Everfresh in the Changing

Category: Enquiry Page 2 of 17

Not Merging with Suffering

The Arrow
(Sallatha Sutta: Samyutta Nikāya 36.6)
Translated from the Pali by Christopher J. Ash

[The Buddha:] “Practitioners, an untrained, ordinary person experiences pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, and feelings neither pleasant nor unpleasant A well-trained student of the noble ones also feels pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, and feelings neither pleasant nor unpleasant. So, what difference is there between the well-trained student of the noble ones and the untrained ordinary person?”

[Practitioners:] “Because we depend on the Flourishing One’s teachings, it would be good if the Flourishing One were to personally explain. Hearing this, we will remember it well.”

“Then listen carefully. I’ll explain.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“When an untrained, ordinary person contacts suffering, they fret and become wearied. They lament, beat their breast, and fall into delusion. They have two pains – physical and mental pain. Just as if someone were to shoot another with an arrow, and, right afterward, they were to shoot that same person with another arrow. Hence, the victim would feel the pain of two arrows. In a similar way, when in contact with a feeling of pain, the untrained, ordinary person frets and becomes wearied. They lament, beat their breast, and fall into delusion. So, they experience two kinds of feelings: the bodily and the mental suffering.

“When they are in contact with suffring, they meet it with resistance. When they feel resistance, their (previously latent) underlying patterns of resistance become active. Touched by pain, they then yearn for sensual pleasure. Why is that? Because the untrained, ordinary person does not know of any other escape from pain beside sensual pleasure. While relishing sensual pleasure, the untrained, ordinary person, relies on (previously latent) underlying tendencies to lust for pleasure. So, they can’t understand – in their experience just as it actually is – the production and cessation of these feelings; the attraction and the disadvantages of them; nor can they know the actuality of leaving this suffering behind. When they don’t discern these processes, they [likewise] dwell in ignorance of experiences which are neither pleasant nor unpleasant.

“Experiencing a pleasant sensation, they know it while merged with it. Experiencing an unpleasant sensation, they know it merged with it. Experiencing a sensation which is neither pleasant unpleasant, they know it merged with it. This, I say, is an untrained, ordinary person: a person tied to birth, aging, and death; one tied to grief, complaining, anguish, distress, and despair – a person bound up with dukkha.

“When a trained student of the noble ones contacts suffering, they don’t fret and are not wearied; they don’t complain or beat their breast; they don’t get confused. So, they just have the one pain – the physical, and not the mental pain. Just as if someone were to shoot a person with an arrow, and didn’t shoot them a second time. So the victim would feel the pain of only the one arrow. In this way, when a trained student of the noble ones contacts a feeling of pain, they don’t fret and aren’t wearied; they don’t complain or beat their breast; they don’t get confused. So, they experience the one kind of suffering; the physical suffering, but not the mental suffering.

“When in contact with pain, they don’t resist it. Not given over to resistance, then latent underlying patterns of resistance don’t possess them. And, touched by suffering, they don’t attach to sensual pleasures. Why? Because a well-trained student of the noble ones recognises the escape from suffering [that is other than] sensual pleasure. So, not relishing sensual pleasure, the well-trained person does not rely on the underlying patterns of sensual pleasure. Hence they see – in the experience as it actually is – the arising and cessation of these feelings. They see then the allure and disadvantages of these feelings. And they can know the reality of leaving suffering behind. As they know these processes, neither will they dwell in ignorance of experiences which are neither pleasant nor unpleasant.

“Experiencing a pleasant sensation, they know it while not merged with it. Experiencing an unpleasant sensation, they know it not merged with it. Experiencing a sensation which is neither pleasant unpleasant, they know it not merged with it. This, I say, is a well-trained student of the noble ones: a person separated from birth, aging, and death; separated from grief, complaint, anguish, distress, and despair – a person separated from dukkha.”

“So, this is the difference – the distinction, the distinguishing factor – between the untrained ordinary person and the well-trained student of the noble ones.

“A wise person, being discerning,
doesn’t experience a [concocted] feeling of pleasure or pain.
The difference, then, between the wise and
the ordinary person is one of skilfullness.

“For a person who discerns constructed dhammas,
clearly seeing this world and future worlds,
pleasant things don’t confuse the mind,
and unpleasant things don’t bring resistance.

“Passiveness and opposition are dispersed –
gone to their end, do not exist.
Having known the stainless and sorrow-free,
these ones understand thoroughly, beyond becoming.”

“The darkness around us is deep.”

I didn’t meet the poet William Stafford, but of all the wonderful poets the United States has produced, his voice is closest to my heart. I’ve been thinking during the night that I’m glad that Bill didn’t live to see what happened this day, in his land – how a majority of his fellow citizens failed humanity (yet again) by electing an  empty shell of a man, a man that (as Little Tree’s grandma would say) has “a soul the size of a pea.” In electing as their leader, not really a man but, a machine, the citizens of the United States followed the wrong gods home.

