Practicing knowledge

This is continued from a previous post Problems with utilising conceptual tools:

Practicing knowledge

This brings us to the idea of practicing knowledge. Just to be clear, the knowledge we are talking of here is in the form of concepts, as described previously above. In this case whenever we notice ourselves suffering, we notice it is because we have identified as being the doer/body-mind. We then take up the sword of knowledge ‘I am not the body’ and use it to slay the ignorance ‘I am the body’.

Other similar ideas are concepts of identifying as being the witness or identifying as consciousness or considering the world and body-mind to be an illusion. These concepts all which work in a similar way to negate the identification as the doer/body-mind. Here’s an example from Yoga Vasisthta:

You are bound firmly on all sides by the idea, I am the body’. Cut that bond by the sword of knowledge ‘I am Consciousness’ and be happy.
Yoga Vasisthta

Whenever ignorance rises, we cut it down. When it doesn’t rise, we can leave it alone. Initially we may have to repeat the phrase ‘I am not the body’ or ‘I am Consciousness’ or ‘I am Brahman’ in our heads repeatedly, like a mantra, until it sinks in, but after sometime it is ingrained into us and we only unsheathe the sword when it is required.

To be continued in a future post: Discarding knowledge as ignorance

Krishnamurti: meditation, Indian temples, Vedanta


The following is an excerpt from ‘The Only Revolution’ by Jiddu Krishnamurti:

Meditation is not an escape from the world; it is not an isolating self-enclosing activity, but rather the comprehension of the world and its ways. The world has little to offer apart from food, clothes and shelter, and pleasure with its great sorrows.

Meditation is wandering away from this world; one has to be a total outsider. Then the world has a meaning, and the beauty of the heavens and the earth is constant. Then love is not pleasure. From this all action begins that is not the outcome of tension, contradiction, the search for self-fulfillment or the conceit of power.

The room overlooked a garden, and thirty or forty feet below was the wide, expansive river, sacred to some, but to others a beautiful stretch of water open to the skies and to the glory of the morning. You could always see the other bank with its village and spreading trees, and the newly planted winter wheat. From this room you could see the morning star, and the sun rising gently over the trees; and the river became the golden path for the sun.

At night the room was very dark and the wide window showed the whole southern sky, and into this room one night came – with a great deal of fluttering – a bird. Turning on the light and getting out of bed one saw it under the bed. It was an owl. It was about a foot-and-a-half high with extremely wide big eyes and a fearsome beak. We gazed at each other quite close, a few feet apart. It was frightened by the light and the closeness of a human being. We looked at each other without blinking for quite a while, and it never lost its height and its fierce dignity. You could see the cruel claws the light feathers and the wings tightly held against the body. One would have liked to touch it, stroke it, but it would not have allowed that. So presently the light was turned out and for some time there was quietness in the room. Soon there was a fluttering of the wings – you could feel the air against your face – and the owl had gone out of the window. It never came again.

It was a very old temple; they said it might be over three thousand years old, but you know how people exaggerate. It certainly was old; it had been a Buddhist temple and about seven centuries ago it became a Hindu temple and in place of the Buddha they had put a Hindu idol. It was very dark inside and it had a strange atmosphere. There were pillared halls, long corridors carved most beautifully, and there was the smell of bats and of incense.

The worshipers were straggling in, recently bathed, with folded hands, and they walked around these corridors, prostrating each time they passed the image, which was clothed in bright silks. A priest in the innermost shrine was chanting and it was nice to hear well-pronounced Sanskrit. He wasn’t in a hurry, and the words came out easily and gracefully from the depths of the temple. There were children there, old ladies, young men. The professional people had put away their European trousers and coats and put on dhotis, and with folded hands and bare shoulders they were, with great devotion, sitting or standing.

And there was a pool full of water – a sacred pool – with many steps leading down to it and pillars of carved rock around it. You came into the temple from the dusty road full of noise and bright, sharp sunshine, and in here it was very shady, dark and peaceful. There were no candles, no kneeling people about, but only those who made their pilgrimage around the shrine, silently moving their lips in some prayer.

A man came to see us that afternoon. He said he was a believer in Vedanta. He spoke English very well for he had been educated in one of the universities and had a bright, sharp intellect. He was a lawyer, earning a great deal of money, and his keen eyes looked at you speculatively, weighing, and somewhat anxious. He appeared to have read a great deal, including something of western theology. He was a middle-aged man, rather thin and tall, with the dignity of a lawyer who had won many cases.

