For a Buddhist, it may seem odd to make a big thing of Christmas, and many do try there best to have nothing to do with it. Particularly the out of control consumerism. But in Abbey House there's quite a long held tradition that we decorate the community and put on a slap up meal for whoever is around over the Christmas period. You can fight the prevailing mood, but you'll not win. So why not just embrace it positively to some extent, on your own terms. After all, the Christians basically took over already existing pagan celebrations that marked the period between the Winter Solstice, the deathlike low point of the Sun before the arrival of a New Year and rebirth of Spring, to suit their own back story. We just need to take some of it back, and use what is positive about this time:~ namely the opportunity for generosity and sharing, and make the most of that. In the grey dull cloudy skies of December what better thing is there to do than make what is bright, uplifting, light-filled, beautiful and joyous more present? Here's a few pictures of the Abbey House this year.
Tuesday, December 25, 2012
Friday, December 21, 2012
I returned to 'The Drift' knowing I'd never got more than halfway through before bailing out. After the first aural battle charge of 'Cossaks Are', comes 'Clara' a ten minute epic which apparently is about the lynching of Mussolini in a public square. This proves all too intense, too bleak, too unsettling to be taken in in one sitting. So I started listening from halfway to the end, and ,yes, the darkness of Walker's vision is complete and thorough. But curiously, once it is given time to bed in and become more familiar, the bleakness softens, and one hears a deeper vein of melancholy. His music does have an refined starkness and beauty to it, that is actually quite moving. Scott speaks in tongues that are simultaneously incomprehensible and universally recognisable. We sort of know, but don't really want to hear or risk truly understanding
In comparison to 'The Drift ', 'Tilt' appears a much softer gentler work, more prone to plangent strings, romantic surges and symphonic flourishes. The movement traveled sound wise over all three albums is similar to moving from the soundscape of Sibelius to Ligeti.. Here's one of my favourite tracks from 'Tilt', 'Patriot (A Single), sorry that this video is mostly photographs of someone's girlfriends titties. She's pretty, but I don't quite get the connection myself.
Walker has said in interviews that reviewers tend not to notice the humour in his work. Well, it's hard to find Scott. It is there, though its rather desiccated and arid. Its not in his subject matter or lyrics, but in his sound sources. In the use of the sound of a neighing donkey, on 'Jolson & Jones' from 'The Drift', for example. Though this actually sets your teeth on edge, it would be outrageously funny if it weren't framed in such a musically desolate landscape. The gravitas and profundity with which he holds his musical intent, means it can teeter on the edge of the pretentious or portentous, but it never ever tips into hilarity. No such light relief is provided to ease the existential tension he creates.
So where does 'Bish Bosch' take us, that we haven't been before? Scott has referred to it as the final part of a trilogy, that after this he's ready for a change of style and approach. 'Bisch Bosch', in comparison to 'The Drift' is harder edged and icily sparse, it has more electronic rhythm with occasional deep heavy metal guitar flourishes. The twenty seven minute epic SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter) extends the hostile morbid aspects of 'Clara' to include the heart broken, loneliness, isolation and torture of a concentration camp. Yes, its not remotely cheerful. So far I've rarely got beyond this track. Keeping up with Scott is quite an emotional commitment, but one that frequently bears fruit given time. The territory he's venturing into here. has a sense of pieces being anchored on the top of strong compulsive rhythms, such as on the track 'Epizootics.'
At this point in my familiarisation process, its hard to say whether Bish Bosch is a worse, better or an up to standard work. My initial sense is that this is a transition work, which we wont fully understand the significance, or worth of, till the next album emerges, probably several years hence.
In the documentary about his career made before 'The Drift' was released, 30th Century Man, Scott talked about the effect his baritone voice has on the audience that hears it. That it had a comforting reassuring quality, bringing with it a sense of security and stability, which he'd found needed deliberate countering. It's a similar route that David Sylvian, also the possessor of a soft chocolate soothing baritone, has been taking with his voice on his recent sole albums This explains the often unsettling nature of both of their contemporary work. The richness of Scott's vocal range is developing a thinner, rawer, more broken, raucous quality with each album. As if the lovely is being embedded in, and poisoned by, the unlovely.
Now in his seventies, Scott Walker is showing no signs of retiring to a care home yet. Bish Bosch highlights how comfortingly retro and safe most modern popular music has become. This is braver music, more willing to take huge risks, than that being made by men and women fifty years younger than him .
Thursday, December 06, 2012
Part Ten - Taking Refuge
In the days before Dogen died, too weak to really chant any more, he took to walking round and round a temple pillar. He’d written on the pillar only three words – Buddha – Dharma – Sangha. He said:-
“In the beginning, in the middle, and in the end, in your life, as you approach death, always, through all births and deaths, always take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha”11
This central response of Going for Refuge, to take the Buddha, the Dharma (his teachings) and Sangha (his noble disciples and followers) to your heart, arises directly out of sraddha. At its most highly developed sraddha is in a balanced, fully integrated relationship with all the other faculties of wisdom, energy, concentration and mindfulness. This enables anyone to effectively practice ‘Binding one’s Self without a rope’, whatever way you might chose to interpret or evaluate it. In the end we practice how to make our practice effective, as we practice.
