Dharmavidya's latest book on Dogen's Genjo Koan, 'Dark Side of the Mirror' is available to buy via the ITZI site
Dharmavidya's latest book on Dogen's Genjo Koan, 'Dark Side of the Mirror' is available to buy via the ITZI site
Anapanasati is a central teaching of Buddhism but it is commonly misunderstood. Literally the term means “breathe-in-breathe-out-mindfulness”. It is commonly taken to refer to a meditation exercise in which the attention is focussed upon the breathe, mindfulness being taken to mean attention. Though extremely widespread, this is a misreading, as I have discovered by reading other materials on anapanasati and mindfulness in the Pali texts.
Sati is mindfulness, but mindfulness is not really conscious attention and is certainly not conscious attention to whatever happens to be passing by. The term mindfulness was chosen to translate the term sati by the early translator of texts, Thomas Willioam Rhys Davids (1843-1922) who had in mind the passage in the King James Bible “My son be mindful of the Lord our God all thy days”.
Mindfulness means to keep something important in mind. In the case of Christianity, what is to be kept in mind is God; in the case of Buddhism, what is to be kept in mind is Buddha and Dharma. Mindfulness, therefore, means what the Japanese call nembutsu. Everybody who is on a spiritual path has an anchor for their commitment, a word, phrase or image that indexes the whole. For a Christian it might be the image of Christ or of the cross. For a Buddhist, that of Buddha or the Dharma Wheel. In Buddhism it might also, often, be the thought of one’s teacher. When in the Satipatthana Sutta it says to set one mindfulness before one, this means to visualise it, which, often, would mean, imagining that one is sitting in the presence of the Buddha or of one’s teacher. So we know from the Satipatthana that the disciple should make some special times when he or she consciously and deliberately visualises his or her particular mindfulness object. The import of anapanasati, however, is that it is not only at special times that one should have mindfulness present. One should be mindful of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha all of one’s days, or, as unremittingly as breathing in and breathing out. Thus it is sometimes said that one should “mount one’s practice upon the breathe.” This is the same idea.
Now if we reflect upon this we realise that the breathing actually goes on whether one is paying attention to it or not. In fact, the major part of the time that one is breathing one is paying no attention to it at all. Breathing goes on even when one is asleep. Mindfulness, therefore, does not mean conscious attention. Mindfulness means having something in one’s heart that is so well established that it is part of you and does not need constant effort to sustain it. This is like loving one’s mother: one does not cease to love her when she is out of one’s mind or when one is busy doing something else or even when one is asleep. The Dharma should be thus established. This is what is meant by having faith. One can then bring one’s mindfulness to consciousness whenever needed as a support for one’s spiritual life or as a foundation for Dharmic investigation, as in satipatthana or as per the seven factors of enlightenment in which investigation comes immediately after mindfulness.
To repeat, therefore, anapanasati is not paying attention to the breath, it is having the Three Jewels as integrated into one’s being and as unremitting as breathing is. This is the continuous nembutsu that Shan Tao and Honen talk about. They understood the meaning of Shakyamuni’s teaching. Many others have erroneously tried to turn it into a bag of psychological tricks, but Buddhism is a religion and you can have faith in it all the days of your life.
THE IN BETWEEN
The word bardo refers to the state between lives. It is a gap or transition period. More generally, we experience many such periods, not merely after actual death but also after every ending before a new beginning has taken form. Mahayana Buddhism envisages a period of up to seven weeks between lives in which the karma of a person transitions through a non-physical, dream state before condensing into a new rebirth. During this time the things that our life is usually anchored to are missing. We are adrift with only our own karma to rely upon.
LIFE WITHOUT SUPPORTS
Reflection upon the bardo, therefore, is both an investigation of what we are when we give up our customary supports and, simultaneously how we cope with change - whether it comes to us as liberation or as a terror. Many people who seem stable and strong, fall apart when their props are no longer there.
This is, therefore, part of the Buddhist teaching on conditioning. Buddhism sets up a contrast between the world of conditioning and "the unconditioned". In ordinary life, everything seems to depend upon conditions. The spiritual or holy life is an attempt to ground oneself beyond conditions. In the bardo this is tested in the most extreme way and the result of this test is the next life.
