SITTING: METHOD AND FUNCTION
A Talk by John Crook to the Swindon Buddhist Meditation Group
on 26th May 1997
The first minute or so of the talk never made it onto the tape. But it went something like this…
‘What is driving the mind?’ The key question in Buddhism is “What is driving the mind right now?’ What underlying drive pre-occupies us? On my way here this evening, looking at the countryside - la, la, la, very nice - maybe there were a few, underlying concerns driving my mind. Perhaps some preoccupation about money, some personal circumstance, or a relationship, or whatever. We need to really go into this question, investigate it. ‘What is driving my mind?’ We could ask ourselves that question right now. Turn it over, see what comes up.) The Chinese have a special word for it -“tsan”. A Ch’an master may, in the middle of this communion of silence of a retreat may suddenly below “TSAN!” Meaning “Hey! Hey you folks, where are you? What’s going on here? Investigate it! Find out! Don’t just sit there on your bums, sleeping, going into some self-induced trance. What’s the use of that?”…Investigate.
Remember the story of Matsa, who was a great sitter, and his master came along one day and said “Hey Matsa, what are you doing sitting there?” And Matsa’s reply was something like “Well I’m meditating, trying to become a Buddha” and his master says “Do you think you are going to make a mirror by polishing a brick?” These old Ch’an masters were quite rough! They weren’t all out… well they had a special idea about compassion and that was ‘stir people up’ - you stir people up it’s most uncompassionate (laughs) Give them a good run for there money, see what they’re made of. Different schools have different approaches.
Now I don’t quite know how it was that I ended up, the other day, on the phone to John asking him what I was talking about and he said “Well you’re talking about ‘Sitting: Method and Function’ “ Christ! (laughs). How did we get hold of that title? It sounds dreadful. I don’t know quite how we managed to get…perhaps it was probably me in one of my more academic moments just talking to John, John in his role of Cosmic Physicist (laughs). I don’t know but anyway that is what I am supposed to be talking to you about. And it’s…well in some ways it’s a straight forward topic, in other ways it’s quite difficult because, with a group this size, which I don’t know - we’ve probably all got a variety of ideas about what meditation is and what it’s function is. And indeed so you should have, I mean if you meditate you’re certainly doing it for something. I mean we could spend a lot of time going round the room saying “You, you, you and you, why do you meditate? Which methods do you use?” In fact I thought of doing this but when I saw…the people “Well not that one”. But however, the question is valid, I mean ask yourself it right now. I mean “What is my method and what is it’s function?” - that is “Why am I doing it?” in other words, you know “What?” and “Why?” - “What am I doing? Why am I doing it?” But I thought I would try to approach this more generally and then perhaps if we have some questions or something, maybe something a little bit more specific near the end.
We might as well start at the beginning and ask “Why did Buddha sit under the Bo tree and why did he start talking about it afterwards?” Ch’an of course, is part of the Mahayana but it reveres the early Sutras as well, and what I love about the early Sutras, the Theravadin Sutras, is that you can actually see the Buddha in those Sutras. In the Mahayana Sutras he is sort of on cloud nine somewhere usually asleep and getting Avalokiteshvara to do the work, in some sort of Cosmic trance, but in the Suttas, the Pali Suttas, he’s there, a living flesh and blood teacher with his problems trying to communicate, with questions about how should monks behave. - My God! Somebody or other’s gone and done something, well we’ll have to have a new rule about that then - it’s all dynamic, well worth reading. It gives one a strong sense of what this man was like. Extraordinarily intelligent, penetrating, very inquiring mind, I mean he had about five or six teachers all of whom wanted him to be their best disciple. He wasn’t having any of that because he could see through all their teachings, none of them were good enough, at least they all had flaws, doubtless good teachings but they all had flaws, they didn’t satisfy his investigative mind. Can you remember that in the end he came to essentially some very simple notion, like all great scientific ideas - in a way this is a scientific idea, psychologically scientific idea, it’s a result of acute observation - he realised the most general experience of everyone is that life is not perfect, satisfactory. It might be satisfactory for a bit. It might be occasionally rather joyous, but it soon begins to present a rather sinister face to us, usually when a loved one dies, or there is an accident, or one listens to the news, something of this sort makes one realise their is an inherent unsatisfactoriness about life, and the Buddha called this dukkha. It is sometimes translated as ‘suffering’, not a very satisfactory translation, it’s a general sense that life is unsatisfactory. And why is it unsatisfactory - because even if we get what we want we can’t hold on to it. You know, so ‘I want to be beautiful!’. Well maybe when you’re sixteen, or twentytwo, or even thirtytwo, and apply the right mechanisms and keep yourself fit and go for jogging, maybe you are beautiful, but when you’re fourtyfive? Fifty? Sixty? I mean think of it, they wouldn’t call it beautiful, they might say ‘handsome’ or ‘good looking’ or ‘has a past’ (laughs). Yes, so it sort of fades and changes and doesn’t last, and so one realises that underlying this sense of unsatisfactoriness is this key notion of impermanence. That nothing ever stays. And that means nothing! Nothing at all ever stays. Somethings last longer than others for example that brass bowl over there may well last longer than any of us, you know brass has a certain inherent stability about it, it might be here in five thousand years from now, perhaps buried under some stone marked ‘ Ancient Buddhist Bowl Hat’. But even that brass bowl will eventually change, and so will the planet, and so will the sun, and so will the galaxies, and so on and so forth. So I might as well accept that the whole thing is just unstable. What do you do about that?
