Unreal

The next section of the Surangama Sutra picks up from Buddha’s question to Ananda, “precisely where are your mind and eyes?”

This question is a good spur to cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness, though, is not an end in itself. These days mindfulness is sometimes practiced and promoted as a technique which, if mastered, produces good results. True mindfulness is not results-oriented. Practicing mindfulness doesn’t necessarily make you into a virtuous adept. Mindfulness is not a skill: it is a skillful means. Like any skillful means, it can foster realization and liberation from suffering - but it is not a sure-fire antidote which works for everyone. There isn’t any single practice which works for everyone - which is why the Surangama Sutra introduces us to a wide variety of skillful means.

Let’s remember the specific instance giving rise to the Surangama Sutra: Ananda nearly violates his vow of sexual chastity. In Christianity or Judaism, such a misdeed results in a divine judge imposing a verdict of “guilty!” along with a (possibly eternal) punishment. Buddhism is less judgmental but more pragmatic: everything we do has consequences (aka “karma”), so it’s important to have our deeds align with our intentions. If Ananda violates his vow with a sexual liaison, he’s likely to encounter more hurdles in the way of his continued practice. He’d risk losing faith in himself. He might feel ashamed; he’d have to deal with the responses of other people - the courtesan, her associates, his fellow sangha members.

Worst of all - he might have enjoyed his carnal adventure! Sex can be so exhilarating and captivating Ananda might have to struggle with another of his vows - the one about not indulging in intoxicants. Here, too, the problem in Buddhism is not that intoxicants are “sinful:” the problem is intoxicants get in the way of clarifying the mind. Clarifying the mind is not a moral mandate, it’s a necessity if we want to transform suffering at its base. The basis of suffering is desire (being caught by aversion and attachment). Desire arises through the ways our mind-body interacts with the objects we encounter, giving rise to a fundamental delusion: that what we sense, feel, and think is real.

When I was a young adult, if my peers wanted to say something was amazing, we would say: “that’s unreal, man!” The power of delusion is unreal. Delusion is intoxicating, but ungraspable.

As is everything. Or, perhaps better said: as is every unthing.

The delusion Buddha exposed, the root cause of suffering, is our mistaken belief that “things” exist. This is inextricable from the belief that “I” exist as a graspable, fixed “thing.” This belief arises from our material senses, our thoughts, feelings, impressions, and consciousness - from the ghostly-real projections of body-mind. When Buddha asks Ananda where his mind and eyes are, he invites him to take the first steps to realize how he is taken in by his usual assumptions.

The sutra now takes the first steps on a long epistemological excursion, drawing from centuries of abhidhamma, yogacara and madhyamaka analyses of the mind and its vicissitudes. We’ll soon encounter the Five Aggregates, the Six Faculties, the Twelve Sites, and the Eighteen Constituents. It’s easy to get lost in these philosophical deconstructions, or to feel they’re irrelevant to the issue at hand. After all, while the enticing young Matanga woman is caressing Ananda, he’s more likely to feel aware of his hard breathing, his elevated heartbeat and his elevated hard penis than of the Eighteen Constituents. The Eighteen Constituents are just an idea, while the hormones rushing through his bloodstream and the feel of warm flesh and the blue of her eyes and red of her lips are real, right?

Actually, they’re not real. They’re also not unreal. But they are so very convincing, they often snare us.


I was meditating the other day when a stray thought arose. It wasn’t anything particularly spectacular, just some idle musing on the derivation and meaning of a word. I let go of the thought and returned to my center…..and the train of thought arose again. I noticed the thought, noticed my mild surprise at its return, along with some mild irritation at its “interruption” of my meditation. I let go of the irritation, inquired as to whether there was any emotional attraction to or dislike of the content of the thought which might make me cling to it or push it away. I didn’t find anything meaningful. I let go of the thought, returned to my center - and the thought came back again. I became amused by how, after fifty years of meditation, I still prone to preferences about how meditation “should” be. So let go of letting go…and the same thought arose again.

Every thought wants to live forever. Usually one thought is replaced by another thought, or by some physical sensation or emotional feeling. When there is nothing to displace a thought, though, it can be sticky, as if it doesn’t “want” to be released. Each of our thoughts strives to claim our attention. None of our thoughts want to die. Neither do we. Life is sweet - or at least bittersweet.

Speaking of bittersweet: at the start of one seven-day meditation retreat I was attending, an image arose of a Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk chocolate ice cream bar. I wanted one. I smiled at it, let the image go: the desire and image returned. Each time I let go of the desire and the image, they’d return. No matter what I did or didn’t do, the ice cream smiled back at me and had a good time accompanying me throughout the seven days - one long meditation on a Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk chocolate ice cream bar. Surely this could not be enlightenment….

