The WCF receives the Dharma through the teachings and lineage transmissions of Chan Master Sheng-yen, our Shifu. We should all be familiar with his major works that help us practice and understand the Dharma. Leaders in particular should all study his books on Silent Illumination and Koan study.1 His account of Chan history and philosophy with Dan Stevenson2 provides a broad overview and some of us may wish to go on to his quite advanced presentation of the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment3. This is not an easy book so I attempt to provide a summary of it here that can help those who may wish to investigate this important work. This text is an edited transcription of an evening talk at our retreat on Holy Island in 2007.
How do we train to be Bodhisattvas, or at least baby Bodhisattvas? A look at the major book by Shifu called Complete Enlightenment helps clarify what is involved in answering this question. Firstly, I don’t think the book has a very good title in English. It sounds a bit inflated. The book is more like ‘A complete course in approaching Enlightenment’, and that it certainly is.
The story tells us that a group of Bodhisattvas are puzzled by the new Mahayana teachings of the Buddha so they ask him to meet them all in a conference together. So here they are assembling together to ask questions of the Buddha. These are questions we might be asking him ourselves since all of us are potential Bodhisattvas.
We will find they are indeed puzzling questions. The Buddha’s replies are by no means completely clear, they need interpretation. This ‘sutra’ was a major work translated into Chinese from India in 647CE, a very old text. That first translation didn’t catch on, and the better known text, which is the translation here, is by an Indian named Buddhapratha in 693CE. The reason it became famous is that it subsequently received a major commentary by the great master Tsung Mi (824 CE) who was one of the leading proponents of the Hua-Yen school of Chinese Buddhism, very close to Zen.
Shifu tells us there has been some doubt as to whether this ever was an Indian sutra at all. Three or four of the major sutras used in Chinese Buddhism are thought to be précis of Indian sutras, recompiled especially for the use of the Chinese. So far as we are concerned that doesn’t matter, because the subject matter is absolutely to the point, very direct and on the ball in a rather Chinese fashion. A lot of the mystification that you find in Sanskrit literature has been removed.
There are all sorts of fascinating Bodhisattvas gathered for the meeting. There are the great ones of course, Manjushri, Samanthabadhra, Maitreya and others more ‘junior’ but with wonderful names such as Bodhisattva-at-Ease-With-Himself and other titles like that. They all have a question to ask. Manjushri is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, so we might well expect him to set the ball going and indeed, he asks the first question.
There’s a lot of etiquette at the meeting. The Buddha is on his throne. Manjushri arises and makes prostrations, then circumambulates the Buddha all the way round three times, makes another bow then asks his question. All of this sounds a bit formal but Shifu points out in his commentary that such a polite approach was Indian manners in those ancient times. Great honour and respect was paid to a teacher. So, from tomorrow I’ll expect all of you to question me in this way!
The ritual palaver over, Manjushri asks: “O Honoured One, please explain the Tathagata’s practice of the original arising purity of the causal ground.”
What a question! So we have to struggle with what his question means before we even contemplate an answer. Actually, it’s not so difficult.
‘Causal ground’? We must remember that the Buddha’s first insight was the Law of Co-dependent Arising. He saw the world, not as a collection of objects, but as a unified process of intimately linked causes and effects. So the ‘causal ground’ is the totality of what’s going on in the universe. And the ‘original rising purity’ of it means that the causal ground – the universe – is entirely without fault.
How do we relate to this as a practice? Look at it this way. Some of us were out on the island beach just now, looking at the sea, the birds, and the sunset. When one looks at that scene from the point of view of the Law of Co-dependent Arising, what one sees is a world in which everything is interconnected. The setting sun throws beams of light through the Aran mountains that strike the sea and set the waves sparkling. The birds are beginning to move towards their roosts. Nature is settling down for the night. The tide is beginning to rise again, pulled by the moon. And the alternating days and nights are themselves expressing the rotation of our planet. The whole thing is in motion. The whole thing is interdependent, co-dependently arising.
When we hear that rather heavy expression, ‘the Law of Co-dependent Arising’, what we need to recognize is the way in which we commonly fail to see sea, island, sun as it were all of a piece but rather as unrelated, separate bits. Oh yes, the sun setting, there’s the sea doing this and the birds are doing that – they’re all kind of distinct entities in our minds. But if you look at the scene from the point of view of the Law of Co-dependent Arising, the whole thing is working together. And the beauty of it is that it is totally pure. Indeed how could it be faulty? But what is purity doing here?
