There seems to be a growing acceptance of the fact that the earth is beginning to struggle to accommodate the needs – or, lets be honest – the outright greed of modern man. We can then, perhaps, ask such questions as:
1. What can be done to cure the greed that could lead to humanity's destruction? The overcoming of greed is a central theme in the teaching and practice of Buddhism which is thankfully beginning to find a stronger voice. We are trying to promote a more interdependent view of the world that generates empathy. What we can add to this is firstly that spiritual pleasures, meditation for example, are very eco-friendly; secondly we can give more emphasis to the value of disciplined conduct on the part of the individual. The practical value of this is, of course, recognised, but the power of such discipline to deeply change our relationship to nature is often underestimated. I lived in the tropical forest for years, not permitted by my monk's discipline to kill insects. Over time this transformed my relationship to the ants and mosquitoes that were a constant pest – and consequently to the whole environment into one of harmless communion.
2. What about the helpless anger or despair of the sufferers of this greed? Are there, for example, hidden causes here for the apparent increase in delinquency amongst young people? Or are my eyes on the world just getting too old and sensible? I believe that Buddhism as a source of faith and as a deep psychology can help us understand and manage the emotions related to death or impermanence. It is surely these emotions that turn us away from facing the issues. In Buddhism we teach people both the wisdom to let go of attachment to things and the compassion to stay with those things, hence winning a lighter and more caring touch on life: Recently we had someone come to the monastery to commemorate the recent death of their favourite Aunt. When the ceremony was all over they were trying to talk to the monks but their little girl would not settle. An elderly lady friend of ours in the room was pointed out and recommended as her new Aunt, saying, “there are lots of them in the world.”
3. What if the planet cannot be saved? Then where are we to find hope? We can perhaps see for the first time in the current context how humanity up until now found this in ‘the new generation’. Then what if there were to be no more mankind? Perhaps we find hope in the preservation of human knowledge – the computer chip blasted into space? Yet so much of this knowledge surely concerns and is hence based upon, the earth that may be lost. The earth that one day, however long in the future, must be lost.
To me our greatest if not our only eternal hope is the Dhamma. Dhamma is a source of universal truth. If we can see the full potential Dhamma as it really is, as a part of nature that can never be destroyed, we can have hope. We have a new purpose in life promoting this understanding, this faith in ourselves and in others. If we get this right this is in no way a negation of the transitory aspects of nature. It is rather seeing the Dhamma as the highest expression of nature, its highest evolution – the way that an aspect of nature, one that I believe can be formative, can truly find a permanent basis. I would argue that the enlightened mind, free of limitation in time and place, is capable of reaching back out to the universe, so to speak, from its refuge in the beyond. I think it is possible to argue, based both on philosophy and the experience of deep meditation, that this can be true. This is not a such a simple matter, however. We need to find a number of ways, philosophical and meditative, through which we free up the mind from its material constraints. I have tried to tackle this in the recent book 'Virtue and Reality'. Just to try to give you a taste, to quote from Gregory Bateson:
“...a miracle is a materialists idea of how to escape from materialism... the reply to crude materialism is not miracles but beauty.” - Mind and Nature
To learn how to understand like in this quote can also be to see like this and to find a new depth of appreciation for nature. This is to see with the quality of 'muditā' (sympathetic joy) at nature's achievement.
If we can find faith in all this as a possibility, we have a hope in those enlightened already and those to come as being able to take human consciousness forward beyond its material constraints. We see the Earth is the perfect training ground for the mind striving for enlightenment and therefore we do whatever we can to preserve it. Having a few more enlightened beings in the world already will also certainly help to preserve the Earth. Interestingly, many Thai Buddhists believe that while there are enlightened beings on the Earth, the Devas (heavenly beings) will protect it from destruction. This is inspiring but I hope such beliefs don't take the place of ecological responsibility on the human level!
To sum up, in addressing these three questions I hope we have done something to tackle the human greed, hatred and delusion respectively that are both at the source of the ecological crisis and are the results of it; they are indeed the forces behind this destructive cycle as a whole, as they are behind all other suffering.
