Thursday, 25 December 2014

Friendly Limerick Bonanza

There was a young girl of Penang
Who started a fashion shebang
She stayed up all night with her elves
And let them make clothes for themselves,
Then she cooked for them chocolate meringue.

Having eaten up all the meringue,
In the moonlight, they danced and they sang,
But as dawn started breaking,
The earth began shaking
The elves left all their clothes and they ran!

Unperturbed, the young girl sipped ginseng,
It was just a delivery van
Bringing stock for next night
No need for the elves’ fright
Though it suited just fine with her plan.

When the fashion dealership rang,
She struck a fine deal for her gang.
As light filled the skies,
She scrunched up her eyes,
That delightful young girl of Penang!

Painting: Nocturne with Elves (~1860) by Gustave Doré

Morning Poem (Mary Oliver)

Morning Poem

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead —
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging —

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

—Mary Oliver

Painting: St. Rosa of Lima, pray for us


The mosquito is so small
it takes almost nothing to ruin it.
Each leaf, the same.
And the black ant, hurrying.
So many lives, so many fortunes!
Every morning, I walk softly and with forward glances
down to the ponds and through the pinewoods.
Mushrooms, even, have but a brief hour
before the slug creeps to the feast,
before the pine needles hustle down
under the bundles of harsh, beneficent rain.
How many, how many, how many
make up a world!
And then I think of that old idea: the singular
and the eternal.
One cup, in which everything is swirled
back to the color of the sea and sky.
Imagine it!

A shining cup, surely!
In the moment in which there is no wind
over your shoulder,
you stare down into it,
and there you are,
your own darling face, your own eyes.
And then the wind, not thinking of you, just passes by,
touching the ant, the mosquito, the leaf,
and you know what else!
How blue is the sea, how blue is the sky,
how blue and tiny and redeemable everything is, even you,
even your eyes, even your imagination. 

—Mary Oliver

Green Shoots

Last night I dreamt of many things,
Of snowy mounds and elven rings,
Of caterpillars smoking weed
And armoured dragons drinking mead,
But never did I dream of you,
Nor shooting stars, nor wishes true,
For these are real if we can see
Around us in reality.


Scrabble Games

It all started off when I played NUDE
And left you the chance of a triple
I never meant to be so crude
My finger slipped across the button
And consented to the move too soon.
I’m glad you weren’t in ravenous mood
To take advantage
of my jutting N
Or perhaps you couldn’t reach my NUDE
To get a leg-up on my letter
So played HANG against it, nothing better.

Still, this stopped me playing on
it myself.
What in good faith could I do,
Go C and E and CHANGE
Or play elsewhere a turn or two
And leave your HANG to stew?
In the end, I kept the game alive
And took the lead with triple STIVE
Which means to fill a chamber full
Rendering hot and close and stifling.
I then came back and turned your HANG
Into the Chinese river CHANG.

Next I planned a setup tease

GOBAN pronounced go-bang,
Or Go, the game in Japanese.
Which left the G to climax on GUITAR,
But before I played upon the G,
You covered up the spot with GLUES.
Not all was lost, I’d found my muse

Instead of GUITAR, I played SITAR
An instrument more pretty still,
Whose hollow’s round and not so big
as the music had its fill,
You poked me one last time with TIG.
Though one had won, and one had lost,
We went to sleep without a care,
Our scrabble play had been such fun!
Having sowed and sawed so good and true,
The only thing that I had left
Upon my rack was U.



Sometimes I think
the Navajo had it right…
there has only ever been
one wind in the world.

One wind blowing for all time,
one wind touching all of us,
one wind moving in all of us,
one wind we call many names.

I don’t know any other way
to explain how seeing you,
outside, the wind in your hair,
could seem like the whole world.



I love all films that start with rain:

rain, braiding a windowpane

or darkening a hung-out dress

or streaming down her upturned face;

one big thundering downpour
right through the empty script and score

before the act, before the blame,

before the lens pulls through the frame

to where the woman sits alone

beside a silent telephone

or the dress lies ruined on the grass

or the girl walks off the overpass,

and all things flow out from that source

along their fatal watercourse.

However bad or overlong

such a film can do no wrong,

so when his native twang shows through

or when the boom dips into view
or when her speech starts to betray

its adaptation from the play,

I think to when we opened cold

on a starlit gutter, running gold 

with the neon of a drugstore sign

and I’d read into its blazing line:

forget the ink, the milk, the blood —

all was washed clean with the flood

we rose up from the falling waters

the fallen rain’s own sons and daughters

and none of this, none of this matters.

—Don Paterson

Emptying Out

this poem didn't come from me, poems never do,
it didn't come by thinking what was pleasing, what was true,
it came by unannounced because that's what poems do,
and it left me just as quickly paddling in the blue.


In that Great River

I don’t write poetry when I wish,
I write when I can’t,
when my larynx is flooded
and my throat is shut.

—Anna Kamieńska,
(June 2010)
“In That Great River: A Notebook”


The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue
or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

—Billy Collins

Loving You

I take it all back. Life is boring,
except for flowers, sunshine, your perfect legs.
A glass of cold water when you are really thirsty.
The way bodies fit together. Fresh and young and sweet.
Coffee in the morning. These are just moments.
I struggle with the in-betweens.
I just want to never stop loving 
like there is nothing else to do,
because what else is there to do?


Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Three Theories of Everything (Ellis Potter)

The following are notes on a talk by an ex-Buddhist monk Ellis Potter who then converted to Christianity. I fear I might have fallen short in representing his views to which perhaps the only remedy is reading his book (see the link below). Following the talk, there was a response from a Buddhist perspective by Rachel Harris and then a Q & A.

More about Ellis Potter's book on which his talk was based: 

Ellis Potter, Three Theories of Everything


There seem to be three absolute world views: monism, dualism and trinitarianism. These world views need not be religious, but they all seem to involve a belief in a perfect reality, in the existence of imperfection or suffering in our experience or misapprehension of reality, and in proposing a solution to this imperfection.

Monism. This is a theory of perfect unity. Since unity is stable and faithful, suffering is understood as fragmentation of that unity. According to this world view, all is One, Tathata, Buddha nature, just so, with an undifferentiated quality of possibility. Experience of ego-consciousness and alienation is caused by an illusion of separation, and enlightenment is waking up from this illusion. The metaphor of merging with unity is of a droplet becoming one with the ocean, and in this there is also an idea of redemption or salvation. But because we do not awaken to the All, we suffer the wheel of life, and reincarnation.

The path to enlightenment often involves the practice of meditation to quieten consciousness. In Hindu philosophy, this is the practice of raja yoga. The word yoga means literally “union”. The yoga that tends to be practiced in the West is a ritual form of physical exercise (hatha yoga), but as well as meditation (raja) and movement (hatha) there are at least four other branches of yoga, or ritual paths to union: through work (karma), through devotion (bakhti), through desire (tantra) and through wisdom (jnana). Each of these paths are full of wisdom and there is much that we in the West can learn from them. The repetition of a mantra for example can create a powerful healing vibration. The ritual practices are very therapeutic. But the lesson I think we ought to learn most of all from Eastern wisdom is the importance of the ordinary.

Zen Buddhists might be said to be nonists, believing in nothing, but a pregnant nothing in which everything is possible. There is a proverb that if you see Buddha on the path then you should kill him, the idea being to kill the idea and be Buddha, to transcend belief and realize Buddha nature.

