thoughts like clouds

img_4536POSTCARD #243: New Delhi: A photo in the photo library of the mind got lost. I had it in a special place because I wanted to use it for this post, but now it’s gone and I didn’t make a note of the file name, I’ve forgotten where I kept it and worse still, I’ve forgotten what it looks like. This is the problem. All I know is that it was a photo of sky that sent me off in the direction of thoughts like clouds drifting through the empty space of mind… blue sky, high altitude clarity – that’s all. So, how will I recognise it if I don’t know what it is? Hmmm I’ll know it when I see it, I suppose, hoping there’ll be some kind of familiarity about it, a pause before moving on to the next, thinking… that reminds me of something, what is it? And suddenly there’s recognition, like meeting an old friend you haven’t seen for half a century. But as I start to go through something like 4000 images, it seems unlikely.

I shall sit quietly for a moment in the space of no thought and, instead of trying to remember the photo, I can contemplate the empty space where it used to be. But that’s not working because the empty space where it used to be suggests an identity for the lost image. Fragments of remembered lost-photo imagery remain, I need to have the mind clear of remembered images, no identity, even the word itself – no ‘it’ and no ‘self’, the Buddhist anatta, ‘no self’, nobody at home.

It’s not working because the effort to create ‘no self’ results in a mind running around everywhere, taking ‘selfies’, you could say, in different places and with various friends. Smile please, pose… click and take another one, okay? Click! And it’s happy doing this, but deep down it’s not satisfied, seeking always for a way to become whatever it is that is permanent happiness. But it’ll never happen, everywhere I look there’s another ‘self’ seeking an identity and becoming that form… but again, it is never satisfactory. Seeking the next opportunity to ‘become’ is the default aspiration; it’s this that holds beings in the cycle of rebirth. Caught in the predicament of becoming.

So I give way to it… and curiously, there’s an immediate awareness of the restless mind held in endless searching. Another kind of awareness enters the picture, seeing the ‘self’ that sees itself seeking. The seeking ‘self’ turns its awareness on the seeing ‘self’ and is, at once, seen. There is seeking but no seeker, and no object is sought. Seeking non-objects is seeking the motionless space in which the answer is, before the question is asked. The place where everything is and is not. No-self is another way of saying nothing exists anywhere, anywhen, ever. Deathlessness, the death of death… this too shall pass, and the fragility of newly born beings, all finely tuned things which appear briefly; vulnerability, perishability, limited lifespan, and all that remains is the breathtaking tracery of what this was, a moment before it passed.

“Consciousness veils itself from itself by pretending to limit itself to a separate entity and then forgets that it is pretending.” [Rupert Spira]

Note 1) some parts of this post taken from earlier posts, and edited pages for the next volume of Postcards From the Present Moment.
Note 2) the photo, Ladakh, Himalayan North India, taken by Jiab. I opted for this in the end, and maybe it was the one that got lost, or maybe it became the image formed in the mind which recognised the ‘no self’ quality in the expanse of sky, and distance on a scale that overwhelms the small self…


the world disappears

img_0019POSTCARD #224: New Delhi: Learning how to sleep without the pain meds and all those chemicals that used to help me so much before, but I’m just left there thinking about things in the darkness. Stories come and go, pondering over this and that, and the awareness of being caught up in the thinking thing gets included in the wandering. Searching for a way out, but if I think about how to stop thinking, the mind gets busy looking for a solution; finding something and comparing it with other reasons why I can’t stop thinking. Thinking has its own momentum, takes time for it to slow down, there’s the opportunity to allow it all to fizzle out. Everything evaporates for a moment.

In that instant there’s a no-thinking state, a great space opens up – an awareness of being aware. Silence and emptiness, held on pause. Then, somewhere on a different screen, the mind is alerted, there’s the desire to be actively thinking again, and an invitation to be engaged with it, but that fizzles out too. “Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage we did not take, towards the door we never opened, into the rose garden.”*

The outbreath from the nostrils, so faint and light, stirs only the tiniest thing; the movement of a single strand of hair could wake me. No other sensory input the mind needs to be engaged with, no sense object activates the chain of events and all that remains is the mind’s cognitive function. A curiosity about this stirs; ‘self’ is a sensory experience. The experiencer is an experience – there is only experiencing.

