The Sound of the Bell

Sound of the Bell

The Surangama Practice Instructions (1)

In the Sherlock Holmes story about the stolen racehorse Silver Blaze, Inspector Gregory asks Holmes:

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night- time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

Wildfires are raging throughout California today; there is no place smoke-free in the entire state. I took an early morning walk before changes in the wind worsened the air quality, but the rising sun was already obscured, and the atmosphere was turbid. It was difficult to breathe: invisible ash particles suspended in the air were small enough to be unseen by my eyes, but their effects were observed by my lungs. The ash was invisible while in motion, but every settled thing - parked cars, stolid buildings, each blade of grass - lay cloaked in a thin gray coat, helping me become more aware of what I was not seeing.

As I walked my vision was limited to looking ahead while my peripheral perception glimpsed some asides but I was blind to everything behind, above, and below. So I stretched my seeing: overhead, satellites and stars: underneath the buildings lay foundations; underneath the pavement sat sewer pipes and gas lines, conveying effluents and energy; underneath the grass and trees, roots and mycorhizzal fungi; further down, granite-quartz-shale and the Great Earth. Somewhere below me, friends in Australia were getting ready to go to bed. I didn’t know whether any of them was night-dreaming of what I was day-dreaming, but their not-thinking touched, matched, and supported mine.

The objects of our awareness and the fine ash of sense perceptions distract us. Buddha asks Ānanda: “How can these consciousnesses, which will ultimately perish, be the basis for practice as one strives for the Thus Come One’s everlasting realization?”

It’s important for us to find the unconditioned basis of our practice. When wisdom depends on knowledge and ignorance, intuition cannot not guide us through the mysterious unknown. When seeing depends on light and dark, insight cannot illuminate us. When hearing depends on sound and silence, your heart and my heart cannot communicate with true intimacy.

Buddha tells Ānanda the six sense-faculties (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind) are twists to our pure awareness: perceiver and perceived are twining vines. When we add conditioned “understanding” to true enlightened understanding, we don’t notice how the six faculties entangle us in illusion: they bind us, they tighten us in knots. If we cannot see the knot, we won’t discover how to untie it.

So Buddha encourages Ānanda: choose just one of your faculties, and let go of all its conditioned attributes. Practicing this way will liberate all six faculties. He gives Ānanda a key to this practice:

Extricate one faculty by detaching it from its objects, and redirect that faculty inward so that it can return to what is original and true. Then it will radiate the light of the original understanding. This brilliant light will shine forth and extricate the other five faculties until they are completely free.

Ānanda objects: if the six faculties are such unreliable guides, how can they lead us to enlightenment? Seeing and hearing, tasting and touching and smelling, arise and fall: they come into being and cease to exist. Doesn’t this also hold true for the sixth faculty, the mind-consciousness?

The mind-consciousness must cease to exist when it is apart from its own objects [of awareness]. How then can these consciousnesses, which will ultimately perish, be the basis for practice? ….No matter how much I look here and look there, going about in circles in an exhaustive search, I can find nothing that fundamentally is my mind or my mind’s objects. On what then can I base my quest for supreme enlightenment? …. It seems to be mere speculation!

I’ll paraphrase Buddha’s reply. He seems to almost sigh before saying: “You just don’t get it. I know you’re sincere, but you can’t trust my teaching. So I guess I’m going to have to make use of an everyday situation to get it across to you.” Then Shakyamuni offers the assembly a pivot point for practice.

Buddha instructs Rāhula to strike the bell once. Rāhula does so, the bell resounds, and Buddha asks everyone in the assembly: “Do you hear?” Ānanda and everyone else responds: “We hear.”

Buddha waits until the sound of the bell had died away, and asks: “Now do you hear?” Ānanda and everyone responds: “We do not.”

Buddha does this three times, asking the same same questions each time. Each time he receives the same responses.

After the third time Buddha asks: “Why have you given such muddled answers?”

The listeners protest: “what do you mean, muddled? When the bell was ringing, we heard it. When the bell wasn’t ringing, we didn’t hear it.” To which Buddha replies:

you did not clearly distinguish between hearing and sound. You thought you heard the bell when it was ringing and didn’t hear it when it wasn’t. In that case, how could you know the sound had ceased? You had to be able to hear the sound’s absence.

Your true, unconditioned hearing-awareness includes both sound and silence; it is more fundamental than sound and silence.

At this moment, as you read this - do you hear these words? As you read this, are you listening to your voice, or mine? When you say to someone “I hear you…” - are you referring to the squawks and buzzes made by their vocal cords, lips, and tongue shaping air into insubstantial words? Or is your heart responding to theirs?

Throughout our day we rely on hearing what is unsounded. We habitually glance both ways before crossing the street, but other people, tall trucks and flashing billboards block our vision; we continue only so long as we hear the absence of brakes and no crescendo of a revving engine’s approach. When we interact with other people, our emotions are often reactions to what they don’t say: if someone bumps into us without an apologetic “excuse me” we may bristle at perceived rudeness. If we tell someone we love them and they don’t reply, our hearts sink.

On the other hand, when we listen closely to someone we care about, what they leave unsaid often speaks eloquently of their fears and hopes. In music, the spaces between the notes lets the music breathe; in breathing, the silent pivot point between inhalation and exhalation offers a fermata to the importunities of thought.

Our most fundamental sounds often go unheard. When the composer John Cage sought silence in an anechoic chamber, shielded from any outside sonic vibrations, he was surprised to hear an ongoing faint high pitch along with a continuous low throb. Supposed silence revealed the keening of his nervous system accompanied by the drum of his heartbeat. (In response, he composed one of the most influential music pieces of the 20th century, 4’33.” In it a pianist comes onto the stage, opens the piano lid, takes out a stopwatch, times four and a half minutes, closes the lid, bows, and exits).

Every thing is always sounding itself. Every bridge has its resonant frequency; in 1940 the wind blowing across the Tacoma Narrows bridge whistled its tune. The bridge, attempting to oscillate to its own wave form, shook itself to pieces. Every place is always sounding itself. I was in the music library of my college when I put on headphones and listened to a piece by the 20th century composer, Alvin Lucier. It began with his voice saying: “I am sitting in a room, different from the room you are in now.” Lucier described how he would replay the recording of his voice over the speakers in his room and re-record it over and over. Doing this reinforced the ambient frequencies of the room in which he was recording. By the third or fourth repetition, buzzes squeaks and rumblings began to emerge. After more iterations, all semblance to his original voice was destroyed. Lucier brought the sound of his place, the sound of the room itself, to the sound of me in my place,

What you replay yourself to yourself, what kind of sounds do you make? Too often we don’t really listen to ourselves. Too often we don’t listen to what we’re not-hearing.

The unheard sounds of our surroundings enfold us. The cascades of our unheard thoughts propel us. Mindfulness practice can help us be more attentive to our thoughts, but until we become aware of their tonal colors, their tempos and rhythms, we remain deaf to their music. Does the rush of your inner dialog sound like white water or like white noise? Does your internal dialog speak kindly to you, or does it command you with an edge to it? Do you listen to the still small voice within which whispers wisdom, or override it with willfulness? If you want to be intimate with the compassion which is your inquiring mind’s fundamental constitution, you need to hear how your grievances chant threnodies, your desires croon love songs and you fall into step with the military marches of anger.

When we hear these more clearly, we’re less likely to get stuck by what we’ve set our sights on. When we learn how to turn toward rather than away from what we usually avoid, we can catch glimpses of the selves we’d rather leave unseen. We begin to allow our thoughts and feelings to express themselves without becoming engulfed by them: like a waterfall, their roar warns us of their power but also reminds us they are flows, not facts. Without any hindrance, no fears exist, and we navigate to shelter on another shore.

The starting point of this sutra - also its ending point and its heart - is liberation. Shakyamuni urges us: turn the six consciousnesses back onto themselves. Return to the root: turning the mind-body-sense consciousnesses back on themselves settles the self on itSelf, freeing us from the outflows of desire and ignorance.

