the attributes of self

110520131818POSTCARD #18: Bangkok/Chiang Mai flight: They paint a face on the nose of the aircraft, the ‘cute’ concept – a Thai version of Japanese kawaii かわいい . It looks like a bird because the shape of it is beak-like but it’s recognizably a human face wearing sunglasses. Personifications, masks, fictional characters with human attributes respond in a childlike way to a world full of fear and joy. Goldilocks and the three bears finding the Buddhist Middle Way by trial-and-error: the first try is too hot; the second try, too cold; the third try is just right. Why not? This is a non-serious, one-hour flight; no sooner have we departed than we arrive. Smiling doll-like stewardesses in yellow costumes have just enough time to come up the aisle with a light snack in a paper bag for everyone, back down again to clear everything away and we’re descending into Chiang Mai.

Slightly bumpy, due to weather conditions, the vibration causes the luggage compartments to shake and creak for a moment. Sounds like something nautical; the rattle of rope harness striking the mast of a sailing ship… searching for something it resembles – something to account for this phenomenon of flying above the clouds at an incredible speed. Maybe I’m seeing the journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai as if we were driving over something solid, bumps caused by an uneven road surface; a highway in the sky, an imagined bridge that spans the distance, 373 miles from there to here – a huge curved span in the sky. Logical mind attempts to create an explanation for it, based on what’s known, a figure of speech, something to help me ease back from contracting around the uneasiness, the unknown… that edgy feeling. Without the metaphor, all I’m aware of is tremendous velocity and a sense of vulnerability. The immediacy of the moment sweeps away all thought-constructs like the ground is gone from beneath my feet. Mindfulness of breathing, deeply in and all the way out…

Further into the descent I become a little deaf, it feels like being underwater, and no amount of swallowing or blowing of air into sinus cavities seems to clear it. Near to landing there’s the sound of the hydraulics, out go the flaps, down go the wheels and the earth rises up to meet us; 300 people contained in a structure the size of a building colliding with the surface of the Earth at 200 mph. A great yawning abyss of existential anxiety; I need something to hold on to – but there isn’t anything that’ll prepare me for such a colossal event; the roller-coaster experience. Aircraft wheels take the weight, first one then the other and the deep lurch, sink-down/bounce-back – for a moment it feels like we’re going to go out of control and disaster… then it’s okay.

There’s something about it being in a public context, we’re all in this together, and the sense of a letting-go of something tightly held: woooooo! The small ‘self’ is seen and relinquished; there’s nobody there… just this unattached feeling that couldn’t happen in any other circumstance. The Buddhist cessation – no words for it, consciousness doesn’t normally reach that far. No person, no identity. Before the Greeks created the Buddha image we know and accept today, there were only symbols, a riderless horse, the empty seat… footprints left behind in the place where he was.

 ‘… that dimension where there is neither earth nor water, nor fire nor wind, nor dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, nor this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor stasis, nor passing away, nor arising: without stance, without foundation, without support [mental object]. This, just this, is the end of stress.’ [Ud 8.1]


not something – not anything


When the iron eagle flies and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered over the earth, and the Dhamma will go to the land of the white man.’ [Prophecy by 8th Century Indian sage Padmasambhava]

Chiang Mai: The flight takes four and a half hours, Delhi/Bangkok, then the long walk through this celestial airport and into the domestic terminal. It’s a one hour flight Bangkok/Chiang Mai and you’re there. Arrive late evening, drop bags in the hall and crash out on the bed like how you park the car: reverse in, switch off, lock doors, shut down and lights flash in acknowledgement. Sleep for eight hours, wake up next day and it’s one and a half hours earlier. Dis-joint-ed-ness of a different time zone, a bit bewildering. Pondering over something Ajahn Sumedho says about what is real and what is not; the real is not something, it’s more like it’s not anything. If I can see it like this, there’s a sense of ease; the holding-on thing is not getting in the way.

The flight experience is easy, it’s getting on the plane and getting off again that takes the time and if you have to do it twice, there’s an opportunity to contemplate the experience. At Delhi airport, I had an hour in duty-free up in a place on the second floor, looking out at the planes standing down there on the hot airport tarmac like huge lizards in the desert. Wings displayed like curious extended reptilian protuberances, skin stretched over a lightweight structure of hollow bones and the heaviest thing is the engine. Unbelievable power, hundreds of thousands of horsepower, and I’m caught for a moment, thinking of all these horses an A-380 needs, something like half a million horsepower. I imagine them galloping along the runway faster and faster and when they reach the speed of about 150 mph they all take one mighty leap up into the air, above the mountains, through the blue sky heaven realms, leaving a long straight line of white vapour in a southeasterly direction, and land in Bangkok, 1800 miles in the distance.

