This is Article No. 6 in the ‘Buddhism’ series.
It is also the second of ten articles, which explore the ’emptiness’, or non-personal nature, of the ‘Form’, or ‘conceptual form’, aspect of our cognitive-perceptual experience – that which Buddhist tradition calls the rūpa skandha. Together these articles make up a single longer article, or ten-part mini-series of articles, which are best read in order. When all these articles are published, you will be able to click on the titles below to access the other parts.
The Rūpa Skandha – Part 2: The Mirror-Like Wisdom
The Rūpa Skandha – Part 4: Mindfulness and Emptiness
The Rūpa Skandha – Part 5: Dharma and Truth
The Rūpa Skandha – Part 6: Consciousness and Qualia
The Rūpa Skandha – Part 7: The Heart Sutra
The Rūpa Skandha – Part 8: Perfect Speech
The Rūpa Skandha – Part 9: Equanimity and Being
Objectivity, Clarity, Equanimity and Being
In the previous article in this series I began to explore what is meant in Buddhist tradition by a recognition of the ’emptiness’ of the rūpa skandha. This recognition is also called the Mirror-Like Wisdom, and in the mandalas of Indian Mahayana Buddhist tradition and early Tibetan Buddhist tradition, it is represented by the blue eastern quadrant. In later versions of the Tibetan meditation mandalas we see the blue eastern quadrant replaced by a white one – I shall be endeavouring to explain this in a later article in this series. In the Tibetan Bardo Thodol teachings, which were given to us by the great Padmasambhava, we are given the wonderful image of the ‘luminous light-path’ of the Mirror-Like Wisdom. This notion of a light-path can also be thought of a transformational journey, or a purification process, that we undergo as we move from our habitual and unconscious identification with the rūpa skandha to a state of mental objectivity, clarity, and equanimity.
I have suggested that rūpa, which is conventionally translated as ‘Form’, is perhaps best thought of in terms of its association with the Thinking function of the mind. ‘Form’ is that aspect of our experience that can be conceptually described by thoughts, and thoughts are always thought-forms – conceptual forms of various degrees of subtlety. So, rūpa is that aspect of the mind which creates conceptual forms, or works with conceptual forms, and manages our experience, and makes our decisions using conceptual forms.
The rūpa skandha is that aspect of mind that names and manipulates concepts using words, language and various forms of verbal communication – sometimes very crudely, sometimes with great sophistication, and often very dishonestly. Mirror-Like Wisdom, on the other hand, involves a different order of thinking – a different quality of intelligence, which arises directly from the experience of Being, and which creatively addresses the central questions of the nature of mind and its implications for human suffering, human development and human freedom.
We are also told, as I explained in the previous article, that our identification with the rūpa skandha, generates and sustains an energetic residue in the mind – the kleshas of dvesha, or hatred. Dvesha, or hatred, is the characteristic mental state of the Hell Realms, and it is our identification with the rūpa skandha that leads to the Hell Realms – and it is only by releasing that identification that we can finally and completely free ourselves from the mental tendency towards the particularly extreme forms of mental suffering that the Hell Realms represent. We need to cleanse ourselves of the judgemental, hostile and aggressive kleshas in the dvesha category, in order to return to rest in the experience of Being, and to the Mirror-Like Wisdom.
Vajrasattva-Akshobhya and Buddhalocanā
If we are lucky enough to have the Bardo Thodol teachings recited over our body in the hours and days after our death, we may hear our spirit being invited to recognise the emptiness of the rūpa skandha, so that we are released into the Mirrror-Like Wisdom. The ‘hearing in the bardo’ teachings coach us through the experience of being newly deceased but not yet re-born, systematically warning us about each of the Realms of Conditioned Existence, and reminding us that the intermediate state is precious opportunity for complete liberation. For example, we are told to be aware of the great danger that our accumulated kleshas of dvesha, or hatred, may cause us to be drawn to the dull blue light of the Hell Realms. At the same time we are urged to allow ourselves to be drawn to the beautiful blue-white light of the Buddha Vajrasattva-Akshobhya and his female Buddha partner Buddhalocanā (pronounced buddha-loach-anar). Buddhalocanā’s name means ‘She of the Buddha Eye’, or ‘Eye of Awakening’ – I shall be reflecting on this name later in this article.