If you think about it, how could the universe not be ‘pure’? Words like purity, innocence, clarity – these are words which we apply to human conduct. Nature, the universe, just is. It keeps on going. It has no side. It is ‘causal ground’. It is the basis. It is the turning, mysterious, co-dependently linked universe without intention – quite pure in fact. In poetic language, it’s quite simply a singleton. We can see the poetry of the unified ‘things’. As Roshi Shunryu Suzuki has put it, “Things is!”
It is all one process. So, the question is asking: “Please explain the Tathagata’s (Buddha) Dharma practice in relation to the arising purity of the causal ground – the original rising purity.” It is always ‘arising’.
The dawn comes, the night comes, the birds go to roost, the birds make their nests, the predators take the eggs – all are involved in the arising purity, the continual process.
As human beings, we might not like it when a Great Black-backed Gull goes and steals the eggs of a Curlew, but that’s just our prejudice. For the Great Black-backed Gull, it’s business as usual! It’s the misfortune of the Curlew that it didn’t hide its eggs better.
The universe is not sentimental. Human beings are sentimental. Nature is red in tooth and claw, but it is also gentle and kind. Tiger mothers are among the kindest of mothers to their cubs. Things relate together in ways that belong to nature. We do something un-natural in imposing judgements. And therein lies the problem.
So what does the Buddha reply? The Buddha says, “Well, we establish the great Dharani of complete enlightenment.”
Dharani is an interesting word. It means something like a mantra, but it’s much more than that. It means a whole process of learning, training, a moving along, a ‘course’ of enlightenment allowing us to relate to the suchness of the universe with wisdom and with release – the Nirvana that drops all. Such freedom is ‘from’ something – but what? That’s the question.
The Buddha continues, “There is a problem. Human beings from beginningless time have suffered from Ignorance, delusion that prevents us seeing clearly.”
The tricky bit here is to understand actually what this Ignorance is and why it is such a barrier to relating to the arising purity of the causal ground.
Surprisingly Ignorance arises from one of our greatest benefits, language. When you think about the Great Black-backed Gull or the Crows or the Oyster-catchers along the shoreline here, we can see they relate to the environment directly, immediately. I was watching an Oyster-catcher trying to open a mussel-shell this afternoon. They’re very clever birds but they’re not thinking about it, they’re just doing it: no discussion.
When cats, dogs, goats or sheep do whatever they do, they just do it. They don’t think about it, at least not thought in the sense of verbal thought, thought using language. There is a kind of innocent immediacy about the behaviour of animals, in that they are directly there en face de nature, the world around them. By contrast, when we think about doing something it is through a secondary medium. The language of words is really no more than a description of the world around us. We are from the very beginning separated from the natural world by the fact that we don’t relate to it directly, we relate to it through a medium: the medium of words, of language. And that distances us from immediate contact with what we’re calling the causal ground, this extraordinary causal process we are talking about.
Language is very paradoxical. It enables us to do an enormous number of things – to calculate, for example, using the language of mathematics. We can go to the moon, we can understand the most extraordinary things. We can build up these whole worlds of understanding, which do indeed make contact with that world out there, but it’s through a kind of devious mesh of calculation. And it can be mistaken. As we know, no scientific theory is ever 100% proven. Always there are more ideas, more thought, more development: Newton, followed by Einstein, followed by quanta, string theory etc. Our analytical world is continuously moving and will continue to do so. Language is enormously creative. But it can also make enormous mistakes. When linked to desire it can lead us off into fantasies that may cease to relate to the world it purports to describe.
Even when we are describing things in a simple way, we colour them from inside with our preconceptions. Language is not merely a description of something outside; it is a description that is always coloured by something that is arising from within.
For example, think of the words Holy Island. Take away Holy for a start, just consider the word Island. We British people, living on an island, have a strong feeling for words like ‘island’. The Hebrides have a great appeal to many people largely because they’re islands. Places like the Scilly Islands are a delight, rather more than mainland Cornwall – why? Because they’re islands. There’s something special for us around the idea of islands, their separateness, their secretiveness, their privacy – all of those things give them a certain attraction. Now, when you add the word ‘Holy’ to it - wow, then you really start things moving! Holy – what is ‘Holy’? You find yourself back with that dear old Celtic saint, who came here all those centuries ago. St Molaise, a tough old Irishman, came over here and sorted Christian things out somewhat, got fed up with it, and went to live in a cave – and here it is just along the shore there.
