Meaning & Beauty
Meaning & Beauty
By "There is a deep connection between meaning and beauty," says Rachel Naomi Remen. "Neither is a function of the intellect, both can enrich a life, and perhaps we develop an eye for meaning in the same way that we develop an eye for beauty."
Few of us pursue meaning deliberately. Most of us focus our attention elsewhere, accumulating knowledge in the belief that we will be able to trade it for a good and fulfilling life. Knowledge enables us to build a box to put our life in, but the box is itself empty. Only meaning can fill it up.
Over the years it has seemed to me that there is a deep connection between meaning and beauty. Neither is a function of the intellect; both can enrich a life. Meaning feeds and strengthens the soul in the same way that beauty does, and perhaps we develop an eye for meaning in the same way that we develop an eye for beauty.
Recently, I found myself in someone’s kitchen listening to a discussion between an art teacher and some friends about the nature of “aesthetic perception.” As the only non-artist there I was mystified by this idea, and when the others drifted away I asked the woman who had first used this odd phrase what it meant. She laughed. “It’s a way of seeing,” she said, and told me how a friend of hers teaches it to a class of seven-year-olds.
He begins the class by giving each child some water in a clear glass. Then he tells the children that something is going to happen in their glass of water. They must watch what happens carefully, but they cannot talk about it right away. First they will spend a few minutes just looking, and afterwards everyone will have the chance to tell the whole class what they saw. Then he walks through the classroom with a bottle of red ink and puts a single drop of red ink into each child’s glass.
The children are entranced, and the discussion that follows is very lively. Some children have seen an angel in their glass; others have seen the wind, or a flower, or the face of their grandma. They are delighted with these differences and listen to each other with rapt attention. The excitement builds and then the teacher presents them with the real lesson for the day. “Well,” he says, “What is all this about? Angels and grandmas and the wind? After all, it is only a drop of red ink in a glass of water… isn’t it?” But of course, in certain important ways it is not.
We all live far more meaningful lives than we know. Uncovering this meaning does not require us to live life differently but to see life differently. Finding meaning in the events of your life is not very different than seeing the angels in a glass of water. It requires a sort of double vision; an openness to living simultaneously in the world of ink and water, and the world of mystery and the soul.
Robert Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis, tells a parable about the power of meaning to transform our experience of life. He invites us to imagine an interview with three master stone cutters who are building a cathedral in the Middle Ages. Before speaking with these workers, you take a moment to watch them cut stones into blocks. As each man finishes cutting a stone, others take it away and replace it with another stone, which too is cut into a block.
After a while you approach the first man and ask him what he is doing. He turns on you in anger and says, “Idiot, use your eyes. I am cutting stones into blocks. When I finish one they bring me another. I have been doing this since I was old enough to work and I will do it until the day that I die.”
Stunned, you back away and approach the second man to ask the same question. But his response is quite different. He smiles and says, “I am earning a living for my beloved family. With my wages we have built a warm little house, we have food on the table every day, the children are growing strong. I am building a safe place for those I love.”
Going on to the third man you ask him your question. He stops his work and the face he turns towards you is radiant. “I am building a great cathedral,” he tells you, “that will offer comfort to those in pain and sanctuary to those lost in the dark. And it will stand for a thousand years!”
All of these men are doing identical work. Meaning does not change our lives, but it does change our experience of our lives. Finding a personal meaning, and especially one that is transcendent in the midst of routine tasks, opens our daily work to the experience of joy.
Seeing the familiar in new ways may come through intention or practice, a cultivation of the capacity to reach beyond the cage of the ego to feel and know the life around us. But meaning may also come to us in moments of illumination, bearing with it a sense of grace. A sudden shift in perception may cause the world to change unexpectedly and offer us a glimpse of the deeper nature of things. Finding meaning in this way may take us beyond an experience of satisfaction and offer us a sense of gratitude. At such times we may feel blessed by something beyond our control.
A seasoned and rather cynical physician discovered this unexpectedly during a busy shift in a large city hospital emergency room. About halfway through the evening a woman was brought in by ambulance about to give birth. Jeff had delivered hundreds of babies in his years of working emergency rooms and he knew the routine well. Everything went perfectly, and he felt a familiar sense of competence and satisfaction as he began to suction the infant’s nose and mouth. Suddenly her eyes opened and she looked deeply into his eyes.
For Jeff, it was a defining moment, a sort of a doorway. He stepped through it past all of his expertise and pride of accomplishment and realized that he was the first human being this child had ever seen. He could feel a thick armor of cynicism and numbness that had built up over the years fall away, and he felt his heart open to her in welcome from the whole human race.
Jeff is a fine physician. He had made many personal sacrifices to become a doctor and often wished for a simpler, less demanding life. But in this moment all that fell away and he felt a simple gratitude for the opportunity to do this work. He says, “Suddenly, I knew that it had all been worth it.”
The moment has changed him in a subtle but permanent way. Reflecting on what happened he says that he has long known what to do for his patients but he had somehow forgotten why he was doing it. “I guess I remembered what I was serving with my expertise,” he says. “Who would not feel grateful to be able to serve it?”
Ultimately, we are sustained not by our work but by its meaning. The meaning we find in a common task is often highly particular, but all genuine meaning has the same power: it enables us to know who we are and what we stand for. In the end it will help us to live a life worth remembering, no matter how difficult or challenging our life has been.
Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. is a clinical professor at UCSF School of Medicine and co-founder and medical director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program. Her new book is My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging, from Riverhead.
A Talk on The Sandokai of Sekito Kisen
The Sandokai of Sekito Kisen
The mind of the great sage of India
is intimately transmitted from west to east.
While human faculties are sharp or dull,
the way has no Northern or Southern Ancestors.
The spiritual source shines clear in the light:
the branching streams flow on in the dark.
Grasping at things is surely delusion;
according with sameness is still not enlightenment.
All the objects of the senses
interact and yet do not.
Interacting brings involvement.
Otherwise, each keeps its place.
Sights vary in quality and form,
sounds differ as pleasing or harsh.
Refined and common speech come together in the dark,
clear and murky phrases are distinguished in the light.
The four elements return to their natures
just as a child turns to its mother;
Fire heats, wind moves,
water wets, earth is solid.
Eye and sight, ear and sound,
nose and smell, tongue and taste;
Thus for each and every thing,
depending on these roots, the leaves spread forth.
Trunk and branches share the essence;
revered and common, each has its speech.
In the light there is darkness,
but don't take it as darkness;
In the dark there is light,
but don't see it as light.
Light and dark oppose one another
like front and back foot in walking.
Each of the myriad things has its merit,
expressed according to function and place.
Phenomena exist, like box and lid joining;
according with principle, like arrow points meeting.
Hearing the words, understand the meaning;
don't set up standards of your own.
If you don't understand the way right before you,
how will you know the path as you walk?
Practice is not a matter of far or near,
but if you are confused, mountains and rivers block your way.
I respectfully urge you who study the mystery,
don't pass your days and nights in vain.
I am very grateful for this opportunity to talk about the Sandokai, one of our most important teachings. Its mode of expression is so smooth that you may not feel its deep meaning when you read it. The author of this poem, Sekito Kisen (or Sekito Musai Daishin, his posthumous name; in Chinese, Shitou Xiqian, 700-790 C.E.), is the dharma grandson of the Sixth Chinese Ancestor, Daikan Eno (in Chinese, Dajian Huineng), and the direct descendent of Seigen Gyoshi (Qingyuan Xingsi), who is considered the Seventh Ancestor. Among the Sixth Ancestor's many disciples, the most prominent were Seigen Gyoshi and Nangaku Ejo. Later, Master Tozan Ryokai continued Seigen's lineage as the Soto school, and Master Rinzai Gigen (Ch. Linji Yixuan) continued Nangaku's lineage as the Rinzai school. Soto and Rinzai eventually became the dominant schools of Zen.
The way of Seigen and Sekito has a more gentle quality than Nangaku's way. In Japan we call this the elder brother's way. Nangaku is more like the second or third son, who is often rather naughty. The elder brother may not be so able or so bright, but he is very gentle. This is our understanding when we talk about Soto and Rinzai. Sometimes Soto Zen is called menmitsu no kafu—"a very careful and considerate style." Seigen's way is to find everything within himself. It is to realize the great mind that includes everything and to practice accordingly.
Our effort in Zen is to observe everything as-it-is. Yet even though we say so, we are not necessarily observing everything as-it-is. We say, "Here is my friend, over there is the mountain, and way up there is the moon." But your friend is not only your friend, the mountain is not only the mountain, and the moon is not only the moon. If we think, "I am here and the mountain is over there," that is a dualistic way of observing things. To go to San Francisco, we have to cross over the Tassajara mountains. That is our usual understanding. But that is not the Buddhist way of observing things. We find the mountain or the moon or our friend or San Francisco within ourselves. Right here. That is big mind within which everything exists.
Now, let's look at the title, Sandokai. "San" literally means "three," but here it means "things." "Do" is "sameness." To identify one thing with another is do. It also refers to "oneness" or "one's whole being," which here means "great mind" or "big mind." So our understanding is that there is one whole being that includes everything, and that the many things are found in one whole being. Although we say "many beings," they are actually the many parts of one whole being that includes everything. If you say "many" it is many, and if you say "one" it is one. "Many" and "one" are different ways of describing one whole being. To completely understand the relationship between one great whole being and the many facets of that one great whole being is kai. "Kai" means to shake hands. You have a feeling of friendship. You feel that the two of you are one. In the same way, this one great whole being and the many things are good friends, or more than good friends because they are originally one. Therefore like shaking hands we say kai. "Hi, how are you?" This is the meaning of the poem's title. What is many? What is one? And what is the oneness of one and many?
Originally, Sandokai was the title of a Taoist book. Sekito used the same title for his poem, which describes Buddha's teaching. What is the difference between Taoist teachings and Buddhist teachings? There are many similarities. When a Buddhist reads it, it is a Buddhist text, and when a Taoist reads it, it is a Taoist text. Yet it is actually the same thing. When a Buddhist eats a vegetable it is Buddhist food, and when a vegetarian eats it, it is vegetarian food. Still it is just food.
As Buddhists, we do not eat a particular vegetable just because it has some special nourishing quality, or choose it because it is yin or yang, acid or alkaline. To eat food is simply our practice. We don't eat just to support ourselves. As we say in our meal chant, "To practice our way, we eat this food." This is how big mind is included in our practice. To think, "This is just a vegetable," is not our understanding. We must treat things as part of ourselves, within our practice and within big mind. Small mind is the mind that is under the limitation of desires or some particular emotional covering or the discrimination of good and bad. So, for the most part, even though we think we are observing things-as-it-is, actually we are not. Why? Because of our discrimination, or our desires. The Buddhist way is to try hard to let go of this kind of emotional discrimination of good and bad, to let go of our prejudices, and to see things-as-it-is.
When I say to see things-as-it-is, what I mean is to practice hard with our desires—not to get rid of desires, but to take them into account. If you have a computer, you must enter all the data: this much desire, this much nourishment, this kind of color, this much weight. We must include our desires as one of the many factors in order to see things-as-it-is. We don't always reflect on our desires. Without stopping to reflect on our selfish judgment we say "he is good" or "he is bad." But someone who is bad to me is not necessarily always bad. To someone else, he may be a good person. Reflecting in this way we can see things-as-it-is. This is buddha mind.
The poem begins Chikudo daisen no shin, which means "The mind of the great sage of India." That is Buddha's big mind that includes everything. The mind we have when we practice zazen is the great mind: We don't try to see anything; we stop conceptual thinking; we stop emotional activity; we just sit. Whatever happens to us, we are not bothered. We just sit. It is like something happening in the great sky. Whatever kind of bird flies through it, the sky doesn't care. That is the mind transmitted from Buddha to us.
Many things happen as you sit. You may hear the sound of the stream. You may think of something, but your mind doesn't care. Your great mind is just there sitting. Even when you are not aware of seeing, hearing or thinking, something is going on in big mind. We observe things. Without saying "good" or "bad," we just sit. We enjoy things but have no special attachment to them. We have full appreciation of them at this time, that's all. After zazen we say, "Oh good morning!" In that way, one after another, things will happen to us and we can fully appreciate them. That is the mind transmitted from Buddha. And that is the way we practice zazen.
If you practice zazen in this way, you are less likely to have trouble when you are enjoying some event. Do you understand? You may have a special experience and think, "This is it. This is how it should be." If someone opposes you, you will be angry. "No, it should be like this, not like that. Zen Center should be like this." Maybe so. But it is not always so. If times change and we lose Tassajara and move to another mountain, the way we have here cannot be the same way we will have there. So, without sticking to some particular way, we open our minds to observe things-as-it-is and to accept things-as-it-is. Without this basis, when you say, "This is the mountain," or "This is my friend," or "This is the moon," the mountain will not be the mountain, my friend will not be my friend, and the moon will not be the moon itself. That is the difference between sticking to something and Buddha's way.
Buddha's way is the study and teaching of human nature, including how foolish we are, what kinds of desires we have, our preferences and tendencies. Without sticking to something, I try to remember to use the expression "liable to." We are liable to, or we have a tendency to do something. This is my motto.
When I was preparing this lecture someone asked me, "What is self-respect, and how can we obtain it?" Self-respect is not something that you can feel you have. When you feel, "I have self-respect," that is not self-respect anymore. When you are just you, without thinking or trying to say something special, just saying what is on your mind and how you feel, then there is naturally self-respect. When I am closely related to all of you and to everything, then I am a part of one big whole being. When I feel something, I'm almost a part of it, but not quite. When you do something without any feeling of having done something, then that is you, yourself. You're completely with everyone and you don't feel self-conscious. That is self-respect.
When you feel that you are somebody, you have to practice zazen harder. As you know, it is difficult to sit without thinking or feeling. When you don't think or feel, you usually fall asleep. But without sleeping and without thinking, just to be yourself is our practice. When you can do that, you will be able to speak without thinking too much, and without having any special purpose. When you speak or act it will be just to express yourself. That is complete self-respect. To practice zazen is to attain this kind of self-respect. You must be strict with yourself and especially with your tendencies. We each have our own unique personal tendencies. But if you try to get rid of them, or if you try not to think or not to hear the sound of the stream during zazen, it is not possible. Let your ears hear without trying to hear. Let the mind think without trying to think and without trying to stop it. That is practice.
More and more, you will have this rhythm or strength as the power of practice. If you practice hard you will be like a child. While we were talking about self-respect a bird was singing outside. Peep-peep-peep. That's self-respect. Peep-peep-peep. It doesn't mean anything. Maybe he was just singing. Maybe without trying to think he was just singing, peep-peep-peep. When we heard it we couldn't stop smiling. We cannot say that it is just a bird. It controls the whole mountain, the whole world. That is self-respect.
In order to have this everyday practice, we study hard. When we reach this place, there is no need to say "one whole being" or "bird" or "many things which include one whole being." It could be just a bird or a mountain or the Sandokai. If you understand this, there will be no need to recite the Sandokai. Although we recite it in this Japanese-Chinese form, it is not a matter of Japanese or Chinese. It is just a poem, or a bird, and this is just my talk. It does not mean much. We say that Zen is not something to talk about. It is what you experience in a true sense. It is difficult. But anyway this is a difficult world, so don't worry. Wherever you go you will have problems. You should confront your problems. It may be much better to have these problems of practice rather than some other mixed-up kinds of problems.
Student: The other day when I was beating the mokugyo [a wooden drum] a small spider crawled across the top of it. There was nothing I could do to avoid the spider. I veered a little off to the side to avoid him, but he went right into the striker. It was too powerful for him to escape.
Suzuki Roshi: You didn't kill him.
Something did! [Laughter.]
By mistake. It happened in that way.
Yeah, but I couldn't stop.
Yeah. You know, it can't be helped. Buddha killed him! [Laughter.] He may be very happy.
To live in this world is not so easy. When you see children playing by a stream or on a bridge, you may be really worried. "The cars are going zoom, zoom, zoom on the highway nearby. What if there is an accident?" If something happens, that's all. If you stop and think, you will be terrified. Did you hear about the 165-year-old man who has more than two hundred children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren? If he thought about each one of them, he would be scared of losing one.
