Wednesday 25 October 2017

The Power of Vow

(forest fires burning in Portugal, where an estimated fifty people have died)

As you may know, forest fires recently went raging through northern California.  They were moving at twenty-three feet a second, throwing fire balls out a mile ahead of themselves; 5,500 people lost homes and businesses, and 100,000 people were displaced. Abhayagiri monastery, sitting in the midst of this, was evacuated just before the fire reached the area ...  A few days later, the community were given the all-clear to return – to find that although neighbouring properties had been torched, the monastery was unscathed. Firefighters were in awe and couldn't understand why the flames had swept down the hillside, touched the two-foot wide trail that circles the monastery – and turned back. For a Buddhist devotee, there's a simple explanation: the monastery, originally gifted by Master Hsuan Hua through the Sino-American Buddhist Association, is now the abiding place of Ajahn Pasanno and a community of practising samanas, is a 'puññakhetta' - a field of goodness where the fires of greed, hatred and delusion are constantly being extinguished. It is therefore protected by its puñña.

The term 'puñña' (related to 'boon' and 'bounty' in English) is a key reference in Buddhist Asia. It means 'goodness', but is often translated as 'merit' to capture some of the nuances of the term. Because in English we might say: 'that's a good car' or 'you have good handwriting': the term is ethically neutral. Placed upon the object, it signifies my approval but it say anything much about 'goodness'.  Puñña however refers to a potency that's present whether anyone acknowledges it or not; it is an immaterial current that moves through the interrelated cosmos; it can be generated and directed by skilful intentions – and it accumulates. To fill in the view a little: the Buddhist cosmos (as was the case with all human worlds prior to the scientific and rational revolution) is an interconnected whole that includes the human psyche with its intentions and associations; the human body; the natural world of sun, rain, trees, and animals; and the supernatural world of guardian and evil spirits, and ghosts. Acts of puñña can have effects that move through this realm. If monarchs rule rightly, the sky gods (devas) are pleased and rain comes on time; if the opposite, or if people are obsessed with passion and greed, then the earth dries up. In the Jātaka tales, every time the Buddha-to-be made a commitment to develop selfless actions (pāramī) the throne of the king of the gods warms up and he flies down to bear witness. In the Buddhist cosmos, acts of puñña are the steps towards harmony, well-being and full awakening.

Sounds absurd? Yes, by and large this cosmos is now largely overturned, and we have a cosmos made of two realities: physical objects as we perceive them through our senses, and our feeling and affective/responsive minds. Other living beings only have such meaning as we give them. Thus a pet is regarded as a quasi-human – often a kind of child – whereas a farmed animal is regarded as a commodity: meat on legs. Trees of course are just lumber – wood to be cut, carved or pulped. Earth is soil to be used and doctored with chemicals, or dirt to be mined. Things only have the value that we give to them, a value determined by monetary considerations. What that view converts the planet, and our fellow-humans, into is the ongoing horror-story of our time. Let alone what it does to those who see things this way: a descent from the grace of empathic and values-based humanity into an exploitative mind-set that is both insatiable and ungrounded. Such beings may have gained 'wealth' but they've lost a place in the living cosmos. In the Buddhist cosmos of gods, humans, animals and demons, this mind-set is called 'the hungry ghost.' 

In Thailand, where I entered Buddhist practice, puñña (Thai 'buhn' – pronounced close to 'boon') and its opposite pāpa (Thai 'bahp') support the axis of everyday practice. Far from being metaphysical concepts, they are fundamental essences that fill out the exhortation to uplift and share the good and move away from the bad and guard one's mind from it. The results of good and bad accumulate: that's kamma. True enough; so it's sad that the human genius for corruption converts buhn into spiritual currency. In this corrupt view, the puñña of generosity (= donations to their monasteries) can be used to retrieve a relative from a hell-realm, or to guarantee oneself a fortunate rebirth. Some Buddhist sects regularly teach that the puñña of chanting a mantra with deep dedication will bring around material rewards, or ensure the devotee passes a crucial examination. Shades of medieval Christianity. On account of this I tended to gloss over accepting puñña in its fullest implications.

