Tuesday, November 5, 2013

That for which you are looking is that which is looking -- St. Francis of Assisi

Sunday, October 20, 2013

What the hell is going on?

Sometimes I get asked what the purpose is of all of this "spirituality" stuff. I figured I'd write a bit about it. This is written from a vaguely Mahayana Buddhist perspective, with loads of my own interpretation mixed in.

There's one fact that seems unavoidably, uncomfortably true about being human (or, presumably, any other sentient being). It's so obvious as to be almost a tautology; a fact so banal that it almost doesn't merit mentioning. Ready? Here it is:

We prefer feeling good to feeling bad.


Now, if you're looking for counterexamples to this statement (you pedantic bastard), they're not hard to find. Masochists enjoy pain. We often take on short-term punishment for long-term gains. Some of us love to wallow in self-pity.

But if you analyze those examples carefully, you'll find that we haven't really countered anything: in every case, our motivation is the same. We want to do something to make things feel better, somehow -- even if the means are counterintuitive. This is what is referred to as suffering (and the urge to escape it) in Buddhism. It includes not just overt suffering, but that constant buzzing sense of discontent and incompleteness that most of us recognize (and yearn to consummate).

Okay, so let's say we buy this for now. So what?

Well, by early adulthood (at the latest), most of us have developed a rather refined and increasingly static set of mental heuristics that help us achieve that basic goal. We've got a list of preferences a mile long (and that should keep us relatively pacified over the course of our slow, unceremonious march toward death), or in lieu of that, at least a sense of personality that allows us to sidestep that particular cliché: you see, we're adventurous!

But how adventurous can we really be, when most of our assumptions about the very nature of reality are so static?

Consider: when you were a baby, you had no idea what the hell was going on. There were sights, sounds, fear, joy, wonderment... sometimes all at once. A marvelous, confusing dance of experience. Maybe like being on a months-long LSD trip.

Over time, you started developing a model of this experience that would stay with you for a long time to come. If you were particularly curious and bratty, someone was forced to explain to you that this whole lively dance was somehow equivalent to, or caused by, some mushy stuff inside your skull. Just what it meant for the liveness of experience to be the same as, or a byproduct of, matter, they couldn't tell you.

But it didn't matter; such concerns are easily hand-waved away. All of the contents or details of your experience -- the sights, sounds, smells, emotions, thoughts, etc. -- are easy enough to correlate with the firing of neurons, after all. And if you weren't watching very carefully, you forgot that this didn't settle the basic mystery: the sheer fact of experience, quite orthogonal to any of its details.

If you were intellectually honest but only tepidly adventurous, perhaps at this point you bought the premise of promissory materialism, sort of the scientific materialist's version of the god of the gaps. We don't exactly know yet, but since reality is made exclusively out of stuff, eventually we will explain everything in terms of stuff.

Spot o' materialism, Mr. Dawkins?

But maybe something still tickles the back of your skull-meat: it is incontrovertible that conscious experience seems to be happening. Even if I dispute it, that dispute takes the form of a thought occurring inside this seeming-ness of experience. Everything else -- including this seeming physical reality, and even my certainty of it -- I only know of via this experience. And as a result, all of that stuff is, and always will be, ontologically suspect. What would it even mean to catch a glimpse of reality that bypassed experience? Try to imagine it -- and then notice that your imagined solution took place inside of experience.

And if consciousness is physical, then where is it located? In my brain? Then why is it that my brain can be moved (say, out of the back of my skull) without conscious experience moving?

So no, it can never be entirely satisfying to accept that the most basic, unassailable fact of existence will be explained in terms of some of its contents (e.g., matter). Otherwise, it's easy to see that given a sufficiently convincing dream, you could be tricked into absolutely certainty that consciousness is caused by, well... the sky is not even the limit.

So we'll have to settle for tentative certainty: in this dream I find myself in, it sure seems that the brain is somehow involved in consciousness. And though we may never be able to close that gap entirely, it doesn't seem particularly worthwhile to leave the question open.

