breathing life into meditation…

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.


ending the year on a positive note…

Today was my last retreat day of the year, and what a profound one it was for me and, I think, for those with me as well. The true meaning of ‘positivity’ was very much the theme of the retreat day and certainly a very positive atmosphere was generated by us retreatants. The brief but complete retreat instructions given by the retreat facilitator was enough to launch us all on the interior quest for the source of positivity itself, a quest that is in itself a very positive movement of the mind given that the quest is dependent upon the conviction that such a source of positivity does actually exist within the mind. For me, that source of positivity is nothing less than the true nature of the mind itself, that “brightly shining mind” that Buddha talks about in the Pali Canon, that basic, intrinsic awareness that is naturally radiant like a sun, naturally positive, naturally loving and compassionate, naturally perfect in its clarity, naturally pure in its silent, still presence and naturally manifest whenever I allow myself to abide in the peace and tranquillity of the here and now. Today’s retreat once again brought that inner truth home to me and marked the perfect end to a year that at one point threatened to be an annus horribilis. Instead, the year has turned out to be a turning point for me, a liberation from the constraints of people trying to impose their interpretation of a ‘pure’ Buddhist view and practice upon me and my colleagues, and a discovery of how no practice can be ‘pure’ unless it succeeds in giving one access to the natural purity of the mind itself, a purity that can only be understood and verified by the direct experience of it in one’s own meditation practice, a practice that often follows its own natural path regardless of what the instructions of the ‘textbooks’ or ‘manuals’ of any tradition might stipulate as necessary or essential.

The only pure, qualified teacher, or guru, that can ultimately be depended upon is the inner voice that one hears in the depths of one’s meditation, within the sutra that is one’s open heart, open to the wisdom that naturally flows when the dam of delusions is removed, if only temporarily. The ‘outer’ guru is invaluable as a pointer towards the ‘inner’ guru, as the person who introduces one to the nature of one’s own inner guru and the path that leads towards it. I remain grateful for, and devoted towards, the immense kindness of my outer guru for that essential introduction, and that outer guru is, for me, now, inseparable from the inner guru that I have ‘discovered’, or, perhaps more accurately, ‘uncovered’. And given that new-found inseparability of outer and inner guru, the institutional framework within which the outer guru supposedly operates becomes not only irrelevant for me but also seen as merely the temporary stage for the outer guru to act upon. When the outer guru leaves the stage, the stage itself is useless; even worse, the stage itself can become an obstacle to genuine transmission of the Dharma if those who run the stage treat the stage itself as being the outer guru and promote it to others as such. The real stage for the outer guru is always the stage of the disciple’s heart; there is where the real drama of Dharma transmission takes place, and it is there that a tradition lives and continues on across the generations, not on any outer stage, however well advertised it may be by a PR agency or a brand marketing strategy. “All the world’s a stage”, as Shakespeare says, but the stage of the heart constructed in meditation is the only one that matters as far as seeing the performance of one’s inner guru is concerned. But of course that is only my view, perhaps a ‘heretical’ one, typical for one so ‘impure’ as I. But on days such as today, it is a view that helps to give me access to all the ‘positivity’ that I could wish for. And it is days such as today that I live for and benefit from for, as a poet once said, on such days, “one burning hour throws light a thousand ways”.

the vultures of the Heart Sutra

The action of the Heart Sutra, in some translations, occurs at a specific place, Massed Vultures Mountain in Rajagriha. This is deeply significant in a way that is hard for us urban sophisticates brought up within an alphabetic writing culture in which time and place – indeed, the whole of nature –  can be abstracted completely from a philosophical text, something incomprehensible to people brought up in a purely oral culture, such as the original disciples of Buddha’s time were. The Heart Sutra, written long after the Buddha’s time, is harking back not only to the actual time of Buddha’s teaching but also to an actual place, a place which is wild, untamed, entirely natural, and containing animals that can evoke fear and/or disgust – namely, vultures. And just as vultures are an intrinsic part of those cultures that facilitate ‘sky-burials’, in which human corpses are fed to vultures in order to strip the decaying flesh from the bones, so the Heart Sutra is an attempt to strip the decaying flesh of the ossified conceptual framework of some abidhamma traditions of Buddhism from the bones of unmediated, direct perceptual experience of the here and now itself so that the raw, wild, completely spontaneous, open and creative nature of sensate experience can be reclaimed as the non-logical, ineffable phenomenon that it truly is. Normal experience is anything but ‘normal’; normality and conventionality is imposed on experience post hoc by a conceptual mind that seeks to ‘explain’ or ‘justify’ the original moment of experience, that seeks to establish the ‘reality’, the ‘truth’, or the ‘essential meaning’ of that original moment of experience. We are invited by the Heart Sutra to become vultures, to rip the decaying scales of our conceptuality from our eyes (especially those philosophical concepts acquired from a sclerotic abidhamma tradition), so that our perception is cleared and we once again see what Buddha in the Udana section of the Pali Canon, instructs Bahiya to see:

