Friday, September 30, 2011

Dying to Self

He who knows men is clever;
He who knows himself has insight.
He who conquers men has force;
He who conquers himself is truly strong.

He who knows when he has got enough is rich,
And he who adheres assiduously to the path of Tao is a
      man of steady purpose.
He who stays where he has found his true home
      endures long,
And he who dies but perishes not enjoys real longevity.

-- Lao Tzu --
("Tao Te Ching")

Verse 33 from the Tao Te Ching, above, like teachings from all the world's great wisdom traditions, identifies the great metaphysical challenge for all men and women: to know, and then overcome, their own narrow "selves." For in every one of us a separate ego-self arises, but in only a very select few is it overcome.

"It is by self-forgetting," St. Francis of Assisi affirmed, "that one finds. . . . It is by dying (to self) that one awakens to Eternal Life." Or, as Lao Tzu put it, "(H)e who dies but perishes not enjoys real longevity." Thus, not only is being born a second time a great spiritual goal, but perhaps more so is dying to one's self while remaining in the world.  It is the loftiest of goals, only to be achieved by disciplining the mind that has created the second self of the ego.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Tao of Non-Resistance

The spiritual path is a path of non-resistance - i.e., a way of accepting what is. In electronics, a resistor heats up, and if it isn't cooled off it is liable to burn out and fail. A conductor, on the other hand, allows the current to flow through it. The best conductors are those that exhibit the least resistance. The sage allows circumstances to flow in, around, and through him and, in turn, flows through life without resistance. That, the following suggests, is the secret of acting in accordance with the Tao.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

      Act through nonaction.
      Handle affairs through noninterference,
      Taste what has no taste,
      Regard the small as great, the few as many,
      Repay resentment with integrity.

      Undertake difficult tasks
            by approaching what is easy in them;
      Do great deeds
            by focusing on their minute aspects.

      All difficulties under heaven arise from what is easy,
      All great things under heaven arise from what is minute.

For this reason,
      The sage never strives to do what is great.
       He can achieve greatness.

      One who lightly assents
            will seldom be believed;
      One who thinks everything is easy
            will encounter much difficulty.

For this reason,
      Even the sage considers things difficult.
      In the end he is without difficulty.

[Lao Tzu, "Tao Te Ching," Victor H.  Mair trans., p. 33.]

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Simon Small: On the Inner Path and Contemplative Life

"I stand at the bottom of the pond as the fulcrum of limitless space, within and without, a gateway to both, an icon that joins the two. But who am I, so small and insignificant yet at the heart of existence? As I ponder this question, infinite space reveals itself once more. For as hard as I look, I cannot find myself. I can only find thoughts, memories, fears, beliefs and concepts that constantly arise and cease. But whoever I am does not arise or cease. I am who I have always been. Different thoughts and a new body, but I am who I am. And as my mind stills consciousness expands without limit. There is a deep sense that, indeed, it has no limit. It too is infinite, a vibrantly alive space. As I stand at the bottom of the pond, I am the still center of awesome space, but so is every other human being. And, in its own way, so is every animal, plant, virus, bacteria and living cell. And in some far distant galaxy, on another insignificant lump of rock, at the bottom of another pond, stands another still center of space staring uswards and inwards, filled and humbled by the mystery of existence."
-- Simon Small --
 ("At the Bottom of a Pond")
In a recent interview (attached below) Iain McNay, co-host of ConsciousTV, sat down with Rev. Simon Small, an ordained Church of England clergyman and author, to explore the latter's journey from run-of-the-mill modern materialist businessman to a Christian contemplative. Small's inner journey of self-inquiry led him from spiritualism, through A Course in Miracles, to Theravada Buddhism and back to his Church of England roots, revealing to him the spaciousness and interconnectedness that is at the heart of all the world's great wisdom traditions.

Small describes the fruits of the inner path in the following terms: "One begins to experience a taste that one is not separate to everything else, that this hard sense of being separate and cut off from all of this, and just relating to it, is actually just a perception, and that whatever I am is flowing out of the source of everything, just as this table is, and this room, and everything outside."

