house on a hill

23-05-2010 09-13-22OLD NOTEBOOKS: Chiang Mai: I used to have a house on a hill in England, so far away from here – it’s just a memory now. I had it for 36 years and it was sold just a few days ago… feels like a part of me has become extinct. Another part of me says, what’s gone is gone, let it go because I never really lived there. I’d stay there for a while, go away to Asia for a year, then come back; very long grass in the garden and generations of spiders.

Curiouser and curiouser it was part of a larger building owned by my Great Aunt Liz, a spinster, a recluse and she could read fortune-telling cards. Aunt Liz gave me the house by Deed of Gift in 1978, then became a bit distant and elderly and quite stubborn about allowing me to help.

I’d send Aunt Liz postcards from the places I’d been and bring back gifts but she became more and more remote. Our communication dwindled and in the end she hardly spoke to me. When I knocked on her door, she would open it on the chain, smile and say: ah, so you’re back. You’re looking well… then close the door. I’d hear the lock go: click, and I was left outside.

This is how it was, a kind of companionship, no more than that. She was probably disappointed that I wasn’t going to just come and settle down in that place and be what she’d imagined I’d be. But what could I do? Her decision to create a situation for me to have a ‘home’ next door to her was just so kind. There I was in the centre of rural life and the simple rumbling-along of things, but… never for very long, always moving on to somewhere else.

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She died in 1989… I was in Japan and it was impossible to return. I negotiated with a relative who inherited Aunt Liz’s part of the house and to cut a long story short, eventually I owned the whole building. Contractors were hired to renovate the place, but it was two or three years before I managed to get back. The house on the hill had long since become a dream… years and years spent thinking and planning how I could go live there in the end, and just get old sitting by the fireside. These last few days I have revisited that same place in the midst of these rememberings, knowing that sometime soon I have to disengage from it – it’s not my house anymore it’s somebody else’s. People I don’t know walk around in these rooms where I used to be, sit by the fireside stare into the flames.

02062011038How long do memories remain? One time I was sitting there burning some old floorboards removed during the renovation of Aunt Liz’s bedroom. The wood was dry and old and good for kindling. They were also painted along the ends – she had a carpet in the middle and painted floor boards all round the edge. It all came back to me when I found it… stuck in the paint on a piece of the floorboard, a human hair – a single strand of hair, quite long. It got stuck there as she was applying the paint. I kept it for a while; would hold it between thumb and forefinger for a moment and pull the tension of it gently… still attached to the painted wood. Then one day I placed the wood piece in the flames and watched it burn away.

Everything is always in the process of ceasing to be, turning into ash. There’s a reluctance to leave, drawn towards the extinguished fire; something peaceful about the absence of everything…

As fire, through loss of fuel grows still [extinguished] in its own source, so thought by loss of activeness grows still in its own source… For by tranquility of thought one destroys good & evil karma. With tranquil soul, stayed on the Soul, one enjoys unending ease. [Maitri Upanishad 6.34]

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only the world ends

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‘The world, ‘loka’, is the world as we experience it: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, thought, emotion and feeling – my world, your world. It’s not the abstracted, geographical planet, universe-type world. It’s the direct experience of the planet, the people and the cosmos. Here is the origin of the world, the cessation of the world and the way leading to the cessation of the world.’ [‘Consciousness: Invisible, Radiant, Limitless’, Ajahn Amaro, Buddhadharma, December 1st 2003]

New Delhi: Power cut and everything in the house goes totally black; streetlights are out too, the whole thing…. Use my phone as a torch, an island of light and fumbling for matches. A candle placed exactly for this eventuality; strike a match, some comfort in the small light and scented flame. Okay, so how long is it going to be? Listening to all the generators out there like a fleet of helicopters has landed in the street, rotor blades whipping round – time passes, yep! it’s going to be a long one. Go through to bedroom, get into bed with clothes on because it’s cold, heating is out too.

