Showing posts with label John Crook. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Crook. Show all posts
Coming Home
By John Crook
Mahamudra Retreat 2005 - Session One

When we were introducing ourselves last night, several of you remarked on how valuable you found it just coming to the Maenllwyd and how much you valued the place.

Let us begin then by asking why that might be so. I have a good story that helps us here. Some years ago there was a practitioner, Jane Turner, whom some of you might remember, who used to be a regular retreatant at the Maenllwyd, driving herself here from north of Glasgow. One year she got the dates wrong and arrived here after her long journey in the wrong week! She told me about it afterwards. In those days the track, was largely undriveable so she had walked up the track only to find the place deserted; there was nobody here! The Maenllwyd was completely silent; not a soul! Locked up! Yet she told me that she was so radiantly happy just being here that when she went back down the hill and got in her car and drove back to Glasgow, it was almost as good as if she had done a retreat!

Jane, perhaps, was a slightly extreme case, but a lot of people make remarks along such lines, I myself sometimes arrive here and discover myself smiling; and, as is my wont, I sometimes ask myself, "What on earth are you smiling about?" I have often gone into that because I have found that if I just sat and allowed the smile, as it were, to seep into my bones, then I began to experience a move beyond smiling, into something really very blissful. And of course on such occasions, it isn't necessary to know why; Something is happening, which is bringing about a feeling of bliss. And indeed that bliss ... that joy ... at thinking about Maenllwyd or being here is, in many ways, a very important component of Dharma. Many people experience bliss in the course of meditation, but in this case it simply arises out of the smile at being here, or maybe even just thinking about the place.
So what is going on here? Well, Shifu gave me a clue to this many years ago when I was talking with him about the fact that sometimes in meditation blissful feelings arise. I had been experiencing bliss on retreat in New York with Shifu; and I went to him and I said, "What is all this bliss about?" So he said, "Well, bliss arises out of gratitude". "How come?" I said. "Well, what it means is that, without really knowing it, in meditation there has been a moment of stillness ... silence. You've got yourself out of the way. And because you did that, you feel gratitude; and gratitude produces bliss."

I have contemplated those remarks of Shifu's ever since .... and tested them out. And I find it to be true. When one experiences those moments of bliss in meditation, it emerges from a process of which one is not fully aware. One has dropped the cares of everyday life for a little while, and the fact that they have gone gives one a freedom and a clarity. And spontaneously, out of that freedom and clarity comes a feeling of thankfulness, gratitude; and that expresses itself in bliss.

I think something like the same thing happens when some of us arrive at the Maenllwyd ... or perhaps when one even thinks about the Maenllwyd, or maybe one does a visualisation which might involve the place. And it is not, of course, only Maenllwyd. Those of us who travel around and visit various monasteries or power places for meditation sometimes find the same thing happening there too. In fact it has to do with the fact that what we have been doing here is creating a little monastery. Maybe not exactly a monastery as a place, but rather a monastery of the mind, in that when we come here we practice a certain " dropping of attributes"; we let go. Maybe we're not always sure about that, and maybe some of us find it very difficult, but essentially the key thing that happens here is the letting go of care. When you arrive here you let go of something; you let go of the troubles of life. And you find yourself arriving and you find yourself smiling, and you say things like "coming to the Maenllwyd is like coming home". Many people say that. Home, of course, is a place where there is no care because one is 'at home'.

This is a very interesting discovery to reflect upon, because we may ask what is going on when one "drops care"? What's happening? One could say "Well, it's just that I'm away from the kids for a bit", or " I've left the office and don't have to worry any more about the bloody finances",., or "Thank God I'm away from him or her for the weekend" .... a bit of rest from the relationship. Any of these things might be, as it were, the stimulus, but that's a fairly shallow response. Because, of course, in problems of relationship, in problems of work, in problems of looking after the children, it is actually one's own performance that one is most worrying about and monitoring. "Am I a good enough Daddy?" "Am I a good enough friend?" "Oh, dear, I wasn't very nice on the phone last night." "Oh, I'm always stressed when I go to work; I'm no good at my job." Many of these things which we attribute to outside calamities, pressures, strains and stresses, are really actually internal strains and stresses. It is self concern.