Another wave of thoughts comes rushing in, stays for a moment and goes out again. I see it as if there’s an watcher seeing it from some hidden place, aware of it. Then the watcher disappears and it seems like only the awareness itself is left there. Then the awareness disappears and in its place, a sequence of half-seen obscure mental events, each one linking with the next. Some time later sleep comes and the whole world disappears.

‘The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.’ [R. D. Laing]

Photo: Dhammakaya monk collecting alms by boat.
*Excerpt from Four Quartets T. S. Eliot
This post was rewritten from earlier posts


surfing on the edge of dawn

birds-at-sunrisePOSTCARD #86: Delhi 05:00 hours: When I open the glass doors to the garden, the temperature outside is the same as it is inside. This is such a novelty for me, having recently arrived from Northern Europe where there’s always that early morning chill separating outer from inner. Over here, it’s all of a oneness. I want to drag my mattress and bedclothes through, spread them out on the paving stones here and lie down with my pillow. Then I could gaze up at the tall trees in the early morning sky and listen to the birds. A birdsong extravaganza, surfing on the edge of dawn… why this wild party and glorious singing? What’s going on? Such an accumulation of voice – is this what we call God? …somehow, it doesn’t cover it, ‘god’ is just a word, man-made. The actuality of it is as far as the eye can see, daylight spreading over the curvature of the planet and an immeasurable sense of sky.

Impossible to understand the totality of it, of course, the mind is a filter, selecting the data to suit the software, and this may be a sound-realm on a scale only birds are aware of. In the darkness they can hear the sound of the other birds over there on the other side of dawn, where it’s already light, and that’s the signal to engage in this shared event. It’s like a football stadium crowd performing “the wave.” A movement in time that’s always present in the here-and-now – same at every location. Light-colour-sound, daybreak and birdsong are inseparable. It fills the air for about 20 minutes then disappears. At the next place in time and space, the birds respond to it there; the Mother Ship – applause, celebration, rejoice, and it moves on. Incredible mystery… it’s the movement of the planet, I need to remind myself, the rotation of the Earth at more than 1000 miles per hour, and always happening like this, of course. The dawn chorus is always being experienced in some part of the world. Continuous birdsong since whenever birds first populated the planet…

From this location in North India, it’s shifting away Westerly, in the direction of the Middle East and on to the Mediterranean countries. The birdsong of Palestine, of Israel, Greece, then Florence, Portugal. Over the Atlantic Ocean, isolated flocks of gulls rise up from the water’s surface, calling and mewing in the golden sky. On from there to the Eastern Seaboard of the US, across the forests, rivers and mountains of the continent and out over the Pacific.

It does not appear or disappear.
It is not born and does not die.
It is neither constructed nor raised up,
Neither made nor produced.

It is neither sitting nor lying,
Neither walking nor standing still,
Neither moving nor turning over,
Neither at rest nor idle.

It does not advance or retreat,
Knows not safety or danger,
Neither right nor wrong.
It is neither virtuous nor improper.

It is neither this nor that,
Neither going nor coming.

 From the Lotus Sutra


Photo: Birds in sunrise sky/ID 7756984 Xdrew/

the fool

IMG_0872bPOSTCARD#64: Chiang Mai: I hear a sound outside, a voice, a single-syllable, shouted utterance… somebody’s name maybe. I pay no attention, all kinds of noises of building construction out there; clatter-crash-bang; screaming drills and power tools. Then I hear it again, go to the window and take a look over at the new building rising above the treetops. There’s a man up there on the highest level of the structure calling on somebody. I watch him for a while and take a photo. Enlarge the image as far as it’ll go; he looks like a desperado, an urban guerrilla fighter, but I think it’s the same guy who was wearing the red shirt in another post I wrote [light-headedness]. Something about the posture, he’s just standing there, face covered because of the fierce heat of the sun – incognito, a masked identity, a mystical storyteller, the Fool card in the tarot pack, all his worldly possessions in a bag on his shoulder and so busy with what he’s thinking about, doesn’t know he’s about to fall over. A small dog is barking at his heel – trying to get him to see the danger. Will he tumble to his death from this high place or will he prevail? The presence of the Fool is part of the fiction he creates, it insists on the performance. Please tell us a story – it has to be started before it begins… a story about a story, a song about a song?