Daily we awake, arise and get dressed, have our breakfast and set out into the world. The elements that constitute our day, are also the elements that constitute our practice. Through our daily routine of quite simple, almost insignificant, actions, something altogether more profound can be made present, as long as we remain attentive and aware. Each day on the path of purification, we should be very much like that intrepid tight-rope walker mentioned earlier - alert and balanced. Determined to remain so, whilst we energetically step forward out across the threshold. Our confidence may flicker, but will not be extinguished, though we are bound for a conclusion we can barely sense yet, enshrouded, as it is, in a dense blizzard of spray and clouds of unknowing.
Part Ten - References
11 – Taken from – What is the dharma ? – By Sangharakshita.
Published by Windhorse Publications 1998.
Part Nine - Sailing towards Suchness
Recently the great 19th Century maritime ship The Cutty Sark was in the news, as a serious fire had raged through its hull, destroying a large part of its timber decking and frame. The day after, on BBC Radio Four's - Today programme, there was an interesting debate. The topic for discussion was - If the boat were fully restored, with little of her original timbers left - could it still be considered The Cutty Sark? - the general conclusion was that it could. For over the years it had been repaired on numerous occasions, and restored to its former glory. What it represented to maritime history, had over the years of its existence become almost archetypal, it possessed an identifiable ‘Cutty Sarkness’, a mythos and continuity that it alone could own. This had survived nearly two centuries of repair and renewal. I thought this revealing in terms of our relationship to the things we have created, and also by extension our relationship with that other created thing - our own Self.
Our own bodies bones, muscles and flesh are also in constant repair. Cells are being replaced every second, every minute, hour and day of our lives. The me that is now physically fifty years old, has little left in it of the me that existed fifteen or thirty years ago. Yet there is still a physical body with remembered experiences and a continuity of habitation – a history of ‘Vidyavajraness’ that persists, despite irrevocable change and aging. This continuity of habitation is the backbone that upholds and supports the Self. If you took away the Self, took away that continuity of habitation, took away those recollections of past experiences and feelings, removed that ‘Vidyavajraness’, what would be left? Would you be empty, if so what sort of emptiness would that be? Would you be a simpleton, a vegetable or would you be a sage at peace with themselves? Perhaps there would be just the fundamental essence of a being-be-ing left, an indefinable experience sometimes called ‘Suchness’.
The Heart Sutra, is the most famous and popular of the prajnaparamita or Perfection Of Wisdom Sutras. It has something to say about the nature of ‘Suchness’ It’s presented in the form of a monologue addressed by Avalokiteshvara (an Enlightened being) to Sariputra one of the Buddha’s most intellectually adept disciples. It could be interpreted as an instruction from a being established in ‘suchness’ to one, who in the sutra at least, has not achieved this state. In typical Buddhist fashion it largely proceeds in defining ‘suchness’ by virtue of what it is not, thereby resisting making a firm definition of something that's spoken of as being beyond definition. It begins as follows :-
“ Avalokiteshvara, the Holy Lord and Bodhisattva, was moving in the deep course of the Wisdom which has gone beyond. He looked down from on high, he beheld but five heaps, and he saw that in their own-being they were empty”14
The five heaps he ‘beholds’ are the five skandhas:- Form, Feeling, Perception, Volition and Discriminating Consciousness – the collective constituents and supporting mechanisms for the Self. These are also referred to as the five aggregates. Now, I find aggregates an interesting choice of word to use in relation to the Self. It does have strong associations with builders merchant's yards that supply, wood, earth. rocks, gravels, sand, concrete and bricks, in fact everything you need to build a house. They lie in those merchant yards in bays, in segregated heaps, catagorised, labeled and priced per ton or length. Each has it's own value attributed to it. But Avalokiteshvara beholds these aggregates and says, not that they aren’t worth much, but that they actually aren’t worth anything, that as heaps they are empty of any intrinsic value or meaning we might attribute to them. They don’t individually possess even a gram of self-consciousness. They don’t sit there thinking “I am a heap, I am an aggregate, I’m a measly pile of rocks,” they just lie inanimate and worthless.
The five skandhas make up the Self, in the same way individual small pieces of cloth when stitched together make up a patchwork blanket. Each scrap of cloth, taken in isolation, cannot be called a blanket. In themselves the skandhas lack a sense of their own-being. There is no owning being, there is no intrinsic value to them, this is not changed even if we bunch them all together, tied tightly with a rope so they can become owned - my body, my feelings, my perceptions, my volitions, my discriminating consciousness. When there is an ‘owning being’ it confers and places value onto whatever it owns – owning is valuing – owning infers meaning. So ‘Binding one’s Self - without a rope’ may mean to do so - without attaching any value to the Self - without encouraging the ‘owning being’ to take possession of what you’re doing. The Heart Sutra then takes it one step further :-
Here,O Sariputra, form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness; whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form, the same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness”14
It’s not just the skandhas, but anything that’s formed from them, indeed anything that has form, or is given form, is empty in its own-being, is empty of an owning being.