However, mind-sets change. I now would say that a correct understanding of puñña is the best chance we have of rescuing life on this planet. To take it slowly: puñña is associated with the development of pāramī, or self-transcending intentions and actions. The list of pāramī (bearing in mind the slight awkwardness of their English translation)is: generosity, ethical integrity, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, resolve, kindness and equanimity. All these are qualities held to be developed by the Buddha over lifetimes, so that he had the power to resist the host of Mara and attain awakening. For the sceptical mind, what that cosmological sketch translates into is that you don't get free until you've built up the spiritual power to resist the pull of craving, fear, ill-will and ego-tripping. Or as an experienced master will tell you, you don't realize freedom through intellectual understanding or refined attention alone; there are powerful and deluding energies in your sensed cosmos (i.e. the heavens and hells of your psyche) that have to be met and moved through. That takes strength as well as skill, and cultivating pāramī on a daily basis is the work-out that develops that. This isn't just for some future result – the real thing is immediately empowering.  

Human examples made this clear to me. At Wat Kiriwong, where I entered monastic life, there were the daily examples: people who rose early in order to put a spoon of rice into my alms bowl were obviously uplifted by that daily event. Every year, some 700 women would leave their homes, wear white and spend ten days in the monastery living under the eight precepts and sleeping on the floor of the sāla in order to meditate, make offerings, listen to Dhamma talks and otherwise 'make puñña (tambuhn)'. It was they who sponsored my acceptance into the bhikkhu sangha; so I, along with what I can offer, am connected to their good will. The fact that this support was anonymous ( I never met any of them let alone exchanged greetings) seemed odd at first, but was accurate: as far as they were concerned, the connection was to the field of pa and that could benefit me, them and anyone else my bhikkhuhood affected. Alignments to 'the field of puñña' are innumerable and commonplace: women went to the monastery, shaved their heads, and meditated for days on end to tambuhn on the occasion of the decease of his majesty King Bhumipol, others commit more fully to live a renunciant life unfettered by the prestige and worldly influence that bhikkhuhood can offer. The puñña of their renunciation gives them strength, calm and clarity.

The greatest human examples of my early years were Ajahn Sumedho (who I met in 1976/7) and Ajahn Chah (who I met in 1979). Ajahn Sumedho radiated a blend of effortless strength and ease at a time when in my case, meditation was neither of these. Ajahn Chah was spiritually massive; his presence would have seemed like a mountain (perhaps he was at times) except it was 'empty' – like unwavering space – and often warm and humorous. To hear of their practices, the deprivation, hardships and challenges – one would have imagined that they would be hard men, void of sympathy. But their practice wasn't about being tough, or  special or making any claims; it was all about commitment and self-sacrifice. Ajahn Chah spent eight years wandering tudong through forests and hills with just a bowl and robes – which was tough enough; but his comment was that his major practice began when he settled in the forest that became Wat Nong Pah Pong. There it wasn't just the lack of food or facilities that had to be borne, but on account of his determination as a teacher, he would receive people to deal with their issues for ten to twelve hours per day. Plus give talks, deal with monastery business and so on. Ajahn Sumedho was doing much the same at Cittaviveka and Amaravati. As I came to deal with the mixture of people who turned up at these places, receiving people in their diversity required astuteness and strength, as well as compassion. Some were psychologically damaged, many had major issues, some could barely speak English, some had inflated views of themselves, some were very shy and anxious ... the cantankerous, the hurt, the righteous and the sincere but obscure: I could understand what it meant to receive even a fraction of what these Ajahns had opened to. Solitude in a damp cave drinking plain water seemed like a blissful fantasy by comparison. 

The main theme, the cutting edge that summed it all up, was Ajahn Chah's simple motto: 'Patiently endure' ( 'ort tohn''). It carries the firmness of a vow. Its perfection wasn't to adopt a tough teeth-gritting stance, but to insightfully surrender one's time, one's attention, one's mind and even one's life. Most people who knew him speak of his vast kindness. So kindness, generosity and patience: it gives one strength. For the welfare of others?  Well, his service as a teacher and guide has benefitted many, but in a way even that vow isn't about getting results. The insight is that neither body, mind, belongings or relatives are 'ours' anyway: self-surrender is an act of truth. So his great generosity was also modest: to not prepare teachings, but offer such Dhamma as arises in context from that self-surrender. That has become the Ajahn Chah standard. The words were often simple, but the timing, the tone and the directness potent. Whoever could receive the teaching (and not everyone did) – that was up to them; a true teacher isn't hung up on results. Not conceiving of self or other, one fully addresses what arises. In this way a master can remain free from success and failure, in a spacious abiding. 