At the end of the retreat, I stopped on my way home and bought myself a Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk chocolate ice cream bar. It didn’t taste as good as its meditation counterpart. It was less vivid, less real than the imagined one.

How often are we caught by a fantasy and disappointed by the actual experience? Despite this, fantasies have a habit of coming back. They don’t even have to be pleasant fantasies: whenever we are depressed, our misery proclaims: “this is the real truth…..you’ve just been deceiving yourself into avoiding the ugliness of heartbreak and hate…now that you’ve seen this, you will feel this way forever.” When we are angry, we reinforce our high dudgeon by thinking we are right to be angry, we must be an advocate for righteousness. When we are scared, the little spider insists it is a large threat, a carrier not of irksome pain, but potent poison. We may feel some combination of relief, shame or annoyance when a friend scoops up the spider saying “it won’t hurt you!”

When others do not share our experience, they challenge us to entertain the possibility that we’re deluding ourselves. Then we may cultivate catching ourselves, taking a step back to view our inner dialogue from a different perspective. Such self-observation can be the first steps to mindfulness, and much of psychotherapy involves strengthening the faculty which compares what we feel and think with what others feel and think, in the service of “realistic appraisals.” But psychotherapists don’t go far enough: they do not question the normative expectancies which constitute agreed-upon “realities.” We are all least likely to question the experiences that we all take for granted. The Surangama Sutra targets our most crucial, most unexamined assumption: that self and psyche exist, that “I” • “have” • a “mind.”

In response to Ananda’s request to Buddha to please help him clarify his mind, Buddha asks Ananda to examine mind itself: “where, precisely, are your mind and eyes?” In this section of the sutra, Ananda offers many answers, proposing the mind is in the body; no, the mind is outside the body; the mind is in the middle; the mind lies within the sense-faculties; the mind arises in response to conditions. Buddha dismantles each proposition with a metaphor or a chain of reasoning, demonstrating none of these can be so. Finally, in desperation, Ananda proposes the mind has no specific location - to which Buddha replies, if there’s no where that mind exists, how can it exist at all?

I’m not going to delve into details here of Ananda’s answers and Buddha’s refutations. We’ll visit some of the issues in more depth further on with the sutra. When we do, we may find some of the reasoning and evidence profound, while some of it - especially in the context of the long history of Western philosophical and scientific explorations of perception and mind - may seem unconvincing. Whether or not we agree with the specifics is not so important as the very act of questioning the unquestionable - the gateway of liberation.

For now, let’s take take a fairly simple example by slightly re-phrasing Buddha’s question to Ananda. Let me ask you: where are your thoughts?

Most people assume “my thoughts are in my head.” They’re not.

•••

If while you were thinking we were to cut open your skull and peer inside we wouldn’t see any thoughts. We’d see a gooey mass of brown-grey-peach colored flesh marbled with white fibers and reddish blood vessels. You might object: “well, of course we couldn’t see the thoughts. They’re in the neurons firing, too small for us to see.” Thoughts, though, are not inside the neurons, nor in the synapses. Despite the media hype touting the discover of the “Angelie Jolie” neuron, there’s no one-to-one correspondence between any single neuron and a single thought or image arising from it. Sometimes if you stimulate a single neuron repeatedly, a single percept arises. But sometimes when you stimulate a single neuron repeatedly, different percepts arise. And sometimes, stimulating different single neurons leads to the same percept. The same holds true for larger brain structures. There’s a popular misconception the amygdala is the seat of rage and fear, but the amygdala only lights up when scary faces are presented full frontal, not when the face is in profile. Furthermore, the amygdala also lights up in pleasant emotional states, and in response to novel stimuli.

The brain functions via multiple pathways to the same end, and multiple ends to the same pathway. If you seek to locate thought in the electrical activity of the brain, you’ll find that activity occurs spread across complex networks far more entangled than the wires of a switchboard. In addition, electrical activity is certainly not the whole story: chemical changes are important (and neurotransmitters don’t localize precisely, there’s seepage and spreading across and around areas); fluid flows (blood and cerebrospinal fluid) play an important role; subtle shifts in neuron sizes during nerve conduction may also influence the process. Because so many interacting factors are involved, many neuroscientists believe the subjective experience of conscious thought is an emergent process which cannot be tied to isolated components of the brain, and are skeptical we will ever be able to locate “where” thoughts occur - or even “what” they are.

The brain is not the mind. The brain is not even the entire central nervous system. The CNS is not restricted to the space in the skull, it also occupies the spine, and is intimately tied to the peripheral nervous system. All of the nervous system is sensitive to changes in heat and cold, to pressure, to what’s circulating in the bloodstream and to what’s occurring in the gut.