If you look at a pottery vase, what makes it useful is the emptiness that it’s form contains. We bring to it purpose and meaning by placing water and beautiful flowers in it. But this purpose and meaning is transitory, the flowers die and the water becomes stinking and repugnant. Even the vase itself is breakable and can become useless fragments. Likewise, we possess a form, a body that houses various senses and a consciousness. Individually, there is no owning being, what owning being there is - the Self can only be brought and placed into the body, like those flowers are into the vase. The body and the Self (both the container and what is contained) are conditioned by existence, whatever we place within it will be subject to gradual decay and death. Not only the Self, but also the body and senses that house it, are then all empty of any durable essence. Later in the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara says:-
“Therefore, O Sariputra, it is because of his indifference to any kind of personal attainment, and through his reliance on the Perfection of Wisdom, that a Bodhisattva dwells without thought-coverings. In the absence of thought-coverings he has not been made to tremble, he has overcome what can upset, and in the end he attains to Nirvana”14
The phrase that he ‘dwells without thought-coverings’ is intriguing, because when those ‘thought-coverings’ are absent the vicissitudes of conditioned existence no longer appear to disturb him. 'Thought-coverings' are all those things that the Self protects itself beneath, I, Me, ,Mine, You, Them, Theirs, all dualities, all ideas, all ideals, and concepts – pure and impure, conditioned or unconditioned – all thoughts of personal gain or attainment.
If we now return to Dogen’s phrase “Binding one’s Self without a rope’ I think we can now pull on another thread and see what unravels. ‘Binding’ implies there is something tangible that must be restrained. ‘Binding’ could almost define the nature of conditioned existence. The language we apply within such an existence, will tend to justify and bind us to the very thing we may wish to eradicate. Unwittingly the very way we conceive the Self can tacitly support and make it seem viable. Even the notion of ‘suchness’, is an idea flowering from conditioned soil, and can become possessed by the Self. In ‘Binding one’s Self’ within conditionality one needs to cultivate doing so ‘without a rope’, without owning, without conferring value or meaning, without any ideal or conceptual framework, without any other ‘thought-covering’ that might constrain or mislead. even without any idea of attaining Enlightenment. ‘Binding one’s Self without a rope’ appears to be suggesting a process of gradually letting go and eventually doing without the support of any rope whatsoever. Paradoxically to - Bind one’s Self – without - a Self to bind it.
The end of the Heart Sutra finishes with the recitation of the Prajnaparamita Mantra :-
“gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha”
This translates in an unadorned manner as – 'Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, All Hail !' – it’s a further precis of the Heart Sutra. Outlining in one sentence a progression of higher states, through which consciousness is purified of its discriminating taints, each ‘going beyond’ the one preceding it. As each impediment to Enlightenment is ceased one becomes raised to further higher state of consciousness With the first ‘gone’, we have surpassed the conditioned. With the second ‘gone’, we have surpassed the unconditioned, and all preconceived notions of what enlightenment may be. This is followed by being ‘gone beyond’ any dualistic notion at all - of being an impure being in search of purity, of Samsara being distinct from Nirvana, of emptiness being separate from form. At the penultimate stage we have ‘gone altogether beyond’ any subtle concept relating to the emptiness or otherwise of all phenomena or reality. We are empty of all ‘bindings’ associated with the Self – we are completely - Without. This is followed immediately by ‘an awakening’ and a loud salutation from a whole Universe of Enlightened beings.
Part Nine - References
14- Taken from – Buddhist Wisdom Books containing the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra,
Translated by Edward Conze – Published by Unwin Hyman 1988
Part Eight - Self and Sraddha
We are born with inquiring minds, so we desire to know what Enlightenment may, or may not be, before we set off on our journey. If nothing else it gives you something to look forward to. Though the path of purification can sometimes appear as clear as the mud that a fledgling white lotus tentatively peeks out from. We are, after all, bound by our aspiration for Enlightenment, not by our experience of it. With only this thread bare grasp on Insight, we commit ourselves to the path purification. Ajahn Punnadhammo sees this as just how it is on the learning slopes of spiritual practice:-
“It could be said that for one who has not yet glimpsed for themselves the unconditioned, this is the one place in Buddhist teaching where the faculty of faith (sraddha) is absolutely indispensable. Because all our language and thought belongs to the conditioned realm, the unconditioned can never be imagined or arrived at by reason. Even for one who has realised it, it cannot be explained. For one who has not, it must be taken on faith”8
Another interpretation then of what may be meant by ‘Binding one’s Self without a rope’, is that our practice will inevitable be done in this manner; without a clear comprehension of who, what or how we will be, once we’ve reached that ultimate objective. No matter what you call it, Awakening, Enlightenment, Nirvana or Buddha Nature, it cannot be grasped hold of, in the way a rope can be. Any rope we conceive of, will be an imaginative misconception. Until we actually experience Enlightenment, we have to proceed with our practice ‘without a rope’ of insight.