I realize in my times of gloom over the state of the world that the dispassion of offering service without expecting a result is what keeps the heart afloat in the chaos of it all. And by not claiming anything one allows gratitude for the ongoing miracles – my own list (after  being given robes and bowl and meeting Ajahn Sumedho) includes the gift of a forest that made Cittaviveka possible; the guardians and helpers who seem to turn up whenever I've been on pilgrimage; and the countless offerings and support I receive when I take on teaching or writing on Dhamma. People are in fact eager to offer and serve: puñña is not some superstition or cultural myth, there is a deep human need to generate and dwell in it. It brings us into our truth.

For me, the crucial pāramī is resolution, to make a vow. This firms up and amplifies the rest. Recently at Cittaviveka we have decided to firm up our request for donors to not bring plastic bottles of water to the monastery ('more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050' is the prediction) by not putting such offerings out for the meal or for public occasions –  to take the stuff out of circulation. I've determined to not drink bottled water wherever tap water is available on the same day. So dear reader, now is a good time! If we all give up something, some accessory, some convenience, some habit; if we commit to the good and the true and make it beautiful; if we bear with the messy and the irritating in each other and be a source of refuge – something far-reaching can warm up. Maybe we could save the cosmos. Why not? This is the opportunity that humans have; it's a lot better than life as a ghost.

Sunday 27 August 2017

Practice notes: Mindfulness of Death

'... mindfulness of death, when developed and cultivated, is of great fruit and benefit, culminating in the Deathless, having the Deathless as its consummation ...' A 8: 74
'May I live just the length of time it takes to breathe out after breathing in, or to breathe in after breathing out, so that I may attend to the Blessed One's teachings.' A 8: 73

Death is universal; the number of people who recollect it are few.  Death rocks our boat. So it’s experienced as a tragedy that comes as a surprise. However bearing one's death, and that of others in mind, is the entrance to a deep inquiry into life. In the focus of mortality, we’re all equal; status and character disposition fall away and our customary self is powerless, seen as a curious detail whose claims and importance are embarrassing. And so ... some shrug and get on with their lives; some say that we are snuffed out like the flame of a candle; some believe that will be judged according to our deeds by an officer of the inscrutable Other, and those who are judged worthy will be awarded a place in the Deathless.

The Buddha was clearly aware of these views and was motivated to a spiritual quest to find his own resolution, a path to the Deathless. That, not an altruistic mission to relieve the world's suffering, was his avowed aim for Going Forth. What he realized as the first of three great knowledges on the night of his Awakening was a connection to previous states of being. Rebirth was not a universally accepted view at the time (the Vedas are largely concerned with welfare in this life, and four of the six prominent seers of the time held views close to that of the great 'snuffing out'), so this was a revelation whose practical import – the second knowledge – is an understanding of the significance of kamma. That is, how we act now determines how we will be in the future. If this truth is grasped in this life, then, as the Buddha subsequently taught, if there is an aware state after death, you go to a place that fits how you've acted; if there isn't, still you live free of corrupt conduct and associate with the wise – who hold you dear. In which case you've 'made a lucky throw on both counts' (M. 60). His presentation is characteristically pragmatic and empowering: no inscrutable Other, but one's kamma determines one's future in this life and the next.  And this kamma is to be investigated, known, purified and transcended by oneself.

Careful attention: not me but my ‘self’
One of the requirements of this practice is to reflect on the topic of mortality with careful attention. Careful, or deep, attention entails taking dispassionate note of the details and the overall quality of an experience (such as its sight, sound, touch, or mental impact); whether it's agreeable or disagreeable, and what mind-states it triggers. This takes one deeper, into the realm of emotion, assumption and attitude – our subjective bias. This bias – the favoring and phobias, inclinations and addictions that cluster around, nudge and even become my 'self' are residual tendencies; they will direct our actions. And thus ingrain and perpetuate themselves. The nub of this is whether these tendencies have been acquired through our own intentions, or installed via that programming of others, they become material for our kamma, and our future. As Barack Obama recently tweeted: 'No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion ...' But plenty of people pick up the habit: yes, there is kamma that’s based on the beliefs of others. And we can act that out. So kamma, although its transpersonal, certainly creates us – and how we see others.

Hence the imperative is to clear it.  This can't be done through the self mechanism that kammic tendencies have formed.  This is where mindfulness of death can help. Bearing our death as witness, we can attend to acquired tendencies as they are, without struggling or judgement. Beneath their mobile voices and scenarios – ‘Why am I like this?’ ‘What should I do?’ ‘How do people see me?’ ‘Does that means she really likes me a lot?’ ‘What approach is best for my work?' (etc.) – are the instincts for self definition and reclamation. But Death isn't interested in that. So attention settles onto the direct and incontrovertible cause of what's stirring the mind: one is regretful, annoyed, anxious or desirous. Either that, or one is grateful and equanimous – and the stirring subsides. The presence of Death then offers a check-in with one's kamma: ‘if I am to die “on the next out breath” what do I need to do, what am I going to do about that mind-state?’ If it feels agitating, unresolved or nagging, bearing mortality in mind is of great fruit, because in death's doorway, letting go gets easier. Much easier than in the seemingly endless corridor of the future. (You know, that future might not happen. People die at all ages; some don't even make it out of the womb.)

On the other hand, if the mind feels serene and confident, then there can be a rejoicing in that state. Buddhist heaven, here and now. This is a fruition, but not the most complete.

No furniture, and no room
Because, how about the past? Why was the Buddha's awakening triggered by recollecting previous lives? Maybe it's because awareness of the range of personalities that grow around the citta over time reduces the significance of any one of them. For us who don't have that depth of insight, recollecting who one has been in this life is a substitute: the roles, the passions, the struggles, the plans that changed, the life that went through mysterious shifts and caused transformations to occur... who wrote this script? And who am I? With that non-answer, something deep can let go. This has all been a show, a throw of the kammic dice – what do you want to make out of all this?

If you've made peace with all you’ve been, you are released from the burden of having to justify or figure yourself out; you focus instead on the intentions that arise in the present. And if the person and his/her tendencies has been resolved, there need not be any more of them. And 'this is the Deathless, namely, the liberation of citta from the basis of clinging.' (M.106:13).

So don't look in the heavens, or fret over the past. All Dhamma practitioners that I have known who conclude their lives carefully express deep gratitude. Dying has helped them to affirm that dukkha has subsided. It's a natural thing. Carefully attending to what is most obvious, universal and inevitable is then of great fruit. Recollection of death may take the furniture out of our living room; but it can spur the relinquishment of grudges, instigate a review all plans and an assessment of one's state in the here and now. And it offers a way out of the room altogether. What a friend!

A guide for practice
The quotes above are for practitioners who are not in a terminal condition. Consequently such a recollection is for all of us, every day. Here are some suggestions.

  • Find some time and place in the day to spend ten to fifteen minutes for the practice. Obviously, the setting should be quiet and free from intrusion; maybe the optimal time for a sustained focus is in the evening, after the day’s events.Take up a reclining position, feeling the solid support beneath your body. Settle your mind through a suitable means: mindfulness of breathing, or kindness and good will, or recollection of the Buddha are prime options.
  • Be aware of the space around your body; get to feel sheltered and warmly wrapped in it. Relax your awareness of the visual and auditory domains. Let your mental awareness attune to the sheltered space around your body; then dwell in it until that quality wraps around your mind. Get your body to settle more deeply, keeping a straight awake posture with eyes open/half-open to guard against falling asleep.
  • Having settled the present, scroll back through the day. Does anything stick? Is there anything you regret? Does anything cause you to leave your settled space? Taking that aware space around your mind as a foundation, contemplate the daily events: what's worth dwelling on? Can you bring to mind any events to feel grateful for? Or any non-events to feel relieved by?  As for the difficulties: can you let them really be the past of a someone who’s passed? Notice what qualities and values arise as you do that.
  • Let these qualities come to the fore.  You may give then names like ‘compassion’ , ‘patience’ ‘truthfulness’ or just notice them as heart energies that keep you settled and open. As personally verified qualities, these are worth more than a mountain of ideals and theories; they enrich your aware space. Consider your life as fieldwork in cultivating real value.  
  • Consider the mortality of others. Notice what that brings up, with regard to those we admire and feel grateful towards and those we have difficulties with.  Can you imagine that person dissolving into death? What remains with you?Let the review sweep back through time: is there anyone who debases your mind with resentment? Anyone who shines a light? What’s needed to gather your heart into a unified state? What is your practice, your 'Dhamma-body'?
  • Dwell in that aware state, sensing any energies or moods, even if you can't name them. Stay light and open and let things unfold  When there’s only the openness, the values that brought you to it remain as living guide.

