Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Emptiness the Womb of Compassion

Working definition: The lack of inherent or intrinsic reality of phenomenon.

Caution: Not to be confused with nothingness or the lack of reality all together.

Reminder: Things do exist, however they do not exist inherently or intrinsically.

How then do things exist? Things exist in relation to causes and conditions (dependent co-arising) and as merely imputed labels and concepts of language designation.

Analogies: A reflection in a mirror, a mirage in the desert, a dream. All of these appear to us as truly real, when in fact they lack inherent existence.

The concept of inherent existence includes the notion that “things” have an essence or core that is substantial, independent, permanent, fixed and maintains itself from its own side beyond the perceiver.

Thought experiment: Take the chair you are sitting on and ask yourself if it exists? Most likely your initial reaction will be, of course this chair exists! The chair is stable and I am sitting in it! The chair is not a reflection, a mirage or a dream, its right here underneath me, I can touch it and perceive it! – Ok. You have now established the chair exists with certainty and conviction.

Now lets analyze and contemplate. If I were to remove the back of the chair, and hold it up to you asking, is this the chair? You would respond, no that is the back not the chair. And if I were to remove the seat from the chair leaving only the frame and ask, is this the chair? You would respond, no that is not the chair. And if I were to remove the screws from the frame and hold them in my hand, leaving the frame to collapse in pieces, and ask you are these screws the chair? You would respond, no that is not the chair. Finally, if I asked you if the pile of frame parts scattered on the floor were the chair, you would respond, no that is not a chair. So if the back, seat, screws and frame are all not the chair individually, than where did the chair, that you were so certain existed, go?

Lets rebuild the chair, uniting the frame with the screws and replacing the back and seat. Now the chair appears again, and your certainty returns. Ask yourself what’s missing in this picture? The missing element is the mind that perceives and labels the chair. There is a frame, screws, seat, and back over there and concept or designation “chair” coming from our perception over here. The chair over there is empty. It does not exist intrinsically or essentially from its own side. The chair exists as a co-arising of parts (frame, screws, seat and back) and as a mere label, concept or designation of language originating in our mind.

The thought experiment highlights how our mind’s constantly misperceives reality. To slow down the process, what occurs is: perception of an object => conceptual labeling => imputation of realness/reification of the object. This last part of the sequence, mistaking our concepts to be the object, is the heart of the problem.

The concept of Selflessness refutes the misperception that an intrinsically abiding, unchanging, fixed, permanent, essence or soul exists within a person. Upon examination of the five Life Systems (skandhas) of material form, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness, no such Self, I, or Me can be found. The self of selflessness is an open system of interdependence and change.
Selflessness is to the self, what Emptiness is to phenomenon.

Emptiness is a medicine. According to the Second Noble Truth, the root cause of suffering is misperception aka delusion (avidya). Because we mistake the appearance of phenomenon to be more real and substantial than it is, and because we mistake our imputed concepts for reality, this leads to desire, aversion, confusion and eventually to suffering. The mind has a habit of mistaking the self and phenomenon to be more real than they actually are. The projection of a greater ontological status on to an object is known as reification. Emptiness is a medicine for the subtle mental habit of reification. Emptiness is a tool of language and analysis, when intelligently applied, decreases the mental tendency to concretize things. Emptiness is a reminder that we should not confuse our imputed labels and concepts with the objects of our perceptions. While we must use labels and concepts to navigate the world, the automatic or unconscious assumptions we make about those labels and concepts, creates a massive distortion.

Emptiness is a tool. It is a tweezers that removes the thorn or reification from the mind. Emptiness is a doorstopper that keeps the door of our mind open to possibilities rather than succumbing to automatic and erroneous certainties. Emptiness is a set of glasses that corrects distorted vision, so that we can begin to see reality clearly beyond our misperception.