This would further explain why Dogen placed such an emphasis on practice being complete in itself. In practicing because we practice we shouldn’t need to get somewhere, because that ‘wanting to get somewhere’ can become a bit of a problem in the spiritual life, as we have already seen. Determined and dedicated practice forms its own virtuous spiral, self-supporting and self-transcending, Dogen even said that :-
“ Your practice as a descendant of yourself is endless” 9
To truly understand how the sense of one’s Self comes into being, will provide enough work for this, or many lifetimes. It may not appear that radical a vision for practice, but it is underpinned by a metaphysical viewpoint that is. Put simply; the act of sitting on a cushion to practice is an embodiment of Buddha Nature. At that moment our intention, our volition, our simple devoted act of meditation manifests it, at least in embryo , within everyday reality. Absolute Reality is sitting within the Relative view of reality, like a sleeping cat curled up in a lap. We only need to awaken it through practice . Nirvana is a multi-faceted diamond, more valuable because it is shot through with the glinting flaws of Samsara. Our imperfections sparkle in the strengthening light of our practice. The ordinary everyday world appears to act like a dense fog , concealing how inseparable our connection to Buddha Nature really is. The act of practice itself, clears the fog away and our perceptions are also purified of obscurations.
On really cold frosty mornings, as you get into your car, the instant you sit down on your car seat the windscreen will mist up, just as a consequence of your presence, from the warmth of your body and breath. Living in a conditioned reality is like that. Simply by virtue of having a body with senses, a mind with a Self, your perceptions will be fogged, misted up and obscured. At least this is how it can seem from our conditioned perspective. What appears to happen at the moment of Insight indicates that a profound shift in that perception does takes place. It’s demonstrated by the 'Not-Two-Doctrine,' expounded in a popular sutra, that isn’t really a sutra at all; The Vimalakirti Nirdesa :-
“samsara and nirvana make two. See the true nature of samsara, and then there is no samsara, no bondage, no liberation, no burning, and no cessation”
“Purity and impurity make two. If you see the real nature of impurity, then there is no state of purity, and you conform to the state of purity, This is entering the gate of the Not-Two-Doctrine”10
If our windscreen is obscured by mist it would seem practical to wipe it clear. Likewise we conscientiously proceed with the practice of cleaning our perception, purifying our motives and broadening awareness. This works only up to a point, that point is when we question our real nature, the origin and cause of the mist that obscures our vision. How did these impurities arise in the first place, where did they come from? This is when the imperfect nature of our thoughts, words and deeds become just symptoms emerging out of the much greater malaise - the Self. It is both the progenitor of our impurity, and the cause of our misperception of it. The moment we really see the true nature of The Self, then all those troublesome dualities vanish, and consciousness is restored to an intrinsic purity, the natural state of Buddha Nature.
This in no way implies we shouldn’t, or don’t need to, make an effort. Its vital we investigate the imperfect nature of our actions, be ethical, practice precepts etc. This is the basic groundwork, the essential preparation, and a necessary process in practice which we need to apply to ourselves assiduously. Dogen, himself, struggled with this apparent contradictory pull in emphasis - What is the purpose of practicing the path of purity if we are intrinsically pure already? It is an issue that has confounded countless Zen practitioners over the centuries. Dogen overcame it by making practice itself a de facto manifestation of Buddha Nature. All that the 'Not-Two-Doctrine' really implies is, that by all means remove the dust from a mirror’s surface, polish it till it gleams, but if you don’t also look into the experience of your Self and reality full-face in that mirror, then all your effort will be for naught.
Dogen deeply desired to encourage us to practice above all else, but he didn’t want to alienate us from our present selves in the process. He sincerely wanted to draw us closer to a truer sense of Self and Reality. Yet if we practice because we practice, can we do so unsupported ‘without a rope’? Sometimes rope- ladders, rope-bridges, or guide-ropes are essential to help us cross the complex of chasms and ravines we encounter in our practice, they draw us safely through dark, unfamiliar terrain. We surely need to place our trust in something, to have something to steady us? If we hold on to nothing, what will support and give a sense of direction when, from time to time, our determination deserts us? This brings forth another explanation for what ‘Binding one’s self without a rope’ may mean.
Whilst we are still stuck in a conditioned view of existence, our way of escape, of getting off the merry-go-round is unclear. Within the Nidana Chain is shown a way to escape, a tangible point of exit, placed slap-bang between the stages of Feeling and Craving. Normally we feel pain, and try to escape it by indulging in craving. We move from feeling to craving so quickly, we are soon lost in the labyrinthine complexities of the Self and its desires. Whilst the first part of pratitya samutpada described the means by which we are imprisoned by conditioned existence. The second half of pratitya samutpada describes both a method and a means of escape :-
This not becoming –That does not become
From the ceasing of this – That ceases.
All this says, is that the causation process, the wheel rolling down the hill, that constructs conditioned experience can be brought to a halt, and cease altogether. The first part shows what propels the wheel; the ongoing desires of the Self. The second part shows that if desires no longer arise then everything that is a conditioning consequence of them ceases. This sounds perfectly logical and simple. Awareness of how this works happens slowly and is not necessarily easy. First you have to notice what is happening. Then instead of letting unpleasant feelings roll on into the craving for pleasure, or letting pleasurable feelings roll on into our wanting to possess them eternally, we learn how to stay put with whatever feeling that has arisen. When craving is not indulged in, then nothing becomes of it, and in that ‘nothing moment’ the desire to respond fades away. A baby will often cry because this is how it gets the attention it wants, and it will continue to do so if you always respond by giving it the attention it wants - so it is with craving. The volition behind conditioned existence is fueled by craving, the moment it ceases being responded to, then all that normally follows on after it ceases too.
Staying with our feelings, whether unpleasant or not, requires practice and consistent application. Through doggedly staying with them, here and now, we can finally appreciate what had been happening unconsciously all the time. Conditioned existence is, and always will be, an unsatisfactory whirl of activity. Until we actually realise this to our very bones, we cannot hope to rise above it. If we hover at this point between feeling and craving for long enough, we may eventually achieve some form of insight into how much we’re buggered about by conditioned existence. Real sraddha or faith in an unconditioned reality is said to arise as a consequence.
As fallible, frail hearted beings we feel the need for guidance, and some sense of certainty. Such a life-saving rope, cannot be an intellectual idea alone, it has to be profoundly touched by a personal vision or sensitivity.
Sangharakshita says that ;-
“Faith is the emotional counterpart to reason. What you understand with your intelligence you must feel also with your emotions”11
The Sanskrit word sraddha is often translated as faith, though it’s meaning, it’s real spirit, is captured better by a descriptive phrase ‘that which we place our heart upon’. We never immediately place our heart upon anything. Sraddha is not blind or impulsive, it’s tried and tested, our trust and confidence in it, is built up, reinforced and strengthened over a lifetime of reflection on a lifetime of experience. This may make it sound like an entirely rational thing, but feeling, intuition and imagination play a large role in creating the rope that is sraddha. It cannot be prescribed, so you have to learn for yourself what constitutes sraddha for you. What exactly is your heart placed upon?
Personally I’ve found sraddha a tricky thing to grasp and keep hold of, it can easily slip through my hands as though they were oiled or greased. It appears to resist too tight a hold, or too rigid a definition. I have sometimes found myself bereft of a positive vision and desire for practice, these being eclipsed temporarily by the arising of stronger negative emotions. At such moments sraddha can seem a very insubstantial wraith indeed. Though even in the midst of despair, the weakened pulse of sraddha can always be heard. It is subtle, and a difficult thing to spot, particularly if you’re not in good spirits, though it will be there none-the-less. Afterwards, once the dark mood has passed, its worth asking a few questions of yourself; What has stopped me packing in this whole spiritual life and practice, or even giving up on life itself? What things do I continue to do, what do I maintain even in the midst of despondency? What usually lifts my spirits, however temporarily, why and how do they do this? What is it that pulls you out of the darkest of mental wombs?
We want to live, something keeps us going, it maybe tenacity, resilience, we want to survive, yes, but it's always for a reason. Whatever it is that gets us back on our feet, isn’t entirely dependent on a raw survival instinct kicking in. Some element of sraddha makes us bear with the despair, we know it will pass. Though it may elude our conscious grasp, there is still trust in there being some purpose to our life. As a child, when you were learning to ride a bike, you’d no doubt fall off and hurt yourself frequently, but you’d dust yourself down and get back on the bike. You’d set your heart on achieving something, were determined, and as a consequence developed trust and confidence you would make it,eventually. That was a moment of sraddha.
Over the years I’ve found it helpful to reflect on my darker moods from the perspective of the conditioned marks - moods aren’t permanent either- Hurrah! - they might feel substantial, but they’re not – Hurrah !! – they cannot be a reflection of your self worth, because what is that anyway? - Hurrah !!! Sometimes, in craving for my experience to be pleasant and less painful I’ve made it worse and suffer even more. If I can bear with such feelings without a craving desire following, it does pass much quicker. This experience of the effectiveness of the Buddhist teachings, if I’m able to recollect it, also reinforces my sense of sraddha. Such recollection needs to be practiced, as our world is dominated, if not obsessed, by negative perceptions, so they can swamp or drown out the positive uplifting insights.
