christmas day 2016

img_5138POSTCARD #239: Chiang Mai: Seasons greetings blogger friends. No snow here, only the memory of it falling in the silence of mind, like a dream I can’t wake up from pulls me back, over and over. Tree branches without leaves, black figures in a white landscape – image invert.

Words come out in gusts of steamy vapour puffs. Reflected light seen fading to zero white, pixelated edges of peppermint, menthol and bright electric blue-turquoise. Thinking of ice-rinks, chilled nasal passageways, and cranial cavities discovered in the sharp-edged inbreath. The cold is motionless presence. Little hanging earlobes are slowly freezing, teeth are cold, lips are a rubbery fumbling.

Eyes water in the looking-out between scarf and hat, but inwardly removed, seeing instead, the sunshine of some future time where I’m presently situated, at a table on a hotel balcony, remembering the past as we do, brought into present time. Coconut palms shwish-shwoosh in the benign climate of warm winds and the sea.

All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. [Toni Morrison]

Photo taken from the hotel balcony in Bali.
Excerpts from backstory included here


IMG_2403POSTCARD #192: DELHI: Photo shows the hoarding (with part of the word ‘caution’ in Hindi) behind which, work on the Delhi Metro underground is taking place. The construction zone encroaches on to an already crowded roadway as three lanes of slo-mo traffic are bottle-necked into two, then one – all that earth has got to be shifted out of the hole I suppose… traffic congestion so bad, road rage is a palpable thing… static electricity flashing and sparking in the spaces between metals very close but don’t actually touch; a kind of unseen neon percussion hi-frequency zizzle in the surround-sound of car horns in a musical composition on alto sax, trumpet, trombone and all the various combinations of horns in the brass section of the orchestra. Yes it is quite bad. Ok for me, I’m not the one driving, just sitting in the car interior here, trying to not be upset by it and get a headache coping with the traffic jam in my mind, What’s needed here is breathing; a long deep in breath, and slow outbreath….

Thoughts without substance arise and fall away. The good feeling is nice when it’s here, the bad feeling is nice when it’s not here – and the often overlooked position of neutrality situated between the two extremes; the Buddha’s Middle Way. It was a turning point in my life when I first saw that if I could remain in neutrality as the feeling comes on and be aware, observe how it’s possible to sidestep the clinging thing, the Velcro of self that’s always inclined to attach itself to the same old thing: this-is-mine-so-it-belongs-to-me, then the chain of events is interrupted and everything that happened moves on, ungrasped-at… as simple as that.

The sense of being in a state of no-self is one of astonishment and the relief that the whatever-it-was THING did not take place… wow! how good is that! This feeling moves it all forward in such a sensible and wholesome direction. These small successes are necessary in a world that doesn’t educate children about this basic truth and the moments of conscious experience are instead allowed to form events that occupy our thoughts. No teaching on how to liberate oneself from unrest and the state of always having to make something out of it; the present moment cloaked by Mind pondering over either some past memory or preoccupied with something in future time that hasn’t happened yet. Never really at ease, never able to witness this peace… the inherited karma of generations.

Forever unable to see that thought processes lead nowhere in the end, maintain themselves hesitantly, and are forgotten in the on-going awareness of what’s happening now. I’m part of it, but I’m not ‘in’ it. The present moment is not the near future, it’s happening now – so fast, you could say, look, there it goes, into the past. Yep, history taking place before our very eyes…

We learn from the principle of dependent origination that things and events do not come into being without causes. Suffering and unsatisfactory conditions are caused by our own delusions and the contaminated actions induced by them. [Dalai Lama]


the look of eyes (2)

flightPOSTCARD08: Bangkok/Delhi flight: Large men standing in the aisles of the passenger area look along the length of the plane in one direction, turn the head around and look in the other direction. Hold that for a moment, then look to the left, to the right, and back to the central position: ok, so here we are on this plane… Sensory receptors positioned around the face and the cranium spins around, up/down on its axis, moving in response to received vision, sound, smell. The mind coordinates, thinks about things… ‘60,000 thoughts per day by each and every human being on the planet.’ [Deepak Chopra]. No wonder it’s such a novelty to discover a space where there’s no thought, no stories unfolding in the mind.

Maybe it’s something cultural; the male authority figure standing there like a tall pillar and everyone else is seated. I’m reminded of Meerkats, these cute creatures who stand up on their hind legs and look at everything in a kind of philosophical way. See and be seen. I catch the look, and glance away… a brief encounter, not held; no dialogue: hi how are you today? No, no need for that; no language required to interpret events and engage the mind. Just the look of eyes, and our shared space up here in thin air; a passenger jet travelling at 600 miles per hour, 10 kilometres above the curvature of the Earth.

Bundles of conditioned reflexes squeezed into the volume of a body, the experience of being a human ‘being’ – only this. Seeing the events without the story, like screenshots in a sequence; a few gestures, the meaning is not quite there. It creates a pause, taking a moment to receive that data before mind gains control and ‘self’ gets a hold; before ‘I’ perceive what it is, or what it could be; pleasant, unpleasant, neutral – how should I feel about that? Maybe no feeling at all… It’s as if there’s a small seed of wisdom buried deep in the layers of unknowing; lying there, dormant, waiting for things to evolve and the right conditions to be there, in order to wake up. But it hasn’t happened yet… contemplating the noble truth of waking up in some future lifetime.

I can’t read text, cross-eyed vision after an operation on the left eye. It’ll be okay after the operation on the right eye. Mildly deafened by the white noise of air pressure systems and the velocity of the plane displacing the air. And there’s a stewardess announcement: the plane is now making its descent, this concludes our inflight service, thank you…. [Link to: the look of eyes (1)]


“And what is the origination of the world? Dependent on the eye & forms there arises eye-consciousness. The meeting of the three is contact. From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling. From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving. From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging/sustenance. From clinging/sustenance as a requisite condition comes becoming. From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth. From birth as a requisite condition, then aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair come into play. This is the origination of the world. [Loka Sutta: The World” (SN 12.44), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 17 June 2010]


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…


‘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


the thinking thing

hNew Delhi: It’s the middle of the night, it’s cold, I’m in bed and covered with a mountain of bedcovers. Can’t sleep, just lying here thinking about things in the darkness. All the stories of my life come and go, click the channel-changer and there’s another one. I remember this, yes… so, he said that… and I said this… and then what happened? Click the channel-changer again and I’m somewhere else. It’s the thinking thing, continually pondering over this and that and when I ask myself how to stop thinking the mind starts to look for a solution, drawing conclusions from known facts ad infinitum and I’m thinking again. It’s my Western cultural inheritance – separate from God, we are created by Him –  studying the ‘object’ and logical, applied, deductive reasoning. Here in the Eastern context it’s more like a gradually accumulating lake of inductive reasoning; the ‘whole’ is a pre-existing pattern composed of its parts. I can ‘feel’ my way into it and see where that takes me.

So I stop thinking. There’s an awareness of the cold air on my face, sensory response vedanā; the mind engaged with the other senses tuned to reception from the outer world like satellite dishes search for a signal. When there’s no thinking, there’s an empty space where the thoughts used to be. I’m aware of the desire to be actively thinking, I see the invitation to be engaged with thinking – same as other forms of ‘wanting’ and mindfulness kicks in. But it occurs to me this is the Buddha’s teaching about the origination of the world: ‘Dependent on the eye & forms there arises eye-consciousness. The meeting of the three is contact….’ (phassa) and I’m back into thinking again.

There’s something obvious about this, the mind is one of the six senses and functions like a receptor in the same way as the others do, except that it also has the purpose of ‘guarding’ the entry point; sense object activates the chain of events and mind has an intuitive, cognitive function; it is capable of discerning the object, like a security system. The exact nature of the cognitive mind holds my attention. I experience the absolutely empty space of no-thinking and either there’s not any sensory input the mind needs to be engaged with, or the apparent emptiness is caused by the mind’s awareness of being aware. There’s more of this empty space. Thoughts come in and go out again and the mind is watching the whole process. Sometimes I’m here as an observer, watching from behind the curtain. Other times the observer disappears, and it seems like only the mind itself is left there. That disappears too and in its place, a sequence of momentary mental events, each one linking with the next as if it were electronic activity. It’s like a small fireworks display, arising and falling away. Some time later sleep comes and the world disappears.


Too Much is Never Enough


“If this sticky, uncouth craving overcomes you in the world, your sorrows grow like wild grass after rain.” (Dhammapada 335)

Tanha perpetuates ‘the fever of unsatisfied longing’; the opposite of bien être (sense of well-being). Tanha is not a happy bunny. It attempts to feed the hunger of ‘wanting’ but the action of feeding it only sharpens the edge of appetite; there’s never enough. Tanha is a deep craving for ‘self’. It is astonishing to think that the ‘self’ we have constructed to fill the void of ‘no self’ is the direct result of tanha. I am ‘me’, here in this world, because of tanha.

Tanha is the cause of Suffering, the 2nd Noble Truth, the 7th step in the Paticcasamuppada. Tanha is the reason for rebirth. In the story of King Assaka and Queen Upari, Queen Upari died and became a cow dung beetle in the next life. But she felt quite at home in her lowly existence as a cow dung beetle and this is due to tanhã (craving) which finds delight everywhere. Tanhã gives pleasure, delighting in whatever sense object presents itself – tanhã has the tendency to delight wherever it finds rebirth. Reborn as a dog, it takes delight in a dog’s existence; reborn as a pig, as a fowl, there is always delight in each existence.

It explains very well the reason why some people you meet are absolutely committed to ‘wrong view’ with an intensity that takes your breath away. They believe they’re right and the rest of the world is wrong. No matter what anybody says, they continue to do it the wrong way. Life is pretty difficult for somebody like that. I’m reminded of a song from the 60s: ‘The original discriminating buffalo man. He’ll do what’s wrong as long as he can.’ (Lyrics: The Minotaur’s Song’ by Incredible String Band [link])

Tanha is step 7/8 in the paticcasamuppada causality sequence. Interrupt the sequence there and bring the whole thing to an end. I first came across it in Walpole Rahula’s ‘What the Buddha Taught’, then later in Ajahn Buddhadasa [link] The way to deal with tanha is to cut off the conditions that lead to its arising. The entry point here is the step before it: 7. Vedana. At the vedana stage, there are three possibilities: the arising of pleasure, or pain or neutral feelings. If feelings of pleasure or pain arise, then craving or aversion will follow and tanha will be the result.

‘… if, by an act of will, only the neutral feeling was allowed to arise from contact with the object… the seventh link would be neutralized, de-activated. That being so, tanha could not arise, and the next link (upadana) would fail to arise and so on …” Eric Cheetham, “Fundamentals of Mainstream Buddhism”, p214-215

For me, the discovery that interrupting the sequence at Vedana changed the momentum of everything was awesome, to say the least. This is how I quit the tobacco habit (and other things). By allowing the neutral response (at Vedana) to be present for a moment, I noticed an easing in the craving, a cessation – just enough to trigger my curiosity… what is going on here? The first time this happened, the cessation took place just as my recognition of it clicked as (possibly) ‘the way out’, and I knew then I’d cracked it. Now I see it’s about staying a little distant from it, and allowing the craving to start the process of cessation by itself. Trying to confront/defeat the craving will not work because willed action only causes it to arise again.

Time went on and the craving would arise but there was always cessation. By my continuing to recognize that it’s in the nature of Tanha (as with everything else) to be transient like this, it was seen as something that comes and goes – bye-bye craving. The neutral feeling didn’t register as anything (that’s the thing about neutral feeling) and there was a space, a gap that wasn’t there before. Curiosity about this new space, just discovered, led to extra motivation. I could see that I was changed. Situations that used to completely overwhelm and demolish me seemed more distant; I’d found a way of looking at them as if they were something quite separate.

Other habitual behaviour began to fall away. I began to notice the wonderful emptiness or the wholeness or … (whatever word you use isn’t quite it), a great peace in the space of the mind that comes about when you understand that there is a way out of Suffering. I figured out that I am not dependent on the ‘dependent’ mind state tanha. I can walk away from it; everything that arises, ceases.

[link to image source]