This is Post 37 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series.
The overall framework for the articles in this ‘Meditation Guidance’ series has been provided by the mandala of the four brahmavihāras: Equanimity (upekshā), Appreciative Joy (muditā), Loving Kindness (mettā), and Compassion (karunā). In order to make these four ‘attitudes of Consciousness’ more accessible, and in order to help people recognise them in their experience, I have, in recent articles, been exploring to the Four Qualia – a formulation of my own, which I have found to be very useful.
The qualia are difficult-to-define, difficult-to-describe, difficult-to-account-for experiences, and there a four of them that together provide a helpful experiential framework for meditation practice: Embodiment; Being; Uncaused Happiness; and Life Energy. Deepening into our experience of resting as Consciousness using this ‘Four Qualia’ formulation as our guide, is essentially an easier, more modest, and more experiential way of approaching the sublime brahmavihāras.
In the next article in this series, I shall be presenting some more detailed reflections on each of the Four Qualia and their corresponding brahmavihāras, for those wishing to experiment with them in their meditation practice, but first, in this article, I would like to reflect on the importance of these practices, and also on why, given their great value, they appear to have been relatively neglected.
Why are the brahmavihāras not better known?
The brahmavihāras are literally the vihāras or ‘dwelling places’ of the great four-faced creator god Brahma – they are the states in which Brahma was believed to abide. Importantly the word vihāra does not denote a permanent home, but a lodging or retreat, like the accommodation for travellers to rest overnight while on a pilgrimage. So the term immediately suggests a staged form of meditation, in which the practitioner moves systematically through a series of four stages corresponding to the brahmavihāras, in order perhaps to achieve a fifth stage, the state of balance, wholeness and internal energetic coherence that Indian tradition calls samadhi. We are being invited, in the brahmavihāras meditation-cycle, to ‘rest’ for a period of time in each vihāra – to rest and find refreshment and renewal in our true nature, both in our meditation practice, and on the journey of life. Continue reading
This longer piece of writing is from 2012. I am hoping it will be enjoyed, and will provide inspiration and guidance to students of meditation and self-enquiry. I find the story of Hui Neng to be one of the most beautiful and illuminating in the whole of the Buddhist tradition. Among the many deep themes in this rich and multi-dimensional story, you will find, I believe, the essence of Zen.
Those who have been reading my articles on the ‘mandala wisdom’ on this website, will find that this story also brings us back, in a fresh new way, to our entry point into the mandala: the Eastern Quadrant; the Mirror-Like Wisdom; and the brahmavihāra of Equanimity.
Although the psychological model and framework for meditation and self-enquiry, which I have been advocating in my writing is primarily that of the ‘mandala wisdom’ from the late Mahayana Buddhism, and Padmasambhava’s Bardo Thodol (or Tibetan Book of the Dead), its foundations are in early Buddhism and in the pre-Buddhist psychological and spiritual models, which Gautama Buddha himself used when talking about the ultimate nature of mind.
The story that I would like to tell here however, comes from Zen, a strand of Buddhism that was initiated by Mahakashapa, an enlightened student of the Buddha, who took the tradition to China. Culturally, Zen has something of the simplicity of early Buddhism, but is informed by the expansive compassionate mission, and by the beautiful and richly symbolic Sanskrit texts of the Indian Mahayana. At the time of this story, Zen was still a Chinese Buddhist tradition (the Chan tradition) and had not yet spread to Japan.
The spiritual teachers who passed on the living experience of enlightenment within the Zen tradition over many centuries have become known as the Zen Patriarchs. This is the story the man who became the Sixth Zen Patriarch. It is the story of Hui Neng.
This story has had a great impact on many people, and has always had great power for me also, because Hui Neng is such a perfect exemplar of that dimension of spirituality that the Buddhist tradition calls the Mirror-like Wisdom. Though a completely uneducated man at the time of his realisation, he had a spiritual clarity that stands as a beacon for us all, many centuries later. Through his influence during his lifetime, and the written records of his teachings, he personally brought about a renewal of Chinese Buddhism, and set it on the path to becoming the spiritual force that it became, and still is in the modern world.
Hui Neng was a very ordinary man, an illiterate Chinese peasant. He was born in Guangdong Province in the agricultural south of China in the seventh century CE. Our main source for his story is the ‘Platform Sutra’, the first section of which records an autobiographical talk that Hui Neng gave long after he was accepted as the Sixth Patriarch by the Buddhist community of China.
Hui Neng’s early life
We are told that Hui Neng’s father died when he was three, but even before his father died, there was extreme hardship for his family. The text tells us that his father had originally held an official position but had been banished from his native town. So it seems that Hui Neng probably grew up in poverty but had an extremely resourceful mother who worked very hard to support him through childhood despite her own heartbreak and deprivation.
As a young man, Hui Neng supported himself and his mother by chopping and carting firewood. We are given very little information about him, but we can imagine perhaps that he was too poor to think of marriage, and spending time alone in the woods and bamboo groves, found peace in nature, in the experience of being, and in reflection on the ultimate nature of things. I imagine him as a man of instinctive kindness and honesty who, while not educated, had a naturally inquiring mind and a contemplative, if not mystical, temperament – and who was always interested in, and open to, the truth – from wherever it may come.
Hui Neng first hears the Dharma
I imagine Hui Neng having many moments of resting as the imperturbable stillness of awareness, and consciously appreciating and familiarising himself with that peace. We are told however that, for him, a great turning point in the process of his realisation came when he heard the words of the Diamond Sutra being recited in the marketplace by a lay Buddhist – a man who had attended talks given by Hung Jen, the Fifth Patriarch. We can imagine Hui Neng taking time after making a delivery to listen respectfully and with single-minded intensity to the mysterious words of this powerful, dramatic, and challenging text. The Diamond Sutra was a sutra of the India Mahayana, which had been translated from Sanskrit into Chinese. It contains many bold statements about the ultimate nature of mind. It appears to most people to be full of riddles – completely defying the rational mind.
We are told that there was a particular line in the text that made a profound impact on Hui Neng. In translation these are the words:
“One should produce that thought which is nowhere dwelled.”
On hearing this, we are told, Hui Neng was swept into that stream of recognition and being that the Buddhist tradition calls Enlightenment. From that moment on, the process of realisation that was at work in him became irreversible; he was destined to become a realised soul; one who knows and rests inseparably in the oneness of awareness; one in whom the background has become the foreground, and the foreground the background; one who no longer suffers in their suffering; one who knows the ultimate nature of mind. He also recognised that he was a Buddhist – and began to learn about, and connect with, that culture, that language, and that archetypal world.
It seems he found a confirmation in the Diamond Sutra of a way of seeing and being and knowing that was already familiar to him. The social, cultural and religious significance of this way of seeing was however suddenly made clear for him. It seems that the idea that the field of awareness in which thought arises is ultimately a “nowhere” – and ’empty’ of egoic self-nature – resonated with his experience. And in fully acknowledging the importance of this, he would have realised also, that paradoxically this nowhere place of awareness itself, is the only place of true objectivity, the only basis for truly objective observation of self, other, and world. The impression given, is that from this moment of confirmation onward, he understood this truth with such penetrating clarity, that in all the many challenges of his life from that point on, he could always rely on that knowing – and in the peace that it brought with it.
Enlightenment: Sudden or Gradual?
Hui Neng is usually identified in the minds of students of Buddhism, with the idea of ‘sudden’ as opposed to ‘gradual’ awakening, and in his later life as an enlightened teacher he appears to have been something of a champion of an approach that is probably better characterised as ‘direct’ rather than ‘sudden’. In the light of this apparent dichotomy of ‘sudden’ and ‘gradual’, it is instructive to notice that the story of Nui Neng’s enlightenment, although it shows this directness, can also be seen as a gradual process with several distinct stages of deepening, surrender, and learning; a process in which he was coming more and more fully into alignment with his original realisation.
Hui Neng’s story becomes more accessible to us if we acknowledge that he was undergoing a process. There is even a danger that we distance ourselves from him and his experience if we over-idealise his experience and place this ‘sudden’ realisation through direct engagement with the nature of mind, outside of the realm of possibilities for ourselves. If we fail to feel the resonance of his experience in our own moments of knowing, we are refusing the gift in the story.
The power of Hui Neng’s influence on the China of his day lay partly in his ordinariness. He had no education, but rather than this being an obstacle, for him it was a blessing. He had the innocence and openness of mind that in Zen tradition has been called ‘Beginners Mind’, and this allowed him to enter the mystery, when others could not. He was like Parsival, the ‘fool’, the innocent and uncultivated Arthurian knight who is the one who finds the Holy Grail when all others had failed.
A Spiritual Friendship
Whatever else it was, this meeting with the man in the marketplace was for Hui Neng a meeting with his destiny, the moment of his entry into his true identity and path in life. It was also a point of no return, a point of no falling back. From here on in, he was in the gravitational force field of Enlightenment. We can imagine perhaps a powerful purifying peace descending over him like a gentle cascade. We can imagine perhaps a benign and radiant quality in his presence. We can imagine the completeness of his relatedness, the sparkle in his eyes, and the intimacy and mutual gratitude in his connection with this passionate lay student of Buddhism, but please let’s not distance ourselves from this experience. We all have these moments of innocent receptivity that can change our lives forever – if we let them.
Clearly, the discussion that followed made a huge impact on the man who had been reciting the text. I imagine him as a prosperous, scholarly, and richly dressed man with a deep love of the Buddha Dharma; a man who could read and write, and probably owned copies of the Buddhist texts. He is perhaps a man who has been deeply affected by the missionary spirit of Mahayana Buddhism, and is filled with the passionate wish to spread the Buddha’s teachings; a man who has traveled to the Buddhist monastery of the Fifth Patriarch to here him teaching, and returned determined to create a community of students and practitioners in his hometown. I see him immediately compelled to invite Hui Neng, the poor woodcutter, to come to his home many times over the following days and weeks, to have tea with him, and perhaps to read and reflect together, and to talk about the teachings.
