Does Meditation have a Goal?

What are we dealing with in meditation and what is the ‘goal’?

The goal of meditation is happiness. What we are dealing with are the obstacles we buy into that prevent us from finding happiness. Actually, there is a very thin film separating us from happiness but we seldom pierce it to experience the bliss described by mystics of all religious traditions.

Through identification with thoughts and feelings, with the constructs of the ego, we shield ourselves from the happiness we so desperately want. We believe this constantly changing, insubstantial person formed by our interaction with other constantly changing, insubstantial people is where we will find happiness. We believe that this person I have become and will continue becoming is the real me and that other people are just as real as I am.

Trungpa

Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who came to the West in the 1960’s, describes the defenses we put up to resist finding our true happiness.

“Consciousness consists of emotions and irregular thought patterns, all of which taken together form the different fantasy worlds with which we occupy ourselves. These fantasy worlds are referred to in the scriptures as the “six realms”. The emotions are the highlights of ego, the generals of ego’s army; subconscious thought, day-dreams and other thoughts connect one highlight to another. So thoughts form ego’s army and are constantly in motion, constantly busy. Our thoughts are neurotic in the sense that they are irregular, changing direction all the time and overlapping one another. We continually jump from one thought to the next, from spiritual thoughts to sexual fantasies to money matters to domestic thoughts and so on. The whole development of the five skandhas –ignorance/form, feeling, impulse/perception, concept and consciousness–is an attempt on our part to shield ourselves from the truth of our insubstantiality.”

Trungpa describes our situation further:

airplane-above-the-clouds-hd-wallpaper-placecom-a-e-ibackgroundz

“When we fly in an airplane above the clouds, we realize that the sun is always shining even when it is cloudy and rainy below. In the same way, when we cease to hold on to our identity, our ego, we begin to see that the nonexistence of ego is a powerful, real, and indestructible state of being. We realize that, like the sun, it is a continuous situation which does not wax or wane. That state of being is called vajra nature.”

Like rising above the clouds into the brightness of sunshine there are people who have ‘parted the veil’ or ‘pierced the film’ into that realm of happiness, that state of everlasting bliss. Trungpa calls it our vajra (diamond) nature because it is our indestructible, eternal nature. It is always there above the cloud-covering of our thoughts and emotions. The surprisingly few people who have experienced their vajra nature, also called Buddha nature or Christ consciousness, belong to every religious tradition; there are the Christian mystics, Hindu mahayogis, Buddhist bodhisattvas, Moslem sufis, realized souls, and enlightened beings of every part of the world and every age.

Through meditation we learn to see how insubstantial our thoughts and emotions really are. By practicing the simple action of letting go, of returning to the experience of being in the present moment without drifting along with the programs of the ego, we prepare and make ourselves available for the experience of happiness. And, as the mystics have repeatedly discovered, it is possible to not only glimpse but to enter into and even constantly maintain the experience of happiness. What they have discovered is love; that happiness is to love and to experience love.

If it is love, something we already know gives us happiness, then why don’t we practice love? Why do we allow our egos to confuse and cloud our lives? Why can’t we love and be in love all the time? Good question!

So, meditate and find out; ask the question, live the answer. Love all!

The Nine Stages of Mental Development

Shamatha, which means calm, is the practice of meditation to develop the ability to focus the mind in single-pointed concentration. This is practiced as a pre-requisite for mindfulness or insight meditations. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition this practices is described as a nine stage progression beautifully depicted in this thangka showing a monk chasing and finally capturing an elephant. 9-stages-samatha-meditation The elephant is being led by a monkey. The monkey represents distractions. How well we know this scenario! This is ordinary mind or conventional mind mired in the Babylon Matrix (Jonathan Zap). But through study of the writings of Wisdom Teachers and mediation practice, the monk is able to capture and subdue the elephant. Gradually both the monkey and the elephant turn white representing the meditator’s ability to maintain the power of concentration.

Stages three and four represents the meditator’s ability to fix and hold his or her concentration steady. The meditator has lassoed the elephant and gradually the monkey, elephant and even a rabbit turn and look at the meditator to indicate that distractions acknowledge who is in charge.

In stages five and six the meditator begins to lead the elephant and the monkey of distraction follows the mind rather than leading it. The mind is controlled; the meditator uses a goad to discipline the elephant. The rabbit disappears and the mind is finally pacified.

In the seventh stage the monkey leaves the elephant and stands behind the meditator and pays homage.  In stage eight the meditator is in complete control. Single-pointed concentration is achieved.

The ninth is the stage of mental absorption. Perfect equanimity is found and the path has ended. The elephant rests beside the meditator who sits at ease. Now out of the meditator’s heart streams a rainbow like ray.

