contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: emptiness

ELAINE’S CAULDRON: BURNING DEAD LEAVES

My wife Elaine created this midsummer cauldron fire, now ten days ago. It was fuelled in part by dry dead leaves. She chose the evening of the day itself rather than the traditional eve. The point about midsummer (24 June) is that the sun is on the move again after its moment of stasis, clearly beginning its decline. It acts as the polar opposite of the Sol Invictus or Christmas festival in late December. The Church gives 24 June to John the Baptist, decapitated at the wish of his nemesis Salome.

In our neighbourhood, there is a paradox about July. It is the quintessential summer month, in which the light begins to diminish. At the moment, sunrise is at about 4.50 am., with sunset at 9.20 pm. By Lughnasadh, it will be rising at 5.25 am and setting before 8.50 pm. In August, the process will accelerate while the earth and sea remain warm by North Atlantic standards. Getting up an hour or so after sunrise I am tending to find a dull and cloudy sky. There can be a stillness in the air, disturbed perhaps by blackbird pair flying low amongst the trees. I have a sense of latency.

The inquiry phase beginning at the 2019 winter solstice has settled a number of issues. I am re-confirmed in a modern Druid practice that is held within a circle and seven directions (E, S, W, N, below, above, centre), and is mindful of the wheel of the year. I also settled my approach to ethics at the beginning of this inquiry year (1) drawing on the work of modern Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers with his re-visioning of ancient Greek ‘virtue’ ethics (2). I have deepened in my experience of an at-homeness in the flowing moment, and its therapeutic benefits, which I wrote about last year (3). Fully established in my life, these are no longer fundamental inquiry issues. The uncertainties I formerly had with them are like dead leaves, now safe to burn.

For all that I have gained from other paths – Tantra, Tao, Zen, other forms of Buddhism, and Christian Gnosticism – I know that I will not be practising or following them. I will continue to appreciate their literatures and cite them in this blog, but this will be from the perspective of the appreciative outsider. Here too the active inquiry is over. Uncertainties have shrunken into dead leaves, and are safe to burn.

I know that, in the turbulent, airy mental realm, I have contending gnostic and agnostic energies. They are co-arising twins, and neither is going away. I still have work to do to find a settled home for them both. I am also concerned about how, more elegantly, to fit an ‘emptiness’ understanding into an earth pathway. A feeling about myth, and the truth and beauty of myth, is tied up with this. In the coming phase, I will look again at R. J. Stewart’s Merlin work for help with these questions. This reprise is also part of my older person’s looking back, recalling what I have valued, and asking what role it can still play. It sets my direction for the second half of the year.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/12/27/values-for-2020/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2018/07/02/ethics-and-civilization/

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/06/30/meditation-and-healing/

LIVING WITH EASE

By simply looking out from my bedroom window, I can enjoy the abundance of high summer, as the year moves on from the solstice. The lush foliage speaks of ease and fulfilment. ‘Summertime and the living is easy’, says the old song. In a customised version of the Buddhist lovingkindness meditation, I say: ‘A blessing on my life. May I be free from harm; may I be healthy; may I be happy; may I live with ease’ … gradually extending the circle of care through my loved ones through wider circles of acquaintance, eventually including all beings throughout the cosmos. But what does living with ease add to freedom from harm, or to health and happiness?

In my experience, this comes from my experience of ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’. I treat the flowing moment as a quality of experience rather than a unit of time. Otherwise I might be tempted to measure the right length of a moment’ to be ‘present’ or ‘flow’ in. It would have to be brief, but long enough to register experientially. Even so, I would probably find myself lying in wait for such a moment in the hope of catching one before it went. This would not be a skilful means of living with ease.