For myself, equilibrium is often restored through intimate conversation with valued Buddhist friends. They let me say what I need to say, get whatever it is off my chest, and then support and encourage me to see what’s happened in a broader perspective. In effect they hold my a sense of self belief and sraddha, until such times when they can safely place it back into my hands, Over the years I’ve come to place my heart more confidently in the strength of such friendships.
Contact with some form of beauty is often essential, particularly being close to nature. I’ve sat on sand dunes, alone, observing the currents of the ocean, the tidal fluctuations, patterns and flumes. Watching the way the coastal winds blow dry sand from the dunes in feathered streams across a wet beach. I’ve admired the skilled flight and stasis of seabirds. Laid down on the beach, looking up as the cloud formations scud quickly overhead, backed by the sharpest of blue skies. Stared out at the clearest, most expansive of horizon lines, in awe and wonder as the spectrum of sunlight changes as it waxes and wanes. All these things quickly convert the insistent bleating of thoughts into a more peaceful, contemplative content. My heart feels restored to its home and is at rest.
I remember a specific occasion when I was on a solitary retreat in Suffolk, in a place called Shingle Street. It was a beautiful day, with a clear sky, bright, but with a strong breeze. I took out the kite I’d brought with me and lay down on the shingle bank. I listened for a while, giving attention to the genial rattle of pebbles as each wave advanced and retreated. Slowly I let out the kite string, watching as the wind lifted it higher and higher. This gentle elevation suddenly felt significant, like my own heart was being lifted with it too, my aspiration for release was up there flying with the birds. At the same time I felt separate from it, so rooted to the ground and weighed down by myself and my earthly concerns. For that one moment I felt strongly what my heart most wanted and simultaneously how far away it seemed. It felt both so beautiful and yet so tragic that I was moved to tears. Somehow, that experience helped bring further shape to what the core of my sraddha consisted of.
Other forms of beauty, more man-made, such as forms of Art, can affect me too. Music, poetry, painting, film, theatre, even humour can be beautiful in what it reveals sometimes. Sraddha can also be restored by the sense of beauty present in meditation, or in the reading a Buddhist sutra or a discourse by Dogen. All these things raise my spirits, bring a clearer more heartfelt perspective, that things can get better, that better is still possible. This perception of beauty (however conditional) prefigures the vision of a True Enlightened Beauty. Even just briefly brushing against this can transfigure the blackest of nights.
Dogen implies that awareness of sraddha is not only a practice, but a form of self knowledge, even a means to Insight, when he states that :-
“ Understanding through faith is that which we cannot evade”12
So looked at from this perspective ‘Binding one’s self without a rope’ turns from being advice, to being a warning. ‘Bind one’s Self’ but don’t attempt to do it ‘without a rope’ – you need a golden thread of sraddha to hold onto. It would be unproductive, if not dangerous, to go probing into the sense of one’s Self without a well developed sense of sraddha, as your lode star and emotional compass.
Sraddha can never be fully knowable, but it is a spiritual faculty that needs encouragement to develop. There are five spiritual faculties:- sraddha / faith , prajna / wisdom, virya / energy, samadhi / concentration of mind, and smrti / mindfulness. A spiritual practitioner needs to be a bit like a tightrope walker, and have all these faculties alive and well balanced. Again I refer to Sangharakshita :-
“Just as the five sense-faculties govern and control and dominate mundane life, so, in the same way, the five spiritual senses govern and control and dominate the spiritual life Just as we find our way about the physical world with our sense-faculties, so, in the same way, we find our way about the spiritual world with the five spiritual faculties”11
So, a tightrope walker crossing Niagara Falls, has to keep his face looking forward. Putting trust in his practice of balance to keep him upright. He cannot keep glancing downwards to check if the rope is still there, otherwise he might wobble and fall. He has developed a trust and confidence that the rope will be there at the beginning, be there in the middle and be there at the end. With a strong sense of himself, the energy he has at his command, plus his ability to concentrate on the task at hand, he has learnt to sense his way forward using only the touch of his feet. Sraddha, likewise, can only be felt, without it, the pounding foam and voluble roar of Samsara will dominate, overwhelming our practice with doubt and panic. Sraddha is, according to John Daido Loori an emotional quality that remains:-
“dark to the mind but radiant to the heart ”13
What binds us spiritually to a path of purification is intimately connected to the depth of our feeling and emotional connection to it. How willing we are to follow the instructive impulses of what we have placed our heart upon. These will hold us to our practice regardless of the terrain. You can then proceed confidently with no literal map to follow, even ‘without a rope.’.
Part Eight - References
8 – Taken from – The Right view of Re-Birth – By Ajhan Punnadhammo
Published in Buddhadharma Magazine , Spring 2007.
9 - Taken from – Dogen’s formative years in China - By Takashi James Kodera.
Published by Boulder: Pranja Press 1980.
10 – Taken from – The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti – Translated by Robert A.F. Thurman.
Published by The Pennsylvania State University Press 1976.
11 – Taken from – What is the dharma ? – By Sangharakshita.
