Archives For Buddhism

Today, interestingly enough is my birthday… February 22, 2013 and I am now officially 50 years old.  I hadn’t planned on writing an article, but I had an interesting dream that others might benefit from.  Rather than a philosophical treatise or academic type article, I categorized this piece of writing as a personal reflection.  However, I believe there are insights that might be gleaned by others that could be useful in their own spiritual path within whatever tradition they practice.  In the spirit of loving-kindness, I offer you my reflections and welcome your feedback.

 

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I was lucid dreaming last night and for at least part of the time watching various phenomenon arise and fall away in my consciousness very closely. What occurred to me in a different way is how thoughts seemingly come out of nothing and go back to nothing. Ultimately, they all arise becoming more solid in a sense like a cloud that’s observable in the sky, but also like a cloud not something you can really grab a hold of or that hangs together for any length of time.

 

In a similar fashion, but following a different time table, subpersonalities arise. Constellations of various types of complexes held together loosely by perhaps an archetypal energy center. Like thoughts, these are observable by a larger consciousness and I could certainly hold them as objects in my mind rather than identifying with them as me.

 

As my insight deepened still further, I realized at another level that my personality or better self-identity is really no different although it is a phenomenon that persists for a longer period of time. However, like a river or other flowing body of water it’s actually constantly changing and not nearly as solid as we imagine it to be.

 

In all the cases that I mentioned, the worldview of Buddhism would advise to hold all phenomenon as a dream. While it can seem solid, unchanging and persisting, it isn’t really like that. Also, it has no inherent existence, but rather it’s existence is interdependent. It appears separate from other things in the world, but that is largely a matter of the mind drawing boundaries, categorizing sensory information, etc.

 

To put this another way, something like a house sitting on a street, what makes it a house? If we were to deconstruct it into the boards, nails and other pieces would we find something we can call a house? No, the house actually exists as a construct in our mind. Apart from our mind, there really isn’t an entity of a house. There are boards, nails and other parts arranged in some way for a period of time.

 

Similarly, in a stream their may be an eddy, but the water within the eddy is constantly changing. What stays the same is the structure or pattern in the water. However, where is the boundary between the stream and the eddy? In reality, there is only the flowing body of water. The eddy is something that we have separated from the stream in our mind. It’s existence is dependent upon the stream and is not separate from it in any way.

 

This is how I hold all the phenomenon that I spoke of above. It rises out of some kind of ground that it’s really not separate from. We give it a name and when different times of streams arise together, we assign that a name too. For example, the collection of emotions, thoughts and other experiences that I call “I” is not necessarily more solid than the eddy above. It’s certainly more complicated, but the self is constantly changing and when conditions change it will cease to exist as an observable phenomenon on the planet Earth.

 

What does seem to remain constant is the background substrate consciousness, the ground out of which all of these phenomenon are arising. In a Western context, I would equate this with the ground of Being and with Emptiness in Buddhism. It’s an emptiness that is not really empty, but undifferentiated pure potential. Perhaps a good way to imagine it is that which was prior to the Big Bang. The One with no other and therefore, prior to categories and thought.

 

Again, since all of this was coming up in a dream state, I am simply reporting observations and not defending what I observed. Indeed, I’m writing this as much for myself as for my audience because it allows the experience to penetrate more deeply and perhaps by sharing we will deepen our experience of reality together. At least, that is what I have in mind.

 

So… returning to my dream

 

I have choices about what I will identify with as me in any particular moment. It could be a strong emotion, subpersonality or some larger identity. What appears most constant, however, is the deeper awareness that is a witness to all of this and even this seems to have various layers to it as it is experienced from the inside. I have had everything that I call me “blink off” at times and surprisingly, “I am.” In other words, I didn’t experience annihilation, but was rather startled and even a bit frightened that… “Wow, I don’t exist!” In other words, I don’t exist in the way I thought, standing apart or above a ground of Being. The actual experience is an identity with the underlying ground. I realize this can be interpreted in many ways, but I’m just someone reporting an experience, I’m not laying any particular interpretation upon it.

