Wispy lack – a “no-thing”
Not solid, no entity
A lack, a hole – privation
It is where the light does not go
Not the opposite of light
Rather light’s non-being
Intimately entwined
A chiasm

The fact that existence
Remains always
A potentia – a becoming
And an unfolding
Not Static – Dynamic!
Likewise, our darkness –
Not a thing
Not a reflection of “Me”
Seen as more solid,
And more powerful (?)
Rather, the wispy lack of certainty
That bubbles with our attempts
To solidify “Identity”

Just as Self is a construction
So is Shadow a dynamic engagement
Of Being’s Non-Being


Path of the Dharma: Dhammapada–Chapter 23: The Elephant

Note: I’m going to move forward in the book to this late chapter and then skip back to a couple earlier sections. Also, the passage below, although long, is not the complete chapter, rather about 2/3 of it. I chose this particular selection from it to emphasize one point of content, honing the Manjushri sword of wisdom.

Patiently I shall bear harsh words as the elephant bears arrows on the battlefield. People are often inconsiderate.

Only a trained elephant goes to the battlefield; only a trained elephant carries the king. Best among men are those who have trained the mind to endure harsh words patiently.

Mules are good animals when trained; even better are well-trained Sind horses and great elephants. Best among men is one with a well-trained mind.

No animal can take you to nirvana; only a well-trained mind can lead you to this untrodden land.

The elephant Dhanapalaka in heat will not eat at all when he is bound; he pines for his mate in the elephant grove.

Eating too much, sleeping too much, like an overfed hog, those too lazy to exert effort are born again and again.

Long ago my mind used to wander as it liked and do what it wanted. Now I can rule my mind as the mahout controls the elephant with his hooked staff.

Be vigilant; guard your mind against negative thoughts. Pull yourself out of bad ways as an elephant raises itself out of the mud. — Trans. Easwaran

455 (75)

The well-trained mind will take you along the path like the well-trained elephant carries the rider.

Something about the metaphor in this chapter struck me profoundly. The image of the well-trained elephant is very clear, and yet again, we have a comparison that distinguishes the path to nirvana from the other. In this first passage, the Buddha makes clear that the best quality to cultivate is a well-trained mind. This echoes the main message in the other sections we’ve discussed so far. He emphasizes here, however, that the only thing that will allow you passage to nirvana is a well-trained mind. The previous sections didn’t emphasize this destination.

Perhaps, we should take a moment here and question what exactly nirvana is. Otherwise, we run the risk of falling into undefined terms and elaborate concepts without understanding the intention of this message, rather falling prey to our own fancies and preconceptions. This task of considering nirvana may sound easy, but it isn’t and could be written about at much greater length. The word “nirvana” has a certain exotic and fantastical feel to it, at least from my perspective. I remember using it as a child to indicate having reached some ideal and unassailable state–a perfection of sorts that once attained never falls away. Such an understanding reiterates familiar metaphysical dichotomies of being fallen and transcending our state of lack to a completion in the ideal. The two phrases I just used indicate two familiar examples of this–Christianity (transcending fallen state–the lacking nature of sin–through the perfect grace of the ideal: God and Christ) and Western philosophy’s metaphysical systems in general from Plato onward (contrast of the lacking living world with the ideal one which is the Truth, the Real world behind the shadow one that we are in–appearance vs. essence). While there may be arguments for such an understanding of nirvana from passages in the Pali canon, it does not fit well with this section from the Dhammapada.

This passage makes clear that the path to nirvana is the path of the well-trained mind. The examples here show that the well-trained mind is not swayed away from the good, selfless presence in the world (as discussed in my first selection from the Dhammapada) by lust, laziness, etc. We’re shown through the metaphor of the trained elephant that the mind can be trained so that it does not wander about, and this, just this, is the path to nirvana. It’s not acquiring some special state (which wouldn’t fit with the Buddha’s emphasis on impermanence anyway) or going somewhere else outside the “ordinary” world (Where would such a place be anyway???). Rather, it’s being fully immersed in the world with our mind as it is underneath all the constant layers of distractions and compulsions.

We often think of nirvana as the result of enlightenment, highlighting the profound wisdom in this path/practice (to be enlightened is to have seen the Truth), but we could also cast it as liberation; that is another, if not equally emphasized, “attainment” (there’s really nothing to attain, more like something to lose) of Buddhist practice, and with that re-thinking, we can see that the path of the trained elephant is simply that–liberation from the myriad sufferings of a confused mind. This regal animal can bear us to the core of our own happiness, revealing our own basic goodness beneath the desire, aversion, and ignorance of our untrained mind.