Dualism. According to this theory, imperfection is not caused by separation from what is, but from an underlying imbalance of what is. The world is full of antipodes: light/dark, wet/dry, male/female, up/down. When the opposites are in harmony, life is good. In ancient Chinese thought, divination was conducted based on combinations of solid and broken lines giving rise to the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching. Each circumstance was understood as requiring an appropriate response to keep things in balance. It is difficult however to see dualism as an absolute theory, because what is the opposite of a river? What is the
 opposite of time? Despite these difficulties, this does not make dualism any less logical than monism, but just a different paradigm, and like monism, it can be very effective when put into practice.

Trinitarianism. This theory is inspired by the revealed knowledge of Christian theology which offers us a glimpse of things beyond space and time which we would not be able to realise on our own. According to this theory, the universe in its creation is both completely unified and completely diverse, and the cause of imperfection is neither separation nor disharmony but alienation from God. The original perfection of God is the Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit which includes both the objective and subjective viewpoint, both the form of God the Father to command and the freedom of God the Son to obey, the Holy Spirit blowing like a wind, in-dwelling and empowering all. There is a dynamism in this Trinity yet there is nothing in creation that is not in the Creator, so the starting point is fully complete. Although the Father commands and the Son obeys, hierarchy does not imply inequality because both are equally God. The father in a family may wear a crown, but then like Jesus it should be a crown of thorns; it is the suffering of responsibility.

Truth is fact plus meaning, and meaning only comes into being through relationship. In the famous words from Genesis, we see that being with precedes being: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. The meaning of Jesus is in his relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The crucifixion of Jesus wasn’t just symbolic; it was an actual physical emptying for others, but because each of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit also empty themselves for the other two, each are filled twice over.
We all have fundamental needs to be seen and heard, to make a difference, and to be wanted. Where do these needs come from? Maybe God has these needs. If I don’t have needs, then it means I don’t have trust, trust is the basis of love and God is love. The way out of suffering is not by letting go of needs because the needs can be a joy for God to satisfy but by letting go of self-centredness and becoming other-centred, like Jesus emptying out for others. While God is three, the devil is one because he is exclusively self-centred. It is the black hole of self-centredness that causes suffering in the world. God is other-centred. The Biblical solution to our alienation from ourselves and from God is in this holistic unity of a trinity.
Response by Rachel Harris: I’d like for you to pause a moment and feel  the sensation at the soles of your feet. In the Psalms, it says “be still and know that I am God”. Within the experience I just suggested, there were no concepts. God is beyond concepts and understanding. Emptying out concepts, there is only awe. When Christians talk of letting go of self-centredness and the possibility of closeness to God, and the Buddhists of emptiness and stillness, we are all talking about the same thing. Religion can be divisive as we see in the world today — the news is not good — but this is caused by an error. It’s important not to degrade religion and set ourselves up as different. Why am I a Buddhist? It is a result of causes and conditions. The way we engage depends on where we come from individually. I could not have said these things to you here a hundred years ago. I like a saying of Ato Rinpoche that we are all holding onto a branch of the great tree of faith. It’s important to be committed to the branch we are holding onto, but this does not involve saying that we are right and the other wrong.

Q. Jesus is not a concept, he actually existed! (Rachel) But for us now, he is, we are not experiencing him now. America is a concept.
Even if Buddha didn’t exist, that he is just a concept wouldn’t detract from his teaching.

Q. Is religion just metaphorical? (Rachel) Religion is a tool, a practice. If a practice is helpful, good, if not, then not. It is not a piece of cosmology.

Q. Why did you become a Christian? (Ellis) I was interested in reason, and when I was young, faith was taught as an enemy of reason, so I
became interested in Buddhism. I was interested in absolutes and philosophy and those who would listen to me despite my crazy questions. But who is asking the questions? In Buddhism, asking is asking, in Christianity, the “I” which is sustained by Christ. I found it involved less faith to believe in Christianity, faith as small as a mustard seed according to Matthew, so the smallest possible faith led me to Christianity.

Painting: “Lord's Prayer” by Tissot 

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Being Alive to The Things we Find Hard to Bear

These are some incomplete notes taken from memory based on a brilliant dhamma teaching on suffering by Yanai Postelnik.

First: Check in with yourself. It is very important to be with ourselves. Put aside mobile phones, emails, thoughts of things which must be done, or things which might have been or have been. Check in with yourself. We imagine that if we do this the world will collapse without us, but let the world look after itself for this time of retreat. It will have to do so after we're gone, so let's give it some practice. Instead of turning away from ourself as we do habitually in looking out into the world and getting lost in achievement and appetite and distraction, especially to avoid feelings of boredom or loneliness or stuckness or existential angst or pain, all the things we use to paper over just being with ourselves and really feeling these things, instead let us turn inwards. Let us give ourselves space to just be. Let us meditate.

Secondly: Be alive to the things we find hard to bear. Buddha's whole teaching is said to have been described by himself as concerning just one thing: suffering and freedom from suffering. But isn't this two things? Buddha is appropriating the idea in Indian philosophy of the one thing through which everything else might be known, and then perhaps subverting it. Buddha's first noble truth is the realisation of suffering. This is sometimes misunderstood that life is suffering. Rather it means the existence of suffering and being alive to this, realising the existence of things which are hard to bear. They may not be impossible to bear. It's not true we can't bear them. We often do. But these are things which cause difficulty. Buddha's own story is how as a young prince he came to realise the existence of ageing, sickness and death, and fourthly the possibility of liberation, this witnessing of suffering which shook him profoundly ironically because he had been protected from it until then and therefore was so alive to it. His first noble truth reflects this awakening to suffering of his youth, and indeed his means of attaining enlightenment also reflected another childhood experience, an experience of unity which came through curiosity. Let us turn inwards then with the eyes and ears of our love.

Thirdly: Suffering is manifold. The four-fold: birth, age, sickness and death correspond to stages in life. Sickness doesn't mean a cold or something which we might get when young but really that which we cannot recover from. It might even be translated as "decay". We often think of "tooth decay", but the whole body decays. As well as physical things which are hard to bear, there is also mental suffering, such as the suffering of anger, greed, loneliness, boredom, being separated from what we love or being close to what we hate or fear.

Fourthly: Suffering is not mine alone. The great Thai monk Buddhadasa used to begin his speeches, "Dear brothers and sisters in birth, ageing, sickness and death…" This points to a profound but simple practice. Whenever we see someone, to think: this is someone who suffers, who finds things hard to bear. Then, instead of our habitual liking or disliking the people in the world around us, we feel a common bond. My suffering is not mine alone. Others suffer also, perhaps in different ways. Another powerful practice is listening to the suffering of others with compassion, without feeling the need to blame and without even trying to fix it. Just being present to each other's and our own suffering can have a profound effect. It's fine to fix things, but from a place then of silent wisdom. We meditate in silence to connect with ourself. Connecting with ourself, we connect better with people around us. Let us meditate not only for ourselves.
Fifthly: Suffering is conditioned by our reaction to it. Sometimes suffering can come from the way we react to suffering. Instead of looking how to avoid it, or our tendency to blame it on someone else, or on ourselves, could we instead pause and learn from the experience? When the weather presenter describes the forecast as "miserable", they are referring to a human emotion, but the rain need not be seen this way. Often the worst it can do is to make you wet.
Sixthly: Transform suffering into blessings. Buddha's teaching doesn't end with the existence of suffering. Suffering is an experience which we all have to go through, and we cannot wholly avoid. When we experience it, it's often important not to avoid it because it's a guide which must be listened to, experienced and learned from. How can we learn from it? This requires a certain vulnerability. Staying with compassion, transform suffering into blessings. This is not something that can be accomplished with thought. It is a kind of wisdom that arises from silence, finding space and togetherness, being alive and present to the situations and things that trouble us, and immersed in that experience, coming through them.