Our practice can be a very strict practice. You should be ready to kill something even if you are a Buddhist. Whether it is good or bad, you should do that sometime. It is impossible to survive without killing anything. We cannot live depending just on our feelings. Our practice must be deeper than that. That is the strict side of our practice. On the other hand, if it is absolutely necessary, you should stop hitting the mokugyo even though it throws everything into confusion. Not so easy.
Would you explain more what you mean by "strict practice"?
Strict practice? Things are already going in a very strict way. There is no exception. Wherever there is something, there is some rule or truth behind it that is always strictly controlling it, without any exception. We think we care for freedom, but the other side of freedom is strict rule. Within the strict rule there is complete freedom. Freedom and strict rule are not two separate things. Originally we are supported by strict rules or truths. That is the other side of absolute freedom.
Could you give us more examples that apply to our individual lives?
When you get up you should just get up. When everyone sleeps you should sleep. That is my example.
My responsibility is such that it's very easy for me to follow the strict way, because it goes with my position. Other people have somewhat different responsibilities. Sometimes, because my inclination is to follow strictly, we have some differences, and sometimes I think it's okay for them to do things differently than I do. Is that right?
Yeah. Sometimes you should shut your eyes [laughing]. Sometimes it may be unfortunate to see something. If you see it, you have to say something, so it may help you to practice without looking around. That is the best way, actually. If you look at the people on this side of the zendo, the people on the other side will sleep. So it's better not to see anything! [Laughter.] They won't know what you are doing. "He may not be sleeping, so all of us will stay awake." If you see something, that's all. The rest will be ignored. If you don't see anything, you cannot ignore anything. That is the big mind that includes everything. If someone moves, you will notice. Even though you don't try to hear it, if some sound comes you will catch it. If you focus on one person, the rest of the people will be very happy! [Laughter.] If you don't catch anyone, no one can move.
From Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai, by Shunryu Suzuki, published in 1999 by the University of California Press. @ 1999 The Regents of the University of California.
Wisdom in the Words
Wisdom in the WordsBy "Words have a profound effect, shaping how we look at things," says Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. "The words of the dharma have power in a positive sense; as they begin to penetrate us, we start to think, 'Maybe my mind actually is tameable.'"
One of the key things that many of us in the West are trying to do is to understand what the Buddha taught. Obviously, we’re not talking here about academic study of Buddhism. We’re talking about really contemplating the teachings and incorporating them into who we are. Buddhism is not some therapeutic treatment for the ills of an unsatisfactory life. What the Buddha taught is profound truth about the very nature of reality—from the truth of how one little thought arises all the way to complete enlightenment, and everything in between.
If the Buddhist teachings are to work on us, if meditation is to work on us, we have to be willing to change. We have to ask ourselves, “Is this something I actually want to incorporate into me? Is this something I want to change me?” If it is, then we have to begin by thinking about—really thinking about—the teachings. It’s not just, “Do I understand what bodhichitta is?” It’s, “Am I willing to have bodhichitta planted in me?”
When we first begin to study the dharma, we don’t know what’s going on. There are so many lists, so many terminologies. We need to get our bearings. We have to go through a process of conceptualizing the dharma; that is really important. That is the only way to get to the directness.
Words have a profound effect. When we hear the dharma for the first time, it is completely new and different. The second time we hear it, there is a little less apprehension and confusion. It strikes us a little more deeply. The third time, it begins to penetrate us. So it is important that we continuously go over the teachings.
When we are studying or doing contemplative practice, it is important not just to learn the dharma by rote but to embed it in ourselves. We should use the words of the dharma to slowly but surely change our mental and heart approach so it is aligned with what we are trying to accomplish. We do not study the dharma just to entertain ourselves or to learn something new, although in the beginning we do learn many new things. What we are trying to do is to imprint the words and their meaning in our mind and body.
When we are able to let the dharma soak in, it becomes a part of us. The words begin to shape how you look at things. This is no different than our experience in the conventional world. For instance, somebody tells us that we have a problem, that we are lazy, stupid, mean or impatient. Those are just words, but if we watch our mind, we see that those words stay with us. So even in normal conversation, words have tremendous power.
The words of the dharma have power in a positive sense. As the dharma begins to penetrate us, we start to think, “Maybe my mind actually is tameable. Maybe I do have bodhichitta. Maybe I am intrinsically buddha.” The words of the dharma become the air we breathe. They become like rain. We hear the dharma all the time and it begins to penetrate us.
We have to start with thinking. Thinking, in this case, is good, not bad. Thinking during meditation is not good, but thinking about the dharma is good. You can go to town on thinking about the dharma. You can think about it in all kinds of ways, really get into it, bring out whatever doubts and inspirations you have.
What we are discussing is important; I am trying to communicate the heart level of study. This is about the way we live our lives—we are not just trying to figure out which way is up. The question isn’t, “Am I able to understand the dharma?” but, “Am I able to make it part of me?”
Confidence comes from really understanding and working with the teachings. It all comes down to the view: the more we know about the view, the more we understand what we are doing and why, the more confidence we have. The dharma is very, very precise in how and what it is trying to communicate. The first step is hearing the words; then we learn the meaning; then we do the meditation. The words themselves provide direction; if we don’t know the direction, we can’t get where we’re going.
When you start to study the dharma, it is difficult at first. There are certain things you have to work to get your mind around. But once you get into the flow, it is very soothing. When you begin to really understand the dharma, it penetrates you, especially the higher understandings of the Middle Way and the nature of mind.
The experience of studying that kind of material is so sweet, it is like honey. You cannot get enough of it. It is addictive. It is like going to a wonderful symphony, and every sound is perfect. There is a sense that you are being effortlessly led along. The composer, the music, the people playing each instrument—all are in complete unity. There is that kind of unity in the dharma. Each word of the dharma is a bodhisattva who is communicating to you.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is holder of the Buddhist and Shambhala lineages of his father, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In 1995 he was recognized as the incarnation of the great nineteenth-century Buddhist teacher Mipham Rinpoche. He is currently writing a book on mindfulness meditation, to be published by Riverhead.
Meditation: The Four Foundations of Mindfulness
Meditation: The Four Foundations of Mindfulness
According to the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, spirituality means relating with the working basis of one’s existence, which is one’s state of mind. The method for beginning to relate directly with mind is the practice of mindfulness.
For the follower of the buddhadharma, the teachings of Buddhism, there is a need for great emphasis on the practice of meditation. One must see the straightforward logic that mind is the cause of confusion and that by transcending confusion one attains the enlightened state. This can only take place through the practice of meditation. The Buddha himself experienced this, by working on his own mind, and what he learned has been handed down to us.
Mindfulness is a basic approach to the spiritual journey that is common to all traditions of Buddhism. But before we begin to look closely at that approach, we should have some idea of what is meant by spirituality itself.
Some say that spirituality is a way of attaining a better kind of happiness, transcendental happiness. Others see it as a benevolent way to develop power over others. Still others say the point of spirituality is to acquire magical powers so we can change our bad world into a good world or purify the world through miracles. It seems that all of these points of view are irrelevant to the Buddhist approach. According to the buddhadharma, spirituality means relating with the working basis of one’s existence, which is one’s state of mind.
There is a problem with one’s basic life, one’s basic being. This problem is that we are involved in a continual struggle to survive, to maintain our position. We are continually trying to grasp onto some solid image of ourselves. And then we have to defend that particular fixed conception. So there is warfare, there is confusion, and there is passion and aggression; there are all kinds of conflicts. From the Buddhist point of view, the development of true spirituality is cutting through our basic fixation, that clinging, that stronghold of something-or-other, which is known as ego.
In order to do that we have to find out what ego is. What is this all about? Who are we? We have to look into our already existing state of mind. And we have to understand what practical step we can take to do that. We are not involved here in a metaphysical discussion about the purpose of life and the meaning of spirituality on an abstract level. We are looking at this question from the point of view of a working situation. We need to find some simple thing we can do in order to embark on the spiritual path.