Over the hills and far away over many horizons; this is the place of my origin. Northern Europe, distant in time and space like another planet. I’ve left the past so far behind now, it feels like this is it; I made it into the future – time traveller contained in a bubble of the present moment. Thirty years of living in other people’s countries – gratitude – always a visitor. And here in Chiang Mai there’s M, my niece aged 8 years, who comes close to my face and looks intensely at my left eye, then her gaze flickers over to my right eye. She looks at that for a while; shifts back to the left eye again, then asks her mum: ‘Tamai lung mi tah si fah?’ (why does uncle have blue eyes?). And mum says it’s because he comes from the West and, over there, lots of people have eyes that colour. While this is going on, I have the wonderful opportunity to see M’s small face and almond shaped eyes absorbing me into her consciousness.

There’s a familiarity with Thailand that I don’t have anywhere else. I’m the pale skinned cognitive hybrid, one of these giants who live here, situated in the population but in a separate place… not really part of anything. I’m somewhere between being ‘in’ this world and being ‘of’ this world. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution seems to take on a different meaning: survival of the fittest – done so by any means to achieve that end lobha, dosa, moha  (Greed Hatred and Delusion). Thais just don’t see it that way, mai pen rai (nothing is serious), everything is light and easy, innovative ideas held together with bamboo, string and rubber bands. Easily relinquished, it exists only for the time it’s needed then it’s gone…


‘The real is not something, it’s not anything. It’s not a phenomenon. You can’t think about it, you can’t create an image of it. So we say unconditioned, unborn, uncreated, unformed. Anatta (not-self), nirodha (cessation), nibbana (liberation). If you try to think about these words you don’t get anywhere. Your mind stops, it’s like nothing. … if we’re expecting something from the meditation practice, some kind of Enlightenment, bright lights and world-trembling experiences, then we’re disappointed because expecting is another kind of desire, isn’t it?’ [The End of the World is Here, Ajahn Sumedho]


quicker than thinking


New Delhi: Sitting under the thatched shelter built on the roof terrace here, watching a small bird about the size of a large bee, so tiny! Is it a relative of the humming bird? Wikipedia says it’s a Purple Sunbird, less than 10 cms, the male is a kind of black-purple. This one, I see from the photo, must be the female, a more sedate olive green. Yep, this is the lady Sunbird, so small, it’s like it’s almost not there at all; takes my breath away. How can such a thing exist? A delicate speck of life, fragile and light; there’s birth and there’s death and there’s the bit in between. That’s where the Sunbird is, so brief… I suppose these tiny birds have just evolved like that because predators can’t catch them – always one step ahead of everything. Its movements are immediate, now here, now there; the quality of sunlight – elusive, a flicker of pure reality. Not like a bird, more like the shifting of my line of vision as I try to follow where its gone, then my conscious seeing of it in another place happens at the same time as the actual presence of the small creature itself, perched on a twig and ready to dart off somewhere….

olive-backed-sunbird-878cd193cd11f74dfc50b102c567baa7The alertness of the Sunbird is having an effect on me, how to identify this? It’s as if there’s a space between the things we take for granted and ponder over; a small gap, there in the absence of the object that has not yet arrived. The Sunbird gets to that place before we can even think of it being there. Faster than thought. I’ve noticed a few references to this space before something happens and after it’s finished; recently found it in the context of the short emptiness just before giving way to an emotion [Kadampa Life calls it ‘an inch of space’. Follow this link: Being realistic]. There’s room to move before giving way to an automatic thought response. There’s a moment before cognition locks in; a gap in time, quicker than thinking that allows the mind to see it all as it is – a small window opens and we see the whole thing passing by, sorry, can’t stay, got to rush, bye! Off it goes in a continuation of its itinerary, if it comes around here again, everything will be completely different; we may not remember it was this…

My eye follows the little brown bird as it flits and hovers from flower to flower and doesn’t seem to mind me being here quietly watching. Then it flies over the parapet of the roof terrace, hesitates there in the air, buzzing wings, makes a decision to go left and down, veers off in that direction and it’s gone…


‘This awakened consciousness, as pointed out by the Buddha, is not conditioned as with the six kinds of consciousness (the six sense-doors: eyes, ears, nose, mouth, body or mind), neither being part of the natural world (earth, water, fire, and wind), nor having size, being neither long nor short; it is without texture, being neither fine nor coarse; it is without moral quality either, being neither pure nor impure; neither is it psychological in nature (nama) nor physical (rupa). It is invisible, limitless, and radiant.’ [Ajahn Sumedho, ‘Awakened Consciousness’]