without beginning and without end

POSTCARD#499: Bangkok: [Continuing with last week’s theme: “The Divine in us”] I was amazed to ‘hear the voice’ of Meister Eckhart reaching out to me from the 14th Century with observations on life that could have been expressed in recent times. All the more amazing to read his words on the subject of time and discover this was even more in context than I thought:

A day, whether six or seven (days) ago, or more than six thousand years ago, is just as near to the present as yesterday. Why? Because all time is contained in the present Now-moment. Time comes of the revolution of the heavens and day began with the first revolution. God makes the world and all things in this present now. Time gone a thousand years ago is now as present and as near to God as this very instant.

For me, also strangely synchronistic, are the words: the ‘Now-moment,’ because, without knowing or having read Eckhart before, I decided only a few years ago to name one of my Blog Categories: ‘The Now Moment.’ Another thing I find to be a remarkable coincidence is that my post of October 10, 2016 contains the following: ‘Language gives everything names, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday… different ways of describing present time. It’s always today, no matter if I call it yesterday, tomorrow or next week – today is every day.’ Perhaps not so unusual when you think of the social construct that surrounds us now and would have in Eckhart’s day: “The world we have experienced (since we were children), has been psychologically, socially, and linguistically constructed. As we (become adults), we learn to see the world in the way that everyone else does, but we don’t realize that’s what’s happening. We think we are seeing reality itself.”[David Loy, the interview with Insight Journal] It’s possible Eckhart wouldn’t have wanted to call it a construct, without it being in some way, God’s construct.

Being is God… God and being are the same. Everything that is has the fact of its being through being and from being… there is nothing prior to being because that which confers being creates and is a creator. To create is to give being out of nothing.

And here is Eckhart’s 14th Century Fundamental Truth, ‘Being is God.’ Even though I might be inclined to separate ‘God’ from ‘Being,’ I can’t. Maybe I need to change the word ‘God’ to something less emotive… I’m used to the Buddhist no-self (anatta) but it doesn’t convey the same breathless urgency of Eckhart’s sermon.

What is life? God's being is my life, but if it is so, then what is God's must be mine and what is mine God's. God's is-ness is my is-ness, and neither more nor less. They just live eternally with God, on a par with God, neither deeper nor higher. All their work is done by God and God's by them.

The Buddhist experience is this ‘is-ness’ or suchness (tathatā) and the idea of God creating the world out of nothing, in absolute present time is familiar to the Buddhist point of view in the context of Emptiness (śūnyatā). There are other connections between Eckhart and Mahayana Buddhism but I must leave that for another time. What I’ve been most taken with is the approachability of Eckhart’s God.

“I am as sure as I live that nothing is so near to me as God. God is nearer to me than I am to myself; my existence depends on the nearness and the presence of God.”

What jumps out at me here is the following: ‘God is nearer to me than I am to myself.’ Time and space disappear and I have an immediate closeness with this 14th Century Christian mystic.

The eye with which I see God is exactly the same eye with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowledge, and one love

The universality of this statement is that much more effective than other metaphors on the Eye. This is the eye that sees ‘me,’ and I am seen by God, just as I see God and God is seen by ‘me.’ I’d like to close with another non-dual quote by David Loy, in the interview with Insight Journal:

“We are not in time because we are time. Our nature is temporal which means we are not things; we are bundles of physical and mental processes. And when we become nondual with those processes, the past is not something that falls away, and the future is not something that’s coming. Then we live “in” what is sometimes called the eternal present. Etymologically the word “eternity” means without beginning and without end. What is without beginning and without end? It’s always now.”

Image: File:Rathausturm Köln – Meister Eckhart – Johann I. (Brabant)-4871.jpg

From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

Photo credit: Maria Clementine Martin

the Divine in us

POSTCARD#498: Bangkok: I was in the library in Harnham Buddhist Monastery in September 2022, browsing through all the books they had on Meister Eckhart, the Thirteenth Century Christian Mystic. He is famous for asking: “What does it avail me that Mary birthed Christ long ago if I don’t also birth Him in my soul?” I hadn’t thought of Christ being reborn in an ordinary person – although Eckhart was an extraordinary person, nevertheless the Teaching is that this could happen to you or me. The text goes on: ”…we do not find God outside ourselves and we should not conceive him except as in us…” The main difference between Christianity and Theravadin Buddhism is that Christian meditation is about Self or Soul, and in Buddhist meditation there is no discussion on whether there is a Self or a Soul. Besides, most Western Buddhists arrived at the Buddhist point of view from a Christian background without any closure on that earlier time and some unresolved issues remain, to a greater or lesser degree. We are quick to see the differences and not interested in any parallels.

I had only just started finding out about this special kind of Christian contemplation (apophaticism) that rejects all the attributes and ideas about God we’ve known since we were children, and staying in this ‘darkness’ until there is only a state of “unknowing.” Thus, arriving at this experiential union with the divine. There were a few things about this kind of Christian contemplation that seemed very ‘Buddhist’ to me, I recognised the state of unknowing as being that which is outside human experience; “Outside the thinking mind there is only the uncreated.” [Ajahn Sumedho] There is an agreement here: “The ineffable reality of God lies beyond our ordinary comprehension.” Also, on the position of thinking during meditation: “…we are slipping in and out of interior silence, a state in which we do not become attached to the thoughts as they go by.” (Centering Prayer, a method of Christian meditation). I know the feeling of that curious extended, stretched-out moment when there’s just no thought at all: Suññatā: emptiness, often refers to the non-self (Pāli: anattā).