Unexpected, unplanned situation. The warmth of bedding, face on pillow cover; no other input from the outer environment except sounds coming from the freezer in the kitchen: creak, crack, creak – ice is starting to melt. Listening in the silence between the creaks, no other sounds, only this; the listening action, and that small space before the thinking process is engaged. What is it that is aware of this? Consciousness removed from the sensory experience of everything I see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel and think; outside of the elements: earth, water, fire, air – and not held by time.

Unsupported consciousness, an awareness that’s different from the basic functions of interacting with the world; distant from the usual state of simply being aware of what’s going on in the body/mind organism and that’s enough – living in a dream; the deluded not-knowing state and random karma: ‘a tangled skein of thread, a woven nest of birds, a thicket of bamboo and reeds…’ The thinking thing gets a hold, loves it, hates it; tries to control it, tries to figure it out. And beyond all of that is the unsupported consciousness. It’s there that my curiosity is drawn.

Some controversy over viññanam anidassanam, a synonym for Nibbana, the unconditioned consciousness, non-temporal, the consciousness that is outside of everything and includes it all. Theravadin extremists argue that this leads to the idea of a soul and the god/creator thing we’re familiar with from church conditioning. I’m reminded that all the Teachings were intended to be tools to assist in our awakening. We don’t attach to them, develop a clear mind, let go and see for ourselves.

Blinding light, suddenly, all the lights in the house start up at the same time. Generators outside shut down, fridge begins to hum, water heater starts to hiss and bubble. I go through and start the computer, find the page about Unsupported Consciousness by Ajahn Amaro: ‘In describing unsupported consciousness, the Buddha taught: “Wherever there is something that is intended, something that is acted upon or something that lies dormant, then that becomes the basis for consciousness to land. And where consciousness lands, that then is the cause for confusion, attachment, becoming and rebirth, and so on. But if there is nothing intended, acted upon or lying latent, then consciousness has no basis to land upon. And having no basis to land, consciousness is released. One recognizes, ‘Consciousness, thus unestablished, is released.’ Owing to its staying firm, the heart is contented. Owing to its contentment, it is not agitated. Not agitated, such a one realizes complete, perfect nibbana within themselves.” (Samyutta Nikaya 12.38 and 22.53)’

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 ‘… the Buddha asked his disciples, “If there was a house with a wall that faced out towards the east and in that wall there was a window, when the sun came up in the morning, where would the shaft of sunlight fall?” One of his monks replied, “On the western wall.” The Buddha then asked, “And if there’s no western wall, where would the sunlight land?” The monk answered, “On the ground.” Then the Buddha responded, “And if there’s no ground, where will it land?” The monk replied, “On the water.” The Buddha pushed it a bit further and asked, “And if there’s no water, where will it land?” The monk answered correctly when he said, “If there is no water, then it will not land.” The Buddha ended the exchange by saying, “Exactly so. When the heart is released from clinging to what are called the four nutriments—physical food, sense contact (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch), intention and consciousness—then consciousness does not land anywhere. That state, I tell you, is without sorrow, affliction or despair” (Samyutta Nikaya 12.64).’ [Excerpt from Ajahn Amaro, ‘Attending to the Deathless, Buddhadharma, December 1st 2003]

Note: ‘Only the World Ends’ is the title of the autobiography of Ajahn Tate, translated by Jayasaro Bhikkhu.
Gratitude to Fierce buddhist  for the image used in this post header

Long Journey Into Night

Delhi-Brussels flight: It’s been a long day’s journey into night, arriving in Brussels at dawn, get out of the plane and I’ll be on top of the world; the Northern Hemisphere. But before that, there’s the journey to get there. Yes, and that’s where I am right now, getting used to this seat that is contoured to fit the human body snugly, enough space for legs and knees with an inch of space from the seat in front – can see through the curtain into the business class, always the grass is greener…. I am one seated among many, perhaps 200 passengers, receiving services from the staff; a baby bird, beak wide open, feed me, please? Mind hungers to be stimulated by images, sound and pretty colours. It’s the movie – or the boredom of sitting in the dark. I choose the movie, kind of observing it, but not wearing the headset; just the silent visuals on the screens. It pulls me in; I feel I need to put the headset on to enter into the illusion more fully. And my hand reaches involuntarily towards the headset ear buds….

