Timeless Reality

Several weeks back I wrote about Jiddu Krishnamurti’s “timeless reality” and compared it to Buddhism’s “present moment.” The more I think about the two terms, the more timeless reality seems a better term for what we are trying to convey about meditation and awakening mind.

We often talk about the present moment as though it were something static, something that abides. As if we could capture the present moment and hold on to it. But we can’t. As soon as the present moment arises, it is gone, replaced by a new present moment.

So, how can we ‘be in the present moment’? How can we abide in something so fleeting? Even to call what we want to experience the ‘now’ still refers to a present that is constantly changing. Which is fine, because I don’t think we want to be in a present moment anyway. We’re really after something else . . .

As I’ve investigated Krishnamurti’s use of the phrase timeless reality, I have found that in some of his writings he is alluding to a sense of eternity. In other writings and talks, he refers to a kind of emptiness, a state of timelessness that has neither a beginning nor ending and is undisturbed by temporal reality – this is what I think we’re after.

shengyen2Master Sheng Yen (1930-2009) was a lineage holder of both the Linji (Rinzai) and Caodong (Soto) Ch’an (Zen) schools, and the founder of the Dharma Drum Mountain in Taiwan. In his book, Getting the Buddha Mind, he described this sense of timelessness in a different way:

The mind that is without even one thought is extremely bright and pure, but this doesn’t mean that it is blank. No thought means no characteristics, and blankness itself is a characteristic. In this condition the mind is unmoving, yet perceives everything very clearly. Although wisdom is empty, it is not without a function. What is this function? Without moving it reflects and illuminates everything. It is like the moon shining on water. Although each spot of water reflects a different image of the moon, the moon itself remains the same. But it doesn’t say, ‘I shine.’ It just shines.”


Study says Facebook is a bummer but don’t let it ruin your day.

The LA Times reports that according to new research, “Facebook is a bummer that makes us feel worse about our lives.”

A study was conducted by the University of Michigan and Leuven University in Belgium. You can read the research article here. The researchers examined “how Facebook use influences the two components of subjective well-being: how people feel moment-to-moment and how satisfied they are with their lives,” and concluded that “On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”

It really bums me out to learn that using Facebook will bum me out.

Actually, I can’t get no satisfaction with Facebook, ’cause I try and I try . . .  When I’m scanning down my news feed and all of the sudden it hiccups, and new items slide up and I lose my place. I normally log off by the third time this happens, and I am left with a momentary sense of frustration, but then I move on. I figure my average time on Facebook any given day is less than 5 minutes. I don’t think I am a typical FB user.

At any rate, both you and I know that you can’t find lasting happiness in something like Facebook. But, we know also that people look for happiness in the darndest places, and often in the most futile ways. But happiness, or at least some life satisfaction, is really not that hard to find.

Want some happiness right now? Well, when you finish reading this post, sit back from the computer, or lay down your mobile device, and take a few minutes to reflect on what a beautiful day it is. Better yet, go outside, the perfect place to meet a perfect day. Rain or shine, hot or cold, even if you have a ton of problems, it’s a good day.

In his book, Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice, Thich Thien-An, the Vietnamese teacher who founded the International Buddhist Meditation Center here in Los Angeles, notes,

The practice of [Buddhism] should not be confined only to periods of sitting in meditation, but should be applied to all the activities of daily life. If we are diligent in cultivating the way, we will find that every day is a good day. There are no bad days at all, not even Friday-the-thirteenth. Whether a day is good or bad depends on the mind.”

The key to realizing the full value of what we call mindfulness is through cultivating a mind of appreciation. Mindfulness should be more than merely having some awareness for the present moment. Awareness by itself is nothing special. If you live in the present moment without any appreciation for it, then you’re missing something truly significant. We should try to discover ways to develop appreciation, not only for the present moment, but mostly importantly, for being alive. That’s what I’ve always thought was meant by this phrase in the Lotus Sutra, “Earnestly desiring to see the Buddha, they do not begrudge their lives.”

I won’t belabor the point. Go. Check out the day and harvest some appreciation for it, and everything around you. Unless you are beyond any hope, that should bring some satisfaction and happiness into your life. But, before you do that, click on the arrow below and listen to a tune by Peggy Lee that will help get you in right frame of mind.