The Well of Grief (David Whyte)
Those who will not slip beneath 
    the still surface on the well of grief
turning downward through its black water 
    to the place we cannot breathe
will never know the source from which we drink, 
    the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering 
    the small round coins 
        thrown by those who wished for something else.
—David Whyte from Where Many Rivers Meet 
    ©2007 Many Rivers Press

Why then do we not despair? (Anna Akhmatova)
Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold 
Death's great black wing scrapes the air, 
misery gnaws to the bone. 
Why then do we not despair?
By day, from the surrounding woods, 
cherries blow summer into town;
at night the deep transparent skies
glitter with new galaxies.

And the miraculous comes so close
to the ruined, dirty houses—
something not known to anyone at all,
but wild in our breasts for centuries.

—Anna Akhmatova (Translated by Stanley Kunitz.)
The Unbroken (Rashani)

Khalil Gibran, "On Pain"

Your pain is the breaking of the shell
that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break,
that its heart may stand in the sun,
so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder
at the daily miracles of your life,
your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart,
even as you have always accepted
the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity
through the winters of your grief.

Much of your pain is self-chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the physician
within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink
his remedy in silence and tranquillity:
For his hand, though heavy and hard,
is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings,
though it burn your lips,
has been fashioned of the clay
which the Potter has moistened
with His own sacred tears.

The Serenity Prayer (Reinhold Niebuhr)

God grant me the serenity 

to accept the things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time; 

Enjoying one moment at a time;

Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; 

Taking, as He did, this sinful world

as it is, not as I would have it; 

Trusting that He will make all things right

if I surrender to His Will;

That I may be reasonably happy in this life

and supremely happy with Him

Forever in the next.


Everything is Waiting for You (David Whyte)

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone.
As if life were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone is your dream-ladder
to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.
— David Whyte from Everything is Waiting for You
    ©2003 Many Rivers Press

After Great Pain (Emily Dickinson)

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

Lovers' Truth

The desert is a pathless land
For every path is steeped in sand.
Since we embrace the desert wide
We must not from our sadness hide.
For sadness is a ray of light,
A star that guides us through the night.
Lest I forget, lead me brave friend
But lead your own path till the end.

—okei (2013)

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Keeler's Three Worlds & the Sacred Tree of Life

The ideas here are inspired by a talk I went to by Ahmed Paul Keeler, but my questions and conclusions might be quite different.

Medieval Christianity revered its saints and its sacred artefacts, built society around religious authority and buildings, and went on crusades to spread its faith and teach obedience. The Enlightenment brought the dawn of reason and doubt which revered heroes and philosophers, wiping away the sacred and in its place revived the dead civilisations of Greece and Rome, building society around concepts and ideals and the ghosts of history, colonising the world in the name of civilising it, teaching progress and achievement. Modernity reveres celebrity and money, builds society around democracy and corporations and through debt and war makes the world depend on the market, teaching free-trade, growth and the translation of everything human into a market value. On the bright side, these three represent morality, reason and efficiency through which the world is fed — spiritually, mentally and bodily. But what each lacks is an open-heartedness and in certain moments of history, each projected outwards their dark side, rejecting some aspect of humanity (the magical, the black; the primitive, the tribal; the poor, the natural) with devastating consequences (burning witches, slavery, colonisation, genocide, exploitation, environmental destruction).

Traditionalism reveres order and a return to sacred life and community. It values the living memory of language, calligraphy, music, folklore, culture, celebration and prayer. However, just because something has always been done a certain way is surely no reason to perpetuate it and stifle change? By contrast, post-modernism reveres freedom and self-expression and individuality. However, might this not involve the opposite risk of an unconditional acceptance of a chaotic present? Instead of seeing traditionalism and post-modernism as opposite choices, is it not possible for us to imagine a beautiful synthesis? Order within chaos, freedom within community, the light of the sacred within self expression?
Maxfield Parrish
Garden of Allah (1918)
The tree of life and the tree of tradition are the same tree. It has roots that go deep and wide, as well as leaves that reach for the light and whose breath is the scent of the wind. The roots nourish the leaves, the leaves nourish the roots. In everything a balance: it need not mean a choice nor a restriction. 
Gustav Klimt
The Tree of Life (1905) [detail]
Perhaps all this is just ideas and concepts, but if we seriously care about the world, then should we not think about it? Isn't thinking a proof of love? Despite the limitations of our thinking, it might lead us one day to a deeper understanding.

Monday, 6 October 2014

The City of Separation: A Tale of Transformation

There was once a city covered by clouds. In it were great office buildings, schools, stores, and factories. The city was a place where raw materials, both physical and human, flowed. It was the centre of the economy. It was where you had to be if you wanted to be an important, successful person, but it was also a place where many terrible things happened. The majority of people in their own estimation were failures; no person or place was secure from unlawful behaviour; and the result of this environment was an infinite variety of illnesses, some of them deadly and contagious. This city was very dark. To be noticed more, the people improvised various extreme forms of behaviour and dress. They lived in fear and suspicion. Even so-called friends withheld much from one another. If you asked who was in charge, you would be told, "We are all free here; we follow our own selves. No one controls us. This is just the way things are."

At first I had found this city interesting. I was drawn to walking its dark streets at all hours. Eventually I began to wish to find some other life, or change something inside myself, but as often as I thought about it, nothing ever changed. I once asked someone, "Am I the only one who feels that something is not right? Or do other sometimes feel this way?" "Sure, we all complain," he answered. "But this is life. We have to adjust to reality. Why whistle in the wind? But there is a neighborhood of this city where you can find people who feel the way you do."

I was informed of the neighbourhood of Remorse, as it was called, and came to know the people there. They were in every respect like the other people of this city, except that they felt remorse over some of their actions. Among the population were many arrogant, envious, and insincere individuals who took pleasure in getting the upper hand in every situation. I came to know them well – their selfishness and doubt, their obsessions and hesitations, their remorse, and their inevitable acceptance of their weakness. I asked, "Why don't people change? Why do they only think about it and never do it? Why don't we consider how all this will end?"

By some chance a few of the people of this neighbourhood found their way out of the city and came to the village of Sharing. They found it either through real desperation or by accident. A sign at the village limits said, "Spirit in us All". The people here enjoyed many forms of togetherness. They had many occasions for celebration, and they sang songs together and danced. Their children were respected and allowed plenty of play time, and they were also given useful work. Travellers were always welcomed and cared for. Family members did not fear getting old and useless. If someone fell sick, others took this as a special opportunity to visit. Married people did not fear judgment or abandonment. Lovers were guiltless and pure. Each person valued his or her work because of how it fit into the whole, and everyone had something to work at because all were needed by the others. But more than anything, what kept the people happy was the totally irrational and immeasurable love they felt for a goddess of affection who walked amongst them. Once people had met her there was little chance of their ever returning to the city.

