Recent Stray Thoughts
To Self or Not to Self
It has been said that words bind the boundless. One way in which that is true: Many traditions...
Union and Salvation
There seems to be a cyclical pattern inherent in all religions that brings about the decline of...
- To Self or Not to Self Barry (Spirituality) 2017-07-03 21:10:34
Nothing So Charming as the Present
An old college buddy asked, "If the present is so charming, why does my mind wander away from the...
Varieties of Enlightenment
Back in the mid-seventies I was in the Air Force, and was stationed on Pope Air Force Base near...
- Nothing So Charming as the Present Barry (Spirituality) 2010-08-06 22:48:00
- Written by Barry
- Category: Spirituality
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- Written by Barry
- Category: Spirituality
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There seems to be a cyclical pattern inherent in all religions that brings about the decline of practices that bring us closer to God, closer to a truly awakened state in which truth is no longer conceptual but is direct experience. A key hallmark of this decline is the emphasis of salvation in the next world, in what happens after we pass from this world. You can find this not only in Islam and Christianity but also in Hinduism and Buddhism. This represents a shift in emphasis from our current lives to the existence we hope to experience after death. This is one of the great tragedies of modern religious spiritualism: forsaking the present for the future.
Fortunately, the other arch of this cycle reawakens the desire to know God now, to directly experience truth to the extent we can in this life. This cycle can exist at the micro as well as the macro level. It can lead the spiritual aspirant in the course of a meditation through cycles of going deep within and experiencing the expansive, blissful peace that abides there, or sublime equanimity, only to be tossed out with worries about the future or regrets from the past. Or in the course of one's life, we may have many such cycles where we seek the direct knowledge and experience of truth only to later be sidetracked by the multifaceted, kaleidoscopic distractions of life and the quality of our day-to-day life suffers. Or it can be at the community or congregation level. And it can also happen at the level of sects within a religion or at the level of the religion itself.
Today, we see many such examples of the effects of religions losing their true bearings. When people are no longer concerned for this planet because they think it will soon be destroyed along with all the infidels that have different, and therefore incorrect, views and that all those worthy of God's love or Buddha's enlightenment will be resurrected or reborn in paradise, then we can be sure that religion has reached its lowest point. This escapism leads many of the problems we see today, problems of terrorism, of ignoring the sciences in favor of scriptural literalism. It governs significant percentages of the population and shapes our world by influencing the news we hear, the people and policies for which we vote, our attitudes towards war, free speech, democracy, education, the environment, in short, every facet of our planetary existence. It affects our ability to survive as a species in a very real and alarming way.
At the root of this decline is the loss of the transformative nature of religion. I once read that religion comes from roots that mean "to bind one back." Back to what? Back to truth, to wholeness, to fullness, to completeness, to the Divine, back to our true nature. Religion, when fulfilling this role, teaches people to experience truth here and now, teaches people to experience exactly what Divine love is, Divine mercy, compassion, altruism. To know God's peace and know that we can share in that most sublime peace. To share in God's presence and to lose oneself in it. To see the face of God in all others. To see the Buddha-Nature shining from the eyes of everyone, this unifying primordial awareness that is not ours but the domain of all that exists and underlies and permeates, is inseparable from the universe itself. This power of religion to transform, to enable people to awaken from separateness, to experience the Presence of God in each moment and merge with that Presence right here and now, that is what is lost when religion loses its way.
At this time when religion has lost its way and asks only that people focus on the afterlife, we see the cycle start to turn and the mystics, who have severely dwindled in number and have been silent but not completely extinct, begin to remind us of what was originally taught, that we should love even our enemies as self, that God is all merciful, that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, here and now, that the Dharma-ending age or Kali Yuga can be turned back, that the Pure Land is actually right here and has always been right here if we can let go of our compulsive worries about the future, depression about the past and seeming hopelessness of the present. If we can open our eyes and ears to see and hear, we could enjoy the true blessings of religion from this moment forward.