So I put it to you that one of the things that happens when we arrive here, when we find ourselves "coming home", is that we drop self concern. And in dropping self concern, what does one find? Well, if you drop your self, then you allow a great space to appear; a great space for just appreciating precisely what's in front of your nose, namely: the yard; the clouds glowing in dawn light; a kite flying over; the sound of chanting. All of those things can then make a immediate and direct impression because 'You' are not in the way. You're not worrying about, for an example, "Am I meditating well today?", because you've dropped self concern. There is then no worry about whether you're meditating well or not! You're just sitting there. And if you're truly Just Sitting ... to use that Japanese expression ... if you are truly just sitting and not being there as a 'me', then everything is present to you, for you, of you ... in a kind of special freedom. It's what is called "emptiness" in the Buddhist jargon, the psychological experience that is thus named.

Unfortunately, 'emptiness' is also a technical term in the Buddhist philosophical vocabulary and this may be confusing. Whenever one wants to try to understand what emptiness is, one has to say "What am I or what is it ' empty' of? What is it that's 'gone empty'? And, if you've dropped self concern, that's marvellous: you're empty of self concern. And that's well on the way to enlightenment! We are smiling on arriving at the Maenllwyd because we have actually, unbeknown to ourselves, dropped care. And particularly , for a little while, dropped self concern.

So there's a very useful lesson in this; because, of course, dropping self concern is precisely what the Buddha was talking about in his first two Noble Truths. That's really quite a discovery. If one has found, as it were, an indirect way into understanding the Noble Truths, that's really very useful indeed. So how come? Well, let's just remember the pattern of the Buddha's fundamental thought here. The Buddha, as you know, was concerned about suffering, and suffering, of course, is self concern ... or in a very large measure, self concern. So suffering and self concern go together. So at the moment when self concern is dropped there is no longer suffering ... or, at least, a big alleviation of suffering. And Buddha called that a dropping of "ignorance": we are ignorant of the fact of self concern and the reasons for it. The Buddha worked out why. Self concern is usually concerned with time. It is usually about something I did in the past, or the fear of something in the future. Self concern is time bound. And time, of course, is the measure of impermanence.

The Buddha realized that absolutely the root for understanding suffering is to understand impermanence; because it is the fact that things are impermanent which causes us distress. Something beautiful happens, a lovely holiday on a Greek beach, and then it's gone and Winter comes. Spring comes, but then it goes again. The joyful love affair is over and one is left by one's self. One gets older and one realizes that, as somebody said last night, the idea that one is going to go on for ever (which one takes for granted when one is young) begins to fade, and one realizes that Time is shortening. It's all impermanence and, of course, what we do with impermanence, through our ignorance, is to grab onto things that we like and try to hold onto them and make them permanent, because then we can be "safe" and 'happy'. The reason why that is so ignorant is that we fail to face up to the fact of impermanence: things cannot be made permanent; nothing is permanent. The universe itself is not permanent; it's endlessly moving and God knows where it's going to ... and probably He doesn't either!