We can imagine this man’s growing excitement and perplexity as the illiterate Hui Neng in his rough and dirty peasant clothes consistently expresses penetrating understanding of the strange and wonderful texts that he has been studying – and appears to show the qualities of a Buddha in aspects of his manner, communication and presence. We can also imagine the profound effect of these meetings on Hui Neng, as he recognises his innate kinship with this mysterious and wonderful spiritual tradition from India. His new friend would have explained the central Mahayana ideal, the ideal of the Bodhisattva, the being who lives for the wellbeing and salvation of all beings, and Hui Neng would have recognised that motivation as the guiding purpose in his own heart.
Hui Neng’s Journey North
In the text, all we are told is that this man enthusiastically urged, and subsequently sponsored, Hui Neng to travel north to visit master Hung Jen, the Fifth Patriarch, at the Huang Mei monastery, providing both money for his journey and his maintenance there, and ongoing financial support for his mother while he was away. I cannot help but see these two men as deep spiritual friends, each profoundly affected by the other, each feeling deep appreciation for the other, and each fully connected with the other’s needs, each intent on supporting the other; and both fully aware that the ultimate purpose of their friendship was to serve the greatest good of all.
We are told that the journey to the monastery took Hui Neng thirty days. It is probably fair to assume that Hui Neng had never before travelled more than a few days journey from his hometown, so this would have been a time of great expansion and deepening for him on many levels. We can imagine him learning much about the world along the way and reflecting deeply on what he saw. In a sense this was the time of his ‘going forth’, the time of his life when, having recognised his destiny, having been blessed with clarity as to purpose and his next steps, and the material resources to meet his modest needs, he responds completely to the calling, and throws himself forward into a new life. Each new day on this journey would have brought new challenges and new fears and new witness of suffering. We can imagine that each challenge he faced would have brought new knowledge and new confidence; that each new fear faced would have brought new trust in life; and that each new witness of suffering would have brought new depths of compassion.
“Buddhahood and Nothing Else!”
It seems that Hui Neng arrives at the end of his journey in a state of utterly single-minded spiritual purpose, and on meeting Hung Jen, the Abbot of the monastery, he boldly states that his interest is in the complete realisation of Buddhahood in this life “and nothing else!”. The tradition gives a very much distilled account of Hui Neng’s interview with Hung Jen, the enlightened Fifth Patriarch of the tradition. My instinct tells me that Hung Jen would have almost immediately recognised the high level of Hui Neng’s realisation. It must have been a profoundly affecting meeting for both of them. We can imagine Hung Jen testing Hui Neng’s realisation in various ways – and each time finding his original instinct confirmed.
The text tells us that a key theme of their conversation was that Hung Jen was concerned about how Hui Neng, an illiterate ‘barbarian’ from the agricultural south, would be received within the refined and educated culture of this monastery in the north. The fact that he cannot read is, it seems, regarded as an overwhelming practical obstacle, as the locals appear to feel nothing but disdain towards the country bumpkins from the south. We can also assume that a very different dialect of Chinese was being spoken in the monastery, than that which Hui Neng had grown up speaking in the south.
A Meeting of Minds
One of the ways Hung Jen tests Hui Neng is to ask him directly how he thinks he is going to participate in the life of the monastery and gain realisation if he is cannot even read. Hui Neng’s response, as recorded by the tradition, is very clear:
“Although there are northern men and southern men, north and south make no difference to their Buddha-nature. A barbarian is different from Your Holiness physically, but there is no difference in our Buddha-nature.”
If Hung Jen was not already convinced of Hui Neng’s realisation, it seems that the conversation paraphrased in these lines was more than enough to eliminate all doubt. He would have recognised that Hui Neng was stating an absolutely fundamental spiritual truth, and was speaking not from learning or egalitarian sentiment, but directly from his realisation; directly from his complete familiarity with the one mind of awareness in which all beings rest equally. Both men knew that the unitary field of awareness in which everything arises, is equal and even throughout the infinity of space. They both knew that all human beings participate in this radical and sacred equality, despite their apparent differences.
Both men also knew that almost all human cultures either ignore or actively reject this foundational insight and principle. More even than this, it is probable that both knew that an unfortunate feature of the egoic mind, is its mental habit of judging people as of greater and of lesser value, as better or worse, as worthy or less worthy, as more or less able, and as more or less Enlightened – and that this is nowhere more rife than in a monastery.
The Patriarch’s Dilemma
At one level, the situation that Hung Jen found himself in was very simple and beautiful: a precious moment of connection such as he perhaps has not experienced since the passing of the previous Patriarch. We can imagine them gazing at each other and feeling acknowledged in a new and perhaps unfamiliar way – another lovely moment of spiritual friendship. We can even imagine feelings of celebration and delight – even of relief – in the Fifth Patriach, as he recognises that his teaching efforts have borne fruit in an unexpected way; that Hui Neng appears to have gained realisation outside of the Buddhist community, but through their mutual connection in Hui Neng’s patron, has recognised the Chinese Zen tradition as his spiritual home and vocation; and that even if no-one else realises the one mind in this generation, Hung Jen has at last found someone who might be able to keep the lineage alive when he dies.
However, it is clear that Hung Jen has been presented with a difficulty. Hui Neng was presenting him with the dilemma that faces all men in positions of religious authority in one way or another. As Abbot of the monastery, he was running an inherently hierarchical organisation that has a need to honour the commitment of its senior members. He also needs to honour the committed laity, especially the wealthy laity, that were supporting the monastery financially. There was a pragmatic and even political dimension to his role. His greatest need, the guiding purpose of his life, was to live and communicate his own realisation, to keep the tradition truly alive and grounded in the actual experience of Enlightenment. However, he also needed to keep the tradition and its teaching program progressing and running smoothly within the cultural limitations of Chinese society at that time.
Hung Jen also needed to acknowledge that in a monastery there are many levels of development happening that all serve to support the overall goal of the transmission of the experience of enlightenment. In the Buddhist tradition, the goal of spiritual realisation, is almost always set within the cultural context of, not only the tradition, but the broadly conceived aim of personal development within that context. In a monastery, there is a wide range of skills, knowledge and personality development happening, which are also highly valued and necessary if the tradition is to be preserved.
A Temporary Solution
More even than this, Hung Jen appears to have been very much afraid of the possibility of jealous rage, and even actual physical violence towards Hui Neng, if his realisation was to be publicly acknowledged. As horrific a reflection as it may seem upon the political dynamics of life in a Buddhist monastery in seventh century China, it has to be said that Hung Jen was actually afraid that this wonderful man from the south might be murdered, and immediately made the protection of Hui Neng’s life his highest priority.
We are told that they had to cut their meeting short due to the presence of other disciples, so Hung Jen had to make a decision on the spur of the moment. His solution was radical. It seems he decided that the safest option was to do nothing, at least for the time being; to make no acknowledgement of Hui Neng’s realisation to anyone else in the monastery; to have no further contact with him; to ask him to remain silent as much as possible; and to ask him not to attend the teaching sessions or make any show of his knowledge. He admitted him to the monastery in the most junior role, working in the kitchens and stables with lay members of the monastic community. It appears that he had no doubt that Hui Neng would understand and completely accept the situation, such was the recognition that had passed between them during their brief meeting on that first day.
It was eight months before they met again, and even then, it was only the briefest exchange of reassurances, of deep respect, and of acknowledgement that each understood the other’s mind.
Hui Neng works in the Monastery Kitchens
The image of Hui Neng working with the support staff in the yards, stables, kitchens and vegetable gardens of the monastery is a very beautiful and thought-provoking one. We can imagine that for the most part he would feel very much at home in the culture of that community, content to observe and learn, and to allow any need for recognition that he might have had, to simply be unmet.
He must have been a source of some perplexity to his workmates, but I would like to think that he earned their acceptance and respect. I imagine that he was always clear, objective, and thoughtful, but very simple and without intellectual ambition; always practical, efficient and effective, but totally without pride; always kind, empathetic and warmly present, but totally without affectation; always motivated; and always in the flow. We can also imagine him reflecting in private moments; wondering, presumably without anxiety, about what the outcome of this situation might be; perhaps developing a critical perspective about the way the monastery was organised, but always content to let his needs be unmet, and to respect the judgement and authority of Hung Jen.
The presence of Hui Neng in the monastery must have been troubling for Hung Jen. How could it be that this commoner from the backwoods has gained such complete clarity of understanding while his students who have been studying the great texts with him for many years have not? Why is it that the efforts of his monks were not bearing fruit? Why was it so difficult to pass on his realisation to these men who were trying so hard to learn? His students are such well-educated intelligent men. Several of them would have such a natural authority if they were to take over the Patriarchate. Why then could they not grasp the essence of the teachings? We can imagine Hung Jen redoubling his teaching efforts and trying to find new ways of helping his students to go beyond their book knowledge and their relative stillness of mind, and to achieve actual liberation.
The Patriarch’s Poetry Challenge
The next episode of the story is the famous one in which, we a told, Hung Jen gives a discourse to all his disciples in which he urges them passionately to engage in meditative inquiry so as to realise the ultimate nature of mind and free themselves from the endless cycle of rebirth. He then challenges each one of them to look into their own experience of the nature of mind, and to quickly write a short four-line verse, or ‘gatha’, expressing their own inner knowing of the ultimate truth. He makes it clear that he intends this to be a test of the degree of their realisation, and explains that the monk who is able to show that they really understand the ultimate nature of mind will receive the transmission of the lineage and will become the 6th Patriarch. We can imagine perhaps that Hung Jen, mindful of Hui Neng working in the kitchens and unable to think of a satisfactory way to resolve the situation, would dearly love to see evidence that one of his learned and literate disciples was also able to see the truth and express their realisation clearly.
Since the monastery already has a senior instructor and teacher called Shen Xiu, who is acknowledged by all as the senior-most monk after the Abbott, all the junior monks we are told, decide not to bother even trying to do the inquiry, and do not attempt to write a verse. They rationalise that it is more respectful to simply wait to see what their instructor Shen Xiu comes up with. Reading this section of the autobiography, we have a disturbing and illuminating sense of how processes of psychological projection, and of how habitual self-limiting assumptions, and the hierarchical thinking in the monastery, is profoundly undermining the monks’ ability to take personal responsibility for their spiritual process.