In the seen, there is only the seen,
in the heard, there is only the heard,
in the sensed, there is only the sensed,
in the cognized, there is only the cognized.
Thus you should see that
indeed there is no thing here;
this, Bahiya, is how you should train yourself.
Since, Bahiya, there is for you
in the seen, only the seen,
in the heard, only the heard,
in the sensed, only the sensed,
in the cognized, only the cognized,
and you see that there is no thing here,
you will therefore see that
indeed there is no thing there.
As you see that there is no thing there,
you will see that
you are therefore located neither in the world of this,
nor in the world of that,
nor in any place
betwixt the two.
This alone is the end of suffering.” (ud. 1.10)

does the Heart Sutra have any heart?

One of the creative endeavours I have established for myself in 2013 is to do an intensive study of the Heart Sutra, one of the most revered, and perhaps the most studied, of all the sutras of Mahayana Buddhism. It is short, very punchy, and very readable, especially when read out loud (and I suspect the sutra was designed to be read out loud for maximum effect, echoing the original oral culture of  Buddha’s own time, nearly 1,000 years before the sutra was written). The sutra flows, is easily memorised, and has a very direct, personal, earthy style, free from rhetorical flourishes and technical wizardry. But precisely because the sutra is short and sweet, it is enigmatic, mysterious, revelling in paradox and ambiguity, and in flouting the conventions of logic and reasoned argument. Hence the numerous commentaries on the sutra, most of which strive to pin down the sutra, attempting an exhaustive and comprehensive definition of its meaning and attempting to fit the sutra seamlessly into the overall logical structure of Buddhist teachings and praxis as laid out by the tradition in which the commentary is written. The commentaries are often indeed very useful in helping to explicate the sutra, especially when they provide some of the background context within which the sutra was written (and there is a huge context that needs to be understood and appreciated), but none of the commentaries can truly provide the definitive reading precisely because the sutra is itself designed to undercut any such definitive reading  Why? Because, for me anyway, the sutra points towards the indefinable openness of  direct experience itself in all its raw, sensual, wild immediacy. The sutra is playfully but deliberately subversive, rebellious, teasing and provocative. Yes, one can read anything one likes into the sutra and impose on it any logical structure you like, but it can always be read afresh by each new generation of students of the sutra precisely because it can have such a powerful effect upon the reader, an effect that has to be understood and assimilated by the reader himself/herself through a deeper understanding of the reader’s self rather than through consulting supposedly authoritative commentaries on the sutra. Appealing to authority is no use ultimately in gaining a true understanding for oneself of the power of the sutra when it becomes a living reality in one’s awareness, just as appealing to authority is no use in gaining an ultimate appreciation of what the true meaning of the Buddha’s teachings is for oneself.

I suspect the writer of the Heart Sutra understood the essentially private, personal nature of dharma realisations, and therefore the impossibility of ever translating that mystery into a definitive conceptual explication of the meaning of Dharma itself. The Heart Sutra contains a multiplicity of meanings, on a multitude of levels, precisely because it plays with, and subverts,  the very idea of anything containing an essential meaning at all. Direct, unmediated experience itself, within the here and now, is open to infinite meanings, and that openness defies all attempts at closure by conceptual explanations that are created after the initial moment of experience itself. The heart of the Heart Sutra is empty of all meaning precisely because it is so full of meanings. The form of the Heart Sutra points towards what is not within its form, towards what is not in any form, just as any form contains everything that appears not to be in that form. The emptiness of a form allows it to contain everything, to be full in a way that it may not initially appear to be. A form may appear to be just a part of the world, but it can be experienced as containing all the parts of the world; it is, to ‘enlightened’ vision the world appearing as that form. William Blake himself would, I think, have understood the sutra and these words of his are, for me,  a perfect commentary on the mystical vision at the heart of the sutra:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

life beyond the End Times…

Breaking new ground, starting afresh, turning over a new leaf, beginning all over again at the beginning…