Saturday 8 July 2017

Ageing, into true orientation

Ageing; it’s an ongoing reality, not just a Buddhist reflection. Sure, I still have good health, and am I think, quite fit. The week-long walk I recently undertook in southern England was manageable and enjoyable – but about 10-12 miles (16-19 kms.)per day of not very challenging hills was definitely enough. What surprised me was that it took my legs a week or more to get back to the kind of flexibility that best suits sitting meditation. 

But at least I can still do that: at the International Sangha meeting that immediately preceded the walk, the number of elders sitting in chairs is  becoming noticeable. More striking was the physical condition of Luang Por Sumedho, who at eighty-two was the eldest participant, and whose energy levels only allowed for an hour or two of interactive time per day; time carefully stewarded by his bhikkhu attendant. ‘Wait until you reach eighty,’ was Luang Por’s comment. Still, his presence was as much an inspiration as a reflection on mortality: his mind seemed bright, even playful, and whenever he settled after the awkwardness of moving a body whose feet don’t give clear signals of the condition of the ground, and whose sight is impaired, his presence felt serene and quietly joyful. During the gathering and the retreat that preceded it, he gave all he could. And although there’s only so much one can expect of tissues and energy, the results of steering those towards purifying the heart certainly made that direction look like the best option. Tissues and a mind bound up in them stiffens and dies; but the heart can rise and be bright. Preceded by  fifty years of training, and service, eighty looks pretty good.

If you’re not there yet, wait until you reach sixty. That’s when it became obvious to me that bodily energy has limitations. When you’re in your twenties and thirties, there’s tons of it to spare (sometimes too much). In those days, when sangha life seemed to be an endless project in terms of creating physical, managerial and spiritual structures, I could just throw myself into it all with an eagerness that had to be tempered by restraint and patience. Nowadays, it’s more the case of consciously rising up to such concerns as present themselves within my orbit, and managing energy by taking breaks. My last mountain walk, in 2010, made it clear that the ‘just push through and keep going’ strategy was no longer relevant. The body won’t do it: half way up a slope, it slows, stops and sits down. Then one has to wait for the energy to return; it no longer comes at one’s call. Lesson one in the academy of ageing: a realistic preview of an undertaking, with the understanding that a project, task or venture can’t necessarily be undertaken just because it’s useful or interesting. Even emails: unless they’re managed, they multiply into long threads that keep me at a screen for hours each day. So, sorry, but I don’t automatically respond. It feels a bit sad, but if I’m a teacher, then I have to teach and model ageing, and present the field-work. 

Lesson two is to know one’s boundaries and stay within them. Ageing means there are limits. Even with intellectual energy. When I wrote the book Dawn of the Dhamma in 1990, I did so by working ten hours per day, six days a week for five weeks. Now if I take on such a project, maybe three to four hours of focused work per day is the maximum, along with at least one day per week of leaving it in a metaphorical or real drawer. That feels more in accord with Nature; most animals rest at least as much as they run around. So what’s within my boundary of concern, responsibility and energy? The lesson teaches us to get an overview before leaping in.

Lesson three: learning curves get steeper. In fact rather then trying to learn the latest ways to manipulate technology, it's probably a better use of resources to ask some younger monk or savvy lay person for help. With that softening of independence and will power comes the ability to receive more fully the goodwill of others. And to appreciate their skills without having to have them myself or feel inadequate. Mutuality and appreciation come to the fore.

Lesson four is flexibility. It’s not just physical. As a matter of routine, I exercise with yoga āsana as I’ve done for nearly fifty years now, along with Qi Gong (over twenty years), but often for no more than twenty minutes or so. A newer development is that the days have become more flexible in terms of what I do and how much; and nights too – time spent in sleep can vary between four and six hours. But there are also rest states other than sleeping; meditation itself is increasingly about entering a state of alert repose, moderating the energy levels to a steady-state and feeling into the space of awareness. At a quieter level of energy, awareness is flexible (not flaccid): ready to engage, but not aiming at anything. That repose is wakeful, non-directional, expansive and receptive. In this, subtle and more foundational effects and causes can be discerned, opened to and released. Meditation then has become as much a norm that I return to, as a practice; it means entering a mode of awareness that gives energies, thoughts, or other conditions the space to be met and integrated or released.  However when energy is more steady and settled, the mind follows suit and there's less to deal with. The mind isn’t interested in creating anything or directing, deciding, discriminating, judging; it's done plenty of that, thank you. Instead it settles at a level of consciousness that is more primary and even pre-personal. Awareness feels open and liminal; it’s in the territory before conceiving (self, other, future, past etc.) gets going. 