It's the transformative nature of religion, to transform a heart of greedy self-interest into a heart that knows no bounds and transform the mind from the bondage of destructive thought patterns to complete liberation experienced in each passing moment, that is religions' gift to the world.
How can we know that we've truly been saved but to directly live in union with God's love, awaken from the dream of self to the Divine Presence, live from Life itself? This awakened life is available to each of us as our human birthright. Through meditation, mindfulness, and direct contemplation of what is as it occurs, we can come to see the reason for our own existence and the existence of all other life including the life of the universe itself. True salvation comes about through union with what is already our very core and is also the essence of all that exists.
- Written by Barry
- Category: Spirituality
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Back in the mid-seventies I was in the Air Force, and was stationed on Pope Air Force Base near Fort Bragg, a huge army base covering over 200 square miles of central North Carolina. I was 18 years old and bored out of my mind. The military had thoroughly corrupted the nearby town of Fayetteville and my only reprieve from boredom was to drive to the coast on Friday evening and spend the weekend on the beaches of Cape Hatteras and Okracoke Island. Laying on the beach at night listening to the ocean waves lulled my mind to a restful state just at the cusp of sleep. Even though I never seemed to fully fall asleep, I always seemed to rise with the first sunlight coming over the flat, watery horizon feeling refreshed. I felt very awake, aware, and alive. This feeling seemed to last throughout the day and even into the first day or two of the work week. By Friday, the effect had worn off and I was ready for another trip to the Outer Banks.
After I got out of the Air Force in May of ‘76, I moved out to Colorado Springs where my sister was living to look for a job. I wasn’t able to find a job but did go on some great back-packing trips with my brother-in-law. Up in the Rockies as you climb the trails, the wind blowing through the aspens and conifers sings enchanting songs, calming and pacifying the mind. There is no desire to think of anything but the sound of rustling leaves high above, whispers through fir needles, the scent of pine and loamy soil, and the slow, rhythmic pace of footsteps and breathing. It was effortless to be deeply settled in the present moment and more fully aware of self and environment. Running streams chanted in a thousand tongues all singing praise to each fleeting moment. I found these backpacking trips as necessary as sleeping and eating. They were healing, nature itself the doctor. They addressed a deep longing that I didn’t even know that I had and all I knew was that I wanted more of this sweet contentment that the mountains offered.
I briefly moved back to my home town in Illinois and found a job in a machine shop. I was a terrible mill operator and was soon let go, but while I was living there I went into the Karmel Korn shop I used to visit as a kid and saw a book called The TM Book. I was fascinated by the name, “Transcendental Meditation”. What does it mean? What would it be like to “transcend” thought? A few weeks later, I had returned to my pre-Air Force employer in Springfield, Illinois and as I was walking down the street, I saw a poster with Maharish Mahesh Yogi’s portrait on it and the words “Transcendental Meditation - Public Lecture”. It was that very evening. I attended the two introductory lectures and on Saturday morning found myself witnessing a puja to Guru Dev, Maharishi’s master, and was given a one syllable mantra to repeat to myself in a small room as I was sitting on a chair. Soon my hands folded on my lap seemed to be far below me and I could hear sounds from the neighborhood with fascinating clarity. The mantra seemed to be repeating in my mind automatically with no effort on my part and I felt completely serene, paralyzed. The teacher then asked how I was doing and I told him, “Fine.” He said, “This is how we meditate”. I continued to meditate using the mantra I was given for many years.
I missed Colorado and soon moved back. While there I took a “Science of Creative Intelligence” class at the Colorado Springs TM center. The people were unlike any I had ever met before and I felt so comfortable with them all -- a retired colonel, the wife of a surgeon, a college student, another retired couple, and couple that were TM teachers, along with Ron Carpenter, the head of the center. I saw a Maharishi International University catalog at the center and knew I had to go there.
In January of 1978, I started my freshman year at MIU (later renamed to Maharishi University of Management). In the summer of ‘79, I went on an extended retreat to learn the TM Siddhi program and soon found myself meditating twice a day with about a thousand other “siddhas” in the “Golden Dome”, a huge meditation hall (or flying hall as we called it). After doing a quick set of yoga asanas and pranayama in my dorm room, I would walk with all the other meditators to the dome and practice TM and the Siddhis. I remember mornings and afternoons in the dome when I felt that there was nothing more I need do in this life so great was the feeling of contentment during meditation.
