Zen Master Hui Hai: does the Absolute ever change?

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It’s all too common for seekers of enlightenment to fall into conceptual traps. Rather than using beliefs to free themselves from beliefs all together, the verbal teachings are instead often clung to, like a drowning man clutching at a straw.

One concept that can be useful along the way is that of the Absolute, but like all concepts it is also a potential trap, in that we can fall into believing in the Absolute without any real experience, or worse, only a partial experience that gives us the false impression we actually know something when we in fact do not.

In this following passage we see Ch’an Master Hui Hai in dialogue with a Tripitaka master, (The Tripitaka are the traditional written scriptures of Buddhism, so this Tripitaka master is a scholar of the written Buddhist scriptures). Deliberately Hui Hai gives the ‘wrong’ non-traditional answer initially in order to free the questioner from fixed views and show that the Teaching (Dharma) can be expressed in a myriad of ways.

At the end  of the dialogue the Tripitaka master expresses his respect and amazement at how the Southern school – the ‘Zen’ school of sudden enlightenment of which Hui Hai is part – is truly unfathomable:

Once a Tripitaka Master asked: “Does the Bhutatathata (Absolute Reality) ever change?”

The Master [Hui Hai] replied: “Yes, it does change.”

The Tripitaka Master retorted: “You, Venerable Ch’an Master, are wrong!”

The Master then asked the Tripitaka Master: “Does the Bhutatathata exist or not?”

The Tripitaka Master answered: “Yes, the Bhutatathata does exist.”

The Master replied: “So if you say it does not change, then you are just an ordinary, worldly monk. Doubtlessly, by now you must have heard that the lowest vices can be changed into the highest virtues, the three poisons into the three cumulative disciplines, the six consciousnesses into the six supernatural powers, all the defilements into Bodhi, and the most abysmal ignorance into the highest wisdom. Thus, if you say that the Bhutatathata does not change, then you, a Tripitaka Master, are really a heterodox-sect follower. [ie. a heretic]”

The Tripitaka Master responded: “If you put it that way, then I have to admit that the Bhutatathata does change.”

The Master retorted: “But if you, indeed, hold that the Bhutatathata does change, that is also a heterodox view.”

The Tripitaka Master asked: “Ch’an Master, you just said that the Bhutatathata does change, but now you say it does not change. How can that be?”

The Master responded: “If one sees his own nature clearly – which, like Mani-Jewels, can manifest itself in different colors – then he is correct in saying that the Bhutatathata both changes and does not change. In contrast, however, if one has not seen his own nature, he will, on hearing that the Bhutatathata changes, grasp at the idea of mutability. Also, oppositely, he will, on hearing that the Bhutatathata does not change, grasp at the idea of immutability.”

The Tripitaka Master concluded: “Now I really understand what is meant when it is said that the Southern Ch’an Sect is truly unfathomable!”

This last answer of Hui Hai is particularly instructive – he essentially states that the Truth expresses itself in different ways, just like jewels can be of various colours. If one has intuitively seen this Truth, then one can correctly express this truth, even with seemingly opposed verbal statements, as these statements are coming from a ‘place of Truth’. However, for one who has not seen, the verbal statements are always incorrect, even when they are ‘officially correct’, as the essential insight is not present, and the statements are not expressions of Truth but expressions of the ignorant ego-mind.

These ego/ignorance-ridden statements are not liberating – they are simply a clinging to an empty doctrine. These insight-less statements merely give strength to the false-ego that thinks it knows something, strengthening and perpetuating the ego/sense of separation of both the one speaking and anyone listening.

(Note that I use the word ego here as a synonym for ignorance, the false belief in separation or the false belief in a separate entity that authors thoughts and actions)

 

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Levels of reality

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Are there levels of reality?

I have often seen people talk and write about various levels of reality. Typically, they talk of the level of the absolute and the level of the relative. On the level of the absolute, everything is one, so they say. Whereas on the relative level, the level of being a person different rules apply. On the relative level differentiation exists, we talk to each other, we love one another, we get annoyed and irritated, we buy fast-food from time to time, and yet ultimately, at the highest and truest level we are told this is all oneness.

