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Intricate Interdependence

Thich Nhat Hahn, the renowned Zen teacher, has described the Buddhist ideas of emptiness and interdependence (which he calls “interbeing”) by saying that to examine a flower, you have to see the existence and interconnection with the entire universe, indeed see its history as well:

A flower cannot be by herself alone. A flower has to “inter-be” with everything else that is called non-flower. That is what we call inter-being. You cannot be, you can only inter-be. The word inter-be can reveal more of the reality than the word “to be”. You cannot be by yourself alone, you have to inter-be with everything else. So the true nature of the flower is the nature of inter-being, the nature of no self. The flower is there, beautiful, fragrant, yes, but the flower is empty of a separate self. To be empty is not a negative note. Nagarjuna, of the second century, said that because of emptiness, everything becomes possible.

So a flower is described as empty. But I like to say it differently. A flower is empty only of a separate self, but a flower is full of everything else. The whole cosmos can be seen, can be identified, can be touched, in one flower. So to say that the flower is empty of a separate self also means that the flower is full of the cosmos. It’s the same thing. So you are of the same nature as a flower: you are empty of a separate self, but you are full of the cosmos. You are as wonderful as the cosmos, you are a manifestation of the cosmos. So non-self is another guide that Buddha offers us in order for us to successfully practice looking deeply. What does it mean to look deeply? Looking deeply means to look in such a way that the true nature of impermanence and non-self can reveal themselves to you. Looking into yourself, looking into the flower, you can touch the nature of impermanence and the nature of non-self, and if you can touch the nature of impermanence and non-self deeply, you can also touch the nature of nirvana, which is the Third Dharma Seal.
– Thich Nhat Hahn, The Island of Self; The Three Dharma Seals (retrieved here)

These concepts are so profound and simple yet so difficult to express. I feel like conceptual thought experiments can get us partway there, but to really feel the wonder of it takes some extra insight that is honed through meditation, as the consistent experience of seeing ourselves as separate things in a world of objects separate from ourselves limits and guides our normal, everyday perception. Meditation is needed to shake us out of this frame. In a sense, it takes a slowing of the discursive mind’s analytic thought processes to really just sense things as they are.

An example from my recent life: I came down one morning to make some coffee after having finished a morning meditation session. I picked up a knife from the drawer to scrape the coffee grounds off the sides of the grinder, and as I saw the knife and touched it, I suddenly was aware of its intricacy and the long history of civilization, development, and design behind it. Small bubbles protruded out along the edges of the hilt; these caught my eye, and I thought of the aesthetic design and metallurgy behind these decorations as well as how this wouldn’t have been mass-produced only a few generations ago. My mind exploded even further, thinking of recent books I’ve read about the history of the Earth’s mass extinctions and the epically long oceans of time that are behind the world we live in/on and the species that currently inhabit it, as well as how they’re related to this momentary brilliance of tool-making. These results of eons of evolution are both creator of the tool and the food for which the tool is utilized — neither of which would be without everything that came before. Even just a simple knife in my kitchen drawer implicates the entire history of the creation of knives, of buildings, of drawers, and other cultural conventions/industrial standards around design, metallurgy, and culinary etiquette as well as the entire development of civilization, the evolution of the human race, and all the forgotten biological and cosmic events that led up to now.

A few years back, I read a book that described the symbolism of the famous calligraphy circle from Zen Buddhism: the enso. The zen monk explained that it isn’t showing a border between inside and outside or a process of completion; rather, it’s supposed to indicate everything. All is buddha-nature. All is included. All is interdependently shown in the circle.

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A fractal enso? Cosmic interdependence?

These concepts go against so much of our standard operating procedure of discernment, but there is great wisdom in the flash of insight that our independent distinctions are cuts between the intertwined chiasm (to borrow the wonderful term from Merleau-Ponty) that is existence (note: the etymological roots of “de-cide” are to cutting off or cutting away. The same applies to the German: “ent-scheiden”).


May this offer a flash of insight into interdependence to all who read it.

Gassho!

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Kitty Meditation

Yesterday morning, I got out of bed as my alarm went off. I grabbed my phone from the dresser and turned off the relaxed reminder to awaken. I propped up some pillows in bed near the wall and prepared to sit for meditation. As soon as I settled myself in the sattva posture with my back straight, having just clicked another timer on my phone to count off 15 minutes, I heard a meow from behind me, around the corner.

Rei Ray, the gregarious, love-needy cat was excited to see me awake and wanted my attention. I almost sighed, as I knew what would happen next (she’s done this before): she would jump up on the bed, try to snuggle me, and if I didn’t respond, she’d meow at me or try to wake my partner still sleeping on the other side of the bed. For half a second, I pondered gently setting her down on the floor, hoping she’d get the message, but then I realized that my whole meditation practice is about wise and compassionate insight. Where’s the compassion in ignoring and pushing away such a being in need of connection with its family? How is that embodying the paramitas? Rei cannot understand any explanations that I’ll pay attention to her in a few minutes. She needs attention now. Beyond that, it’s not like when she interrupts my sleep or somehow otherwise reaches out in a way that impacts activities when I cannot pay attention to her.

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She may not look it, but this Katze can be quite the handful.

I decided that I should sit there in my meditation stance and pet Rei as much as she needed and at the same time keep her from waking my partner. So, I pulled her into my lap, and noticed my breathing as well as the feeling of her fur against my hand. I tried some lojong — breathing in the feelings of anxiety, lack, or whatever the kitty sensation may be that make her so driven for attention at times, breathing out peace, love, connection, and security. I looked into her eyes as she gazed up at me and tried to mentally extend a sense of calm to those inquisitive eyes.

The “kitty meditation” took up the whole 15 minutes, and although I didn’t get as solidly settled into the groove of a shamatha meditation, there was a certain just-sitting with the arising nature of a sentient being in need, and I feel there was more wisdom to be gained from responding to that patiently and open-heartedly than ever could be gained through strongly administering boundaries and standard practices.


May this provide you the insight on how to be flexible enough to be wise and compassionate when the moment calls for it.

Gassho!

Musings of an Aspiring Oneironaut: Interconnected Awareness in Dream?

I recently had a dream in which I went to a doctor — and there was a weird sexual temptation and gender-bending with this doctor, but hey, dreams are weird that way. I don’t recall the reason why I was visiting this doctor, but the doctor was known for having unique and alternative methods to address issues.

At some point, the doctor kneeled before me and induced a trance in me by looking me in the eye directly and asking me a question (although it’s a couple weeks later, so I don’t remember what the question was). The important thing was my answer. In my trance, my eyes closed, and I saw a beautiful golden statue of the Buddha. It emanated wonder and peace – a soothing certainty that the universe is an unfolding connection in all aspects, not only in those I like, and I felt myself dissolve into that interdependence. Along with this feeling came the words, “I love the Buddha. I am a Buddhist.” Yes, not nearly as profound as the emotion, but it capped off the whole experience and made it even more personal.

This feeling that I tried to describe just now is an intense insight that I’ve been lucky enough to feel a few times in meditative practice, an embodied experience of interdependence and the other seemingly mysterious and abstract ideas of Buddhist cosmology. Then again, I had the first experience of this before I had fully read up on these ideas, perhaps its what made them sensible to me – having already sensed them.

The interesting thing about the dream is that this is the first time I’ve had this experience within a dream. I have read a lot about all the amazing things that are possible in lucid dreams, but I hadn’t expected that deep meditative insight could be experienced in dream.

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I take this as an exciting inspiration. I have ups and downs with dream yoga, but this experience shows me that the potential of it is just as deep (if not more so) than waking life.


May this inspire you to feel interdependence in your waking life and to deepen your own pursuits of insight, whether waking or dreaming.

Gassho!

Autopilot

I’ve been milling this one over for some time. It’s kind of hard to nail down.

Mindfulness practice reveals an odd, even potentially unsettling truth about our lives. We don’t live much of it. What do I mean by that? We’re checked out, running on autopilot – far away from many things that we live through every day. Driving to work, all of a sudden we’re there – not remembering sections of the drive. Having conversations, we’re elsewhere, distracted from time to time.

Don’t take this as chiding, however. Mindfulness practice also reveals how difficult it is to attend to the moment. The mind flits about from one thing to the next. Monkey mind jumps from one thought and experience to the next, chittering away. We’re so used to it, that we don’t even notice it — not until one sits and really watches it happen, mindfully attending to thoughts as they arise and subside. Really attending is one of the most difficult things to do, but it’s where the lively quality of seemingly serene practices like Zen reside: really being present is being fully alive in this moment in all of its experience.

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The trick? It’s not to wage war on the monkey mind. It’s to gently befriend it, slowly training it to be more present and relaxed. The training in itself is almost a non-training. You don’t whip the monkey into submission; rather, you reach out your hand and invite it to be here, not jumping from tree to tree. Over time, with repetition and dedication, not being daunted by the endless task, the monkey slows a bit, listens a bit more, sits with you with whatever is happening right now. It may only last a moment, but as the Buddha said in the Dhammapada:

Better than one hundred years lived
With an unsettled [mind],
Devoid of insight,
Is one day lived
With insight and absorbed in meditation.
The Dhammapada – line 111 (Trans. Fronsdal)

With that in mind, even a few moments of such attentive absorption and insight are most valuable indeed.


May this inspire you to try spending less time on autopilot.

Gassho!

Flashes of insight

After having begun a regular practice of meditation, sometimes I have fleeting moments of insight. They aren’t during meditation rather during the day. Suddenly, briefly, I see and understand reality as it is on an experiential rather than a conceptual level.

For instance, I’ve been reading about dream yoga from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. An important part of the practice is to regularly tell yourself that “All this is just a dream”. This is done for your waking life, not your dreaming one (ultimately, this aims at being able to lucidly recognize dreams as dreams while in them, by cultivating insight during waking life). The point is to recognize the fluctuating impermanence of existence. There is no underlying essence that endures–all changes and is ephemeral, like in a dream. This is easy enough to explain and understand conceptually. It is basically the same as the Buddhist concept of emptiness or shunyata, but this dream yoga manner of touching the concept presents it through a familiar, intimate life experience.

However, this is still conceptual. The practice is meant to be experienced, rather than just thought. Well and good, but it is harder to experience “This is all just a dream” about your waking life than you might think.

Recently, I was struggling with some turbulent emotions. I went to the bathroom mirror, looked myself in the eye and brought a meditative focus to all I was feeling. Then, I said “This is all just a dream”. Instead of understanding this, I felt it. All of the roiling emotions appeared as so many dreamlike images with no underlying substance, glowing and dissolving. The sense of realization was charged and powerful: it was felt, not thought. The experience was deeper than I can express in words. Such moments of lived flashes of insight are opened, I believe, from regular meditation, and I encourage all you readers out there to take up meditation for yourselves.

May this inspire you to seek wisdom and insight through meditation.
Gassho