However, the main difference is, at this stage Buddhism stays with Suññatā but Christian meditation goes on to “Christhood and the supreme state of God consciousness.” Most Western Buddhists find it difficult to bring in the anthropomorphic God. “When we speak about ‘God’ we start getting ideas in our head about what God is and that is very far from the unborn, the unconditioned, the uncreated, the unoriginated, the deathless.”[John Cianciosi (Ajahn Jagaro)]

There is also the book “The Cloud of Unknowing” an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the 14th century. The Cloud requires the initiate to withdraw from the senses. All cognitive and sensory faculties must be pushed “beneath” the practitioner in a “cloud of forgetting.” This is so that the initiate can focus and cultivate a “blind stirring of love” toward the Divine. The Cloud instructs us to “forget all of Creation … so that your thoughts and desires are not directed and do not reach out towards any of them”. In this process of forgetting, the soul goes through a darkness where a desiring love reaches out to the Divine in a “cloud of unknowing.”

The turning point for me was that “we are to give birth to the Divine in us.” At first, I didn’t notice the prevailing familiarity about all this; it wasn’t me, wasn’t mine or whatever, because I’m a Buddhist, nearly 30 years now, and long since taken on the Buddhist no-self anatta reality that there is no Self. But what I’d overlooked was a tiny fragment of Christian conditioning embedded in memory that triggered the thought about an everlasting soul. So, it all came crashing in on me; a returning to something about the paradox of the Holy birth that held my interest at the time but I had never understood it as a young person.

I haven’t really reached any conclusions about my Christian beginnings except that fantastic imagery does appear in the mind during advanced meditation but Buddhist ignore it: Experience shows that visions arising at this stage are notoriously deceptive and completely untrustworthy. The recommended thing to do is to remove all interest and go back to the breath meditation. [Link:] https://dhammafootsteps.com/2022/03/25/suitable-nimitta-and-useless-nimitta/ If you are a regular reader of these posts, you will remember our study of Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond, A Meditators Handbook by Ajahn Brahm.

Another similarity mentioned in Christian meditation, is: “the Divine light … this light is not apprehended by the senses.” A more detailed description is given in Ajahn Brahm’s book, where it is: “the Nimitta, the reflection of the mind freed from the five senses. It is like the full moon coming out from behind the clouds.” [Link:]https://dhammafootsteps.com/2021/08/13/experiencing-the-beautiful-nimitta/ VIsiting again Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond, A Meditators Handbook by Ajahn Brahm. There are other Heaven-like colours and images (Jhānas) we have read about in the same book and these would be on a parallel with Eckhart’s advanced meditation. But Buddhism does not recognise there is a God. These are meditational experiences, part of Buddhist Practice.

“One of the criticisms of Christianity, and one of the reasons why many young Christians turn to the East, to Buddhism or to Hinduism, is that in Christianity there is no apparent help with method. How do we find God? How do we even start? Eckhart is one of the Christians who faces this and accepts it as a problem. Good intentions are not always enough. We need instruction in how to make ourselves fit to receive the revelation of God, to receive the eternal birth. “[Ursula Fleming, The Eckhart Society, 1995]

the eye of a needle

POSTCARD#497: Bangkok: There was a time when I was travelling long distances every few weeks, then there was Covid. No unnecessary travelling and the stay-at-home order got us all locked in. Since then, there have been few ventures out into the world, only to the neurologist, and the dentist. A few days ago, I had to go for an appointment at the out-patients department of the eye hospital which is downtown, about an hour’s journey by car from here to there. So, it was a novelty for me to be out on the road again sitting in the back seat with other passengers in this shared taxi. Looking out the window at the world whizzing by. Long journeys like this are quite liberating in an existential sense, ‘I’ am being ‘taken;’ I am in a passive state. Usually, I am in the active state. I am the ’doer,’ figuring things out. Here, I have to ‘be’ rather than ‘do.’

The car sets off on the Tollway, gets up to speed. I’m like a child, watching as these huge chunks of landscape fill the window and pass through the car, ‘seen’ in an instant, then another chunk of landscape takes the place of the one before it, passes through, and is itself layered over by the next and successive landscapes. There is no constant ‘seeing’ as the landscape(s) go by, there are intervals; consciousness is a series of discrete, isolated events some of which happen to be integrated into chunks and in a moment, they come apart again because there is nothing in between holding them together. There is no ‘thing’ continuing in one smooth flowing moment to the next, and onwards that we might take to be an abiding ‘self.’ Chunks of concrete imagery like massive Lego constructs fit together as in a 3D jigsaw and when the engine gathers speed, the whole thing builds up a velocity like a long, straight highway cuts through the city blocks, large masses of it seen rising up and falling away on either side.

Then we start to slow down and come to a stop; traffic congestion, this is the downside… and I have to reign in the wild horses of accelerated thinking. Remembering the breath in ānāpānasati and in a moment, the agitated thinking is gone. Here we are, somewhere in a tarmac space with metal and concrete wall on the left side, all the way up above head-height, and on the right, five lanes of stationary traffic. Nothing to look at except the neglected, unwashed surface of the metal part of the wall, on my left; ugly, unpleasant… and again I have to halt the momentum of thinking – mental proliferation papañca. the tendency of the mind to elaborate on any sense object, out of control. Focus on mindfulness of breathing, and the unhappy state of mind is neutralised.