 

In my dream, I had deeper awareness of the coming and going of various types of phenomenon in the field of mind, consciousness or whatever name you want to give it. However, I also saw my identity disappearing into the void and then arising again. In other words, like we have a stream of thoughts, I sensed or felt a stream of “identities” dissolving and arising again. One might say this was in the realm of the subtle and touching the causal. It wasn’t exactly a dream, but it wasn’t a full-blown samadhi outside of time. I guess the best description for purposes of discussion is a lucid dream experience that reflects a higher experience and that reveals some information about the self and how it could disappear and reappear like a subatomic particle in the field of Being.

 

The insights here for both myself and others is:

 

Thoughts seem to come and go largely unbidden according to causes we may or may not be aware of. What appear to be personalities within a larger personality, they constellate according to conditions and dissolve just as easily within the larger framework of a more persistent identity. What’s a little different is that even our larger identity is constantly changing like a flowing river, but it is contingent upon everything else in a larger river like the eddy I mention above.

 

Therefore, it is very conceivable to me that what I call “me” can disappear, but arise again according to causes that are unknown to me. As there is an impulse within the ocean for a wave to arise, so it is with this thing we call “identity” or the “self-structure.” I like the term self-structure because it connotes an organizing principle or causes. While the individual molecules in a wave on the ocean changes, the energy that gives rise to the wave follows cause and effect connections and it’s all very fluid. Is there really a dividing line between the wave and the ocean? Absolutely, not the action on the surface is interdependent. Calling something on the surface a wave is just as arbitrary as drawing a boundary on a tree that we call a branch. In reality, that boundary only exists in the mind.

 

What appears much more constant is what we call witness consciousness. From this observing space, I’m watching emotions, thoughts and even self and holding them as object. Therefore, they are subsumed in a larger subject and from this space I can label them as phenomenon rather than self. So that leaves the question of so, what is this witness consciousness. In other words, what is the sky that the clouds seem to pass through?

 

My sense is that as one goes deeper into the witness, one comes closer to a deeper more profound sense of individuality. I would identify the last frontier of individuality on a very subtle level of what is called soul in the West. However, beyond that is a point where the soul appears to open up into Spirit. The point where they touch, I would name spirit (lowercase). In reality, I think these distinctions are largely convenient for conversation purposes, the reality is a plunge into the ALL. One might think of it as a vast interconnected network where each deep point of what from one perspective appears to be individuality reflects the larger whole in it’s entirety.

 

At different points in my development, I have experienced this ultimately wordless reality in different ways. That is to say that I made sense of the raw experience differently or overlaid it with a somewhat different interpretation. Two popular and somewhat different ways to look at it are represented by Eastern and Western Mysticism.

 

In the East, the tendency is to say that Atman equals Brahman or that fundamentally your deepest self is God. Jesus suggested as much when he said, “the kingdom of heaven is within you.” This is a Hindu orientation, but more simple to relate to than a Buddhist one.

 

The Buddhists would be inclined to say that the self is “empty” of inherent or non-contingent Being. The self is like a ghost or the house above. The ultimate nature of reality would be Emptiness in the sense of phenomenon being empty of actually standing apart in any meaningful way from the all. Beyond that, Emptiness would not be a void, but rather an infinite field of one without a second beyond all comparisons. Nondual would imply that the phenomenological world and the Ground of Being are the same. In other words, “Emptiness equals form and form equals emptiness.”

 

The main purpose of this reflection is not to explain the ineffable, but rather invite the reader to do thought experiments, augment the reader’s individual experience in meditation or invite wonder and inquiry into the exploration of consciousness from the inside. I am not deeply committed to any particular interpretation, but rather prefer to leave the inquiry open-ended and not kill the dream or experiences by neatly classifying them.

 

A famous expression that I often bring to mind is that – “that which you are seeking, is causing you to seek.” That’s where I would like to leave this article, in a mysterious state of suspension, wonder, aliveness, fluidity and hope. In other words, rather than struggling to find yourself, meaning, love… I recommend abiding in “not knowing, surrender, awe and letting insight emerge from that place beyond you and I.  A deep place of love, wisdom and spaciousness.

 

 

 

 

Those who have no mental vigilance,
Though they may hear the teachings, ponder them or meditate,
With minds like water seeping from a leaking jug,
Their learning will not settle in their memories.