Well let me start off by saying that I reject the notion of levels of reality. I think reality has various aspects, but not levels per se. Now this may seem like a minor difference, a play of semantics if you will, but let me explain the difference.

Talking about the same thing in different ways

When I say reality has various aspects, all I really mean is that there are various ways you can talk about reality – actually there are various ways you can talk about anything. That doesn’t mean there are different levels of reality.

Lets take a simple example: lets take a human body. You can talk about a human body  in different ways. You can talk about it in terms of its size: you can say it is big, small, medium. You can talk about its age: is it a young or older body. You can talk about it in terms of organ systems such as the cardiovascular system or digestive system and how they function and describe the body that way, or you can talk about its anatomy and how various parts of it fit together. You can talk about the body’s name and culture – eg. maybe it is called John and it comes from the United Kingdom, you can talk about its occupation. You could talk about its fashion sense, its muscularity…

…ok ok, hopefully you get the idea: there are different ways you can talk about things. There are different conceptual frameworks from where we can view the body. And this is true for anything. We can talk about a pebble in terms of its age, size, geology or how good it would be to skim on a lake’s surface. We can talk about a lake in terms of its scenic beauty, how choppy its water are, its phosphorus content, or remark how it is all made up (mainly) of water.

Now, how many levels does a body or a pebble have? It doesn’t actually have any levels at all – there is only one body or stone (in the above examples) – it’s just that we can talk about them in various ways. In the same way there are no levels in reality, just different ways of talking about it.

No particular conceptual framework is intrinsically higher than another

Also note that no particular way of talking about the body or a pebble is intrinsically better that any other way. It just depends on what you want the conceptual framework to achieve. For example, if you want to skim a stone on the surface of a lake, then it’s less useful to talk about the geology of the stone, and more useful to look at it in terms of its shape and size with respect to achieving your goal (skimming it across the lake). You can’t legitimately claim that one way of viewing something is intrinsically higher and another way is lower, which is something you often hear when talking about ‘ultimate reality’ or the ‘highest level’. It just depends on how well the way you are conceptualising and viewing the object(s) in question fits in with your goal.

It depends on what you want to achieve

Similarly, it is not necessarily better to talk about the body in terms on physiology or organ systems compared to it’s occupation or fashion sense. As previously stated, it just depends on what you want to achieve. If the body has a disease, then understanding the physiology and how to correct any imbalance or defect in this is useful. Conversely if you are going out on a first date, then perhaps a degree of fashion sense would be useful.

No paradoxes, no contradictions

Also there in no contradiction in talking about a single object in different ways depending on the context. There is no paradox that a stone has both an age and a shape, or that a river is a single system made up of a variety of different things, all of which are in motion. There is a consistent underlying reality that underpins the various ways we talk about it. No contradiction or paradox at all.

Different ways of talking about the same experience

Remember, what we are talking about here is our experience of reality. Our reality is our experience – that’s all we know. We can talk about how everything we perceive is non-different to our consciousness, and we can also talk of how things interact within this consciousness, and the rules and consequences thereof. These are just different ways of talking about our experience and our experiences. No particular way is higher or lower, and there are no actual ‘levels’ that exist apart from our conceptualisations.

The description is not the described

We can chose how to conceptually carve up and talk about our experiential reality in order to achieve certain specific aims. To that end these conceptual maps are useful and often necessary. However we must not mistake any particular conceptual map of (our experience of) reality for reality, just as no particular way of describing the body is the body itself.