Once this sense is known, it can become a primary orientation. That allows a greater degree of flexibility around function, performance and relationships. One doesn't have to be the best; one doesn't have to be the fulfilment of other people’s expectations. One doesn't need to prove or live up to aims and standards that pull awareness away from the centre; it’s more important to feel the pulls and pressures and stay centred. But that’s not self-centred: the truth of awareness must be lived out with its willingness to be present and receptive to that which arises. Any resistance, or shrinking away, or shrugging off become apparent as defence strategies, and are felt as a constriction, a loss of freedom. So settled awareness doesn’t accord with self-interest; it’s more attuned to a correct relationship with what arises. Getting to that point takes practice, and I’m still a learner at this – but I take note of how the great elders of our international community operate: they seem to know when to act, what to say and when, while remaining free from personal preoccupation. Flexible.

Lesson five (highlighted by a steady stream of friends and supporters passing away) is to get to that point; and let others sort out the details and the extras. So I find myself more and more teaching what seems most essential; to help people (and myself) access intelligent and comfortable awareness. If this awareness is a steady orientation, it’s possible to live and grow in this personal world; here is a sense of safety with its fundamental goodwill. The tricky detail being that it isn’t personal; it’s before the personal conditions arise. And that means that the sources of the programs and attitudes that become a person get revealed: dis-ease, restlessness and having to do something, or feeling guilty and inadequate that one isn’t doing (or in fact being) whatever it is that one should be (while not knowing what that is). Not that any of that is your fault. Essentially this dukkha is not personal, not topical, not specific; and it isn’t resolved by doing anything other than tackling its program. It’s non-specific because its source is the pressurised space of one’s unsettled awareness. That then colours everything that the personality forms out of.

That we get old, sicken and die may seem like a basic fact rather than an occasion for learning. But it’s what years of practice prepare us for. That, as there’s no safe place in the world of me and it and pushing and pulling, we’d better take refuge somewhere else. Check it out. Is the space of my awareness free from intrusion and free from obstruction? Check for anxiety, or craving or holding on. If there can be a letting go of compulsions and a settling in to embodied steady-state, we can be safe from hindrances. There can arise sense of fundamental welcome. That sense has nothing to fear and much to feel blessed by.

Thank you age; with such a teacher, unless one wants the spirit to stiffen and die, one just has to get wise.

Monday 8 May 2017

Sacred Intelligence: it's nearer than you think

A topic that aroused a good deal of interest at the latest Vipassana Teachers’ Conference  (April at IMS) was 'the sacred’. As in ‘What is it?’ ‘Is it a useful reference?’ ‘How do we teach it?’ The interest centred around the distinction between meditation as a system that one does, and the meditative domain that can, over time, open. There thought and the world of the senses dissolve, and the will to do quietens down – so how to speak about such a ceasing, and of what value is it?  Well, rather than being something way out there, maybe it’s closer than we think.

Witness the dialogue between two arahants, Maha Kotthita and Ven. Sāriputta:

Maha Kotthita: Friend, is there anything which exists after the dispassionate cessation of the six spheres of sense-contact?
 Sāriputta: Do not say that, friend.
M.K:Then, friend, there is nothing which exists after the dispassionate cessation of the six spheres of sense-contact?
S: Do not say that, friend.
M.K: Then there both is and is not ... neither is nor is not ... after the dispassionate cessation of the six spheres of sense-contact?
S: Do not say that, friend.
M.K: ...Then how is this matter of which I speak to be regarded?
 S: Friend, in saying that there and is not...neither is nor is not anything which exists, one is making a conceptual proliferation over that which cannot be conceived. Friend, as long as one operates in terms of the six spheres of sense-contact, there will be conceptual proliferation. But, friend, with the dispassionate cessation of the six spheres of sense-contact, there is a calming down of conceptual proliferation. (A.4,174)

‘Conceptual proliferation’, papañca, is the process whereby an idea, impression or principle arising in our minds, is conceived to be some real thing that occurs, or could occur, ‘out there’. It’s not just an intellectual process: we do it all the time when we project characteristics onto other people based on our biases. As when in the act of seeing another person, we attribute (or remove) value based on their clothes, their skin colour, and so on. And through papañca we create our own personhood and its future out of moods and impressions. Then the mind gets stuck on what it has fabricated and makes an emotional tangle out of what we should, might and shouldn’t, be. In this way an impression gets solidified into a three-dimensional reality that overwhelms awareness and extends into the future. This reflex is something that an Awakened One has terminated:
'Humankind delights in proliferation, the Tathāgata does not proliferate' (Dhp. 254)'... having seen what can be seen, the Tathāgata does not conceive the seen, does not conceive the unseen, does not conceive what can be seen, does not conceive one who sees.' (A.4.24)

However given the message that ‘cessation’ doesn’t mean that there’s nothing, ‘sacred’ might well be an acceptable word to place as a flag on that experience; it conveys a profundity and a depth of value – not ‘out there’, but to be sensed in oneself.

Naturally, there are reservations. If you're looking to resolve issues in terms of our social environment, references to the ‘ceasing of contact’ sounds like a sidetrack. Like it’s about spacing out and not dealing with the realities of everyday life. Then again, quite a few Dhamma practitioners are people who have abandoned conventional religion because of its adherence to ritual, and its obedience to the will of the divine – as administered by a fallible hierarchy of priests. Organised religion does by and large conceptually proliferate on the nature of the world, how it was created, why we’re born and what happens when we die; and holds its images and rituals to be the sacred rather than supports to realise it. Worse still, religion has too often been coopted to support the socio-political status quo. As a consequence then, there can be a reluctance to trust in anything other than the evidence of one’s eyes and the power of reasoning: ‘Think for yourself, don’t just follow a tradition’ is a common paraphrase of the 'Kalāma' sutta (A.3.65).

The authenticity is laudable, but what to be authentic about? Strings of slippery words? The gossamer weave of thought? Disorientation? Well, as was the case with the Kalāmas, what is sure is that we all need some standards and values to orient our minds and actions around in a turbulent world, absence just won’t do. (There’s enough of that already.) So: ‘Be your own authority, figure it out for yourself?’ Not quite. Read more carefully, the Kalāma sutta advises us not to follow blindly: oral tradition, a lineage of teaching, hearsay, a collection of scriptures, logical reasoning, inferential reasoning, reasoned cogitation, or acceptance of a view after pondering it, or by the skill of a speaker, or out of loyalty to one’s teacher. In other words just about everything, including one’s own intellect. On the other hand, the sutta does encourages us to put the need to find meaning to the test of direct personal experience. Then if one senses an action or inclination as blameless and ‘praised by the wise’, it should be followed; otherwise, not. So what is needed doesn't come through blind rejection of guidelines, or compulsively holding on to them. Beautifully, there is an orientation we can trust: the Dhamma of direct personal experience, beyond logic; and experienced by ‘the wise’. Because here’s an intelligence that goes deeper than the tides of debate and theory.

‘This Dhamma that I have discovered is deep, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, not within the sphere of reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise …. that is, the stilling of all sankhāra [activations, mental formations], the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, nibbāna.’ (S.6.1)

What can ‘know’ cessation? And if the wise are made so by their ability to navigate where sankhāra go still, what about clear thinking? Even a cursory glance at the scriptures makes it clear that the Buddha talked a lot; he could extemporize in poetry, narrate fables, come to decisions about training principles, and debate with great skill. Yet the Buddha’s vocation is worthy of honour: it is a dispensation that was selfless, authentic, not seeking praise or gain, and offering both ethical guidance and meditative realisation. A teaching that is something we can practise and check out for ourselves. This Dhamma may go beyond the sphere of reasoning, but it’s highly reasonable and amenable to a verbal transmission. ‘A Tathāgata has arisen in the world who teaches a Dhamma that’s directly ascertained, timeless, encouraging inquiry, relevant, personally realisable, and discerned by the wise’_is the standard recollection. That’s pretty sacred too. But it’s hardly the ceasing of ‘mental’ activity, or mental formations, at least according to how we would understand ‘mind’.

To resolve any apparent contradictions, I would return to that ‘knowing’ and comment that the contemporary definition of mind locates it in our heads as the thought system. But the Pali texts have a different understanding. Thoughts are vacisankhāra (articulations, or ‘verbal formations’) and emotions are cittasankhāra (activations and formations of citta); and they are all learned, acquired and the results of kamma. ‘Citta’  on the other hand is the awareness that such content occurs in. Although it is prone to activation ( for good or bad), and is for the average person often engaged with them, it, and it alone, carries sacred intelligence.

