Altering your state of consciousness, responsibly
One of the central teachings in early Buddhism is the practice of 'jhana'. Jhanas are altered states of consciousness accessible through meditation which confer various benefits on the practitioner, such as bliss, joy and equanimity. They're an excellent way to cultivate samadhi, and also a lot of fun. So in this week's article we're going to take a look at what it means to practise the jhanas.
The jhanas in context
The core of early Buddhism is the practice of the Eightfold Path - teachings on the appropriate view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and samadhi which lead a practitioner to freedom from reactivity. The final item in this list - often translated as 'right concentration' - is often defined in terms of the jhanas. Indeed, the Pali Canon (the collection of the earliest records of the teachings of the historical Buddha) is replete with references to the jhanas - we can infer from those texts that jhana practice was considered a major part of the path in the time of the Buddha. These days, it's not quite so common, for reasons we'll get into a bit later.
The jhanas are often presented in the context of samadhi - cultivating a stable, penetrating attention which can then be turned to 'knowing and seeing', i.e. insight meditation. It's very common to encounter the recommendation that meditation practice should start with a period of samadhi practice (jhana practice if you know it), followed by insight practice. It's difficult to see clearly what's going on if your mind is darting around all over the place, so if you start by cultivating some stillness, the clarity will follow much more easily.
So the jhanas are clearly an important part of early Buddhism - but what actually are they?
Classical descriptions of the jhanas
In the Pali Canon, the jhanas are described as states of consciousness characterised by the presence of certain 'jhana factors'. Here's the standard description, taken from SN45.8:
And what, bhikkhus, is right concentration? Here, bhikkhus, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion. With the subsiding of thought and examination, he enters and dwells in the second jhana, which has internal confidence and unification of mind, is without thought and examination, and has rapture and happiness born of concentration. With the fading away as well of rapture, he dwells equanimous and, mindful and clearly comprehending, he experiences happiness with the body; he enters and dwells in the third jhana of which the noble ones declare: ‘He is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells happily.’ With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and displeasure, he enters and dwells in the fourth jhana, which is neither painful nor pleasant and includes the purification of mindfulness by equanimity. This is called right concentration.
Breaking this down, we can see that the entry requirements for the first jhana are that the practitioner should be 'secluded from sensual pleasures' and 'secluded from unwholesome states'. The jhanas are subtle states of mind, so it's helpful to be removed from the coarse distractions of sense pleasures - if half your mind is thinking about what you're going to have for lunch, you're probably not going to settle enough to reach the jhana. It's also really important to be in a generally wholesome state of mind - the jhanas are basically subtle states of wellbeing, and it requires quite a bit of openness and flexibility of mind to find your way into them when you're first learning them, so if your mind is tightly contracted and miserable, the jhanas will probably elude you. For this reason, my teacher Leigh Brasington recommends starting every meditation with metta, to put you in a positive frame of mind. If metta isn't your thing, don't force it, but it's absolutely crucial to have some wellbeing going on when you're working with the jhanas, so you'll need to figure something out sooner or later. Don't skip this step!
Having set up supportive conditions for the practice, the practitioner now 'enters and dwells in' the first jhana - oops, no instructions about how that's accomplished. (This is pretty typical of the Pali Canon.) But don't worry, we'll get around to some instructions later on.
Anyway, having arrived in the first jhana, we find it to be a state characterised by 'rapture and happiness'. The Pali words here are 'piti' and 'sukha'. Generally speaking, piti is experienced as a physical sensation - but, rather unfortunately from the teacher's perspective, different people experience it in different ways. For some people it shows up as a kind of tingling, an electrical feeling, or a sexual sensation; for others, it can manifest as heat. People who've done qigong or kundalini yoga often say it's the same kind of energy that those practices work with. For many people it's a pleasant experience, but not always - it's often extremely intense at first, and not everyone has pleasant associations with experiencing a sudden flush of tremendous heat. Sukha is usually regarded as a kind of emotional happiness - anywhere from mild happiness to full-blown joy. Typically speaking, the first jhana is too energised to be a really stable, tranquil state, and this 'unsettled' quality is captured in the traditional language with the observation that 'thought and examination' may be present. (Don't take this too literally - people sometimes stress about whether they're really experiencing a jhana if a stray thought wanders through their mind from time to time. Thinking sometimes does stop completely in the jhanas, but not always, so don't worry about it.)
Moving into the second jhana (how? Again, we'll come back to this), there's a settling down, represented in the traditional language as the subsiding of thought and examination. We still have the piti and sukha, but the mental disturbances of thinking and examining have gone, and we have 'internal confidence' and 'unification of mind'. Things are settling down; we're getting some good samadhi at this point. Experientially, the piti tends to calm down a lot, while the sukha predominates; for most people, the second jhana is a state of emotional happiness or joy, with some energetic activity in the background.