Or does it?
Okay, he didn't really exactly say this, but... close enough.

What if the first truth about humanity -- that we seek to escape sucky-ness, but fail the vast majority of the time -- is somehow intimately connected to the assumptions we've boxed ourselves into regarding the second (the sheer fact of experience)? This is more or less the claim of Mahayana Buddhism. How would we test such a hypothesis?

Well, we can use science -- but not the kind that clutches onto metaphysical assumptions like the assured primacy of physical reality. A much more radical kind. One that strips us of everything that we can be stripped of. That is, everything but direct experience itself.

Now, if you were to try this by yourself, you'd (probably) very quickly run into an immense difficulty: your mind just won't shut up. And it sure as hell won't buy into this suspicious plan to investigate experience directly. It's always been the intermediary and arbiter of experience, and damned if it will go down without a fight.

At this point you could settle for the booby prize: fail to recognize that this yammering mind is not the same thing as direct experience, and simply declare something like "I think, therefore I am." And who could blame you? Thought is bloody persistent.

But if you're persistent and passionate enough, you may eventually catch a glimpse of the machinery that runs the whole show. You will not have shed the mind -- for what good would you be without being able to think anything? But you will have transcended it: witnessed its mechanism and functional value without mistaking any of its coarse or subtle proclamations as Truth.

And if it the result just so happens to live up to the Buddha's original promise of unconditional freedom -- that by transcending the tyranny of mind, one also transcends suffering itself, well that's a fine cherry on top, wouldn't it?

Monday, September 23, 2013

The highway

 Ramana Maharshi says:
Since every other thought can occur only after the rise of the 'I'-thought and since the mind is nothing but a bundle of thoughts, it is only through the inquiry 'Who am I?' that the mind subsides. Moreover, the integral 'I'-thought, implicit in such enquiry, having destroyed all other thoughts, gets itself destroyed or consumed, just as the stick used for stirring the burning funeral pyre gets consumed.

Even when extraneous thoughts sprout up during such enquiry, do not seek to complete the rising thought, but instead, deeply enquire within, 'To who has this thought occurred?' No matter how many thoughts thus occur to you, if you would with acute vigilance enquire immediately as and when each individual thought arises to whom it has occurred, you would find it is to 'me'. If then you enquire 'Who am I?' the mind gets introverted and the rising thought also subsides. In this manner as you persevere more and more in the practice of Self-enquiry, the mind acquires increasing strength and power to abide in its Source. 
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche says:

Repeatedly you hear, 'recognize mind essence; attain stability in that'. What this really means is that we should repeatedly look into what thinks. We should recognize the absence or emptiness of this thinker over and over again, until finally the power of deluded thinking weakens, until it is totally gone without a trace. At that point, what remains to prevent the state of enlightenment?
In the recognition of mind nature, the thought has no power to stand on its own. It simply vanishes. Just as our nature is emptiness, so is the nature of the thought. The moment of recognizing the thinker as empty cognizance is like the snowflake meeting the water. 

Ramana Maharshi:
It is only when the subtle mind is externalized through the activity of the intellect and the sense-organs that gross name and form constituting the world appear. When, on the other hand, the mind stays firmly in the Heart, they recede and disappear.
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche:
Samsara is mind turned outwardly, lost in its projections;
Nirvana is mind turned inwardly, recognizing its true nature.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

You gotta be kidding me...

Have you ever found yourself thinking (or blurting out) these words? "You've gotta be kidding me?"

WHO's gotta be kidding you? The universe? Reality? Reality is not kidding you. You're in denial. Same with the undirected rhetorical question "are you serious?"

These thoughts are one baby step away from "this isn't happening." Would anyone doubt that this is, indeed, denial? A most painful kind of crazy?

The alternative is coming to terms with reality. Staring it straight in the face, accepting that this is happening, and courageously doing what needs to be done. The closer you get to doing this, and abandoning the denial, the more you'll be back in touch with the profound joy that suffuses every single moment.

