Category Archives: Teaching

What Is It To Be Still?

In the last few blog posts I’ve been examining the meaning of some commonly-used terms in Buddhism. This question – what is it to be still? – is of a different nature. This is a question that is not designed to be answered in words, though words may arise in response. The power of such a question lies in its resonance deep inside us.

I have just returned from a solitary stay in a cottage in a remote part of Wales. About half way through my stay I found myself living with this question. It would pop up at times during the day, when I was meditating or walking or cooking, driving, shopping. Sometimes it would be when I was feeling relatively still and sometimes it would come when I was a bit scattered. Each time it arose I tried to pay attention to the effect, which was to draw me towards stillness.

It is part of the Zen tradition to use a spiritual question to take one deeper into one’s meditation, but I think it is most helpful when it is a question that really engages you, something that you really want to know in your whole being. Perhaps a phrase you read in a book, or hear in a talk, grabs hold of you. Or perhaps you are aware of a lot of tension as you are sitting and the question arises – can I let go a little more?

If you find a question that captures you, you can encourage it to be active by purposely bringing it to mind as you go about your day or at the start of a meditation period. Simply drop the question into your consciousness and let it go. Don’t try to think about it, just get on with your meditation, or whatever you are doing. Trust that something inside responds. We don’t need to make anything happen.

How Can We Realise the Non-Dual?

In my previous post What is Non-Duality? I attempted to define what is meant in Buddhism by the terms duality and non-duality. In this post I would like to talk about the ways in which Buddhist practice helps us to realise the non-dual nature of existence.

In the previous post I said a little about how, when we meditate, we are letting go of our involvement with dualistic thinking. Basically our mind sees its job as keeping us safe, working out strategies to get the things we think are good for us and avoid the things we don’t want. The trouble is that our thoughts run in well-worn grooves, often on auto-pilot and not necessarily taking account of the full effect of our actions on ourself and others. So long as this state of affairs continues we are firmly planted in the world of duality.

So, to set up the conditions for the realisation of non-duality we first need to become aware of the workings of our mind, to see how we are driven by selfish desire, aversion and ignorance and how this causes suffering for ourself and others. This can be seen both on and off the meditation cushion. Plenty has been written about meditation and the cultivation of awareness in daily life so I won’t go into it here.

This naturally gives rise to the next step, which is the wish to do something about it i.e. to learn to let go of the attachment to desire, aversion and ignorance. Notice that it is the attachment to these that is the problem. There will always be things we like and things we don’t like, and that’s fine, and we need to see that we always have a choice how to respond, and the consequences of that choice are often far-reaching.

I think the attachment to desire and aversion is easily comprehended, but what is the attachment to ignorance? I understand it to mean the holding on to our own perceptions, concepts, views and opinions and the like, the unwillingness to admit that things might be different to what we think. We need to learn to hold our mental constructs, for that is what they are, more lightly, perhaps thinking of them as work-in-progress, or the best working model we have at the moment, and being willing to change and update them whenever a better or clearer understanding presents itself.

Holding our view of the world of duality more lightly, and cultivating awareness and letting go, will help us to set up the conditions for the realisation of the realm of the non-dual to arise, but it shouldn’t be seen as a goal to achieve. Keeping our focus on this moment and bringing all our care and attention to it is the best way to transform both ourself and our view of the world.

What is Non-Duality?

The conventional everyday world that we live in is described in Buddhism as the world of duality, or the realm of the opposites. The Sanskrit word for this is Samsara, meaning the world of birth and death.

For our minds to be able to process our environment we divide everything up into categories: East and West, women and men, left and right, day and night, table and chair, good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant, happy and sad etc. etc. This way of viewing the world is not a problem in itself, and indeed is necessary in order for us to be able to function. It is not the case that Samsara is “bad”.

The problem arises, however, when we believe that this is how things actually are, that night is separate from day, that I am separate from you, this country is separate from another country. Then we become scared and we look at everything around us in terms of whether it will cause us harm or bring us benefit. We fight to hold on to what we believe we must have and we push away everything that we don’t like.

