Monthly Archives: April 2022

One Mind

[D]o not let the idea that your body will scatter into the four elements make you feel that everything is pointless. Instead, you should understand the principle that everything continuously scatters and then gathers together again. Practitioners do not see this world as futile, because they realize that the very impermanence of the world enables them to awaken to the truth.

If you think that, in order to know the Buddha-dharma, you have to throw away your body because the flesh is worthless, then this is an extremely misguided thought. If there was no body, what could you see and hear with? How could you encounter the world, how could you think, how could you broaden your wisdom?

Because the son exists, you can know that the father also exists; through the existence of the servant, you can see that the master exists. By understanding visible phenomena, you can come to know the invisible essence, the non-material foundation, that gives rise to and animates all visible phenomena, and which always works together as one with all things. The body is not an eternal entity, but because you have a body, you can know the workings of the foundation, the source of life and all phenomena.

Daehaeng, One Mind: Principles

Open awareness, the still acceptance of our intrinsic nature in silence, quietly reveals that the ground of being, the very foundation of all that is, is not other than itself. We do not somehow land on the ground of being like metaphysical helicopters: we exist, so we are not other than that from which we arise. There is nothing to find, nothing to become. We are already that open, bright and boundless space within which all things become.

No thing

 In Tara Brach’s True Refugeshe writes:

Looking back through history, and across many religious and spiritual traditions, we can recognize three archetypal gateways that appear again and again on the universal path of awakening. For me, the words that best capture the spirit of these gateways are “truth,” “love,” and “awareness.” Truth is the living reality that is revealed in the present moment; love is the felt sense of connectedness or oneness with all life; and awareness is the silent wakefulness behind all experience, the consciousness that is reading these words, listening to sounds, perceiving sensations and feelings. Each of these gateways is a fundamental part of who we are; each is a refuge because it is always here, embedded in our own being.

As she goes on to point out in more detail, Tara Brach has here re-ordered the classical Buddhist Three Refuges (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) to make more sense of the order in which most meditators encounter them. But awareness is more than meets the eye of anyone casually reading the words above. As Brach herself points out, in Radical Acceptance:

With practice, recognizing our natural awareness takes less and less of an effort or sense of doing. Rather than climbing up a hill to get a view, we are learning the art of relaxing back and wakefully inhabiting the whole vista. We look back into awareness and then simply let go into what is seen. We become more at home in awareness than in any story of a self who is falling short or on our way somewhere else. We are at home because we have seen and experienced firsthand the vast and shining presence that is the very source of our being.

We are in very strange territory here, approaching metaphysical assumptions that may not be easy to justify. But it has seemed to me, as long as I have been intentionally investigating these things, that open awareness is of more than our own personal being. Unconditioned awareness is, axiomatically it seems to me, not restricted to the personal. We come close to the ground of being itself, the luminous presence beneath all existence whatever, and we see it for a moment as it is. Even Sam Harris, who is not known for flights of metaphysical fancy, wrote, in Waking Up:

Spirituality begins with a reverence for the ordinary that can lead us to insights and experiences that are anything but ordinary. And the conventional opposition between humility and hubris has no place here. Yes, the cosmos is vast and appears indifferent to our mortal schemes, but every present moment of consciousness is profound. In subjective terms, each of us is identical to the very principle that brings value to the universe. Experiencing this directly—not merely thinking about it—is the true beginning of spiritual life.

Brach again:

[W]hen we look within, there is no entity, no mind-substance, no self, no thing we can identify. There is just awareness—open empty awareness. We can’t locate any center, nor can we find an edge to our experience. Unless we anchor ourselves again in thoughts, or grasp after desired sensations or feelings, we have nowhere to stand, no firm ground. This can be disconcerting, scary, incredibly mysterious. While there may be a profusion of activity—sounds, sensations, images—there is no thing to hold on to, no self behind the curtain managing things. This seeing of no thing is what the Tibetan teachers call “the supreme seeing.”

