This article was written as Post 42 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series, but it also it also serves as bridge to, and is the first article in, a series of introductory articles in the ‘5 Wisdoms’ series, in which my intention is to guide my readers even deeper into some focused reflection on what the Buddha meant when he spoke of the ’emptiness of the five skandhas’, and of the illusory nature of the self.
In my last article (here) I looked at Compassion through the lens of the All-Accomplishing Wisdom, the wisdom which supports healing, wholeness and compassionate activity, by grounding it in a balanced, all-encompassing and multidimensional awareness of the energetic dimensions of our experience. This balanced and comprehensive quality is symbolised by the mandalas of Buddhist tradition. One of the curiosities of the All-Accomplishing Wisdom is that it is associated with the mandala-like symbol of the vishva vajra – the universal vajra, or Vajra Cross – which is usually understood to symbolise ‘the separation and reconciliation of the opposites‘. The mandala, we are being told, is a vishva vajra, and the vishva vajra is a mandala. Non-dual wisdom, it would seem therefore, is most comprehensive, and finds its most practical and effective expression as Compassion – and when it is recognised as having five dimensions. And because of the particular dynamics between the components of the egoic mind and their relationship to Consciousness, it is well symbolised by a mandala or a cross.
My intention with the previous articles – in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series – has been to provide information that may be of interest to readers with a general interest in meditation, self-enquiry practice, and non-duality teachings, while also drawing on relevant information from Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC) model, and from other relevant psychological models, especially that of Carl Jung . While I hope to engage the same broad audience in my future articles, this article is the first of a series of longer articles that is aiming to go much deeper into the Buddha’s teachings, so I have created a new ‘Buddhism’ category for them.
The Four Brahmavihāras and the Five Wisdoms
Although my previous writing (in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series) has been informed by an awareness of the corresponding Wisdoms in the Five Wisdoms framework from Mahayana Buddhism, the main mandala framework used in the early articles was that of the ancient Indian brahmavihāras: Equanimity, Appreciative Joy, Loving Kindness and Compassion. The Five Wisdoms, which I introduced in a previous article here, have some advantages over the four-fold brahmavihāras framework, but the brahmavihāras give us a simpler ‘way in’ to the experience of meditation, and they give us a necessary initial focus on the ethical and relational aspects of the personal transformation that arises from resting as Consciousness.
The brahmavihāras also represent an earlier, foundational stage in the development of the mandala wisdom within the Buddhist tradition. The Buddha appears to have adopted them enthusiastically and re-framed them, adapting them to the new context of his anatma (no-self) doctrine – more on this below. In the four-fold brahmavihāras framework, the central, fifth part of the model, which is Consciousness, is implied – the brahmavihāras can be seen as the four ‘attitudes’ of Consciousness. In the five-fold Five Wisdoms model, the central principle, of Consciousness, is explicitly included as one of the Wisdoms – the Dharmadhātu Wisdom.
Buddhas and Wisdoms versus Skandhas and Realms
In the course of the next few articles on the mandala as a guide to meditation, I would like to continue to stay close to our everyday psychological experience as we explore the Five Wisdoms in detail, while also not only making reference to the rich imagery of the Five Buddhas (i.e. male Buddhas), but also talking about the all-important female Buddhas that accompany them. The female Buddhas are indeed particularly important here because they are often traditionally referred to as the Five Wisdoms – the Five Prajñās.
The Sanskrit word for wisdom is prajñā (pronounced pra-nyaa). The main part of this word is jñā, which can be translated as ‘consciousness’, ‘knowledge’, or ‘understanding’, and this is intensified by the prefix pra which means ‘higher’, ‘supreme’ or similar. The Five Prajñās are the female personifications of the inner essence of each of the Five Wisdoms, whereas the five male Buddhas on the other hand, while much more frequently seen, and often also regarded as personifications of the Wisdoms, in fact embody the five Wisdoms more indirectly as five different outward compassionate expressions associated with, or arising from, the Five Wisdoms.
