Free Mind

Steve Hagen's Buddhism:Plain and Simple ends with Part III entitled "Free Mind," the shortest of the three sections, but perhaps the toughest section to understand, and certainly the toughest to put into action.

Hagen argues that we should see ourselves as a "stream" rather than as fixed, permanent entity:

When the Buddha spoke of individuals, he often used a different term: "stream." Imagine a stream flowing-constantly moving and changing, always different from one moment to the next Most of us see ourselves as corks floating in a stream, persisting things moving along in the stream of time. But this is yet another frozen view. According to this view, everything in the stream changes except the cork. While we generally admit to changes in our body, our mind, our thoughts, our feelings, our understandings, and our beliefs, we still believe, "I myself don't change. I'm still me. I'm an unchanging cork in an ever-changing stream." This is precisely what we believe the self to be-something that doesn't change.

The fact is, however, that there are no corks in the stream. There is only stream. What we conceptualize as "cork" is also stream. We are like music. Music, after all, is a type of stream. Music exists only in constant flow and flux and change. Once the movement stops, the music is no more. It exists not as a particular thing, but as pure coming and going with no thing that comes or goes.

One of the reasons I look back at earlier periods in my life is to see what, if anything, has been consistent throughout my life, as if somehow those consistencies would indicate who I really am. I'll have to admit, though, that I usually find it difficult to see "myself" in those distant memories. In fact, the only aspect I can really identify with is the sense of awe and wonder that I used to experience when I was exploring nature.

An enlightened person, a buddha, is someone who is aware that ideas and beliefs are not Reality:

An ordinary person is simply one who is not awake in this moment; a buddha is a person who is. That's all. The movement of the senses, our sensual experience of the world, is no different for a buddha than it is for anyone else.

What's the difference, then, between a buddha and an ordinary human being? The difference is not in perception. It's in conception. To a buddha—to a person with right wisdom—there's no habitual overlaying of perceptual experience with concepts, with ideas, beliefs, notions, pre-formed habits of thought, that are used to explain experience. Thus we all have the capacity to awaken.

Our usual way is to take sense experience—perception—and immediately, before we even know we're doing it, we divide our seamless direct experience into concepts. Then we label these concepts, organize them, and hang them in an elaborate and cherished framework that we have long and laboriously built upon.

A buddha, however, isn't caught by this. When buddhas conceptualize (and they do), they realize what they're doing and aren't taken in by it. After all, it's not conceptualization itself that's the problem, but getting caught up in it, mistaking our concepts for Reality.

The awakened may have thoughts and concepts just like anyone else. The difference is that they're aware that what they actually see differs from what they think.

The Buddha called this awareness right wisdom.

If birding has taught me anything, it is that we tend to see our world through different perspectives, and those perspectives, at least to a certain degree, determine what we see. Since I've become aware of birds I've seen birds that I must have passed by thousands of times and never saw. If someone had told me that years ago, though, I doubt that I would have believed them.

I'm afraid that as a life-long INTP, I probably spent too much of my life thinking, reasoning. I took philosophy classes in college looking for the answers to life's meaning until I finally tired of endless "reasoning." The deeper I dug, the further I seemed to be away from finding any kind of answer I could live with. Perhaps that's why I'm sympathetic when Hagen argues:

Consciousness is nothing more that the splitting of Reality into this and that. Consciousness is making distinctions and drawing lines. That is set off "over there," and you're set off "over here." Consciousness divides what is otherwise the direct experience of a seamless Whole into the world of multi- plicity, the world of space and time. (Or, rather, it appears to divide up the Whole. The Whole of course remains whole.)

Because of consciousness, the universe appears "out there," loaded with stuff. And, likewise, because of consciousness, "here l am" as well.

As a literature major, I was taught how to split Reality "into this and that," to analyze to the point that the original became little more than a footnote to the interpretation. Or, as John Barth put it, I became a "print-oriented bastard" "lost in the funhouse of the mind."

As I remember it, that's why I decided not to try to become an English professor. I never lost my love of art, but I did become disillusioned with analyzing it until the original had lost all its power to transform the way I saw the world.