While at MIU (MUM), I listened to hundreds of hours of Maharishi videos as part of “Forest Academy” retreats that were part of the curriculum. Maharishi delineated seven states of consciousness in some of the lectures:
Pure Consciousness - A state of “restful alertness” experienced during the practice of meditation when thoughts and mantra subside and consciousness is simply self-aware.
Cosmic Consciousness (CC) - A state when Pure Consciousness becomes infused into the waking state giving the rise to “unbounded awareness”. This is a state when the awareness of the Self is maintained during normal activity. It is called “cosmic” because it includes the awareness of the subject and object of perception, i.e., the experiencer is never “overshadowed” by perception and even dynamic activity.
God Consciousness (GC) - As one becomes established in Cosmic Consciousness, the senses continue to refine giving rise to greater and greater appreciation of subtler and subtler levels of perception. This eventually brings about the perception of the celestial or divine aspects present in the phenomenal world and causes the heart to expand in love for the divine.
Unity Consciousness (UC) - With the rise of God Consciousness, the separation between the subject and object, the knower and the known, eventually dissolves. One perceives the world without duality and feels one with the surroundings. As this state unfolds, one feels one with the entire universe and realizes the mahavakya “Aham Brahmasmi” -- I am Brahman. This realization is also know as Brahman Consciousness (BC).
Of course, we at MIU had no doubt that Maharishi and his teacher, Guru Dev (Swami Brahmananda Saraswati) were in Brahman Consciousness and took everything that Maharishi said as being unquestionably true. How could an enlightened being say something that was not true?
After graduating from MIU, I moved to Taiwan to learn Chinese and taught English for a living. While there, I met a Chinese monk, Venerable Master Sheng-yen, who had received dharma transmission from two different Chan lineages, the Caodong (Soto) and the Linjii (Rinzai) traditions of Chan (Chinese Zen) Buddhism, that is, his masters verified that he had the correct and authentic experience of self-nature and was qualified to teach others. I began attending his Sunday lectures and soon found myself on a seven day Chan retreat in New York City while I had briefly returned to the US. At first I was reluctant to give up the practice of TM and the Siddhis but became aware that I had become very attached to the practice. A nun reasoned with me, “If you can pick something up, you can also put it down -- and you can pick it up again.” I was reluctant. On the second day of the retreat, Master Sheng-yen (Shifu), asked me to just meditate by following my breath. I agreed, thinking that after 9 years of practicing TM, it would be easy. It wasn’t. Pain in my legs at times was unbearable and I was beginning to think that Chan Buddhists were masochists. But, something about Shifu made me fully trust him and I persisted with this practice for several years.
It was during this time that I experience inner conflict regarding seemingly opposing religious traditions I had been exposed to. I had grown up as a Catholic, pretty much became a Vedantic yogi while at MIU, and suddenly found myself very seriously desiring to become a Buddhist monk out of shear trust of my Shifu, Master Sheng-yen. Shifu was an incredible man. When he lectured, you always thought he was talking to you personally. And when he was talking to you, he seemed completely and genuinely interested in you, in your well-being without concern for himself. While I deeply admired this selfless quality, it ran contrary to my education from Maharishi. While the Maharishi proclaimed, “All love is directed toward the self”, the Buddha proclaimed that there is no independently existing person, self, or soul. All the Chan and Zen literature seemed to point to this as fact. My own Shifu seemed to be completely selfless and full of compassion for others. What would it be like to experience “no self”? I was intrigued and apprehensive at the same time. And how could Maharishi say that the ultimate reality was Brahman when the Buddha and my Shifu proclaimed that there is no such thing? How could there be no Creator? It was so obvious that there was intelligence of a supreme order in the universe. These questions gnawed at me for quite some time.
