leaving

IMG_0500POSTCARD#44: Chiang Mai: Time to close this chapter of the story. I’m leaving soon for New Delhi, transit in Bangkok for some days. The flight departs at 16.20 and before that there are things to do in the apartment: a basket of laundry to iron; ironing table set up and I’m standing there. Pointed end of the iron smoothens its way among the creases, sailing through mountains and valleys of fragrant laundered cloth, leaving a warm, flat plain of patterned textile in its wake. Place the heavy iron on its metal stand and there’s that pleasing little sound: clink-clink… then pick it up again to do another part of the garment. Doing the front, the back, the shoulders, the collar – place it on its stand again: clink-clink. Ironing is such a peaceful thing, the hot smoothness of it, all these landscapes of wrinkled cotton eased away.

Pictures unfold in the mind, a memory appears, the story begins. It’s wintertime, I’m in Kamakura, Japan, snow everywhere and the colourless luminosity of reflected light inside the dark interior of my cute little house (everything is small in Japan) high up on the slope of a hill, in the precincts of Zuisenji temple. The ironing table set up by the window; just enough room if I move carefully, laundry basket placed at hand and on the corner of a small table, a pile of folded ironed things. The brightness of reflected light outside illuminates what I’m doing. A time of sleepy afternoon days, the clink-clink sound of the iron at intervals intrudes gently into this comfortable silence.

There’s a small slooshing sound of someone walking through the snow – look out the window; a blinding whiteness, a photographic negative. Black tracks of footsteps on the path leading to the steps to the temple. It’s a lady walking with great care, taking smaller steps than Japanese ladies usually take. She is dressed in a long dark maroon coat and indigo coloured costume down to the ankles, feet in wooden geta slippers secured by a small V-shaped thong passing between the first and second toe over tabi, white stockings specially stitched for the purpose, and the entire foot encased in transparent galoshes with pretty floral designs. Holding her hand is a little girl about 8 years old, and it just happens that as I’m looking at the girl and her small white face, alert eyes, she turns to look at me… a faint smile, a moment of intelligent understanding; she sees me, a gaijin, framed in my window at eye level with the street: a foreigner lives there, in a house the same as ours… or maybe there are no words for it, just some kind of recognition, an enigma suddenly cleared away and knowing this.

How did life turn out for her? I feel sad that we only had the shared experience for that instant. Maybe it’s the remembering of events like these, returning many years later; a moment recalled, a thing that was puzzling for a long time suddenly understood, somehow – beyond words. These small moments of understanding, overlapping each other and it could be the more I’m aware of it, the more conscious experience includes the possibility of revelation. And this is the reason why there’s always a fascination with the remembered moment; an event or an accumulation of events that make sense… somehow. Language doesn’t stretch that far; the whole thing just carries meaning.

Ironing along the seams, the waistband, how good these garments look, just as they are, stitched art objects – clink-clink goes the iron. Pictures unfolding in the mind, a memory of an event is a story with a beginning, a middle, an end – although I might arrive in the middle and have to work it out from that entry point; searching for the ending of it so that I have some idea of what the beginning could have been – then re-order it so the story starts as it should (“… once upon a time….”). Language insists on a structure, I have to ‘story’ it (verb: to story), think about how to get it to work; what happened after that? Create a sequence of events. Listening to a story I’m telling myself as if it were being told to me by someone else.

Getting this place cleared up and ready now so that it can enfold itself quietly in hibernation while I’m away living in another world. Soon it’ll be time to jump into the taxi and off…

‘We are forever telling stories about ourselves. In telling these self-stories to others we may, for most purposes, be said to be performing straightforward narrative actions. In saying that we also tell them to ourselves, however, we are enclosing one story within another. This is the story that there is a self to tell something to, a someone else serving as an audience who is oneself or one’s self…. On this view the self is a telling.’ [Roy Schafer]

