Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself.
~Rainer Maria Rilke
Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself.
~Rainer Maria Rilke
By Sylvia Boorstein
Heaven is nowhere else but right here on this earth, when we live with friendliness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. In Buddhism, these benevolent states of mind are called the divine abodes, and in this excerpt from her new book, Happiness Is an Inside Job, Sylvia Boorstein tells us some surprising stories about how they can be practiced.
Brahmaviharas is the Buddhist name for the set of four emotional states that includes equanimity and its direct derivatives—impartial goodwill, spontaneous compassion, and genuine appreciation. A vihara, in Pali, the language in which the oldest Buddhist scriptures are written, is a dwelling place. Brahma is the word associated with divinity. Classic texts translate the term brahmaviharas as “divine abodes,” and name the four basic ones: metta (friendliness), karuna (compassion), mudita (empathic joy), and upekka (equanimity). I love the term “divine abodes,” and I think of these four states as wonderful conditions of human consciousness in which the mind can rest, feeling at ease, as if at home.
Equanimity, it seems to me, is the ground out of which the other three flavors of benevolent mind arise. Everything depends on it. Equanimity is the capacity of the mind to hold a clear view of whatever is happening, both externally and internally, as well as the ability of the mind to accommodate passion without losing its balance. It’s the mind that sees clearly, that meets experience with cordial intent. Because it remains steady, and thus unconfused, it is able to correctly assess the situations it meets.
This correct assessment brings with it what the texts call “clear comprehension of purpose,” the sure knowledge of what response is required and what is possible. Clear comprehension creates a response, sometimes in action, sometimes just in thought. And because we are humans and have empathy built into our brain structure, when we are touched by what we encounter—and when our minds are balanced—we respond with benevolence. With friendliness or compassion or appreciation. It’s a beautiful truth about the potential of human beings. “A little lower than the angels…” is the phrase that comes to my mind. Or maybe not lower. Perhaps divine.
Here is how it works. I’ll explain it using traditional Buddhist psychology, and I’ll include examples of how this works in my life. As you read, see if these centuries-old postulates about the natural responses of the mind are true for you as well.
There are three possible valances of emotional response to every experience: pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. (Here you might think for a moment about how many times in a day, or even in an hour, you think, “Oh good!” or, “Oh phooey!” or even, “Boring day. Not much happening.”) The Buddha taught that these different flavors of experience are normal, just the facts of life, and that they aren’t, by themselves, problematic. They do, however, have the potential to create unhappiness. If they are not recognized, and acknowledged, they create thoughts that carry an imperative for change. “I need more of this.” “I must get rid of this!” “I can’t stand this.” The imperative agitates the mind into confusion.
If, on the other hand, there is enough equanimity in the mind to fend off confusion, wisdom can prevail. Then the mind can respond to ordinary (neutral) situations with goodwill, to frightening (unpleasant) situations with compassion, and to beguiling (pleasant) situations with relaxed, nontroubled appreciation.
Here are three examples that come from my living in France several months each year and traveling back and forth between San Francisco and Paris frequently. The first is about ordinary goodwill, friendliness, which is what the Pali word metta means. Perhaps I understate it by calling it ordinary friendliness. It is closer to intentional, omnipresent, devout friendliness based on the awareness that everyone, including oneself—because life is complicated and bodies and minds are often uncomfortable—needs to be working hard all the time just to keep things okay. Here’s an example:
The overnight flight from San Francisco to Paris takes more than ten hours, and in the time between midnight and morning, the hours seem longer and the space between the seats in the coach section seems shorter. When I get up to stretch, and perhaps walk down an aisle, I see men and women, old and young, large and small, all unknown to me, some traveling with young children, all trying to figure out how to be comfortable. I see them wrapped up in airplane blankets, scrunched up into whatever position of repose they can organize for themselves, leaning on each other if they are traveling together or trying not to lean on each other if they aren’t. Often a man or a woman is patrolling the aisle across from me, holding an infant against his or her chest and moving in the rocking gait that often soothes a baby’s distress. I feel a pleasant intimacy with them. I too am trying to stay comfortable. I’m not frightened for them, or for me, because I’m relaxed about flying and I assume we will land successfully, but I wish them well. I enjoy the feeling of my own good-heartedness. In fact, in that moment of mental handholding, all those people look a bit more familiar than ordinary strangers. That moment of easy, impartial, benevolent connection—metta—buoys up my mind. I feel better as I sit back down in my seat.
Compassion is a variation of metta. It’s different from relaxed friendliness because it’s hard for the mind to stay relaxed and friendly when it encounters a painful, unpleasant situation. In fact, it’s normal, and often helpful, for human beings to startle at the awareness of distress. The startle is an instinctive response, a signal to the mind: “Uh-oh. Something is wrong, and you might need to do something.” Sometimes, when the startle is strong enough to frighten the mind into confusion, there is a period of unease as the mind tries to cope, either by accommodating the experience or distracting itself if it can’t. In contrast, when the mind is able to stay steady, it moves immediately to act, in thought or in deed, in consolation. Traditional Buddhist texts say, “The heart quivers in response.”
A man died, suddenly, in the middle of a flight I was on from Paris to San Francisco. I didn’t see it happen, but I knew something was wrong because the plane icon on the TV map on the screen in back of the seat in front of mine reversed direction. Soon after that, while the people all around me were showing one another the map and discussing what might be happening, the pilot announced that there had been a medical emergency and requested that any medical personnel come forward to assist. My husband Seymour responded, as he had on previous flights when there was a call for a physician, and was gone for an hour.
The flight continued as if nothing were awry. Flight attendants served lunch. People watched movies. The icon on the TV turned westward again, and I assumed (correctly, I later learned) that the person had died and that landing for emergency medical care wasn’t necessary. I wondered who the person had been, whether he or she had been traveling alone, how his or her family would learn the news. I thought about how my family would feel if it were I, or Seymour, who had died. I thought, “I hope I don’t die in a plane,” but then I realized that at the center of my startled mind was the awareness that I can’t choose when or where I’ll die. No one can. Seymour told me later that as the flight personnel carried the dead man’s body down the length of the plane to the front galley, where they made the requisite CPR attempts, people turned themselves in their seats and averted their eyes to avoid seeing what was happening. I’m imagining many of those people were thinking, as I was, “That could be me.”
I knew that I was too unnerved to read or watch a movie, and I did not want lunch. I sat quietly, and after some few minutes, I heard my mind, on its own, beginning to recite wishes of consolation. “May the dead person’s consciousness, wherever it is now, be at ease. May that person’s family, on this plane or wherever they are, be strengthened in their loss. May the memory of this person be a blessing to them. May all the people on this plane who have been frightened feel at ease. May I feel at ease. May we land safely.” There are traditional Buddhist karuna phrases, but I didn’t say them. I rarely do because they don’t feel natural to me. I make up my own. But the traditional ones and the ones I make up mean the same thing: I am aware of painful feelings in me as a result of what is happening to you (or to me), and even though I know that everything passes, now is a suffering time. I hope we all have the strength to endure what is happening without creating extra turmoil. I don’t say all that as a prayer! Much too unwieldy. I say, “May I be at ease,” or “May you be at ease,” or “May you [I, we, all beings] come to the end of suffering.” I say words that are regular speech, like something I might actually say to a person. Saying prayers of consolation always makes me feel better. And it settles my mind. I thought, “This plane is like a small city. Three hundred people. Lots of new babies. Lots of old people. All ages of people in between. People eating, people sleeping, people working, people dreaming. And one person who just died. It’s like regular life.” I felt sad for the family of the dead person, but I felt okay.