All of those ideas come up when we hear the word ‘island’ and even more so when we hear the word ‘holy’ and each one of us – because we’re all separate poets – would actually have a different image, depending on what we may have read about islands and holiness. We each of us have a different poetry about islands.
So, when we say ‘I’m going to Holy Island’ or ‘I’m going to an island’ everybody has to negotiate exactly what this means. They may actually have quite different ideas in their heads about islands. Likewise, a description of the world is hardly ever objective. It’s always got a subjective component plugged into it and we usually don’t notice that. We make assumptions that what I mean when I say an island is what you mean when you say an island. Actually it’s usually not so.
Ignorance then is the failure to understand how language works, and how tricky language can be. For example, the first thing to know about words is that words are only labels. Even if you take something as simple as a cup: a cup is a very simple object but the word ‘cup’ is just a label for it. There is an object and different variously shaped objects might be considered to be cups, or might be considered to be glasses, or even bowls. One person might call a cup a bowl and somebody else might call a bowl a cup, depending on how they approach the object.
These labels are pure conventions, indicating from one person to another what something is to be called. Even monkeys have a primitive possibility of doing that. There are some monkeys in Africa that have a different squawk depending on whether a leopard, an eagle or a lion is approaching. They have an alarm cry specific to particular predators. These are almost, therefore, like words.
When we use words, we impute a ‘thingness’ to things. For example trees are not ‘things’ at all but complicated processes. In ordinary conversation a word is a thing. A sounding bowl is a bowl. A wooden fish is a wooden fish. There’s no discussion about whether the important part of the bowl is the metal or the space within it. We use these words as if they were things with ‘inherent’ nature – that is things that are potentially permanent or unchanging.
Now we’ve just talked about a tree: clearly it hasn’t got inherent thingness, rather it is a complex living process photosynthesizing the air. It’s endlessly changing, just like the landscape. The tree is growing or dying. The tree is suffering from storms or not. The tree is having a good summer if it’s drawing a lot of liquid up etc. The tree is always changing and moving. It hasn’t got inherent fixed quality at all. But we commonly use words as if they are things of that kind, as if they refer to some sort of a fixed essence.
Furthermore, we either develop liking or disliking of them. Someone who lives in a desert might think trees are horrible. Somebody who lives in a forest might find a desert horrible. Actually a desert is just a desert and a forest is just a forest; in themselves, completely neutral. And out of our approvals and disapprovals come, of course, attachments and rejections.
If we’re talking about people, it begins to get complicated. If I approve of somebody and you don’t, it’s rather difficult for us to converse about that person. And so, we get into disputes. And from that comes Samsara.
Nothing is stable in language, yet we have these strong tendencies towards like or dislike. One may have had a particularly happy childhood or one may have had a very miserable childhood and that affects the bias, the twist, with which one develops one’s attachments and rejections. And all of that is the world of Samsara.
In a sense, it’s a dream world. It’s a dream world because it’s all in what the Buddhists sometimes call the ‘secondary’; it’s all in language, and language as we’ve seen is an untrustworthy medium. It’s a medium of thought that you always have to question. The Buddhists say it’s like flowers in the sky. Of course, there are no flowers in the sky but we invent our samsaric worlds in the way in which a madman might say there are flowers growing in the sky.
This is the meaning of Samsara and the meaning of Ignorance. So, Ignorance is not something simple like making mistakes or making a rude noise at supper. It’s absolutely fundamental. It’s rooted in language.
How to stop people getting tied up in language and creating their flowers in the sky? How can we stop that? If we can stop that, we wouldn’t even need to discuss enlightenment. In fact enlightenment doesn’t exist, again, it’s just a label. Enlightenment is being natural. But we are divorced from nature by the fact of our falling into the secondary, falling into this world of Samsara, attachments, rejections, hatreds and even worse. Just look at the daily news to see what that’s like.