Although it is not a traditional terminology, we can think of these richly symbolic pairings as five ‘Buddha couples’. As part of our further circumambulation of the mandala, I shall also be revisiting the imagery of the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead), where these archetypal Buddha couples are described – and described in a way that tells us a great deal about the part these figures play in the psyche. As a way of approaching the Bardo Thodol, we can think of that mysterious text as presenting us with a vision in which the Five Wisdoms are antidotes to Five Realms (The animals in fact share a Realm with the Humans and do not need a sixth Realm of their own). So the Five Wisdoms may be seen as five universalising perspectives, each of which are necessary if we are to be empowered to choose to avoid five egoic tendencies – the Five Skandhas – that lead to rebirth in the Five Realms. More on the Five Skandhas below – the ancient Indian analysis of the atman, or soul, that the Buddha criticised as incorrect, and then adopted, in a modified form, into his own teaching framework.
The particular oppositions between the Five Wisdoms (and their respective Buddha couples) and the Five Realms would be extremely illuminating on their own, but the fact that the Five Realms are also associated with the Five Skandhas makes the Bardo Thodol a treasure trove for those who wish to fully grasp either the Five Wisdoms, or the Five Realms, or the much misunderstood Skandhas. I shall be beginning this next group of articles with several related to the Dharmadhātu Wisdom (essentially, our recognition of the universal Consciousness), and with the Deva Realms (in which beings dwell in powerful states of integration and creativity, which are nevertheless characterised by an egoic personalisation of the experience of consciousness).
Resting as the Light of Consciousness
The Wisdom associated with the centre of the mandala, and with Consciousness itself, and with the Buddhist practice of Mindfulness, is the Dharmadhātu Wisdom. Dharmadhātu is difficult to translate, but we can think of the dharmadhātu as Consciousness itself – as that field of pure Consciousness that is the root and cause of all knowing. We all tend to overlook Consciousness – even in our spiritual traditions. In a similar way it is common for students of Buddhism to overlook this mysterious central Wisdom. The experience of Consciousness, is however, central to our experience. Indeed it is the only reason that any form of experiencing, of any sort, ever happens, and it is the only thing that remains continuously present and unchanging, while everything else in our experience is in a continuous process of change.
The experience of being aware, is always there when we look for it – which is why we take it for granted. There is no need to cultivate it, because it is already present in its fullness. It is like the sun that always shines. The golden, eight-spoked ‘Wheel of the Dharma’, which is the symbol of the Dharmadhātu Wisdom, can be thought of as a sun symbol – as the ever-present sun of Consciousness, whose golden light shines out from the centre of the mandala, and pervades the universe and everything in it.
At first, the fact that Consciousness is always present when we look for it, and does not need cultivating, is a little confusing – as I have acknowledged before. What then are we cultivating, when we are cultivating awareness, or practicing Mindfulness, as in Buddhist tradition? And what then is the nature of the path of transformation? These are very good questions, and the symbols and archetypal Buddha figures that are associated with the centre of the mandala, will hopefully lead us to some of the answers.
The Process of the Buddha’s Enlightenment
The way of the Bodhisattva, to use the Mahayana Buddhist term, is a paradoxical one. It is often, incorrectly in my view, thought of as a heroic struggle – a relentless application of the Egoic Will, until one day – it is assumed – the Egoic Will disappears, along with all sense of personal self and personal suffering. We can be forgiven for thinking about spiritual freedom in this rather wilful way – the Buddha himself held a very similar view prior to his realization.
Indeed the young Siddhartha Gautama, coming as he did, from a warrior caste family, and undoubtedly steeped in warrior culture, adopted a series of very extreme ascetic practices for several years in his early attempts to achieve liberation – and applied himself to them with great determination. It was not until he had damaged his body by his harsh austerities, and very nearly starved himself to death through fasting, and thus proved to himself that these practices were not the way to freedom, that he made his great breakthrough.
We are told that the Buddha, exhausted from his period of self-mortification, just rested, and allowed himself to eat some simple food. It was in that period of rest, reflection, and life review, which naturally followed from the failure of his previous approach, that he came to realise that the mental and emotional freedom that he had been seeking was actually already present in his experience. Indeed, the freedom that he was seeking was inherent in the experience of Consciousness itself.