There are so many ways to say the same thing: that I have returned to the place I started from and am finally beginning to know myself for the first time. And to begin to know others too for the first time. Beyond the trauma of defeat,  failure, and betrayal, beyond all the anguish and fear, there is the new dawn of hope, the new sense of freedom as I step into new dimensions of experience or look at old ones with fresh eyes, free of the illusions so roughly stripped away from me. And new friendships too, with those whose friendship was tried and tested through the sufferings we have shared and supported each other through. It is so true that suffering has great meaning, although it is such a painful, bittersweet truth. Out of that suffering comes a letting-go of what has been found to be false and unreliable and a discovery of what is true and trustworthy. The death of my old life immediately gave birth to a new one that I never dreamt would already be so much better than the old. As Henrik Ibsen says, “Mind is the Masterbuilder” and Mind, despite my best attempts to sabotage it, has built anew amidst the ruins of my old life, built the Pure Land that now calls me to fresh endeavours on the bodhisattva path. Not for nothing did Buddha call someone stepping onto the Path a “stream-enterer”. Now, with this new “beginner’s mind”,  I can go with the flow, go down towards that boundless ocean of wisdom. As T.S.Eliot would say “in my beginning is my end…in my end is my beginning”.

Modern Buddhism: the new koan?

So, a significant milestone in the life of this blog has just passed: the number of visitors to this site has just gone over 10,000 just 6 months after its birth amidst the agonies of a fractured Dharma community. No doubt the ‘popularity’ of this blog owes something to the ‘notoriety’ of myself and my fellow contributors to this blog. Curiosity about the eventual fate of the of the ousted management of the Dharma community is also a strong draw, as attested by the fact that about 40% of the visits have been to the news section of this blog. But the majority of visits have been to the actual blog posts themselves, which indicates that they did contain relevant and timely material, much of which raised questions and issues that many visitors have undoubtedly felt worth raising and worth thinking about. For Dharma study and practice, I think we can all agree, does involve some serious thinking for oneself, and such thinking always involves asking deep questions of both oneself and the ‘reality’ one apparently experiences.

Of course, for some visitors the raising of questions, especially about the validity of certain aspects of a traditional form of Buddhism is iconoclastic and evident of my guilt as an ‘impure’ Dharma practitioner. Actually,you can’t get more ‘traditional’ than an accusation of ‘impurity’, which looks very odd in a ‘modern’ cultural context! But I’m pretty sure that for a lot of other visitors the questions raised, not just by me but by many of the most respected Western Buddhists of our time, are pertinent and provocative enough to warrant a considered and careful response from any Dharma practitioner who cares about the way Buddhism evolves within our Western society, and especially about how traditional Buddhisms negotiate the difficult interaction with, and adjustment to, the various aspects of modernity, both self-evident and subconscious, that are unavoidable for all of us. I certainly see the dispute at Maitreya Centre as being derived in large part from unspoken and unexamined assumptions on both sides of the dispute about what the relationship between tradition and modernity should be, and the need for a dialogue about that relationship cannot be forever suppressed by the reliance upon secular law and constitutional procedure to settle every argument within the tradition, whichever tradition that is; sooner or later the skeletons of inappropriate grasping at traditional forms of authority or unskilful adaptations to modernity will burst out of the proverbial closet. If you doubt this, I recommend the incisive analysis of David L. McMahan in his book The Making of Buddhist Modernism (OUP USA, 2008). And no, just sticking the word ‘modern’ into the title of a book called ‘Modern Buddhism’ does not mean one has created the perfect union of modernism with Buddhism! And no, that is not a criticism of  THE book ‘Modern Buddhism’, written by you-know-who; merely to say that a book title like that cannot be taken literally as read, as if it were unproblematic. A modern Buddhism can indeed exist, but only after wading through, and hopefully resolving, a veritable Pandora’s box of paradoxes and contradictions. Actually, I think ‘Modern Buddhism’ is a naff title for an otherwise brilliant book that actually has precious little to do with modernism or any kind of ‘modern’ and which represents just one particular strand of one kind of Buddhism amongst a whole family of Buddhisms (some of them a lot more ‘modern’), and a kind of  Buddhism still very similar in many ways to its pre-modern form! There, that probably proves my ‘heresy’ once and for all, at least for those convinced that particular strand of Buddhism is perfectly pure and completely unequalled! But having the title at all is a classic admission of the overwhelming need, albeit unacknowledged, on the part of the publishers, to make sure that the book is compatible with enough of modernism to ensure its widest possible appeal to a ‘modern’ audience, even though the essential content of the book is supposedly traceable to the Buddha of 2,500 years ago and therefore authentically pre-modern to the point of being ancient! Now there’s a paradox for you! Or perhaps a new koan?