I am personally fully open to the possibility that such imagery is indeed experienced in the bardo, or intermediate state between lives. Whatever our convictions or our agnostic position may be in regard to the intermediate state in Tibetan tradition, or about the general idea of rebirth, we need to be aware that these are archetypal images – by which I mean that they are universal images, and descriptions of universal psychological and spiritual realities. There are profound truths expressed in this imagery that transcend culture and belief. The Hell Realms are a symbolic description of that aspect of the egoic mind that identifies with the rūpa skandha, and tends toward judgement and hatred (dvesha), and Vajrasattva-Akshobhya and Buddhalocanā are a symbolic description of that aspect of Consciousness that brings awareness and healing to that tendency. The choices that we face in the visionary and dream-like intermediate state of the bardo are the same choices that we find ourselves facing daily in a more concrete form, in everyday life.
Unfortunately, we usually make these choices unconsciously. Unless we are very mindful, we find ourselves in identification with rūpa – with our thoughts and judgments, and mental projections. For the meditator, there is great value of becoming aware of the polarity between rūpa and dvesha (hatred) on one side, and the Mirror-Like Wisdom, Equanimity and Being, on the other. In meditation practice we have an opportunity to release the klesha energies of dvesha, or hatred, which give the egoic Thinking mind its momentum. We do this by simply holding our thoughts in awareness without identifying with them, but also by directly developing a familiarity with Equanimity and Being, and all the other qualities of the Mirror-Like Wisdom, which are personified and embodied in the figures of Vajrasattva-Akshobhya and Buddhalocanā.
Familiarising Ourselves with the Mirror-Like Wisdom
Padmasambhava’s Bardo Thodol teachings are not just for guiding us in the intermediate state between lives. They are for guiding us to liberation in this very life, by helping us to familiarise ourselves with the Five Wisdoms. There is a wonderful simplified form of the Bardo Thodol teachings in one of the Bardo Thodol texts called the Inspiration-Prayer for Deliverance from the Dangerous Pathway of the Bardo. The five core verses of this prayer have the potential to connect us to the ‘luminous light-paths’ of the Five Wisdoms in daily life – you can read a version of them here. Below is the verse that connects us with the Mirror-Like Wisdom. The word ‘hatred’ in the first line is referring to the klesha of dvesha – that energetic predisposition that is generated by identification with the rūpa skandha, and that leads us to be karmically drawn to experiences that are a reflection of the archetypal Hell Realms.
When, through hatred, I wander in samsara,
on the luminous light-path of the Mirror-like Wisdom,
may Blessed Vajrasattva go before me,
and Buddha-Locana behind me;
help me to cross the bardo’s dangerous pathway
and bring me to the perfect buddha state.
To recognise the light of the Mirror-Like Wisdom is to recognise our primordially pure and imperturbable true nature as Consciousness. The Mirror-Like Wisdom is associated with the purifying element of Water. To see the emptiness of the rūpa skandha, and to realise the Mirror-Like Wisdom, is to recognise that mind as Consciousness is primordially pure, and can no more be affected by a thought than an image can stick to a mirror. A thought, for all its seeming power and momentum in the mind, is ultimately no more substantial than a line drawn in water.
The Bardo Thodol texts invite us to follow the luminous light-path of the Mirror-Like Wisdom, with clear-thinking, imperturbable Vajrasattva-Akshobhya leading our way, and Buddhalocanā always present behind us as our calm and powerful rearguard and protector. I have reflected on these archetypal Buddhas and their symbolism in more detail in other articles, but we need to acknowledge them here because they have so much to tell us about the emptiness of the rūpa skandha.
Vajrasattva-Akshobhya, is a personification of our capacity to connect receptively with the inherent non-reactivity of Consciousness – to actively draw on that primordial stillness as a resource in our meditation practice and in the challenges of our lives. The Bardo Thodol invites us to experience him going ‘before us’, and may be experience a resonance of him as an ’empty’, masculine, ‘drawing in’ energy in the Mental Body, and in the front of the Hara Chakra. So the Equanimity of Vajrasattva-Akshobhya, when we experience it in meditation, far from being a form of passivity, is experienced as connecting us with a great healing power – a purifying, cleansing, release of the mental energies of the klesha of dvesha – which include, judgement, hatred, aggression and mental anxiety. He is associated with the Water Element – he bathes us; he refreshes us; he washes us clean; and he flushes us out. He is the cascading waterfall, the perpetual spring, the babbling brook, and the still mirror-smooth lake reflecting the sky.