As we move into the third jhana, the energetic stuff comes to an end, and we're left in a much more peaceful place. It's still emotionally positive, but generally speaking the whole system is calming down, so whereas the second jhana was happy or joyful, the third jhana is more a place of contentment. As we sink deeper into the stability of samadhi we also find ourselves becoming more imperturbable - equanimity develops, and our mindfulness tends to become really strong because most of what usually distracts us has fallen away by this point.
Then comes the fourth jhana, which takes us fully into equanimity. Even the contentment of the third jhana now drops off, and the resulting experience is one of quiet stillness. The fourth jhana is usually described as emotionally neutral, but the total absence of any negative physical or emotional sensations is actually a pretty good place to be, so the fourth jhana can still be considered a state of wellbeing.
(Often the classical descriptions stop here; sometimes, they go on to describe four further states, sometimes called the 'formless jhanas', but we have plenty to be chewing on already!)
So how do we actually do this?
Learning the jhanas can be a tricky process, in all honesty. If going on retreat is an option for you, then a 10-day retreat with a teacher like Leigh is a good approach, and if you can manage longer, so much the better. (A month is ideal.) It takes many people a few days of retreat time just for their minds to settle down enough for the jhanas to become accessible. That being said, however, I know quite a few people who've learnt the jhanas off retreat, so it's definitely possible.
Getting into the jhanas for the first time is often a process of trial and error. There are various sets of standard instructions (a couple of which I'll give below), but different approaches work for different people, and the standard instructions might not work for you at all. You're trying to get your mind to go somewhere that it doesn't usually go, and if you aren't yet familiar with the jhanas, you don't know how to do that yet. Fortunately, the jhanas are nice, stable states that the mind actually likes to visit, so if you set up good supportive conditions (which is what the standard instructions are trying to do), it's likely that your mind will find its way there all by itself. Once you've been there enough times, you'll start to get an intuitive sense for how to return whenever you want.
There are two major approaches to entering the first jhana. One is to focus your attention on a relatively narrow point, and then stay there. Focusing the mind in this way seems to build up the energy of piti, and if you allow that energy to keep building and building, sooner or later it will erupt (usually suddenly and dramatically at first), taking you into the first jhana.
Leigh's instructions for entering the first jhana can be found in detail here, but in a nutshell:
A totally different approach is to work not with a narrow area of focus but with the sensations of what Rob Burbea called the 'energy body'. Rob described this practice at length in his 2019 jhana retreat, but in short, you're aiming to get a sense of the whole field of physical sensation in your experience, including the whole space occupied by your physical body but also extending a little beyond it. (If that seems weird to you, just try it!) For some people, it's much easier to rest the mind on a broad space rather than a narrow one, and if this is the case for you, the energy body approach might work better than focusing on the breath. In any case, resting your attention on the whole energy body, you now stay there until you locate a feeling of wellbeing somewhere in the energy body, and then stay with that feeling of wellbeing until it develops into the jhana. Often this will be a slower and gentler experience than when using the 'narrow focus' technique.
Either way, once you get into the first jhana, just stay there. Eventually you'll come out. Then get back in again. Keep doing this until you can get in and out reliably. This is generally good advice for all the jhanas, with one exception: if the first jhana is super-strong for you at first, it might be too intense to stay there, so you might be better off moving straight to the second.
To move from the first jhana to the second, take a deep breath, and as you exhale, let out some of the piti energy. (Just have a sense of letting things calm down - that's usually enough.) You'll typically find that the piti calms down a lot and the emotional happiness becomes more prominent. Boom - you're in the second jhana.
Once you get the knack for this, the same basic trick works to get from the second to the third (this time letting out all the piti, so you're left only with the happiness, which is probably fairly subtle at this point) and from the third to the fourth (this time letting out all the emotional happiness too, leaving you with just quiet stillness). There's often - though not always - a sense of moving 'downwards' as you move from one jhana to the next, so look out for this as well.
This is about as far as an impersonal article on a website can take you - ultimately, your jhana explorations are personal to you, and a good teacher will be able to personalise the instructions to you in a private interview. It can be helpful to approach this practice with an attitude of experimentation, or even play - again, whatever helps you to maintain a sense of wellbeing and openness. Explore!
Jhana controversies and 'dangers'
So far I've presented the jhanas as if they're universally recognised, valued and agreed upon. They aren't!
One major point of debate is that there are many different altered states of consciousness, and since the jhanas are pretty loosely defined in the Pali Canon, you can make those definitions fit quite a range of different states, especially if you're willing to redefine some of the key terms. (The words translated as 'thought and examination' above, vitakka and vicara, are often instead translated in a Buddhist context as 'initial and sustained application of effort', and consequently used to associate the jhanas with much, much deeper altered states in which mental activity ceases almost entirely.)