Well we seem, unfortunately, to have been born with an innate tendency to want things to be secure, permanent and safe. We want to be permanently beautiful, permanently handsome, permanently clever, permanently happily married, or not as the case may be, but happily not, and so on and so forth. And somehow we have the illusion that that state can be, you know, kind of for us, with us forever. We sort of play around with that, and in fact we almost have to because if we were worrying about impermanence all the time we’d end up by being profoundly depressed, anxious and God knows what, unless we did something about it. In fact it is usually people who have suffered who begin to do something about it. Until one has suffered, trully, often one doesn’t feel the need to do anything, after all life is quite pleasant provided one doesn’t think about these things. It’s great, especially if one is young with a developing career, family, young family, it’s exciting, it’s new, it’s marvellous. Yes it is, it is, the world is marvellous, but it is impermanent! It is a most extraordinary business, this whole business of experiencing life, it’s absolutely extraordinary. I mean we might not be here at all. We’re conscious! Look around the galaxy, you won’t find any other places with anybody or anything that is conscious at all but in some strange way we are conscious, and not only conscious but conscious in a most extraordinary way. We are amazingly brilliant. Amazingly brilliant at shooting up rockets in the sky. Amazingly brilliant, but very bad at understanding muggins. Unfortunately, it’s an extraordinary paradox, look at the mess this world is in. And yet this is the most intelligent species in the cosmos and yet look at the mess of this planet. It’s an amazing contradiction. And who’s responsible? In Buddhist terms - muggins! Because God is just another word for the whole cosmos, the whole bang shoot, it’s just another word for that, but it’s not a very interesting word in Buddhist terms. But the interesting thing is this extraordinary fact of experience. Now that is what the Buddha was concerned with, the whole of Buddhist philosophy is a philosophy of experience. It’s not a philosophy of the cosmos. Nowhere in Buddhism will you find a metaphysical explanation of why are the galaxies where they are. The Buddha, if you remember, always refused to answer such questions, but he did say ‘if you want to know a bit about suffering I can tell you a thing or two, because I’ve been through it and I reached a point where - well I know suffering. You may not agree with me but I know suffering. It came over me, like, while I was sitting underneath the Bo tree. I don’t quite know what that was but something came over me and everything has developed since then. Under the Bo tree there wasn’t anything to be wanted. If one doesn’t want anything there is no problem.’
So when we look at this question - ‘what is driving the mind?’ - 999 times out of, whatever it is, a thousand, you will find that you are wanting something. Beneath the surface, all the time, well maybe not all the time, but most of the time, and you’ll agree I think, but there is something wanting. Not always something that you want to get hold of like a large meal, or something, but some kind of wanting not to be anxious about X, or you know, something subtle, it’s called the subtle ego, subtle. So the Buddha was pointing out that unless one can do something about those subtle needs, the underlying unsatisfactoriness of not being able to take on this fact of impermanence, you go on generating suffering, dukkha, unsatisfactoriness. And if you want to find a way out of that well first of all you have to know that there is a way out of it, the third noble truth of course, and maybe, some time or other one has an experience in which quite suddenly…it’s fine, it’s OK…it is impermanent, nothing’s going to stay…it’s OK. And then of course you lose it and it’s gone, something comes up. Maybe you’re on a Greek beach and you suddenly realise ‘Oh God I’ve got to fly away back to London in two hours time’. No more Greek beach, English smog, fog. But what’s wrong with that! But can we cultivate a mind in which it doesn’t really matter whether one is walking through Picadilly in a rain storm or whether one is lying on a Greek beach. Can both of those things be alright? And if that happens to be the case, what is driving the mind at that moment? At that very moment of not wanting, is there anything driving the mind? At that moment perhaps the word ‘drive’ becomes unimportant. No drive!
So the Buddha said ‘You have to investigate these things. I know it’s very difficult’ even though some of his first pupils seem to have tumbled to it very quickly. It’s quite amazing in these early Pali Sutras, the Buddha says to somebody ‘I’ll tell you about it’, ‘Oh yes’, so they kind of listen and five minutes later they are enlightened. The Buddha says ‘Right, join me, come along!’ It’s clear that enlightenment means something perhaps a bit different here than perhaps what it means to us. Maybe it was accessible then because they weren’t making it into something miles away over the horizon, difficult to find. Maybe they hadn’t developed a vast great philosophy of that, maybe the word was a tiny word just like ‘oy woy woy’. Because if that is what it was, it would be quite easy to be enlightened. But the Buddha knew it wasn’t easy so he devised methods and these are the fundamental methods of Buddhist meditation. They go all the way from methods to not methods. In other words Buddhist methods tend to undo themselves as you go through them. Why? Because we don’t really want a method. We simply want to discover how not to want. How to sit here, or on a train, or in a car on your way back to Oxford, and everything’s just OK. Because at such moments there is a very moving and special experience - freedom. You know, freedom from the drive, whether that drive is something you bought from outside, or whether that drive is a personal circumstance, whether it is to do with money, all the things which we mentioned before, which are the drivers. Perhaps, for a moment, there is no driver! Ha! That might be dangerous when you’re driving a car (laughs).
Well the Buddha’s methods, of course, are described in the famous Mahasatipatthana Sutra, which is really a marvellous Sutra, there are several kind of versions of the Satipatthana Sutra which describes his basic meditative approach. But very briefly, what the Maha (the Maha or ‘big one’) the Mahasatipatthana Sutra, begins…well the whole thing is about ‘mindfulness’, and mindfulness is simply knowing what your at. But, you know, it is all set out in very careful order. Mindfulness of walking…when you’re walking. Now that sounds obvious, of course when you’re walking, you’re walking, what else? But oh no, you might not be walking! You might have your mind in your office. You might have your mind on some new exciting new-age adventure which you’re going to get involved in tomorrow. You’re not walking! You’re not walking! Walking to work, walk, JUST WALK! Doesn’t mean having the mind somewhere else. Doesn’t mean full. Someone says to you ‘Are you walking?’ and you say ‘Yes, of course I’m walking. Can’t you see?’ But do you know walking. Ah, that’s another matter. Buddha said ‘Awareness of walking when walking’. Mindfulness of walking when walking. Not to be reminded of it when by someone who shouts at you ‘Hey - you walking?’ ‘Yes, I’m walking (I didn’t realise I was walking but I suppose I am)’. Yes! Not an inference but an actual presence. Walking, sitting, running. Mindfulness of the body, whatever the body is doing. Mindfulness of…then there is a whole sequence of to do with movements, sitting, standing, breathing, very important, in one of the Satipatthana Sutras the breathing bit is hooked right out, taken away and made into the number one prime method. Above all the rest, but that wasn’t the Buddha’s Mahasatipatthana Sutra, the Buddha said be mindful of everything. Finally mindful of your thought. Which comes back to the question ‘What is driving the mind?’ If you’re mindful you will know what is driving the mind and you will say ‘Yes’ to it because that is the only way of dealing with it. It might be something troublesome, very troublesome. Might be a difficult situation with your partner, which engenders all sorts of powerful, painful experiences of great sadness, anger, resentment, all that, all that stuff. And we like to put all that away and say ‘Now I’m going to sit down now, in the communion of silence, and follow my Buddhist methods’ Very nice too, but it starts up again, churning. Very difficult!
Buddha said ‘What do you do faced with something like that?’ What you do is you say ‘ha! here it is, I know you, I know you. I’ve been doing you for some years. In fact it looks to me, when I really go into it, that I’ve been doing it since the age of about ten. Why did I start doing it. Well, this is a post-freudian culture so it must have been mum! If it wasn’t mummy then it was daddy, but between the two of them they fucked me up! (laughs) And they’ve been driving me ever since, I have no responsibility, mum and dad made me what I am, I’m a total neurotic, psychotic reck, going round in a hopeless relationship, no knowledge of where I should be or what doing and someone says ‘Buddhism’ so I come and think about Buddha. Ah, it’s funny but this silence helps me.’
Skandhas, know this term, the skandhas are the constituents of mind and the most interesting of them from a contemporary, psycho-therapeutic view point, is the samskara. The samskaras are often extremely badly translated, basically because I think the translators were looking at the dictionary and were not trying to see how this term worked. But I think that if you investigate that term you will find it means a pre-occupation, that’s to say a driver, something that’s driving the mind, a pre occupation. Here is a mind and it is pre occupied. Something has got in there first. Like what ever mummy or daddy did, or granddaddy and gran, whoever, whoever it was ‘did it’ they got in there and we’re pre-occupied by that and that’s a karmic samskara. Karma are these things which come out of the past. And one may or may not believe in previous lives, if one does then the doctrines of Buddhism are perfectly clear about that, that these samskaras, these packages of pre-occupations created in the distant…bounced down through time and are still here now as they were a thousand years ago. Maybe. If one is sceptical about past lives, the Buddha was never very emphatic about it, a bit shaky, but if you…shaky because of course, what was it that has?…You know what is a person?…mmm?…A person is all these mental things including samskaras - but there is very little doubt that these samskaras have certainly arisen, say, in preceding generations and been transmitted to us by teachers, by our government, by the state of mind of a country, by racial hatred, whatever it may be, all those are samskaras which are as it were, collective, which bounce down out of previous generations and because we are brought up within them we buy them and therefore we’re not only, as it were, driven by personal things from our Freudian childhood, we are also driven by the social prejudices which we have inherited from a long time ago. And that complex of samskaras creates the driver, or the drivers, the things which drive our minds and our attitudes.
Now mindfulness is a way of investigating that, but it has to be done with complete respect for how things actually are. You may discover things in yourself which you very much wish were not there. Hmm! Very easy I’m sure, just think of a few things and you’ll find something you very much wish wasn’t there. OK ‘Not that, wasn’t that…’ But if you are going to be mindful of it the first thing you have to do is say ‘Yes, here it is! mmm. Yeah! mmm. Some years ago I did so and so’ say, ‘and the consequences of having done that thing are still with me because I feel guilty about it’ say. Or shame or any of those particular emotions which pick up from the past and carry through into the present.
So the method of mindfulness is the number one method recommended by the Buddha, and I would put it too you that all the other methods as it were, are glosses on that fundamental notion of mindful awareness, because the curious thing is that once one is minfully aware of something, and you say yes to it, two things happen. The first thing that happens is that it loses power. Let’s think of something I might feel very regretful about. Maybe I’ve said something careless and hurt somebody in the morning, so in the afternoon this is niggling in the back of my mind and sooner or later I have to remember it, I either have the choice of pushing it away and forgetting about it, or I have to say ‘Yeah, that wasn’t awfully skillful’ But in that recognition it ceases to drive you because somehow I’ve been able to incorporate it into who I am. ‘I’m a person who made a mistake this morning’ And then you have a chance, possibly, to do something about it, maybe you can make amends, or something like that, but you have a choice to do something about it. So once there is a shift, an acceptance, that’s the key word, an acceptance, a recognition, then the power of the thing is lost, partly because we have a chance of doing something about it. So mindfulness is a way of reducing the obsessive nature of tendencies which drive us. Very obsessive, I’m sure you would agree. If you think of some of your personal worries, some of your personal concerns, they really are quite obsessive. They’ve got you. And the first step is to, and note, accept it. ‘Yeah. This thing has got me!’ And then you can really spend time looking at it, as it were, cool, calm and collected, and what’s driving you then? Cool, calm, collected you! You’re looking at the thing which was driving you before which was an obsession, so worrying, but by accepting it and getting it out of yourself by objectifying it, being able to look at it, you yourself are now in a reflective frame of mind. So if you said to yourself ‘What driving me now?’ you’d have to pause because you’re not actually…‘I’m just reflecting…driving is not quite the right word, I’m being mindful, right?’ And you’d be right. You are being mindful of this thing which only a few minutes before was really obsessing you, driving you, pushing you about, as if you were its victim. And in fact most of these samskaras make us feel as if we are victims. That’s why we tend to blame our mothers so much, forgetting or course, that if we’re female we are probably ourselves mothers or if, in my case, if I’m blaming my father, which actually I don’t, but if I did, I would have to recollect that I’m a father with two children aswell. Perhaps they are blaming me, in fact my son has a very good line on that (laughs). We have dinner together which daddy pays for, the best restaurants possible, in spite of the fact that he now earns a salary many times greater than mine, but this is to make sure that I’ve paid out for my iniquities. (laughs) Very good exercise in compassion. (laughs) It’s not as bad as all that, not quite, exaggerating slightly, but there is a hint there.