Freeing yourself from outflows doesn’t mean to isolate yourself from the world by retreating into yourself. It simply means: don’t get caught by the objects of perception. In reality, there are no ins and outs to practice. Practice is round. It may look like we need to go from a world inside to a world outside, there and back again. This is the illusion of a journey from delusion to enlightenment. It may look like water travels down mountain streams until it returns to source in the sea. In reality the sun draws water vapor up to the sky from oceans, rivers, lakes and puddles; it does so without favoring one or the other. Raindrops return the dust motes around which they coalesce back to the land wherever the wind takes them - no picking or choosing.

Delusion and realization, practice and enlightenment, are just this. All we need do, in our encounters with every seeming object, is to treat it as our very self, and our very self as it. When we remind ourselves, with everything we encounter, to aim in the direction of the dharma, the churning of outflows becomes the turning of the wheel.

When hearing, go to the enlightened basis of hearing. It’s easy to leap clear of the many and the one: listen to a violin piano sonata. Free from turbid mental and emotional processes, each instrument sounds itself merging with the other. Your Dharma-eye is clear and bright. As Buddha says, “How then could you fail to go on to realize a supreme understanding and awakening?”

We are not separate from the musics of the mind. In the sound of the bell, each and all of us resonate with Buddha’s voice, expressing our wondrous enlightened nature simply and sufficiently:

When objects are not perceived as separate from awareness, that itself is nirvana…why would you allow anything else to be added to it?”

Meditation: Go to the Enlightened Basis of Hearing

As in any meditation practice, focus less on what you do, more on how you approach it. Do not try to accomplish anything. Explore..

Settle yourself in meditation. Ease your grip on all involvements. Let the myriad things rest.

Meditation I

  • Be aware of the sounds and silences in the space around you.
  • Hear them without commenting on them or identifying them. The conditioned mind grasps at “what” is making the sound. Let go of what the sound might be. Hear it as just a sound.
  • Whenever a thought, feeling, impulse or sensation (other than sound) arises, notice it, gently let go, and return to sound-and-silence. Let your whole being open to sound.
  • We tend to hear in “stereo,” left-front-right. Extend the sound-space to a full sphere: include above, below, behind and all around you.
  • Within this expansive space, some sounds will come and go in the foreground: notice how they arise and fall, go louder and softer, appear suddenly and gradually.
  • Within this expansive space, some sounds will seem continuous in the background: perhaps the hum of an appliance, the white noise of traffic, the subtle susurrations of your breath. Notice how these sounds persist while your awareness of them comes and goes.
  • Explore when the mind goes “out” to one sound, then to another. Explore when the mind holds several sounds at once.
  • Don’t listen just with your ears. Sounds do not reside just in your head: every space in body-mind is a container, an echo chamber. Allow sound-and-silence to be in belly and breast, muscle and tendon, skin and flesh.
  • Notice how any tension of the body changes the sound of a thought, feeling or sensation as it moves through skin flesh bones. Notice how any constriction of the mind crimps the tone color.
  • Let the mind rest between the sounds. Let the sounds rest within the mind.

Meditation II

When the mind has quieted sufficiently, “turn” your hearing inward.

  • Stop the outflows: listen to yourself.
  • Let your whole being act as a sounding board. Vibrations come and go. Vibrations in our hearing range are called “sound;” subsonic and supersonic vibrations are energy waves
  • Let every experience - physical sensations such as pain or comfort, thoughts and judgments, urges and wishes - come via the mind’s gate of hearing. Let yourself “hear” sights, smells, tastes, touches, thoughts. Perceive every experience as a kind of vibration, a subtle wave.
  • Listen without adding or subtracting anything.

Meditation III

When ready, let yourself go deeper into hearing itself - go to the enlightened basis of hearing.

  • Let go of observing. Let go of exploring.
  • Don’t try to “listen” to hearing; merge with non-discriminating hearing.
  • Dwell as hearing.
  • Reflect, resound, and resonate without being moved or disturbed by the rising and falling of the waves.

Is Is Not

Is Is not

Surangama Sutra Lecture 7 - Delusion Has No Basis: Five Layers of Turbidity

The center: a dimensionless point reaching everywhere and everywhen. We practice to arrive at this point where we already are. When “I” practices, though, the more I try to get out of the way the more I trip over my own feet. It’s the kind of problem we confront when we try to force ourselves to go to sleep - the effort riles us up. Sometimes when you’re having a nightmare and try to wake yourself out of it but fail, terror grips your flesh, bones and marrow.

We’re taught to practice meditation by thinking not-thinking, to practice qigong and tai chi with wu-wei, doing not-doing. I remember when I was a beginner this sounded attractive, but I kept looking for more specifics and got frustrated: tell me how to do this! Practice sometimes can be discouraging, exasperating, even maddening.

When Pūrna asks Buddha, “if we’re all fundamentally enlightened, why do we suffer from delusion?” Buddha responds with a parable: Yajñadatta looks into a mirror and sees a face with perfectly clear features. Yajñadatta becomes enraptured with this - and then goes mad, fearing he has lost his own head. Buddha reassures Pūrna that, just like Yajñadatta’s madness was an illusion with no basis in reality - he had never truly lost his head - our feeling that we’re not enlightened is merely delusion. Yajñadatta isn’t aware that he is mad; we aren’t aware our confusion is based only on confusion.

Buddha summarizes the issue: “the inherent luminous mind that understands is apart from ‘is’ and ‘is not’ and yet both is and is not.” Master Hua echoes this in his commentary: “If you can understand that within the Buddha’s Dharma there is no ‘is’ and no ‘is not,’ you can become enlightened.”

Does this clarify the matter for you, or do you find it confusingly difficult? Perhaps Layman Pang was studying the Surangama Sutra when one day he sighed and exclaimed:

“Difficult, difficult, difficult!” Pang said.
“Like storing ten bushels of sesame seeds in the top of a tree.”

His wife overheard him and responded: “Easy, easy, easy!
Like touching your feet to the floor when you get out of bed.”

Their daughter Lingzhao chimed in: “Neither difficult nor easy!
Like dewdrops sparkling on the tips of ten thousand grasses.”

I would comment: “Both difficult and easy!
As Ching Ch’ing says: ‘it’s easy to express oneself, to say the whole thing is difficult.’”

We’ve all had the experience of trying to do something which looks easy but which turns out to be difficult. We’ve had experiences where we braved something difficult which turned out to be easy. Difficult and easy complete each other as surely as sickness and health, delusion and enlightenment. Bewilderment and “aha!” are kissing cousins. The problem lies not in the ache and strain, the comfort or ease of our efforts at understanding. The problem lies in how our minds leap to dualistic opposites.

During my post-doctoral studies in clinical psychology I worked in a research project providing psychotherapy to people who’d suffered a traumatic loss of someone they loved. It’s common after such loss to be caught in swirls of emotions: grief, of course, but also anger at feeling abandoned by the loved one; release from the burdens of being a caregiver, but also guilt at feeling relieved. People who had the most trouble recovering from the death were unable to tolerate having mixed feelings - as if anger invalidated sadness, or relief felt from misery’s termination signaled a disloyal lack of love.

Increasingly, we live in an either-or culture. You’re either for me or against me; progressive or conservative; kind or cruel. Political parties’ spokespersons give diametrically opposed versions of reality. It reminds me of grade school fights on the playground: shouts of “Is so!” Is not!” “Is!” Is not!” devolve into wrestling on the ground, ear pulling, and tearful protestations of “he started it!”

The easy/difficult parable of the Pangs demonstrates a way out of the sufferings born of dualistic either-or. The parable is in the form of the tetralemma, an Indian Buddhist logic developed by Nagarjuna around 200 C.E. The tetralemma asserts all phenomena always manifest in four ways: is; is-not; both-is-and-is-not; neither-is-nor-is-not. In formal logic it’s written as





both A and ~A

Enlightenment ↔︎ Delusion

neither A nor ~A

Enlightenment ↔︎ Delusion

Everything simultaneously manifests each and all of the four possibilities. At this and every moment, you (and I, and all) are life; you are death; you are life-and-death; you are neither-life-nor-death.

