Everfresh in the Changing

Category: Enquiry Page 1 of 17

Nine Contemplations from Atisha

The Nine Contemplations of Atisha (982 – 1054 CE) are:

1. Death is inevitable.
2. Our life span is decreasing continuously.
3. Death will come, whether or not we are prepared for it.
4. Human lifespan is uncertain.
5. There are many causes of death.
6. The human body is fragile and vulnerable.
7. At the time of death, our material resources are of no use to us.
8. Our loved ones cannot keep us from death.
9. Our body cannot help us at the time of death.

Remember: “It is not simply about dying, but about the restoration of the heart, which occurs when we confront our life and death with mercy and awareness.” – Stephen Levine, A Year to Live

Rituals and the Body of Being

My relationship to ritual took a powerful turn, after I read David Michael Levin’s philosophy book, The Body’s Recollection of Being (1985). In it, he conveys that the purpose of ritual is to put our body into a felt gesture which invites the felt meaning of Being.

So, for me, the ‘object’ of devotion in a ritual is never out or over ‘there,’ or ‘out there’ in the universe somewhere. It’s not the statue to which I bow. Neither does the statue represent some deity somewhere else. I am bowing to Being itself, retrieving my connection to Being via the being of my body. This is possible because one’s body participates in Being. A ‘human being’ is a verb, as Buckminster Fuller said.

Each morning, the first thing I do, after rising, is: I put my hands together in a ritual gesture before a statue of the goddess of compassion Kuan Yin, and I say this gatha (inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh):

“These twenty-four brand new hours, may be my last.
I vow – together with all beings – to live them fully,
and look on others with eyes of compassion.”

I am waking up to more than the simple fact of the day: I’m inviting myself, first thing, to acknowledge the primordiality of Being.

The meaning of any words, like the true meaning of any ritual, is what the words do in us – how they shift our state of being. Each word we speak is a gesture toward Being. The Nikaya Buddha suggests, in the Mindfulness Sutta (Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta): be mindful of the body in the body. So, I have a practice of speaking the gatha from my body, with awareness in my body, and feeling into the saying. It’s an experiment in consciousness.

I check inwardly, after saying my short verses, to see how the ritual has changed my body. This way, the ritual becomes an experiment, because I am present to see how I am changed by the posture and the sayings. Has the ritual brought me home to the greater field in which I have my being, with this very body as its conduit?

And, when I say ‘together with all beings,’ it invites the bodily feeling that this grounded Being is the ground of every sensing creature. The sensing bodies of all beings are in your body. So, I’ve added another verse to this gatha:

These twenty-four brand new hours are just for me;
All the more so, because they are just for each and every sentient being.

I think of the English mystic Thomas Traherne (1636/37 – 1674): “You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.”

Also, in the case of this particular ritual, I am retrieving the true life of death. Where else does one become intimate with death, than in one’s body? In my bowing and in saying my gatha, I am putting myself in a gesture of being “one hundred percent for life and death” (as the late Robert Aitken Roshi put it).

A Scientific American article suggests that: “Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence.”

David Michael Levin’s 1985 book (and his presentation therein of the work of Eugene T. Gendlin on ‘felt meaning’) gives us a good philosophical case as to why, by the gift of embodiment* our bodies respond to ritual gestures.

I’ve tried to think how I can quote Levin, to show, in a pithy way, the power of his vision, but when taken out of the context of the whole book, isolated passages are difficult to transmit. What I got from Levin’s book, though, (supported by my mindful inquiry and meditation) is as follows:

Our bodies participate in “the wholeness of the field of Being” (p.117); and so, the body’s symbol-making power combined with skillful embodiment can retrieve the primordial lived meaning of existence. Living this way, we realize our authentic belonging in Being, which illumines a host of problems we humans feel burdened by.

May all human beings – through the gift of  combodiment* – be a hundred percent for birth and death.

* “The primordial participation in the wholeness of the field of Being,” deserves a better word than ‘embody.’ So, I use the term, coined by Akira Ikemi, ‘combodiment.’
To ‘em-body’ is to put something into a body. However, ‘Com-‘ says that something is ‘with.’ All of life is ‘with’ the body; all there to be revealed. It’s a body primordially intertwined with all else.
You might want to read Akira Ikemi’s Responsive Combodying paper on this, stored at the Focusing Institute.

Why Meditate?

Why do you meditate? Have you thought about it? I meditate because I’m alive. For me, it goes with being awake in this world. Meditating nurtures the process of being consciously alive. Meditation reveals that being alive is basically good. And, when I know I’m alive, I experience all kinds of positivity. To sit quietly, doing nothing but know one is alive – this enhances life.

What are the core aspects of being alive? Are we experiencing optimal aliveness? If not, why not? Why aren’t we appreciating and enjoying the miracle of existence so completely that we cannot but recognise that we already-always actually are this miracle of existence? Why cannot we see our beauty?

How is it, that humans are so violent towards themselves and each other, toward other species of plant and animal life, and even toward the mineral life and the waters of this small blue planet? Speaking from an ecological viewpoint for a moment, if we are the biosphere – which is obvious, isn’t it, at least logically? – then why are we treating ourselves so badly, destroying the life of forests, rivers and seas?

Precisely because we only get that fact logically, not directly touching it with our bodies! Meanwhile, the intellect divides what is undivided.

We live as members of a deeply divided species, divided in so many ways. You know them, these ways. I don’t need to enumerate, here. We need, then, a different a kind of consciousness to meet the situation we are in as a species – to end the divisions in consciousness would be wonderful and, at the very least, we need to live with a deeper kind of attention. We need, too, to awaken a consciousness that is big and generous enough to hold all the suffering we encounter when we truly open to what is in us and around us.

The meditative mind is crucial to all these things; sitting-meditation is a catalyst for a renewed consciousness and for profound shifts in identity. Meditation is a way we have to learn new ways to direct attention and even to change our habitual brains-states, and with regular practice to produce new human traits.

If you look closely, it becomes clear that ‘experiencing’ is core for all humans. No matter what one’s personal situation – or one’s background, or one’s congenital condition – sentience is core for human beings. How, then, has our ‘experiencing’ become degraded, so that we miss so much that is going on? Further, our habitual treatment of each other, worldwide, demonstrates that in large numbers we don’t know deeply that we are all equal in this basic fact of ‘experiencing.’ People treat others in appalling ways that could only indicate that they don’t get in their marrow that others are like them in the experience of suffering.

If I am ever to love my neighbour as myself, I need to learn to love myself. Meditating has been a major help in this, for me. Funnily enough, to sit quietly, forty-five minutes a day at least – openly, non-judgementally – to sit with myself ends my self-absorption. (Brain science has shown, by the way, that solo mediation activates social neuro-circuitry).

That’s certainly an important reason why I meditate – to be less self-preoccupied. What did Dogen say? “To study the self, is to forget the self.” The irony is that forgetting the self is knowing the self. And then, in that peace there’s space for ‘the ten thousand things.’

The Implicit Person

Those who go by names and concepts,
who abide in names and concepts,
by not discerning the naming-process,
they are under the yoke of death.
Having fully understood the naming-process,
one doesn’t conceive of one who names.
For, there is nothing (findable)
whereof one would say that ‘she’ or ‘he’ exists.
Samiddhi Sutta in the Samyutta Nikāya (translated by Christopher J. Ash)

To understand ‘death’ correctly, we need to understand the role of language-use in our ‘mind-ing; that is, in shaping our experience of ‘mind.’ That’s an odd thing to say, I suppose – language and mind are intertwined. Hence, the issue is often not the death of our organism, in itself, which causes pain; but the ideas associated with that fact.
To put it another way, there is the kind of pain that comes with the actuality of death (for example, separation from loved ones), and there is the other kind of pain which is our reactivity. This second type is usually  not distinguished (in the untrained person) from the first; hence, there is much self-created pain about death.
We have two points: the fact of death, and our resistance to the fact of death. And, this resistance is tied up with imagining a particular status to our ‘I.’ That’s why, when writing about the five-year-old who cried “I don’t want to die,” I said: “Conceiving he would die, he conceived the cessation of his ‘I.’” Can you see how conceiving of ourselves, our fear of death, and language-use are intimately related?
So, we need to learn how we refer to ourselves. We have to see how language shapes personal experience. We’ll go into this, in depth, during this project; and, mindfulness of the body will be central to this exploration, because it grounds us in a reality greater than our conceptions (and our conceits).
There is a stream of spiritual practice that dismisses the personal dimension of our experience. My own path has been very much a path of understanding individuality, and including it in my understanding of what is going on here in the bigger life process. In the mid-seventies, due to unsupervised meditation practice, I had a dramatic loss of self – a form of depersonalization – and so over a long period of inquiry, I had to reclaim my ‘sense of self.’ The work of Eugene T. Gendlin – his Focusing method, and his Philosophy of the Implicit – helped in that reclamation.
There is a personal dimension which we needn’t deny in the realization of the ‘spiritual’ realities of life. The core thing was for me to realize that there is a valid dimension to experience which is indicated by the pronoun ‘I.’ And, this ‘I’ can be experienced all the way through to the impersonal dimension (for example, in what Jesus said in John 10:30: “I and the Father are one.”)
The issue was well expressed by A.H. Almaas (Hameed), founder of the Diamond Approach, in a conversation with the spiritual teacher named Adyashanti. I’d like, at the beginning of this project, for you to consider what Hameed says, because it addresses an important issue present at the intersection of modern psychology and mindfulness practice. Understanding this is an important corrective to the nihilist (mis-)application of Buddhist philosophy. It is also relevant to the understanding of death presented in this project, as will be clear later.

