contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra

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

SPECIAL BOOKS

I’m thinking about special books. Many spiritual traditions have special books and they are given tremendous authority. For the committed practitioner, the prescribed way of working with them is some version of Lectio Divina. This goes beyond knowing what the book says and giving our assent. We need to bring the words alive through a contemplative immersion. As deep and devoted readers, we learn to identify layers of meaning and apply them in our lives. Checking out our experience in the light of what is written, we learn to mould our experience in accordance with the writing. There is no room for a mixed or negative assessment of the text itself or wish to depart from it. The furthest we can go in this direction is through a device like Hebrew midrash. This a form of commentary, sometimes taking the form of stories, that can stretch an original meaning or introduce a new perspective on it.

But for me, the direct value of texts lies in the extent to which they support my practice and experience. The practice and experience themselves are my authority. My original education was literary, reflecting the creative and critical values of the humanities. I am educated in what Samuel Johnson called ‘the art of true judgement’, and also understand that older texts need to be understood in relation to the cultures of their day. I don’t come to this work with a Lectio Divina mindset. But I still like the idea of having special books, of focusing in closely on a few texts of special value to me.

This is partly to counterbalance my natural tendency to be restless and mercurial in my reading. I move rapidly not just between books and ideas but kinds of books and ideas, with quite different understandings of life and the universe. I get multiple overviews at the risk of losing my own thread. I’m also like a magpie in identifying pieces of text that shine, which is great, but supports an attachment to shininess, aka psychoactive writing.

Hence, I now find myself wanting to slow down and consolidate, identifying a small number of special books, selected as Wisdom literature for this stage of my journey, and keeping company with them. I have chosen six. Three are from the ancient world and have been my friends for many years. Three are modern and discuss the Harding method of ‘Seeing’ ( www.headless.org/) , in which I am increasingly experiencing as a support for my Sophian Way. I’m not going to say more about them in this post, but I will feature them in future ones. Here is the list:

Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about The Way and the Power of The Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998. (New English version by Ursula K. Le Guin with the collaboration of J.P. Seaton)

Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017 (A new translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries)

Alan Jacobs The Gnostic Gospels London: Watkins Publishing, 2005 ( My focus is on four texts: The Gospel of Thomas, The Fable of the Pearl, The Gospel of Philip and Thunder)

Douglas Harding Head Off Stress: Beyond the Bottom-Line London: The Shollond Trust, 2009 (First published by Arkana in 1990)

Douglas Harding Look for Yourself: The Science and Art of Self-Realisation London: The Shollond Trust, 2015 (First published by The Head Exchange Press in 1996)

Karin Visser The Freedom to Love: The Life and Vision of Catherine Harding Salisbury, UK: New Sarum Press, 2019 (First edition 2016

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.

EMBRACING INTERBEING

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the trees to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can see that the cloud and the paper inter-are. ‘Interbeing’ is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix ‘inter‘ with the verb ‘to be’, we have a new verb ‘inter-be’” (1).

Thich Nath Hanh extends his proposition to include sunshine, the logger, the saw mill, the bread sustaining the logger (thus also wheat) and the logger’s parents. We are there too, because the paper is part of our perception. In fact, “you cannot point out one thing that is not here – time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. … You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is. … As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.”

I have embraced ‘interbeing’. It is the most accessible and elegant way I know of talking about non-duality: clear, workable and sensitized to an ethics of empathy. It leans into the affirmation of embodiment, of loving relationship with the Earth, and a willingness to be socially engaged. I prefer this account to ones that tend in the direction of ‘I am the One’ or union with the Divine. We each seek the language with the most resonance and integrity for ourselves, whilst also knowing that any language is a finger pointing at the moon and not the moon itself.

For some time, I have been working towards a view like interbeing through my personal contemplative inquiry. My chapter in the compilation Pagan Planet is called Living presence in a field of living presence: practising contemplative Druidry (2). There I raise questions about paths that lack a felt sense of embodiment, inter-connectedness and inter-dependence even when they do valuably encourage agency, personal responsibility, self-cultivation and independence of mind.  I specifically note two apparently contrasting effects of meditation, beyond its being a “green anti-depressant”. The first is that it “makes me very aware of my fragility … and complete embeddedness in a web of interdependence, and the narrow limits of my usual consciousness and perception”. The second is to find myself almost melting “with love and gratitude for the miracle of being alive at all”, moved too “by the world’s seeming ability to be irrationally generous as well as unfairly hurtful (3)”.