 

 

Absolute vs Relative Truth

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One way of talking about spirituality is that it is that which is concerned with the ultimate truth or absolute truth. The concept is that absolute truth is universal, never changes and can be directly perceived/experienced at all times and places. It cannot be learnt or accumulated as it is always already present and known. I use various capitalised words synonymously to describe it, eg. God, Truth, Love, Wholeness, Love, the Universe. The teaching is that its perception does not require special equipment (such as a microscope or telescope) and it does not depend even on the body, mind or senses. It cannot be described and defies and transcends all concepts. Absolute truth cannot even be divided into the absolute and relative, the division being merely a conceptual one.

It cannot be learnt or accumulated as it is always already present and known.

In contrast to this, worldly knowledge can be called relative knowledge or relative truth. This includes scientific knowledge, knowledge of skills such as a sports game or knowing facts such as how tall Mount Everest is. This knowledge is relative because it does not stand alone and is only true in relation to something else. For example the height of Mount Everest depends on various factors such as defining the point from which height is measured and the unit of measurement. The height will also change over time as the mountain topography changes. In fact one of the cardinal features of relative knowledge is that it changes over time depending on specifics relating to time and place. Relative knowledge can also be accumulated and developed over time. Lastly it requires the body-mind-senses to reveal/discover it.

So to summarise we have two concepts, the relative and the absolute. The relative is concerned with those things which change. We can lump all things that change together and call it the world. This world includes the world outside us, as well as our inner world of thoughts, feelings, emotions and psychic perceptions. The absolute is that which, in theory at least, remains the same no matter what. You could call this Spirit. It is always and already known by everyone whether they know it or not.

So to summarise we have two concepts, the relative and the absolute. The relative is concerned with those things which change…The absolute is that which, in theory at least, remains the same no matter what…It is always and already known by everyone whether they know it or not.

Strictly speaking, this division into relative and absolute itself is arbitrary, but because we take ourself to be a doer, this division is provisionally made so our mistake can be corrected. Once corrected, concepts of relative and absolute disappear (we see they are also false concepts), and all that remains is this, the unnameable. But until that point, the concepts are useful teaching aids pointing one in the right direction like the proverbial finger that points at the moon: don’t worship the finger otherwise you will miss the moon in all its heavenly glory. The flip side is that once you have seen the moon, you don’t need the finger any more. Teachings are always conceptual and are to be thrown away eventually.

Strictly speaking, this division in relative and absolute itself is arbitrary, but because we take ourself to be a doer, this division is provisionally made so our mistake can be corrected.

This means, according to my definitions above, talking about and working with emotions, feelings and thought processes is still in the domain of the relative world and so is not spiritual. I would even go as far as to say as that someone who is only interested in these things remains a materialist caught in the clutches of the ego. In this teaching we place our attention beyond the body, senses and mind (including any psychic powers and mystical experiences) and discover what appears to transcend and permeate everything.

Teachings are always conceptual and are to be thrown away eventually.

Now, before I get accused of being a nihilist let me make it clear that I am not saying that we shouldn’t do worldly things. Politics, medicine, health, social work, psychotherapy, psychic work, art, music, etc, all have their place and worth. But there is something more. I sometimes call this Spirit, but you can use any word that resonates with you. Or you can use no word at all.

Through discovering that which already (apparently) transcends the world (which is the same as discovering your ‘true nature’, that which you already are) you can ‘realise’ your Natural State. It’s just noticing something that is already here, but that noticing is powerfully transformative and enables us to realise that we are already, and have always been, free.

Once [the root mistake has been] corrected, concepts of relative and absolute disappear (we see they are also false), and all that remains is this, the unnameable.

The nature of Awareness

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This aware principle,
Is already always aware.
Without lifting a finger,
It is effortlessly present.

Within this awareness,
A multitude of phenomena spontaneously arise and fall.
Conceptually we say ‘multitude of phenomena’,
But in reality there is just One Seamless Experience.

Whatever phenomena awareness is aware of,
We can call ‘objects’.
No object is this aware principle,
No object is awareness.

There are no actual separate objects,
Just the appearance of separate objects.
The mind, using concepts like a sword,
Carves up our Seamless Experience into apparent parts.

