Saturday, April 24, 2010

Nothing holy; all emptiness

Have you ever had the sense when you walked through a doorway, or the space between two trees or, really, anywhere, when you just noticed that your body – maybe your eyes or your brain – were not exactly yours, but rather were a particular concentration of consciousness occupying a particular place, and as you walked through that place, that very location in the universe became more aware because it was occupied by the arrangement of matter comprising your mind/body, but really, you weren't different in kind from the molecules of air that your face nudged out of the way, but the fabric of the space that held first those oxygen molecules and nitrogen atoms and the rest also later held, just as gently, the protein chains and water-based solutions and calcium deposits of a conscious body/mind, just as gently letting go of them as they moved on, but before they did, for just that tiny moment, that place in space/time was aware of itself?

* * *

Buddhism is profoundly confusing.

Bodhidharma declared to Emperor Wu: “Nothing holy; all emptiness.”

The Diamond Sutra makes the same point, a bit more elaborately: “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. Form is not other than emptiness; emptiness is not other than form.”

When I first encountered each of these teachings a few years ago, I found them quite off-putting. How could emptiness be anything other than nihilism, a demon that had nearly done me in in prior years? I chewed on that for a time, and then I set it aside, unable to make heads or tails of it.

* * *

My next encounter with emptiness occurred during my first retreat. I was on a four-day yoga-
and-meditation retreat at Shambhala Mountain Center, a place in the Colorado high country run by Tibetan Buddhists in the Kagy├╝ lineage of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. I wrote about it here. My memory now is that I found the sitting parts of the retreat very hard, with back pain and discomfort and a sense that I really didn’t know what I was doing. I recall thoroughly enjoying the yoga practice (an easy comfort zone for me then), but trying out the meditation nonetheless.

About halfway through the retreat, the meditation teacher, David Nichtern, taught us the Three Characteristics – the three basic insights that arise at the beginning of the meditation path – and not coincidentally, the three experiential doors that stand at the end of the meditation path, as well. Those three characteristics, he said, were suffering, impermanence, and no-self or, he said, “emptiness.” By then, I’d come to understand something about suffering, and my back pain during that retreat was more than enough reminder of it. I thought that I got the notion of impermanence reasonably well. But emptiness/no-self – that triggered my by-then usual aversive response: “Don’t understand it; don’t get it; I’m doing ok; things are getting better; best not to think about it.”

Yep. I’d replaced the nihilism demon with an aversion-to-nihilism demon.

In hindsight, I think that I wasn’t really whole-hearted on that retreat. There were half a dozen reasons for it, but that’s the gist of it.

The meditation hall at Shambhala is situated in a small valley between a range of high foothills that are, themselves, nestled up against the east side of the Rocky Mountains. As the place is run by Tibetan Buddhists, there are strings of sunburnt and faded, tattered prayer flags scattered about, wherever a breeze might re-embody their devotion. In particular, I could see in the distance, prayer flags stretching up the slopes of the nearest high crag. In a kind of escape, I rose early one morning and climbed through the ebbing darkness. I worked my way up to the base of the crag, first along a roadcut, then along a plainly-evident trail. This was classic, dry Ponderosa montane environment.

From the top of the low mountain, the rocky crag rose another 75 feet or so. I scrambled up, found a level spot on the east side of the crag, just below the top, and sat.

I’ve never been to the top of a Colorado mountain when there wasn’t a wind blowing. On this one, it was mild – a steady pre-dawn breeze. I looked east. I was high enough that I could see all the way out of the mountains to the high plains beyond Fort Collins – a long, flat horizon. The sky glowing.

Six or seven birds sailed through the space above the valley, suddenly turning that space, which I’d been looking through, but never seeing, into a specific place of dimensions, the birds, a passing thought carried on the breeze, disappearing behind the crag.

The breeze pressed against me, around me. I breathed, and it entered. Exhaled.

* * *

I wrote some time ago about my experience with lovingkindness meditation. I worked out my own formulation of the prayer: May I be healthy, may I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be clear.

Clear is the word I use to remind me of the transparency I felt sitting on that crag – clear – the light of the rising sun shining through the transparent sky, through my body/mind. The breeze pressing on its way past me, through me. Not capturing, not converting, not insisting, not nothing, but no-thing.

* * *

Sitting on the crag was free and freeing. Liberation is nothing more than the simplest clarity.

Form and emptiness.

* * *

The yoga students start on their backs, shoulderblades drawn together and shifted down the spine toward the hips, holding firmly the space between their hearts and the earth. I call them through a slow and easy first series of sun salutations. We begin the second series with Warrior 2.

“Allow your vision to focus on the tip of the middle finger of your right hand.”

“Shift your vision from that fingertip to your right eye in the mirror in front of you.”

“Now back to the fingertip.”

“Holding that focal distance, allow your right hand to drop, and see the space your hand no longer occupies. See the space. Not through it, but just it.”

* * *

Years and years ago, I and a colleague walked through Central Park one morning. We were talking about consciousness, and as we walked we stepped onto some of the rubbed-smooth granite patches exposed above the lawns there. He remarked, “I think the rocks have an awareness of their own.” I disagreed, convinced that if it were so, it was a kind of consciousness inaccessible to me.

But now? As for me, I’m beginning to think that everywhere and everywhen is aware, just as aware as "my" body is. I just tend not to notice awareness much, except when it manifests in a form that interacts more or less readily with us. Rocks? Aware? Sure. Awareness is just aware. If it's awareness of a rock, it doesn't have much to communicate with, doesn't have much to remember with. What makes humans tick? We're evolutionarily complicated assemblages that have developed memories and communications and elaborate sensory devices. And we're aware. Not two different things, because everything has an inside to it – the aware part – and an outside to it – the part we can (in part) perceive through senses.

* * *

We do not walk upon the ground. We are as much the fabric of existence as the ground we walk upon, as the thoughts that fly through our minds like birds carried on the wind, as the water crashing down mountain riverbeds as spring run off, as the air we breathe, as the space through which we move.

Awareness, this exact instant, is all in all in all.