Everyday sacredness

Dandelion

All phenomena are sacred – all beings, objects, places and events. We realise their sacredness in attending to them, waking up to the ephemeral nature of all things. The place where we sit in mindful attention is a sacred site, a temple, a refuge and an observatory.

Experience and desire

 

Rene Magritte The Son of Man 1946

Jacob Needleman (1972) writes: “According to the Buddhist tradition, there is that in a [human being] which is able, quietly and directly, to experience rather than to desire. This is called the Buddha-nature. Zen Buddhism is a means to help an individual come to this awakening of experience.”

Much of the time our experience is interwoven with a stream of comments and judgments that are a manifestation of desire. We make judgments about things and events (including feelings, thoughts and memories) based on our belief or opinion as to how things should be, rather than how they are. We project on our experience our desire that things should be better, more pleasant, more beautiful, and so on. We want the world to be modelled in a way that satisfies us, to have things the way we want them. This desire-fuelled process of commenting and judging is so ingrained in us that we are often unaware that it is happening. Practices like zazen and mindful meditation enable us to observe our commentary and to see our habit of judging. Instead of being in the grip of our desires we can view them like any other phenomena. We become able to see more clearly how we are, how we function and think and act. So we experience more clearly what IS, free of the weight of desire, free of the habitual need to say what if, or if only.

[The above painting is by Rene Magritte: The Son of Man 1946]

The pursuit of happiness

The pursuit of happiness

Child laughing

The desire for happiness, the pursuit of happiness, is not something advocated by the Buddha. Indeed the realisation that happiness is always fleeting and inseparable from sadness, wonder, excitement and all the other emotions (positive and negative), led him to realise that equanimity and balance, the middle way between emotions, is what matters, and this path between attachment, aversion and indifference, requires us to be analytical without being judgemental, to be accepting without being blind – it is a path of endless dispassionate enquiry, which is its own reward.

Chasing after happiness, a state that is by its very nature temporary, tends to give rise to dissatisfaction and frustration. The thing we desire (happiness) seems always to be just ahead of us, just out of our grasp. It is almost as if our desire pushes away the thing we are wanting – as if we are chasing our own shadow that is somehow always enticingly in front of us. The relationship between attachment, desire and dissatisfaction is something the Buddha explores in great detail, showing us how suffering is caused by unnecessary clinging to phenomena that are always transient.

Peace through compassion

One of the purposes of mindfulness in Buddhism, is to wake up to this life, to recognise suffering and the causes of suffering – our clinging to things as if they were fixed and unchanging, when they change all the time – and to learn to let go moment-by-moment, realising peace through compassion. The aspiration is to be caring and compassionate, without being overly attached or dependent, and to be clear-sighted, strong yet flexible, grounded yet groundless.

Everywhere and nowhere mind

Everywhere & nowhere mind

Robert Aitken (1988) quotes Yasutani Hakuun Roshi: ‘the fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here, and you are out there.’

In zazen we sit on a cushion, bench or chair on a mat in a room in a building or on a patch of earth. We dwell in a particular place, yet we dwell nowhere. The body is porous and the mind is boundless. We are here and now, yet everywhere and forever. To be fully here yet dwelling nowhere is one of the many puzzles of sitting, living, existing.

Emerson on silent observation of the mind

Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is a wonderful quote in Marilynne Robinson’s book, Absence of Mind. It is the American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), who writes: ‘In silence, in steadiness, in severe abstraction, let him hold by himself; add observation to observation, patient of neglect, patient of reproach, and bide his own time, – happy enough if he can satisfy himself alone that this day he has seen something truly…. For the instinct is sure, that prompts him to tell his brother what he thinks. He then learns that in going down into the secrets of his own mind he has descended into the secrets of all minds.’ This is from Emerson’s essay on scholarship and self-knowledge, The American Scholar – first delivered as a lecture in 1837. For Emerson, scholarship has no relevance or depth without self-knowledge. Sitting in contemplation – observing the mind in as clear and non-reactive a way as possible – is the most important scholarship, laying the groundwork for all other kinds of learning and study.

Darwinian mindful attention

In the Descent of Man (1871), Darwin writes: ‘Hardly any faculty is more important for the intellectual progress of man than ATTENTION. Animals clearly manifest this power, as when a cat watches by a hole and prepares to spring on its prey.’

Let thoughts be thoughts

If we observe thoughts as thoughts – in the same way that we can listen to a piece of music and choose to hear the notes as sounds – we change our relationship to thoughts and experience them in a new way- as events that occur in the mind, rather than as facts or objects that seem to define and determine who we are and what we do. When we attend to each thought without clinging or commentary the thoughts are robbed of their power to upset us, they no longer control us or determine our moods and feelings we cut our ties to them and see them for what they are. In this way we are no longer in thrall to them, no longer held in the whirlpool of habitual patterns of thought, feeling and mood that so often characterise our experience.

There are many teachers, but only one mind: this mind

Ajahn Chah

Recently I found some notes from a 1970s interview between the Thai Forest monk and teacher, Ajahn Chah (1918-1992), and one of his students. He advises the student to beware of the understandable tendency to want to try many different techniques and traditions of Buddhist practice. By all means find out about different systems, he says, but realise that in the end, no matter how many approaches you try or how many questions you ask, you will only begin to find out what the Buddha is talking about when you stop and examine your own mind. Then you will discover that instead of chasing after ideas and systems, what you really need to face up to is your own self, your own mind. This is where you will find the truth about the nature of existence and where you will find that your mind is the Buddha mind.

Ajahn Chah goes on to say that one of the most difficult things his students have to come to terms with is that their own preconceptions, ideas and opinions about Buddhism often get in the way of developing their Buddhist practice. “They are too clever to listen to other students. Their minds are too full of opinions and judgments, too full of themselves.” This means they find it difficult to see through the self, to let go of the conventional acquisitive self. Only by examining the mind without judgment and commentary can they begin to see who and how they really are.

Chah advises his student not to make judgments about the opinions of others, and not to spend time trying to find one definitive teaching (or teacher): “Watching others is bad practice…..Would you get upset at a small tree in the forest for not being tall and straight like some of the others? This is silly. Don’t judge other people, there are all varieties. No need to carry the burden of wishing to change them all.”

Chah’s words of advice seem to echo an enigmatic statement by Kosho Uchiyama (1974): “To rely on others is to be uneasy.”

Sitting just to sit

It is important not to become too goal-orientated about our practice. Mindful meditation requires a particular kind of effort – the effort to do it for its own sake, not as a means to an end, or to solve this or that problem. We are mindful in order to be mindful. It is its own reward. We do it in a spirit of care and kindness to ourselves, enjoying the vivid experience of being alive.

If we practice mindfulness in order to satisfy a craving for happiness, freedom or calm, it is likely that happiness, freedom and calm will always stay beyond our reach – indeed frustration, dissatisfaction and disturbance may arise instead. If we let go of the craving, the excessive striving, happiness, freedom and calm may arise all by themselves.

Mindful eating

Mindful eating

Bread

In his book, Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests an unorthodox way of interpreting the Christian story of the last supper and the service of holy communion. According to Hanh, when Christ breaks the bread and shares it with his disciples saying, ‘Eat this. This is my flesh’, he is saying if you eat one piece of bread in mindfulness you will have real life. If you eat bread in a state of mindlessness or forgetfulness, the bread is not bread, it is only a ghost of bread. Just as we are only pale ghosts of ourselves if we are not awake and mindful. Hanh argues that Christ was trying to wake up his disciples. Maybe we can interpret the changing of water into wine in a similar way. If we really taste the water, noticing its flavour and texture, and if we are fully present when we hold it in our mouths and swallow it – the water becomes as rich, tasty and enjoyable as wine.

The word, love

The English word love has many meanings and uses. We speak of loving our parents and our children; there is the love we have for our partner, our lover, our husband or wife; sometimes we speak of love of country or of a particular place; we talk of love of food or of art or of poetry. Love can refer to an emotion or feeling issuing from the ego-self, or arising from the relational self or Buddha-mind. The former is the product and generator of attachment and desire, while the latter is a product and generator of non-attachment grounded in relatedness and interdependence.

Henepola Gunaratana, a teacher in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, writes about the Pali word, metta, which is usually translated as ‘loving-kindness’. In his earlier book, Mindfulness in Plain English, Gunaratana uses this translation, but in a later book, Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness, he translates metta as, ‘loving-friendliness’. If we consult a dictionary, metta is defined as: friendliness, benevolence, amity, goodwill, kindness, close union with, interest in welfare of others. This line of interpretation avoids the romantic, desire-based connotations of love and loving-kindness, instead associating metta with feelings of kinship, care, concern, compassion and connectedness.

Remembering a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

What can I remember of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching at a recent retreat? He emphasised the cardinal importance of this moment – the past has gone, the future has yet to come, only now is real. He reminded us that times of non-thinking are important – a time to let go of past and future, our hopes and fears, our plans and obsessions – a time to ‘come home’ to our bodies. From mindfulness and attention to our own experience, compassion flows – compassion towards ourselves, our nearest and dearest, and towards those people and other beings with whom we share this very special planet.

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s school of Zen, reference is made to ‘inviting the bell to sound’ (not striking the bell or ringing it) and the sound of the bell is an invitation to stop, to attend, to listen, look and to be here in the moment. When eating meals in mindful silence we can find the ‘kingdom of God’ in a small piece of carrot – a morsel that nourishes our body and mind. Hanh urges us to attend to the pain of existence – birth, death, evanescence, the coming and going of phenomena and the sense of change and loss that arises in our day-to-day existence – but not to add to this pain by clinging, passing judgement or adding a commentary. Our tendency to react with habitual responses and to add layers of words, thoughts and feelings to the initial pain only increases our suffering and clouds our experience. Buddhism is about seeing things as they are, not as they are wrapped in our emotions, reactions and habits of thought, feeling and behaviour.