How do we fit together the different strands of the Buddhist attitude toward nature? On one hand there is the truth of interconnectedness, an attitude of respect and harmlessness; and on the other hand a goal of transcendence, to escape from the suffering of samsara. Surely, we might think, one is positive and the other negative? Are they reconcilable?
Let us take the tragic yet also ultimately liberating truth of the impermanence of all things as the central view of Buddhism and look from there. First of all we can understand that it is a positive, loving view of the world that sees impermanence as a tragedy. A negative view of the world would see impermanence as a good thing, good riddance. Have we been too quick to assume that a negative view of samsara is a negative view of the world?
Secondly, have we too quickly made the mistaken assumption that liberation comes about through having a negative view and trying to get away? Liberation does not come about like this at all. There is no place for negativity in the search for transcendence. The Buddha describes trying to get away like this (through 'vibhava-tanha') as like a dog tied to a pole trying to get away by running round and round it. This is not the way. We cannot escape through desire. Liberation comes not through trying to withdraw from this world but through examining it clearly and completely with a peaceful, open mind and penetrating it to its very core. The natural result of this will be to let go and find freedom from attachment and suffering, not somewhere else or at some time in the future but right here and now. To be capable of this the heart must not only have the wisdom to see suffering clearly but also the compassion to see suffering and stay put.
The real purpose of Buddhists withdrawing into nature is not to try to get away from it all but precisely this kind of examination. The deepest truth is to be found in our relationship to nature and to our bodies that are part of nature. The only true way out is to truly enter in, with open and compassionate eyes.
If this is our understanding and our practice there is no contradiction between our love of nature and our search for freedom. Freedom will be the essence of all things.
Buddhism offers us the hope of finding a safe refuge beyond the body in the blissful emptiness of the mind through letting go. Thus to a Buddhist who has faith the response to the possible end of the world or to the end of our lives is the same. Meditate and practice Dhamma before its too late! For those with less faith in a possibility of life after death but faith enough to meditate, the same practice can still win the refuge of a source of peace and stability of mind through difficult times.
Our first refuge will be the natural mindfulness that comes from virtue, from a lack of remorse that takes the mind into the past and a letting go of the desire that pulls the mind into the future. This path of faith culminates in samādhi that seems a bit like finding a way within our minds to blast off into space! Yet where will we end up? Do we know?
And what about the world?
If we add wisdom to such faith we realise that we can find a safe space, a deeper refuge within the world. If the world survives or ends we can we stay right where we are, within the empty mind. Then we know where we will end up. We will end up right here. We can get to know this emptiness here and now and find that it is naturally full of spiritual qualities. We find out how this emptiness relates to any phenomenon that comes within it in a way that it remains empty and free. We learn how to relate to all the movement of the world and remain still, at peace, secure. Then, here in this down to earth spirituality, compassion also flowers and the practice becomes wider, not just about meditation.
Then wisdom takes us to the highest refuge. This is the wisdom that sees the impermanence of all things and lets go. The mind that lets go like this is then not withdrawn but detached, the mind is in the world but not of the world. And yet to see and let go completely the mind must be able to look on from a secure refuge. Building such a refuge is therefore our task.
During this last spell of unusually hot weather has been the first time people have expressed to me their personal fears of global warming. In my forty years as a Buddhist I had been involved in many political or ideological discussions before with the strong connections between Buddhism and green politics in the Western world but I have never seen such simple, raw fear. I can hope that this is a sign that people are beginning to wake up and that there may be a renewed vigour in the green movement, personal and political. As a Buddhist I find new resolve to set a good example in terms of frugal living and clear lobbying, to do my best and then have to accept whatever happens, happens.
Also I can hope to be able to offer some guidance to others on how to work with the mind through this crisis.
As in all other areas of life we are making our own personal karma one way or the other through our own behaviour. Thus if we can remain present and centred then this will be the main source of karmic results within the mind. If we behave well we can live with a clear conscience. Physically, however, we may still have to bear with the crisis, with the collective karma of mankind. We will need to work with ourselves in order to accept this. We will need to continue to see ourselves as part of the mankind that has caused the crisis and not separate ourselves from it.
