Art of Being (Edition 2) Chapter 2 Extract. The Way of the Buddha
What distinguishes Buddha is that he was one of the first to stand up and say that the search for Truth (the religious or scientific search) is not external, but internal. Buddha does not negate the external, but makes it clear that to understand the external one must first look inward. In doing this, Buddha turned the religious and scientific search into one of practical psychology and meditation. Rather than look at the causes of the universe as aspects that are separate from us (which exist out there in the stars, or somewhere in the past), rather than look at the biological factors involved in the creation of the human form, Buddha recognises that existence is an ongoing process which is fundamentally related to all life forms, and that all life co-exists within existence in the present moment. Buddha recognises that human life is conscious and that all life is energy; this led him to question the relationship between consciousness, existence and energy. He asks ‘Who or what is creating this life force, this consciousness, this energy that is my Being? Is this existence that I am, fundamentally related to all existence?’ Rather than look outwards for a creator or creative force, Buddha turns the search onto the searcher. This has been a masterstroke.
Buddhist teachings are often referred to as a philosophy rather than a religion, but any categorisation is inadequate. What such labels suggest is a doctrine or an ‘ism’, but Buddha says Truth cannot be organised. The religions of the world today are more interested in you than they are in Truth. They are more interested in providing you with comfort and a false sense of security than they are in exposing you to what is true so that you grow. Buddha’s teachings are different.
Deception is only possible when we want something – some reward in the form of, say, heaven – and we only want something when we feel incomplete. While much of the rest of the world is busy looking outward, Buddha suggests looking inward to discover that we are already complete. Instead the ‘I’, the ‘me’, seeks completion, looking for security, looking to become this or that; we are always caught in the trap of striving and so inevitably we leave ourselves open to all kinds of disappointments and deceptions.
Self-deception begins in applying the ‘I’ when listening to others, rather than listening with complete and total attention. The art of listening is to listen with pure and open attention. It is to soak up the essence of what is being said without the ‘I’ trying to mould or coerce the information according to a preferred pattern. It is to listen without any resistance at all. To listen to all internal reactions and watch why we are reacting that way. If we listen with the ‘I’ and the ‘I’ holds this belief or that belief, we listen to an interpretation of what is being said that fits with our view; a translation that meets with our belief and thus gives us a form of pleasure. For example, if we believe in life after death and then someone comes along and says there is no life after death, then of course it is going to be very difficult for us to listen to the essence of what they are saying without a distorted interpretation of their words. Religious belief is a prime example of the ego’s moulded response to death, it is also an element of the security blanket we call tradition.
Buddha presents a religion that perplexes theologians. It is a religion – for want of a better word to describe Buddha’s approach – with no God, no structure and no belief system; where what is taught is not the acquisition of new virtues, but the uncovering of layers of falsehood to reveal abiding Truths that are already within. It is a religion that challenges our ideas of the self. A religion that challenges ideas of ‘God’ – recognising this for what it is: a self-projected idea that creates continuity for the ‘me’ in this life and a secure future in another world called ‘Heaven’. It is a religion where its primary teacher denies the existence of the soul; a religion that informs humanity that the world is merely a dream and that one day, on the day of your death, that dream will end. Buddha says that all of your relationships, your possessions and your attachments are part of that dream and therefore ultimately not real. Buddha says, don’t have attachments because the nature of reality is impermanent. He says, don’t cling to that which you think is permanent because your thinking is misguided; nothing is permanent, not even your sense of self. He says, all relationships are transitory and ultimately you are on your own. Buddha takes away everything from you: your home, your possessions, your relationships, every aspect of ‘you’ down to the last remnant of ‘I’. He says, everything that you think you are, you are NOT, not one bit at all! In death nothing of you will remain; absolutely everything you have ever known about yourself – your body, your mind, your idea of a soul – will dissolve, and that which remains is something you know nothing about. Every element you would deem recognisable about yourself will be gone when you die; absolutely nothing of ‘you’ will remain.
‘Why should we put ourselves through this search for Nirvana, as described by Buddha? If my life is a dream, if my relationships are to cease and I am not who I think I am, at least let me pretend that it is all real, otherwise what is the point of anything?’