"Contemplation," he notes, "is an ancient Christian word for a universal experience. (It) describes what happens when we have those moments . . when suddenly our very small world that we are living out in our head almost seems to dissolve and suddenly there is this vast mystery there in the moment. We all have experiences like this. Many of us have them out in nature. We will be walking along and there will be a moment when the sunlight coming through the branches and hitting the leaves just stops us in our tracks. There is a sense of time almost stopping as well, and there is almost a sense of resonance in the moment so that we are no longer separate to the sunlight and those leaves. There is something vibrating there that is vibrating in us as well. We all have these moments."

A life of contemplation may not, however, be for everyone. The fruits of the inner path and contemplation are very rich, Small notes, but they come at a price, a price that many people are, perhaps, loathe to pay.

"At first, (contemplation) is a wonderful experience," he points out, "because you have never quite tasted anything quite like it. It is like the finest wine you have ever tasted, and you become aware. . . . Suddenly life has gone to colour from black and white.  But then very quickly," he warns, "one begins to realize that if you are going to pursue this you are not going to be able to live the same way anymore in the world. Things that you used to value, you won't value anymore. And you will begin to value things that you have never dreamed of before."

Small's advice to those who wish to explore the contemplative way is: "Enter stillness. Try and taste the wonder of being. Go out into nature, (into) whatever it is that brings this sense of wonder into your life. And then as you are experiencing that quality of consciousness, hold the question: Where do I go from here?" The answer will come, he notes.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

On the "Great Way" - The Tao of Nature

There was something featureless yet complete,
      born before heaven and earth;

Silent - amorphous -
      it stood alone and unchanging.

We may regard it as the mother of heaven and earth.
Not knowing its name,
      I style it the "Way."

If forced to give it a name,
      I would call it "great."

Being great implies flowing ever onward,
Flowing ever onward implies far-reaching,
Far-reaching implies reversal.

The Way is great,
Heaven is great,
Earth is great,

The king, too, is great.

Within the realm there are four greats,
      and the king is one among them.

      patterns himself on earth,
      patterns itself on heaven,
      patterns itself on the Way,
The Way
      patterns itself on nature.

(Lao Tzu, "Tao Te Ching," Victor H. Mair trans., p. 90.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bhikku Bodhi: "An End to the Future"

Ven. Bhikku Bodhi
We live in perilous times. War, poverty, hunger, accelerating climate change and obtuse, unresponsive governments constitute a global crisis which threatens the prospects of humanity's future, as the Venerable Bhikku Bodhi points out in the attached Google TechTalk.

"An end to the future, at least to the human future, is now easily imaginable," Bodhi observes. "Even if the end point of the future doesn't occur in our own lifetime," he warns, "there is a very real danger that it might occur at some point in the present century, even during the lifetimes of your children or grandchildren."

"During our daily lives when our attention is involved in our day-to-day tasks and projects," Bodhi notes, "these kinds of thoughts normally don't trouble us. But if we step back for a few moments and reflect, we can easily see that these claims are not exaggeration. The dangers are very real, and when we take them seriously, as we should take them, they can send a chill down our spines."

All living things are interconnected as parts of a unified field, Bodhi points out in a recent issue of Tricycle (Fall, 2011), and such interconnectedness "bids us consider the long-term effects our deeds exert on other people, on all beings endowed with sentience, and on the entire biosphere."
"In minimal terms," he asserts, "this means that we cannot tolerate behaviour that endangers vast sections of the world's population. We cannot use the earth's resources in ways that result in the mass extinction of species, with unpredictable results. We cannot spend billions on the fratricidal activity of war, while a billion people suffer from hunger, sleep on the streets, and die from easily curable illnesses. We cannot burn fuels that irreversibly alter the climate, or discharge toxic substances into our water and air, without initiating chain reactions that will eventually poison ourselves."
"For the spiritual life to unleash its full potential as a fountainhead of grace and blessings, the wisdom of selfishness on its own is not sufficient," Bodhi points out. "Wisdom has to be joined with another force that galvanizes the will to act. The force needed to empower wisdom is compassion. Both wisdom and compassion shift our sense of identity away from ourselves toward the wider human, biotic, and cosmic community to which we belong."