Painting: "Horae Serenae" (detail) by Sir Edward John Poynter

Unlike the people of the city who acted solely and predictably from their own selfish-interest, these people of Sharing were unpredictable. They acted irrationally, giving always the best they had and expecting nothing in return. These people lived in a mist of love. They would not have survived well in most other places, but here in Sharing one found rich and poor together. The most educated were humbly teaching those who wished to know more. Those who were served respected those serving them. I immediately felt relaxed and at home, even joyous. My life went along smoothly for some time before I began to feel unsettled in my heart. When I saw a certain old man whose face was radiant with life and compassion, I told him, "Maybe you can help me. I cannot seem to remember what it is I really want."

"What do you deeply love?"

"When I was in the city I had forgotten about love. When I came to this village, I realized that there was nothing I wanted more than to be here with these people, but now I am not sure."

"Beyond this village, my son, is a place you might visit," he said. "Don't worry, I can easily take you there. In this place, you may meet, God willing, four kinds of people:

"First, there are the Pretenders. You will see them reading and talking about the Truth, even doing the postures of meditation and the forms of worship, but their minds are often somewhere else. And yet they are practicing the ways of love, the fruits of love, as if they really knew love, and this will save them in the end. They are learning that the One has many names. May their imitation become reality.

"Then there are the Warriors. They practice the Greater Work, the struggle with the ego. They are quiet and gentle, thankful and courteous. The activities they love are the simple acts of living, prayer, and spontaneous service. They have shed the artificialities of the ego and its many distractions. Their egos have been tamed by love, found submission, and learned to serve their great Self. If you find them, stay with them long enough to learn patience and the real contentment.

"Third, you may meet, God willing, the People of Remembrance. They remember the One inwardly in all they do. They eat little, sleep little, and speak little lest distract one another's attention from the presence of the One. They are the easiest people to be with — light as feather, never a burden on anyone. If you spend many years with them, God willing, you might overcome your forgetfulness, doubt, and withholding. But even when you do, you will still have the hidden contradiction of I and He."

At this moment I was overcome with such sadness, and the tears were flowing before I knew it. I wanted to drown in this sea of sorrow, because I felt so far from anything real — so lost — but the sight of the radiant face of my old friend took away my sense of hopelessness.

"Oh dear one," he said, "slave of your own ego, orphan, exile, beggar, the fourth group you will meet, God willing, are the People of Total Submission. They undertake no unnecessary action on their own, but there is no obstacle to the will of their great Self, no hesitation, no second thoughts, no bargaining. They have reached the most subtle state of themselves and know their own nothingness. These people ask nothing for themselves because they are identified with the creative power Itself. You may live among them for many years until you know of their state and your actions appear as theirs, but you will not be inwardly one of them if you still suffer from separation, if you are still yourself, if you still feel lover and beloved. While your experience still comes from the well of your own subconscious, by your own inner faculties — as long as a trace of you remains in you — you have not attained your purpose. Know that there is a knowledge and certainty that comes through Spirit alone. Spirit plus Nothing: that is your highest destiny.

The above is a version of a story from an unpublished nineteenth-century Sufi source as re-told in "Living Presence" by Kabir Helminski:

so that those of us who are searching will reflect —
on where it is we live and 
where we are going?

Emily Dickinson & Charles Baudelaire

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) & Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) lived in different continents, but for both their religion – 
and intoxication — 
was poetry!

I dwell in Possibility —
A fairer House than Prose —
More numerous of Windows —
Superior — for Doors —

Of Chambers as the Cedars —
Impregnable of eye —
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky —

Of Visitors — the fairest —
For Occupation — This —
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise —

Baudelaire, ‘Get Drunk’

Always be drunk.
That is all
there is to it.
Do not feel
Time’s horrible burden
chip at your shoulders
and crush you into the earth,
by getting drunk and staying so.
On what?
On wine, on poetry, on virtue, on whatever.
But get drunk.
And if you find yourself
at the steps of a palace,
on the green grasses of a gutter
or in the bleak dejection of your room,
waking to find your drunkenness
already fading, disappearing,
ask the wind,
or clock,
ask anything that flees,
anything that whimpers,
ask anything that rolls,
or speaks, ask what time it is;
and the wind,
bird or clock
will all answer you,
‘Time to get drunk!
Avoid becoming Time’s martyred slaves,
by getting drunk;
by getting drunk endlessly!
On wine, on poetry, on virtue, on whatever.’ 


I taste a liquor never brewed —
From Tankards scooped in Pearl —
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of Air — am I —
And Debauchee of Dew —
Reeling — thro endless summer day —
From inns of Molten Blue —

When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove's door —
When Butterflies — renounce their “drams” —
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats —
And Saints — to windows run —
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the — Sun —

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Samatha Practice — A Study Guide

This is based on the introductory chapters from
Alan Wallace, “The Four Immeasurables”

Foundation of Practice – Ethics

The fundamental obstacle of the spiritual path is delusion, the mental afflictions that distort or twist the window of the mind so that we misconstrue reality. The Tibetan word for an adept is drang song, meaning straight, not twisted. While the antidote for hatred, self-centredness and indifference is loving kindness, the antidote to delusion is insight.

The perception of self without identity — this does not mean self does not exist but that it is not separate and autonomous — realized as an experience (not just as a philosophy) can be a precious treasure and utterly transformative, or it may be perceived as the loss of the greatest possible treasure. If the latter, then meditation is time not very well spent! Some groundwork is therefore needed to ensure insight can be welcomed so that it enriches and empowers rather than giving you a sense of existential impoverishment. In inter-relationship, our ego softens. This is not self-negation, but rather self-contextualization. It is possible to get tantalizing glimpses that drift away elusively, like smelling something cooking. Some groundwork is needed so that we can sustain our realizations and they are not reduced to mere episodes in memory. If worthwhile, how much more so to enter repeatedly, deepen, and let it saturate your experience. With continuity and clarity, this is radically transformative. Otherwise, it is mere flirtation.

Ethical discipline is the via negativa, entailing a quality of protection, that allows our efforts in spiritual practice to take root and flourish. The 253 precepts of the Buddhist monk all come down to a single precept: avoid inflicting harm on yourself or others. As our wholesome qualities become stronger, the virtue of our own mind protects itself and the need for discipline falls away. An enlightened being can be utterly spontaneous without restraint. When we notice our minds occupied by an affliction, the eighth century bodhisattva Santideva counsels us to stop and do nothing. Do not repress or pretend it’s not there, just pause, be present and wait until it passes. Restraint is not eradication, but a kind of quarantine. It helps prevent the illness of a thought or of a person from spreading to other thoughts or persons until we find the cure.

The positive approach is the guidance of intuition, opening up to all the insight, love and realization that is latently present. The purpose of spiritual practice is merely to awaken and bring forth the limitless potential for compassion, insight and power. The metaphor is of the cosmic atom-splitter revealing Buddha nature within each atom. The sense is of discovery rather than cultivation, a simple unveiling rather than arduous effort. If the heart leaps to affirm something positive beyond your knowledge, then don’t forsake it.

It is said that when the wisdom of the mind has been completely unveiled, you can raise a question, attend to it, and the truth will become evident. It is said that a Buddha’s compassion for every sentient being is like that of a mother. It extends like an ocean: even, calm, embracing, and with an ocean’s depth of concern and caring. It is said that a Buddha’s mind has extraordinary power, a power that can engage with the physical world to transform reality. In so emphasizing our material power, we have, perhaps inevitably, de-emphasized the power of the mind. “…if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” When Jesus said that, he was speaking literally of the power of the Holy Spirit.

