Monday, 17 February 2014

Just because I think it doesn't mean it's true (Ajahn Amaro)

These notes are based on a dhamma talk by Ajahn Amaro in Nov. 2013
Any misrepresentation in dhamma is due to the process of "writing up" (especially in the
paragraphs in green) but hopefully some of the "original clarity" of the speaker remains.
When we are young, we often have strong opinions, and we think we are right. This continues as we grow older (though not necessarily the same ones). In Asia, the monks often use this expression: "just views and opinions". This is to undermine the belief that others who think differently are wrong and just need to be persuaded. Yet our opinions change, sometimes even changing from what they were six weeks ago.

In the West, there is a tendency to imagine thought as based in "ultimate reality". But there is a Buddhist saying: "Better to attach to the body than to a thought. For at least the body lasts a hundred years". The attachment to views is considered like a barb, a thorn, a disease, an affliction. Why such strong language? The point is to think and reflect on their ephemeral nature, recognising them as convenient fictions, letting go a little and holding them only so much as they are useful.

For example, the convention of dividing the day into 24 hours, and the hour into minutes and seconds is a convention we choose to agree on from the ancient Sumerians, so we hold to that so far as it is useful. The same is true of the words we use, which both restrict and facilitate the things we can think. In the Inuit dialect among the Eskimos there are 53 different words for snow because the different types of snow are really very important to them.

This idea of dividing things with thought is both a very useful tool of understanding the mechanisms of the world, reaching agreement and acting in cooperation, but it is also a source of conflict. Imagine the Eskimos arguing over the type of snow... On a grander scale, scientists and politicians argue over global warming and the appropriate action depends on the opinion of what they think can or should be done. On the national scale, wars are caused by a belief in self-importance in the pursuit of power, resources and security for one's own people, aggrandizement of one's own suffering, belittling of the suffering of the other, and an over-confidence in a successful outcome. Both sides suffer from the same delusions. This is also true in miniature at the personal level.

Then what is to be done when opinions clash? The only thing is to really listen to the other, because often we don't listen and we're waiting to jump in with our own view. When we recognise how our views are based on our own beliefs, and how we sometimes project this belief system onto others where it has no basis, then the whole energy of our interactions changes with the awareness, any possible arousal of anger dissolves. If we're sensitive and really listen, then even if the other person is getting carried away in a very fixed state of mind, it's not possible to sustain that stream of consciousness for very long because there's nothing feeding it. The openness of really listening promotes compromise. The fixed view is often based on a state of fear, and the fear is based on a self-centred view of the world and a feeling of "I" that feels threatened. What we really need is to cultivate the opposite of that, as an individual and as a society, feelings of generosity and openness of the heart to the unknown.

Wise reflection is a way of getting to the root of things, using a thorn as it were to dig up another thorn, one thought to dig up another. In that sense, insight meditation is skilful thought. Mindfulness has a quality of spaciousness. If flattered, we might notice "this is the feeling of being approved of". If we're liking it and we don't notice, then the fantasy can go on, and then we begin to think "this person is so wise" and so on. The point of spaciousness is just to create a pause. We don't need to change what we're thinking, just noticing it and if we don't need to think about it now, then noticing stops the chattering mind mid-sentence. Thoughts arise and we let them go, neither interrogating nor repressing them. Wise reflection helps support that process.

You might be thinking, "isn't this my opinion that it's a good idea to loosen our opinions". Moreover, what if the doubt that this creates in us is an excuse for inaction? Maybe, there are two minds, one of commitment and faith, one of radical doubt, and the point is non-attachment to either. I said "just because I think it doesn't mean it's true". Shakespeare's Hamlet claims the opposite that it's his thinking something which is what makes it true, when he says Denmark is a prison: "Nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so". He is right also. "Just because I think it doesn't mean it's true for you!" And this example also ironically shows how Hamlet is imprisoned by his own thought.

Even the Four Noble Truths are not absolute but empty. The Heart Sutra reminds us of that. On the one hand, we have these truths. On the other hand, there is "nothing to attain". It seems a paradox! In the Mahayana tradition, we find the four bodhisattva vows. These can be seen as a reformulation of the Four Noble Truths applied for the sake of others.

Living beings are numberless, I vow to save them all.
Affictions are limitless, I vow to cut them all off.
Dharma doors are endless, I vow to enter them all.
Buddha's way is supreme, I vow to accomplish it.

Mahayana was originally a return to the original teachings of Buddha, but with a re-focusing on compassion and emptiness. True understanding encompasses both compassion and emptiness, and we see this in the four bodhisattva vows which bring out the paradox.

What is the role of other? The other is self by another name, and letting go of oneself, we can better attune to others, being in the space between self and other. In Mahayana, compassion is the skilful means for counteracting our obsession with oneself in which others become merely blocks in our field of perception. There is a lovely story about the acrobat and his assistant told by Buddha at Sedaka. This has a dual message: "By helping yourself, you help others. By helping others, you help yourself."

How to live in a dualistic world while trying not to? Ajahn Chah used to give people conundrums when they went to see him such as "what is still flowing water like?". The mind is like still flowing water. Thoughts and perceptions come and go, but that which knows the flowing doesn't flow. That knowing is perfectly still, always present. Dharma is timeless, here and now, transcendent nature, the being behind all the mind's representations of the world. This is the mind not occupying an object, "not made of that". While the eye goes out to the world and labels it, this is the opposite of that.

The space doesn't grab our attention. Sometimes meditation becomes difficult because of this. The quality of space and silence is seen as lacking value. If we read the newspaper, we see the words as the black upon the white paper, but the words are actually the spacing between the letters also. (Though "actually" is a dangerous word, because it precludes the possibility of its opposite, and the actual could not be without its opposite.) So the next time you read something, read the spaces between the lettering as well. It is very relaxing on the eyes. 

We express the importance of our lives in things, thoughts, ideas, so we never experience ease. This is also a practical way of working with Buddha's Four Noble Truths. First, dukkha (suffering) is to be acknowledged or understood. Secondly, tanha (desire) is to be let go of. In the third noble truth, the cessation of dukkha is to be realised, to keep attention on the space. What else is going on? We fill up that space, and the end of dukkha is to stay in the quality of cessation, of apparent absence. Let's just stop at this nothing, attending to the present… How many 5-second periods like this do you have in a day? When you next feel this, counteract the habit of chasing after the next useful thing...

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