Everfresh in the Changing

Month: July 2016

No Footing for Death Without Naming

“Name has conquered everything,
There is nothing greater than name,
All have gone under the sway
Of this one thing called name.”
– Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda, in Nibbāna – The Mind Stilled

Unskilful naming of experiences (unreflective speaking and thinking)cause us to get lost in a maze of our own making. We learn, when we are very small children, to name ’things,’ events, processes, and so on, in agreement with those around us. In doing so, we enter a particular kind of consciousness, a consensus trance. Consciousness now needs a new development – a waking up.

In the daily new you’ll note many reports of people doing cruel and insane things to others. All these people do their worst based on their ‘naming’; especially in the form of beliefs. Beliefs are based on naming, and maintain naming.

It is tragic really, that we are in a trance about what’s going on, here, and we don’t encourage inquiry into ‘This’(reality, life…) and the way we think and speak about it. So confused are we that when our children ask the ‘big’ questions about death, God, and heads, they get confusion in reply.

Reports that I get from people, in private conversation, show that children are often left feeling that there must be something wrong with them, for not knowing what is going on, not knowing how it really is – this seeing, thinking, smelling, tasting, touching, walking, running, laughing, spewing, crying, and turning somersaults.

Exactly what is this? Few are the occasions when a child’s questions about what matters – the ultimate questions – are met with the respect that they deserve. It’s now acknowledged by some researchers (in Integral Spirituality) that children can have transcendent experiences (that is, quite conscious nonconceptual experiences).

They don’t have the conceptual development to integrate such experiences, but they have them. This means that luminous experiences pass by without them sharing with the adult world – they slip into the shadows, to await a crisis in adulthood.

As a result of the consensus trance, we have a majority of people die confused. Their spiritual line of development remains undeveloped. They don’t grow up in that respect, because our culture doesn’t have a shared language for this aspect of experiencing. I’ll go as far as to say that, the majority of people die without discovering the only thing worth discovering. (”The only game on the block,” as I heard spiritual teacher Peter Fenner say.)

My own life is an instance. My father told me (when I was about 26 years old) that when I was a child (younger than five), I would ask him “Who am I?” He said that I wouldn’t take any answer that he gave me. When he told me this, twenty-one years later, he added that he thought at the time that I wasn’t right in the head.

His ‘help’ (training me in the consensus view), of course, amounted to identifying my experience of myself with my body;, and with the roles of son and brother. He told me my name, as if that was the level of the problem that bothered me.

So, who wasn’t right in the head? The child who had come upon the enigma of the ungraspable immediacy of perception; or the adults who had learned, in their own childhood, to believe in their naming, and to identify with their narratives? The implications are enormous.

The Nikaya Buddha says to his companion in the spiritual life:
“If, Ānanda, consciousness were not to find a footing, or get established in, name-and-form, would there be an arising or origin of birth, decay, death and suffering in the future?”
No indeed, Lord.”
-Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda, Nibbāna – The Mind Stilled

Single-Minded For Freedom

What is the Nikāya Buddha’s focus, when he speaks of ‘death and dying’?

I think he gives two answers, each according to the maturity of the people to whom he is speaking. If people are ready for it, or asking for it, he goes straight to the core matter of development of the awareness of vast openness. He uses different terms, at different times – such as voidness, suchness, the deathless, the unborn, and nibbāna.

To the Nikāya Buddha, to be mindful is to live free from death. Mindfulness culminates in knowing what he called ‘the deathless element.’

Awareness is the place of the deathless;
Unawareness is the place of death.
The aware do not die;
The unaware are as though dead already.
– Dhammapada, verse 21. Translated by Valerie Roebuck.

If they aren’t ready for the subtle teaching, he advises them to develop in character, because that brings less suffering and an opportune rebirth.

Realisation of the core truth takes a fierce commitment. In the Anguttara Nikāya there are two suttas together, each called the Mindfulness of Death Sutta (Maranassatisutta, 1 and 2), which reflect the intensity of the commitment, and the extent of the bravery needed.

In the first one, the Nikāya Buddha powerfully says:
“(W)hoever develops mindfulness of death, thinking, ‘O, that I might live for the interval that it takes to swallow having chewed up one morsel of food… for the interval that it takes to breathe out after breathing in, or to breathe in after breathing out, that I might attend to the Blessed One’s instructions. I would have accomplished a great deal’ — they are said to dwell heedfully. They develop mindfulness of death acutely for the sake of ending the effluents.” (Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu).

