Notes on Talk Seven
2015 Dhamma Talk Series
Dhyana: The Glass of Mountains
I hope these notes are helpful for some of you. Writing a 2500 word essay every week, when I was at school, was not easy! There will always be some things in the talk that don’t make it to the notes. And always some things in the notes that were not there in the talk.
Next Thursday is the final of the series. It is not easy to keep people’s interest going for two months! But on my part, I have had a great time working with this interesting text every week. It is packed with good stuff!
Week 6 was about Dhyana – or in Buddhist terminology – jhana. This is a highly developed state of concentration meditation. It follows directly from the week before, which read
Concentration locks consciousness on a single area.
Concentrating the mind means overcoming the hindrances to concentration: viz, sense desire, ill will, restlessness, indolence and doubt.
But what happens when you concentrate deeply?
That is the topic of step 7, Dhyana:
In meditative absorption, the entire perceptual flow is aligned with that object
Again YS is extremely brief. Well, it is something that you do, not something that you study.
According to Buddhism there is a distinct quantum leap that occurs. This means a makred change from one mode to another. It is sometimes called gotrabhu, though this term is often reserved for the four enlightenment states (stream enterer, once-returner, none-returner and arahant).
There are three parts to the story – the scope of that which you leave behind, the point of change, and the new that you enter into.
The World Left Behind
As a monk you might think that much of my job would be to give various teachings and rituals. In fact, most of the time it is others that give me the teaching. I get no end of people offering me their opinions.
I don’t meet an architect and give them all my ideas of what is wrong with architects. I don’t meet biologists and tell them what makes a good or bad biologist. But somehow, religion seems to prompt no end of views and opinions.
Views and opinions are considered by Buddhism, to be an obstacle.
There’s an amusing passage in one of the texts (Milindha Panha as I recall) where the question is asked why there is only ever one Buddha alive in the world at a time. Remember that the ‘Buddha’ is a position, not a person. There have been many Buddhas, and will be many more in the future.
Two reasons were given. One is that the world is not strong enough to bear the weight of two such glorious beings, and would crack into seven pieces. The other is that the disciples of the two Buddhas would fight with each other.
While regular people fight over possessions, according to Buddhism, ascetics fight over views and opinions.
for some reason I personally never really understood, people seem to have a desperate desire to make others agree with them. I was talking with a Christian friend of mine once, and he told me I was taking a huge risk by not being a Christian (the arguement seemed to make sense to him). Then he looked at me, and I had no response. I did not desire to shake him from his view. He got frustrated (in which I took a little mischievous pleasure) and told me to ‘Defend your religion!’
I did not see it that way. I saw no threat to anything.
Your views and opinions are only constructs, to help you get a handle on things. I mentioned many times the wonderful early psychologist George Kelly. His whole theory and therapy was based on this. That when your expectations (constructs) are threatened by something that does not fit your understanding, you feel suffering.
You may have seen this in a recent story of a boy beaten to death by his family for wanting to leave their church that he no longer believed in. I’m not posting a link because it is an awful story. But it does demonstrate that people hold their views incredibly close.
Even in Buddhism, groups come into conflict over silly things like the definition of a term.
One time I found myself shut in a library by a group of 4 people who sought to shake me from my ‘wrong view’. I had only mentioned some opinions of certain scholars. But they were terribly threatened. I would have had some fun with it, but it was close to lunch time.
In the talk this week I told the story of a Zen Mater’s cat. I can’t find the actual story now I look for it, but here is another, shorter one:
When the spiritual teacher and his disciples began their evening meditation, a cat who lived in the monastery made such noise that it distracted them. One day the teacher ordered that the cat be tied up during the evening practice.
Years later, when the teacher died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the spiritual teacher wrote scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice.
It demonstrates that people look in the wrong places. They look to ritual, look to some interesting philosophy. They make what should be a practise that transforms consciousness, into a matrix of views and opinions.
Seeing properly, you should undermine your views. It is only an experience arising right here and now. Everything in the universe is made from:
- form (which includes words)
- perception (memory, historicity)
- mind state
- consciousness (of that one thing)
These are called the 5 Khandhas – and any moment of experience that you can lay attention on, comprises these five. You can’t escape it. (this is a common and involved teaching in Buddhism on which there is much written)
Which brings us to Monkey.
He was born from a stone egg where heaven and earth met. He learned various powers and became immortal. Hearing about heaven, he travels there, and is given a job looking after the horses, just to keep him quiet. (remember what horses signify??)