But this emptiness, this “no-thingness,” is not empty of life. Rather, empty awareness is full with presence, alive with knowing. The very nature of awareness is cognizance, a continuous knowing of the stream of experience. In this moment that you are reading, sounds are heard, vibration is felt, form and color are seen. This knowing happens instantaneously, spontaneously. Like a sunlit sky, awareness is radiant in cognizance and boundless enough to contain all life…

The beauty and power of this cannot really be described, not least because words like beauty and power imply some kind of comparison with some thing which might be less beautiful, less powerful, and “no-thingness” is not any kind of thing, but the source of all that is. Lao Tzu was surely thinking of this when he wrote, “The unnamed is the source of everything in heaven & on earth. Not wanting anything to be different, [w]e see the inner essence.”

Unseen water

Gill Pennington, writing in The Friend, quotes John O’Donohue:

The spirit of a time is an incredibly subtle, yet hugely powerful force. And it is comprised of the mentality and spirit of all individuals together. Therefore, the way you look at things is not simply a private matter. Your outlook actually and concretely affects what goes on. When you give in to helplessness, you collude with despair and add to it. When you take back your power and choose to see the possibilities for healing and transformation, your creativity awakens and flows to become an active force of renewal and encouragement in the world. In this way, even in your own hidden life, you can become a powerful agent of transformation in a broken, darkened world.

Absent a theistic metaphysics of prayer, I have often been puzzled how to explain to myself, let alone anyone else, my persistent sense that there really is some point to the contemplative life beyond the sort of solipsistic self-improvement promised by some of the more widely advertised meditation apps. O’Donohue has nailed it, and I am grateful to Gill Pennington for the passage she quoted in her Thought for the Week in The Friend.

Being fully present to all we encounter in this moment as it is, rather than as we might wish, or fear, it to be, we are present as aerials, signs, receiving stations. Even, perhaps especially, in “[our] own hidden life”, we  become a source of healing and peace. Hiddenness itself, the hiddenness of practice, of silence and stillness, comes like unseen water to a dry land.

Where we live

Where we live is now, this moment. There is no getting away from it, by all appearances. Memories are events in present consciousness that represent things we once experienced: they have no more vital connection to time past than an artist’s sketch does to its subject. Similarly plans and worries are merely mental representations of imagined futures: they may affect how we react to events in the future, but we cannot know what those events will be till they happen.

So much of our lives are lived among these dreams, and yet they take place now, not in the remembered past nor in the imagined future. All our practice takes place now, as well, and its purpose is to stay still in now. There are sounds from the street, the gulls overhead, the thoughts that represent things, and the ones that don’t – they come and then pass There is nothing else to do, no other place to go. Just sitting still is all – nothing is outside now.

“If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?” – Eihei Dōgen

Begin again

There are so many things that hover at the edge of our conscious attention day in and day out – whether we are eating, going to sleep, waking from sleep, reading, writing an email – the shadows of war, famine, pestilence, extinction. The horsemen of the apocalypse seem to be our daily companions.

And yet this moment, this place of clear stillness, is what it always was. Hopes and fears, dreams, nightmares and reflections, they all rest in the ground of being that holds our planet, and our sun, and on beyond to before things began. We are not separate, any of us, from being. Even on this earth we are not invaders; we did not arrive from somewhere else. Each of us was born of parents who were born of parents too, and our bodies are formed from the stuff of this world. Our minds too. What we do, great or small, healing or harm, is part of the great pattern of cause and effect that holds our planet in its orbit. We may die – each of us, soon enough; our race too, eventually, however long we manage to hang on. Things do. There is nothing that is not impermanent.

This is not a call to passivity. It is a call, as Paul Kingsnorth pointed out recently in Tricycle, to witness. To sit still in this moment is the only place to begin. We cannot know what our place is in time until we realise that we cannot know. Things weave together, and each of us is woven into what comes to be. It isn’t, really it isn’t, given to us to choose the colour of our thread or its place in the pattern. What we do, though it may cost us all we have and are, is not within our free will, whatever we think that is. Only in the deep stillness of our unknowing shall we know how to act, and in that moment our action will not be a choice, but only where we are. Sit still, and touch the earth.