Published by Windhorse Publications 1998.
12 - Taken from – Nothing Special / Living Zen – By Charlotte Joko Beck
Published by Harper Collins Publishers 1993.
13 - Taken from – The Eight Gates of Zen - By John Daido Loori
Published by Zen Mountain Monastery Publications.
Part Seven - Freeing up the Self
Dogen is not advising us to punish ourselves for having a Self, nor to start all over again, to knit a completely new garment, a clean sense of one’s Self made with fresh pink wool. What he is saying is - look at the size of those knitting needles - observe how your hand and mind work together when you knit - the neatness, the sense of dexterity and detailed attention to design and pattern – the order and form your consistent effort brings to it - learn why it is you want to knit in the first place – the pleasures and the pitfalls of knitting - how you could be free of knitting - because once you start observing your actions closely you’ll see that it’s not the Self alone, but the constant knitting of it, that is entirely superfluous.
I brought into my Buddhist life the sense of my Self that included all the various peccadillo’s and neuroses inherited from my life before. I was a naive and frustrated idealist. A tad cynical and bitter as a result. Life didn't come up with what I’d felt worthy of. I’d spent most of my adult life living on my own, running it within tightly defined boundaries. Self-disciplined, self-reliant, determined and tenacious, these qualities saw me through many difficult times. Some of these same qualities, learned from my earlier life, aided my Buddhist practice, some impeded it, and others somehow managed to do both simultaneously.
Initially there seemed to be so much to become aware of and transform. Swept under every innocent preference, I discovered another surfeit of stubbornly resistant habits and hang-ups. It’s in the nature of self awareness, to only reveal incrementally how trapped you are by the sense of one’s Self. Tensions in my spiritual practice inevitable arose, as my desire for freedom from, grew in parallel to my discontent with. Discontent itself arises out of a desire, spiritual or mundane, that is in some way thwarted. Ajahn Brahm points out how a different emphasis on freedom and desire must be established. It differs quite radically from the materialistic perspective of our rights and choice orientated secular world:-
“Freedom is being content to be where you are.
Prison is wanting to be somewhere else.
The Free World is the world experienced by one who is content.
The real freedom is freedom from desire, never freedom to desire.”7
Being free to desire will tend towards binding us to the Self and its proliferation, whilst being free from desire will tend towards liberating us from this constant cycle of self-perpetuation.
As a Buddhist, I have to openly acknowledge the full spectrum that constitutes me, my imperfections, as well as my more virtuous attainments. The things I want to be free from; the flaws, taints, discolourations and stains inherent to owning a discriminating consciousness. Knowing my perception is somewhat sullied, it’s understandable I might desire to be perfectible, to purify my every thought, word and deed. However, this practice to purify these elements of our consciousness has to be a delicate balancing act; juggling staying at peace with my imperfections, whilst simultaneously working out how to purify and be free of their influence. Laying siege and declaring an intense - war on imperfection - is a strategy destined to fail, there is nothing cleansing or cathartic about such carnage. If handled with sensitivity, the cultivation of renunciation, freedom from desire, ethical probity and judicious guarding of the senses, can gently restrain and bind the Self, like a healing bandage placed over and around an infected wound.
Applied harshly, these very same practices can have a deceptive and cruel shadow. To affect a spurious consistency, gives an outward appearance that sanctifies our practice, but having no depth, can only be maintained by insensitive and rigid self constraint. Our aspirations can sometimes override, and treat as insignificant, those resistant, belligerent parts of our experience which refuse to play along with this Buddhism lark. We can unwittingly cultivate an aggressive intolerance toward our own inconsistencies. This is one way a ‘ negative consequence’ can follow in the wake of too willful a practice. In the psycho/physical pains, emotional deadness, erratic mood swings, the characteristics of an unconscious or suppressed resistance. This mode of practice attempts to literally bind craving and desire, lock it away in a dungeon in an iron mask, so no-one can recognise its face. Instead we should warmly welcome our inconsistencies as gifts, observe our desires compassionately, renounce where gross if necessary, but hold them all with a kind awareness ‘without a rope’. Gradually, through quietly determined practice, is the only way we will softly liberate ourselves from their binding grip.
This is perhaps an appropriate point to take a look into the problematic nature of our relationship with ropes. Binding describes the principle that ropes are the practical application of. Though ropes have many beneficial and practical uses; they hold animals in harness, tie back gates, form ship's rigging, weigh anchors and fly flags etc. There ability to tie, hold or restrain something from moving, is just as easily used to punish, kidnap or imprison. Ropes are a harsh way to bind a body, or even, metaphorically speaking, a mind. They’re strong, difficult to break free from, rubbing the skin raw, often to the point of bleeding should you struggle to escape. They imprison the unwilling impulse via an imagined penance, or a perverse dream of self flagellation. Whether ropes are made from hemp or willpower, they can be used to mortify a soul. Yet attempting to shift emotional intransigence in this way, instead of eradicating it, makes it dig its heels in further or creates further obstacles on the path to self purification.