This may seem like a head-scratcher, so you might want to approach it with your heart-mind rather than your open-shut mind. Your heart, with its four chambers, has room for all the blood that flows through your body, and whispers with the lungs to continuously circulate lifedeath to every realm of soma and psyche.

On the one hand, we have an intuitive sense there’s more to experience than “is” and “is not.” If you’ve ever been intimate with someone, you know there are times when you love them to pieces unreservedly even while some quirk of theirs is driving you crazy - and it’s that very quirk which also makes you smile and fills you with tenderness. At the same time, loving or abhorring is irrelevant to which of you is washing the dishes and which of you is drying them at that moment. (Of course, we can recruit our feelings to justify judgements about who should and shouldn’t be doing the dishes, and how good a job each is doing - but that way lies surplus suffering). The tetralemma frequently appears in our relationship to ourselves: when you say “I’m not myself today” which self is speaking from which of the four quadrants’ realms?

Nevertheless, when we apply analytical thinking to sort out our mixed experiences, we often convince ourselves the alternatives are mutually exclusive. We tell ourselves that if we love someone, we “can’t” hate them: when they die, we “shouldn’t” feel sad and soothed, and may get upset if we feel numb. Numbness is a very common initial reaction to death: we create suffering if we start worrying that feeling neither-sad-nor-soothed means we never truly cared about the deceased.

Our problem holding mutually exclusive possibilities owes a lot to Western thinking’s adoption of the rule of the excluded middle from ancient Greek philosophy. Basically this rule says something cannot be simultaneously both A and ~A (not-A). This seems to be common sense: something either “is” or Is not.” You’re alive, or dead - we say “you can’t be half-pregnant.” Anyone who has suffered through a tenuous fertility treatment or a miscarriage knows the cruelty of that statement.

We seek to escape from the tyranny of the excluded middle with in-betweens: the Greeks used the Golden Mean, we use kinda, sorta, -ish to qualify our statements. These fudge the excluded middle but still confine us within a linear dimension which can be misleading. Describing temperature as hot-medium-cold doesn’t adequately capture what it’s like to be at 12,000 feet of altitude on a glacial moraine under a cloudless sky: the temperature may be a “pleasant” 70º F. but the sun burns your skin while the wind blowing from the ice chills it. Poorly insulated by the thin air, your body leaches heat while your exertion makes you sweat. Your average temperature does not convey how you are hot-and-cold while also being neither-hot-nor-cold nor in between.

Halfway points and bland compromises are not the hallmark of the Middle Way. Being “nice” is not a compromise between cruelty and compassion. Zombies may be half-alive, half-dead, but they’re not an attractive option for liberation from the sufferings of birth-and-death.

The logic of the excluded middle has been a useful driving force for rational analysis and scientific thinking. Since the rise of quantum mechanics in the early 1900s, though, its usefulness has diminished. In the quantum realm a particle’s energy state and location is “smeared” across a realm of possibilities until it appears at one level or another, but never in-between. It’s common knowledge that light is both a wave and a particle; most people, though, don’t realize how this is fundamentally impossible. Particles are material substances; waves are energy flows which affect solid matter, but are not themselves material. Light is/is not a wave (A) and a particle (~A), both and neither.

Although many Buddhists like to point to quantum phenomena to justify Buddhist logic, we need to be careful. Quantum phenomena rarely appear at the macroscopic scales of our everyday experience. Biology is perhaps a better example, where the lines between ecosystems are fluid and shifting. Every human skin-bag contains more bacterial cells than cells with human DNA. Is this body mine, or foreign, or shared? Another example: there is little agreement on what constitutes “life.” Are viruses alive? How about a person in a coma, or a three week old fetus? Psychological phenomena also resist being parsed into an is, isn’t, and an in-between: when you are watching a movie, so absorbed in the film you do not hear somebody call your name - are you in the room with the other person, or in the film with the characters you identify with? During hypnotic analgesia, when you can answer questions but not feel a knife cutting into your flesh, are you “all there?” or not?

When you sit in meditation, if you try to sit still and not move at all, your muscles will become rigid and your body will tremble. If you instead relax, your muscles will on their own make subtle adjustments and let you settle into stillness. Meanwhile your lungs continue to expand and collapse and your heart beats. This is movement-in-stillness, stillness-in-movement.

The meditation of is/is-not: being fully present by dropping body and mind.

You might object: this is all very well but if I’m driving and someone crosses the street in front of me, that person is either there or not and if you run them over they will either be alive and uninjured, alive and injured, or dead. In reply, let me quote Buddha in this section:

the effortless path to enlightenment is the ending of both arising and perishing.

[but]…. This is a teaching that must be left behind,

and the leaving behind, too, must be left behind.

[This is] the Dharma that transcends idle speculation.

All of the Buddha’s teachings are skillful means. They do not destroy or oppose our ordinary ways of thinking and being: they fold and unfold them to reveal further dimensions to our being. The rule of the excluded middle’s either-or creates a flat two-dimensional plane. This can be a good field for exploration; for example, one form of mindfulness meditation cultivates awareness of our experiences as varying along a continuum of pleasant - neutral - unpleasant. Here we can contrast delusion with enlightenment, discriminate black from white and all the in-between grays.

The tetralemma expands our possibilities by implying a three-dimensional object with four faces, a tetrahedron. These multiple planes are more in keeping with our actual being in the world, where our experiences can also be simultaneously pleasant and unpleasant and neither pleasant nor unpleasant. The center of all four planes is a pivot point in a depth dimension. This center is not neutral: it is a dynamic balancing we (inadequately) label “equanimity.” Extending from this center we can rotate the tetrahedron to meet our immediate experience in whatever way fits the moment: sometimes with one face, sometimes another, sometimes with all four.

These explorations of “is” and “is not” may seem overly abstract, but they are central to the liberation from suffering which is at the heart of the Surangama Sutra. It’s crucial to expand our field of action if we want to walk the Way of practice-enlightenment. On this path, our hindrances are the gateless gate: our delusions of perception are our vehicles for realization. Dogen reminds us: the more enlightened we are, the more we realize how steeped we are in delusion.

During Zen meditation retreats we end our meals chanting: “may we exist in muddy water with purity like the lotus.” It’s a nice image, but it doesn’t quite convey the concrete reality. I’d never seen a lotus pond while I was growing up in New York, so I was very excited the first time I went to see one during a hot, humid summer in Tokyo. I was dismayed to see how poorly tended the pond was, its turbid waters clogged with muck: the lotus flowers drooped in the heat and were begrimed by the soot of the city. I recently took some photos of lotus flowers at a better-tended garden in San Francisco. When I got home and examined the results I had several pretty good pictures, but none of them quite lived up to the classic ideal image I wanted - I was tempted to Photoshop them so they’d look better.

If we get caught in dualisms of clean and dirty, nirvana and samsara, delusion and enlightenment, we may be tempted to photoshop ourselves and to prettify false images of practice. We need to become sufficiently dis-illusioned to enjoy becoming more aware of our garbage, so we can find consolation in composting. Since we practice in muddy waters it behooves us to learn some ways of navigating the turbidities that arise in our mind.

This section of the sutra describes five turbidities which arise when awareness, mind-consciousness, sense-consciousness, space, primary elements, and karma become entangled with each other:

  • the turbidity of time (We get confused by how we seem to go from a past to a future)
  • the turbidity of perception. (We get confused by how our representations of the world seem real )
  • the turbidity of afflictions (We get confused by how hurts seem to hinder us and stain us)
  • the turbidity of individual beings. (We get confused by how we seem to exist apart from everything and everyone)
  • the turbidity of lifespans (We get confused by how we seem to appear at birth and vanish at death)

Feelings of hurt, feeling there’s never enough time, feeling caught in the skin of an individual mortal person with compelling sensations and perceptions… - these cloud our minds and hearts. Clouds, though, do not block the vast sky of our being. The turbidities may seem to be inescapable truths, impossible barriers to liberation, fearsome rapids preventing us from crossing to the other shore. In truth, the river is both our flowing self and the stream which bears us. Every moment we are navigating this river of easy impossibility and impossible ease.