Eventually, my recourse was to look back at my own Christian tradition for answers. I went through a period where I read meditative and contemplative works by Thomas Merton, Fr. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, Catherine Doherty and others for answers. I eventually became interested in meditative tradition of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and even enrolled in a three year program to become a deacon. After the first semester, I faced quiet a crisis. I had read so many books that were required reading on the history of the church and its doctrines and while on vacation at Lake Tahoe, I suddenly realized that I simply didn’t believe in most of the Christian dogma. It was like a balloon was popped and Christianity just vanished before my eyes.
I began studying Buddhist and Indian literature much more seriously to find out how so many obviously enlightened masters could experience a different enlightenment than what Maharishi had laid out. How could there be multiple enlightenments? How can one person experience enlightenment and proclaim that it is Brahman and another experience enlightenment and say that it is void of Self? As I read more about the different schools of Buddhism, I found that even they didn’t agree on what the experience of Nirvana was. The Theravada Buddhist present Nirvana one way and the Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist present it other ways. So how can the experience of Nirvana be different?
I decided that the only way I would know the truth was to experience it myself. In 2005, I rededicated myself to practicing meditation and started attending Chan retreats at Dharma Drum Retreat Center in Pine Bush, New York. After several retreats, my experience and confidence in the Chan Buddhist tradition deepened significantly. I also went to Vipassina retreats held at the Chanmyay Satipatthana Vihara in Springfield, Illinois, which I felt were extremely helpful in understanding the experience of no self and loosing the fear of this experience. The last retreat I went on was in December of 2009, and this retreat brought about an experience that has made my faith in Buddhism unshakable.
So why am I on a traditional yoga teacher training course? After practicing meditation for many years, I reached a point where I could no longer bear to not help others learn to meditate. There is so much confusion and suffering in the world that is so unnecessary. Through meditation and adapting a lifestyle conducive to its practice, confusion and suffering begin to fall away. At the request of the former abbot of the Dharma Drum Retreat Center (DDRC), Ven. Guo Jun, I began leading a meditation group in Fort Wayne, Indiana (and now in Elk Grove, California). People get together and practice meditation together once every couple weeks or so. Meanwhile, I started practicing yoga again in Elk Grove after joining a fitness club to address health concerns and rediscovered that it was a great way to practice mindfulness and settle down before meditation. Yoga was incorporated into the Chan retreats at DDRC for this reason. The people that attend the meditation sessions I host have a lot of trouble with restlessness and I thought it would be great to incorporate yoga into our meditation practice. Then, I got laid off and was given a Borders Books gift card for my birthday. It was then that I found Srivatsa Ramaswami’s book, The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga, and then found his website and the 200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training course offered at LMU. So, hear I am!
Being on this course, I’ve run into a whole new set of philosophies to reconcile. In Ramaswami’s Yoga Sutras class, it became apparent that the Yoga of Patanjali was not the yoga I had learned from Maharishi years ago. Patanjali is said to have written the Yoga Sutras to clarify what had become a morass of conflicting yogic philosophies in India. It was also a reaction to challenges to “orthodox” Indian philosophy from Jain and Buddhist sources. But, in clarifying yoga, Patanjali actually set it apart from Vedantic Brahmanism while introducing a devotional path for those so inclined as well as a purely meditative path for those that do not accept the notion of a Creator God. Patanjali’s Yoga reaches its culmination in the realization of the individual self (atman) as separate from the universal Self. According to Patanjali, enlightenment is a state of duality in which the individual Self is separate from all other phenomena, including the universal Self. The Vedantic tradition sees this duality as the last vestige of ignorance and seeks to remove it. Circling back to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s teaching, the dualism of Patanjali is equivalent to the state of Cosmic Consciousness. It is a state of liberation, but not a fully enlightened state of Unity (or Brahman) Consciousness.
From the Chan Buddhist perspective, the experience of Unity Consciousness is also recognized as a state of liberation and a highly enlightened state. In fact, meditators on Chan retreats that I have attended have had clear experiences of Unity Consciousness, experiencing oneness with the environment. Yet this is not seen as the goal of Chan enlightenment. When meditators go to the retreat master with experiences of oneness with the environment or even the universe, they are told to go back and work harder.