A simple innocent aspiration to change, to become something other than what we currently are, can sometimes appear impeded. If we respond with impatience, this response twists and tightens our sense of bondage, using our own frustration as the wrench. Aspiration quickly becomes aggravation, turning to desperation when faced with the intransigence of The Self and reality, to conform to our will. Any practice we take on, be it a cultivation or renunciation, needs to float on a steady stream of forgiveness towards ourselves. If we fail, we fail, if we succeed, we succeed. These are very worldly winds and waters that we are traveling through on our journey of purification. If we skillfully avoid the jagged rocks of willful self discipline, or any constraint arising from guilt or gross self coercion, then we neutralise the possibility of any later storm or tempest throwing us off-course. We can at least cultivate becoming equanimous to any future negative consequence that arises. Bind ‘one’s Self’ to a practice, be determined by all means, but do so without the use of a rope, whip, or outward sign of force.
Part Seven - References
7- Taken from - Who ordered this truckload of dung? - By Ajahn Brahm
Published by Wisdom Publications 2005.
Part Six - If Not Now, When?
Some form of nascent confidence in the existence of an unconditioned reality, a ‘greater self’, and Enlightenment needs to fuel our desire for practice. Though often our day to day practice is dealing with the consequences of more mundane experiences. How do you experience the unconditioned? What do you need to do to develop a ‘greater self’? In what manner do you practice in order to attain Enlightenment? These are not questions easily held uppermost in our minds, but examining our day to day experience is not a distraction from them, but the route to their answer if looked at with honest, clear awareness. There are almost as many answers to these questions as there are people. It is to some extent a matter of temperament and disposition, what and how we practice. Within Buddhism there are three basic areas for practice; – Meditation, Ethics and Wisdom. Each tradition reverences the Buddha, studies his teachings, and supports each other in practice, in their own culturally distinctive manner. Buddhism has had two and a half thousand years to develop a vast range of practices, teachings, and most of all lists. I’ve already mentioned a few here:- the three laksanas, four viparyasas, five skandhas,and the eight lokadharmmas. The breadth and comprehensiveness of them is staggering, but it can equally confuse and overwhelm. To practice effectively means to remain aware of that immense breadth, whilst choosing to focus on a few specific practices. Otherwise our effort will be dispersed thinly over too wide a range.
Cha`n/Zen Buddhism focused practice primarily on the act of Meditation. Which didn’t mean ethics and wisdom were ignored altogether. Meditation requires a basic ethical sensibility, an ability to discern positive and negative mental states and be aware of what they will lead to. An expanding sense of awareness and emotional sensitivity to ourselves and others, requires an insightful, wise eye to guide them. How Cha`n/Zen conceived this practice as working, fell into two opposing schools, the ‘gradual’ or the ‘sudden’ paths to Enlightenment. Either, a slow step by step application to practice over time, or an intense desire to break through in this very moment. In reality the ‘sudden’ could only be approached by dedicated, if intense, ‘gradual’ practice. Whilst the ‘gradual’ slow wearing away, would eventually lead to a ‘sudden’ breakthrough. The apparent dichotomy was really only paper-thin, but great debate and entrenched divisions emerged nonetheless.
The ‘gradual’ and the ‘sudden’ schools of practice aren’t absolute descriptions of how the path works. Pure Consciousness will manifest in one moment of our awareness that will exist here. The future evolution of that awareness becomes a distraction if too much emphasis is given to it. Dispersing energy and effort away from that singular moment. Experience in the past, present or future, our place in Time and Space, is something that at the moment of awakening, seems to be gone beyond.
But, lets not get ahead of ourselves here, we need to plan ahead and think about the future, don’t we? What would happen if we didn’t? We all need carrots, we all need sticks, we all need future goals to aim for, and a means of getting there. We need something to motivate our practice. If we decide that ‘Binding one’s Self without a rope’ is a good thing, then even that decision is predicated on an imagined future benefit that will result from doing so. If it is our desire to achieve the state of Enlightenment, it would be natural to think of how and when, and this gradual incremental model of progress does help most of us. This doesn’t change how & when it will happen though - how it will happen is through being here - when it will happen is through being here. Enlightenment appears to occur through truly being here.
There could be immense spiritual benefits to be gained from ‘Binding one’s Self without a rope’, but how on earth would we begin doing that? It would seem to start and end by focusing on an ever deeper awareness of the impermanent, unsatisfactory nature of our Selfhood. By observing this closely, perhaps we will eventually see how it does, in effect, run counter to reality. Abandoning the need to defend and promulgate it, is a process that can only happen gradually. ‘Binding one’s Self’ has to be achieved ‘without a rope’ - gently, kindly, almost surreptitiously, without creating any further gross negative consequence or condition. When Dogen said ‘without a rope’ perhaps he was simply meaning practice ‘without creating a future negative consequence’.