The experience of the bardo is much like dream. At the end of each day we dream and one of the main functions of dreaming is to integrate the day that has passed in such a way as to provide a healthy mental attitude to the day that is to come. However, this does not always work. Sometimes what we have experienced is too extreme to be integrated. Also, depending upon the mental resilience one has - which is substantially a function of faith - so the same experience may feel more or less overwhelming. The person who has found faith in the unconditioned - in nirvana - experiences the bardo as access to bliss and the malevolent appearances there are seen as insubstantial, whereas the person still mired in conditions experiences them as real, overwhelming and terrifying. The average person experiences a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant visions and sensations, never quite reaching the highest nor sinking to the lowest.
At the death time there is a spontaneous review of the past life and in the bardo the effects of the past life are reencountered as dream-like experiences, both seductive and terrifying as the residues of the past life are sifted through and represented in symbolic form. One can think of Buddhist practice as being about getting ahead of the game by making such a life review earlier and in a sufficiently penetrating manner as to really make a difference to the way one lives, such that when the death time comes one is not unprepared. Our Western culture has turned its back on death whereas in Buddhism the time of dying is the one great moment for which all else is a preparation.
The bardo teachings thus have relevance in helping us to prepare for and beware of what may follow this life and also in relation to all transitions that occur actually in this life, each of which is a forerunner of the one great moment. Life is full of changes, many of which are unchosen. Do we learn? Do we grow or are we defeated? Does our past become an asset or a nightmare? Do we become more liberated or do we cling more tenaciously? Is our faith strengthened or does it fail us?
ENTERING UNCONDITIONAL LOVE
According to Buddhism, at death there firstly appears unconditional love in the manifestation of a clear white light. This may also be accompanied by visions of Buddhas and bodhisattvas - sambhogakaya - who come to assist us and take us to realms of light where our spiritual life will be enhanced and refreshed. However, the intensity is too much for most people and they are unable to merge into or go along with it and this refusal sets in train the passage toward another incarnation. Similarly, within this life, when something ends we find ourselves in a phase of unprecedented freedom, but generally people are unable to grasp this liberation and quickly flee into attachment and dependency of a new kind that, often enough, turns out to be just the same old prison in new guise.
ROUND AND ROUND
Although we can reflect upon this intellectually and understand that it is our own mind that is making life difficult for us, when change comes along we still fall prey to panic and make all the false moves that have let us down in the past. Instead of advancing into the light, we regress into old ways and become entangled all over again.
The basic model that is found in so many Buddhist teachings is that of going round in circles, the action that we take to escape being precisely what lands us back in the same old trap. This is samsara. In the bardo, before the bardo, and after the bardo, there is always opportunity to find liberation, but unaided we almost always fail to make the leap.
TRANSFORMATION IS ABRUPT
Transformation of the human mind occurs abruptly. If one discovers that a person one had always regarded as a friend has betrayed one, one's view and feeling change immediately. One's sense of security in the world is impacted directly. This impact generalises to many aspects of one's being, and it all happens quickly. However, generalisation can also be delayed until relevant circumstances trigger the integration of a new outlook.
Thought does not happen slowly. A karmic act is committed and the effect is immediate, even though it might not manifest for a long time. When that effect is triggered, it appears directly. So, in general, the mind is characterized by punctuated equilibrium. States remain until they change. When they change, it happens straight away. For this reason, therapeusis occurs in moments. Although one might see a client for many sessions, the therapeutic effect occurred in a few short moments. The rest was preparation and working through.
However, although the core element of change occurs suddenly, it takes time to work through. Thus a loss occurs suddenly and is followed by a period of grief. The grief may extend over a prolonged period. Buddha's encounters with Kisagotami and with Patacara are like this. His therapeutic intervention caused the grief process to start. They then each spent several years in grief and then emerged sane. The grief process itself is made up of a cascade of smaller changes. The state of shock endures until the person accepts the truth of the loss. The period of anger endures until the person accepts that nothing can be done. The period of depression endures until the person starts to notice new features in their life. Some trigger will suddenly lift the cloud of gloom. So even what seems like gradual transformation is actually simply a cascade of smaller sequential abrupt changes. These changes are holistic and experiential. Cognitive knowledge may play a part, but generally it is a sub-ordinate one.
