Why Meditate?

Note: The following is a summary and paraphrasing of Ayya Khema’s Being Nobody, Going Nowhere. Boston, Mass.: Wisdom Publications, 1987. It’s the best book on Buddhism I know of.

Meditation is not something extra. It is not a hobby to be done in our spare time. It is essential to our well-being. We are all sick and meditation is the medicine. Medicine is of no use if we don’t take it. Don’t just read the label, swallow the pill!

Everything is mind-made. Most lives are lived in dreams of the past and the future, good and evil, likes and dislikes, yes or no, mine and yours.

But, the mind can only do one thing at a time. If you are meditating, you cannot do anything else. The dream ends. Thinking stops. Awareness and calm sets in.

Calm is the means. Insight is the end. The means are essential and necessary but they must never be confused with the end. Without calm, we cannot have clarity and insight.

When there’s no one thinking, there’s no ego confirmation. Non cogito ergo non sum. I do not think, therefore I do not exist. If there is no one, how can there be any suffering?

Thinking is suffering no matter what we think. Learn to think what you want to think (or to not think at all) and when one learns that one need never be unhappy again.

Meditation is practicing non-reaction. In meditation, we experience a feeling. We learn to not react to that feeling and then to let go of it. The more skillful we become at not reacting, the quick and easier will be the results. But full attention must be on the use of the tool – not the result.

What is felt in the meditative experience, one knows. What one knows from experience, nobody can dispute. Intellectually, we can know that thoughts and feelings are phantasms. But, if we still react to them as if they are real, do we really know?

There is no substitute for experience. When we see that we don’t need to pay any attention to our thoughts, it becomes easier to drop them. When we see that we don’t have to react to feelings, it is much easier to stop reacting.

Going back to the breath again and again will lead us toward the attainment of calm. Thought is not an intruder trying to bother us. It’s a teacher trying to teach us. As thoughts arise, we can acknowledge them, label them and let them go. Just as we can see a bird, or a robin, recognize it and go back into a larger awareness experiencing being outside.

In the last analysis we are all our own teachers and our own pupils and that is how it should be. But we need to know what to look at in order to be taught by it.

In meditation we have the opportunity to get to know the mind – the thinking that’s going on – and learn not to get involved with it. Most thoughts the mind produces are much better experienced, acknowledged, and dropped.

The Story of Khantivadin, The Teacher of Patience

Note: khanti = patience, and vadin = teacher

The king of Kausala was a very rich king… [with] five hundred wives. One day the king decided he we wanted to go on a picnic and he let his wives know this. The cooks were alerted to prepare the food, the servants to get the elephants ready with seats and decorations and the soldiers to get ready in their best uniforms.

The next morning the whole palace, the royal servants and the royal wives, set out. They came to the forest and found a beautiful meadow for their picnic. The king ate and drank too much. Immediately after lunch he fell asleep and the wives said to each other, ‘Now’s our chance. We don’t often get to go out of the palace. Let’s look around.’ They all trooped off and looked at the butterflies, the greenery and the trees and enjoyed the beauty of the forest.

Very soon they came to a little bark hut in front of which sat a vert famous old sage whom they recognized as Khantivadin. All the women sat down in front of him, paid their respects and asked him to preach a sermon to them. He very willingly obliged and spoke about moral conduct, loving-kindness, and generosity.

Meanwhile the king woke up and their wasn’t a single wife to be seen anywhere. He was furious. He called the soldiers and said ‘Go! Get my wives back immediately.’ They obediently ran off into the forest and found the wives sitting in front of Khandivadin’s hut listening to a sermon.’ But the king was still under the influence of all that food and drink and couldn’t listen to reason. He told the soldiers to chase all the wives back to the meadow and then tie Khantivadin to the nearest tree. Since they were in the employ of the king, they could not do otherwise. They chased all the wives back to the meadow and tied up Khantivadin.

Then the king took a huge knife, ran up to Khantivadin in a great rage and said, ‘You old scoundrel, you. You’ve been trying to take my wives away from me.’ And he cut off one foot and said, ‘And where is your patience now?’ Khantivadin replied, ‘Not in my foot, your Majesty.” Then the king proceeded to cut the old sage to pieces while repeating the same question and each time getting the same answer, which increased his fury.

When Khantivadin was on the point of dying, the soliders who had witness the spectacle, said to Khantivadin, ‘Sir, please do not curse the whole kingdom. Just curse the king.’ And Khantivadin said, “I do not curse anyone. May the king live long and happily.’ And then he died. The story says that the earth then swallowed up the king.

The next day the Buddha was informed of this happening whereupon he said, ‘Who does not act in this way has not understood my teaching.’

-Ayya Khema, “Being Nobody, Going Nowhere.” London: Wisdom Publications, 1987. pgs. 66-68.

There is No Preparation for the Present Moment

“Generally, we tend to prepare too much. We say, ‘Once I make a lot of money, then I will go somewhere to study and meditate and become a priest,” or whatever it is we would like to become. But we never do it on the spot. We always speak in terms of, ‘Once I do something, then …” We always plan too much. We want to change our lives rather than use our lives, the present moment as part of the practice, and this hesitation on our part creates a lot of setbacks in our spiritual practice. Most of us have romantic ideas–‘I’m bad now but one day, when I change, I’ll be good.”

-Chogyam Trungpa, “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.” Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 1987. Pg. 237.

The Knowledge Ornament

“Knowledge must be burned, hammered and beaten like pure gold. Then one can wear it like an ornament.”

—Tibetian scripture referenced in Chögyam Trungpa, “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.” Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1973. Pg. 17.

Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings

“Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We are committed to learning and practicing non-attachment to views and being open to others’ experiences and insights in order to benefit from the collective wisdom. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Insight is revealed through the practice of compassionate listening, deep looking, and letting go of notions rather than through the accumulation of intellectual knowledge. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.”

-Order of Interbeing, “Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings.” orderofinterbeing.org. April 22, 2012.

Worth reading the entire list on a regular basis.

Semi-Auto Cut-Up: Experimental Condition

Pixels without proverbial provenance, 
they both knew what they were.
Buffet Buddhists, defying cages,
tagged for progressive classification.

Wonder world, inexpressible problems,
all lonely, we live with each other.
Chronic complainers, a hundred times
a hundred, gloomy mind experiments.

The emotional surface of lost futures.
Do we know enough to know the truth?
Unconscious man grapples, but finds
little to grip, advanced, but enough?

Unreadable barbarian news file,
the experimental Machiavellian composer,
weary, whistles on the way home,
her faith in the process, crushed.

The Dream Within The Dream

“This is the idea that we are slaves to Empire, and the world is a prison from which we need to free ourselves, what the gnostics called ‘the puny cell of the creator God.’ It is what Dick calls the BIP, the Black Iron Prison, which is opposed to the spiritual redemption of the PTG, the Palm Tree Garden.

Note the emphasis on secrecy. The first secret is that the world is governed by malevolent imperial or governmental elites that form together a kind of a covert coven. The world itself is a college of corporations linked together by money and serving only the interests of their business leaders and shareholders. The second secret — ‘a secret within a secret’ — belongs to those few who have swallowed the red pill, torn through the veil of Maya.”

Simon Critchley, “Philip K. Dick, Sci-Fi Philosopher, Part 2.” The New York Times, May 21, 2012.

I’ve been re-reading Chagdud Tulku’s book, Gates of Buddhist Practice after watching the A Deeper Dive interviews with Bill and Susan Morgan. There are interesting connections between the two.

Bill and Susan talk about how modern life creates a tension, a bombardment of sensory stimulus that can take a long time for us to get free of its influence. Our environment encourages us to cultivate an analytical understanding of our world, to optimize our behaviors to “get things done”. Even when we are engaged in an activity like meditation, it is difficult to focus our attention and our being because our standard is one of doing and thinking.

This ties into another idea I’ve been seeing recently, of the dichotomy between like-minded and like-hearted. The Morgans talk about the importance of integrating body, heart and mind in their practice, and it reminded me of an article that talked about how the Dalai Lama chooses his physician. The first criteria, above medical knowledge and capability, is whether the doctor had a good heart.

This matches with recent research describing the two criteria that people look for when judging others: warmth (heart) and competence (mind). When we focus on the heart, our attention is directed inward, where the world is the stage in which our Being expresses itself.

One metaphor Chugdud uses is windows and mirrors. A worldly person’s experience of the world is like looking through a window. They have sense experience and they judge it in accordance to whether they like it or not. A spiritual person, on the other hand, uses sense experience as a mirror. The world is a reflection of our own minds, and if we look closely, we will discover that there is nothing there that we have not created. Human beings are story tellers, and the stories we tell create both the world and the person experiencing the world.

Chugdud writes:

“In actuality, all experience-whether the suffering of samsara or the bliss of nirvana-is as insubstantial as our dreams. All of it is unreal, untrue. It is an unceasing, luminous, magnificent, and illusionary display.

Our life from birth to death resembles one long dream, and each dream we have at night is the dream within a dream.”

Chagdud Tulku, Gates of Buddhist Practice. Junction City, Calif.: Padma Publishing, 2001.

The dream within a dream comment reminded me of Phillip K. Dick’s (PKD) ideas around The Black Iron Prison, The Palm Tree Garden, ‘a secret within a secret’, and so forth. Consider this talk, Radio Free Valis: Tuning In To the Involution with Philip K. Dick:

“So, in a way what Dick does with his books, from my point of view anyway, is [he] turns the telescope around, out from looking out at external reality and the astronomical magnitudes without, which are no doubt beautiful and amazing, and to be explored, but turns it around, so that we can, along with him, explore the astronomical and galactic magnitudes of our within.”

Instead of a mirror, he is using the metaphor of a telescope. A telescope rather than a microscope because it emphasizes the fact that if we leave behind the constraints of sense experience and open ourselves up to the landscape of imagination that our consciousness can transcend even the limits of our universe, as ideas such as the multiverse and infinite worlds illustrate.

If we spend some time imagining our infinite selves across infinite universes, what then are we to make of our consciousness in this universe? With such an encompassing view, does this me matter beyond the fact of existing and trying to grasp the enormity of all that there is and to be grateful for the opportunity to experience it?

Am not I, too, a fiction, a sliver of a sliver, that has no more relationship to the Truth than fairy tales or Tolkien’s Middle Earth? Unmoored in this fashion, what then are we to do with our lives?

Buddhism suggests that the only worthy use of our lives is using this moment to transcend ourselves, our illusions, and our stories. They are the Black Iron Prison that keep us chained to lesser versions of ourselves.

A Deeper Dive: Reflections on a Four-Year Silent Meditation Retreat

“Wherever we may be in our practice, we’ve all at times asked ourselves: What would it be like if I sat a little longer? Perhaps after our first afternoon, or daylong silent retreat, we thought—’I was really able finally to settle in there and experience stillness. It was powerful, and some interesting thoughts arose. What would sitting two days be like? Or three? What if I did a full week of silent meditation? What deeper levels of insight and compassion might unfold then?’

Few have understood and heeded this call of the cushion quite like Bill and Susan Morgan. For years, this Boston couple, both of whom are meditation teachers and longtime meditators, had been coming to the Insight Meditation Society’s Forest Refuge to sit silent retreats for three months every year. Some years, they have sat for three months straight. For others, they’ve sat for two six-week periods. For several years in a row, they sat in silence for one week each month.

Then, one day in 2009, Susan said to Bill, “I think we should do a deeper dive. Let’s really step out, and go more deeply into the practice.” Her proposal? A two-year silent meditation retreat [that turned into four years].

Interview with Bill and Susan Morgan. “A Deeper Dive: Reflections on a Four-Year Silent Meditation Retreat.” Insight Meditation Society. February 15, 2019.

Living for four years in silent retreat is an experience most of us cannot even imagine. I found the discussion worth a listen. Recommended, particularly if you have any kind of meditation practice.

The Poor Man Sells Peace

The central idea of Buddhism is that human beings are driven by ego which tends to be dissatisfied, or when satisfied, fears change, which always comes. But, we can always choose to be satisfied, to walk our path and accept what comes our way. It’s wanting things our way that creates karma, or things we’re going to have to learn to accept by bumping into it in life more often. The The Five Daily Recollections help us to keep in mind the facts of life. We are going to grow old, get ill, die, lose people we love, lose things we own, and the wanting the world to be different than it is creates karma for us to encounter more of each.

Mick Jagger can’t get no satisfaction because the world around him is always trying to get him interested in possessing new things, keeping things as they are or joining some team. But, no one is selling contentment or peace. There’s no money to be made in either.