There comes a time when even this oneness falls away and any attachment to the notion of self (individual or universal) evaporates. The Chan retreats use a meditation technique that is sometimes referred to as “The Method of No Method” (refer to my Shifu’s book of this name) or Silent Illumination (Chinese: Muo Zhao). This method requires that the meditator already be able to stay with the object of meditation without problem, i.e., Dhyana, from which the Chinese word Chan is derived. After following the breath and attaining what is referred to as “unifed mind”, the practitioner changes the object of meditation to the entire body and sits with full awareness of the body “just sitting”. As the meditator continues this practice, the distinction of where the body ends and where the environment begins becomes blurred and begins to evaporate completely. During this second stage, the meditator feels as though the body is the entire room. As sounds come from beyond the room, the distinction again falls away and what is beyond the room also is perceived to be all within ones own awareness. This continues until there is a feeling of complete oneness with the environment. Even as the meditator walks to the dining hall, washes the dishes, or lays down to rest, this feeling of oneness with the objects of perception can persist, even extending to the sun, moon, stars, and universe.
To move beyond this experience of unity with the phenomenal world, some retreat masters will use a technique known as “Direct Contemplation” and have the practitioners focus on an object in the natural world with bare awareness. When the meditator is ripe for such a technique, even the unified subject/object relationship begins to melt. It’s as if perception pivots on itself and looses the need of a perceiver. The subject of perception fades and only the object remains. The phenomenal world becomes fully illumined by silence and all of nature comes alive, all things infinitely correlated with all other things, all speaking to all other with perfect fluidity. A cosmic orchestra of mutually supporting, ever changing phenomena penetrated by silence. It is a state of absolute perfection and contentment devoid of any attachment to self or any object of perception. In Chan literature, it is said to be beyond words, yet there are some very beautiful poems by Chan masters that beautifully give glimpses of this state.
So who is to say that the experience of Brahman is any different? Does the person that experiences the mahavakya, “Aham Brahmasmi”, experience anything differently that the Chan practitioner of the highest calibre? Does he still identify with a universal Self? Is there still attachment or clinging to Self? I leave this for you to ponder, or better yet to penetrate.
While there are different paths to enlightenment and different levels of enlightenment, ultimately at the highest level they cannot be different. Experiencing silence between waves at the sea shore or feeling a vague oneness with the wind and trees in the mountains could be called a dawning of awakening. Experiencing mind totally content to stay with the object of meditation is a level of enlightenment. Effortlessly maintaining constant awareness of oneself during activity is another level and loosing awareness of that self is yet another, higher level. When one has no more to do for oneself but can only think of helping others out of suffering, this is higher still. Realizing there is no suffering is still higher.
There cannot be different ultimate truths. I believe all spiritual paths may ultimately lead to one truth. As we say in the Mid-West, some paths may be “taking the long way around the barn”, but they all lead to the other side. My own path around the barn has been a long and winding one. May your path to the supreme truth be as direct and sweet as possible!
- Written by Barry
- Category: Spirituality
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An old college buddy asked, "If the present is so charming, why does my mind wander away from the present?"
I guess the assumption here is that experiencing the present moment is more charming that reminiscing about that perfect day at the beach near Puerto Vallarta last year or day dreaming about scuba diving in Aruba next year. This reminiscing and day dreaming can also be quite charming! But, I think what my friend is getting at is very interesting and a great question. It depends on the depth to which we experience the present.