If you're really interested, you can find a detailed analysis of the four most commonly encountered sets of jhanas in this document by Culadasa. (For reference, the jhanas described in my article are what Culadasa characterises as 'lite jhanas' in that document.) The basic trade-off is between depth and accessibility. The deeper the state, the more profound the concentration and the more removed from ordinary consciousness you are, but also the harder it is to learn and the more finicky the conditions required to access it. The jhanas Leigh teaches are accessible enough that most people can learn at least the first one on a 10-day retreat, and deep enough that they make a noticeable difference to your insight practice, so I'm a pretty big fan, but to each their own.
You might also encounter a pretty negative anti-jhana vibe in some parts of the Buddhist world. Sometimes people will tell you that they're totally impossible for normal people to practise, and it's just a waste of time - this is usually because the person giving that advice has encountered a super-deep form of jhana which probably really isn't accessible to most people.
Another objection to the jhanas is that the historical Buddha spent some time studying deep concentration states, but found that they didn't lead to enlightenment - and therefore we shouldn't spend any time practising concentration states at all. The irony is that the source of this story about the Buddha is the Discourse on the Noble Search, MN26, which concludes with instructions to the monks to practise the jhanas!
One final objection - pretty common among people who've been brought up in a Christian tradition where having fun in a spiritual context is considered to be pretty suspicious - is that there's a danger that practitioners will spend all their time 'getting high' on the jhanas and never actually do their insight practice. As Rob Burbea points out repeatedly in his talks, however, it's vanishingly unlikely that spiritual practitioners working in a Buddhist context are actually going to do this - and even if you do, there are plenty of worse things to get high on! My own experience has been that the jhanas are fun and exciting at first but quickly become just another practice in the toolbox, and the insights that come from having a mind made quiet and powerful through jhana practice are vastly more compelling than simply hanging out in a positive emotional state.
So don't worry too much, and don't let the nay-sayers put you off. If you're interested in jhana practice, give it a go - ideally, get on a retreat with a teacher like Leigh, and see for yourself what it's all about!
Chinul's way of Korean Zen
This week's article is heavily indebted to Robert Buswell's excellent Tracing Back the Radiance.
One of the big debates in Buddhist circles is about the nature of awakening: is it sudden or gradual? In other words, is it something where you 'wake up' just like that, in a moment of inspiration, or is it the result of a lengthy process of practice? If it's sudden, why do we need the lengthy training? But if it's gradual, why are there so many stories of 'enlightenment experiences' and all this talk of kensho and satori?
This week we're going to take a look at the answer to these questions given by Chinul, a 12th century Korean master generally regarded as the most influential figure in the Korean Seon (Zen) tradition: 'awakening is sudden, cultivation is gradual'. At first glance, this looks suspiciously like Chinul is trying to have his cake and eat it too, but let's dig into the details to see what he's getting at.
Sudden awakening to the nature of mind
The first step in Chinul's approach is sudden awakening - which, as we will see, is vitally important for the second step, the gradual cultivation, to be conducted properly. But what are we waking up to?
Fundamentally, awakening is about discovering something about the nature of our own minds. As I discussed in some detail last week and elsewhere, what we experience is not the objective world 'out there' that it appears to be; rather, we experience a mental projection, our minds' best effort to understand and interpret the information coming in through our senses and weave it all together into a coherent whole that helps us to navigate our surroundings successfully.
From the standpoint of the Zen tradition, the mind is said to have two aspects: 'essence' and 'function'. (Sometimes you'll see 'principle' instead of 'essence', but I find this super-confusing, so I'll stick to 'essence'.)
When we talk about 'mind essence', what we mean is that the fundamental nature of everything we experience is 'mind', in the sense that everything we experience is a mental construct/projection. The whole thing is 'mind', in the same way that the fundamental nature of the ocean is 'water' - whether you're looking at the crest of a wave or the deepest depths, it's all 'made of water'.
However, we don't just experience a uniform blank grey goo - we experience a moving, changing world. This aspect of our experience is the mind's 'function'. We know things - experiences come and go, sights, sounds, body sensations and all the rest of it. This 'shaping' of the mind essence into all the different forms of reality is the functioning of the mind, and is what leads to us having an experience at all.
(A terminological aside: Zen tends to use the terms 'samadhi' and 'prajna' quite differently to earlier Buddhist traditions. In early Buddhism, 'samadhi' usually means something like 'stable attention', i.e. the outcome of concentration practice, where you focus your attention on an object, and 'prajna' means something like 'wisdom' or 'insight', i.e. the outcome of insight practice, the result of investigating reality. However, when Zen is talking about mind essence and function, you will often find 'samadhi' used to refer to mind essence, and 'prajna' to mind function. This isn't totally unreasonable - in a sense, mind essence never changes, so has the quality of 'stability' to it, while mind function is synonymous with 'knowing', and hence has the quality of 'wisdom' to it. Nonetheless, these uses of 'samadhi' and 'prajna' are different enough that it's incredibly confusing if you come from a Theravada/vipassana background and try to read a Zen text, so watch out for that!)