People have difficulty beginning a spiritual practice because they put a lot of energy into looking for the best and easiest way to get into it. We might have to change our attitude and give up looking for the best or the easiest way. Actually, there is no choice. Whatever approach we take, we will have to deal with what we are already. We have to look at who we are. According to the Buddhist tradition, the working basis of the path and the energy involved in the path is the mind—one’s own mind, which is working in us all the time.
Spirituality is based on mind. In Buddhism, mind is what distinguishes sentient beings from rocks or trees or bodies of water. That which possesses discriminating awareness, that which possesses a sense of duality—which grasps or rejects something external—that is mind. Fundamentally, it is that which can associate with an “other”—with any “something” that is perceived as different from the perceiver. That is the definition of mind. The traditional Tibetan phrase defining mind means precisely that: “That which can think of the other, the projection, is mind.”
So by mind we mean something very specific. It is not just something very vague and creepy inside our heads or hearts, something that just happens as part of the way the wind blows and the grass grows. Rather, it is something very concrete. It contains perception—perception that is very uncomplicated, very basic, very precise. Mind develops its particular nature as that perception begins to linger on something other than oneself. Mind makes the fact of perceiving something else stand for the existence of oneself.
That is the mental trick that constitutes mind. In fact, it should be the opposite. Since the perception starts from oneself, the logic should be: “I exist, therefore the other exists.” But somehow the hypocrisy of mind is developed to such an extent that mind lingers on the other as a way of getting the feedback that it itself exists, which is a fundamentally erroneous belief. It is the fact that the existence of self is questionable that motivates the trick of duality.
This mind is our working basis for the practice of meditation and the development of awareness. But mind is something more than the process of confirming self by the dualistic lingering on the other. Mind also includes what are known as emotions, which are the highlights of mental states.
Mind cannot exist without emotions. Daydreaming and discursive thoughts are not enough. Those alone would be too boring. The dualistic trick would wear too thin. So we tend to create waves of emotion which go up and down: passion, aggression, ignorance, pride—all kinds of emotions. In the beginning we create them deliberately, as a game of trying to prove to ourselves that we exist. But eventually the game becomes a hassle; it becomes more than a game and forces us to challenge ourselves more than we intended.
So we have created a world that is bittersweet. Things are amusing but, at the same time, not so amusing. Sometimes things seem terribly funny but, on the other hand, terribly sad. Life has the quality of a game of ours that has trapped us. The setup of mind has created the whole thing. We might complain about the government or the economy of the country or the prime rate of interest, but those factors are secondary. The original process at the root of the problems is the competitiveness of seeing oneself only as a reflection of the other. Problematic situations arise automatically as expressions of that. They are our own production, our own neat work. And that is what is called mind.
According to the Buddhist tradition, there are eight types of consciousness and fifty-two types of conceptions and all kinds of other aspects of mind, about which we do not have to go into detail. All these aspects are based largely on the primeval dualistic approach. There are the spiritual aspects and the psychological aspects and all sorts of other aspects. All are bound up in the realm of duality, which is ego.
As far as meditation practice is concerned, in meditation we work on this thing, rather than on trying to sort out the problem from the outside. We work on the projector rather than the projection. We turn inward, instead of trying to sort out external problems of A, B, and C. We work on the creator of duality rather than the creation. That is beginning at the beginning.
A gigantic world of mind exists to which we are almost totally unexposed. This whole world is made by mind. Minds made this up, put these things together. Every bolt and nut was put in by somebody-or-other’s mind. This whole world is mind’s world, the product of mind. This is needless to say; I am sure everybody knows this. But we might remind ourselves of it so that we realize that meditation is not an exclusive activity that involves forgetting this world and getting into something else. By meditating, we are dealing with the very mind that devised our eyeglasses and put the lenses in the rims.
So this is a living world, mind’s world. Realizing this, working with mind is no longer a remote or mysterious thing to do. It is no longer dealing with something that is hidden or somewhere else. Mind is right here. Mind is hanging out in the world. It is an open secret.
The method for beginning to relate directly with mind, which was taught by Lord Buddha and which has been in use for the past twenty-five hundred years, is the practice of mindfulness. There are four aspects to this practice, traditionally known as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
Mindfulness of Body
“The basic starting point is solidness, groundedness. When you sit, you actually sit. Even your floating thoughts begin to sit on their own bottoms. You have a sense of solidness and, at the same time, a sense of being.”
Mindfulness of body, the first foundation of mindfulness, is connected with the need for a sense of being, a sense of groundedness.
To begin with, there is some problem about what we understand by body. We sit on chairs or on the ground; we eat; we sleep; we wear clothes. But the body we relate with in going through these activities is questionable.
According to the tradition, the body we think we have is what is known as psychosomatic body. It is largely based on projections and concepts of body. This psychosomatic body contrasts with the enlightened person’s sense of body, which might be called body-body. This sense of body is free from conceptualizations. It is just simple and straightforward. There is a direct relationship with the earth.
As for us, we do not actually have a relationship with the earth. We have some relationship with body, but it is very uncertain and erratic. We flicker back and forth between body and something else—fantasies, ideas. That seems to be our basic situation. Even though the psychosomatic body is constituted by projections of body, it can be quite solid in terms of those projections. We have expectations concerning the existence of this body, therefore we have to refuel it, entertain it, wash it. Through this psychosomatic body we are able to experience a sense of being.
Mindfulness of body brings this all-pervasive mind-imitating-body activity into the practice of meditation. The practice of meditation has to take into account that mind continually shapes itself into bodylike attitudes. Consequently, since the time of Buddha, sitting meditation has been recommended and practiced, and it has proved to be the best way of dealing with this situation. The basic technique that goes with sitting meditation is working with the breath. You identify with the breath, particularly with the out-breath. The in-breath is just a gap, a space. During the in-breath you just wait. So you breathe out and then you dissolve and then there is a gap. Breathe out… dissolve…gap. An openness, an expansion, can take place constantly that way.
Mindfulness plays a very important role in this technique. In this case, mindfulness means that when you sit and meditate, you actually do sit. You actually do sit as far as the psychosomatic body is concerned. You feel the ground, body, breath, temperature. You don’t try specifically to watch and keep track of what is going on. You don’t try to formalize the sitting situation and make it into some special activity that you are performing. You just sit.
And then you begin to feel that there is some sense of groundedness. This is not particularly a product of being deliberate, but it is more the force of the actual fact of being there. So you sit. And you sit. And you breathe. And you sit and you breathe. Sometimes you think, but still you are thinking sitting thoughts. The psychosomatic body is sitting, so your thoughts have a flat bottom. Mindfulness of body is connected with the earth. It is an openness that has a base, a foundation. A quality of expansive awareness develops through mindfulness of body—a sense of being settled and of therefore being able to afford to open out.
Going along with this mindfulness requires a great deal of trust. Probably the beginning meditator will not be able simply to rest there, but will feel the need for a change. I remember someone who had just finished a retreat telling me how she had sat and felt her body and felt grounded. But then she had thought immediately how she should be doing something else. And she went on to tell me how the right book had “just jumped” into her lap, and she had started to read. At that point one doesn’t have a solid base anymore. One’s mind is beginning to grow little wings. Mindfulness of body has to do with trying to remain human, rather than becoming an animal or fly or etheric being. It means just trying to remain a human being, an ordinary human being.
The basic starting point for this is solidness, groundedness. When you sit, you actually sit. Even your floating thoughts begin to sit on their own bottoms. There are no particular problems. You have a sense of solidness and groundedness, and, at the same time, a sense of being.
Without this particular foundation of mindfulness, the rest of your meditation practice could be very airy-fairy—vacillating back and forth, trying this and trying that. You could be constantly tiptoeing on the surface of the universe, not actually getting a foothold anywhere. You could become an eternal hitchhiker. So with this first technique you develop some basic solidness. In mindfulness of body, there is a sense of finding some home ground.
Mindfulness of Life
“The instinct to live can be seen as containing awareness, meditation, mindfulness. It constantly tunes us in to what is happening. So the life force that keeps us alive itself becomes the practice of mindfulness.”