That is, the practice which aims at realisation of the unborn, the un-ailing, the undying, the deathless has the character of a continuous presence.

“For the interval that it takes to breathe out after breathing in…“

Awareness can be present in the tiniest gap. The gap between the breaths is a powerful, still point – and that tiny fraction of a second, someone can realise the deathless.

If I can develop mindfulness in each breathing instant, I am dwelling in the world with heed for what most deeply matters. When a person fully awakens in the Nikāyas there is usually a line which says, “And she (or he) had done what had to be done.” This accomplishment means a life fulfilled, having come home to the core of one’s being.

In the other Mindfulness of Death Sutta in the Anguttara Nikāya he says, further of this commitment: “Further, there is the case where a monk, as night departs and day returns, reflects: ‘Many are the [possible] causes of my death. A snake might bite me, a scorpion might sting me, a centipede might bite me. That would be how my death would come about. That would be an obstruction for me. Stumbling, I might fall; my food, digested, might trouble me; my bile might be provoked, my phlegm… piercing wind forces [in the body] might be provoked. That would be how my death would come about. That would be an obstruction for me.’” (Thanissaro)

Not, “Oh, crap! I might be bitten, and that would be rotten luck”; but, “I might be bitten, and that would obstruct my realisation of truth.” That’s loving truth!

In this sutta, he also gives a striking image of a practitioner with their heart set on liberation: “Just as when a person whose turban or head was on fire would put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavour, undivided mindfulness, & alertness to put out the fire on his turban or head, in the same way the monk should put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavour, undivided mindfulness, & alertness…”

Mindfulness makes it possible to feel and accept our greatest fear: voidness; that is, when supported by the other six qualities of the awakened mind – joy, grounded inquiry, perseverance, calm, contemplative presence, and equanimity.

If we meet voidness with mindfulness, confidence follows; confidence in groundlessness, because we don’t conceive or interpret voidness as having existence of its own. We don’t project onto it. We know it directly, and when the mist of ignorance dissolves, this very voidness is the source of all true value in life.

The Revolutionary Pause

The title of this piece comes from a talk by Mary Hendricks-Gendlin. I give a link to a transcription of that talk, at the end of this post. You might want, too, to re-read yesterday’s post, about the Mindfulness Attitude, as I have rewritten it.


The mindfulness attitude to life values openness, and the heart of openness is a pause in our habitual patterns. This kind of stopping allows a big mind to show up, which has room for the extraordinarily full present. We have this freedom available.

One of the most vital skills we can develop is the ability to pause the momentum of discursive mind and experience our world—both inner and outer—directly through our senses.

– David Rome, Your Body Knows the Answer: Using Your Felt Sense to Solve Problems, Effect Change, and Liberate Creativity

“It’s okay to pause. I can slow my pace. It’s okay to pause this headlong rush onto the next thing. I can contact my breathing, no matter what the world says. It’s okay not to know what is next.”

It’s okay at any time of the day. When we do pause, new perspectives are possible. This is particularly important in everyday life, because we can become despondent at the state of the world, our nation, our community, our family – and fall into harmful compensatory patterns in reaction. Drinking more, or just ‘zoning out’ in front of screens.

Terrible things are always happening in the world. Some ‘religious’ fanatic kills people in the name of his ‘God.’  Yet another young black teen’s life is taken by a crazed policeman in the U.S. Some insane dictator, protected by a military power, executes one of his generals on a whim. Species extinctions accelerate alarmingly.

We get depressed at what’s going on in the world, feel helpless and powerless. Perhaps, we fear for the children about us – not only for their lives now, but for the fact that they will inherit this violent human society. Stress builds up in us.

And, then, there are our own big questions, the resolution of which would clarify whether our lives have any meaning at all. We turn away, again and again.

However, with ‘the pause,’ we stop turning away. We have an opportunity to say hello to our actual condition – our fear, helplessness and powerless, and begin to transform them.

We are not condemned to feel only debilitation. Positive responses are possible, which can be empowering. We can act to contribute to a better world.

“Self-possession is the heartwood of understanding. When a person is hasty and careless, his discernment and learning don’t flourish.” – The Nikāya Buddha, Kimsila Sutta

For this we need to find space in our minds, space for the much-needed clarity. Even if it’s only space to trust that there will certainly be a next step. With this contactful way to be – being in touch with ourselves – we can know that our actions aren’t just more of the same for the world, no re-actions.