I went into a lot of detail about why the insight into the mind-originated nature of all things is important last week, so I won't repeat myself today. The short version is that seeing the mind-created nature of all things dramatically undermines the 'reality' of suffering, and so to the extent that we can come to see our experience as mind-created, we will be correspondingly free of suffering. That's where the next step - the gradual cultivation - comes in.
Before we move on to that, though, it's worth saying a few more words about the sudden awakening. It's 'sudden' because it's a recognition - it isn't something we have to figure out gradually over a long period of time, piecing together the clues. But it's also sudden because we don't have to cultivate our enlightened nature gradually. The fundamental nature of your mind - yes, yours - is already awake, right now, and always has been. You are reading this article right now because of the functioning of your mind, and the words on the screen are 'made' of mind essence, just like the screen itself, the eye looking at the screen and the thoughts in your head.
There's a koan which points to this always-already-so nature of the mind. In the koan, a student is practising sitting meditation when the teacher approaches and asks what he's doing. The student says he's practising meditation in order to become enlightened. In response, the master picks up a tile and starts polishing it. The student asks what he's doing, and the master replies that he's polishing the tile to make a mirror. Confused, the student says that you can't make a mirror by polishing a tile - and the master retorts that you can't become enlightened by meditating either! The master is not saying that practice is pointless, of course, but rather is saying that you don't need to practise in order to get something. You have it already - sudden awakening is simply a matter of recognising what is already true.
Gradual cultivation of the recognition of mind essence
Recognising the mind-originated nature of phenomena is an important step, but the work isn't done yet. We have a lifetime of habits of treating our experience as objectively real and getting caught up in the ensuing reactivity. Indeed, for many Zen students it can be pretty frustrating to have had a kensho experience - to have seen the mind-originated nature of all things - and then to go straight back to being caught up in suffering again. After awakening, our task now becomes to bring that light of awakening into every aspect of our lives - to train ourselves to see 'mind essence' in everything, all the time, never forgetting, never losing sight of it, never slipping back into unconscious reactivity. In the language of Zen master Bankei, we've discovered the Unborn - the mind essence, that aspect of experience which is neither born nor dying, arising nor passing, coming nor going - but now we have to learn to live from the Unborn, not just touch into it from time to time.
This aspect of the practice is a long, difficult process of small, incremental gains - hence 'gradual cultivation'. Having established a foothold in awakening, the challenge now becomes to find those areas of our life which cause us to slip back into old ways of relating to our experience, and then to find an 'edge' where we can work to expand our capabilities. There's almost certainly no point in trying to go straight to recognising mind essence in all situations all day long - generally, you'll remember several hours later that you managed it for maybe twenty seconds before you got distracted and forgot the whole thing.
Gradual cultivation is crucial to the path, essential for making our awakening meaningful in the course of our lives. We are forced to confront every aspect of our lives, looking at our relationships, our interactions, our emotions, our hopes and fears. Little by little, we find ways to bring our awakening into each domain of our lives. We find ways to strike a balance between enjoying relief from suffering by seeing the mind-originated nature of phenomena on the one hand, and dealing with our conditioning and the trouble it leads us into on the other hand.
Having a strong ethical foundation in your practice is vitally important here, to avoid becoming what one of my students memorably referred to as 'a moral husk' - the history of spirituality is unfortunately full of people who found ways to convince themselves that they were personally fine no matter what happened and nothing else really mattered, and as a result inflicted all kinds of unpleasant behaviour on the people around them. Indeed, there have been plenty of sects of Zen and other forms of Buddhism which have tried to do without the pesky 'gradual cultivation'. You're already enlightened, they'll say, so why practise at all? Why not just do whatever you want? It's all an expression of enlightened activity, after all!
Another objection that has been raised historically, and which still comes up today, is that if you're going to have to go through the tedious process of gradual cultivation even after awakening, then what's the point of awakening? And there are certainly traditions (both Buddhist and non-) which place much greater emphasis on cultivation than awakening, if they even mention awakening at all. Actually, the historical Buddha taught a 'graduated training' which starts with ethical behaviour, moves on to concentration meditation, and only gets around to insight towards the end, and this is sometimes taken to indicate that the Buddha wanted practitioners to do quite a bit of 'gradual cultivation' before they could meaningfully start meditation.
The counterargument to this is that awakening makes the gradual cultivation much easier. Before you recognise the nature of mind, you relate to the world as objectively real - 'that's just how things are'. Much of our deepest conditioning can seem similarly immovable, and when difficulties (such as the Five Hindrances) come up in our practice, if we don't recognise that these, too, are just more mind-originated stuff, it's very easy to buy into those difficulties completely and end up stuck. Once we're able to make the move to recognising the mind-originated nature of all things, however, we have a powerful weapon in our arsenal to 'de-stick' ourselves from these problems, and so it's much easier to work with those problems. (Note that I said 'much easier', but not necessarily 'easy' - some of this stuff is still really hard to work with even after awakening.)
Methods for sudden awakening and gradual cultivation
So how do we do all this?
Most Buddhist meditation techniques are aimed at awakening, cultivation or a mixture of both, but Zen is particularly well known for two practices which are each especially well suited to one aspect of this process.
For sudden awakening, most Zen teachers in the Rinzai tradition (which includes Korean Zen and Chinese Chan) agree that koan study (discussed in the second half of this article) provides the most efficient way to reach a 'breakthrough' to the true nature of mind. Working with a question such as 'Who am I?', particularly in an intensive way such as on a Zenways 3-day retreat, is a great way to get a first glimpse of what's going on. (In Korean Zen, they tend to use 'What is this?' as their question instead of 'Who am I?' Both work well.)
For gradual cultivation, the essential point is to develop the recognition of the mind-originated nature throughout all the comings and goings of the mind's functioning. One powerful vehicle for doing this is just sitting (variously known as resting in the Unborn, shikantaza and Silent Illumination), where we simply sit openly, observing the comings and goings of our experience in a natural, uncontrived way. Once we've cultivated the ability to recognise mind essence in our sitting practice, we can begin to bring that same attitude into all of our daily activities, and learn to live from the Unborn as Bankei suggests.
Guided 'Who am I?' and shikantaza practices are available on my Audio page. So why not make a start right now? Wake up to your true nature, and then integrate it into every aspect of your life - and become the Buddha that you already are.
Another take on emptiness
A central concept in early Buddhism is dependent origination - the idea that everything we experience arises based on causes and conditions. In some places in the early teachings, dependent origination is spelt out more fully in terms of twelve 'links', each of which provides a supporting condition for the next; the second link is sankhara, 'fabrication', which is said to lead to consciousness itself.
But what does it mean for consciousness to be dependent on fabrication?
A modern take on fabrication and sensory experience
Take a moment to look around you. Without having to make any effort at all, you can see what's around you - if you're indoors, you can see walls, floor, ceiling, screen, furniture and so forth; if you're outside, you can see sky, ground, maybe trees, buildings, roads. It seems to be totally obvious that our eyesight gives us direct access to the real world 'out there', while our thoughts live inside our heads as a private experience, probably happening somewhere in our brains.
But is this really the case? Are the eyes really like little windows, pointing out at the external world? If they are, who or what is looking out of those windows? Is there a little person behind our eyeballs seeing what's going on - and, if so, does that little person also have eyes, and if so who's looking out of those? This gets weird pretty fast.
The modern scientific worldview has given us a more detailed picture of what happens when we see something. Light bounces off objects in the world, and that reflected light enters our eyeballs, is focused by the tiny lens in the eye, and hits the retina on the back of the eyeball. That stimulates activity in the optic nerve, which is then transmitted as a signal into the brain, leading to activity in the visual cortex. As a result of this brain activity, we see the world.
The important part is that last, rather hand-wavy, step - as a result of this brain activity, we see the world. The point here is that our experience is the result of brain activity, as opposed to being somehow a 'direct' or 'pure' perception of what's 'really out there'. In fact, it's relatively easy to convince ourselves that this is the case. Colour-blind people see a slightly different 'outside world' to the one most people do. (You can probably distinguish between certain shades of green and blue that look the same to me - your world literally has more colours in it than mine.) We also know that range of possible frequencies of light is much wider than the human visual range, and that there are animals capable of perceiving light (and hence 'colours', since the subjective experience of colour corresponds to the objective measurement of the frequency of light) that is 'invisible' to us.
But wait, there's more! It isn't simply that the brain is doing some work to reproduce an image of the world around us. It's also interpreting the information that's coming in - it's making sense of what we're seeing, constructing (or fabricating) a representation which means something to us.
Consider the following classic optical illusion. Is the picture on the right two faces, or a vase?
(Image by John Smithson, 2007, at English Wikipedia. Media licence: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs, otherwise I'd have cropped out the left-hand image...)
Notice that you can persuade your perception to flip back and forth between the two - in other words, you can 'see' the image either as faces or as a vase. If we simply saw objective reality exactly as it is, we wouldn't see either a vase or faces - it's just a white shape surrounded by a black shape. Instead, however, your brain is doing something much more interesting - it's trying to make sense of what it's seeing, matching those shapes to patterns that it already understands and has a name for. The tricky bit is that the image in this case is ambiguous - it matches two different patterns, faces and vase, and so the brain isn't entirely sure how to represent what it's seeing. Hence, with just a tiny bit of effort, we can flip back and forth from one interpretation to the other.
So take a moment to reflect on this. Everything you see is not simply 'what's out there', but it's actually the result of a complex process of data-gathering and interpretation, all of which is happening rapidly and unconsciously. Your conscious experience is the product of that whole process - usually, the details of the process itself are completely hidden from your view, and it's only when we encounter something like an optical illusion that we get a glimpse behind the curtain.
And, of course, this applies to the whole of sensory experience, not just sight. Everything that we see, hear and feel, both internally and externally, is like this. Everything is the product of mental activity - everything is fabricated.
A brief aside on emptiness, and the metaphysical implications of recognising the fabricated nature of experience
It's perhaps worth noting, especially if this way of talking about experience works for you, that this also gives us a modern-language way to understand the later Buddhist concept of 'emptiness'. When you see something described as 'empty', you can understand that as 'mental representation', or even 'product of brain activity'. Absolutely 100% of everything we experience is 'empty', precisely because our experience is the product of brain activity - everything, bar nothing, is part of that mental representation. There is nothing outside of that, because that is our experience.
One possible objection (which was recently raised by the popular Zen teacher Brad Warner on his YouTube video channel) is that I'm explaining things in terms of brain, eyeballs, optic nerves and so on - but, actually, all of those things arise within experience as well. It turns out that we actually have no real evidence that anything exists objectively at all. All we know of the world is what we experience, and we can't actually step outside of that experience to view it 'objectively'. We can't even fully trust what other people tell us, because - once again - we only know those people through our experience. So if you want to be hardcore about it - and traditional Buddhism has often taken a strong stance on this - even my brain-based explanation assumes way too much, and all we can really say is that whether or not there's anything beyond this experience is totally unknowable.
Personally, I tend to think there probably is a world out there. It makes sense to me, and it also provides some motivation for acting ethically, which is important to me. If it's 'all in my mind', who cares whether I'm kind or cruel, generous or stingy, compassionate or hateful? For me, it's much more meaningful to act as though the outside world really does exist, whilst at the same time recognising that what I experience of it can never be anything more (or less) than a mental representation.
OK, but who cares?
The single biggest challenge with emptiness is that, even after wrapping your head around the basic concepts, it still isn't obvious why you should care. OK, so we experience a mental representation instead of an objective world - but so what? Why does it matter?
Because it changes everything.
If our experience were simply a direct encounter with objective fact, we'd be stuck with it - because that's just how it is. But when we see our experience as the product of mental activity - as fabrication - it opens the door to perceiving things differently. (In fact, you've already seen an example of this, with the vase/faces - by flipping back and forth from one view to the other, you are fabricating your experience differently.) And this raises an interesting prospect - how can we fabricate differently, in such a way that our experience of the world is improved? In fact, you can look at the world's great spiritual traditions as each promoting a particular kind of fabrication: if you come to see the world in these terms, fabricating the world in this way, you will experience the benefits associated with that view. (Usually, this is dressed up as 'we will tell you The Truth', of course.)
At the most basic level, the more 'real' we experience something to be, the more difficult it is to do anything about it - because that's just how it is. If a strong negative emotion comes up - a feeling of hopelessness, let's say - and it's experienced as completely real, it will tend to have a strong 'sticky' quality that makes it very hard to escape. Of course it's hopeless, that's just how it is. There's no point trying to talk myself out of it, that's just how things are. But if we can see it as fabricated, it ceases to be an immutable fact, and becomes simply part of the brain's representation of a situation - most likely there are some important circumstances going on right now which really need some attention, and as a result of that the brain is generating this strong emotion to convey information to the organism as a whole. As we make the shift from 'this is how I am, that's just how it is' to 'this is something which I am experiencing', it turns out that we experience an almost immediate reduction in suffering. By noticing the fabricated nature of the emotion, it loses some of its power over us - without suppressing the emotion, denying its presence, or losing access to the information contained within it.
So let's run through a series of what might be called 'vantage points' - different ways of relating to (and fabricating) our experience, the drawbacks of those vantage points, and how we can see their fabricated nature in order to move beyond them.
One pretty common vantage point is to be totally identified with thought. We are our thoughts; if we have a good thought, we're a good person, and if we have a bad thought, uh oh. Furthermore, thinking is how we engage with the world - 'think about the breath' and 'pay attention to the breath' are synonymous for us. A drawback of this vantage point is that we often struggle to control our thoughts, and they cause us a lot of pain.
In order to move beyond this, we might take up a mindfulness practice, where we focus our attention on the breath, and notice our thoughts coming and going in the background. Over time we realise that a thought is a discrete event which arises and passes away, in much the same way that sounds and body sensations come and go. We see that we are not our thoughts; that thoughts are simply another part of what we experience. Another approach - characteristic of the Dzogchen tradition - is to look for the gap between thoughts, and when you find yourself there, notice what that experience is like. When you aren't thinking anything, what happens? Who and what are you in that moment, without thought to tell you who you are?