The application of mindfulness has to be precise. If we cling to our practice, we create stagnation. Therefore, in our application of the techniques of mindfulness, we must be aware of the fundamental tendency to cling, to survive.
We come to this in the second foundation of mindfulness, which is mindfulness of life, or survival. Since we are dealing with the context of meditation, we encounter this tendency in the form of clinging to the meditative state. We experience the meditative state and it is momentarily tangible, but in that same moment it is also dissolving. Going along with this process means developing a sense of letting go of awareness as well as of contacting it. This basic technique of the second foundation of mindfulness could be described as touch-and-go. you are there—present, mindful—and then you let go.
A common misunderstanding is that the meditative state of mind has to be captured and then nursed and cherished. That is definitely the wrong approach. If you try to domesticate your mind through meditation—try to possess it by holding onto the meditative state—the clear result will be regression on the path, with a loss of freshness and spontaneity. If you try to hold on without lapse all the time, then maintaining your awareness will begin to become a domestic hassle. It will become like painfully going through housework. There will be an underlying sense of resentment, and the practice of meditation will become confusing. You will begin to develop a love-hate relationship toward your practice, in which your concept of it seems good, but, at the same time, the demand this rigid concept makes on you is too painful.
So the technique of the mindfulness of life is based on touch-and-go. You focus your attention on the object of awareness, but then, in the same moment, you disown that awareness and go on. What is needed here is some sense of confidence—confidence that you do not have to securely own your mind, but that you can tune into its process spontaneously.
Mindfulness of life relates to the clinging tendency not only in connection with the meditative state, but, even more importantly, in connection with the level of raw anxiety about survival that manifests in us constantly, second by second, minute by minute. You breathe for survival; you lead your life for survival. The feeling is constantly present that you are trying to protect yourself from death.
For the practical purposes of the second foundation, instead of regarding this survival mentality as something negative, instead of relating to it as ego-clinging as is done in the abstract philosophical overview of Buddhism, this particular practice switches logic around. In the second foundation, the survival struggle is regarded as a steppingstone in the practice of meditation. Whenever you have the sense of the survival instinct functioning, that can be transmuted into a sense of being, a sense of having already survived. Mindfulness becomes a basic acknowledgment of existing. This does not have the flavor of “Thank God, I have survived.” Instead, it is more objective, impartial: “I am alive, I am here, so be it.”
In this way, meditation becomes an actual part of life, rather than just a practice or exercise. It becomes inseparable from the instinct to live that accompanies all one’s existence. That instinct to live can be seen as containing awareness, meditation, mindfulness. It constantly tunes us in to what is happening. So the life force that keeps us alive and that manifests itself continually in our stream of consciousness itself becomes the practice of mindfulness.
Such mindfulness brings clarity, skill, and intelligence. You are here; you are living; let it be that way—that is mindfulness. Your heart pulsates and you breathe. All kinds of things are happening in you at once. Let mindfulness work with that, let that be mindfulness, let every beat of your heart, every breath, be mindfulness itself. You do not have to breathe specially; your breath is an expression of mindfulness. If you approach meditation in this way, it becomes very personal and very direct.
But again it is necessary to say, once you have that experience of the presence of life, don’t hang onto it. Just touch and go. Touch that presence of life being lived, then go. You do not have to ignore it. “Go” does not mean that we have to turn our backs on the experience and shut ourselves off from it; it means just being in it without further analysis and without further reinforcement.
Holding onto life, or trying to reassure oneself that it is so, has the sense of death rather than life. It is only because we have that sense of death that we want to make sure that we are alive. We would like to have an insurance policy. But if we feel that we are alive, that is good enough. We do not have to make sure that we actually do breathe, that we actually can be seen. We do not have to check to be sure we have a shadow. Just living is enough. If we don’t stop to reassure ourselves, living becomes very clear-cut, very alive, and very precise.
Mindfulness of Effort
“The sudden flash is a key to all Buddhist meditation, from the level of basic mindfulness to the highest levels of tantra. But it is not enough just to hope that a flash will come to us; there must be a background of discipline.”
The next foundation of mindfulness is mindfulness of effort. The idea of effort is apparently problematical. Effort would seem to be at odds with the sense of being that arises from mindfulness of body. Also, pushing of any kind does not have an obvious place in the touch-and-go technique of the mindfulness of life.
In either case, deliberate, heavy-handed effort would seem to endanger the open precision of the process of mindfulness. Still we cannot expect proper mindfulness to develop without some kind of exertion on our part. Effort is necessary. But the Buddhist notion of right effort is quite different from conventional definitions of effort.
The traditional Buddhist analogy for right effort is the walk of an elephant or tortoise. The elephant moves along surely, unstoppably, with great dignity. Like the worm, it is not excitable, but unlike the worm, it has a panoramic view of the ground it is treading on. Though it is serious and slow, because of the elephant’s ability to survey the ground there is a sense of playfulness and intelligence in its movement.
In the case of meditation, trying to develop an inspiration that is based on wanting to forget one’s pain and on trying to make one’s practice thrive on a sense of continual accomplishment is quite immature. On the other hand, too much solemnity and dutifulness creates a lifeless and narrow outlook and a stale psychological environment. The style of right effort, as taught by the Buddha, is serious but not too serious. It takes advantage of the natural flow of instinct to bring the wandering mind constantly back to the mindfulness of breathing.
The crucial point in the bringing-back process is that it is not necessary to go through deliberate stages. It is not a question of forcing the mind back to some particular object, but of bringing it back down from the dream world into reality. We are breathing, we are sitting. That is what we are doing, and we should be doing it completely, fully, wholeheartedly.
There is a kind of technique, or trick, here that is extremely effective and useful, not only for sitting meditation, but also in daily life, or meditation-in-action. The way of coming back is through what we might call the abstract watcher. This watcher is just simple self-consciousness, without aim or goal.
When we encounter anything, the first flash that takes place is the bare sense of duality, of separateness. On that basis, we begin to evaluate, pick and choose, make decisions, execute our will. The abstract watcher is just the basic sense of separateness—the plain cognition of being there before any of the rest develops.
Instead of condemning this self-consciousness as dualistic, we take advantage of this tendency in our psychological system and use it as the basis of the mindfulness of effort. The experience is just a sudden flash of the watcher’s being there. At that point we don’t think, “I must get back to the breath” or “I must try and get away from these thoughts.” We don’t have to entertain a deliberate and logical movement of mind that repeats to itself the purpose of sitting practice. There is just suddenly a general sense that something is happening here and now, and we are brought back. Abruptly, immediately, without a name, without the application of any kind of concept, we have a quick glimpse of changing the tone. That is the core of the mindfulness of effort practice.
One of the reasons that ordinary effort becomes so dreary and stagnant is that our intention always develops a verbalization. Any kind of sense of duty we might have is always verbalized, though the speed of conceptual mind is so great that we may not even notice the verbalization. Still, the contents of the verbalization are clearly felt. This verbalization pins the effort to a fixed frame of reference, which makes it extremely tiresome.
In contrast, the abstract effort we are talking about flashes in a fraction of a second, without any name or any idea with it. It is just a jerk, a sudden change of course which does not define its destination. The rest of the effort is just like an elephant’s walk—going slowly, step by step, observing the situation around us.
You could call this abstract self-consciousness leap if you like, or jerk, or sudden reminder; or you could call it amazement. Sometimes it could also be felt as panic, unconditioned panic, because of the change of course—something comes to us and changes our whole course. If we work with this sudden jerk, and do so with no effort in the effort, then effort becomes self-existing. It stands on its own two feet, so to speak, rather than needing another effort to trigger it off.
This kind of effort is extremely important. The sudden flash is a key to all Buddhist meditation, from the level of basic mindfulness to the highest levels of tantra. Such mindfulness of effort could definitely be considered the most important aspect of mindfulness practice. Mindfulness of body creates the general setting; it brings meditation into the psychosomatic setup of one’s life. Mindfulness of life makes meditation practice personal and intimate. Mindfulness of effort makes meditation workable: it connects the foundations of mindfulness to the path, to the spiritual journey. It is like the wheel of a chariot, which makes the connection between the chariot and the road, or like the oar of a boat. Mindfulness of effort actualizes the practice; it makes it move, proceed.