A spiritual awakening can also function in this way. Our practice is mostly our attempt to integrate whatever level of insight we have within the medium of daily life. We attempt to put our understanding into practice. This may mean changing habits or adopting new approaches, but if they are authentic they derive from some awakening that has already happened. Thus we say that sudden awakening precedes gradual cultivation and that the cultivation that we do is at the level of whatever awakening we have experienced.
Similarly, people will remain in a stable state despite mounting counter-evidence or multiple under-mining shocks until a position becomes untenable whereupon it will collapse and a new state emerge. This is the phenomenon of paradigm. Our day to day actions are based on a set of assumptions about our ambient reality which we believe to be true and which we take for granted, rarely thinking about them. We go on acting on this set of assumptions even when we encounter small amounts of contrary evidence. We dismiss such as aberrations. We implicitly defend our paradigm for as long as possible. As contrary evidence mounts, our attempts to cling onto our old way of seeing things may become more and more elaborate. However, eventually, we may encounter “the straw that breaks the camel's back” and wholesale change may ensue. This is really a case of many small abrupt changes gradually accumulating. It has been said that the way to get a person to put down a heavy load is to give them just a little more to carry. Sometimes therapeutic interventions are like that.
A particularly interesting case of this is the phenomena of reaching safety. A person may cope with a succession of difficulties while in a dangerous situation without showing evidence of stress or fatigue, and then collapse when safety is reached. Thus a platoon of soldiers caught in an ambush may perform exactly as they have been drilled to do when under fire; they take cover, co-ordinate their actions with one another, fight back in a systematic manner, and perhaps succeed in driving away the enemy. They then march back to barracks in good spirits. As soon as the barracks gates are closed behind them some of the soldiers may become hysterical or collapse from fatigue. They were able to ignore the mounting stress factors while in danger, but reaching safety everything changes. Safety may be a condition that permits stress to surface and be dealt with. This is why therapy generally begins with the creation of a safe space.
This phenomenon also happens over longer periods of time. The woman who, as a teenager, had to look after her younger siblings because her mother died, then lived in poverty and struggled to find low paid hard work for many years, who then falls in love with an affluent man and finds herself with a prosperous and happy home, may suddenly, and, seemingly unaccountably, fall into depression. All the time that she lived in hardship she remained in good spirits. Now that, at last, she has found safety and happiness, all the denied misery surfaces. This may be very confusing to her and her new partner. She will, however, need to have a period of working through, of grief, before she can fully accept her new good fortune. Buddhism should not be regarded as a way of suppressing feelings or avoiding natural processes. Rather it is about finding and facing the truth and passing through it to liberation beyond.
The sense of safety makes it possible to let go of things that had been clung to as life rafts. Such clinging may have made sense in the emergency situation and so it may be difficult for a person to realise and accept that circumstances have changed. There is a lot in the news these days about refugees. Buddhism is often portrayed as seeking refuge from the worldly world. The truly spiritual person has a refuge that is not dependent upon worldly circumstances and this provides a dimension of safety that goes altogether beyond ordinary conditions. In this way we can understand that insight or awakening are actually names for finding true spiritual refuge. When we enter the truly safe space, body and mind fall away. Finding true refuge is what triggers sudden awakening.
Currently, the idea of “being in the here and now” is à la mode. and I find it a truly interesting matter to reflect upon.
Here and now I am sitting in the middle room in my house in France. The walls are white. The wood stove is black. Observations of this kind seem to introduce a simplicity into my existence and this is something to treasure. In the precise moment that I am making such an observation I am not thinking about whether the car insurance bill needs to be paid, whether the cat needs feeding, what work I am going to do later today and so forth. Thus, to focus upon the here and now can provide a welcome distraction from other thoughts that might be relatively more stressful. This is true notwithstanding the fact that I appreciate my car, love the cat and will probably enjoy the work I shall do.
When I call it distraction I am referring to the fact that the mind always has a focus, broad or narrow, and that when we focus on one thing we inevitably exclude other things. This is a strength and a weakness. It enables concentration and introduces a corresponding and complementary blindness. The things that I am not thinking about remain and will draw my focus sooner or later. My here and now will suddenly be filled with the sound of the cat at the door demanding attention. So we can say that being in the here and now does not, of itself, solve problems; it simply gives us a break from them. Such breaks, such moments of stopping to look, are certainly valuable.
Then we can consider what we experience when we do stop and look. To perceive is also to construe. We are programmed to make sense of things. Why do I call this a room and not a cave? Why my home and not a prison? Why in France? I am sure that the lizard on the wall does not think that he is in France, nor that he is in David’s house, nor, probably, is “house” at all a meaningful idea to him. You might say that that is because lizards are differently constructed to us, but this argument does not stand up to much scrutiny. I do not know for sure what goes through the head of the lizard, but we can reliably assume that it is mostly about food, sex, warmth, protection and bodily well-being. How different is that from you or I? The differences arise when we consider experience. The lizard is probably acutely aware of certain contours in the wall surface, certain cavities where more than once it caught a fly, certain spots where the angle of sunshine is most pleasing, and many other details that I do not notice and have no feelings about; or if I do notice, probably have quite different feelings about, such as, “I really should mix up some lime and fill in that hole one day.”
I experience this as “my”, “house”, in “France” because of my history as a member of the human tribe that has created the useful fiction of countries in order to keep large numbers of our kind organised in a moderately civilised manner, that constructs shelters in a certain way and allocate another useful fiction that we call ownership - this one mostly designed to distribute responsibility - and these things that I construe make a huge difference to how I feel about what I perceive. Sitting in my home in a country that is organised and at peace feels very different from sitting in a prison in an anarchic land, but the walls might still be white and the stove black.
We now, perhaps, start to see two important things about here-and-now-ism. The first is that it can be useful, and an important spiritual discipline, to be able, when one is in prison in an anarchic land with no certainty that one will not be executed tomorrow, to be able to stop and look and see that the walls are white and the stove is black and that the concrete realities of this moment are actually no different from when one was sitting at home elsewhere. Such a reflection can save one from panic and is one of the great “consolations of philosophy”. To be able to be as much at home in a cave as a palace and as much at ease in a palace as in a cave is a mark of spiritual maturity. It is a kind of sublime indifference that marks out the more enlightened person.
The second thing is that we can see that what one construes the here and now to be is a function of past experience and an imagined future. The here and now is given meaning by the there and then. It is only because of my past experience that I now experience this as a room in a house and it is only because of an imagined future social stability imparted to me by the concept of “France” that I have particular feelings and emotions at this moment. These feelings, these spontaneously arising thoughts and these emotions are also a highly significant part of my here and now experience, yet they are formed by the there and then. Thus the actual visceral experience of here and now is a function of there and then, just as it is for the lizard on the wall.
Now we might say that the person who is spiritually illuminated is emancipated from this circumstance of being a function of the past and future. He or she is able to be at ease even in the prison cell with death about to be inflicted tomorrow morning. However, this consolation of philosophy is itself also a function of an experienced past and an imagined future - merely a different one from that of the common person. The phrase “consolation of philosophy” (De consolatione philosophiae) comes from Boethius who, in 523CE, wrote a book with this title while he was in prison awaiting eventual execution. The book is one of the most important books of Western philosophy, bridging the classical and medieval ages and laying down a great many principles that are still to this day the foundation of enlightened thought, here using the term “enlightened” in the Western sense.
Boethius was able to express the consolation of philosophy so clearly because he had absorbed the wisdom of Christianity and of Greek philosophy, especially that of Plato. It was these perennial truths that he kept in mind that enabled him to treasure virtue over circumstance and continue to believe in the goodness of God in the midst of corrupt and treacherous human practice. When one has such a stock of wisdom in one’s heart, one is so much better equipped to “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. Hamlet should have read Boethius.