Childlike and forever taking things as far as they’ll go, I am a make-believe being acting a part I believe to be ‘me’. Subject to astonishing karma because I’m holding on and mortgaged to the point beyond which mortgages really cannot reach, living on air, out on a limb… what I do is often done under duress: WORK, a sense of urgency, stress and getting kids to/from school with traffic congestion, food buying and one problem after another means I seek gratification in purchasing things: clutter and stuff/stutter and cluff, and the-urge-to-get-rid-of-it-all. A new problem always seems to arrive to take the place of the problem that was there before it, and the endless lack of a solution is tacked on to that… and to the one that comes after that… and after that, until I realise it’s the searching for a solution that causes the problem to arise…

When was it not ever thus?… and all of a sudden I’m free of it, thinking of emptiness, nothingness (as opposed to somethingness) and we’re all of a oneness … everybody’s brother and son, I’m no different than anyone. It ain’t no use a-talking to me, it’s just the same as talking to you [I Shall Be Free – No. 10]. Play the guitar riff from Purple Haze, do the best MoonWalk ever, acting the part so well, the ‘truth’ is revealed completely. There is no difference between the ‘self’ construct and my part in the story – even so, the spectator wants to believe I am the character, not the actor just being myself and simultaneously not myself. The ‘act’ of being alive. It’s just there, a total act, ‘theatre’, illusion, maya and we’re immersed in the story of it all…

‘Our lives suffer from a lack of meaning that disguises itself as consumerism and a host of other addictions. Having lost our spiritual grounding […] we experience our groundlessness as an unbearable lightness of being. The tragic dialectic between security and freedom reasserts itself: having attained some measure of self-determination and confronted the lack at its core, we now crave the grounding that would connect our own aspirations with something greater than ourselves.’ [David Loy, A Buddhist History of the West – source:]


Post includes parts of an earlier post: Acting the Part

flying time

jetPOSTCARD #33 Delhi-Bangkok flight: Travelling at hundreds of miles an hour but it feels like the aircraft is standing still. A curious sensation, there’s nothing to indicate we’re moving, only this pleasing hmmmmm of the aircraft, and shhhhhh of cabin air pressure. Daylight enters into the small space of my window seat, a fold-down table, colourful papers, books and everything has the familiarity of being in a small room, brightly illuminated with a warm, happy, sunny light. I’m unaware of travelling across the sky in a passenger jet that observers in a different location might see as a streak of light. In another location they might see the aircraft seemingly suspended. 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. It’s this same feeling now, only I’m in it – a strange illusion; the various speeds all around are synchronised and the impression is that everything has stopped. I feel like I should hold my breath…

It’s an illusion… isn’t it? Einstein’s Theory on Special Relativity; everything inside this enclosed capsule is relative to itself. I’m up here, looking out the window and trying to understand this experience… soft, pale white-blue sky above the clouds stretching over the curvature of the Earth. After five or ten minutes, the horizon of clouds is still the same – it feels like we haven’t moved. Suspended in the air and the Earth is spinning on its axis below. The plane is going in an Easterly direction, parallel to the Earth’s rotation, like a boat on a river going in the direction of the current and there’s no sense of movement.

There’s an awareness of space below, an awareness of space all around and the vastness of the situation. Awareness of breathing; the in-breath and the out-breath. The action of releasing the out-breath seems associated with the direction the aircraft is travelling in. It appears to move the entire environment perceptibly forward in a very small way. A sense of something having passed by, I saw it for a moment as it slipped into the past. There’s an awareness that a thought was there and the awareness that it’s gone now, forgotten – no awareness of forgetting, only the awareness of the awareness.