Instead, I enter the flowing moment, intentionally, by slowing down and taking notice. Eyes open, I take in the world visually, in all its riches, and check out my sensations, feelings, thoughts and any internal imagery that might override the physical view. I am not identified with any of these experiences. They are not me. I am empty and at home in the flow of sensation and perception. In this state, I ideally avoid stories like ‘there are trees on the other side of this window’. If I enter such a story, that is just another passing experience, a bubble in the flowing moment. It is in my empty core that the flowing moment becomes my home. In a sense, it is the emptiness itself that is the home. But it feels most like home when a world of sensation and perception appears to fill the space. Emptiness and form are interdependent. They need each other to flourish.

The flowing moment is not my default setting in daily life. Other states of attention come to the fore. The flowing moment, which I can enter and leave at any time, is available as a home to go to when I want or need it: hence my phrase ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’. Entering and leaving is a conscious, careful decision, though it does not require retreat conditions or labelling as a formal spiritual practice.

‘At-homeness in the flowing moment’ can work in bad times as well as good. For the emptiness at my core can also be full and loving. It does not judge distressed and negative reactions. It does not try to smooth over feelings of dismay about the wider world. It holds them in peace and lovingkindness. In my morning circle, I ask for peace in the four directions, in the below, the above and throughout the world. But the centre is different. I stand in the peace of the centre, at the heart of living presence. This is the source of my ease, the nurturing emptiness that stands behind my at-homeness in the flowing moment .

EMPTINESS AND INTERBEING

At this point in my inquiry I want to refine my understanding of ’emptiness’. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh is a great help here, in his final commentary on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra .

Thich Nhat Hanh discusses Buddha’s teaching that everything is “a manifestation of causes and conditions” and that nothing is permanent or unchanging. This applies to the whole cosmos, and not just to the apparent world. “Whether you call it atman (the soul) or Brahman (ultimate divinity), whether you call it the individual self or the universal self, you cannot find anything there”. Buddha’s teaching was aimed at undermining both of these notions. Nothing has any ‘self-nature’ (we might use the term ‘essence’).

Thich Nhat Hanh pursues this right into the territory of emptiness. “There are still many people who are drawn into thinking that emptiness is the ground of being, the ontological ground of everything. But emptiness, when understood rightly, is the absence of any ontological ground. … We must not be caught by the notion of emptiness as an eternal thing. It cannot be any kind of absolute or ultimate reality. This is why it can be empty. Our notion of emptiness should be removed. It is empty.”

He goes on to say: “the insight of interbeing is that nothing can exist by itself alone, that each thing exists only in relation to everything else … looking from the perspective of space we call emptiness ‘interbeing’; looking from the perspective of time we call it ‘impermanence’ … to be empty is to be alive, to breathe in and breathe out. Emptiness is impermanence; it is change … we should celebrate. … When you have a kernel of corn and entrust it to the soil, you hope it will be a tall corn plant. If there is no impermanence, the kernel of corn will remain a kernel of corn forever and you will never have an ear of corn to eat. Impermanence is crucial to the life of everything”.

This is one side of an age old controversy within spiritualities of Indian origin. In this blog, I have given friendly attention to the other side as well – particularly Direct Path teachers like Rupert Spira and Greg Goode and the Indian influenced Douglas Harding. In the end I don’t make an absolute judgement about it. My Sophian ‘At-Homeness in the flowing moment’ is compatible with both views. But I’m now finding greater energy and aliveness in the framework here presented by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Increasingly, when I do Direct Path exercises I experience a breaking down of assumptions about experience itself, and a tremendous opening out … but no container called ‘Awareness’ to fill a God sized hole. It’s similar for me with the Harding exercises. My experience is broadly the same, but my felt sense has shifted, and my narrative with it. I’m moving away from big picture truth claims about this, because I have become sceptical that exercises like this provide any grounds for them, one way or the other. Rather, I lean in to an evolving personal understanding, always provisional, of my contemplative experiences.

As a shorthand, I can talk about the tension between a ‘Oneness’ framing and an ‘interbeing’ framing of what people call non-duality. The difference can seem subtle – and it may be best to use ambiguous, open-ended words like ‘Tao’ and preserve a sense of mystery. But at this turning of the year, ‘interbeing’ is my preferred term. It fits better with the eco-spirituality which I take from my Druid journey, and affirms the relational basis of my Sophian Way.