Do not reify Emptiness: Emptiness is a negation, not a thing in it self. Emptiness negates the essentialness, substantiality and certainty of things that we perceive. Emptiness exists only in relation to an object or phenomenon, whose essence is to be negated. The chair is empty, it lacks intrinsic reality. The chair exists conventionally, as an appearance or co-arising phenomenon and as a designation of language. But upon further analysis, no “chairness” actually exists. For this reason, Emptiness is also empty. To reify emptiness as a thing in and of itself, is said to be the greatest downfall of them all. This is why great caution is often taken when teaching about this concept, because the tendency of the mind to grasp and reify is so strong, it can easily misperceive the medicine, rendering it poison.

Emptiness and Ultimate Reality: Emptiness negates a view of ultimate reality that is static, fixed, independent or intrinsically real. Instead it proposes that reality is a flow of appearances, based on causes and conditions, mutually arising and fading in a constant dance, interrelated with all other things, completely free and open to change. The moment we solidify a perception of others and things as inherently fixed and real, thereby closing off their essential flow and connection, is the minute we create our own difficulty and suffering. This is the therapeutic use of language and perception that Mayahana Buddhism offers. It is the basis or womb of compassion.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Bodhisattva: Soldier of Love


Is a yogi who has vowed to achieve the full awakening of Buddhahood, motivated by love and compassion for all sentient beings. The Bodhisattva can be seen as a soldier in the army of love and a champion of the contemplative path.

The Hinayana or “Lesser Vehicle”, represents the original phase in the development of Buddhism, which occurred during the life of the Buddha and in the years after his passing. The Hinayana tradition is characterized by monasticism and renunciation, whereby an individual renounces the stresses of compulsive living, drops out of the world to study and meditate with other contemplatives and yogis, and eventually achieves enlightenment. The Mahayana or “Great Vehicle” represents the second phase in the development of Buddhist thought and practice. Mahayana teachings arose in the 1st century of the Common Era, roughly 500 years after the Buddha. Central to the development of the Mahayana were the prajnaparamita or perfection of wisdom scriptures, which present the notions of emptiness, relativity and non-dualism. These concepts help to establish that no difference inherently exists between the compulsive world (samsara) and freedom (nirvana). As a result, Mahanyana teachings shift their emphasis from individuals renouncing and retreating from the world in a spirit of detachment, to reengaging and transforming the world in the spirit of love and compassion.

The ideal of the Hinayana is the arhant or liberated saint, who has given up compulsive life, followed the Four Noble Truths, and achieved liberation. In the Mahayana, the ideal shifts to the bodhisattva or warrior of love. Rather than solely cultivating renunciation, there is a greater emphasis on the development of bodhicitta, or spirit of enlightenment. Bodhicitta has two parts: the ultimate non-dual insight of emptiness/relativity; and, the conventional application of compassion that arises naturally from that insight. The Bodhisattva’s motivation is to engage in self-development in order to refine the skills (upaya) necessary to help teach all beings how to become happy and free. Arhants focus on their own liberation, while Bodhisattva’s work towards the liberation of others. The purpose of the Mahayana movement is to reverse not just an individual’s central preoccupation, but the social order of the world, from egocentric and disconnected into altruistic and harmonious.

The Bodhisattvas, can be seen as urban yogis, who take the contemplative education and stress-free lifestyle out of the monastery or ashram, and into the market place. They do so by taking on spiritual commitments and vows of conduct to help train their mind’s in the midst of the inevitable adversity of worldly life. The Bodhisattva vow is to achieve the full awakening of a Buddha, in order to benefit all living beings. Nothing short of full Buddhahood will suffice to accomplish such a vast aspiration. It might be helpful to examine the lifestyle and behaviors of people like the Dalai Lama and Tich Nat Hanh, who represent the bodhisattva ideal and vows. Far from monastic recluses, each of them remains committed to worldly activities, social engagement and and endless teaching schedule, designed to help beings transform adversity into opportunity and hatred into love.