Buddhalocanā, as a personification of the Mirror-Like Wisdom, is that aspect of our resting as Consciousness, or Mindfulness experience, which recognises the presence in the mind of a primordial peace, purity, non-reactivity, and objectivity – a benevolent intelligence that seeks above all the happiness and unfoldment of the highest potential of all beings. From the point of view of the Thinking function she is the face of Consciousness within – always objective; always relational; always creative; and always concerned for the greater good, and the benefit of all. I think of her as that aspect of creativity that springs, not from conceptualisation and mental cleverness, but from Being. She embodies a relational intelligence that springs from Consciousness itself – from Presence and Connection. The Bardo Thodol invites to notice her presence ‘behind us’, and you may be able to experience her behind you in meditation – as an energy of fullness, expansiveness and Being, that can be felt in the Mental Body and in the back of the Hara Chakra.
The Ayacana Sutta (The Sutta of the Request)
There is much that could be said about the name ‘Buddhalocanā’, whose name means something like ‘She of the Buddha Eye’ or ‘Awakened Vision’, implying that she sees with the intelligence of Buddhahood. While it would not be incorrect to identify her with a non-dual vision that is beyond the intellect, it would be a mistake to idealise the Mirror-Like Wisdom to the point where we fail to recognise it in our own experience and connect with its implications. Because the Buddha recognised the ’emptiness’ of the rūpa skandha, he saw the world with a psychological intelligence that encompassed many levels, and he saw, appreciated, and honoured, the many and varied gifts and abilities of human beings, and the many dimensions of their unfolding towards wholeness.
We are told in the Ayacana Sutta (‘The Sutta of the Request’) that the newly enlightened Buddha, as he was integrating the Awakening experience, was keenly and somewhat painfully aware that his understanding of the ultimately non-dual nature of the mind was very subtle and quite possibly too difficult for most of humanity to grasp, and it is suggested that he had a moment of doubt – in which either his confidence in himself, or his confidence in humanity, faltered. His internal process in regard to this is presented to us in a beautiful mythological way. We are told that the great deva Brahma Sahampati, knowing the Buddha’s mind and recognising his doubts, manifested himself in the Buddha’s presence, and delivered a passionate, prayerful plea on behalf of all beings, requesting that Gautama should find a way to teach what he had understood.
‘The Buddha Eye’ – The Compassionate Intelligence of the Awakened
We are told that this request prompted a profound vision in the Buddha, in which he looked at the world with ‘the Eye of an Awakened One’ and, reflecting on the human condition, saw humanity like blue, red, and white lotuses in a lotus pond, all in different stages of development, some still in the mud at the bottom; some growing up through, but still immersed in, the water; some just reaching the surface; and some standing completely clear of water – clean and unaffected by the mud from which they had grown. It was though this vision we are told, that he came to see clearly that many beings would indeed be able to awaken like himself, and that all could benefit from hearing the Dharma.
In this image we are shown the ‘Eye of the Awakened One’ as a compassionate psychological intelligence that, because it is emotionally nourished by a recognition of Emptiness, expresses the combination of patience, appreciation, kindness, and empathy that are necessary if we are to teach with sensitivity to each individuals process. We are shown in this image that the Buddha was more than just a non-duality teacher – he embodied that broad psychological intelligence, rooted in the experience of Being, that recognises the various ways in which human beings can grow and develop, can evolve spiritually, and can build a better world. We see, in the Buddha, an extraordinary human being capable of a comprehensive cultural engagement with all aspects of human development and human welfare – a cultural engagement underpinned by non-dual realisation, but not confined to it.
The Buddha’s Integration Process – Wisdom and Compassion
This beautiful and profound mythic episode in the Buddha’s enlightenment process stands on its own and speaks to our hearts. We should also consider, as a way of amplifying the imagery rather than reducing it, that this request from Brahma is telling us something about the Buddha’s process of integration. Most importantly, it seems he was integrating the brahmavihāras (Equanimity, Appreciative Joy, Loving Kindness, and Compassion), and perhaps no less importantly, he was expressing the power of the Imagination, and of Beauty, and acknowledging the fact that an attitude of patience, appreciation, and unconditional valuing, or unconditional love, are inseparable from Wisdom.
The lotus can be regarded as a symbol, in Indian tradition, of the emotional, devotional, and evaluative aspect of mind (samjñā skandha), and associated in Buddhist tradition with Loving Kindness and with the Western Quadrant, which is on the opposite side of the mandala from the rūpa skandha, and Thinking, and the Mirror-Like Wisdom (which are associated with the Eastern Quadrant). So, if we choose to see Buddhalocanā’s name as a reference to the Ayacana Sutta, we can see how, in the Wisdoms, the opposition between Thinking and Feeling that we find on the egoic level, are transcended. Wisdom and thoughtful spiritual psychology, on one hand, and Loving Kindness (mettā / maitri), Compassion (karunā), and Appreciative Joy (upekshā) on the other, are reconciled in the Mirror-Like Wisdom.