The facilitator of the conversation,owner and founder of Sounds True Tami Simon said to Hameed:
“… ‘in your own two shoes’  – stand in your own two shoes [you say]. But to begin, Hameed, tell us what you mean by this, this idea of ‘personalness,’ and how it fits into the Diamond Approach. And I know that this is a deep topic, and I’d love it if you would take your time, and really unpack it for us, from your perspective.”
Hameed answered: “I think it is one of those really mysterious things, and which I explored for years… which is, the fact that we are all…   I am… the Infinite, or the true nature, or the totality of Being. To know that, the individual consciousness is necessary. Total Being, Reality, cannot know itself, except through a human being, through a being.
So, for me, at the beginning – before we wake up to the fact that we are more than just an individual consciousness, that we are something very subtle, very profound and fundamental –  the individual consciousness is always present. … In fact there is no experience, no perception, nothing happens without individual consciousness. Individual consciousness is like the organ of experience.
So, at the beginning, basically what we do is that we not only identify with the individual consciousness, but we believe that individual consciousness is a separate entity. And, believing and identifying with the individual as a separate entity becomes what we call the ‘self,’ the ego self, which become quite an impediment and a lot of suffering, because fundamentally that’s not true –  simply, it’s a delusion.
So, as we wake up and realize, ‘No, I am not really a separate entity, and not a separate self; I am something that is nothing… that is everything… that is the nature of everything…’, that experience is still… (even though, in that experience of unity or transcendence, there is no hint of an individual, no hint of individual consciousness; because I’m feeling the happiness of Being itself – formlessness, no shape, no color, nothing) …this realisation is still using the capacities of the individual consciousness to know, to perceive.
So individual conscious… what happens here, it simply becomes implicit, instead of manifesting as an individual. … It disappears, in the sense that it is not in view… (And I’ve had many experiences of the individual consciousness actually dying, ceasing, coming to completely disappearing – nothing – all the way to complete coma. It’s gone. And then, when I come back, as the unity of Being. And that took me a long time, actually (several years!), to finally find that even though I am the unity of Being, I cannot neglect the individual consciousness, because the individual consciousness is the conduit through which all realizations happen.”
In this my present study, what Hameed is calling ‘individual consciousness’ will be equated with ‘body-environment’ interaction (Eugene Gendlin’s ‘body-en’). This approach gives us a way to feel into experience in a very grounded way, so avoiding the possibility of ‘depersonalization.’

Dialoguing with the Textual Traditions – 2

A person should not give himself away. He should not relinquish himself.”  – The Nikāya Buddha, in the Devasamyutta section, of the Samyutta Nikāya

Given all this, I have decided to dialogue with the texts, and not place my greatest reliance on some supposed historical Buddha. So, when I am saying where I learned something, then I will refer to the Nikāya Buddha, the Lankavatara Buddha, the Diamond Sutra Buddha, the Surangama Buddha, and so on; and my reader will not be confused about my Buddha, at that moment. My relationship with the Nikāya Buddha has spanned all my Buddhist life; it’s my favourite textual territory. Yet, in the early seventies, I learned a lot from my dialogue with the Lankavatara Buddha. And in the mid-seventies I learned a lot from the Surangama Buddha and the Diamond Sutra Buddha.

One reason why I chose this way of speaking, apart from the problems outlined earlier, is that I noticed that I would use the phrase “Buddha said…” to claim legitimacy for my views, whether the view was soundly based in experience or not. I’d use the name ‘Buddha’ to bolster my arguments. This is a kind of seduction, and so, upon discovering this, I abandoned the practice. And, I see other teachers arguing (sometimes fiercely) about what the Buddha said, as though they could know.

(By the way, in case you don’t know: ‘Buddha’ is a descriptive term, applied to a class of beings. It is not a proper name. What does it describe, then?

In the Anguttara Nikāya the Buddha says he is not a god (deva), nor any kind of heavenly being, nor is he a man. After perusing the etymology given in the Pāli-English Dictionary, I’ll accept ‘awakened’ as a reasonable translation.

Gotama was one in a line of Buddhas. By the end of this project, we might have a clearer idea of what this means, but for a start,: ‘not a god (deva), nor any kind of heavenly being, nor a man’ means he or she realizes that they are inconceivable. More on this later.

Whose victory cannot be undone, a victory not worldly:
by what path could one ruin an awakened one,
whose field is trackless, immeasurable
Dhammapada, verse 179. Translated by Christopher J. Ash)

So, back to our topic: Instead of saying ‘Buddha said…,’ I might say: “This is how I’ve understood the teachings; and, these are the set of texts which I hold up against my experience, to see if they can carry forward my life. In such-and-such a text, the Nikāya Buddha says…” I dialogue with the texts, and don’t claim to know what the historical Buddha said, thought or taught. That would not be a legitimate way to speak.

One further issue is whether one’s experience validates the texts, or the texts validate one’s experience. I would say it is ultimately the former. In respect of the latter, the texts may agree with my experience, or they question my experience (which I can be grateful for). And, they can only validate experience if I bestow some authority on them, which I can’t prove they have – except by appeal to bodily-grounded experiencing.

I think that would be an abdication of human responsibility, to grant the textual tradition the power to judge one’s experience. Nevertheless, my learner’s move is to grant them a provisional authority, and see in what direction my experiences change with that gesture. That’s why I talk, mostly, about the Nikāya Buddha, because I mainly use those texts to do this. They have proven to be profound guides.

My original blog morphed along the way, to become a dialogue with the earliest Nikāya Buddhist teachings on death. It seems that these texts are as close as we can get to the earliest Buddhist teachings (when augmented by similar texts in Chinese, called the Agamas). I began, part-way along in this project, to approached the Nikāyas with the questions: What did the Nikāya Buddha teach about death and dying? Was it of any interest to him, to live with full consciousness of death? Did he suggest some kind of preparation? And, as well – but, incidentally – I asked: What of the rebirth issue (a topic which brings controversy in modern Western Buddhism)?

(For this edited version of the original blog, for coherence, I bring in the theme of the Nikāya Buddha’s approach somewhat earlier than I did in 2015-16.)

Dialoguing with the Textual Tradition – 1

“With death, people lose/ What they conceive as “mine.”/ Knowing this, a sage should not/ Be selfishly devoted to what is “mine.”
Sutta Nipāta, verse 806. Translated by Gil Fronsdal. The Buddha before Buddhism: Wisdom from the Early Teachings (p. 64). Shambhala.

With my publication of the term ‘Nikāya Buddha,’ a reader asked me why I say that and not just ‘Buddha’? I thank that practitioner for being the occasion of this helpful digression. Why don’t I just say, “the Buddha said (or did, or thought)…,” or “the historical Buddha said (did/thought)…,” and so on, like other people? What does this expression “Nikāya” mean?

In what follows, I’ll try not to be too technical, and my account is not meant to be at all representative of scholarly views. It simply gives a rough sketch of what a practitioner is up against, if they begin to think about the way the phrase “Buddha said” works in us.  As experiential inquirers, how we relate to this phrase changes how we experience the texts. So, I’m not just making a mere scholarly point.

‘Nikāyas’ refers to five Buddhist volumes which were written down in the Pāli language. These are an important part of the very earliest texts, because they purport to contain the ‘discourses of the Buddha.’ (And, my Dhammapada translations, which I use frequently throughout this project, I translate from one of these Nikāyas, the Kuddhaka.)

The Nikāyas are claimed to contain the core teachings attributed to an historical person. His name was Siddhartha; and his clan name was Gotama. In the Nikāyas he’s usually referred to by his clan name, Gotama. He is said to have lived (roughly) in the fifth century BCE (before the common era; or, BC in the old terminology).

The period in which he is said to have lived was an oral culture, though; and these Nikāyas were passed on orally for several generations after his death. So, that’s several centuries before they were put into written form, probably at some time in the first century CE (common era; old ‘AD’). They’ve come down to us in an Indian language now called ‘Pāli,’ which is an offshoot from Sanskrit.

Most Western Buddhists are used to reading and hearing ‘The Buddha said…,” as though the writer or speaker is backed by the experiential authority of an historical person; but this can never be the verified. ‘The Buddha said’ can represent all kinds of reference points.

Firstly, although scholars use the phrase ‘historical Buddha,’ no-one can actually know if there was an historical figure corresponding to the man portrayed in the Nikāyas. It’s reasonable to assume this powerful and perceptive teaching arose because there was a particular individual, in a particular historical milieu, but we have only the Nikāyas themselves as evidence for this (and the Chinese Agamas, which are similar); and, furthermore, as I said, they didn’t come into existence (as written texts) until some time in the first century CE.

(By the way, it is thought by some scholars that – contrary to popular expectation – oral traditions do well in preserving these kinds of ‘texts.’)

Anyhow, we have no way of knowing for certain that the early Nikāya texts faithfully represent the teachings of an historical person. Again, it’s very likely that they do, or that they at least get in the ballpark of certain features of the supposed original teachings; particularly, regarding the core matters such as: the ‘three characteristics of phenomena,’ the certainty of liberation (i.e. the deathless or nibbāna), the ennobling realities (though, even this teaching has been challenged by scholarship, in recent times).

Then, secondly, to complicate the matter further, there are modern Buddhist cultures where the monks and nuns have never read the Pali Nikāyas at all, having been trained using texts written hundreds of years later, in Sanskrit . That is, later Indian and Tibetan traditions have their own version of ‘Buddha said,’ while referring to texts written much later than the (assumed) historical Buddha. These speakers seem to genuinely believe that the ‘Buddha’ said their favourite teachings, despite the gap of centuries between the time of ‘Gotama’ and these particular texts. These later texts – later Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese texts – according to the conventions of those cultures, put their teachings into the mouth of ‘Buddha.’

Consequently, the range of “Buddha said” is amplified greatly beyond what would be possible if we restricted ourselves to the era in Indian history when the Buddha (if he existed) was born (as I said, probably fifth century BCE).

So, as far as I see it, then, it’s more  helpful to specify the particular ‘Buddha’ to which I’m referring. For instance: the Nikāya Buddha, speaking from the 5th century BCE; or, the Lankavatara Buddha, speaking from the late 4th century CE. The Diamond Sutra is difficult to place, so let’s say that the Diamond Sutra Buddha is speaking from some time between the the Nikāyas and the Lankavatara Sutra.

And, there are more – the Uttaratantra Buddha, and the (likely Chinese) Surangama Sutra Buddha, for example. These are both obviously much later than the Buddha of the Nikāyas (who is also called the Shakyamuni Buddha, placing him in a particular kingdom of fifth-century India).

So, when I say, “Nikāya Buddha,” its that layer of textual history to which I’m referring, and to the Pāli texts (Suttas) in particular. And, of course, it’s my interpretation (and sometimes, my translation) of the Pāli texts. I only claim to place myself within, to dialogue with, and to invetigate my experience using, a tradition (and this not exclusively), rather than claim to speak for ‘the Buddha.’

Speaking with the Dead

Today I will visit a ‘place’ established by my sisters to remember our mother. They placed her ashes there. It’s mothers’ day. I’m glad to be going. In fact, it’s the first time I’ve visited this place, or made space for it.

What is a place, I wonder? What’s the relationship of a ‘place’ to the kind of ‘space’ which is our ‘experiential world’? And, how does memory work?

I read this morning about a white settler whose husband died. She sold the farm and moved away (maybe back to England); but not before she relocated her husband’s grave to a tree somewhere off the farm. I thought that was sensible. She made sure it wasn’t on any one individual’s property. She couldn’t control its future, but she gave it the best chance of carrying on.

The tree was a ‘place’ that held memories for her, because long before, when her husband had arrived penniless in the area, unable to afford board anywhere, he had lived in the trunk of that tree for five years. Rabbi Rudy Brash includes the story in his Permanent Addresses, which is a book about people’s graves. The man went on to create a farm, and have a large family.

Why do we have graves? I wonder. How does memory work? Isn’t the body the memory of what’s been? Isn’t it the carrying forward of what has been? Or do we have these places to remind us of other ‘spaces’? Without the acknowledgment of ‘other’s spaces’ ours would be a narcissistic bubble. We create these places to carry forward our spaces into more of life.

Many people use graves to speak to the dead. With such an interaction, do we take a place into our space (our living), absorbing its fresh meanings (fresh because this is ‘now’) into our being? A lot of healing happens this way. I had a dream a couple of years ago, in which two young aboriginal men told the dream-Christopher: “It is an honour to speak with the dead.”

A spontaneous visit with a friend to the local vihara one day, a couple of years ago, led me to reflect on how I’m treating my parents, who have both died. That’s an odd concept to many, no doubt.

“How are you treating your parents?”
“What do you mean? They’re dead?”
“When you say that, what do you want that word ‘dead’ to mean?”

I think I’ve got some learning to do, here. The Sri Lankan family who provided the lunch meal, were commemorating the death of their collective parents – and they do this every year. I imagine one function of the day is to remind themselves that: I am subject to old age. I am not exempt from old age. I am subject to illness. I am not exempt from illness. I am subject to death. I am not exempt from death. There is alteration in, and parting from, everything that is dear and pleasing to me. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions. They are my matrix, I am related through them, they are my mediator. I become the heir of whatever actions I do, good or bad.

I got to thinking that, while I do often think about my parents’ deaths – each of which had its own story, its own character – on the other hand, I don’t commemorate their death, in the sense of make a special time of remembrance. I think of each of them, from time to time, and I think about the manner of their deaths, and I think about their inner growth up to and into that moment of death; but nothing ritualised.

I resolved after that dream, and after witnessing the Sri Lankans that day, to explore what more there could be in my relationship with the dead. To be at peace when it’s my turn, I might need to speak with them now more intimately than random musings allow. If I only had a year to live, wouldn’t I follow this thread? “Yes.” Then, okay.

So, thanks to the dream and an unexpected invitation to a meal at the local Vihara on day, I started to explore ritually inviting remembrance, a conscious process. I took the first step: I recorded the dates of my parent’s deaths in my diary.

I’ve noticed that others of my family, and some of my acquaintances, they do this: they go to the cemetery, each year, on the anniversary of the deaths of loved ones. It was by my sisters’ suggestion that we are visiting my mother’s place in the cemetery today, and it felt right.

These dates become an opportunity to be in touch with the ‘more’ of life. I’ll check in ‘with the middle of me,’ today, to see what comes there. I imagine it can be, at the very least, a day of gratitude, and an opportunity to be feel the preciousness of a human life – and maybe it’ll be painful, but… that’s welcome, too. It’s included in all this. There’s space for it.

This Brief Candle, a Unique Occasion

Herbert Guenther: “…the thought of death is rather a powerful stimulus that brings me back to myself as the unique occasion for the search for the meaning of life…”

What kind if meaning of life can Guenther be speaking about? Often people live as though death is the negation of meaning. The question is how to whole-heartedly include our consciousness of death, and to find what meaning is present in that inclusion. Of course, the meaning of life is itself a living, not at all satisfying as mere belief. When the Dalai Lama was asked, at a teaching: “What is the meaning of life?” he shrugged his shoulders and said: “I don’t know.” What kind of ‘don’t know’ is that? How do we live it, feel it, know it intimately? And, how do we relate to our loved ones, once this is digested thoroughly?

If it is truly living ‘don’t know,’ it is a luminous matter. If it is a ‘don’t know’ perfumed with avoidance, it’s a dull, and dulling, quality of awareness. But, lived, it is openness of Being.

This is something worth unpacking slowly, as I will do throughout this project. Perhaps, these aren’t two, the evanescence of life and life’s value. Avoid the thought of death, and we live a false version of life. When the haiku poet Issa Kobayashi (1763 – 1828) alluded to the traditional teaching that this is a “dewdrop world,” in his poem written on the death of his daughter, he may have been thinking of the Diamond Sutra’s famous last verse:

“This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence:
Like a dewdrop, a bubble; like a flash of lightning,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”

Yet, Issa brought this great matter home to the ever-so-human fact that love always perfectly has a natural hurt implicit  implicit in its vibrant life. He  wrote:

this world of dew
is, yes, a world of dew.
And yet…

Issa’s poem was life living itself forward in a new way. He doesn’t recoil from intimacy with the dewdrop world. It suggests that even in the face of his daughter’s death Issa knows her life is (in Mary Oliver’s way of saying) “one wild and precious life.”

Some Thoughts on Everyday Narcissism

A few decades ago, I had a friend who died of cancer. Let’s call her Milly. From the first, we had a basic kind of respect for each other; though we would clash occasionally. I didn’t understand it, then, but now I know that my arrogance triggered her. As a result, though we learnt to accept our differences, for some years we weren’t very close. Then, when she got cancer and she was dying, the relationship changed. Our conversation became real and beautiful. The presence of death brought out honesty and vulnerability in both of us.

I am reminded of her, because I’ve been reading a account of a mother screaming at her daughter during an argument, “How could you love a man who doesn’t love me?!” The narcissism of that attack is so obvious that I’d like to think that it’s a caricature. But, no – it really did happen.

So, what of Milly? On a summer day, months before she died, we were walking along a bushland track, reflecting. She shared that she had recently told her mother that she was dying; and through her tears she said that her mother had exclaimed: “How can you do this to me?!” I was shocked. No doubt her mother thought that she spoke from love; but I couldn’t see it. I still don’t. Why do we mistake narcissism for love?