Mindfulness and Growing to Simplicity

We talk about “being in the moment,” the present moment. We call it “mindfulness” What exactly does that mean? Thich Nhat Hahn says,

[Mindfulness means] to be truly present in the moment. When you eat, you know that you are eating. When you walk, you know that you are walking. The opposite of mindfulness is forgetfulness. You eat but you don’t know that you are eating, because your mind is elsewhere.”*

The real mindfulness we’re trying to realize is the mindfulness of daily life, mindfulness while engaged in daily activities. It is the product, the fruit of the mindfulness that we cultivate through meditation practice.

Mindfulness meditation is not about forgetfulness, either. Rather, it’s narrowing our awareness to our breath or some other subject of meditation for a certain period of time. In Chih-kuan for Beginners, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i wrote, “During meditation, beginners find that not even a single thought arising in the mind will stay for an instant.” We use the breath as a tool to stop the mind from wandering and control the discursive thoughts that prevent us from being truly present in the moment.

Awareness of our breath or being present in the breath develops a deeper, more enduring awareness that we should be able to take with us when we get up from the meditation mat.

SCZCA FaceBook friend put the poster you see to the right on his timeline. It’s from the Santa Cruz Zen Center. I really like this attitude. To chase after attainments, exalted states of mind, stages of accomplishment such as arhatship, even Buddhahood, has always seemed counter-productive to me. It causes people to seize on these objectives and cling to them, when non-seizing, non-clinging is what frees our mind.

I would call the Santa Cruz Zen Center’s approach a wu-wei approach. Wu-wei, or “not-doing,” that I have written about often, is the way of letting things happen naturally. The Buddha said that when mindfulness flows like a steady stream, then mindfulness as a cause for awakening becomes aroused. It happens naturally. There’s no reason to run after it.

Of course, aiming to sit in meditation without any ideas is having a idea, a objective. It is impossible to be without ideas or aims of any kind. However, just as we can narrow our awareness to the breath, we can also narrow our objectives.

But can this approach also be an opportunity for seizing and clinging?

Chih-i also wrote, “You should know that whoever clings to the wu-wei state will never develop the awakening mind, which is free from differentiation.”

Well, whoever clings to anything, period. It’s a bitter irony that we can never be completely free from the trap of conceptual thinking, nor realize total non-attachment. And yet, that’s no reason why we can’t really be present in the moment, the only moment we have, or follow the way of wu-wei, the art of keeping it simple.

From innumerable complexities we must grow to simplicity . . .”
– Jiddu Krishnamurti

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* Thich Nhat Hanh, be free where you are, Parallax Press, 2002


One-pointedly Spontaneously Without Effort

Mifune as Musashi carving a statue of Kannon in Samurai III

Over the weekend I watched the “Samurai trilogy,” starring Toshiro Mifune as Japan’s legendary swordsman, artist, and philosopher, Miyamoto Musashi. The films were made in the mid-1950’s and based on the epic novel Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa, which has often been compared with Gone With The Wind. Filmed in beautiful, vibrant color, the trilogy is about dueling, of course, but it’s also the story of the two women who love Musashi, and, about the samurai’s journey to awakening. Possessing unbelievable skill as a swordsman, Musashi transforms himself from a cold-hearted killing machine to a man who comes to realize spiritual truth and what it takes to tread the path of the warrior.

In Gorin no sho (“The Book of Five Rings”) Musashi wrote that he engaged in sixty duels without suffering defeat once, and this is probably true, as he was not known to be a man who bragged or exaggerated. I’ve written about Musashi a few times before on the blog, here and here. His book is a manual that explains his philosophy of heiho or martial strategy, and this is a philosophy that has applications in many areas of life beyond swordsmanship, not the least of which is meditation.

In the chapter called the “Water Scroll,” he writes,

In the world of martial strategy you must maintain a normal, everyday mental attitude at all times. Whether it is just an ordinary day or whether you are in a combat situation, your mental attitude should in essence be the same . . . When you are physically calm you must be mentally alert; conversely, when you are physically active, maintain a serene state of mind . . . Be attentive at all times to all things without being overly anxious.”

Interestingly, I ran across something by Alan Watts yesterday that spoke of this same thing in slightly different terms. It’s from a talk he gave titled “Don’t be alert,”:

When they teach you in Japanese Zen how to use a sword. The first thing the teacher says to the student is, ‘Now, if you’re going to be a good soldier, you’ve got to be alert constantly because you never know where the attack’s going to come from. Now, you know what happens when you try to be on the alert. You think about being alert and then you’re a hopeless prey to the enemy because you’re not alert. You’re thinking about being alert. You must be simply awake and relaxed. And then all your nerve ends are working. And wherever the attack comes from, you’re ready . . .