A key point here is that we're not talking about getting rid of thoughts forever. We step outside of thought in order to see that we are not our thoughts; but if we can recognise the emptiness of our thoughts, it's no problem to have them come up. Personally, I quite like my thoughts - at least some of them - and I wouldn't want them to go away permanently (although you can find people who do promote the total extinction of thought as a spiritual practice). The shift I'm talking about is to relate to our thoughts differently - as fabrications, just something else coming and going in the field of experience, not us at all.
If we can dis-identify from our thoughts, we might move to a vantage point where we are identified with our 'self' in some way - I am my personality, for example. Thoughts may come and go, but behind it all I'm this kind of person - I do these kinds of things, I can't do those kinds of things. While this is definitely a subjective improvement over identification with thoughts, it also has some drawbacks - it tends to be self-limiting (there are things I can't do, so there's no point trying) and can bring up a lot of stress (what happens if I fail at something I should be able to do?).
To move beyond this, we can continue with our mindfulness practice, and notice that it isn't just thoughts that come and go; actually everything that we identify as ourselves comes and goes. Body sensations, emotions, thoughts, inclinations, even consciousness itself are all subject to arising and passing. A classic meditative experience at this point is what's usually called the 'Witness' - a sense that who we really are is a disembodied point of observation, the 'one who knows'. We are not the experienced, but we are the experiencer.
(Again, the point here is not to eradicate the self for all time, and wander round vacantly, unable to remember our own name. The point is to see that the self, too, is a fabrication, as opposed to something ultimately real.)
Within this Witness vantage point, however, we often find ourselves continuing to buy into subtler fabrications, such as time and space. These, too, can be seen to be empty, and with that seeing comes an even deeper freedom from suffering. As meditation practice deepens, we may come to realise that our sense of time passing is a construction, based on comparing present-moment experience with recent and more distant memories, or even that the idea of 'the present moment' is a kind of fabrication which relies on a 'past' and 'future' to be coherent; instead, we find ourselves inhabiting a timeless 'Now'. Similarly, we notice that our sense of being located in a three-dimensional space (perhaps inside a room with the rest of the world outside) is a fabrication which can drop away, leaving us with just a sense of all-inclusive 'Here'. As the sense of location and motion due to time and space fall away, we can touch into experiences of profound stillness, a stillness which appears to be behind, around and even within everything we experience.
And even within this more rarefied vantage point, we may still find ourselves holding on to some of the deepest, most fundamental fabrications: the sense of duality, division or separation between 'this' and 'that'; a continuing sense of subtle identity (that 'I am this timeless boundless space of awareness'); that Awareness is a thing, separate from that which is perceived; or that awareness has a central point from which it emanates. We can move beyond this vantage point through exploring precisely those remaining features in our experience which appear to be so basic, so inarguably real, that it seems inconceivable that they could be challenged at all, let alone seen through - and yet they can.
The deepest of all vantage points is to truly see that everything is fabricated. Many spiritual traditions have practices which are intended to bring about very deep experiences - of 'pure awareness', of 'cessation' - which can show us the fabricated nature of our experience first-hand. The drawback of this approach is that people can become attached to the experiences, and spend their days practising cessation of consciousness 'because that's Nibbana', while on the relative level their lives are a mess. Emphasising particular experiences can also set up a lot of craving for people who haven't had the experience - and, ultimately, the experiences themselves are not actually necessary, even if they can be helpful. What's most important is the understanding - the realisation that everything is fabricated.
We'll talk more about how to work practically with fabrication in next week's article. For now, though, a fun exercise is to work through the vantage points described above and see which ones you can adopt. Some may be relatively obvious, some may sound totally delusional and impossible, and maybe there's a middle ground where you can kinda see what I'm talking about. That middle ground is the 'edge' of your practice, and that's where you want to be spending most of your time - exploring, investigating, looking to see if it's really as 'real' as it appears, or whether this, too, could be fabricated.
The vicissitudes of life
Buddhism promises us freedom: freedom from our reactive patterns, freedom to act wisely and compassionately in the world. To the extent that we are able to see and let go of our patterns, we are able to be who we aspire to be.
It's important to say that 'freedom from reactivity' doesn't mean 'completely unresponsive'. The aim here is not to become a dead tree stump. And it doesn't mean always second-guessing our instincts - there are times when our initial reaction to a situation might be totally appropriate, wise and helpful. But we don't want to be at the mercy of our knee-jerk reactions either - if we're simply playing out habitual patterns of behaviour in response to whatever comes up, we find ourselves perpetual victims of the world, helpless to choose our own path in the face of what life throws at us.
One traditional teaching that helps to illuminate some of the forces that act upon us in daily life comes from the Pali Canon, and can be found in discourses like Anguttara Nikaya 8.6.
The Eight Worldly Winds
Sometimes translated as Eight Worldly Conditions or Eight Vicissitudes, the Winds are a set of four pairs of opposing forces which we can all immediately recognise in our lives. They can be translated and arranged in a rhyming format, to make them easier to remember:
(Sometimes you'll see them arranged so that the 'positive' one of each pair comes first, but personally I like the rhyme.)