But it’s interesting enough without the sound. The structure of the movie is revealed. It’s a put-together thing, screen shots held for 5-10 seconds, a different camera angle presents a mini portrait of a talking head for a moment of drama; mouth moves in silence; face is there to be looked at, the hair style, the costume, fine dentistry, subtle cosmetics, the ‘mask’ – there’s a sense of how it is all so completely hollow.

Then another camera angle on another talking head, same thing again. Portraits of a created ‘self’. Pictures at an exhibition. Each portrait is an icon of the popular image: handsome, glamorous; the enigma of actor’s mask. There’s something about this that has no substance; ‘self’ masks the emptiness of no ‘self’. It hides nothing; nothing to hide, take the mask away and there’s nothing there, the void. Put the mask on again and it hides the gaping hole at the core of my being; nobody at home.

‘… each of us individually experiences this sense of unreality as the feeling that “something is wrong with me.” (We) pretend along with everyone else that “I’m okay; you’re okay.” A lot of social interaction is about reassuring each other and ourselves that we’re all really okay even though inside we feel somehow that we’re not.’ [David R. Loy]

A passenger howls like a dog, huge uninhibited yawns – deafened by the headset – immersed in his story; It’s like everything is layered in illusion, let’s pretend we are not here, somewhere in the air, well above the highest mountain peak, no oxygen to speak of…. Just this winged capsule, containing its own created environment and with sharp pointed nose, hurtling through space at 500 mph – as evidenced by the sound of displaced atmosphere shooshing and splooshing all around. And the subtle penetrating vibration beneath the feet. Gone is the reassuring sense of terra firma that was there back in Delhi about 3,000 miles in a sort of back-that-way direction.

There is also the mind-boggling thought that the plane drives itself, there’s no ‘self’ doing the driving. It’s the autopilot. The actual pilot is probably watching the movie, quite unconcerned about the fact that the plane is travelling at this immense speed and there’s nobody driving it? I am concerned, you could say: whelmed – not overwhelmed – there’s sufficient composure; I can see the scale of it and how that fits in with the way things are in our usual world down there on the surface of the planet. We generally avoid the emptiness in the centre of our being by holding on to something else we think will give us stability and security. Up here it’s more of a confrontation, we can’t avoid facing this emptiness all around, inside and out… there’s always the movie, of course and that holds the attention for a while. Then some other desire comes along and there’s always the response to that, and postponing the emptiness can go on indefinitely. In fact, accepting the emptiness is not the problem we make it out to be:

‘… the curious thing about (facing this) emptiness is that it’s not really a problem. The problem is that we think it’s a problem. Our ways of trying to escape it make it into a problem.’ …. Instead of experiencing a sense of lack, the emptiness becomes a place where there is now awareness of something other than, more than, my usual sense of self. I can never grasp that “more than,” I can never understand what it is – and I do not need to, because “I” am an expression of it.’

So, what is ‘it’, exactly? Buddhists call it Nibbana. Beyond that, there’s nothing here that my present state of consciousness can comprehend. To say it could be this or it could be that is speculative conjecture, and I’m caught again in grasping. Rather than contemplate what it could be, better to understand what it is not. Some time after that, I fall asleep, the passenger aircraft disappears in the dark night and the next day we are in Brussels.

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‘Buddhism is a collection of paradoxes. Perhaps the greatest of these is all Buddhists are striving for a goal – Nibbana – that for the longest time they know virtually nothing about. Most people, Buddhists included, cannot bear living with uncertainty and so over the centuries attempts have been made to fill in the gaps left (deliberately) by the Buddha. Elaborate explanations and descriptions of Nibbana have been fashioned either to inspire or to placate this sense of dis-ease. The presentation by Venerable Payutto in Buddhadhamma keeps to the ‘bare bones’ approach delivered by the Buddha. The encouragement is not to try and reach Nibbana by intellectual acrobatics but rather by humble, sustained spiritual practice.’ [Link to: Buddhist Teachings]