The Bodhisattva trains in the Six Perfections or Transcendent Virtues (paramitas): Generosity, Ethics, Patience, Diligence, Concentration, and Wisdom. The trainings all aim fundamentally to uproot the self-habit (atmagraha), the root of suffering, and develop positive qualities of mind in its place. In the Hinayana approach, represented in the Four Noble Truths, liberation is achieved using wisdom as an antidote to misperception, concentration or mental development as an antidote to disturbing emotions, and ethics as an antidote to harmful behavior. To these core trainings, the Mahayana add generosity, patience and diligence in order to achieve full enlightenment and social transformation. Generosity is necessary to build positive karmic energy (aka force, merit) that fuels the engine of altruism; patience is necessary to endure the hardship encountered when dealing directly with the anger and afflictions of living beings; and, diligence is required because the process of social transformation on the scale envisioned by the Mahayana will take countless lifetimes. The six perfections are expounded in the 8th century classic training manual, the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Bodhicaryavatara), written by Master Shantideva.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Four-fold Process of Exchanging Self and Other

1. Equalizing Self and Other
2. Contemplating the Limits of Self-Preoccupation
3. Contemplating the Benefits of Altruism
4. Exchanging Self and Other


1. Equalizing Self and Other
All living beings want happiness and wish avoid suffering.
Ultimately there is no real difference between myself and others.
From our DNA all the way up to our basic psychology, when the surface "differences" are analyzed not much distinction between living beings can be found.

2. The limits of Self-preoccupation
All suffering comes from I, me, mine.
The most fundamental misperception is our separateness into "self" and "other", which leads to clinging/attachment to objects that are "mine" and aversion/aggression when the "I" is threatened or unsatisfied.
While fight-flight, self-protection, is innate to our biology, so to is love-growth, social instinct, empathy and care, which were essential in the evolution as mammals and human beings. We can override our evolutionary animal instinct of self-protection and develop out mammalian love-growth instinct of cooperation. The Tibetan word for Buddha, Sangye, actually means eliminate/cultivate as in to completely eliminate negative qualities and completely cultivate positive ones.

3. The Benefits of Altruism
All joy and success is a result of the care and concern we received from another living being.
Everything you've learned, every moment of happiness you've experience, every opportunity for growth that has arisen, has done so in relation to, and through the kindness of, other living beings.
The social instict for love and care is our highest evolutionary potential.
Once we intuitively experience no distinction between ourselves and others, than care and compassion are effortless and spontaneous. Like a hand that moves away from the fire when one finger is burned, a mother too acts selflessly and automatically, not perceiving any distinction, when her child in in danger.
Ultimately kindness, care and the connection they produce feel good, provide meaning and lead to true happiness.

4. Exchanging Self and Other
Exchanging self and other is a process of deep empathy, of reconnecting ourselves with others, by dissolving the misperception of separateness.
Empathy for others has a two fold benifit: First, it connects us to people when they are suffering, so from thier side they feel more safe and cared for; and, two, from our side, it reverses and dissolves our own self-habit or instinctual self-preoccupation, the root of suffering and alienation.
When people feel safe, cared for and connected, they are free to achieve their highest potential; therefore love is essential in optimizing the social ethos and bonds between beings.
Seeing things from another persons perspective is "freeing", it loosens our automatic and ridged view of the world and situation and people from our own side. This is why therapy can be helpful, because the relationship acts as an opportunity for a patient to see things from outside the prison of their misperception.

Meditation on Giving and Taking (Tonglen):

• As usual begin with aspiration, particularly the altruistic aspiration to achieve freedom for the benefits of others.
• Do some breathing meditation to settle the mind.
• Select a loved one, neutral one, difficult person, or group of people, to visualize and contemplate upon.
• Reflect on their current experience of suffering.
• Imagine taking on their suffering, in the form of a black smoke mounted on your in-breath.
• Imagine that this black smoke dissolves your own self-habit at the center of your heart.
• Imagine that you are capable of metabolizing negativity, like a good parent who can tolerate the tantrum and trauma of a child.
• Allow your empathy for the suffering of the other to arouse love and compassion.
• Imagine sending love and care to the other in the form of white light mounted upon your out-breath.
• Imagine that they receive this care and that it purifies the destructive self-habit at their heart.
• Imagine that through care both you and the other are freed from the self-habit, the root cause of suffering. Rejoice in this activity.
• Continue giving and taking.
• Dedicate the positive energy to the welfare and liberation (from the self-habit) of all living beings.

