Friday, January 19, 2018

Sometimes an obscure explanation is best

I am reading about a woman with a Zen background who goes to a temple of the Shingon sect in Japan to study the teachings.  (Shingon is an esoteric form of Japanese Buddhism.)  The priest at this temple tries to explain the distinction between the teachings of Shingon and Zen. He starts by saying that, as he understands it, the point of Zen is to be nothing, to be in the void. By contrast, he says, the point of Shingon is not to be nothing but to understand that everything is and is not actually concrete. He goes on to explain how, while a cup will not continue to exist, its atoms will. It's not clear whether this is meant as an analogy or an explanation, but the listener seems to take it as the latter.

This, the listener says, is the simplest, clearest explanation she has ever heard.*

But I wonder.

It is true, in my experience, that things do and don't exist. The way I like to talk about this is that forms have no substance. That is, everything is empty. I like to say it this way because, there is a danger, when you start talking about atoms, that the mind will think it understands, when it really only gets it abstractly, scientifically. This is not the kind of seeing that matters when we're talking about awake consciousness.

Again, I like Zen's mu  because "emptiness" cannot easily be grasped by the mind. The point isn't to know the Truth, but to see it. And one can only see it when one has become it, if only for a moment -- when one realizes that one is oneself empty, nothing, only then is it possible to realize everything as oneself.

*This exchange comes from the memoir, When the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett.  This book will be reviewed on my literary blog, Literary Journeys to Truth, when I've finished it.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Can Enlightened Beings Have Faults?

There is a certain assumption -- one which I myself carried for a long time -- that somehow awakened people have ideal personalities. They only get angry when it is justified and useful. They know exactly when and how to say "yes" and "no." They are always happy, if not blissful. They are never judgemental. And they never show any indication of ego, or of wanting to be liked, noticed, or admired. They don't judge, and when they are judged by others, they never get upset.

Does this sound like your ideal enlightened being? I know it long sounded like mine. If any of my teachers displayed any "faults," I was quite upset. Is s/he really completely enlightened? Why is s/he showing signs of ego? Could I really believe in someone who was, in effect, still human?

Sometimes students are encouraged to believe that all their faults will be eliminated when they step into the Truth of their Being. But often, the idealism doesn't come from the teachers but from aspirants themselves. In fact, the word "aspirant" says it all: I will become something better -- oh, much, much better! -- than I am now! Everyone will love me, and most important, I will love myself.

Maybe for some people, it works that way. If so, I'd love to hear from them. For me the process has been quite different, and not something that I could have anticipated:

What changed, basically, was my belief in what we call the "world." This "world" is really composed of and created by thought. That world includes, especially, one's ego. And as that ego and its world become more and more transparent or unreal -- there is less and less reason to argue with it or want to change it.

Why would I expend energy to change something that is not real in the first place?

Now, it may well turn out that not believing anymore in the entity called "me," causes a diminution of what are seen by most as the faults of the ego. When we know we are not our ego, we don't need to defend it as much. But if that doesn't happen -- if, that is, an awake human being still displays the personality traits -- including the negative ones -- that s/he has always displayed, it really doesn't mean anything. The important thing is knowing what Truth really is. Becoming a better or more admirable person, if it happens, is only a by-product.

Monday, December 18, 2017

What is Love?

In her very important memoir, Anita Moorjani, who awoke to Truth during a Near Death Experience, writes: "Each of us, at our core, already is pure and unconditional love. However, when we express it here in the physical realm, we filter it through the mind, and it then expresses itself as human emotion."

This sounds right. But what is it, exactly, that happens when we filter unconditional love through the mind?

First, it enters the domain of duality. In other words, I experience that I love you, and you love me, or I hope you do anyway. In the absolute realm, we aren't separate, so love just is, but once we experience separation, it appears that love resides in each of us (or doesn't) and needs, therefore, to be transmitted to the other and "received."

The element of time also enters in -- this one is tricky. In the infinite realm, love just is. But once we have time, love is also subject to its passage. I love you today, and you love me, but will you love me tomorrow? And once we declare our love, the other person expects that that is how we will feel from then on out. But actually, it may only be what we felt in the moment. And we may feel we are betraying the other if we cannot find the love in us that we used to feel for him or her.

Yet, when I watch carefully what happens, it's more like I feel love in one moment, and the next moment I don't -- not because of any change in the relationship necessarily but just because feelings are transient. Just as thoughts move from one to another at breakneck speed, so do emotions, which are a mixture of thought and bodily sensations.

Thus, it is impossible that we will continue to have the same feeling we felt a few moments ago because every moment is completely new. But it's hard to accept this. We need stability in our self-image, and our self-image is composed in large part of beliefs about how we feel about people and things. So we need to bridge the gap between the discrete feelings of love that arise over time by telling ourselves a story:  I love you not just at this moment, but into the foreseeable future. We believe it; the other believes it. But it's all a house of cards.