The Buddha’s Discovery of Mindfulness – Resting as Consciousness
It was during this period of profound insight and transformation, that the Buddha discovered the practice of ‘resting as Consciousness’, or Mindfulness, as this practice is now called by the English-speaking world. He also found himself noticing and ‘resting as’ the brahmavihāras (Equanimity, Appreciative Joy, Loving Kindness, and Compassion) – which may be thought of as the ethical and emotional ‘attitudes’ of Consciousness.
I have spoken before (here) about how effecting it would have been for the Buddha to recognise the brahmavihāras naturally arising in himself as he rested – realising that these sublime states that the ancient Indian world had been projecting onto the great four-faced creator-god Brahma were actually inherent in Consciousness itself – that they were deeply and inseparably part of him. The meditative practices of ‘resting as’ Equanimity, Appreciative Joy, Loving Kindness, and Compassion, which I have been advocating in this ‘Meditation Guidance’ series of articles, almost effortless as they are, take us very naturally into states of samadhi, or somatic integration.
Practiced systematically, the brahmavihāras constitute a very effective method of personal transformation. They are a path, to use the Buddhist metaphor – a path of transformation, in which our ‘surface bodies’ (the four energy bodies that reflect our personality) are brought into alignment with our true nature as Consciousness.
The Healing Power of the Brahmavihāras
By cycling through the brahmavihāras, or working with them in pairs using the Short Breath / Long Breath approach to the Mindfulness of Breathing (which I briefly introduced here), we begin to heal the first four subtle bodies and transform our karma – our energetic predisposition toward particular life experiences. The energetic tendencies that lead us to either literal or metaphorical ‘rebirth’ in the states represented by the Realms (the Lokas of Buddhist tradition) are not just psychic (or mental), they are somatic – patterned into our subtle bodies – and the healing that meditation practice based on the brahmavihāras offers, is a release of these bodily-felt obscurations to embodied Consciousness. While we cannot know the exact process by which the Buddha’s realisation deepened, it seems clear that the Buddha was engaged in practices of this type at that time. We are told that he ‘remembered his previous lives’ as he released the last of these egoic energies.
I shall be returning to provide more detail on the Short Breath / Long Breath approach to the Mindfulness of Breathing. This approach uses the natural movement of attention in the region of the first four chakras, that occurs with the rhythm of breath (our attention naturally moves up the trunk of the body with the in-breath and down with the out-breath), to achieve a balance between the brahmavihāras – they are in two pairs, two pairs of opposites, and these opposites form the axes of the mandala.
Hence the Short Breath (which is felt as a natural movement of attention between the Hara (belly) Chakra and Solar Plexus Chakra) balances and integrates the experience of Equanimity (Being) with that of Loving Kindness (Uncaused Happiness); and the Long Breath (which is felt as a natural movement of attention between the Heart Chakra and Base Chakra) balances and integrates the experience of Compassion (Life Energy) with that of Appreciative Joy (Embodiment). The words in brackets above are the Four Qualia. The Four Qualia are a formulation of my own – one which I have found to be an extremely useful ‘way in’ to the brahmavihāras. For more on this, consider reading my previous articles here, here and here.
The Five Wisdoms and the Five Skandhas
Our understanding of this early period of realisation and of the radical change in the Buddha’s approach to practice, is fundamental to our understanding of the Buddha’s teachings as a whole. All of the later elaborations that we find in the Buddhist tradition are reflected in the Buddha’s experience at that time, and in the process of self-enquiry, familiarisation, and energetic transformation that he was engaged in. The Five Wisdoms teaching, which is a later formulation from the Mahayana period, and therefore not a formulation that the historical Buddha ever used himself, is nevertheless directly related to the Buddha’s early teaching on the ’emptiness’ of the Five Skandhas. This understanding of the Five Wisdoms as the five groups of insights, powers and motivations that arise when we see through, or recognise the emptiness of, the Five Skandhas is a key piece of the mandala wisdom that I shall be exploring in future articles.
