Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Crossing the chasm.

Vipasyana is the practice of looking at the mind and the nature of the self. Once we have cultivated a mind that is calm and clear, we use it to look at the nature of mind and the nature of reality. Since birth we have taken this self to be truly existing. Our bodies change over time, our ideas and beliefs might fluctuate and change, but there is a conscious aspect of the mind that seems to continue throughout our whole life, that seems to be permanent and true.

This minds existence is never really challenged, we simply know it experientially to be true.

There is a great chasm that we need to cross in our practice of vipasyana. We need to cross over the threshold of believing and apprehending of the self as being permanent, real, unchanging and true. On the other side of that chasm is the conception of a self that is impermanent, interconnected, constantly changing and flexible. Those two seem irreconcilable.

Our conception of the self as being real and unchanging leads to us feeling stuck and powerless in situations. We often find ourselves searching for external relief and trying to manipulate external conditions. We languish in our efforts to prop up the self by controlling outer circumstances. Reifying the self, we simultaneously invest great importance in our material conditions and our experience of the world around us. We believe deep down that if we can just get everything right, that our sense of self and our place in the world will all be secured.

When a gap opens up in our meditation, look at that gap. 

Look at our habitual perception and our ingrained conception of the self. Is it true? Who are we? What is the nature of this self that we hold so dear?

If we look at the self through the lens of the first turning of the wheel of Dharma, we can start to appreciate how the self truly abides. We can start to see that the self is composed of many facets- our body, emotions, perceptions, thoughts and beliefs, and of course our consciousness- all those are connected. We can start to appreciate how our consciousness itself is composed of many facets. We have emotions and experience them in our mind, but we are not our emotions. We have thoughts and ideas, but we are not our thoughts and ideas. We experience various sense appearances like sights, sounds and smells, but none of those are who we are.

Simply looking at the mind through this lens of the Dharma, we start to see our false notions and beliefs in who we think we are. We start to see our limiting conceptions and how our emotional imbalance limits our capacity to act as we intend. Simply looking at the present condition of our mind and self, we can see all of the factors that brought us to the here and now.

Simply see. Witness this appearance of the self free from judgement or bias. This is the essence of self-awareness.

Having this insight into the self, we start to see more truly. We still conceive of a self, but that is interconnected with a larger whole. The outer world still exists, but we can see that it is constantly changing and dynamic. We can appreciate this newfound perspective of mindful awareness, but it also carries with it a deep and profound sense of responsibility. We see how much we contribute to our own suffering and the suffering of others. We see how we perpetuate negative mental states and unwanted emotions. We also see the potential for freedom and a path forward.

We see all of that. We see ourselves standing on both sides of the chasm, not quite embodying either.

We don't just cross the chasm in a single leap. We cross it, and then we fall back into habitual patterns of conception. We leap over it, only to realize we landed back where we started. We stand on the other side, enjoy the view, only to be pulled back once again.

The path of seeing is the start of a long path ahead. It doesn't happen all at once, and yet it does time and time again.

Crossing the chasm might just require that you turn awareness back on itself.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The limits of perception.

Vipasyana is the practice of looking. It is a practice of seeing directly, gaining firsthand experience. But isn't all perception relative? Doesn't the mere act of seeing mean that others may see things differently?

All perception is limited by our thoughts and ideas about what we are seeing. Concepts define what we experience. Our own bias and value judgements color and shape our perception of the world and what we hold to be true. So if vipasyana is the practice of looking, can we ever see truly or are we simply seeing within the cage of our own confusion?

Vipasyana is preceded by the practice of shamatha because in shamatha we learn to let go of grasping to thoughts and following after trains of thought. The practice of shamatha gives us the skills and familiarity to recognize the limits of thoughts and ideas. Thoughts and ideas are not the thing itself. Concepts are not real. When we recognize this crucial flaw of concepts, we stop investing in them. We loosen the tight knots of limiting beliefs and perceptions.

Our view influences our meditation, and our view is largely formed by concepts and cultural influences that we have rarely examined fully if at all. Coming to a right view is an important first step to approaching meditation, but even more important is learning to engage in a practice that recognizes the futility of thoughts and ideas about the way things are. When we learn to simply look, free from mental elaboration and speculation, then we can start to appreciate what is right in front of us. Then we can start to explore the limits of perception and what is really true.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Reading is not enough.

How do you know something?

When it comes to the practice of vipasyana, how we come to know something is important. Over the past two thousand years Buddhist traditions have developed a rather extensive system of reason and logic. One of the subjects that was developed by Dignaga and Dharmakirti was the system of pramana, or valid cognition. How do we go about correctly knowing something?

Broadly speaking there are two types of valid cognition, inferential and direct. Inferential valid cognition is made using reason, logic and analysis to come to know something. We can study, read various works on the subject at hand, and debate others until we come to a correct understanding.

Direct valid cognition is a direct experience that is free from concepts. Direct valid cognition is seeing something directly, having your own experience. You can study the great stupa at Boudhanath, its layout and history, the various materials and methods used for its construction; but that is a very different experience than actually being at the great stupa, seeing it firsthand, feeling the energy of the environment and the various sounds, smells and interactions taking place. Direct valid cognition is a first-hand experience that is free from conceptual imputations or bias.

In the practice of insight, we are relying on direct valid cognition. The time to use inferential valid cognition is before the meditation session. Inferential valid cognition enriches and prepares us, but it is not a replacement for the actual experience. We should study interdependence and emptiness, we should be familiar with the different presentations of mind and how it manifests, and we should be familiar with how to recognize the nature of mind. We should read, a lot. But reading is not enough. At the time of practicing vipasyana, we need to set aside our ideas and concepts and focus on our actual experience.