Can we experience another kind of love, then -- the infinite, unconditional kind? For me, that happens when my ideas about myself and the other take a break. Then the love that we both are reveals itself. Then it's not a matter of giving or getting but being what we truly are. And this experience too passes as thoughts come back in. But once we know it, we know it doesn't change, even if our minds do.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A Western Philosopher"s Take on Nonduality

"The world is filled and filled with the absolute--to see this is to be free."  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Ego's Bad Rep

In spiritual circles, ego has a bad rep. It's something one is supposed to get rid of. "If I could only control my ego, I'd be enlightened," people often think. And so there are numerous strategies to do this.

This seems to me to put the cart before the horse. Ego, after all, is trying to make us bigger -- trying to make us as big as we really are, that is to say. And how big is that? Infinite!. But it doesn't know how to go about its project. It's looking at you from the outside and imagining if others admire you, that will mean you've  made it.

People struggle and struggle to deny the ego's ingenious strategies to make us bigger. But what really solves the problem is discovering how big we already are -- how big our true selves are, not just the image the ego is concerned with. When we discover this, the goals of ego seem shallow and not that interesting. It doesn't mean that ego goes away necessarily; it just doesn't matter that much anymore.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Is Honesty Always the Best Policy?

In the centerfold of the Summer 2017 catalogue of the Buddhist publisher, Wisdom, there is a whimsical drawing of a bear and raven in dialogue. Their interaction is reported as follows:

"Black Bear came to a meeting late and said, 'I'm feeling frazzled after dealing with my cubs. What if I don't feel compassionate?'

"Raven said, 'Fake it.'

"'That doesn't seem honest,' said Black Bear.

"'It doesn't begin with honesty,' said Raven."

There is no attribution, so I suspect that this is a traditional Buddhist teaching story.

But whether this particular story is traditional or not, in my experience it does represent an important attitude in Asian Buddhism: behave not based on what you are but on what you aspire to be. Or, in other words, fake it 'til you make it.

When I was twenty-two, I lived in a Buddhist temple in Japan and this attitude came up again and again. Once, I was told to write a letter to my mother telling her how grateful I was for everything she had done for me. Like most 22-year-olds, I had my share of resentments toward my parents. Giving thanks to them for what they had done for me while omitting what they had done to hurt me seemed dishonest.  Black-bear like, I complained, "But I don't feel grateful." "That doesn't matter. Do it anyway," my teachers replied.

It actually caused me pain to be false to myself in this way. I don't know whether Asians experience this or not. But I think most Westerners, contrary to Raven, would say that it does begin with honesty. My main teacher was Adyashanti, a third-generation American Buddhist -- that is, his teachers were all American-born. And he definitely stressed honesty -- to the extent that it may have been his most important teaching. 

Why is honesty important? Well, for one thing, it takes a lot of energy to lie and keep track of your lies and make sure that they have had the intended effect -- which is usually to either enhance your ego's standing among other egos or to make sure, at least, that it isn't diminished. If you are using your energy in this way, you are wasting it, and it's running counter to the realization of oneness that a glimpse of egolessness will give you.

So I'm with Adya on this one. That said, I do still tell social lies. If someone invites me to dinner whose company I don't enjoy, I don't tell them that. I usually, like most people, find an acceptable excuse for bowing out. Perhaps this is a cop-out, but I can't see a reason to hurt someone unnecessarily.

With intimate relationships, though, and, most especially with oneself, honesty is essential. Lying in those circumstances will bring one further and further away from the Truth one is seeking.When I find myself lying in those situations, I try to remember to ask myself, Why did I do that? What was I hoping to gain?  And, most importantly, Why am I so lacking in trust -- in myself, in the universe, or in a loved one -- that I felt the need to try to manipulate through lying?

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

And One More Time: There is NO Separate Self

Recently, I heard an interview with an engaging, modest man named Robert Wright, who has written a book called, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. 

One thing I notice when Westerners write books about Buddhism, though, is that they rarely mention the most important aspect of enlightenment, maybe even the only aspect that really matters: one realizes that the separate self doesn't exist.

(I really want to emphasize this because some people imagine that the separate self somehow disappears.
And so they are looking for evidence in behavior in order to decide if a given teacher is enlightened. But the fact is that the idea of a separate self exists in the mind; and once it is seen through, one knows that it never existed in the first place.)

So, as usual, this fundamental fact was ignored in the interview, which, I think, means that Wright doesn't know it.

I decided to look for a review of the book and found a thoughtful one in yesterday's New York Times, by a Antonio Damasio. But the lack of clarity about the lack of a separate self results in this conclusion to his piece:

 "The self appears fragmented, in daily life and in meditative states, but subjectivity does not break down. It never disappears, or we simply would be unable to observe the fragmentation in the first place.

"I would venture that in most meditative states some subjectivity remains, as representative of the biological interests of the individual. As far as I can imagine, the complete disappearance of a subjective view would result in a “view from nowhere.” But whose view would that be, then? And if not ours, how would we come to know let alone seek such a view, such an emptiness? Mindful meditation is no stranger to the world of paradox. Is there anything stranger than discovering the pleasures of not feeling?"

Whose view would it be then, indeed? The emptiness that we actually are is doing the looking (and at the same time IS the objects it is looking at).

Emptiness is form
Form is emptiness
Emptiness is NOTHING BUT form
Form is NOTHING BUT emptiness.