contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Tantric Buddhism

HUNGRY GHOSTS

“These various spirits may live on the earth, beneath its surface, in the ocean or in the air. Although there are many different kinds, traditionally they are all pictured as one type, a kind of caricature expressing their hungry nature. They have tiny mouths, long thin necks and huge, swollen bellies, which can of course be a sign of starvation as well as greed. Their inability to satisfy their hunger manifests in different ways, according to whether they have distorted perceptions of the external world, of their own inner condition, or both.

“In the first cases, some search desperately for food and drink, but can never find any. Some imagine that they can see it in the distance, like a mirage, but when they get nearer, it turns out to be an illusion. Others can see a feast laid out for them and are just about to eat it when fearsome guards appear and chase them away.

“The second category of hungry ghosts have food available to them, but their mouths and throats are so small, and their stomach so large, that they would never be able to consume even a fraction of the amount they need. They have long, grasping fingers, with which they frantically grab and try to swallow whatever they can, but it only makes them feel more and more empty.

“Hungry ghosts in the third category are subject to various inner and outer hallucinations, so they cannot benefit from their food. For some of them, food and drink burst into flames inside them and burn them from within. For others, it turns into revolting substances like blood, pus and urine, which they eat; still others find that they are biting into their own flesh; and for some, food becomes inedible material, like iron or straw.

“The basic subjective feeling of this realm is overwhelming deprivation, a sense of poverty combined with greed. Paradoxically, the hungry ghosts are surrounded by an environment of richness and abundance; everything they want is already there, but their hunger prevents them from enjoying it. Self-preservation is very strong, so there is little sense of openness or relaxation. They are totally obsessed with trying to satisfy their own needs, so they cannot afford to feel the pain of others or arouse the slightest generous impulse. Birth in this condition of existence is the result of extreme avarice, meanness and stinginess.”

Francesca Freemantle Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2003

NOTE: In Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, there are six realms of existence in the wheel of life: two higher realms of gods and jealous gods, two intermediate realms of humans and animals, and two lower realms of hungry ghosts and hell-beings. Although not liberated from the wheel of life, the divine realms are places of reduced suffering and greater freedom. The results of positive actions outweigh the negative. In the lower realms, negative karma is very strong.

But these issues are not just something for another life. To Tantric Buddhists, nirvana and samsara are one. Every moment can be seen as a new birth. All realms are part of our lived experience, here and now. We do not have to look outside for hungry ghosts, or hell-beings (locked in a distorted logic of aggression that always puts the blame on others). They are part of us. There are times when we see them and times when we don’t.

EMBODIMENT AND AT-HOMENESS

In a previous post, (1) I told the story of Jill Bolte Taylor’s severe brain haemorrhage. For her, the experience contained a hidden blessing. As her ability to think disintegrated, Jill Bolte Taylor “felt enfolded in a blanket of tranquil euphoria … As the language centers in my left hemisphere grew increasingly silent and I became detached from the memories of my life, I was comforted by an expanding sense of grace … a ‘being at one’ with the universe, if you will.” Jill Bolte Taylor subsequently made a complete recovery from her stroke. Indeed, she was able to integrate the positive aspects of the stroke experience, leading to a fuller and richer life than she had had before.

In a gentler way, the proponents of ‘bio-spirituality’ are seeking a similar result. “The beginning of bio-spiritual awareness … is finding a way through to some larger At-Homeness written deep within bodily knowing.” (2) In ‘Focusing’, bio-spirituality’s recommended working method, practitioners address what they see as three critical issues in spirituality. The first is the “perennial problem of getting out of the mind”. The second is “the challenge of being drawn into an awareness of some Larger Process”. The third is the way in which “body knowing” helps with the first two. I have started using this approach as an active solo meditation, and so far I find the results promising. The core of this practice, when a solo meditation, is to hold an aware, enabling and loving attention to the body its processes, so that the felt sense of At-Homeness  has a chance to ripen.

For me, At-Homeness has become another way of describing non-duality as an experience. At-Homeness asks for a deepened embodiment, though for me ’embodiment’ is a more expansive term than is conventionally accepted. I work with a sense of three layers of embodiment, which I call physical, subtle and cosmic. The physical body is confined to the envelope of skin, whilst the subtle body extends further and is porous. The cosmic body is an emptiness body without boundaries. I believe that all are involved in body knowing and At-Homeness, and they are not ultimately separate. Reginald Ray has a good account (3) of how this works in his teaching and practice of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. In this, extended view of embodiment, I reach out beyond, and then further beyond, the strictly personal into a not-I-not-other-than-I territory. Yet I continue to stand on the Earth, a distinct sentient being interconnected with other sentient beings and the sentience of the world itself.  It is all my Home, and all needed for a full sense of At-Homeness.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/10/20/stroke-of-insight/ 

