Perfection is in the mind. And perfection for me, in my present state of mind, is being mindful of the presence of nature, of nature perfecting itself despite all the attempts of humanity to disrupt that process of perfecting. Indeed, the attempted disruptions themselves illustrate perfectly the perfectibility of nature itself, a perfectibility no human technology could ever match. And in these long summer days of warmth and sunshine, as nature surges towards its climax of fruitfulness, I watch with awe and wonder at the mysterium tremendums of the hive-mind of honey bees manifesting itself perfectly as the bees fly back across my wildflower meadow of a garden to my bee-hive, loaded with pollen of many different hues, ready to make the stores of honey that is one of nature’s wonder-foods. The mere sight of the bees, amidst the verdant splendour of the wildflowers, is honey for my soul and stirs me into deeper mindfulness of the exquisite pleasure of just relaxing into being harmoniously present with nature, of just enjoying the blissful moment of nature’s natural non-duality, of mind mindfully noticing nature minding its own business.
A book I have just finished reading , The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra, by Rob Preece, has been so compelling that I felt I had to share a few thoughts of mine about it. I have not read a book that so successfully helped me to start putting Buddhist Tantra into some sort of overall context, especially within the cultural context that we have here in the West. Preece concentrates on comparing Buddhist Tantra with the psychology of the Jungian tradition of psychotherapy, and he does that very successfully, although I think it would also help greatly if Buddhist tantra were also put within the context of the wider world of Western psychology generally, especially within the emerging discipline of positive psychology, whose research findings in recent years are rapidly influencing the Western view of what facilitates the most positive mental states. Jung does not get as much publicity, I feel, as he deserves, which is a shame as his view of the mind is very subtle and nuanced, but he had, as Preece explains, a blind spot when it came to his view on Westerners’ ability to use meditation effectively. He was overly pessimistic on this, which is ironic as his psychological views are actually an asset in helping westerners to get an intellectual grasp on the deeper significance of tantric symbolism and how it can be integrated with the symbolism we are familiar with through our Western cultural heritage, which influences us greatly even if we are not consciously aware of that influence. Jung does a great job in exploring the archetypal images that come up time and again within Western culture and which reveal the unconscious drives and energies that influence our conscious thinking. Preece usefully links up some of the archetypes Jung explores with the archetypes that lie behind tantric symbolism. For example, Preece makes the interesting point that Heruka Chakrasambara is very similar to the roles played by Dionysus and Kernunnos in Western culture, and that the Western language of alchemical transformation is analogous to the symbolism of ‘generation stage’ tantra, especially with regards to the ‘inner offering’.
Preece makes the very valid point that Westerners practising Tantra may actually create problems for themselves if they do not have the necessary degree of psychological stability and that Western psychotherapy has much to contribute to help Westerners achieve this, especially as Eastern teachers of Tantra, according to Preece, often display a lack of understanding of the psychological complexes and problems that are familiar in Western societies. Tibetans may be very concerned about ‘spirits’ and ‘demons’ interfering with tantric practice, but Westerners are usually more concerned with dealing with memories of traumatic events or dealing with emotional issues arising in childhood, especially in their relationships with their parents.
I particularly liked Preece’s point about tantric practice having to be integrated into a deliberately cultivated sensitivity to the natural environment in which the practice is done. Tibetans certainly had a very keen sensitivity to how the energy forces within their local environment influenced, and were influenced, by the energy-winds within the human body, and that keeping the body in harmony with nature as it is experienced is a crucial part of successful tantric practice as well as ensuring that the individual feels an integral part of the surrounding world. Preece links this need for heightened nature sensitivity with a fascinating explanation of how mandalas work from a psychological perspective.
Anyway, Preece convinced me that making tantric practice come truly alive is very difficult unless it can be translated within one’s own understanding of how one’s psychological life, especially one’s emotional experience, works. And that understanding perhaps depends crucially upon cultivating an increasing sensitivity towards how tantric symbolism needs to be interpreted through ones’ own understanding and experience of the symbolism and archetypes of one’s own culture. It also needs, I think, a growing understanding of how one’s own experience of one’s immediate natural environment can be integrated with that tantric symbolism so that the mandala becomes a living manifestation within one’s life experience. Just jumping in and trying to impose an alien Tibetan tantric symbolism upon one’s mind without any kind of awareness of how one’s Shadow side could be dangerously and uncontrollably unleashed into conscious awareness seems to me now like reckless folly. And with that provocative claim, I take my leave – for now!
I had the great good fortune of engaging in another retreat day today, with a great company of fellow retreaters, and under the expert guidance of a true Kadampa practitioner, one who is, for me, infinitely more authentic, and with far greater integrity and compassion, than the vast majority of so-called Kadampa teachers within the tradition that I was once so recently part of. Once again, as on the previous retreat day I attended, I was able to engage in plenty of meditation and share my feelings about it afterwards with others in the group in a totally egalitarian, compassionate, and non-judgemental atmosphere. It felt like being in a perfect Dharma centre, one that was open, tolerant, and free from any hierarchical boundaries. There was no need for deference, no need for submission to authoritative definitions of exactly what should be done and how, only a willingness to submit to normal rules of care and consideration for others within the group in the same way as we should anywhere else in society. There was no organisation to subscribe to, no pressure on people to do anything other than participate in any way they felt comfortable with. Any volunteering that needed doing happened spontaneously and enthusiastically without any need for people-management. The warmth and kindness in the room was palpable and the conversation very focussed on the Dharma. If only it could always be like this! But, on reflection, that it was like this today is enough. For every day like today is a confirmation of what is possible, of what a Buddhist sangha can be like, of how one can feel totally at home in a community freely coming together to study and practice Dharma without trying to impose limits on one another’s expression of that Dharma. It was very liberating to be with the band of Dharma practitioners I was part of today, a band which was quietly getting on with the business of enlightenment one meditation at a time. I am rejoicing in today for all it is worth, for the memory of such a day as today will be added to all those other positive memories I have that will help to ignite and sustain the bliss of loving-kindness within my heart that will one day hopefully blaze into the full radiance of spontaneous bodhichitta. I have nothing but gratitude for all those who helped make today such a special day of refuge in the Dharma.
Following on from my previous post about the breath, I would like to suggest that the breath meditation in Buddhist practice can take on a far greater significance than if we restrict ourselves to just a contemplation of simply its effects upon mindfulness. We can go on to contemplate the ways in which the breath illustrates in a very sensuous, immediate form, our utter dependence upon, and interdependence with, all other living beings and with the very landscape within which we breathe. Our breath is the living interaction we have with all of life, the literal connecting of ‘outer’ with ‘inner’ in a continuous two-way process that constitutes the most basic and essential rhythm of not only life but our awareness, our mindfulness, and our speech and language, and all the other forms of communication that comes from speech. David Abrams, in his book, The Spell of the Sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world, talking about the air we breathe, says that it is:
…this unseen enigma is the very mystery that enables life to live. It unites our breathing bodies not only with the under-the-ground (with the rich microbial life of the soil, with fossil and mineral deposits deep in the bedrock), and not only with the beyond-the-horizon (with distant forests and oceans), but also with the interior life of all that we perceive in the open field of the living present – the grasses and the aspen leaves, the ravens, the buzzing insects and the drifting clouds. What the plants are quietly breathing out, we animals are breathing in; what we breathe out, the plants are breathing in. The air, we might say, is the soul of the visible landscape, the secret realm from whence all beings draw their nourishment. As the very mystery of the living present, it is that most intimate absence from whence the present presences, and thus a key to the forgotten presence of the earth.
This is just wonderful! The key to reconnecting ourselves in a deep way with nature and therefore to developing a respect for the natural limits we must work within for a sustainable future, which is the key to solving the greatest challenge mankind has ever had to face – namely, the threat of catastrophic climate change due to runaway global warming – is literally right under our noses! By perceiving our breath as our sacred reminder of our embodiment within all of nature and with all living beings, we are therefore empowered to recognise that we are, all of us, nature itself, that all of nature breathes through us and that to care for nature is to care for ourselves and all other living beings at the same time. As Abrams says:
For it is the air that most directly envelops us; the air, in other words, is that element that we are most intimately in. As long as we experience the invisible depths that surround us as empty space, we will be able to deny, or repress, our thorough interdependence with the other animals, the plants, and the living land that sustains us. We may acknowledge, intellectually, our body’s reliance upon those plants and animals that we consume as nourishment, yet the civilized mind still feels itself somehow separate, autonomous, independent of the body and of bodily nature in general. Only as we begin to notice and experience, one again, our immersion in the invisible air do we start to recall what it is to be fully a part of this world.
After having read this, my breathing meditation will never be the same again. It will take on a depth and meaning even greater than it already does, and it will hopefully not only increase my mindfulness but also help to deepen and strengthen that compassionate wish to help all living beings that is at the basis of any bodhisattva path.
Yesterday I started to resume a daily meditation routine after several months of not being able to do so for various reasons, and one of my New Year resolutions was to do so assuming that I would have to start all over again, from the beginning, asasuming I was completely lacking in any real Dharma knowledge or skill (probably true anyway!). I tried to adopt a ‘beginner’s mind’. But where to begin? With what is most obvious, for me anyway: resting in the simple awareness of my breath. Afterwards, this led to the following contemplation:
We humans are, like all other phenomena, dependent-related phenomena, and the most important phenomena, both in terms of number and degree of dependency, are all those phenomena in the natural world, in our immediate eco-system, that we are interacting with, that we are inextricably linked with. An immediate example is the air itself, containing the vital oxygen that we breathe in continuously in order to fuel the chemical and physiological transformations within our bodies that sustain our life moment by moment. Even if one has no scientific knowledge at all, a phenomenological appreciation of the mere fact of breathing reveals one’s dependence upon the whole atmosphere around oneself, an atmosphere that appears to fill the whole of space, to be limitless, inexhaustible, and to have no boundaries, and that merely to hold one’s breath for long enough is to immediately create increasing physical distress which can only be alleviated by resuming breathing.
It is no coincidence that one of the most basic meditations in Buddhism is focussing and sustaining attention upon the breathing process, which is at the core of our embodiment within the natural world that is our life-support system’. Our breathing breathes life both into our meditation and generates awareness of our dependence upon ecological phenomena for our very awareness itself. By becoming more aware of the actual process of breathing we automatically become aware of awareness itself, which co-originates with the intake of air itself. Perhaps this union of in-breathed air with awareness is behind the long association of breath with spirit, pneuma, prana. But for me, the breath is proof of the embodiment of awareness within the ‘material’ or ‘physical’ world. even though awareness feels, especially in its reflexive mode, as being ‘non-material’, as transcending the material world, or as an emergent property of the material world, as somehow a phenomenon separate from the material world. The Buddha appears to have known that the breath is such a potent gateway to a deepening of mindfulness precisely because it is such an obvious and easy gateway towards a greater awareness of the myriad of ways in which the many mutually interacting, and mutually dependent, mental and physical sensations and processes that make up the human consciousness of the world. Just by following the breath deeper into its constituent and supportive physical processes and then going further into following all the subtle mental and emotional processes that are concomitant, or associated, with the breath, one can actually traverse the entire route to enlightenment, as outlined in the sattipattana sutta.
At no stage in the development of the breathing meditation could this dependence of the breath, and hence of our entire existence as a living being, upon the wider natural world, ever be forgotten, as the breath responds in every way to the condition of our environment. fresh air invigorates, stale air debilitates. breathing air in a room filled with fragrant incense and/or flowers can have a dramatic effect on the quality of meditation. Prehaps holy sites where much meditation, contemplation and prayer has gone on has air add qualities to the air that makes breathing the air there particularly powerful; not for nothing do we talk about the ‘atmosphere’ of a place or building. And, of course, we all breathe within the same atmosphere, we share the same air, so we are all connected to each other and all living beings through the air itself. By polluting the air in any way, we are harming all loving beings to some degree. And we are as humans, polluting the atmosphere in a colossal way through our collective carbon emissions with consequent colossal consequences for all living beings. A very natural way, therefore, to become more environmentally aware is simply to be more aware of our breath and its key role in all of our own life, both physical and mental, and in the life of all beings.
New Year’s day dawned bright and sunny, perfect for a walk upon the South Downs, from Willingdon to Jevington and back again. The air was mild, with a fresh breeze, and the visibility was near perfect, allowing breathtaking views across the Channel coast and towards the Weald, as well as along the rolling Downs itself. OK, just another walk, but this walk was different because it gave me an opportunity to contemplate what I have been reading about, namely the idea explored by David Abram in his book, The Spell of the Sensuous, that one of the ways to reconnect deeply with nature generally is to practice becoming mindful of how our awareness is embodied within, and inseparable from, the wider landscape and eco-system we are habitually interacting with, that even our sense of time and space is not the abstract absolute entities completely independent of nature that we ordinarily conceive them to be, but are in fact generated by, and embodied in, our actual experience of the natural world itself.
Phenomenologically, the past and future can be seen not as separate facets of our experience connected by an infinitesimal small moment of present time, but as phenomena embodied in the presence of the landscape itself. The ground we walk upon feels like the past embodied; to go into the earth, by digging, mining, etc., is to go into our past, to go down through the layers of the history of the landscape and of the human race. The ground supports our walking just as the past provides the foundation for whatever we do in the present. Likewise, the horizon of our view prevents us from seeing what is beyond the horizon, but as we walk towards that horizon, we move towards the future into the space which is gradually disclosed as the horizon shifts. And hidden within the trees and plants of the landscape is the future of that landscape, that which will grow come the spring and summer, growing from the past that is the soil and the inner structure of the vegetation itself. Past and future merge into one another within the landscape to create a presence within the present, a presence in which the awareness is inseparable from the perceived and felt landscape. The many tumuli along the walk heightened this effect because they were such stark reminders of our ancestors literally become part of the landscape itself, ancestors now becoming the ground upon which we walk, our ancestral past pervading our present, a present which we can gain a wider perspective upon by being able to see further than normal just by being high up on the top of the Downs itself.
Being closer to the clouds and the birds, and having a 360 degree vision over a vast area, looking down upon the land below, is simultaneously a widening of inner vision, a deepening of the sense of time past and time future leading to one end, which is always that timeless moment which is the present felt as presence, as the landscape one is present within, with no feeling of separateness between self and the natural world itself. For me that is a precious kind of Dharma, and I like to think that the Buddha, wandering on his way from forest to hilltop and back again, was engaging in this kind of contemplation, or something similar to it, using his direct, raw immersion in the natural world, as an opportunity to see how all the mutually interacting dharmas of his awareness and the world around him, were all fused into the non-dual immediacy and presence of the spatial-temporal unity of just being-in-the-world in the here and now. Anyway, it was a grand walk and a grand way to start the New Year. And a Happy New Year to you all!
- David Abram: logos beyond words (gradscholars.wordpress.com)