He tears up heaven when he finds that he has been given a very lowly job. He fights off a heavenly Knight with six arms (senses), and is again placated by being give the job to guard the heavenly peach orchard. The peaches are magic of course, and only ripen once in many thousands of years. He eats them all, and a great battle ensues. Heaven calls on Buddha to help them. Buddha meets with Monkey, and she makes a deal with him (yes, Buddha has a female form too).
Here is the Japanese version, which is the one I loved as a kid.
You should have watched the clip, but in case you didn’t, here is what happened.
Money takes up the challenge, and flies off to the end of the universe. There he finds five pillars. He writes on one of them the sacred mantra “Monkey was ‘ere”, and takes a pee behind one pillar. He returns to Buddha, only for her to show her five fingers. There on one finger is written Monkey’s graffiti.
No matter how far you go, you will always be within these boundaries. That is the message.
In the clip, Monkey is imprisoned beneath a five fingered mountain. In the book, another great battle ensues, which has specific significance too, before imprisonment under the mountain. The ‘five fingered mountain’ means being constrained by the body and it’s five senses, while the mind is left to learn the lesson of patience.
You will be glad to know that Monkey is later released safe and sound.
So the Path of practise is about ‘crossing over’ into something completely new. It is not about aliens contacting humanity. It is not about ancient civilizations. It is not about channeling information from spirits. It is not about blind belief in stories about the beginning and end of the universe (all of which seem to be as popular today as they ever were). It is about entering a new form of consciousness.
NOw the Yoga Sutras make this point repeatedly. But the information is rather scattered throughout the text. In fact, when I first decided to base this year’s talks on YS, I found that the ‘eight steps’ are only part of the story. If you look closely, the eight steps do not take you to the end of the path. IN the lines immediately after the 8 steps you find that wisdom starts to arise. There are more steps!
Anyway, Buddhism does lay out the path rather neatly in a number of suttas. The exact story varies, but not by much. My favourite description of the whole path is in the Cula-hatthipadopama Sutta: The Shorter Sutta on the Elephant Footprint Simile. (full text is here)
There is a distinct form to the Path
- hear about the teaching
- go to find a teacher
- become a monk (in this sutta, laypeople are not considered)
- take the 8 precepts (a very earthy description of this is given)
- practise contentment with little (4 requisites of rag robes, almsfood, basic medicine, and simple dwelling)
- guarding the six senses (which we looked at in week 5)
- maintaining awareness through the four foundations
- overcoming the hindrances (which we looked at in week 6)
- attaining to jhana absorption
- using the purified mind to gain Three Knowledges (past lives, kamma, and liberation)
- and even then, one is not finished, but considered to be ‘on the way’
Each of these points is a lengthy discussion in itself.
Here we are looking at ‘Attaining jhana absorption’.
For the Jhana state, there needs to be five qualities
- applied thought (aiming towards the object)
- sustained thought (retaining the object)
- bliss (piti) aka joy
- happiness (sukha)
For second level, qualities 1 and 2 disappear.
For third level quality 3 disappears.
for fourth level quality 4 disappears, and only equanimity remains.
(note in Abhidhamma 1 and 2 disappear separately making 5 jhana states)
After these attainments, there are four more jhanas, which are a refinement of level 4 jhana. They are called ‘formless’. Some people say that the rebirth that ensues dependent on these refined states is in realms without bodies (i.e. mind only). But my own school says they are called ‘formless’ because the meditation is on abstract formless objects, viz:
5. sphere of infinite space
6. sphere of infinite consciousness
7. sphere of nothingness
8. sphere of neither perception nor non-perception
Sometimes there is added a ninth level too – 9. cessation.
There are various powers that can be gained from these states, but if you want to go into more detail try the pretty complete, but concise wikipedia entry here, or a readable discussion here.
Now, the talk here has gotten pretty esoteric. If you are experiencing deep states, it is best to talk to a well qualified teacher. For most people we do not reach really deep states (in this lifetime!). Though often the most unlikely people seem to have the right kamma, willpower or parents to make attainments really easily.
As mentioned last week, there is the fast and easy path, the slow and easy, the fast and difficult and the slow and difficult.
Do work from where you are at. Be patient. You know what you need to be working on – no need to compare yourself to others. No need to try and measure yourself against lists of certain qualities.
My advice is to do 20 minutes of meditation a day. It does not matter if your mind comes together no not. If you get concentrated or not, is not really relevant. You need that patience that enables you at least once a day to find a quiet space and sit with yourself. You will in time have all kinds of experiences. After a while your unconscious learns that the important thing is not really the state of mind, but the awareness that lies behind every state of mind. In the final talk in this series we will look more into that.