When the traffic is bumper to bumper I vow with all beings
to move when the world starts moving and rest when it pauses again.

– Robert Aitken Roshi. The Dragon Who Never Sleeps: Verses for Zen Buddhist Practice

With the mindfulness attitude (a part of which is remembering our spiritual practice) we turn toward our feelings – even the very difficult ones – with openness, with curiosity, and with compassion. This not only makes us a more helpful human being – able to contribute constructively to the world culture – but puts us in touch with more of who we are.


Focusing as a Force for Peace: the Revolutionary Pause – Mary Hendricks-Gendlin, Ph.D


Healthy Mindfulness Attitudes

“As inquiry brings awareness, observation, and intelligence into play, we can see what attitudes support effective knowing.” – Tarthang Tulku. Knowledge of Time & Space: An Inquiry into Knowledge, Self & Reality
What attitudes support a person who is developing insight? What attitudes empower mindfulness? To sketch a preliminary answer, I’m not going to give an academic summary. That’s not necessary here. Instead, I’m sharing what I have learnt.
The Person
Firstly, the mindfulness practitioner values being a person. It’s important in mindful awareness to acknowledge that there is a particular being present. We must be careful of misapplying the teaching of no ‘self.’ The surest way to get confused around concepts of ‘self’ – I’ve seen some very dissociated Buddhists – is to apply this at the wrong level of experiencing; and so to make it difficult to have grounded contact with the body.
In the mindfulness approach it is better to remember the body. As it says in the Mindfulness Sutta: “There is this body.” Maintain contact with the body (which is the earth element), no matter how subtly you are experiencing ‘matter.’ The presence of a body is integral to appreciating the truth of being the unique person you are.
The Mindfulness Attitude
With this phrase, I am referring to several attitudes (states of mind) crucial to effective mindfulness. I use the phrase in the way that focusers speak of ‘the focusing attitude.’ As focuser and meditation teacher David Rome says:
“The key to success in this practice is something called “the Focusing attitude.” It is a capacity for gentle and brave self-caring, and it can be cultivated. Also known in Focusing circles as “caring-feeling-presence” or “self-empathy,” it is akin to the Buddhist virtue called maitri — loving kindness or friendliness directed toward oneself. It is a potent, poignant and at times quite magical way of making friends with oneself.” – Searching for the Truth that Is Far Below the Search, printed in Shambhala Sun, September 2004.
This warmth is a quality of mindful-awareness. But, here, I’ll comment on why we meditate or are mindful, at all; and, why we focus (or, ‘explicate felt meanings’). I do this to ward off any impression that I am suggesting that our meditation should be a kind of Focusing process.
In meditation, we are interested in knowing/appreciating the luminous and creative nature of the ground of mind. We are loving that luminous nature in itself – the nature of ‘experiential space’ and its ‘source.’
Focusing, though, is on this side of the door to the source. We spend some time being intimate with some kind of experience, ‘sitting next to’ it, sensing the ‘more’ that lies beneath the patterns, and usually naming it with carefully-chosen language – to be clear about what we are experiencing. I’ll say more later, but this is broadly the difference between the two areas of human functioning.
Balancing Peace and Investigation
However, in both cases we need a relaxed, warm attitude toward experiencing; a non-judgemental, accepting attitude. Being at ease with whatever comes brings peaceful stability (samatha) to the mind, which turbo-charges our capacity to looking deep into experiencing (vipassanā). (One without the other is imbalanced.)
We’re developing the attitude of confidence like the Nikāya Buddha on the night of his awakening, when he touches the earth, calling it to witness his right to be here, dwelling in truth.
Harmlessness, Positivity and Non-Judging
“Established in peace, gentleness and presence of mind, they have reached the essence of discernment and learning.” – Nikāya Buddha, in Kimsila Sutta.
Mindfulness is a non-violent, insight-oriented approach to your experiencing. The Nikāya Buddha is very positive, and asks that we be positive toward our inner work. For instance, always establishing joy as a quality of the awakened mind. Or, another instance: in the early stages of Mindfulness of Breathing In and Out Sutta (Ānāpānasati), we invite gladness and joy, before looking more deeply.
He has the attitude of welcoming experience, no matter what it is. He tells his son Rahula to meditate in imitation of earth, water, fire, and space; which all openly accept what comes. We are taking an attitude of non-harm – friendly (Pāli: metta; Sanskrit: maitri) and being non-judgmental toward experiencing.
Make your mindfulness about knowing that you are alive. Being empathic with one’s experience is possible. This means respecting the feelings and points of view of the false-‘I’ system, with its ‘blocking processes’ (traditionally called ‘hindrances.’) Respecting isn’t the same as ‘following,’ of course.
We don’t disconnect from present-moment awareness and from contact with our breathing body. We don’t collapse, in the face of our negativity. We keep our the vigilance (another ‘mindfulness attitude). So, what I mean by ‘non-judgmental’ is that we don’t take sides in the arguments that go on in our thoughts.
Hence, toward everything we maintain our attitudes of kindness, compassion, love of inquiry, and the love of truth – because these protect us from losing perspective on why we are here. “You should remember and explore: the spiritual life…” (Kimsila Sutta)
Intimacy and Feeling as Knowing
I always think, here, of the advice in the Mindfulness Sutta: to know the body, the feeling-tones, the mind-states and so on in the body. I take it to mean from inside the experience, and not at an intellectual distance. In the Mindfulness of Breathing In and Out Sutta (Ānāpānasati), for instance, an important word patisaṃvedī, usually translated as ‘knowing’ or ‘experiencing,’ means primarily, ‘to feel.’ Hence, this means to know something intimately, directly, and as felt in the body. It is to know something from inside it. This, too, is part of the mindfulness attitude.
Loving the Truth
“You need to love the truth. Delighting in truth, devoted to the truth, standing in the truth, with awareness of how to investigate the truth.” – Nikāya Buddha, in Kimsila Sutta
In the spirit of curiosity and inquiry, we put ourselves under truth. It doesn’t work to approach truth with conceit, ambition, or grasping. Mindfulness is a process of awakening appreciative intelligence. So there is an attitude of openness and of learning. Often, in the meditative and contemplative literature, this the where the experience of ‘not knowing’ is praised.
“One should go about free of conceit, self-possessed.” (Kimsila Sutta)
Respecting Concepts
Many meditators make thought into an enemy; but, it’s important to value words in our awakening process. Again, in the Kimsila Sutta we read:
• “Value the opportunity when a dharma-talk is happening, and listen carefully to well-chosen words.”
• “Understanding is the heartwood of apt words. Self-possession is the heartwood of understanding. When a person is hasty and careless, his discernment and learning don’t flourish.”
• “Don’t misuse the truth. Use true, beautiful words to guide yourself.”
• “You should remember and explore: the spiritual life, the teachings and their meaning, and self-discipline.”
My recommendation is that after each thing you say to yourself in meditation and mindfulness practice, refer to the middle of your body. The body knows the difference between words of the ‘false self’ and the words of the person you are sitting in meditation. Investigate this difference.