Vipasyana is the practice of have a direct valid cognition of the nature of the mind and the nature of reality. This is our chance to see things as they are, don't waste your time and energy on going back to ideas and concepts. Look directly. What do you see?

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Buddha eye.

The practice of shamatha leads to the development of a mind that is calm, clear and luminous. Our mind is naturally settled in a state of cognitive knowing that is free from the proliferation of thoughts. It is a mind that is like an unstirred candle, it is steady and calm, yet luminous and bright.

What do we do with this newly discovered awareness? We simply use it to look.

The practice of shamatha or calm abiding leads to the practice of vipasyana, or vivid seeing. In the practice of vipasyana, we use this mind that is focused and steady to look at phenomena, self and our own mind. This awareness is like a sharp weapon that we can use to dissect and cut through layer after layer of confused perception and bias. We can peel back layers of habitual grasping and fixation, layers of imputation and exaggeration.

The practice of insight is a continual process of digging deeper, moving from gross to subtle, moving from one to many and many to one. It is a practice of learning to ask better questions, not being content with the answers that you have before you.

The uniqueness of the Buddha's tradition lies in the practice of vipasyana. There are many forms of shamatha meditation, and many similarities among the various traditions as to how to calm the mind and rest in a peaceful state. The wisdom of the Buddha's teachings are what distinguishes it from the other forms of meditation. It is the Buddha's insight into the true nature of the self, how all things are interconnected, and how we can use this wisdom to benefit ourselves and others that makes it truly transformative.

The Buddha taught that your view is important. What you think about things influences your reality and your experience. Our perception binds us, it limits us and our abilities. Our ignorance causes us suffering, we just don't recognize that fact.

Vipasyana is the practice of seeing truly, and coming to the direct experience of that wisdom of the Buddha. It is the practice of developing the Buddha eye.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Eight remedial techniques.

The eight remedies are antidotes to the five flaws of meditation. 

Antidote to laziness
1.     Faith
Faith means to study and develop conviction in the teachings. This faith is based on reason and logic and our own experience of the Dharma.
2.     Intention
Intentions lead to mental actions, which eventually become habits. Be clear, be specific.
3.     Effort
Effort is the greatest predictor of progress in your practice. If it is difficult to develop a joyful effort towards practice, reexamine your faith and intention.
4.     Pliancy
Pliancy means that our mind and body become adaptable and dexterous. We become open to change, ready to change. Pliancy is like making friends with a horse and learning to ride it, at some point the horse becomes workable.

Antidote to forgetting the instructions
5.     Mindfulness
Mindfulness is strong and focused, it recalls our intention and the object of our meditation.

Antidote to dullness and agitation
6.     Vigilance
Vigilant awareness is sharp and clear. Vigilance is able to access the quality of our meditation, be aware of our mind, and notice problems as they start to come up. It notices agitation and dullness and can allow us to tighten up our mindfulness before we lose our focus.

Antidote to under-application
7.     Attention
Attention means that we recognize and respond to fault arising in our meditation. Vigilant awareness might notice dullness starting to creep into our meditation, but if we fail to pay attention that subtle dullness might turn into a lose of clarity or even gross dullness.

Antidote to over-application
8.     Equanimity
Equanimity is the mind resting naturally, free from agitation and dullness. It is a mind that is calm, clear and vibrant; like a calm lake during the daytime.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Five flaws of meditation.

There are five flaws (Tib. nyes pa lnga) of meditation that prevent us from developing a calm, clear mind.

1.     Laziness
Laziness is a flaw because it ensures that we don’t start. We may want to start a meditation practice, but when we try we run into the inertia of our own indolence. There are three types of laziness- lethargy, obsession with pointless activity, and discouragement.

2.     Forgetting the instructions
Forgetting the instructions means to not know the object of your meditation or how to meditate. We have sat down to meditate, but we have forgotten how to meditate properly.

3.     Dullness and Agitation
Dullness and agitation are the main problems that we experience during meditation.

4.     Under-application
Under-application means not correcting your meditation when you are aware of the faults of dullness or agitation. Failing to apply the remedy, our mind wanders and our meditation deteriorates.

5.     Over-application
Over-application means continuing to apply remedies when it is no longer necessary. When our minds are naturally resting on our object of meditation, we should not continue to manipulate or try to augment our meditation.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Training the Mind.

The fifth stage of the nine ways of resting the mind is called training the mind. When we have arrived at the completely settled state, our mindfulness can hold our object of meditation continuously without being distracted. We still notice thoughts, sounds and sensations arising in our peripheral awareness, but those appearances aren't strong enough to distract us from our focus.

In the fifth stage, we are primarily focused on overcoming subtle dullness in our meditation. As we are resting in the completely settled state, one of the errors that we can make is that we fall into a state of dullness or numbness. We might be focused on our object, but we've sunk into a mental state that is narrow and without clarity. We are focused on our object, but not really. There might even be the comfort and pleasure of a cozy, peaceful meditative state. We should recognize this error and try to prevent it.

The main goal of this state is to prevent that subtle dullness from overtaking our meditation. The way that we do this is to maintain and strengthen our vigilant awareness. As subtle dullness starts to set in, vigilance starts to collapse and weaken. Our alert awareness starts to shrink, to close in on itself. Everything starts to collapse onto our object of meditation, and we lose the vibrancy and alertness of vigilant awareness. We might maintain our attention on our object for a bit, but eventually this subtle dullness gives way to gross dullness or even sleep.

If we can catch vigilant awareness as it starts to weaken, we can make a correction and increase the intensity or the scope of awareness. We can expand our peripheral awareness, exert a little effort to make it more clear.

As we train our mind, we can eventually notice when subtle dullness is starting to creep in and make the necessary corrections to prevent it from arising at all. When we have eliminated subtle dullness, we move a little closer to resting in the single-pointed state.