With all of us who care about human qualities nobler than self-serving dishonesty, vengeance, lust for power, material greed, misogyny, and war on nature – who regard Donald Trump’s election as an instance of mass delusion – I join my voice, in encouraging peace-loving activists to see the coming years of darkness as an opportunity to get clear about deep and true values; and, to ensure that our actions are in alignment with those values.

Mass delusions such as this, and such as we regularly witness on our small blue planet, can only happen because people don’t know themselves. The values which Socrates called forth in those who could hear – of self-knowledge, goodness, truth and beauty – can’t be lost, though they can be lost sight of. We know this happens, but we don’t always or readily recognize it happening in ourselves, as well as in others. We need to commit to waking up to the ways of delusion.

We mustn’t forget, too, a virtue praised by the Buddha: fellowship with the good; specifically, community with those who are awake and awakening – the ‘noble’ community. While developing and nurturing our personal integrity, we need to seek such people out and reach out to them; to grow, thrive and to act in noble company.

May you be safe and well, in these dark times.

A Ritual to Read to One Another

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider –
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give – yes or no, or maybe –
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

William Stafford

Coming Home to Completeness

A Fictional Conversation

“What does that mean, that you’ve ‘done what had to be done’?”

“You sound like you mean, ‘Because, after all, in life there is always more?’ And, of course, I’d agree with that.”

“I was thinking something like that.”

“Yes. I didn’t mean in my personal life. As you say, it’s onward leading. To say what I mean might be difficult, but… nevertheless, I stand by it.”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s because I sense it, that I mean it.”

(Laughs). “In your body.”

“So… I know I mean something like this…  It’s important in life, and it makes sense of our being born, that there needs to be a fundamental change in the mind during one’s lifetime – a change at the root.  It’s a change which makes sense of everything.

“When I was a young person, as I became an adult, I couldn’t accept the values of our forebears. I could no longer accept their traditions and explanations. Their beliefs in rituals and gods couldn’t satisfy my inquiring mind. Why is life the way it is, so full of frustration and difficulties? Why were we born into the situation we are in?”

“Like, ‘Why is there birth?’”

“Well, that wasn’t a big deal, for me. Rather, why is one person beautiful and another not. Why are some poor and others not? Or, some are without limbs, while others have their bodies entire. These things even started to bother me when I was just a little child. I couldn’t make sense of it.”

“But, that’s because of karma isn’t it? Do something ugly, you end up ugly.”

“Well, I don’t accept that; and that’s part of what had to be ‘done.’ To see our opinions, ideas, views, and theories and speculations in perspective – to see their limited nature.”

“Ah! So you’re talking about realising the non-conceptual dimension. But, to ‘do what is to be done’ – these two things don’t seem to go together.”

“Say more.”

“To ‘do what has to be done’ implies a law of some sort. And it implies some personal responsibility. All that’s culture. Whereas, what can’t be conceived seems to negate that.”

“When I was in the King’s Court, and long before I left for a life of freedom myself, it seemed that way for me.”

“What changed?”

“Perhaps it was that I had all my needs worldly needs satisfied – that is one thing. But more importantly, with his being a contemplative, my son presented me with an entirely different way to think of my life. And, I saw him living the life that kept him in harmony with what is.

“I saw the change in him, and I listened. I reflected long (mostly silently) upon his words; and that, most of all, because he was speaking from experience, not tradition. I had the privilege of access to someone who had done what had to be done.”

“That is, whenever he came home, you had that access.”

“Which he frequently did. He didn’t forget us. But then when he wasn’t in our country, I had the opportunity to look around me and reflect in myself, for myself – on my own. There is a saying that ‘little trees don’t grow well under big ones.’ It was helpful, to me, that he would wander.

“But to return to your question… And the matter of doing what has to be done. The non-conceptual neither affirms nor negates. It doesn’t stand against the personal. Only concepts can do that.

“But, let me pause… I think this line of thought takes us away from the field of ‘this’; ‘this’ which we have here, which can lead us. So, let us come back to this: the sense of completeness. That’s it. That’s what I mean. The non-conceptual has its own unfolding order; and part of what ‘has to be done’ is that the seeker turns away from self-interest and puts herself under that – that intimate kind of law.”

“Living it in the body.”

“Then, also, another part of ‘done what had to be done’ is to not give up on the tasks that such an enquiry presents you with. Once begun, you’ve got to walk the road all the way, and not give up on what you know inwardly to be the way.”

“Oh. I see what you mean.”

“Maybe you do.”


The Mind of Freedom

You are a lay follower in the time of Buddha, and you’re dying. You have a terrible illness, which has gotten worse in the last day. The splitting head, the gut pains. It’s clear which way it’s going.

During this week, a group of friends regularly gathers at your home. Some weeks ago, your peripatetic teacher, arrived from up north, from Kapilavatthu. He was happy to find your years of practice are serving you well. You talked about how you’re working with the pain of parting; how this deepens your inner work. He stays in your household, frequently joining your friends in their enquiries.

