- Guy Armstrong
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Volition is just another factor of mind that arises based on prior causes and conditions.
Donald Hebb, an early researcher in neuroscience, discovered in 1949 something similar about repetitive patterns in the brain. His rule has been simplified as “Neurons that fire together wire together.”
It is helpful to remember that when a noun is derived from an adjective, as emptiness is derived from empty, it doesn’t mean that the noun refers to something that exists independently as an object on its own. It only means the noun is denoting the quality pointed to by that adjective. Just as it is not possible to find wetness apart from something that is wet, we don’t expect to find emptiness as a thing that exists on its own. We could also talk about the roundness of a snow globe or of a pregnant woman’s belly, but we are only saying that the objects are round. Emptiness here just means the quality of something being empty, like a jar, a desert, or the sky. With this meaning, emptiness functions, in a certain way, more like an adjective.
We’ve now found five meanings for “I” — as the body, the owner of the body, the emotions, the owner of the emotions, and the observer.
The English term aggregate sounds rather technical — it makes me think of road-paving material — whereas khandha, a common word in ancient India, means “heap” or “bundle.” Perhaps the closest rendering would be “the five kinds of stuff” that comprise us.
Certainly matter, emotions, and consciousness are fundamental kinds of stuff, but what about feeling tone and perception? They are significant factors of mind, but why have they been singled out for such important treatment? Why were they not just included in the volitional formations aggregate? They are simply two more mental factors. Then we would have just three aggregates: material form, mental formations, and consciousness. This is a list we might relate to more easily: our experience is made up of the body with its sense impressions, mental states, and the knowing faculty. In fact listing only three aggregates is the way reality is organized in the Abhidhamma,
Consciousness sees. Consciousness hears. When we add “I,” we introduce an unnecessary element that doesn’t refer to anything that actually exists.
An interesting question for reflection is: Does the sense of “I” ever arise on its own, without reference to an object of one of the six senses? Can you find such an “I”? What is its nature?
Ajahn Chah said that grasping either pleasure or pain is like picking up a poisonous snake. If you grab the head, it will immediately bite you. This is grasping pain. If you grab the tail, eventually the head will swing around and bite you. This is grasping pleasure.11
Because of the different meanings between meditative language and ordinary English, “concentration” is not an ideal translation. “Collectedness” or “undistractedness” might render the meaning of samādhi more clearly. However, Buddhist writers have been using the word concentration for more than a hundred years, so I will too. We just need to remember that this refers to a unified mind and not to a single, exclusive focus of attention.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche compared the practitioner at this point to a snake that has crawled into a long thin tube of bamboo. Even if it wanted to back out there’s no room to turn around. For better or worse, we have invited emptiness in and now there’s no turning back. The only way through is to keep going forward to the end.
As we practice abiding in emptiness, we strengthen the mind’s ability to see clearly its own movements, because they stand out in strong contrast to the underlying peace.
Abiding in emptiness, we don’t get caught in the tangle of craving. Upasika Kee advises us to be “inward-staying,” not pulled out toward sense objects, but to attend inwardly, to the peace of resting unentangled or to noticing when the mind is pulled to something. Ajahn Amaro encapsulates this direction: “Rest in the natural peace and ease that is the natural peace and ease of mind and body. Then pay attention to whatever disturbs that peace.”
The Buddha frequently advised, “One thing, if developed and cultivated, leads to great benefit, to security from bondage, to a pleasant dwelling in this very life, to the realization of the fruit of liberation. What is that one thing? Mindfulness directed to the body.”
The second implication of seeing the noble truths as concepts is that they were created by someone, in this case Gotama Buddha. Acknowledging them as concepts takes them out of the realm of ultimate truth and relieves us as practitioners from having to defend them. Throughout human history, religious ideologies have led to so much conflict and war. In Buddhism no doctrine represents an absolute truth that we need to fight about. All Buddhist teachings are simply tools for those who find them useful.
We can say that this field of awareness is an indivisible unity of emptiness and knowing, or emptiness and cognizance. Because of its function of illuminating what arises, the “knowing quality” might also be called luminosity or radiance.
this intrinsic knowing is always present to shine a light on whatever arises.
By describing consciousness in such experiential terms, the Buddha is essentially laying out a meditation practice and path. If we can realize, moment after moment, this signless, boundless, luminous consciousness, the elements will cease to find footing and duality will be seen through.
The sunlight pervading empty space stands for the union of emptiness and cognizance, or we could say radiance. The ever-present luminosity is like the unconditioned in its unchanging steadiness. The meteor that is briefly illuminated is an analogy for the consciousness of objects. The illumination takes place only when an object appears and is very fleeting. Flash! And then it’s gone. Consciousness arises only momentarily, dependent on an object.
When you’re distracted, make an effort. When you’re not distracted, don’t make an effort.
Being aware of awareness is a powerful approach, but it should not be considered as the only or the best meditation technique. There are times when it is extremely helpful and times when it is less so. In my experience, it’s most efficacious when concentration (samādhi) and attention are stable. Then, when we turn toward awareness, our vision can see its union with emptiness, and our attention is steady enough to rest there for a while. When concentration is weak and one is easily distracted, it can be more helpful to focus on a simple object like breath or body to collect the attention. No one technique is always the best practice. What is best is what’s suited to your body and mind in a given moment. As a general rule, when distracted, focus on a simple object to collect the attention. When the attention is collected, move to a more open approach like choiceless attention or being aware of awareness.
This is compassion, the trembling of the heart’s natural tenderness in response to suffering.
Bodhicitta is the wish to become enlightened in order to help lead other beings out of suffering and into the greatest possible happiness, which is liberation. The awakening heart grows out of loving-kindness and compassion for all beings and carries with it the will to act for their benefit. This quality can be fostered by reflecting upon it frequently, as we do in the practices of love and compassion.
We’ve seen that the Pali term viññāṇa usually refers to one of six kinds of consciousness corresponding to the six senses: eye consciousness, ear consciousness, and so on. Consciousness in this usage means the knowing of an individual sense object:
let us use as a working definition of awareness “the broad field or space of consciousness within which individual objects are known.”
Don’t search too hard. We know awareness by its functioning, its activity of revealing sense objects. If you lose touch with it, just ask, “Am I aware right now?” Then stay with whatever you notice about the awareness.