For the Very Best Outcome

Kimsila Sutta
What Moral Character?
Kimsilasutta, Sn 324-330
Translated from the Pali by Christopher J. Ash, © 2016

“What kind of character, conduct and actions ensure a person will reach the very best outcome (in inner work)?”

“You need to value those who surpass you and not be envious. You must track when you need to see a teacher. Value the opportunity when a dharma-talk is happening, and listen carefully to well-chosen words.

“Go to see your teacher at the right time, humbly, without arrogance. You should remember and explore: the spiritual life, the teachings and their meaning, and self-discipline.

“Delighting in truth, devoted to the truth, standing in the truth, with awareness of how to investigate the truth, don’t misuse the truth. Use true, beautiful words to guide yourself.

“Dispense with longing, lamenting, hurtfulness, trickery, deceit, greed, pride, quarrelling, jesting, sarcasm, dissipation, and mindlessness. One should go about free of conceit, self-possessed.

“Understanding is the heartwood of apt words. Self-possession is the heartwood of understanding. When a person is hasty and careless, his discernment and learning don’t flourish.

“But those who are devoted to the teachings of the noble ones are peerless in action, speech, and mind. Established in peace, gentleness and presence of mind, they have perfected the essence of discernment and learning.”

Walking on in Full Awareness

The Mindfulness Sutta divides itself between two roles: on the one hand, it is a support for being awake in everyday life. And, on the other, it encourages sitting meditation. Sitting meditation, in the Buddhist context, is a specific application of the principles of mindfulness.

So it is that the sutta opens with the suggestion that a person serious about contemplating life goes to a quiet place, sets themselves apart, sits down, and meditates:

“A contemplative, having gone to a forest, or to the root of a tree, or to an empty dwelling, sits down, and folding her legs crosswise, she sits with her body upright, and making present-moment awareness the priority, she breathes in and out mindfully.”