That is what it means to live fully in the present. To be fully at ease with what's happening, no matter what it is. Even if you're going to take steps to improve things, the first step is coming to grips with things as they are now.

And this is what is meant by "acceptance." It's a radical kind of acceptance; one which can accommodate anything that reality throws at you. It's not a passive, meek, "mokay, guess I gotta live with it" thing.

And here's a little secret: it's tremendously hard to develop this most crucial life skill without practice. And not a half-hearted, once-in-a-while practice. This is what mindfulness is about, and why people practice it so deeply. Though I'm not exactly religious, I daresay this is also at the heart of some other traditions (though what concrete steps they offer to develop it, I'm not an expert in):
God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can
And wisdom to know the difference
So don't resist reality. Doing so is crazy, and your life will free tremendously better when you stop.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Do nothing...

I love it when quotes from one tradition sound very much like those from another. A favorite of mine is this:
Do nothing, and everything is done -- Tao Te Ching
Now here's one from Lama Gendun Rinpoche:
Nothing to do, nothing to force, nothing to want--and everything happens by itself.
And now the Gita:
By nature are actions done in every way, and who sees the self as the nondoer, he truly sees.
One who sees action in inaction and inaction in action is intelligent amongst men. He acts in an integrated manner

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Some thought experiments and questions

When you move (walk, fly, anything), does your experience move, or is there just a sequence of different experiences?

Where is the location of your experience? Is it in your brain?

Suppose you were to move your brain, slowly, from your head down to your toes (extending all attendant connecting structures, like the optic nerves, of course). Would the location of your experience change?

If the brain can move without experience moving, then was it really located in the brain? Or is that nonsense?

If experience doesn't have a location, then is it a physical thing?

Have you noticed that it always feels like right now? Even if you're in a dream where it's 1885, it feels like it is "now 1885." Is there anything you could do to a brain to make it no longer feel like now? If the brain causes all experience, shouldn't this be possible?

Now imagine you're in a long-running (say, as many years as your current age) dream. In that dream, people's heads aren't filled with brains, but jelly beans. The neuroscientists (jellyscientists) show that when jelly beans are poked in certain ways, people respond like so-and-so. They triumphantly declare victory over the mind-jelly bean dilemma.

Haven't they thus conclusively proven that mind takes place inside, and is caused by, jelly beans? Are they correct?

Or does experiencing happen without being located in time and space, and without any guarantees about its physical origin?

Friday, May 10, 2013

Simply remain...

Patrul Rinpoche says:

Some great meditators, both male and female, think they are not able to recognise the nature of the mind and so they become sad and many tears fall. There is no need for sorrow. There is no basis for not recognising. Simply remain on the one who thinks he is not able to recognise the nature of the mind.

Ramana Maharshi says:
M.: If the thinker is sought, the thoughts will disappear.
D.: Will they disappear of themselves? It looks so difficult.
M.: They will disappear because they are unreal. The idea of difficulty is itself an obstacle to realisation. It must be overcome. To remain as the Self is not difficult.
D.: But I do not understand. It is difficult.
M.: This thought of difficulty is the chief obstacle. A little practice will make you think differently.
D.: What is the practice?
M.: To find out the source of ‘I’.

Note: in my understanding, the Advaitin use of the word "Self" (note: not "self") is equivalent to what is called "nature of mind" in Mahamudra and Dzogchen.

Friday, April 12, 2013

"The being is the nought and the nought is the being..." -- Azriel of Gerona, Kabbala mystic

"Form is emptiness; emptiness is form" -- Heart Sutra (Buddhist) 

Saturday, April 6, 2013


There are so many ways to go about breaking down the illusion of duality, but they're all primarily about deeply investigating experience. It's crucial that we be willing to let go of any deeply-held beliefs -- indeed, beliefs (often expressed unknowingly through ingrained habits) are all that's stopping us from seeing the truth clearly.