The foundation of ethical discipline is so simple that if we care for that foundation, a lot will become evident, but if we skip it, the foundation is missing. Note that it’s a matter of restraint, rather than doing good. When we try to avoid things that cause harm, the goodness arises in and of itself. This may seem negative, but the implicit message is very optimistic. This may be experienced first-hand without any deep mystical realization with regard to quiescence of the mind. In so far as the mind is free of turbulence and torpor, a sense of well-being and calm arises from your mind. Knowing that well-being is not utterly dependent on things outside your control is a great insight. It gives us back our freedom.

The jewel in the lotus, Om Mani Padme Hum is a wonderful metaphor for the essential nature of the mind. It integrates two very different approaches, that of engaging in practice, and that of recognizing the perfection that is already there. The mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” is associated with Avalokitesvara, the embodiment of enlightened compassion. Om signifies the manifest body, speech and mind. Mani in Sanskrit means “jewel”. Padme, pronounced pémé in Tibetan, means “in the lotus”. Hum, pronounced by the Tibetans as hoong, is a syllable suggesting the transcendent deepest essential nature of consciousness. On the one hand, “Strive diligently!”, on the other, “the jewel is right there!”.

As you chant the mantra, bring out the poetry of the metaphor. Imagine this jewel of the purity and perfection of your own Buddha-nature as a pearl of white light emanating from your heart and suffusing your body from the inexhaustible source of joy and compassion, so that your body becomes this light. Then let the light spread forth in all directions, bringing the same quality of purification, joy and compassion to those individuals and communities in the world who most need it.

There are three major emphases in traditional Buddhist practice: ethics, stabilizing the mind, and insight practice. All too often, the first hardly even gets mentioned; we skip past the kid’s stuff. Many come away from ten-day retreats with their lives radically changed by insights into avenues of experience they never knew were possible. The experience is valuable, but also fragile. The stronger the ethical grounding, the longer the half-life of the practice before it degenerates after the retreat, faced with real-world challenges. Not-harming is an on-going introspection throughout the day. That is not to say we need to be too hard on ourselves. A gentle approach fares best, and over time our need for indulgences will fall away. It’s a matter of timing. If an indulgence seems redundant or pointless, it probably is. That is the time to drop it. All of this is a path of freedom, not just a path to freedom, as we begin to be able to free ourselves from compulsive behaviour.


Entering Practice – 
Peaceful Concentration

What impedes the flowering of loving kindness? I have no answers, but one thing which certainly bears on the issue is our sense of inadequacy and neediness with which we engage with other people, and in so doing objectify them. This is the realm of the eight mundane concerns: our desire for material acquisitions, pleasurable stimuli, praise and acknowledgment, and our fear for the opposites of these four. A mind that reaches out to other people to provide what it seems to lack itself is a mind ignorant of its own resources for peace and happiness. Through attention to something as simple as our breath, we may learn to recognize and experientially come to know that there is nothing we need.

The purpose of samatha meditation is to make the mind serviceable, that however you wish to use it, it is fit for purpose. The dysfunctional mind is heavy, stiff, dark and prone to negative influences. The samatha mind is buoyant, light, stable and clear, ready to devote itself to the cultivation of wholesome qualities.

Abide in the moment, and rest your awareness on the tactile sensations of your body. Do a body scan from the contact of your body to the ground to your head and back to the ground. Witness the sensations of your breath as it enters deep within your belly and then out again. Soften your abdomen. Observe the shallow breath that is felt only in the abdomen, the deeper breath that raises your diaphragm, and the yet deeper breath that moves up into the chest. Then move your attention just to the point of entry of the breath at the mouth or nostrils, and rest with the rhythm of the oscillation, noting particularly the sensation just following the in-breath and just prior to the out-breath. Let your awareness rest in this soothing place.

There are three keys to the practice of meditation to attain peaceful mind: relaxation, stability and vividness. In two words, peaceful concentration.

Relaxation is the beginning of the end to distraction, not directed concentration, but rather the resting of awareness from its roamings. Instead of clamping down on mental agitation and distraction, we release it and return to the rhythm of the breath. Especially on the out-breath, release the energy and effort you are expending on distraction letting it blow away like the autumn leaves, and so that it’s as if the body breathe itself. Can we witness without trying to control? This is not just a superficial problem. Can we just let go and like a surfer ride the wave from the end of the out-breath to the beginning of the in-breath. Posture is very important; the breath effortless, the mind awake. You can also do this lying flat on your back, the spine slightly extended by stretching out at the chin and tail-bone. Shoulders relaxed, face relaxed, eyes soft. Each breath is an adventure. Can you relax fully for one full cycle? This would be a great accomplishment. Can you do better?

One breath after another, and we attain continuity. The main problem is the unwitting disengagement of the mind from the breath or gross excitation as it attends to something else. It is time now to attain stability. Keep going, but gently, without losing the quality of relaxation. Discipline is valuable, but not if you sacrifice the sense of ease.

With good continuity, of five, ten, twenty minutes or more, it’s almost certain that a laxity or complacency sets in, called laya, a feeling of deep settling like sinking into a huge armchair. The third and crucial component is vividness. It gives a feeling of being on a high. If the vividness lacks stability, it is fragile and tends to collapse, so just as relaxation must precede stability, stability must precede vividness. Sustain ease, maintain focus, and then when you find the first trace of laxity setting in, observe more closely, increase the sense of interest, even imagine flooding your body with light. If necessary, wash your face with cold water, or switch to objects of meditation which inspire, uplift and invigorate you. Breath awareness is the staple, but some prefer more complex visualizations. In the case of the latter, imagine turning up the brightness of the object by a million volts. Laxity is conquered by the vividness of illumination.

If the attention and breath can move like two dancers, without one grabbing the other and pulling it around, then there is not much space left for a gross sense of ego. The fine-tuning of samatha requires you to be so much in the moment that you are very near insight practice, and it’s relatively easy to develop one from the other.

Overcoming laxity is difficult. Try shortening your practice. Recall your original motivation. If you can start to get a taste of vividness along with continuity, then it will be much easier to keep going as the meditation reaps its own rewards in a sense of well-being. It is also useful to meditate in a bright environment, and to imagine inner light. When the mind closes down it needs to be centred with effort. Bring in some high-voltage awareness.

The practice of samatha meditation seeks not only controlled attention, but also mastery, so that we have the freedom to place it where we choose. William James is very insightful on the subject, as are the Buddhist teachings. The Tibetans distinguish between mindfulness and introspection. The sole task of mindfulness is to attend to the object with continuity. Introspection serves rather like quality control, checking on how it’s going. Note that the latter is not continuous, but an intermittent pause, for example if we notice gross excitation or agitation and the object of meditation is forgotten. With practice, this doesn’t arise any more, but still there may be a chatter of subtle excitation about the edges. This too disappears in time. Like a row of dominoes, the spaces in between the moments of mindfulness get smaller and smaller until it is fixed in a smooth continuous chain. Laxity is now almost bound to arise. The Tibetan word for it bying ba literally means “sinking”, and you need introspection to detect this. Then you need to add a spark of vividness. Even when vivid, a subtle degree of laxity may remain in which the object does not have full intensity. Gross and subtly laxity overcome, you no longer need introspection and it is even a hindrance. A feeling arises of just being. No more needs to be done. And yet, do not be premature about this.

Subject and object break down and you are left with the pure experience. This is the beginning of samatha. It is an advanced state, peaceful and incredibly creative. What to do with the ideas that arise in it? Just hold onto the spark. When you come out of meditation, you can let that spark re-ignite. Write down the ideas, follow them through as you like, and come back with a sense of completion. Sometimes buried difficulties will arise also. Then it is time for stalking the self, processing them with self-acceptance and compassion. In the words of Tiffany William,

You weren't born to feel guilty all the time. So cheer up,
promise yourself not to make the same mistake again 'cos
it’s your time to SHINE


In summary,

I think the way Wallace imagines the practice is as a sequence of successive refinement of mental circuitry (as we establish greater and greater ability to maintain concentration on the object of our practice, from a relaxed awareness, to the addition of stability as we turn away from distraction, to the addition of vividness as we turn away from laxity), and each time we practice, we make progress, though it may not feel like it. Yet between our practice, we also lose some of that progress. So it's a very simple equation... of building more than we lose... and it's here where ethical foundations help minimize our losses and keep us on track. This is a very goal oriented approach, so we risk falling into a “desire to become” if we are not careful but perhaps it is merely motivation to set us on our way…

So, what do we need in between practice to keep the practice strong? A suitable environment? Perhaps the quietness and spaciousness on the outside can help us to cultivate quietness and spaciousness inside, which is why Tibet became such a centre for spiritual practice in the past. Quietness and spaciousness both come with their opposite urges to fill the space, so this is where we must rest content in our inner space to not be disturbed by their lure. Again and again, we will be attacked by the idolatorous desires such as the eight mundane concerns mentioned already: material things, pleasure, praise, acknowledgement, and fear of the opposite of these four, and no doubt there’s a supra-mundane list also, which will also be worth looking up some time, including such things as the desire for security expressed through ideas and beliefs, and the “desire to become” and the “desire to extinguish”. And as the other Alan, Alan Watts, would say, it is only when the iron bull once and for all rejects the futile attempts of the mosquito to bite its iron hide, that the natural instincts of the mosquito are vanquished. And in the pause, there opens a way for grace and awakening. Or else we keep on biting the same old mind-addictions forever.

Another thing which occurred to me is that the moment immediately after waking is particularly interesting… because it is a natural pause! And our mind seeks to quickly fill that pause with thoughts, often futile or busy, and the movement of our mind after that pause is a powerful sign of our mental addictions. They are mostly harmless probably, and yet they exist. They might change from month to month, and yet they always lurk beneath the surface of consciousness. Are they mundane concerns? Or supra-mundane concerns? Or are we genuinely aware of them as expressions of our purpose. If we are to hope to make any progress, the strength of our practice must be greater than the strength of our mind-addictions, and our greatest aid is awareness and acceptance of their existence. That which is understood is no longer threatening. That which is named is recognised. That which is recognised triggers a reminder in us to "pause", to "stay", to "concentrate". And if we should fail, then to forgive and move on and not make the same mistake again. As Wallace says, the "road to freedom" is in fact a "road of freedom". And the Tibetans are really great! When the completely vivid, stable and tranquil samatha mind is realised, they have another four stages of practice to go beyond it, lol.
Another pause: the moment after you complete something! The mind is addicted to "next, next, next..." and sooner or later our actions follow, "next, next, next..." The authentic action on the other hand is always nestled within the pause and does not seek to end it. It comes from within, instead of coming from without in an attempt to fill a "gap".

But this example is just that of agitation (one of the five hindrances to meditation). The mind is also addicted to day-dreaming, boredom, doubt and aversion, and then the actions follow, either time-wasting or sleepiness, or hesitation, or judgment, so the five hindrances are just as much a reality of life as of meditation.

The rest of Wallace's book is then devoted to the cure to all afflictions of the mind, and that is love. The four immeasurables" of the title are: loving kindness, compassion, joy in the joy of others, and equanimity.

Happy practicing!

This is an alternative Zen guide to meditation
Lecture given by master Sheng-yen during the Dec. 1993 Ch'an retreat

(edited by Linda Peer and Harry Miller)
Source: Chan Newsletter #106 (Feb. 1995)

The Japanese term "shikantaza" literally means "just sitting." Its original Chinese name mo-chao means "silent illumination." "Silent" refers to not using any specific method of meditation and having no thoughts in your mind. "Illumination" means clarity. You are very clear about the state of your body and mind.

When the method of silent illumination was taken to Japan it was changed somewhat. The name given to it "just sitting" means just paying attention to sitting or just keeping the physical posture of sitting and this was the new emphasis. The word "silent" was removed from the name of the method and the understanding that the mind should be clear and have no thoughts was not emphasized. In silent illumination "just sitting" is only the first step. While you maintain the sitting posture you should also try to establish the "silent" state of the mind. Eventually you reach a point where the mind does not move and yet is very clear. That unmoving mind is "silent" and that clarity of mind is "illumination." This is the meaning of "silent illumination."

Faith in Mind a poem attributed to the Third Patriarch of Ch'an Seng-Ts'an (d. 606) begins with something like this: "The highest path is not difficult so long as you are free of discriminations." "Discriminations" can also be translated as "choices" "selections" or "preferences." The highest path is not difficult if you are free from choosing selecting or preferring. You must keep the mind free from discrimination and attachment. The method in which the mind is kept free from discrimination and attachment is what is called "silence" here. But "silent" does not mean the mind is blank and cannot function. The mind is free from attachment clear and yet it still functions.

We also read in Faith in Mind that "This principle is neither hurried nor slow. One thought for ten thousand years." "This principle" is the mind of wisdom and from its perspective time does not pass quickly or slowly. When we meditate or work we may fall into a worldly samadhi state and feel that time passes very quickly. In an ordinary state we may feel that time passes quickly or slowly. However in the mind of wisdom there is no such thing as slow or hurried time. If we can say there is thought in the mind of wisdom it is an endless thought which never changes. This unchanging thought is no longer thought as we usually understand it. It is the unmoving mind of wisdom.

In the Song of Samatha of Master Yung-chia Hsuan-chueh (665 - 713 also the author of the Song of Enlightenment) two Chinese terms are used which can be translated as "quiescence" and "clarity." Master Yung-chia uses them in two phrases "quiescence and clarity" and "clarity and quiescence." They describe a person whose mind is both clear and unmoving. When an ordinary person's mind is clear and alert it is usually also active and full of scattered thoughts. Quiescence of mind is difficult to maintain. When the mind is quiet it usually is not clear even in a samadhi state. But Yung-chia describes these two states quiescence and clarity as well as clarity and quiescence as goals.

Master Hung-chi Chen-chueh (1091-1157) who invented the term "silent illumination" in his poem the Song of Silent Illumination said this

In silence words are forgotten.
In utter clarity things appear.

"Words are forgotten" means you experience no words no language no ideas and no thought. There is no discrimination. This in combination with the second phrase "In utter clarity everything appears" means that although words language and discrimination do not function everything is still seen heard tasted and so on.

Someone told me that when he uses the Silent Illumination method he eventually gets to a point where there is nothing there and he rests. That is not true Silent Illumination. In Silent Illumination everything is there but the mind is not moving. A person may think he has no thoughts because the coarser wandering thoughts are absent but there will be fine subtle wandering thoughts of which he is unaware. He may think there is nothing there and so stop practicing. In Chinese this is called "Being on the dark side of a mountain in a cave inhabited by ghosts." The mountain is dark so there is nothing to see and in the cave of ghosts what can one accomplish?

