Saturday, January 31, 2015

Verse 3.10 — losing your way

Even in this experience of naked presence
In which there is no movement or change,
If you don’t avoid the mire of position-based correctives,
You lose your way in analysis and speculation.

When you watch a flag flapping in the wind, is it the flag that moves, or the wind that moves? One teacher quipped that it was the mind that moved. His quip soon became legend, but, like most legends, it is not exactly true and has led many astray. Mind is not a thing. 

The first two lines of this verse are frequently misunderstood to mean that there is a state in which there is no movement or change. There is. It’s called death, but that’s not what is being referred to here. 

It is possible to watch waves crashing on a beach and have the experience that nothing moves. The waves tumble over each other in a sea of foam, but you do not experience any movement — not outside, not inside, not anywhere. You can experience traffic the same way, but you still have to be careful crossing the street. Not infrequently, athletes and musicians have the same kind of experience. Likewise, it is possible for you to experience thoughts and emotions arising and disappearing like clouds in the sky, yet you experience no movement. The freedom and peace is amazing.

Just because you experience no movement doesn’t mean that there is no movement. Just because you experience timeless awareness doesn’t mean that there is a timeless awareness. When poetry is taken literally, things tend to go badly, very badly.

When we put our experience into words to communicate to others, others often hear only the words. They aren’t able to see the moon to which our finger is pointing. It’s as if we tapped out the rhythm of a melody and expected the person listening to be able to identify the melody. Our own enthusiasm just adds conviction to our description. “This is how things really are,” we say, our eyes ablaze, our face lit up by what we have experienced. The listeners, however, form their own idea from what we said and that becomes what they seek.

Many phrases in the Tibetan tradition are misunderstood this way — no change, no movement (འཕོ་འགྱུར་མེད་པ), no ground, no origin (གཞི་མེད་རྩ་བྲལ་), etc. These all refer to experiences and these experiences are so vivid and transformative — simultaneously transcendent and immanent — that they are taken to be true or real. They are taken to be how things really are, and that is where the misunderstanding starts. 

We can never know how things “really are”, but we find it difficult to live with the groundlessness of that not knowing. Thus, more or less from the dawn of history, we, as human beings, have sought to find explanations and understandings for our lives and the world in which we live. Even when we experience immediate and naked presence, questions arise. What makes this possible? How do I return here? What else is possible? It’s a short step to practices and rituals, another short step into the maze of belief and positions and an even shorter step into the quagmire of analysis and speculation.

The canons of Buddhist teaching are simply the dust left by extraordinary practitioners losing their way. 

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