contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Mahayana Buddhism

MADE OF THE SUN, MOON AND STARS

“Just as a wave doesn’t need to go looking for water, we don’t need to go looking for the ultimate. The wave is the water. You already are what you want to become. You are made of the sun, moon and stars. You have everything inside you.”

If I had authored the words above, they would be a clear statement of my stance as a modern Druid. In fact they were written by the Vietnamese Zen monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, who has spent the latter part of his life making Buddhism accessible to westerners. For me, this shows the wider resonance of his core understanding. Indeed he continues by using the language of a third tradition – the best known to most westerners – to develop his theme.

“In Christianity there is the phrase, ‘resting in God’. When we let go of all seeking and striving, it is as if we are resting in God. We establish ourselves firmly in the present moment; we dwell in the moment. We rest in our cosmic body. Dwelling in the ultimate doesn’t require faith or belief. A wave doesn’t need to believe it is water. The wave is already water in the very here and now.

“To me, God is not outside us or outside reality. God is inside. God is not an external entity for us to seek, for us to believe in or not to believe in. God, nirvana, the ultimate, is inherent in every one of us. The Kingdom of God is available in every moment. The question is whether we are available to it. With mindfulness, concentration and insight, touching nirvana, touching our cosmic body or the Kingdom of God, becomes possible with every breath and every step.”

Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Penguin Random House UK, 2017

THICH NHAT HANH ON LIVING BEINGS

In the extract below, Thich Nhat Hanh offers Buddhist thoughts, which seem to me to have considerable resonance for Druids, with their animist and earth-honouring perspective and their support for deep ecology.

“There is no absolute dividing line between animate and inanimate, between living matter and inert matter. In so-called inert matter there is life, and living beings are dependent on so-called inert matter. If we took the so-called inanimate elements out of you and me, we would not be able to live. We are made of non-human elements. This is what is taught in the Diamond Sutra, an ancient Buddhist text that could be considered the world’s first treatise on deep ecology. We cannot draw a hard distinction between human beings and other living beings, or between living beings and inert matter.

There is vitality in everything.

The entire cosmos is radiant with vitality.

“If we see the Earth as just a block of matter lying outside of us, then we have not yet truly seen the Earth. We need to be able to see that we are part of the Earth, and to see that the entire Earth is in us. The Earth is also alive; it has intelligence and creativity. … Looking with the eyes of non-discrimination, we can establish a very close relationship with the Earth. We look at the Earth with our heart and not with the eyes of cold reasoning. You are the planet, and the planet is you. The well-being of your body is not possible without the well-being of the planet. And that is why to protect the well-being of your body, we must protect the well-being of the planet. This is the insight of emptiness*.” (1)

  • To be empty, for Thich Nhat Hanh, is to be empty of a permanent, separate self. Hence ‘to be’ is to ‘inter-be’. He coined the word ‘inter-being’ to emphasise this point in his teaching.

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Rider, 2017

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.

INTEGRATION

This is my grail image. I can see a chalice against a formless yet shape-creating background, or I can see two beings, with an enabling space between them. Two worlds; one image. Flicking rapidly between them, there comes a point where I can see them both, in the same place, at the same time.

I see the whole as an image of integration. Myth making just a little, I can point to a primal void, from which I am in no way separate, a cosmic mother, from whom I am distinct yet also in no way separate, and the birth of multiple individual forms of which I am one. With individuality comes otherness – and a world of connection/separation, community/exile, love/hate, joy/fear, generosity/contraction, conflict/co-operation, solidarity/predation. By integration I don’t here mean making the bad stuff go away, though efforts in that direction are immensely important. I am pointing, rather, to a capacity to hold all experience in presence and awareness: the deep experiential acceptance that all of the above, right up to void and creation, are happening here and happening now. They are the reality within which I awaken.

The Christian grail quest, which concerns the healing of the soul and its opening into spirit, partly evolved from older stories about the healing of the land, and maintains a wasteland motif. In Mahayana Buddhism enlightenment makes no sense if any sentient being is left behind. The modern Western Mystery tradition provides ways of bringing these stories together, with more of a tilt at this point in our history towards the collective dimension. I have written before that “for me the grail represents the presence and energy of Sophia”*, and has power for me on my Sophian Way. On this way, the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ work go hand in hand: these are in any case conventional and limiting terms.

I understand the future as demanding cultures of resilience. Because of that I am glad that I have retained a foothold in Druidry and Paganism, because I see them as cultures of possibility in this regard. My Sophian Way has been a personal one, arising unexpectedly within my Druid education, and given some scope for recognition because of the way my Druid education worked. It fits better into the OBOD community, with its Universalist opening and invitation to learn from all traditions, than into any Christian, Gnostic or New Age community that I know of.