Nevertheless, the trauma of losing a Dharma community and a tradition that I worked so hard for and which I thought I would belong to for the rest of my life has been severe, but it has eventually been purifying and positive, opening up the time and space in my mind to ask questions of my own Dharma study and practice and to discover new depths and meanings to it that have given me plenty to follow up on over the years. Yes, I might be stuck in dukkha and, who knows, perhaps driving myself ever deeper into it, but wisdom has definitely shone through the dukkha; a fierce kind of wisdom, no doubt, but then, as T.S.Eliot would say, “we are consumed by either fire or fire”. The dispute may be unresolved still, and may look acrimonious from an observer’s standpoint, but it has ironically resolved a lot of psychological issues for me and made me stronger even though, once again, to external appearances it looks like I lost everything (whereas, in fact, I gained more than I ever dared to). Ironically, it is the teachings of the tradition that now has no place for me that has helped me be strong enough to stand up to the dysfunctional organisational stratagems of the tradition which undermine the mandate of that very tradition itself. Another paradox, another koan…

non, je ne regrete rien…

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.

But to be young was very heaven…

William Wordsworth, writing about his first reaction to the outbreak of the French Revolution

Back in 1993, when I first entered the tribe of the Enkaytees, still then in its dawn-time, everything in the heavenly world the tribe’s Spiritual Guide had created was new and fresh and his disciples were full of innocent enthusiasm, willing to work body and soul for the spreading of his doctrine throughout the world. That generation was truly blessed, able to live in his holy presence and hear his actual words. For me, travelling to the city of Enkiti in the frozen (or rainy, or both!) north was like a holy pilgrimage, and hearing him teach felt, so I imagined, like it must have felt hearing Jesus teach his Beatitudes in his Sermon on the Mount. His words were truths echoing within the heart’s faint memory of a wisdom it thought completely lost. But much of that generation has gone now, disappearing into the merciless maw of history, either dead, in their dotage, or sidelined and purged by the various ‘scandals’, ‘palace coups’, and changing of the guards that have occurred over the years. The history of the Enkaytree tribe has been rewritten many times, and will be rewritten many times again in the future to airbrush out all the darker pages of its past, and the tribe’s identity as defined by the city of Enkiti will continue on in this world. But it will endure crippled by its unacknowledged shadow-self , its public reputation increasingly degraded as the years go by. The tribe I knew in its glorious beginning does not now exist. It has changed, changed utterly and now, to quote W.B.Yeats, ” a terrrible beauty is born”. The autocratic, bureaucratic leviathan that the tribe has become is now utterly different from the open, tolerant, spontaneous, creative, organic movement it once was. The new order the tribal chieftains wish to impose without debate upon all its fiefdoms amounts to nothing less than a constitutional coup d’etat, a crushing of all local autonomy and democracy and the creation of one vast legal entity in which everything is controlled from the top-down. The city of Enkiti will eventually be the new Rome, exerting papal-like authority outwards across a global empire of faith.

But faith is a deeply personal, heartfelt feeling that is ultimately free from any external law or rules. And faith in a Spiritual Guide, once it has taken root and become integrated with faith in one’s own spiritual potential through the realisation that reliance upon a spiritual guide is the mirror image of the discovery and cultivation of one’s inner wisdom, is something that cannot be taken away from one no matter how damning the condemnation of one is from either the spiritual guide’s supposed colleagues or even the spiritual guide himself. Faith can survive even betrayal and disillusionment, because faith is a purity that comes from within, from one’s own heart, and that faith can never die. Once faith has created a vision of the Pure Land within the mind, that faith is a pure seed that does not ultimately need watering from outside oneself. Only the life-giving water of one’s own spiritual practice is necessary, a practice that can be continued outside any institutional framework or organisational arrangement if necessary. The solitary wandering yogis and yoginis of India and Tibet proved that; even the life of the Buddha himself, wandering the dusty roads of India as a beggar wearing rags and sleeping in the wilderness of forests, proved that. It is in the nature of samsara anyway that ultimately no friend or organisation – no matter how spiritual they purport to be –  can be  relied upon as a totally pure refuge; only a purity that is born from within can be totally relied upon. Already that inner Spiritual Guide has provided me with a new tribe, one without chieftains, without any formal hierarchy or set of rules, one that joyously meets in harmony and the spiritual communion of deep meditation, and one that accepts the teachings of the outer Spiritual Guide we all grew up with without needing to apply them any more within the constraints of an autocratic, hierarchical organisation. I do not regret one single moment of having been in the tribe of the Enkaytees and I cherish every word of the teachings of the Spiritual Guide of that tribe. But I, and many others, have now outgrown the need to be a part of that tribe because we now know there is a vast world of opportunity beyond the tribal boundaries and with the teachings and our faith as refuge, we can step out confidently into that brave new world. We have grown up, even if the tribe has not, not yet anyway. Non, je ne regrete rien…