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2017

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/10/21/the-uses-of-emptiness/ an earlier post that I’ve been able to draw on here.

MAP AND TERRITORY

The Empress Wu Zetian ruled the Chinese empire alone from 690-705, the only woman ever to do so. It was the time of the Tang dynasty, when China was open to central Asian and Indian cultural influence. Wu herself had a strong Buddhist commitment.

She was curious about the world view of an esoteric Buddhist school, the Hwa Yen. In this view, all the universes were seen as a single living organism, characterised by mutually interdependent and interpenetrating processes of becoming and unbecoming. The Empress asked for a simple and practical demonstration of this complex vision.

The Hwa Yen sage Fa-tsang was given a palace room in which he placed eight large mirrors, each at one of the eight points of the compass. He placed a ninth mirror on the ceiling and a tenth on the floor. Then he suspended a candle from the ceiling in the centre of the room. The Empress was delighted at the effects thus created. ‘How beautiful! How marvellous!’ she cried. Fa-tsang explained how the reflection of the flame in each of the ten mirrors demonstrated the relationship of the One and the many, and also how each mirror also reflected the reflections of the flame in all the other mirrors, until myriad flames filled them all. The reflections were mutually identical. In one sense they were interchangeable; in another sense they existed individually. Then Fa-tsang covered one of the reflections to show the significant consequences this had for the whole. He described the relationship between the reflections as ‘One in All; All in One; One in One; All in All ‘.

Hwa Yen Buddhists also spoke of ‘The Great Compassionate Heart’. They understood it as a quality of awareness that sees all phenomena including ourselves as arising out of Emptiness, remaining part of the Emptiness whilst assuming a temporal form, and finally falling back into Emptiness and being reabsorbed. “It is a quality of awareness that quite naturally expresses itself in acts of deepest, yet quite unsentimental reverence and compassion for all that is, the just and the unjust, humans, animals, plants and stones”.*

Fa-tsang was careful to provide a ‘the-map-is-not-the-territory’ caveat. “Of course, I must point out, Your Majesty, that this is only a rough approximation and static parable of the real state of affairs in the universe – for the universe is limitless and in it an all is in perpetual, multidimensional motion”. Yet he had still taken care to provide his Empress with a beautiful, memorable and instructive map. Such maps, and the sense of ‘Great Compassionate Heart’ which they foster are of great value. They can nourish the seeker and illuminate the way, for rulers and non-rulers alike.

*Richard Miller Yoga Nidra: a Meditative Practice for Deep Relaxation and Healing Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2005 (A more extended version of the story is included in this book.)

AT-HOMENESS REVISITED

A year ago, I wrote: “within my Sophian Way, I have found healing and grounding in a flowing now, the site of an unexpected At-Homeness. Everything else grows out of that”(1). This post is to re-affirm this insight and to take it forward.

I wrote of a ‘flowing now’ since ‘now’ is not a frozen unit of time but a living stream of experience. Past and future can indeed be conceived and imagined, but only within the flowing now. The experience of At-Homeness can either steal up of itself or I can invite it by slowing down and attentively companioning the flow as it moves, whatever is going on. It is a way of marking this space and time as sacred. My opening and attention are a sacrament, the means through which the flowing now – all that I can be sure of in this life – is recognised and blessed.

I didn’t invent the term At-Homeness. It comes from the proponents of ‘bio-spirituality’, who say (2) “that the beginning of a bio-spiritual awareness … is finding a way to some larger At-Homeness written deep within bodily knowing”. For them, an enabling and loving attention to the body and its processes gives the felt sense of At-Homeness a chance to ripen. My experience of Focusing over the last 15 months tells me this is true. My experience of Headless Way (3) opens up a world of vivid shapes and colours, all boundaries gone, no self in sight. Immersed in this world, I experience a lightness of being, and stillness in a world of movement. This, too, is At-Homeness in the flowing now.