Let us examine this awareness,
Which is not separate from the objects it observes.
Where does it come from?
What is its nature?

Observe, no particular object of awareness is awareness itself:
An object itself cannot be aware,
The perceived cannot perceive.
Therefore awareness is not an object.

There is no knowledge of awareness:
Awareness cannot be seen, touched, smelt, heard or tasted.
In this sense it cannot be known,
But awareness’s existence is self-evident.

What is this awareness?
– I don’t know!
But I know awareness exists. How?
– Because I am aware!

Observe, there is no awareness of awareness itself,
Only awareness of objects,
(Or in Deep Sleep or Samadhi,
the awareness of the absence of objects),
The existence of awareness,
Is inferred from the presence (or absence) of objects.

So what is awareness but an idea,
Based on the assumption of a subject, a seer?
Awareness is a merely a concept,
Indistinguishable from the objects it is aware of.

Objects are awareness,
Awareness is simply the presence of objects
(or the presence of an absence of objects,
as in Deep Sleep or Samadhi).
‘Objects’ and ‘awareness’ are two names for our One Total Seamless Experience.
See this at once!

All these words,
Simply trying to describe,
What is already our direct experience of life,
Right now.

Words simply point,
To the simplicity of this,
This which is so simple:
It is just our direct experience.

Truly,
What we conceive to be awareness.
Is nothing other than our everyday experience of objects,
This.

Truly,
What is conceived to be the Absolute (ie. the Subject)
Is none other than the relative (ie. objects),
This.

In this,
There is no object or subject,
No relative or absolute,
Just this, beyond words, beyond opposites.

There is only this,
Completely obvious,
Self evident,
Alive,
And elusive of conceptualisation.

Stop believing your thoughts

MDMTEB

Here is another chapter from the book ‘The Most Direct Means to Eternal Bliss’. For my initial (and brief) opinion on this controversial but useful book click here. This chapter focuses on thought and how thought gets in the way of direct communion with that which lies beyond thought. Continue reading

Maturing in our spiritual search: from experience to knowledge

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Most of the great spiritual traditions claim that there is something eternal and supremely infinite, something that is all-knowing, all-powerful and present everywhere (omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent).

If that is the case, then this Infinite must already be here, right now. If it isn’t already present right now, then it is not omnipresent. This is a vital point to grasp – if there is such a thing as the Infinite, then it must already be fully here, right now, otherwise it is limited and therefore not infinite.

It is not that certain mystical or transcendental experiences are experiences of the Infinite but our normal everyday experiences are not. No, all our experiences must be of Him. We must always be experiencing the Infinite.

This has several ramifications for the spiritual seeker. This means that the problem we face is not that we are apart from God and need to find Him or experience Him. No, the issue is that we are already always experiencing God but do not know it.

The issue is not one of acquiring a special experience or state of mind. It is that we do not correctly understand our current experience as it is right now. Even traditions that do not admit a God such Buddhism acknowledge that understanding, or insight, is what is key:

“If you do not have insight into the way you yourself and all things actually are, you cannot recognize and get rid of the obstacles to liberation from cyclic existence, and, even more important, the obstructions to helping others.”
Dalai Lama (from How to See Yourself as You Really Are)

Armed with this knowledge, we can mature in our spiritual seeking. So-called materialistic or worldly life is characterised by chasing experiences such as pleasure, power, fearlessness, pride and security. Many spiritual seekers just transfer this same pattern of yearning for worldly experiences into their quest for spiritual experiences. However as we mature in our spiritual search we can stop chasing states of mind and experiences – all of which are temporary – and instead start to try and understand our direct experience as it is right now.

This understanding or insight, whilst based upon our direct experience, is not a search for a particular experience, but an understanding of experience itself.

“That is why the insight that can liberate you from these afflictions is the key to happiness…Insight brings love, and love is not possible without insight, understanding. If you do not understand, you cannot love. This insight is direct understanding, and not just a few notions and ideas.”
Thich Nhat Hanh