I start to notice there’s a headache building up. Immediately there’s the anticipation of pain, seen by ‘self’… “this is happening to me, me, me!” It’s my headache so I’m going to suffer.” But after seven years of coping with headaches like this, I can get rid of ‘self,’ not endeared to it anymore. There is a headache but no ‘self’ to which it can get attached – so there is no one there to feel the pain! In fact, there is pain, but much reduced and the mind is not bringing more anxiety into awareness, making a bad situation worse, as is its wont. I’m reminded that Feeling, vedanā is not mine, not me, not a ‘self.’ Understanding vedanā as just vedanā and beyond anyone’s control, gives rise to dispassion toward pleasure and pain. “A perfect heavenly world is seen as a sensory impossibility, merely wishful thinking, and an eternal hell is similarly implausible.’

The traffic opens up and bit by bit we are up to speed again, then down to street level and tremendous acceleration through the narrow sois, green lights all the way, ‘and this is my stop folks, see you later.’ Out of the car and into the eye hospital. The first thing you notice is all the signs are unusually large, I go to RECEPTION and give them my details. Then there is the waiting but I can skip over that and enter the room of the ophthalmologist doctor, lights everywhere and an image on the screen of the macular part of my retina, before-and-after treatment; “a great improvement” he says – and I think it’s supposed to make me see that all this is worthwhile, but I don’t get drawn into the conversation, let’s just get this ordeal over with.

I’m seated and pushed gently into an upper body contraption that holds my chin firmly and the nurse behind me presses on the back of my head so the forehead fits comfortably in a curved heavy metal strip anchored in the front of the frame. The doc is sitting on the other side of the frame, in the centre of my vision with needle in his left hand and the ampule of chemical that does the magic, in his right. There are some preliminaries but the gist of it is this: A voice says, “Don’t move!” and the left-handed ophthalmologist doc brings the needle up to my right eye. There is some pressure getting the needle in, pushing on the balloon surface… pushing again but it still doesn’t go in. Then it does, I can see what’s happening projected on the screen in front of me. There is the needle in the interior of my eye, but it’s not in the lower right, it’s in the upper left… one of those back-to-front, upside-down optical illusions. Then he says, “Now this may hurt a little,” and presses the plunger… I see the fluid streaming out of the end of the needle. It is intensely painful for a few seconds, then it’s over, Somehow, it all turns into black bubbles when the needle is out for a moment but the sinister blackness is gone in a moment. Next thing I’m out of there, paying the bill and get the meds. The car comes quite quickly: I’m surprised. Everybody has been shopping; the sound of crinkly paper bags make an immense noise, getting louder and louder, and activates a headache but when they are finished with their ‘crinkling,’ it goes away. I want the car to speed up get us out of here, put some miles between me and the needle man… then we’re gone.

the past never gets old

POSTCARD#496: Bangkok: In the mind’s eye, it’s a few years back and I’m with my mother in the Care Home in Scotland, holding her hand and she is still sleeping. Her partner Jay, is with me, he is a North American Indian, but this was his secret, he was just that guy from Wyoming – even then he made the effort to remain incognito. You’d hardly notice anything different about him, except that he had a kind of straight-backed posture walking around the town. He took care to wear the same kind of clothes as everyone else, had large-lensed glasses and a cap, and could blend in with the population perfectly as long as he didn’t have to speak. When he did, out came the American intonation, and he was instantly different.

Jay came to Scotland with the US Oil Company to work on the North Sea Oil Rigs, and was somewhere up there in the hierarchy of employees. Then he had chest pains, rushed to hospital, had open-heart surgery twice and took early retirement. The second time he had surgery lasted for a few hours. I thought that experience must have had a major effect on him psychologically (spiritually), but he never talked about it. Jay and Mother, had been together for more than twenty years and settled into a coastal village community in the North East of Scotland. He also had his boat moored in the small harbour there, and a small utility vehicle for getting around town for supplies.

During the months of her illness, Jay and I shared the time with her. One of us would spend part of the day or the night with her, at the Care Home, then we switched over. During the off-time, whoever was free hung out on his boat. There was the house too, now become a bachelor pad, television, a kitchen and dishwasher, with no woman taking care of things.

Then the library, for me, within walking distance, and my reservation for computer time to check emails. Jay had had some training on how to use the computer but (I think) his fingers were too thick and kinda stiff and he couldn’t strike the keyboard accurately. So, that was that… and he allowed the internet to pass him by, sadly. He used a very old Vodaphone with small screen display held in place with scotch tape. It had a phone memory of the numbers he’d call and could receive basic text messaging. It was all he needed.

If we were in mother’s room at the same time, we took turns to sit next to her holding her hand and trying to include her in our conversation. On that particular morning, without thinking, I gave Jay my camera-phone to take a photo of mother and me. He held it up pointed it at us but nothing happened; he couldn’t press the button to take the picture. It was this problem with his fingers. Then laughter – well, you had to see the funny side of things. Try again and another silence with incoherent mumbling in a Wyoming dialect… more laughter, and we were getting a bit loud, forgetting the grave circumstances of our being here.