“Knowing” thoughts are in our heads this leads too many meditators to meditate only from the neck up. Many cultures “know” differently. Some cultures locate thought in the heart; Chinese and Japanese use the same written character for “heart” and “mind,” and many meditation methods are best practiced “in” or “with” the heart (for example, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests cultivating heart-smiles). Many cultures see thinking as a product of what happens in the gut; when I was introduced to meditation in Japan, I was told to put my thoughts in my hara (belly, gut, lower dantien) or, if that was too hard, to hold my thoughts in the mudra formed by my hands. Our own culture talks about “gut feelings.” Biologists are investigating the gut-brain axis, and the bidirectional communication between the enteric and central nervous systems.

Many cultures believe thoughts are present in nature spirits: trees, animals, all the beings - including the seemingly inanimate - with which we share the world. Some believe these beings transfer their thoughts to us, either in special states like dreaming and trances or as an everyday matter of course. Research on embodied cognition shows our entire body participates in the experience of thinking, and is subject to environmental factors such as pollutants, heat/cold, music/noise and the whole of nature. If you meditate under a willow tree, you may have a different experience than meditating next to a pine or sequoia.


The crucial point here is: thoughts have no fixed physical location and arise in response to far more than what occurs in our heads. Thoughts are not tangible things: they are essentially no-thing at all. Thoughts are more insubstantial and more variable even than clouds, but they are stickier. Thoughts can block the light of realization more persistently than any thunderstorm cumulus or any morning sea-fog. Water vapor condenses around atmospheric dust-motes and coalesces to appear as clouds; our mental processes condense around the dust-motes of our ideas and coalesce into thoughts. Clouds take form as bright cumulus billows and dark pouring rain; thoughts take form as inky images and dazzling self-instructions. We mistake thoughts for reality, but they are mirages not mirrors.

Ananda was ensnared by a confluence of sensations, perceptions, feelings, thoughts, and desire in part because he failed to fully recognize: all our sensations, perceptions, feelings, thoughts, desires are mirages. So is consciousness. Consciousness has some particular issues we’ll discuss in subsequent portions of the sutra, (so we’ll defer what we mean by “consciousness” until then). In any case, a huge amount of our perceptions, thoughts and feelings occur outside of conscious awareness, and even when that’s not so, consciousness by itself doesn’t necessarily act as a reliable guide. I’m sure Ananda was very conscious and aware of how desirable the courtesan appeared and how good she felt to him!

Ananda, remorseful about his susceptibility to pleasurable sensations, asks Buddha to help him purify his mind. We like to think that if we purify our minds, we’ll be able to rely on them: our minds will rule over our wayward senses and thoughts. But - as Sengcan reminds us in the poem Hsin Shin Ming, (“Faith in Mind”): - to seek the mind with the mind is the greatest of all mistakes.

Ananda is very learned; he has a very good mind, but has lost track of the fundamentals. So Buddha raises his golden-hued arm, makes a fist, and sends for light which dazzles his mind and eyes. Buddha asks Ananda what he takes to be the mind that is dazzled by the light: Ananda replies his mind is that which has the capability of seeing, that which makes distinctions between light and dark, and determines “bright! dazzling! Buddha-fist!” To which Buddha replies:

Ananda! That is not your mind!. It is merely your mental processes that assign false and illusory attributes to the world of perceived objects….these processes delude you about your true nature….[and cause you] to lose touch with your own original, everlasting mind.”

The mind which thinks, “my thoughts are in my head” is not the mind.

The problem, Buddha says, is that Ananda is caught by the “first fundamental:” the mind of death-and-birth, the mind dependent on perceived objects. However, there is a second fundamental, beginningless and endless:

the original understanding, the real nature of consciousness. All conditioned phenomena arise from it, and yet it is among those phenomena that beings lose track of it. They have lost track of this fundamental understanding though it is active in them all day long, and because they remain unaware of it, they make the[ir] mistakes……

The remainder of the sutra guides us back to our real nature. In Zen, we often call this “True Mind,” or “Unconditioned Mind,” or “Big Mind.” Buddhas describes this as the pure and luminous mind that understands without mental objects or the processes arising with them. Unfortunately, it’s easy to confuse this fundamental Mind with the conditioned mind, the “mind” with a lower-case “m.” It’s easy to slip into assigning the properties of “small mind” to Big Mind - but Big Mind doesn’t have, and cannot be constrained, by any defining properties. Because of this., Big Mind is fundamentally unlimited.

Let’s create some different terms so we can be clear in future discussions which mind we’re talking about - which mind we’re minding. Small mind’s task is to make the necessary distinctions so we can navigate the world. The physical brain and the psychological ego look for what’s safe and what’s dangerous, what’s possible and what’s not. In effect, small mind imitates a former New York City mayor, Ed Koch, who was fond of going around asking his constituents: “How am I doing? How am I doing?” The most basic function of the ego is self-centered safety and contentment. It works to obtain pleasure and avoid pain; it is biased to immediate experience, but with extra effort can engage in longer-term planning. The ego-mind protects and guards individuals by drawing on past experience, comparing it with current environmental conditions, and imagining what will happen next. Let’s call this ego-mind by the initials of its functions: basic individual guarding and imagining, or BIG-I.