I sense now, more clearly than before, that I am not at home in the realm of abstractions and absolutes. I do not find Sophia there. I flourish, rather, in processes and relationships. I can stand as awareness only through being aware (a process) of something/someone (a relationship). I find the love and magic in the cosmos, as well as its stresses and horrors, only within the play of movement and connection.

For me, Thich Nhat Hanh’s understanding of ‘Interbeing’ provides the most helpful presentation of a non-dual spirituality (4). “The insight of inter-being is that nothing can exist by itself alone, that each thing exists only in relation to everything else. The insight of impermanence is that nothing is static, nothing stays the same. Interbeing means the absence of a separate self. Looking from the perspective of space, we call emptiness ‘inter-being’; looking from the perspective of time we call it impermanence”. Another modern Buddhist writer adds (5), “if you look at experience there are not fixed elements or even moments; there is simply a process, a transformation … the Buddha called himself tathagata or ‘that which is thus coming and going’. He described himself as merely a flowing occurrence, and the outward for that took was constant, calm, compassionate availability to people who came to him for help.”

Reading this, I am pushed uncomfortably into the recognition of my own volatility. I explored this theme in October 2017 (6). However, because I found Buddhist practice, with its emphasis on long periods of sitting meditation, not right for me, I appear to have lost some of this insight, at least consciously. I am somewhat comforted that ‘At-Homeness in a flowing now’ at least preserves the gist, and the simple practices I’m using work well within an ‘inter-being’ framework. This is not so much because of its Buddhist origin, as because as an approach it seems to me to be on the side of life, relationship and movement. It brings me down to earth and closer to Sophia (Prajnaparamita, Guanyin).

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/08/20/

(2) Peter Campbell & Edward McMahon Bio-Spirituality: Focusing as a Way to Grow Chicago, Ill: Loyola Press, 1985

(3) www.headless.org/

(4) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017

(5) Ben Connelly Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: A Practitioner’s Guide Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2016

(6) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/10/21/the-uses-of-emptiness/

PNEUMA: THE DIVINE BREATH

Some years ago, this phrase suddenly appeared during a breath meditation: the movement of the breath and stillness in the breath. Meaning has developed gradually. The movement of the breath feels entirely natural, and a comfort to attend to mindfully. Stillness signals another dimension within and behind the movement. In a world like ours, it is a great thing to experience stillness, however fleetingly. There is something healing about it, and it is not dependent on formal meditation. A brief time out can be enough to make a difference.

Going a little deeper has offered more. The quality of stillness cues me in to the ‘not-I-not-other-than-I’ experience. From a Sophian standpoint, traditionally a Gnostic one, I think of the Greek word pneuma which means both ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’. Gnostic teacher Stephan Hoeller says: “in Gnosticism pneuma is a spark sprung from the divine flame, and by knowing the pneuma the Gnostic automatically knows the spiritual source from whence it has come … to know one’s deepest self is tantamount to knowing God”. (1)

In my discussions of non-duality, I have generally held to non-theistic language, using terms like ‘Awareness’, ‘Being’, ‘Emptiness’, ‘Fullness’, ‘Openness’, ‘Original Nature’, ‘True Nature’ or ‘Tao’. I have avoided ‘God’ or ‘Spirit’, though in the context of non-duality all these terms point the same way. Yet I have worked with an Ama-Aima breath and mantra meditation, where Ama is the transcendent aspect of the Divine Mother and Aima the immanent aspect. In the myth of Sophia, Ama-Aima is her name as Mother.

I feel more urgently drawn into the orbit of Sophia. C.G Jung, important to modern Gnosticism as well as analytic psychology, believed that we can find ourselves held – almost possessed – by an image of the Divine that calls to us. The call is from beyond our personal will. How we respond is up to us, with consequences attached to any choice. Gnosticism speaks through intuition, imagination and metaphor: in this current, imagery matters. My image is that of Sophia. It is not new, but it is becoming more vivid.

