Saturday, November 22, 2014

Verse 2.6 — a light goes on

My nature is universal presence: 
How could seeing come through paths and levels?

You are in a dark room. You can just see the outlines of a few objects, but there isn’t enough light for you to see things clearly. You stumble around, bumping into stuff, knocking things over. After a while, you figure out that all you can do is to sit or stand quietly, let your eyes adjust to the darkness and move slowly and carefully, relying on the subtle play of shadow that you can just detect at the limit of your vision. Then a light goes on. At first, you can’t see anything. All you experience is light — bright, bright light. It has no inside, no outside. It’s just light. You are surprised, shocked, perhaps exhilarated, perhaps afraid. Then your eyes begin to adjust. Now everything in the room is brilliantly clear — no more vague shadows and barely discernible differentiations of murky grays and blacks. You see color, shape and form. It’s a completely different world, yet it’s the same room you have been in all along. You are also aware of the space in the room, which was always there, but you did not know it because you couldn’t see clearly. Your vision is clear and vivid now, even though you have the same eyes. And there is no restriction on what you can see. Everything is bright and full of life, and you can navigate the room much more easily. You feel you can do anything!

The last three couplets are descriptions — not instructions — descriptions of a profound shift that takes place when you stumble upon this way of experiencing life. You feel free, awake and at peace — free from groping around in the dark and bumping into things you couldn’t see or didn’t know were there, awake because you now understand that you lived in the dark, and at peace because you know where you are, perhaps for the first time. 

When this shift takes place, good and evil don’t mean the same as they did before, but that doesn’t mean you are free from karma — you can’t walk through things and you still bump into them if you don’t look where you are going. Your new ability isn’t something you developed — your eyes are the same as they were before the light went on. Your new sight enables you to see things more clearly now, but not because your vision improved. 

All that has happened is that, somehow, a light went on. You didn’t turn it on, but it happened.

It’s tempting, very tempting, to generalize our experience and say, “This is how it is.” We immediately want to describe how it is to others, in the hope that our description will help them experience a similar shift. That’s how compassion operates. When people don’t “get it”, we tend to describe our experience, the result of the shift, as if that would help them. All too often, we end up saying the same thing over and over again, sometimes more loudly, sometimes more insistently and sometimes more slowly, just as William James described in The Varieties of Religious Experience over a century ago. But it doesn’t help.

Explanations are often counterproductive, I feel. They fail to communicate because they rely on the conceptual mind, an ineffective method when it comes to communicating non-conceptual experience. Further, they lead to in-groups, those who “get it”, the “awakened”, etc. — a problem that goes back right to the formation of the first council after Shakyamuni died. 

I feel the same way about descriptions of results. People often take our descriptions of the result as instruction and can’t understand why their efforts in practice go nowhere. Again, this problem goes far back in history. It is clear to me now that much of what I’ve read in various sutras is a description of results, and one has to dig deep and pay close attention to find the few nuggets of actual instruction.

Further, the people who are inspired by such descriptions often cling to their conceptual understanding even when the light has turned on. What was originally open and free now becomes an achievement and a credential. Thus it is said, when you meet the buddha on the road, kill him.

When I read verses such as these three couplets, I don’t try to understand them. Instead, I let them work inside me.  I read them with a quiet open mind and when something shifts inside, I put the book down and rest right there, if only for a moment or two. When I sit down to practice, I may recall that shift and rest right there. I don’t think about the lines. That is just distraction. I rest in the experience or the memory of the shift. In this way, I let these lines lead me into unknown territory and new possibilities.

2 comments:

Diane de Ford said...

I am trying to find clarity around the difference
between "hearing instructions" and a "description of results".

Very basically, an instruction could be - mix in a bowl 1 egg,
1 cup flour, 1/2 cup milk and stir. A description of results then would be - pour mixture by spoonful into a hot pan to make pancakes. Is this correct from the perspective that you are talking about?

And if so, regarding practice, an instruction is simply a guide (like "cultivate a base of attention"). The result, who knows? I don't need to describe it, the less said the better. Describing the result brings me right back to conceptual thinking.

Ken said...

Good to use an example, as you suggest.

Mix in a bowl 1 egg, 1 cup flour and 1/2 cup milk and stir a little, just enough to make a lumpy mixture. Pour mixture by spoonful into a hot pan. Cook until bubbles form. Then flip over and cook for about the same amount of time. Place on plate, place a pat of butter on top and pour maple syrup on the stack of pancakes.

All that is instruction. You know exactly what to do.

A light yellow or cream-colored mixture is formed from eggs, flour and milk. Bubbles form on a hot griddle, from which steam escapes. The tan pancakes, when covered with butter and syrup, nourish your body and provide great enjoyment on a cold winter's morning.

That's more description of results.

To go further:

Golden pancakes, made from eggs, milk and flour, are tasty and delicious.

Much meditation and spiritual instruction is like this last sentence.