In contrast, “Big Mind” is limitless: preferences would restrict it, so Big Mind is nondiscriminating. Big Mind doesn’t pick and choose: it underlies all and encompasses everything. I like to call Big Mind “The Ground of Being,” although even this term is a little misleading and overly limiting. It would be more accurate to call Big Mind “The Ground and Sky of Being and Non-Being,” but even that would not be quite accurate, and it’s too much of a mouthful. So let’s call Big Mind “Ground of Being” and refer to it by its initials: GOB. We could call Big Mind the Ground of Dharma - but it might be problematical to refer to Big Mind with the initials G-O-D….

Words seduce us with images, tempting us to turn intangibles into things. The words “Big Mind” can evoke echoes of brains, IQ scores, or perhaps the tangled circuit boards of artificial intelligence and Big Data. The words “Ground of Being” might evoke granite foundations or the dirt under our feet. Even the initials GOB may evoke a picture of some amorphous blob, some material thing. To minimize our tendencies to reify Big Mind, let’s take out the “O” from Ground of Being and abbreviate it “G-B.”


We relate to our minds through our bodies, and while words can point to vastness, we tend to think of “vastness” through the lens of a physical universe. In Zen, we sometimes try to convey G-B through the simile of the ocean. We are fish swimming in the seas of Mind; our thoughts are bubbles, our bodies dependent on a briny world which, because it is our element, we take for granted. We are subject to its currents and tides but, being immersed in water, we cannot perceive its wetness.

In this simile, the ocean manifests itself through waves: no waves without water, no water without waves. My teacher used to say Zen practice is navigating the surface waves while keeping our feet on the seabed. Even as we do this, though, we’re unaware of the far-off coastlines which contain our home, and the atmosphere above which grants us oxygen to breathe.

The Ground of Being is not an earthy core (though it does not exclude it); the Sky of Being is not a firmament of stars (though it does not deny it). Big Mind is vast beyond physical space-time, G-B is utterly without defining characteristics. We stand, sit, walk, and lie down on the Ground of Being but if we circumscribe G-B into a graspable thing, we are like the know-it-all who, after hearing Einstein lecture on the general theory of relativity, went up to him and said: “That was a very nice lecture, but of course we know in reality the world is a big ball which rests on the shell of an enormous turtle underneath it.” Einstein responded by asking what the turtle rested on - does it rest on another turtle, and if so, what does that turtle rest on?

“Oh, you can’t fool me,” says the know-it-all. “It’s turtles all the way down.”

Comments

Temptation and Intention

Have you ever been tempted to do something, even though you knew you’d feel badly about it afterwards? Perhaps I should re-phrase the question: has a day gone by when you weren’t tempted to do something you wanted to, but you knew it afterwards might have negative consequences?

Stress-eating ice cream, telling a white lie, having “just one” drink or a one-night stand: these are the kinds of situations the Surangama sutra addresses. When you walk the Way you find yourself tempted by all sorts of conveniences and indulgences that modern society offers, but which run contrary to following the precepts. As verse 53 of the Tao Te Ching notes,

The Great Path is very smooth and straight,

but people are fond of bypaths.

Knee-jerk moralism, your conditioned guilty conscience and learned habits of “should” and “should not” will not save you. They didn’t save Ananda, the Buddha’s first cousin and one of his most devoted companions.

In last week’s essay on the Surangama Sutra’s first chapter. I skipped the discussing the prologue in order to avoid muddying the focus on “why practice?” The prologue, though, sets the stage by introducing us to Ananda, a first cousin of the Buddha who is devoted to practice but runs into difficulties. In the course of his daily begging rounds Ananda came to a house of courtesans; wanting to dutifully practice non-discriminating mind by taking each house in order, he did not want to exclude the “lowlifes” within from the merit they’d accumulate by donating food. So Ananda went up to the door and held up his bowl for alms. Then

“Wielding a spell that Kapila had obtained from a god of the Brahma Heavens, a young Mātaṅga woman seduced Ānanda onto her bed. Then she caressed him lasciviously until the power of his vows was on the verge of being broken.”

The Buddha, through his supernatural powers, saw

“Ānanda was succumbing to the carnal influence of the spell, [so] the Thus-Come One …..poured forth invincible light which was as dazzling as a hundred gems. Within that light sat a Buddha in full-lotus posture on a thousand-petaled sacred lotus, proclaiming a spiritually powerful mantra.”