Formal sitting meditation, though, is only one application of mindfulness; mindfulness applied to the one line of development – insight into the functioning of profound knowledge itself.

However, more broadly, the sutta recommends that we practitioners be awake in all our activities. It’s a call to abandon being on auto-pilot in any sphere which we inhabit – in the physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual, social, sexual, artistic, technological, ecological; you name it. In the section on being mindful of the body, it says:

“Further, Practitioners, when walking, a contemplative knows: ‘I am walking.’ When standing, she knows: ‘I am standing.’ When sitting, she knows: ‘I am sitting.’ When lying down, she knows: ‘I am lying down.’ Or, whatever her body’s disposition, she knows it accordingly.”

And, afterward it says: “Practitioners, a contemplative is one who acts with full awareness when going backward and forward. She acts with full awareness when looking ahead or about her, when bending and stretching her limbs, when dressing, and when carrying things. She acts with full awareness when eating and drinking, chewing and tasting; and when defecating and urinating. When walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent, she acts with full awareness.”

Clearly, the invitation is to be aware of one’s bodily presence, in all circumstances, without exceptions. And, why wouldn’t we? Where else is one’s life, one’s lived world, but here now. We are called to be intimate with what is occurring now; in this life of flux, to know it as it is.

“In this way she dwells contemplating the body in the body with reference to the inner (life), or with reference to the outer (life), or with reference to both inner and outer. Or, she dwells contemplating either ‘presenting’ in bodily experience, or ‘vanishing’ in bodily experience; or she dwells contemplating both ‘presenting’ and ‘vanishing’ in bodily experience. “

How else will the question of whether there is a deathless element at all, how else will it be answered but in the flow of present-moment occurring? The whole point of mindfulness (in the Buddhist context) is deepest knowledge in the midst of life –  not bliss, not relaxation. “I will teach you the truth and the path leading to the truth.”

The primary point is the growth of discernment; because growth of insight brings freedom from the false. Dukkha is founded on false assumptions about the nature of the mind. And, how is it, that dukkha can end? Because it is not founded in what is, and so it can’t survive the light which mindfulness brings.

“The mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ is simply established in her, so that discernment and attentiveness are established. She is one who dwells independent, not clinging to anything in the world. This is how a contemplative dwells contemplating the body in the body.”


The Process of Going Deeply into Experience

It certainly makes a lot of sense, that close attention to the dynamics of your immediate, conscious experience, sustained over years, will give significant insight into how you are organised. This insight can go all the way to intimately understanding what it means to be an ‘organism’ at all. The Nikāya Buddha’s interest is in taking mindful awareness as far as a human can go, into what he speaks of as ‘the heartwood.’

In the way I understand the Mindfulness Sutta, mindful experience is bodily-based experience. It includes our sense of bodily form; and, (bear with me while I introduce yet another term) the hedonic values in our bodily sensations and our mind-states. (That is, are they pleasant, unpleasant, or neither?)

And, the third kind of basic content (the data, so to speak) of our dynamic organismic life is: our states of mind – our mood and intentions. There you have the first three areas of mindful attention.

The fourth placement of mindful attention has to do with the patterns or principles of the dynamics of those first three; including how mindful practice can transform these dynamics – a transformation which can be conceptualised as ‘from sentient being to Buddha.’

What’s interesting about reading the Mindfulness Sutta is that it is mostly about naming what you will find when you become attuned to the mind’s functioning, including the patterns of internal interaction which we will discover as we continue our exploration.

The question of the ‘how’ of attention is mostly addressed by the graded process of making acquaintance with your experience. You calm the ‘body’ first, through attention to the form and breath. You generate a motivation to go deep, by contemplating the certainty of death. Along the way you are attuning to the fluxional nature of all experience. With concentrated attention, the body calms  further.

As a result the level of experience which we call ‘mind’ is naturally more stably accessible. Acquaintance with ‘mind states’ brings further calm, dropping us into a subtler level again of mind-experience. That is, you calm the mind, and the subtle interplay of body, hedonic value, and mental-emotional states can come into view. This combined with the awareness of flux (continuous occurring) is very powerful for insight into the deepest reaches of human consciousness.

All of this is a process of refinement of awareness. However, the matter of the precise ‘how’ of knowing, rather than the matter of ‘on what’ attention can alight, this can be empowered, further.