Yesterday I made a symbolic re-connection with OBOD (for I had never really left) by taking out a subscription to its magazine Touchstone after a lapse. Here at least I can name the Sophian Way unequivocally as a Goddess devotion without going through flips and twists about what ‘divine feminine’ might mean. At the same time, the name Sophia does reference insights and influences from other traditions, including secular philosophy, as befits a Goddess of Wisdom. For me, this is another kind of integration, whose fruits will manifest over time.

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.)

A SMALL GOD OF THE EARTH ATTAINS BUDDHAHOOD

IMG_20191011_101101_kindlephoto-8745263

I have had this statue for awhile, and intend to pay it more attention. He might be a small god. or he might be a human priest or shaman, acting as guardian of a sacred place. I imagine it as including a waterfall and springs, with  rocks and earth and trees. Either way he would be eligible to become, or realise that he latently is, a Buddha or Taoist Immortal, to use another framework from his culture of origin.

There are even rumours of his being Maitreya, the next world saviour, on account of his laughing, ecstatic demeanour. For me, this works best in a model where we could all be prompted into saving the world together. I’m not sure how best to name and describe him – what words to use, or references to make. So I took this picture instead.

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 form 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/

ENLIGHTENMENT IS NOW

“Enlightenment is always enlightenment about something. You don’t need to practice eight years to have some enlightenment. Enlightenment is our daily business. If you practice mindfulness and concentration you may get insight, or enlightenment, several times a day. Just breathing in, you can be enlightened about the fact that you are alive. To be alive is already a miracle. While breathing in and making one step, we allow the light of mindfulness to be lit like a candle in our heart. We know that to be walking on this beautiful planet Earth is a wonder. And that kind of awareness and insight can bring peace and happiness already. We don’t want anything else. To be alive, to breathe in, and to make one step, is already wonderful enough. This is already enlightenment. And with the light of mindfulness in us we become a saint, we become a Buddha, we become a bodhisattva. We are a light for the world.”

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

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

THE WAY OF SOPHIA REVISITED

Five months ago, I wrote a post summing up my recent inquiry work (1). I was moving into an engagement with ‘Direct Path’ approaches and during this period I have been in transition and flux. This has been liberating, but at times hard to articulate publicly. Partly, this is a penalty of lacking clear identification with a specific spiritual brand.

Now, I feel a new sense of synthesis. It is built on a fresh understanding of a tradition discussed in my November 2017 post. This is the Way of Sophia, which I conflated in the post with Sophian Gnosticism. I said:

“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.”

I also said: “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.” I notice now that I had already separated my sense of Sophia from my sense of “the system”. I only half-noticed at the time because of my pull towards the Direct Path. I’m glad of this, because my extended check-in with the Direct Path has enabled me to build a new house on better foundations, though still using materials from the old one.

Direct Path teachers have enabled a more rigorous investigation of non-duality than I have experienced before, one that points to a simplified spiritual life now the investigation is complete. Christian Gnosticism and Mahayana Buddhism (including, in practice, Zen) are gradual path non-dualisms. The Headless Way is a variant form of direct path. I believe that the animist and pantheist (or panexperientialist) currents in Druidry and Paganism point in a non-dualist direction. Sophia, for me, is the patron goddess of non-duality.

Tantric tradition shows how we can have a goddess of non-duality without compromising a non-dualist view. Here, Shiva is the empty awareness at the heart of reality and Shakti is its energy and form. She is both the Cosmic Mother and everything that is. Neither can exist without the other. Shiva and Shakti are not in reality separate from each other and we are not separate from them. We are them.

The non-dualist teacher Francis Lucille said: “When we see that the mind, in spite of all its abilities, is absolutely unable to comprehend the truth for which we are striving, all effort to reach enlightenment ceases naturally. This effortlessness is the threshold of real understanding beyond all limitations.” (2) At this point I find that an element of mythology helps. I need stories and for me, a Tantric iteration of Sophia is closer than the more familiar Gnostic one. She is part of my-here-and now reality, rather than the illuminator of a distant goal.

As well as being a Cosmic Mother, Sophia becomes, in active imagination, a guide and focus for devotion – less abstract, more relational than the empty abstract Shiva. Even in recent months, I have continued the occasional practice of using ‘Ama-Aima’ as a mantra within a breath meditation that borders on prayer. Now, I reclaim the ‘Way of Sophia’ as the best way of describing my spiritual identity and path. Everything I’ve learned can be integrated under this single title.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/11/21/intensive-inquiry/

(2) Francis Lucille Eternity Now Temecula, CA: Truespeech Productions, 2006 (Edited by Alan Epstein)

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2015/11/26/the-way-of-sophia/

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