Stages ten and eleven represent crossing over into mental bliss. The meditator rides the elephant along the rainbow path into the perfection of the transcendent realm and returns bearing the sword of Wisdom. Samsara’s root is severed by the union of shamatha and vipashyana or insight meditation with emptiness as the object of contemplation. Aware of pure awareness, the meditator is now equipped with Compassion and Wisdom to guide others on the path to enlightenment. Ox Herding In the Chinese Chan (Zen) tradition this concept is illustrated through the Ten Ox Herding images by Master Kakuan in 12th Century China. There is a similar progression to the pictures to depict levels of realization.

The meditator (1) searches for the ox, (2) sees the tracks and follows them until (3) the ox is discovered in its hiding place. Once the ox is captured (4), the meditator is able to lead (5) and (6) then ride it back home. (7) Once home, the meditator achieves perfect concentration in non-duality (8). The next step, according to the Chan tradition is to realize the underlying, unshakeable unity of the cosmos (9); there is no separation between created (samsara) and uncreated reality (nirvana). Once realized, (10) the meditator returns to the marketplace. His Compassion compels him to help others on the path to enlightenment by offering his Wisdom.

The difference between the Tibetan and Chan illustrations reflects the cultural orientations of each rather than significant differences in the path or outcome. The Tibetan thangka, a sacred painting on cloth, is colorful and highly mythological while the Chan has an earthy pastoral flavor. Of course, there are no elephants in Tibet – nor in China – but Tibetan Buddhism was highly influenced by Indian culture. The Ox Herding pictures on the other hand demonstrate the Chinese orientation to nature beautifully and simply represented in ink drawings.

Both of these are examples of sacred or visionary art created for the purpose of teaching or clarifying the path of spiritual development. (See previous post: The Mission of Art.) Sacred art is purposeful and often uses high levels of logic as it in these illustrations. At the same time it is visionary and uses archetypal images from the realm of myth. Sacred art at its best is a union of logos and mythos.

Belief or Practice

Bowl

A Tibetan Singing Bowl

From the Spiritual Practices class blog of September 8, 2013:

“It’s not about right belief; it’s about right practice.” – Cynthia Bourgeault

Doing rather than just believing; and, in the context of spiritual practices, doing something the right way has its correlation with playing tennis. I can believe that practicing tennis will improve my game, but only by actually doing it over and over again do I really improve. And a belief – such as wearing a lucky t-shirt – may not be the reason I win a game whereas learning to change my backhand swing could make a big difference. Even a right belief, like believing in my tennis trainer’s advice, isn’t really enough to help me win the game; I need to really practice the new swing until it comes naturally in my game.

Related to the two words in the quote above are two that we have looked at in class – soteriological and sophiological. If a way of thinking is soteriological, it acknowledges that we are all sinful and that we need to be saved from our unfortunate condition – usually by a Savior who is outside of ourselves. We believe in a Savior and through this belief we are saved. This is right belief; believe the right things while the only practice is usually trying to be ‘good.’

If we are sophiological, we believe in the possibility of transformation; rather than being sinful people we are ignorant of our true identity. This transformation requires doing something, practicing a way of changing our mistaken identification with our lower nature so that we awaken to our true inner nature. This approach to life suggests that there are others who have become transformed by the recovery of their true identity and they can show us how to do as they were able to do. The path they describe requires right spiritual practices such as meditation.

Whether we are Christian or not most of us are familiar with an image or idea of the Kingdom of Heaven. We know that Jesus talked a lot about the Kingdom of Heaven. But what did it really mean to him?

Wisdom Jesus

We have been led to believe (soteriologically) that the Kingdom of Heaven is place you go when you die – if you have been good! What Jesus said was the Kingdom of Heaven is ‘within or among you’ (that it is here) and it is ‘at hand’ (that it is now). This implies that the Kingdom of Heaven is something like a “quality or dimension of experience accessible to you right in the moment. You don’t die into it; you awaken into it”. (Wisdom Jesus, C. Bourgeault, p 30)

This more sophiological interpretation of Jesus’ declaration suggests that the Kingdom of Heaven is a state of consciousness rather than a place you go; it is a place you ‘come from’ as in state of mind/heart. Jesus used the Kingdom of Heaven as a metaphor for ‘non dual consciousness’ or ‘unitive consciousness;’ an awareness that sees no separation between God and humans, nor between you and me. Instead it sees that we are all one. It sees the underlying unity beyond our ego-driven separation-mentality. It transcends. It is the result of spiritual transformation or as Jesus said, of being ‘born again.’