I now have an outer court membership of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Community of Interbeing and have recently begun attending a weekly meditation session with the local sangha. It seems like a good place to be. It continues, in a new setting, an aspect of what I have already been doing in my contemplative inquiry.

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The heart of understanding: commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2009 (20th anniversary ed. Editor Peter Levitt)

(2) James Nichol Living presence in a field of living presence: practicing contemplative Druidry in Nimue Brown (ed.) Pagan Planet: Being, believing and belonging in the 21st century Winchester, UK & Washington. USA: Moon Books, 2016

(3) http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/12/rowan-williams-why-we-need-fairy-tales-now-more-ever

ANOTHER SHORE?

 

My sacred space at home has undergone a complete makeover. I am effectively in a different place. It happened this way. On 7 May, I ordered a statue of Guanyin, partly as a birthday present to myself and partly with reference to ‘the true thought of the heart’. Perhaps the true thought of the heart is the real gift. In a blog post I wrote on that day (1), I described Guanyin as sitting on a crescent moon, playful and androgynous. I said: “it is the note that I am looking for”.

When the statue arrived from China, it was much bigger than I expected. It was over two metres high and quite broad, because Guanyin is sitting on a crescent moon, which takes up space. Caught up in the elegance of the design, I had completely misread the dimensions. No room in my room for the true thought of the heart?

Making room involved a complete clearing and cleaning of the place, and a considerable re-arranging of furniture. During an afternoon, I reshaped the space entirely with Guanyin as the predominant focus. Other imagery is still there. The Western Way is still well represented. A Green Man represents our oneness with the Earth, and our apparent separation from it and need for healing stories. A somewhat Marian (both of them) Sophia is there, imaging sacred fertility, sacramental relationship and the challenge to awaken. So are other familiar objects – a dragon sitting on an egg, an abstract and geometrical mandala picture, a tiny wooden Buddha, (not new) contained and serene. (A hopefully only slightly larger and more expansive laughing one is on his way.) Around the walls I find a C17th map of Somerset, my native county; pictures of Glastonbury Tor and the Eildon Hills; a small painting of a crane; and a painting I commissioned in the early 1990s of the Pictish Dancing Sea Horses from the Aberlemno Stone in Angus.

Yet the defining presence is now Guanyin. It happened as if by itself. The rest of the room is familiar and understood. She by contrast is numinous, dynamic and unknown, as well as large. The relationship is not yet established. Close-up, she is indeed playful and androgynous, but she is much more than that. As Guanyin, s/he hears the cries of the world. In her male aspect, s/he is Avolokitesvara, who shared the wisdom gained from deep practice in The Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra. S/he opens the way to the whole tradition of Mahayana Buddhism and its Vajrayana or Tantric variants. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us of the seeming riddle of this path. “The Prajnaparamita Sutra says, ‘The Bodhisattva helps row living beings to the other shore but in fact no living beings are being helped to the other shore’ (2). Inevitably, it seems, I am drawn by this proposition. Necessarily, it seems, I am gathering Buddhist resources and accessing Buddhist networks, now attracted to the path as well as the Bodhisattva. I did not anticipate this.

This transcends contemplative inquiry, whilst emphatically including it. The Guanyin Oracle (3) tells me that I am under a God’s protection, and gives me a verse called After the Rain.

“After a long rain, we joyously watch the heavens clear.

The sun and moon grow slowly brighter.

The gloomy days are over, so be happy and joyous.

You will bound through the Dragon Door in one leap.

I am reminded of Penny Billington’s use of the term ‘egrigore’ in Contemplative Druidry (4). In Chapter 4 Druid Identity and Values, she says that spiritual movements have an egrigore, “an inner reality made up not only of the ideas of the members, but also the invisible influences from the other realms that resonate with that ‘flavour’ of spiritual thought; and as Druids we are dedicated to making connections not only in the natural world but on the other planes as well, other states of consciousness.” I certainly find that images and their associations can have a tremendous power if I am open to them, and for me, now, the Guanyin image is one of those. It is focusing my energy and attention, and making a Buddhist inspired matrix of references, aspirations, values, traditions and practices vividly present to me. This kind of process works much faster than ordinary thinking. Assembling a new Chinese statue out of three separate parts, cleansing and reordering a room, took me into a new space, and here I still am.

