Thursday, May 19, 2011


This year, The Museum of Jurassic Technology sent a Christmas card that has a 3-D picture (with red and green glasses) of someone looking into a cave. Inside is a fable that concludes:

"Our seeking is without end and the object of our search ever elusive; yet the memory of light draws us on. Please join with us in our never ending efforts as we seek, perhaps without understanding that the search itself is creating the very light after which we are seeking."

Perhaps you’ve seen, and maybe even read, books and articles assuring you that Buddhist meditation can increase your clarity, kindness, peace of mind, happiness, etc., while reducing your tension, anger, discursiveness, all-around self-centeredness and other negative characteristics.

No doubt there are buried deep within you, as there are within us all, secret sources of pain you would like to mitigate, just as there are deep inner longings that call out to be realized. Meditation, if what you read is to be believed, is the path whereby such aims can be achieved. Perhaps, even that grand but elusive goal called enlightenment, the awakened state may be within our reach.

Enlightenment, as is said, is awakeness without reference to sleep or dream and not subject to life or death. It is light without reference to darkness. It is not subject to causes, conditions, characteristics, creation, destruction or limitations of any kind; it is continuous, inalterable and all-pervasive. It cannot be increased or diminished by any means. It is not a thing, state or entity of any kind. Though not subject to the infinite range of contingent circumstances, it cannot be separated from them. This being so, the only thing we can say truly about enlightenment is that it is a word.
But because the awakened state is universally and uniformly intrinsic in all that is known, unknown, experienced and not experienced, it cannot be abstracted. Thus it is called ‘the natural state’. Since it is intrinsic, it is vain to say it is attained. Since it is the natural state, it is absurd to believe it can be realized by one method only.
Further, it follows that realizing enlightenment does not bring any normal kind of happiness, comfort, or personally satisfying quality, nor does it necessarily decrease painful experiences.

Late in life, Trungpa Rinpoche said: “There is no problem with dying… except it’s so FUCKING painful. ”The 16th Karmapa, though riddled with excruciating cancer, greeted his visitors with smiles, apparently experiencing no discomfort.
Is there any meaningful conclusion to be drawn here?

In books and magazine articles you may read or at least glimpse, you may encounter words like empty, transcendent, non-dual, primordial and some of those used above. Sonorous, impressive, self-evidently arcane, such language may simply embody the hope that enlightenment can be grasped. Only the fact that such words verge on the meaningless lends them any usefulness in the practice of meditation.
At the end of a talk, Suzuki Roshi sometimes said: “I hope you don’t understand too much.”

You may hear that one can meditate in such a way as to achieve any of the large-sounding words and notions mentioned above. If the words mean what they seem to, this is obviously not possible. Nonetheless, we must admit that all of us try. We hear a particularly attractive term, let’s say: Non-duality.

If we analyze the process of perception carefully or read about such an analysis in a text like the Surangama Sutra, we can see how the faculty of smell and an odor are interdependent. One can not take place without the other. Thus we could say that what seems to us as dual – nose and smell, is innately non-dual. We could then familiarize ourselves with this notion in meditation, either using some kinds of mental exercises or simply investigating our perception to see whether this assertion is in fact true. We may then feel we have some kind of direct experience of non-duality. Based on our new realization, can we then explain why a rose would not spontaneously produce a nose, or a nose produce the dreaded durian?

Be that as it may, the use of large words in meditation most often leads to what is called Target Shooting Meditation. Here we form a mental construct of something we believe we should experience. By analysis, we create a construct, a mental shape of that experience, and we aim our mind at having this experience. Because mind moves even while it is shapeless, it will, at least momentarily believe itself existing on the ground to which we have directed it. We will think we are actually having a real meditation experience when in fact we have been simply fabricated it out of words and longing.

To try and make a path by putting one aspect of oneself in opposition to another aspect is inescapably to create a world of frantic anguish. The result is like a crazy person trying to realize his or her own conception of sanity. So as Francisco de Quevedo observed in a slightly different context: “The soup was lost between the hand and the mouth: pass on to other things.”

There is a profound opening in the first moment of meditation: we recognize that we do not have to take our thoughts as completely real; we are not compelled to act on them. This is a small, ordinary experience, but one with profound implications. Nonetheless, during a period of practice or at its conclusion, if we think that our meditation has gone well or poorly, this is an infallible sign that our meditation has drifted into reliance on some concept or other, even if this concept is merely the memory of our first sense of openness. How else could we make such a judgment? Similarly, if we feel we have encountered definite obstacles in our practice, such as physical discomfort, discursive thought, obsessions and so forth, it is important to understand that those experiences are obstacles only as a function of whatever concept we have of our aim in meditation. In the absence of aims, there are no such obstacles.

You may read that meditation enables you to tame your mind and bring it to a state of stability and peace. Despite meditating as a Buddhist for more than 40 years, I have not achieved even a glimpse of this, nor have I ever seen anyone else achieve it. Admittedly, I am not much of a practitioner, but there may also be a more general reason why this is so.

Mind itself is intrinsically unstable. Traditionally, mind has been described as ‘that which seeks an object’. In other words, it is in the nature of mind to be on the move between a subject (you or me) and an object (whatever we fear, desire, or believe will bring an end to such uncomfortable states). This process is continuous, and our minds constantly bounce between whether we should make changes in ourselves, our attitudes, outlooks and so forth, or whether we should move more decisively obtain what we want from the world. Beyond that, our sense of what we are changes, our intellectual and emotional frameworks change, our desires change, and the outer world is also in continuous change.

Looking closely at our own circumstances as well as reading texts makes this self-evident.

You may hear meditation described as practice. Practice generally means a kind of preparatory exercise you do in order to be able to do ‘the real thing’. Hence practicing the piano, the guitar, ice-skating, geometry, French. You practice until you’ve mastered it and can actually do it. Practice then, means not quite doing it for real.

Why not do it for real? Why not enter practice as both preparation and realization simultaneously?

On the other hand, perhaps it is good to refer to meditation as practice since there is no attainment.

The Buddha’s enlightenment is both no different and different from the many ways the Buddha formatted the awakened state in order to teach the path.

Hence Ikkyu says:
No beginning, no end, this one mind of ours.
The Original Mind cannot become Buddha-nature.
Original Buddhahood is Buddha’s mischievous talk;
The Original Mind of sentient beings is nothing but delusion.
(tr. Stevens, Shambhala Pub 1995;p.27)

Orgyen Kusum Lingpa stated: “The essence of all Buddhist meditation is not following thoughts.”

This does not mean rejecting thoughts; not following thoughts means that as thoughts arise with their innumerable attractions, suggestions, warnings, seductions, questions, terrors, one does not follow the path onto which they invite us. We see them appear, but do not follow. Obviously, this includes practice, instruction, wisdom, and any other concepts about the path of enlightenment.

Thus the path of enlightenment is not the path TO enlightenment, a way to get to this so-called awakened state. The path of enlightenment is what is underneath our feet.

If one meditates simply in this way, each time one sits to meditate, one enters the unknown, the uncertain, the purposeless. Continuing, one repeatedly experiences uncertainty on the spot. One enters a great expanse that is unknowable, ordinary, alive and secret. One enters into the timeless and unbiased continuum of all being.

Mostly when we sit down to meditate, we bring with us our motivation. This comprises the aspects of our past that we wish to overcome, combined with inspirations from aspects of the past that promise to produce our hoped-for future where we are finally the person we would like others to think we are. We sit down in a moving train of thought and follow its momentum. We are moved along from feeling to feeling, thought to thought, even if this thought is the end of thoughts or the stability of mind. We cannot bear to leave the familiar dynamism of thinking and knowing. We cannot bear to diverge for very long from the familiarity of our problems, our longings, our shortcomings, our aspirations, from the busy mind that ceaselessly produces such things.

Learning about meditation, learning to meditate, practicing meditation, we think perhaps we could leave the tensions of thinking and the anxieties of the world of the known behind. We could enter the free and unconstrained expanse beyond thought, free of causes and conditions, hope and fear. Thus, desperately we press in our meditation practice to leave, control or finally end the world of thought.

But in the path of meditation, relating to thoughts is the unfolding of compassion, relating to what is beyond thoughts allows the spontaneous presence of wisdom to bloom. The two are inseparable. For instance George Gershwin said: “ I frequently hear music in the heart of noise.”

Meditation then is not a matter of developing mastery or control. Enlightenment expands, speaking to us. The rich world of complete wakefulness is always vibrant regardless of the qualities that appear in our experience. It is singing in silence and chaos.

Meditation establishes the equality of the known and unknown in our journey and our living.

But the appearances of insight, the experience of bliss or clarity of wisdom, elements which once articulated have such authority, followed with such intensity, how do they figure in our journey? It is perhaps as Proust puts it:

“Perhaps it is not-being that is the true state, and all our dream of life is inexistent, but if so, we feel that these phrases of music, these conceptions which exist in relation to our dream must be nothing either. We shall perish, but we have as hostages these divine captives who will follow and share our fate. And death, in their company is somehow less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps even less probable.” (Swann’s Way p.381 Vintage 1981)

In early summer evenings, beneath the mulberry tree at the foot of our garden, fireflies flickered neon green in the humid lavender dark. I was five, and on one special night I, my brother and sisters were allowed to go out and catch fireflies. Our mother gave us jars with holes poked in the top, and we ran barefoot beneath the trees catching the small fluorescent creatures as berries fallen in the grass squelched beneath our feet.

By morning light, we could see that many fireflies in the jar had died and that those living were shabby grayish bugs. But now we saw our feet were dyed a wonderful shade of purple-blue.


  1. This is very fine.

    I think there's an interesting tension in the use of the term "enlighetnment." I'n the West, so to speak, the notion of enlightenment is associated with notions of political modernism and the rise of bourgeois individualism: Locke, Rousseau and Founding Fathers and so on.

    In fact, one could argue that the approach to meditation that you criticize is based on the notion that meditation is a rational technology for achieving desired states of mind (or existential comportment, if you will).

    Finally, I think one might say that one practices out of devotion, not to achieve some sort of goal, but out of respect for what might be called the real.

  2. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
    The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.