So, in the same way, all this applies to yoga. You can be watchful. You can be watchful. You can be concentrated. You can be alert. But all that will ever teach you is what not to do. How not to use the mind. Because it will get you into deeper and deeper and deeper binds . . .  And, when you find out, you see, there isn’t any way of forcing it”

This is close to what I meant when I recently wrote that in mindfulness you should be mindful of the breath but sort of un-mindful of everything else, and I think that is true regardless of how one approaches it. The essence of mindfulness meditation is in letting go and that’s why the breath is the perfect object for meditation. The breath is completely natural and when we let go, we can fall into the rhythm of breath and flow with it.

To borrow a couple of terms from Geshe Sopa*, we can classify meditation into two broad categories, “fixative” and “analytic.” Mindfulness falls under fixative, and in this way is closely connected with samatha (calming), because the purpose is mental stabilization using an object, the breath, and as Geshe Sopa adds, remaining “upon [the] object one-pointedly spontaneously without effort (nabhisamskara).”

That’s how I was taught to meditate, to focus on the breath without effort, without forcing it. If the purpose of mindfulness meditation is metal stabilization or tranquility of mind, it seems counter-productive to chase after trance states or try to qualify and examine various objects, thoughts or feelings. Why use this meditation method as a stake to keep the monkey that is our mind from roaming, if all we are going to do is give him a long tether?

I feel that the purpose of this meditation is to keep thoughts to the barest minimum possible. Not qualifying or judging whether the breaths are long or short, or whether feelings are good or bad, but just being aware that we are breathing and we are feeling.

However, this is just one way to consider mindfulness meditation. It’s the way I was taught by Buddhist monks and priests, and it differs somewhat from what is taught in the Anapanasati and Satipatthana Suttas, and in books.

By simply following or counting the breath, we are using it to bring our body and mind together, and really, inviting the entire universe into our consciousness without forcing anything, by one-pointed awareness of this microcosm of life, the breath. Or as Watts quotes Krishnamurti, “All you can do is to be aware of yourself as you are without judgment. See what is.”

In my Niten-Ichi-ryu [Two-Heavens-As-One school], there are no basic or advanced techniques in sword usage, there is no special teaching or secret related to the positions of holding the sword. The only important thing is that one sincerely pursues the Way of martial strategy in order to attain its principle.”

Miyamoto Musashi – May 12, 1645

*”Samathavipasyanayuganaddha: The Two Leading Principles of Buddhist Meditation”, Mahayana Buddhist Meditation, edited by Minoru Kiyota, University press of Hawaii, 1978

Quotations from “The Book of Five Rings”: A Way to Victory, translation and commentary by Hidy Ochiai, The Overlook Press, 2001


Outlines of Buddhist Meditation Part 1

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of meditation to the practice of Buddhism. It is the practice of Buddhism. In this presentation, the subject is only silent meditation. However, I think chanting can be considered a way of meditation, even though the Buddha did not encourage his followers in the practice of mantras, parittas (chanting verses and sutras for protection), or sutra recitation for devotion. It is meditation in the traditional sense that has always been the most common, and perhaps crucial, element in Buddha-dharma. Most of the definitions here are from Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism, edited by Peter Gregory.

The Victory of Buddha by Abanindranath Tagore*

Each school or tradition of Buddhism makes exclusive claims about their own philosophy or practice. These claims must be taken with a large grain of salt. For instance, you might hear someone say, “The Buddha taught Zen.” That’s true to the extent that zen means meditation. But if one is implying that the Buddha taught Zen philosophy or “Zen meditation,” that’s stretching it a bit too much. You might  hear someone else claim that Buddha taught samatha-vipassana, or “insight meditation.” That’s not quite the case either.

Samatha-vipassana is meditation based on the jhanas (deep mental states or meditative absorptions). There are samatha jhanas and vipassana jhanas, with some difference in how each is approached. There are only occasional references to samatha and vipassana in the early sutras, and almost always they are mentioned together, indicating that these were not intended to be separate practices.

While there is some similarity between the four jhanas and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, jhanas are not mentioned in the oldest “scriptures” nor in the two most important meditation texts of early Buddhism, Anapanasati Sutta (“Discourse on the Mindfulness of Breath”) and Satipatthana Sutta (“The Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness”). This has led some to believe they are later additions to Buddhist practice. Thich Nhat Hanh says that “from my own research, it seems the Four Jhanas . . . were not introduced into Buddhism until one hundred years after the Buddha’s passing.” I suspect this is the case for samatha-vipassana, too.

Since the Buddhist sutras are not historical documents, it is impossible to prove anything about what the Buddha may have taught. Nonetheless, my feeling is that the practice taught in the earliest days of Buddhism was sati, or mindfulness, and certainly mindfulness is the starting point for most all of the various forms of Buddhist meditation that followed.

Sati (Sanskrit: smrti) originally meant “memory”, specifically memorizing Vedic scriptures. The Buddha used it in the context of “awareness.” Mindfulness meditation consists of watching the breath, cultivating mindfulness or attention to the present moment.

It seems that the Buddha never used any of the terms usually translated as “meditation.” In addition to sati, the other term used most frequently in the early sutras is bhavana, meaning, “to be, become; cultivate, develop, increase; to produce; to practice.” Bhavana is a broad term that according to Alan Sponberg, in TOCM, “can refer to any form of spiritual cultivation or practice.” However, as Walpola Rahula, in What the Buddha Taught, points out, “The word meditation is a very poor substitute for the original term bhavana, which . . .  properly speaking, is mental culture in the full sense of the term.”

Here are several other terms frequently used in discussions on Buddhist meditation:

Samatha-vipassana – “concentration and insight”, these are actually two separate forms of meditation, which were rarely practiced in tandem until the Chinese T’ien-t’ai school. The Theravada school largely contends that samatha is dispensable. Samatha means “calming” or “tranquility,” while vipassana is “insight” or “clear-seeing.” In Chinese, samatha-vipassana is rendered as chih-kuan, which T’ien-t’ai founder Chih-i described as “stopping and seeing.” In Japanese, it is shikan.

Samadhi – a term commonly translated as “meditation.” Sponberg, says, “With the etymological sense of ‘bringing or putting together,’ this term most often refers to a state of mental concentration, usually the result of some particular technique or practice.”

Dhyana – a Sanskrit term that corresponds to the Pali jhana, “to think closely [upon an object].” Dhyana is also frequently used to mean “meditation,” and in Chinese it is translated as ch’an, and in Japanese, zen.

Basic Zen meditation (Jp. zazen) commonly begins with the practice mindfulness of breath (more about Zen in the next post). Modern vipassana or “insight meditation” is “based on the traditional practice of mindfulness (P. sati) as taught in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta” (Gregory). The Satipatthana Sutta and the Mahasatipatthana Sutta explain how to practice mindfulness using points other than the breath as objects of meditation (the body, sensations, the mind, etc.)

Of the original 13 schools of Buddhism, Theravada is the only one alive today. I could be wrong but I believe that the first non-sutra meditation instructions in this tradition were those produced in the 4th or 5th Century by Buddhaghosa, who wrote Visuddhimagga or “The Path of Purification” which is not only a comprehensive meditation manual but also an in-depth treatise on the whole of Theravada doctrine.

Anagarika Dharmapala

Over the centuries, meditation became a lost art in the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia. As I recall the story told by Rick Fields in his book, How The Swans Came To The Lake, in the late 1800’s, the Sri Lankan born bhikkhu Anagarika Dharmapala (David Hewavitarne) traveled throughout India, Sri Lanka, and Burma and he could not find one Buddhist who could teach him how to practice meditation. Eventually, he had to rely on the Visuddhimagga and a 17th or 18th century meditation manual translated into English as Manual of a Mystic in 1906 by F.L. Woodward.

The revival of meditation in the Theravada tradition didn’t get started until the latter half of the last century, through the efforts of Mahasi Sayadaw and S. N. Goenka in Burma, along with their Western followers, and this is more or less the Insight Meditation (Vipassana) movement of today.

The tradition of meditation has remained strong in the Mahayana countries of China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan, and that will be the focus of the next post. I should probably remind readers that in the history of Buddhist meditation, until recent years, it was primarily the ordained members of the Sangha who practiced and not the lay members, due to social, economic, and educational reasons.

As the title states this is just a brief overview. I am more than willing to stand corrected on anything I’ve written, however I think what I’ve shared here is largely accurate. And I hope there are some people who will find it helpful.

I’m going to add a page with some simple instructions on Mindfulness meditation. So, those of you who would interested in that, please check back.

*Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), nephew of Rabindranath Tagore. This painting was used as the frontispiece to ‘Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists’ by Sister Nivedita and Ananda Coomaraswamy, 1st edition, 1913