Who practices?

I started reading books about mysticism and religion when I was a teenager. They appealed to me because they seemed to offer the ultimate self-control, insight into the true nature of reality, and freedom from suffering and pain.

It wasn’t until very recently that I found a book on mysticism which explained the path in sufficient depth and detail to make a difference. But at the same time, those intervening years were full of the kinds of life-events that made me ready to hear the same teachings with greater clarity.

I had finally realised that what I viewed as self-control was actually an undesirable state of inner tension, that wanting to be free from suffering was driving me to reject reality, and that seeking to understand everything was just a subtle way of seeking control.

So I found these deeper teachings and practiced them. The core of it was a practice of recognising all one’s reality – both internal and external – as consisting to the best of our knowledge in the form of mental impressions.

Taking a Cartesian angle: is there anything that is not – to the best of our knowledge – a mental impression?

This doesn’t mean that there is no external reality, or that things are only mental impressions. The point of the exercise is simply to recognise that mental impressions are the total of our experience.

This teaching runs very deep. Subject-object dualism, cause and effect, imagination and sensation, the persistence and identity of objects over time, all of these are experienced as mental impressions.

The only thing that is not experienced as a mental impression is our consciousness of mental impressions. Consciousness is like the eye that can see everything but itself. Yet we know it exists because we see by it.

This radical teaching and mode of practice reduces our experience to the simple dichotomy of forms and consciousness – where consciousness is experienced as empty of forms.

But since the forms themselves lack substance and permanence, this distinction is ultimately insubstantial. Hence the Heart Sutra:

O Sariputra, Form does not differ from Emptiness
And Emptiness does not differ from Form.
Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form.
The same is true for Feelings,
Perceptions, Volitions and Consciousness.

Now take a moment to consider the nature of these teachings. They arose from the experience of some individuals, were written down, transmitted, and communicated broadly.

People hear the teaching, but it only takes root in them if they are ready for it. In those who aren’t ready, it is misinterpreted, dismissed, forgotten, or ignored. In other words, it is like the parable of the sower who sows the seed that lands on different kinds of soil and is eaten by birds, strangled by weeds, or on good soil grows up strong.

Some of us wish we are ready when we really aren’t. The difference between wanting to be ready and actually being ready is like night and day, especially when the teachings themselves pertain to the illusion of a self who is in control – a self who may even be full of the desire to be ready.

If we put aside the illusion of self-control we can see that reality is shaped by profoundly complex causes and effects. From this point of view, being unready is simply the outcome of various causes; readiness too is just the further development of additional causes.

You can’t make fruit ripen faster on the tree, it’s ready when it’s ready.

At some point we can therefore ask ourselves “who practices?” or “who is practising this teaching?” The answer that comes to us is as if the teaching is practising itself.

These moments of clarity do not last for me. I’m told they one day become permanent, but only when we are ready. Only when there is no more sense that clarity might vanish and be lost.

I need more practice.

 

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Monks with guitars

I’m still working on a follow-up to the previous post on religious music, and in that vein thought I’d offer a comparison point from Chinese Buddhism.

As far as I can ascertain, this is what traditional Chinese Buddhist chant sounds like:

 

But in searching for Chinese Buddhist chant, the majority of videos are this kind of thing:

 

The modern musical influences are pretty clear. It’s basically Chinese ballad-pop with a Buddhist twist. They even have a video of Faye Wong singing the Heart Sutra at a concert held in a temple. That’s a bit like a non-skanky version of Madonna singing the Gospel of Mark in a cathedral:

 

But as promised, here’s a video of monks with a guitar. To their credit they look quite uncomfortable, and I’m fairly sure the whole thing is viewed as an anomaly, kinda like “OMG! Real monks with a guitar!”

 

My all-time favourite remains this collaboration between Japanese Buddhist monks and a Czech Gregorian Schola:

Freedom from desire

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An interesting theme in my current studies is the boundary between self and other, and how this boundary shifts as a consequence of different theories of free will.

For example, a simple theory of free will might hold that one acts voluntarily except when one’s actions are the result of physical coercion or ignorance.  Non-coerced actions can be considered the product of free will.

But a more complex theory of free will would recognise that sometimes we act in ways that are difficult to own as fully voluntary, such as eating dessert when you’ve sworn you want to lose weight.  No one has physically coerced you to eat the dessert, yet in the broader context of your wishes, intentions, and subsequent regrets, it doesn’t seem quite right to say that eating the dessert is representative of your free will.

Accordingly some have suggested that we are not free when we act in accordance with our lower appetites.  In the same vein, others have said that ‘free’ actions are those which arise from truly rational considerations. To exercise free will is to act in accordance with rational desire; anything less is a kind of slavery.

But in accepting this more nuanced view of the will, we implicitly redraw the boundary between self and other; the coercive forces we face are no longer external, physical agents but internal appetites and desires.  What is the ‘self’ that is the subject of these appetites, the self that might somehow will instead to follow reason?

This internalisation of the self is not a necessary outcome of a more complex view of free will, but it does make such a perspective easier to adopt.  We start viewing ourselves a little like a homunculus positioned somewhere back behind our eyes, controlling our body and attempting to reason and make choices while assailed by powerful appetites and desires.

The internalised self may be a promising line of inquiry for when I start examining Chinese philosophical texts on the topic of free will. Take, for example, this extract from the QingJing Jing or ‘Classic of Purity and Rest’, a Daoist text developed supposedly in response to the emerging Buddhist theme of ’emptiness’ typified by the Heart Sutra.

Now the spirit of man loves Purity, but his mind disturbs it. The mind of man loves stillness, but his desires draw it away. If he could always send his desires away, his mind would of itself become still. Let his mind be made clean, and his spirit will of itself become pure.

As a matter of course the six desires won’t arise, and the three poisons will be taken away and disappear.

The reason why men are not able to attain to this, is because their minds have not been cleansed, and their desires have not been sent away.

If one is able to send the desires away, when he then looks in at his mind, it is no longer his; when he looks out at his body, it is no longer his; and when he looks farther off at external things, they are things which he has nothing to do with.

Sending the desires away may imply a similarly internalised view of the will, such that one is able to control or manipulate mental faculties as though they were external objects.

The end point in this Daoist context is achieving a state of purity and stillness concomitant with the Dao itself:

In that condition of rest independently of place how can any desire arise? And when no desire any longer arises, there is the True stillness and rest.

That True (stillness) becomes (a) constant quality, and responds to external things (without error); yea, that True and Constant quality holds possession of the nature.

[…]

He who has this absolute purity enters gradually into the (inspiration of the) True Dao. And having entered thereinto, he is styled Possessor of the Dao.

 

It is intriguing that the Daoist text portrays desires as an intrinsically disturbing force that should be ‘put away’.  This presents another opportunity for fruitful comparison with Stoicism, where such desires are viewed as the product of our assent to false beliefs.  This is, in turn, reminiscent of the Buddhist assertion that the unsatisfactory nature of existence can be traced back to ignorant desire.

If we put aside desires, our mind and spirit will revert to their natural purity and stillness, bringing us back to the influence of the Dao.  This is consistent with Wang Bi’s much earlier commentary on the Dao De Jing, the heart of the Daoist Canon, in which he depicts the goal of the sage as embracing ’emptiness’ through renunciation of private interests and desires.

I think this critical attitude toward desire is a crucial part of serious religious practice universally.  We should not be surprised to find it emerging in the context of Daoism, Buddhism, and even Stoicism, as part of a broader attempt to discover the root of humanity’s failing and misery, and the path towards a renovation of the human spirit.