Buddha sends Mañjuśri to Ānanda. Using this spiritually powerful mantra (which we will encounter later in the sutra), Mañjuśri defeats the evil spell, rescues Ānanda and also the young Mātaṅga woman from succumbing to their fatal attraction, and brings them back to the grove where Buddha is staying with his disciples. This is the occasion where Ananda, weeping, beseeches Shakyamuni to teach him how to become fully awakened.

We can imagine Ananda’s shame and regret through our own experiences of suffering remorse after being caught in some misbehavior. In the cultural context of the time, any sexual involvement was an obstacle to enlightenment. So was being born as a woman. In modern Buddhism, we need to do a lot of work to redress the misogynistic strains and to develop precepts which address sexuality beyond the extremes of celibacy and self-indulgence.

For our present purpose, though, the issue is not so much that Ananda came close to - heaven forbid! - having sex. The issue is that Ananda was at risk of betraying his vows. The words of the sutra point to this: “the power of his vows was on the verge of being broken.”

The harm we incur when we break a vow is not that we do something “bad.” The problem is when we vow one thing and do another, we undermine ourselves. The harm we incur is we then lose faith in ourselves.

As a psychotherapist, I often saw clients resolve to make some change, then berate themselves when they failed to follow through as they’d intended. They’d feel flawed, thinking they were insincere, or they were lacking something important: their willpower was “too weak,” they were “incapable of love,” “not smart enough” or - shifting the blame somewhat - they had been too injured by traumas, or never received the kind of parenting they truly needed, or the society put too many obstacles in their way. Perhaps their horoscope indicated their timing was off.

Their failure, though, did not lie in their stars, nor in their selves. The anger and sadness they felt was rooted in a less obvious combination of delusion and greed: a tendency to over-reach, to expect and grasp at too much too soon. We can be sincerely well-intentioned in our desires to be more loving, or more efficient, or less short-tempered or less ruled by fear. We humans might be capable of occasional self-observation and thought, but it comes with a magical tinge: “if I think it, it must/should be so.”

Once I form a vision - whether the vision is of being able to withstand the lure of sex, or of meditating daily, or of being kind to everyone - the petty details of how to implement the vision in practical small steps may seem unimportant due to a combination of pride (“I am able to do this”) and naive optimism (“nothing’s likely to get in the way”). This easily leads to disappointment, pessimism and shame. Sometimes we simply don’t know how to implement a change; sometimes we don’t even know that we don’t know. Our blind spots can be so mysterious.

We need to learn the step by step of things. Details involved in the ‘how to’ can be surprising, and require developing parts of us, & skills we never even thought of. Otherwise it’s a little like someone who has never exercised buying a fancy pair of running shoes assuming they’ll soon be racing marathons. Before laughing at that image, consider: have you ever bought a book, glanced at it, put it on your shelf and, now that it’s in your library, think of yourself as one of the book’s readers? I’ve seen a lot of people with yoga mats and meditation cushions in their homes who don’t have a regular yoga or meditation practice. The image easily substitutes for the reality. Much of the Surangama Sutra will be devoted to how easily we are beguiled by the images arising from our bodies and minds.

Buddhism places an emphasis on intention. Right intention is important, but our intentions can be as seductive as any courtesan, so it’s important not to be beguiled by them into forgetting: practice is nitty-gritty. A few years ago I attended a New Years meditation session where people gave voice to their practice resolutions for the coming year. After a while of listening to folks expressing their sincere intention to meditate in the morning, or to practice one of the paramitas, or to attend more retreats, I suggested we might spend some time discussing the specifics of how we planned to implement these lofty goals. I was roundly condemned for dirtying lofty goals with trivial technicalities and casting doubt on peoples’ sincerity.

Sincerity and determination are incomplete without the details of doing. Research on the implementation of intentions shows rates of any follow-through are low, and sustained follow-through is even lower. Medication compliance rates are around 30% to 50%. That’s for something as simple and important as taking a pill which has been prescribed as necessary for your health. Sitting down on the meditation cushion every day, being generous and kind to everyone you encounter - these are difficult. Breaking a habit of losing your temper or smoking cigarettes, maintaining sobriety and avoiding inappropriate sexual behavior - these are even more difficult.

Behavioral research on implementing intentions has shown the more we specify what we’re going to do, where and when, the more likely we’ll be to actually do it. If we say “I’m going to meditate every day this week” we need also be clear: on Tuesday, will we meditate in our bedroom or in the zendo, and will it be in the morning before work or at 7 pm before we get too tired at night? How about Wednesday when we have a pre-existing appointment? If we meditate at home, will other family members be likely to interrupt us? How many minutes will we meditate for? When we say “every day” do we mean “every week day” or “seven days a week, including weekends when the zendo is closed?”

