Tag Archives: mind

It just keeps on getting better


Well, just in case anyone is wondering, I’ll provide a little update. I’m almost at the end of my first determined study of the Diamond Sutra, which I started in July. Yesterday I spent about two and a half hours on chapters 27, 28, and 29. There are only three chapters to go, but it’s really blowing my mind now — so I wasn’t quite ready to complete it today!

I am still sitting for 30 minutes every morning. I went through a very restless period for about a week or two when I kept quitting early almost every day (only about five minutes early, but I was in some weird agitated state, and my one leg hurt and I just couldn’t get past it). That was followed by about five days that were so excellent, I told someone that my legs had fallen off (I was thinking both of Dogen saying “Shed body and mind,” and of the legend about Bodhidharma’s legs falling off when he sat for nine years). Since then, I’ve had both kinds of days.

I went to another three-day silent retreat recently; I think it was my fourth one. Maybe my fifth. No, probably my fourth. Anyway, I realized that it’s quite likely that I will gain some new wisdom each time I go to a retreat, and so, even if they are damned inconvenient and very difficult, I will continue to go. When I’m able. I was inspired by the Zen master, who said he attends about one retreat per month. Whoa. That’s a whole lot of distance on the bodhisattva path, I’d say.

I came across a reference to a new book, Ten Zen Questions, not long ago. I had an Amazon gift certificate, so I bought it — and it’s inspired me to take a more active approach to questioning reality. I think a lot of Western Zen people put a big emphasis on a kind of psychotherapy style of practice — you’re looking deep within yourself to discover your true self, after all. But the explorations recounted in this book keep bringing me back to that Bodhidharma quotation about the mind and reality:

If you use your mind to study reality, you won’t understand either your mind or reality. If you study reality without using your mind, you’ll understand both.

Another way it appears:

Using the mind to look for reality is delusion. Not using the mind to look for reality is awareness.

Now, the author, Susan Blackmore, is definitely using her mind — maybe too much! But her accounts about her experiences on the cushion (and off, to some extent) have prompted me to watch more of the things my mind does — more than just my feelings and reactions and impulses, that is. For example, lying in bed this morning, I asked myself what I actually know (knew) at that moment, when my eyes were still closed. I knew I was on a bed and under covers. Did I “know” what bed I was in? I remembered getting into my own bed last night. But did I really know that was the bed I was in when I woke up — without opening my eyes?

The book and its questions have challenged me to look at memory, at perceptions, at my six senses (the 18 domains) from some new angles, which is very interesting. I am finding that more and more of what I consider to be reality is in fact just stuff in my head.

Another thing I noticed concerned vision (and memory). I was sitting on my cushion and asked myself what I knew about the room (where I always sit). I realized I could not see the floor lamp, which was about 18 inches to my right, but a little behind me. How did I know there was a lamp there? Of course, I remembered it. I bought it recently, to replace an old one that stood in the same spot. I remembered the old lamp too. In fact, I remembered both lamps equally well. So how did I know which one was there?

I feel as if I am pushing the edge of something. Give way, something says, pushing. The edge yields a little and springs back. I’m going to go on pushing it.



Knowledge vs. wisdom


As I continue to study the Diamond Sutra, I encounter references to “wisdom” quite often in the commentary. Of course this makes a lot of sense if you know that the Diamond Sutra is also called “The Perfection of Wisdom.” This sutra is the pithy condensed version, by most accounts — we also have the “Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines” and even longer versions, about two dozen in all, according to the Buddhist scholar Red Pine. The Diamond Sutra is complete in only 300 lines.

At the excellent blog thinkBuddha, author Will Buckingham recently considered the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. He was mulling over a politician’s lament that kids nowadays do not know some of the important dates and events in their national history.

Given the innumerability of the objects of knowledge, establishing if there are things that are worth knowing for everyone, and establishing what these things are is a difficult process … Nevertheless, just for the time being, I want to leave this question to the educationalists and policy makers, and to ask another question, a question that I think is often overlooked: the question of what exactly we do with the things that we deem worth knowing.

