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.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Comparison with others is never helpful

I've noticed that comparing oneself with others is never helpful, especially in spiritual matters.

Comparison come in lots of packages. The most obvious is, "I'm better (more enlightened, have a better spiritual path, etc.) than you." But just as unhelpful, though it disguises itself as humility sometimes, is "You are better (more enlightened, etc.) than I am. If I were more like you, I'd be a better person."

In fact, the second kind of comparison can be more insidious because something in us often reacts to our putting ourselves down this way, and we end up with a projection that looks something like, "That person thinks s/he is so much more enlightened than everyone else!"

Comparing ourselves to a beloved spiritual teacher is even more tricky -- just because it is so natural to do this. It seems that if we could just have the experiences our teacher has had, we would be just as enlightened. So we often ask the wrong questions of him or her. "How did that experience of illumination come about?" "How did you learn to live in the eternal present?" We want cues -- a road map. And if our teacher claims to have followed a road map that doesn't feel like the right one for us -- or doesn't feel like one it is possible for us to follow, it can be distressing. But it can also turn into the teaching we really need.

I remember once one of my teachers was saying that this, that, and the other was true. (I don't remember the details anymore.) I finally raised my hand in exasperation and said, "That doesn't seem right to me."

She replied, "Well, what's the problem?"

It was obvious to me what the problem was: here was a teacher who was the embodiment of what I wanted, but what she was saying seemed wrong.

My teacher kept probing: "Why do you think you have to see things as your teachers see them?"

"Well, they are enlightened, and if I want to be enlightened, then it seems I need to learn to have their view."

"But you see things as you see them and therein lies the enlightenment."

And so it was.


Saturday, May 6, 2017

The provisional nature of life and thoughts

I had a stroke in February and my left side was paralyzed. I got to the emergency room quickly and, after some imaging and tests, was administered this miracle drug that reverses the effect if your stroke is caused by a clot (as mine was). It seemed a miracle that suddenly I could move my arm and leg again! But just as I was celebrating, two women entered the room, at least one of whom was clearly a doctor. She said, "Well, that's the good news. But the bad news is that you are bleeding  in your brain so we need to give you a drug to reverse the effect of the one we just gave you, so that you can clot again." I said, or at least thought, "You're kidding."

But no, they weren't. "We talked to Dr. X and Dr. Y by phone and they agree that this is necessary."

I asked if I would then be paralyzed permanently. Probably, they said. And if I said no, would I die? If the bleeding continues, quite likely you could, they said.

I was in turmoil. Would I rather be paralyzed the rest of my life or dead? But then, I came to the conclusion  that I'd lived a long, fruitful life and if it was over, that was all right. I had nothing left it was imperative to do before I died. I would choose that over lifelong paralysis.

As it turned out, they'd misread the Cat-Scan -- what they thought was bleeding on the image was only a shadow. But I didn't know that then. And because I didn't know what, I had the opportunity to discover something.

I've wanted to say that I discovered I'm not afraid of death, but that doesn't feel exactly true. What I discovered, more exactly, is how provisional our thoughts are, and how determined by our physical and environmental situation. At the moment when I had to choose, everything I usually think is important fell away. My mind only was thinking about the dilemma in front of me.

So actually, "I am, (or, am not) afraid of death" makes no sense. The "I am" statement is just the way we create our psychological selves by imagining that we are identified with a thought we have and that it continues over time.  

Friday, September 9, 2016

Secret versus Open Spiritual Teachings

I've been thinking about secret versus open paths. In some traditions, especially those with roots in Asia, the path is secret -- that is, outsiders are not permitted to know the details of how one progresses spiritually. The knowledge is considered esoteric, and it is thought that preparation is needed to understand the teachings. If people are not prepared spiritually, they will misunderstand what is being taught and perhaps even be injured by what they hear. They may also speak in a misinformed way to others about the teachings, which could therefore be corrupted.

Others seem to believe that having a secret teaching gives it a special power. For example, my mother, a follower of Yogananda, had a secret mantra. It was supposed to have been given to her specifically to address her unique spiritual needs.

In Rinzai Zen, where koans are employed, it is considered unwise to comment on the solutions to koans, as the answers are not to come out of discursive reasoning but out of one's deeper being. I remember once seeing a book of solutions to koans. A friend who read this book was sure that he now knew the meaning of all those koans. But in the Zen tradition, only the Zen master is capable of seeing whether the student has grasped the teaching embodied in the koan. Publishing the answers violates the premise that a koan is not an intellectual puzzle but a way of breaking through discursive reasoning to a deeper truth. Therefore, a Western student who does not agree to keep material confidential can run into trouble. It is said, for example, that Yasutani Roshi, dismayed that when his student, Philip Kapleau, included transcripts of Yasutani's interviews with his students in the back of his seminal book, The Three Pillars of Zen, cut him off. (I remember reading those interviews when I was young, with tears in my eyes, because I too wanted what was being pointed to.) The interviews, Yasutani had thought, were only for Kapleau's research purposes. The argument against such publication is that every student is different, and what the Roshi said to each is therefore different. Such conversations cannot be taken as a map of how to proceed, or as a statement of what is ultimately true.

But Westerners have trouble with secrecy. There are many sanghas in the West that have "Open" as part of their name. The American teacher, Adyashanti, for example, calls his sangha "Open Gate." The invitation is to everyone, and while seriousness is encouraged, no commitment is required. Anyone can come, anyone can listen to what he has to say, and anyone can pass on to others any or part of what he or she hears. And, simply due to sheer numbers, Adya no longer meets with students privately but only at satsang, so every student hears what he says to every other student. Some might apply to you; some not. Adya apparently trusts that things will sort themselves out: people will take what applies to them, and discard the rest.

As Westerners, we have been brought up in the tradition of openness, in the belief that if all views are aired, that which is true will ultimately prevail. "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," is a quotation widely attributed to Voltaire. Whether or not Voltaire actually said this, the spirit of this freedom is certainly alive in Western world, and one definitely not shared with other all cultures. The culture clashes with Muslims in Europe, which sometimes have turned violent, are a case in point. 

To Westerners, secrecy means you have something to hide. So when Eastern paths are transported to the West, they often have to adapt to the West's openness. I have never been a part of a secret spiritual tradition, and maybe there is virtue in that approach of which I am unaware, but, whatever the virtue, I don't think such traditions can stay secret in the age of the internet. 


Friday, September 2, 2016

The Dangers of Shakti

I've written a bit before about transmission of shakti, or spiritual energy. What I want to focus on here are the dangers of transmission to the wrong person at the wrong time.

One way (and perhaps the only one) in which transmission is similar to hypnosis in that the recipient has to be open, has to have a welcoming attitude of trust. But sometimes, the recipient may not realize what s/he is opening to. In fact, the thought-wall that we use to protect our sense of a separate self is pierced in a transmission. The results can be blissful, startling, disruptive, confusing, or almost anything else. This is so because they depend on both the relationship already established with the transmitter and on the recipient's karma and how that karma reacts to being met with the pure, unmediated life energy.

It's not necessary, unfortunately, for a transmitter to be egoless. Some people learn to use this energy for power over others. I'm not going to discuss these situations here except to say that they happen. What I want to talk about is how transmission can cause confusion and pain even when the transmitter has the best of intentions.

Transmission can seem so easy for the transmitter. The transmitter knows that they intend to do – to open the other person to how the divine, unmediated by the mind, feels. But if the recipient has never known this before, the energy might not be interpreted this way. The result might be an extreme attachment to the transmitter in one form or another. It could come in the form of, you brought me bliss; no one else can do for me what you do, and now I love you forever. Or it can come in the form of some kind of repulsion or fear because the transmitter has upset the personality's balance of defenses. Sometimes, the chaos that ensues can last a long time. So one rule I think is important is, If you know how to transmit, don't do it unless you are willing to stay in the person's life to make sure it turns out the way you hope it will.

The life energy that gets transmitted can also be transmitted through other channels – through sex, for example. But sex requires physical touch, and generally people know it is coming and can decide whether they are up for it or not. There are also lots of societal rules about whom to have sex with. It's not like that with transmission. You can gaze at a person in a certain way – maybe even someone you have never seen before -- and suddenly they are in another dimension and it has happened so suddenly that they have no clue what happened to them.

Of course, that's part of the reason it is so effective: the defenses that are normally present aren't there because the transmission was unexpected. Suddenly, the connection between two people is more intimate than would ever happen in sex; sometimes the two people literally become one as boundaries disappear. How the mind interprets what happens can vary, but initially the mind actually can't get a good grip around it, and it is not until the mind learns to relax and let it happen that moving into deeper dimensions of consciousness starts to be truly fulfilling.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Experiencing Completely


            In answer to a question about how to be free from fear, Jean Klein said, “First free yourself from the word, the concept, 'fear.' It is loaded with memory. Face only the perception. Accept the sensation completely. When the personality who judges and controls is completely absent, when there is no longer a psychological relationship with the sensation, it is really welcomed and unfolds. Only in welcoming without a welcomer can there be real transformation..” (Who Am I? The Sacred Quest, by Jean Klein)

 

            I read these words recently with a sense of recognition. The way I have put it is that when whatever is experienced is completely experienced, without any opposition, what seems to have been unpleasant or painful becomes welcomed and even blissful. But Klein's statement is the “how” of this. That is, one only can completely experience, paradoxically, when the experiencer (“the personality,” in Klein's terminology) is absent. That's because the experiencer is never completely in the experience but always comparing, judging, trying to figure out how to have a better, freer experience. So the only way that “better experience” happens is when the experiencer gives up its self-appointed job and just relaxes into what is. Initially, at least, this seems only to happen when the experiencer gives up, when it realizes that the task it has assigned itself is impossible.


Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Little Secret

One of the myths about enlightenment is that it's very difficult to attain, and that only an august few human beings manage to do it.

I remember many years ago at my teacher Adyashanti's satsang, a man came up to dialog with him. The man asked several questions, all of which were in the vein of, “Can someone who is not awake have a reasonably happy life?” Finally, Adya stopped him because he saw the assumption this young man was making: awakening was impossible for him. Could his life be worthwhile nonetheless, he was asking.

“Let's see who's here tonight,” Adya said, looking out over the gathering, which was small enough in those days that he knew personally most of the people present. “I'd estimate,” he said, “that fifty percent of the people present have had an awakening, so why not you?”

This is the little secret, you see. Most people think that awakening is somehow this difficult thing. You have to meditate for years, or do some other kind of practice, and then maybe, if you are the right kind of person, you will be blessed with a little glimpse of the truth. No! Someone needs to tell the truth: we all have access to this. And there are no preconditions. It is our true nature. How could it not be available to us – whoever we are, whatever our past or present circumstances?