We have learned that through a practice of mindfulness we can develop a state of mind that is spacious and ’empty’ – and rings like a Tibetan ‘singing’ bowl in the analogy I demonstrated in class. As you will recall, the bowl represents your life. It is beautifully crafter and designed to ring true. If you stuff it full with ‘the things of this world,’ it only makes a dull thud when struck. But if you develop a state of mind that is spacious, that does not cling to the ‘things’ of your life, there is plenty of room inside the bowl – like Dr. Who’s Tardis – and it will ring true.

tardisThe ‘things’ in your life remain, but you ‘hold’ them within a spaciousness that allows your true identity to ring forth. This is achieved by practicing being in the present moment and observing the contents of our hearts and minds rather than identifying with them and letting them carry us away from our true selves. In this way we begin to see, to identify with the underlying unity of all things. We begin to transcend our ordinary consciousness and transform our minds and hearts; we develop the capacity for compassion (see R. Davidson) as we begin to see others ‘as ourselves’ (meaning literally, the same Being as myself, no separation).

Whether we are religious or not, all of us have many beliefs that we don’t put into practice. We may believe that being involved in service activities will help change the world, or being environmentally aware will reverse global warming but how often do we actually practice these good intentions? Perhaps it is because we don’t have a practice that generates the capacity for compassion – for seeing someone as my own self in the sense that we are the same universal Being.

One thing we probably all agree to believe is that we need a more compassionately oriented world. That will come from individual people developing the capacity for compassion and selflessness. We want to create ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’ on earth but we can’t do that by believing in it, we need to do it by practicing it – by entering the state of non-dual consciousness that Wisdom Teachers, like Jesus, have always prescribed. We need a practice of mindfulness that transforms our consciousness so we can help others transform their consciousness, too.

Cultivating Compassion

I teach a class called Spiritual Practices of the East at an international school in Hong Kong. It is for juniors or seniors at the High School level. It’s main focus is meditation and includes both the neuroscience of meditation and the study of Wisdom Teachers who have promoted meditation throughout the ages. This blog post is the first of several I will write for the class and I have copied it here with minor alterations. Students have added insightful comments to the class blog which are not included in this public version.

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From the class blog of September 4, 2013:

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Pema Chodron is a Tibetan Buddhist nun who has written many books on compassion and the Buddhist way of living. I get a regular email with great quotes. Today’s quote struck me because it resonates with our class discussion today. Here’s what she said:

“Compassion practice is daring. It involves learning to relax and allowing ourselves to move gently toward what scares us. The trick to doing this is to stay with emotional distress without tightening into aversion; to let fear soften us rather than harden into resistance. We cultivate bravery through making aspirations. We make the wish that all beings, including ourselves and those we dislike, be free of suffering and the root of suffering.”

The I Ching hexagrams we got in class in response to our question “how should we proceed with learning about spiritual practices?” indicated we should take a risk with meditation. What sort of risk does this imply?

I think it implies taking the risk of finding out what we are really like inside. What motivates me? What triggers my negative emotions? Do I manage to observe them arising and keep them from taking over? Can I cultivate positive emotions, positive attitudes?

What Pema Chodron is talking about is “feeding the good wolf” – from the illustration in class today of the Cherokee Indian grandfather’s story told to his grandson.

When, in meditation, we notice negative thoughts arising how do we deal with them?

We can cut them off – as in ‘let go’ of them as soon as we notice them. Or, as Pema suggests, we can confront them. Sometimes it is better to confront them instead of letting them go because once we face them, acknowledge them, we can experience them in a new, aware way. Instead of running away from them  or trying to deny them, we will see them for what they really are and they will cease to hold any power over us.

Instead of cultivating these negative emotions we can train ourselves to cultivate positive aspirations such as compassion – like the bodhisattva vow which says we should strive for the freedom from suffering for all beings as we strive for our own freedom.

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TrinitySince writing the above for the class I have had further thoughts. Cynthia Bourgeault‘s new book, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, suggests a third factor – a reconciling or mediating force. I have not completely digested this book yet but I think I get the general principle of the law of three.

What Pema Chodron suggests is this third way – or from a Buddhist perspective, a middle way – of dealing with thoughts and feelings. 1) We can let them take over our minds and emotions; 2) we can cut them off, suppress or deny them; or 3) we can confront or reconcile them – actually acknowledging them as they are while seeing where they come from.

The third way frees us from their power over us. By doing this we can “soften” our fears and replace them with aspirations for freedom from suffering in ourselves and in all others. This naturally cultivates the capacity for compassion.

Windhorse Rising

This blog started out about learning, then took a turn toward issues around Tibet and I haven’t written anything here for over a year. In the meantime I’ve stared another blog – an experiment – an online writing project called “Windhorse Rising“.

The online novel will unfold chapter by chapter with graphics, audio and video with the aim of building a readership.