Shen Xiu’s Conflict and Struggle
Shen Xiu is also burdened by his role in the hierarchy. The text describes in detail how the decision of the junior monks not to engage puts a lot of pressure on him, and throws him into painful internal conflict. Knowing that he is the only one who will be submitting a verse, and also knowing very well that although he is very learned, he has not yet realised the ultimate nature of mind, he becomes anxiously preoccupied with how his gatha will be received by the Patriarch and by the monks. It appears that when Shen Xiu tries to write a gatha, he writes and rewrites it many times, but is unhappy even with his best effort. We are told that after trying to find the courage to face the Abbot with it no less than thirteen times over the course of the next four days, he gives up and decides to write it on a section of wall inside the monastery that had recently been prepared for the painting of a mural and would soon be painted over. He writes his verse at midnight making sure that no one sees him.
The translations of the original Chinese characters into English are many and varied, but the following is probably fairly close to what Shen Xiu wrote:
Shen Xiu’s Gatha
The body is like the Bodhi Tree
The mind like a bright mirror on a stand
Time and again polish is diligently
To keep it uncontaminated by dust
It is easy to see why Shen Xiu has become the main teacher at the monastery under Hung Jen. He beautifully and poetically expresses the main preoccupations of a monk: the need for discipline and unrelenting effort to control and purify the mind by maintaining mental states that are calm, positive, focused and undistracted. There is a satisfying poetry in his expression. From a certain point of view, the body is indeed like the Bodhi Tree, the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment. And the mirror is a wonderful metaphor for the mind. We sense that he half-remembers a teaching in which Hung Jen was pointing to the nature the mind using the metaphorical image of a mirror. It is as if he is trying to grasp the meaning of what he has heard, but cannot quite capture it.
Full Marks for Effort
We can imagine that Hung Jen, the abbot and Patriarch, who has been waiting for four days for Shen Xiu’s gatha, has a very clear intuitive sense of what Shen Xiu has been going through. When he discovers the gatha on the wall the next day he almost certainly knows immediately who the author is, and can see that it does not express an understanding of the ultimate nature of mind, but it seems that his response gives no indication of disappointment whatsoever. He cancels the plan for the mural painting, which was to have been of a beautiful inspiring scene from one of the great Mahayana sutras, and praises the verse very highly. He makes it known that it contains very important truths about living a good life and purifying karma. Far from expressing disappointment, he states that anyone practicing this teaching will be saved from the misery of being born in ‘the evil realms of existence’. (There are, in Buddhist cosmology six possible realms, or places of rebirth, four of which are regarded as particularly unfortunate – Asura realm, the Preta Realm, the Hell Realms, and the Animal Realm.) He invites all of his monks to give honour to the gatha by burning incense in front of it, by learning it, reciting it, and putting the principles it contains into practice.
That night Hung Jen secretly meets with Shen Xiu, and asks him if he is the author of the gatha. Shen Xiu somewhat nervously acknowledges that it is, and asks Hung Jen for his honest opinion of it. Hung Jen responds kindly. He explains to Shen Xiu that he has reached the door of Enlightenment, but has not yet entered it, and then spends time guiding him in self-inquiry and trying to point him beyond thought to the objective mind, the field of awareness in which thought arises. He then urges Shen Xiu to look within once again and to try to come up with another gatha that expresses the core insight that they have talked about. Again Hung Jen promises Shen Xiu that the Patriarchate will be passed to him if he can show that he is ready, and once again Shen Xiu finds himself tormented, unable come up with anything better.
The Meeting of Abbot and Senior Monk
The image of this meeting between Hung Jen and Shen Xiu is in some ways extremely touching. Clearly Hung Jen has feelings of great love, respect, gratitude, and appreciation for Shen Xiu – his favourite and most devoted student. They have a deep bond of friendship, and an affection that is mutual. Although they are on different spiritual levels, they are co-workers, they share a vision: a vision of developing a Buddhist culture in China; and a vision of salvation, of helping the men and women of China to find the peace of realisation – the end of suffering. There is no doubt that Hung Jen would very much love to be able to pass the robe and bowl, the symbols of the Patriarchate, to Shen Xiu.
Reflecting on this meeting between enlightened master and unenlightened senior student, a student of the Buddhist tradition cannot help but think of the Buddha’s relationship with Ananda, his student and personal companion throughout his years of teaching. Like Shen Xiu, Ananda was a brilliant student with a kind heart, a truly remarkable memory, and a very keen sense of the cultural and historical importance of the teachings and of the tradition, but he was unable to gain enlightenment while the Buddha was alive. It was only after Gautama’s death that Ananda found the Buddha within.
Next, we hear that, because members of the monastic community have taken seriously Hung Jen’s invitation to learn and recite Shen Xiu’s gatha, Hui Neng gets to hear it being recited by a boy who is a lay member of the community and a member of the kitchen staff like himself. Hui Neng realises immediately that the author of the gatha is not enlightened and asks the boy who composed it. The boy explains the whole story of the Abbot’s challenge to the monks, and the gatha that was written on the wall, and the praise that Hung Jen had heaped on it, and agrees to take Hui Neng to see the wall where the gatha is written.
So we have the curious image of the illiterate Hui Neng standing before the four rows of Chinese characters that he cannot read, reciting to himself the words he has heard, and reflecting deeply upon them. He knows very well that they do not express the ultimate nature of mind, but he also knows that they have been highly praised by Hung Jen. I sense there may have been a very important process of integration and learning for him in this. He would have recognised and acknowledged that Hung Jen was praising the important relative truths in this gatha, truths that bring improvement to the human condition and prevent rebirth in the worst realms, even though the original challenge had been to express something of absolute truth, the knowledge of the ultimate nature of mind that brings complete liberation.
We cannot help but bring to mind Hui Neng’s first meeting with the Patriarch, when he declared that he wanted “Buddhahood and nothing else!”. I believe Hui Neng comes to an even greater understanding of, and respect for the mind of Hung Jen as he contemplates the gatha and Hung Jen’s response to it. In his affirmation of the gatha, Hung Jen brings home to him that the Buddhist tradition is not concerned only with Buddhahood “and nothing else!” On the contrary it embraces the challenge of raising up the quality of our conduct and our mental wellbeing in a very broad way. Everything that is conducive to these goals is included, and given meaning and value. The goal of Enlightenment can be seen as the highest goal – one which provided the context in which these lesser gaols are set.
The Inclusivity of the Bodhisattva’s Task
Even though the Bodhisattva is primarily concerned with liberation; with the absolute salvation of all beings; with going beyond all conditions, he is also inherently and passionately motivated to simply meet human needs and alleviate suffering on a relative level – on the level of conditioned existence. The Bodhisattva engages with all aspects of human life and culture without exception. His passion is to make life more wonderful in whatever way he can. Nothing relative is excluded, but the absolute liberation that springs from knowledge of the ultimate nature of mind, from the one mind, from awareness itself, is his central concern, his highest purpose, and the source of his tireless compassionate motivation.
I imagine Hui Neng kneeling in honour and obeisance before the gatha on the wall, and feeling a great love not only for his master Hung Jen, but also perhaps for the senior teacher Shen Xiu. It would be easy to dismiss Shen Xiu as being preoccupied with the achievement of only relative goals: relative tranquility, relative wisdom, relative happiness, relative compassion and relative purification. This would be a mistake, since it is the energy of the absolute arising in each heart that ultimately motivates these relative goals. As Hui Neng recites and reflects, I believe he comes to recognise clearly, that although it is sometimes helpful and necessary to acknowledge the two apparent levels of truth on the spiritual path, ultimately they are not separate, and both are valid. With this insight, he knows in his heart that all those who sincerely teach the Buddha Dharma are worthy of deep respect and gratitude – Enlightened or not.
We can imagine the illiterate Hui Neng standing before the writing on the wall, continuing to contemplate and turning Shen Xiu’s gatha images over in his mind, and trying to figure out the characters. We can imagine him being highly motivated to learn to read. I imagine that Shen Xiu’s gatha is on the left side of the panel of wall that has been prepared for the mural, and that there is space next to it that is calling out to be written on with another gatha that would provide a counterpoint to, and a clarification of, the first. We can imagine Hui Neng wishing he could write, wishing he could communicate his clarifying understanding, which he is convinced will help the monks in their practice. It is of great value for us to fantasise about what Hui Neng might have been thinking. Once again, let’s not distance ourselves from him. Rather let’s allow ourselves to join him in his reflection and his self-inquiry.
The Body is the Bodhi Tree
We can perhaps imagine Hui Neng reflecting on the first line of Shen Xiu’s gatha:
‘Yes, the body is indeed like the Bodhi Tree, the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment. And the commitment to meditation practice, the commitment to allowing the body to be still like a tree is important. The stillness of the body, and the stillness of the mind as we take moments of rest, moments for meditative inquiry, is very helpful indeed. It allows us to notice awareness itself, and to notice its qualities. Awareness is always still. Awareness is always still and benevolently present like the beautiful tree that provided the Buddha with shade on that final day.’
‘Awareness is still even when the body is moving. Awareness is imperturbable, unaffected by the movement of thought. It is always there, still and present, and all-embracing, even when we move and think and go about our business. If a person stops moving and sits still, and lets the mind become quiet for a moment, they will notice that the one mind of awareness is always there wherever they are, and whatever they are doing. Awareness is everywhere. There is no special place where enlightenment is more or less, stronger or weaker. Awareness is equal and even throughout infinite space and time.’
‘The one mind of Bodhi, the one mind of Enlightenment, needs no tree. It has no location whatsoever. There are no conditions for it. Bodhi does not even require the stillness of a good meditation posture that is solid and strong like a tree. Actually it’s the other way round. Resting in the ultimate stillness of awareness it what allows the body to become still and peaceful and relaxed. Resting as awareness allows the body and mind to become imperturbable and benevolently present like the Bodhi tree. The Body is the Bodhi tree is a beautiful metaphor, but it could be confusing. The one mind of awareness itself cannot be located. It has, and needs, no location.’
If I were to write a gatha, I am afraid I would have to say something like Bodhi is not a tree or better still:
Bodhi needs no tree.’