According to Buddha, such self deception will only lead to suffering. Any type of pretense is false. If one lives a life that is false, there will be no order in the mind, no union or cosmos . We may have pushed away our fears, living relatively comfortably but Buddha says this is illusion; the very nature of selfhood, the very nature of feeling cut off from existence, is to suffer.
‘But my life as it currently stands is the only real thing that I know, to negate this is to negate everything!’
Don’t panic. Buddha is not suggesting that you negate your life, your relationships or your life history as many ascetics have done. Far from it. He is simply suggesting that you recognise that you are part of a greater process that is happening now and that one day, the process that is you will end and another will arise. You will die and all that will remain is something that you cannot understand right now. Buddha is immovable on this point. ‘Absolutely nothing of me’ is hard to comprehend – it feels very much like a total death, a total non-existence – but this does not automatically mean there is nothing at all; what Buddha means is there is nothing of ‘you’ – the difference is monumental. Since we do not understand, since we cannot comprehend a ‘no self’ existence which is not total annihilation, we think ‘that which remains’ must be our soul. But as Buddha explains, the self disappears completely, there is no ‘I’, there is nothing of you that remains, yet there is something that you cannot understand that will remain. We grasp onto this and think, ‘This something must be life continuance of me in some way, surely then it is a form of soul?’ But Buddha couldn’t be more resolute in his denial of the existence of the soul – one of his deepest offerings to humanity. This something you think is your soul is not your soul. A soul remains a subtle form of ego ‘I’. You need to understand that the ego ‘I’ with all of its subtleties will be gone; the soul is part of the ‘I’ and the ‘I’ will die completely. Every idea you have had about yourself will die completely. Buddha says you are nothing other than pure, empty space; you are nothing but pure, empty awareness. He does not say more about this. He does not say what comes after death. On this, he stays silent.
Today, ‘emptiness’ scares people; people are put off Buddha’s teachings because it is an understanding that strips everything away. Other religions add layers on to us and we like that, we feel that we are gaining something and we find this comforting. But when we listen to Buddha, there is nothing but negation, negation and more negation. Everything is being stripped away and there seems little to gain apart from the prospect of being completely empty. To be frank, it isn’t very appealing at all. In a way it takes deep courage and tremendous commitment to see, by account of your own understanding, whether what Buddha is saying brings liberation. Buddha does not deliver a message and he never asks for your trust; his advice is that you test out what he says for yourself. You will be able to trust yourself, perceive all that you need to perceive by yourself without guidance from another. Your intelligence begins to work for itself, and you grow.
By careful, attentive listening and heart-led understanding, and with the application of intelligence, our vision can be free from distortion. Human behaviour is a conditioned response, unintelligent when we don’t see what within the psyche is driving it. It is driven by the human search for comfort and a deep reluctance to stand completely alone, resulting in aversion to anything that shakes the foundations of already held beliefs and opinions. This is why the pure teachings of Buddha, the essence of his teachings, have been so distorted into the many forms of Buddhism that exist around the world today. These forms of Buddhism do not reflect Buddha, in fact by giving rigid structure and mechanical method they fail to express what Buddha was saying. There is no path to wisdom, no formula. If wisdom is formulaic then it becomes knowledge, a pattern, something to be repeated; a product of the known. Wisdom is not something that we accumulate according to a pattern. Whatever exists in a pattern must, by definition, be binding. The pattern may have a different colour but the ‘me’ adopting that pattern is always the same. For example we may convert from Christianity to New Ageism or Hinduism but the ‘me’ operating in the background is still the same old ‘me’. The old supersedes the new and so there is insufficient freedom to discover and comprehend the new. Discovery only exists in seeing and meeting the challenges of life as they are in the present moment, not according to the rigid framework of self-projected patterns and conclusions. To follow any form of pattern is to escape, it is to deny ‘what is’. Wisdom is the understanding of oneself from moment to moment; to see ‘what is’ as it is; free from the past, free from knowledge, free from the field of the known. Buddha’s teachings cannot therefore be defined, structured or made mechanical. Truth is only discoverable when one discovers oneself as one is, without reference to a blueprint or a plan. Buddha is nearly always misunderstood, that is why there is Buddhism.