This kind of specificity requires humility. We are biological beings who get tired and forget. We are social beings subject to the influences of all around us. It’s a good idea after forming an intention to ask ourselves: “how confident am I that I’ll actually do this completely?” When I ask clients that question, the usual response is “oh, pretty likely - maybe 70% or 80%.” That means there is a pretty good chance the person will fail in some aspect and feel dissatisfied with their efforts. I suggest whittling down the plan, making sure it’s do-able so they feel 95% confident.

Once they come up with a plan they feel 95% confident they can do, my clients often say, “but that’s not enough.” Of course not. No amount of practice is ever enough. Practice is not a matter of quantity: it’s not a matter of how much you do or don’t do. Practice is the art of being fully engaged in whatever you do do - which requires an honest appraisal of your (necessarily limited) abilities.

I wonder, if Ananda had paused in his begging rounds, looked at the house of courtesans, thought of how he’d woken up that morning feeling horny and decided it might be wiser to pass by the house and not tempt himself - would he have felt he was being “insufficiently” compliant with the Dharma? Too often our desires to be really good lead us to test ourselves with a difficult situation - and we end up doing something really bad.

We need to build our practice as carefully as we construct a house, if we want our practice to function as our sanctuary. Just as there are principles involved in how to pour a foundation or frame a window, there are principles involved in how to develop our habits of truthfulness, patience, energy, forbearance and the other paramitas. Many of our classic texts give precise instructions; we may need to modify some of these instructions to fit our current situation, but we ignore the minutiae at our peril, because these are our training grounds. If you brush your teeth without paying attention, how can you be mindful, calm and kind while someone yells at you - or when someone tries to seduce you?

In our current society, between billboards, newspapers, social media and click-bait, someone is yelling at us or seducing us all the time. We need to be careful to limit our exposure to what we’re capable of handling. It’s not a great idea for a recovering alcoholic to go into a bar; it’s not a great idea for a someone whose Buddhist practice hasn’t fully matured to go into a brothel - but that would have required Ananda to acknowledge he had not yet reached the lofty realms of realization of a Vimalakirti.

We need to support our efforts by building resilient structures in our communities, our homes, and our practice methods. One way of building resilience is to introduce what systems theorists call “redundancies:” multiple ways of realizing the same goal. If you only practice meditation on the breath, you’ll have difficulties meditating when you have pneumonia, asthma or a panic attack. At such times it helps to have some experience with meditating on posture, or a mantra or koan, to fall back on. Sometimes we need to reinforce the practice of one precept by drawing on another as an ally, or bolstering a negative with a positive. If Ananda wanted to refrain from sexuality, it might have helped to remind himself of his vow to be honest, and resolve that if he succumbs to desire he will need to tell the truth about it to his dharma friends.

You can meditate in the morning and then go about your day and assume you are protected against the infections of greed, hate and delusion. But you can also plan that when you make the 10 am phone call to your utility company, you’ll extend loving-kindness to the customer service representative. You can take vitamins and chloroquine to bolster your immune system against the covid virus and then go out unmasked, feeling proud of your ability to defeat any bug. Or you can practice appropriate distancing and wear a mask.

When you put on a face mask to help protect yourself and others, you can treat it as an annoying, uncomfortable inconvenience, using whatever mask is at hand. Or you put in the effort to find a mask that fits you, and treat the mask as your practice partner - reminding you of your vulnerabilities, and your connectedness with all beings.


Why Practice?

Surangama Sutra - Lecture 1

Why seek the Way? Why not kill? Why not steal?

One who practices meditation in stillness without renouncing all killing
is like one who hopes that nobody will hear him shout if he stops up his own ears.

One who practices meditation in stillness without renouncing all stealing
is like one who tries to fill a leaking cup with water.

-- the Surangama Sutra

The Surangama Sutra begins with Ananda asking Shakyamuni Buddha to explain the practices through which the Buddha, and all Thus-Come-Ones, fully awaken. Buddha asks Ananda what he saw in the Buddha which motivated him to seek after enlightenment, and Ananda replies: “I saw the thirty-two hallmarks, wondrous and incomparable, the entire body shining like crystal, with an inter-reflecting radiance.” Ananda admired this so much he shaved his head and left ordinary life so he could follow the Buddha.

So the beginning of the sutra asks us to look back on our own beginnings. What motivates us to do this practice? What are you looking for? How did you come to pursue this path?

This is the traditional subject for a student’s first public talk to the sangha. People often describe how they were in distress, and looked for a way that offered some promise of relief. Perhaps they were struggling with an addiction, or depression or anxiety (which are forms of addiction, though we don’t usually recognize them as such). Perhaps they were disappointed in love, or had suffered a loss when someone they loved had died. These are classic entrances to Buddhism: a dawning awareness of suffering, some awareness that the usual ways of avoiding suffering aren’t working, and a search for the root causes of suffering and a path for its release. These are the Four Noble Truths.