The meditation on giving and taking is not a mystical practice that heals others from afar. It works primarily on your mind to: 1) reverse the automatic pattern of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, and 2) dissolving the inner terrorist, the self-habit, at the root of suffering. With a mind firmly rooted in compassion our experience and exchanges and with other living beings in the world inevitably transforms for the better.

More on Giving and Taking (Tonglen):

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Overcoming the Five Hindrances

The following is taken from Nyanaponika Thera

The Five Hindrances are the major psychological impediments to mindfulness (present center awareness) and the deepening of concentration into sublime states of consciousness.

The Five Hindrances are:
1. Sensual Desire/Attachment
2. Anger/Aversion
3. Restlessness
4. Dullness
5. Doubt

1. Overcoming Sensual Desire
Six things are conducive to the abandonment of sensual desire:
Learning how to meditate on impure objects;
Devoting oneself to the meditation on the impure;
Guarding the sense doors;
Moderation in eating;
Noble friendship;
Suitable conversation.

2. Overcoming Anger
Six things are helpful in conquering anger and aversion:
Learning how to meditate on loving-kindness;
Devoting oneself to the meditation of loving-kindness;
Considering that one is the owner and heir of one's actions (kamma);
Frequent reflection on it Cause and effect
Noble friendship;
Suitable conversation.

Also helpful in conquering ill-will are:
Rapture, of the factors of absorption (jhananga);
Faith, of the spiritual faculties (indriya);
Rapture and equanimity, of the factors of enlightenment (bojjhanga).

3. Overcoming Dullness
Six things are conducive to the abandonment of sloth and torpor:
Knowing that overeating is a cause of it;
Changing the bodily posture;
Thinking of the perception of light;
Staying in the open air;
Noble friendship;
Suitable conversation.

Also helpful in conquering sloth and torpor are:
The recollection of Death
 and impermanence.

4. Overcoming Restlessness
Six things are conducive to the abandonment of restlessness and remorse:
1. Knowledge of the Buddhist scriptures (Doctrine and Discipline);
2. Asking questions about them;
3. Familiarity with the Vinaya (the Code of Monastic Discipline, and for lay followers, with the principles of moral conduct);
4. Association with those mature in age and experience, who possess dignity, restraint and calm;
5. Noble friendship;
6. Suitable conversation.

Also helpful in conquering restlessness and remorse is:
Rapture, of the factors of absorption (jhananga);
Concentration, of the spiritual faculties (indriya);
Tranquillity, concentration and equanimity, of the factors of enlightenment (bojjhanga).

5. Overcoming Doubt
There are things which are wholesome or unwholesome, blameless or blameworthy, noble or low, and (other) contrasts of dark and bright; frequently giving wise attention to them — that is the denourishing of the arising of doubt that has not yet arisen, and of the increase and strengthening of doubt that has already arisen.
(note: the first three and the last two are identical with those given for restlessness and remorse. Only the fourth is different)

1. Knowledge of the Buddhist scriptures (Doctrine and Discipline);
2. Asking questions about them;
3. Familiarity with the Vinaya (the Code of Monastic Discipline, and for lay followers, with the principles of moral conduct);
4. Firm conviction concerning the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha;
5. Noble friendship;
6. Suitable conversation.

Also helpful in conquering Doubt are:
Reflection, of the factors of absorption (jhananga);
Wisdom, of the spiritual faculties (indriya);
Investigation of reality, of the factors of enlightenment (bojjhanga).