I said to Jay: “If Elizabeth was here, she would be laughing too!” And it was significant that I didn’t say ‘Mother,’ I said ‘Elizabeth,’ which was her name of course and it was Jay’s way of addressing her. Then, just at that moment, he managed to press the button on the phone-camera and it was one of these old-fashioned shutter-click sounds, quite loud and an unusual ‘c-l-ick’ sound. That’s when we heard the sound of mother’s last breath. A long throat-gargling outbreath… and when it came to an end, there was no inbreath. We waited in silence for the in-breath to come, but only the sound of the rain on the roof window. I have to accept the fact that she has stopped breathing. This is the moment she dies and I see her move from present time into the past tense – irretrievably gone from our world.

I hear Jay calling the doctor on the room’s phone and in a moment, Doctor comes in a white uniform and a stethoscope to listen to Mother’s heart. Everything in the room poised for a moment. Then she puts away the stethoscope and leaves the room without saying anything. Suddenly I see that everything is happening in the present moment and Mother, now gone from our forever-present time dwells, in a sense, in the past; can only be accessed as a remembered event.

The past never gets old, always brought back into present time, refreshed, revealed again in the memory of those remembering it. Sometimes I wonder how it would have been if we hadn’t been fooling around with that phone-camera, and Mother’s passing might have been in more comforting circumstances? But who’s to say there would have been more comforting circumstances than having her partner and son by her side all the way. The fact is, there is this element of comedy here; it would seem she was going to have her photo taken as she stepped out of this life and into a new life – there was laughter, it was a joyful event. She would have recognised our voices and my calling her by her given name, which is something I never did before, this was a reference to Self, a calling away from that old Self and into a new life. There is a Buddhist belief that the Bhavaṅga citta bears all the characteristics of that last moment of life and becomes the Patisandhi (rebirth) citta in the next life.

Postscript: Regular readers may remember I’ve referred to my mother’s death in these pages already, but didn’t include the details on Jay and the bigger picture of our interaction with Mother at the end of her life. About Jay being a North American Indian, this was confirmed by an American friend in Japan who grew up in an Indian Reservation – his father was the Superintendent. My friend took one look at the photo I have of Jay, and recognised his features immediately. I always thought that for Jay, the North East of Scotland was the perfect place for him because at that time, the population had no idea what a North American Indian would even look like, and Jay could happily sink into anonymity. Jay passed away three years after Mother, in their house in Scotland.

Image: another pic of the bougainvillea plant on our balcony.

five good years

POSTCARD#495: Bangkok: I remember on my seventieth birthday thinking there was ten good years left, now I’m seventy-five, there’s only five good years left… ‘Time is just slippin’ away.’ as Bob Dylan says.Even now, it all seems to be coming to an end… ‘sorry, can’t stay, got to go now!’ No space for unfinished undertakings. Return to Go. At the edge of my vision, household objects look at me as I pass… poised in their choreography of dance steps, there’s a feeling in the air; the next house move is coming up soon… shipping company coming to wrap them up in packaging paper and tuck them into cartons again? No, no, the time is not here yet… household objects remain as they were. The stillness of things, no-self (anattā)interests me more and more these days. Anattā refers to the Teaching that no permanent self can be found anywhere. For a long time, I thought it was a denial of the existence of a self, but it is a strategy of mind-training to attain non-attachment by recognizing everything as impermanent (aniccā), while staying silent on the ultimate existence of an unchanging essence.

For Christians, the realization of no Self can bring with it a profound sense of ‘lack’ [The nature of Lack, David R, Loy]. The thought that there is no soul facilitates the entry of God to fill the emptiness; a significant turning point for all Christians. Buddhists face this ‘lack’ in the same way, but they don’t fill it with their sense of God, they just stay with the emptiness. It can trigger a revelation that the emptiness (śūnyatā), no-self (anattā), is everywhere and in all things.

I came from a Western-style Christian God community but that didn’t work for me. I noticed it didn’t work for most people in the low-income/poverty section of society in the West. The devastating emptiness of it all is there with or without a Self. The population is driven to get and do and attain and protect and defend. Self is political, ordinary people are subject to fear and anxiety over the flimsy nature of their existence, so they structure their lives around employment and can’t escape from that unless they step out of the earning momentum, and risk losing everything. They don’t see they are maintained in an unknowingness of the world like penned animals are by the farmer, well intentioned though he/she may be, in order to cultivate a special kind of hunger, upādāna taṇhā (clinging and craving) – the greater the craving, the more consumers will purchase products to satisfy their hunger (a forever kind of hunger-dependency). The Western style of God together with governments and the corporations are simply involved in farming the population.

The outer world just rolls and tumbles along, in all its diversity, and totally neutral. Whether there’s belief it’s this or that, makes no difference; it’s just how it is. I found that resisting the emptiness was hard to bear so, I took on board the ‘lack’ and deep knowing there’s nothing there, and found refuge in Buddhism in the East. That was more than thirty years ago and I’m still here. The emptiness is no-self helps me contemplate the constructed nature of mind, and it becomes possible to see the whole picture; how everything works and where we go from here. It’s an investigative approach that leads to an understanding of the non-duality of the observed world and the observer of it, together as a oneness.

So, where to, now? Go look for a place in the North? The same as all the other moves, I can picture it now; going to look at homes with the agent. Walking up the path, open the door… ghosts of previous inhabitants rush away to their hiding places in a whisper of movement. For me there’s only the dust of empty rooms, a faint smell of cooking in the kitchen, and a disappearance of the past – looking for somewhere to sit in a room with no furniture. Leaning thus, in a doorframe, thinking maybe this will do – maybe here I can spend the rest of my days. Awareness takes it all in, puts it away in a new folder. A new reference point: is ‘this’ where the heart is? Home is where I hang my hat.

‘Both Jesus and the Buddha were pointing to something that could not be found in the context of ordinary ‘mind’, the Buddha’s goal was to strive to realise the unconditioned, the unoriginated, the deathless, that which is free from mortality. So, did the Buddha find God? Was it this that he called Nibbana? God is not Nibbana, because when we speak about ‘God’ we start getting ideas in our head about what God is and that is very far from the unborn, the unconditioned, the uncreated, the unoriginated, the deathless. All these words tell you nothing. What comes into your mind? Nothing. Anything you might say or try to put into words to describe God is an image in the mind. There are no words for it.’ [John Cianciosi]

‘God is God only in relation to man. God appears in the material world like the reflection of the moon in a pool of water, as part of the illusion that is the context of man searching for God with his mind. What man sees becomes “God” (gender neutral; “He” only for explanatory purposes). He is Omniscient, Omnipresent, Creator of the world. He is both immanent and transcendent, full of love and justice. He may be even regarded to have a personality. He is the subject of worship.’ [Wikipedia Brahman page]

notes on a route well-travelled

POSTCARD#494: Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok:  Lining up at the Gate with passport and boarding pass…  down the walkway and into the aircraft. I find my seat, bag up there in luggage compartment and squeeze into the allotted space below, chair moulded to fit the human body. Fasten seat belt, aircraft take off… huge upthrust of massive engine power. The sun’s rays enter cabin windows on the other side, sweep around the interior in the steep ascent of the aircraft and the course setting for North West. There is the sky, clouds, and way down there… the surface of the planet. I am a microscopic cell in a universe of universes, so vast I cannot comprehend the totality of it and so I live in a world of what-it-looks-like, believing this to be reality.

A child is crying, front-left. I’m in the aisle seat, the sound piercing through insulation of the meds I take for the headache. Silent inhale, then “SCREAM!” It’s like a medical probe penetrating deep into internal organs. I try tilting my head in small increments to alter the directional frequency of received sound but it’s not working – I am in its state of inconsolable distress, bathed in the totality of its sound. I try telling myself it’ll stop eventually, hold on for a bit longer, and just as I’m about to get up and run away from the source of the awful sound, it stops… gets quieter, bit by bit. and silent.

Sensory impingement triggers the headache, sound or light mainly; frozen-ice drinks or pungent odors can do it. Such a lot depends on the medicine I take, how many and how often. Sometimes there is complete calm and the meds allow me to see the intrusive pain growing inside me like a tree, branches and twiglets with buds opening; it’s there but I can’t feel it – this is the gravity-free world of pharmaceutical weightlessness; the magic capsules that make it all go away for a while. Then the intrusive pain is growing inside me again and I’m swallowing more capsules all to no avail… and thus, “the entanglement,” I have to extend out of the body/mind quickly and into “what’s going on around me?” Chat with a neighbour maybe… but masked passengers spaced out in the aircraft, an empty seat between each person; the familiarity of Covid Estrangement… the truth of separation helps the mind to ease away from the pain, and the urgency of it settles.

 Jiab and M fall asleep, and I’m left looking out through the windows on all sides, at the clouds in the sky. The illusion of the plane being motionless while travelling at 600 mph. I’ve seen it like this, sometimes, in the car going to the airport; a plane is taking off and if you’re coming towards the ascending aircraft, it looks like the plane is just hanging in the air (due to the difference between air speed and ground speed). It’s this same feeling now, only I’m in it, a strange illusion; same cloud shapes outside for an hour or so; no indication we have moved. The impression is that everything has stopped… I feel like I should hold my breath.

Everything is so quiet and still, clouds seem to enter into the interior. A masked stewardess appears through the wispiness and mists of high-altitude spaces, conspicuous eye makeup above the face mask, gestures with her head; do I need anything from the drinks cart? Thanks, no, I’m really quite spaced-out, as it is, and she pushes the drinks cart down the aisle, glasses and little bottles clinking and tinkling together, a strangely familiar chord or tune I used to sing to.

Fasten seat belts, the aircraft is descending. Exit the plane and out into the high-ceilinged airport halls. Pick up the bags and head for the Airport Taxi desk. Arriving is the departure point for the next journey, and another opens up after that. I live in an illusion, riding around like a passenger in the vehicle of my body, input from data received through sight, sound, smell, taste, touch – and a mind that creates meaning based on memory files of similar events, other thoughts, problems/solutions, reviewing/seeking, and memories of past times.

“There is no ‘thing’ there. There is no real substance, no solidity, and no self-existent reality. All there is, is the quality of experience itself. No more, no less. There is just seeing, hearing, feeling, sensing, cognizing. And the mind naming it all is also just another experience.” [Ajahn Amaro]