He said: “I have heard you talk and what you are saying is pure Vedanta, brought up to date but of the ancient tradition.” We asked him what he meant by Vedanta. He replied: “Sir, we postulate that there is only Brahman who 5 creates the world and the illusion of it, and the Atman – which is in every human being – is of that Brahman. Man has to awaken from this everyday consciousness of plurality and the manifest world, much as he would awaken from a dream. Just as this dreamer creates the totality of his dream so the individual consciousness creates the totality of the manifest world and other people. You, sir, don’t say all this but surely you mean all this for you have been born and bred in this country and, though you have been abroad most of your life, you are part of this ancient tradition. India has produced you, whether you like it or not; you are the product of India and you have an Indian mind. Your gestures, your statue-like stillness when you talk, and your very looks are part of this ancient heritage. Your teaching is surely the continuation of what our ancients have taught since time immemorial.”

Let us brush aside whether the speaker is an Indian brought up in this tradition, conditioned in this culture, and whether he is the summation of this ancient teaching. First of all he is not an Indian, that is to say, he does not belong to this nation or to the community of Brahmins, though he was born in it. He denies the very tradition with which you invest him. He denies that his teaching is the continuity of the ancient teachings. He has not read any of the sacred books of India or of the West because they are unnecessary for a man who is aware of what is going on in the world – of the behaviour of human beings with their endless theories, with the accepted propaganda of two thousand or five thousand years which has become the tradition, the truth, the revelation.

To such a man who denies totally and completely the acceptance of the word, the symbol with its conditioning, to him truth is not a secondhand affair. If you had listened to him, sir, he has from the very beginning said that any acceptance of authority is the very denial of truth, and he has insisted that one must be outside all culture, tradition and social morality. If you had listened, then you would not say that he is an Indian or that he is continuing the ancient tradition in modern language. He totally denies the past, its teachers, its interpreters, its theories and its formulas.

Truth is never in the past. The truth of the past is the ashes of memory; memory is of time, and in the dead ashes of yesterday there is no truth. Truth is a living thing, not within the field of time.

So, having brushed all that aside, we can now take up the central issue of Brahman, which you postulate. Surely, sir, the very assertion is a theory invented by an imaginative mind – whether it be Shankara or the modern scholarly theologian. You can experience a theory and say that it is so, but that is like a man who has been brought up and conditioned in the Catholic world having visions of Christ. Obviously such visions are the projection of his own conditioning; and those who have been brought up in the tradition of Krishna have experiences and visions born of their culture. So experience does not prove a thing. To recognise the vision as Krishna or Christ is the outcome of conditioned knowledge; therefore it is not real at all but a fancy, a myth, strengthened through experience and utterly invalid. Why do you want a theory at all, and why do you postulate any belief? This constant assertion of belief is an indication of fear – fear of everyday life, fear of sorrow, fear of death and of the utter meaninglessness of life. Seeing all this you invent a theory and the more cunning and erudite the theory the more weight it has. And after two thousand or ten thousand years of propaganda that theory invariably and foolishly becomes “the truth”.

But if you do not postulate any dogma, then you are face to face with what actually is. The “what is”, is thought, pleasure, sorrow and the fear of death. When you understand the structure of your daily living – with its competition, greed, ambition and the search for power – then you will see not only the absurdity of theories, saviours and gurus, but you may find an ending to sorrow, an ending to the whole structure which thought has put together.

The penetration into and the understanding of this structure is meditation. Then you will see that the world is not an illusion but a terrible reality which man, in his relationship with his fellow man, has constructed. It is this which has to be understood and not your theories of Vedanta, with the rituals and all the paraphernalia of organized religion. 7

When man is free, without any motive of fear, of envy or of sorrow, then only is the mind naturally peaceful and still. Then it can see not only the truth in daily life from moment to moment but also go beyond all perception; and therefore there is the ending of the observer and the observed, and duality ceases.

But beyond all this, and not related to this struggle, this vanity and despair, there is – and this is not a theory – a stream that has no beginning and no end; a measureless movement that the mind can never capture.

When you hear this, sir, obviously you are going to make a theory of it, and if you like this new theory you will propagate it. But what you propagate is not the truth. The truth is only when you are free from the ache, anxiety and aggression which now fill your heart and mind. When you see all this and when you come upon that benediction called love, then you will know the truth of what is being said.

Buddha: How to approach the teachings


Going back to the Pali suttas, the Buddha also repeatedly warned against being attached to any particular teaching or teaching tradition:

‘Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of texts, by logic, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think, ‘This ascetic is our teacher.’
AN 3.65 Kesaputti [Kālāma] Sutta

This really is quite a stark warning, and we could see this as a very ‘modern’ and scientific way of approaching this search for freedom from suffering.