This also means that any teaching which helps us see things clearly can safely be discarded once things are seen clearly. The words never contained the truth. It is the seeing that matters.

With that in mind, here's one path someone could follow:

1) Change your perspective of the world. Instead of the world being made of things existing out there, see it as experiences happening in here.

If you're astute, you will have noticed three changes happening at once:

Things => Experiences
Existing => Happening
Out there => In here

If you're honest with yourself, you'll admit that you can never be sure that you've seen a thing. You've had the visual experience of a thing, for sure, but such experiences take place in dreams, too. Nothing about the visual (or tactile, or combined) experience of a thing can give you certainty about the supposed thing's existence. All you can be sure of is that the experience of that thing seems to be happening. And where do all experiences happen? In the mind, of course, not "out there" in the world.

Now keep in mind this doesn't mean that you should completely change your behavior in relationship to seeming things. The experience of kicking the visual experience of a rock will almost certainly result in the experience of pain! Such is often the case in nighttime dreams, too.

In fact, one way to think of this step is by treating the world as a dream. After all, you don't know that it's not a dream. And dreams can have rules, too.

2) Notice that there is no "in here."

What? We just got done seeing that all things are happening "in here"! Everything happens in the mind; in experience.

Well, if everything (that is, all experience) is happening "in here," then what's happening "out there"? There's nothing left to happen out there! In fact, where is this "out there" of which you speak? If you think you've found an experience happening "out there," check and see if what really just happened was that you experienced the thought of something happening out there. Is the thought of something the same thing as that thing? Of course not.

If that paragraph was confusing, go back and re-read it with the recognition you have from step 1: "thing" and "experience" are completely interchangeable. If no experience is happening "out there," then nothing is happening "out there." The experience of something happening "out there" is itself happening inside experience -- that is, "in here."

But if there's no outside to a thing, then what sense does it make for there to be an inside? To draw a parallel: if the universe contains everything, then it doesn't make sense to conceive of an "outside" to the universe. The entire notion of inside and outside doesn't make sense. So it is with experience. If it's all happening "in here," then the idea "in here" is extraneous.

3) See that "an experience" exists only as long as it is being experienced.

Pick a sound. That is, the experience of a sound. Did it happen to somebody? What was that experience-of-a-sound doing before anyone came along and experienced it? Was it sitting somewhere, waiting to be experienced? Or did it simply not exist in any meaningful sense before it was experienced? I think you'll agree that an experience is a non-entity until it is experienced. If not, go find an experience that isn't being experienced and tell me in what sense it is an experience.

4) Try to find who or what it is that is doing the experiencing.

Pick a sound again. Is there someone doing the experiencing of a sound? By the time it can be properly called an experience, we saw that it was already being experienced. Once this is so, does anyone need to come along and do anything? No.

You might argue that by this point, something is already doing the experiencing. Okay, what is this thing? Can you draw me a picture of it? What color is it? Or is there just this vague sense that there must be something there, doing the experiencing, even if we can't see it? Doesn't this sound an awful lot like the argument that there must be a God, since there "must be" something that created all this?

If you say it is the brain doing the experiencing, investigate that some more. Is it your experience that there's a brain over here, an experience over there, and the first is somehow doing the second? Or is that just another thought? If you had a long dream where our heads were filled with jelly beans, and in it, neuroscientists "proved" that jelly beans cause experience, wouldn't you be just as convinced of that fact? Did anyone ever really witness jelly beans having experiences? What about brains?

(Filling out the details for the rest could take a while, but I'll do it if anyone is interested.)

5) If nobody is doing experiencing, is anyone doing actions? Or are actions just experiences (of something being done, and a thought saying "I'm doing this")?

6) Where are experiences happening?

7) What are experiences made of?

After doing all this, what are you left with? The world is made up of experiences, which themselves are located nowhere and made of nothing. They're not happening to anyone, nor are they caused by anyone. Any thoughts denying any of the above are just more experiences, and any objection to that is itself an experience, ...