The ideal in terms of our relationship to the world as I see it is to find the compassion not to withdraw, to keep a humble, frugal voice alive in the world, and to have the wisdom not to attach to the world. With wisdom we can understand that we can survive when the truth that is the real essence of our minds can survive. This can be our Refuge in Dhamma. With wisdom we can then reflect that the survival of the group, the culture, is more important than that of the individual, this is the first letting go. This is our Refuge in Sangha. To let go of attachment to the body we can ultimately also discover a higher happiness and freedom than any worldly happiness. This can be our Refuge in the Buddha. As a monk these Refuges are what I am striving for, within the world and beyond it, for myself and for others.
More articles on this theme will follow. In the meantime let’s pray for rain.
What I mean by contemplation is a kind of enquiry that draws meaning out of things, seeing things the way they really are, rather than adding meaning, whether in terms of our personal feelings or ideals. We can all at times value art, philosophy or poetry but what potential do these things really have to lastingly change our lives? I would suggest that when used for truly deep contemplation they can transform us completely. Perhaps some would agree that such contemplation is transformative but even within contemplative circles how well is this process of transformation understood?
The Buddha gives us a model for understanding both the nature and method of contemplation and explains the process of transformation, what it is and how it works. Then, of course the Buddha has a particular goal in mind. Yet we do not have to be seeking the same goal to enquire in the same way. All we do is meditate to make the mind peaceful and take another look at life with a calmer, emptier mind in order to really take it in rather than imposing all our ideas on the world. As we do this then we can see what we are doing and the result for ourselves. The mind can become happier and calmer still. We can then also compare what we see with what the Buddha describes having seen or not, as we wish.
Then how we understand and express the results of our contemplation can become very important. Mastering all this can then help not only ourselves but also others. Contemplation can lead us all in a happy direction or it is possible for it to become another source of ideals or feelings that do not make us feel happy or free. It is then the further art of aesthetics, becoming aware of how we are looking, opening up to and appreciating things in different ways that can be developed to guide us. This art is more implicit than explicit in the Buddha’s teaching. The Buddha simply paints a beautiful picture of the spiritual life. A sense of beauty that is based on truth and frees us rather than binds us. The presence of the Buddha and his disciples undoubtedly added to this. In the present day we may need to paint another kind of picture to inspire the mind.
Perception is the primary force in the mind. To gain control over this and take it in a good direction is what can take us to peace and liberation. The Western spiritual tradition is very rich in its creative art and intellectual expression. These skills seem to be a strength in the Western mind. I believe that the Buddha’s teaching can help us harness these skills into a genuine spiritual vehicle. Otherwise, as history shows us, these powerful skills can also be destructive.
The method used in teaching Dhamma is for the listener to meditate and to empty the mind so that the teacher's words can enter fully. The teaching can then have an immediate impact on the listener, taking their mind deeper. If we recognise this as the method then when this direct effect is not happening we will be wondering why. We can be comparing our experience with that of the speaker in order to understand their message in a more indirect, analytical way.
We can be thinking, for example,
"This teacher is emphasising concentration. This is difficult for me right now. I will try to remember his advice when I go out into the country at the weekend."
As meditators we can realise that it is possible to consciously place thoughts anywhere within our field of awareness. We tend to do this unconsciously in the way we think. Sometimes this is helpful, sometimes not - in psychology there is a growing literature on 'cognitive metaphors' that function like this. Events in the future are not literally ahead of us but if we imagine them there this makes sense so it is a useful way of thinking that orients us clearly. As meditators we can see more subtle implications of the perceived position or movement of mind states. For example there is a real sense in which more refined states of mind are higher, raising the mind in space is purifying because we are drawing it away from its attachment to its material ground.
Discovering these mental dynamics gives us all kinds of new ways to work with our minds.
Also revealed is the true relationship between the mind and the body.
Bringing heaven forever down to earth
Everything we experience, although it has its origin in the world, is in our mind. All our experience is subjective. The Dhamma concerns this subjective experience. The world of suffering (saṃsāra) and the world of ultimate happiness (Nibbāna) are essentially not places but states of mind. Which one of these we experience depends on the relationship between the mind and the world. The truth of the Dhamma is that which makes our subjective world perfect in every sense, which makes it free of suffering through creating the proper relationship of our minds to the world.