So one has to be mindful of these battles, and when you’re mindful of them then it is a different mindstate that you’re in. It’s cool, calm and relatively free. How about deepening that? How about making a habit of it? That is where meditation methods come in as a practise. One can make use of a meditative method as a practise to help clear the mind of these pre-occupations so that one can end up in a place where at least from time to time, one is mindful and therefore free! If you’re mindful, you’re free. You know certain things are going on but you yourself are free. A reflective mind, a mindful mind, an investigative mind in the sense of Buddhism, is actually a free mind. The problems may not be solved, but there is a freedom in the readjustment and the attempt to solve our problems.
Now let’s look at these methods briefly. Well satipatthana went into other countries than India. In Tibet, as you know, it was very finely tuned into the system of Mahamudra meditation, that began in India, but the Tibetans took it up and took to it. Mahamudra is a very beautiful system because every little step is written out. I’ve been very lucky in that a yogin in Ladhak that I met, gave me a text that his teacher Chugyam Padma Trugyam, of the last century, a Ladhaki - and James Lowe, who is a very fine Tibetologist, was with me in the Himalayas on a trip we did to investigate the yogins, has translated this Mahamudra text and it’s a very difficult text to translate because the technical terms in it all describe the gradual shifts in the different yogas of the Mahamudra system. But we’ve used this now three times at the Maenllwyd, which is my retreat centre in Wales, I don’t go further than page three, but pages one, two and three are a very useful way of bringing the mind to a very reflective, mindfull state, in which anything that arises, any pre-occupation which arises is treated in the same way. ‘Ha! Yes! Here it is. What is it? Ha!…mmm’.
In China it became Silent Illumination, Ch’an Silent…‘Mo Chou’ which is one of the systems we’ve been taught by my teacher Master Sheng Yen, to use, and it is one of the main things that I teach in Wales. We’ve just been doing a retreat using Silent Illumination. And then there’s the other practises of Zen and ,of course, the practises of the Theravada, which use focusing on posture, focusing on the breath, and various other approaches, most of which are there in order that the mind should become one pointed. It is very important with all these meditative practises that the mind should develop one-pointedness, that is it’s like having a lassoo, which you lassoo onto a wild bull - you know the bull stories, the bull pictures - catch the bull, which is the mind, in a lassoo, and it is the practise of meditation, like watching the breath which does that - I’m sure that those of you who have meditated using the breath for example, know that after a certain amount of stable time the mind does move to a quiet place. And the reason why it does that is that all the invading thoughts, the wandering thoughts which have come from these pre-occupations, they arise there and they try to invade the mind but they find a flaming wall, they can’t get through it, it is a wall of silent awareness of breathing. Because the mind has been given that job to do, that job cannot be pre-empted. Of course it depends on how good you are at doing it, because if there is the slightest chink they’ll get in and the thoughts will start up again. But with practise, and this is why meditation is something that has to be learned, with practise you can create that flaming wall which will hold the mind quite steady until such time that the invading thoughts become weaker and the mind becomes open. Now it’s not that the invading thoughts have completely disappeared, they’re just quiescent, it’s like mud in a pond, which without any wind on the surface and without any currents coming in, settles. The mud has settled, the water is clear. But this is a great difference, those of you who are practised meditators doubtless have discovered what a great difference it makes to move from the hassle of ones daily pre-occupations into the spaciousness of quiet sitting, using a technique of one-pointedness such as watching the breath, and there are many of them like using mantras aswell. In Chinese Ch’an of course, they invented something else as well, as you know, that is the ‘koan’ system. The ‘koan’ system places the emphasis somewhere slightly differently, it’s not on calming and clearing the mind, it’s on investigating it. Now this aspect of investigation is present both in Silent Illumination and in Mahamudra. It comes from the original Satipatthana thing, (which) had two aspects of it. The first aspect was Samatha, calming the mind, the second aspect was Vipassana, looking into the mind and seeing it. In both Mahamudra and in Silent Illumination, these two tendencies come together, the investigation of the…Silent Illumination means investigation, that is illumination, investigation of silence, that is the silent mind. So the first thing is to quieten the mind sufficiently to create silence which can then be illuminated through investigation. And the koans are the questions which as it were, power that investigation. ‘What is it?’ A koan of the Koreans - the Koreans they only have one koan - ‘What is it?’ You sit down ‘What is it?’ But of course, as you know in Japan a whole, immense kind of phantasmagoria of koans were invented. Which you walk your way through, you know, amongst Ch’an and Zen practitioners there is considerable dispute as to the relative values of these methods. But there is one thing that there is no doubt about, they are methods for lassooing the mind, generating one-pointedness which brings one to this state of calm…mindfulness, acceptance…knowing the samskaras but not being pre-occupied by them, and hence, freedom.
And that leads one to retreats. If one wants to practise meditation it is very important to go on intensive retreat. Why do I say that? Well it’s partly from my own experience and partly from the various teachers I’ve known all say, and that is that a mere half hour in the morning or a mere coming to a session like this once a week, however useful that is, and it is very useful, will not actually enable you to establish a really powerful and stable practise in which one-pointedness emerges naturally. The reason for that is that really one has to train the mind into doing it, and the only way to do that is to sit long enough on the cushion. It takes time for the mind to calm, and then it takes further time for the mind to develop the right way of looking into it so that it is illuminated. It takes time and it requires patience, and it is dependent also on each individuals personal karma, which means what they came with. Some of us have very difficult minds, we have to admit that to ourselves and work with it. As I sometimes say on retreat, everyone of us has a hand of cards, you know, this comes to us out of our circumstances, out of our parents, out of our teaching, out of our culture, race, whatever. It’s a hand of cards and that hand of cards has to be played, but often we’re extremely confused as to how that can be played, how best to play this difficult hand of cards. And by being aware of that hand of cards through mindfulness, it becomes more easy to play the hand of cards. But different people differ very, very greatly in their ability to play that hand of cards and in Buddhist terms that means it’s difficult to clear the mind. Difficult to find silence. Difficult to gain the illumination which is very important stage in the practise. One has to be patient. One has to be very aware of one’s own difficulties and problems and this is were a teacher on a retreat can sometimes be helpful. For such a teacher is usually fairly skilled having gone through the hoop himself, or herself, many, many times and being lead through that hoop, or forced screaming through that hoop by a teacher many times, so that when somebody comes and sits in front of the teacher, that teacher knows within a few words, roughly, what the problem is because he, or she has been there before. So it is sometimes helpful on retreat to be able to sit with a teacher and just say how it is. And if as a result of the interview with the teacher, or Dokusan, as it is called in Japanese, if you are thrown back onto your cushion without any sense of movement that’s an unfortunate interview and it’s not a very good reflection on the teacher either, because the teacher is not there to solve problems, he’s there to keep you moving to solve your problem. You solve the problem, the teacher doesn’t solve the problem, it’s you that solves the problem. But the teacher has the skills, perhaps, to help one keep moving, restore some faith, restore some hope, realise something good which you just missed, things like that. It’s not quite psycho-therapy but it’s very, very close to certain forms of psycho-therapy. - (there is an inaudible question from the audience here.) - More particularly things like Gestalt and object relations. That family, not so much Freudian, Jungian, that natter, chatter, chatter stuff, much more direct like Gestalt therapy, or good object relations therapy in the hands of (—). That’s the area with which we’re most similar.
Well function. Well now, perhaps we should grasp the difficult nettle of function. So far we’ve painted a picture in which really one is using these methods of Buddhism to be able to anwer the question ‘What’s driving my mind right now?’ in order to become minful of it and thereby reduce it’s power and to find a reflective state in which two things are possible. One, that the mind is relaxed and calm in itself and secondly, it is possible when you wish to turn the mind to it, to begin asking ‘Well what do I do?’ And also, in meditation and retreat all issues are struggled with in the same way so your taking on the whole lot. Of course they come up individually, but the whole lot.
So this leads to, of course, the folk stories about enlightenment, because I suppose the pat, quick answer to ‘What is the function of meditation and sitting?’ is ‘To get enlightened!’ Get enlightened! What is that? Well I think that most of the literature written about the subject of enlightenment is inherently badly understood, translated and indeed, misconceived. Only now are Ch’an teachers beginning, as it were, to get to the nitty-gritty of what’s actually said in some of these Chinese and Japanese texts. And to look at some of the more deeper masters who went beyond the experience, the cosmic bang, to ask ‘What happens after you’ve had one?’ The fact is, to summarise my own views on this, the word ‘enlightenment’ is a very unfortunate word because it’s become terribly inflated, like ‘God’ or ‘love’. You know you can’t use a word like ‘God’ these days because one is either for or against in such a way that the argument becomes metaphysical and difficult. ‘Love’ is another word, I mean ‘love’, a terribly difficult word. These are words which have become inflated so that they are either the root of some great ideology or great confusion. ‘Enlightenment’ has suffered rather the same fate. But let’s take it…de-mystify it a bit. There are two distinct uses of this term in Buddhism. The first is the ‘enlightenment’ experience. What is an enlightenment experience? In brief, it is an experience in which the thought…which generates the ego…is absent. I word that very precisely. ‘The thought that creates the ego is absent.’ The ego is that which wants and needs. Of course there is another sense of the ego meaning simply, the affective self, I’m using the word ‘ego’ here in the sense of ‘that which desires, needs and wants’. And that is generated, as we’ve seen, by the needs and wants which we’ve had. But if that is not present, if the thought which generates the ego is absent, you drop ‘self’, and then there is a full consciouness without self-reference. It’s rare, but it happens, and it happens in all of humanity. This is not a Buddhist thing. If you read Wordsworth, you’ll find in ‘The Prelude’ a very magnificent description of what, outside Buddhism, is sometimes called a mystical experience. In the Christian mystics you’ll find acounts also. All of these acounts tend to be tinged by the interpretations which are put upon them, but they seem to be a universal phenomenon. But all human beings, of whatever belief system, exept those which really exclude it by their severity, can allow this thought to drop out, but the mysterious thing, and there is a very mysterious thing about these experiences, is that you cannot make it happen. Impossible! We had a master from America, last June or there-abouts, and he kept hammering on the theme of ‘You can’t do it!’ ‘Man, you can’t do it!’ What he meant was that you can’t do it if you want it. And of course, everybody wants it. (laughs) The literature is terrible, it suggests that there is this great cosmic orgasm, somewhere or other, you just press the right tit and away it goes. Well it isn’t like that because there’s no control over this thing. It comes over you, as I sometimes say, like the song of a bird. If you think of a bird singing, say a blackbird singing in the evening, do you suppose the blackbird perches up on a branch and says to itself ‘Oh, I think it’s time for a good song! What shall I sing now? Perhaps I’ll sing this!’ (whistles) Blackbirds are not like that I’m sure. A blackbird just alights on a perch and a song comes over it, the song wells up within it and out it sings. We can go into all the genetics of that but…it just sings. Well similarly, sometimes, when one is not expecting it, the ego drops out. There are usually precipitating reasons, such as surprise, or hard meditation, or reflection, or stress, there are usually precipitating reasons for that. But, so, it’s not something you can do anything about, the logic of it is quite clear - if ‘I’ want something to happen, ‘I’ must still be present, right? - So as long as I want something to happen I cannot possibly have an enlightenment experience because ‘I’ am still there wanting it! The logic is absolutely clear. So it’s just no good even trying. Don’t try! That’s not where the trying should be in Buddhism. If your karma is fortunate, it arises. You can’t make it happen. You can only keep away from trying to make it happen and it might! In any case, so within Japanese Zen and in Chinese Buddhism, this experience is known as kensho, and the reason why it is important is that, whether within Buddhism or without Buddhism, this is a life changing event. Let’s not diminish the significance of these experiences. They are life changing! Because, suddenly, one sees from a position totally different from that of the desiring, wanting, needy person, the person unhappily wanting something. Instead of that there is no such person there and yet there is full consciouness and amazement of wherever one happens to be. Just ‘Dah!’. And on reflection afterwards, one realise that the mind contains some truths which you never realised before. The truth of not being present. Using the term ‘mind’ now in the sense of a thinking, wanting subject, sometimes it’s not present and yet consciousness is still there. Very paradoxical, hence the puzzles of the koans, all paradoxes are about that, this business of…So not for a moment must one underate the significance of such experiences. But the tragedy in Buddhism would be if the impression was given that enlightenment only meant an immense great struggle to reach this experience, as if there was some sort of, as I said before, some cosmic bang, which of course, is not what it’s like at all it’s really very, very quiet, very secret, very quiet, nobody would even know necessarily. You might be in the tube, or walking across Trafalgar Square, no big deal, very quiet, very subtle, or if it has been preceded by a great deal of stress, as in Rinzai Zen retreats, it might as it were, almost be forced upon you. But it would be a great mistake if in the teaching of Buddhism it was suggested that that was the be all and end all of Buddhism. ‘The function and purpose of Buddhism is to “get” enlightened’ meaning to have that kind of experience. That is not true!
