The Way It Is
|The uniqueness of the Buddhist approach is anatta - the
realisation of not-self. The particular style of reflection in structures
like the Four Noble Truths and the paticcasamuppada changes the way of thinking
from the self-view - of the soul and 'me' as an absolute - to anatta - the
The problem lies in the fact that 'not-self' sounds like annihilation doesn't it? And what frightens people about Buddhism is that 'not-self' and 'no soul' sounds like an absolute position that one has to take as a Buddhist. People that hate God and resent Christianity may become Buddhist because they've got a grudge against God, the soul, sin and guilt. They really want Buddhism to be a kind of atheistic philosophy and a total rejection of the whole Christian experience. But that's not what it is. Buddhism is not atheistic, or nihilistic. The Buddha was very careful to avoid such extreme positions.
Instead, his teaching is a very skilfully and carefully constructed psychology. Its aim is to help us see through and let go of all the habitual attachments - attitudes born out of ignorance fear and desire - that create this illusory sense of a self. So for 2530 years now Buddhism has managed to survive and keep its purity. And that is because its approach is very clear. There is a Sangha living under the Vinaya discipline, and there's the teaching of the Dhamma .
If we practise with this in the right way we can really begin to see the suffering and misery we create over these illusions about ourselves. We're not trying to create an illusion that there isn't any self. The point is not to go from the illusion of self to the illusion of 'there is no self', but rather to investigate, contemplate and have the insight until the ineffable truth is realised, each one of us for oneself.
Each one of us has our unique experience - we all aren't experiencing exactly the same things. We have different memories, experiences, tendencies and habits. And yet we always relate these infinite varieties to Dhamma teachings so that we are not just making totally subjective interpretations. We apply the Dhamma teaching to our experience in order to be able to communicate and understand it in a context that is wider than that of personal subjectivity.
Often where people go off in practice is that religious experiences are interpreted too subjectively. They're not put across in a form that can be communicated. They become unique personal experiences rather than universal realisations. As was the case with Christian gnosticism, you end up with all kinds of very strange subjective interpretations of mystical experience. Each Gnostic had their own way of talking, so the Roman Catholic Church at the time said: 'This is madness!' and banned it all. But the Buddha established a whole way of thinking and expressing the teachings that is exactly the same today. We don't change and bend it all to fit our personal experience. We measure our experience with the teaching because the teachings are so skilfully made that they cover everything.
In the contemplation of paticcasamuppada we're coming to agreements on how its terms relate to contemplative experience. When you first read paticcasamuppada you don't get it at all. 'Ignorance conditions kammic formations; kammic formations condition consciousness etc.' So what? What does that mean? You imagine it must be very profound and probably takes a lifetime of studying Pali to understand it. So you tend to brush it aside.
In Buddhist circles the Four Noble Truths can be glossed over. 'Oh yes - basic Buddhism. Yes... now let's get on to the real advanced Madhyamika Buddhism!' Or, 'what did Dogen say?' Or, 'Milarepa is absolutely fascinating isn't he?' And you think: ''Suffering, Origin, Cessation and Path', yes, we know that, now let's get onto the real nitty-gritty.'
So the Four Noble Truths tend to be perfunctory beliefs. People don't investigate or use them, because the teachings in themselves are not interesting are they? 'Suffering, Origin, Cessation and Path' is not an inspiring teaching because it is a teaching for practice - not a teaching to inspire. And this is why we use it: because that particular way of thinking and contemplating is psychologically valid.
With this we can begin to understand that which we've never seen nor understood before. In following this way of practice you're actually developing your mind and intelligence in a way that is very seldom done. Even in the most advanced educations, people don't really train their minds in this particular way of reflection and contemplation. To think rationally is highly regarded. But to understand what rationality is as a function of mind, you have to reflect on the nature of the mind. What is actually happening? What is it all about? And, of course, these are the questions of existence aren't they? The existential questions: 'Why was I born?' 'Is there a meaning to life?' 'What happens when I die?' 'What is it all about?' 'Is it meaningless - just a cosmic accident?' 'Does it relate to anything beyond itself or is this merely something that happens and then that's it - that's the end?'
We have great problems with relating the meaning of life to anything real beyond just the material world. So materialism becomes the reality for us. When we explore space, it's always on the material plane. We want to go up in rocket ships and take our bodies up to the moon, because according to the materialist view that's what's real. Western materialism lacks subtlety and refinement: it brings us down to a very coarse level of consciousness, where reality is this gross material object and the emotions are dismissed as not being real because they're subjective. You can't go round measuring emotions with electronic instruments.
But the emotions of course are very real to us individually - what we're feeling is really more important to us than a digital watch. Our fears and desires and loves and hates and aspirations are what really make our lives happy or miserable. And yet these can be dismissed in modern materialism for a world based on just sensual pleasure, material wealth and rational thinking, so that the spiritual life to many people seems to be just an illusion. You can't measure it with a computer or examine it with electronic instruments.
