Friday, July 27, 2012

Dance Standing Still

The ultimate bodhicitta slogans are instructions that are meant to allow one to recognize and cultivate ultimate bodhicitta in meditation.  

2. Regard all dharmas as dreams.

Normally, our reality and day to day affairs seem very concrete.  Our experience feels very real as we are going through it- the whirlwind of our thoughts, surging emotions, feelings of joy and our aches and pains.  We usually don't examine our experience and we just take it for granted.  Life in a nutshell.  

As we move away from our experiences, in the following hours, days and weeks we find it increasingly hard to remember what it was exactly that we were holding onto.  What did that wine and steak taste like again?  What were we arguing about?  What was it that we were so desperate to uphold, reaffirm or prove?  Was it worth all the effort?  

Regarding all dharmas- all experiences, sense objects and activities- as a dream means that we relate to them with less fixation, more openness.  Dream here doesn't mean hazy or unclear.  We can have very lucid dreams, dreams that evoke very real emotions and feelings while we are caught up in them.  The key is that when we awake from a dream we know it was just a dream and that the experience was temporary and fleeting, that it was just something that we were fixating on in our own mind. 

We can experience this sort of insight in our own meditation.  When we take our seat in meditation we become aware of an endless dance of thoughts, sights, sounds and feelings.  Our habitual tendency is to fixate on these phenomena in all their variety, but in meditation we just let them be as they are without following after them.  As we begin to relax into that illusory dance we begin to discover an underlying stillness.

Within the space of meditation, without grasping at the dynamic display that is arising in all its variety, we begin to notice and appreciate this unchanging quality.  Despite movement there is stillness.  It is here that we can look at the next slogan.

3. Examine the nature of unborn awareness.  

When we look at this awareness, we are aware of this unceasing dance of phenomena that is occurring, but since we are not getting caught up in that display we are also aware of this calm stillness.  Look at that.  Where does this come from, where does it go?

When you look at the dance you find there is nothing to hold onto, it is an endless play that can take any form at all and yet never exists as a single thing whatsoever.  When you look at the mind, there are all these things we are aware of, yet there is an underlying stillness that is lucid and alert.  When you look at that mind, you cannot find anything.  There is nothing there to hold onto, mind is unborn, yet there is this awareness that perceives very clearly.  From here we can address the next slogan.

4.  Self-liberate even the antidote.

When we look at the dynamic dance of phenomena, we find that despite the unceasing play there is this unchanging stillness which could be interpreted as nothing ever really happening.  When we look at the mind we find that while it is aware, we cannot find any particular 'thing' that is actually mind. 

The danger here is that we could come to the conclusion of 'Well, what's the point? Nothing matters, nothing ever happens.  Who cares, it doesn't matter what you do'.  This is very tricky, for we risk becoming nihilists- heartless narcissistic bastards.  Don't do that. 

Self-liberate the antidote means not to get caught up in that experience, don't solidify that experience of emptiness.  Don't fixate on that experience of not finding anything that is truly lasting.

5. Rest in the nature of the alaya, the essence.  

In meditation, we seek to move beyond our coarse level of mind and learn to rest in a more subtle level.  There are eight types of consciousnesses- five sense (sight, hearing, olfactory, taste, touch), conceptual consciousness, emotional consciousness and the alaya, or foundational consciousness.

The idea of resting in the alaya is that we are not supposed to get caught up in the dance of the other seven consciousnesses.  We don't want to follow after all the sights, sounds, smells, feelings and thoughts we are experiencing as we sit in meditation.  Learn to rest in a calm, clear, non-discursive awareness.  As we familiarize with this place of natural rest, free from coming and going, we also familiarize ourselves with ultimate bodhicitta.

It is important to understand that the alaya is not ultimate bodhicitta, but it is a much more subtle level of mind where we can begin to appreciate the qualities and characteristics of the nature of the mind.

Resting in the alaya we can see the dreamlike nature of all phenomena.   Not getting caught up in the dynamic dance of phenomena, we are able to examine the nature of unborn awareness.  Without clinging to that experience we self-liberate even the antidote, which is the empty nature of awareness.  We rest in lucid clarity, the mind open and expansive.  All of this is something that we are not creating in meditation, it becomes self-evident as we continue to sit with the proper instruction.

6.  In post-meditation, be a child of illusion.

At the end of the meditation session, don't just get up and go about your day.  Carry whatever insight or experience you have from meditation into your daily life.  Let it infuse your relationships, your work, your good times and your bad. 

Regard all situations and activities as dreams.  Don't get caught up in the dance.  We need to participate in the dance, we don't really have a choice here.  We cannot be a wallflower in the dance of life.  But as we dance we can adapt, respond; we can lead or follow; show strength or vulnerability.  We can affect the shape and the form the dance takes, a miraculous display that can appear in any way whatsoever

Go dancing, be a child of illusion. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Training in Bodhicitta

The second point in Mind Training concerns the main practice, which is training in bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment.  There are two aspects to bodhicitta, ultimate and relative.  

Ultimate bodhicitta is connected with the perfection of generosity.  It has the quality of openness, not holding anything back.  This is the vision of the Mahayana, that we can be open, that we have a boundless store of love and compassion that can be shared with the world around us.  The opposite of ultimate bodhicitta is the mind that fixates on our own self-interest.  It is a mind that closes in on itself, focusing on 'I' and 'mine' with its attendants of anger, attachment, jealousy and arrogance.  

Also connected with ultimate bodhicitta is the principle of emptiness.  Emptiness refers to the true nature of phenomena and the true nature of our own mind.  When we examine the world around us and even our own minds we find that everything is interconnected, that there is no independent self to be found.  Since all phenomena arise dependently, we can say that they are empty of a truly existing, autonomous self.  Saying that phenomena are empty in their nature does not mean that they do not exist at all, but rather determines the way they exist, which is interdependently.  Once we realize the empty nature of the self, then generosity and compassion arise very naturally because we have nothing to hold onto, nothing to lose.  

We can speak of ultimate bodhicitta in terms of openness and emptiness, but on another level we can relate it to our own buddhanature, or tathatagarbha.  

The tathatagarbha, often translated as the seed of awakening, can be identified with the soft spot in our hearts.  No matter how much armor we put on to try and protect ourselves from all the hurt in the world, there is always this tenderness or vulnerability that is exposed.  Everyone, no matter how callous, jaded or cruel, wants happiness and to be free from suffering.  

In the Uttaratantra-shastra:
If buddhanature were not present, there would be no remorse over suffering;
There would be no longing for peace, nor striving and devotion towards its aim.   
The tathatagarbha is innate in all beings.  In our meditation, as we sift through the layers of agitation, dullness, irritation, neurosis and projections, we begin to discover our own basic goodness, this naturally present fullness of being.  It is this process of coming home, an abode of natural peace and rest within.  As we recognize this in our own heart and mind, we can see with our own eyes that awakening is possible.  
We can also approach the tathatagarbha on a more subtle level.  Tathata in Sanskrit means suchness, meaning the true nature of reality just as it is, the union of appearance and emptiness.  Garbha can be translated as womb.  In this sense tathatagarbha can be interpreted as the womb of suchness, the true nature of reality and the nature of our own mind that gives birth to the world of samsara and nirvana, bondage and liberation.  We never part from this true nature.  However it manifests, whether as happiness or suffering, we can recognize and abide in this innate buddhanature, the nature of mind.  It is the single sphere, which having never existed as anything whatsoever, can manifest in any way at all.  
The Tathagatas, those thus gone to suchness, abide always and forever in the womb of suchness, the nature of mind free from coming and going in which they endlessly carry out the benefit of beings.  
Of course, all these words may sound nice, but this is something that must be identified in one's own meditation and not merely left as words.  

Relative bodhicitta is how we carry that experience and insight we gain during meditation into our daily life.  It is the practical application of wisdom and compassion.  Having recognized the capacity for awakening in ourselves, how do we bring that onto the path?  How do we let it infuse our life and work?  

Relative bodhicitta is connected with discipline, how to actually carry out the practice.  Discipline refers to how to actually walk, for without discipline it is like trying to walk the path with no legs.  The way the Buddha taught us to tread the path to enlightenment is through the bodhisattva path, exemplified by the six perfections.  

The slogans on relative bodhicitta are quite simply but also very direct.  They reflect the practicality of the Mahayana path, we should make a lot of effort to recall them in our day especially when we are faced with difficult situations. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012


The fourth preliminary is the contemplation on suffering.  The key point is that there is no place within the realm of samsara, or conditioned existence, that is free from suffering. 

There are several implications to consider when contemplating suffering.  First is the truth of suffering.  The first teaching that the Buddha gave upon attaining enlightenment was on the Four Noble Truths- the truth of suffering, truth of the origin, truth of cessation and truth of the path.  Within the truth of suffering there are three types of suffering that the Buddha mentioned- the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change and all-prevasive suffering.  

We are all very familiar with the suffering of suffering.  This is the gross level of suffering that we experience throughout our lives- physical pain and loss, the diversity of negative mental states, and the never ending cycle of aging, sickness and death. 

The suffering of change is a little more subtle.  It is the suffering that is associated with periods of happiness or pleasure.  This type of suffering refers to the tendency of the good times in our life to revert to suffering.  The common metaphor to portray this type of suffering is that of licking a razor blade with honey on it, it tastes so sweet but we do not realize that we are cutting our tongue because the blade is so sharp.  We all have examples of this type of suffering in our own life- the new job that turns out to be a bad work environment, a spoiled relationship, a hangover after a fun night with friends.  What distinguishes whether or not these positive experiences we have in life revert to suffering?  Is it the object or event itself?  Or is it our own mind, hopes and expectations? 

All-pervasive suffering is the most subtle level of suffering.  It refers to the latent potential for suffering to manifest in our life because of our own ignorance, ignorance of the true nature of reality and our true nature.  It is because we misconstrue phenomena with identity, fixating on characteristics and investing them with meaning that is not inherent to them that we experience an endless round of suffering.  It is by getting caught up in the twelve links of dependent origination that we continually experience the all-pervasive nature of suffering.

The second implication is that no matter where we are born in samsara we cannot escape suffering.  It doesn't matter if we are born rich, famous or beautiful.  We cannot get promoted to a job that has no suffering, we cannot move into a bigger house to be free from suffering and we cannot find another partner that is going to be perfect and never cause us pain or sorrow.  If you are not convinced of this then you should waste a day or two of your life to watch reality TV (This will be the last time I ever suggest people watch reality TV). 

The third implication is that it is we who continue to invest in the suffering of samsara.  It is our thoughts, choices and actions that continue to turn that wheel. 

When we understand the truth of suffering and that we cannot escape it as long as we continue to invest in conditioned existence, then we come to embrace the larger scope.  As long as we place our refuge outside of us there is no lasting happiness to be found.  If we place our refuge in people, places or things outside of us we will have no protection, no shelter, we will constantly be reaching out with empty hands hoping that something comes our way. 

We must rely on an authentic refuge, one that is able to free us from this wheel of samsara.  As an outer refuge we rely on the Buddha as the supreme teacher, the Dharma as the supreme teaching, and the Sangha as the supreme support.  As an inner refuge we rely on our own Buddha mind or the capacity to attain liberation, our own experience of the Dharma as the path, and the Sangha as our companions on the journey. 

Having embraced the larger scope we then come to a decisive experience of suffering, which is best summarized by a verse composed by my own root guru, Younge Khachab Rinpoche:

We are endowed with this precious human life,
and have met with the Dharma.
The world and inhabitants
are impermanent, like a water bubble.
At death, only my dharma practice
will be of any benefit.
At death, there is no freedom,
and the winds of karma take their course.
Therefore I shall devote myself
to abandoning negative acts
and cultivating positive ones.
All the illusions of samsara
entrap my mind with the three poisons.
Realizing the faults of conditioned existence,
may I practice renunciation and strive for enlightenment.
This concludes the contemplation of the preliminary practices.  It is of tremendous value to return to these again and again, for they are the source of much wisdom on the path.