Seymour came back to his seat. He’d spent some time talking with the wife and daughter of the man who died. His death hadn’t been a surprise to them. He’d been very ill. Still, it was a shock, happening all of a sudden, in mid-flight, and among strangers. They seemed to appreciate, he told me, having someone to talk to. We noticed that members of the flight crew took turns sitting with them for the rest of the flight, talking. It might be part of standard airline training, but I think it is, anyway, the instinctive response of human beings to pain. We console. (The heart quivers in response.)
And here’s the third story, an example of how the mind (surprisingly) needs equanimity when it meets pleasant situations. It seems as if pleasant situations should leave the mind unruffled. Not true. If an experience inspires yearning, when a moment before, yearning did not exist…
On the last day of a winter month spent in France, Seymour and I drove to Les Angles, a ski resort two hours from where we live. We had enjoyed seeing the snow on the peaks of the Pyrenees from our deck, but this was the first time up close. The resort was full of Christmas holiday skiers, and we stood at the bottom of the easiest beginner lift and watched people learning to ski. I was feeling particularly glamorous in my new high-heeled fake-fur-lined boots and purple tweed cap and scarf that my friend Toni had knitted for me. I thought about all the years Seymour and I had skied and all the trails we’d raced each other down before we’d stopped skiing, ten years previously.
“We could ski again,” I said. “This is an easy hill. Next year, let’s ski.”
“No we can’t. It’s not worth the risk. We’re old. We could break something.”
“Look, though. This is so easy. It would be such fun to put on skis again. We’d choose a sunny day, like today.”
“Forget it. It would be ridiculous. Your back isn’t so good. You have bursitis in your shoulder. Last year you pinched a nerve in your neck. Let’s go have lunch on the deck. We’ll watch the skiing from there.”
I caught a glimpse of myself reflected in a window as we walked to the restaurant. I looked shorter and plumper, definitely less glamorous, than I had imagined. We ordered lunch. I felt my mind, mired in nostalgia, dragging itself along, seeming to arrive at the table after I did. I thought momentarily of sulking, pretending to be peeved at what I had perceived as a peremptory dismissal. I realized, though, that what I was peeved about was being old. Then I noticed two women sitting at the table adjacent to ours, not unlike me in size and age, carefully made up, coiffed, wearing brightly colored, warm (nonski) jackets and big, beautiful earrings. They were eating hearty lunches, talking and laughing as they ate. I thought they looked marvelous. I looked down at my boots and was glad about the high heels. Later on, before we left, I took some great photos of what I guessed was a three-year-old girl in a pink snowsuit, balanced on her skis with their tips crossed, trying to get her pole straps over her wrists. She looked marvelous, too.
The mind wobbles when it discovers it can’t have something it wants, and then, when it catches itself, it appreciates. This wobble was a small one, easily overcome. Other yearnings are much more painful. The cycles, though, of “Oh, a pleasant thing,” “I want it,” “I lament not being able to have it, I feel sad,” and “This is the way it is. It can’t be other, now,” are the same regardless of whether the yearning is trivial or tremendous.
In the end, relief comes in two stages. The first is the moment that the mind stops struggling and says, “I wanted something different, but this is what I have.” The second is the ability to rejoice with other people, delighting in their pleasure. “May you two beautiful women enjoy this lunch and many others.” “May you, lovely little girl in pink who reminds me of my own children and grandchildren, grow up to enjoy skiing and also your whole life.” (The Pali word for the capacity to fully appreciate and bless is mudita.)
And here is one final piece of Buddhist theory that I can add, now that I’ve told these three stories of what seem to me to be the natural goodwill responses of the mind balanced by wisdom. The responses of friendliness, compassion, and appreciation that I felt in these three situations—all situational permutations of basic goodwill—depended on my mind’s being relaxed and alert enough to notice both what was happening around me and what was happening as my internal response. In each case, even though the situation included challenge, my mind had enough equanimity in it to allow me to stay connected with affection. My refuge was my own good nature, available for expression.
And it might have been otherwise. If my mind, in the long overnight flight, had been preoccupied with stories of my life, past or anticipated, or had it been agitated by fears about flying, or even if I had simply been too tired to pay attention to the scene around me, I would have missed it. I would not have been able to recognize the fundamental truth about human beings—that we do our best to keep ourselves comfortable, in orderly ways so as not to disturb others, in whatever situations we find ourselves—and I would have missed the opportunity to be touched by human courage. Instead of feeling warmly connected to the other people on my flight, I would have been indifferent. On the outside, I would have looked the same. On the inside, I would not have felt nearly as good.
And I really don’t know if my mind could have stayed balanced enough to rest in consolation if someone had taken ill, or died, in the row next to mine. I might have felt frightened about not having the skills to help. I’ve been with friends as they died, but I wanted to be there and I wasn’t surprised. Perhaps, on a plane and caught off guard, I’d be wishing that it weren’t happening, or that I were somewhere else. I don’t know. If my mind was overwhelmed by resentment or fear, the wisdom that reminds me that these things happen—people take ill, and die, according to conditions beyond their control, just as I will someday—would not have been available to comfort me. I might have forgotten to pray.
And perhaps if I had been less happy than I was on the day at Les Angles, I would have fallen prey to envy or jealousy, and to avoid recognizing those feelings, I might have started a quarrel about being spoken to peremptorily. As it turned out, I had enough wisdom available to me to think, “Things change. That was then. Now is now. There are other pleasures I can enjoy. Everyone takes turns being able to do this or that in life. We can for a while, and then we can’t. May everyone, including me, enjoy this moment.”
Indifference, pity, envy, and jealousy are what the Buddha called the “near enemies of the brahmaviharas.” Indifference, for example, might masquerade as equanimity, looking very balanced and even, but representing, in fact, the very opposite of emotional connection. (Think of the expression “I couldn’t care less,” which I’ve always heard as having a sad ring to it.) Pity looks a little like compassion, because it acknowledges suffering, but it is still an arm’s-length awareness of the pain and carries some aversion in it. “It’s too bad this is happening to you,” the mind thinks, without remembering, “This, or some other painful thing, will sometime happen to me or my kin. May all beings always be comforted in their suffering.” And without balancing awareness in the mind, delight and affection morph into envy and jealousy when other people’s joys are joys we covet or when we require something in return for our friendship. All of the near enemies are unhappy, tense states. The brahmaviharas all establish connections that nourish and enliven the moment. The near enemies create distance and isolation.
What keeps me connected to the world outside myself, as well as to my own natural goodness, is wishing others well in moments of both bad and good fortune, and acting with ordinary benevolence toward people as they go about their regular business of life—of appreciation, consolation, and friendliness.
Both those perspectives act for me as safety nets. Staying alertly connected to the world outside myself keeps me from falling into the limitations of self-absorption from which no reality check into wisdom is possible. And the reconnection with my own benevolent nature, each time it happens, protects me from the despair of feeling that nothing I (or anyone else) could do can make a difference. Safely connected to my life, and reassured of my essential goodness, I feel at ease, at home, really in the most sublime of homes.