It’s not always so clear, though. I stumbled into Buddhist practice. I was in college, and although I certainly was miserable a good deal of the time as only a late adolescent can be, I was experimenting with all sorts of things. I took a class in yoga to fulfill a physical education requirement and avoid enrolling in team sports, which I was very bad at. Yoga introduced me to experiencing the body as something other than a clumsy container - it was my first taste of learning how tense I habitually was and that relaxation and ease might be real possibilities. It was also my introduction to meditation, and to paying attention to the breath. Yoga, though, was just one new encounter amongst many: I was passionate to sample as many new experiences of life as I could. Mind-altering drugs, the worlds of dream interpretation, the Freudian unconscious, and artistic epiphanies were all enticing. So was sex. I was attending a male-only school, and enrolled in a course on Japanese religion at a neighboring women’s school so I could meet potential dates. I developed a crush on one of the women in my class, and I attended my first Zen meditation retreat in an effort to impress her by enduring the pain of sitting full lotus during the retreat. The Zen teacher’s lectures intrigued me - but the invitation to enlightenment attracted me less as a way to serve all sentient beings and more as a road to becoming special in my girlfriend’s eyes or, failing that, to become selfless so I wouldn’t feel the pain of rejection.

I took advantage of a college exchange program to study abroad in Japan and spent several years there studying shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute deeply woven with Zen aesthetics. I lived in a small Zen monastery, and became quite disillusioned with its competitive strivings (people would boast of how many koans they’d solved) and its idealization of a teacher who, I later found out, had been a war criminal. I left the monastery but continued shakuhachi - and meditation, though I couldn’t say exactly why. Something had hooked me, though I needed many years more - including a period where I forsook meditation for psychology - before I turned to meditation in earnest. By that time I was in my late thirties: I was living in India on a Fulbright. Not knowing where else to turn, I resumed meditation, doing shikantaza - “just sitting” - trying to get to the bare bones of experience to discover some spark of inspiration. I’d still need a few more years of practice before realizing that being happy was impossible unless it was shared with all beings.

We usually begin meditation practice out of some personal need. Eventually, something unexpected happens: our self-centered goals begin to morph into wider, stranger shapes. Like a möbius strip, a small twist turning and reconnecting to itself changes the topology, and we enter different dimensional fields. Instead of being limited to an external mental quest seeking the Way, we discover the Way is also, always, seeking us. This is why we call the first talk students give in public to the sangha, in which we describe how we came to practice, Way-Seeking-Mind talks.

Some people, in their Way-Seeking-Mind talks, describe how they’ve always felt a calling, even when they were small children. They often describe how their upbringing didn’t provide a channel for this calling, either because they weren’t introduced to any spiritual teachings, or because the religion they grew up in seemed overly rigid, dogmatic, hypocritical or dry. One of the ironies of practice is how people drawn to practice from a “spiritual” standpoint need to discover their intensely personal hurts and desires before they can realize their more universal aspirations, just as people who come to practice from their personal suffering must discover how these are inextricable from the suffering - and liberation - of all beings.

This is true not just for Buddhism. Whether you are Catholic, Jewish, Sufi, Sunni, Protestant, Ethical Culturist, Unitarian, Marxist or Existentialist, at some point you must confront the question: what is it that really motivates you? Why bother to seek the Good Life? Why not just enjoy yourself for your brief time on earth? Kill, steal, fuck, lie as it benefits you? (Parenthetically, I find it strange that “fucking” is considered a swear word, while “killing,” “stealing,” and “lying” are somehow less objectionable).

In my own case, I came back to this question after I had a narrow brush with death. Once I realized I was really, truly, going to die it became clear not Zen nor Insight meditation, not qigong nor yoga, not trying to do some good or at least trying to not do harm - none of these were going to save me from pain and loss, hurt and death. I seriously considered throwing morals to the wind and “living for the moment” (after all, wasn’t that the premise of mindfulness and ‘Be Here Now’)?

I realized with some sadness that I wouldn’t be very good at killing (I’m not physically strong or good at weapons), stealing (I’m too awkward and fumbly) lying (my facial expressions give me away; I’m a terrible bluffer) or even fucking (I find sex more satisfying when there’s love involved, and knowing one another well enough to read each others’ signals). I guess I could harden myself, and train myself to kill, steal, lie and fuck, but it seems like a lot of work. And I’m a softie who cries easily at movies (so much for meditative “equanimity”). I know that however happy I may be, when I come across somebody who is suffering, it’s like a cloud passing over the sun. I can’t deny my happiness is tied up in yours.

When I sit meditation, every time I push away a thought or a feeling or a sensation, I am murdering a part of myself. How can I practice meditation without renouncing killing?