The Mind a Bright Mirror on a Stand
Once again let’s imagine Hui Neng reflecting on Shen Xiu’s gatha:
‘Yes, a bright mirror is an excellent metaphor for the mind. Clarity of mind is indeed like a bright mirror. And the stand is like the meditator sitting with a good straight meditation posture. The stand is also perhaps an image of uprightness and nobility of conduct. The discipline of acting ethically and with generosity can indeed lead to a clear calm mind if they are performed without pride and identification. However, the ultimate basis of a clear calm mind is the imperturbable clarity of awareness itself. And ethical action comes naturally to one who has learnt to rest in the one mind of awareness. Ethical and generous actions of body, speech and mind, are beautiful and bring happiness, because they bring us into alignment with our true nature, but only complete familiarity with our true nature will bring liberation.’
‘The mind is like a mirror because the images in a mirror do not stick to its bright surface. When the meditator contemplates the mind of awareness itself rather than just the fleeting contents of the mind – the thoughts that arise and pass away – he sees that awareness is indeed mirror-like and bright. Indeed, the one mind of awareness is always luminous and shines with a kindly non-judgemental light on all thoughts whatsoever. Awareness just sees things as they are. It does not need to change the thoughts that arise. It is receiving and accepting of them – recognising that they are empty of self-nature.’
‘Spiritual transformation is a question of emphasis, a question of where we choose to place our attention and our identification. If I were teaching meditation I would advise the monks to give their attention to the mirror-like quality of awareness itself, rather than to it mental contents. This change of emphasis alone is enough to purify the mind, since awareness is purity itself. No thoughts can ever stain its mirror-like purity and brightness. The meditator does not need to judge his thoughts and control his mind. He only needs to become familiar with the mirror-like awareness in which his thoughts arise. As he learns to rest as the one mind of awareness, he will see the conditioned nature of his thoughts. He will notice that they are only points of view, just thoughts conditioned by his experience, and his identification with them will fall away.’
‘When men and women emphasise the contents of the mind, and only glance in the mirror of the one mind of awareness, they glimpse its brightness and take that to be the source of a personal self that is completely separate. Then they take the thoughts that arise in the mind to be ‘my’ thoughts. Both the glanced reflection in the mirror of mind, and the thoughts that arise there, are each taken as confirmation of separate self-hood. When however, in meditative inquiry we look more carefully into this mirror of the mind, we find no self. Both the one mind of awareness, and the thoughts that arise in it, are completely without self-nature.’
‘One who has gained familiarity with the one mind of awareness develops a reflective mirror-like intelligence. When judgements arise in him, he reflects on them. He does not speak them or act on them, but notices that they are just conditioned points of view, just the momentum and reactivity of his mind. When he is familiar with the one mind of awareness he becomes capable of true objectivity, and thinks in a completely new way that is not self-referencing.’
‘Shen Xiu has written ‘The mind is a bright mirror on a stand’. If I were to the write a gatha, I would want to write a counterpoint to that which emphasises the fact that the mirror-like mind of awareness itself has no conditions whatsoever. If I could write I would like to say:
The bright mirror has no stand.’
Time and Again, Polish it Diligently
This is the third line of the Shen Xiu’s gatha. Once again let us imagine Hui Neng’s thoughts:
‘Shen Xiu is correct in his understanding that to create a way of life and a way of being that is in alignment with the highest good, it is necessary to be vigilant, to take action, to be diligent, to apply effort, to ascertain and cultivate what is positive at all times. Those who cling to illusion of a separate self, do behave badly, and they do indeed accumulate negative tendencies that obscure the true nature of the mind. But ultimately the opposite is also true. One who gains deep familiarity, through meditative inquiry, with the ultimate nature of mind, with the mirror-like purity of awareness itself, eventually learns to rest instinctively as that. Since the imperturbable mirror-like clarity of the one mind of awareness is our ultimate true nature, it inevitably becomes completely natural and effortless for us to rest in that peace – if we regularly choose to do so in meditation and in daily life.’
‘If I was writing a gatha in response to Hung Jen’s challenge to point to the ultimate nature of mind and to the path of complete liberation, I would want to emphasise this paradox. Although effort and diligence is often appropriate, the one mind of awareness itself needs no polishing to keep it shining brightly. It is stainless by nature – originally, essentially and primordially pure and clean.’
‘If I could write a line that is a statement about the nature of the bright mirror of awareness, I would say simply:
It is originally pure and clean’
To Keep it Uncontaminated by Dust
This is the fourth and final line of Shen Xiu’s gatha. Let’s imagine once again, what Hui Neng might have thought about it:
‘I feel compassion for Shen Xiu and his monks. It takes so much effort for them to maintain their practice and their commitment to the monastic life. Until we have learnt to rest in the clarity and purity of awareness itself, the mind always appears to be filled with conflicts and unwanted thoughts. If the monk allows himself to identify with his thoughts – believing that they are ‘my’ thoughts – then they do indeed appear to be like worldly ‘dust’ that accumulates on the surface of the mind – obscuring the true nature of mind despite his best efforts.’
‘Until he recognises that the contents of the mind and his awareness of them, are both entirely empty of self-nature, it is natural that a monk would identify with his mental contents and want to remove this mental ‘dust’. His relentless effort to purify the mind of these unwanted contents deserves commendation, but ultimately peace is only possible by a change of emphasis and attention – and a release of identification. There is a danger that the earnest struggle to remove the dust of unwanted thoughts becomes habitual, and that the ultimate source of peace of mind is forgotten.’
‘If I was writing a gatha I would what to try to remind the monks that it is necessary and sufficient that they choose to become deeply familiar with the inherent stainless clarity of awareness itself. If they choose to give their attention to that, so that their attention is balanced between awareness itself and that which is arising in awareness and inseparable from it, their mind will naturally becomes clear. The one mind of awareness itself requires no cleaning. Because it is primordially pure, stainless, and empty of self-nature, it is always entirely unaffected by the mental contents that arise within it. Awareness is imperturbable and indestructible. It can no more be affected by thoughts than a mirror can be affected by the reflected images that move across it.’
‘For the fourth line of my gatha, if I could write, I would say:
Where then could dust collect?‘
The Two Gathas
The text tells us that another man joins Hui Neng as he is gazing meditatively at the wall where Shen Xiu’s gatha is inscribed. It appears that he is a visitor to the monastery from some distance away. We are told that he is an official from Jiang Zhou province by the name of Zhang Ri Yong. Hui Neng would have recognised him by his dress as one who could read and write. It appears that the two men, though of very different social class, stuck up a rapport and talked together about the words and meanings of Shen Xiu’s gatha. First, Zhang Ri Yong read the gatha to Hui Neng and helped him understand the characters, and then Hui Neng managed to persuade him to write the gatha that he had composed on the wall next to that of Shen Xiu. So the two gathas written side by side must have expressed something close to the following in their meaning:
Shen Xiu’s GathaHui Neng’s Gatha
The body is the Bodhi Tree Bodhi needs no tree
The mind is a bright mirror on a stand The bright mirror has no stand
Time and again polish is diligently It is originally pure and clean
To keep it uncontaminated by dust Where then could dust collect?
So, Hui Neng, while adhering to Hung Jen’s request that he should not talk to other members of the community, has ultimately not been able to completely hide his realisation. His compassionate impulse to bring clarity where there was confusion, has brought the attention to Hui Neng that Hung Jen had been trying to avoid. The clarity of his insight is now evident in the writing on the wall, which immediately causes quite a stir in the monastery. As soon as Hung Jen sees the second gatha on the wall next to Shen Xiu’s, he recognises the wisdom in it and knows that it could only have been composed by Hui Neng. Fearing a violent attack on Hui Neng motivated by jealousy and envy, he immediately attempts to erase Hui Neng’s gatha with his shoe, and is disparaging and dismissive about it. Intent on protecting Hui Neng, he makes it known that he thinks the second gatha to be the work of one who has also not yet realised the ultimate nature of mind
These two gathas viewed side by side in this way speak volumes not only about the Chan Buddhist tradition at that time, but about the Buddhist tradition in general. They present an eternal philosophical question, a perennial starting point for inquiry for all spiritual students and for all spiritual communities. History has shown that the world view and emphasis represented by Shen Xiu’s gatha tends to come to dominate the philosophy and practice in almost all religions and spiritual traditions, whereas the Hui Neng’s gatha represents that insight which both initiates, or brings renewal to, these traditions.
We are told that although he had publicly dismissed Hui Neng’s gatha, Hung Jen finds a way of connecting with Hui Neng, by coming to the kitchens where he is working. By communicating together in the language of the kitchen, they manage, without anyone else knowing, to arrange a late-night meeting.
A Secret Meeting – Late at Night
This late-night meeting must have been extraordinary for both of these men. Hui Neng describes it in some detail in his autobiographical talk. They may only have had one or two hours together and Hui Neng clearly still treasures the memory many years later. It is a moment in the story for us to treasure also. At the meeting, Hung Jen expounds the Diamond Sutra and a particular line in the text makes a huge impact on Hui Neng.
“One should use one’s mind in such a way that it will be free from any attachment,”
This statement unfolds yet another dimension of the theme that has already been expressed in a very profound way in Hui Neng’s gatha. It is another way of talking about the mirror-like nature of awareness and of the beauty of honesty and objective truth; of thought that is completely fair and balanced and not biased by either conscious or unconscious self-reference. Interestingly, it talks of objectivity as a way of ‘using’ the mind, which becomes possible when we are free from egoic identification with thoughts, feelings and experiences; from any attachment to any particular way of seeing the world. Those that rest as the one mind of awareness, are able to ‘use’ their minds consciously and skilfully in the work of creation. Those that have no familiarity with the one mind of awareness, have no freedom from attachment; have no place of rest; have little or no capacity for objectivity; and are completely subject to the reactivity of their minds and the suffering that their thoughts create.
On hearing that line in the text, Hui Neng says he:
“became thoroughly enlightened, and realised that all things in the universe are the One Mind itself.”
This is a very profound statement indeed. This is not just an expression of his understanding of the text. An even deeper insight has arisen. In the moment that Hui Neng identifies as his final and complete realisation, he sees that all things in the universe are the one mind itself; that everything that ever happens is a manifestation of the one mind of awareness.
The Patriarchate is passed to Hui Neng
We can imagine the two men gazing at each other with bright eyes in the lamp light, each finding various words and metaphors for their experience, and each feeling the deep joy in being fully understood by the other. It must have been a meeting filled with a sense of destiny and creative purpose as well as joy. While Hung Jen clearly understood that Hui Neng was very likely going to become a very different teacher from himself, he would also have been full of advice for him.