The idea of being in the here and now is currently connected with the fashion for the practice of “mindfulness”, but we should not lose sight of the fact that mindfulness - sati in Pali, smriti in Sanskrit - in its original Buddhist context, was essentially no different to the philosophy of Boethius, that one is protected by what one keep in mind. To have one’s mind or heart full of the right stuff will ensure that when one looks at the white walls and the black stove one will feel the joy of life and not the misery of despair.
So, I am still sitting in the middle room of my house in France. By most people’s standards it is a little chilly as I have not yet lit the big black wood burner. Perhaps I’ll go and do that now. After all, it has remained there patiently all the while that I have been philosophising and deserves to be fed. Of course, I am perfectly aware that such thoughts are all nonsense, but they too are a charming part of my here and now… or is it my there and then?
QUESTION: Dear Dharmavidya,… As you were used to travel a lot, to go where you're asked, to be in groups, to give workshops and talks...what is it to have to stay on the same place, in a little community or alone, as now? What is it for you to 'miss' (?) all this activities? Eleusis is isolated. I think that I would be scared of this isolation, although I know that we're never isolated, but the feeling can be there!
SHORT ANSWER: Intensely peaceful.
LONGER ANSWER: Being alone here is rather wonderful. I welcome guests when they appear but at present I am alone with the cat and the house and the land and the sky and the deities and Buddhas, the sun when she appears and the equally fickle moon and with my own head and heart, body and breath. And with silence. At this time of year there are not even many birds, just the odd owl call at night.
You mention the possibility of being afraid... My rational mind tells me that there is a small danger in being alone. One could have an injury or a medical emergency and there would be nobody here to pick me up and whisk me off to hospital. However, I do not feel this risk. I suppose that the truth is that one is always in some kind of danger - we are mortal beings - and so one creates a threshold. When threat comes above the threshold one becomes anxious, but the rest of the time one is at peace. And the reality here is that being alone I am less disturbed and more at peace than I would be were there people around.
From time to time I get an urge to get in the car and drive to some far away place or book an airplane, but then I smile at myself and put it aside. I know that there is a fair chance that I will recover sufficiently to travel again so it is a matter of wait and see. If it is so then I have a pleasure to look forward to, seeing my friends in far away places once again. On the other hand, if it turns out that my condition worsens then I can remain here and enjoy this place.
It has been a wonderful thing to be here a complete year. Many times in the past I have said to myself that it would be a good thing to do, so now it is no longer on my to-do-list. It is hard to find words sufficient to say how much I love this piece of ground - the Artemis Wood, beautiful Aphrodite Field, and all the other sacred areas. The planet is over-populated and I have 16 hectare completely to myself - sometimes I am amazed at my good fortune.
The matter of "missing" is interesting. I have sometimes felt grief in my life - terribly when my parents died, sometimes acutely when relationships broke up - but although I am alone physically here I still feel that my heart is thickly populated with good friends, yourself amongst them. Actual physical proximity is good, but only one dimension of being connected. I am sure we shall have plenty to talk about when we meet again, and this will be, in part, precisely because we have been apart.
I have been looking back over my life and the Amida years have had some ups and downs, but, for all the occasional drama, it feels like a supremely good thing to have done and to be part of into the future. I imagine that some people may have been envious of my life, travelling to such amazing places and meeting so many interesting people, yet the same observers would not themselves have been - were not - willing to undertake the challenges and risks involved in casting one’s life upon the wind in such a way.
People would ask me to do things. I would say “Yes!” and then afterwards wonder, how? I learnt a lot that way. Really that is the essence of Zen - not just sitting in rows or putting up with sore knees, not using a technique to eliminate one’s stress - it is much more fundamental than that. If one is willing, then the powers will arrange. Right now they have arranged for me to reside in paradise for a short while accompanied by a rather eccentric cat. The important thing is not to waste it.
Who knows what comes next? As Pureland Buddhists we are supposed to believe that the next life will be in Sukhavati close to Amitabha Buddha. I have some confidence in that - a kind of homecoming - but I am just as willing (and quite curious) to be sent on some other mission - the powers will arrange. However, despite its recent failings, there is probably still quite a bit of use left in my present body so whether it is here or elsewhere or once again roaming I am sure there are many more interesting experiences waiting to be undergone.
The worldly life is shaped by conditions and we all have one. The rigidities in us are given by karma and we can't escape them. However, even if much of a great tree is actually dead wood, new sprigs still appear each spring, looking as though they were the first sign of life in the whole of time.
This is out of context, but it contains some points that others might find interesting or might like to comment further upon thus enriching the conversation.
Correspondent: I never asked myself the question why fundamentalism exists. You are right, it isn't just Christianity... It seems to arise everywhere. I intuit that it has something to do with fear, possibly fear of death— some variant of the bargaining with God that can happen during grave illness or other life threatening situations. A need to exert control in a world where none actually exists. A desperate need for control can easily lead to violence.
Ah, interesting. If this is the case then PureLand, as you conceive it, is the antithesis of Puritanism or fundamentalism in that it insists on acknowledging the fear, the lack of control, the foolishness right up front. It doesn't need to be pushed into the subconscious where it can wreak havoc. There are rituals but they are performed as acts of love, without terrible worry about getting them wrong. It is such a different thing performing ritual as an act of love.
Which begs the questions of whether aspects of daily life, other activities, even lovemaking can be regarded or entered into as ‘ritual’, a kind of sacrament, an act of worship.
Something about Puritanism seems like the diametric opposite of love.
Love and fear as polar opposites—more fundamental perhaps than love and hate. Dig under hate and I suspect you will find fear...
An rather big area to explore around life and death and fear and what it is to be human on this tiny planet hurtling through an infinitely mysterious universe.
Dharmavidya: I’d like to make some points about definitions. One of my hobby horses is the danger of losing important linguistic distinctions through the process of popularisation. Many old words need to be recovered and restored to their proper meanings or we lose the ability to talk about things with due care.
Fundamentalism, puritanism and dogmatism, for instance, only equate in common usage. In the strict meaning of the terms all three have their separate positive aspects. Fundamentalism should mean adhering to what is fundamentally true rather than being superficial. Puritanism should mean being purified of inessential elements so as to concentrate on the one thing that matters. Dogmatism should mean staying close to the original message rather than temporising in order to accommodate popular prejudice. Dogmatics strictly speaking stands in contrast to apologetics. Preaching is a matter of creating a bridge between where the audience is and where the source of the teaching is. If you start from the audience end, that is apologetics. If you start from the source, that is dogmatics.
The point about whether everything in life could be considered to be a sacrament is very interesting and throws some light on the material about Dogen that I am translating and commenting on. In a certain sense all of life is ritual. The question is how you do it and how you regard it. Some ways bring out the spirit, some don't.
Going back to 'puritanism', I have found through my frequent travels back and forth east-west that the West seems much more moralistic than the East. We in the West are much more concerned about being justified which I supposed comes from the 'fear of God'. In the East, being personally justified is often regarded as a lost or hopeless cause. You try to fit in and do your duty, but humility is required because (a) you will never fully succeed and (b) the world isn't constructed to make it really possible anyway. In the history of the West it was often a life and death and then a salvation/damnation issue whether one had been righteous or not. But in reality, nobody really is, so what is really required is not punitive coercion, but fellow-feeling and sympathy.
Hence, in the East, there is more emphasis - as in Confucius - upon right performance than upon saving one’s soul. This has pros and cons, just as all philosophies do. It does, however, mean that all of life is a ritual. Much modern Western social thinking has been an attempt to get away from ritual. We are all much less formal than we used to be. I hardly ever wear a tie these days whereas when I was young one had to do so for many occasions. However, this does not mean that ritual has gone away - more that it has changed its form. Correct dress is now ‘casual’ in many situations where it used to be ‘formal’ but this is still ‘correct form’ in a new context. Much about modern life is like that - a kind of self-deception in which we pretend to be liberated but are really just as conformist and caged as before.
Sometimes it seems that we just pour the same wine from bottle to bottle and pretend that it is new.