. There is no safety in numbers. I was just reading about the odd phenomenon of presumptive nominee Trump:

The internet creates a sense of universality; it’s easy to think your bubble is more representative than it actually is. Facebook curates our feeds so we get more of the stuff we ‘like.’ What do we ‘like’? People and posts that agree with us. It’s sort of a mass delusion. ~ The Week

hallucination 1We can all be wrong about something and agree; in fact we often are. So my point about conventional reality being collective hallucination in the last article only goes that way around – collective hallucination is not necessarily conventional reality, it can just be sheer madness with no basis in any reality. For we are hallucinating both conventional truths and non-existents.

No dream, no dreamer

It is so helpful to use our dreams to delve into reality, as explained here. Geshe Kelsang gives this beautiful verse in The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra:

All my appearances in dreams teach me
That all my appearances when awake do not exist;
Thus for me all my dream appearances
Are the supreme instructions of my Guru.

I often think too, when I wake up and the dream has disappeared, the dream has gone and so has the dreamer. If there was never a real dream, where was the real dreamer? So where is the I who is now awake also? Dream minds, people (including ourself), and objects are all created by the self-grasping dream mind. Waking minds, people, and objects are all created by the self-grasping waking mind.

Beneficial believing

Understanding lack of true existence is the wisdom realizing emptiness and it will set us free from samsara permanently. However, although a direct loverealization of emptiness is our goal, we also need to learn what to do with appearances for our own and others’ sake. Eventually we will come to see appearances and emptiness (lack of true existence) as one object, at which point those appearances are no longer technically conventional truths, but ultimate truth.

Ultimate truth appearing.

So, meanwhile, until we realize this union of appearance and reality directly, how are we to navigate through the false appearances, the hallucinations, and make our lives meaningful?

I think through “beneficial believing,” as Geshe Kelsang has called it — believing things not because they are true from their own side, but because they are beneficial and will lead us in the right direction. This includes toward the one and only true object, the only truth that exists in the way that it appears — emptiness or lack of true existence — realized by our very subtle mind, the clear light of bliss.

(By the way, even ultimate truth is not ultimately true – even emptiness is empty of inherent existence.)

Buddha’s teachings are divided into two: the instructions for directly realizing emptiness (wisdom practices) and everything else (method practices). Method practices such as renunciation and compassion do not apprehend ultimate truth directly, but they do apprehend the best of the conventional or relative truths, and they lead us to relative happiness, including the requisite merit or good karma for developing the Form Body of a Buddha. Method practices nurture the growth of our Buddha nature and wisdom practices free it from obstructions.

Fulfilling our two basic wishes

To reiterate, as Geshe Kelsang says in Modern Buddhism:

All conventional truths are false objects because the way they appear and the way they exist do not correspond. ~ p. 129

bear quiz

This may help me, relatively, up the mountain.

In other words, conventional truths are all fake. However, some conventional truths are more useful than others; so those are the ones we need to focus on to go in the direction we want to go in. Which is? We all want to be happy all the time, and we never want to suffer. Anything that takes us toward the fulfillment of those wishes can be described as beneficial believing, or even wisdom.

For example, although neither me nor you exist from our own sides and are creations of self-grasping, understanding the equality and interdependence of ourselves and all other living beings (as explained in the mind-training teachings) is far more realistic and valid, and therefore beneficial, than grasping onto an isolated or inherently existent self and other. These do not exist even relatively, do not appear to any valid mind; for no one in the universe can agree, for example, that I am the only real me.

Here is an example.

“I don’t understand it!”

If we ever wonder why we get so confused in our dealings with others, we need look no further than the fact we are all hallucinating and not all our hallucinations match up. A sad friend told me this week that someone broke up with them and they can’t understand it — they were sure they were getting on so well and that the other person really liked them too. And according to them that felt like the truth; but according to their ex-lover it did not. So where did that truth exist? Did it exist at all?

Unlike a chair that we are agreed we can sit on, what was appearing so vividly to their attachment never existed. All they had was their own version of events, total projection, and in this instance no shared reality. The ex-lover’s apparent truth, that this person was no longer love 1interesting or whatever, was also not objective but a mere reflection of her own mind. In this instance, these reflections did not coincide. Their perceptions were not in agreement, in fact they clashed, and so pain arose. It’s happening all the time with all of us.

When we manage to let go of our delusion of attachment for people, all we are losing is our illusions. Letting go of illusion, we are now free to experience a totally different and more realistic relationship. It seems that the best “truth” to be salvaged from these kinds of situation is love and compassion recognizing our equality and interdependence and wishing the other person to be happy and free. That mind is valid, for its object does have a relative truth to it. And it fulfills our basic wish, it makes us happy again.

