Reading Katagiri Roshi’s book ‘Return to Silence’ recently, I was struck by the following passage:
“Whatever question you want to study, you cannot study it from your own shallow viewpoint. Finally, you will come to a vastness that is like spring water endelessly coming up out of the earth. The more you study something seriously, the more you will realize that everything is boundless.
From where does this spring water come? Not from anyone’s small, individual territory. The water that comes from your territory is limited, not deep. The original nature of your life, or of your study, or of your personality or character is the spring water that comes up from the vastness of the earth.”
Although Buddhism does deal with issues such as what happens after death and cosmology, it differs from many other religions in placing the observation of experience and what we can actually perceive at the centre of its spiritual curriculum. Meditation is the primary method for observing experience and while shamatha (calm abiding meditation), such as breath awareness, aims to still the mind, vipassana (insight) techniques build on that stillness of mind to look directly at the nature of what we see, feel, hear and think.
Ken McLeod, the Buddhist teacher whose teachings I follow most closely, encourages his students to look at experience directly in the tradition of Zen Buddhism and the Tibetan meditation lineages of Dzogchen and Mahamudra. Doing this, it quickly becomes apparent that the only thing that we can say for sure is that experience exists. There are sounds, images, thoughts and tactile sensation but it is impossible to say where they arise from or even who or what it is that experiences them. Sure, from a logical perspective, we know how vibrations in the air move the ear drum to detect sound but this does not explain the arising of the experience itself. Descartes is famous for saying “I think therefore I am” but from the Buddhist perspective all that can be said is “There are thoughts and something perceiving the thoughts.” No sense of I is imputed upon that. Thoughts arise and thoughts pass away. The same can be observed with sounds, images and other sensations.
You may be asking yourself at this point, ‘why is this important?’. Well, the Buddha himself often said that he taught only two things, suffering and the path out of suffering. From his own observation of his mind, he realised that suffering arose when how we view the world to be comes into conflict with how things actually are. In particular, the notion that we, and other things, exist as permanent, unchanging entities was flagged as being particularly problematic. Without the notion of a concrete self, experience can be seen exactly for what it is – a series of events which arise and pass away. As experienced meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein says, “No self, no problem!”.
A common image used in Buddhism to represent arising thoughts is that of clouds in the sky. We usually pay far more attention to the clouds than the vastness of the sky itself. I don’t know about you but my mind often recoils when I think about how big the sky or space is and retreats to much safer (and narrower) ground. Such is the way of experience too, we tend to focus on a small part of experience and believe ourselves to be that when in actuality our experience is far broader and greater. When awareness is opened out to include everything, the self tends to feel a lot less stable and can even be lost altogether in a state in which the experience and experiencer become one. Such experiences are not something we are often used to, though, and it takes practice to become familiar and comfortable with. The Tibetan practice of sky-gazing is one way of doing this, as the mind becomes used to a larger canvas to work with rather than our usual narrow focus.
In my own practice, I am constantly noticing that my mind has become contracted and opening it out again. As well as doing this I have found the notion of the well spring in Katagiri Roshi’s writing to be particularly potent in practice. When faced with experience, particularly experience which is uncomfortable or painful, I have found myself asking ‘where does this arise from?’. Watching experience, whether it is in the form of thoughts or sensations, I notice that it comes from nowhere and appears to go nowhere. Experience just arises, exactly like the well spring which Roshi describes.
You can try this for yourself! Just watch your thoughts and see if you can see where a thought arises, catching it in the moment before it comes into consciousness. Like water bubbling up to the surface, the thoughts arise, and you do not have to do anything to make it happen. Watching this, it is hard to take personal responsibility for our thoughts. They are just something which arise and then pass away. I also find it much easier to deal with upsetting thoughts by focusing on the well spring of experience than on the thoughts themselves. Experience really isn’t what causes suffering. It is our mind telling us that what is happening is something other than it should be. Being in direct contact with experience bypasses this way of thinking and does, I find, reduce suffering. Awareness is always present but the trick, for me, is to use it in the best way to avoid fixating on the elements of experience that are causing the most pain and instead open up to the whole vast well spring.
“Quietness is the surest sign
that you’ve died.
Your old life was a frantic running
The speechless full moon
comes out now.”