blessedness

POSTCARD # 493: Bangkok: I’ve written often enough about the headache that has been with me since 2015. Here I’m writing about joyfulness and bliss… maybe ‘blessedness’ is a better word than bliss. About ‘blessedness,’ it’s worth saying here that Theravadin Buddhism is Apophatic, and when I feel blessed during the Buddhist chanting, it’s hearing the sound of the voices of the monks reaching back 2,500 years into the past, coming alive again, rather than witnessing a devotional image. I remember Ajahn Vajiro, a few years back, passing through town and we met him at the house where he was staying for a few days. I told him about my 24/7 headache, and the medicine I take for it, which interferes with my understanding of meditational mind states, and what could I do to improve the situation. He said to get back to the one who knows. In Thai it’s poo roo (poo: person, roo(v): to know. At the time, I wasn’t able to discuss this further because Ajahn began chanting the blessings of the Four Brahma-Viharas (the Four Immeasurables), while explaining the quality and meaning of the words.
1) Metta, Loving kindness.
2) Karuna, Compassion
3) Mudita, Empathetic joy, what goodwill feels when it encounters happiness.
4) Upekkha, Equanimity, inner composure, balance.
The acoustics of Ajahn Vajiro’s chanting remain in present time, and everything about who I am disappears for an instant leaving only a state of awareness. When this is so, I experience an indescribable awareness in the centre of the chest. In Pali it’s citta, the heart. I notice a loving, joyful, sensation in that central place that grows in intensity as I become aware of it.

I can focus on each of the immeasurables and understand how that individual characteristic quality or attribute works for myself and for other people, I can also understand how Upekkha may be a foundation shared with all of the immeasurables. But I wish I could develop the understanding and awareness of the immeasurables’ relationship with each other, and have the ability to notice the subtle difference between them. For example, Karuna and Metta: “Karuna is the desire to remove harm and suffering from others; while mettā is the desire to bring about the well-being and happiness of others.”

Leaving the 4 Brahma Viharas aside, for now, there is another mind state that could be said to have this quality of ‘blessedness,’ and that is bhavaṅga. Theravada Buddhism identifies it as “luminous mind.” Bhavaṅga is a passive mode of intentional consciousness; the state of the mind at rest when no active consciousness process is occurring. Although I’d read about bhavaṅga a long time ago, I simply stumbled upon the way to do it in these circumstances of head-ache; noticing every single aspect of how the body reacts, responds, and the mind reveals there’s a slightly deeper awareness in here, dormant until I notice it. Then it’s activated… and the state of bhavaṅga arises momentarily between each item of consciousness. I notice when it appears, it is what seems to be happening when nothing is going on… I have to allow it to come into the present time. There are no words for it,

Seated in a comfortable chair, arms on each arm rest, and feet flat on the floor, and bhavaṅga occurs when the cognitive process is focused on nothing at all. Sometimes it’s emptiness (śūnyatā), and this is the preferred state; agreeable enough to observe any discomfort, therefore allowing time to pass in a gentle meditational, introspective state… contemplating the empty space. The bhavaṅga practice can alter perception, which enables me to endure the headache discomfort better than before.

Sometimes this embodied identity I call ‘me’ is just not helpful at all… no, no, thank you. So, I can draw confidence from the reserve of underlying calm, that goes with bhavaṅga, and look for/find an empty space before it is occupied by ‘Self,’ and wait there for a moment until bhavaṅga is fully in place. Allowing the muscles at the back of the head to relax, mind can rest and all that remains is this floating feeling in the head, which is quite wonderful for me, considering the times I’ve suffered pain in that same location – and it’s this that motivates me to develop the bhavaṅga practice that seems to allow me a very different headspace which can accommodate the times of head-ache.

“There exists only the present instant… a Now which always and without end is itself new. There is no yesterday nor any tomorrow, but only Now, as it was a thousand years ago and as it will be a thousand years hence.”
Meister Eckhart 1260 – 1328

*Note: Bhavaṅga-citta is also a mental process which conditions the next mental process at the moment of death and rebirth: patisandhi. To find out more, I recommend you copy and paste – https://www.budsas.org/ebud/nina-abhidhamma/nina-abhi-12.htm -into your browser.

*About the image: it is a photo taken of the bougainvillea plant on our balcony, caught in a sunbeam.

the in-between space

POSTCARD # 492: Bangkok: Some years ago, before the Headache1 arrived, I wrote a post, titled: ‘The in-between thing,’ dated: August 12, 2012. I had just started to meditate and became aware that the focus of attention can be in two places at the same time, located in this in-between space. I can be focused on one item of thought and at the same time there is sufficient focus on another item of thought to be able to see it’s possible to be focused on both at the same time. It moves and changes and at times there’s a bit more focus on one than the other but I am able to see it’s an awareness of one item of thought that includes awareness of another (note: and a third place of awareness that knows the other two places).

Although you could call this is the neutral state of mind, the Headache has now been with me since 2015, and I feel the ‘in between space’, is a specific place where I can go to find refuge from the pain, rather than a neutral state of mind, which doesn’t seem to be anything. Particularly when there is a sudden stab of head pain, ringing in urgency like an alarm bell that triggers an automatic reaction from Self to get out of there immediately! Nowadays, when that alarm bell rings, there’s an immediate leap away from the pain and into the refuge of the in-between space.

There’s an awareness of the painful area (around the right side of the head), and there’s another awareness that knows this – awareness of awareness. It means I can stay with the headache and just step back from the proximity to the pain because I realize I’m seeing it from somewhere else. In the Buddhist sense I’m drawing attention to an awareness of Suffering and the cause of suffering, but not just labeling it; ‘the cause’ of Suffering is ‘desire,’ the 2nd Noble Truth, no, I’m asking, what is this cause? It’s not ‘What is the cause of Suffering,’ it’s what is the cause of the cause?