Here, I think, things become more interesting, because this question forces us to deal with the ethics of our relationship with those things that we know, or that we claim to know. Because it seems to me to be more important, in the long run, that we should treat each other well, than that we should know any particular facts about battles, commandments or laws of nature. [Source]

In other words, all that knowledge in your head, or my head (and they are the same thing, are they not?), is not good for anything at all unless we use it for good.

There’s a line in the Temple Rules of the Kwan Um School of Zen that often floats up into my thinking:

If a snake drinks water, the water becomes venom. If a cow drinks water, the water becomes milk.


There is something you can do


There’s a documentary video about Thich Nhat Hanh, called “Peace Is Every Step.” In it, the Zen master tells a story about an American veteran of the Vietnam war (there are a lot of Vietnam veterans in this video). The former soldier suffers a lot because of terrible things he did during the war. One memory in particular is tormenting this Vietnam vet — the image of five children who died because of his actions. He cannot get the five children out of his mind, more than 20 years later.

Thich Nhat Hanh told him that many children die every day. Some die because of the lack of one single pill. Some die from hunger. You could save five children, he told the former soldier. Why suffer so much about children who have already died, when instead, you could save children who are alive today?

You cannot bring back those five children from many years ago. They are dead. That is in the past.

But you can do something today. Right now. You can make a difference in the lives of other people. And if you did, you would lessen your own suffering as well.


Like and don’t-like mind


Last night I heard a dharma talk about dualistic thinking. It provided some clear examples of how we allow our thoughts to pull us around in different directions, without our considering whether it’s a direction that will be good or right for us and those around us.

It’s only in the past few months that I have been aware of how regular meditation improves my ability to control my own mind. After a year of daily sitting, there’s no doubt that this practice has changed the way I think. My convictions and ideas are not affected most of all — what’s most acutely affected is the mechanics of my thinking.

Because of this practice of watching my mind, I now see (in many cases, not al!) when my mind is snapping into an old pattern or assumption. When I catch it, I can look at it and see what’s really going on in my thinking. And I can change it.

Evil is done by oneself alone;
By oneself is one defiled.
Evil is avoided by oneself;
By oneself alone is one purified.
Purity and impurity depend upon oneself;
No one can purify another.

From The Dhammapada, tr. Gil Fronsdal, Shambhala Library, p. 40.


Buddhism, ‘a science of mind’


In the summer 2008 issue of Tricycle magazine, Jack Kornfield was interviewed. He was asked about the link between science and Buddhism. He answered:

In the opening page of my book, I quote the Dalai Lama: “Buddhism is not a religion. It is a science of mind.” But again, there isn’t one Buddhism. Buddhism also functions as a religion for many people — there’s devotion, religious rites and rituals, cosmology. In this way it functions as other religions do. But when you go back to the fundamental teachings, the Buddha’s main focus was much more a science of mind: Here is how the mind works, and this is how you liberate the mind and the heart from suffering, through compassion and generosity and the practrice of meditation (p. 48).

I always feel a bit cautious about the Western teachers of Buddhism — I don’t know which ones have made a New Age goulash from Buddhist and other philosophies. This interview left me with a favorable impression of Kornfield.

In various Buddhist temples around the world, I have seen people praying fervently before one or another statue of the Buddha, offering incense and mountains of fruit (and even cans of beer!). These practices don’t seem to fit with the Buddhist practice I am learning, but then, I wasn’t interested in Buddhism as a religion.

People follow a variety of approaches to Buddhist practice, and it’s not necessary to judge them or try to incorporate all these varieties into one single practice.


P.S. Today this blog received its 1,000th hit! Thanks for visiting!

Being ready for the thunderbolt


If your mind is clear, true knowledge is already yours. When you listen to our teaching with a pure, clear mind, you can accept it as if you were hearing something which you already knew. This is called emptiness, or omnipotent self, or knowing everything. When you know everything, you are like a dark sky. Sometimes a flashing will come through the dark sky. After it passes, you forget all about it, and there is nothing left but the dark sky. The sky is never surprised when all of a sudden a thunderbolt breaks through. And when the lightning does flash, a wonderful sight may be seen. When we have emptiness we are always prepared for watching the flashing.

— Shunryu Suzuki (in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind)