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.”

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