Now I would like to explain how to use the method of shikantaza. First your posture should be upright. Do not lean in any direction. Be clear about your posture because if you practice shikantaza just sitting at the very least you should be conscientious about sitting. It is also important to remain relaxed.

Next be aware of your body but do not think of it as yourself. Regard your body as a car you drive. You have to handle the car well but it is not you. If you think of your body as yourself you will be bothered by pain itchiness and other vexations. Just take care of the body and be aware of it. The Chinese name for this method can be translated as "just take care of sitting." You have to be mindful of your body as the driver must be mindful of the car but the car is not the driver.

After a period of time the body will sit naturally and cause no problems. Now you can begin to pay attention to the mind. If you were eating your mind should be the "mind of eating" and you would pay attention to that mind. When you are sitting your mind should be the "mind of sitting." You watch this sitting mind. Two different thoughts alternate: the mind of sitting and the mind or thought that watches the mind of sitting. First you watch the body sitting with little attention to the mind. When the body drops away watch the mind. What is the mind? It is the mind of sitting! When your attention dissipates you will lose awareness of this sitting mind and the sensations of the body will return. Then you should again watch the body sitting. Another possibility is that while you watch the mind you fall into a dull state like "Being on the dark side of the mountain in a cave inhabited by ghosts." When you become aware of this situation your bodily sensations return and you should go back to watching them. Thus these two objects of attention the body and the mind are also used alternately.

In the state where you watch the mind are you aware of the external environment sound for example? If you want to hear sound you will and if you do not want to hear sound you won't. At this point you primarily pay attention to your own mind. Although you may hear sounds they do not create discriminations.

There are three stages in this practice. You should start at the beginning and progress to deeper levels. First be mindful of your body. Then be mindful of your mind and of the two thoughts alternating in it. The third stage is enlightenment. The mind is clear and as the poem quoted said "In silence words are forgotten. In utter clarity things appear." When you first practice you will probably be in the first or second level. If you use this method correctly you will not enter into samadhi.

This last point needs clarification. It depends on how we use the term "samadhi." In Buddhadharma samadhi has many meanings. For instance Sakyamuni Buddha was always in samadhi. His mind was not moving yet he still continued to function. This is wisdom. Sakyamuni Buddha's samadhi is great samadhi and this is the same as wisdom. When I said that in the practice of Silent Illumination you should not enter samadhi I meant worldly samadhi where you forget about space and time and are oblivious to the environment. The deeper kind of samadhi which is the same as wisdom is in fact the goal of Silent Illumination.

What good is this explanation of Silent Illumination for people who are not using this method? If you are using another method of practice and you reach a point where it is impossible to continue you can switch to Silent Illumination and watch your body and mind. For instance if you use the method of reciting Buddha's name with counting and you can no longer count switch to Silent Illumination. If you use the hua-t'ou method but find that rather than generating great doubt you are simply repeating your hua-tou you may reach a point where you can no longer recite it. You can then switch to Silent Illumination and watch your body and mind. Eventually you will be able to use your own method again. Silent Illumination can provide a continuum for you in this in-between state so that you do not waste time.

I was just asked whether the enlightenment that comes from Silent Illumination is sudden or gradual. Enlightenment is always instantaneous. It is the practice that is gradual. As I mentioned earlier the third level of Silent Illumination is enlightenment. But how does one get there? As you practice your attachments discriminations and wandering thoughts gradually subside. Eventually you simply have no discriminations but this change is instantaneous. When the change happens you are in the state Hung-chi Cheng-chueh described as "In silence words are forgotten. In utter clarity everything appears.

After you have some experience practicing the sentiments and vexations you ordinarily experience may not arise during practice. It does not mean that they are gone. It just means that when you practice they do not arise. When you use Silent Illumination this may happen especially at the second level but that is not enlightenment. Practice is not like trying to clear thoughts from your mind and vexations from your life as if they were dust on a mirror. You cannot wipe the dust away and make yourself enlightened. It is not like that. Whether you use the methods of the Lin-chi or Tsao-tung sects within the Ch'an tradition once enlightened you realize that enlightenment has nothing to do with the practice that brought you there.

So why bother to practice? Practice is like a bridge that can lead to enlightenment even though enlightenment has nothing to do with practice.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Rousseau's “Social Contract”

From the famous opening line: “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” we deduce three things: Rousseau loves paradoxes, he loves freedom, and he is nostalgic for the freedom man enjoyed before he became a member of society.

The second line: “Many a one believes himself the master of others, and yet he is a greater slave than they.” Another paradox! Rousseau is reminiscent of the Chinese sage Lao-Tzu and perhaps he was even inspired by the philosophy of the Tao. The emperor who thinks he has power over everything is in fact the slave of everything, like a rat on a treadmill running desperately just to keep still. But why a greater slave? Perhaps because the oppressed know they are enslaved. Society’s bonds are part of their everyday experience. The oppressor by contrast may not realize it.

The third line: “How has this change come about? I do not know.” Rousseau first defines what his purpose is not before going on to say what it is. It is not genealogy. That task will be taken up a century later by Nietzsche in his “Genealogy of Morals”.

The fourth line: “What can render it legitimate? I believe that I can settle this question.” Thus ends the first paragraph of Rousseau’s “Social Contract”. His purpose is what makes society legitimate despite the loss of freedom it entails. As he writes in the final paragraph of the whole work, it is to “lay down the principles of political right and attempt to establish the State on its foundations” and he concludes by saying that though he might have originally contemplated discussing external relations between one people and another: “law of nations, commerce, right of war and conquests, public rights, alliances, negotiations, treaties etc.”, these were beyond his limited scope. This is interesting in light of Nietzsche’s answer to how the social relation came about as being a consequence of external imposition in the first place. Nevertheless, Rousseau’s subject as we said is not speculative history nor external relations, but the current legitimacy of forms of authority internal to a society.

The structure of Rousseau’s work, like his first paragraph, is four-fold, and while seemingly disorganized conceals a hidden structure noted by Hilail Gildin. Following the introductory chapter to book one, the first four chapters concern false views of political authority, whilst the remaining four chapters establish its true foundations. The first six chapters of book two treat the sovereign as the source of law, the remaining six the legislator as its creator. The first nine chapters of book three discuss the institution of government, and the remaining nine how government might be prevented from usurping sovereign authority. The first four chapters of book four concern assemblies of the people, and the next four concern other public institutions besides the popular assemblies.

We focus primarily on the first book. What makes a moral obligation legitimate? Moral obligations are not secured out of prudence as might be the case in a state of nature under threat of force. By definition, legitimacy is not based on force. Nor is it custom based on psychological contentment because “man born in slavery” might not know better, “loving servitude as the companions of Ulysses loved their brutishness”. Turned into pigs by Circe, they lost the desire to be changed back. Nor is it ordained by God, because of the unknowability of divine will, and loss of faith in any authority who might claim to know it better. Nor is it grounded in nature because its truth or falsehood, though not dependent merely on contentment, does rely on consent. What we are left with is legitimacy as a secular concept based on something more than psychological contentment or natural law, as a covenant. Since it cannot be to God, it must be between men.