Shantideva

Learning is consolidated and embodied through meaningful action. If you don’t tame the mind and point it toward worthwhile goals at best you will churn in place or get off course.  However, you will almost certainly suffer more and increase the probability of getting caught in the net of your own delusions about life and reality.  A disciplined mind is like a compass that points to true north.  Since you can’t escape your own thinking, why not dedicate yourself to a worthy purpose and commit yourself to staying aware of it during your waking moments?  When you are witnessing the mind rather than identifying with it, you have a choices.  When you are acting out of your conditioning without awareness, you lose your freedom. Don’t let you mind put you on autopilot… associate coming back to awareness of mind with something you do regularly like washing your hands, picking up a phone, hearing a certain sound or turning on a light switch.  In this way, you take your practice off the mat and into your daily life.

It has always fascinated me that the manifest world that we can know via our senses exploded from lack of a better word from Nothing.  After all, the assertion that something can come from nothing seems absurd at first glance.  However, if you consider Nothingness as “No-thing-ness” i.e. One without a second — then perhaps we can make some sense out of this first moment in time.  The Buddhists refer to this Nothingness as Emptiness, but what is it empty of?

If we accept the Buddhist’s term of Emptiness for discussion purposes and then try to explain what it is empty of — then maybe we will have a useful starting point to look at what arose, how it might have come about and where it is going.  This is the fundamental assumption of this post.  As Shakespeare said, “a rose by any other name is still a rose,” what’s important is the underlying reality, not the specific word or symbol that is pointing to that reality.  I think different traditions use different words, but the concept seems to be eerily the same and yet ineffable.

In this context, I would like to point out that one thing Emptiness is empty of is space and time.  If we are looking at something prior to the Big Bang, it is prior to the emergence of the space-time continuum, prior to matter and prior to the cosmos in the sense of universe.

Clearly, Emptiness is a sort of infinite potentiality that has not differentiated itself from any type of ground.  This sounds suspiciously like what the various world’s wisdom traditions would label a Ground of Being – a fundamental Oneness upon which things stand out against the background.  In fact, existence implies “ex stasis” to stand out from a Ground of Being i.e. to differentiate from this underlying Oneness taking on qualia and opening up the possibility for categories and comparisons.

The world of manifestation, the world that science could measure with the senses and extensions of the senses came out of this Nothingness, which while empty of qualia such as space (extension) and time was nevertheless full of potential.  Prior to the Big Bang, it was certainly nothing and everything.  If not, how could a universe of matter emerge from it?  Instead of Emptiness, we could have chosen the term Fullness, but both would be equally inadequate in different ways.

The point I am making here is that the Ground of Being can’t be contained within a boundary or line.  Therefore, it is outside of categorical thought and comparisons, but yet we can intuit it as many cultures have across the world and throughout history.  Whatever it is, this ground seems to want to emerge into existence and unfold.  That is to say, it is this underlying ground that evolves in increasing levels of complexity, consciousness and wider embraces.  You can label it many different ways, but Spirit-in-Action seems to be equivalent to what many call evolution.  Pure undifferentiated Being merely abides, but really these are two sides of one paradoxical coin.

This is actually the argument I am making here.  That somehow, enfolded into what for lack of a better word we call Nothingness or Emptiness is the potential to become.    Further, it seems at each level of organization, new wholes emerge which are greater than the sum of the parts.  These new properties in this sense can be called emergent qualia.  Probably, the best example of such a progression is quarks, atoms, molecules, cells, organisms and man (self-reflective consciousness).

Another more general progression that shows up in the world’s wisdom traditions is matter, life, mind, soul and spirit.  This is the Great Chain of Being found within every major religious tradition.  Is this parallel a mere coincidence?  I don’t think so.  Life is more than the sum of the properties of molecules and mind is certainly more than the sum of properties of living cells, especially when you consider agency or will.

The problem, however, that leaps to mind is how can we know this?  I would suggest in the same way we know a “thought” or our own “consciousness.”  Certainly, we can’t look at a thought under a microscope or our consciousness via a telescope or other extension of the senses.  I believe this is because these are realities outside of space, but yet every scientific theory started as a thought and was formed in consciousness.  So, how do we know consciousness?  My conclusion is through direct experience, through union with that reality with no mediation of thought.  We have a simple feeling of Being.  Yet, I am more sure of my consciousness existing than the chair I’m sitting in.  In fact, how atoms exist or better, do they exist at all in the way we imagine is less clear to me than my own consciousness.  At least, since I studied quantum theory!