The story takes place in the 1950’s when communism was just getting started among the people of the Tibetan highlands. One of the main characters is an idealistic Chinese Communist Party member zealously trying to bring liberation to the people he is growing to love. He is opposed – gently, but firmly – by a group of people who want to revitalize Tibetan heritage and spiritual values through the performance of folk opera and the story of King Gesar.

Begin reading the story and watch it unfold. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

The Folly of Force

Its not working. Never has, never will.

No amount of preaching and moralizing will force things to happen. Nor will the use of force when your preaching and “you shouldings” or even “let’s all” (Confucianism/communism) fails.

People, especially the rugged, open-air Tibetan nomads, don’t respond to the group-mind of the hypnotized.

Societies like the Chinese have functioned for centuries because of the power of its ability to socialize its members. By successfully promoting the idea that each individual is a separate creature with outwardly focused needs and functions, it makes the individual incapable of seeing that life is more than struggling for material needs and social rules. In this kind of society people do as they are told and force is sanctioned if people don’t. (Read Franz Kafta’s The Great Wall of China and for good measure, how about Alan Watts’ The Book – On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are)

This kind of mental outlook is incapable of understanding the worldview of people who are still connected to the spiritual side of life; who are better balanced between their left-brain and right-brain; who see through the hallucination of separation (the divide and conquer mentality); who cultivate compassion as the highest value.

No wonder, then, that Chinese leadership – and the propagandized public – is having such a hard time comprehending what the Dalai Lama and hundreds of thousands of monks, nuns and ordinary people in Tibet really want. Fifty years of preaching and force have not changed the nature of the people who live surrounded by a landscape that inspires the soul to be in awe of the grandeur of life.

Mt. Yarla - the \"Kailash\" of Kham, eastern Tibet

For more background of the Chinese view of Tibet read Asia Times Online: Tibet a defining issue for China
by Francesco Sisci in Beijing.

Reflecting on what’s happening in Tibet

I recently returned from another trip to Kham, the eastern Tibetan plateau – now Gansi Prefecture in Sichuan Province, China. I’ve been taking groups of high school students up there each March since 2004. Our trip this year was 2 weeks earlier than usual and we were back in Hong Kong on March 8, 2 days before protests began in Lhasa. Ours was the last group of foreign tourists in the area. Since then Kangding and all points West of there have been closed to foreigners. 

The calm before the storm . . .

It is difficult to say when things will settle down but this has been a confrontation waiting to happen. Now it has happened and has forced an issue that must be resolved. For a thorough report on what’s happening read the article in AsiaTimes online: Tibet, China and the West: Back to Stereotypes by Kent Ewing.

Historically China has been built up by a series of conquests. Powers have attacked and conquered the fertile plains and river valleys of China but stayed on to become part of a new mix of peoples. Tibet at its height of empire was one of these conquering powers.  Tibet’s conquest of China had a unique twist: instead of assimilation, an interesting relationship developed in which the Dalai Lamas become spiritual mentors to Mongol and Chinese rulers. This relationship started with the Mongols and continued throughout the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Tibet, for the most part, has always managed its own affairs and pursued its own culture due, to a great extent, to its geographic isolation. (Read China-German relations cool over Dalai Lama, by Manik Mehta in Taiwan Journal for more historical background.)

With the appearance of communism – a Western idea, by the way – Chinese rulers refused Tibetan spiritual authority over them, of course, and laid claim to Tibet as part of “the motherland”.  Modern technologies breached the geographic barriers and Tibet’s isolation ended.

In my opinion, the way forward for both Tibet and China is to re-establish the special pre-communist relationship they once enjoyed.

Tibet, and especially the Tibetan community in exile, has preserved an inestimable body of spiritual wisdom that the people of China have already begun to appreciate. Thousands of Chinese are turning to Tibetan Buddhism to quench their spiritual thirst. Well educated people from Beijing and Shanghai have begun to visit monasteries and lamas in all parts of the Tibetan areas in search of spiritual practices, understanding and reconciliation. 

Let Tibet be autonomous rather than independent. Fine. It can be argued that that’s how things have historically been. After all, Hong Kong is part of China but continues to enjoy an open society and an open market. One country, two systems. Give Tibetans the same opportunity to have their own local government while remaining part of the larger China. I don’t think the Dalai Lama would be opposed to this proposal.

Let Tibetans flourish in their own way. Let the Han Chinese stay. Open Tibet up to the rest of the world. I think we’ll all be amazed what could develop. And the Chinese people, with access to Tibetan spiritual teachers, will likewise benefit.

This is all very wishful thinking unless the current Chinese leadership drastically changes its stance and can welcome frank, open dialog with the Dalai Lama.