Any covenant alienates the individual will either partially or wholly, and either to a part or to the whole of society. This gives four possible kinds of covenant. He rejects any kind of total alienation of the will to some person or group of people because “to deprive your will of all freedom is to deprive your actions of all morality”. Without personal accountability, any talk of legitimacy is vacuous. A master-slave relation can never be legitimate even if voluntary. Slavery, far from terminating a state of nature, intensifies it: the covenant is only as valid as the force that enforces it. Hobbes’ convention to Leviathan fails on this count. Even partial alienation to a person or government is a paradox because it alienates to a legitimate authority that part of one’s will for which one is no longer morally accountable. So any alienation must be to a whole. The original aggregate of individuals can only consent to be governed if they become a whole, a people, a unity.

Rousseau also rejects the possibility of partial alienation to the whole. This appears a rejection of inalienable rights beyond the purview of society. One reason he gives is because of the impossibility of managing conflicts when these rights conflict and so the inevitable breakdown of such a society into either anarchy or tyranny. The covenant must completely alienate the rights of each member to the community as a whole. Since the covenant is by consent, any member may always withdraw from it in exchange for the restoration of their natural rights, but doing so means withdrawing from the possibility of making any moral claim, for example if they think society’s punishment is unfair.

Thus Rousseau conceives of the social contract: a contract of association between all members of a society which simultaneously generates both a moral community and sovereignty. Each individual has a dual role both as active participant in the sovereign process and perfectly obedient to its law. This law is legislated by the sovereign body of all people according to the general will and executed by the government they appoint. But what is the general will? The risk is that it becomes merely the will of a majority. Rousseau attempts to preclude this, as well as the usurpation of sovereign legislative power of the people by its government. Following John Noone, we may enunciate some of the terms of Rousseau’s social contract (scattered throughout his work):

1) All citizens have a voice in the popular assembly, none may lawfully be excluded. (§1.6; §2.2; §4.1)
2) Sovereignty is inalienable and indivisible. (§2,1; §2.2) The assembly cannot bind itself, much less future generations. This precludes legislation in perpetuity. (§1.7)
3) Except for the original contract which is unanimous, the majority will is binding, the necessary size of majority subject to legislation. (§4.2)
4) The assembly of all citizens is a permanent assembly that meets regularly at arranged times, elects magistrates and appoints or dismisses government according to the general will. (§3.13; §3.18)
5) The life and property of all members of society are subject to the sovereign body and its laws. (§1.9; §2.5)
6) Legislation is limited to areas of common concern. Any proposed legislation must first be voted on to determine if it is a common concern, and secondly if it is a common good. (§2.4)
7) Only those laws are binding that are universal and impersonal, not singling out a person or group for special treatment, favourable or unfavourable. (§2.6)
8) Citizens are to vote not according to personal desires, but on the basis of their estimation of the common good. (§4.2)
9) Sovereignty may be suspended in an emergency, but for a very limited time period.
10) A civil creed that includes tolerance of all faiths not subversive to peace. (§4.8)
11) Goals according to a pre-existing general will that all the members of society commit to.


In particular, note that the social contract is not a contract between the people and their government. This is a popular misunderstanding. Rousseau was especially critical of contract theories of government because they alienate the individual will to but a part of society (government) which he had already rejected (except for very limited time periods in case of emergency). Rousseau conceives of legislative authority remaining always with the people, so that government could be dismissed at any time if that were the general will.

In contrast to Locke who believed in the inalienability of property rights, and that any contract needed moral agents to begin with, Rousseau’s social contract is what makes its members moral citizens in the first place “substituting justice for instinct as the guide to conduct”. Duty becomes meaningful for the first time, so also legitimacy. On the face of it, this seems like the grossest nonsense, because it precludes morality and duty as conceived by reason, conscience or natural law. We will see however that the morality of the covenant arising from Rousseau’s social contract aims for something different, something encompassing and empowering individual and natural morality. In Buddhist terms, the social contract is the foundation for the moral being (Buddha), the moral law (Dhamma) and the moral community (Sangha), but the latter is deemed essential for the first two to find expression. There is something quite insightful in seeing these three as inter-dependent, yet by making moral law dependent on the community, what if the community is wrong? Are there not moral ideas or feelings that transcend time and space? Rousseau, following Locke, rejects innate ideas but not innate feelings. He writes in “Emile” that God has given him “conscience that I may love the right, reason that I may perceive it, and freedom that I may choose it”. Reason is not a sufficient source of moral obligation, so man must be endowed with the affective capacity of conscience to feel obliged, but he must also be motivated. This is the role the social contract plays. It is the motivation of reciprocal obligation which Rousseau seems to believe is necessary for the moral sentiment to bear fruit, that gives man “freedom” to do good.

John Noone’s explanation of what Rousseau means by freedom goes some way towards deciphering both the idea of a contract giving freedom, and also the kind of morality (that of the covenant) that occupies Rousseau. There are three kinds of freedom for Rousseau: natural freedom, political freedom and freedom to act from one’s own conscience. The social contract clearly restrains natural freedom, and leaves conscientious freedom alone, that is freedom to do good from individual conscience, independent of any obligation. However, it enforces political freedom. The idea of obliging freedom seems paradoxical. But political freedom is based on equality. Law must regulate everyone equally, universally and impersonally, and not lead to inequality. Thus Rousseau’s idea of obliging political freedom should be understood as obliging equality, so people are free to act according to their reason and conscience without being disadvantaged for doing so. Put this way, morality is strictly political morality, a duty to fellow citizens that reciprocates a corresponding duty of others to oneself. To recall Rousseau’s noble aim:

To find a form of association which defends and protects the person and goods of each associate with all the common force, and by which each uniting with all yet obeys only himself and remains as free as before. (§1.6)

Freedom is the cornerstone of Rousseau’s philosophy, but freedom in harmony with the general will. If not, then it would harm others’ freedom. Does the social contract succeed in its noble objective? In theory, Rousseau thinks so, but in practice he requires a wise legislator, like the prophets of old under the guise of divine authority and even then the course of history never did run smooth. Rousseau does recognize this — he is a pragmatic realist.

Though his philosophy is not historically or empirically sound and though dogged with speculation, there is behind the seeming disorder a certain coherence. Whether the social contract that emerges is workable we leave to human imagination, but is it even theoretically viable? One criticism that comes to mind is that it seems to subordinate morality for its own sake to morality for the sake of the community. Another is that while procedurally sound, the commitment to substantial content in the form of the civic creed and social goals risks betraying something of the freedom for society to define these for themselves. A third is that morality emerging from community runs the risk of being restrictive to that community so community identity could come to be defined negatively in terms of other communities. In truth, community is a nested concept of family, tribe, city, country, even religion, but it is one kind of community which Rousseau believes must take precedence to avoid conflicting loyalties. One possible remedy to all these criticisms is a combination of Kantian autonomy of the individual will that chooses its communitarian commitments and a theological idea of regarding the covenant to any one of these communities not as end in itself, but as a means of training the will to subservience to divine will under the universal community of all beings.

While Aristotle and the medieval scholastics had extolled the virtue of a pre-existing natural law (Dhamma), Rousseau is the philosopher of the community (Sangha) and Kant would later favour the autonomy of the sovereign being (Buddha). Each tries to improve on their predecessor, but in reality Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha are all necessary and all inter-dependent. In the perfection of one, the other two will also come into fruition. For example, the participants of Rousseau’s social contract will need to be autonomous judges of morality in order to elect officials and make decisions while the wise legislator will need to bear consideration on what are the underlying natural virtues of their particular society in order to create suitable laws. However, in the face of widespread social inequality, Rousseau’s emphasis on communal solidarity as his starting point seems well-placed. For all those passionate about freedom and equality, his
Social Contract will continue to be a source of inspiration.