The End of Awareness
The first stage of Buddhism coming to the West is about finished now. This first stage is the consciousness stage. It has been all about awareness, mindfulness, consciousness, attention, and alertness. We should all be very tired by now. If we have been doing all this attention practice for all these years, then a big part of us must be craving for sleep by now.
it would be better to dream more
To sleep, to sleep, perchance to dream. Ever since Hamlet, modern humans have feared the unconscious. We know that Buddhism is about overcoming the ego, but all this consciousness training is essentially just drilling ourselves in more and more clinging to the ego-ideal. it would be better to dream more.
The Unconscious Stage
The next stage, therefore, is the unconscious stage. Some people have already got a little bit of this but mostly the consciousness movement has just got more and more extreme. The idea that consciousness itself is the goal is a kind of madness. Saying that consciousness is the answer to the spiritual problem is like saying that words are the answer to the problem of literature or numbers are the answer to economics. It does not really mean anything. Consciousness is part of life, not the answer to it, a tool, not a goal.
Nearly all the important things in life go on unconsciously most of the time. We meet somebody. “Hello, who are you?” “I’m John.” “Nice to meet you, I’m Jane.” What does it mean? John is not conscious of who or what John is and Jane is not conscious of who or what Jane is. These are just labels. Also, ‘nice to meet you’ is a secret code, but does anybody consciously know what it means? They are players on an unconscious stage.
Perhaps it means, ‘This is really boring, but I must not let that show,’ or, perhaps it means, ‘I’m looking for somebody to have a baby with and I’d like to try you out,’ or, perhaps it means, ‘You remind me of somebody I have unfinished business with and I’d like to hook you into my game so that I can finally get some satisfaction for my neurotic obsession.’ Or, it could mean all sorts of things. Even if a clairvoyant could work out which of these it means on this particular occasion, you can be pretty confident that neither John nor Jane know.
we do not know who or what we are
- So tell me who you are really.
- I’m an accountant,
- No, I mean who you are, not what you do between nine and six.
- I’m one third Irish, half Norwegian and the rest I don’t know.
- No, I mean who you are, not where your ancestors lived.
We can describe what goes on in our life, but we do not know who or what we are. The source of all these goings on reveals itself to us only piecemeal.
So is there any question that is going to get real satisfaction here? Even if there were, would the other be able to answer it?
The same with conscious Buddhism. We collect a lot of names and affiliations and chunks of history - so what? There is a lovely story about a man coming to see Trungpa Rimpoche and saying, “I have done the whole Mahamudra and then I did the whole Ati Yoga Supreme Teaching. What do you recommend that I do now?” and Rimpoche said, “I’ll teach you to meditate.”
However, nowadays even meditation has fallen into the same programatic trap. To meditate used to mean to contemplate sacred mystery. Now it means get in control and fix yourself. Unfortunately, that is just another trip.
Mostly people think that to work with the unconscious means to make it conscious and do away with it but that is like thinking that the way to work with plants is to pull them up and examine the roots in order to make them grow better. When the plants have been pulled up and separated from the medium in which they flourish we might think we have achieved something, but that is not the way to grow good flowers.
What are the flowers of Buddhism? Gratitude, generosity, openness, good-heartedness, calm, enthusiasm, faith, love, compassion. You know about all this, but do you know it - does it make your hair curl, stop you in your tracks, stand you on your head? When these qualities are real, not just theory, not contrived, they amaze. Buddhism is not a programme in gratitude development: it is a confrontation with Mara in which flowers appear in the sky.
Real gratitude wells up. It comes from a dark abyss. That dark abyss is what Buddhists call shunyata. Shunya-ta means empty-ness. Giving it a name makes no difference to the fact that we have no idea what goes on in there. However, we can be sure that whatever it is is a threat to the ego ideal. All this consciousness stuff is mostly about being better at defending the ego ideal from the onslaught of shunyatya, when what should be happening is co-operation.
What we do have some experience of is that things well up. Welling up is a palpable phenomenon. Good things, bad things, all kinds of things, well up. According to Buddhism, welling up (samudaya) is a natural response to sukha and dukkha, to blessings and afflictions - and they are going on all the time. So the first thing one can do is to stop being frightened of welling up and start being interested.
Awareness can play a part here, but you don’t do this in order to improve awareness skills. Nor do you do it in order to push what has welled up back down again, nor in order to classify, dissect and dispose of it, nor in order to learn how best to hide what has welled up. No, you do it like receiving a Christmas present. “Oh, wow, what’s this? Thanks, what do you do with it? Oh, it’s like some sort of puppy. Hello fella… do you want to play. Ow! It bit my ankle. Oh, I guess he’s just having fun. Well, whoever gave me this, thank you very much!” Life is like that. There is something going on in consciousness all the time, but it is arriving from somewhere else and it has a life of its own - like a puppy.
Consciousness itself is the least of it. It is not the gift that matters, it is the giver and the spirit of the gift and the giver of life is the abyss - shunyata. We have to trust that the spirit of the gift from the abyss is beneficent. That’s religion.
Breaking Up the Concrete
What comes into consciousness comes from that deep, dark place - from the Tao. It is important to revere shunyata. All those old fashioned religious sounding words - reverence, worship, faith, awe, grace, wonder, devotion, prayer, revelation and so on - are part of a big tool kit for working with the abyss. They have gone out of fashion because what is currently a la mode is the attempt to seal off the void with concrete.
This is the final development of materialism. Materialism is about concrete: concrete techniques, concrete results, concrete profit, concrete concepts, concrete posture. Buddhism is not posturing. It has become as if consciousness were all there is, or all that is worthy of respect, which is like honouring the servant and ignoring the lord of the house.
consciousness is a bubble in a stream, a star at dawn
Materialism is reaching its limit, but somehow it has recruited a large part of Buddhism in the West into its frame. Meditation is now about awareness, no longer about rapture. Practice is now an artificial procedure, rather than being astonished by wonderment. Perhaps the word practice should be scrapped altogether. Concrete looks very solid, but when it breaks up it just returned to dust and pepples.
So how are we to go forward from here? Perhaps we should start by praying.
- I don’t know who I am praying to, but whoever or whatever you are, please give me a lead.
If you make such a prayer sincerely, an answer will come: not immediately and not in the form you expect, but when you look back not long after you should be able to see that something happened. That is what i mean by working with the abyss. That kind of work is real practice. In real practice, one is not in control. One is dealing with something mysterious. You don't know who or what is on the other end of the line. this helps you to realise that, actually, you don't know who is on this end either. yet something is going on. something important is happening.
Names don’t matter much. You can say ‘the gods’ or ‘all the Buddhas’ or ‘Heaven’ or ‘Mother Mary’ or whatever. If you call the wrong deity, you can be sure She will pass the message on. You don’t have to be an expert on what happens down there in order to give them a call.
Consciousness is a bubble in a stream, a star at dawn. In the case of the bubble, it’s the stream that matters. In the case of the star its the cosmos that matters. Infinite sacred mystery. Trust it. Worship it. It won’t let you down.