In our stupidity we try to make the things that we like permanent and to annihilate or get rid of the things that we don't like sometimes, even the people that we don't like. And this is ignorance, and the root of suffering. The Buddha called it anicca, But then the Buddha said, "Well, what is it that is so worried about impermanence?" Well, of course, it's Me. I'm worried about Me because I am impermanent; I am going to die one day. I'm going to get old; God knows what's going to happen. As somebody said yesterday, arriving on the retreat, "God knows what's going to happen here!" Quite Right! Goodness knows what's going to happen here!
It's scary, very scary; impermanence is scary ... if one is holding onto permanence. Of course, if one isn't holding onto permanence, it's not scary, obviously. The two go together. But time flies, troubles come, troubles go. Nothing to hold on to ...if one tries to hold on, it's like trying to grasp the wind. You can't do it. The Buddha's truth however, was to say "Well, who are you anyway? What are you? What is it you're holding on to?" Well, the Buddha realized that he was holding on to Siddhartha; I have to realize that I am holding on to John; you have to realize that you're holding on to Rebecca, or whoever it might be; Eddie. That's what we're holding on to. This thing which appears to be here; John, which appears to be here, is what I am holding on to because it is that which is changing, it is that which is fading, going away ... it won't be here much longer! So scary. But then, "What is this John?", asked the Buddha. This is where he made a very important discovery. Because when he examined himself through yogic meditation he was able to see very clearly that, actually, what was going on, what was called "John", was a process; not a thing, a process. And it could be divided up into five different aspects. Very simple; very simple psychology; but a very, very good model. It still works. It still works better than a good many modern models.

First of all, there is Sensation. Obviously, you feel something, a sensation; something happens. You sit on a drawing pin Ooooh!: a sensation.

But then there's Perception. Perception is "Oh, what's this? Have I sat on a scorpion? ... Oh, no. No, it's just a drawing pin; that's not so bad." That's perception. You perceive what the sensation is.
And then there's Cognition, which is working out why there happens to be a drawing pin on your chair: "Did someone put it there? Who could have done that? Somebody hates me, and put a drawing pin on my chair so I'd sit on it ... or is it just that I dropped one out of the box yesterday?" Or if it actually is a scorpion, "Oh, my God: scorpions! Better put down some DDT or something. Let's be nasty to scorpions for a change." That's cognition: working it out.

And then there are the so-called samscaras: we have to use the Pali word because it's rather difficult to find an English word for it. The samscaras are, as it were, the habit formations from all one's previous thinking, so you think now "What about scorpions? Yes, I remember about scorpions; well, they are supposed to occur in the South of France, so what is one of them doing here in England? It must have escaped from the zoo. But I haven't been near a zoo, so how can there be a scorpion here?" And so you start working out, by referring to the past, by referring to karma, why the present situation might be as it is. And of course it is these samscaras which become what you might call the "habit formations", because they determine what you worry about next. Thus karma is built up out of these samscaras, these past habits. So a mind, this John, is actually a complicated functioning of Sensation, Perception, Cognition, and habits of the past, which as it were make one decide what is good and what is bad. And all of it has a certain form: and that form ... bodily form ... bodily presence, that is what we call "John". But John is just a name; there is no John, there's just this process; the process of Sensation, Perception, Cognition and habits, going round and round and round. Quite temporary; moving through time, but no fixed entity, no John. John is just the name. So if John is just a name, where is John? Is John the perception? Well, no, that's not enough. Is it cognition alone? No, not enough. Is it the history? Is it the past? No, that's not John. So where is John? There is no John as a thing! It's just a name for the process. The Buddha called that anatta, No Self.

So. We have Impermanence; no self. Very radical; a very scary teaching. Because, of course, what we want is John, this thing, to be loved by everybody all the time (at least John likes that, to be loved by everybody all the time); John wants to be permanently young, permanently beautiful, permanently clever ... whereas, in fact, he is becoming increasingly idiotic, falling apart and getting dotty, and generally becoming absurd. That is the truth about John, it is the zen truth, total absurdity; one big dottiness after another! But that's not how we want things to be: that's because we get attached. So, ignorance is made up out of this attachment to something, which is a flowing, ever moving, process. There is no Thing to be attached to; there are just names. Language fools us: technically it is called "reification"; the making of things out of concepts. Just as another example, take the word Spring. We speak of Spring as a thing; but actually, of course, it is just a period in time, in which all sorts of other things are happening: we know there is Spring because the flowers flower. But we can't actually see Spring; Spring is just a word which refers to the period of time within which flowers flower. There is no Thing called Spring which you can grasp hold of. That's another example of reification. And me, John; you, Betty; whoever it might be, are just like that.