You understand that everything which you call the ‘world’ is of just such a nature that it breaks up – continuously; and, of course, that our bodies are always prone to change. Bodies are nature, and so they are vulnerable. Indeed, just last year, the great ascetic himself died, at age eighty – when his digestive system fell apart. You have no quarrel with nature.

With your friends, you’ve reflected during the week, on the teachings of the flourishing one. Together you recalled the time that he advised the arahant Girimananda. It was thought that Girimananda would die, but he didn’t; though he was perilously ill.

The founding teacher recommended that Girimananda be mindful of ten perceptions, and these included remembering how natural it is to be ill and die, because bodies are by their nature vulnerable.

You have done what you can medically, as your wisdom in the form of love would do. You’ve already made the effort to see that those you are responsible for – family and servants – will be cared for. You’ve reviewed your life, and are satisfied that you’ve completed what needs completing. You’ve ‘atoned.’ (That is, you are ‘at one.’) This way, you don’t wish for some other world, at all; either one to come, or one that could have been.

You company concurs that by remaining with what is actually present, rather than wishing for various kinds of ‘world,’ just in this way the deathless is near. Wishing for a world of any kind resists what is. It warms you to think of your friends’ love of the great way.

In the ten insights which were shared with Girimananda, you note to your friends, there is a lot of emphasis on how things are ever-changing. You look into form, vedanā, perceptions, fashioning tendencies, and consciousness, only to find an insubstantial play of experiences. Just as Anathapindika saw as he lay dying. That meditation – Anathapindika’s meditation, you call it – you feel joy to have such support.

You’re aware of breathing with your whole body, from top to toe, as you engage with them. And sometimes when the pains are intense, you breathe more particularly into the painful places, returning to your ‘whole-body’ breathing, when you can. Daily you and your friends meditate on emptiness, in the way taught by Sariputta to dying Anathapindika.

Each morning, as you meditate with them, you delight in the marvellous freedom of: ‘What is arising, is ceasing.’

Afterwards, someone asks about Girimananda’s perception of the ‘unattractive,’ and you reply, “When I see that all is transient, with no substance or own-nature, then I see that there is nothing of the six senses that can brings completeness. That’s the perception of unattractiveness. But, when that’s seen, neither does the functioning of senses obstruct anything. There is nothing to be added to the ‘now,’ nor could be taken away from ‘now.”

Indeed, what is this ‘now.’ These observations lead to a lively conversation about bhikkhu Arittha’s views on desire. He said that desire is not an obstruction. While normally you’d love to go into this, today you ask that they might finish this one later, at someone else’s home.

You are ill, your pains increasing, and you muster all the energy you can to be consciously present for the reality of your condition. Oh, yes, sometimes, your heart has some longing for abatement. But, still you mean it, when your closest friend, in a quiet moment, the two of you alone, asks, “If you died today, how’s that for you?” “I’m content,” you say. “I’ve done what had to be done.”

Fresh Language-ing

We live inside the childhood belief that things exist on their side, by themselves, ‘over there.’ And we believe this is so, whether the ‘thing’ is a table, a tree, a person, or a thought. To the observer-self, they are all at the ‘other end’ of a subject-object polarity.

This separation underlies the categories that we have built up, and that we use to know what ‘kind’ of something we are encountering. The ‘subject’ end of the polarity (the observer-self) positions itself in relation to situations this way. As adults, our word-use continues based on these childhood foundations.

We apply pre-given labels to the objects in the world, and so tend to see the old categories in place of each fresh occurring. We usually don’t pause to learn how to language our situations freshly.

Let’s take another angle on the role which the ‘observing self’ plays in this. There’s a special angle on this ‘positioning’ process, which is called, by Tarthang Tulku, the ‘by-stander self.’ It’s an interesting term, because it brings in the fact that this false way of experiencing our sentient processes (false ego) treats itself as though it is outside the stream of experience; falsely timeless or eternal.

(I can’t go into the implications of this right now, but they are profound. For instance, this view helps us understand why people, before they act, can’t feel into the consequences that will flow from their actions; and why they don’t accept responsibility, once those consequences become obvious after they’ve acted.)

The ‘by-standing self’ applies all kinds of categories in its ‘kind-making,’ according to its history and conditioning. We are insulated from self-awareness of this deluding process by a belief about language, which the by-stander self applies; that is, that we use words to communicate between the subject and the object, and about the subject and object.

This communication theory is based on the idea that we are separate, and that words do something about the gap between the subject and the object. But, this supposed function of language is based on the false or dualistic ‘separation’ viewpoint.

There is a defence, which helps to keep the system stable and unexamined, and that is: When we do come to think about subject-object trance (perhaps prompted by teachings), we then blame the trance on language itself – as though the dualism is inherent in speaking and thinking.

Humans have an odd way of blaming the ‘other’ in all kinds of circumstances. In this seemingly innocuous case of blaming the ‘other,’ I hear even dharma teachers say (along with philosophers, linguists and psychologists) that: “Language brings the subject-object division.” Or, “Language gives a sense of ‘thing-ness.” As if language acted on its own. As though this misuse is intrinsic to language. Maybe the servant (language) has taken over the master (the person)?