I discovered that wanting-it-not-to-be-there is causing more of a problem than anything else. It pulls me into a confrontation with the pain (vibhava tanha2: the desire for it not to exist), and I can get caught up in this awkward attachment to the pain, and I have to get away from that mind state in addition to getting away from everything else! Instead of all that, find the space between thoughts, and the emergency mode is switched off. I can ease back from it, thinking, if there’s this awareness of the pain, there’s another awareness that knows it’s there – what is this ‘other’ awareness?

I can be engaged in some kind of difficult attachment and at the same time be aware that it is happening. There is another location from which I can be focused and the thinking process surrounding that pain scenario can be observed from that other location. If it’s seen, the attachment to Self is less intense (or not intense at all) and without anything to which it can adhere, gradually it’s not there anymore.

I learned how to do this by trial and error, and now it’s possible to contemplate the state of the body and to contemplate the mind contemplating this. I’m seeing it from somewhere else. The reaction to the pain caused me to stumble upon this space that’s in-between. I just didn’t know how to get to it before.

1headache caused by Post-Herpetic Neuralgia

2 three kinds of desire: 1. kama tanha (the desire to have) 2. bhava tanha (the desire to become) and 3. vibhava tanha (the desire to get rid of)

Image by Loris Lambert: Ibiraçu, state of espírito santo, Brazil

Han Shan’s “Looking at the Mind”

Look at what your body is – it is not you
But an image in the mirror of awareness,
Just like the reflection of the moon on the water.

Look at what your mind is – it is not
The thoughts and feelings that appear within it
But the bright knowing space that holds them.

When not a single thought arises, your mind is
Open, perceptive, serene and luminous;
It is complete as great all-embracing space
And holds all kinds of wondrous aspects.

Your mind does not come or go away,
Has no particular shape, nor a special way of being.
But a great many beneficial qualities
Come all forth from this one knowing being.

It does not depend on material existence,
Material existence covers it up!
Do (therefore) not take vain hopes seriously,
Vain hopes lead to illusory phenomena.

Closely investigate this mind, which is
A knowing emptiness, not containing a thing.
When you are suddenly flooded with emotions
Your vision gets unclear, your experience confused.

Then at once bring back your presence of mind
And gather all your strengths to reflect.
The clouds will disperse and the sky will clear:
The sun of awareness spreads brightly its light.

If no feelings or thoughts arise within
No (worrying) circumstance is found without.
So where lies the original reality,
Of all that has characteristics?

If you can be aware of a thought as it arises
This awareness dissolves the thought at once.
Sweep away whatever state of mind may come,
Be present and aware – and you will be free.

Good and evil, internal or external,
Transform when you turn towards the heart of it.
Worldly and spiritual forms
Come into being through what you think.

Using a mantra and looking at your mind
Are means to polish the mirror of awareness;
Once the obscurations have been removed
They have no more use and can be dropped.

All great and deep spiritual abilities
Are already complete within your mind
And you can roam as you wish
To the Pure Land or Heavenly Palace.

There is no need to seek the Truth
As your mind is from the start already enlightened.
When ripe, all things are fresh and new
When fresh and new, they are inherently already ripe.

Day and night all things are wondrous
And you will have faith in whatever you meet.
The above is what you need to know
Regarding the mind.

Hānshān Déqīng (1546–1623)

the story-teller is the story told

POSTCARD # 491: Bangkok: The Buddhist no-self (anatta) is mentioned many times in these posts, which indicates the special place it has in Theravadin Buddhism, but there is also a place for the self or selves; the ‘costumes’ we wear when we speak, discuss, and converse with others. This is of course, how we live our lives, we think of ‘ourself’ as our ‘self,’ and others as the ‘selves’ we may know or those we meet incidentally who just slot into place as individuals we speak with in the course of a day. The way we communicate can be thought of as story-telling… we are all narrators. In conversation we tell others our stories and we listen to the stories told to us by another speaker. Spoken dialogue is usually completely unrehearsed stories that just come tumbling out in a spontaneous leap of words, intuitively arranging themselves as they fall into place. Maybe with a return at the end, to indicate an opening where another speaker can join the conversation.

The television/video screen enters our world with words spoken by professional speakers or actors, along with studio-created images and the whole production is presented as a story supported by enhanced colour and artful lighting. TV News is a more ‘live’ telling of a story about (international) events. The storyline is edited to suit unseen sponsors and others’ requirements. We’re all just seeing ‘the seeing of it’ with stories built upon stories, swirling around events that actually took place. Adverts between programs are stories sliced up into key words and images and Mind puts it together, creates the story of ‘me’ reading all this, me going forward, and ‘me’ as someone just arriving in present time. Who’s that mirrored in the glass wall? This could be a story about me.

In the mind, I believe I am the story and the story is everywhere in my social environment, excerpts of it overheard in the places I visit and the friends I share my time with. We’re always only part the way through whatever story it is before another starts up. Unknowingly we follow up on incomplete stories, searching for an ending – a satisfactory ending. Looking through beginnings, middles and ends of stories that are not satisfactory, but there is no satisfactory ending, in reality… and so, in the mind, we invent endings to make them satisfactory. We tell others stories about ourselves., in so doing, we also tell them to ourselves, assuming there is a self to tell something to, a someone else serving as an audience who is oneself or one’s self.

The Buddhist cognitive sense is the sixth sense, the sense that knows the other five senses and knows itself as the ‘self’ until attachment to that self-aspect is seen through. There is no permanent enduring self, only fleeting selves that arise when thought of, then disappear as soon as they are forgotten.