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where there is no christmas

IMG_0164POSTCARD #34: Bangkok: No snow here, of course, winter is just a slight coolness that happens once a year. It lasts about a week. There’s no Christmas either because it’s a Buddhist country. I am the only thing resembling a real christmasee here. Christians in Thailand amount to 0.7% of the population. Yet there are Christmas carols playing in all the malls, and also in the supermarket where I was this morning: ‘… the ho-lee bible says, mary’s boy-child, jee-sus christ, was born on christ-mas daaay…’ twirling around the fruit and vegetables and frozen food section. Gift-giving as purchasing incentive, the season of goodwill has a place here even though the population are 95% Buddhist, 4% Moslem. Thai society is joyful, they like to share everything. They like playfulness – the word in Thai is sanuk (fun), everything has to be sanuk and if it’s not, it’s mai sanuk (seriously boring) and that’s bad style. I was downtown yesterday, saw the yellow duck wearing sunglasses stuck on the red taxi, took the photo. The Thais recognise the 25th December as a happy event but it’s also an ordinary day. People go to work, government offices are open, mail gets delivered, transport systems are normal, it’s all open for business, same as usual.

Heavy rain last night woke me up, and the room is cold this morning. Don’t need any fans, no air conditioning and without the slightly deafening sound of these machines it’s strangely quiet in the house. I’m noticing noises coming from the neighbours; a clatter of sounds enters through the open windows. Screen door opens, and there’s an interval of time to allow someone to enter, then screen door closes again. I get up to see who came in… but there’s nobody there, it’s not this house – it must be the house next door. Somebody else’s cutlery; plates go clink, voices echoing off the tiled floor and cement plaster walls… in which house? A dog barks, a child cries; it feels like everybody out there is in here.

I can feel chilled air in my ears; in the tiny inner surface of the eardrum. There’s a coolness in nasal passageways, emptiness of mouth cavity, tongue stuck in the wetness of the upper palate. The surface of the eye is cold. The body is a sensory organism in the environment of this room; four walls, the ceiling. The smooth wall surfaces holding the enclosed space like a 3 dimensional photographic negative of the room. The shape of motionless space within which things exists. Open the door and the volume of the room escapes. This is how it was when the sound of the rain woke me up this morning in the darkness. I went to sit on the cushion and the whole thing suddenly came crashing into consciousness as if it had been waiting all night for me to wake up.

‘… have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.’ [Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet #4]

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seeing with alertness

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POSTCARD #29 Delhi: Large birds of prey slowly circling above; they make a sound like the mewing of cats. I’m on the roof terrace, watching them. They’ve seen something and I’m curious to see if I’ll witness the dramatic plunge to Earth to catch the prey. Reminds me of a time I was in Pondicherry, South India, walking through a quiet district in the French-speaking Tamil part of town. Not much going on, turn a corner and on the other side of the path there’s this mother hen fussing around agitatedly with her brood of little chicks: chee-eep, cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep. And the hen is making loud cluck-cluck, cluck-cluck noises, strutting around, strangely fast, unusual body movements; it was like a dance – didn’t look right somehow. The mother hen was dashing about and jumping backwards and forewards and the little chicks were falling over themselves trying to keep up with her. Wow, what is going on here? I stopped to watch.

Then suddenly there was this huge SWOOP down from above. A movement of the air and a large bird of prey with outstretched talons ‘falling’ from sky to earth in a great wide arc; at its widest point, so near to the ground, going at a tremendous speed. I saw it further down the road sailing back upwards in the momentum of its fall, and up in this large curve then winging it’s way back into the higher altitudes. Amazing… an almost silent whoosh of feathers and outstretched talons just in front of me. But it missed the target! It didn’t get what it was after, the mother hen had saved the chicks with her strange dance. And it’s possible that my being there, having just turned around the corner at exactly the right instant, had caused the bird of prey to misjudge the distance to its target; the kamma of the moment – a fortunate turn of events for these cute little chicks. Mother hen and her happy brood went on with their day: cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep… story with happy ending.