Maybe that’s why we produce so many zombie movies, and robot movies? Because we’ve given our power over to concepts; and, in particular to the idea that there is a ‘me’ outside the flow of experience, which observes the flow without being in it? And that we are at the mercy of language?

Blaming language is possibly also a smoke screen. Why would we do this? Well, one reason is that the game has gone so far, now, that it is very scary to realise that we may be playing such a game. We’ve become so entranced – in exactly the way Narcissus did – with the dream of ‘observing, self-existing, by-standing, timeless self,’ that it looks like giving that up would be akin to suicide.

I’m going to be charitable, here, and suggest that this is because we lack insight into language use. Whatever the motivation, the real situation is the opposite: our trance has bestowed a false meaning on the word ‘death,’ so while we are in the by-stander trance, we are as if dead.

The real nature of timelessness (what is truly akālika), then, becomes lost to our perception, and a false version of timelessness holds its unconscious sway.

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.

Do I go by names and concepts? Let me see…. Do I ‘abide, dwell in’ names and concepts?

Imagine that I live inside my naming and conceptualising. What’s that like, to live inside my naming? Hm…

Am I conscious of my naming activities – continuously mindful of how I ‘kind’ situations and events?

What happens if, feeling in the middle of my body, where feelings happen… what happens if I say, ironically: ‘Naming has nothing to do with death, does it?” What happens in my body, in response?

And, am I okay with not depending on the naming for a sense of being here? If I don’t conceive of the subject pole of experiencing, but just leave experiencing freely open in the present moment? What fears come about this way of being?

If I don’t depend on naming for establishing existence, might not I, then, go beyond existence and non-existence, and therefore beyond death?

How else could we use language then?

We could think of language as gesture; as something new we do freshly in each situation, to carry these interactional situations forward. We can use the word ‘gesture’ to mean something very, very broad, here – and very alive, very present. Mindfulness of speaking can bring this about.

For my purposes, right here, as I write, I say that this gesture of speech, which I give you now, is a manner of carrying my life forward, in a holistic way. How else would I want to live, if these were my last months?

Falling in the Language Trap

Those who accord with the truth, when it has been appropriately spoken,
will go beyond the realm of death, which is very difficult to traverse
.” – The Dhammapada, verse 86. Translated by Christopher J. Ash.

In the Dhammapada there are many verses about the free person. We can connect these things, making sense of the path of freedom. The free person is free of death and rebirth. They are also depicted in, other verses, as free from mental-emotional ‘stuff’; that is, from craving, obsessive thinking, delusion, separation, fear and dukkha.

Clearly, these things go together – death-dukkha and mental-emotional confusion. Freedom from confusion is the deathless. The link is unrealistic ‘self-ing.’ That is, by creating a false sense of self (through misperception of the nature of our sentient processes) we create our death-dukkha.

“Fully knowing the arising and fading of the five sentient processes (the khandas),
one finds happiness and joy. For those who are discerning, this is the deathless.”

The Dhammapada, verse 374. Translated by Christopher J. Ash.

The deathless is realised right here our being, in the arising and falling of present moment experience. No wonder it is said that mindfulness is the way of the deathless.

We have been considering mindfulness and the process of ‘naming.’ So, I want to start to introduce the topic of ‘thinking about thinking.’ This is integral to the fourth placement of mindfulness – where we work with our concepts of life – and it comes to its deepest fruition in the factors of the awakened mind.

We can note, then, both the importance of language in ‘samsara’ (the delusional version of selfing), and in nibbāna (the awake process of being a person), where the process of mindful speaking is freeing.

As children, we learnt to say ‘I,’ but – contrary to what seemed to us – saying ‘I’ didn’t establish a reality corresponding to the word. Words can’t do that. However, the reality of our body, speech and mind was indeed changed by the naming. That’s what words do: change the experiential situation, of which we are a part.

Language points to the flow of experiencing, which ‘belongs’ always in and as the one big life process, but we misunderstood the process of language-ing – by taking it to refer to fixed things. Experientially, these ‘things’ aren’t actually there, as ‘things.’ Perception doesn’t render ‘ultimates.’

I know I say it again and again, but: Words do not point at separate ‘thing-realities.’ They might point, but they point at the process of which the speaker is herself a part. That’s the intimacy of a well-spoken word. The word won’t separate us from the big-R reality, wherein we are a personal flow in a larger flow of ‘ing-ing.’

The most damaging mistake we made was to think that the ‘mind’ is a separate entity (an existent), an agent who sees, hears, senses, and cognizes. As Douglas Harding says so succinctly, in On Having No Head:

Gradually you learned the fateful and essential art of going out and looking back at yourself, as if from a few feet away and through others’ eyes, and “seeing” yourself from their point of view as a human being like them, with a normal head on your shoulders. Normal yet unique. You came to identify with that particular face in your mirror, and answer to its name.”