Yet in pre-scientific European civilisation, the spiritual world was the real world. How do you think they built the cathedrals? And art - all this came from a real sense of spiritual aspiration, of the human being connected to something beyond the material world. Spiritual truth is something each one must realise individually. Truth is self-realisation, the ultimate subjectivity. And the Buddha takes subjectivity to the very centre of the universe, the silent still point, where the subject is not a personal subject. That still point is not anybody's or anything.
In meditation you're moving towards that. You're letting go of all these attachments to the changing conditions of the material world, the emotional plane, the intellectual plane, the symbolic plane, the astral plane. All that is let go of in order to realise the still point, the silence. This letting go is not an annihilation or a rejection, but it gives you the perspective to understand the whole. You cannot understand the whole from being out on the circumference where you just get whirled around.
Being whirled around on the circumference means that you're lost in attachment to all the things that are whirling around. It's called samsara, where you're just going around in circles and you can't get any perspective in samsara. You have no ability to stop and watch or observe because you're just caught in this circular movement.
The aim of meditation in this way of the Four Noble Truths and paticcasamuppada is that you stop the mind's whirling. You actually abide in the stillness, not as an attack against the conditioned world but in order to see it in perspective. You're not annihilating it or criticising it or trying to get out of it in any way through aversion or fear of it. But you're getting to the centre, to the still point where you can see it for what it is and know it and not be frightened or deluded by it anymore. And we do this within the limitation of our personal experience. So we can say: 'Each one for themselves', because that's how it looks when we're sitting here. And yet that still point is not in the mind, its not in the body. This is where it's ineffable. The full mind or the still point isn't a point within the brain. Yet you're realising that universal silence, stillness, oneness where all the rest is a reflection and seen in perspective. And the personality, the kamma, the differences, the varieties and all these things are no longer deluding us because we're no longer grasping at them anymore.
As we examine the mind more and more, as we reflect and contemplate on it and learn from it, we all begin to realise the stillness of mind, which is always present but which, with most people, is not even noticed. Because the life of samsara is so busy, so frantic that one is whirled around. Even though the still point is always here, its never seen until you take the occasion to abide in the stillness rather than go around on the circumference.
Not that stillness is something to attach to either! We're not trying to become people who are still - just sitting here in stillness, not feeling anything. I know that some of you come in here and create a personal world that you can inhabit through the hour of meditation. But that's not the way out of suffering; that subjective and personal world is very dependent on things being a certain way. It is so fragile and so ephemeral that it is destroyed with the slightest disruption. The refined world of tranquillity is so lovely, so peaceful - then somebody moves their robes. Somebody's stomach growls, somebody snores! It's disgusting, isn't it, to be disrupted out of these fine tranquil states by coarse bodily functions.
But stillness isn't tranquillity? It's not necessary that
we're tranquil, but there's stillness when we can trust in abiding in
the silence rather than following our compulsive tendencies. We all tend
to think we've got to be doing something; we're so conditioned to do things
that even meditation becomes some kind of compulsive activity that we're
involved in. 'Develop this .
With understanding more and more there can be a letting go of the desire to develop and become anything. And as one's mind is freed from all that desire to become and get something, to attain something, then Truth starts revealing itself. It's ever-present, here and now. It's a matter of just being able to be open and sensitive so that Truth is revealed. It's not something that is revealed from outside. The Truth is always present but we don't see it if we're caught up in the idea of attainments, of 'me' having to do something, of 'me' having to get something.
So the Buddha made this direct attack on 'me and mine'. That's the only thing that's blocking you up. The obstacle is the attachment to a self-view, that's what is the problem! If you just see through that self-view, let go of that, then you'll understand the rest. You don't need to know all the other kind of elaborate esoteric formulas, or anything. You don't have to go endlessly on into the complexity, if you just let go of the ignorant view of 'I am'.
See that, and know and understand the way of letting go, of non-attachment. Then the Truth reveals itself wherever you are, all the time. But until you do that then you'll always be caught in creating problems and complications.
'Avijjapaccaya sankhara; sankharapaccaya vi˝˝anam; vi˝˝anapaccaya namarupam; namarupapaccaya salayatanam; salayatanapaccaya phasso; phassapaccaya vedana; vedanapaccaya tanha; tanhapaccaya upadanam; upadanapaccaya bhavo; bhavapaccaya jati; jatipaccaya jaramaranam-soka-parideva-dukkha-domanassupayasa.'*
(*This is the formulation, in the Pali language of the scriptures, of the teaching on Dependent Origination (paticcasamuppada). The translation of this is in the Introduction; the main thrust of its message is contained in the English that follows.)
All this means if you keep insisting on being attached to the illusions of a self, to greed hatred and delusion, all you're going to ever get at the end is old age, sickness, and death, grief, sorrow, despair and anguish. That's all you'll get for the rest of your life: pretty boring prospect isn't it!
But you can be free from that here and now, through this Right Understanding, seeing things in the right way. There can be the knowing of Truth in which one is no longer deluded by appearances or habits, or by the conditions around us.