It really cheered me up – the feeling that everything is right in the world! It helped me a lot too with a problem I was having with an irate person in the office who’d gotten the idea that I was at fault concerning something I’ll not go into right now. Not easy but it only lasted a short time. She was wrong, and I was completely sure about that but there was no hope of convincing her; so it was just a case of dodging the angry remarks fired at me like heat-seeking missiles. The strange thing about this was, the missiles were not hitting the intended target. It was intense but I was not emotionally harmed. I was able to see what was going on and be one step removed – not unaffected by it of course – but the fierce eyes, the anger, the voice did not cause injury: the missile misses its aim and all that’s felt is the wind of it as it goes by.

So I was feeling a bit like the little chicks who escaped the sharp talons of the Great Bird of Prey. My mind was transparent, a large empty space; nothing there – no target. Just this freshness, clear comprehension, and seeing with alertness, yet detached from it, knowing it’s Mind that’s the real threat. It’s understood in a moment and after that the system does it by itself; it’s not a ‘mine field’, it’s a mind field. When I think of it now and see these birds of prey suspended in the air, they’re harmless. When I’m not thinking about the threat, it’s not there. The birds hold my attention, their patient observing …

‘Mindfulness is what keeps the perspective of appropriate attention in mind. Modern psychological research has shown that attention comes in discrete moments. You can be attentive to something for only a very short period of time and then you have to remind yourself, moment after moment, to return to it if you want to keep on being attentive. In other words, continuous attention—the type that can observe things over time—has to be stitched together from short intervals. This is what mindfulness is for. It keeps the object of your attention and the purpose of your attention in mind.’ [Thanissaro Bhikkhu, ‘Mindfulness Defined‘]

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Note: The above was developed from an earlier post: Skilful Avoidance

plasticity

190320131769Chiang Mai: Holding the inverted eye-dropper bottle close to the eye, head back and squeeze a drop… it goes in, blink, and overflows, trickles out of the corner of the eye down the cheek like a tear drop and falls into the ear. I wipe it away with a tissue – the action triggers a memory, something emotional. I have new vision now, eye surgery for cataracts. The left eye is done, the right eye will be operated on next month. I’m seeing everything with such clarity; hard to believe the natural process of seeing that I’ve taken for granted all these years now involves a plastic lens. I see the world refracted through a man-made device and it doesn’t make any difference – well it does make a difference, of course, it’s very much better. My glasses don’t do anything any more; in the good eye the lens distorts vision, in the bad eye it enhances some things but it’s dull, blurred and yellowish in colour. I’ve had an overhaul – like taking the car to the garage to have new parts fitted. Or it’s how the system gets updated, the latest version is now installed. I feel renewed.

There’s this plasticity about the human body (and mind) that allows all kinds of changes to take place. I’m a Buddhist and I’m inspired by the thought that things can adapt, evolve, move on. It feels like there’s no such thing as getting stuck with anything or any state of mind, because we can learn to ‘unstick’ from it. In the same way, we can study a new subject; we put our minds to it, get interested in it and learn how it works. If I’m stuck with something, I’m attached to that thing in a strange kind of way; a locked-in response to adversity – more of a driven, unaware action than something done knowingly, mindfully. It’s a deluded attachment to habituality and I’m inspired by the very real possibility of working towards being free of this; acting always in awareness, seeing clearly.

Metaphors like ‘clouded vision’ describe tanha, habitual craving for something thought to be deservedly earned because of the endured hardship seemingly required to get there, unaware that one gets lost in the getting-there and there’s no end to it. Because I don’t normally understand things as they truly are, usually it’s how they’re seen habitually, I choose to see everything according to what’s already known; apperception, understanding newly observed data in terms of past experience. Before I get stuck in the delusion that it’s unavoidably like this, an opportunity arises to escape the cycle at Step 7 vedana in the paticcasamuppada (Cycle of Dependent Origination). Interrupt the causality sequence, go to the door leading to the emergency exit, aware that in the Buddhist sense of ‘no-self’, the habituality of mind’s perception of itself as the central actor in its own world, personality-view (sakkaya-ditthi), is the root of the problem. Step out of the cycle and I’m free…

