reflections upon a day of Dharma retreat

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.

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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”.


beyond betrayal…

Once upon a time I was told that my Spiritual Guide had engaged in a three year retreat at a cottage somewhere in the wilds of Scotland and had achieved great things there. As a  result that place had become so blessed that it would be an especially sacred place to visit and that one’s meditation would be particularly effective there. Since then I have heard that many of my Spiritual Guide’s disciples have been to that place to do retreat, especially extended retreats, making the place even more blessed in the same way we know that any place becomes more blessed the more frequently meditation and spiritual practice goes on there. The place had become holy, and holier over the years, so I was told. Consequently it had become an essential , and ever more important, part of the tradition that I belonged to. Then the tradition, many years later, betrayed and abandoned me, in spectacular fashion. Then I learnt that the tradition had already betrayed all the disciples of my Spiritual Guide by selling the very place where he had been in retreat for so long. Such was the scale of the betrayal that the tradition could not bring itself to explain honestly why it had sold its holiest place; all kinds of  bizarre and patently untrue excuses were made for the sale.

Why do I say all this? Because now I know that  my betrayal was just a small part, just one instance, of the myriad wider, and bigger, betrayals within the tradition, itself betrayed by those who hijacked it. And my Spiritual Guide has therefore himself been betrayed. All his good works, all his meritorious deeds, apparently undone by the betrayal of those he trusted to carry on his legacy. Bittersweet moment indeed for me: my betrayal was not uniquely directed against me but was part of the betrayal of all my fellow disciples, and there is some bitter comfort in knowing that we were all in it together, but there is  also the tragic realisation that something precious has been lost for so many and that one more Spiritual Guide has been undermined. But perhaps he knew, like so many Spiritual Guides before him did, that it would always come to this, that traditions inevitably end up betraying their own founding principles. Yet maybe such betrayals don’t matter in the end because what is taught by the Spiritual Guide is a direct mind-to-mind, heart-to-heart transmission from him to the disciple, unmediated by the tradition itself, which merely sets the stage, the background, for this existential relationship between the Spiritual Guide and the disciple, who are, in the end, the only two people in the room, the only couple who know what is really going on, who are in love with each other even if nobody else in the world is in love with them, who are in union within the silence of the viaticum. As a mystic poet once said: “I have drunk the lord’s sherbert, glory to the lord…”


True Cessations

A true cessation is a realization. A realization which is the fruit of a Path. It is normally assumed that ‘cessation’ refers to a going out of the mind, or delusions, or the self etc. But the cessation refers to the ending of a Path. The Path ends in a Result, a fruit.  Since paths (normal paths or ordinary ones) deal with delusions or aspects of our own mind they may appear synonymous, but they aren’t. A person enters a path to deal with the suffering of a delusion or to gain a realization. When the path is done a realization appears and the initial delusion, the original intention, disappears along with the path. If you bring the path back then the realization will fade and the delusion or ordinary mind will reappear. So, this is referred to as crossing the river, or ocean, and refers to the time in the mind when you are ready to abandon ordinary thoughts, or ordinary minds. There is no going back, or rather it would cost you a lot of effort to go back and create an ordinary mind.

It is interesting to note whether the process of destroying totally the boat (path) that you used to cross the river is normal and essential or whether Bodhisattvas retain this aspect of allowing the mind to return to normal in order to help others. There is dispute between the different paths (schools) as to whether and why you would do that.


Nothing to Pursue

Renunciation is the essential preliminary to emptiness! The foothills before the snow peaks. Before engaging in any meditation on emptiness the practitioner must have developed very subtle renunciation, the realisation that wherever you look you will find nothing to pursue.


Sunyata – The Abandonment of All

Sunyata, emptiness or voidness, is the nature of that which has been abandoned. By realising sunya, the lack of worth of everything, the renunciate begins to examine the nature of those same things that he or she has abandoned to see if they too lack anything worth pursuing. This begins the process of analysis common to many approaches to Buddhism.

Indeed, understanding sunya as the approach to sunyata reveals directly why there are two stages or mental factors associated with this process (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Understanding the Mind, chapter: the four changeable mental factors). On the path of very subtle renunciation we use investigation to determine if any object is worth following. Then entering the path of sunyata we use analysis to examine the very nature of that same phenomenon.

Thus, meditation on the results of your analysis leads you to gain a direct realisation of the nature of phenomena. The nature of the very phenomena you have discarded in your investigation rescues you from the danger of despondency that you might experience otherwise through the result of your investigation. Now sunyata becomes a joyful thing and surprisingly its first realisation is called ‘The Joyful’!