This relationship is one in which the mind first of all finds its way to heaven on earth. We do not have to go somewhere else or wait until we die to experience heaven. We can find heaven in the blissfully empty mind (samādhi). Samādhi is the natural result of having the kind of virtue that lets go of our own desire. For it is just desire that fills our minds with all the things of the world. This heaven will not just be ours either. Our virtue will bring a little bit of heaven to anyone we come into contact with. Imagine a whole world that kept moral precepts, no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct, drink or drugs. This is making the world into a kind of heavenly abode, albeit an impermanent heaven.
This is very different from thinking of heaven or a higher happiness as somewhere else. This can lead to a negative judgement and desire to get away from the world or a restlessness. In this respect it can really help us to reflect that ultimately, whether we want to go to heaven or not, there isn't anywhere completely separate to go. There isn't anywhere that is not somehow connected to this impermanent world because everything within this universe is interconnected in a causal web. The stable emptiness of the mind that can become our refuge, right here and now, is as far as we can go. Even this emptiness is connected to all the objects within it. This emptiness, this empty mind, has to realise the proper relationship of detachment to the things of the world in order to remain empty - it has to be an emptiness we let go into not one we reach for, not some kind of spaced-out state.
Finding this detachment, this light touch on life, is a matter of seeing clearly, with the wisdom that can help us let go. Yet we also need a quality of compassion or appreciation that helps us to stay with the world and not try to go somewhere else. This balance exists within the mind, in the material world and in the relationship between the mind and the world which, coming all together, I often compare to a kind of spiritual aesthetics that can appreciate the sense of a harmonious relationship between form and space - spiritual art or architecture can evoke this sense. Furthermore through this we may form a picture of our spiritual qualities in the world to sustain a unified experience – samādhi as like the sun, wisdom like the sky...
Ultimately, the relationship of detachment can become permanent, natural. This state of detachment is enlightenment, Nibbāna. This too we can realise before we die, through the wisdom that helps us let go. Nibbāna is the emptiness we let go into, it is the result of letting go of our attachment. Then, when we die, we can remain in this state after death. This is our 'original mind', the mind's most natural, stable state. It is the state that the mind abided in before it was born into the world of saṃsāra and returns to when saṃsāra ceases. Therefore no effort is required to sustain this once it is fully realised.
This is bringing heaven firmly and forever down to earth.
Given an expanded psychology there is no reason for mysticism of any kind.
All the phenomena associated with the spiritual path can be explained in terms of a greater, expanded view of the mind. This includes rebirth and the existence of other realms. All this can be seen as phenomena of the mind because ultimately everything we experience is experienced within the mind.
All we experience is the knowing of information or meaning. This is all there has ever been to our experience and is all there will ever be. This whole realm of information is formed in parallel with that of being. This is not some kind of inert phenomena. Truth can be as formative as matter or energy. It is just as alive if not more so than being.
Although we may even use the terms of mysticism in order to evoke the special or unique qualities of spiritual realms we need not create any mystical 'beings'. This is as long as we understand that some phenomena exist just within the mind that have a completely independent existence from our own psychological processes. This is to give these things in one sense the status of beings in that they are as much a being as anything else that seems to be so. Yet we recognise that everything ultimately only seems to 'be' anything. This is a crucial point. Liberation of mind comes from realising that there is no need to be or become anything in order to survive. In fact we had better not become anything if we want to survive. Everything that is born, dies.
Let me now give an example of a different view of a mystical phenomena: A person comes to a monastery to make an offering in memory of a deceased relative believing that this will assist their relative in some way. We can think of this as helping a spirit in mystical terms or we can reframe in terms of the mind. To make an offering is to do something positive in memory of someone. We add something positive to the memory which in psychological terms is that deceased relative within the mind. In terms of an expanded psychology we could understand the deceased person's spirit to be associated with this memory - the truth that the person really represents has its source in their 'spirit' and its influence also elsewhere. The surviving relative may be in touch just with a memory or with something closer to this source. Either way the act of offering is valid, having benefit for both parties.
If we see the Buddha’s spirit in the same way as that of this deceased relative we see His 'spirit' as having enormous influence in the world. His Dhamma as a universal truth which lies in everything.