It seems to me that the Mindfulness Sutta mostly brings into view ‘what’ will need your attention in the process of self-realisation. My experience of Buddhist practice is that the fine-grained ‘how’ is a matter of trial and error, because the experiential texture of the actual knowing only comes with repeated present-moment bodily-felt exploration. It takes a long time if you are doing this on your own; and, it’s much easier with a trusted guide, should you find one.

In a sense no-one can teach you the ‘how’ of attention. By its nature, you’re on your own. Nevertheless, it seems to me, that what Gendlin says about Western philosophers can be applied here, in the matter of discovering how to be mindful at the direct experiential level.

I’ll put it as I understand this point. The great philosophers present the profound outcomes of their exploration, but you won’t find in their works a description of the subtle experiential process whereby they came to their philosophical concepts. They can present the logical steps, where logical steps occurred.

However, they haven’t been able to describe the activation of insight itself – that which we call wisdom. How does knowledge happen? This subtle inner process is usually not explicated by them. Gendlin has made this the subject of his book Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning.

The Nikāya Buddha is more helpful than the Western tradition, in the sense that he gives us instructions in meditation and mindfulness, which he says – if applied consistently with goodwill, diligence and sincerity – will verify his insights for the practitioner. This is helpful – to have some method.

Yet, there is one more skill which is helpful; and which I have found emerges in live interviews with teachers on retreat, but which is not conveyed in the texts. On retreat, when two people – teacher and student – inquire together, they unwittingly activate the felt nature of looking into present-moment experiencing. Wisdom is a felt process. Some teachers know this, and direct their students toward the bodily apprehension of truth.

To this end, modern mindfulness-based spiritual practitioners have a powerful concept at their disposal – that of ‘bodily-felt meaning.’ We know there are the bodily-based practices, as articulated by the Nikāya Buddha in many suttas. And, there is also, once the meditation and mindfulness has been activated, the possibility of working more explicitly with ‘felt meaning.’

Note that I’m not saying felt meaning has not been there for either the Western philosophers or the Eastern meditators. Surely it has. And, I repeat that it works in personal interaction between teacher and student. However, we can empower this dimension further by naming it, developing it, inviting it into our explorations, and developing skills in relation to it.

We can borrow straight from Gendlin’s ground-breaking Focusing work, and apply it in our mindfulness practice.



A Stroll Through the Mindfulness Sutta – Part 1

The Opening of the Mindfulness Sutta (Satipaṭṭhāna)

It’s time to have a brief look at the awareness practices which can support us to face death. With these skilful means, we can activate our experiential inquiry into death; and, become familiar with the ‘King of Death.’

Let’s start with an introduction to a prominent text on mindfulness, called the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. (For those more familiar with this territory, I’m using the Majjhima Nikāya 10 version.)

This is a very famous text, and it has been the source of many later approaches to mindfulness.  In all likelihood, it is a compilation of various instructions on mindfulness, and was put together in the years following the historical Buddha’s death.

However, we can take it at face value, in my approach – because we are dialoguing with the texts just as they are presented to us. It is presented to us as a talk given at a particular place to a particular audience.

“Thus have I heard: On one occasion the flourishing one was living in the Kuru country, at the Kuru town named Kammasadhamma. There he spoke to the mendicants.”

In the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta, the Nikāya Buddha says that by paying a certain kind of attention to our experience, we will find an exceptional degree of comprehension of human life, including deep insight into awareness itself.

“Practitioners, this is the direct way for the purification of individuals, for going beyond sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of mental disturbance and dejection, for learning the complete path, for experiencing nibbāna – namely, the way of the four placements of mindfulness.”

The four kinds of experiences that are suggested as present for our path of learning are:

1) our bodily form;
2) our feeling-tones (that is: pleasant, unpleasant and neutral sensations);
3) the states of our psyche (mind-states); and
4) the dynamics of these three, seen in the light of certain principles.

“”What are the four? Here, Practitioners, a contemplative person… dwells contemplating: the body in the body, feeling-tones in the feeling-tones, the psyche’s states in those same states; and, the dynamics of phenomena in the phenomena themselves.”

If you aren’t already familiar with these four placements of attention, stop and – while tracking your breathing, anywhere in your body (as a touchstone) – take just a few minutes to invoke awareness of the first two of these kinds of experiences, now. Feel into your posture. Can you feel the shape and relative position of your head, arms and legs? Can you feel that you are breathing? Can you sense that some of your sensations are pleasant, and some not?

