No Separate Self – Anatta

Below is the gist of the talk I gave here on the 30th during a retreat. People were sitting in formal meditation at the time.

The audio of this talk can be found on the Throssel Hole Abbey website.

Here goes:
The Five Skandhas are a traditional Buddhist way of analysing a human being by conceptually splitting the self into five component parts. They are:

Form – which has to do with the material, or matter, we are made of;

Sensation – to do with information coming in through the senses whether pleasurable, painful or neutral;

Thought – our language system, mental images, symbols and words – which we use to organize and structure our experience coming in through the senses;

Activity (or volition) which has to do with emotions, a moving outwards beyond our self, emoting something, giving expression etc. (greed, anger and delusion are three main ways of acting), and

Consciousness  – this has to do with the five senses and their objects. (Three aspects of each sense combine, e.g.  ears, a sound and consciousness. There is a sixth sense, mind – relating to the deepest level of our mental functioning – what we ‘know’).

You could follow this link if you are a ‘consciousness’ aficionado because ‘consciousness studies’ is a HUGE and often hotly-contested area of academic study and debate. The link will explain for you the Buddhist take on consciousness…..

It is very easy to misunderstand The Scripture of Great Wisdom as saying there is no self, no individual person, no sentient beings even, which doesn’t mesh with everyday experience. We experience ourselves as a sense of self, which comes and goes in our conscious awareness, as needed. What’s being pointed out is, on the deepest level of understanding, there is no SEPARATE, unchanging, ‘self’. (Anatta*)

In the Scripture, Kanzeon is talking from the deepest wisdom of the heart, and knows that not only are ‘selves’ not separate, but that the senses are not separate from their objects either, e.g . there is no ear separate from sound; no taste separate from tongue, etc. This seems to not mesh with experience either! So, if the teaching embedded within The Scripture of Great Wisdom is not understood fully in terms of deepest wisdom, life would get seriously strange. Obviously!

In the last few lines of the Scripture, there is a clear instruction to keep moving on continuously from what’s known and understood, because anicca (change, companion to anatta) is always in operation. Rev. Master Jiyu would often quote the ending lines when somebody was having a persistent difficulty.

O Buddha, going, going, going on beyond
Always going on
Always becoming Buddha.
Hail, Hail, Hail

“And don’t forget the Hail, Hail, Hail”, she would say.

While keeping this ‘going on’ instruction in mind as a reminder of impermanence, there is the encountering and appreciating of the world of appearances, and acting (or not acting) within it. We can also appreciate the apparent separateness, plus accept and deepen our understanding of the Scripture.

Rev. Master used to describe this ever-changing interconnected universe (without edges) as flowing, like a great river. And the way to train within it is simply to trail one’s open hand in the flowing waters. When we do that, over time, we find there is no separateness between what we call us and the universe, between our hand and the flowing water. Any time we try and grab or push away ANYTHING we immediately feel the separateness, in one way or another. Is that not how ‘saddened love’ is generated?

Talk Two given on 30th Dec, New Year retreat 2022-3.

*There is an important story that is used to help people understand the idea of anatta. It is called Nagasena and the Chariot. The story is about a monk called Nagasena, who visited a king called Milinda. The king asked Nagasena for his name. Nagasena gave his name but then told the king that this was just his name and not his real person.

Copied from a BBC website.

When the Opposites Arise

This is a talk I gave this morning to the people here on retreat until the 2nd January. Thought you might want to see it.
The audio of this talk can be found on the Throssel Hole Abbey website.
When the opposites arise, it is written in the Rules for Meditation, the Buddha Mind is lost. I’d like to say lost sight of, since I don’t think one can lose the ‘Buddha Mind’. Or you could say, one can’t lose one’s nature as a Buddha, that is an enlightenment being. Whatever one’s views are about oneself and others and no matter how unenlightened one’s actions and the actions of others might be – the fundamental enlightened nature, Buddha Nature, is there. Neither lost nor forsaken.  How could it be otherwise since there is no (separate) eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind as it is stated in the Scripture of Great Wisdom. The no is actually mu which means empty, immaculate, pure. Rev. M. Jiyu translated mu as pure in an attempt, I believe, to help westerners to not trip over the alternate words – empty or Immaculate. But we can trip over anything, if we have a particular function of our minds switched on. Then over time, become fixated on a particular understanding of this scripture – perhaps remaining for the rest of one’s life! How sad.

The functioning of our minds is miraculous, and not fathomable by the ‘ordinary mind’, the mind caught in the opposites.  In the blessing verse recited at the end of meals, we have; Pure and beyond the world (of the opposites of the world of Samsara) is the Mind of the trainee. O Holy Buddha, we take refuge in thee. That’s a statement of faith right there.

And so we sit, just sit, which in actual fact is a 24/7 ‘activity’ not just in formal zazen. This just sitting requires of us an exercising of faith/trust with the clear and firm intention to keep returning to just sitting throughout the day (and night). It requires of us to trust the process one enters into when dedicating one’s life to spiritual practice. Paramount is the refraining from evaluations (labelling) ones ‘progress’, or lack of it, and refraining from evaluating others around you; or those who come into our world of awareness. There is a way of thinking and being and acting which one can deliberately choose not to nurture the habit of swirling around in the opposites, mentally and emotionally. All the while Nirvana, or that which lies within Samsara is lurking, calling to us, nudging us to return to effort/awareness (the two are inseparable) return to clear, bright intention

There is a choice. Formal Zazen has a particular place in this choosing because one CHOOSES, deliberately decides to allow projects, planning, and pain to subside. This can take time. It takes time for a boat, having crossed a lake and arrived at a dock, to stop bobby around in the water. It takes time too for the wake generated by its journey through the water to catch up with it, and then settle. Eventually, if the boat just remains by the dock it will settle, stop moving and be still. So too with us when we settle to sit.