Paradoxically, for many students of Buddhism, it is by reflecting on the Five Wisdoms teachings and other later expressions (like the Prajñāpāramitā, or ‘Perfection of Wisdom’ teachings of the Indian Mahayana, and the Dzogchen and Mahamudra non-duality teachings in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition) that we come to understand the nature of the Buddha’s realisation – and can then return to the traditional images and narrative of Gautama Buddha’s process of Enlightenment with a much deeper appreciation.
Vairocana Buddha – Turning the Wheel of the Dharma
In the more complete Buddhist mandalas, in which images of the Five Buddhas are shown, rather than just their five colours, we usually see in the white centre of the mandala, a white Buddha. This is Vairocana (pronounced Vi-roach-ana), ‘the Illuminator’ (shown below). One of the traditional iconographic forms of Vairocana, depicts him with four faces, one face towards each of the cardinal directions, as we see in the figure of Brahma (which I have described previously here). This clear archetypal connection between Brahma and the brahmavihāras from pre-Buddhist tradition, and Vairocana, who emerged much later, during the Indian Mahayana, brings important insights. Each of these figures carried the projection of Consciousness – but in entirely different cultural and philosophical contexts. Whereas Brahma was held in ancient Indian belief to be a divine ‘person’ and a creator-god, Vairocana is an archetypal Buddha, a spontaneously arising imaginal being – a mythic reality who is a ‘personification’ of Consciousness.
While Vairocana is an archetypal Buddha, he does, like all of the Five Buddhas of the mandala, embody qualities that were seen in the historical Buddha. In fact, each of the Five Buddhas is distinguishable by a mudra, or hand gesture, that reminds us of qualities that Gautama Buddha exemplified, or of important incidents that occurred in the days following his realisation. The mudra associated with Vairocana is a teaching or explaining gesture, which is called ‘Turning the Wheel of the Dharma’ (see the main image below).
This mudra of ‘Turning the Wheel of the Dharma’ associates Vairocana in the Buddhist imagination with the historical Buddha’s initial impulse to teach the Truth, or Dharma, which he had realised. We are told that Gautama’s first students were some of his old companions from his days as a practitioner of self-mortification. We are also told that, although these men were disappointed that the Buddha had abandoned the path of self-mortification, they could not help but be impressed by his presence – something remarkable had clearly happened to him. We cannot know for certain what the Buddha first communicated to these old friends, but the traditional accounts usually tell us that he presented four ‘Noble Truths’ as a way of explaining the core of his new understanding.
The Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths is a much misunderstood teaching, and is often taught in a formulaic way that does not really do justice to the profound nature of what was communicated on that occasion. Paradoxically, the four Truths are usually presented as a version of the dualistic worldview, and the personalising error, that the Buddha had seen through, and was specifically trying to challenge with his new teaching.
If we list them in the traditional way, the Four Noble Truths are:
- The truth of suffering (Pali: Dukkha)
- The truth of the origin of suffering (Pali: Samudāya)
- The truth of the cessation of suffering (Pali: Nirodha)
- The truth of the path to the cessation of suffering (Pali: Magga)
These four have been guiding principles in my writing on the mandala. Indeed, thoughtful writing on non-dual psychology cannot help but express these four truths – each one is an ever-present dimension of the human experience. My multi-dimensional approach to the mandala may have been confusing for some, but it follows this traditional comprehensive format – and we find the same four truths being pointed to symbolically in the Bardo Thodol, or ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’, which has been one of my main sources of inspiration.
In addressing each of the Quadrants of the mandala, I have been presenting not only the Wisdoms and the brahmavihāras, which may be thought of as the cessation (Nirodha) of egoic suffering, and the Path to its cessation (Magga); but also the Realms and the egoic ‘functions’. The Realms provide an eloquent description of our self-created egoic suffering (Dukkha), and Jung’s egoic functions describe the psychological dynamics that initiate and sustain that suffering (Samudāya). I have found that Jung’s egoic ‘functions’ achieve this description more clearly than do the skandhas, which are the equivalent teaching in the Buddhist tradition, but I shall be returning to a more detailed analysis of the skandas in future articles.
Looking at the list above, we could be forgiven for seeing the Four Truths as some sort of sequence. The whole point of this teaching however, is that the relationship between our state of bondage to the conditions of our existence (which Buddhism calls samsara – or ‘wandering’) and our freedom (the extinction of egoic identification, which Buddhism calls nirvana) cannot be understood in dualistic terms. Despite our conditioning, our freedom is always present – because Consciousness is always present.
Resting as Consciousness, or practicing Mindfulness, is an embrace of the paradox that we are already free and have always been free – even when we are failing to recognise it. And despite the presence of our freedom, and our recognition of that freedom, the conditioned mind and the reality that Buddhism calls dukkha, continues to arise seemingly inexhaustibly – either in ourselves or in others – as our collective reality, and our collective challenge. For the mythic Bodhisattva – the being who has released all identifications – the collective suffering of all the beings in all the Realms remains ever present, and is the cause of his compassionate motivation.
Dukkha – Failing to recognise the Spaciousness of Consciousness
The purpose of the Path therefore, is full recognition of our freedom, and full familiarity with every aspect of that freedom. The Path to the cessation of suffering is through embracing the impersonal mystery of Consciousness and allowing it to provide us with a source of imperturbable mental stability and unconditional emotional acceptance with which to face our very unsatisfactory conditioned nature. Only the field of Consciousness has the power to bring us into a state of energetic cohesion and wholeness, or samadhi – a state of somatic integration in which we can heal. And only Consciousness can guide our transformation on every level, so that we become effective and joyful servants of the highest good.
To further clarify the Four Noble Truths teaching, it is very important that we also take time to expand upon the traditional translation of the Pali word dukkha. While the usual rendering of dukkha into English is ‘suffering’ (and this is not an inaccurate word to denote the misery that we bring upon ourselves, and each other, when we are living unconsciously), we do however need to be aware that the Buddha was not talking simply of a cessation of all physical and psychological pain. He was pointing to something more subtle and much more significant. After his Enlightenment, the Buddha certainly continued to experience physical pain, and he certainly continued to experience the suffering of humanity very keenly. What ceased was egoic suffering – the self-caused suffering of living in unhelpful, and ultimately insubstantial, egoic identifications, and failing to recognise the spacious and ’empty’ nature of the five skandhas – Consciousness and its four cognitive-perceptual components – which actually entirely empty of personal characteristics.
The two component parts of the word dukkha are: ‘du‘ which is a negative; and ‘kha‘ which means ‘space’, but which also has a phonetic association with the word ‘wheel’. Hence dukkha denotes a lack of ‘space’ – a lack of the spaciousness and non-reactivity that is present when we rest as Consciousness – but also denotes the dysfunctional and endlessly repeating cycle of our conditioning. When the Buddha discovered the practice that we now call Mindfulness, he was discovering the freedom that is inherent in Consciousness, and he was bearing witness to the power of the internal spaciousness, which we can develop through the practice of resting ‘as’ Consciousness.
Self-Enquiry, Resting as Consciousness, and the Practice of Mindfulness
To understand the spacious and empty nature of Consciousness we need to experience it for ourselves – we need to familiarise ourselves with it through self-enquiry. In the early articles in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series, I encouraged readers to understand that a meditation practice can only be built on the foundation of the attitude, and the practice, of self-enquiry into the nature of Consciousness. This is why I prefer the more descriptive term, ‘resting as Consciousness’, to the more common term Mindfulness, which is so easily appropriated to an egoic frame of reference. This is a huge subject for investigation – one that I intend to return to in future articles, but it needs to be acknowledged from the outset, that our egoic parts are not capable of developing the sort of balanced and spacious awareness that the Buddha called sati (Pali), or Mindfulness.
Mindfulness by definition, if we understand it correctly, is a mode of awareness in which Consciousness itself is acknowledged – not just objects of Consciousness. But it is more than this, because when we open ourselves to resting humbly ‘as’ the spacious field of Consciousness, and make Consciousness primary in every aspect of cognition and perception, our experience of ourselves is changed. This change is subtle and undramatic, but fundamental.