More coming soon. Meantime, your comments are most welcome! Just use the box below 🙂

Are we hallucinating all this?!

it'll be fun

shoes on mountainI was on a walk the day Prince died, in the freezing/hot Colorado spring weather, which took me through no fewer than 12 snow-melty streams; and I didn’t see another person all day, not even a bear. And I got to thinking all philosophically about what’s life all about; so I thought I’d share some thoughts.

The aim of Buddhist practice and, if you ask me, the meaning of life, is to gain the realization of Mahamudra, the union of bliss and emptiness. This will obliterate samsara, freeing us and enabling us to free those connected to us, which is everyone.

And there are two complementary approaches (I was thinking on my mountain) into this. One is through the mind (aiming for the clear light of bliss) and the other is through the object (aiming for a realization of emptiness).

In The New Heart of Wisdom, Geshe Kelsang explains how all conventional truths are created by our mind of self-grasping ignorance (albeit not apprehended or established by it.)

In How to Understand the Mind, he says that everything appearing to our gross and subtle minds is hallucination. It would seem that of all ordinary beings’ minds, only our very subtle mind is not mistaken because it perceives emptiness, the way things are.

Yikes, we’re hallucinating all the time!
it'll be fun

Fooled again!

Taken together, it looks like we are always hallucinating, except when we can use our very subtle mind. All appearances to these gross and subtle levels of mind, and even the mind itself, are hallucinations that we need to learn to see through.

We end up with the union of these two approaches by practicing the union of Sutra and Tantra. We get closer to the very subtle mind by understanding its object, emptiness, as taught in Sutra; and we get closer to emptiness by learning to manifest and use the very subtle mind, as taught in Highest Yoga Tantra. It seems these realizations are symbiotic.

We can start practicing this union now by feeling that we are meditating with and on our own very subtle mind whenever possible, seeing all other minds and their appearances as simply waves from that ocean.

So, what can we trust?!trees

In the meantime, trapped in hallucination, how on earth do we function at all? How do we know what to rely on? How can we trust anything that doesn’t exist as it appears?

We can because some things have relative meaning, are relatively meaningful. Within our hallucinations we agree on some things, eg, we can sit on chairs, and that is relative or conventional reality (shared experiences arising from the similar perceptions/appearances of our collective karma). We can rely on it to a certain extent. It functions in the way it is supposed to, and we can have a relatively valid apprehension of it, with a so-called ‘conventional valid cognizer’.

One way to understand this is by using the example of a dream. As Geshe Kelsang explains in Modern Buddhism:

Conventional objects are false because, although they appear to exist from their own side, in reality they are mere appearances to mind, like things seen in a dream.

The world we experience in a dream is deceptive because it appears to have its own existence independent of the mind, and we discover this when we wake up. However, within the dream we can say that there are relative truths and relative falsities.

Within the context of a dream, dream objects have a relative validity and this distinguishes them from things that do not exist at all. ~ Modern Buddhism

Geshe-la gives the example of our stealing a diamond in a dream – if we confess to it, we are telling the truth, if we say we didn’t steal it we are telling a lie.

Another example – if in my dream I nod to the six-stringed instrument I am playing and tell you, “This is my guitar”, this is true, but if I say “This is my ukulele” (a four-stringed instrument), this is false. However, within the whole context of the dream both are deceptive because they appear to be real when they are not. (As I discover when I wake up and can no longer play either.)

flowers.jpgSo, it seems that everything in a dream is created by the self-grasping of the dream mind and is therefore deceptive; but within that experience some thoughts are ‘valid’ and establish the ‘truth’, relatively speaking, and some thoughts are not, namely our delusions, whose objects don’t exist at all.

I think we can say the same for conventional truths while we are awake — all conventional truths are ‘created’ by self-grasping, true only for self-grasping; but compared with non-existents they are relatively true, truths by convention or agreement, ie, conventional truths. A non-existent on the other hand is still hallucination, still projected by self-grasping, but has no validity at all. It is apprehended or established by self-grasping delusions. An example would be an object of anger, such as an inherently existent faulty person, who doesn’t exist at all. (The anger itself however does exist and is a conventional truth, as is every mind.)

Perhaps I will stick my neck out and say that conventional reality is collective hallucination?! But please don’t take my word for it, please feel free to debate this in the comments.

Given all this, how are we to navigate through these mistaken appearances and make our lives meaningful? Answers on a postcard …! And Part Two is here.

Change our thoughts, liberate our self

lotus botannical gardens

lotus botannical gardensIn this article I was talking about changing our thoughts to get past the grasping at an uncomfortable, limited self. We can also do some Tantric thinking at this point to effectively and quickly (once we’re used to it) re-generate or re-label ourselves and solve our problem.

Who needs validation?

I found myself in the odd situation not that long ago of having my hitherto closest friend stop calling me. It got me to thinking on more than one occasion that I’d like them to call me and show their appreciation, if indeed they have any left, which of course they may not.

And when I got to thinking like this, I viewed it as a challenge to look at that limited self that needs validation. And because it was an exaggerated sense of self, it was ironically easier to spot and therefore dissolve away into emptiness.

Do I want them to call my body? Do I want them to call my mind? No, I want them to call ME! And that me appears independent of my body and mind, as if it can exist all on its own. So where is it? Where is that me that needs someone to call it? Is it my body? No. That me is nowhere to be found anywhere in my meaty body, my meaty body cannot converse for a start. Is it my mind? No. I am not a mind, I have a mind. Is it then the collection of body and mind? No. That’s just a collection of things that are not-me – a whole bunch of not-me’s plonked together does not magically make a me.

So this neglected me, or self, cannot be found; it doesn’t exist. My sense of it is just an invisible (to everyone else) idea I have of me, and not even one I can see most of the time. And it only functions when I do hold onto it – when I let it go through wisdom, I’m immediately free from the problem of being unloved.

Vajrayogini in phenomena source

Buddha Vajrayogini

From there I can come up with a new rather more interesting idea of me – generate myself as a Buddha and ask the question: Does Buddha Shakyamuni need this person to call him? No. Does Je Tsongkhapa wonder why they never call? No, never. Does Manjushri care a whit? No, not even slightly. Does Vajrapani? You kidding?! And what about Vajrayogini? She doesn’t give a monkeys.

It works every time. So-called “pure view” and “divine pride” solve all our problems quickly. As Ven Geshe Kelsang says in Tantric Grounds and Paths p. 14:

If instead of clinging to an ordinary identity we were to overcome ordinary conceptions by developing the divine pride of being Heruka or Vajrayogini, we would not develop fear, anxiety, or any other negative state of mind. How can anyone harm Heruka? How can Vajrayogini run out of money?

If I don’t need any more from others, this frees me up to try and give them what they might need, if they ever want it. And instead of wasting my energy trying to fulfill the needs of my limited self, which necessarily leads me to neglecting countless other living beings (some of whom might actually like my attention), and is rather like trying to fill a black hole, I can replace that attachment with compassion and have a rich life, like a sun radiating endlessly.

Which brings us back to the Mahamudra meditation, which greatly helps us to dissolve away our thoughts in the first place so we can recreate our world. There is nothing behind our thoughts.

Tripsy the Dog

When we get used to this meditation we’ll see that where our mind was full, we’ll begin to sense the space in our mind – which really helps us solve our problems. Usually we get a thought in our head and we cannot let it go. Totally wound up and bound up and controlled by that situation that we have created for ourselves, and the more we think about it the crazier we get, like a dog grappling with a bone.

dog with boneYou ever tried to get a dog away from a bone once it is really into it?! I had a Doberman-mix called Tripsy when I was 8, he was our guard dog in Guyana, theoretically; but the problem was that he had no discrimination between intruders and friendlies, and would instead bite everyone. Everyone, that is, apart from me, as he liked me a lot. Except, and here’s my point, except when I tried to take his bone away from him. I always had to snatch my hand back just in time, it was a strangely exhilarating game I invented (no TV back then.)

My father got fed up paying for people’s stitches (well, it happened once, but it was enough) and Tripsy got sent off to the countryside.

Our mind can be a bit like Tripsy the dog – it has gotten used to grabbing onto this situation or that problem in this way, shaking it all about, doesn’t really want to let it go, and may even snap at someone who tries to get us to see things differently. We have this idea, “This is my problem, I have to solve it, nothing will be right until this is sorted” – instead of dropping the bone and walking away.

This meditation is not about pushing a problematical thought out of our mind, but dropping it — just dropping it — and relaxing into the natural clarity and space of our own mind, letting everything dissolve. If we can do this, almost all our problems truthfully disappear. When we go about our daily life again, we find that our ways of letting go 8thinking about things have changed, we are grasping less, and so we are experiencing far less mental pain and anxiety. We always have things to take care of, sometimes very challenging things; but our approach will feel so different if we allow ourselves to let go sometimes and just experience the natural clarity and purity of our own mind.

Incredible peace comes from a settled mind. When we quieten our mind, our natural capacity for feeling good manifests naturally from within. We don’t need to be a dog with a bone week after week, life after life. Knowing that space can solve problems is a very useful insight for daily life.

More coming soon.

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