The text gives us only hints as to the content of their conversation. Hung Jen was already an old man and in failing health, and he now knew beyond a shadow of doubt that he must pass on the Patriarchate to Hui Neng that very night, and then help him to flee to the south to escape jealousy, persecution and quite possibly murder. Since their brief meeting when Hui Neng first arrived at the monastery, Hung Jen had been through a process of deep reflection through which he had become convinced that Hui Neng must indeed be the one to receive, and subsequently pass on, the transmission. Being a native of the south, and knowing the dialect of that region, Hui Neng would be able to take the Dharma to a whole new constituency.
William Parker 2012
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To the Trikāya, which is the true nature of all Dharmas, non-dual, limitless, profound and vast, I make obeisance. I worship the unmade, the unlimited, and the eternal. I make confession of the sin of not knowing that my own mind is the Buddha. Rejoicing in the natural state, the self-aware, I request the Buddha to revolve the ungraspable, omnipresent and all-accomplishing Dharma Wheel. I pray that the mundane and the transcendental may be established in oneness. Whatever obeisance and worship I have performed, I transmute into the great shunyatā. May all beings attain both shunyatā and great bliss.
I hope you enjoy my articles. The various inter-related categories of my writing are described below, and my coaching and teaching work is described below that. Keep scrolling to find links to my most recent articles. On a computer you can hover your pointer over the categories in the menu bar above to reveal the sub-menus, and listings of my previous articles. On a mobile, the articles are best read in a ‘landscape’ orientation.
Current Mandala of Love Projects:
I have not been able to find time to add much to the Mandala of Love website in recent months, as I have been in a full-time caring role taking care of a close family member. Below are a few of the projects that I have either been working on recently, or hope to be returning to before too long:
In the limited time that I have had available, in the last year, I have been working on a small book called ‘Buddha, Dharma, Sangha and the Five Wisdoms Mandala’ – I hope to have the book completed by the end of this year. I have for a long time felt the need to write a book that will provide a fairly compact but comprehensive overview of the philosophical and practical approach that I have been presenting in my articles, and I hope that this book will serve that purpose. You can read my Preface to that book here.
I have recently created a new page for email subscriptions (here), and would very much encourage you to add your email to the Mandala of Love list. In addition, if you are interested in the online course program that I have outlined below, please consider subscribing to that list also.
I am currently preparing material for a Zoom-based group training program, so that those who want to engage more deeply with the themes that I have been presenting on the Mandala of Love website articles, can do so. I have chosen to call the program of courses Five Wisdoms Mandala. Click here for more details. The program will be presented via weekly group-Zoom sessions, which will each run for two hours with a short break. The courses will be structured into a series of modules – the initial course will probably have at least three six-week modules, making eighteen Zoom sessions altogether. It will include guided meditations; powerpoint presentations; self-enquiry dyad exercises; group discussion; and group question and answer sessions.
For those interested in these Zoom-based group trainings on the Mandala of Love themes, I have provided a summary of the main components of the program here.
You can sign up for email notifications here if you would like to receive information about these courses.
Those who have followed my writing on meditation and self-enquiry closely, may know that I give particular importance to the individual and collective psychology that we find symbolised in Buddhist tradition by the archetypal asura Realm. The asura Realm is associated with the green, northern quadrant of the mandala, where we see that our innate human potential for empathy and compassion, and for the fearlessness that springs from confidence in the beneficial power of the Transcendental, is lost due to our personalising identification with the samskāras skandha (the volitional energies). This identification leads to the egoic power-drive of the klesha of irshya (envy), and to dominant, conflictual, and manipulative ways of being. For more on this, see my articles here and here.
The Buddhist tradition is telling us, in the language of an archetypal psychology, that our personalising identification with the volitional energies , is personally and collectively very dangerous indeed, because it can lead the world to become lost in a particularly dark, violent and unconscious style of embodiment. The asuras are the powerful and obsessive ‘war gods’ of ancient Indian mythology, who are eternally at war with the benign devas, who are associated with refined ethical sensibility and positive emotion. It could be argued that, more than any other, it is the asura archetype that shapes human history – and yet it is very little known, and given very little attention, even by most Buddhists. While we need to be vigilant regarding the asura tendency in our own nature, I believe that we also need to be recognising it, naming it, and pushing back against it when we see it in our external world. While I have recently begun to write a few anti-war articles on this website, which you can find listed here, most of my anti-war writing can be found on my personal Facebook page which is here.
My ethical and compassionate response to the tragedy of the Ukraine crisis is complex, and is likely to be misunderstood by many people. While I recoil in horror at violence of this sort, or any sort, my training in nonviolence, mediation, and Buddhist meditation and self-enquiry, leads me to be more interested in understanding the conditions that lead to violence, than in mere condemnation of it. Rather than simply rushing to judgement, and joining the calls for more weapons for Ukraine, and for the punishment of the population of the Russian Federation through sanctions, I take a much wider historical perspective on the conflict than we are currently being presented with in the mainstream media. I prefer instead to ask what awareness we can bring, which might contribute to understanding, to resolution, to mediation, and to a break in the cycle of violence rather than a further escalation of it. This seems particularly necessary, since a major cause of the original escalation of the civil war in Ukraine into a direct Russia-Ukraine conflict has been the confusion and misinformation, much of it deliberate, that has surrounded the crisis, and has accompanied the deeply irrational and provocative actions of the US and NATO.
My extensive study of the historical and geopolitical background to this war, leads me to see this as a war in which Russia has, in absolute desperation, used military force to protect its own security, and the security of the Russian-speaking people of eastern Ukraine. The military confrontation that we are seeing was predicted 28 years ago, and it was perhaps inevitable, given NATO’s determination to expand to Russia’s borders, and its complete unwillingness to consider Russia’s reasonable security needs. It was brought very much closer, and perhaps even made inevitable, by the reckless US-facilitated coup in Ukraine in 2014, and by the passivity of the international community as 14,000 Russian-speaking Ukrainians were killed (and 50,000 were injured) by the sniper attacks and shelling from the Ukrainian army and its associated neo-Nazi militias over the 8 years from Feb 2014 to Feb 2022 – over a thousand people were killed by landmines alone. The fanatically anti-Russian neo-Nazi militias have been a minority element in Ukrainian society since WW2. US intelligence services have worked with these groups since that time, but it is the more recent actions of the US, that have allowed them to become the dominant political force that they have become in Ukrainian society today.
The actions of both Ukraine and the US and the other NATO countries, can be seen as expressions of the violent and manipulative spirit of the asura realm playing out very concretely and extremely destructively on the geopolitical stage – as it always will until we learn to recognise it and challenge it. Ultimately, in my view, the resolution of this horrific conflict is to be found, not only in an honest enquiry into its economic and historical causes, but also in reflection on its spiritual/psychological causes. I would like to provide a little of both in the articles on this website.
There are currently 43 articles in my introductory series on meditation, self-enquiry, and the psychology of the mandala, which I initially chose to call ‘Meditation Guidance’. I generally recommend this initial series of articles to anyone who is new to the Mandala of Love website. I have now written summaries for the first 37 articles in this series and this listing is available by clicking here, or on image below. For more information on this ‘Meditation Guidance’ series, please see my description further down this page.
Click on the title above to read the first article in a series of twelve articles, which together take a very deep, broad and detailed look at what recognising the emptiness of the rūpa skandha, the ‘form-creating’ skandha, might mean in practice. This series is part of a larger series of articles, which can be found under the ‘5 Wisdoms’ menu above, and in which I will eventually be covering each of the five skandhas in turn. To read from the beginning of the ‘5 Wisdoms’ series click here.
The fact that the rūpa skandha is associated, in the Bardo Thodol (the so-called ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’), with both the Mirror-Like Wisdom and the Buddhist ‘Hell Realms’ (with their archetypal imagery of inhumane mental judgement, condemnation and hatred – leading to horrible tortures and punishments), establishes very clearly that the rūpa skandha is best understood to be referring to the Thinking function of the mind. The rūpa skandha however, is usually rendered, not by more accurate and descriptive words like ‘conceptualisation’, or ‘conceptual form’, but simply by the word ‘Form’. This introduces a confusion in which the rūpa skandha, the concretising, form-creating dimension of the mind’s cognitive functioning, and the corresponding ‘form-data’ of mental experience, is frequently associated with ‘the body’ in the concrete, sensory, and corporeal sense of the word – an association that is best reserved for vedanā, the skandha of Sensing, or the perception of Sensation. These articles aim to recover the great power of the Buddha’s ‘Five Skandhas‘ teaching by addressing this area of confusion.
During the last couple of years, I have had very little time for writing, but have begun work on a series of longer articles on the ten deities of the Dharmadhātu mandala that were described by Padmasambhava in his Bardo Thodol teachings. I have taken as my starting point, the central five verses in Padmasambhava’s ‘Inspiration-Prayer for Deliverance from the Dangerous Pathway of the Bardo’ (which you can read here). I have found these verses inspirational ever since I was introduced to them nearly 40 years ago, and I hope you will find them the same.
In this series, I am aiming to show meditators how each one of the five male Buddhas and the five female Buddhas of the Dharmadhātu Mandala can be felt in the fields of the body as profound suprapersonal sources of somatic healing and wisdom. Those who read the whole series of articles – and it is intended that these articles should be read in sequence – will be able to incorporate these reflections into their meditation practice in a systematic way. The first article in the series can be found here, and brief summaries of all the articles that I have written so far, can be found here.
The introductory series of 43 articles on meditation and self-enquiry, which I chose to call the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series, and which is listed under the ‘Meditation’ menu above, was my main focus in 2017 and 2018. I tried to write these articles in a way that would make them accessible to anyone who might have a general interest in meditation, self-awareness, and spiritual development. My approach to meditation and Mindfulness is distinctive, and perhaps idiosyncratic, because, although it is based on the Buddhist psychology of non-duality, and on the mandala-wisdom of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, it also makes use of the translations of the Buddhist skandhas that we find in the English translations of Carl Jung. Jung borrowed very heavily from Buddhism in the development of his own mandala model of the psyche – unfortunately without acknowledging his debt. I am borrowing back from Jung – and I certainly acknowledge a great debt to him.