In doing so, you foreclosed on the possibility of appreciating a mind like space, where language could interact with present-moment space-like process. Instead you took language to refer to what could be named, objectified, and neatly separated. This is what you had come to identify as your ‘self.’ Knowing this, we can step back from the trap.

“There’s no path in space; there’s no recluse outside of space.
People indulge in separation. There is no separation for tathāgatas.”

Dhammapada, verse 254. Translated Christopher J. Ash

A tathāgata is ‘one who comes and goes in suchness.’

Mindfully Luminous and Boundless

“What do we know about the mind itself? Although we say the mind knows, what is mind? Where does mind live? Does it have color and taste? What is its ancestry? Where does it come from and where does it go? “- Tarthang Tulku. Knowledge of Time & Space: An Inquiry into Knowledge, Self & Reality

Now we can go back and look again at one more important kind of experience covered by the term ‘mind.’ What happens if, due to earlier life experiences, that the mind turns up in a way that doesn’t fit our idea of ‘mental’?

You’re somewhere in nature, peacefully relaxing. Nothing to think or do, right now. And, the thoughts, memories, images, dreams, wishes, desires, judgements, and preferences drop away. They are not relevant. Suddenly you are aware of a silent, still, open, boundless mind. What kind of mind is this?

It doesn’t fit in the scheme of conventional Western categories. This both is and is not an ordinary state of mind. When psychologists began to explore this kind of things, a pioneer in this field Charles Tart named them ‘altered states of consciousness’ (ASC). He wrote a book of that name in the sixties.

However, one of the wonderful facts is that this subtle level of mind and other such associated states arise when you are not altering anything, when the default mode of ‘actively directing’ your consciousness is in abeyance.

In the Mindfulness Sutta this possibility is invited by the particular direction to release grasping after narcissistic states: “Practitioners, a contemplative – ardent, mindful, having put away longing and distress regarding the world, in full understanding – 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.” (Translated Christopher. J. Ash)

For the realisation of boundless states of mind to occur, the contemplative person has to be willing to suspend their usual ‘appetitive’ way of being, and instead dwell in non-clinging and non-grasping. This is where the love of truth comes in. This attitude is often called ‘detachment,’ but the English word carries a lot of baggage. For the uninitiated, it’s important to entertain the possibility that such a ‘hands off’ attitude is actually a form of love.

And, there is no seeking after a reward, here. The practitioner becomes acquainted with being alone – not outwardly necessarily, but inwardly. In this way, we intend emptiness (empty of division) alone, and this justifies what the Nikāya Buddha says in the Mindfulness Sutta that when discernment and attentiveness are established, a contemplative is “is one who dwells independent, not clinging to anything in the world.”

So, when we make our list of what mind-states are possibly met in mindfulness, the first-level kinds of states are not enough to account for the territory of experience sometimes called ‘spiritual.’ (I acknowledge that ‘spiritual’ means different things to different people. So, what I want it (provisionally) to mean, here, is a kind of intelligence regarding immateriality.

When the fox in The Little Prince a charming story by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry says to the Little Prince: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes,” then that is the territory of Spirit. (As a by-the-way, I observe, too, that ‘spirituality’ can) indicate both a line of development and also a level of development, to use Ken Wilber’s terms.)

When I was a young man, and I asked my friend James what he thought would happen if thinking stopped, he said ‘I’d die.’ But, well-developed meditation experience shows that this isn’t the case. That being so, we might have to widen the definition of the ‘mental’ or ‘mind’ category, to include these subtle and not-so-readily-accessed states.

So, ‘mind itself’ – as distinct from the ‘contents’ (thought, image, memory, etc.) – mind has no colour, form, or location; no limit. Yet, mind can be experienced, and when its ground is reached, it has the nature of meaningfulness. That is the territory of the ‘spiritual’ – in this project, at least – and the Nikaya Buddha includes these kinds of states in the Mindfulness Sutta. The practitioner is to be mindful when a state of the mind is boundless:

“She knows an expanded psyche as an expanded psyche.”
“She knows a psychic state not capable of being surpassed as an unsurpassable state.”
“She knows a centred psyche as a centred psyche.”
“She knows a liberated psyche as a liberated psyche.”

The whole of the early Buddhist traditional approach to meditation (the Nikāya approach) is oriented to helping a contemplative person achieve boundlessness. The most common instances of these boundless states are a) those called The Dwelling Places of Brahma (Brahmavihāra) – that is, unlimited friendliness (or loving-kindness), compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity; and, b) the four, formless, higher states of meditation (arūpajhāna) – that is, boundless space, boundless clarity, boundless no-thingness, and as state of neither perception, nor non-perception.

These are incredibly peaceful, and blissful. They are divine, so to speak, hence they are they are named after Brahma.

Now, the point here is that meditation, if practiced without hankering and aversion, tends toward such spaciousness. The whole path involves an increase in a mind like space. ‘Mind,’ then, is not always mentation (by which I mean the aforementioned operations – thinking, cogitating, imagining, and so on). Yet, mind is always present as a non-ikonic substratum of meaningfulness.

How can this be? The modern (and evolutionarily plausible) answer is that no matter what state of mind is present (or, what states of mind are absent), the body is the on-going process. The traditional answer, on the other hand, comes from the Nikāya Buddha, when he observes that when one’s mind is empty of discriminative thinking, there is nevertheless understanding (which can be turned over in thought afterward), because the experiences leave a ‘non-conceptual impression.’ (adhivacanasamphassa). (See Sue Hamilton-Blyth’s Early Buddhism: A New Approach: The I of the Beholder for a discussion on this point.)

Where’s Is Experience?

For Beginners

“Practitioners, a contemplative dwells knowing the dynamics of phenomena in the processes themselves, in terms of the five sentient processes subject to clinging.” – The Nikāya Buddha, The Mindfulness Sutta.

I’d like to share a little about my slow progress in understanding mindfulness; my slow progress in knowing where in my actual experience to cultivate mindful attention. And, make some observations about Western classification of present-moment experience.

In 1975, some six years after adopting what was to become my life-long spiritual practice, I read a very helpful little book (which I think was called) ‘The Four Foundations of Mindfulness.’ The general idea of bringing attention into my body and experiencing what is ‘here, now’ made sense, and the author promised that this was the way to freedom; so I intensified my practice, in a general way. It was probably more than twenty years, however, before I became very precise about placement of my attention.

The fourth ‘foundation’ (or ‘placement’) of mindfulness mentions a specific model of human sentience; namely, that which is commonly called ‘the five aggregates.’ (Pali: khandha; Sanskrit: skandha.)

The name ‘aggregates’ is unhelpful for beginners. I call them ‘the five sentient processes,’ to make the terrotory clearer. In this project I’ve described them as: (bodily) form, feeling-tones, perceptions, fashioning tendencies (intentional factors), and consciousness. So, this set of five is included in the patterns of experience of which we are to be aware, if we are to realise spiritual freedom.

Perhaps we Westerners aren’t familiar with the idea (which is in the Mindfulness Sutta) of knowing our experience directly; that is, with knowing our experience from inside the experience. This is, after all, the objective of mindfulness training: to be thoroughly familiar with the processes of… (and here I have to use a common problematic Western expression…) our own ‘body and mind,’ as it is said.

However, I found  the language in the traditional texts opaque. Without expert tuition early in the piece, the traditional categories of experiencing are difficult to put into practice.

Somewhere in the late seventies, I did get some insight into the dynamic nature of the five ‘aggregates,’ through Trungpa Rinpoche’s excellent introduction to experience Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. That helped, but the definitions of the khandas were still confusing.

After years of meditating, I’ve come to understand which areas of experience are being pointed to by the term (the five aggregates); but it was a long arduous journey, and the categorisation is not intuitive to a Westerner.  I remember distinctly sitting down – twenty years after my first acquaintance with the Mindfulness Sutta! – sitting down with a dozen books and comparing the definitions of the five. I really wanted to understand. But, not even the khandha of ‘body’ (rupa-khandha) was translated or presented consistently between them.

(The students of the early schools, and especially those who have had good training with seasoned meditators, will be surprised to hear about my journey. I need to explain that such training wasn’t to be found in mainstream society in 1969, when I began. What I did, as a result, is learn from books on Zen, how to do ‘shikantaza,’ ‘just sitting.’) Also, it wasn’t in my culture to think that there were ‘experts’ who could teach how to experience ‘experience.’ No doubt, if I had gone off to Burma or Thailand, I would have found the more precise method of acquainting oneself with human processes.)

So, where is all this going? The point is, we do find a way, if we care to, to wake up to what is happening now, which is where our lives are happening. I’ve noticed lately that the West does have, after all, a way of presenting areas of the placement of our attention. The fact that I was able to practice without such precise instruction is due to the fact that we have in the West our own way of categorising, such that attention can be given to experience.

In general, with some vagueness and cross-over among them, it go like this. There are: body and breath (the physical). There are sensations (which has some crossover with the ‘body,’ but which usually means: the raw fact, or the physical fact, of bodily sensing; physical sensitivity, including what are called ‘the five senses’). There are feelings (usually meaning: moods, emotions, attitudes; but, with a little crossover with the senses). And, there is the ‘mental’ domain or thought (including memories, images, dreams, wishes, desires, judgements and preferences. (It seems to me that the popular use of the word ‘thought’ is ambiguous. It either covers all mentality, or only more consciously directed mental events.)

So, for my first twenty years (until enough Buddhist literature had appeared in English), I tried to be as familiar as possible with all those events. I must admit that these days I find the Buddhist ‘five skandhas’ much more useful, as a model of sentience allied with meditation and mindfulness practice.

But, if you’re a beginner and are still having trouble working out what the five ‘aggregates’ are meant to refer to, I suggest that you start with what you do know. You know that what you are experiencing you experience now. It can therefore be known more intimately. Have a look. Most likely you’ll find something like:
1) bodily form (head, torso, and limbs),
2) sensations (however you personally define that,
3) feelings/emotions/moods, and
4) intentions, which organise your direction.
5) The dynamics of these.