But we have a problem here. Mindfulness of effort cannot be deliberately manufactured: on the other hand, it is not enough just to hope that a flash will come to us and we will be reminded. There must be a background of discipline which sets the tone of the sitting practice. Effort is important on this level also; it is the sense of not having the faintest indulgence toward any form of entertainment. We have to give something up. Unless we give up our reservations about taking the practice seriously, it is virtually impossible to have that kind of instantaneous effort dawn on us. So it is extremely important to have respect for the practice, a sense of appreciation, and a willingness to work hard.
Once we do have a sense of commitment to relating with things as they actually are, we have opened the way to the flash that reminds us: that, that, that. “That what?” does not apply any more. Just that, which triggers an entirely new state of consciousness and brings us back automatically to mindfulness of breathing or a general sense of being.
We work hard at not being diverted into entertainment. Still, in some sense, we can enjoy the very boring situation of the practice of sitting meditation. We can actually appreciate not having lavish resources of entertainment available. Because of having already included our boredom and ennui, we have nothing to run away from and we feel completely secure and grounded.
This basic sense of appreciation is another aspect of the background that makes it possible for the spontaneous flash of the reminder to occur more easily. This is said to be like falling in love. When we are in love with someone, because our whole attitude is open toward that person somehow or other we get a sudden flash of that person not as a name or as a concept of what the person looks like; those are afterthoughts. We get an abstract flash of our lover as that. A flash of that comes into our mind first. Then we might ponder on that flash, elaborate on it, enjoy our daydreams about it. But all this happens afterward. The flash is primal.
Mindfulness of Mind
“Mind functions singly. Once. And once. One thing at a time. Things always happen one at a time, in a direct, simple movement of mind. Mindfulness of mind is to be there with that one-shot perception, constantly.”
Often mindfulness is referred to as watchfulness. But that should not give the impression that mindfulness means watching something happening. Mindfulness means being watchful, rather than watching some thing. This implies a process of intelligent alertness, rather than the mechanical business of simply observing what happens.
Particularly the fourth foundation—mindfulness of mind—has qualities of an aroused intelligence operating. The intelligence of the fourth foundation is a sense of light-handedness. If you open the windows and doors of a room the right amount, you can maintain the interior feeling of roomness and, at the same time, have freshness from outside. Mindfulness of mind brings that same kind of intelligent balance.
Without mind and its conflicts, we could not meditate or develop balance, or develop anything at all for that matter. Therefore, conflicts that arise from mind are regarded as a necessary part of the process of mindfulness. But at the same time, those conflicts have to be controlled enough so that we can come back to our mindfulness of breathing. A balance has to be maintained. There has to be a certain discipline so that we are neither totally lost in daydream nor missing the freshness and openness that come from not holding our attention too tightly. This balance is a state of wakefulness, mindfulness.
Mindfulness of mind means being with one’s mind. When you sit and meditate, you are there: you are being with your body, with your sense of life or survival, with your sense of effort, and at the same time, you are being with your mind. You are being there. Mindfulness of mind suggests a sense of presence and a sense of accuracy in terms of being there. You are there, therefore you can’t miss yourself. If you are not there, then you might miss yourself. But that also would be a doubletake: if you realize you are not there, that means you are there. That brings you back to where you are—back to square one.
The whole process is very simple, actually. Unfortunately, explaining the simplicity takes a lot of vocabulary, a lot of grammar. However, it is a very simple matter. And that matter concerns you and your world. Nothing else. It does not particularly concern enlightenment, and it does not particularly concern metaphysical comprehension. In fact, this simple matter does not particularly concern the next minute, or the minute before this one. It only concerns the very small area where we are now.
Really we operate on a very small basis. We think we are great, broadly significant, and that we cover a whole large area. We see ourselves as having a history and a future, and here we are in our big-deal present. But if we look at ourselves clearly in this very moment, we see we are just grains of sand—just little people concerned only with this little dot which is called nowness.
We can only operate on one dot at a time, and mindfulness of mind approaches our experience in that way. We are there and we approach ourselves on the very simple basis of that. That does not particularly have many dimensions, many perspectives; it is just a simple thing. Relating directly to this little dot of nowness is the right understanding of austerity. And if we work on this basis, it is possible to begin to see the truth of the matter, so to speak—to begin to see what nowness really means.
This experience is very revealing in that it is very personal. It is not personal in the sense of petty and mean. The idea is that this experience is your experience. You might be tempted to share it with somebody else, but then it becomes their experience, rather than what you wished for: your/their experience, jumbled together. You can never achieve that. People have different experiences of reality, which cannot be jumbled together. Invaders and dictators of all kinds have tried to make others have their experience, to make a big concoction of minds controlled by one person. But that is impossible. Everyone who has tried to make that kind of spiritual pizza has failed. So you have to accept that your experience is personal. The personal experience of nowness is very much there and very obviously there. You cannot even throw it away!
In sitting practice, or in the awareness practice of everyday life, for that matter, you are not trying to solve a wide array of problems. You are looking at one situation that is very limited. It is so limited that there is not even room to be claustrophobic. If it is not there, it is not there. You missed it. If it is there, it is there. That is the pinpoint of mindfulness of mind, that simplicity of total up-to-dateness, total directness. Mind functions singly. Once. And once. One thing at a time.
The practice of mindfulness of mind is to be there with that one-shot perception, constantly. You get a complete picture from which nothing is missing: that is happening, now that is happening, now that is happening. There is no escape. Even if you focus yourself on escaping, that is also a one-shot movement of which you could be mindful. You can be mindful of your escape—of your sexual fantasy or your aggression fantasy.
Things always happen one at a time, in a direct, simple movement of mind. Therefore, in the technique of mindfulness of mind, it is traditionally recommended that you be aware of each single-shot perception of mind as thinking: “I am thinking I hear a sound.” “I am thinking I smell a scent.” “I am thinking I feel hot.” “I am thinking I feel cold.” Each one of these is a total approach to experience—very precise, very direct, one single movement of mind.
Things always happen in that direct way. That one-shot reality is all there is. Obviously we can make up an illusion. We can imagine that we are conquering the universe by multiplying ourselves into hundreds of aspects and personalities: the conquering and the conquered. But that is like the dream state of someone who is actually asleep. There is only the one shot; everything happens only once. There is just that. Therefore mindfulness of mind is applicable.
So meditation practice has to be approached in a very simple and very basic way. That seems to be the only way that it will apply to our experience of what we actually are. That way, we do not get into the illusion that we can function as a hundred people at once. When we lose the simplicity we begin to be concerned about ourselves: “While I’m doing this, such-and-such is going to happen. What shall I do?” Thinking that more than that is happening, we get involved in hope and fear in relation to all kinds of things that are not actually happening.
Really it does not work that way. While we are doing that, we are doing that. If something else happens, we are doing something else. But two things cannot happen at once; it is impossible. It is easy to imagine that two things are happening at once, because our journey back and forth between the two may be very speedy. But even then we are doing only one thing at a time.
It is necessary to take that logic all the way and realize that even to apply bare attention to what we are doing is impossible. If we try, we have two personalities: one personality is the bare attention; the other personality is doing things. Real bare attention is being there all at once. We do not apply bare attention to what we are doing; we are not mindful of what we are doing. That is impossible. Mindfulness is the act as well as the experience, happening at the same time.
Obviously, we could have a somewhat dualistic attitude at the beginning, before we get into real mindfulness, that we are willing to be mindful, willing to surrender, willing to discipline ourselves. But then we do the thing; we just do it. It is like the famous Zen saying “When I eat, I eat; when I sleep, I sleep.” You just do it, with absolutely no implication behind what you are doing, not even of mindfulness.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was author of such classics as Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, The Myth of Freedom, Born in Tibet and Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. Renowned for his direct and powerful presentation of the Buddhist teachings to the West, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was a holder of the Kagyü and Nyingma lineages of Vajrayana Buddhism and a terton of the Shambhala teachings. He was founder of Shambhala International, a worldwide association of meditation centers; Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, and the Shambhala Sun. These teachings were given at the 1973 Vajradhatu Seminary and are abridged from The Heart of the Buddha, published by Shambhala Publications. ©1991 by Diana J. Mukpo.
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Buddhism In a Nutshell: The Four Seals of Dharma
Buddhism in a Nutshell: The Four Seals of Dharma
"Buddhism is distinguished by four characteristics, or 'seals.' If all these four seals are found in a path or a philosophy, it can be considered the path of the Buddha."
People often ask me: “What is Buddhism in a nutshell?” Or they ask, “What is the particular view or philosophy of Buddhism?”
Unfortunately, in the West Buddhism seems to have landed in the religious department, even in the self-help or self-improvement department, and clearly it’s in the trendy meditation department. I would like to challenge the popular definition of Buddhist meditation.
Many people think meditation has something to do with relaxation, with watching the sunset or watching the waves at the beach. Charming phrases like “letting go” and “being carefree” come to mind. From a Buddhist point of view, meditation is slightly more than that.
First, I think we need to talk about the real context of Buddhist meditation. This is referred to as the view, meditation and action; taken together, these constitute quite a skillful way of understanding the path. Even though we may not use such expressions in everyday life, if we think about it, we always act according to a certain view, meditation and action. For instance, if we want to buy a car, we choose the one we think is the best, most reliable and so on. So the “view,” in this case, is the idea or belief that we have, that is, that the car is a good one. Then the “meditation” is contemplating and getting used to the idea, and the “action” is actually buying the car, driving it and using it. This process is not necessarily something Buddhist; it’s something we’re doing all the time. You don’t have to call it view, meditation and action. You can think of it as “idea,” “getting used to,” and “obtaining.”
So what is the particular view that Buddhists try to get used to? Buddhism is distinguished by four characteristics, or “seals.” Actually, if all these four seals are found in a path or a philosophy, it doesn’t matter whether you call it Buddhist or not. You can call it what you like; the words “Buddhist” or “Buddhism” are not important. The point is that if this path contains these four seals, it can be considered the path of the Buddha.
Therefore, these four characteristics are called “the Four Seals of Dharma.” They are:
All compounded things are impermanent.
All emotions are painful. This is something that only Buddhists would talk about. Many religions worship things like love with celebration and songs. Buddhists think, “This is all suffering.”
All phenomena are empty; they are without inherent existence. This is actually the ultimate view of Buddhism; the other three are grounded on this third seal.
The fourth seal is that nirvana is beyond extremes.
Without these four seals, the Buddhist path would become theistic, religious dogma, and its whole purpose would be lost. On the other hand, you could have a surfer giving you teachings on how to sit on a beach watching a sunset: if what he says contains all these four seals, it would be Buddhism. The Tibetans, the Chinese, or the Japanese might not like it, but teaching doesn’t have to be in a “traditional” form. The four seals are quite interrelated, as you will see.
The First Seal:
All Compounded Things are Impermanent
Every phenomenon we can think of is compounded, and therefore subject to impermanence. Certain aspects of impermanence, like the changing of the weather, we can accept easily, but there are equally obvious things that we don’t accept.
For instance, our body is visibly impermanent and getting older every day, and yet this is something we don’t want to accept. Certain popular magazines that cater to youth and beauty exploit this attitude. In terms of view, meditation and action, their readers might have a view—thinking in terms of not aging or escaping the aging process somehow. They contemplate this view of permanence, and their consequent action is to go to fitness centers and undergo plastic surgery and all sorts of other hassles.
Enlightened beings would think that this is ridiculous and based on a wrong view. Regarding these different aspects of impermanence, getting old and dying, the changing of the weather, etc., Buddhists have a single statement, namely this first seal: phenomena are impermanent because they are compounded. Anything that is assembled will, sooner or later, come apart.
When we say “compounded,” that includes the dimensions of space and time. Time is compounded and therefore impermanent: without the past and future, there is no such thing as the present. If the present moment were permanent, there would be no future, since the present would always be there. Every act you do—let’s say, plant a flower or sing a song—has a beginning, a middle and an end. If, in the singing of a song, the beginning, middle or end were missing, there would be no such thing as singing a song, would there? That means that singing a song is something compounded.
“So what?” we ask. “Why should we bother about that? What’s the big deal? It has a beginning, middle, and end—so what?” It’s not that Buddhists are really worried about beginnings, middles or ends; that’s not the problem. The problem is that when there is composition and impermanence, as there is with temporal and material things, there is uncertainty and pain.
Some people think that Buddhists are pessimistic, always talking about death, impermanence and aging. But that is not necessarily true. Impermanence is a relief! I don’t have a BMW today and it is thanks to the impermanence of that fact that I might have one tomorrow. Without impermanence, I am stuck with the non-possession of a BMW, and I can never have one. I might feel severely depressed today and, thanks to impermanence, I might feel great tomorrow. Impermanence is not necessarily bad news; it depends on the way you understand it. Even if today your BMW gets scratched by a vandal, or your best friend lets you down, if you have a view of impermanence, you won’t be so worried.
Delusion arises when we don’t acknowledge that all compounded things are impermanent. But when we realize this truth, deep down and not just intellectually, that’s what we call liberation: release from this one-pointed, narrow-minded belief in permanence. Everything, whether you like it or not—even the path, the precious Buddhist path—is compounded. It has a beginning, it has a middle and it has an end.
When you understand that “all compounded things are impermanent,” you are prepared to accept the experience of loss. Since everything is impermanent, this is to be expected.
The Second Seal:
All Emotions are Painful
The Tibetan word for emotion in this context is zagche, which means “contaminated” or “stained,” in the sense of being permeated by confusion or duality.
Certain emotions, such as aggression or jealousy, we naturally regard as pain. But what about love and affection, kindness and devotion, those nice, light and lovely emotions? We don’t think of them as painful; nevertheless, they imply duality, and this means that, in the end, they are a source of pain.
The dualistic mind includes almost every thought we have. Why is this painful? Because it is mistaken. Every dualistic mind is a mistaken mind, a mind that doesn’t understand the nature of things. So how are we to understand duality? It is subject and object: ourselves on the one hand and our experience on the other. This kind of dualistic perception is mistaken, as we can see in the case of different persons perceiving the same object in different ways. A man might think a certain woman is beautiful and that is his truth. But if that were some kind of absolute, independent kind of truth, then everyone else also would have to see her as beautiful as well. Clearly, this is not a truth that is independent of everything else. It is dependent on your mind; it is your own projection.
The dualistic mind creates a lot of expectations—a lot of hope, a lot of fear. Whenever there is a dualistic mind, there is hope and fear. Hope is perfect, systematized pain. We tend to think that hope is not painful, but actually it’s a big pain. As for the pain of fear, that’s not something we need to explain.
The Buddha said, “Understand suffering.” That is the first Noble Truth. Many of us mistake pain for pleasure—the pleasure we now have is actually the very cause of the pain that we are going to get sooner or later. Another Buddhist way of explaining this is to say that when a big pain becomes smaller, we call it pleasure. That’s what we call happiness.
Moreover, emotion does not have some kind of inherently real existence. When thirsty people see a mirage of water, they have a feeling of relief: “Great, there’s some water!” But as they get closer, the mirage disappears. That is an important aspect of emotion: emotion is something that does not have an independent existence.
This is why Buddhists conclude that all emotions are painful. It is because they are impermanent and dualistic that they are uncertain and always accompanied by hopes and fears. But ultimately, they don’t have, and never have had, an inherently existent nature, so, in a way, they are not worth much. Everything we create through our emotions is, in the end, completely futile and painful. This is why Buddhists do shamatha and vipashyana meditation—this helps to loosen the grip that our emotions have on us, and the obsessions we have because of them.
Question: Is compassion an emotion?
People like us have dualistic compassion, whereas the Buddha’s compassion does not involve subject and object. From a buddha’s point of view, compassion could never involve subject and object. This is what is called mahakaruna—great compassion.
I’m having difficulty accepting that all emotions are pain.
Okay, if you want a more philosophical expression, you can drop the word “emotion” and simply say, “All that is dualistic is pain.” But I like using the word “emotion” because it provokes us.
Isn’t pain impermanent?