The above text is an except taken from a larger article: Buddhism: How enlightenment happens

Buddhism: How enlightenment happens

Buddha statue.jpg

If you read the earlier Buddhist texts (the Pali Suttas) you get a very different feel of the Buddha’s teachings compared to the systematised versions of Buddhism that are often more prominently on display today. It becomes apparent that the Buddha taught in different ways to different people and that the true Dhamma (teaching) cannot be grasped.

The eight-fold path that we most often hear about was very probably a central and important part of the Buddha’s teaching, and a truly wonderful teaching in my view, but it is clear that many people came to enlightenment in various ways according to the suttas (Buddhist texts).

We read that some attained enlightenment without practising, and some attained enlightenment simply upon hearing the Buddha speak. Some had a great awakening before practice, and then a practice naturally developed afterwards. Others followed the more traditional way of engaging with spiritual ppractiss first and then attaining arahantship (full enlightenment) afterwards. The fact that arahantship was preceded by many years of practice for the Buddha himself may have affected the way he taught. However the suttas indicate that the Buddha realised that not all came to the Dhamma in the same way. In the Yuganaddha Sutta, Ananda explains the 4 main ways arahantship can arise:

Venerable Ananda said: “Friends, whoever — monk or nun — declares the attainment of arahantship in my presence, they all do it by means of one or another of four paths. Which four?
“There is the case where a monk has developed insight preceded by tranquility…He follows the path, developing it & pursuing it — his fetters are abandoned, his obsessions destroyed.
“Then there is the case where a monk has developed tranquility preceded by insight…He follows that path…his fetters are abandoned, his obsessions destroyed.
“Then there is the case where a monk has developed tranquility in tandem with insight…He follows that path…his fetters are abandoned, his obsessions destroyed.
“Then there is the case where a monk’s mind has its restlessness concerning the Dhamma well under control. There comes a time when his mind grows steady inwardly, settles down, and becomes unified & concentrated. In him the path is born. He follows that path, develops it, pursues it. As he follows the path, developing it & pursuing it — his fetters are abandoned, his obsessions destroyed.”
“Whoever — monk or nun — declares the attainment of arahantship in my presence, they all do it by means of one or another of these four paths.”

You can see here that two aspects of the teaching become very prominent, namely that of achieving tranquility and that of insight. The key is that both are required, but the order in which they are achieved varies. Some naturally are drawn towards becoming more tranquil and insight comes later. Others are more drawn to understanding and insight first and it is this insight that leads to tranquility as ‘fetters are abandoned’ and ‘obsessions destroyed’.

I explain in more detail what is meant by tranquility and insight here, but briefly insight is seeing there is no separate self (anatta in Pali), specifically that there is no separate doer entity. Tranquility when it is cultivated before insight usually refers to the lessening of thoughts and increasing of peace which in turn paves the way for insight. Tranquility after insight usually means a purification of the mind which naturally happens after insight; rather than reducing thoughts, this is the tranquility of freedom, of not being bothered by thoughts or circumstances and not depending on the mind, body or world (ie. anything) for one’s happiness.

In later Buddhist developments many schools developed ‘enlightenment first, practice later’ schools of teaching, notably in the Mahayana traditions, a prime example being Korean Zen master Chinul (1158-1210):

‘There are many avenues of entry into the Way…Sages since time immemorial have all first awakened then cultivated practice, attaining experiential proof based on practice.’
Chinul, Secrets of Cultivating the Mind, verses 19-20
‘If a real teacher points out a way of entry for you, and for a single instant you turn your attention around, you see your own original essence. This essence originally has no afflictions; uncontaminated wisdom is inherently complete in it. Then you are no different from the Buddhas; thus it is called sudden enlightenment.
As for gradual practice, having suddenly realised fundamental essence, no different from Buddha, beginningless mental habits are hard to get rid of all at once. Therefore one cultivates practice based on enlightenment, gradually cultivating the attainment to perfection, nurturing the embryo of sagehood to maturity. Eventually, after a long time, one becomes a sage; therefore it is called gradual practice. It is like an infant, which has all the normal faculties at birth, but as yet undeveloped; only with the passage of years does it become an adult.
Question: By what expedient means can we turn our minds around instantly to realise our inherent essence?
Answer: It is just your own mind; what further expedient means would you apply?’
Chinul, Secrets of Cultivating the Mind, verses 27-30

Chinul talks about the importance of first recognising your true original essence first (insight) before using this insight to purify the mind (tranquility after insight). As a slight aside, this line of thought is prevalent in Mahayana Buddhism and was later incorporated into Vedanta by Gaudapada and Shankara, giving rise to Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta, which in many ways is more similar to Mahayana Buddhism than to other schools of vedanta which are more firmly footed in the Upanishads, the source texts of vedanta.