Let's take those in order.
Pleasure and pain
One of the most basic characteristics of life is a movement towards the pleasant and away from the painful. Even an amoeba will move toward nutrients and away from acid. I like to think I'm a little more sophisticated than an amoeba, but even so I find myself drawn towards chocolate, and unwilling to go out for a run when it's icy outside.
Again, there's nothing wrong with this - but on the other hand, there are times when it's useful to be able to go against the path of least resistance. If I'm trying to get in shape and lose weight, it would be helpful for me to walk past the chocolate shop without going in, and it's also in the best interest of future me to get my running shoes on and hit the road even when it's cold out.
It's important to say that this isn't about developing some kind of ascetic, no-pain-no-gain mindset - the historical Buddha was actually keen to emphasise that he taught a middle way between asceticism and indulgence. Rather, it's about freedom to do the wisest thing even when the circumstances aren't totally ideal. (Knowing what 'the wisest thing' is in any given situation is not always immediately obvious, of course - in the Zen tradition it's said to be the teaching of a lifetime of practice.)
Loss and gain
Of the two, we're typically more sensitive to loss - our brains have a built-in negativity bias, something like 5:1 in favour of noticing and remembering negative experiences. People will usually go to much greater lengths to avoid a loss than to gain something. On the other hand, as the neon monstrosity that is Las Vegas demonstrates, gain has its own appeal too.
Taking the long view, of course, whatever can be gained will ultimately be lost. One of the Five Daily Recollections - a traditional set of contemplations from the time of the Buddha - is 'All that is mine, dear and delightful, will change and vanish.' Even those most basic aspects of ourselves - youth, health and life itself - will sooner or later pass away. In the meantime, though, the bit in the middle is important too - there's nothing wrong with enjoying our lives or working to improve them, so long as we remember that our situation is always changing, and gains and losses are not always what they appear to be at first glance.
There's a traditional Chinese story that illustrates this last point:
Praise and blame
We are social creatures, and we're typically sensitive to feedback from those around us. Life doesn't give us a clear-cut roadmap of what it means to be good people, so we learn by observing those around us and taking on board their feedback (or not!). Praise and blame is an important part of that dynamic. As children, the praise and blame of the parents and teachers in our lives form a crucial part of our development - we learn how to behave in the world based on the steer we receive from those around and above us.
Typically, we continue to be sensitive to praise and blame in adulthood. A kind word from a boss or colleague can make our day, while a tirade of criticism can plunge us into misery. And, of course, these things do matter - if we're learning something new, then appropriate praise and criticism from a teacher helps to guide us toward our goal. But we can also crave praise (and feel unappreciated when we don't receive it), and we can dread blame to the point that we avoid situations entirely or self-sabotage.
Disrepute and fame
Beyond the immediate feedback from those nearest to us, we are also sensitive to our place in the social hierarchy. Are we well-regarded? Do people trust us, value our opinions, listen when we speak? Do people respect our achievements, or ignore them unfairly? Do we have a voice at all, or are we routinely passed over?
As with praise and blame, our social standing may well be important to us - but it can also lead us into trouble. 'Don't you know who I am?' 'Nobody cares what I think.' 'You can forget it, I heard about what you did, I'm not doing anything for you now.'
Freedom from the Eight Worldly Winds
AN8.6 goes on to say that the difference between an 'uneducated ordinary person' and an 'educated noble disciple' is that when the ordinary person encounters gain and loss, pleasure and pain and so on, they don't reflect that these things are impermanent, unreliable and perishable, and so favour gain and oppose loss (etc.), whereas the noble disciple does recognise the limitations of those things and thus neither clings to gain nor rejects loss.
We can see this same message repeated centuries later in Faith In Mind, the famous poem by the third Zen ancestor, which begins:
The Great Way is not difficult
If only you do not pick and choose.
Neither love nor hate,
And you will clearly understand.
Be off by a hair,
And you are as far from it as heaven from earth.
If you want the Way to appear,
Be neither for nor against.
For and against opposing each other
This is the mind's disease.
That's a pretty high standard! But even if we aren't totally free of picking and choosing just yet, we can still get quite a bit of insight into ourselves by contemplating the Eight Worldly Winds to see which ones we're most sensitive to. What are our personal triggers? When do we find ourselves doing things because we're chasing pleasure, gain, praise or fame? What do we avoid because of the risk of pain, loss, blame or disrepute?
It's also worth reflecting on these eight conditions from time to time as a way of keeping our feet on the ground. Sometimes, when our spiritual practice is going well, we can start to feel pretty special, and can lose perspective on those aspects of ourselves which could still benefit from a little work. I'll close with a story from the Zen tradition which illustrates one example of this phenomenon (adapted from the Nice Inspiration for Everyone blog).
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!