Without getting into a formal discussion of epistemology or theories of knowledge, I am asserting that I can and do know my own consciousness far more intimately than the physical universe although I can’t locate it in space or measure it with any instrument.  Further, I also propose that a scientific reductionist is making a very unscientific statement when they say that anything that can’t be known by the scientific method is unknowable.  That is a metaphysical statement, not a scientific one.  We privilege science so much, we often don’t take the time to reflect upon the fact that this assertion can not be proven by the scientific method.  Therefore, it is outside the domain of science.

So, for the purposes of this article I am assuming this Emptiness that exists prior to the universe is pure Spirit – undefinable, but NOT unknowable.  This pure ocean of Being must in addition to being pure potential, must have some type of intention to become, I call this the evolutionary spark.  It is an impetus for this One to differentiate and transcend itself in deeper layers enfolding (in-folding), which is to say depth while at the same time, embracing a wider span i.e. community.  Ultimately, this evolutionary process gave rise to our self-reflective consciousness, which has sufficient depth to contemplate the evolutionary process itself.

Like a wave coming out of the ocean, each of us is unique, yet an expression of the whole.  We are not really separate from the vast Ocean of Being, but rather a particular expression of it governed by organizing principles that differentiate us from the vast ground it arises from.  In fact, as something differentiates, it acquires more depth which is to say more consciousness.  In other words, more of this Being is wrapped or enfolded into a phenomena’s depth.  As it deepens the phenomenon also embraces or encompasses more of the Kosmos within itself.  Here I use this word, in the older Greek sense to denote not only the physical universe, but the nonphysical aspects of it.

If we extrapolate this line of thinking then an individual of infinite depth, would also have infinite embrace.  Certainly, Christians believe that is what Jesus represents.  In fact, this gives new meaning to the gospel quotation of “the kingdom of heaven is within you.”  In Christian and other traditions, this is often understood as an embrace of love where the divine that is outside of space (and time) is equally present at all points of space.  In other words, it is fully present everywhere, not a piece of it because it wholly outside of space and time!  This is what is meant by omnipresent.

In Hindu mythology, this reality is expressed through a different metaphor,  the jeweled net of Indra.  Here, at every point in the net, which represents the manifest world, there is a jewel that reflects the whole.  A more modern, but perhaps more crude metaphor might be a hologram.  However, it is interesting that this concept shows up in a variety of cultures, traditions and times.  Could this be revealing a universal truth?

While we can’t be absolutely sure of anything, it’s certainly interesting to consider this line of thought as a real possibility.  Is this any less fantastic that somehow the universe exploded from nothing in the sense of a vacuum and consciousness evolved out of inert matter by pure random forces through ascending levels of complexity over a LIMITED time frame – about 15 billion years.   Within a finite time frame, our current knowledge of evolution can’t explain the jumps in the evolutionary process to where we are at today.

While from one point of view a purely physics-based explanation is somewhat plausible, it contradicts the pull of our own hearts toward something greater than ourselves (meaning), the testimony of seekers of various wisdom traditions across cultures and it doesn’t explain many important phenomena such as love or consciousness.  In fact, as this point in time we can’t even pin down the physical universe at least as evidenced by having two great scientific theories that are not reconciled – namely, general relativity and quantum theory.

The quest for meaning is close to everyone’s heart, why?  Could that which you are seeking be the cause of you seeking in the first place?  Is God, Being, Emptiness or whatever label you care to put on it so close that you can’t see it.  If it is pure subject then it can’t be an object to consciousness, which would need to subsumes it.  This is like the eye not being able to see the eye.  Could your simple felt sense of Being offer you a clue as to Original Face prior to the Big Bang (a famous Zen koan or paradoxical statement meant to evoke a deeper understanding).  I would contend that yes, if you don’t privilege reason beyond other ways of knowing and you are willing to look at your unexamined assumptions about reality.