An important source of inspiration for these articles was my deepening appreciation of the meeting of Quantum Physics and Quantum Biology with Neuroscience, which is now taking place. I find this to be most fully articulated in the brilliant Penrose-Hameroff hypothesis in regard to the nature of the brain-Consciousness interface – a hypothesis that is steadily accumulating experimental support.
Brief summaries of the articles in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series can be found here, or by clicking the image below.
I am most strongly influenced by Buddhist thought, and my approach could be characterised as a ‘Western Buddhist’ one – and one in which I have tried as much as possible to address the general reader. Where they can serve to illuminate and ground the deep non-dual psychology of the Buddhist mandala wisdom, I therefore make connections with other psychologies that share the same inspiration. I engaged in intensive study of Carl Jung concurrently with my Buddhist studies in my twenties and have drawn heavily on that knowledge. I have more recently been a passionate student of the deep humanistic psychology of Marshall Rosenberg (founder of Nonviolent Communication – NVC), and of Eugene Gendlin (founder of the ‘Focusing‘ self-empathy/self-enquiry dyad practice) and, since I have found these to be of enormous value in my understanding of Buddhist psychology, I have woven these perspectives into this Mandala of Love approach to meditation and self-enquiry.
This ‘Meditation Guidance’ series of articles, does not in fact present any detailed explanation of specific meditation practices, but aims to bring fresh insights to several common approaches to meditation – the Mindfulness of Breathing, Mettā Bhavana (‘Cultivation of Loving Kindness’), and the Zen ‘Just Sitting’ practice for example. The initial framework for the Mandala of Love approach, and for this whole series also, is provided by the four brahmavihāras (Loving Kindness, Appreciative Joy, Equanimity and Compassion) – a four-fold meditation-cycle and self-enquiry practice from ancient India, which was given a very important place in the Buddha’s teaching framework, and in the subsequent development of the Buddhist tradition. Central to my approach is the conceptualisation of meditation practice as ‘resting as Consciousness’, and the recognition of the brahmavihāras as ‘attitudes of Consciousness’. I find ‘resting as Consciousness’ to be more descriptive than the traditional Buddhist term ‘Mindfulness’, with which it is essentially synonymous.
The word Consciousness as I use it in its capitalised form in these articles, refers to the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha of Buddhist tradition, which we find placed at the centre of the Buddhist mandalas. To know Consciousness is not easy, since Consciousness is the ‘knower’ of our experience – the awareness that is aware of being aware. Our engagement in self-enquiry and familiarisation with the phenomenon of Consciousness is absolutely key to spiritual practice however – the Buddha told us that “Mindfulness is the Way to the Immortal”. As with all of the skandhas, the Buddhist tradition speaks of the vijñāna skandha having ‘internal’ and ‘external’ aspects. As I understand it, the ‘internal’ aspect is the non-personal experiencing subject – the spaciousness that is the centre and the circumference of our experiencing; and the ‘external’ aspect is the quality of ‘knowing presence’ that is orientated outwardly towards our cognitive-perceptual experience.
By re-framing meditation and Mindfulness practices as expressions of ‘resting as Consciousness’, and acknowledging the ’empty’ and impersonal nature of all the components of cognition and perception that arise in Consciousness (the skandhas of Buddhist tradition), there is an opportunity to set these practices in a non-dual context – one that is, I hope, much more true to the Buddha’s teaching than many of the modern derivatives. The Buddha bore witness to the impersonal nature of all psychological phenomena, and to the ’empty’ and non-locatable nature of Consciousness, and urged his students to take these insights as the foundation of their practice. When we step out of the egoic perspective, we can re-discover meditation as an activity whose purpose is to reveal our true nature and recover our natural state – the compassion and intelligence of our natural humanity.
Since the beginning of 2019, I have been aiming in my articles, to provide some in-depth analysis on the Five Wisdoms; on the Buddha’s ‘Emptiness of the Five Skandhas‘ teaching; and on the closely-related ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’. I have created a new menu category for some of these articles, which I have called simply, ‘5 Wisdoms’. Under this menu you will find a group of introductory, or overview articles on the five skandhas. This will eventually be followed by five groups of articles – one for each of the five skandhas. I have begun the first group, which is one focused on the very important, but much misunderstood, rūpa skandha – the ’empty’ conceptualising, or ‘conceptual-form-creating’, function of the mind.
Find this series of articles listed under the ‘5 Wisdoms’ menu, or access brief summaries of the articles in that series by clicking here. You can access the first post in the series by clicking here.
I have been a passionate student of Marshall Rosenberg’sNonviolent Communication (NVC) model for over twenty years, and have taught several courses based on his work and on the closely-related work of Eugene Gendlin, the originator of the Focusing self-empathy dyad practice. I have also developed an innovative approach to the NVC model, which I call the NVC Mandala, and which sees the ‘four components’ of Rosenberg’s model as a beautiful example of the universal mandala wisdom that we find in Tibetan Buddhism, and in the psychology of Carl Jung – although Jung, it should always be noted, borrowed much from Tibetan Buddhism in the creation of his mandala model of the psyche.
The ‘NVC Mandala’ that becomes clear when Marshall Rosenberg’s ‘four components’ model is arranged with Observations and Feelings at east and west, and Needs and Requests at north and south, is all the more remarkable for the fact that he developed his model without any knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism or the work of Carl Jung. The obvious connections between the non-dual psychology of the Tibetan Buddhist mandala and the practical psychological analysis of thought and language that is provided by Marshall Rosenberg, provide the basis for an extremely rich synthesis of ideas and very profound support for the Buddhist practice of Mindfulness.
I have placed Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication and Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing under the same heading because I have found it helpful to combine them into a single model. The outer clarity of communication, which the Nonviolent Communication model aspires to, requires a foundation of deep Presence and self-empathy – and these qualities can be more powerfully cultivated and more fully understood through self-enquiry dyad practice of the sort that Eugene Gendlin showed us when he presented his Focusing model.
I hope that the articles in the ‘NVC/Focusing’ series will be thought-provoking for anyone with an interest in bringing harmony and compassion to their relationships and communities; in the psychology and spirituality of everyday life; and in the Buddhist ideals of nonviolence, loving-kindness, and creativity. I would like to find the time to write some in-depth reflections on how both Nonviolent Communication and Focusing can support a deepening of Buddhist practice; and how Buddhist insights can support a deepening of the practice of Nonviolent Communication and Focusing.
You can access the first post in this series by clicking here, or via the ‘NVC/Focusing’ category in the top menu.
The Mandala of Love website started as a book project called A Mandala of Love: Consciousness, Ethics and Society. I have published some of the drafts of the early sections of that book (from 2016) in the form of articles in a ‘Book Sections’ series, which can be accessed by clicking on the ‘Book’ menu above.
Alternatively, you can access the first post in the ‘Book Sections’ series by clicking here.
The earliest piece of writing in the site, this is a longer piece from 2012. Even though it is not quite complete, it covers the most significant events on the wonderful Hui Neng story. To access it click here, or on the title above. I am hoping that this article will provide inspiration and guidance to students of both meditation and non-duality. I find the story of Hui Neng to be one of the most beautiful and illuminating in the whole of the Buddhist tradition. Among the many deep themes in this rich and multi-dimensional autobiographical work, you will find, I believe, the essence of Zen.
Those who have been reading my articles on the mandala wisdom on this website, will find that Hui Neng’s story brings us back, in a fresh new way, to the traditional point of entry into the mandala: the blue Eastern Quadrant; the ’empty’ rūpa skandha; the Mirror-Like Wisdom; and the brahmavihāra of Equanimity.
Individual Coaching, Mandala Innerwork, and Meditation Teaching
Although I am currently very busy with personal commitments, I may be able to provide individual meditation guidance and coaching sessions via Zoom to people who are interested in my work. My Mandala Innerwork approach to coaching is a form of self-enquiry that students of meditation will find very supportive. These sessions are also especially valuable to students of the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) model, since these sessions focus on the development of the attitudes and skills of self-empathy, which is foundational to that model. I am particularly keen to work with those who are interested in the Mandala of Love approach to self-enquiry, meditation, and self-empathetic innerwork, and who would value my support to apply the principles that I have been outlining in my articles.
My approach to innerwork draws on various sources of inspiration, but makes extensive use of the work of Eugene Gendlin, and his student Anne Weiser-Cornell. I have also completed the Inner Presence Coaching training of Jerry Donoghue, an NVC teacher who is based in Ashville, North Carolina, in the USA – an NVC teacher who, like me, is engaged with integrating NVC with the non-dual wisdom of the Buddhist tradition.
Jerry Donoghue and I also share the conviction that the practice of self-empathy, which is a foundational element of the NVC model, requires the acknowledgement of psychological parts – a theme that I have addressed frequently in my ‘Meditation Guidance’ articles (including here, here, here, and here). Indeed the self-empathy / self-enquiry approach that I have come to call Mandala Innerwork is founded on my observation, over several decades of my own innerwork practice, that the ability to self-empathetically recognise and work with psychological parts is an essential self-awareness skill, and a necessary skill if we wish to become more conscious; to recover an authentic self; and to integrate non-dual wisdom.
In the context of my individual coaching sessions, I like to integrate my meditation and self-enquiry work with my facilitation of self-empathetic innerwork. Both skills take the idea of ‘resting as Consciousness’ as their starting point. Indeed, my coaching work is best characterised as a form of self-enquiry facilitation, or of Mindfulness with the goal of Insight – seeing through the self-illusion. The depth of that enquiry depends on the choice of those that I am working with, but my own personal framework is rooted in the rich and powerful psychology of the Buddhist non-duality teachings.
If you would like to read more on my approach to NVC Self-Empathy work and Mandala Innerwork, please consider looking at the articles that can be found under the NVC/Focusing menu above. A brief summary of my approach can be found here.
This is Post 26 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found by clicking here.
It has been the experience of the ancient meditation traditions of India and Tibet that the internal space of the human body is filled with not one but seven different energetic, or somatic, fields – the seven auras, or ‘subtle bodies’. Many readers will already be aware that each deeper layer in the succession of auric layers is slightly larger than the last, so that the layers that are closer to the surface are enclosed within the deeper ones.