Yeah! If you know this, then you’re all right. It’s because we don’t know this that we go through a lot of hassles trying to solve our problems. And that is the second biggest problem we have—trying to solve our problems.
The Third Seal:
All Phenomena are Empty; They Are Without Inherent Existence
When we say “all,” that means everything, including the Buddha, enlightenment, and the path. Buddhists define a phenomenon as something with characteristics, and as an object that is conceived by a subject. To hold that an object is something external is ignorance, and it is this that prevents us from seeing the truth of that object.
The truth of a phenomenon is called shunyata, emptiness, which implies that the phenomenon does not possess a truly existent essence or nature. When a deluded person or subject sees something, the object seen is interpreted as something really existent. However, as you can see, the existence imputed by the subject is a mistaken assumption. Such an assumption is based on the different conditions that make an object appear to be true; this, however, is not how the object really is. It’s like when we see a mirage: there is no truly existing object there, even though it appears that way. With emptiness, the Buddha meant that things do not truly exist as we mistakenly believe they do, and that they are really empty of that falsely imputed existence.
It is because they believe in what are really just confused projections that sentient beings suffer. It was as a remedy for this that the Buddha taught the Dharma. Put very simply, when we talk about emptiness, we mean that the way things appear is not the way they actually are. As I said before when speaking about emotions, you may see a mirage and think it is something real, but when you get close, the mirage disappears, however real it may have seemed to begin with.
Emptiness can sometimes be referred to as dharmakaya, and in a different context we could say that the dharmakaya is permanent, never changing, all pervasive, and use all sorts of beautiful, poetic words. These are the mystical expressions that belong to the path, but for the moment, we are still at the ground stage, trying to get an intellectual understanding. On the path, we might portray Buddha Vajradhara as a symbol of dharmakaya, or emptiness, but from an academic point of view, even to think of painting the dharmakaya is a mistake.
The Buddha taught three different approaches on three separate occasions. These are known as The Three Turnings of the Wheel, but they can be summed up in a single phrase: “Mind; there is no mind; mind is luminosity.”
The first, “Mind,” refers to the first set of teachings and shows that the Buddha taught that there is a “mind.” This was to dispel the nihilistic view that there is no heaven, no hell, no cause and effect. Then, when the Buddha said, “There is no mind,” he meant that mind is just a concept and that there is no such thing as a truly existing mind. Finally, when he said, “Mind is luminous,” he was referring to buddhanature, the undeluded or primordially existing wisdom.
The great commentator Nagarjuna said that the purpose of the first turning was to get rid of non-virtue. Where does the non-virtue come from? It comes from being either eternalist or nihilist. So in order to put an end to non-virtuous deeds and thoughts, the Buddha gave his first teaching. The second turning of the Dharma-wheel, when the Buddha spoke about emptiness, was presented in order to dispel clinging to a “truly existent self” and to “truly existent phenomena.” Finally, the teachings of the third turning were given to dispel all views, even the view of no-self. The Buddha’s three sets of teaching do not seek to introduce something new; their purpose is simply to clear away confusion.
As Buddhists we practice compassion, but if we lack an understanding of this third seal—that all phenomena are empty—our compassion can backfire. If you are attached to the goal of compassion when trying to solve a problem, you might not notice that your idea of the solution is entirely based on your own personal interpretation. And you might end up as a victim of hope and fear, and consequently of disappointment. You start by becoming a “good mahayana practitioner,” and, once or twice, you try to help sentient beings. But if you have no understanding of this third seal, you’ll get tired and give up helping sentient beings.
There is another kind of a problem that arises from not understanding emptiness. It occurs with rather superficial and even jaded Buddhists. Somehow, within Buddhist circles, if you don’t accept emptiness, you are not cool. So we pretend that we appreciate emptiness and pretend to meditate on it. But if we don’t understand it properly, a bad side effect can occur. We might say, “Oh, everything’s emptiness. I can do whatever I like.” So we ignore and violate the details of karma, the responsibility for our action. We become “inelegant,” and we discourage others in the bargain. His Holiness the Dalai Lama often speaks of this downfall of not understanding emptiness. A correct understanding of emptiness leads us to see how things are related, and how we are responsible for our world.
You can read millions of pages on this subject. Nagarjuna alone wrote five different commentaries mostly dedicated to this, and then there are the commentaries by his followers. There are endless teachings on establishing this view. In Mahayana temples or monasteries people chant the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra—this is also a teaching on the third seal.
Philosophies or religions might say, “Things are illusion, the world is maya, illusion,” but there are always one or two items left behind that are regarded as truly existent: God, cosmic energy, whatever. In Buddhism, this is not the case. Everything in samsara and nirvana—from the Buddha’s head to a piece of bread—everything is emptiness. There is nothing that is not included in ultimate truth.
Question: If we ourselves are dualistic, can we ever understand emptiness, which is something beyond description?
Buddhists are very slippery. You’re right. You can never talk about absolute emptiness, but you can talk about an “image” of emptiness—something that you can evaluate and contemplate so that, in the end, you can get to the real emptiness. You may say, “Ah, that’s just too easy; that’s such crap.” But to that the Buddhists say, “Too bad, that’s how things work.” If you need to meet someone whom you have never met, I can describe him to you or show you a photograph of him. And with the help of that photo image, you can go and find the real person.
Ultimately speaking, the path is irrational, but relatively speaking, it’s very rational because it uses the relative conventions of our world. When I’m talking about emptiness, everything that I’m saying has to do with this “image” emptiness. I can’t show you real emptiness but I can tell you why things don’t exist inherently.
In Buddhism there’s so much iconography that you might think it was the object of meditation or an object of worship. But, from your teaching, am I to understand that this is all non-existent?
When you go to a temple, you will see many beautiful statues, colors and symbols. These are important for the path. These all belong to what we call “image-wisdom,” “image-emptiness.” However, while we follow the path and apply its methods, it is important to know that the path itself is ultimately an illusion. Actually, it is only then that we can properly appreciate it.
The Fourth Seal
Nirvana is Beyond Extremes
Now that I have explained emptiness, I feel that the fourth seal, “Nirvana is beyond extremes,” has also been covered. But briefly, this last seal is also something uniquely Buddhist. In many philosophies or religions, the final goal is something that you can hold on to and keep. The final goal is the only thing that truly exists. But nirvana is not fabricated, so it is not something to be held on to. It is referred to as “beyond extremes.”
We somehow think that we can go somewhere where we’ll have a better sofa seat, a better shower system, a better sewer system, a nirvana where you don’t even have to have a remote control, where everything is there the moment you think of it. But as I said earlier, it’s not that we are adding something new that was not there before. Nirvana is achieved when you remove everything that was artificial and obscuring.
It doesn’t matter whether you are a monk or a nun who has renounced worldly life or you are a yogi practicing profound tantric methods. If, when you try to abandon or transform attachment to your own experiences, you don’t understand these four seals, you end up regarding the contents of your mind as the manifestations of something evil, diabolical and bad. If that’s what you do, you are far from the truth. And the whole point of Buddhism is to make you understand the truth. If there were some true permanence in compounded phenomena; if there were true pleasure in the emotions, the Buddha would have been the first to recommend them, saying, “Please keep and treasure these.” But thanks to his great compassion, he didn’t, for he wanted us to have what is true, what is real.
When you have a clear understanding of these four seals as the ground of your practice, you will feel comfortable no matter what happens to you. As long as you have these four as your view, nothing can go wrong. Whoever holds these four, in their heart, or in their head, and contemplates them, is a Buddhist. There is no need for such a person even to be called a Buddhist. He or she is by definition a follower of the Buddha.
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche was born in Bhutan in 1961 and was recognized as the second reincarnation of the nineteenth-century master Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. He has studied with and been empowered by some of the greatest Tibetan masters of this century, notably the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and the late Dudjom Rinpoche. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche supervises his traditional seat of Dzongsar Monastery in Eastern Tibet, as well as newly established colleges in India and Bhutan. He has also established meditation centers in Australia, North America and the Far East. This article is based on a talk entitled, “What Buddhism Is, and Is Not,” given in Sydney, Australia in April of 1999.
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