And here’s one more detail from the traditional accounts of the Buddha’s enlightenment experience that—because the Buddha sounds so human in it—is particularly inspiring to me. He is reported to have hesitated before starting out to teach, thinking of the enormity of the task before him. Some legends say that heavenly messengers appeared to him urging him on, reminding him of what benefit his news about ending suffering would be to those people who heard it. The Buddha’s decision to teach was, presumably, the result of hearing those heavenly messengers.
I know that in situations where I am hesitating about doing something—something I know will be helpful—my own kindness pushes me to do it. I anticipate how bad I’ll feel if I don’t act. I think it was the same for the Buddha. “Heavenly messengers,” I think, are our impulses of natural kindness.
Meeting the Chinese in St. Paul: Rhino Hits the Midwest
By Natalie Goldberg
A season devoted to the koans of the ancient Chinese Masters gave Natalie Goldberg a taste for the stripped-down, naked truth of things. As she searched Minnesota for an elusive rhinoceros, a simple truth revealed itself: I’m broken and I’m free.
As a Soto Zen student I had successfully steered clear of koans for almost my full twenty-five years of practice. They were considered more a part of the fierce Rinzai Zen training and seemed enigmatic and scary. How would I know what the sound of one hand clapping was, as one famous koan asked. Koans were meant to be illogical and stump the student, to kick her into another way of thinking—or not thinking—so that she could have insight into the nature of the universe.
My old Soto teacher said, “Soto is more like the not-so-bright, kindly elder uncle.” He admired Rinzai and indicated it was for sharper types.
Despite my reservations, in 1998 I moved up to St. Paul, Minnesota, for two months to dive into koans. I would study of The Book of Serenity, an ancient Chinese Zen text of one hundred koans (or cases) depicting situations and dialogues between teacher and student, teacher and teacher, student and student.
Driving in the car through Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, crossing one state border after another, I repeated to myself, “Yes, I can do it.”
My old friend Phil Willkie and I were going to trade homes for this mid-October through mid-December period. We didn’t know who was getting the better deal. I would live in his three-bedroom, fourth-floor walk-up flat on MacKuben in St. Paul, and he would inhabit my solar beer-can-and-tire house on the mesa six miles outside of Taos.
Phil’s apartment was replete with photos of his family, including one of his grandfather, Wendell Willkie, the 1940 contender for the presidency against F.D.R., and another of an aunt sitting in the backseat of a convertible with Dwight Eisenhower. Best of all, a former boyfriend of Phil’s lived in the back bedroom. He too was studying Zen at the time. At night we’d often share a simple dinner of steamed broccoli and rice. He was a modest fellow, saving all the plastic yogurt containers and calling them his fine Tupperware collection. We had known each other years before, when he and Phil visited me in the Southwest.
During the day, I had little to do but wrestle with these Chinese ancestors who embodied the koans. I wanted to understand what was meant by their interchanges.
Luoshan runs into Yantou and asks: “When arising and vanishing go on unceasingly, what then?”
A perfectly good question, if you were thinking about the nature of the universe. We often ask, “What should I do with my life?” Usually it’s asked in despair: I’m lost. Help me. We want a concrete answer: Become a dentist and everything will be all right. But there is a deeper cry in the question. How should I live knowing the world is a confusing place?
First, Luoshan asked Shishuang his question: “When arising and vanishing go on unceasingly, what then?”
Shishuang replied: “You must be cold ashes, a dead tree, one thought for ten thousand years, box and lid joining, pure and spotlessly clear.”
Luoshan didn’t get it. Too complicated an answer. He only became more confused trying to figure it out. He went seeking Yantou and asked his question again: “When arising and vanishing go on unceasingly, what then?”
Yantou shouted and said, “Whose arising and vanishing is it?”
Maybe the shout would have been enough. Imagine that you’re an earnest student going from teacher to teacher, saying, “Please clarify this,” and one of the renowned, respected ones screams in your face. Maybe then you’d step back and see yourself. But Yantou offers more than his shout. He asks, exactly who are you that is experiencing this coming and going? This time Luoshan is enfolded into his own question. Engulfed in radical non-separation, he wakes up.
I understood what was happening to Luoshan. But my understanding wasn’t good enough. The koan wouldn’t come alive until I demonstrated that understanding. There is an old adage in writing: don’t tell, but show. I could tell you what happened in the koan, but to show it, I had to become Luoshan and exhibit his—and my—insight. That’s how I would pay true homage to the lineage of old Chinese practitioners I’d come to love, by making their work and effort alive and vital in me right now. To stay Natalie Goldberg from Brooklyn, with her usual collection of needs and desires, pains and complaints, wouldn’t work. Becoming some idea of Chinese—or Japanese—wouldn’t work either. These koans might have come through a particular culture but what they are aiming at is the core of human nature. Who are we really? What is this life about? I had to learn to become a fool, a barbarian, the moon, a lamppost, a fallen leaf—any angle necessary to answer the questions posed by these ancient fellows. But I couldn’t get stuck, not even as a single, perfect plum blossom. My mind had to become greased in its skull, a pearl rolling in a silver bowl. No settling; no abiding; no fixed residence. The koan mind does not dwell; instead it is alive—and empty—like a dust mote in a ray of sun. In other words, I had to let go and to see fresh, like a blind donkey. Tell me, how can something sightless see?
I paced St. Paul’s streets, past Scott Fitzgerald’s old home on Summit, the vast houses on Crocus Hill, the River Gallery, and the Harvest Bread Bakery. I crossed the bridge on the mighty Mississippi; reveling in the long, slow display of burnt leaves that marked the coming of the dark season. I wanted to know who these Chinese brothers—and the occasional Chinese sister, such as Iron-Grinder Lui, the woman of Taishan, and the teacake seller—were. I was used to studying Western literature, full of elaborate stories, subplots, metaphor, and flashbacks. These Chinese tales were so digested that only a few lines were enough.
Leaning over our supper plates one evening, Phil’s old boyfriend from the backroom beseeched me, “So Aunt Natalie, tell me a bedtime koan before we drop off.” It was his second year of practice, and his early enthusiasm met my old determination.
I lunged into the koan about Luoshan. I described the rough road, the jagged mountain where I imagined the interchange had taken place. I fleshed out the two men’s ragged dress, their recent meal—“For sure, it was not hot dogs on a bun.” I wanted to plant a deep impression in my faux nephew’s mind so he would never forget these crazy, wild ancestors. I made faces, with lips turned out, eyes raised to the ceiling; I howled, groaned, drooled, clawed at Yantou. I demanded a response to rising and vanishing. We both went to bed tired and giddy that night to wake at 4:30 a.m. and drive the mile and a half to the zendo.
Later that morning I unfolded on my bedroom floor a glossy map of the whole Zen lineage from 532 C.E. to 1260 C.E. and knelt over it, running my finger from Matsu to Pai-Chang to Kuei-shan. These were all characters in the Book of Serenity. I relished the link between teacher and student and how the student of the next generation became the teacher in the next. Below all the dates and Chinese names was a drawing of an immense fork-tongued dragon sprouting out of the clouds. He was a feral force in the orderly map of connections.
The original Book of Serenity was lost after it was first compiled by Wansong in northern China, but it was reconstructed by Wansong at the urging of one of his disciples, Yelu Chucai, who was a statesman. He was one of a group of Chinese desperate to save their provinces from destruction by the ravaging army of Genghis Khan, and they wanted to study the text as a way to illuminate their minds and come up with a fresh solution. Through their work they eventually softened the harshness of the Mongol ruler.
Studying these cases brings one more fully and deeply into the structures that underlie conventional life. The cases were not created to help people disappear into a mist high on a mountain. The terrible truth, which is rarely mentioned, is that meditation doesn’t directly lead us to some vaporous, glazed-eyed peace. It drops us right into the personal meat of human suffering. No distant, abstract idea of distress; instead we get to taste the bitter pain between our own twin eyes. With practice we settle right down into the barbed-wire nest, and this changes us. Working with koans creates a bigger heart, a tender, closer existence, a deeper seeing.
Near the end of November, I turned to page one hundred and eight, case number twenty-five. “Rhinoceros Fan” was the title. My mind froze. That’s my usual tactic: when anything new comes along, I brake, clutch, and stop dead. What do I know about a rhinoceros? Aren’t they African? I later found out that China did have rhinos, and that their horns were carved into fans.
What stumped me more was the juxtaposition of these two words: “rhinoceros,” that huge, forceful animal, probably as close to a dinosaur as we are going to find now on earth, placed beside the word “fan,” something light, used to create a breeze, a stirring of wind to refresh court ladies or Southern belles.
I moved on from the title to the actual case:
One day Yanguan called to his attendant, “Bring me the rhinoceros fan.”
The attendant said, “The fan is broken.”
Yanguan said, “If the fan is broken, then bring me back the rhinoceros!”
The attendant had no reply.
Zifu drew a circle and wrote the word “rhino” inside it.
Yanguan was an illustrious disciple of Matsu. After his teacher’s death, he had wandered until he became the abbot of Fayao Temple. This was a monastery situation. The attendant was not paid staff but was Yanguan’s student. As an attendant, the student had the great opportunity of extra time with his teacher. In this particular story the student is anonymous. All the better; he could be any of us—John or Sue or Sally, you or me.
I was not sure who Zifu was who appears at the end. I would look him up later. But for now I’d stay with the teacher-and-student interaction.
More than likely, their interchange takes place in a quiet moment when Yanguan has a little time to put his attention on this monk. He’s going to test him, poke him: Are you there? Yanguan and the attendant are in kinship. They had both probably lived in the monastery for many years, but Yanguan couldn’t turn around to the attendant and say something simple like, “Do you love me?” or “Are you happy here?” Instead, there is decorum. One person is made the attendant, the other the Zen Master. Of course, one has been practicing longer than the other. Out of time we create hierarchy, levels, positions. In the large space of this true book, we eventually let go of these criteria, but we also play along.
So Yanguan asks for a fan. The fan is the excuse for an exchange, though it could also have been one of those unbearable hot summer days. Bring me some relief. Where’s the fan?
The attendant replies that the fan is broken.
He can’t find another one? I’m thinking. What was going on here?
That evening after I read this case I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned.
The night became a deep and endless thing. My mind wandered over much terrain: a particular apple orchard, a young boy who died. I remembered an old friendship I once had. This line ran through my head: the relationship is broken.
Broken! I sat up in bed. That is the word the attendant used. I jumped up, ran to the shelf, and opened the book. I took a leap: the attendant was saying he himself was broken, even if he referred to a fan. He was the fan.
But that doesn’t stop Yanguan, his teacher. Hell, if the fan—the product—was shattered, then bring back the whole rhinoceros. What a stunning concept! If the paper is torn, bring the enormous tree into the living room.
Yanguan was asking this of his student (and of us): Take a tremendous step—not forwards but backwards—into your essential nature. Manifest your original face. Don’t get stuck on something broken—a heart, a wish. Become the rhinoceros—reveal your full self, go to the source, nothing hidden.
And this is what I loved the most: “The attendant had no reply.” What do we do when a rhino is charging us, when a bear of a teacher is storming us? We run for our lives. In no other case that I had studied so far was there such an abrupt stop. No action, nothing. The attendant had already given his all when he said the fan was broken, when he revealed he was not whole.
It’s a naked thing to show we are fractured, that we do not have it all together. Broken all the way through to the bottom. What freedom that is, to be what we are in the moment, even if it’s unacceptable. Then we are already the rhinoceros.
Think about it: We are always doing a dance—I’m good, I’m bad, I’m this, I’m that. Rather than the truth: I don’t know who I am. Instead, we scurry to figure it out. We write another book, buy another blouse, exhaust ourselves. Imagine the freedom to let it be, this not knowing. How vulnerable. This is why I love the attendant. He said who he was—a broken man, a shattered fan derived from the concentrated point of a fierce beast. When his teacher asked for more, the monk didn’t do a jig to win him over. There was no more. Usually we will do anything to cover up a reality so naked.
I know the relief, and ensuing shame or terror, of making that kind of simple statement. When I was in the middle of a divorce, I visited my parents in Florida. My father was on the first day of a new diet. He was looking forward to dinner. We were going out to a steakhouse for the early bird special. My father made fun of my huarache sandals when I stepped out of the bedroom, ready to go.
“What are those, horse hooves?”
I was touchy and tired of his putdowns. I twirled around and marched back into the bedroom. “I’m leaving,” I screamed. I threw clothes into a suitcase and charged out the front door and onto the nearby turnpike. I was walking on the divider line, headed for the airport fifteen miles away. A car pulled up beside me and drove the speed of my walking pace. I looked straight ahead.
“Nat,” my father pulled down his window.
I burst out crying.
“Wait, stay here. I’ll go get your mother. Do you promise not to move?”
I nodded, leaning against the rail guard.
Moments later my parents pulled up together. My mother ran out of the car. “Natli, what’s the matter?”
I uttered three words: “I am lost.” I had no energy for a cover-up. Those words came from my core.
Everything halted. My mother stood with her hands at her sides. My father looked straight ahead, his face frozen, his arm hanging over the door of the car.
Nothing was to be done. It was a huge, unbearable opening between us. My parents became embarrassed. So did I. We’d never been so naked with each other.
After a long, excruciating time my father’s head turned. “Now can we go eat? I’m starving.”
The monk did not have this distraction. No restaurant for him. My experience was that the monk stood his ground for all time. He did not reply after he showed his naked face. But like the rabbis making commentary on the Torah, later Zen teachers responded to koans, and in this case disagreed over the monk’s state of mind. Maybe the attendant in his silence had emptied his depths, so that the rhinoceros, the source, stood there radiantly, painfully alive in his no reply. Or maybe he was just dumbfounded and petrified, thinking, what should I do now in front of my teacher?
In the next sentence, in steps Zifu. He draws a circle and writes the word “rhino” inside it. I imagine that he picked up a nearby stick and drew the circle in the dirt or in the air and then wrote the Chinese character boldly in the center.
I found out that Zifu was a Zen master who lived at least a hundred years after the interchange between Yanguan and the monk. These stories, passed on generation to generation, were kept splendidly alive. Sitting in his monastery, Zifu hears the situation and plunges in. Zifu’s dust circle is a stamp of approval. His response radiates back through a century and screams forward to us now.
Attendant I see you, Zifu calls out.
Yes, Zifu is saying, this exchange between student and teacher is complete. Nothing is left out. Even if the attendant was immobilized rather than inexpressively present, Zifu catches the whole thing and brings it to completion, enlightening the attendant, the rhino, the teacher, folding us all into the great circle.
I spent the autumn of my fiftieth year roaming through these Chinese minds. I began to see everything as a koan. The news announced that bread burned in someone’s kitchen in Blue Earth and the house went down in flames. Everything now was related. The house, the bread, the town in southern Minnesota presented a koan. How could I step into those flames and burn too? Life became a revolving story. No matter from what age or country, it met me where I was.
I watched my friend Wendy, an old practitioner and the gardener for twenty years at Green Gulch, a Zen farm outside of San Francisco, answer questions after a reading from her forthcoming book, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate.
“How big is your garden?” one of my students queried.
Wendy was struck silent for a full minute. The audience fidgeted in their seats. I realized what was happening.
“Wendy,” I leaned over, “this is not a koan—she’s not challenging your whole being. She just wants to know in feet the area you garden.”
Wendy snapped back. “Many feet are cultivated.” Then she went on to speak of once putting a dead deer in the compost heap and a month later nothing was left but hooves and bones.
In the Book of Serenity, Guishan asks Yangshan where he comes from, and Yangshan replies, the fields. There are many fields to come from—playing fields, plowing fields, the upper or lower field, or the dharma field spread out before us.
Soon after I returned home to Taos, I had a week of teaching with my good friend Rob Wilder. He is sharp and has a generous heart. Little goes by him. We sat together at dinner the second night of the workshop. I was eager to share where I had been. I told him about koans, then I told him about the last one I worked on. I laid out the case, how I entered it, what I understood. He was listening intently, the way only a writer can from years of developing an attunement to story and sound. He nodded often. I felt encouraged.
I went to bed that night happy. I had been afraid, coming home from St. Paul, that no one would understand where I had been.
The next morning was a silent breakfast. Almost everyone had already cleared out of the dining room when Rob sidled up next to me. “Nat,” he said in a low voice, “I was thinking how amazing it is. We can know each other so well. We can be such good friends, and I had no idea what you were talking about last night.”
My head snapped back. What’s going on here? The fan of our communication was fractured? A student walked in and we shut up.
I gulped down some water to swallow the ball of cornflakes that sat in my mouth. I felt almost lonely, walked to the brink of isolation. Rob was on one side of the old adobe dining room and I on another. Suddenly something in front of my eyes shattered. The rhino emerged glistening. I abruptly started to laugh, big eruptions through my entire body. This was one whole world. Rob Wilder was my relation. We had plunged right into the lineage together. No one left out. The water glass, the spoon, the flowers in the vase, all glimmered and shook. Who was laughing? Hours melted in my hand. The walls of the building dissolved. Everyone and no one lifted the spoon to take the next bite of cereal.
Natalie Goldberg’s newest book is book Old Friend from Far Away: How to Write Memoir. With filmmaker Mary Feidt, she recently completed the documentary Tangled Up in Bob, about Bob Dylan’s childhood on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota. She has been a Zen practitioner for over thirty years and teaches workshops and retreats on writing as a Zen practice.
by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche
Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche is a teacher in the Karma Kagyü lineage. His main residence is his monastery in Boudhanath, Nepal. He is the founder of a monastic college at Namo Buddha near Kathmandu and of many Buddhist centers in the West and Asia.
Instruction on Mahamudra vipashyana meditation by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche
The two meditation practices of shamatha and vipashyana each have their place within Mahamudra practice, but they do not have the same objective. Shamatha’s aim is temporary, immediate. When our minds are disturbed or restless, they are not at peace. Cultivating the settled state of shamatha, we find that we are able to be more steady, more tranquil. That is the purpose of shamatha. Shamatha is not sufficient unto itself to attain enlightenment, but it is a support for Mahamudra practice and is therefore imperative.
What then is vipashyana, which literally means “clear seeing,” in the context of Mahamudra? First of all, we have bewildered ourselves into samsara. During this confused state, we do not see clearly the true nature of things, what reality is. The practice of vipashyana develops the ability to see clearly the actual state of affairs, to see the basic condition of what is. Training in vipashyana eliminates negative emotions and clarifies our lack of knowing, our ignorance. It also deepens our insight and wisdom.
Right now, while adrift on samsara’s ocean, we are confused about what is real, about the nature of things. In this state, there are many worries and a lot of fear and uneasiness. To be free of these we need to be free of the bewilderment and confusion. When you are free of confusion, the uneasiness, worry and fear evaporate all by themselves. For example, if there is a rope lying on the ground and someone mistakes it for a poisonous snake, he will be frightened. He worries about the snake and it creates a lot of anxiety. This uneasiness continues until he discovers that it is actually not a snake, but simply a rope. It was merely a mistake. The moment we realize the rope is just a rope, not a snake, our uneasiness, fear and anxiety disappear. In the same way, upon seeing the natural state of what is, all the suffering, fear and confused worries that we are so engrossed in will disappear. The focal point of vipashyana training is seeing what is real.
The Paths of Reasoning and Direct Perception
The pivotal difference between the path of reasoning and the path of direct perception is whether our attention faces out, away from itself, or whether the mind faces itself, looking into itself. The path of reasoning is always concerned with looking at something “out there.” It examines using the power of reason until we are convinced that what we are looking at is by nature empty, devoid of an independent identity. Whether on a coarse or subtle level, it is definitely empty. However, no matter how long and how thoroughly we convince ourselves that things are by nature empty, every time we stub our toe on something it hurts. We are still obstructed; we cannot move our hands straight through things, even though we understand their emptiness. The path of reasoning alone does not dissolve the mental habitual tendency to experience a solid reality that we have developed over beginningless lifetimes.
It is not that a particular practice transforms the five aggregates—forms, sensations, perceptions, formations and consciousnesses—into emptiness. Instead it is a matter of acknowledging how all phenomena are empty by nature. This is how the Buddha taught in the sutras. A person presented with such a teaching may often understand the words and trust the teachings, but personally he does not experience that that is how it really is. Nagarjuna kindly devised the Middle Way techniques of intellectual reasoning in order to help us understand and gain conviction. By analyzing the five aggregates one after the other, one eventually is convinced, “Oh, it really is true! All phenomena actually are empty by nature!”
While we use many tools to reach such an understanding, the reasoning of dependent origination is very simple to understand. For example, when standing on one side of a valley you say that you stand on “this” side, and across the valley is the “other” side. However, if you walk across the valley you will again describe it as “this” side, though it was the “other” side before. In the same way, when comparing a short object to a longer one, we agree that one is shorter and the other longer. Nevertheless, that is not fixed because if you compare the longer one to something even longer, it is then the shorter one. In other words, it is impossible to pin down a reality for such values; they are merely labels or projections created by our own minds.
We superimpose labels onto temporary gatherings of parts, which in themselves are only other labels superimposed on a further gathering of smaller parts. Each thing only seems to be a singular entity. It appears as if we have a body and that there are material things. Yet, just because something appears to be, because something is experienced, does not mean that it truly exists. For example, if you gaze at the ocean when it is calm on a clear night you can see the moon and stars in it. But if you sent out a ship, cast nets and tried to gather up the moon and stars, would you be able to? No, you would find that there is nothing to catch. That is how it is: things are experienced and seem to be, while in reality they have no true existence. This quality of being devoid of true existence is, in a word, emptiness. This is the approach of using reasoning to understand emptiness.
Using reasoning is not the same as seeing the emptiness of things directly and is said to be a longer path. Within the framework of meditation, the intellectual certainty of thinking that all things really are emptiness is not a convenient method of training; it takes a long time. That is why the Prajnaparamita scriptures mention that a Buddha attains true and complete enlightenment after accumulating merit over three incalculable eons. Yet, the Vajrayana teachings declare that in one body and one lifetime you can reach the unified level of a vajra-holder; in other words, you can attain complete enlightenment in this very life. Though they would appear to contradict each other, both statements are true. If one uses reasoning and accumulates merit alone, it does take three incalculable eons to reach true and complete enlightenment. Nevertheless, by having the nature of mind pointed out to you directly and taking the path of direct perception, you can reach the unified level of a vajra-holder within this same body and lifetime.
Taking direct perception as the path, using actual insight, is the way of the mind looking into itself. Instead of looking outward, one turns the attention back upon itself. Often we assume that mind is a powerful and concrete “thing” we walk around with inside. But in reality it is just an empty form. When looking into it directly to see what it is, we do not need to think of it as being empty and infer emptiness through reasoning. It is possible to see the emptiness of this mind directly. Instead of merely thinking of it, we can have a special experience—an extraordinary experience—and discover, “Oh, yes, it really is empty!” It is no longer just a conclusion we postulate. We see it clearly and directly. This is how the great masters of India and Tibet reached accomplishment.
Instead of inferring the emptiness of external phenomena through reasoning, the Mahamudra tradition taught by Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa shows us how to directly experience emptiness as an actuality. Since we habitually perceive external objects as always having concrete existence, we do not directly experience them as being empty of true existence. It is not very practical to become convinced of the emptiness of external objects such as mountains, houses, walls, trees, and so forth. Instead, we should look into our own mind. When we truly see our mind’s nature, we find it has no concrete identity whatsoever. This is the main point of using direct perception: look directly into your own mind, see in actuality that it is empty, and then continue training in that.
This mind, the perceiver, does experience a variety of moods. There are feelings of being happy, sad, exhilarated, depressed, angry, attached, jealous, proud or close-minded; sometimes one feels blissful, sometimes clear or without thoughts. A large variety of different feelings can occupy this mind. However, when we use the instructions and look into what the mind itself really is, it is not very difficult to directly perceive the true nature of mind. Not only is it quite simple to do, but it is extremely beneficial as well.
We usually believe that all of these different moods are provoked by a material cause in the external environment, but this is not so. All of these states are based on the perceiver, the mind itself. Therefore, look into this mind and discover that it is totally devoid of any concrete identity. You will see that the mental states of anger or attachment, all the mental poisons, immediately subside and dissolve—and this is extremely beneficial.
To conclude this section, I will restate my previous point. On the one hand, we hear that to awaken to true and complete enlightenment, it is necessary to perfect the accumulations of merit through three incalculable eons. Then on the other hand, we hear that it is possible to attain the unified level of a vajra-holder within this same body and lifetime. These two statements appear to contradict one another. Truthfully, there is no way one could be enlightened in one lifetime if one had to gather accumulations of merit throughout three incalculable eons. However, if one could be enlightened in a single lifetime then there seems to be no need to perfect the accumulation of merit throughout three incalculable eons. Actually, both are right in that it does take a very long time if one takes the path of reasoning. Whereas it is possible to attain enlightenment within a single lifetime if one follows the tradition of the pith instructions, using direct perception as the path.
Establishing the Identity of Mind and the Various Perceptions
It should be clear now that our use of the term vipashyana refers to direct perception. To attain this direct perception, we must undertake two tasks: first, gain certainty about the identity of mind; second, gain certainty about the identity of mind’s expression, which includes thought and perceptions. Put another way, we need to investigate three aspects: mind, thought and perception.
The first of these—mind—is when one is not involved in any thoughts, neither blatant thought states nor subtle ones. Its ongoing sense of being present is not interrupted in any way. This quality is called cognizance, or salcha in Tibetan. Salcha means there is a readiness to perceive, a readiness to think, to experience, that does not simply disappear. Since we do not turn to stone or into a corpse when we are not occupied by thinking, there must be an ongoing continuity of mind, an ongoing cognizance.
Next are thoughts, or namtok. There are many different types of thoughts, some subtle, like ideas or assumptions, and others quite strong, like anger or joy. We may think that mind and thoughts are the same, but they are not.
The third one, perceptions, or nangwa, actually has two aspects. One is the perception of so-called external objects through seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touch. Let us set those aside for the time being, though, as they are not the basis for the training at this point. The other aspect of perception deals with what occurs to the sixth consciousness: mental images. These mental impressions are not perceived through the senses but somehow occur to the mind in the form of memories, something imagined or thought of. Nevertheless, each of these mental impressions feels as if it is sight, sound, smell, taste or texture. Usually, we do not pay attention to any of this—it just happens and we are caught up in it; for example, when we are daydreaming or fantasizing.
It is important to become clear about what mind, thoughts and perceptions actually are—not in a theoretical way but in actuality. In the past, we may not have paid much attention to mind’s way of being when not occupied with thoughts or perceptions. We may not have looked into what the mind itself—that which experiences or perceives—actually consists of and, therefore, we may not be certain of it. When there are thoughts, mental images or perceptions, the usual habit is simply to lose control and be caught up in the show. We continually get absorbed in what is going on, instead of taking a good, clear look at the perceiving mind. We tend not to be aware that we are thinking or daydreaming; we tend to be in a rather vague, hazy state. Meditation training lets these thoughts and mental images become quite vivid. They can become as clear as day. At this point, we should take a good look and in an experiential way personally establish what their actual nature or identity is.
We use the word examine repeatedly. When you establish the nature of things by means of reason, examining refers to intellectual analysis; but that is not what we are talking about now. Unlike an intellectual investigation, examining should be understood as simply looking at how things actually are.
Establishing the Identity of Mind—the Basis
The Mahamudra sense of vipashyana does not mean to examine concepts, but to look into what the mind actually is, namely a sense of being awake and conscious, continuously present and very clear. Whenever we do look, no matter when, we cannot help but discover that mind has no form, color or shape—none at all. Then we may wonder, “Does that mean that there is no mind? Does the mind not exist?” If there were no consciousness in the body, the body would be a corpse. Yet we can see and hear, and we can understand what we are reading—so we are not dead, that’s for sure. The truth is that while mind is empty—it has no shape, color or form—it also has the ability to cognize; it has a knowing quality. The fact is that these two aspects, being empty and able to know, are an indivisible unity.
Mind does exist as a continuing presence of cognizance. We are not suddenly extinct because there are no thoughts; there is something ongoing, a quality of being able to perceive. What exactly is this mind? What does it look like? If mind exists, then in what mode does it exist? Does the mind have a particular form, shape, color and so forth? We should simply take a close look at what it is that perceives and what it looks like, then try to find out exactly what it is.
The second question is, where is this mind, this perceiver, located? Is it inside or outside of the body? If outside, then exactly where? Is it in any particular object? If it is in the body, then exactly where? Does it pervade throughout the body—head, arms, legs, etc.? Or is it in a particular part—the head or torso, the upper part or the lower part? In this way, we investigate until we become clear about the exact shape, location and nature of this perceiving mind. Then if we do not actually find any entity or location, we may conclude that mind is empty. There are different ways in which something can be empty. It could simply be absent, in the sense that there is no mind. However, we have not totally disappeared; we still perceive and there is still some experience taking place, so you cannot say that mind is simply empty. Though this mind is empty it is still able to experience. So what is this emptiness of mind?