Joy and The Self
Buddhism exists because Buddha’s original teachings shatter the defence mechanisms of the ego; they expose the lies that humans have built in response to desire and fear. If we are unable to listen without the ‘I’ projecting itself, misinterpretation and self-deception will inevitably arise. In the face of such distortion, the original teachings were misunderstood and thus abandoned. After being ejected from India, the teachings of Buddha were compromised and doctored in order to win popularity, and what resulted was the spread of Buddhism elsewhere throughout Asia and the world. Buddhism was created in order for what happened in India never to be repeated; so began the watered down version of Buddha’s teachings that we call Buddhism today.
According to Buddha the secret of all joy is feeling what you are because what you are is essentially unbounded. It is a creative process that is not only physical but also expansive and without limit; an experiencing that is beyond opinion or the boundary of thinking. The language here is a little clumsy but your boundless Being is larger than you, and naturally when you are just Being you feel more than you felt before. It is a strange feeling, and sounds paradoxical. Rather than evaluating this in your mind, explore and feel it in your heart. The sensation of falling in love gives us a glimpse of this expanded sense of Being. For a while you are walking on the clouds, you are all starry-eyed, your love is unbounded. You feel that you are somehow more than yourself, that you are expanded in a way that you cannot define. This is a glimpse of the feeling of boundlessness that comes with self-understanding and a reconnection with Being. The way of Buddha is known as the way of the heart; when it has been understood existentially, you don’t fall in love with just one person or a few people, you fall in love with all existence (and which is not sentimentality); you feel that you are existence, existence is all there is and so begins an outpouring of bliss.
According to Buddha, the single most fundamental cause of human delusion is the belief in the self. This is the idea of independent existence, the illusion of the ego boundary. Buddha says that when you penetrate into the heart of what is true, you realise that you are and yet you are not. You exist but you are not separate. You are not a ‘self’, you are a ‘non-self’. It is difficult to put into words. Think of a bright lamp that is covered by layers of thick black cloth. As we peel away the layers, we begin to see the light shining through. Flickers of light appear through gaps in the heavy cloth. This light represents what is real, masked for much of your life by persona and identifications. What is true and authentic and what is your fundamental essence has been masked by what is false. All ego personality is false. You cannot destroy what is true; it can only be masked. The ego is a suit of personality that you have been wearing, and we each have a lot of different outfits. You are connected with existence, only you have been wearing too many clothes and you have been thinking that you are separate, individual and made of form.
There is something precarious, dangerous even, in turning this into a concept. The brain uses thought to try and conceptualise the idea that I am existence, and this causes confusion. We may be misled into thinking that there is universal order within and ultimately, therefore, nothing to do. But what is real is one’s confusion, one’s daily habits and escapes. The idea that one is all of existence remains just that: an idea. We want to live our lives according to such ideas, but it’s a trick that fools many of us into investigative inaction. We start chanting mantras, playing Indian yogic tricks, thinking we can reach universal order inside through some kind of practice. This is all meaningless if one is still fractured, fragmented and disordered. Cosmos, which means order, only comes into being when we know ourselves completely, when there is deep self-empathy. When there is such order there is no isolation as many have concluded, just existence. The ‘me’ is no longer present.
Buddha says our fundamental essence is the nothingness, the emptiness that is left behind when all the layers of ego have been peeled away. Think of Russian nesting dolls (also known as Matryoshka dolls), which each contain another smaller doll inside, and another smaller doll inside that, continuing in smaller scales until there is only one tiny doll left. Each doll is like a layer of ego; as one layer is removed the next layer is revealed inside. This continues until one day all that is left is the last layer – the final, smallest doll – and when that is removed all that is left is nothing but pure, empty space. Your essence is not a thing that is tangible; it is an emptiness, a nothingness. It is only ‘you’ the self that seems tangible; you are the layers, but nothing more. The essence of you is nothingness, it is an emptiness that is free, that is nowhere and everywhere. The essence of humanity is empty and yet at the same time it is all of existence at once. This essence is without boundary, limit or frontier.
A modern and very helpful way to introduce Buddha’s idea of ‘no self’ is to examine the ‘corporation’. Where is the corporation? It is not in the buildings, without the staff they are nothing. It is not the staff or management, they too can be replaced. The corporation is a moving thing with no fixed abode. The ‘ego self’ or what many call the ‘centre’ is remarkably similar. Is it an actual thing? Can it be located? The majority of people believe that thinking emanates from the ‘ego self’. Buddha says thought comes first; it creates the centre. Mentally we construct psychological realities that are intensely real, like the ubiquitous belief in the ‘self’; we feel its reality and the illusion builds up fast. All psychological events are then referred to it as if they are coming from that reality; the fragmentation of thought builds up a tremendous structure of support around it. ‘How can we be sure of its realness?’ is what Buddha is asking.
How does the mind set up this sense of reality, this cloud of thought? Thought as the ‘word’ sets up in the brain, over and above the implicit imprints from childhood, a sense of reality and then everything is referred to it. We may call this reality ‘Thinking Incorporated’ or ‘Thinking Ltd’. What we are left with is a construct of thought that thinks of itself as permanent / enduring yet it is in a constant and dynamic state of flux. We then attribute ‘thinking’ itself to this construction of thought called ‘me’ as if it is an actual reality and so thought never truly sees its own movement. Seeing its own movement, which is to understand the true meaning of time, is the very basis of virtue.
Buddha says there is freedom when all layers of the self are uncovered through direct perception rather than perception through the lens of the ‘me’. It is the layers of the self, the layers of what is false that inhibit what is fundamentally true. These layers limit and confine you, creating misery by going against your true, free nature. The layers of the self can be formed – or hardened – by belief, attachment and fear. But the suffering they cause can cease. Rather than fight suffering with forceful resistance, Buddha suggested that the best way to neutralise suffering is to understand it. Understand its cause and then it can be erased. If the roots of our problems are not identified, then what hope do we have of seeing them disappear? As any gardener will tell you, there is no point weeding if one does not dig up the roots. So to be free of suffering we must understand the nature of our suffering, the problems revealing themselves in our questions.
So how can we witness the emergence of joy and bliss? What is needed is to understand the nature and structure of consciousness. This happens not in our action, our efforts to achieve but rather within inaction, in passive observation. This is Buddha’s approach for the cessation of suffering. It is very simple. Freedom and joy do not arise from method, but from the ability to see with absolute clarity what is blocking our joy and our bliss from being and blossoming of its own accord. These obstacles to joy are our thoughts in the form of beliefs, ideals, attachments, cravings, identifications and fears; the thought patterns that make up our sense of self. Why do we indulge them, what is their origin, how do these filter clarity?
For example, Buddha sees the search for enlightenment or for spiritual fulfilment as an expression of fear. This fear distorts our mind, leading us into constricting methods and practices. Life is free flowing and open; it cannot be mapped and turned into mechanics because life is always changing, always making itself anew. Methods that are fixed and mechanical will trap us and make us miserable; this is because systems and methods by their very nature tether. Understanding is free flowing, open; method on the other hand is fixed and mechanical. A method is a map for life, but life cannot be mapped for life is always changing. Life incorporates the new. How can we map the new? We don’t know the new, so mapping the new it is nothing but impossible.
Cruel To Be Kind
Buddha likes to talk in terms of absolutes and for those of us who do not understand, his words can seem ruthless, cold and frightening. When Buddha says there is no soul, all we can think of is annihilation. But Buddha is concerned with what is factual, no matter how it makes us feel. Belief in the soul is a subtle form of ego ‘I’, and as long as this subtle layer remains, a deep communion with existence cannot take place. Existence is a non-ego state. All ego states, no matter how subtle, must be gone if there is to be this great contact, this great communion with what is fundamentally real. And so Buddha is cutting all ties with whatsoever can form an ego state; hence he denies the soul.
Buddha also likes to use negative terms in his descriptions and he does this in order to help us. For example, Buddha describes Nirvana as nowhere, yet it can also be said that Nirvana means everywhere. How can something be nowhere and everywhere? We cannot see this clearly because our minds are locked up in limited thought patterns, such as our tendency – in this case – to think in terms of space and volume. Buddha chose to describe Nirvana as ‘nowhere’ for a reason; he chose nowhere in order to prepare us, so that we have nothing to grasp onto because it is the grasping that is the problem, the grasping is a form of ego. ‘Everywhere’ creates the illusion that we can grasp onto it, even though we cannot; ‘nowhere’, on the other hand, is final when it comes to the idea of grasping and so this is why Buddha describes Nirvana in this way. He is always thinking in terms of what is helpful for preparation for complete liberation.