So what might an expanded psychology look like overall? Conventional psychology concerns the realm of form. What we need to add to this is the phenomena and dynamic associated with the empty mind or space of the mind. Also the different kind of forms that can arise within the mind when this emptiness is complete or pure. If the mind is truly empty it is no longer creating or fabricating based on the data of the senses so what arises is a more direct experience of form, a pure perception free of conceptual bias.
To conclude this expanded psychology is not, I would emphasise, some kind of secularism. This is is different understanding of what spirituality really is. It is a view of spirituality that still has magic but demystifies this. Greater understanding is then greater power to the mind.
So I hope these reflections can help those people who cannot believe in mystical phenomena to find a new understanding of them that does not require belief. For those who already hold these beliefs maybe this can help them understand more clearly the true nature of what it is they believe in.
Truth as essence
If we see the mind as consisting of information the essence of the mind is truth or meaning (Dhamma). Then, if we say that 'awareness' arises out of information and 'knowing' arises out of truth, we are aiming to raise all our awareness to the level of knowing.
Ultimately this brings the mind into a different relationship with the world, to a unified experience. The truth and its knower are one and the same in the case of the highest Dhamma. In other words, "he who sees the Dhamma sees the Buddha."
In all other cases the truth and its knowing are separate in some way. This is because the result of this ultimate knowing is for the mind to let go and enter into emptiness, ultimately into Nibbāna (in the coming together is the letting go). Then the essence of the mind is Nibbāna. So there is only conditions in the mind there is no longer a mind within those conditions.
In fact Buddha, Dhamma and Nibbāna are all the same:
We see the Dhamma, let go and Nibbāna is the result. So the Buddha and Nibbāna are in this sense the same. They are both the result of having seen the Dhamma.
The Buddha and the Dhamma are the same in the sense that the Dhamma is the impermanence of everything; the Buddha is time itself.
Yet we have to be careful that we take the right emptiness to be Nibbāna. There is more than one kind of emptiness. Even the emptiness of the unenlightened mind (the citta) goes unaffected from life to life, the suffering arising and ceasing within it. Only the enlightened mind is free of suffering, it does not arise - this is cessation (nirodha).
This is liberation through truth not just a leap into space. So the search for liberation is one of truth not just samādhi. We consequently need to stay in the realm of truth or meaning to realise the truth and not drift into the realm of being anything. It is space within this realm of truth that is liberation.
Hence 'being space' is close to liberation. Very deceptively close and yet suffering can arise within all spaces but one, the space of Nibbāna.
But have we come up with a view of the deathless reliant on perception and therefore bound to the senses the same as any other consciousness? No. The mind relies on perception to enter Nibbāna but does not rely on perception to stay there because it has rediscovered its original nature. The mind has not gone anywhere. The mind is in the world but not of the world, there is union and transcendence together.
Realising the essential knowing nature of the mind is to get back to its original source, the original mind, there before we are born and there after we die. This is a mind that can come in and out of existence having an independent source. We can discover this through the experience of samādhi. The mind beyond the senses in samādhi is like the mind before it comes into the world. The state of samādhi can still be there when the phenomena of the senses reappear as an open, spacious, pure mind or heart free of the hindrances. Unless this samādhi is completely pure, however, it will deteriorate as the mind enters fully back into the world.
So there is only one kind of samādhi related to wisdom or knowing which remains pure and we realise we have discovered the original mind.
In Zen they search for this through repeated enquiry "what was my face before I was born". In Theravada we see this original mind as simply the result of letting go of everything. Letting go occurs through knowing so the mind that lets go of everything is the mind that has knowing established as a natural state, as its essence. We ultimately even let go of all sense of a "one who knows" or a centre to this knowing.
One way in which we can try to keep our mindfulness or our samādhi without the wisdom of letting go is through passivity. We do not enter in to the world at all, it is not just our heart that does not. This is flawed. Our minds will just get dragged back in to the world or the world will flood back into the mind through all that we are failing to do. What is required for the heart to remain pure is detachment within activity. This is the challenge or training that true spiritual life presents us with.
So in this way we can see through samādhi all the dynamics of the mind and heart. We do not need to speculate as to the nature of the transcendent mind.
Then if we have faith we can open to the possibility that this mind goes beyond death. Many great arahants have tried to show this to us. They have had relics of their bones kept after their cremation and then these have multiplied or grown showing that they have not really departed.