An important feature of this spiritual anatomy that readers may not be aware of however, is the way the polarity of the layers alternates between receptive and expansive – yin and yang – and in way that is opposite in the two sexes. I have outlined this phenomenon in previous posts (here and here) and will be returning to it – this understanding is essential, in my view, for the meditator, and provides wonderful insights into the very different emotional life of men and women.
An understanding of the ways in which these fields of our spiritual anatomy interpenetrate each other and interact, is very useful information for the meditator. Of the seven fields, by far the most important are the first four, which I have been calling the surface bodies – these are somatic fields through which our sense of ‘being a person’ finds a sense of energetic embodiment. While these four key subtle bodies, and the relationships between them, are most comprehensively described by the meditation mandalas of Tibetan Buddhism, the implicit description of embodied Consciousness that we find in the four brahmavihāras of early Buddhism (and in the pre-Buddhist teaching of the four brahmavihāras) gives us a much simpler ‘way in’ to this mandala wisdom.
Each of the subtle bodies is felt most keenly at the points in the body that we call the chakras. So, as previously in connection with the Mental Body and the subtle Physical Body (which I described here and here), we will find it useful in understanding our experience of the Emotional Body when we are resting as Consciousness, if we look briefly at the traditional Indian description of the Solar Plexus Chakra, which is outlined below.
The Manipūra Chakra – City of Jewels
The traditional Indian name of the third chakra, the chakra at the Solar Plexus, is maṇipūra, which is a Sanskrit word made up of the word maṇi, which means ‘jewel’, and pūra, which means city or place. Maṇipūra gives us an image of a sort of paradise – a place of extraordinary wealth and beauty – sparkling and radiant. In this context, the image of a landscape glittering with jewels is being used to symbolise not only ultimate beauty and value, but also unlimited ease, grace, contentment and happiness – a world of pleasurable and joyful feelings. Continue reading
This is Post 22 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found by clicking here.
In very general terms, the classic Zen meditation practice of Zazen, or ‘Just Sitting’, is usually thought of as a meditation that takes the body as a whole, and its environment, as the ‘object’ of the meditation practice. For those that have not experienced the practice, it can be difficult to understand how this seemingly diffuse and unfocused approach to meditation could, in a very natural and effortless way, give rise to strong states of somatic integration, where it appears that Consciousness is the unifying power that is producing the state of effortless concentration. I could be argued that the ‘object’ of attention in Zazen practice, if there is one, is Consciousness itself – the field of Consciousness in which all our experiencing is happening; and Consciousness as it is experienced in the field of the body. Zazen therefore, is a prime example of the practice of ‘resting as Consciousness’.
Sympathetic Joy – the Zen of Embodied Consciousness
In the last few posts I have reflecting in different ways on the brahmavihāras or muditā, which is usually translated as Sympathetic Joy. In the text of these articles, I have mostly been translating muditā as Appreciative Joy, which I prefer. I can see that the translation of muditā as Sympathetic Joy is in some ways more appropriate when we are describing the extraverted aspect of muditā – our relational response to the wellbeing or achievement of another – but when talking about our relationship to our own experience, Appreciative Joy is definitely more appropriate.
I am aware that Zen Buddhism has different associations for different people, and different schools of Zen have different emphases. In this instance, I am making reference to Zen to highlight an approach to meditation practice that is characterised by a sense of embodiment, expansiveness, appreciation, contentment and gratitude, and a deep and fearless willingness to fully inhabit the body and the sensory world as Consciousness – attitudes that are characteristic, in my view, of Appreciative Joy.
While all of the brahmavihāras can spontaneously arise during Zazen meditation, but I believe the practice has this especially close connection with muditā. This is because muditā, or Appreciative Joy, is the brahmavihāra that arises in connection with the skandha of vedanā – the brahmavihāra which arises as our relationship with the vedanā skandha begins to take on a less personal and more universal character. There is a natural refinement of our relationship with our internal sensory experience as we learn to dis-identify from our experience, while simultaneously recognising our experience as ’embodied Consciousness’ – and this more refined and objective experience of vedanā is called muditā, or Appreciative Joy.
This is Post 21 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found by clicking here.
As previously, when reflecting on the brahmavihāras, I feel a need to emphasise that muditā, which is often translated as Sympathetic Joy, but better translated as Appreciative Joy, is not merely a mental state, but an attitude of Consciousness, and a way of being that gives expression to a quality of the universal Consciousness as we relate to the practicalities and specifics of human life. While we need to acknowledge that it is a cosmic attitude, it is also an attitude that individual people will often embody in rich personal ways even if they are not choosing to adopt the practice of resting as Consciousness. Muditā involves being in this physical world in way that is informed by, and supported by, the healing, evolutionary, and compassionate energy of our transpersonal source – so if we express this consciously it is extremely powerful source of blessing and creativity.
Muditā can perhaps be better understood by contrasting it with its egoic counterpart, which is the ordinary egoic Sensation function, which Buddhist tradition speaks of in terms of the vedanā skandha. Through meditative self-inquiry we come to recognise that we habitually and unconsciously bring multiple assumptions to the experience of Sensation and the experience of being in a physical body – assumptions that we come to recognise as untrue. Foremost among these incorrect assumptions, is the way we take the physical body to be absolute evidence of our ultimate separateness. This sense of separateness, and the ways in which we live with it, or seek to overcome it, is fundamental to, and characteristic of, the experience of being human. Buddhist tradition speaks of this habitual perception of separateness and the associated preoccupation with ‘looking after number one’ in terms of the klesha of māna, which is usually translated as ‘pride’, and sometimes as ‘conceit’.
The Human Realm – Separateness healed by Appreciative Joy
Of the Buddha’s Six Realms, which I have talked about briefly in a previous post (here), the realm associated with the Southern Quadrant of the mandala, is the Human Realm. This Human Realm, in which we find ourselves, occupies an archetypal position in the mandala of egoic styles, and can be regarded as the egoic counterpart, and polar opposite, of Appreciative Joy. The Human Realm is regarded, in Buddhist tradition, as a very special and fortuitous place to be reborn, but it is also the realm associated of the egoic Sensation function, and has particular problems for us, and a particular style of egoic unconsciousness, which we need to explore and become familiar with. Continue reading
This is Post 16 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found here.
In the previous posts about the the Buddha’s Equanimity practice – a practice which aims to bring the Mental Body and the Thinking function into alignment with Consciousness, I have briefly touched on the symbol of the mirror. The mirror deserves more time however, because it is such a profound symbolic pointer to spiritual truth. It is a deeply paradoxical and indeed an ambivalent image – both extremely positive and extremely negative.
As a positive image, we find the mirror as a symbol of Consciousness, as in Zen or Tibetan Buddhism (which I have spoken of in a previous post – here); again in the Ancient Greek myth of the hero Perseus; and elsewhere. The mirror is also a symbol of narcissism – an extremely important psychological concept, and one that has profoundly negative personal and cultural implications.
Perseus and Medusa
The mythic hero Perseus encountered the Gorgon Medusa in a landscape littered with the crumbling remains of countless heroes who had been turned into stone by her gaze. So great was the force of her narcissistic objectification of those who meet her gaze – that they are immediately reduced to literal objects. Perseus manages however, to avoid her petrifying stare by only looking at her reflected image in the mirror shield that he has been given by the Goddess Athene. Only the heroes with divine help succeed – those with the capacity for reflection that Consciousness gives them. All the rest fail. Continue reading
This is Post 14 in the Meditation Guidance series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found here.
Although I have already talked a little about mettā, or Loving-Kindness, I shall be starting at the traditional beginning point of the mandala-cycle in this post, with upekṣā, or Equanimity, which is the brahmavihāra associated with the eastern quadrant; and with the creative use of the Thinking function of the mind – and with the dawn.
Those whose frame of reference is pre-Quantum-Physics scientific materialism, and who do not have a psychological framework that acknowledges a transpersonal or archetypal dimension, are forced to understand the brahmavihāras as personal emotional states. This is certainly not the way the Buddha understood them. With due respect to those who pride themselves on their ability to cram the Buddha’s sublime teachings into a Newtonian / Cartesian world-view, I feel bound to talk about the brahmavihāras as cosmic principles, which find – if we are receptive to them – a reflection in our personal mental and emotional development.
An Archetypal Source of Mental Clarity
Mahupekshā, the Great Equanimity, the archetypal source of upekshā, or Equanimity, is best thought of as the imperturbable cosmic stillness, which pervades the universe, and is single and unified – and has the power to bring integration, unity, and mental stability to those who are willing to recognise it as their own ultimate true nature. Mysteriously, this cosmic principle is also the basis of each individual person’s experience of observing, thinking and knowing. I have talked in previous posts about how, when we rest as Consciousness, the Thinking function of the Mind finds a new intelligence – a mental stability that starts to approach the always illusive quality of objectivity, and that is non-judgemental, solution-focused, relational, collaborative, and inherently creative. Continue reading
This is Post 12 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found here.
Consciousness is like the space we move through – it is easy to go through life completely unaware of it. And even though it is always there when we look for it, its nature can be difficult to grasp. If we are setting out to systematically familiarise ourselves with the ultimate nature of mind, the four brahmavihāras provide us with an extremely good, and relatively simple framework for engaging in this exploration – one that highlights the inherently ethical and relational nature of Consciousness. They also offer us four very attractive and relatively easy ways of moving out of ordinary egoic consciousness into states of alignment and healing.
The Four Mahabrahmavihāras
In Mahayana Buddhist tradition, reflection on the brahmavihāras brought a development to the early Buddhist approach to that teaching, which is of enormous practical and philosophical significance for those who wish to use the brahmavihāras as a framework for meditation and self-inquiry, and I would like to share it here.
Essentially, the understanding arose that it is helpful to see each one of the brahmavihāras as having both a personal, egoic and conditional aspect, and a transpersonal, or archetypal, or unconditional aspect – even though these two aspects can never be completely separated. The implication was that the most effective way to connect with the brahmavihāras is by opening ourselves to the transpersonal aspect of each one – and allowing the energies of each one to flow through us.