By investigating in this way, we do not have to find something that is empty or cognizant or that has a shape, color or location. That is not the point. The point is simply to investigate and see it for what it is—however that might be. Whether we discover that the perceiver is empty, cognizant or devoid of any concreteness, it is fine. We should simply become clear about how it is and be certain—not as a theory, but as an actual experience.
If we look for a perceiver, we won’t find one. We do think, but if we look into the thinker, trying to find that which thinks, we do not find it. Yet, at the same time, we do see and we do think. The reality is that seeing occurs without a seer and thinking without a thinker. This is just how it is; this is the nature of the mind. The Heart Sutra sums this up by saying that “form is emptiness,” because whatever we look at is, by nature, devoid of true existence. At the same time, emptiness is also form, because the form only occurs as emptiness. Emptiness is no other than form and form is no other than emptiness. This may appear to apply only to other things, but when applied to the mind, the perceiver, one can also see that the perceiver is emptiness and emptiness is also the perceiver. Mind is no other than emptiness; emptiness is no other than mind. This is not just a concept; it is our basic state.
The reality of our mind may seem very deep and difficult to understand, but it may also be something very simple and easy because this mind is not somewhere else. It is not somebody else’s mind. It is your own mind. It is right here; therefore, it is something that you can know. When you look into it, you can see that not only is mind empty, it also knows; it is cognizant. All the Buddhist scriptures, their commentaries and the songs of realization by the great siddhas express this as the “indivisible unity of emptiness and cognizance,” or “undivided empty perceiving,” or “unity of empty cognizance.” No matter how it is described, this is how our basic nature really is. It is not our making. It is not the result of practice. It is simply the way it has always been.
The trouble is that for beginningless lifetimes we have been so occupied with other things that we have never really paid any attention to it—otherwise we would have already seen that this is how it is. Now, due to favorable circumstances, you are able to hear the Buddha’s words, read the statements made by sublime beings, and receive a spiritual teacher’s guidance. As you start to investigate how the mind is, when you follow their advice, you can discover how mind really is.
Establishing the Identity of Thoughts and Perceptions—the Expression
Having briefly covered establishing the identity of mind, we will now discuss establishing the identity of thoughts and perceptions, which are the expressions of mind. Though empty of any concrete identity, mind’s unobstructed clarity does manifest as thoughts and perceptions.
Thoughts can be of many types and, in this context, include emotions. The Abhidharma teachings give a list known as the fifty-one mental events. You may have noticed thangka paintings depicting Vajrayogini wearing a garland of fifty-one freshly cut-off heads to illustrate the need to immediately sever any obvious thoughts that arise. Blatant thoughts include hate, obsessive attachment, compassion and moods such as feeling hazy or very clear. When these arise, either on their own or by us provoking them in order to have something to investigate, we do not need to analyze why we are angry. Instead, immediately upon the arising of a strong thought or emotion, look into where it is, what its identity is and what it is made of. Also, when it arises you should try to find the direction it came from, and when it subsides, where it goes. Whether it is a thought, emotion, feeling or mood, the principle is the same: look into where it comes from, where it abides and where it goes. By investigating in this way, you will find that no real “thing” came from anywhere. Right now the feeling, thought or emotion does not remain anywhere, nor does it actually exist in any concrete way, and, finally, no “thing” actually disappears.
No matter what the thought or emotion may be, we should look into it. But we will fail to find any “thing”—we can’t find where it is, what it looks like or what it is made of.
This failure is neither because we are incapable of looking nor because we have been unsuccessful in finding it, but simply because any movement of the mind is empty of a concrete identity. There is no substance to it, whether it is anger, fear, joy or sorrow—all are merely empty movements of the mind. We discover that looking into thoughts is no different from looking into the quiet mind. The identity of calm mind is empty cognizance and when we look into a thought movement, we also see an empty cognizance. The great masters of the past phrased it like this: “Look into the quiet mind when quiet and look into the moving mind when moving.” We discover that mind and thoughts—the basis and the expression—have the same identity: empty cognizance.
The same holds true for sensory perceptions and memories. The Buddhist teachings define two aspects of reality: relative truth and ultimate truth. From the relative point of view, we cannot deny that there are mental images and memories, but from thepoint of view of the ultimate truth, we are forced to admit that they do not exist. This appears to be a contradiction. However, while experientially such images do occur to us, when we investigate what they really are, there is no thing to find, no location for them, and no identity or substance from which they are made.
You might wonder what is the use of understanding that our thoughts and perceptions are all by nature empty of any concrete identity. Sometimes we get so happy. It feels so wonderful and we love it; we cling wholeheartedly to whatever we experience or whatever we think of. At other times it is very painful and we feel like we can’t take it. This is simply due to attaching some solid identity to our thoughts and perceptions. These experiences are not so overwhelming once we clearly see the reality of these thoughts and perceptions—that their identity is not real or concrete. They become much lighter and do not weigh us down so much anymore. That is the immediate benefit. The lasting benefit is that our experience and understanding of the natural state of mind becomes clearer and clearer, more and more stable.
In this method, we do not become clear about what mind, thoughts and mental impressions are by intellectually building a theory of what they must be like and then forcing our experience to agree with our preconceived ideas. Instead, we go about it in an experiential way. We simply allow mind, thoughts or mental perceptions to be whatever they are and then look at them, investigate them. With no need to maintain any set notions about how they must be and forcing them to fit such a description, simply take a close look at the situation as it is. This is neither very complicated nor strenuous, because you are not looking into something other, but rather into this very mind that you already have right here. All you need to do is look at what it actually is. You do not have to imagine any inaccessible thoughts; simply look at your available thoughts and emotions, investigate where they are and what they are made of. The same goes for any mental impressions—simply investigate what they are as they occur. That is the training. Please spend some time giving mind, thoughts and mental impressions a close look and establish some certainty about what they actually are.
Here we have dealt with establishing the identity of mind, thoughts and mental impressions. We could have decided that mind, thoughts and mental impressions are empty, or perhaps not empty. Either way, in the context of Mahamudra training, one should not create any ideas about them. Instead, one should get to know them as they are, without any concepts as handles, by simply looking closely into them. One should not try to infer their nature, but rather see what the nature of mind, thoughts and perceptions actually is through direct experience. When we speak of “establishing their nature” or “cutting through misconceptions about mind, thoughts and perceptions,” therefore, we are referring to attaining clarity or certainty through personal experience. It means to see for ourselves, without any preconceived ideas.
This teaching was adapted from Crystal Clear: Practical Advice for Meditators, by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche. Translated by Erik Pema Kunsang. Compiled and edited by Michael Tweed. Published by Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2003.
Order a trial subscription to Buddhadharma by clicking here.
Bodhisattva – Like a Peacock Thriving on Poisons
Peacock thrive on poison like bodhisattva thrives on negativies. Peacocks live in forest with poisonous plants, they eat the poisonous plants that no other animals can eat, and instead of being poisoned, peacocks transformed the poisons thay eat into beautiful, colorful and vibrant plumage and thrive. Similarly, a Bodhisattva while dwelling amidst the all the negativities and sufferings of samsara, does not get affected at all or being pulled down and drift along the samsaric current, instead, a Bodhisattva dwell in samsara but thrives in it. Not only that he is not being inflicted by the negativities, he can help others who are in samsara to get rid of their negativities. Such is the unusual qualitiy of a Bodhisattva, just like a peacock.
