In the picture above, I'm the person second from the right.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

No Time to be Messy

This blog was suppose to be a reflection of my busy, messy life. But I've hardly written anything on it.  Which I suppose is as good a reflection of my busy, messy life as anything. Anyway, I am writing over at the other blog now, you can follow me here  http://tallisgrayson.blogspot.ca/

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Tendency to Gravitate Toward Extremes

Today I am thinking about the human tendency to gravitate toward extreme positions.  The Buddhist community/world is no different than any other area of human interest, it is very polarized. Case in point, on the meaning of enlightenment we tend to take sides. Elitist camps forming on two or more fronts – from ‘everybody is already enlightened’ to ‘true enlightenment means the perfection of the individual.’  And left somewhere in the middle are the thousand vague, very much undefined positions, that as a result of their vagueness have become essentially powerless to truly educate and ultimately enlighten. Surely enlightenment is hard to define - some would say that it is ineffable. But the Buddha sure tried to define it, or at least tried to define everything that it was not, if the number (thousands) of sutras are any indication, (which is certainly open for debate).  Taking sides . . . it’s such a human thing to do, to become polarized. (Because if you try to hold your middle ground, without in fact having a well grounded and defined position, then you tend to very quickly get pulled to one extreme or the other.)  I think what I am usually trying to find and establish is, put simply, a well defined and grounded middle ground.  But aren’t we all?  More on this soon . . .  Tallis

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Asking a four year old questions.

I have two daughters - a 4 year old and a 1 year old. They play together all day long. They have so much fun. I know this because they mostly laugh all day long. Now when I ask my 4 year old if she likes playing with her sister, depending on when I ask, I get all sorts of different and funny answers from "no I don't like her" to "yes she's my little sis." I think most adults are like this too. We don't know what we are saying most of the time. I never really know what I'm saying, for example. Observing someone or some situation closely is usually much more telling than asking questions - such as "Are you happy?" No I take that back. Asking such questions is good. It's just that answering the question needs patience and careful attention. "Am I happy?" is a wonderful question to ask yourself - but answer it by observing yourself closely in this moment and also over a period of days or weeks. I think I am very happy - but I'm going to double check that starting right now. Tallis

Is the word nirvana a noun or a verb?

Is the word nirvana a noun or a verb?  Modern English dictionaries always classify the word nirvana as a noun, e.g., a state of heavenly bliss.
However, as Pali translator Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out, “back in the days of the Buddha, nirvana (nibbana) had a verb of its own: nibbuti. It meant to ‘go out,’ like a flame. Because fire was thought to be in a state of entrapment as it burned — both clinging to and trapped by the fuel on which it fed — its going out was seen as an unbinding. To go out was to be unbound.”
Notice that nirvana (a Sanskrit term) is a compound word. The prefix ‘nir’ means ‘out.’ The root ‘vana’ means ‘to blow.’ Put them together and you get ‘to blow out.’ 
Nirvana is a verb!
Defining and classifying ancient words, such as the word nirvana, is a bit arbitrary. For example, if we define nirvana as ‘blown out,’ then the word becomes an adjective. And if we define it as ‘the state of being blown out,’ then it is a noun again. It’s all just semantics – sleight of hand with words!
It is curious and telling that we only use nirvana as a noun. We need nirvana to be a place or a thing, or at least a state. We need it to be some-thing that we can hold onto. (And a Buddhist might say that trying to hold onto nirvana is the fundamental error of existence.) Of course, you cannot really make the error of holding onto nirvana, for that is impossible; rather, the error one might make is holding onto the idea of nirvana. Nouns are a little easier to hold onto than verbs and for that reason I propose that we begin using the word nirvana as a verb, i.e., a verb that means ‘to blow or put out.’ What do you think?
The next time you ask someone to blow out a candle or put out a fire, try saying, “Will you nirvana that for me, thanks?”
It might start an interesting conversation.

Speaking of Enlightenment: A Simple Rule

Is there some ineffable It – some deep and transcendental aspect of our being that is distinct from samsara?


Buddhists are not nihilists; we must answer yes (or answer I don’t know) to the above question. However, if we answer yes then we must answer yes with qualification. The qualification being that we are not to qualify It, for It does not exist (standout) in such a way that our minds or brains can perceive It as having any qualities. It is ineffable because it lies beyond the range of objectification (i.e. it is not an experience or object of any kind).