Buddhism teaches us to see that we are looking at the world from a relative point of view, the view that I am the subject and everything else is an object which I can act upon or which can act upon me, when in actuality such separations do not exist. If we can start to let go of this point of view, let go of our judgements and opinions, or at least accept the possibility that there is another way of perceiving the world, then we may begin to get a sense of a much deeper reality, what is known as the realm of non-duality.

When we meditate we try to put down dualistic thinking, we let go of involvement with each impression that appears in our consciousness, allowing the mind the chance to rest in the non-dual.

The Heart That Trusts to the Eternal, by Kanshi Sosan (trans. Rev. Hubert Nearman) says:

Dualities are all

   what the false self deliberates upon;

They are the stuff of dreams and fantasies

   or as the spots before one’s eyes

      which are mistaken for flowers,

   so why struggle to grab on to these

      and cling to them?

Gain and loss, right and wrong:     

   let go of such things at once

      and forget all about them

For, when the eye does not close in sleep,

   all dreams cease of themselves.

When the mind does not discriminate,

   all things in the whole universe

      are the One Which Is.

What is Letting Go?

When we talk about letting go, whether it is of material stuff or mental stuff, what we are talking about is letting go of the attachment to the physical or mental object. If you haven’t read my previous blog post What is Non-Attachment? that would be a good place to start.

So letting go doesn’t mean we have to get rid of all our stuff, live on our own and never have an opinion about anything. Letting go means seeing where we have invested our sense of self in an object, a person or a thought (views, opinions, ideologies, likes, dislikes etc. are all thoughts) and being willing to look at that attachment as honestly as we can until we see through it and it can drop away.

What do I mean by seeing through it? Well, we often realise we have an attachment to something when the attachment is causing us to suffer – suffering gets our attention! Let’s say I really want an expensive pair of shoes. If I have the means to buy them then I probably won’t notice how that feeling of desire, of must-have, is actually painful. But if I can’t get those shoes and I really feel I must have them, then I will surely feel the suffering. If I am willing to transfer my attention away from how to get the shoes to the feeling inside me, and look at what I am believing, I may be able to see some version of the thought that I need these shoes in order to be happy. If I then ask myself if my future happiness truly depends on a pair of shoes I can hopefully see that this is not so. The attachment is seen through, the feeling of must-have drops away.

Sometimes this happens in a second – I only have to think why on earth am I letting myself get all het up about this? and it’s gone. Other times it takes a lot more sticking with to unravel. Sometimes the unraveling involves active questioning, other times it means sitting as still as I can with the discomfort and letting it reveal itself fully. Either way, I must be willing to look at it. I can’t force myself to drop it, can’t just turn away from it, it will still be there next time I look around, though maybe in a different form.

The root cause of all our attachments is the illusion of separation that makes us feel we need to acquire or achieve things in order to be whole. Each time we see through an attachment it takes us nearer to seeing through the whole illusion of separation and realising that there never could be any lack.

What is Non-Attachment?

The idea of non-attachment can sound cold and unfeeling. After all, we feel attached to our loved ones, our homes, to beautiful objects and experiences. Perhaps we see Buddhist monks giving all these things up when they enter a monastery and feel that if being a Buddhist means we must say goodbye to all that we hold dear and makes life worth living then Buddhism is not for us.

However, if we look at what non-attachment really means we shall see that we are not being asked to give up the people and things that we love, but to examine our relationship to them in a way I will describe in a moment. Far from becoming unfeeling, non-attachment is actually pointing to a much deeper love, respect and appreciation for all aspects of life than we ever thought possible.

Let’s look first at the word attachment. Dictionaries define it as an emotional bond, a feeling that binds one to a person, thing, ideal etc. In other words we are tying our emotions to the object of our attachment, expecting the object to provide us with the feeling of happiness, contentment, self-worth or whatever it is that we feel we need. You could say that we are placing demands on the relationship, whether it is with a person or the latest iPhone or the new gym membership. And when the day comes, sooner or later, that the object of our attachment fails to provide us with the emotion we desire we experience suffering.

Our response may be to look for another friendship, a newer phone, a different gym. But this is an endless cycle. And Buddhism teaches us that it is based on the false perception that we are separate beings, insufficient, with holes that we need to fill.

Instead of jettisoning the object of our dissatisfaction we can gain much self-knowledge by considering why we are so disappointed. What is it that we were expecting to gain from the relationship with this person or thing or ideology or whatever? And is it really true that you need an “external” object to provide it? Can it actually do so? Do you want to be dependent in this way? Or is it possible that there is no hole to be filled, that you are sufficient, you are whole, that maybe you are not actually separate from everything/everyone else in the first place?

Asking these questions, in order to see how and why we bind ourselves, and that it is all based on a faulty premise, puts us on the path of non-attachment, the ultimate purpose of which is to realise truth. On the way, we find that when we don’t place demands on the people and things we are drawn to we actually have a much deeper and more rewarding relationship with them.

William Blake wrote:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

Why Question?

It is possible that we may balk at the idea of being asked to believe something in blind faith, especially where religion is concerned, but unquestioningly take our own assumptions, opinions and beliefs to be true.

I distinguish here between faith and blind faith. Faith is indispensable on the Buddhist path. Until we ourselves reach Enlightenment, and possibly forever afterwards, there will always be teachings that we cannot verify by our own experience yet we have faith in them because we have done a certain amount of practice and found it to confirm enough of the basic teachings to encourage us to continue.

I use the term blind faith to mean that we are wilfully blind, resisting examining an idea that is capable of being examined albeit that there is a limit to how far reason can take us.

My point is that thinking can be used to eliminate a lot of misperceptions and limited or just plain wrong understandings and thus make the way clearer for truer understandings and insights to arise. You can start with any thought that you find yourself believing, for example: I can’t do this. (Whatever this may be.) Is that true? Or do you not want to try? Why? Through such questioning we can come to a deeper understanding of ourselves and, for example, the Buddha’s teachings on the cause of suffering.

We can also listen to what we say and question ourselves – do I really understand what I am saying? Do I actually know that to be true? Have I thought about it? Or you can deliberately choose a word or concept, such as I did in my previous post about the meaning of acceptance, and explore your understanding of it as far as you can go. It will take application and effort, but has the potential to be highly rewarding.

I can’t finish without this wonderful quote by the theologian and psychologist Thomas Moore who says that “The point in thinking is to reach the far edge of understanding and to stand there in wonder.”

What is Acceptance?

When an English word is used to convey a Buddhist concept it may be intended to have a subtly different meaning from the common English usage of the word, which can lead to misunderstandings of Buddhist teaching. So I thought I would look at some of these terms, starting with acceptance.

We talk a lot in Buddhism about the need to practice acceptance, but as far as I can make out acceptance is not a term used by the Buddha and therefore hasn’t been translated from a Pali or Sanskrit word, though I am not a scholar so please add a comment if you have more information about this.

The fact that Buddhists teach acceptance is frequently, and mistakenly, taken to mean that Buddhists advocate passivity and a have a fatalistic outlook on life. This is far from the truth. My Concise Oxford Dictionary has 4 senses for accept:

  1. consent to receive (something offered)
  2. regard favourably or with approval
  3. believe to be valid or correct
  4. take on (a responsibility or liability) or tolerate or submit to.

Immediately I can see how misunderstandings arise. When we talk about acceptance in the Buddhist sense, it is only the first definition that is relevant. When we talk about the importance of accepting this moment as it is, it means that we should be willing (consent) to receive the input of our senses. In other words we should be open to see what is actually here, without resisting, denying or pushing away.

Accepting the behaviour of another person means that we try to see it clearly. It certainly does not imply meaning no. 2, that we regard it favourably or with approval. If, for example, someone is doing something which harms us, we are not being asked to approve, and also not to tolerate or submit (meaning no. 4) but to accept in the sense of accept that harm is being done and that we may well need to take action to stop it.

Similarly, we can accept that a person has a different view than we do on an issue, but it doesn’t mean we believe it to be valid or correct (meaning no. 3), and there’s nothing to stop us putting forward our view if it seems good to do so.

Acceptance, in the Buddhist sense, means to be willing to face life full on and take responsibility for ourselves and act as skilfully as we can. And the more we are willing to open to what is in front of us, the greater our ability to act with wisdom and compassion.

Perhaps the most important thing to accept in any situation is our own response to it, our own thoughts and emotions. Whatever we feel – anger, frustration, shame, grief – we need to let go of any self-judgement. What we feel is simply what we feel, neither good nor bad. Giving ourselves the gift of acceptance enables us to make peace with ourselves and go forward.

I have some ideas for further blog posts, but please feel free to suggest any words that you think are unclear or cause confusion and I’ll try and include them.

Faith in Mind

The third Chinese ancestor in the Soto Zen lineage is Seng Ts’an, better known to us by the Japanese version of his name: Kanchi Sosan (died 606CE). Attributed to him is the poem Hsin Hsin Ming or Faith in Mind.

The following verse is taken from Rev. Master Hubert’s translation of the poem, which he called That Which is Engraved upon the Heart That Trusts to the Eternal. It is published in the book Buddhist Writings, currently out of print. Another translation, by D.T. Suzuki, is available online here.

There is no need to hunt for Truth,
simply stop exhaling personal opinions;
Cease your abiding in dualistic views
and take care not to chase after them
or seek them out
For, as soon as “right” and “wrong” arise,
confusion sets in and your thoughts will go awry.
The two exist because of the One
but do not try to hold on to this One.

In this poem, Seng Ts’an exhorts us to let go of the ideas and concepts that the discriminatory mind is so fond of, and trust that the Truth we seek is to be found in the absence of our views and opinions about It. I very much encourage you to read the complete poem.

Wesak 2016: This Precious Human Life

Wesak 2016 Altar


Last Saturday Rev. Aiden and I celebrated Wesak, the festival of the Buddha’s birth, at Turning Wheel Buddhist Temple along with around twenty people who came for the ceremony and Dharma talk, followed by lunch. Some of us stayed on in the afternoon for a meditation period, and tea and cake.

Rev. Aiden was celebrant for the ceremony and I gave the Dharma talk, which you can listen to below.

It was a beautiful day and the windows were open so apologies for the traffic noise – and an airplane – in the background.

Wesak 2016 Lunch

The Scripture of Great Wisdom

The previous blog post introduced the Scripture of Great Wisdom, and in this post I’ll go through it sentence by sentence. If you’d like to open the complete text in a new window click The Scripture of Great Wisdom.

Emptiness of The Five Skandhas

When one with deepest wisdom of the heart that is beyond discriminative thought, the Holy Lord, great Kanzeon Bosatsu, knew that the skandhas five were, as they are, in their self-nature void, unstained and pure.

The five skandhas are enumerated in the next line of the scripture: form, sensation, thought, activity and consciousness. They are the five aggregates which make up all physical and mental phenomena in the universe, including sentient beings. When the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara – (J) Kanzeon Bosatsu – was totally absorbed in non-discriminative wisdom he/she realised that all five skandhas i.e. the constituents of all things in this world, are empty of any permanent existence, any fixed self-nature. All is in a state of flux, there is nothing to hold on to. Some other translations of this scripture have the additional words and transcended all suffering at the end of this line.

O Shariputra, form is only pure, pure is all form; there is, then, nothing more than this, for what is form is pure and what is pure is form; the same is also true of all sensation, thought, activity and consciousness.

In this translation, by Rev. Master Jiyu, the sanskrit word shunyata, often translated as emptiness, is given as pure. Not only are all five skandhas pure/empty, but what is pure is form etc. i.e. it is not either/or but both together, form and emptiness at the same time. All phenomena exist, but they are not what we usually take them to be.