Ultimate Truth, on the other hand, is direct perception. And what is directly perceived (as opposed to conceived) is that no separate, individualized things exist as such. There's nothing to be experienced but this seamless, thoroughgoing relativity and flux.

In other words, there are no particulars, but only thus.

Ultimate Truth can't be conceptualized or imagined. You cannot hold Ultimate Truth in your mind at all. You can see It. You just can't hold It as an idea.

Ultimate Truth appears the same to all who see. It can't be countered or doubted or discounted because it is immedi- ate, direct experience itself. It's not other-dependent. It has no "other." What's ultimately True can't be held in opposition to something else.

We can actually see this. We can (and, in fact, we do) see for ourselves, right now, Ultimate Truth, and Reality. Our only problem is that we ignore what we see.

Art is certainly no substitute for "direct perception," and may even make direct perception more difficult if it is too powerful. At its best, though, it seems to me that art makes us see the world more accurately, undermines our stereotypes, and makes us reexamine the world in a way few other things can.

Hagen’s “The Way to Wake Up”

Part Two of Steve Hagen’s Buddhism: Plain and Simple called “The Way to Wake Up” describes the eightfold path. Although I didn’t discover any startling revelations as I read it, it did remind me of things I’d forgotten and many more things I certainly haven’t mastered. Most of what he says sounds like good advice, no matter what your religious beliefs.

Hagen begins by talking about ways to calm “Monkey Brain,” the tendency of our brain to produce random, and not-so-random thoughts when we try to calm it:

The mind will not be ruled. If you try to lean less, it just leans all the more. So how are we ever going to get our minds to stop leaning? Just attend to what you’re doing. Because in attending to this moment, you’re attending to your own mind. You’re watching your mind lean. See how this leaning comes about. When you acquaint yourself with what leaning really is, you’ll realize that in trying to stop it from leaning, you’re making it lean all the more. Nevertheless, as you watch what actually takes place in each moment, already your mind has begun to lean less.

After many years of practicing both Yoga and Tai Chi I actually find it relatively easy to meditate, though I’m apt to let everyday worries get in the way of my morning walks with Skye. Now, if I could just master my dreams and the weird, irrelevant thoughts that seem to show up while I’m asleep. Why in the world would I still dream about the Army and about the classroom?

His discussion of Truth, or Reality, and the impossibility of describing it in words seems will probably seem familiar to someone who has studied literature and philosophy for years:

If you try to speak of Truth or Reality, you can’t say what it is, because it won’t fit into words or concepts. This is why we get so frustrated with enlightenment. We can’t put our finger on it. We can’t get it into our hands.

We’re used to getting a conceptual handle on thing. (And when we don’t, we often abandon them.) But Truth doesn’t go into concepts. We can’t hold it as an idea. We literally can’t speak Truth.

When we see reality, we are completely beyond the realm of words and concepts. We experience what words cannot express, what ideas cannot contain, what speech cannot communicate.

So, in a sense, there’s nothing to say.

This is one of the reasons I’ve always been more interested in art than in philosophy, one of the reasons I would have rather been a poet than a critic. To me, artists do the best job of pointing to what is real and what is important in our lives.

Right effort means simply being present. It means being here, staying here, and to see what’s happening in this moment. It’s not about trying to control, trying to bring something about—like straining to achieve enlightenment. This is much like trying not to think of an elephant. Right effort is naturalness—naturalness of movement, naturalness of thought. It’s the naturalness of becoming this moment.

How often we miss the moment simply because we’re not here. We tune out much of the world—and much of ourselves as well—just as that jogger did. And generally we don’t even realize how removed we are form what is going on.

The Buddha constantly pointed out the seriousness of this condition. In fact, to the awakened, its consequences are total. “Those who aware,” he said, “do not die. Those who are ignorant are as if dead already.” Life is only lived in this moment, which is fleeting, changing constantly. We can’t grasp it. If only we’d stop embalming life, freezing it into a view, we’d experience life as it is, and at it’s fullest. The importance of right mindfulness, the seventh aspect of the eightfold path, is that it weaves together all seven other aspects of the path, and brings us back to Reality, here and now.