Practice-enlightenment mirrors the Pang family’s tetralemma of easy-difficult. Dogen expressed this in a poem:

Mind itself is buddha.

Practice is difficult. Enlightenment is not difficult.

Not-mind, not-buddha.

Enlightenment is difficult. Practice is not difficult.

Take heart! Your wondrous enlightened understanding knows the lotus does not bloom in the mud.

The lotus continuously blooms through the mud,

and the mud continuously blooms through the lotus.


Let's Pretend: Surangama Sutra, The Coming into Being of Illusion

Like all toddlers, my two grandchildren enjoy tasting the world. They put all sorts of things in their mouth. Recently Lucas and Noemi have delighted in a new game: they take hold of one of their toy fruits and vegetables and, knowing it’s not a “real” banana or cucmber, hold it close to their mouth, look at me with a twinkle in their eye, and say: “yum yum!” Then they offer it to me, and I join them in their pretend play.

It’s fun to use our senses to explore, and to pretend. A problem arises, though, when we forget our senses are only pretend tastes of the world, not the world itself. There’s a well-researched psychological phenomenon: the more often we see or hear something, the more we believe in it. This tendency is beloved by advertising executives and used in the repeated proclamations of politicians, television gurus, and internet influencers. After the nth retelling and a few thousand “likes,” lies masquerade as common knowledge.

As we go through various stages while we’re growing up, it’s natural to pretend to be firefighters and explorers, teachers and rock stars. We try on images of ourselves and see how they fit. When our pretend play turns into badges of identity, though, we get caught by our pretensions. When I was an adolescent I decided to pretend I liked spicy foods: my friends and I had a game to see who could eat the hottest chili without spitting it out. A few years later when I was living in Tokyo, some Japanese friends heard I liked spicy food and took me to a Korean restaurant. I ordered a soup and the waiter said to me: “you don’t want that, it’s too spicy-hot.” I replied I liked spicy-hot. The waiter insisted: “this is really spicy-hot, I don’t think you’ll like it.” Feeling challenged, I insisted he bring me the soup as my main meal. When it arrived, the soup was a scarlet sea - bright red with not much else in it to temper the pepper puree. My first spoonful told me I’d made a big mistake, but I had to save face, and finish it all. I’m not sure my taste buds ever fully recovered from that trial by fire.

Children like to pretend to be adults. By the time they turn thirty years old, adults often regret how, pretending to be this or that, they’ve locked themselves into restrictive roles. Then adults like to pretend they’re children. Some people are uncomfortable in their work roles or parent roles: they fulfill all their duties but feel like they’re phonies, that they are only pretending to a competence they don’t really have (a competence which nobody “really” has). Other people pretend their work and family roles are who they “really” are: they become so identified with their images that when they retire or their children grow up, they feel they no longer know who they are.

Buddhists sometimes like to pretend they’re Buddhists, sometimes they like to pretend they’re not. There’s always a few people who pretend to be enlightened: this often snares religious communities in scandals of power, sex, and money.

Most of us pretend we are not enlightened. This is very sad.

The Surangama sutra strips away our pretensions to understanding what we are and are not. It reminds us that every time we say “I am seeing /hearing/tasting/touching/thinking that” we’re pretending our illusions are our reality. Perceptions of self and world are refracted through the filters of our Big-I minds. Our illusions of the world are us, bent back onto ourselves: illusions of self projected onto the world, illusions of the world projected onto the self.

It’s not surprising that Buddha’s disciples, having had all their perceptions uprooted, are assailed by doubt. They complain: ‘we don’t understand - Buddha says the Matrix of the Thus Come One is fundamentally pure, empty of any thing which comes into being or ceases to exist. In that case, how do mountains, rivers, and everything else subject to causes and conditions, birth and death - [every material thing, including me and you] - arise? Even very wise Pūrṇamaitrāyaṇīputra laments that when he tries to listen to the Buddha’s discourse he feels he “might as well be a deaf man trying to hear a mosquito from a distance of more than a hundred paces…..”

I’ll paraphrase Buddha’s response. Basically, Buddha sighs.“Ah, Pūrna! Still trying to understand!” Still making conceptual distinctions! Still trying to sort the world into categories!” Still trying to reconcile the many and the one, delusion and enlightenment.

Because the category of what is differentiated and the category of what is uniform have been established, the category of what is neither uniform nor differentiated is further established. The turmoil of this….gives rise to mental strain, and as the mental strain is prolonged, grasping at objects of mind begins…..[this] creates a turbidity of mind, out of which the afflictions are generated.

Does that clarify the matter for you? Or is your mind feeling muddy at this moment?

Thich Nhat Hanh, when teaching meditation, sometimes likes to use the metaphor of a glass of muddy water to represent the mind full of thoughts. If you try to calm the mind by picking out all the little pieces of dirt, you’ll only stir things up and maintain the turbidity. If instead you just settle down and do nothing, the mud will gradually subside and the glass of water will clarify. This is excellent instruction for beginning meditators who strain themselves trying to control their minds by grasping and rejecting mind-objects.

This metaphor, though, can be misleading: it may give the impression that the bits of dirt really exist and the muddy water is really unclear. In the Surangama Sutra Buddha goes further by insisting this, too, is delusion. The muddy water manifests as an illusion in the Matrix of the Thus-Come-One. In true reality, the muddy glass of water is eternally clear throughout all time and space: that clarity just appears, for this moment, as a muddy glass of water.

Our self-centered Big-I mind makes distinctions: muddy, clear. Then we get confused, and we have troubles understanding. Enlightenment, though, is itself wondrous understanding.

Buddha wants us to wake up to how we all are, were, and will be fundamentally enlightened. We mistakenly believe we must become enlightened by gaining some additional understanding. But that would mean our fundamental enlightenment is somehow incomplete, that it needs something extra - that we need something extra.

When we try to add (Big-I) understanding to wondrous (G-B) enlightened understanding, we trip over our own feet:

An enlightenment to which an understanding is added cannot be a true enlightenment……
an enlightenment that lacks understanding cannot be the true intrinsic enlightenment that is inherently pure…..
Once the category of ‘something understood’ is mistakenly established in the mind, the category ‘that which understands’ is mistakenly established as well.

When you or I try to understand something, we separate ourselves from what we wish to understand. This creates a seemingly unbridgeable chasm where self and other can never meet. The illusion of “self” and “objects” alienates us from our true world of inter-being. This delusion is the root of all suffering.

Let’s take a concrete example. We all have phases where we’re slumbering in bed and periods where we’re aroused and going about our business. We assume “I” wake up and “I” go to sleep. However, while we’re dozing our brain stays active and our heart continues to beat. Who is this dragon who never sleeps? To think you are “out of it” when asleep and “with it” when awake is an illusion.

Sometimes, when I go to bed, I say to myself: “time for dream-self to wake up.” Often, when I get up in the morning, first thing I say to myself is: “how did that (waking up) happen?” When the mind wanders during meditation, and the mind notices itself wandering - what is the mind which embraces wandering, embraces catching itself, and embraces catching itself catching?

My eight year old daughter once posed a riddle: “why did the girl close her eyes when she looked in the mirror?” The answer: “to see herself asleep.”Whenever we look at ourselves with Big-I mind, we are looking in the mirror with our eyes closed, we are asleep thinking we’re awake.

When our inner eye is not open, we make false discriminations between asleep/awake, enlightenment/delusion. We don’t realize: we are always fully right where we are, whether asleep or awake. To think otherwise is like thinking the sun is “gone” when it sets at night, and “there” when it rises in the morning. The sun is always there: we just turn away from it for a while every twenty-four hours. The stars are always there: we just are too dazzled sometimes to see them. Enlightenment is like the sun: it is not a lamp that needs to be plugged in, that turns on and off: it offers itself to us as an ever-present star. Enlightenment is like the dark that reveals the stars: nothing needs to be extinguished or snuffed out to go beyond understanding.