So, the Buddha's thought is very subtle here. But the problem is the illusion that there is a thing to which we can be attached, which we must be protective of. Now, in common sense terms, of course, conventionally, we do look after ourselves; that makes sense. But we don't have to be obsessively attached to the ego in the way in which we usually are; that's where self-concern comes in. Self-concern is actually illusory. Now this message of the Buddha is not so easily taken on board, because we are so easily convinced of the normality of John being John. This is why, in order to really understand the Buddha's message, we have to investigate the mind, to explore and find out whether these things are true or whether it is just the Buddha's fantasy. That's why we meditate. Meditation as it were is always the testing of a hypothesis. The hypothesis is "Where am I? I exist. Am I here?"

Am I here? Well, let's investigate it. And of course, what you find in meditation, as you calm the mind, as you practice, is that gradually the attachment to things begins to fade. You begin to find a kind of openness emerging. Something which is much more difficult to characterise; you can't find words for it. Language begins to fail because you're actually going beyond language. You're going into that which language tries to express but never entirely succeeds. Because it's just language; it's not the thing in itself. So we work at that and in our meditation we begin to test the Four Noble Truths for ourselves. In Buddhism, it is said you should never accept things on trust. There is faith in Buddhism, yes; but it's a faith in the method of exploration. It is not a faith in a thing; it is not an attachment. Faith is often an attachment to a concept. This is more like faith in an investigation, *an unending investigation, because there is no end to it. The universe goes on; we go on ... for as long as we're here. Then we disappear. But what an exciting adventure!

And the moment of smiling as you arrive at the Maenllwyd is a hint that there might be something in this. Because if it's true that you're smiling and enjoying being here because you've dropped your self, even for a moment, and just allowed the space of the place to impact upon you directly, you've actually tested the hypothesis. For when you drop attachment to self, the universe is there in all its wonderful turning, in all its manifestation as a place: Maenllwyd in December. "Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat" .... whether you're a vegetarian or not, the goose is still getting fat!
So we have then in this very simple beginning; this simple recognition of happiness at arriving home at a place we call Maenllwyd; the being open to the monastery and all that the monastery is for, we discover that we drop something. We can either investigate what it is that we have dropped or we can just enjoy the fact that we've dropped something, and let it take care of itself. That's fine also, although it may not allow one an understanding of what one is actually experiencing. So the letting go is an absolutely key thing in Buddhist practice. The Buddha himself discovered his insight through letting go, through the process of letting go. He didn't discover what eventually he knew by adding , as they say in zen, adding a head on a head, more ideas on top of more ideas, more philosophies on top of more philosophies. Intellectual construction isn't it at all. You drop the intellectual constructions and there It is the thing in itself; the Thing In Itself, which can never be quite caught by language, or fixed in philosophy. The experience of Being.

The experience of being is the experience of flowing. Being, in fact, is always becoming. It is never stationary; there is never a halt; there is never permanence. The challenge of Buddhism, the challenge of the words of the Buddha, is whether one can actually allow one's self to enter the flow of being, the flow of time, without trying to grab on to things which keep one safe. That's the challenge. And that's why an entry into Buddhism can be quite painful.

* There are people who come in interviews and meditation and say, "A strange thing happened today: I seemed to be about to fall into nothing". So I say, "Yes?" And they say, "... very scary". So I say, "Why?" "Well, I might not exist". And I say, "Yes, you might not exist."

It requires a certain nerve to say, "Okay, I'll fall into that nothing". So that, in your meditation, you let go of your attachment to your little self, just let go of it, and then you find the extraordinary freedom of the flowing of time without attachment. But it is not easy to do. One has to have a certain nerve to jump off the high diving board; as I know, having jumped off the top of high diving boards. I've done it, but I must say it was quite difficult! And I'm not talking about diving; I'm talking about just jumping into the water: "Oooooh! All the way down there!" Big splash! Yes, big splash, but rather nice.

So maybe out of this comes a key message for this retreat; in fact, for all retreats. Jump!

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