The ‘now’ moment is like the boat on the river going downstream with the current, it’s only when the trees on the riverbank are seen that there’s an idea of relative speeds. I can distinguish things from their time, a local sense, there’s a ‘before’ and an ‘after’, but I can’t separate myself from time. Time is what I am, together with everything in the context of this aircraft. I remember the past but I’m remembering it now – I see into the future but I’m seeing it now. I am what space and time are doing here and now.

I get up and walk along the aisle and notice that walking in the forward direction (the direction we are travelling) is easy, swimming with the current, like walking downhill. Walking back to my seat (opposite to the direction we are travelling) is like swimming against the current; walking uphill. Then sitting in this small window seat, with the familiarity of my breathing, focus and mindfulness as we career headlong through space at 600 mph. The environment of the plane, the presence of noise and proximity of engines… powerful beyond belief.

‘Our awareness is like the air around us: we rarely notice it. It functions in all our waking moments and may even continue in sleep. Usually we are caught up in the content of our awareness, preoccupied with what we think, feel, and experience. Becoming aware of awareness itself is Receptive Awareness, very close to the idea of a witnessing consciousness. Resting in receptive awareness is an antidote to our efforts of building and defending a self: the assumption that there is “someone who is aware” falls away. Self-consciousness falls away; the distinctions between self and other, inside and outside, perceiver and perceived disappear. There is no one who is aware; there is only awareness and experience happening within awareness. We learn to hold our lives, our ideas, and ourselves lightly and rest in a spacious and compassionate sphere of awareness that knows, but is not attached.’ [Insight Meditation Center, Chapter 27: ‘Receptive Awareness’]


Note: Excerpts from other posts on the experience of flying included here: Suspended StillnessHigh Altitude Sunset, Meditating at 600 mph,   somewhere over the rainbow

Buddhists and Christians

Chiang Mai: A very nice short flight here from Bangkok yesterday, 1 hour 10 minutes. They serve a small meal; it was like going upstairs to have lunch in the clouds, then it’s time to come down again. During the flight I was able to have a discussion with somebody I met there about Christianity and Buddhism – is there ‘something’ there (God) or is there not anything? And ‘not anything’ implies something that cannot be verbalised.

It is a bit like tight-rope walking for me as a Western Buddhist and now 30 years in Asia but still subject to the conditioning of the Church and childhood memories of it in the West. With my Christian companion here, there is agreement on many things. The main thing we agree about is that human beings may experience a certain kind of realization that there is no ‘self’, no identity, nothing there; nothing in the mind/body organism, it’s a construct. There’s a feeling of ‘lack’, and the shock that comes with this discovery causes dismay, distress, etc. Christians say the realization of emptiness is the absence of God, and this knowledge facilitates the entry of God, the creator of everything. This is what fills the emptiness; a significant turning point for all Christians.

Buddhists encounter this feeling of ‘lack’ in the same way but will not ‘fill’ it with anything, rather, they contemplate the emptiness of it in depth; examine the associated emotional reactions with mindfulness and come to see that, this is how it is. Śūnyatā, the emptiness, the lack of ‘self’ is everywhere and in all things. The understanding that everything is without ‘self’ helps Buddhists to contemplate the constructed nature of the mind. It’s possible to see the whole picture; how everything works and where we go from here. It’s an open-ended, investigative approach that may lead to an understanding of the non-duality of the observed world and the observer of it, together as a oneness. What the Christians call God must be inside this, because it is all-inclusive. There cannot be anything outside of it.

Christians will depend on the attachment to a belief in God for guidance and that’s how they see the world; they might say that ‘emptiness’ for the Buddhist is the Buddhist sense of God? And Buddhists could consider it this way, but the Buddha didn’t see any point in going further with that because the important thing is to make sure you are seeing reality correctly; anything else is getting caught in wishful thinking. Necessary because working only with belief and faith and no pragmatic teachings means there are all kinds of things that can go wrong with it. Christians are focused on the experiential aspect; Buddhists say conceptualizing a God leads to attachment, tanha; the desire for, and attachment to, ideas and ideals, views, opinions, theories, conceptions and beliefs. [Dhamma-taṇhā, Walpole Rahula].