Emptiness of the Dualistic Viewpoint

O Shariputra, here all things are pure for they are neither born nor do they wholly die; they are not stained nor yet immaculate; increasing not, decreasing not.

Here we are given three pairs of opposites, three dualistic ways of looking at the things of this world. We see living things as being born and dying and we cling to life and fear death. We see objects as being old, stained, tatty, and others as being brand shiny new and we want the shiny things. We want to see our health, wealth and happiness increase, not decrease. Yet Avalokiteshvara says that all these things are empty, there is no birth and death, nothing stained or immaculate, no increase and no decrease.

When we look closely at the concept of birth, our own birth, say, we see that it was not an independent event, it relied on an infinite number of circumstances including the birth of our parents and their parents and so on. So where did this event that we think of as birth begin? Whether we see something as stained or immaculate is dependent on personal opinion. I may think something is clean but you may think it could be cleaner. Our dualistic way of viewing life causes us suffering. Letting go of our clinging to these views liberates us.

Emptiness of the Eighteen Elements and the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination

The scripture continues by enumerating fundamental Buddhist doctrines and finding them to be empty. This is not meant to negate these teachings, the point is that there is more, there is a deeper wisdom in which all things, including what we think we know, are seen to be empty of inherent existence and are therefore not to be clung to.

O Shariputra, in this pure there is no form, sensation, thought, activity or consciousness; no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no form, no tastes, sound, colour, touch or objects; vision none; no consciousness; no knowledge and no sign of ignorance; until we come to where old age and death have ceased and so has all extinction of old age and death.

The six sense faculties (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind) six sense objects (form, tastes, sound, colour, touch, objects) , and six sense conciousnesses (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and knowing; what the scripture abbreviates to vision none; no consciousness) are known as the Eighteen Elements. The Eighteen Elements are another framework for analysing all phenomena.

Ignorance is the first of the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination, with old age and death being the twelfth. The teaching of Dependent Origination shows the causal connections that keep us bound to the wheel of suffering. The phrases no sign of ignorance, and all extinction of old age and death, refer to the second part of the teaching of Dependent Origination, which deals with the breaking of the links in this chain of causation. This doctrine can be found in any book on basic Buddhism and is well worth reading up on if you are not familiar with it.

Emptiness of the Four Noble Truths

For here there is no suffering, nor yet again is there accumulation, nor again annihilation nor an Eightfold Path, no knowledge, no attainment.

The Four Noble Truths are: the truth of suffering; the cause of suffering; the cessation of suffering; the Noble Eightfold Path. Not only are the Four Noble Truths empty, but so is all knowledge and attainment.

Going on Beyond

In the mind of the Bosatsu who is truly one with Wisdom Great the obstacles dissolve and, going on beyond this human mind he IS Nirvana.

All the Buddhas True of present, past and future they ARE all, because upon Great Wisdom they rely, the perfect and most high enlightenment.

The Prajnaparamita one should know to be the Greatest Mantra of them all, the highest and most peerless Mantra too; allayer of all pain Great Wisdom is, it is the very Truth, no falsehood here.

This is the Mantra of Great Wisdom, hear!

O Buddha, going, going, going on beyond and always going on beyond, always BECOMING Buddha. Hail! Hail! Hail!

The mantra sums up the teaching of the Scripture of Great Wisdom. Always we must keep going on beyond, continually letting go of everything we think we know, of any idea that anything has a fixed existence. Each time we think we have understood, we must let go and open further. Having some understanding of this scripture on an intellectual level can be a help if it opens our mind to the possibility of experiencing a Truth far beyond this human mind, and we are being exhorted to put this teaching into practice, by doing zazen, and realising it for ourself.

My intention with this post, and the previous one, is to break this scripture down a little and give some background information to hopefully make it more accessible to you. Obviously it is by no means an exhaustive exploration, and if you’d like more food for contemplation please see the books I list in the previous post.