The Hell Realms – Judgement, Punishment and Harsh ‘Education’
The Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead) tells us that the rūpa skandha is that aspect of the egoic mind that leads us, if we let it, to the Naraka Realms. The Narakas, or Hell Realms, which I have described previously (here) and in the first article in this mini-series (here), are characterised by a variety of horrible scenes of cruel torture and unbearable suffering. The Narakas are images not simply of intense suffering however – all of the Six Realms depict forms of suffering. Much more importantly, these are archetypal images of judgment and punishment. There are two classes of beings in the Narakas: those who judge and punish, and those who suffer at their hands – the former presumably justifying their judgements and their cruelty with moralistic mental sophistry. This type of mental activity and behaviour is, of course, all too familiar in our everyday life, and painfully familiar in human history.
Within the Indian cosmological frame of reference of ‘rebirth’, or the transmigration of beings through an endless series of lives, we can imagine that the denizens of the Narakas are alternately reborn as victims and as persecutors. We can also approach the imagery as psychological symbolism however, and can recognise these two classes of beings as personifications of our own psychological parts. We have all had the experience of two egoic parts locked in conflict ‘in our head’, one judging us as ‘wrong’, or criticising our behaviour as ‘bad’, or laying blame, while the other thinks guilty and self-hating thoughts and cowers in distress as it receives its condemnation and punishment.
Internal Victims and Persecutors
Most of us will also be aware of another familiar internal drama between a pair of thoughts, where one egoic part endeavours to mount a defence against the somewhat truthful but very harsh and unforgiving description of events that is being presented by a judgemental part. In response our ‘defensive’ part, may draw on every form of deceit and misrepresentation to falsify the evidence – and in our identification with such a part we also deceive ourselves as well as others. Marshall Rosenberg (the originator of the Nonviolent Communication self-awareness model) used to try to help his students to recognise that these ‘inner critic’ parts are actually carriers of the volitional life energies (samskara skandha) of our own Needs. This profoundly ‘Buddhist’ insight – which recognises our motivational energies as plural and non-personal – can be the means of our resolution of such internal conflicts.
Our psychological parts, including those that have the character of the denizens of the Hell Realms, carry volitional energies that are ultimately life-serving. Indeed, all of our ‘life energies’ – collectively called the samskara skandha in Buddhist tradition – are life serving. It is our identification with them – and our personalisation of them, and our aggregation of them into the idea of a single personal will – that creates the distortion. In our identification with psychological parts we are unconscious of them – and in that state of unconsciousness and disconnection they express themselves in a violent and conflictual way. It is only by resting as Consciousness and coming to a self-empathetic relationship with them, that the violence of the egoic point of view can become fully conscious – and the samskara energy of the egoic parts can recognised as ’empty’, and can self-release.
So, it is possible, with the development of Mindfulness, for the ‘inner critic’ parts of us to eventually be recognised as ‘inner educators’ – to use Marshal Rosenberg’s eloquent term. We would more easily recognise them in this way – and as having our best interests at heart – if their approach to our improvement was not so judgemental and punishing. The lies of our ‘defending’ parts may be denying objective truth, but even this can be seen as understandable – and as necessary – given the crushing severity of the condemnation and sentencing that the internal and external judges appear to be threatening to hand down.
Equanimity, Being, and the Silence beyond Thought
If we are listening to what the Bardo Thodol is telling us, we should be in no doubt that the rūpa skandha, which, if we are identified with it, leads us to the experiences symbolised by the Hell Realms, is most definitely associated with the inherent problems of the egoic Thinking, or ’conceptual form’, aspect of the mind. The Mirror-Like Wisdom on the other hand, can be thought of as the capacity for thinking that is reflective, non-reactive, non-judgmental, and absolutely objective. As I have explained in previous articles, the Mirror-like Wisdom is connected with the brahmavihāra of Equanimity, which is the corresponding dimension of meditative experience in ancient Indian (pre-Buddhist) spiritual tradition and early Buddhism. The diagram below shows the set of correspondences by which the brahmavihāras, which were so important in the historical Buddha’s teaching framework, contributed to the development of the Five Wisdoms framework of the Mahayana and Tibetan Vajrayana traditions.