In addressing his audience at Google, Bodhi asserts that the existential problems and challenges we face may be seen as "many manifestations of a deep and hidden spiritual malignancy that is infecting human society. And the common root of all these problems," he notes, "might be briefly described as a stubborn insistence on placing narrow, short-term, self-centered interests above the long-range good of the broader human community."

"What is needed above all else," he points out, "is a new orientation . . . a kind of universal consciousness that will enable us to regard others as being essentially the same as oneself. We have to learn to reject the demands of self-interest and acquire this universal perspective from which the welfare of all appears to be just as important as our own good. That is, we have to outgrow the narrow egocentric and ethnocentric attitudes to which we are normally committed, and instead embrace a worldcentric ethic that gives priority to the well-being of all."

"Such a worldcentric ethic should be moulded upon three guidelines," he suggests. "First, we have to overcome exploitative greed with global generosity, helpfulness and cooperation. Second, to replace hatred, suspicion and vengeance with a policy of kindness, tolerance and forgiveness. And third, we have to recognize that the world is an interconnected whole such that irresponsible behaviour anywhere has potentially harmful consequences everywhere."

"These guidelines," Bodhi points out, "can constitute the nucleus of a global ethic to which all of the world's great spiritual traditions could easily subscribe, without requiring any kind of exclusive adherence to Buddhism."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Thich Nhat Hanh: On Habit and Mindfulness

"Our habit energy is what causes us to repeat the same behaviour thousands of times. Habit energy pushes us to run, to always be doing something, to be lost in thoughts of the past or the future and to blame others for our suffering. And that energy does not allow us to be peaceful and happy in the present moment."

"The practice of mindfulness helps us to recognize that habitual energy. Every time we can recognize the habitual energy in us, we are able to stop and to enjoy the present moment. The energy of mindfulness is the best energy to help us embrace our habit energy and transform it."

-- Thich Nhat Hanh --
("Beyond the Self: Teachings on the Middle Way")

In the Tao Te Ching we read:

The sage has no mind of his own. He takes as his own the mind of the people.

Those who are good I treat as good. Those who are not good I also treat as good. In so doing I gain in goodness. Those who are of good faith I have faith in. Those who are lacking in good faith I also have faith in. In so doing I gain in good faith.

The sage in his attempt to distract the mind of the empire seeks urgently to muddle it. The people all have something to occupy their eyes and ears, and the sage treats them all like children.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

In the attached two-part video, the renowned Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, takes the viewer through a mindful movement and breathing meditation:

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Thomas Merton: Eastern Musings

The Lion
From alien heavens
Where there are no fabled beasts
No friendly histories
And passion has no heraldry.

I have nothing left to translate
Into the figures of night
Or the pale geometry
Of the fire-birds.
If I once had a wagon of lights to ride in
The axle is broken
The horses are shot.

-- Thomas Merton --

The iconoclasitic Benedictine Monk, Thomas Merton, was above all a poet, a poet who shook his worldview loose from old forms, as The Lion, above, amply demonstrates. The spare, stark images of the wagon of lights, the broken axle, and horses that have been shot suggest the growing influence that Zen and Taoism had on his worldview, an influence that can be seen in the following selections about Nothingness and the Void taken from his later work, "Cables to the Ace."