If you haven’t done this before, you will, of course, have to do this in your own way. Give yourself permission to have a beginner’s mind, as Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi said. Just a few minutes would be enough to start. Just do it in your way.

At this stage, if you are a beginner, just directly contact the first two of these categories of experience. (If you haven’t done this before, don’t worry, for now, about the third or fourth ones yet. We’re taking small steps.)

In the opening passages of the text, notice, the Nikāya Buddha sets out the goal. He is saying that mindfulness, if pursued in the way described in this text, definitely will bring the experience of something called ‘nibbāna.’

Elsewhere in the Nikāyas, Nibbāna has many, many synonyms. From the following list, we can say that the attainment of nibbāna brings a high degree of clarity and peace. Mindfulness offers a direct path to this clarity, by supporting us to see and stay related to “things as they really are.” Notice that you can relate to the possibility of most of these pleasant states. (And, some of the others would need an introduction.)

“Practitioners, I will teach you the truth, and the path leading to the truth…. I will teach you the far shore … the subtle … the very difficult to see … the unaging … the stable … the undisintegrating … the unmanifest … the unproliferated … the peaceful … the deathless … the sublime … the auspicious …  the secure …. the destruction of craving … the wonderful … the amazing … the unailing … the unailing state … Nibbāna … the unafflicted … dispassion …  purity … freedom … the unadhesive … the island … the shelter … the asylum … the refuge …”

The Taintless, from The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikāya. Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi.


Learning in the Open

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” – Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind – Shunryu Suzuki

If I examine my own use of the words ‘death’ and ‘dying,’ I notice that I can imagine ‘the later event,’ and I seem to believe it has some reality, in some way. How can this be? What can I believe about something which I haven’t experienced?

You can’t say that seeing others die tells me anything important about death – except that I will come to that event, at some time. One decade, one year, one month, one minute, one second – it’s certain, but it’s all later, and it’s from the outside of the event. So, seeing others die tells me very little to make me intimate with death, really.

I use the words ‘death,’ and ‘dying’ and apart from seeing the bodies of others – that is, seeing the so-called ‘dying,’ and ‘death,’ of others – I still don’t have the faintest idea of what that is like, inside. If I don’t know what death feels like, if I don’t know what it’s like from the inside, then what meaning has the word in relation to myself? Very little, really. It remains an enigma. Seeing the death of others, mostly only brings this ‘later’ concept, not intimate knowledge.

I’ll stop breathing; my blood will stop flowing; my body will go cold; my senses will cease functioning; I will stop thinking and having emotions. I can think things like that, from the outside. I’ve seen that happen to others, so it’s clear. But, what’s that like as an experience?

I have witnessed a dying person having their ‘inside’ angle on the event – ‘an experience of dying.’ Can I know the essence of that, now, while living? Is there death at all, from the ‘inside’ angle? Is there any way that, while living in all kinds of conditions (sick or ill, happy or sad, and so on; and while not missing out on a fully-lived, vibrant, real life), that I can know something about the dissolving of life?

What do the earliest teachings, the Nikāyas – which are the classical pattern of the Buddhist teachings, the teachings closest to the historical Buddha – what do they say about this real-life challenge? This is not reality TV – a pathetic spectacle that depends on being displayed to the world, on others seeing it. One is, in an important sense, alone in this.

That’s where mindfulness comes in – because I can explore the very heart or essence of dying, in my own experience. It turns out that these early teaching have a lot to say about the challenge, and that they offer a pristine ‘present-moment awareness’ approach to death and dying. Their approach is very simple, and very applicable to life now – not just about the ‘later’ event, which I will certainly encounter.

It’s clear that the Nikāya Buddha sees a kind of three-tiered process happening. (These ‘layers’ needn’t be sequential; they can be seen as three levels that are always present, and with which we can familiarise ourselves.

I begin by examining how I am treating myself and others. I clean up my act. And, going deeper, being assured, I approach experience very differently – contemplatively. I listen and examine the teachings (the core of which are about consciousness, or citta.) I hold them up against my own experience, seeing if they work.

And, then in the last phase: I become the dharma, in a sense. Or, putting it differently, as I go deeper, seeing the nature of what is, I acknowledge that the dharma is not, has never been, separate to my life.