The illuminated mind
We practice meditation first of all to bring more attention to our thought process and to our feelings. In particular to help us to clarify how we really feel about things. In the longer term through the practise of meditation we can come to see the mind in a different way. Our inner light goes on and we can see objects within our mind in the same way as we see them in the real world. We see our imagination projected onto the world of the senses. When we are withdrawn from the senses our imagination is clear and bright. In this way we are then completely clear.
St. John of the Cross, if I understand correctly, described the spiritual life as one of this kind of illumination being followed by 'purgation'. First of all we see our minds and heart very clearly, then we go through the process of purifying the mind. This way of operating is very much applicable to the tendency of the western spiritual quest to be, on balance, thought out rather than purely devotional in character. Rather than, in Asia, having faith in a path of virtue to purify the mind the westerner needs to be able to see moral cause and effect operating to really get the sense of knowing what they are doing and why (I am reminded of a discussion I had with the great Luang Por Pannavado who said to me that before he could really concentrate on his practice he had to understand what he was doing and why). The advantage is that this then gives the practitioner the ability to work with the mind as well as actions of body and speech in the process of purification. This, it seems, makes the process for the Westerner slower but more thorough. The process of purgation also, as the word suggests, is one of an amount of inner turmoil. We can be battling with our minds early on in the path. It can be more practical to get a hold of outward moral action to begin with. Yet there is a noble quality to this battle and it pays off in the longer term.
If I understand “The dark night of the soul” by St. John of the Cross then the only pitfall we have to try to avoid is becoming attached to the process of understanding, to the intellect, as an end in and of itself. Often this is a matter of clearly delineating the intellectual domain with regard to subjective and objective sources of information and with regard to conventional and ultimate truth. This is clarified by addressing the mind and body together, the mind-body problem.
The mind-body problem
As spiritual practitioners I do not think that we need to argue with the view that the mind is dependent on the brain. We just need to see that the information or truth contained there still has, to a large degree at least, a life of its own. The 'extended mind' theories perhaps show us how this life extends into the world, is not separate from the world - so our mind in informational terms is not just in our head, a perception that it is useful to dispel.
But actually, objectively speaking, it is still very difficult to solve the mind-body problem. Subjectively it can be solved, the mind-body problem does not have to be a problem. It is not so difficult to enter into a subjective experience that is not too heavily influenced by an objective view. Meditation can help us here. Taking the mind beyond thought takes us beyond many of our objective views toward the raw subjective experience.
Yet to survive we will always need to deduce an amount of objective information in our experience. This is a confusing situation for us as human beings. It is hard to perceive life clearly the way it really is objectively and to avoid this getting mixed up with the subjective aspect. There are bound to be blind spots and biases. Accepting this fact is the only solution we need to this problem. If we can realise that the conventional truths of our life in the world are merely an attempt to sort out the information that is coming to us from different sources we can settle with a functional understanding on the conventional level. We can help each other as human beings to come to a common agreement but we need to recognise this agreement for what it is, just an agreement. It is only if we take conventional judgements as in some way ultimately true that we then blind ourselves to ultimate truth or fix ourselves in a particular conventional view.
In terms of what we really know we need to keep this to simple universal truths to be able to be confident and to really see in the way we think. The Buddha gives us such truths that furthermore, very significantly, cut through our very desire to analyse the world. Less desire also means less bias in the discrimination that remains necessary.
The principle truth the Buddha points out is that of impermanence. Very significantly the truth of impermanence covers the phenomenon of the mind as well as the body. So there is no need to discriminate in our experience what is real or not real, objective or subjective, in order to be able to see the truth of impermanence.
Pointing out the impermanent nature of conditions and our inability as human beings to find any real security or control furthermore takes our intention elsewhere. In the search for enlightenment we do not need to analyse the world beyond the basic, functional understanding we need to survive. We are looking instead for a more stable basis for the world of truth.
The truth of impermanence may be simple but to perceive the world in this way is still not easy, its scary. We need to find some kind of faith, courage or sense of a refuge to get past this fear and be able to calmly observe. It is in fact this calm and peace that is our first refuge. It is this calm that we then develop further, through the wisdom that sees impermanence, to become our ultimate refuge.