  • https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/05/07/sophia-and-guanyin/
  • Thich Nhat Hanh The miracle of mindfulness: a manual on meditation London: Rider, 1991
  • Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Oracle: the voice of the Goddess of compassion London: Piatkus, 2009
  • James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: people practice and potential Amazon/KDP, 2014 (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)

SOPHIA AND GUANYIN

 

The Moon rising on the indigo sea,

A pearl like a seed.

Open your heart to compassion and change:

The protector will blossom there.

 

Sophia journeyed along the Silk Road to the wild west of China and became the Bodhisattva Guanyin*. In Mahayana Buddhism, a Bodhisattva vows to wake up and work for the happiness of sentient beings. At the point of entry to nirvana, or ‘no-wind’, where the hot winds of desire and compulsion are forever stilled, you choose to remain in the world of samsara, the world of illusions that we all inhabit, and fulfil your promised role. This pledge is inaugurated by the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, in which the Buddha’s disciple Avolokitesvara addresses another disciple, Shariputra. Guanyin emerges in history as Avolokitesvara’s female manifestation some hundreds of years later. Her emergence may well be owed to the influence of Sophia, who in that time and place is looked to as a Gnostic redeemer. I am grateful to Stephen Karcher for taking me through the history (1).

“Between 400-600 CE, various sects associated with the ‘great heresy’ of Gnosticism entered Northwest China, driven out of the Mediterranean area by the violent persecution of the Orthodox Church. Gnostics were not really heretic Christians; they were pseudo-Christian just as they were pseudo-Jewish and pseudo-Pagan. They represented an ancient strain of thought that attached itself to various symbol systems and ‘deconstructed’ them to orient us towards the gnosis or direct ‘acquaintance with the spirit’, a practice that may have originated in an old, pre-Rabbinic form of Jewish worship. This Gnostic stream flows through Manichean and Mandaean thought into the great melting pot of North West China, the beginning and end of the Silk Road. …  The Gnostic figure of Sophia the Redeemer who reaches out to awaken the divine spark in each being may have been the catalyst that produced Kuan Yin, the compassionate one, out of her male form Avolokitesvara”.

Once born, Guanyin takes on non-Buddhist characteristics local to the region, including powers such as that of the Mare associated with the K’un Field in the I Ching. She has strong Dragon associations. “These animal powers are still with us in dreams and visions as representatives of the sources of life. They speak with gigantic voices, the movers of the world”. She is also “clothed in the mystery of the Tao, the Taoist valley spirit or ongoing process of the real that nourishes all the myriad beings. … There are many images for this: flowing water, the uncarved block, child, female, mother, valley spirit, dark door, empty vessel, for it is the womb of creation. We can open this space within ourselves and return to the source of all things … [When] we have become empty within, we can return to the source and … watch the Tao shaping the universe out of chaos, while yin and yang continually transform it. When we grasp this process, our whole identity becomes fluid. We become like a spirit, a shen”.

Karcher concludes: “Born from this great spiritual melting pot, partaking of its many traditions, Kuan Yin, the One Who Sees and Hears the Cries of the World, walked forth among the beings she vowed to cherish and enlighten, breaking all sectarian boundaries. She is equally at home with Buddhists, Taoists, Pagans and Gnostics. The stories of her miracles of healing, deliverance and enlightenment have proliferated in East and West. Her compassion and wisdom offer an exit from the compulsive worlds of greed, lust and power and a return to the true thought of the heart.”