A related instance is given by author Jeanette Winterson. Jeanette was sixteen, and her Pentacostal adoptive mother was evicting her – throwing her out for taking up with her second lesbian girlfriend. During the argument, Jeanette declared her wish for happiness – she wanted to be with her beloved, a female, because she wanted to be happy. Her adoptive mother’s response was, “Why be happy, when you could be normal?”

When I read that, I laughed. But, then I thought something like: “Hey. Hang on. That actually happened. A person was actually in such a condition of mind that could say such utterly ill-fitting words, and think them right.” Right where his youth Janet deserved understanding and care from her adoptive mother – right when she needed to be listened to – she got narcissism.

It might seem that these three vignettes are extreme; but what of less obvious reactivity in the face of the unwanted facts of life? We all have some level of narcissism. Milly’s other friends didn’t say out loud, “How can you do this to me?” No, instead, she told me: “They dropped away. They disappeared.” Without a word of explanation.

Milly was dismayed at the loss. Their reactions were a reflection of a self-absorbed mindset; and it wasn’t what she needed, right then. It would seem that they avoided her because of cancer and death. Sure, they didn’t say, “Why are you doing this to me?!’ but they may as well have. (Several years before, someone very close to me, when dying from cancer, told me: “Cancer tells you who your real friends are.”)

All these instances are on a continuum which reveals narcissism to be terribly normal. By normal, I mean statistically so. A glance at any newspaper, any day of the week, alerts one to the ubiquity of deluded self-centred views – narcissistic read-outs on life – which capture people and lead them to harmful behaviour. Look at our politicians’ grubby self-interest, their blatant fabrications and their grandiosity. The parliament is filled with selfish individuals, who can only read things through their biases.

The Buddhist analysis of this problem says that the problem is much bigger than a small class of ‘crazy’ people: it’s a species problem. A direct, contemplative investigation of ‘mind’ reveals everyday forms of narcissism; and, it has its roots in a lack of direct awareness of our organism. Due to this ignorance, we misperceive the nature of the mind. Hence, we live our normal lives on the basis of delusions about the organism’s reality. We see through filters, through a ‘glass darkly,’ and our relationships suffer concurrently. “How could you love a man who doesn’t love me?!”

Was it mentally ill for Milly’s friends to abandon her? Not conventionally so, of course. It’s merely fear; misshapen perceptions formed their fickleness. But we could ask, why aren’t such fears (with their attendant mental structures) considered, in this society, a form of mental affliction? That’s how the Buddhists see it. These distortions – aversion to a friend who has cancer, for instance – are not intrinsic to the mind. Why aren’t we addressing this at the national level? Well, simply because the delusions are statistically normal.

If a whole community has such delusions, one loses perspective; you find it hard to identify fear as mental concocted. Your perceptions present as real, and your fear and your hatred appear justified. Racism and homophobia are two areas where this analysis is powerful.

What what kind of sickness can it be then, when you are scared of people who have different skin colour, or a significantly different culture? Or, what kind of a sickness is it, when you are afraid of a person who has cancer? The answer that Buddhist is that we are sick with greed, hatred, and ignorance.

Without a culture of mindfulness and compassion, we can imperceptibly slide into mass delusions. Then, destructive attitudes become so widespread that they passes as normal. Nazi Germany is a case in point; and, Trump’s ‘America.’ (Notice, even the name ‘America,’ as a designation for the U.S.A, is a narcissistic insult to all the other nations of the Americas, north and south.)

So, where do we go with such a widespread problem? A significant portion of people throughout the world are currently under the sway of xenophobic afflictions. These attitudes are the stuff of minds – we have to investigate what it means to have good mental health. Why aren’t the policies of far-right’s (such as One Nation, in Australia) being discussed as a matter of our community’s mental health? Is it because we might have to begin at home? It is far harder to look at one’s own mind, than to blame other’s for our dissatisfaction.

I thought Milly was a hero, given the brave way she approached her death. Moreover, she spoke without ill-feeling, when addressing the reactions of others to her disease and impending death. A warrior; and one of my teachers.

Though one conquers in battle
a thousand times a thousand men,
one is the greatest war-hero
who conquers just one’s self.
Dhammapada, verse 103. Translated by Christopher J. Ash

Back Then, Yet to Come, and In-Between

Since ‘once upon a time,’ time has interested me. I had a vision which depressed me as a teenager. I thought: Having been born, there is the time before I was born; and there will be a time after my death. These two times are endless, and they’re also out of reach of present ‘me.’ They are are kind of silence, either side of the noisy present.

My childhood vision saw the ‘past’ and the ‘future’ as not telling me anything about the meaning of the time I am in NOW. Yet, it feels as though the time that I am in now is over-shadowed by those other times; and is meaningless, without their inclusion. As it stands, I am in this no-person’s zone of time between birth and death. Some philosophers think that the idea that time will continue after us, gives us meaning. I have noticed that unconscious narrative, myself; but I think it is a false support.

The way I thought of it, back then, I didn’t exist in the time before, just as I will not exist in the time that follows my death. (Notice the blind belief in ‘existence and non-existence?) In other words, the time before ‘me’ and the time after ‘me’ are both without me. Sound familiar? There’s a nothing before, and a nothing after,from the point of view of my identity. The thinker imagines that there was something there, but ‘I’ wasn’t, and also, ‘I’ wont be.

Later in my life, I knew that time concepts were useful, but, still, when I investigated – as a meditator can – when I investigated what ‘time’ was, I couldn’t find it in this default way that I had imagined it to be.
This experience – my bleak childhood vision of time – is not new, of course. Some people see these dilemmas and decide that time doesn’t exist, except as some kind of social agreement. They say, “Time is just a concept.” Yet others continue to believe that time and space are independent realities, but they don’t explain how that could be – and where exactly time and space could be located. (See that? What space and time would you put space and time in? What would found them?)

Of course, if time and space are the very fabric of being, then you and I are time-space. But, what kind of time is that? As Einstein showed us, it can’t be clock-time. And, anyhow, who lives in line with that? Time’s dynamics are rarely said to be satisfying to people. Time is usually said to be some kind of commodity: in short supply at one time, and too much of it at other times.

And, time is always in danger of running out. See! Mr. Death carries an hour-glass. This is the biggest problem with our intimacy with time – if time is closer to me than my breath, I can’t control it. No unrefined ego-system is happy with this. How will I make peace with the experience of time?

Despite the difficulties this last approach presents, I do look for time in my experiencing, though – and not in the concepts derived from experiencing. So, what aspects of accessible experiencing are we pointing toward, with our ‘time’ phrases?

So, is the answer to the tensions of time a kind of hedonist ‘seize the day’ approach, as some suggest? To these people the time ‘in the middle’ is all that is important. It is all that we can grasp, and grasp it we must, in our own way. Such a vision has the danger of strengthening narcissism, though. The middle time – my life between birth and death – is unconsciously identified as identical to my mentality. The objective vision of ‘time and space’ being ‘somewhere’ out there, slips over into solipsism. And, here, the ego feels also continues to feel alone.

So, this egoic ‘seize the day’ vision – a compensatory and imaginary one, notice – brings conflict. I need the vision of ‘my now,’ and yet it is never at rest with itself. Furthermore, the world as I experience it doesn’t co-operate in affirming the centrality of my ego’s seize-the-now project.

However, no matter how interesting, even engrossing, the three-separate-times version of ‘time’ is to us, explored interminably in our thoughts, it is simply a made-up story with no unmediated, experiential evidence for it. What do we have evidence for? This ‘whole life process’ that is going on without mediation of concepts. Our concepts point back to the holistic flow of all that is, to the holomovement. (Bohm)

I say this, realising that I must speak tentatively and provisionally about ‘life’ and ‘going on,’ and ‘flow.’ If not used in zig-zag with the non-conceptual, these ideas can become the horns of the bull which gores us. But, I can – on the basis of the flowing practice of mindfulness of the body – let these phrases point back to the intimacy of my Suchness. They gesture toward the immeasurable aliveness of being-at-all.

Then, will I find evidence for the usual kind of ‘time,’ anywhere? The time-space duo is an assumption brought in to explain this beginningless, ‘evolving’ life. A useful convention, which we avoid getting snagged by. If we let words mean what they do in us, we can ask, ‘How does the word ‘time’ work, when held up against our immediate ‘alive-ing’ (experiencing). Then, the narratives, the stories, the imaginings, and so on, are themselves all included in the holomovement of this going-on life, aren’t they? And a fresh meaning of the term ‘time’ can come in its use in situations, mysterious and related to the immeasurable life we are.

Why mysterious? Because time’s root is in the ‘Ing-ing’ (Gendlin), which is the movement of a stillness. And you and I, when we live this, are beings who are Such (beyond conception).
Well, I’ll never! And I thought a body was just a bit of skin and meat on bones. But, I thought that back when I lived in the no-person’s now, between ‘birth and death.’

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