The practice of Chan emphasizes living fully in the present moment as does mindfulness practice of the Theravada tradition. If we are to become fully awakened to life just as it really is, it necessarily is in the present that this awakening will occur. During meditation, as the mind becomes more focused or unified it becomes less bound by thoughts. As fewer and fewer thoughts arise, the mind naturally becomes clearer, brighter, lighter and more expansive. This experience can be blissful or simply deeply contenting. During activity, this cultivation or habituation of a more unified mind naturally is more content to experience what is at hand. If the mind is clear, focused and content, there is less likelihood that it will be distracted by mundane thoughts that might arise. The practice of mindfulness actively builds on the clarity gained through meditation and consciously cultivates moment-to-moment clarity of whatever is arising and passing away from conscious experience. This can also lead to a mind that is clear, luminous, settled, and deeply satisfied to just be in the present, moment after moment. It is from this settled state that perception can refine and things can be seen just as they actually are. It is from this perception that insight into the fundamental truths of life occurs, which we know from Buddhist suttras and the writings of past masters can be a very liberating experience. Chan practice can lead to experiencing such charm in the present moment that there is no arising of craving or aversion. The need to reminisce or day dream evaporates when one can simply experiencing the present moment with sufficient clarity.
In that case, the answer to the question is until the mind is sufficiently cultivated and refined, the contentment experienced in the present is not charming enough to keep the mind focused, expanded, and aware in the present.
On the other hand, even advanced practitioners think of the past or future as the need arises. And even when the need doesn't arise, it's the nature of the mind to think thoughts. What is qualitatively different is that thoughts that arise are simply thoughts and the mind doesn't attach to them. They arise like a bubble as a child blows through the hoop. The thought expands from nothing but some slight impulse, takes shape, and floats away. A settled mind is aware of this arising and passing away of feelings, thoughts, and perceptions. The more awake and settled the mind, the finer the awareness of not only mental phenomena but also all phenomena rising and passing away in the environment. This awareness of the arising and passing away of mental and physical phenomena leads to the direct experience of a most fundamental nature, the insight into impermanence. The entire universe is seen as a massive flux of interrelated or conditioned arising of phenomena, and the dissolution of the same when conditions no longer support continuity. It may appear that the entire world is undergoing massive oxidization, as if everything is undergoing a catastrophic chemical reaction, burning, and be an awesome experience. Or, it can be like a symphony of such perfectly interrelated harmonies that the mind is arrested by the absolute perfection of it. However the realization of impermanence occurs, it is not an intellectual reasoning, but a direct and complete perception that leads to life changing insight. This insight can lead to further insight into the nature of the self.
Until or mind is sufficiently cultivated, the mind is like a monkey that is always chasing desires and averting fears. Once the mind is cultivated, it response to the environment, situations, and people with wisdom and compassion. A satisfied mind naturally has compassion for others that are suffering and a clear mind has the wisdom to know how to help them. The satisfied mind is a product of silence and a clear mind is the product of illumination. The Chan practice of Silent Illumination is extremely beneficial in cultivating a content, clear mind. The mind still reacts to things in the environment. When a bus is coming one gets out of the way. And one still makes plans for the future and reflects on what went wrong to do better next time. But, the predominant mode is to be aware of things as they occur and react in a way that is appropriate to the need of the time.
An undisciplined mind will not stop with an initial thought. It won't be aware of the thought arising and passing away. The mind attaches to the thought and becomes lost in a succession of subsequent thoughts. We long for something in the past or fear its reoccurrence, or regret what was done or said. Or we hope for something in the future or worry that it may happen. We are conditioned from beginningless time to crave for more and dread what we don't want. But, when the mind is settled enough, there is greater and greater contentment and though a thought may arise, it is acknowledged and just passes away if nothing more is required. The mind returns to a state of contentment that is simply aware with a clear, bright awareness. But, it's our habitual outward oriented craving and aversion that obscures what would otherwise be quite a contented state.
It is interesting to note that a person can experience unified mind, pure, unobstructed awareness, impermanence, or self-nature and then regress back to being overshadowed by mundane thoughts and day-to-day situations. What we are up against is a very powerfully ingrained habit cultured from beginningless time. That's why we need a practice like Zen to lift the veil and open our eyes. Then we need to refine the practice and cultivate seeing things just as they are without the imaginary ego or self getting in the way to distort the picture. If we get the self out of the picture, the whole thing opens up and everything converses with every other thing, infinitely correlated and perfectly functioning. It's all perfect when we get out of the way.