In itself, citta may be difficult to define, but its track is a crucial matter: ‘_ Though one’s (former) body be devoured by crows … when a person’s citta has been strengthened for a long time by faith, virtue, learning, generosity and wisdom – that goes upward, goes to distinction.’ (S.55.21). Citta is able to turn away from the khandhā of constructed experience and be directed to ‘the deathless element, thus: “This is peaceful, this is sublime, that is, the stilling of all sankhāra … nibbāna.”’ (M.64, A.9.36). Although ‘nothing can do you so much harm as an misdirected citta’,(Dhammapada 42) 'This is the Deathless, namely the liberation of citta through not clinging.’ (M 106.13 ) This is because: ‘For a long time this citta has been defiled by lust, hatred, and delusion. Through defilement of citta, beings are defiled; through cleansing citta, beings are purified.’(S.22.100) It can be directed, it shines at moments of realisation, its vibrancy and constrictions can be sensed in our bodies, and although the processes with which it is involved make it sound like a soul or a self, citta can’t be traced as an object – because our presence stands behind the grasp of the conceiving mind. But annihilation of citta isn’t what cessation is about. Liberation of citta from sankhāra is the project. Now that’s a precious orientation, that’s Dhamma, that’s sacred.

It may then be more accurate to say that when the wise still their sankhāra, they still any pre-existing attitudes; then if there’s something that needs to be said, they let speech occur; otherwise, they stay silent.

Another way of highlighting citta is to note that it’s not a thing at all, but this ‘knowing’; it’s our subjective presence, the irreducible basis of our experience. Although all ideas and mind-states are objects that can be subjectively known as agreeable, disagreeable and changeable, the knowing of them is citta. So while constantly experiencing this subjectivity, we can’t discern it as an object – hence it is measured in terms of whatever obscures and mars it, by the love and hate and fear that oppress it, by the radiance that adorns it in meditative absorption, or by sense of release that occurs when hindrances abate or are cleared. Moreover, in fully bringing forth the loving qualities of this citta a person becomes ’brahma’ - divine. (A 3, 67; A 4,198). (For the secular mind-set, this takes some swallowing.) But also Through the development and purification of this relational awareness, one is ‘Buddha’ (M 91.31, 32, 33). From this pure intelligence, void of personal bias, attitudes, and craving, the Tathāgata rightly speaks, without papañca, of course.

 All systems, images and rituals, along with all words, principles, my personality and its known world – are objects created by the mind. The reflex of papañca that solidifies them is based on assuming that the actions of consciousness give, or can give, us the real things of life; hence greed, aversion, gain, loss and dissatisfaction. As well as delusion: because things are a mirage; they will always come and go, and be subject to interpretation, disagreement, comparison and conflict. A deluded citta wrapped up and mesmerised by its own creations, is therefore miserable and restless, wanting this and rejecting that, conceiving truth but realising nothing.

The alternative to this dead-end of objectification sits in the awareness before reasoning occur. The Way to the sacred doesn’t open through attempting to define it but through those attitudes and actions towards others and to oneself that lessen the tangle of suffering. Through wise relationship: citta is revealed and purified through relating to what arises. Such is the teaching of the Buddha: ethics, goodwill, dispassion, and a mindful and fearless honesty about how things are. Without this unshakeable alignment, citta is lost in selfhood, enmeshed in its tangle, in danger, and no refuge. So, in terms of the process of practice, we are encouraged to be more gracious, more clear with regard to what arises; less prone to self-criticism and despair; less fearful, grasping and driven: all this elevates Dhamma beyond the scenario of ‘me’ and ‘trying to get it right.’ Or even being ‘right’. It is a Way that includes body, speech and mind in a temple free from bias, failure or gain. In such a domain we are no longer faulty systems to be set straight, damaged machines to be fixed, or cantankerous creatures to be domesticated and ordered, but a potential for the embodiment of values and for the purification of attitude and response. Right here. Only then there can be the revealing of what is beyond our creation and control. When there are no objects to be known, debated, made sacrosanct, there is an experience of complete inclusion.
He has no notion of 'recluse' or ' brahmin' or ' I am better' or I am equal' or ' I am inferior.' (A.4,185) … when he thinks, he thinks only of his own welfare, the welfare of others … the welfare of the whole world. (A. 4,186)

Can anything be more sacred than that?