So we continue on with Bahiya’s meeting with the Buddha and the Buddha’s response to Bahiya’s urgent pleading to teach him how to truly enter the Great Way of freedom and happiness. Remember that although Bahiya has sought out the Buddha as a result of deep doubt and the realization that he is neither free nor practicing in a manner that will lead to freedom, he is nonetheless completely ripe to receive a teaching that will utterly transform him. He has dropped literally everything, emptied himself of everything except his completely focused urgency for awakening. The Buddha meets his simple openness with a simple and powerful response:
“Bahiya, this is how you should train yourself: Whenever you see a form, simply see; whenever you hear a sound, simply hear; whenever you taste a flavor, simply taste; whenever you feel a sensation, simply feel; whenever a thought arises, let it be simply a thought. Then “you” will not exist; whenever “you” do not exist, you will not be found in this world, another world or in between. That is the end of suffering.”
There are at least two approaches to understanding this teaching. The first is to follow closely just what the Buddha says; that this is an approach to training the mind and training one’s life; a teaching to be practiced and worked with as a process. Bahiya gets it in one deep jolt which he swallows whole, digests instantly and is fully awakened.
Most of us have to work at this as a practice for a very long time, and yet we don’t know how long Bahiya worked at his in order to come to this place, available for this encounter. And it doesn’t really matter whether we have gradual cultivation and sudden awakening, or sudden awakening followed by gradual cultivation. In fact both are not only true, together they encompass the whole of the life of practice-realization.So the Buddha speaks to Bahiya, but he is also speaking directly to us. Each of us is Bahiya being told, “Please train yourself like this.” What does this mean and how are we to do it? First we have to understand what it means to just hear, just see, simply taste, simply feel, just sense. The key, of course, is in the word “simply” or “just.” For example, we could look at the tree outside the window. Maybe we look over and see the tree and think, “That’s an oak tree.” Or we look at the sky and wonder if it’s going to snow, and how much and will I be able to get out of here at the end of retreat. We smell the aromas coming from the kitchen and wonder about lunch and how much longer until we eat and won’t it be great to have a break. Seeing, hearing, sensing, tasting, smelling is followed quickly by the felt sense of pleasant or unpleasant which is following by thinking which often involves some form of aversion, desire or confusion and then the mind takes off with its own story about all of this. We are suddenly far away from the present moment and the substance of our real life. This is often the recipe for suffering rather than freedom and joy. This is the act of separation and not, I suspect, what the Buddha meant when using the word “just.” “Just” means what is there when there is no image, thought or memory between us and our immediate, direct experience of the content of this present moment. The Buddha is inviting us to encounter the moment-to-moment content of our life exactly as we find it, which is just like this. Our life in this moment is not necessarily how we want it to be, think it should be or imagine how it might be. It is always, just exactly the way it is. Always just this. The sensation in the back, the rustling sound of someone moving has its own life, its own quality, its own definition that is not what we think about it or imagine it to be. When there is the absence of all of the mind-stuff that conditioning, memory and experience put between the observer and what is observed; when there is just the seeing, hearing and so on without separation, then there is intimacy. There is no “you” or “me”, there is just THIS! Then, drop the “just” and drop the “This” and what do you have?
When there is no “me” and “mine,” no “you” which fractures the natural wholeness of Life then we have cut to the root in a very direct way of that which divides and separates; the inherent tendency of thinking to identify with itself and break things apart. Someone once said that the most fatal of human delusions is to believe our own thinking. So when in the hearing there is only what is heard, just complete intimacy with hearing, then there is no place for thinking to arise and if it does there is no-one to identify with it.
But please do understand that the gateway to the wonderful simplicity and wholeness of Life in this moment is through what stands before us right now. If there is fear, judgment, irritation, a fogginess in the mind… whatever is here now, it is also just THIS!
And things get really interesting when we begin to apply this to living relationships in our daily living. Sitting here in these really quite simplified conditions which are carefully constructed to limit complexity is a very different environment than getting up at 3am with a sick or frightened young child; or being criticized by a partner, or being stuck in traffic and running late for an important appointment. And yet the practice is exactly the same. How we train our selves in exactly the same. Life, wherever and however we find it, is just like this, and our work is to increasingly meet it fully and directly. Meeting fear, loneliness, grief and despair with full and complete attention. This is the work of learning to love Life as it is, rather than as I want it to be. This is a steep practice.
Now during our sitting practice, especially on retreat, this comes up for us with great frequency and can be the occasion to refine our skill in wholeheartedly attentive. For example, when we’re sitting for extended periods like this the body has lots of sensations that it produces, many of them registering as unpleasant. Rather than meeting them directly as just sensation and leaving them alone, we often allow thoughts to arise which then can become a story which can often resemble a Stephen King novel in terms of its potential to disturb us. This is the “practice” of suffering not liberation. When we do this in our daily lives when we are not held by the rules and structure of retreat practice, we typically then come up with ways to escape from these self-created mini-hells. Most of these escapes are not very helpful and usually result in their own form of suffering. Eating late at night avoids the feeling of loneliness, but may result in later self recrimination, and so on. The mind generates a story in reaction to something unpleasant, doesn’t like the story and then tries to find ways to escape from itself. And we wonder why we feel a bit off and out of focus and in conflict so much of the time!
The way of practice, the way to train ourselves, is simply by learning to be with what is, exactly as-it-is, allowing this moment to express itself fully and completely in this vast and spacious field of awareness and then to flow back from whence it came; endlessly arising and passing away, time without end; clouds coming and going through a vast and empty sky. One could say that seeing is our true and natural state. Hearing is our true and natural state. Seeing, hearing is awakening. We awake to the moment of the breath, the sound of the fan. This awakening is an active, dynamic, moving condition. When in the seeing there is only the seen, that split between self and other is gone and there is no room for suffering to arise. “We” don’t do anything, because in that timeless moment of no-thought and complete union there is “no-one” to do. There is no past, present or future because when there is just this, there is no time which is the creation of thought. You are not found in the future, the past or the present because in this place of no separation, no coming and no going, there is no “you” created by the thinking mind. The moment might hurt like hell, but there is no one there to make a problem out of it.
Now, of course, this too is not a static state but one in which “we” are always moving in and out of. Life is always calling us to wake up to “just this” because “this” is always new, unique, fresh. Life is continuously asking us if we will meet It now, in this form of anger, fear, betrayal, sorrow, joy, happiness; always presented in a slightly different expression. This is why we call this work the “practice” of awakening. We may have significant “experiences” of this where there is deep clarity and letting go which may seem momentary or which may seem to last “a long time.” A dear friend of mine says that she is becoming increasingly distrustful of “awakening” experiences, and in a way she is completely correct. Because one of the dangers in these openings is that we turn them into trophies we collect and experiences reified in memory that support the ego in ways that increase self-centeredness and the self that acquires, strives and separates. On the other hand, they are important as an indication of what is possible and they do over time deepen and enhance our capacity for freedom and love by re-defining who “we” are. The balance here is the observation of Hui-neng, the 6th ancestor of Zen in China: “As far as Buddha Nature is concerned, there is no difference between a sinner and a saint. One moment of awakening and an ordinary person is a Buddha. One moment of delusion and a Buddha is once again an ordinary person.” And so it goes.
Let me try to give you an example of how this works. I had started my drive down here yesterday and was listening to a CD by Allison Kraus. For those of you not familiar with her, she’s a wonderful singer backed up by some very talented musicians, but she can sing some really, really sad songs. So I was driving along starting to be affected by the music, feeling sadder and having some pretty sad thoughts, (which as we all know is just really helpful!) and there was a simple awareness that my body had begun to slump a bit. You know how we begin to kind of collapse into our selves physically when we are sad, and the breathing began to feel short and constricted. But in that simple awareness, without “me” doing anything at all, the breath lengthened a bit, the body expanded a bit, my vision opened up a bit and suddenly into seeing came the sight of so many trees covered with ice from the recent storm and absolutely ablaze with the reflected sunlight. Through all of this there was no thinking. There was just sensing, just seeing and in that timeless moment the mind was completely awake and suddenly out of intimacy with sadness and into complete intimacy with the next THIS. It didn’t last long, I suppose, but mind and body were in a different condition as a result, and I decided to turn off Allison and just drive for awhile. Note that the dharma gate for this was the awareness of sadness and the simple meeting of it with no attempt to make it different in any way. Also note that there is nothing particularly extraordinary about any of this. It is just about attention to the ordinary mind states, feeling, sensing, seeing that make up what we call living. We don’t have to go looking somewhere else for this. We just have to begin to appreciate the fact that we have all we need right here and now for waking up and being free.
This takes us to another way to understand the Buddha’s teaching to Bahiya and to us and it is as an invitation to spacious and choiceless awareness. We can practice with each of the sense doors, we can work with the hindrances and so on in this direct, simple and intimate way, and we can also open up everything at once. See, hear, sense, touch, taste; everything happening all at once with no discrimination, preference or choice. Every sense door completely open, welcoming, receptive, alert, completely alive. So that listening is with the whole body/mind; every pore of our skin, every hair on the body, one whole receptive, alive field of listening. In this there is no “who”, is there? No “me” listening, is there? Check it out for yourself. It may be a little slippery to catch, because when “you” are only hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, smelling; there may not be anyone there to record or reflect on the experience; no “you” there! See what happens when you notice there is separation from what is; when the mind is wanting this to be some other way than just how it is. What happens in that moment of just seeing separation? What happens when you’ve traveled down the mind road and there is a sudden seeing of that? Was there a “you” in that moment of awareness? What if seeing is awakening? What is hearing is awakening? What if it is just as simple and as obvious as that? Then you might wonder what you are doing here on this retreat! What happens if there is just awareness of that thought? This is the practice of awakening, but it might be more accurate to say that it is really awakening which is practicing us!In any case, we have a wonderful opportunity during the rest of this retreat to continue this ongoing practice of awakening and self-knowing. Being called back to our true self, to simple awareness, by sound, sight, smell, touch, mood, sensation, by the fresh unique call of each moment of our life as it unfolds in what ever way it does. When “you” are not there, then the call and response are happening in complete harmony and with complete ease. And when there is struggle, conflict or suffering then that too is happening and can also be known simply as, just this. Nothing excluded; a place at the table for each of these many beings which show up. Fear sits beside hope which sits beside sadness which sits across from joy which is next to anger which is next to love and so on. They come, hang around for as long as they do and are then back on their way, if “we” are not there to block their journey. When there is just this, then the host of awareness and the guest of whatever is visiting are in complete harmony.
– A Clearly Enlightened Person Falls