There is the other, second, meaning of enlightenment, which is actually, really when you begin to meditate and think about it, much deeper. And that is the long, life time’s endeavour to be kind. I once was talking to Geshe Damcho Yonten who has a retreat centre in Gwent in Wales, he’s rather a recluse in Abergeshin, a short man, but a very dear person even though reclusive, and I was talking with him one day and I was getting rather enthusiastic and slightly over-enthusiastic about Buddhist philosophy, about emptiness, about all this, I was prattling away like anything, he was also prattling quite well, in his most extraordinary English, my English was becoming bizarre aswell, the two of us were having a great time, but there was a pause and he looked at me and he said ‘John, when were you last kind?’ Well that brought me to a halt I can tell you. When was I last kind? That was the second meaning - When were you last kind? And how can we discover how to be kind? And ‘kind’ is or course, the nice short, germanic word for ‘compassion’. ‘Compassion’ means being kind. Something simple like being kind, and yet can one always be kind? Sometimes it’s very difficult in a life situation to be appropriately kind. There’s been a lot of dispute, not dispute, discussion in Buddhism about when one might have to compassionately kill another. Famous story, for example, of a Boddhisattva on a boat where somebody went berserk, started running around with a knife killing everyone, and the Boddhisattva who was quite skilled with weapons - funny thing about a Boddhisattva to be quite skilled with weapons (laughs) - had to decide whether to use them or not. So he decided that there was nothing for it, this man was killing people, all the rest of it, meanwhile or course, getting himself some dreadful karma, so the Boddhisattva flung him overboard and dround him! Of course, he had to pay the karmic consequences of killing somebody, but the were somewhat ameliorated by the fact that he had saved the rest of the people on the boat as well as saving the murderer from the karmic consequences of doing even more murders. So, there’s a way out for Tibetans who are brilliant at getting out of this sort of thing. (laughs) If you want to find your way out of an existential problem, go and talk to a Tibetan. Much better at it than the Ch’an masters. Mainly because the Tibetans come at this whole issue from the standpoint of compassion. Now I don’t want to say that there’s anything wrong with going with wisdom, which is very much the Ch’an and Zen approach, that’s very important. But wisdom without compassion is pointless in the same way that compassion without wisdom is pointless. So you can’t just run around being kind, willy-nilly. Kindness has to be some sort of adjustment to suit circumstances. For example, take this following kind of situation which I was once faced with years ago. I was at a dinner party with some friends, my hosts were friends of mine, unfortunately one of the guests started making many, quite offensive, racist comments. Not about anyone present because there was no-one present about which such a comment could be made, but about the race situation in Britain generally. Well does one pass this off, does one realise that if one starts an argument, one’s hosts in such a situation may get embarassed. What does one do? This is a preceptual dilemma, that is why the precepts are the final cards in the Rinzai system. The precepts are of course, tell the truth, be compassionate, all that, so on, all the precepts. In the situation I was in it was clear that this racist motivated individual, who was speaking from ignorance, requires some sort of correction. How to administer it? That is skillful means! And the Buddha, quite rightly in those ancient days, went on a lot about skillful means. If you’re going to live in the practise of compassion in a world in which it is rather absent, you have to find the skillful means of applying it. So the second meaning of ‘enlightenment’ is someone who has, through life experience, discovered the skillful means of a Boddhisattva. And the skillful means of a Boddhisattva are primarily about being kind, appropriately, which sometimes means violence! Rare, but sometimes, obviously in extreme circumstances, but there could be occasions, which is why some Samurai have been claimed to be Boddhisattvas. This is of course, the far end of a continuum. Normally the skillful means used for kindness are otherwise than that.
So the life training of a Boddhisattva, becoming skilled in compassion and the use of kindness, becomes somebody of skillful means in all of this. That is someone who is enlightened, and note a very interesting, and perhaps a rather strange thing, a great Boddhisattva practising that form of compassion, might not have had an ‘enlightenment’ experience. Quite possibly, and yet, as that person became very old, others might well say if him, because, or her, because he or her would never claim it for themselves, but a third party might say, ‘that was an enlightened life…that was an enlightened life’. And perhaps one of the main funtions of Buddhism is to help us to develop the motivation so that when we are near our deaths someone will look at our lives and say ‘that was an enlightened life…that person made a difference’. Now I don’t suppose any of us will have anybody speak like that at our death beds, ha, I don’t suppose anyone’s going to come up and look at me and say ‘ah, that was an enlightened life’, I can’t imagine that happening, but if somebody says something like ‘he, or she, made a difference’, that’s the point. There was somebody on a retreat a few years ago…I was just trying to remember who it was - I remember who it was, a British Indian who works in Germany, and we were talking in interview and he said ‘What I want to do is to make a difference’, and he didn’t mean something enormous like becoming Prime Minister, he meant make a difference in that field of life within which he lived.
So let’s bring this to a close by saying that the methods of sitting, of practise, are there to help one calm the mind, and gain insight into the mind, and to discover this whole business we’ve been talking about, the area where one can accept, and be mindful of the actuality of where one is. Not some fantasy state were one might be, but the actuality of where one actually is at a given moment, and to discover out of doing that the two things of ours. One is the power of that need, or want, fades somewhat and the mind can become somewhat detached, clear and lucid, a certain kind of freedom. That’s one aspect of it, but the second one is what we’ve been talking about now, learning the way to be skillful, to try skillful means when generating a compassionate life. Well, I think that says enough.