Q. How should I understand the hindrances relating to Pure Awareness?
A. This is a very good example to illustrate the fundamental difference in attitude and application between the pure awareness approach to practice and the more usual approach to practice. With the conventional approach we see the so-called hindrances as being just that - something that we need to either avoid or deal with in order to nurture still deeper our understanding of the path. Because we see these experiences as blocking the path, we may indeed view them with some negativity and frustration and would dearly like them to clear off and stop making our practice more difficult than it already is. I suspect that it would not be too difficult to imagine they may even be sent to us from some outside agent such as mara, in order to deliberately impede the practice. A 'me and it' dualistic relationship becomes inevitable. We then give these hindrances a lot of attention as we work to eliminate them with the various 'skilful means' of practice available to us. But if we are committed to the pure awareness path, we have an approach to working with them that is quite radically different, even seemingly contradictory. The pure awareness approach is revolutionary. Instead of dealing with the hindrances as described above, in cultivating 'Entering Pure Awareness' or, as I like to call it, 'Cultivating the Dharma Mind', we actually do nothing. Instead of perceiving these experiences as something negative and dualistic, and perhaps even not 'me' at all, we embrace everything with a spirit of openness. We do this with the clear understanding that these so called 'hindrances' are a fundamental part of ourselves that have broken off into delusion and which we are no longer prepared to be in conflict with nor enslaved by. Now we willingly accept them for what they are, without any sort of reaction whatsoever. Acceptance means that rather than buy into the reactionary habit that we have developed towards these experiences over our lifetime, we now choose to embrace and contain them instead. No longer do we think of these so-called 'hindrances' in the manner that we used to, but rather they are now seen as a golden opportunity, something to make friends with, indeed love. We now know them as fundamental parts of our makeup that somehow have broken off into dualistic conflict, and only serve the purpose of creating the karma that keeps us bound to the eternal wheel of becoming. This accepting means that we not only resist getting carried away physically, emotionally, and verbally, but we don't even mentally label the experience. For example, as being 'good' or 'bad' or 'skilful' or 'unskilful'. No judgments at all. Become like a reflecting mirror that impartially reveals what comes into its field without judgment and reaction. If it becomes an emotional experience, learn to carry that emotion and hand yourself into the present moment. Most crucially, carry in your body whatever is the emotional impact, and with it learn to function in a normal human way. Carry those 'hindrances' with a willingness and openness, and soon you will no longer be creating the karma that you once did and will cease to create the seeds of yet another unknown rebirth. Soon those so-called 'hindrances' will reveal themselves as being nothing other than the Buddha himself, as you awaken to your pure intrinsic awareness - that awareness which, not for a single moment, has ever been in conflict with or even been touched by your 'hindrances'.
Q. What is this 'revolutionary approach' to pure awareness you talk about? Many Buddhist traditions, and indeed contemporary organisations, teach the do- nothing, non-judgmental and accepting awareness you talked about. Non- Buddhist teachers such as Krishnamurti have also explored this 'pure awareness' approach to awakening in great detail.
A. I do not pretend that the practice of entering pure awareness is something unique to Buddhism. What I mean by revolutionary is that for the first time in our life we turn away from self-interest, this self-interest which is unavoidable as part of our normal human condition.We learn to surrender, and to do so not by an act of will, but rather through authentic spiritual practice. The Buddha said that taking on practice is like being carried along by the current of a stream and making the decision to turn around and swim against that current. To 'rebel' against all the conditioning that makes me what I am and replace that with the true human being. Krishnamurti himself said that giving up the self is not just another revolution - but the only revolution. We often like to talk of revolution such as replacing capitalism with communism, but sooner or later either system will go into inevitable change. The real revolution of inner change, if done properly, lasts forever.
Q. Could you expand on what you mean by 'cultivating the dharma mind', and how it differs from those teachings already available?
A. The answer to this question follows on from the last. 'Dharma Mind' is the mind that no longer is goal-orientated or fuelled by self-interest (worldly mind). To come to this point requires swimming against the current of self-interest, which cannot be done by an act of will. Instead we embark upon Dharma practice, which can be stated simply as going for refuge and pursuing the middle way (eightfold path). Through time and commitment we are no longer possessed by self-interest, but rather live life spontaneously (selflessly) responding to what is in front of us. Or put another way, when the 'Dharma Mind' is fulfilled, we awaken to our intrinsic pure awareness. As for the second part of your question, the most common way to cultivate the path through developing understanding is via the eight steps of the eightfold path, generally reduced to three main components - ethics, concentration and wisdom. These are nurtured in various ways, depending on the tradition and specific practices. It is the deliberate use of these steps (often in specific stages) that allows the unfolding of insight and the seeing of things as 'they really are'. We are taught in Buddhism that in order to go beyond suffering the crucial focus must be on the fourth noble truth and the cultivation of understanding through the eight steps or three components. But actually it is not the eightfold path that is at the heart of the fourth noble truth. The middle way is at the heart. For only by walking the middle way is it possible to go beyond eternal suffering. The Buddha 'teased' out the middle way and systematised it into eight steps to make it possible for most of us to understand this ambiguous concept, to make it possible for us to begin work on ourselves, to fulfil the promise of the fourth noble truth. For those that are of the mind and inclination, however, it is possible to aspire to the fourth noble truth (and the middle way) in a direct way, without going down the developmental route of using the stages and the many conceptual practices required to walk the path in that way. Two traditions that don't concern themselves with the 'bits and pieces' of the path are Zen and Dzogchen. Zen, for example , rather than walk through stages on the path, positions itself at the end of the path (so to speak) where all concepts and developmental stages have dropped away. Zen nurtures a fundamental spirit of openness and completeness from the beginning (sometimes called 'beginner's mind'). This I have chosen to call 'Dharma Mind'. It is like aspiring to the awakened mind right from the beginning of training, the awakened mind free from concepts, ambition and dualities, which abides in the present moment with complete openness and courage.
Q. Hi, I hope this e-mail finds you well. I've been practising pure awareness on the cushions every day for the last few months alongside metta bhavana and visualisation practice. I find the practice is enriching and seems like a necessary addition to my spiritual life. I find your comments regarding the hara very helpful and much of the practice seems to be bringing awareness 'home' to the hara. At times the experience of doing this simple practice is very energising, powerful and balancing. Sometimes I seem to be aware of my bodily energy in a very different, more alive way. Energy blockages in the neck, shoulders and heart areas start releasing. I find when this happens I want to bring my awareness to these areas to try and release the energies there, but then I remember that I need to bring my awareness 'home' to my hara. When I do that, the intensity of energy in the shoulders, neck or heart goes. I can feel a bit dull or disappointed as everything seems so ordinary again, and I wonder if I have missed an opportunity to integrate these energies, which are strong but not centred in the hara. Any comments would be appreciated.
A. You generally cannot release energy by just giving it attention where it happens to be. The best way to work with these experiences is to go to the area with your awareness and 'drag' the energy down to the hara with your awareness. By doing this you are returning the wanderer to its home. Once it is there, keep it there, and in this place learn to abide and return throughout your day. In time you will be able to cultivate your meditation in this place as well. This is integrating. There is nothing for you to 'do'. Just be ordinary. If you feel disappointed, I can only think that you must be expecting something. Maybe somesort of reward or insight? Learn not to go down that route, because I can guarantee you will always be disappointed. Just cultivate the meditation and practice in general without seeking reward, this is the Dharma Mind. For sure, fruit will come from correct practice, but when it will come and in what form is something you will never be able to predict.
Q . I have some major issues with intimacy in my life (and fear of intimacy). It seems that intimacy with myself is as much part of this as intimacy with other people. Could you say something about this, please?
A. Here we have the very basis of our human predicament, the relationship that we have with ourselves. It is precisely this predicament that Dharma addresses and cures. We create duality soon after birth and from there we create a relationship with ourselves, the quality of which depends on many and varied conditions. As individuals we learn to live with that relationship but those of us that are not satisfied with it look for remedies to make it better. Dharma practice can be defined in many ways but for me the most human and accessible definition is to consider it to be a practice of making friends with ourselves. In fact it goes further and says rather than making friends with ourselves we learn to love ourselves. It is a practice that brings together the many conflicting dualities that we are. While we engage in the practice of Dharma we slowly awaken to the truth that the relationship we have with ourselves and our relationships with others actually mirror one another, and we begin to see self and other as not being two, but actually one. We then come to the obvious conclusion that if we like ourselves we cannot help but like others. In fact, it will be impossible for that not to be. The well-known and respected Sri Lankan monk Anandamitreya once said, 'You cannot love someone until you love yourself - it's impossible'. Your predicament with intimacy with others is a mirror of your relationship with yourself. Practise the Dharma and learn to go beyond duality, and you will not only be intimate with yourself and others, but the whole of life.