Not understanding opens the horizons of wonder. Understanding has its practical uses, but it also causes major problems. As Shakyamuni says:

[once understanding arises] there arises a firm attachment to that understanding, and this firm attachment is categorized as solidity.
A point of light is seen to appear. When the light is seen clearly, deluded thoughts arise — both hatred in response to incompatible points of view and love in response to compatible ways of thinking.

Light is wonderful, but it also pollutes: in most urban areas at night now, we cannot see the stars. In the light of knowledge, we become attached to our dualistic distinctions. We identify with our limited ideas of who (me not you) and what (this not that). From these illusions come desire and aversion, bringing suffering. Darkness, if we do not violate it with light, has its own means for dispelling illusion.

Wendell Berry’s poem is apt:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

At this moment, you are thinking something different from what I am thinking. In the light of thinking we know what we know, skin colors divide us, voices are upper- and lower-class, tastes are pleasing or harsh. But also at this moment, you are not-thinking what I am not thinking. As the Sandokai says, “the dark makes all forms one.” In dark non-knowing, beyond understanding, there is no color nor sound no taste no smell no touch no object of mind: no racist divisions, no highs nor lows, no inequality, no equality.

One of the Lojong guidelines for cultivating compassion is: “Don’t try to figure things out.” When I first learned that, I was shocked. I like figuring things out. Then I remembered how frustrated my loved ones and friends can get when they want me to just listen to them, and instead I start analyzing and problem-solving. Trying to figure things out can get in the way of empathizing and being fully present.

As soon as we start to figure things out, we identify causes and conditions: we find reasons to blame someone or something for our difficulties. If we encounter suffering without trying to analyze it, we can respond naturally with loving-kindness. When I attend my daughter’s middle-school concert, I can cavil about ragged entrances, wince at wrong notes, and protest problems with pitch. Deeper down, though, there is nothing but love. When my daughter comes up to me after the concert and asks how I liked it, I can respond sincerely: it was wonderful.

Zen master Gensha liked to say: “all the universe is One Bright Pearl.” One day a student said to him: “you teach that ‘all the universe is one bright pearl - but I don’t understand. How can I gain an understanding?” Gensha replied: “All the universe is One Bright Pearl - what need is there to understand it?”

Our need for understanding comes from pride (“I am only as good as what I understand”) and fear (“if I don’t understand what’s going on, I’ll lose all control of the situation”). Understanding, though, is not insight. Insight turns us back to the fundamentals, looking for the teachings within us, our in-tuition. There’s not only nothing shameful about not understanding, it often is the spark we need to bring out previously unthought-of perspectives. Sometimes my students will start asking me about something by saying “This is a stupid question, but…” Usually, what follows is a great question. It’s often about something which I’ve taken for granted, and the student’s inquiry challenges me to go deeper. As my teacher Sojun sometimes would say, “If you want to realize enlightenment, you have to be willing to be a little bit stupid.”

A little bit stupid, though, is not the same as ignorant. Ignorance is the breeding ground for delusion. If you grasp at understanding you aggressively break the universe apart into small bits. This violates the universe. However, if you settle for not understanding, you’ll miss out on the wonders of the universe. This dishonors the universe.

It’s not a matter of understanding or not-understanding, not a matter of illusion and not-illusion, not a matter of “is” and “is not.” All these do is perpetuate dualistic distinctions. Whenever we separate delusion from clarity, we tend to treat clarity as better, as more “real.” We tend to treat delusion as if, being false, it were also “unreal” - perhaps even evil. A successful illusion, though, is completely real in its deceptiveness, and can be destructive or beneficial. The myth of WMDs in Iraq justified a war; the placebo “illusion” has very real curative effects.

Clarity is ungraspable and transparently invisible - how can you call it “real?” That which does not exist is very real in its non-existence. As the Tao Te Ching says, “that which is not penetrates every crack.” If that which does not exist were unreal, where would we find the space which provides us room for all that exists?

Trying too hard to understand false and real can give you a head ache. Before pinning your hopes on understanding false and real, right and wrong, enlightenment and delusion, consider the limits of our understanding. There will always be more that we do not understand than we do understand. To paraphrase Ivan in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: we have three-dimensional brains, how can we hope to understand a universe which has ten dimensions (or more, according to scientists and mathematicians). Even more fundamentally: do you think it is possible to truly understand yourself? If not, how could you possibly understand anyone else - let alone Buddha-dharma?

Do we even understand what understanding is? School systems have problems measuring it; philosophers have troubles defining it. Zen insists words cannot describe our understanding, even though we are continually demonstrating our understanding by how we live. We realize our enlightenment by how we stand here and face now.

Luminous, wondrous, enlightened understanding is is not a cognitive operation (though it is includes, and is not separate from, cognition). It is always in good standing; it underlies all.

What is under standing?
- The Great Earth.

What is under The Great Earth?
- The center.

What at the center of the center?
- A dimensionless point.

In meditation we cultivate intimacy with this center, with this dimensionless point, not by understanding it (or not understanding it). We cultivate this center by harmonizing body-and-mind, dropping body-and-mind, settling the self on the Self, as described in the Tao Te Ching:

Reach the pole of emptiness
- abide, still, in the center.

Constant things co-arising
- see them turn and re-turn.

Return to the root
- at the root to be still

In stillness recover, revive, and endure.

My teacher Sojun once said: “I could explain it to you, but it would be doing you a dis-service.”


The Matrix - Surangama Sutra, The Matrix of the Thus-Come-One

The Matrix

Surangama Sutra: The Matrix of the Thus-Come-One

Our ordinary mind is self-centered - and our ordinary mind is our gateway to enlightened being. By recognizing our delusions, we can wake up to realize our true selves.

In Ordinary Mind Zen we chant:

Caught in a self-centered dream - only suffering;

Holding to self-centered thoughts - exactly the dream.

Every thought, feeling and sensation is a dream within a dream. As a neuropsychologist, I’m bemused by how meditators are willing to acknowledge thoughts are often misleading, but continue to believe their sense-perceptions are “really real.” In this section of the Sutra, Buddha dispels this illusion. Shakyamuni expounds on how we pile up not just thoughts but also sensations and all the factors of body-and-mind into heaps, creating the oneiric illusion there is a world separate from our selves. In each case, Buddha shows how the myriad things add up to no thing whatsoever. Every aggregate is an illusion.

In this section of the Surangama, Buddha takes each of the various components of being -

  • five aggregates (form, sense-perception, cognition, mental formations, and consciousness)
  • six faculties (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, cognition)
  • twelve sites (eye-faculty and visible objects; ear-faculty and sounds; nose-faculty and odors; tongue-faculty and flavors; body-faculty and objects of touch; cognitive faculty and objects of cognition)
  • Eighteen constituents (eye-consciousness, ear—consciousness, nose—consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness, mind-consciousness)
  • Seven primary elements (earth, fire, water, wind, space, awareness, consciousness)

and shows how each “does not come into being from causes and conditions, nor does it come into being on its own.” Rather, all these heaps, and their seeming components, are inherent in the Matrix of the Thus-Come-One, the field of enlightened nature far beyond form and emptiness. This

“true, wondrous, luminously understanding [G-B] Mind contains the body and everything outside the body — mountains, rivers, sky, the entire world…..Our enlightened nature can be involved with things throughout all ten directions, and yet it remains clear and still. It is eternally present. It neither comes into being nor ceases to be.”

This may seem wildly solipsistic or, at best, idealistic. We may intellectually acknowledge that our sense-perception and thought are sometimes fallacious, but protest they are usually pretty accurate guides. After all, the existence of our own bodies, our own minds, and the objects around us is “undeniable.” Perhaps not. When we delve more deeply into the neuropsychology of body-mind phenomena, we’re in from some surprises.

Consider asomatognosia, a syndrome some brain-injured patients experience where they do not recognize parts of their body as their own. The affected body part isn’t paralyzed or insensate, but it becomes alien. In some cases the patient insists the body part belongs to and is controlled by someone else (e.g. in alien hand syndrome, also called “Dr Strangelove hand”).

I had a brief taste of this after my CVA. It was an uncommon type of stroke, a cerebral venous thrombosis which produced intermittent symptoms, mostly problems with leg weakness and balance. One day while working at the computer I needed to use the mouse in my right hand to move the cursor to the menu bar. I gave the mental command to my hand….and was surprised when nothing happened. I didn’t have any sensory or motor problems: I could grip the mouse, I could move my hand (and the mouse) any which way. But when I told my hand to move the mouse to the menu bar, the hand simply didn’t respond. I looked at my hand, puzzled: wasn’t this my hand? But how could it be my hand if I could feel it, move it, but it didn’t do the simple movement I wanted it to do?

Neuropsychology calls this experience an agnosia: the “lower” nervous system sensations and movements are intact, but disconnected from the “higher” nervous systems of recognition and intention. I was relieved when, after several hours, my agnosia disappeared.. While it lasted, though, the feeling of body-mind disconnection was quite disorienting. It gave me a greater appreciation for patients who deal with more severe forms of this neurological disorder, and also for the depersonalization and derealization which occur in some psychiatric disorders.

A related phenomenon occurs in reverse: a person experiences their body in places where it isn’t. After a limb amputation, patients experience pain in the missing limb. You don’t need to sacrifice a limb to experience this. If you put your right hand in a box which has a rubber hand on top in line with your shoulder and arm, and someone strokes a finger of your real hand (unseen, in the box) while simultaneously stroking the same finger of the rubber hand you are looking at, after a few minutes it will seem like your “real” hand vanishes and the fake hand is your own.

We think of these as disorders or illusions. From a Buddhist standpoint, though, they illustrate how our sense of “my” body is always illusory: it is a brain image, a representation rather than a fact.

Letting go of “my” body need not be pathological; it can scrape away the belief of personal ownership and allow us access to luminous experiences of non-separation. Hopefully you’ve had experiences of this sort, where you’ve been so immersed in an activity “you” vanish. Perhaps, singing or dancing, you’ve felt the music doing the crooning, the dance itself capering through your limbs. It’s quite wonderful when, after a few years of practicing qigong or taiji, once in a while everything aligns and we feel it is not us, but the qigong/taiji which is performing the form “through” us.

Shunryu Suzuki used to say: “it is a big mistake to think you are doing the meditation.” When we sit down to meditate, it’s important to get out of the way and let the meditation meditate. If you are therapist, when you sit down with a client let the meeting give rise to the therapy; when you are a carpenter, let the wood grain, nails, and hammer secure the joint. As a teacher, simply make room to participate in the rekindling of wonder with your students. When you garden, don’t pull weeds out: reach down through the roots into the soil; draw on the whole earth and whole sky. Allowing the plant-in-the-wrong-place to find a new place in the light, it emerges effortlessly.

Our sense that my body-and-mind belongs to me is a culturally reinforced delusion regarded as “normal” by our individualistic society. However, in times of war your body belongs to the State and can be drafted into the army whether you want it to or no. In patriarchal societies, the legal system explicitly treated (alas, in many places, still treats) the bodies of women and children as belonging to their husbands and fathers. Our individualist society acknowledges sports teams win more games when individual players function as one organism, but treats this as requiring some degree of self-sacrifice rather than as the most natural way of being. Many social systems, though, treat bodies as existing only insofar as they belong to their communities, to be called on as needs arise. When I trek in Nepal, we give every crew member a sleeping bag, but they usually put these aside and prefer to huddle together under a shared blanket (which, actually, is much warmer).

What if we have it backwards in our culture? Buddha suggests our usual notion that “I have a body which I occasionally share or aggregate with others” is false: it obscures that fundamentally all being - including “mine” - is inter-being. Perhaps the sense of “my” body is merely a bothersome addition to our collective “being” body. Perhaps the sense of “my” body is an extra layer which gets in the way as much as it protects and serves us. I wonder whether dolphins playing in their pods or solitary snow leopards invisible in their white world experience a sense of “my” body, or if they function perfectly fine without it?

In the Surangama Sutra, Buddha discusses how each of the aggregates, faculties, and so forth are illusory in their own-existence: in reality they are manifesting the Matrix of the Thus Come One. In the case of the body-faculty, Buddha gives an example of a person who joins her hands together when one hand is cold and the other is warm: with the exchange of warmth and cold, she becomes aware of contact. This awareness of contact, though, is inextricable from, and depends on, a sense of separation. With no separation to compare it to, how can there be separation?

Actually, the dualism of separation-and-contact is illusory. Even when the hands are not touching each other directly, they are continuously connected with each other through the rest of the body, the nervous system and the environment. Even when the hands are resting on each other, which hand is touching and which hand is being touched? Jointly experiencing this recursive contact, are the hands separate or apart? The philosopher Merleau-Ponty suggests we come to know ourselves by touching ourselves touching. I would add: and through being touched by others.

Buddha explains that discriminating contact-and-separation as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral imposes a strain, and distorts perception. However, Buddha also asserts this tactile body-awareness has no ultimate basis. How can this be? What is the nature of the distortion? It seems obvious that in contact-and-separation, touching ourselves or being touched by others, we close a spatial gap. So Buddha’s analysis of what constitutes “space” becomes crucial.

We all are certain we know what space is: it’s the physical thing which provides room for us to be ourselves, and also the chasm which isolates us from the intimate wholeness we yearn for. We also experience space as a mental phenomenon; meditators attend to the space between thoughts, to the “space in mind,” the infinite “room” in which consciousness seems to arise. On closer examination, though, space - whether physical or mental - is quite mysterious. Is space a thing? Buddha says to Ananda:

“Ānanda, consider the example of a person who takes up an empty pitcher and plugs up its two spouts so that it seems he has confined some space in the pitcher. Believing that he is carrying this pitcherful of space, he travels a thousand miles to another country with the intention of making a present of it. You should know that the aggregate of consciousness can be described in similar terms.

The space that is in the pitcher, Ānanda, does not in fact come from the place where the person began his journey, nor is it transported to the country he travels to. It is like this, Ānanda: if the space had been transported from the first country by being confined in the pitcher, there must have been a loss of space at the place where the pitcher had come from. Moreover, if the space had been brought to the second country, then if the spouts were unplugged and the pitcher turned upside-down, the space within it would be seen to pour out.

In this way you should know that the aggregate of consciousness is an illusion. It does not come into being from causes and conditions, nor does it come into being on its own.”

We’re continually plugging up our consciousness with thoughts and feelings, urges and sensations. Big-I mind is constantly making its pitch, with shows of self-esteem and self-humiliation funded by commercials for things which, if we acquire or remove them, promise to improve our selves. Meditation helps us empty the pitcher. This is quite a relief. But even when we quiet the skandhas of forms, feelings, perceptions, and formations, the beguiling skandha of consciousness has no more graspable essence than does physical space.

Buddha explains that space, in whatever amount, can never be accumulated. It’s easy to fall into the illusion that if we accumulate mental space, it will expand into enlightenment. But in that case enlightenment would come into being - which would imply enlightenment is subject to birth and death. To counter this, Buddha provides us the physical metaphor of digging a well. Buddha points out that if you dig out soil to one foot, space is discernible to one foot; when you dig a well to ten feet, space is discernible to ten feet. But

does the space in the well come into being out of the soil? Does it come into being because of the digging? Or does it come into being on its own…..

The soil that is removed is solid matter, while the space is insubstantial, so they cannot function together. They cannot be aggregated or combined with each other….

Given that the fundamental nature of space is all-pervasive and does not move, you should know that the real nature…[of space, and the other elements] is one with the Matrix of the Thus-Come One, neither coming into being nor ceasing to be.

If this seems confusing, you may take comfort from the fact that space confuses physicists as well: they cannot agree on the fundamental nature of space. When Isaac Newton was formulating his laws of motion, he was very aware that he left unexamined what might be the nature of the space “in” which motion occurs. When Einstein moved from the special theory of relativity (where he intuited that time was not invariable) to the general theory, he intuited that space is not invariable.

Just as time dilates and contracts, space bends and straightens. Space curves around objects with mass (though we don’t know whether the overall “shape” of space is flat or curved, negative or positive). Space could be flat and infinite, flat with an edge, or flat and curve around onto itself. Most modern physicists assume space did not exist prior to the Big Bang, but there are several countervailing models, such as the Big Crunch which treat space as eternal - i.e., in Buddhist terms, unborn and undying.

Physicists cannot even agree on whether or not space is a thing. They agree matter cannot exist without space, but cannot agree whether space can exist without matter. If space can exist without matter, space is a thing (in which case, physicists disagree on whether space is composed of small bits or is it an unbroken, smooth field). However, it’s entirely plausible space is “only” a relationship - that is defined by where matter isn’t, but has no qualities in and of itself.

We know there are “ripples” in space; we have observed gravitational waves. To call them “waves,” though, is a little misleading. When we see, hear, or surf ocean waves, we are enjoying energy propagated through the physical medium of water. In physics, though, the physical medium traversed by light waves, gravitational waves, and other forms of energy is mysteriously nonexistent. One hundred years ago, experiments failed to find the ether which was supposed to “fill” space and provide the medium conveying the electromagnetic energy of the sun to the earth. So instead of a physical medium, physicists talk about - and can compute - the effects of energy fields. “Empty” space is “filled” with fields - but while physicists can compute the effects that fields have on matter, they cannot say what fields are in themselves. As one physicist notes: we’ve replaced the ether with the field, but the field is “the tension in the membrane, but without the membrane.” These are fields far beyond form and emptiness.

I hope this has confused and unsettled you. That’s the point. As Master Hua says in his commentary to the Surangama Sutra, “reading this, you should feel terror.” In our society meditation practice has too often become commercialized and complacent, a form of relaxation, a coping mechanism. All of those are fine palliatives, but they don’t do enough to deconstruct the delusive sense of privileged separateness which is eating away at our interbeing, destroying species, insulating us from each other and raising our temperatures to fever levels. To experience true liberation, we need to drop all our assumptions and conditioned habits of “me” and “mine.” We need to take refuge by recognizing, respecting, and taking responsibility for our co-arising with all being.

This is simply how it is. This is The Matrix of Thus Comes One: a lattice with uncountable intersections, all the spaces in-between, each point a field far beyond form and emptiness, each and all free, yet mysteriously united. To realize liberation, we can join with Ananda and the rest of the assembly who, at the end of this section of the teaching,

felt that their bodies and minds were emptied and hardly seemed to exist…. that their minds pervaded the ten directions….that all things in all worlds are the wondrous, fundamental, enlightened, luminous mind that understands, and that this mind, pure, all-pervading, and perfect, contains the entire universe.

Freed from hindrances, Ananda exclaims:

No need to wait forever to attain the Dharma-body.

I vow to reach enlightenment and


rescue beings countless as the Ganges’ sands.

May the seven billion people of this maha world join in this vow. We can re-phrase it and expound the nature of The Matrix of Thus Comes One in a few familiar words:

All for One


One for All


Seeing is Believing (Not!) - Surangama Sutra, “The Nature of Visual Awareness”

When we look in a mirror, it shows a warped version of ourselves. It flattens us, reverses right and left, and is distorted by our fears and hopes. It doesn’t fully embody our sense of who we are, nor does it necessarily convey how others see us. All our visual images are constricted by the limitations of our visual apparatus as well as tainted by thought and desire. To take the image as the reality is to be corrupted as Ananda was (almost) corrupted by a vision of loveliness when he encountered the Matanga courtesan. Shakyamuni warns Ananda:

“all that you can now see — the mountains, the rivers, the many lands, and the various forms of life— are the result of a disease that has existed in your visual awareness since time without beginning.”

Last week’s dharma talk explored how our thoughts are really unreal. The same is true of all our sense-impressions. The page of words you see at this moment appears as your present reality, but it hides the ink and phosphors, the earth elements, the straight lines and curves which constitute it; you do not see the human sweat which molded it and your sight cannot point to the ideas emerging from it. We all succumb to the disease which deceives us into believing our senses are an accurate bridge between the Big-I mind “inside” us and the world around us. Even in this age of Photoshopped Instagrams we still say “seeing is believing,”
In this section of the Surangama Sutra, Buddha deconstructs our visual delusions in the hope that, by the end of the section, we may begin to see a different way to meditate and glimpse a wider realm of practice. Shakyamuni begins by reminding us: it is the mind that sees, not the eyes. This is no surprise to anyone with a basic knowledge of the neurophysiology of vision: light reflects off objects and passes through the lens of the eye, which bends the rays into an upside-down image projected onto the rods and cones of the retina. There the light-energy is converted into nerve-impulses which criss-cross on their way to the lateral geniculate nucleus and superior colliculus of the midbrain. From there the information is passed to the brain’s occipital lobe where the visual cortex assembles it into a conscious image. We assume the result (what we see) is a reasonably accurate representation “in” our minds of the objects around us. Unless we’re disturbed by some anomaly we usually take visual perception for granted; we have a trusting belief in the reality of our perceptions. This is a shame, because it keeps us from fully appreciating the wondrous nature of vision - and its limitations.
For example, Buddha points out how visual awareness does not move. When we are in a room and turn our head to the right or the left, our visual awareness shows us a stationary room, and we know it is our head moving, not the room. This takes quite a bit of brain processing. Different images of the room are moving across our retina; the brain takes the series of moving images that arise and - with some help from the vestibular system - deduces the lamp at the other end of the room is standing still. It presents this deduction as a stationary image. Conversely, when a series of still images moves rapidly across our retina in a movie theater, the brain fuses the still images into the appearance of movement. These abilities are marvelous - and potentially misleading.
The visual system is not a mechanical translator blindly transferring light onto a film in the brain. We create what we see. In some classical experiments, volunteers were fitted with goggles which turned their world upside-down. When they wore them continuously, they stumbled about for several days, but by the fifth day the image flipped: the volunteers saw the world as once again right-side up. After a while longer wearing the goggles, when they eventually took them off the “real” visual world looked upside down to them, until they re-adapted. The process of adaptation was facilitated by their handling objects - they started “see” first with their hands. The “visual system” does not function in isolation from the rest of the body.
When I was trekking in Nepal, I noticed how visitors relied mostly on their eyes: fearful of falling, they’d look down to the ground and pick their way along the trail. They stumbled frequently. Nepali sherpas and porters, though, looked ahead and all around; their vision was wide, encompassing a bit of the trail but also the entire terrain. Walking long distances barefoot since childhood, their feet had learned to reliably “see” the ground immediately below. They were in their element and rarely, if ever, fell.
In order to see, we must act. Our visual awareness arises through our interactions with the world. The images we see are not mere projections of static icons; the images depict relationships and experiences. Our subjective visual images display ideas about the world, not the world itself.
Shakyamuni points out, visual awareness - like ideas- has neither shape nor extension. When I stand on the Renjo La in Nepal, the image of Mt Everest that appears on my retina is less than an inch tall, but the image that arises in my visual perception has no size or shape. The image does not span my occipital lobe like a projection on a movie screen. Cutting open my brain will not reveal a mini-Everest someplace. The visual images arising in our Big-I minds have no discrete, graspable location or physical form. I see Mt Everest as large because I have the idea of large. From this distance I can contrast it with what’s around it and match it up to my knowing it is more than 29,000 feet high. From another vantage point down on the glacier, an intervening hill blocks my view except for Sagarmatha’s tip, which looks rather small. I won’t really appreciate “29,000 feet high” unless I have the experience of my lungs and legs protesting when I try to climb the peak. Meanwhile, here on Renjo La, if I slip on an ice-covered rock, that rock looms larger than Sagarmatha’s massif. All visual images are only as large as the attention we give to them.
As Buddha says to Ananda, “visual awareness is not a perceived object.…if visual awareness were a perceived object, then would you not be able to see my visual awareness as an object?” As we delve into the relationship between visual awareness and the objects of awareness, we begin to get into deep waters. Buddha proposes a metaphor - one that is often referred to in Zen practice - saying:
Suppose someone is pointing to the moon to show it to another person. That other person, guided by the pointing finger, should now look at the moon. But if he looks instead at the finger, taking it to be the moon, not only does he fail to see the moon, but he is mistaken, too, about the finger.
He has confused the finger, with which someone is pointing to the moon, with the moon, which is being pointed to.
Buddha shakes up our dualistic Big-I minds, teaching that visual awareness is both separate and not separate from objects. He gives an example: “If trees were separate from my awareness, how could I be seeing them? But if the trees were identical to my awareness, how could they still be trees?……Our visual awareness does not have a nature of its own that is distinct from the myriad things. Thus your awareness is not something you can point out [and grasp].”