If you’ve visited very long, you probably have already heard my rant against people who walk around some of the greatest places in the world attuned to nothing more than an iPod. So, obviously this example resonated with me.

I’ve also heard my Tai Chi instructor use the word “practice” often enough to appreciate Hagen’s distinction between philosophy and practice:

The buddha-dharma is not an armchair philosophy, but a thoroughgoing practice. There’s no point in meditating just to get to the idea of it. Useless though it is, right meditation is the very activity that works on the deep, aching needs of the heart. Do right meditation even though it’s useless. Do it for no purpose. Do it for its own sake. In fact, there is no other way. If you have the least gaining idea, you are not fully engaged. You are not practicing right meditation.

Right meditation is where everything is alive—where we neither create nor manipulate, neither possess not obsess, neither try not fail.

Although I work at making meditation a regular part of my life, I’m a long ways from managing to make it my life. For me, meditation is still a separate activity, something I have to consciously do, not something I do automatically. I doubt that washing the dishes will ever be anything but a chore, not a form of meditation.

For one who’s never been fond of ceremony or ritual, I also found Hagen’s closing reassuring:

Joseph Campbell said we short-circuit religious experience by putting it into concept. It’s true: much of religious teaching is hammered into conceptual frames. This is as true of Buddhism as it is of any other religion.

If we would awaken, however, we must notice the framework upon which we’ve attached everything. Ultimately, if we truly seek a free mind, even this eightfold path—even Buddhism itself must not be clung to. We shouldn’t make the buddha-dharma into something holy, something to put up on a gilded pedestal in a prominent place.

The path simply reminds us of how we’re engaged in the world. It’s like the raft that carries us to the opposite shore. We use it to a point, then leave it behind. Once the stream is crossed, we leave the raft for someone else. We don’t need to lug it around. It will only burden us.

Hagen’s Buddhism:Plain and Simple

I’ve decided that I don’t have time to read and comment on another Hardy novel before my trip to California next week, so I’m going to read some other books that other bloggers have recommended and I’ve had around for awhile now. Awhile back The Solitary Walker said that Seven Hagen’s Buddhism: Plain & Simple was his favorite book on Buddhism so I had to buy it. Considering how little I really know about Buddhism, the title was a definite attraction.

When I read this

When the Buddha was asked to sum up his teaching in a single word, he said, “awareness.” This is a book about awareness. Not awareness of something in particular, but awareness itself — being awake, alert, in touch with what is actually happening. It’s about examining and exploring the most basic questions of life. It’s about relying on the immediate experience of the moment. It’s not about belief, doctrine, formula, or tradition. It’s about freedom of mind.

in the introduction, I knew I would enjoy this book for I’ve always felt that the time I’ve devoted to the arts, whether literature or the visual arts, has been devoted to “awareness.” Isn’t this precisely the role of arts in our society?

I also like Hagen’s idea that

Real Buddhism is not really an “ism.” It’s a process, an awareness, an openness, a spirit of inquiry — not a belief system, or even (as we normally understand it) a religion. It is more accurate to call it “the teaching of the awakened,” or the buddha-dharma. Since the focus of this book is on the teaching of the awakened and not on any sectarian presentation, from here on I will usually use the term “buddha-dharma” rather than “Buddhism.”

I’ll have to admit that previous experiences with large, authoritarian groups have left me more than a little wary of belonging to authoritarian groups. As my friend Mike said recently, “If I had to guess, on the wrong side of (your) tracks would be those who love imposing rules on others. I’d guess you don’t have much faith in institutions generally…”

I was even move impressed with this analogy:


Buddhist teachings and writings can assist you, but you won’t find Truth in them, as if Truth somehow resided in the Buddha’s words. No words — Buddha’s, mine, or anyone else’s — can see for you. You must do that for yourself, as Buddha did while seated under a tree a hundred generations ago.

Buddha’s words can also be likened to a finger pointing at the moon. His teachings can point to the Truth, but they cannot be Truth. Buddhas — people who are awake — can only point the way.

We cannot hold Truth with words. We can only see it, experience it, for ourselves.

I’ve long felt that literature can only awaken us to what we already know deep down, though we might well not be aware of what we really know until the author points it out. The greatest authors simply point out the deepest truths.