"For (Merton) solitude was his desert where he had to face death and Nothingness. As he explored the Asian religious traditions in the 1960s, he sought to integrate this Nothingness into his Christian theology. Buddhism and Taoism had long found in Nothingness or the Void a creative, even joyful, reality that was in harmony with Being. But Western thought only recently began to face the challenge of Non-being." -- Alan Altany --

(For more of Alan Altany's informative and delightful summary of Merton's poetry, see "Thomas Merton's Poetry: Emblems of a Sacred Season," on the website.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Don't Drink the Ego's Kool-Aid

The spiritual quest can become an ego trap. Instead of diminishing and letting go of the separated sense of 'self' the ego can quite easily flip and appear to cooperate in its own diminishment. "You want to be spiritual," the ego says, "then watch just how spiritual I can be!" Perhaps it is this reverse egoic thinking that leads to the demise of many of the so-called 'gurus' and self-proclaimed messiahs who rise, crash and burn. The trouble is not only that all too many drink their kool-aid, but even more critically, that we are all too prone to mix and take our own.

Having learned that there is such a thing as enlightenment, and finding out that literally thousands of books have been written on how enlightenment might be achieved, the ever-voracious ego sets out to gain more and more knowledge. However, once one has read even a few of these books one knows that it is only practice and experience, rather than intellectual knowledge and beliefs, that will do the trick. But, oh, how attached the ego can become to more spiritual knowledge!
"In one way or another," writes Ram Dass, " all of the practices of jnana yoga work with our intellectual faculties and with different levels fo the mind to get to something that is finally beyond the mind's grasp. It's called higher wisdom, and higher wisdom is a different thing altogether from knowledge. . . . Knowledge is a function of the intellect; higher wisdom goes beyond mind and intellect."

"The intellect," Dass notes, "is like a siddhi, a yogic power, and like all such powers, it's very seductive. It's easy for us to seduced  by all the fascinating things we can know about. But our knowing isn't wisdom - it's knowledge; and all of that fascination with knowing things can end up drawing us outward rather than inward."

"We get trapped in the world of knowing," Dass points out. "We busy ourselves collecting more and more worldly knowledge, and focus on the matrix of the rational mind instead of openining into our deeper wisdom. And then the very tool we're trying to use to escape becomes our trap, because with knowing there's always still a "knower" and a "that which is known.""
"Only when the knower and known become one," writes Dass, "does that One get through the door. Nobody who knows anything gets through the door - which means that the ultimate sacrifice for the gynani, the intellectual, is giving up everything."
[Ram Dass, "Paths to God," pp. 74-75.]
* * * * * * * * * * * * *

"Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.

"Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment," Rumi advises us.

[Coleman Barks, "The Essential Rumi, p. 36.]

Friday, September 9, 2011

On Attachments

One cannot go through the world without attachments, and yet all such attachments - to our pets, to our children, to our spouses, to our vocations, to our possessions, to our various 'identities' etc. - are all bound to create suffering, either in the short-term or the long-term. What is one to do?

The Tao Te Ching seems to suggest that we recognize but neither "assert" nor "abide in" such attachments. It recognizes that unfettered enjoyment of such temporary attachments as "extravagances" which prevent us from living in accordance with "the Way."
"Who is puffed up cannot stand,
Who is self-absorbed has no distinction,
Who is self-revealing does not shine,
Who is self-assertive has no merit,
Who is self-praising does not last long.

As for the Way, we may say these are
   "excess provisions and extra baggage."
Creation abhors such extravagances.

      One who aspires to the Way,
            does not abide in them."

In the two related dharma talks (below),  Buddhist teacher, Ajahn Brahmili explores our deep-seated attachments and how we can move beyond them to live a more liberated and awakened life.

We need to create an inner refuge, separate and apart from our attachments, Ajahn suggests, if we are to begin the task of moving beyond attachments and the innate suffering that comes with them. In this way, it is possible to live in the world of attachments, but not be wholly attached to that world.

Creating such an inner refuge, he points out "is really a path of beautifying the mind, of making the mind more bright, and of having an internal source of happiness."

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Karma, Harm and Harmlessness

The law of karma is inexorable and found in all traditions, and not just Hinduism and Buddhism, from which the notion of karma arose. The well-known saying, "As you sow, so shall you reap," which we read in the New Testament at Galatians 6:7, is clearly an expression of the universal law of karma.

"Every sin must be paid for, (and) all karmic debt must be paid," points out the late Unity minister, Eric Butterworth. "However," he notes, "the choice is ours whether we work it out in the cycle of retribution, through profound suffering in the 'furnace of affliction,' or whether our payment of debt is through the discipline of rising above the consciousness from which the act was committed into the freedom of spiritual understanding where we go forth and 'sin no more.'"
[Butterworth, "Discover the Power Within You:," p. 137.]

Addressing the corrosive effects of bad kharma (or action), the great sage, Patanjali observed:
"The obstacles to yoga - such as acts of violence and untruth - may be created or indirectly caused or approved, they may be motivated by greed, anger or self-interest, they may be small, moderate or great, but they never cease to result in pain and ignorance. One should overcome disturbing thoughts by remembering this." (Yoga Sutra II:34)
"Everything we do, say, or think, or even indirectly cause or passively sanction," writes Swami Prabhavananda, "Will inevitably produce consequences - good, bad, or composite - and these consequences will react in some measure upon ourselves."

"Our most secret ill-wishes towards others," he continues, "our remotest permission of evil done to others, can only end by hurting us, by increasing our own ignorance and pain. This is an absolute law of Nature. If we could remember it always, we should learn to control our tongues and our thoughts."

Again, Patanjali observes:
"When a man becomes steadfast in his abstention from harming others, then all living creatures will cease to feel enmity in his presence."
 Elaborating upon this concept of ahimsa (or, harmlessness), the inevitable corollary of karma, Swami Prabhavananda notes that we have become so used to using the word "harmless" in a deprecating and even "derogatory sense" that "it has become almost synonymous with ineffectual." "Yet," Prabhavananda points out, "the perfected harmlessness of the saint is by no means ineffectual, it is a positive psychological force of tremendous power."

"When a man has truly and entirely renounced violence in his own thoughts and in his dealings with others," Prabhavnanda remarks, "he begins to create an atmosphere around himself within which violence and enmity must cease to exist because they find no reciprocation."
[Prabhavananda and Isherwood, "How to Know God," pp. 146-148.]

Thus, what we sow with our thoughts and in our consciousness has the potential for either harm or good, and "as we sow, so shall we reap." It is not just what we say or do that brings about "bad karma," but rather who we are in our inner Being.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Suffering and the End of Suffering

The central teaching of Buddhism is that to the unenlightened being life is suffering, that there are specific causes of suffering, that there is an end to suffering if these causes are overcome, and that there is a specific path to the working out of these root causes and thus to the ending of suffering. Called the Four Noble Truths, this teaching of the Buddha is perhaps the earliest and most explicit teaching of how suffering works as the soil and water that nourishes spiritual growth. As one famous spiritual writer put it: 'When we are suffering we are really being blessed, but we do not recognize it at the time.'

"You won't be able to surrender," notes preeminent spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle (in the video, below), "unless you are completely fed up with suffering, (unless) you have had enough suffering, and at some level you recognize that most of your suffering is self created."

"Suffering is a wonderful teacher; (it) is most people's only teacher," he points out. "Suffering deepens you. It gradually erodes the mind-made sense of self, the ego. And for some people the point arises where they realize, "I have suffered enough.""

Not only is the message of suffering and the end of suffering the central tenet of Buddhism, Tolle notes, it is also a central teaching of Christianity. "Finding the Pearl of Great Price, finding the Kingdom of Heaven that is within you, here and now, as Jesus says, is of course the ending of suffering. So one could say that you need suffering for you to realize, to come to point of realization, that you do not need to suffer anymore."

That one needs to suffer in order to come to the realization that one no longer needs to suffer, is as Tolle puts it, the "great paradox" that drives spiritual growth. One finds in time, however, that one can sincerely strive to live a life of the spirit without the necessity of constantly being bludgeoned into that position by painful struggle. That, Tolle would probably agree, is the beginning of the end of the small, ego-self.