One of my attractions to this story is that it identifies the spiritual traditions that have at different times, and indeed the same time, influenced my heart and imagination: Gnosticism, Buddhism, Paganism and Taoism. By implication, it excludes the ones that haven’t: the essentially God fearing Abrahamic traditions and God drunken Vedic ones, including their ‘non-dualist’ presentations. This is a matter of feeling and imagination, not of cosmology or belief. Although I can’t make a complete assimilation of Sophia and Guanyin, their iconography does, for me, help to bind these influences together. “Return to the true thought of the heart” is not a bad summary. I have bought a statue of Guanyin, as a birthday present to myself for later this month. In this statue she sits on a crescent moon, playful and androgynous. It is the note that I am looking for.

  • I use the form Guanyin. Stephen Karcher uses Kuan Yin.

(1) Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Oracle: The Voice of the Goddess of Compassion London: Piatkus, 2009

 

HEADLESS ZEN?

“Let go of emptiness and come back to the brambly forest. Riding backwards on the ox, drunken and singing, who could dislike the misty rain pattering on your bamboo raincoat and hat.” Chan Master Hongzhi.

Recently I came across Susan Blackmore’s Zen and the Art of Consciousness (1). Blackmore, though not a Buddhist, works experientially within the Chan tradition (Chan being a Taoist influenced form of Chinese Buddhism, and the precursor of Japanese Zen). It’s how she does her first-person, subjective lifeworld inquiry into consciousness, which she also studies as a cognitive scientist. The book shows her working through ten questions, starting with: ‘Am I conscious now’?

Question 3 is ‘Who is asking the question? Here she brings in Douglas Harding of the Headless Way* and uses some of his experiments. I worked with these last year. I didn’t maintain an ongoing connection with the Headless family for long, mostly because of Harding’s tilt towards self-identification with/as the One cosmic consciousness, as the means dis-identification from ‘self’ at the human level. I’ve discovered that I can’t align myself with it. I don’t want to be God. Yet the ‘headless’ experience and its value have stayed with me. After completing my first Headless Way* pointing experiment, I reported: “pointing out – ‘curtains, folds, blueness, a crack showing light. Right arm. Flesh, tattoos, patterning. Pointing in: nothing: a relief, really, and a joy.” As that work continued, the joy only grew when the exterior view rushed in to fill the space. I say ‘view’ rather than ‘world’ because the world I perceive is a co-creation of the (presumed) outside world and my own (presumed) senses. A bat would have a completely different experience. Still, there was a sense of ‘everything’ filling my nothing at the centre.

Blackmore’s version is this. She describes meditating and looking towards a flower bed. “I paid open attention to everything I could see and hear, and in the space at the top of my shoulders I found no head, only forget-me-nots. I looked for the self who was looking at the forget-me-nots, and simply became them. It was very simple; very obvious”. Blackmore’s subsequent understanding – “what I see is what I am’ – does not as I read it make ‘I am God’ cosmic consciousness claims. Indeed, she is influenced by the philosopher Dan Dennett, who thinks of ‘consciousness’ itself as not just a reification (turning a process into a substance) but an altogether redundant idea. He’s the opposite kind of monist to Douglas Harding.

Some people like to have a line to follow. I like openness, and the possibility of multiple perspectives. I like the gleeful return to the commonsense world indicated by the 12th century Master Hongzhi above. It’s in Blackmore’s book, as part of feedback from her own Chan teacher at a time when she was in relentless pursuit of the problem of consciousness, and may have needed some rebalancing and lightening up in her role as sentient being. I also like the Interbeing approach mapped out in Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentary on the Heart Sutra (2) and more recent works such as his Love Letter to the Earth (3), with ‘We are the Earth’ as its first section and ‘Healing Steps’ as the second.

I will give the last word to a member of the Headless Way community. This is in the form of a poem by Colin Oliver called the Oneness of Things (4), which for me captures the ‘headless’ experience seamlessly, and – as only poets can – finds room for all of the above:

The sun low over the beach:

shining wires of dune grass,

stones and the shadows of stones.

On the shoreline, the rush of foam

mirrored in the wet sand.

In the oneness of things

I am nowhere in sight.

 

* www.headless.org/

(1) Susan Blackmore Zen and the Art of Consciousness, Oneworld Publications, 2014 (ebook edition)

(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1988

(3) Thich Nhat Hanh Love Letter to the Earth, Berkeley, CA: Parallex Press, 2013

(4) Colin Oliver Nothing but this Moment: selected poems London: Shollond Trust, 2013

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