The more clearly this is seen, the less struggling there is against it. And the less struggling there is, the less suffering there is. What is suffering, after all, than struggling?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Reconciling, cont'd

In the last post, Maharshi talked about a point after which it is impossible to make effort. Presumably this is a point at which one is abiding deeply in rigpa. Meanwhile, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche has this to say:
In the beginning, when we start this training, the master will say, “Look into your mind! Look into your mind!” This watchfulness is necessary until you are used to it. Once that has happened you don’t need to look here or there. You have caught the ‘scent’ of the nature of mind. At that point, you do not need to struggle; the nature of mind is naturally awake.
So the question is: is there a specific point after which inversion should be abandoned? Is it just after one's first glimpse of rigpa? Or can both inversion and non-meditation be employed further?

Only one way to find out :)

Reconciling approaches

I have a new challenge. I've reconciled (in my own mind, anyway) the instructions of Mahamudra, pieces of Taoism, Zen, and modern-day Advaita. At their pinnacle is formless practice: do nothing, and everything is done. There can be no object of meditation, no matter how subtle, because any act of meditating is conceptual and effortful. Of course, at the pinnacle, there can be no meditating because there is no meditator, but most instructions suggest getting there via non-meditation.

On the other hand, I think that Ramana Maharshi (a 20th century Advaitin) and Heshang Moheyan (an 8th century Chan monk) are both realized beings, and they have a very different idea of what to do. Moheyan's teachings may have been banished from Tibet, but Longchenpa and Jigme Lingpa hold him in high regard. Jigme Lingpa says:
During the debate, Kamalaśīla asked what was the cause of saṃsāra by the symbolic action of whirling his staff around his head. [Hashang] answered that it was the apprehender and apprehended by the symbolic action of shaking his robe out twice. It is undeniable that such a teacher was of the sharpest faculties. If the non-recollection and non-mentation entail the offense of rejecting the wisdom of differentiating analysis, then the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras of [the Buddha] also entail this fault. Therefore, what the view of Hashang actually was can be known by a perfect buddha, and no one else.
 So what was his teaching? From what we can gather (not much of his teachings remain):
Moheyan held that all thought (thinking and ideation) prevented enlightenment.
To rid oneself of all conceptions, one must practice meditation, trance, and contemplating the mind: “To turn the light [of the mind] towards the mind’s source, that is contemplating the mind.”
Maharshi says:
If one then enquires `Who am I?', the mind will turn back to its source [the Self] and the thought which had risen will also subside. By repeatedly practising thus, the power of the mind to abide in its source increases. ...
As and when thoughts rise, one should annihilate all of them through enquiry then and there in their very place of origin.
With my current limited abilities, turning the mind toward its source and keeping it there is still an act of meditation. It feels very different than practicing non-meditation, in which experience is not manipulated in any way. Maybe the key to the conundrum lies in this bit:
Question: And so rejection of thoughts is not necessary?
Ramana Maharshi:  No. It may be necessary for a time or for some. You fancy that there is no end if one goes on rejecting every thought when it rises. It is not true, there is an end. If you are vigilant and make a stern effort to reject every thought when it rises you will soon find that you are going deeper and deeper into your own inner self. At that level it is not necessary to make an effort to reject thoughts.

Question: Then it is possible to be without effort, without strain?
Ramana Maharshi:  Not only that, it is impossible for you to make an effort beyond a certain extent.
So both non-meditation practice (I think of this as "fake it til you make it non-doing") and self-enquiry lead to true non-doing. The question is, how does one decide which to practice? Actually, come to think of it... zomg... Alan Wallace teaches a method from Padmasambhava, in which one inverts the attention back toward the source, and then releases it, periodically. The point of this practice? To break through to rigpa!
Withdrawing from all appearances and really focusing with effort, invert your awareness on being aware. Utterly relaxing, release your awareness into space with no object. Invert on your sense of being the meditator, the agent doing the inversion. Invert on your sense of being the observer or subject experiencing your own awareness, and observe closely. ...
In other words, Padmasambhava is suggesting cycling between the Maharshi/Moheyan approach and the classic "just rest" approach.