In connection with the Mirror-Like Wisdom and Equanimity, I find it also very helpful to acknowledge the experience of Being, because Being is a word that has great power in the English language as a pointer to this aspect of meditative experience. When, in meditation, we stop thinking and rest as Consciousness, even for a few moments, we may notice that the internal space of the body appears to be filled with a sense of mental silence – a reality that appears to be present prior to, and simultaneously with, our thoughts. English speaking traditions have pointed to this powerful but indefinable energetic resonance of Consciousness in the Mental Body using the word ‘Being’.
We can approach Being in various different ways. While it can be thought of perhaps, as the blank sheet of paper on which thought is written, the Buddhist metaphor of the mirror is a very much better one – Being is the perfect mirror of the mind. The imagery of our thoughts and life experience cannot stick to this ‘bright mirror’ of Consciousness. For more on the mirror symbol, and on the Mirror-Like Wisdom, please see my previous articles (listed at the end of this article) and my retelling of the autobiography of Hui Neng, the Sixth Zen Patriarch (here). What is beautifully highlighted by that story is the fact that the purification of the mind that we are seeking is, initially at least, not the elimination of all negative thoughts, but rather a pure and ’empty’ relationship to whatever thoughts may be present – a relationship in which we recognise that Consciousness is always at peace and can never be affected by our thoughts.
In other words the Mirror-Like Wisdom is an attitude of non-identification, or Equanimity, which is metaphorically like a mirror. This is a central idea. The realisation of Being is not about the content of the mind being perfect. Rather it is another way of pointing to the attitude of resting expansively as the space of Consciousness – as Presence – and completely allowing that space and clarity to become a point of reference for our Thinking mind. Only the space and clarity of Consciousness itself can hold everything in our experience with complete Objectivity – just as it is. We can think of Being therefore, as another important doorway into the experience of true Mindfulness.
Doing and Being
‘Being’ is often contrasted with ‘Doing’. To take this deeper, we need to understand that ‘Doing’ is one of the central characteristics of the egoic mind. The self-illusion is only released when we notice that we are not in fact the ‘doer’, and realise that, while we may continue to make choices and take actions based on those choices, there is a very real sense in which everything is happening on its own as the impersonal volitional energies (samskaras skandha) play themselves out in our lives. And as all meditators know, even when we are sitting perfectly still in meditation, the Thinking mind is often still busy doing – the Thinking mind appears to have several wills of its own.
To understand Being more fully, we need to understand that the choice to ‘Be’ is a profoundly active one. Being, when understood and practiced correctly, as in the Zen Buddhist practice of Zazen, or ‘Just Sitting’, is a vigorous assertion of our ’empty’ true nature as Consciousness, and an active renunciation of the sleepy passivity of our habitual egoic identification with the Thinking mind. In ‘Just Sitting’ we allow the thinking mind to do what it wants, but ‘we’ as Being, are resting in the Equanimity of Consciousness – connected, relational, and not reacting. Not identified, and not refusing the identification either. As Being we are in relationship – we are both that which is moving and that which is unmoved.
As we cross the threshold into the world of the Wisdoms, we always find ourselves in this sort of paradoxical territory, and once again we are also reconciling feminine and masculine dimensions. While Being, and allowing everything to ‘be as it is’ might be characterised as an archetypally ‘feminine’ state – a state of surrender, or of ‘letting go’ – we find that it is also a somatically yang, or ‘masculine’, state, because it so expansive. We also find that, paradoxically, our letting go of identification with the Thinking mind leads, not to a vacant intellectual passivity, but to a new capacity to ‘use our minds’, in intensely incisive, penetrating, and creative ways – ways which avoid the judgements, dishonesty, and intellectual sloppiness of ordinary egoic Thinking. Thus, embodiment of the Mirror-Like Wisdom came to be associated in Buddhist tradition with the vajra – a symbol of masculine potency, which I shall be talking about in a later article in this mini-series.
So, ‘Being’ is a word that we can use to begin to name, or point to, that aspect of the resting as Consciousness, or Mindfulness experience, which involves releasing our identification with the Thinking mind (rūpa skandha) and opening to Equanimity and the Mirror-Like Wisdom – as aspects of our essential nature as Consciousness. I shall be talking more about Being. While I am not yet aware if it has a direct word-for-word equivalent in Eastern Buddhist tradition, it has great power in the poetic and philosophical traditions of the West – and it is a word that I strongly associate with the mysterious and beautiful figure of the Buddhalocanā – the female Buddha personification of the Mirror-Like Wisdom, who we often see resting in the arms of the male Buddha Vajrasattva-Akshobya.