It is as if everything I have learned on my hitherto eclectic journey needs to be brought together – and that I can best achieve this within a distinctive Sophian Way. My recent post –  https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/06/07/embodiment-and-at-homeness/ ‎ described an aspect of it even whilst referencing Focusing and Tibetan Tantric Buddhism as influences. The essence of this Way is simple. The movement of the breath, and stillness in the breath, properly recognized, open me to the experience of pneuma. Everything else, directly or at a remove, flows from that.

(1) Stephan A. Hoeller Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing Wheaton, ILL & Chennai (Madras), India: Quest Books, 2002

 

THE NOTION OF INTERBEING

“I am made of earth, water, air and fire. The water I drink was once a cloud. The food I eat was once the sunshine, the rain and the earth. I am the cloud, the river and the air at this very moment, so I know that in the past I was also a cloud, a river and the air. I was a rock; I was the minerals in the water. This is not a question of belief in reincarnation; this is the history of life on Earth. We have been gas, sunshine, water, fungi and plants. We were single-celled beings. The Buddha said that in one of his former lives, he was a tree, he was a fish, he was a deer. This is not superstition. Every one of us has been a cloud, a deer, a bird, a fish and we continue to be these things today.

“The notion of interbeing, though it is a notion, helps to lead you to the ultimate truth… Interbeing means you cannot be by yourself alone; you can only inter-be. Interbeing can connect the conventional truth to the ultimate truth, so it can lead you gradually to emptiness…. On this level, there is no beginning and no end, no birth and no death.

“When we speak of the ultimate truth, we use words like ‘emptiness’, and emptiness, when used like this, has no opposite. At first, we think emptiness is the opposite of fullness but, as we saw earlier, emptiness is fullness. You are empty of your separate self, but full of the cosmos.”

Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: A New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017

INTENSIVE INQUIRY

Over the past two years, I have worked with three traditions apart from Druidry. These are Sophian Gnosticism, The Headless Way, and the Vietnamese Zen of Thich Nhat Hanh. Diverse as they are, they have all valuably nudged me in my current direction, which is one of intensive inquiry.

Through this inquiry, I am finding that what I call the Direct Path* is uniting the concerns of these three traditions, in a way that resolves the difficulties they raise for me, described below:

WAY OF SOPHIA To the extent that it is connected to a method, the Sophian (or Magdalenian) journey is a Christian Kabbalist one, a Jacob’s ladder from the apparent world to a Void beyond describable divinity and back again to a new experience of the world as kingdom, transfigured by a super-celestial vision. To the extent that I find a problem with this method, it is a tendency for the reality of my true nature to seem remote and hidden, obscured by a too-vivid myth making. The spirit gets drowned in the cocktail. When working with the image of Sophia, I found a more playful and free-spirited energy, not fitting easily in formal Gnostic Christian tradition. So, the system, as a system, doesn’t quite work for me.

HEADLESS WAY Richard Harding’s Headless Way – http://www.headless.org/ – is apparently non-mythic, and a variant, home-grown form of the Direct Path, or at least its first half. It is based on a set of experiments, which kick-start a non-dual recognition from the visual perception/brief shock of ‘not having a head’, and go on to further to develop the implications of this perspectival shift. The exercises worked brilliantly for me when I first did them. I experienced a powerful figure/ground shift, with the cultural common sense of subject-verb-object language very briefly driven out of me as the world sat on my shoulders. This then became narratized as the opening into an I AM, an ultimate identity of ‘clear awake space, and capacity for the world’.

Precisely this narrative brought about my fall. I could feel the counter coup of my demoted ‘third person’ as it happened. The Monkey King learned to become the Monkey Emptiness and take up a geographically familiar position in the vacant space above my neck. I ended with a sense of ‘fool’s gold’, though in retrospect this seems unfair. I had an important shaking up because of not having a head. Returning to the same territory through different means, I now resonate with Rupert Spira’s understanding that Consciousness cannot know itself as an object. I had tried to become, as a sentient being in the apparent world, absolutely the eye of spirit and although I AM the eye of spirit, I could not become it in that way, because becoming it makes it a conceivable object in the finite mind. I can only enact it through what I call the sacrament of the present moment. It is more as if the finite mind – not separate, yet also not identical – offers itself as a vehicle.