Then later that night, walking to 7-eleven to get a few grocery items and I leave my glasses at home because they don’t help – I’ve worn glasses for most of my adult life and this is the first time I’m going out without them and at night time too. It’s been raining, there’s the glare of car headlights, and street lights reflected in large puddles. Only a short walk and arriving there, I notice some of the tiles on the floor of the lobby forecourt at the supermarket are shiny, glossy, and these must be new ones, replacements for the ones that were damaged? Why am I seeing this? I cover the good eye and look at the tiles with the old eye, no it can’t be seen, but I can see them with the good eye. It’s a repair I’d not have noticed before. People must think I’m acting strangely, better move along. So many discoveries about the world, and I’m stumbling around like this, seeing everything for the first time…

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‘Instead of starting with a perception or a conception of anything, the Buddha established a way based on awareness, or awakened attention. This is an immanent act in the present. It is sati-sampajañña, an intuitive awareness that allows the consciousness to be with the present moment. With this attention, you begin to explore personality-view (sakkaya-ditthi) in terms of the perceptions you attach to as yourself.’ [Ajahn Sumedho, The Problem of Personality]

Upper photo: Interior of Chiang Mai songteaw (public transport vehicle). Lower photo: Night Market, Chiang Mai

 

dimensions of pain

DSC00134 Lake Wanaka - near Diamond LakeI WAKE UP FROM THE DREAM to find I’m shipwrecked on the sofa, notes and papers strewn around, a cold cup of coffee – how long have I been asleep? Turn to look at the clock, then the pain; lower back pain, oh… aaah! Yes, I remember now, I’ve been disabled for a few days and situated on the sofa mostly: pain is bad – I must have done something ‘bad’ to deserve this… the tendency to criticize oneself for having the pain, perpetuating the kamma of causes and conditions. I need to correct this frequently. Another thing is that I’ve had the pain often enough to know there’s a difference between the pain itself and the act of resisting it; also the attachment to wanting it to go away: I-don’t-want-it-to-be-there…. Profoundly desiring it to not-exist, vibhava-tanha, but I’ll not find any peace in attempting to gratify that need – although I may persist in trying. What to do? There’s nothing I can DO about it, except try to get comfortable and see how that goes. It’s a no-choice situation and, strangely enough, things start to improve as soon as I stop trying to do something about it…

Some years ago I had abdominal surgery (abominable abdominal surgery – no joke) two operations, 6 months apart. Just enough time to recover from the first before getting ready for the second. More difficult the second time around, because I knew what was coming. The first time it was unplanned, an emergency, severe abdominal pain, straight into the emergency room in a Bangkok hospital and admitted right away; something sinister and twisted in the large intestine. So I sign the no-liability form and get operated on the next day. The surgeon tells me after I come round, he’s removed two tumors together with a length of intestine – doesn’t tell me how much, I didn’t ask, and he also says he’s my closest friend; nobody else has ever left their handprints on my intestines!

Colonic cancer, I was lucky. In both operations the post-surgery period was dramatic. After the anesthetic had worn off, the pain arrived suddenly, right there in the centre of my physical being – absolutely no getting-away from it. The immensity of it occupying all the space and I’m backed into a corner. No escape, the only way I can go is forward, step into it. No choice, but dropping the resistance to the pain caused a moment of ease to arise, just before being swept away in the pain… wow, how did that happen? Clutching at straws: an insight, a tiny one, but it made a huge difference. There was desperation all around but just enough of an easing in the pain to tell me that whatever it was I’d done was good so how to do that again?

This back pain is the same kind of thing, but less intense, not erratic and scary. So I can allow it to be there. In contemplation of it, I see there are the other systems of the body all around the pain, normal stuff, just quietly ticking over. There’s sufficient space to distance myself from all the immediate responses to this pain; the obsessions and fears, mostly a conjured-up conceptualizing where, in different circumstances, like intense joy, it would lead to everything being compellingly interesting. And, in the same way, when I have intense pain I’m subject to fear and wild imaginings: ‘your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.’ [On Joy and Sorrow by Kahlil Gibran]