If I say the word ‘God’ to myself, something comes into my mind, the word ‘God’ has an immediate emotive effect. Certain assumptions arise and the mind is already closed around it; it’s a ‘special’ thing. When Christians talk about God, what they’re referring to (I think) is the God they are creating in their own minds – their loving devotion to a personal god: a deity who can be related to as a person, but God is beyond everything that is conceived or thought about. There is no adequate analogy, words cannot describe it. It cannot even be imagined because it is beyond space and time. Buddhists stay separate from the God concept because to become involved with it means making assumptions about a kind of consciousness that is totally different from ordinary mind states. This is not to say there is no God, for me, at this time, it is impossible to express in words what God could be.

Then there’s a stewardess announcement, the plane is starting its descent, please put your fold-away table up, arm rest down, and chair forward. I get lost in the directions for a moment; a small clutter of prepositions, then were on firm ground again.


‘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 Nibanna, 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.’ [Ajahn Jagaro]

‘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 transcedent, full of love and justice. He may be even regarded to have a personality. He is the subject of worship.’ [Wikipedia Brahman page]

Image: Peter Henderson


Switzerland: Sun rising, water reflects the light and a black crow flies in from the lakeside with louder and louder calls until it passes below the balcony and the sound gets fainter as it disappears behind the next building, then into the distance … CRAWCRAW.  I’m sitting here, alert, and listening to that sound until nothing can be heard at all. No object to activate ear consciousness. It’s the Sunday morning sleep-late feeling; only the zzz zzz zzz ZZZs coming from all the apartment buildings around. Look out the window, nobody about, streets are empty. Am I the only one awake? I listen for some sound and there isn’t anything happening here; only the act of listening. Awareness poised, waiting for some object to come into range of the receptors. Without an object, awareness goes on forever. I can hear some sounds that are very far away, therefore I have an idea of  ‘faraway-ness’. Beyond the range of receptors there is the great empty dome of sky, the void, suññatā1, spreading out around all things and present in all things

Attention drifts away and a series of incidental thought episodes appear; an anthology of short stories, then it’s all gone again in a moment. The empty space returns, the interval; why this pause? What is this still point where there’s no thought?

‘… (the) still point is not in the mind, it’s not in the body; this is where it’s incapable of being expressed in words, ineffable. The still point isn’t a point within the brain. Yet you’re realising that universal silence, stillness, oneness where all the rest is a reflection and seen in perspective…. personality, kamma, the differences, the varieties … are no longer deluding us because we’re no longer grasping at them.’ [‘The Way It Is’, Ajahn Sumedho, page 123]

The period of pause is just the space that happens before the next intensely demanding thought arises and the tendency to create an identity for it, but before that happens there is this state of nothing. A non-event is taking place; everything gradually stops shifting around, settles down; time begins to stretch out and it all moves incredibly slowly. I forget and attention wanders again.

A pigeon flutters in, comes to rest on the balcony rail, folds away it’s wings, and there’s this small sigh. Quite a deep bird-sized sigh, filling its lungs with air, releasing it and a little ‘bob’ of the fat round body: ah, that’s nice…. It looks at me with extended neck curiously then gets involved in preening feathers in strangely revealing postures.

I hear Jiab in the back room, doing things. She arrived from Phnom Penh via Bangkok yesterday. Not jet-lagged, she says, but we do have to do the laundry at this unusually early time in the morning. The laundry room is in the mezzanine of the building, so off we go, very quietly, one step at a time, downstairs, 6:00AM, past all the sleeping doorways of other people’s apartments, carrying the laundry in bags and trying to be really silent because the whole thing is a bit like being in a graveyard.

Then Jiab wants to sneeze… Oh no! It’s held for a moment then escapes. A surprisingly loud short sound like the bark of a small dog played backwards. The noise of it echoes around the tiled corridor and staircase, the glass panels vibrate for a moment; metal rails hum in resonance and there’s the echo of it all through the stairwell. Dynamic. The silence is shocked by it! We spend some time after that trying to control the intense laughter as we go quietly down with our heavy bags.


1suññatā: (Śūnyatā) the absence of inherent existence in all phenomena.

Alert to the needs of the journey,
 those on the path of awareness, like swans, glide on, leaving behind their former resting places. [Dhammapada verse 91]