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.