But it costs you nothing. Just sit on a mat for 20 minutes a day and rest with your breathing. If you mind goes wild, so be it. If you go dull, ok. If your mind comes together in concentration, just be with that. Have patience, and keep dong it. The best reason I ever heard to do meditation was from a friend in his 70’s. He said “I do it because I am curious”
At certain times, when the mind does come together, you find that the mind which is still, is happy. It’s a cliche of course, but really everything you need really is in you.
From this standpoint, it is clear that any kind of movement of the mind, is a kind of disease. This is why ‘desire is the cause of suffering’ is the second Noble Truth. When there is desire, there is a lack. When you lack something you are not at ease. But does the attainment of that desire lead to happiness?
When I was stopping smoking I reflected on this. I like to smoke. The desire arises, and it appears as if I will be happier if I smoke a cigarette. But on reflection – it is a feeling of discomfort to want to smoke. I really just want to remove the discomfort. And why is the discomfort there? Because I smoke.
After I quit smoking, the desire is not there any more.
It is called the theory of Homeostasis in psychology. When you compare the mind that has stopped still and is present, to the mind that is caught in desiring things. it is obvious. That’s where the path lies.
The Crossing Point
I think the discussion is complete for now. But during the talk I added a story to the end.
A story helps to internalise the points. We understand the world through stories, and they stay with us even when we are not remembering them explicitly.
In this case I want to refer to one of the four great Chinese classics, the Journey to the West.
All people in Chinese cultures will be familiar with this story, or parts of it at least, as it is 3000 pages long. It is a huge part of world culture.
In short, it is a comic fantasy, depicting 5 travellers who go to India to fetch the Buddhist scriptures back to China. The Characters are all part of your own psyche, and not to be understood as separate characters.
- Monkey – the star of the show, ‘mind attained to emptiness’
- Pigsy – the different forms of greed
- Sandy – the guardian of religion (mind attained to virtue)
- the monk – the highest aspirations
- the horse – thinking
The character relevant to our topic here is Sha Wujing – Sandy, or the mind attained to purity.
The other four travellers first encounter him at a vast river of ‘weak water’, also described as sand.
He is a fierce demon who eats people who try to cross the sand.
Pigsy (desire) goes to battle with him. They fight to a standstill. Eventually Sandy goes back under the sand. Monkey and Pigsy decide to lure him out – as Monkey can defeat the sand spirit on land, but not under the weak water.
That fails too, and Monkey flies off to consult with Quan Yin, who says “did you try asking?”
Monkey returns to the flowing sands, and they call on the demon. They explain their purpose, and Sandy says “Why didn’t you say so?” and joins the troupe as their fifth and final member.
Of course, I have shortened the story considerably – this part of the tale is the whole of chapter 22 in the full version.
Sandy is also called Friar Sand, and his shaved head should tell you what he represents. His name too, means ‘attained to virtue”. He was a pious man who did many good deeds and controlled his mind. So good was he that he earned a place in heaven, as the “General Who Lifts the Curtain”. He would greet immortals by raising the curtain when they entered Heaven.
During Monkey’s riots in the heavenly peach orchard, Sandy neglected his duty, and broke a jade vase and a crystal. As punishment he was cast down to earth and made into an ugly monster living in the flowing sand.
So on to the ‘flowing sand’ which is also called a river of weak water.
Remember last week when we used the analogy of a bowl of water for the purification of the mind? Water is a common metaphor in all mystic traditions. As an ocean it represents the sea of sense desires. But as a clarified pure pool it represents the refined mind. This is true in the Old Testament, in Sufi, and in Buddhism.
Well, what happens when the religious seeker (friar Sand) loses his purity? The jade bowl (container) breaks and the crystal (purified mind) is lost. The water is gone. You are left with just ‘weak water’. Or, if you have ever flown over India in the right season, you see the rivers that have dried up – all that is left there is sand.
In the story the seekers have to cross the river of sand – it stands, like the curtain, at the border of one form of being and the next. Sandy is the guardian. He appears in stores all over the world – from Parsifal the Knight of the round table seeking the holy grail, to Star Wars (Obi Wan was given this role). He represents the ‘religion’ which is the left over teaching from the previous saviour. The old monk is not the hero. Friar Sandy has ‘eaten many a man’ and is ‘cloaked in death’ He can only guide the right person in the right direction. The hero has to cross over and enter the new land.
So it is we have to escape the Buddha’s palm. Revolving around in the world is not enough to escape it. You have to leave the old and venture into an entirely new way of being. This means meditation. Lots of it. To get firmly on the path, you have to leave the Oprah Winfrey spirituality behind, get on the cushion, and take yourself over the border.
So the views and opinions. Even a mountain can’t catch a thought. But a mind can contain mountains. A mind like glass is clear and purified. A glass mountain is a symbol for an impossible task, until you see all the mountains are in the mind that has to be left behind.