If you aren’t familiar with these your processes, and yet you do long to know what true freedom is, begin to search them out. I remember that around 1975 I saw that I didn’t know where I actually felt feelings, for example. I had to spend those years (after a childhood dissociating from Being) just getting acquainted with where in my body I really felt the events which told me I was sad, angry, happy, and so on.

(I had to discover them in my body, before I could confirm, through contemplation, that they are unfindable or empty in an ultimate sense. But that’s a longer tale.)

I’m sharing all this, because if you’re a beginner, I would like to help you get more precise than simply ‘being more focussed in the present moment.’ What is the present moment, after all? Where will you find it? It’s not ‘out there’ to be found. It’s not found as ‘over there.’ It presents as your actual experience.

It is, however, how you are now experiencing life: as an active body,with  bodily posture, breath, physical sensitivity, feelings, moods, emotions, attitudes, thoughts, memories, images, dreams, wishes, desires, judgements and preferences, and so on. That’s the ‘now.’ Whatever is happening in your world, that’s one very important meaning of ‘now.’

And, how are you organising your experience? Are conscious of that, or is it happening according to patterns laid down in childhood, or in the species past? Freedom cannot happen unless, in some way, there is a contemplation of the dynamics of experiencing – and, in Buddhist mindfulness, that means knowing intimately the dynamics of our knowing processes.

Doing Well

When we hear the Nikāya Buddha speak his well-chosen words about living with present-moment awareness, we need to bear in mind several things.

We need to remember that through present-moment awareness we discover the manner in which our naming goes astray (thereby creating ‘is’ and ‘is not’ as absolutes). And, we need to keep in mind that, in like manner, unmindful naming establishes as ultimately existing a self and its world.

Above all, we need to keep in mind his teaching on the centrality of mindfulness in realising the deathless, the cessation of conceptual reality – and the ending of fictive notions regarding a self and its world.

Try reading the following in the light of these propositions.

An Auspicious Day: Bhaddekaratta Sutta

MN 131

Translated by Christopher J. Ash

I have heard that one time the flourishing one was staying at Sāvatthi, in Jeta’s grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s monastery, and he invited the assembled mendicants to listen.

“Mendicants!” he said.

“Yes, Sir,” they replied.

“I will now reveal the true meaning of ‘One who has an auspicious day.’ Pay close attention, and I will tell you.”

“Please do,” they said.

“Don’t chase after a past,
and don’t long for a future.
What has gone is finished with,
and the future is not yet come.
Be invincible, unmovable,
seeing clearly whatever is present now
– this, right here – and so develop wisdom.
Today, right away, do what needs to be done.
Who knows? Death could know you tomorrow.
There’s certainly no bargaining
with Death’s great hordes.
But one who lives ardently, day and night,
Such a one is an auspicious day,
the peaceful sage declares.

“How does one chase after a past, Practitioners? There, desiring, one thinks: ‘My body or form was such-and-such in the past.” “I felt such-and-such a way in the past.’  ‘I had such-and-such a perception in the past.’ ‘I had such-and-such an intention in the past.’ Or, ‘My consciousness was such-and-such in the past.” In this way, Practitioners, one chases after a past.

“And, how does one not chase after a past, Practitioners? One doesn’t nurture desire in thinking: ‘My body or form was such-and-such in the past.’ ‘I felt such-and-such a way in the past.’  ‘I had such-and-such a perception in the past.’ ‘I had such-and-such an intention in the past.’ Or, ‘My consciousness was such-and-such in the past.’ In this way, Practitioners, one doesn’t chase after a past.

“And how, Practitioners, does one long for a future? There, one nurtures delight in thinking: ‘May I have such-and-such a form or body in the future!’ ‘May I feel such-and-such in the future!’ ‘May I perceive such-and-such in the future.’ ‘May I intend such-and-such in the future.’ ‘May I have such-and-such a consciousness in the future!’ That is how one longs for a future.

“And how, Practitioners, does one not long for a future? One does not nurture delight there in thinking: ‘May I have such-and-such a form or body in the future!’ ‘May I feel such-and-such in the future!’ ‘May I perceive such-and-such in the future.’ ‘May I intend such-and-such in the future.’ ‘May I have such-and-such a consciousness in the future!’ That is how one does not long for a future.

“And how, Practitioners, is one swept away by present-moment events? Here, Practitioners, an untrained, ordinary person – who has not seen the wise, and so who is untrained and unskilled in the teachings of the wise; who has no regard for true people, and so who is untrained and unskilled in their teachings – sees form as a self; or a self as owning form; or form as in a self; or a self as in form.

“[And so it is for feeling-tones, perceptions, intentional factors, and consciousness, in the ordinary, untrained person.] That is how one is drawn away from present-moment events.

“And how, Practitioners, is one grounded in regard to present-moment events? Here, Practitioners, a well-taught, noble student – who has seen the wise, and so who is trained and skilled in the teachings of the wise; who has regard for true people, and so who is and trained and skilled in their teachings – doesn’t see form as a self; or a self as owning form; or form as in a self; or a self as in form.