Going back to the Pali suttas, the Buddha also repeatedly warned against being attached to any particular teaching or teaching tradition:

‘Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of texts, by logic, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think, ‘This ascetic is our teacher.’
AN 3.65 Kesaputti [Kālāma] Sutta

This really is quite a stark warning, and we could see this as a very ‘modern’ and scientific way of approaching this search for freedom from suffering. Again in the Atthaavagga, perhaps the earliest of all the Buddhist texts we know of, the Buddha warns about having any fixed views:

Atthaavagga, Chapter 6
5. Having abandoned what was acquired, not taking up anything, he would not be in dependence even upon knowledge. He truly is not a partisan among the schoolmen; he does not fall back on any view at all.
Atthaavagga, Chapter 10
7. He does not train himself through desire of gain, and he is not upset at lack of gain. He is not opposed to craving, nor is he greedy for savory stimulations.
8. An indifferent onlooker, always mindful, He imagines nothing in the world to be equal, nor superior, nor lower. For him there are no distinguished positions.
14. He for whom there is nothing his own in the world, and who does not sorrow over what is not there, And who does not go by philosophies— He truly is said to be “at peace.”

The Buddha stresses non-clinging, including non-clinging to doctrines, teachings, knowledge and points of view. In fact the Atthaavagga goes even further. Most of the very earliest Buddhist texts do not even mention the four noble truths, let alone the eight-fold path (which is the fourth truth of the four noble truths).

The Atthaavagga appears to go further here by denying much of what is commonly taught. We are not to find this deeper ‘truth’ through seeing, hearing or by any kind of knowledge. We are not to cling to morality or purity, nor their opposites. We are to depend on nothing. Of course, reading the following lines and having insight into them reveals a core ‘truth’, a more sublime Dhamma that is not opposed to the classic eight-fold path at all:

3. [The Buddha said:] There is nothing of which I say, “I declare this,”…But looking among the views, not taking hold of anything, examining, I saw inner peace.
4. [The questioner responds:]…This “inner peace,” whatever it means, How is it made known by the wise?
5. [The Buddha said:] Not by what is viewed, not by what is heard, not by inner knowledge…nor by morality and observances is purity said to be; by absence of what is viewed, by absence of what is heard, by non-knowledge, by amorality, by nonobservance—also not by that. So having let go of these, not taking hold of anything, A peaceful one, not being dependent, would not have longings for existence.
6. [The questioner responds:] Then I imagine that to be a confused philosophy indeed. Some do rely on purity by view.
7. [the Buddha responds:]And having depended upon view, enquiring…you have become confounded by what you have seized upon; And so you have not seen the slightest sense in this. Therefore you hold it to be confused.

So where does this leave us? Should we practice according to a path, or instead cultivate insight and wisdom? I answer this in more detail in this article, but for now, let’s go back to the Korean Zen Master Chinul for the last word:

To practice spontaneous concentration and insight is the sudden approach, using effortless effort, both operative yet both tranquil, spontaneously cultivation intrinsic essence, naturally fulfilling the Way of Buddhas.
To practice formal concentration and insight is the gradual approach taken before enlightenment by those of lesser potential, using curative work, striving to direct each thought toward cutting off confusion and grasping quietude.
…Among those who are suited to the sudden approach, there are also those whose potentials are superior and those whose potentials are inferior. Thus their practice cannot be judged by the same standard.
As for those whose afflictions are slight, who are light and easy in body and mind, who are detached from good in the midst of good and detached from evil in the midst of evil…they rely on spontaneous concentration and insight, which they cultivate simultaneously without effort, naturally real and uncontrived, always in meditation whether active or still, and fulfill the design of nature. Why should they pursue formal practices for curative purposes? When there is no illness, one does not seek medicine.
As for those who, in spite of having first realised sudden awakening, have deep afflictions and rigid mental habits…it is appropriate for them to make provisional use of formal concentration and insight.
Chinul, Secrets of Cultivating the Mind, verses 88-92

Practice vs no practice

Many ‘practice orientated paths’ just keep one going round and round samsara. Why? Because the assumption is that the Freedom we seek is not already here and that it has to be obtained.

Many instant-enlightenment teachings also do not result in fruition. Why? Because they shun the need for practice.

For some, diligent practice is required. For others, sporadic practice is required. For some, no practice is required.

For more read here: