Monthly Archives: May 2022

Everything changes

Shunryu Suzuki is said to have replied to a student who asked if he could put the Buddha’s teachings in a nutshell with the words, “Everything changes”.

Everything does. The weather, the leaves on the trees, our own bodies. And the things we make change too: human society, relationships, artifacts, language. Change is inescapable; impermanence is the one constant.

Just as we cannot escape change, we cannot escape sadness. Love and change lead inevitably to sadness. The death of a friend, of a beloved pet, the passing of summer into autumn. Rain clouds cover the sun.

It seems to me that we grow up to fear change and impermanence. Children need to know that their parents will always be there; as they acquire things, toys, little collections of found items, favourite clothes, they naturally long for these things not to be lost, not to break or perish. But they do. Toys are lost or damaged, favourite clothes are suddenly too small. Children grow fast, and even with the most reliable of parents, their relationship with them changes. Love is tested by change, always.

It might be natural, then, to grow up not to trust, to fear and expect loss and yes, betrayal. Things, and especially people, change, and if you rely on their remaining static, you will feel that change as betrayal.

If you cling to static forms, whether made things or living, you will lose. If you try to avoid sadness, you will avoid love, too. What can you do, except trust the love that is the essence of sadness, that is the heart of change?

You have no alternative anyway but to trust; when you die, what will you do? What else could you do, except trust in the vast field of light and life into which you will dissolve, into which you will return in peace? Sit still, and the field of awareness will open, the ground in which all things come to be will hold you. The light and the land are one; beyond is no thing, and the life becoming just what is.

Trust

It is becoming a cliché even to say it, but we are living in exceptionally difficult times. We are just emerging, with hesitant and uncertain steps, from a global pandemic that has asked us all to accept, often on unsure pretexts, unprecedented restrictions to civil liberties and public services, to find ourselves on the brink of a world war – some would say already engaged in one – instigated by the lethal idiocy of a country whose leadership has made a career out of disinformation and untruthfulness. The economic ravages of these two circumstances are now beginning to cause real suffering (especially, as always, to the poorest among us) as inflation rises to a level many of us have not seen in our lifetimes. And all this under the umbrella of an increasingly urgent despair concerning the process of anthropogenic climate change and its effects on all life on our planet, human and otherwise. The very tools we might use to help us combat such devastating circumstances, from artificial intelligence to globalisation, are now often perceived as their causes rather than as potential means for their healing.

Distrust has become a civic virtue, it seems. We feel we cannot trust our politicians, nor the politicians of countries we have for long regarded as our allies; we feel we cannot trust the business organisations that can generate the wealth we need to overcome our difficulties; we feel we cannot trust the technological systems that allow us the ease of communication that we so desperately need to help each other think this through; we feel, we deeply feel, that we cannot trust each other. Anyone, friend or mentor, son or mother, might be a traitor in a rebellion whose causes are as muddled and uncertain as the things that caused them, might at any moment step across the shifting line of right and wrong – right and wrong as defined by whom? Certainly by no one we can trust…

Radhule Weininger writes:

Soften your gaze and connect with the world around you. Trust what you feel. Even when our world is being gravely damaged by climate change and war, we can rely on our intention to trust in a wider perspective, as well as on our dedication to open our hearts to all suffering beings. This intention and dedication situate us into our heart space and allows the energy of the heart to radiate outward into our world. Resting in the felt sense of our heart space allows us to feel calm, warm, and connected. Trust reminds us that there is a bigger context in which we are embedded. Trust allows us to relinquish, to surrender, to let go into uncertainty, while holding the faith that doors will eventually open for us. Trust allows us to go beyond our personal sense of being in control, especially in times when control is impossible. Trust allows our little heart to drop into the great heart of the world.

Tricycle magazine (April 19, 2022)

In a world whose values are defined by Twitter and Truth Social, this is culpable madness. But what if there are other values? Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, argues that there are:

[Q]uestions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc. The most important of these facts are bound to transcend culture—just as facts about physical and mental health do. Cancer in the highlands of New Guinea is still cancer; cholera is still cholera; schizophrenia is still schizophrenia; and so, too… compassion is still compassion, and well-being is still well-being.

Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape (introduction)

Trust is fundamental to being human. Perhaps in fact it is fundamental to being alive, in whatever form of being we may find ourselves. It is a value that transcends culture, transcends opinion, transcends our reactions to our circumstances – even ones that strike at our very existential security, and, in their threat to future generations, strike at our evolutionary sense of purpose as inhabitants of Earth.

There is a trust that rests on a far deeper foundation that our frail lives. Each of us will die: that is the one thing of which we may be utterly certain. But our death, like our life, rests in the ground of being from which we cannot fall. Radhule Weininger continues:

Resting in this way situates us in a much wider perspective than in our personal, often fearful, little heart view. The Isha Upanishad of the Indian Vedas tells us, “This is full, that is full, from that fullness comes this fullness, if you take away this fullness from that fullness, only fullness remains.” If we allow our personal hearts to rest in the limitless, boundless, knowing fullness of the universe, then we can anchor ourselves in a reality that is inexhaustible, that does not shut down, burn out, or get overwhelmed. Resting our hearts in this inexhaustible field of awareness provides the security, the psycho-spiritual container, to hold our suffering…

Acceptance of what is allows us to let the reality of the world in, even though it may be harsh. Acceptance, here, does not suggest whitewashing or the condoning of wrongdoing, but, rather, it means seeing clearly. People can experience the feeling of acceptance when a skillful doctor tells them compassionately the truth about a difficult prognosis. The individual then has the chance to spend the rest of their life with what is essential to them. In a similar way we may be able to accept knowledge of a possibly devastating future with openness and a peaceful heart when we are held in compassionate and loving awareness.

Radhule Weininger, ibid.

In our practice we touch the centre of not merely our own lives, but of what it is to be. Awareness, the simple stillness of open awareness, can see that we are not other than that ground itself: tat tvam asi.

Harris again:

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.

Sam Harris, Waking Up, p.206

Simples

“Simples!” as that price comparison meerkat used to say on the British TV ads. It should be. Meditation is in practice the simplest thing: just sit still. And yet, since even before the beginning of written language, countless thousands of words have been recorded on the subject of meditation, not to mention the philosophical implications of living with a practice at the centre of one’s life.

In our own time, things have only grown more that way. As well as all the books, there are now websites, blogs (like this one!), formal and informal courses, retreats, apps – a whole industrial and scholarly ecosystem built on meditation, and now not only the philosophy of meditation, but the psychology, sociology, neuroscience of meditation – even, if you know where to look, the politics of meditation. Meditation at work, meditation in educational settings, meditation and sex, meditation in prison, in hospital, for forces veterans, mothers, children…

Now all these things are in themselves good things, and have often proven beneficial, even transformative, for those who have become involved. I am myself a good customer of publishers and others. I add my own trickle to the ocean of words. But…

THERE IS ONLY one thing we need to know. It’s utterly simple. Our job, as humans who want to experience life fully, is to pay attention when we experience something…

It’s easy to get caught in the trappings of practice. There are a lot of things about practice that can be very nice, but they’re not crucial. It’s fine to wear robes, but it’s not crucial. It’s fine to chant, but it’s not crucial. It’s nice to have a very simple beautiful space to practice in, but it’s not crucial. We come to a sitting practice not to get answers but to become more aware. Sitting is simply to maintain awareness. It’s not something fancy. To maintain awareness is to be alive as a human being. There isn’t something special called Zen practice. We just try to maintain awareness, as much as we can. By awareness, I mean awareness of our mental activities, awareness of anything in our own body that we can notice, and awareness of the environment in terms of the air temperature, cars, the heat, anything that you can pick up outside yourself. Awareness; awareness; awareness.

Charlotte Joko Beck, Ordinary Wonder: Zen Life and Practice, pp.3,18

“It can’t be that simple!” we think. But it is. It is just that simple. All the trappings, the books, the apps, the philosophy, the religion, even – they lead (or they lead nowhere) to keeping still, and keeping aware. That’s all. Things that lead here are good; things that don’t are a distraction at best. Sit still and listen, that’s all.

These things are not other

Andō writes:

To sit still and silent may relieve you of motion and noise.

But it won’t relieve you of the motion and noise of your mind, if your attention is there.

True stillness can be found in the midst of motion and noise. Because motion and noise arise in stillness.

No need to shut them out. Simply turn your attention to the stillness, from which all phenomena arise, including motion and noise, and you will realise you are already home.

Stillness isn’t missing, you’ve simply been looking away.

So often we look for stillness, as if it were something we could find, something we have lost, or not yet discovered. We have this sense that if only we could find the way, we might achieve enlightenment, or peace, or inner rest. These things are not other. We have not mislaid them. They do not remain to be discovered. They are already here; we are already in this place. We have just been looking at something else all the time.