In this last, I’m reminded of a verse from a later Buddhist Gompopa who said:
May my mind become one with the dharma;
May the dharma progress along the path;
May the path clarify confusion;
May confusion dawn as wisdom.
(Looking at this, I wonder if it was meant to reflect the four noble truths teaching).

So, I’m saying, here, how there is a valid perspective, from which our learning can be said to have stages or levels – a development. (The test of its validity is that it works to bring more life). All of this development is a re-organisation of how we experience ‘time,’ ‘space’ and knowing. (I’ll expand these categories more clearly).

The Nikāyas say that as a result of re-aligning one’s pre-teaching, topsy-turvy perceptions with how things actually are (which you discover, as you inquire with an open heart), one knows the deathless – the unborn.

Who will master this earth,
the world of death and devas?
Who shall select a well-taught teaching
like an expert selects a flower?
A learner shall master this earth,
the world of death and devas.
A learner selects the well-taught teaching,
as an expert selects a flower.
– The Nikāya Buddha, Dhammapada, verse 44-45. Translated by Christopher J. Ash

Approaching the Unborn, the Deathless

The Nikāya Buddha’s quest was to understand the human struggle, and to see if there was an ending of the struggle. He initially puts this to himself like this (in my paraphrase):

“I saw that we are all subject to sickness, old age, and death. I saw that we try to deal with this, and to gain happiness, by chasing after things that are also subject to illness, old age, and death. And I wondered, is there an unborn, un-ageing, un-ailing, deathless, sorrow-less, undefiled, unexcelled rest from the burden: nibbāna?” (See the Ariyapariyesana Sutta: The Noble Search.)

Now death itself – the life-processes which we call death – is a part of life. I live by the principle that death, in itself, is not the kind of problem we make it out to be. Life is always transforming itself in one way or another, and we name some of those transformations ‘death.’ The kookaburra dives on a grub and swallows it. A moment before, the grub was carrying its own life forward. Next moment, it’s participating in the carrying forward of the life of the kookaburra. It’s obviously one life in various forms.

Our problem, our death-dukkha, comes from our resistance to the fact of such transformations – which goes with our conceiving of ourselves as quite separate entities, rather than as that same life process.

Hence, our death-dukkha has to do with ego-death, more than it is about physical death. We are afraid of the loss of the ‘me’ and of ‘my world.’ We are afraid of the concept of death. In the Nikāyas, it is Mara that deluder who brings death.

The Nikāya Buddha’s way of approaching death isn’t to train ourselves for what occurs after death, but to train ourselves to be present in life as it is. To do that he suggests we include the reality of death, in our regular contemplations.

Maranasati, the recollection of death, takes up a large portion of the Mindfulness Sutta (Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta) is devoted to developing a realistic relationship with death. (In those times, death was readily accessible, with bodies lying rotting on the surface of the earth, in charnel grounds).

But the context of this contemplation is not so much about dealing with death per se, but awakening from delusions about our life process – getting free of Mara’s grasp, and realising the deathless means being awake in life.

Is it possible to use the word ‘death’ in a practical, life-enhancing kind of way, without imagining that it refers to something ultimately existent or findable? What would this mean experientially?

To recollect death, then, is primarily a means to recognising the deathless. It is one of the Nikāya Buddha’s ways of helping us awaken to this quality in life. In the Nikāyas, the deathless is one of the qualities of the unexcelled rest from the burden, nibbāna. Buddhist teachings and practices not only speak of this freedom, but they contribute to its realization.

I’m reminded of an inspiring story from a later Buddhist school. In the Ch’an (Zen) tradition, in Case 94 of the Book of Serenity, there is an interchange between a monk and his teacher. The teacher Dongshan is unwell. He is dying, The monk asked:

“You are sick, teacher, but is there one who does not get sick?”
Dongshan said, “There is.”
The monk said, “Does the one who is not sick look after you?”
Dongshan said, “This old man takes care of that one.”
‘How is it, then,” said the monk, “when you look after that one?”
“Then I don’t see any sickness.”

The dialogue could equally go like this:

“You are dying, Teacher, but is there one who does not die?”
“There is.”
“Does the one who does not die look after you?”
“This old man takes care of that one.”
“How is it then, when you look after that one?”
“Then I don’t see any death.”

How can this be? The realization of the deathless element is not a logical matter. Remember, logic is a process that this more-than-logical universe has come up with – not the other way round. So, the deathless is for experiencing, deep in oneself and out of reach of the social mind.

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