When I sit meditation, every time the mind wanders to past or future I am robbing myself of this moment. How can I practice meditation without renouncing stealing?

When I meditate to realize the Dharma, though, I run another risk: mesmerized by the glitter of enlightenment, by the brilliance of the thirty-two hallmarks that attracted Ananda, it’s easy to lose the Way. Which is why, in this first chapter of the Surangama Sutra, Buddha asks Ananda: “when you resolved to attain full awakening, what was it that saw those hallmarks and who was it that took delight in them and loved them?”

Ananda replies: “I delighted in them and loved them with my mind and eyes.”

The Buddha says “yes, your mind and eyes were the reason for your admiration and delight. Someone who does not know where his mind and eyes are will not be unable to overcome the stress of engagement with perceived objects….if bandits invade a country, the king’s soldiers must know where the bandits are in order to prevent them from taking over the country. Shakamuni then goes on to say to Ananda:

It is the fault of your mind and eyes that you are bound to
the circle of birth and death.

I am now asking you: precisely where are your mind and eyes?

Welcome to the world of the Surangama Sutra! Shakyamuni Buddha has just acknowledged Ananda’s mind and eyes were the gates for Ananda’s delight in the Dharma and motivated him to practice to realize enlightenment. With his next breath, though, Shakyamuni tells Ananda his eyes and mind are bandits that rob him of his ability to realize enlightenment: they are the culprits binding him to suffering, to an endless cycle of creation and destruction, to birth-and-death.

Beginning with the next chapter, a significant portion of the Surangama Sutra deals with how our sense perceptions mislead us, trapping us in worlds of illusion. Neuroscience and perceptual psychology agree: our nervous systems gives us images of the world, not the world itself. As neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett reminds us, “the brain functions through concepts.” We cannot realize enlightenment so long as we mistake our concepts for reality.

Buddhism describes our experience of the world through the five skandhas: form, feelings, perceptions, formations, and consciousness. Whether it’s possible to have direct access to reality is a matter of some debate in contemporary philosophy and perceptual neuroscience, but. Buddhism is clear that we all can, and do, have direct experiences of reality. We call this “suchness” or “thusness,” which is why Buddha is called the Tathagata, the “Thus-Come-One.” Suchness constantly preaches the Dharma, asking us to crack open our doors of perception, open our inner eyes and ears, drop body and mind in order to truly realize the reality of body-mind, enlightened bodhi-mind.

To do this, we need to be aware of where are our minds and eyes, our bodies and beings. That’s the first step, but it’s only a first step. Awareness of body and mind as objects still is easily caught; our sensible senses mislead us. When we accept the tangible touch and taste of the world as givens, as “real,” it’s easy to believe our thoughts and feelings are “real,” too. Then we are trapped within ideas of ourselves and mistake ourselves for our sensations and desires. It’s not that our sense impressions and the products of our minds are unreal: they are neither real nor unreal, but they are incomplete. They give us the illusion we’re separate from others, that we exist apart from the world which constitutes us. Then we yearn to bridge that painful separation - and, paradoxically, fear losing ourselves in the process.

I’m reminded of a time when I was visiting with my dear friend Carol. While she was preparing dinner, her four-year-old son Aaron asked her if he could have some gum. She told him no, they’d be having dinner shortly. Aaron protested briefly, then gave in and left the room.

About fifteen minutes later during a pause in our conversation, Carol and I heard a strange wet smacking, chewing sound coming from the adjacent living room. Puzzled, we quietly peeked into the room. There we saw four-year-old Aaron: his head was underneath the sofa, his feet and legs were sticking out, surrounded by discarded chewing-gum wrappers. He had taken a whole pack, extracted the sticks of gum, stuck them all in his mouth, and with his head hidden in the dark beneath the furniture, was lustily enjoying it: chomp! Chomp! Chomp! He was quite crestfallen when Carol called him to come out and scolded him (trying not to laugh) for disobeying her.

Aaron couldn’t figure out through what magical means his mother had figured out he had taken the gum and was chewing it. His eyes and mind and mouth were in the dark: he couldn’t see them, so nobody else could see what he was doing, could they?

Do you ever wonder why you don’t see your own enlightened nature? It’s sweet and elastic as chewing gum, but its flavor never fades.

Where are your eyes and mind at this moment?


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Important!?

We tend to confuse importance with reality. Both are illusions we live by.

Nothing is unimportant: suchness is the path to peace.

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Newspaper Practice

News reports these days are often disturbing They can also serve as a reminder for our practice, and our practice can help us deal with the disturbing thoughts and feelings the news invokes. One possibility: before sitting down to read the paper or turn on the radio or tv, recite your basic vows for liberating beings and realizing the Way. The key is to adjust your body and mind before opening them to the onslaught of information.

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