Q. Your site is really a wonderful resource, especially this forum.I have a question regarding insight practice within the general "just sitting" or "open awareness" approach to meditation.(My understanding being that "pure awareness" is not something that can be described as a practice really, as there is no "doer", but rather as the potential fruit of learning to contain and transform our emotional energies, or life force, as you call it, via opening to them w/o grasping or rejecting.)My question stems from something you mentioned regarding the ability of insight practices to severely undermine our basic sense of duality, of me here andthe world out there.You say for example that the realisation of selflessness (along with the other two "marks" of conditioned existence, dukkha and anicca) won't come about except as the result of implementing one or another of the insight "tools" intended for burrowing deeply into the knots of our experience. This is clearly an intentional and therefore "willed" practice, and I'm wondering if you could describe the most appropriate approach within the "open awareness" method which you advocate (and which I've been practising for about 8 months) toward cultivating, or most readily allowing for the emergence of, insight (without, presumably, resorting to a more formalised approach).I guess my question hinges upon a bit of confusion relative to the basic "not-doing" of open awareness approach, as opposed to the more obviously deliberate approach of any of the insight practices I've been exposed to.I want very much to stick with the open awareness practice as I've understood it thus far, so would appreciate anything you could say about this.Thank you very much, and best wishes -
A. 'Open awareness', I think, may be better described as something more akin to a 'spirit' rather than a 'method'. This to me is where the crucial difference lies between this approach to practice and a more formalised one.Because pure awareness practice doesn't have an 'object' (and therefore no 'subject') of practice, how could it be described in any other way? So then how do we describe this so-called 'spirit'? It is a willingness to open up to and accept all situations that we experience throughout our everyday life. Both during and outside our periods of sitting meditation. This acceptance is certainly not a passive one, but requires inner strength to work against our tendency to fall into old habitual and emotional reactions. To restrain these habitual impulses requires awareness, and, crucially, the spirit to practise through all situations without picking and choosing -carrying on and functioning in as normal a way as we can, so that those around us don't even know that we are 'practising'. There is nothing to do but respond to what is in front of us without trying to posses, manipulate or react, which are our normal everyday ways of dealing with things and life in general. This is where we get the notion that there is no practice. This way of practice - if we genuinely take it to all our everyday experiences without picking and choosing which ones we want to apply it to - is immensely difficult. The nature of this practice, like all Dharma practice, is that it will bring up karma from the depths of our being, often so strong, that being able to bring forth the spirit I talk about becomes impossible. Bearing with these 'blockages' is a part of what we do, so that in time they lose their strength and fade into the background, so they no longer possess us in the way they use to do. If some things refuse to shift, despite persistent effort and doing your best, making practice difficult or even impossible, you may need to focus on the particular attachment that is giving you this difficulty and give it 'special treatment' in order to free the 'log-jam'. This is where the more traditional ways of practice can come to our aid. In my own experience I found the 'three signs of being' to be very helpful in 'loosening up' my blockages to dramatic effect. Most of the traditional practices may be helpful. Metta may be used to overcome anger and ill will, for example. Or the very useful formless practices of mindfulness of breathing can be used for several hindrances. In fact, these practices of the breath can always be kept at hand anyway, to help us settle and bring forth our awareness during meditation. So when do we employ one of these 'skillful means'? This is where your teacher comes in, because a pure awareness practice requires a teacher more than any other kind. They will suggest a particular practice and crucially they will tell you how you need to practise with it in conjunction with the spirit of your open awareness (which will always be there as the supporting framework), and importantly when to drop this 'expedient means' and return exclusively to the pure awareness practice. One point worth mentioning here is to always remember that before we return to our own intrinsic awareness, there is first a long path of insight to travel. Slowly we unpick the delusion of self, and therefore much insightful deliberation into our makeup is needed. I would go as far as to say that I doubt there is anyone that would be able to go through their practice without needing a helping hand, at some time or another, from one of the deeply profound tools of orthodox Buddhism. I may also venture to suggest that it is only when in the latter stages of the ten bhumis that 'just being' becomes truly possible. But always remember the key is never to lose the open all-embracing spirit that one day will 'pull the rug' from under the spell of samsara.
Q. In your book and on retreats you talk of learning to open up to and accept painful negative emotions in a non-judgmental way as they arise during the day as being crucial to transformation in Dharma practice. In this way, you talk of these emotions gradually softening and burning out and of us gradually returning to the natural warmth of the heart, and ultimately our true nature. You also talk of simply containing these emotions and not meddling with or manipulating them when they arise. At the moment, when I meditate, I am experiencing a lot of frustration in the hara and abdominal area, which is sometimes quite painful, to be honest. In working with this, I'm not sure whether to get 'more intimate' with this frustration, which sometimes seems to lead to greater 'wrestling' with the frustration, or to detach and observe a little 'back' from the emotion and simply allow it to be with a 'sky-like' attitude -maybe this latter approach is not so effective as it is more dualistic (I am not fully at one with the painful emotion, and therefore less releasing of the emotion can take place). Is there a balance that the practitioner mustfind for themselves?
A. Yes, a balance is very important, especially if the experience in the hara is particularly strong. I would say that if you don't retain your attention on the hara you run the risk of the energy running away with you, possibly causing trouble. On the other hand, forcing yourself to stay there may not be skillful either. A middle way is always best. Be aware and return to retain familiarity with what you are doing, but also live your life in a normal dualistic way, as you describe it. This way you allow the life-force to naturally feed itself into what you are doing and do its job of keeping you alive in a balanced and healthy way. After all, that is what we are trying to accomplish. The time that you can be most intimate with the energy is during sitting (?) meditation. Learn to take your awareness there and, if you have a subject-meditation, cultivate it from that position. If your meditation is a formless one, then use this experience to centre and ground yourself and from there allow your awareness to 'fill-out' and become brighter.
Q. In order for authentic practice to occur, must one's teacher have attained to the first bhumi?
A. Finding the right teacher can be a bit of a strange and mysterious experience, because I think it is more of an organic and subjective phenomenon than checking someone's 'credentials'. I believe that 'affinity links' can, and often do, play a major part as we reconnect with someone we once trained with before this life. To me it is much more a feeling that we have found the right person, and that we have the confidence to trust and surrender to their greater wisdom and teaching. A teacher is someone you are able to say yes to when they suggest you do something you are not sure of or are afraid of doing. How much you are able to trust the helping hand of your teacher in your opening to the unknown is the best touchstone by which to judge.
Q. Even diverse traditions seem to agree that pure awareness is itself the path. Both Dogen and Milarepa are of one voice on this point. However, both engaged in many, many relative practices that are very different from one another. Why did they engage in koan study, deity yoga, subtle-body practice, etc, even after attaining to a clear penetration of emptiness? Were they simply mistaken?
A. My own conceit is still very evident, but even I would never venture to suggest that such great sages as these got things wrong! As stated in the answer to a recent question, I believe that pure awareness is more the spirit of practice that embraces all experiences without discrimination as we learn to surrender to that completeness. This to me is the real meaning of taking refuge. This is the framework, the background, the spirit of complete and open Dharma practice that leads to the deepest understanding of reality. Whilst cultivating this ability to just be, we will find from time to time that we will need to employ skillful means in order to maintain this most difficult of practices. What these sages engaged themselves in suited them and no doubt came from their tradition and culture. I'm sure they never saw these various practices as an end in themselves but as a means to assist them in their journey to the higher path