The willingness to adopt the practice of resting ‘as’ the emptiness of Consciousness, has the effect of breaking our identification with our psychological parts (more on the concept of psychological parts here), so it leads inevitably to mental clarity and emotional healing. There are many other important and valuable personality qualities that naturally emerge in those who are truly practicing Mindfulness – but in my view, humility and balance could be considered the key hallmarks by which true spiritual progress in our engagement with the Buddha’s subtle ‘remembering’ practice can be measured (please see my previous article on Mindfulness here). Humility naturally arises as we start to relate to our psychological parts self-empathetically rather that identifying with them. Balance arises as the mandala-wholeness of Consciousness starts to naturally challenge the inevitably one-sided development of the egoic mind. True Mindfulness may be characterised as giving us a balanced view of life.
The more deeply familiar we are with Consciousness, and the more comprehensive that familiarity becomes, the more these natural qualities of balance, humility and wholeness will manifest in us, and the more profound and rapid will be our transformation. The true practice of Mindfulness requires a systematic and comprehensive familiarity with Consciousness. I regard the mandala frameworks of Buddhism, Carl Jung, and Marshall Rosenberg as essential guides in this process, but we also need to remember that the purpose of resting as Consciousness, or Mindfulness, is to embody Consciousness – hence my previous emphasis on the brahmavihāras, on the practice of samādhi, and on the Four Qualia (more on these here and here).
Identification and Dis-identification – Self-Identity and True Self-lessness
The Dharmadhātu Wisdom invites us to engage in this prerequisite process of recognition of, and familiarisation with, Consciousness. When we engage in this investigation, we find, as the Buddha did, that the inner ‘person’ that we had always assumed, cannot be found. We find instead only a complex tangle of impersonal psychological patterns playing out repetitively – a procession of psychological parts – identifications from our history that carry themselves forward into our future by a force of psychological momentum that the Buddhist tradition would call karma.
If, through Mindfulness, we disidentify, we find in place of a personal consciousness, a sense of spaciousness and connectedness that Buddhist tradition would characterise as ’empty’. It is through our progressively deepening acknowledgement of that spacious emptiness that this quality begins to find embodiment in us. When we rest as Consciousness in meditation, Consciousness becomes embodied in our subtle bodies, first perhaps as the Four Qualia (Being, Embodiment, Uncaused Happiness, and Life Energy), and subsequently as the brahmavihāras (Equanimity, Appreciative Joy, Loving Kindness, and Compassion), and as the Five Wisdoms. These mandala wisdom principles serve to guide us in our enquiry and direct our attention, but it is not the egoic will, but Consciousness itself, that drives this process of healing, and as the somatic reflections of the egoic mind are progressively recognised as empty and released, only these primordial somatic reflections of Consciousness remain.
The experience of being unable to locate a self in the conventional sense, is not as alarming or as dramatic as it might seem at first. There is, after all, still a bodily self with its needs; and there is still the apparent continuity of a mind and an energetic anatomy; and there is still a person with responsibilities and activities – but when we return to rest as Consciousness we come to see very clearly that there is no ‘self’ at the core of that constellation of ever-changing systemic phenomena.
We are all much more familiar with the empty, spacious and open qualities of Consciousness than we might think. Throughout our lives, we naturally move in and out of our identification with the spaciousness and benevolence of Consciousness, and in and out of our identifications with our various psychological parts. When we begin to realise how much happier and how much more functional we are when we are conscious, and make a decision to engage in systematic spiritual practice, the mandala framework can provide us with the map that we will need on that journey. While Carl Jung’s archetypal psychology and Marshal Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication model (more on NVC here) can give us some important and necessary detail by grounding us in more recent psychological tradition, it is the Buddhist tradition that provides us with the foundation for our enquiry framework – a mandala-form description of Consciousness, with the brahmavihāras and the Five Wisdoms as our guide.
To read the next article in this series, click here.
If you have been reading the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series, you may wish to read the two ‘Overview’ articles, which relate to it, and provide some reflection on the approach that I adopted. You can access those articles here and here.