Conceptualizing is an automatic default that returns always to that same starting point: the ‘self’. Unless something propels it right out of there (like what happened to me in surgery) there’s nothing beyond this, no real insight into finding the way out of pain. But what the Ajahns told me about the Buddhist teaching is that the mind is not self. Mind is the sixth sense – everything I see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel and think. The mind sense usually leads to a consciousness of how everything is coming in from the outer world through sensory experience and that default to the sense of self: hey, this must be happening to ‘me’. With insight, the mind sense can bypass that, and then the pain is not happening to anyone – there’s no ‘me’ engaging with these thoughts. Instead there’s an awareness of the thinking process with no attachment, mostly abiding in a state of mindfulness and careful receptivity, sati-sampajañña; just looking to see what it might be. There’s a kind of alertness about the sensory function, and the simple curiosity: what is it? Just being open to what this could be, is enough to understand how it works…

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Photo image by Louk Vreeswijk, New Zealand Collection

being here

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New Delhi: This is the 100th post! I feel like I should celebrate, I’m a blogger centenarian! But still a youngster, I think. Many bloggers are much older than me. So, what’s going on here? This blog is about the Buddha’s teachings, Advaita Vedanta, non-duality. I went public on July 6th, 2012 and I’ve been putting up new posts every three days, mostly, since that time. Now it’s ‘The One Hundredth’, and I was going to use that title for this post but it’s been used already – the 100th in the TV series: ‘Friends.’ The dhammafootsteps blog is, of course, about reaching out to friends, but the discussion is about just being ‘here.’ We’re all here in our various states of being, in different parts of the world; in different time zones and we’re all individually contemplating our own experience of being ‘here.’ Blogging is a good medium for this kind of thing because, just being ‘here’ is what everybody is talking about or describing, one way or another – isn’t it?

Here’s something from: Beyond The Dream: ‘…the awareness that looked out of our eyes as a five year old is the awareness that’s looking out of our eyes now.’ When I read that sentence it had a curious effect; there was an instant understanding of what being ‘here’ means. Then the next thought was, what is ‘the awareness’? And it’s a good question, that one, you can just go on asking it…. It’s like trying to understand sati-sampajañña, clear comprehension; what does that mean? And maybe I’m off somewhere searching for the meaning of clear comprehension, overlooking the fact that all the confusion is still there in my head. So, I’ll never find clear comprehension that way, because every time I think I’ve found it, the confusion just jumps up in its place. Eventually I realize clear comprehension means understanding the confusion. It has to be that way; clear comprehension of the confusion, and not some kind of desired state of clarity that doesn’t exist. The confusion is, I can’t see reality because I’m too engaged with the idea of it.

In the West we suffer from the creator-god condition; God made the world so the world and God are two separate things. I see the world from some impossible place outside of it; I’m on shaky ground here, in control mode, there’s the paranoia of thinking I can’t let it go and the fear of having to hold on indefinitely. All the clutter and stuff and mental goings-on and stumbling over all the indistinct, half-seen, misunderstood truths – believing that this is what life is about. Not able to see that it just doesn’t matter what kind of story is showing on the screen, it’s all fiction, created by the mind, arising and ceasing, dependent on causes and conditions and the karmic outcome of past events.

The mind doesn’t create awareness, mind is contained in the awareness. It’s something like, awareness is there, I just think I can’t see it. Thinking I can’t see it, is another mind moment that exists temporarily in the awareness. Being here is about getting to know everything there is to know about what that means….

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uncreated

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Chiang Mai: Sitting at my desk and there’s somebody drilling in the floor of the apartment upstairs, just above my head. Renovations are going on up there. There’s been a lot of banging and drilling these last few days but this sound is incredible. It’s a hammer drill drilling through hard concrete; the sound is vibrating through the structure of the building and if I lean my elbow on my desk heavily, the vibration is conducted through the elbow and bone structure of my arm, to cupped hand holding my jaw, clenched teeth and the skull is vibrating in resonant frequency. I’d really like that sound not to be there and it takes a moment for the thinking mind to create a background to this event. Maybe I should go out for a walk somewhere. Is there somewhere I can hide away?

Then a child starts crying, it’s small voice going on in a seemingly inconsolable way. I can hear mother’s voice there as well. Yes, I’d be upset too if I was woken up by this kind of noise… and there’s a resentment about the noise building up inside me; a very large complaint-mode beginning to take shape. In an instant it’s formed. Who is responsible for this? I’m looking for somebody to be at fault here, who’s to blame for this? I come from a society conditioned by blaming; searching for the scapegoat. Blame it on somebody – or blame myself, that’s just as effective: I should never have taken the lease for this place…. Then that whole emotional thing just disappears as quickly as it arose.

I hear a plane approaching; it’ll fly over in a few seconds. We’re in the flight path here – departing flights, from Chiang Mai airport, flying quite low and heavy with fuel. Some are very large passenger jets that go to Singapore and this must be one of them. In a moment, the immense sound is present;  everything in the apartment, and outside too, submerged in a collosal din. This is like an epic disaster movie! I can hear the hammer drill and the child crying but it’s as if I’ve gone deaf, the sounds are so faint. The thinking mind is quiet, only the presence of this noise; a great chasm opening up in the fabric of reality, getting wider and wider and the receiving of this whole experience.

I’m drawn to these strange moments when there seems to be no thought at all. The mind just stops, allowing the immense sound to exist. There’s mindfulness of ‘self’ continuing as it always does but there’s no connection with it. I can be aware of this automatic self, just go along with what it’s doing as if it were something separate. The applied thinking mind; just seeing it and everything that arises, ceases.

The totality of aircraft noise recedes and hammer drill sensory impingement returns. Crying child remains unconsoled and for a little while I give way to the raging fire of emotion again. The thinking mind is engaged: a kind of intensly gridlocked traffic of thoughts driven into near collision with other thoughts and backing up and trying to find a way out of this cramped condition.

Then I step out from it. There’s a pause and in the small space that exists I remember the Ajahn talking about sati-sampajañña, saying consciousness is a natural function, it is ‘uncreated’, there is no sense of self associated with consciousness. Outside the thinking mind there is only the uncreated. I look around for the pause… it’s still there, a curious extended, stretched-out moment when there’s just no thought at all….

It’s getting easier now, the child is not crying anymore. When the drilling stops, the silence is overwhelming. Mango trees outside my window; sunlight on leaves, branches move slightly as tiny squirrels leap around in playfulness.

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the whole nine yards

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Chiang Mai: Somebody gives me a lift downtown and she’s upset about the traffic, shouting at the other drivers, voice echoing around in the acoustics of our small vehicle, really letting it all go. She’s a local person and this kind of pressure-valve release is weird, like a bad dream; road rage is the same everywhere, I suppose. We’re accelerating down these narrow sois (small streets) lined with parked cars, pedestrians everywhere, sudden braking and lurching around corners, then reversing all the way out of there because there’s an obstruction. I’m sitting in the back seat, she’s twisted around peering through the rear window, as she negotiates reverse gear, so I get to look at this tense face, complaining about how these drivers all come from the hills; they don’t know anything about road courtesy; the whole nine yards …

Maybe she’s just having a bad day – correction, she is having a bad day. What to do? I can get upset about how upset the driver is, or I can just watch the road on her behalf – two options. I opt for watching the road; the mindfulness thing, and immediately I’m into this kind of alert awareness of everything that’s happening. I’m discovering this (or maybe I always knew) instinctive preparedness that just seems to engage: life is fragile and tenuous. At the same time struggling a bit with the other option: Hey! what’s all the fuss about? Smile and pretend it’s not happening. But there’s just no getting away from it, and this fully switched-on-headlight of fierce alertness is locked in and focused.

Part of me is asking what is going on here? There’s awareness, conscious awareness and then consciousness itself – so this is it, the big question… what is consciousness? Turn the mirror around like that, and consciousness sees itself; there’s a duality and we return to the default reality of ‘me’ in here and ‘that’ out there. It’s this thing about mirrors again; ‘I’ become the subject of what is being mirrored: you can see for yourself, it’s saying, this is proof of how it is… right? But I choose to take refuge in awareness of the danger, rather than do the ostrich-head-in-the-sand thing. I can take sati-sampajañña, awakened awareness, as my refuge. The inclination is to be awake, to be watchful, all sensory receptors are switched on full blast; any little sense of ‘me’ as a person is a distraction. So this is the way to go, I stay with that and there’s a clear knowledge that it’s not a ‘created’ mind state. It’s something Ajahn Sumedho would call the Unconditioned [see link below].

We get to the destination and I’m very glad to get out of the car, ‘thanks for the lift!’ Wow, life, as we know it, returns – it puts on its appearance of comfortable familiarity. Amazing, how does it do that? It really is such a fine balance, we are just on the edge of all this disappearing, all the time! And with conscious awareness the system is more inclined to go directly with what is really happening than run for safety in some kind of ‘pretend’ world. I wonder, though, what happens to people who’ve never bothered to look beyond the reality of the fictional ‘self’. It would require a lot of last minute revisions; could it all be done in time?  Maybe it’s possible.

The driver… well I dunno, but she was pretty good. Somebody told me later she did a training course in driving emergency vehicles, so maybe that’s it – life for her is just one continuing emergency. That’s OK too….

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‘… We take that which is aware of the conditioned realm, sati-sampajañña, awakened awareness, as our refuge, rather than trying to find or create a condition that will give us a false sense of security. We are not trying to fool ourselves, to create a sense of security through positive thinking. Our refuge is awakening to reality, because the unconditioned is reality. Awareness, awakeness, is the gate to the unconditioned…. You can’t take refuge in your thoughts or your perceptions. That’s just the way the conditioned mind functions. It can’t help it. It can’t do anything other than that. You can only take refuge in awareness. All the problems are resolved right there. Of course, the conditioned mind thinks that awareness is nothing; it not worth anything – but it’s everything….Whatever assumptions you have about yourself, no matter how reasonable they might be, they are still a creation in the present. By believing in them, by thinking and holding to them, you’re continually creating yourself as a personality.’ [Ajahn Sumedho, ‘The Problem of Personality’]

Listening 2

kalighat4New Delhi: [Link to: Listening 1] Sitting here, listening to sounds all around, far away and just on the edge of hearing. The process itself seems to select the sound – or the sound is selected (by some unseen process) and ‘I’ don’t have control over it. Kitchen noises, isolated clatter of plates: clink, rolling-around clunking sounds, as objects gently collide with the environment: bump, scrape; cupboard doors close, metal sink noises, cutlery makes high frequency sounds I can’t easily identify. Jiab is doing something in there. Some time later, she comes into the room with a tray and plates, maple syrup and banana: ‘Pancakes!’ she says, and I go to the table. Taste the pancakes. There’s a cognitive function which investigates the senses, different from the receptivity of the sense base āyatanāni; the gates through which the flow of sensory data enters. It’s like a security system which monitors events taking place and identifies objects from outside the body that enter inside by way of taste, tactile sense, mind sense, ear, eye and nose,.

Other sounds come into auditory range; there is recognition, they are registered, processed; memory updated. It happens in a tiny fraction of a second, so fast it feels like trying to find words for it now is in slow motion, another kind of temporality. Auditory events jump out of the background, enough to be perceived consciously rather than just being part of the general surroundings of mixed ‘noise’. The process selects one and it’s not there until I focus on it – or until the mechanisms of focussing are turned in that direction. I listen rather than just hear – see, rather than just watch. It’s the gate of awareness sati sampajañña, through which there is awareness of all the other senses and the sense of being aware itself. It’s an alertness, a presence, the eye that turns inwards – a consciousness of the sensory experience that’s superimposed on sensory consciousness. Cognitive functioning is a sensory organ – consciousness is a sensory organ.

There’s always a returning to look for the beginning of it, how did it start? I only know that at some point, before I was properly aware of it, the parts came together into some kind of recognizable whole and now a thought appears in a small window, the story of it unfolds and ‘I’ am immediately part of this. ‘I’ am involved in the story and the story is about ‘me’. When I leave the story and the window closes, I get a short glimpse of something that tells me there was a window there – and it’s not there anymore. There is no ‘I,’ it just looks like that because everything has the quality of being seen in hindsight.