“[And so it is for feeling-tones, perceptions, intentional factors, and consciousness, in a well-taught person.] That is how one is invincible in respect of present-moment events.

“Don’t chase after a past,
and don’t long for a future.
Don’t chase after a past,
and don’t long for a future.
What has gone is finished with,
and the future is not yet come.
Invincible, unmovable,
see clearly whatever is present now –
this, right here – and so develop wisdom.
Today, right away, do what needs to be done.
Who knows? Death could know you tomorrow.
There’s certainly no bargaining
with Death’s great hordes.
But one who lives ardently, day and night,
Such a one is an auspicious day, the peaceful sage announces.

“So this was what I meant when I said: ‘Practitioners, I will now reveal the true meaning of One who has an auspicious day.’”

That is what the Flourishing one said, and the mendicants were satisfied by, and delighted in, his words.


Translated by Christopher J. Ash, at Blackheath. ©2016.



Clear as the Sky

“Fully knowing the arising and fading of the five sentient processes,
one finds happiness and joy. For those who are discerning, this is the deathless
– The Dhammapda, verse 374. Translated by Christopher J. Ash

The usual understanding of death and rebirth misses the point, so grossly. Rebirth theory is related to the experience of a constructed ‘self’ (atta) and, hence, to intentions (karma). Both of these are concepts for which we can find experience-near meanings. If we can be mindful and directly experience how karma moves, then we can understand the issues of death and rebirth at a more everyday, realistic level.

I wrote about the ‘pause’ as a part of the mindfulness attitude; the slowing down of experience, so that we can sense more of what is actually going on in and around us.  The more we appreciate the present, then the more it responds by revealing its intricacy.

One afternoon, I was sitting on the veranda of my home, in a reverie of appreciation for the textures of the forest – mostly of the eucalypts and the ti-tree. And, there was a currawong sitting on a branch, close by. I wasn’t exactly watching the bird. I gazed, I suppose; which is a mode of vision that includes much more, by not naming.

This pause in the default human mode of ‘mind’ led to including in my ‘gaze’ (or awareness) my sensations, my thoughts, and the felt presence of my whole situation. Including all of these in what I was aware of, at that moment, without losing my relationship to the currawong, gave rise to holistic sense of space – a kind of space that is throughout the field of experience, not just outside the skin.

It’s a fact that by including the observer in the observing, one loosens the hold and even dissolves the sense of separation to all things.  So, the concepts of ‘self’ and ‘world,’ in that state, were distinctions not needed at that moment. The still, silent quality of knowing didn’t support the kind of space where I would create any ‘thing’ (a ‘me’) to be separate, or to be separate from.

“The mind is always thinking of things in the past and of what it is going to do in the future. It rarely settles in the moment. If it did, it would become quiet. When you settle into the moment, you realize that there is not much happening—a few things here and there. The primary awareness is of the immediacy of the moment. This is because presence—being in the now—is characterized by beingness, simply being here now. In contrast, our familiar self is based on doing, going, making things happen.” The Unfolding Now, p. 160

The bird and I were together in every particle of being. To reflect on language, here: if I was to say ‘currawong,’ in that situation, I would be to point (with this linguistic gesture) to this living, dynamic relationship; a relationship which far exceeds, in its implicit intricacy, what the word ‘currawong’ can say. The public or dictionary meaning of that word is nothing. It’s certainly laughable in that moment to think that ‘currawong’ means a ‘something’ – an isolated, permanent, independent object in space-time. Poetry says it best:

Snow in withered field, nothing to touch.
’s head clear as sky
– From the poem ‘Sparrow in Withered Field.’ In Triumph of the Sparrow: Zen Poems of Shinkichi Takahashi. (Translated by Lucien Stryk).

Granted, this is not a perception readily accessible to some people, because we are mostly unfamiliar with experiential space and the ungraspability of the ground reality. But, familiarity grows with the practice of mindfulness. Then, it is possible to name a ‘groundless ground’; which the Nikāya Buddha indicates by referring to the ‘un-’ nature: unborn, undying, unailing; and ‘unmanifest consciousness,’ for instance. The odd thing is that moments like this occur all day, but we don’t notice them, until mindfulness reveals them. My spiritual grandfather Buddhadasa called them ‘little nirvanas.’

In default, trance mode of consciousness, if we notice such an empty moment – empty of ‘thing’-ing and constructing – we are afraid of its silence, its formlessness, and the unnameable quality of everything. Why do we fear? Primarily because our constructed ‘me’ has dropped away. There’s now no locatable someone behind the eyes doing the knowing. Yet, right there is the end of birth and death; and, ironically, right here is freedom and independence as individuals.

Until we train ourselves to pause, slow down, and stay for such moments of ‘empty contact’ –through the contemplative disciplines – then, we don’t appreciate the luminous wonder of the world and other people. We are in a pure land with radiant beings, and don’t see it.

the night’s downpour;
in this alley,
this half-eaten peach.

– Christopher Ash.


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