Walking the path step by step…

In case we conclude that a capitalized Mind is something other than our usual one, Huang Po deflates all delusions about its transcendence.:

“Q: From all you have just said, Mind is the Buddha; but it is not clear was to what sort of mind is meant by this “Mind which is the Buddha.”
Huang Po: How many minds have you got?
Q: But is the Buddha the ordinary mind or the Enlightened mind?
Huang Po: Where on earth do you keep your “ordinary mind” and your “Enlightened mind”?”

A familiar implication is the Chan/Zen insistence that enlightenment is nothing more than realizing the true nature of the ordinary activities of one’s everyday mind. When Hui Hai was asked about his own practice, he replied: “When I’m hungry I eat; when tired I sleep.”

The Pali texts of early Buddhism do not emphasize “everyday mind” in the same way, for they often contrast the consciousness of an ordinary person (puthujjana) with the liberated mind of an awakened arahant. Yet there is the same focus on not-clinging, a notable example being in the “Book of the Six Sense Bases” in the Samyutta Nikaya. There the Buddha repeatedly teaches “The Dhamma for abandoning all.” He emphasizes that practitioners should develop dispassion toward the six senses and their objects (including the mind and mental phenomena) and abandon them, for that is the only way to end one’s suffering.

“Through dispassion [his mind] is liberated. When it is liberated there comes the knowledge: “It’s liberated.” He understands: “Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.””

Listening to this discourse, “the minds of the thousand bhikkus were liberated from the taints by nonclinging.” The absence of grasping is what liberates.

“Truly, is anything missing now?
Nirvana is right here, before our eyes.
This very place is the Lotus Land, this very body, the Buddha.”–Hakuin

Passage taken from David R. Loy’s A New Buddhist Path, pp. 50-51.

May this inspire you to train your mind and release the mind that grasps so that you too may achieve liberation–the well-trained mind will bear you on the path to nirvana.


Slowing Down to See Our Place–Beyond Solipsism

Here’s another musing from my morning pages that I thought worth sharing.

It’s interesting how some mornings just feel awkward and clumsy. It’s almost like the entire world is out to get you. I just had a pile of clumsiness a moment ago. What to do? I noticed that the first instinct is to blame things–as though my phone could be actively choosing to defy me–or in a more general way, we can say that today is a “bad day”–as though the stars were aligned in the sky in such a way as to make everything bad for us today. However, how often are such things a sign that we are not paying full attention to what we are doing or that we are doing things poorly–half-assed?

I just slowed down and tried to be mindful, and guess what? The world wasn’t out to get me. Stuff remained stuff, lifeless, obeying the laws of physics, but my interpretation changed from making the world about “me” into looking at my action in the world. Suddenly, it was easier rather than harder. The separation of victimhood disappeared, and I flowed with it all again.


How often do we interpret the world and our lives like this? It seems a more or less constant thing, and I don’t say any of this in judgment, merely in measurement of the banality of all this. We see the world through our own two eyes, always within our own perspective. Is it really any wonder then that we so readily see it in terms of me?

Even Western metaphysics struggles with this solipsism. The one thing that Descartes could not doubt was the existence of his thinking self. Thus, the I that thinks, that feels, that experiences is the ground for all truth. Yet, is this even sensible? This has not answered what “I” is as thinking thing and assumes that the grammatical description of subject doing activity to object (in this case: “I doubt everything”) is an accurate description. In this sense, I mean that it is accurate that there is a separate “I” from the doubts. What if the doubts are the “I”? What if the thinker is not separate from the thinking–unfolding together?

What I would add to this fragment is that we take our position as solid, enduring identity which the world revolves around far too seriously. Then, everything becomes our own personal world, and we see ourselves both as separate from our actions and as the center of a drama/tragedy/set of happenings. In truth, you stubbed your toe, dropped your phone, and spilled your coffee. None of these were out to get you. You weren’t mindful. Your mindfulness slips even more when you get angry at these things and say that life is too hard, that it all sucks, etc. You could instead choose to laugh at yourself for your various slips and goofs, taking ownership of them as your own missteps, and if the world is responding to you, it’s reminding you to wake up to yourself and what you are doing.

May this help you look at even the smallest of your interactions and engagements differently. May such new insight bring you the ability to laugh instead of being angry and be attentive and purposeful instead of continuing to be clumsy.


Snippets of Wisdom from an Old Journal

I recently moved, and when I did, I came across some things that had been buried in boxes and corners. I found an old journal in which I wrote about the beginnings of my spiritual path, roughly a year and a half ago. I’ve strayed a bit and returned since then, but I was impressed to have found these thoughts and feelings at the end (because they are close to where I am now in many ways although I subsequently lost many of them) and thought I would share them here. I also shared another piece from this journal in a previous post: Control and Letting Go.

Reading through my words from the past…


In any case, I am finding it very difficult to remain compassionate in the interpersonal drama of daily life. I see everyone casting about their plans, goals, and emotional hooks. In so doing, they use others as objects, as though we are all some great game of emotional physics–balls of emotional matter bouncing off one another and taking on each others’ energy. Is it any surprise that everyone else acts in turn when this is the inherently agreed upon name of the game? Some might say this is human nature or the human condition; I would say that the second is possible but only because we all make it so. I know that by the end of the retreat, I was able to step away from this game for the most part with a different perspective, and I understand why monks remove themselves from the attachment of the world now.

Yesterday, I distinctly had a moment when I felt that the activities and lives of people are like so many ants, scurrying around the face of the planet, myopically thinking that their aspirations are more profound as their self-centered goals damage their very home. Of course, who am I to think I am removed from this, but I don’t think I am; I just think I am able to see it. We each think our own life is special and unique, thinking ourselves separate, and in one way, we are; however, in a larger way, all of the manifestations of separate difference are part of a greater universal whole that holds all difference in its chaotic depths, and we are merely its unfolding sway. This is where my Buddhist experiences from the retreat encounter Deleuzean difference, and I think they work together beautifully. It seems to me that Deleuze offers a metaphysical theory that resonates with the changing nothingness of Buddhist thought.
Another issue I face again and again now is the problem of balance and integration. How do I take my experiences and insights up as an ongoing practice in my life? I think that I’m doing OK with this despite my moments of being drawn into my own drama. Also, how does one balance the truths of separate individual life with that of the greater picture? This is the question I’m left with after Dōgen and after my new-found insight. I don’t know, but I find myself thinking often of ethics and self-growth over and across from trying to be a bodhisattva. This will take much more reading and meditation.


I ultimately had to take a short walk to the park. Once there, I sat and meditated for a few minutes. I heard the cries of joy from nearby children and felt their lives wash over me as they experienced excitement, pain, happiness, and frustration. I heard cars go by on 33rd Ave. I saw the green of the grass and the blue of the sky as wind blew across my face. I saw people walk by, absorbed in their daily lives. I felt the universe unfolding in all the particularity of that moment, felt it unfolding again into the next and then again in the next–each just as miraculous as the last.
At the same time, I opened my heart chakra and felt that I was part of it all without separation. I was the children, the grass, the cars, the wind, and the universe. Of course, “I” is somewhat inaccurate here, and I’ll return to my placeholder about judgment from earlier. We constantly go through life labeling everything as “good” or “bad”. This is how our minds work–an apparatus for making decisions which is a separation of things into different categories. The unison of things is split apart into qualitatively different entities by the mind. This is not false. It is one aspect of existing as an embodied individual, but it is also not absolutely true as it is also true that everything is one and that the differences of separation are merely an illusion. As such, it is narrow-minded, or rather, missing the greater picture in pursuing “good” moments as special, uplifting moments of existence. Good and bad are just our own cognitive labels. Every moment is just as miraculous as every other.
In any case, my meditation allowed me to return to such a compassionate perspective, and I was able to go through the rest of the day and night with more grace and acceptance.

For more discussion of “good”/”bad” and our labeling of things, see: Love, Rebounds, and Relationships: Part 3 — Love and Metaphysics.

Tao a Day – Verse 16: Emptiness

A couple weeks ago, I began a practice of reading one verse from the Tao Te Ching everyday. I will continue until I finish the whole book. I’ve read it before and consider it a masterpiece of both metaphysics and spirituality. There are few works as simple, inspiring, and profound. I will try to post a reading on a verse or a passage from a verse from time to time to share the beauty of this work. The following is Verse 16.

Become totally empty
Quiet the restlessness of the mind
Only then will you witness everything
unfolding from emptiness
See all things flourish and dance
in endless variations
And once again merge back into perfect emptiness-
Their true repose
Their true nature
Emerging, flourishing, dissolving back again
This is the eternal process of return

To know this process brings enlightenment
To miss this process brings disaster

Be still
Stillness reveals the secret of eternity
Eternity embraces the all-possible
The all-possible leads to a vision of oneness
A vision of oneness brings about universal love
Universal love supports the great truth of Nature
The great truth of Nature is Tao

Whoever knows this truth lives forever
The body may perish, deeds may be forgotten
But he who has Tao has all eternity
– Trans. Jonathan Star


Recently, I read some of Alan Watts’ book on Taoism (Tao: The Watercourse Way). In his chapter on wu wei, the well-known “doing without doing”, he contrasts Zen Buddhism and Taoism in that both aim at getting a deeper understanding of reality and then acting in accordance with it. He claims that the difference is that Taoism tries to get the student there through an intuitive understanding pulled out through poetic descriptions and paradoxical stories, whereas Zen approaches it through long and thorough meditation. I think this is accurate to an extent, but I think that Watts is a bit disparaging in his treatment of Zen in his discussion. Both approaches try to get us to see the way things are. The Buddhists guide us toward prajna (knowledge) in realization of Dharma (reality, the truth, the way things are, the law), and with the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu tries to get us to grasp the insight of Tao (the Way, the totality of all, the way things are and their source). The approach may differ, but the goal is roughly the same! I think this verse speaks to the parallels between these paths. Meditation is a way of realizing the emptiness and stillness that Lao Tzu emphasizes here–it is a way of getting an intuitive understanding beyond concepts. Both aim at getting past the duality of conceptual thought. The Taoist aim of transcending conceptual thought is stated very clearly in the following passage from Verse 1 as well as the already quoted Verse 16:

A mind free of thought,
     merged within itself,
     beholds the essence of Tao
A mind filled with thought,
     identified with its own perceptions,
     beholds the mere forms of this world.

The emptiness in 16 and “essence of Tao” in 1 are the metaphysical aspect of reality, of Tao, and I find the expression of it here and elsewhere in the Tao Te Ching quite inspirational. Tao is both the origin of the 10,000 things and those 10,000 things as well. In other words, Tao goes beyond the “mere forms of this world”, as their dynamic source of never-ending unfolding and change. Here’s an example in Verse 1:

Tao is both Named and Nameless
     As Nameless, it is the origin of all things
     As Named, it is the mother of all things

Here, we see that our concepts–our thoughts of forms and the words with which we name them–are not the source of the forms which we experience. The things we name are not that which creates those things, yet Tao is both the things named and that which cannot be named–that is, their source. This focus on origin or source and its distinction from the forms of the world leads us to philosophy’s most fundamental question (according to Heidegger’s take): “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” Lao Tzu answers without further explanation of why: “There is Tao.” Tao is both this mysterious, ungraspable origin that fluctuates all beings, pulsing with new forms–the ebb and flow of change–as well as those changing forms.

From a very different philosophical background, Wittgenstein delineates the world of forms in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as all that can be said. That which cannot be said must be passed over in silence: it must be shown; moreover, this inexpressible dimension is the mystical (i.e. the metaphysical). [Please note that these quotes have numbers. It’s just a numbering system in that book. I keep it here for you to look them up on your own] ” 6.522 There is definitely something inexpressible. The inexpressible shows itself. It is the mystical” (Es gibt allerdings Unaussprechliches dies zeigt sich, es ist das Mystische.). Previous to this, Wittgenstein points out that the mystical (i.e. metaphysical) nature of the World is not in the how of it–the facts of it–rather in its existing at all: “6.44 The mystical is not how the world is, rather that it is. ” (Nicht wie die Welt ist, ist das Mystische, sondern dass sie ist.) The world–the set of forms that can be perceived and named, i.e. that which can be spoken–is not the mystical, the metaphysical. The metaphysical must be shown as it is beyond that which can be said; this is done through words, but the words themselves do not represent this aspect of reality–they merely indicate it, pointing towards it. Here, in the first verse of the Tao, the indicated mystical aspect of existence is the Nameless, TaoLao Tzu’s masterpiece tries to show us this metaphysical origin beyond the forms we perceive and can express, and much like the paradoxes of Zen koans, he stretches language’s expression to point the way to that intuitive understanding, showing it as a Sage–inviting us to empty our mind and experience the ever-unfolding emptiness of the eternal process of return.