Up stands Samanthabadhra, circulates the Buddha and says: “Hmm, having heard all this, how should we practice? If all experience is illusory, how can we use experience to remedy illusion? How can we do this?”
The Buddha says intriguingly, “You have to use illusion to dispel illusion.”
Very interesting reply. You might think he might say something like “Well, you ought to forget everything about Samsara and go straight for Enlightenment.” No, it’s not as easy as that – because you cannot understand what words like ‘enlightenment’ mean simply from the side of words.
I bet everyone around this room has a completely different idea as to what the word ‘enlightenment’ actually means. I’m sure you all have your biases – some of you may even hate the word. Others of you may be so doting on it you’re driving yourselves crazy. Who knows? But everyone’s going to have a different view of what enlightenment might be.
So how are you going to get out of that entanglement? You can’t just say ‘Drop it and get enlightened’. You have to use words to help the disentanglement. And the words are precisely where the problem is. Hence, of course, koans using illusion to go beyond illusion.
As you know, koans are metaphorical expressions of insights; but metaphors are tricky. You can never be quite sure which metaphor it is. You have to use illusion to penetrate the illusion. And it leads us straight into the world of paradox, which of course is Zen’s speciality.
Up gets the Bodhisattva-of-Universal-Vision. He stands up, approaches the Buddha, does his prostrations, circulates, another prostration, and then he says: “Honoured One, all this is very difficult to grasp at once. Please explain some gradual steps. What are the methods one could use? If one doesn’t have an immediate understanding of how to contemplate, one could just get confused. Surely there must be some provisional steps?”
Very sensible question, don’t you think?
The Buddha says, “Well, first of all, you have to realize that ignorance is pervasive. To penetrate ignorance, you have to use the illusory language but because so much of the trouble with ignorance and the trouble with Samsara is due to emotional entanglements, the first thing to do is to set up some precepts for yourself that will enable you to cool the mind down a bit.”
So the first thing is to adopt some precepts that will stabilize one’s world instead of hurtling from one entanglement to another like some addict on crack.
How to use ordinary talk to get out of that? Well, establish some precepts for oneself for a start. And then calm the mind. Samatha.
Bodhisattva Vajragharba gets up and asks another very interesting question. He says: “I hear it said that human beings are Buddhas already. After all, we are of the same nature as the ground of pure being.
We belong to the causal ground you’ve been talking about. Indeed, we are expressions of the causal ground. So since we are Buddhas already, how can this terrible ignorance arise?”
The Buddha says that Ignorance generates reason after reason until it becomes cyclic. He’s talking about the cycle of life and death, whether you’re thinking about reincarnation or simply the way in which our ideas keep regenerating themselves day after day. After a few minutes respite, all the nonsense starts going again. That’s reincarnation for you. The nonsense is reincarnated every day!
The Buddha says the problem is that it’s cyclic. And one has to be able to crack that cycle somewhere or other.
So then, not surprisingly, up gets the great Bodhisattva Maitreya, approaches the Buddha, does his prostrations, circles round makes another prostration and then says: “OK World Honoured One, how can we sever the roots of this karmic existence?”
The Buddha then begins to say some very interesting things. He says pure Bodhi – pure vision, pure mind – is without attachment left or right, up or down. It’s neither that things are empty of what they appear to be nor that they are exactly what they appear to be.
To understand what Buddhists mean by emptiness we have to ask – what is something empty of? Well, it’s usually empty of what it appears to be. That’s the usual meaning. But when you see something and somebody comes along and says it’s ‘empty’ beware the clever-dick Buddhist. A clever-dick Buddhist might come along and you say “I can’t drink my coffee yet because it’s a bit too hot”. He might say “What a stupid fool you are, don’t you know its empty!” Infuriating! Don’t waste time with him.
Yes, well, it is only empty of what it appears to be – you don’t have to call it ‘hot’ – ‘hot’ is relative to you. To somebody else it might not be hot. So it’s ‘empty of the appearance of how things are’ yet, given mutual understanding, a word for that appearance works for you both. A label is never exactly what it appears to be and above all it’s empty of inherent existence. It’s always part of the causal nexus of movement, or conversation, it’s never a still permanent object that you can rely upon – ever. Even a cup!
Buddha says don’t lean too far forwards to emptiness and don’t lean too far back from accepting appearances. Both, as it were, give you a vision of how things are. So what you have to understand is how things are – neither just as they appear nor actual empty ‘reality’ but rather co-dependent arisings – no less. You have to find your way through to a perception of how things are. Form is emptiness yet emptiness is form.
To do this requires standing back from attachments because, of course, if you’re attached to something you always see things from the attachment perspective. One has to find a third place, in which it is neither good nor bad. When you can settle in the place where the problem neither is nor is not, then you find a certain kind of freedom. This is a tricky concept. The third way means ‘to be without bias’.
If you take up the third position without bias then you have a chance of seeing the thing in itself, actually how it is, rather than influenced by any of these poetic prejudices, one way or the other.
The mind has to go through Samatha. When the mind has been calmed you can see the thing as it is. You don’t have to think “Oh what a beautiful flower arrangement! Isn’t it absolutely wonderful?” Somebody over there would say “I could do it a lot better than that.” It’s just a flower arrangement. It’s lovely. Have no bias, just appreciate it – daffodils, willow, roses. Just be there with it.
When the mind is calm, you can just be there with things, or be there with people, or be there in certain circumstances. Some people, of course, are specially trained to practice that. Doctors, medical people, firemen have to practice just being without bias in a situation, no getting excited this way or that way – you need to try to understand the thing in itself, the situation in itself. Good training – also true of military combat.
It’s the same for Buddhists in Dharma combat. If we can calm the mind, we can just be present in the situation without the heavy bias that we normally bring with us.
As I’ve said elsewhere, we replace reaction with reflection. And you cannot reflect if you’re charging around with your mind full of tension, worry, anxiety, self-criticism, self-loathing, self-like, self-admiration – any of that going on and of course the mind is warped. You won’t be able to see except through distortion. It’s like wearing five or six different-coloured glasses one on top of the other, and hoping to see what you’re looking at. You can take the lot off – of course, that may not help – you have to wear an appropriate pair of Dharma glasses! Then you might see something.
So don’t react. Calm the mind into reflection and then it becomes possible to see a situation without all those biases. You’re halfway there if you can do that.
The Bodhisattva At-Ease-In-Majestic-Virtue gets up and trundles round the Buddha respectfully and says,
‘Please tell us, then, what is the range of expedient means?’ And the Buddha says “Samatha, samapatthi and dhyana.”
Samatha we’ve already discussed. Samapatthi means insight. It’s similar to prajna. Or rather, prajna is the method used in samapatthi. Prajna is basically the careful insight into seeing things exactly as they are without bias. Samatha calms the mind, and then direct vision with the mind clear of all the fuss allows insight. Insight is not intellectual or wordy but rather an experience of clear knowing within which all these words at last make sense within their relativity. Silence and illumination emerge in understanding. No need to say anything. That’s just it – neither good nor bad.
Mind you, moments of insight can happen out of the blue. But always because, for some reason or other, something has happened to knock the nonsense out of your head so that, for a moment, everything becomes clear. You can have a clear experience seemingly out of nowhere. You might have some good experiences here because on the beach at Holy Island you’ve managed to let go of all the nonsense. Letting go begins to become an important theme.
Dhyana is the combination of the two practices while remaining in understanding. It is being able to sustain a calm mind and being able to use insight into seeing things directly instead of through all these filters of attachments, likings and dislikings, bias and prejudice.
The Bodhisattva-of Sound-Discernment rises and says “How many approaches are there that we can use?” What is interesting about the Buddha’s reply is his saying that there isn’t just one way. You can combine them in different ways that suit you in relation to your karma. You might go slowly with one process and quick with another. You might be a sudden practitioner in one way and a slow practitioner with another. And another person may be the reverse.
One of the last questioners gets up, the Bodhisattva-Cleansed-of-All-Karmic-Obstructions circulates the Buddha, does his prostrations and asks the question “What is the main cause of the defilement of our minds, so that it becomes so difficult to work all this out?”
The Buddha replies that the problem is attachment to ‘self ’. The nub of the problem is that out of our limited understanding in Ignorance of the world we have inferred that this process of being me is a self. And we get attached to that, egotistically. Yet, here is no person called ‘John’. There is just sensation, perception, cognition, consciousness and action, continuously going along in a pattern with a history.
That’s what John is. There’s no John other than that. ‘John’ is a name.
But I think I’m me! I’m John! I’m really important! This worries me. Am I nobody? So long as I’m attached to my view of John, my need for a safe identity, and don’t start looking at it a little more deeply I’m liable to remain in Samsara.
This is quite a tricky matter to get one’s mind around. The mind naturally reacts against it. The thought that I don’t exist is a pretty horrible thought. The Buddha would say “Hey, no-one said there’s nothing there. No-one said that at all. They said that the word ‘John’ is just a label – what is actually there is a process. Have a look at the process. If you can understand how that process works you’ll understand why you have attachments, why you have reactions rather than reflections, why you’re a bastard sometimes and an angel the next. If you understand those processes, you’ll understand why.”
If you want to label it all ‘John’, fine but it’s just a label. It means that one can detach oneself from this obsession with one’s individuality, which is a Western obsession. By thinking of one’s process one can be more open to these other processes, which also have names. But what’s there? It’s not that there’s nothing there, it’s wrong to say naively that Betty is empty – Betty is very far from empty. Betty is there, but it’s not ‘Betty’ that’s there, it’s a history, a narrative, a story, which is going along through time acquiring novelty, dropping ancient things, having children – that’s what’s there. It’s just called ‘Betty’. Useful if you want to ring her up.
The final Bodhisattva we’ll mention is the Bodhisattva-of-Universal-Enlightenment, who asks a question that is perhaps very pertinent to us. “Since in the future the Dharma will be thoroughly dumbed-down, how can one be sure that sentient beings will still understand the Dharma?” The Buddha doesn’t deny that. He says there will be great need, so seek out good teachers with correct views in which an understanding of the Dharma is free from contrivance and indifference. Basically, teaching should be honest and not cooked-up for self-fame purposes, or money or anything of the sort. Simplicity and love.
The questions that the Bodhisattvas ask are very profound questions and very searching. They are the roots of the Dharma. We in the WCF need to polish up on our Dharma, to understand much better and more clearly what the Buddha says in reply to these shrewd Bodhisattvas. We each have an issue here: how can we relate experience of life to what the Dharma is saying? And how can we actually have experiences described in the Dharma?
In the Dharma, many experiences are described. Many good resolutions to problems are described. They’re not very difficult to understand on the page. But many of them are very difficult to grasp as experiences. A fundamental question for all of us as practitioners is how to relate what you might call the theory of the Dharma to actual genuine experiences of what’s being written or spoken about. And how can we be sure that some of the experiences we have are actually the experiences described in the Dharma? These issues require a lot of patience. They require a lot of practice. And, to be blunt, a lot of thought.
Thought is something that Zen masters have often considered to be undesirable. Yet, there is a place for thinking and most Zen masters have clearly thought a lot. There is a place for thinking about how the theory of the Dharma and the experience of the Dharma relate. It has to be done both by ‘no-thought’ in the simplicity of experience, in the simplicity of watching the rising moon without comment, and in the course of a precise, subtle, largely introspective analysis of what the mind is doing. These things need to be brought together and anyone who wants to be a group leader or teach the Dharma has to take that difficult balance on board. It’s not an easy balance. It’s full of paradox. But it’s also full of life, the kind of life that will give us some kind of self-at-ease in this decadent, contemporary world.
Friday, September 24, 2010
1. Master Sheng-yen, Illuminating Silence (London: Watkins, 2002).
Master Sheng-yen, The Method of No Method (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2008).
Master Sheng-yen, Shattering the Great Doubt (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2009).
2. Master Sheng-yen, Dan Stevenson. Hoofprint of the Ox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
3. Master Sheng-yen, Complete Enlightenment (New York: Dharma Drum Publications, 1997).
John Crook & Carol Evans
Carol and I were attending the International Mindfulness Conference in Bristol. One of the speakers was Jean-Marc Mantel, a psychiatrist from the south of France. As soon as he began speaking I was impressed by something other than his mastery of English, he was speaking from somewhere different. I had only experienced this before when in the company of yogins in the Himalayas or with persons illumined by Zen: a child-like quality with extraordinary clarity; a speaking straight out of a direct awareness within the situation. This was no descriptive discussion of method or idea as if somewhere else, the method and idea shone right before us. Few seemed to recognise this and the questioning that followed was not related to it but rather had the usual dualistic, analytical tone of intellectual discussion. I felt that that was not what he was on about. So what was he saying?