In death you will be gone, in death everything about you will disappear. Buddha says this in order to leave you with nothing to cling to because it is the clinging that is the problem, not what happens in death. Buddha is ruthless because he has such deep compassion; his Truth cuts through the lies of the human mind like a hot knife through butter. Our lies and all of the beliefs that we have put in place in order to make ourselves feel better don’t help us. If we are to grow we need remain with certain facts, we need to step out of illusion and break away from falsities so that there are no distortions between us and what is real. Buddha is preparing you so that you are ready to unravel your own deepest Truths. His concern is for your preparation, and that is all. Buddha says the relationships you treasure so much, the relationships you dream will last forever – your closest companion, your ‘soul’ mate, your partner, your best friend, those you cherish so deeply – will all dissolve when you die. It is a bitter pill that is very hard to swallow, which is why lots of interpretations of ‘Buddhism’ have softened Buddha’s teachings. Buddha leaves nowhere for you to hide, he takes everything away from you so that you are freed of self-imposed slavery. Remember: that to which you are attached will imprison you. So don’t be imprisoned, don’t cling, don’t crave, otherwise you will continue to suffer. Whatsoever you cling to you lose because clinging is impossible, reality is impermanent and death will always separate.
We are not able to thoroughly understand what remains in death, as our limited language cannot describe this non-self existence. It is not a ‘state’, a state implies a subject having an experience; in death there is no subject there to have an experience. There is only experiencing, no experiencer and no experience. There is simply nothingness, an emptiness, yet out of this nothingness there is everything. This everything is all of existence; it is the ocean of all life, every bit, every byte, every part, every element. What you were in this life still exists in a way, only now it is somewhere in distant memory. What you were before you are no longer; now you are something else, now you are something altogether different. So vast is this something else, so altogether different, that Buddha is right to say ‘You are no longer.’ The self will be gone, nothing recognisable as ‘you’ will remain. There is no ‘old you’ there to recognise but what is left is absolutely familiar. This emptiness has always been home. It is so far beyond words that any description would be futile and whatever can be said would be completely inadequate. Buddha’s suggestion that we leave it well alone is for our own benefit; any enquiries we make about this realm whilst holding a conventional view will lead to misunderstanding and thus become a distraction. On this point, the withholding of information assists our development. Nothing is stated in absolute terms and that is part of the magic of Buddha. He prepares us for the realisation that we are nothing but pure, empty space. We are made of emptiness, yet out of this emptiness arises all that has ever existed.
Love Your Aloneness
We are conditioned to see loneliness in a negative light, but the aloneness of our exploration is something to be embraced and, when we embrace it, we will find that it is something altogether different. Learn to be alone and enjoy that aloneness. Learn to feel fulfilled within your own Being by simply Being. Learn to be comfortable, calm, complete, joyful and blissful in your own company, to be a light unto yourself. In aloneness your joy is uncaused, your happiness is without reason; you are your own source now, you do not need another person, situation or object for fulfilment. You can simply Be and enjoy Being, not worried about what others think, not worried about what you think you must do and what you think you must become; you already know that any idea of becoming distracts you from your fundamental Being. Deep happiness begins by being honest with yourself. Buddha says drop your idea of God and learn how to stand on your own two feet, learn how to be happy within; without any props, without becoming dependent, without needing to run away from your deepest fears.
Buddha advises us to embrace rather than fear the freedom of our aloneness. This is how to grow, mature and become wise. But we are so scared of our own freedom that we don’t know what to do with it when we have it, so we willingly hand it over to those who claim to know. Many are easily fooled by the cunning and the clever: ‘Better give responsibility to someone else rather than face my own actualities!’ Collectively – and individually – we prefer to avoid ‘what is’; our inner tension. We are lazy and frightened so we opt for the easy route and this is the route of dependence; it is much easier to shift responsibility onto someone else. We give ourselves over to authority – the church, the state, the guru, even the party – and where there is authority there is power and centralisation. All exploitation breeds dependency for both the exploiter and the exploited, and it raises this absurd notion of a hierarchical structure in the pursuit of Truth. So your idea of God, for example, is certainly not helping; it is providing you with a crutch, keeping your mind immature, preventing you from seeing and knowing who you really are. Only when such lies are cut can we move beyond ourselves. A guru or leader cannot bridge the gap between you and ‘what is’ because the gap is you, it is within you.