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

(3) Reginald A. Ray Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2009

RESTING IN BEING

Last autumn I worked with two on-line resources developed by Peter Russell (1). The first was a brief meditation course, which nudged me into a particularly easeful and surrendered meditative style. The second was a webinar series under the Science and Nonduality umbrella (2), Resting in Being. From this I picked up a helpful definition of nonduality (a translation of Sanskrit advaita). Going back to the time of the Upanishads (3), it invites us to think of ourselves as clay pots. If we look at two pots together (or any number) we find only one clay. Peter Russell describes the clay as ‘mind stuff’. Older Vedantic tradition uses the language of divinity, whilst Tantric Buddhists speak of ‘primordial nature’ (4). Russell is careful to distinguish nonduality from union, unity, or complete identity. My human relationship to the clay (mind stuff, primordial nature) is one of ‘not I not other than I’ (5). I am distinct but not separate.

This ground reality is ever-present and pervasive, yet oddly hard to recognize. No recognition is necessary for a successful human life, yet without it many people experience a sense of loss and alienation or intuit that something of consequence is missing. We invent grail quests and ladders to heaven, strategies for enlightenment or redemption, to address the perceived deficit. These in turn tend to become displacement mechanisms, deflecting us from the very goal we seek. The direct approach points us back to our immediate experience. Peter Russell uses words like ‘being’ and ‘awareness’ – suggesting indeed that that latter might also be turned into a doing word: ‘awareing’. Process terms better express both the movement of experience and the stillness within it. Ursula Le Guin does the same with ‘Taoing’ (6).

As a term, I find ‘resting in being’ useful in guiding me into contemplative awareing. I feel opened, energized and expanded. My centre of gravity shifts. I feel porous, spacious, held within the whole: here, now and home. The years of contemplative inquiry have boiled down to this. It is the stance I am taking away. My remaining sense of inquiry concerns the influence of this stance on the rest of my life and I will look at this in another post.

(1) Spirit of Now website peterrussell.com

(2) https://www.scienceandnonduality.com

(3) The Upanishads Introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, CA: Niligri Press, 2007 (2nd  ed.)

(4)  https://www.dharmaocean.org/

(5)  https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/01/29/book-review-not-i-not-other-than-i/

(6) 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. LeGuin with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton)

EMPTINESS AND JOYFUL FREEDOM

This post takes its name from a book (1) about the ‘emptiness’ teachings traditionally associated with Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism. It makes the case that the ‘ease’ they bring can support a culturally ‘Western’ approach to life. The insights can illuminate us regardless of tradition, enabling new departures in the politics and art of living. The book includes meditations and exercises, so that readers can check it out for themselves.

“Through the immersion in these teachings, the rigidity and solidity of seemingly inherently existing phenomena give way to a precious lightness of life in the world. The famous Buddhist writer Shantideva expresses beautifully how our mind comes finally to rest:

“When neither something nor nothing

Remains to be known,

There is no alternative left

But complete non-referential ease.

“I feel that, as a person who had been seeking truth and ultimate reality, I found a satisfying answer in the realization of the emptiness of all phenomena. This realization comes with a greater sense of ease.

“For spiritual practitioners like me, the rigid attitude of knowing what’s right for everyone is an easy temptation. Spiritual teachings tend to have notions of absolutes, which by their very nature seem to trump everything else. None of them can claim to have absolute, transcendent truth on their side, so all of them need to prove themselves on the level of conventional, ordinary reality with practical questions like:

’Who does the view serve and who is being marginalized?’ or

‘Is the view helpful, compassionate or humane?’

“ ….

“It was a wonderfully freeing moment to recognize that there simply is no one way that reality ‘really’ is, and therefore no way to miss out on it. … At that moment, it became completely OK to be my Western self again, rather than trying to emulate what I took to be the Eastern blueprint of an enlightened practitioner’s way of life.

“ …

“By realizing that the inherently existent self does not exist, one is free up to work with the empty self. This is where the West’s abundant sources of creative self-expression can come in handy. You can celebrate and transform the (empty) self, creatively expressing it in ever new ways. The self can even be treated as a work of art. Towards the end of his life Michel Foucault said:

‘What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects, and not to individuals, or to life.’

“Joyful irony is our Western Way to describe the fruition of the emptiness teachings. You no longer think that your own values and goals are underwritten by the nature of reality. This insight enables a flexible, unattached attitude towards your one views and vocabularies, and fosters respect for the views of others”.

(1) Greg Goode and Tomas Sander Emptiness and Joyful Freedom Salisbury: Non-Duality Press, 2013 (Section written by Tomas Sander)

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)
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