Let’s use an example from perceptual psychology to clarify this. When you look at the figure to the left, you probably can see the downward pointing white triangle in the center - - despite the fact that there is nothing there. The appearance of the triangle depends on the three black pie shapes and the placement of three carats (V-shaped lines). Without those shapes, there is no white triangle; but without our visual perception “filling in” the implications, there also would be no white triangle. We cannot grasp the white triangle itself; we cannot grasp our visual perception of it.

The white triangle arises automatically to our conditioned minds. With some effort we can over-ride the conditioned perceptual processing and, by focus ing directly on the pies and carats, “erase” the white triangle.This is a little easier to experience with another example

Here our visual perception of the center of the figure shifts from appearing as the letter “B” to appearing as the number “13.”

With some effort of visual awareness we can “unsee” both “B” and “13” and instead see simply a straight line to the left of two arcs:.

Being aware of how our visual perception is both separate and not separate from things, our visual awareness can both “see” and “not-see” the letters “B” and “13.” In everyday life, sometimes we see things which aren’t there: perhaps you’ve been in a crowded airport terminal and, passing by a gate, were surprised to see a friend’s face. You pause to say hello and realize you’ve mistaken a stranger for your friend. In everyday life, sometimes we don’t see things which are there: perhaps you’ve mislaid your keys, search all over for them, only to eventually discover them where you first started looking; they were there, but you didn’t see them despite their being right in front of your eyes.
Every child knows how to look up, wide-eyed, at an adult who is harping at them and look right through them: a convenient form of seeing not-seeing. This trick can come in handy at a stressful work meeting! More fundamentally, modulating how we see is itself a meditation; it allows us to change our relationship to the world. the beginning of the Dayan Qigong form, we let our eyes go soft and instruct ourselves: “eyes open, seeing nothing” or “eyes open, seeing far” or “eyes open, seeing within.” When we meditate, it’s good to sometimes keep our eyes open, sometimes closed, sometimes half-open or half-closed.
Objects come and go, but visual awareness is not lost and does not perish. Buddha reminds King Prasenajit that although he may have seen the river Ganges when he was three years old, gone away, and returned to see the river Ganges again now that he is sixty-two: “Your Majesty, your face is wrinkled, but the essential nature of your visual awareness itself has not wrinkled.” We might object: probably the King’s eyesight is not as good as it was. Perhaps he has cataracts; perhaps he has gone blind. In either case, his visual perception of the river will be different than it was. His visual awareness, however, does not wrinkle. If his eyes have gotten dim, he will be aware of blurriness; if he has gone blind, he will be aware of being blind. Buddha gives examples of how an eye disease can cause us to see colored rings around bright objects like a lamp; sometimes an atmospheric miasma will cause us to see colored rings around the moon. The distortion is not in the moon or the lamp, nor is the distortion in our awareness - because we know our vision is obscured. In the same way, a key gateway to enlightenment is being aware of how we are deluded.
Closing our eyes and opening them does not interrupt our visual awareness. If we are driving a car and our eyes close from fatigue, we realize our peril and open them. When our eyes are closed when we are asleep, our visual awareness brings up dream images. Incidentally, mostly the same brain structures are activated during dreaming and when we’re awake. The brain does seem to “see” during dreaming. Asleep, the stimuli arise from within and what we see we call “dreams.” When we are awake, our visual awareness brings us the - dream? - images we call “the world.”
The central point here is that visual awareness is not a thing. It is a form of being. Painters and other graphic artists know this: they draw on their visual awareness to convey a broader reality than the one we take for granted. Visual awareness is not a reflection of the world, nor a duplication of it. As Buddha says, “[although] visual awareness is not the wondrous, essential, understanding mind….. it can be compared to a second moon, rather than to a reflection of the moon.”
Buddha warns us: “From time without beginning, all beings have mistakenly identified themselves with what they are aware of. Controlled by their experience of perceived objects, they lose track of their fundamental minds…. The essence of visual awareness and what it is aware of cause what seem to be external phenomena to appear….[but] as you see me now, the fundamental, luminous essence of visual awareness is not the wondrous, essential, understanding mind.”
How can we cultivate the “inner eye” of meditation so we do not lose track of our fundamental mind, so we can touch the wondrous, essential, understanding G-B mind even with eyes wide shut? It helps to learn how to see with our whole body-mind. We can see though illusion by letting visual awareness fill our legs and feet, our belly and our heart and mind. Buddha offers simple instructions for this:
Once we add another layer of understanding to our enlightenment, our awareness and what it is aware of become defective. While the awareness that is added to enlightenment is defective, however, the awareness that is the fundamental, enlightened, understanding awareness is not defective.
We don’t need to end delusions; better to do less. When we let go of anything extra we return naturally to our fundamental enlightened understanding, which is not (never was, never will be) deceived.
So the next time you sit down to meditate, don’t try to understand. Don’t observe. Don’t concentrate. Simply refrain from adding anything to the experience, or subtracting anything from it. That’s all. That’s it.


Two Excerpts from this section of the Surangama Sutra
“The true, wondrous, luminously understanding mind contains the body and everything outside the body — mountains, rivers, sky, the entire world…..Our enlightened nature can be involved with things throughout all ten directions, and yet it remains clear and still. It is eternally present. It neither comes into being nor ceases to be.”


A dialog between Buddha and Majushri:
Buddha: Visual awareness and visible objects, and objects of mind as well, are like elaborate mirages that appear in space. They have no real existence of their own. Fundamentally, visual awareness and all its conditioned objects are the pure, wondrously understanding enlightenment itself. In enlightenment, how could there be identity or a lack of it?
Mañjuśrī, I now ask you: you are Mañjuśrī…. - is there a Mañjuśrī about whom one can say, ‘That is Mañjuśrī’? Or is there no such Mañjuśrī?”
Mañjuśrī: “Neither, World-Honored One. I am simply Mañjuśrī. There is no one about whom one can say, ‘That is Mañjuśrī.’ Why? If there were, there would be two Mañjuśrīs. Nor is it the case that there is no such Mañjuśrī. In fact, neither the affirmation nor the denial of the statement ‘That is Mañjuśrī’ is true.”
Buddha:“The same is true of the wondrously understanding essence of our visual awareness and also of the objects we observe and of space. All are the wondrously understanding, supreme enlightenment — the pure, perfect, true mind. It is a mistake to consider them as separate….
“Similarly, in the analogy of the second moon, which moon is the one about which one can say, ‘That is the moon,’ and which one is not in fact the moon? Actually, Mañjuśrī, there is really only one moon. We can neither affirm nor deny the statement, ‘That is the moon.’
Therefore, all your various interpretations of visual awareness and visible objects are nothing but delusion, and in the midst of delusion one cannot avoid thinking ‘That is’ and ‘That is not.’ Only from within the true, essential, wondrously understanding, awakened mind can one escape the error of trying to point to what ‘is’ and what ‘is not.’”
A koan (#88)from the Book of Serenity:

The Surangama scripture says:

When I don’t see, why don’t you see my not seeing?

If you see my not seeing, that is naturally not the characteristic of not seeing.

If you don’t see my not seeing, it’s naturally not a thing
- how could it not be you?


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