This post was influenced by a book by David Loy, ‘The World is Made of Stories’

‘No identification can be secure in an impermanent world where all phenomena arise and disappear according to conditions. Liberation occurs when I wake up to the “emptiness” of my true nature. In terms of stories, without realizing the no-thing-ness that transcends all the sedimented roles in “my” stories, I remain stuck in those narratives and their consequences for good and ill.’

back from where we came

POSTCARD # 490: Newcastle Airport: I get a lift to the airport, not far, check in for the flight back to Bangkok, and it’s done… boarding pass and passport in shirt pocket, and they tell me to sit down for a while. Soon after that the wheelchair guy arrives. Jiab convinced me to go on a wheelchair, my problem is balance, if I turn too quickly, I can fall over. There have been a few falls. Hands go out, reflex reaction, in the midst of a fall, and bracing for impact. I broke the little finger of my left hand in a fall, and it never got set properly, it doesn’t go flat, it’s curved. Now I’m walking with a stick that folds away into a plastic case. Don’t need it now, I’m wheeled through the airport security portals and glitzy duty-free sections, straight ahead, the shortest possible route to Departures.

There is something about being in a wheelchair, upright dignity is just gone. I am in a truly passive state, humbled by the generosity of everyone giving way. Exhilarated by zooming into the great perspective of long airport walkways, huge architectural structures move towards me and pass through. Seeing the world from a lower eye level – déjà vu memory of being a child again. It comes with the acceptance of aging, an understanding of what helplessness is, the existential plight; insight into the realization that most of us are held in a trance-like state, pulled into the ‘self’ fiction by the mirror of Western society’s misconstrued fear of the unknown void, emptiness śūnyatā, therefore stuck with the belief in gratification of sensory desires, suffering and the fear of death. Wheelchairs are allowed to go straight through the lines of waiting people and up to the entry to the plane. I’m helped into my seat and the stewardess puts my bag away in overhead luggage space.

The transition takes place from terra firma to blue sky, and fluffy clouds of the heaven realms. Some hours later, we’ve had food and drinks and the lights are turned down so people can sleep. I’m just sitting here with the sound of the plane engines going on and on, a penetrating noise/vibration and the hissing of air. I have to get on good terms with this noise, get used to it, otherwise it could trigger a monstrous headache (but it didn’t).

For a while, I’m able to forget the noise and fall into a partial sleep. A dissatisfactory world of thinking about this and that, pondering over who did what, where and when – a ‘self’ is acting the part of characters portrayed in thoughts, being her and him and us and them and entangled in bits and pieces of related thoughts. The only constant in all this is the hypnotic one-note song I’m singing. So, I have to wake up to see what’s going on… immediately there’s the noise of the engines again. Why do we have it upfront like this? And I try to understand it better.

At first it seems as if there’s a noticeable regular beat in it, like the pacing of a runner, the hissing, whooshing noise suggests speed. But it just goes on and on, there is no ending, no runner arriving at the finish line, no congratulatory roar of cheering and applause… the sound doesn’t ever let up or change. It remains stretched out like that – a prolonged state of going but not arriving. The tedium of it is exhausting. I stand up to flex my knees and visit the toilet. I get inside that small space and close the door, but the noise is in here too! The sound and the hiss are in the centre of my consciousness. I remember now from other flights, everywhere you go inside the aircraft, the noise is the same. Where does it come from?

Anyway, it doesn’t sound like a mechanistic sound, no faults, irregularities, no rising or falling intonation.  How could there be engines that run so totally perfect for twelve hours in a flat continuum of engine noise? This seems strange to me, and a more reasonable explanation comes to mind; the sound and the hiss are being played on a sound track, the intention being to mask the actuality of engine sound and lessen the panic passengers would feel, over the various small changes in the engines’ sound that might happen.

Thus, I find myself situated in the illusion; the engine noise is not real, besides, the plane itself is held on its flight path by automatic pilot… things are done but there is no do-er; ‘no-self,’ (anatta). The aircraft is 6 miles up in thin air, going at 600 mph, like a streak of light across the curvature of the planet. Yet, inside here, passengers are lounging around, looking at videos, playing cards, chatting, having drinks. Impossible to get my head around this, I settle into a meditative state, watching the breath and the sound is now like a warm embrace. The ongoing thinking about things doesn’t bother me… no-self, they’re not ‘my’ thoughts, just random phenomena that arise and fall away.

Otherwise having a silent mind, silent awareness of the present moment, no preferences, simply aware of things as they appear right now. Nothing to say, no opinions about visitors who come in, and stay, or go… let them. No reactions, no responses at all – quietly observing and practicing silent awareness in the present moment with the background of sound masking out all irrelevant things. 

It didn’t take long to start the descent and I forgot to listen for any change in the ‘engine’ sound. Then the ear-popping fall into the lower realms, and bing, bang, bop the plane landed in Bangkok. I had to wait for the passengers to deplane then the Thai wheelchair man was there, a small person with big shoulders. He looked like he was capable of heaving my heavy weight up the inclines and along these long corridors. I needn’t have worried he was pushing me along faster than I‘ve ever done it on foot! In no time at all we had the passport stamped, got the luggage from the belt, out of the exit into the waiting car. I gave the man a good tip. There and back again in 10 days! Like a video on fast-rewind stops at the beginning not the end, the memory of the hassle and stress I suffered when leaving Bangkok was erased.