Actually there is a power in deliberately and consciously deciding to do something, Zazen for example, when you want to or could do, something else. Even as you settle by the dock (so to speak) you can remake your decision, your intention to ‘just sit’, no add-ons. Yes, the pain and the plans and the projects and whatever else will arise, naturally enough. It is not so easy however to ride out the waves when there are painful thoughts, feelings and emotions. From the past, in the present, or fear of the future. Here, now, the Buddha calls – SILENTLY!

I’ll read you a poem now, by Mary Oliver. It is short and quite unlike the majority of her poems. It speaks of love (saddened love- a box full of darkness, from one once loved) and loss and transformation.

The Uses of Sorrow
(in my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

Mary Oliver

Darkness, Our Old Friend

The Uses of Sorrow
(in my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

Mary Oliver

Riding The Storm

Holiday altar, with Origami dragon….

The post below first appeared on a now discontinued blog on December 7, 2013

At the time of writing, I was house sitting in Kirkby Stephen in Cumbria.
Two days ago the weather was wild. A Severe Weather warning had been issued, and structural damage was expected over a huge swathe of Britain. At a critical moment the other morning it was clearly a time to decide to stay indoors, batten down the hatches and sit it out. But I was soon to travel to stay with somebody close to death, my guests were already packing their car to return to Sussex.

The wind was howling, and the rain was horizontal! What to do? This was one of those moments when whichever way one turns, there’s no easy solution. Plans can be changed, appointments rescheduled, but on that wild morning my hand wouldn’t lift the phone to cancel my commitment, and it was also clear my guests intended to travel, no matter what. We were about to put ourselves in serious danger by driving out into this horrendous storm.

Dilemma is defined as being in a state of uncertainty or perplexity, especially when requiring a choice between equally unfavourable options. It’s an uncomfortable place to be, knowing a decision needs to be made, but a decision seems impossible to make. All the while, the roof tiles rattled louder and anxiety levels ran higher! And then the phone rang. After a brief conversation about the weather, the caller said softly, Gran died at 3.30 this morning. And with that piece of the jigsaw in place the picture changed completely, my hand reached for the telephone to cancel my trip, and then I waved off the car bound for Sussex somehow confident that all would be well. And it was.

Being in a state of uncertainty and perplexity, can be an in-the-moment kind of thing as described above, or it can be an ongoing state lasting months or even years. Most often, life require that a step be taken, and then we need to be ready to adjust direction along the way. However, it’s simply not possible to know the complex web of factors that are exerting themselves as we walk our lives. Choosing to pause, to wait a moment – a day or longer can allow for the next step to show itself. As with the uncomfortable, storm ridden morning described above, I do believe we can trust unfolding conditions within the web of our lives to show us the way forward. Which might actually simply be to stay put and ride out ‘the storm’.

Onwards to 2023, may the ‘great earth’ be our witness as we tread lightly on the land.

The Book is Published – The Lad Made Good

Thane’s website lists online booksellers stocking this book.

A recently published book by ‘our Thane’.

“A prescient read for everybody:
Religious aspirants,
committed business leaders,
and for all who consistently
‘overdo it’ in life.

Read slowly as you would a sutra.”

In the past years I’ve offered support to Thane both as a dedicated member of our congregation and lately as he was eventually diagnosed with FND, a life-limiting illness. A hard-won diagnosis, at that, (do follow that link). And then honoured to be asked to read the first draft of his book. Today, in the post, a hardback copy of The Buddhist CEO. It looks and feels so good, it is beside me now. Shall I read it again? I’ll certainly be quoting from it during the upcoming New Year Retreat here. Thanks Thane, you’re a gem.

The above quote is the first part of my recommendation. My vote of confidence in this piece of work. I’ll not go on too much (I’m far, far too excited for Thane and his family atm), enough to copy out the rest of what I wrote.

It is said the Buddhist scriptures (a poetic form of conveying universal truths born of direct experience) were written at ‘death’s door,’ that is, having had one’s faith extremely and severely tested in adversity unimaginable and lived to pass on digested truth. What greater gift could there be?
In the face of a life-limiting illness (FND), Hamish, a dedicated Buddhist practitioner, is forced to change his lifestyle. What truths does he derive from entering the fires of suffering and coming out the other side? Perhaps, for starters, labels have to drop away? No ‘Buddhist’, no CEO.

As I read the first draft, I was somewhat disturbed by how Hamish, the main protagonist, approached Buddhist practice. In the book he is SO dedicated, SO diligent and steadfast with his practice. Clearly, Hamish without the grounding wire of Buddhism would have faltered under the kinds of pressures a CEO faces. (Who would have thought people could be so NASTY at work?) Shocking, deeply so.

And now I see what Hamish shows us is exactly what I’ve been thinking about recently.  Firm in purpose and intent, given expression in a soft, compassionate and kind way. And the disturbance? It’s hinted at in my recommendation. Labels drop away, naturally, and one sees and understands from a vastly different perspective. Clearly, there is room for a sequel…to be read slowly as you would a sutra. There is much teaching embedded in this book.

Tom Wharton says it so clearly with his support of this book, along with a number of others, found within the opening pages.

A compelling story reminding me of my own struggles with difficult events in life, and how Buddhism gave me a way to see all of that very differently.

Thomas Wharton, author of Ice Fields.

Thane’s website lists online booksellers stocking this book.