There is no authority. There is no leader. Anyone who claims to know clearly does not know; in fact, their lack of understanding is demonstrated by reason of their claim. But we don’t see this, we choose to follow, we choose to obey, we choose to co-operate because we are lazy when it comes to our growth. If we are not chasing gurus or getting caught up in religious entertainment, we are instead watching the television or reading gossip magazines; anything that will distract us from asking the right questions. It is far easier to follow another than it is to be intelligent for oneself. We obey because we do not know ourselves; we are ignorant. Buddha shows us a way to break down our ignorance so that we can no longer ignore the truth of ‘what IS’. You have to understand that his approach is existential, and that you are ultimately alone in your comprehension of it. But Buddha helps us along the way, guiding us to an experiencing of this unnameable that is so deeply existential that it cannot be ignored. Everything that there is to be known already exists within you. Buddha’s way is self-understanding. Understand yourself and you will understand the world.
Buddha says you already are that which you seek, but you cannot see because you hold too many layers. All that is needed is the uncovering of the unnecessary layers. The self is striving to be that which already is and this is the paradox of the self. The self strives to be happy, not realising that happiness and freedom ARE when the self is not. It is the self that is the problem; the self is the barrier between you and existence, between you and freedom. Meditation is to have an ego death. In deep meditation the barriers between you and existence come down and so begins the euphoria of existence; you become deathless, you know what is going to die and what is going to remain. That which is going to die is all that is part of this dream we call reality, including your personality, your history and your memory. That which is to remain is the awareness you detect when you look into the mirror; the awareness that is not your personality, the awareness that has remained the same ever since you were a young child. This awareness is the same awareness that pervades all life and all existence. You are that which never dies and that which is never born, you are just empty awareness. You are simply pure, empty space.
The Intelligence of the Heart
Intelligence is the ability to see what is true and what is not, free from all judgement, all dependency, all memory, all that is past. We achieve understanding by paying complete and full attention. We attend to the nature of a fact without distortions, without the ideas of the self and our ideas about the self getting in the way. This is the art of listening and the art of observation. It is to observe without the distorting ‘me’ with all of its baggage and accumulations interfering, disturbing or clouding essential clarity.
To see with clarity is Buddha’s central message; when understood correctly one realises Buddha had no message. This he called Vipassana and this, he said, is all that is needed. It cannot be taught, sought or caught, it is what we already are; we simply need to uncover the layers of falsehood that distort direct perception of the real. The distortion is ‘us’, what we think is ‘us’. So we must understand what of us is real and what is not. To find the real, we must be real, honest and integral. There cannot be denial, or the craving for achievement or experience, otherwise we are immediately projecting ourselves onto what is real. We cover what is real with a layer of projection and so what we see is a distortion, a screen of resistance of our own making. So there must be humility otherwise the result will be illusion and where there is illusion there can only be self-deception.
Free from attachments, desire and fear the heart is intuitive and wise. The meaning of ‘intelligence’ is the union of the intellect and the heart. We do not need to learn how to create this union because it is already in place. We cannot learn what is already part of our nature; instead, learn to recognise what prevents us from this nature. Understand what distorts. We learn what divides and separates and this is the activity of the ego. When we talk of understanding, it is through the heart, through the existential, that there is authentic understanding. The intellect is clever, but what is clever is not always clear; in fact what is clever can often distort and delude.
For clarity one must unlearn the past, the accumulated knowledge, all that has gone before because our sense of the past distorts the way we observe what is now. This can be achieved through understanding the nature of thought; why it arises, why it filters, why it is old. Unlearning is another process of understanding. This is not an analytical thought process; it is a process of awareness. Only awareness can cut through thought without distortion because only awareness is not thought. Vipassana awareness is the tool Buddha brings. Through such awareness, we can then know the nature of love, the nature of loneliness, aloneness, impermanence, dependency, attachment, escape and distraction. When there is real, authentic understanding, joy and freedom arise uncaused.
All of these things must be understood otherwise meditation becomes not a tool for insight and understanding as Buddha intended, but just another escape for the mind from our confused and disordered lives. With intelligence and direct awareness one can understand the distortions of the ego. Clarity is to die each second to all that is past and all that is distorted; we are then ready and open for the new, free from all falsities and self-generated noise. This we call Vipassana – the ability to see ‘what is’ with absolute clarity.