For example mettā, or Loving-Kindness came to be seen as a reflection, in personal felt experience, of mahamettā, or Great Loving-Kindness, which is unconditional, archetypal and transpersonal – an aspect of the field of Consciousness in which we rest. Each of the personally experienced brahmavihāras has a corresponding archetypal source in Consciousness – a mahabrahmavihāra. Continue reading
I was born in Bury, Lancashire, in the north west of England, and grew up in Altrincham, Cheshire, which is on the southern edge of Greater Manchester. I currently live in Brunswick Heads near Byron Bay in northern New South Wales, Australia, with my partner Sera.
I became a Buddhist when I was living in Manchester in my early twenties, and lived at the Manchester Buddhist Centre for several years, before moving to the London area. For most of my twenties, I lived (and worked) in a variety of semi-monastic ‘Western Buddhist’ communities, which were part of the Triratna Buddhist Community – a network of Buddhist Centres, retreat centres and businesses, which was initiated in 1967 by an English Buddhist called Sangharakshita (26 August 1925 – 30 October 2018). This period gave me a profound spiritual and cultural education that I have drawn on and reflected on all my life – often critically, but also with great appreciation. Indeed, my writing in this website is, in part, a distillation of the best of what I learned during those years, filtered through, and processed through, three decades of life experience and further spiritual study.
Finding myself somewhat culturally adrift after my full-time Buddhist years in my twenties, I was fortunate enough to find and embrace English Quakerism for ten years from my early 30s to early 40s, and was a warden at the Quaker Meeting House in Hampstead, North London, for much of that time. Originally a Christian tradition, the English Quakers have been an intensely practical and effective force for good in the world since the mid-17th Century. The inspiration for their relentless campaigns for peace and social justice over three and half centuries, has come from a meditative and mystical approach to worship. The English Quakers still sit in silence and open to the presence of the Divine – and they have no creed or required beliefs. My years sitting in silence in Quaker meetings provided one of many threads of spiritual experience that have influenced me to advocate the attitude of meditative receptivity towards the Transcendental, which I have characterised in my articles as ‘Resting as Consciousness’.
Although I have not maintained my connection with the Quaker tradition since moving to Australia, it is still a source of inspiration, and looking back I recognise with gratitude that Quaker meetings provided me with a very deep experience of spiritual community. The spiritual history of Quakerism continues to fascinate me – it has much to teach us about how an ethical sensibility arises in an uncontrived way from the simple practice of resting as Consciousness. We all need to remember that most of the members of the Committee for the Abolition of Slavery were Quakers – and that they campaigned against slavery relentlessly for decades, while the rest of the Christian world just rationalised and presented justifications of the Atlantic Slave Trade based on de-contextualised Biblical quotations.
Although I am no longer working in that profession, much of my time in London was spent working as an Occupational Therapist – running therapeutic programs, and doing counselling, coaching and support work in mental health services. I loved that work, and I dearly loved the staff and patients that I worked with in those contexts, and I loved the humanistic psychological framework of that work, but found myself predominantly drawing on my spiritual understandings, and on the depth psychology of Carl Jung (whose work I had studied during my Buddhist years) and other psychological approaches that were incongruous with the standard psychiatric understandings of mind and behaviour. I was also especially deeply affected by the work of philosopher and psychotherapist, Eugene Gendlin – whose wonderful ‘Focusing’ practice I studied in depth, and practised regularly for many years.
Gendlin’s ‘Focusing’ is a self-empathy / self-inquiry / psycho-therapeutic innerwork practice, that is very little known. I practiced Focusing in the context of a wonderful circle of fellow student practitioners who became my dearest friends. That experience of practising Focusing on a weekly basis was the strongest experience of spiritual community in my life – even deeper in some ways, than my experience of residential Buddhist communities in my twenties, or any other spiritual community that I have come across since. Although Focusing is usually presented, and understood, in humanistic terms, it is, in my view, a profoundly soulful and spiritual practice, and I came to see it as a practice that is closely aligned with Carl Jung’s archetypal psychology, which I continued to study at the same time. In my experience, the practice of Focusing consistently raises us far above a merely humanistic world-view. Our innerwork processes in that practice group frequently led us not only to psychological healing, but to profound spiritual insights and spiritual comfort.
An important part of my journey in the last two decades, has been a long period of seriously debilitating metabolic illness. I now recognise that these patterns of ill health have been with me since my twenties, but have worsened as I got older. This process has forced me into an understanding of health and mental health that is truly holistic. I find myself enormously grateful to several of the doctors in general practice in my local area, who practice various forms of more broad-based functional medicine that incorporates, or works alongside, nutritional, naturopathic, and complementary approaches.
What has lifted my level of well-being most effectively; and what has supported me in living with my limitations most profoundly; and what has prompted me to create this website, has been my return to regular meditation practice in 2016. The approach that I have found is a synthesis of understandings from many sources, and I would dearly like to share it with others.
My approach to meditation is essentially a Buddhist one – it springs primarily from Buddhist sources of inspiration and understanding. Its foundation is in the Buddha’s teachings – especially the brahmavihāras – and in the Five Wisdoms teachings of Indian Mahayana Buddhism (which evolved out of the Buddha’s ’emptiness of the Five Skandhas’ teachings). Like many Western practitioners of Buddhism, I think of myself as a Buddhist universalist however – by which I mean that I do not believe that Buddhism is the only source of valid spiritual truths. There are many other teachers, and several other traditions that have supported my understanding. I was very effected for example, by the work of Eugene Gendlin, which I mentioned above; by the Nonviolent Communication model of Marshall Rosenberg; by the very simple and direct advaita vedanta teachings of ‘Sailor Bob’ Adamson, who was a student of Nisagadatta Maharaj (and also of Dzogchen); by the spiritual exercises developed by Douglas Harding (who was a student Zen); and by the work of Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff (who have collaborated to create a brilliant and convincing hypotheses to explain the ‘hard problem’ of Consciousness – via the quantum mechanical functioning of the molecular micro-tubules in the nerve-cells of the brain).
I have also greatly valued the non-duality teachings of Ziji Rimpoche (previously known as Candice O’Denver), and the global community that she has created. Candice O’Denver’s affinity with the Dzogchen teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, led to her adoption by the Tibetan lineage of Wangdor Rimpoche. Ziji Rimpoche’s approach could perhaps be characterised as one which strips Dzogchen back to its culture-free essence and makes it very accessible for Westerners. While I hesitate to attempt to sum up these profound teachings, this essence might be described as an approach to Mindfulness practice in which there is an invitation to recognise the omnipresent and all-embracing nature of Consciousness – repeatedly, if only for short moments, in the midst of life – and to gratefully acknowledge its profoundly beneficial and profoundly supportive qualities. Ziji Rimpoche’s network of teachers and students appear to have broken new ground with this approach – and with their innovative use of internet-based video-conferencing technologies have created a vibrant global self-enquiry community.
While Ziji Rimpoche is now teaching and practicing in the context of a Buddhist lineage, and I love her ultra-simple and ultra-direct approach to Mindfulness; my own path, and the path that I find myself advocating in my articles on this website is a more culturally Buddhist one. My approach could be characterised as ‘Western Buddhist’, in that I do not limit myself to any particular cultural form of Buddhism, or historical phase – and I am very happy to draw on parallel threads of spiritual inspiration in Western literature, poetry, religion, philosophy, and psychology; or on the mythology and spirituality of other cultures.
My approach to self-enquiry and meditation practice does however, take the Buddhist mandala as its starting point, and my preferred entry point into that mandala is the four brahmavihāras – an ancient Indian mandala model that was adopted and modified by the Buddha. I regard the four brahmavihāras model as presenting, not only an ideal to be strived for, but more importantly, a superb description of the tenderness of the Transcendental – an objective and collective reality to be received as a universal blessing by all of humankind.
My advocacy of a meditative engagement with the complexities of the bodies and chakras is also based on my studies and meditative explorations of Tibetan Buddhism in my twenties (mainly Lama Anagarika Govinda – author of the widely read Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism), but with the addition of very precious and very crucial pieces of additional information from a contempory spiritual teacher called Rahasya (Dr Fritjof Kraft) – who teaches a variety of approaches including a form of meditation based on the teachings of 11th Century Buddhist master Atisa. I have found his observations about the alternating polarity of the subtle bodies and chakras, and about how these alternating polarities are opposite in women and men, to be a profoundly supportive to my understanding of the symbolism of the masculine and feminine in Vajrayana meditation practice.
I need also to acknowledge the intimate and kind support that I experienced from Issac Shapiro, a non-duality teacher in the Byron Bay area, whose lineage is that of Ramana Maharshi. Although I have only attended his satsang meetings very infrequently, they have always profoundly affected me. It is precious to live in a corner of the world where you never know when you might bump into a bodhisattva at the local farmer’s market.
The road of my spiritual life has taken yet another turn in the last few years. When I began writing on this website, I did not think of myself as a Buddhist and I had no Buddhist friends. Because of the eclectic nature of my spiritual journey, I thought of myself only as someone with a great love of the historical Buddha and of the Buddhist tradition in general, and as someone whose formative years of spiritual education were in the context of Buddhist community and Buddhist meditation retreats. I was resigned to the experience of being a solitary spiritual practitioner with no affiliations with any particular spiritual community.
In 2020, I noticed a choice taking place in me. I noticed myself longing for spiritual community – for Sangha, the Buddhist say – for a communal context for my life and for my spiritual aspirations. Most importantly there has been a great wish in me to contribute to the spiritual understanding of others, and to teach what I have learned. This has led me to reconnect with old friends and associates from my twenties, and I have found myself wholehearted embracing Buddhism again – and recovering a connection with the particular cultural inspiration and network of spiritual friendships that set me on the spiritual journey back in my twenties. My love of the transcendental Bodhisattva principle, and my recognition of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha (the ‘Three Jewels’ of Buddhist tradition) as the universal principles that have been guiding me, has led me back to the Triratna Buddhist Community. I have even reconnected with the Croydon Buddhist Centre (in South London, UK) where I lived and worked in the 1980s when I was in my twenties, and I now participate in one of that Centre’s Dharma Study groups, and other activities, via Zoom. I have also begun to connect with the Australian (and New Zealand) Triratna Buddhist Community, and have developed an affiliation with the Melbourne Triratna Buddhist Centre.
For more autobiographical reflections and information on the approach I have taken in my writing, please consider reading the two ‘Overview’ articles, the first of which is A Mandala Framework for Meditation and Self-Enquiry, which can be found here.
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