Welp, that's my epiphany for the day.

Edit: actually, it occurs to me that Adyashanti has said something similar before. He advocates non-doing as well as introspection. I'll have to go back and re-listen to his True Meditation series. That really nailed it.

Living the dream

We're so busy trying to "live the dream" that we fail to notice: we are living in a dream! It's true. Maybe not in the way Beyonce means it, but still.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Radical Dzogchen

Thought I'd post a bigger section from Keith Dowman's intro to Longchenpa's Radical Dzogchen:

Initiatory experience* is present in this very moment and nothing can be done to facilitate its advent. Any kind of preparation or fore-practice muddies the waters in its assumption of a goal to be reached. Access to the clarity and the zing of reality, on the contrary, is more likely to be found in an innocent pristine mind that has not been conditioned by the cultural and religious assumptions of a “sophisticated” tradition. Purity of karma, putative rebirth, guru-relationship, degree of meditation-concentration, facility in visualization, levels of attainment, and so on, are all issues pertinent to acceptance and success within a hierarchical cult wherein a particular ideal form of social and psychological behavior is a goal to be achieved; but to the formless experience of Dzogchen such considerations have no relevance. Striving in any kind of preparatory endeavor is an exercise in shooting oneself in the foot, or at least running after a mirage. In fact, to reach the point of relaxation in the moment that provides intimation of rigpa, nonaction is the sole precept. This perspective in radical Dzogchen is exclusive to those who have no need or inclination to exchange their inbred cultural norms and mores for those belonging to a more exotic or “spiritual” tradition, or to reject their cultural legacy and educational conditioning in an effort to change their psychological make-up. Recognition of our lived experience, just as it is, in its miraculous immediacy and beauty, without any yen for change, is the praxis of radical Dzogchen and belief in personal development and improvement, progress towards a social ideal, moral evolution of the species, and so on, is deviation from the pure pleasure of the unthought timeless moment.

* He clarifies earlier that this means introduction to the nature of mind, in which rigpa is glimpsed. This is THE crucial initiation into Dzogchen.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A return to the Source

I entered the above search ([a return to the source]) into Google, because it fairly well describes what it is I've been searching for all my life. I think it also matches what some religions might call "a return to God's love" or somesuch.

One of the results on the first page is from Shinzen Young, a Buddhist teacher. Read page 7, "How to do nothing":

"In other words,you don’t have to try to get to the Source—you just stop doing anything and wait for it to get to you!"

Then recall the Taoist phrase "do nothing, and everything is done." And here's a quote from the translator's intro to Longchenpa's Radical Dzogchen:

In fact, to reach the point of relaxation in the moment that provides intimation of rigpa, nonaction is the sole precept.

Recall that in Dzogchen, resting continuously in rigpa is equivalent to the full enlightenment of a Buddha.

And watch Tony Parsons here at 15:00: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GqpXmjxE2Q.

Q: So in order to come out of the dream, I have to do nothing?
A: No, no, because if you think you have to do nothing, then there's someone doing nothing. All you end up with is someone doing nothing, and that has no relevance to awakening at all. Because what you are is someone very busily doing nothing.
Q: So what can I do?
A: (Smirks, eyebrows raise, and shrugs with hands raised. Much laughter from the audience, and someone blurts out, "nothing.") I'll tell you what you could do, you could start a club. There's a guy over there... you could call it the "I'm f*ing pissed off club."

He's a teacher in "neo-Advaita," which is a somewhat maligned tradition for good reason. If you suck at it, you'll end up like character B here without realizing it.

But if you catch the fundamental gist of what all of these pointers are about, I can't imagine that you end up in different places with each of them. That's certainly what some (most) proponents of the traditions would have you believe, but I just don't buy it.

After all, how many different ways can there be to truly do nothing?