Bodhisattvas can be around any beings and not be affected by them, be it harmless beings or harmful beings. For example, animals are attracted to Nagarjuna and they like to stay near him, including predators. Realized beings like Nagarjuna who are filled with spontaneous love and compassion for all beings are able to affect the beings surrounding them. They will feel the positive energy of loving kindness and become peaceful, just the the animals around Nagarjuna. Another example is when we met realized practitioners like Geshe Wangchen of Drepung Monastery, we can feel his positive energy tremendously and be affected by it.
There are different levels to our mind. When a person see another being who has higher level of mind than himself, whatever that is at the same level and below to himself he will see it as good, but when it comes to levels that are above his, he will only see those as negativities. Qualities such as compassion which are achieved by high level beings are not able to be perceived by people of lower level, therefore they will see those qualities as negative instead.
People who always think they are right and that everyone else is wrong, and see negativities on others and criticise others, they have no refuge, and will not have attainments, because they do not believe that others can have higher mental capacity, therefore it is the same as not believeing in the existence of a Buddha. Since they do not believe in the existence of a Buddha, they do not have refuge. Same for people who are miserly, angersome, lazy, bitter, egoistic. These type of people, as long as the hold on to their negativities and delusions and try to justify them, they will have no attainments, simple because by justifying their types of mind or actions indirectly they also deny the existence of a higher level of mind which is free from all the delusions, which is a Buddha. Since they deny the existence of a Buddha, they do not believe that a mind can be developed and become better until enlightenment, therefore, these type of people also do not take refuge in Buddha.
On the other hand, people who are humble and genuinely believe that there are people better than them, both in worldly and spiritual aspects, they will gain attainments because although they cannot see the Buddha, but by inferential logic, they can come to a conclusion that a being of higher mental capacity for example a Buddha can exists, and that they can become one too. Therefore they geniunely believe in the existence of a Buddha and will take refuge and practise sincerely and eventually they will gain attainments.
Short summary on Dharma Talk given by Tsem Tulku Rinpoche on 23 May 2006, recorded by Loh Seng Piow
Writing Undoes Me
“To give oneself over to the objective business of writing,” says Pico Iyer, “is to see how subjective the whole business of the self and writing is.”
To write is to step away from the clamor of the world, to take a deep breath and then, slowly and often with shaking heart, to try to make sense of the bombardment of feelings, impressions, and experiences that every day and lifetime brings. The very act of putting them down—getting them out of the beehive of the head and onto the objective reality of paper—is a form of clarification. And as the words begin to take shape and make pairings across the page, gradually you can see what you thought, or discern a pattern in the random responses, so that finally, if all goes well, you’re convinced you’ve got something out of your system and into a domain where it creates a kind of order. Random experience becomes teaching, cautionary tale, or even blessing.
To write is to make a clearing in the wilderness in which, almost literally, you can see the wood from the trees. In the thick of anything, you hardly know who you are or where you’re going (which is the redeeming power of experience); at your desk, recollecting emotion in tranquility, helped by memory’s editing devices and imagination’s hunger for possibility, you take something that might only have been heartache and turn it into something more provocative, enriching, and even instructive.
That’s the theory. And it works. I know what I think of many things because I’ve wrestled them into clarity through long, long hours at my desk. I’ve told myself that I’ve made a shape, an argument, out of a barrage of sensations, and now I can tell you where I stand on Thailand, on the late romances of Shakespeare, or Susan, and her infuriating habit of talking about herself.
But there is a fatal catch in the process that any Buddhist might mournfully savor. The very process of sitting at the desk day after day after day, alone, somewhat removed from the world, one’s eyes literally or metaphorically shut, makes one able to see through (in every sense) the whole process of thinking and concluding, the very construction denoted by “I.” The very fact of trying to explore the mind and its responses, intensely and inwardly, without stepping back, moves one after a while to see that the mind, and the self that talks about the mind, feels no more real than that cloud formation over the mountains, where the sun is beginning to set. To give oneself over to the objective business of writing is to see how subjective the whole business of the self and writing is.
I find that if I spend four weeks, say, on a project, there comes a time, toward the end, when I can no longer take it or myself seriously at all. I’ve seen that what I believe today I can hardly remember tomorrow. The radiance that arises as I contemplate the little epiphanies born in one mood becomes despair in the next. The self that imagines it’s so objectively scrutinizing the passing show of appearances is a passing show itself, as fickle, as impermanent, as the weather outside my window. I draw a definitive conclusion today; tomorrow, when I pick up my papers from the day before, it doesn’t seem real at all.
The Buddha famously spoke of the “jungle of opinions.” To still the mind, he suggested, is to move past layer after layer till you’re in a place where the chatterings of the mind, the jungle of opinions, this contention and that certainty, seem as remote as the hubbub in the street when you’re seated in a church. There is a space behind the mind, and that is where all the things that really endure exist. Speech is where we give and take the wisdom of the world, silence is where we absorb a wisdom that makes the world dissolve.
The deeper I’ve entered into this process, in short, the harder it’s become for me to believe in it. Writing is the practice I maintain going to my little space (at a schoolgirl’s desk decorated with Hello Kitty images and pictures of Brad Pitt), and stilling myself and my monkey mind to see what remains when everything burns away. It feels, often, like a journey into and through the jungle, each day providing some new revelation, often contradictory of the previous ones, till finally I’m out on the other side, and see that the revelations of impermanence were impermanent too. The more I practice writing, therefore, the less I believe in it. The more I get down what I believe, the less I really have faith in it. All the words, the hours at the desk,are just gestures, it comes to seem, to the emptiness that lies behind the curtain at the back of the stage, unseen by spectators and even actors. I write and write and write and what I come up with is a sense of the arbitrariness of everything that’s written; I know I’ll believe something else tomorrow. It’s no more to be relied upon than that play of light through the trees.
Writing is a form of meditation, I sometimes tell myself (though no doubt I could say the opposite the next day). But it’s a form that deconstructs itself, so finally you come to feel that writing is just the convulsive exercise you do to get to the place where all writing ceases. You can take a notebook into your retreat, I can imagine a wise man saying, but when you emerge, you’ll only want to throw away everything you’ve scribbled.
Pico Iyer is the author of a Sufi novel, Abandon, and the introspective travel book Sun After Dark.
Refugees dominate the news recently. My heart breaks for all the people called to risk their lives journeying to unkown shores. The situation is bleak, and makes me wonder. What is the difference between a refugee and a pilgrim?
To become officially “Buddhist” we commit by “taking refuge.” It’s not that we are taking refuge in anything particular, but rather we acknowledge that there is no other choice than to accept the fact that there is no solid ground to call home forever. Impermanence reigns and until we accept this, we will suffer. The illusion of stability lulls us into believing we have solid ground under our feet. But we all know things can change in an instant. So a Buddhist is essentially a permanent refugee, or if you prefer, a pilgrim. A pilgrim is someone who embraces this inconvenient truth and uses it to fuel a spiritual path.
I feel the pain of all who are homeless and cold and hungry. I was also “homeless” for many years while I was working in South Asia. I never had to worry about food or shelter, but I didn’t really have a permanent place to call home. I had a series of temporary assignments, and stayed in a variety of lodgings that ranged from dilapidated shacks to luxury hotel suites. There were times when I felt acutely the fact that when my contract was up I had no idea where I was going next. Sometimes I went on retreat just because I had no idea where to go. And things always worked out.