MAHAYANA BUDDHISM: After an interval, I turned to Buddhism, in the form of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Community of Interbeing, – https://coiuk.org/ – which renewed an occasional relationship with one or another Buddhist sangha going back for over twenty years. This time round the wheel I made sure that I studied the Emptiness teachings directly and wasn’t satisfied with meditation manuals and the modern version of Buddhist psychology. My study included Thich Nhat Hanh’s 2014 commentary on the Heart Sutra, (1) Jay Garfield’s translation of and commentaries on Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (2) and Vasubandhu’s Thirty Verses on Consciousness Only, (3) a Yogacara practitioner text presented by Ben Connelly with a new translation by Weijen Teng. I didn’t, this time, work with the Zen literatures of China and Japan.

The result of my study was that in meditation I got a much fuller sense of consciousness being the underlying reality, which thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations passed through. This pointed beyond ‘no separate self-nature’ in the sense of Thich Nhat Hanh’s psycho-social-ecological view of ‘Interbeing’, to a fuller sense of Consciousness Only. This experience, a fruit both of study and of practice, helped warm me up to my present encounter with the Direct Path.

I consulted the Science And Non-Duality (SAND) website – https://www.scienceanndnonduality.com/ – since I knew that many Direct Path teachers are linked to that network. First, I took a brief online meditation course with Peter Russell – www.peterrussell.com/ – to find out what basic breath meditation would feel like in an Advaita context rather than a Buddhist one. It felt soft and spacious. But my main concern was with the kinds of inquiry into core identity associated with the Advaita approach, having run into problems with the Headless Way experiments and traditional self-inquiry (‘Who am I?), since I could quickly come up with a rhetorically ‘right answer’ without it meaning very much experientially. I soon came across a new work by Stephan Bodian – https://www.stephanbodian.org/ (4), a former Zen monk, who went on to train in Western psychotherapy and became a student of Direct Path teacher Jean Klein*. He provides a bridge from Zen to the Direct Path and his book is rich in carefully crafted practice suggestions. I also worked with the inquiry suggestions in Greg Goode’s Direct Path (5). Greg Goode – https://greg-goode.com/  is a student of Francis Lucille, himself a student of Jean Klein.

Now I am working with Rupert Spira’s – https://non-duality.rupertspira.com/ Transparent Body, Luminous World (6) contemplations, clear that the Direct Path is the centre of my inquiry. Rupert Spira is another pupil of Francis Lucille, and for me does most to bring out the Tantric as well as Advaita aspects of Klein’s teaching. For him, Direct Path realization is just as much about finding love in sensation and feelings, or beauty in perception, as it is about finding truth in inquiry. All is held in Consciousness. Once we know this, really feeling and tasting the understanding, the question becomes: how do we celebrate and live from this reality? This is the point at which the sense of an embodied spirituality, animist, Earth honouring, with a view of deep ecology, indeed Druidry, come back into their own, held within a Tantric understanding.

I’m moving towards a decision about whether to anchor myself in this world view. Once that decision is made (if it is made), my primary attention will move to the outward arc – here called the Tantric one. This will likely change my practice. The intensive contemplative inquiry will burn itself out, leading to a new spiritual centre of gravity that includes contemplation and inquiry but is no longer defined by them.

*DIRECT PATH: I am specifically referring to the lineage begun by Jean Klein, combining Advaita Vedanta, India’s classical renunciate spirituality, with Kashmir Shaivism, a form of Tantra. The Direct Path is an exploration of objective experience in the light of our enlightened understanding, rather than a turning away from our experience in favour of its background of pure Awareness, as is the case of the Vedantic approach. If the Vedantic path is the path from ‘I am something’ – a body and a mind – to ‘I am nothing’, the Tantric path could be said to be the path from ‘I am nothing’ to ‘I am everything’. If the Vedantic path is one of exclusion and discrimination, the Tantric path is one of inclusion or love. The Direct Path brings them together.

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: A New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2017

(2) Nagarjuna The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995

(3) Ben Connelly Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: A Practitioner’s Guide Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2016

(4) Stephan Bodian Beyond Mindfulness: The Direct Approach to Lasting Peace, Happiness and Love Oakland, CA: Non-Duality Press, 2017

(5) Greg Goode The Direct Path Salisbury: Non-Duality Press, 2012

(6) Rupert Spira Transparent Body, Luminous World – The Tantric Yoga of Sensation and Perception Oxford: Sahaja Publications, 2016

 

 

THE USES OF EMPTINESS

‘The bad news is we are falling, falling, falling … The good news is there’s no ground.’ (1)

I’m in a process of re-invention. This involves a major overhaul of spiritual outlook. I’m grateful to be aided in this by Thich Nhat Hanh’s 2014 revision of the Heart Sutra and commentary (2), just recently published. It gives me pictures of where I’ve been and where I am now: a sort of before and after.

Here is the ‘before’. “At the time of the Buddha, the idea of a divine self was a belief common to most of the traditions of Indian practice. People believed that underneath all the changes that we observe in ourselves, there is something that doesn’t change, a kind of immortal soul, or essence, called atman or ‘self’. People believed that after the physical body disintegrated, the soul would continue in another physical body, and that it would go through many cycles of death and rebirth in order to learn the lesson it needed to learn. The aim of spiritual practice was to reunite the small self, atman, with the great self, the absolute sublime self, which they called Brahman.”

A view of this kind underpins Aldous Huxley’s understanding of a perennial wisdom (3) and is now central to New Age spirituality. Some versions include reincarnation or forms of personal afterlife. Others don’t. I have been intermittently attracted to those that don’t, or don’t necessarily. I have never followed Advaita Vedanta, the specific path described above, but I have been involved in Tantra, and with Western equivalents through Jung, Gnosticism, Kabbalah, the Celtic Twilight Theosophy of OBOD (4), and the modernized presentation of Douglas Harding’s Headless Way (5). But I have never been truly comfortable with any form of theism, however esoteric or non-dual. Over the last several months I have decisively changed my stance.

My ‘after’ is also described in Thich Nhat Hahn’s new commentary. “When the Buddha began to teach, he challenged this belief. He taught that there is nothing we can call a self. This was the beginning of a revolution. He showed us that a phenomenon is just a manifestation of various causes and conditions. Nowhere in that phenomenon is there anything permanent and unchanging – whether you call it atman or Brahman, whether you call it the individual self or the universal self, you cannot find anything there. His teaching was aimed at undermining both the idea of an individual self and that of a universal self.”

This view of emptiness is further clarified for me by another modern translator’s commentary on a first century Buddhist text, from which the Heart Sutra draws inspiration. “Nagarjuna, like Western sceptics … says [that], what counts as real depends precisely on our conventions.” (6) We naively treat things as distinct, separate and substantial. Both the Buddha and Nagarjuna saw this as a root delusion lying at the basis of human suffering. “For Nagarjuna this point is connected deeply and directly with the emptiness behind phenomena”.

“To say that trees, for example, are ‘empty’ prompts the question: ‘empty of what?’ And the answer is empty of inherent existence, or of self-nature, or in more Western terms of essence. Their existence as separate, unitary beings, depends on perception and naming. Hence the emptiness of a tree: “The boundaries of the tree, both spatial and temporal (consider the junctures between root and soil, or leaf and air; between live and dead wood; between seed, shoot and tree); its identity over time (each year it sheds leaves and grows new ones; some limbs break; new limbs grow); its existence as a unitary object, as opposed to a collection of cells; etc., are all conventional. Removing its properties leaves no core bearer behind. Searching for a tree that is independent and which is the bearer of its parts, we come up empty”.

In his own analysis, Thich Nhat Hanh continues: “There are still many people who are drawn into thinking that emptiness is the ground of being, the ontological ground of everything. But emptiness, when understood rightly, is the absence of any ontological ground. To turn emptiness into an ontological essence, to call it the ground of all that is, is not correct. Emptiness is not an eternal, unchanging ontological ground. We must not be caught by the notion of emptiness as an eternal thing. It is not any kind of absolute or ultimate reality. That is why it can be empty. Our notion of emptiness should be removed. It is empty”. This stops turning emptiness into Emptiness, and standing as a ghostly Brahman or mysterious Void. The point is necessary because this has indeed happened within the Buddhist tradition – leading to widely held doctrines of world negation.

For Thich Nhat Hanh, “the insight of interbeing is about that nothing can exist by itself alone, that each thing exists only in relation to everything else. The insight of impermanence is that nothing is static, nothing stays the same. Interbeing means the absence of a separate self. Looking from the perspective of space we call emptiness ‘interbeing’; looking from the perspective of time we call it ‘impermanence’. All phenomena bear the mark of being inherently empty of a separate existence, both in time and space.

This is a blessing. It is our opportunity to exist and thrive. Thich Nhat Hanh says: “to be empty means to be alive, to breathe in and breathe out. Emptiness is impermanence; it is change. We should not be afraid of emptiness, impermanence or change. We should celebrate them.    When you have a kernel of corn and entrust it to the soil, you hope that it will become a tall corn plant. If there is no impermanence, the kernel of corn will remain a kernel of corn forever and you will never have an ear of corn to eat. Impermanence is crucial to the life of everything”.

A commentator on another Buddhist classic (7) talks about the implications of emptiness for how we experience the world: “the transformation of consciousness is a constant flow. If you look at experience there are not fixed elements or even moments; there is simply a process, a transformation. The first thing these verses give us is a sense of wonder about what we are experiencing right now, a sense that our most basic understanding of where and what we are in the world is not quite right, that we are instead involved in a mysterious, flowing unfolding. … The Buddha called himself tathagata or ‘that which is thus coming and going’. He described himself as merely a flowing occurrence, and the outward form that took was constant, calm, compassionate availability to people who came to him for help. This is a way of being these verses offer to you.”

(1)? Chogyam Trungpa or Pema Chodron

(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2017

(3)Aldous Huxley The Perennial Philosophy: an Interpretation of the Great Mystics, East and West New York: HarperCollins, 2004 (Perennial Classics Edition)

(4) http://www.druidry.org

(5) http://www.headless.org

(6) Nagarjuna The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995

(7) Ben Connelly Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: a practitioner’s guide Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2016

 

IN A NUTSHELL

I value clarity and simplicity, especially in spirituality. Yet the subject often gives rise to mystifying ideas and language. From now on I want to avoid these, when genuinely avoidable, in my inquiry.

In 2014, not long before he became ill, Thich Nhat Hanh retranslated the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, foundational to Mahayana Buddhism, and revised his commentary. Although brief, the sutra develops Buddhist emptiness teachings and therefore the Buddhist view of non-duality. After more than sixty years of monastic study and practice, Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that a flower is made only of non-flower elements, so we can say that the flower is empty of separate self-existence. But that doesn’t mean that the flower is not there. “When you perceive reality in this way, you will not discriminate against the garbage in favour of the rose”.

Thich Nhat Hanh worked at making Buddhism accessible to a modern Western audience, because the teachings of Buddhism are not one, but many. When Buddhism enters a new country, that country always acquires a new form of Buddhism. As part of his own teaching, he invented the term ‘interbeing’. Yet he is also true to tradition. In thirteenth century Japan, Zen Master Eihei Dogen taught that “enlightenment is just intimacy with all things”. Such intimacy nourishes the seed of compassion. Thich Nhat Hanh offers essentially the same understanding to other peoples in another time.

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