Carol and I travelled to Vence near Nice to find out. We had a private meeting with Jean-Marc and he shared much of his view with us. He kindly invited us to join a Sunday meeting in a farmhouse high in the hills. Some thirty people, his ‘sangha’ one might say, were there. Their session was devoted to interaction and discussion, not meditation. Jean-Marc sought to bring people into direct contact with where they were with detailed, compassionate concern and attention. Some got his vision – most did not. Speaking both French and English we learnt a lot: the sun shone; the mountains breathed; rocks, wood, crags, trees, in a distant haze the far-off sea.
There are two ways of expressing knowledge – the usual one is analytical, splits up a situation into its parts and bits and explores their relationship. The other is holistic, seizing the whole pattern at once while examining the components of that picture. Some call this ‘Goetheian science’ after the holistic approach of Goethe. The first is interested in multiplicity within the one, the other in the oneness of the multiplicity – as one scholar has put it. In facing the issues of being, Jean-Marc begins with the wholeness of life and its basis in bare awareness. The resemblance to Zen and Dzogschen is unmistakable. Insight has a wider reach than specialists suppose.
At the Bristol meeting, Carol had noted down phrases from Jean-Marc’s talk. I have edited these here to reveal the wholeness of the perception that shone throughout his presentation. Whether you will see this as you read depends on how your mind is dealing with knowledge. Let us see what you find out. What was Jean-Marc telling us? Do you get it?
Meditation is not an activity. You don’t have to go there. You are already there. The silent background is always there. The witness is always there too - outside the meditation. Meditation is being one with what you are.
Being and your story are different. The silent background has no story. It doesn’t move. You become silent awareness when you are present to the absence of thought.
Perceive that at the basis of being there is no thought. Silent awareness needs no such support. This silence does not impede sound. It is not imposed. It arises as happening.
Anxiety and depression are not real. They resemble a movie on the cinema screen. When something appears, do not believe it. It is necessary to welcome it whatever it is – yet while there is welcoming there must be no-one welcoming. Welcoming happens. Our reality is the permanence of mere presence in which the pure meaning of acceptance is oneness undivided.
Refusing something creates suffering. When there is no refusing, there is no suffering, no split. Stopping your refusing you do not find you are anything in particular - for it is a route to silent awareness. When you explore that which is not real, it brings you to reality. Peace, joy happiness all come from the silent background.
No need for beautiful experiences; just welcome the moment and be without a programme.
Your essence is not the thinking mind; you are not in its jail. As pure subject, you have no location. When you discover where happiness is not, you are happiness.
Tension in the body reflects tension in the mind – listen to it and it will dissolve. Stay with the tension. Do not seek to escape it – then it can leave you. You remain as simply being.
We are more like the projector in the cinema than the movie. The movie looks very real like the games- playing of a magician. Words and images are only pointers. The light from the projector does not need a movie. At essence, we are the light not the movie.
When you stop saying ‘me’, the ego is powerless and a response arises naturally from the silence. Such silence is love: being totally present to the present is love.
There arises a situation. An answer is needed but it is not a problem. No judgement is needed but a full awareness of the context of the situation. Full understanding without self-judgement yields release and action from silence.
Have a direct perception of the situation in its proper context. Forget the memories. The past is only an edited thought of the past. The emotion it produces is memories not the situation. Past is past. The picture on the wall is empty
Living moment to moment leaves no past. Stay with the present feeling of tension, contraction. Look into it directly. Narratives bring only temporary comfort. We are not our story. Acceptance is welcoming through being open to the now, not resignation. When sadness has gone there is no need to produce joy. It emerges when ‘you’ are not.
Suicide should be the ending of the ‘I’, not of the body – then there is peace.
A well-structured person is able to say ‘Yes’ completely, ‘No’ completely or ‘I don’t know!’ completely. This is health. The root silence yields Joy, Compassion, Love. They are the silence.
Therapy is like learning to breathe when we have forgotten how. Expand into inhalation, exhale until there is nothing left – a space arises. Here we have the pattern of birth and death. The silence between the breaths is a gateway to the spaciousness and silence of the mind. Accept your non-acceptance for only then will it leave you.