The process is seemingly directed towards a ‘self’ but if there’s no input, there’s no ‘self.’ Sensory mechanisms are functioning without ‘my’ involvement anattā; they’re waiting for things to arrive because it’s in their nature to do that. All there is, is this alertness. Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and cognitive functioning; all are receiving the universe and, since all are also a part of the universe, it’s an all-inclusive experiencing of the universe that’s receiving itself. Just a state of ‘listening’, like a radio telescope dish situated in the middle of a desert somewhere pointing at the sky.

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Buddhist tourists

Angulimala stupa, Śrāvastī: The Buddha is gone from here, it’s like languages that become extinct; if the language is not used, refreshed and evolving continuously, it disappears in history. And there are no signs of Buddhism beyond the gates of these historical places, no characteristics of mindfulness, compassion, there’s not even an understanding of it. It can so easily fragment and we can’t hold on to these historical times, annica, impermanence; what’s left are the teachings and sati sampajañña (mindfulness and clear comprehension); a deep and thorough understanding of impermanence. This teaching helps me to understand impermanence in a way that suggests some other kind of temporality. It’s enough to know such a thing is possible and this helps me accept the fact that things are so completely changed now, in the places where the Buddha used to be.

Begging children gather outside the gates and as we are leaving, the tour guide gives us packets of sweets to give to them – intended as a gesture we can make, reflecting on the generosity of Anathapindika (“feeder of the orphans or helpless”), all those centuries ago. But when we start to distribute these small packets, there’s such a fierce clawing and snatching that most of us have to drop the gifts and make a dash for the bus, chased by beggars. Last thing I see is a scuffle amongst them fighting for the ’gifts’. It was a feeling so completely different from the generosity of the historical figure who covered Jeta’s grove with gold coins in order to buy it from Prince Jeta. The Prince was so impressed with the generosity of Anathapindika, he gave the rest of it to him for free and joined with Anathapindika in offering the whole grove as a gift to the Buddha.

Is it possible that the presence of Buddhist tourists has created a generation of beggars at the gates? Anyway, this kind of thing seems to be unavoidable in India; there are beggars in other tourist places also. But the giving of money and gifts is a bit of a shambles and it would be better for everybody if this could be properly organized. What I did see that seemed more positive was a couple of people giving money to the beggars with an honest generosity, joyfully sharing; they were very good at doing it. I learned from this, it seemed to me to have a quality of dignity and mindful generosity and I tried to do it that way afterwards.

So, I wasn’t expecting the presence of beggars to have such an impact during this visit to the Buddhist holy places. Maybe it seems so dominant because what else is there here to see? Only ancient mounds and reconstructed low walls that show the location. I doubt if the bricks are original. There are very old Bodhi trees decorated with prayer flags but not of an age that could be anywhere near to the Buddha’s time. Otherwise there’s the earth and the sky; the air, nothing more than that. What is present is a special kind of sensitivity; visitors are all Buddhists or persons that way inclined, respectful and sincere and what we’re all considering is something that is unseen. If you can focus on being in these places where the Buddha used to be, and allow space for mindful contemplation, just being here becomes part of conscious experience; there’s a reality of that ancient time that comes through, such a fragile thing, barely noticed. It triggers something about these events that happened here all these centuries ago – just knowing it’s possible is enough.

The light and warmth; coolness in shadows in the afternoon, sense impressions, the laughter of a child in the trees and I’m thinking, yes, there would have been this also. I can allow it to be present for a moment and I’m in the 5th Century BC. It’s a simple feeling of just being here. I know how it must be for all other beings to experience this feeling; just like this. Subjectivity; we’re linked like this. The feeling stays for as long as I’m aware of it then it falls away.

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Photos – Upper: Bodhi tree with prayer flags.  Middle: Beggars at the gate [Witit Rachatatanun Collection]