Attempting to speak of that which is ineffable causes serious problems. (The problems start the moment we make It into a thing that possesses attributes.) However, not speaking of It has led to a more serious problem – nihilism. Therefore, I think we should speak of It, but carefully – by observing the following two-part rule:

i) Speak of It only in terms of what it is not. For example, in the suttas the Buddha sometimes calls It the unmanifest (not manifest) or the unaging (not aging). (S.N. 43)

ii) Do not use attributes (qualities, characteristics, or properties) to describe It. When, in the suttas, you come across terms such as ‘the peaceful’ or ‘the wonderful’ (S.N. 43) used synonymously for ‘nirvana,’ realize that these words are not actually describing It, but rather they are describing the liberated state (i.e. the free flowing experiences and actions) of an awakened person.

Again, the two-part rule is as follows:

i) Speak of It only in terms of what it is not.
ii) Use attributes to describe the experiences of an awakened person or moment, but not the It itself.

It is a simple rule and observation, but it has really helped me to keep things straight.



P.S. I feel as though there might be a third component to this rule. Is there something I am missing? That is very likely, for sure. Maybe making some sort of subjective/objective distinction is in order here. I’ll consider it over the Christmas break. Oh yes, Merry Christmas everyone!  (Written December 2010)

The Infinite Substance of Luminous Mind

What are you?
In this post, I would like to discuss the following question:
Is there some eternal aspect of your being that continues to live on past death?
As a rule, the Buddha refused to answer questions concerning that which is either eternal or everlasting. For example:
“Once a wandering mendicant asked the Buddha, ‘Does one who has reached the truth live again after death or not live again after death?’ To which the Buddha replied, ‘That is a matter on which I have expressed no opinion.’” (DN 9.26)

[See suttas 63 and 72 of the Majjhima Nikaya for a more extensive list of questions that the Buddha avoided answering.]
However, in the suttas the Buddha is very clear that he is not a nihilist:

“Both formerly and presently, I have never been a nihilist, never been one who teaches the annihilation of a being. Rather, I have taught only the source of suffering, and its ending.” (MN 1.140)
In fact, in the suttas the Buddha repeatedly stresses that he is neither an eternalist (one who holds the view that there is an eternal, unchanging soul) nor a nihilist (one who believes that death is the annihilation of consciousness).
“Once, the Buddha was asked by a visitor named Vacchagotta whether the self existed, ‘Now then, Venerable Gotama, is there a self?’ When this was said, the Blessed One was silent.
‘Then is there no self?’
A second time, the Blessed One was silent.
Then Vacchagotta got up from his seat and left.
Not long after Vacchagotta had left, Ananda said to the Blessed One, ‘Why, lord, did the Blessed One not answer when asked a question by Vacchagotta?’
‘Ananda, if I - being asked by Vacchagotta if there is a self - were to answer that there is a self, then that would be conforming to those priests and contemplatives who are exponents of the view that there is an eternal, unchanging soul. If I - being asked by Vacchagotta if there is no self - were to answer that there is no self, then that would be conforming to those priests and contemplatives who are exponents of the view that death is the annihilation of consciousness.’” (SN 44.10)
[To appreciate how thoroughly the Buddha approached this topic, you might also want to read the first sutta of the Digha Nikaya, where the Buddha describes and rejects sixty-two different philosophical worldviews.]
Here is another passage, this time between Sariputta (Buddha’s most trusted enlightened disciple) and Maha Kotthita (a slightly less experienced disciple). Here Maya Kotthita is more or less asking if there is anything beyond nirvana (i.e. anything beyond the liberated mind that no longer clings).
Maha Kotthita: With the remainderless stopping and the fading of the six contact-media, vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and intellection, is it the case that there is anything else?
Sariputta: Do not say that, my friend.
Maha Kotthita: With the remainderless stopping and the fading of the six contact-media, is it the case that there is not anything else?
Sariputta: Do not say that, my friend.
Maha Kotthita: Is it the case that there both is and is not anything else?
Sariputta: Do not say that, my friend.
Maha Kotthita: Is it the case that there neither is nor is not anything else?
Sariputta: Do not say that, my friend.
Maha Kotthita: Being asked, with the remainderless stopping and the fading of the six contact-media, if there is anything else, you say, 'Do not say that, my friend.' Being asked if there is not anything else; there both is and is not anything else; there neither is nor is not anything else, you say, 'Do not say that, my friend.' Now, how is the meaning of your words to be understood?
Sariputta: The statement, 'with the remainderless stopping and the fading of the six contact-media is it the case that there is anything else?' objectifies non-objectification. The statement, 'is it the case that there is not anything else; is it the case that there both is and is not anything else; is it the case that there neither is nor is not anything else?' objectifies non-objectification. How far the six contact-media go, that is how far objectification goes. How far objectification goes, that is how far the six contact media go. With the remainderless fading and the stopping of the six contact-media, there comes to be the stopping, the allaying of objectification. (AN 4.174)
Buddhist scripture rocks!
The patience and care taken in these suttas is remarkable.
Here is another:
"Monks, I will teach you the All. Listen and pay close attention. I will speak."
"As you say, lord," the monks responded.
The Blessed One said, "What is the All? Simply the eye and forms, ear and sounds, nose and aromas, tongue and flavours, body and tactile sensations, intellect and ideas. This, monks, is called the All. Anyone who would say, 'Repudiating this All, I will describe another,' if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range." (SN 35.23)
Is there some It, some deep and transcendental aspect of your being that is eternal?
How should we answer this question? Well, according to my reading of these suttas we can forget attempting to ascribe any predicate whatsoever to It, for we can’t even claim that It exists or does not exist, and worse still, we are not even supposed to ask the question in the first place; for the question is itself confused. The question is confused because it attempts to objectify that which lies beyond the range of objectification.
Is there some It, some deep and transcendental aspect of your being that is eternal?
It seems that a number of Buddhist teachers and bloggers are content to answer yes to the above question. But worse still, they feel compelled to describe their experience of Its intrinsic nature with a seemingly never ending string of positive attributes such as “pure, clear, authentic, radiant,” etcetera, claiming that the universe is made out of some sort of “Luminous Mind Stuff,” claiming that one should keep searching until ones sees the ________. Feel free to insert your favourite definite descriptor in the space provided. I personally like “The Infinite Substance of Being.” Whatever one might call It, the act of calling It (that is, ones so called 'experience' of It) anything whatsoever amounts to poppycock.
Be suspect of those who continually speak of seeing some sort of ‘Eternal True Self’. In my opinion, claiming to have seen some sort of ‘Eternal True Self’ is not consistent with the teachings of the Buddha.
[Of course, who hasn’t made this mistake? (i.e. made the mistake of naming that which is beyond range.) I know I have made this error on numerous occasions. Sometimes I get careless; don’t we all. The point I want to make is to be wary of those who don’t consider ‘naming that which is beyond range’ a mistake at all. Despite being guilty of this error myself, (I need to do better), I believe that there is a rather simple safeguard that we can employ to help us avoid making this error. Sounds like a good topic for next time.]
Is there some It, some deep and transcendental aspect of your being that is eternal?
It seems that a number of Buddhist teachers and bloggers are content to answer no to this question. Worse still are those who believe that the essence of their existence amounts to nothing more than an illusionary wisp of smoke. This is, in my opinion, worse than being merely a nihilist, (one who holds the view that death results in their annihilation), for they do the impossible by believing that they never existed in the first place. The logical consequence of believing that you are nothing but a wisp of smoke is that you begin to act as though you are nothing but a wisp of smoke. You do not honour the possibility that there “exists” in you an indescribable Divine Identity; nor do you sufficiently value your own dependently originated and uniquely developed personhood.
Be suspect of those who claim that there is no ‘Eternal True Self.’ In my opinion, this kind of statement is not consistent with the teachings of the Buddha.
With such restrictions, how can a Buddhist not help but feel verbally bound by a straightjacket? Are we really not permitted to say anything whatsoever concerning the It that truly does not both and neither exist nor not exist beyond the range of objectification?
I am not sure that I even understand that last sentence. What a convoluted mess!
What is one to do?
I might have an idea or two.
See you next post . . .
Tallis (Written December 2010)

Missing the Essentials

“Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest— whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards.”

So begins The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus.

15 years ago, I remember sitting in a University lecture hall studying Camus. “So what of Camus’ question of suicide?” the professor asked. We discussed the problem of suicide passionately for 35 minutes.

I had semi-seriously contemplated suicide the previous year. I was extremely depressed. To me life was meaningless! Why had I not noticed this fact before? At that period in my life, I had not yet read Camus, but if I had, then his question would have made perfect sense to me. Life had its moments for sure, but were those moments really enough?

A year before that, I had become a vegan. I did not change my diet much, I had just stopped eating meat and dairy – I tried to eat a few more nuts and grains here and there. I felt fine at first. Apparently, it takes a number of months, even years, before your B12 becomes sufficiently depleted for you to notice. To this day, I really do not know exactly what I was missing, but I definitely noticed that something was very wrong. Apparently, the question I was really contemplating back then was “Is my life, missing a few essential vitamins and minerals, really worth living?”

I improved my diet and I started exercising. That was all it took. By the time of that Camus lecture I was a very happy person. (And I have been to this day.)

Camus’ question sounded absurd to me. “Why not commit suicide?” If Camus had been happy, he would not have asked this question.

Happiness is its own reason for living; you do not need another. I spoke up in class, “Perhaps Camus was just depressed. Maybe he simply needed to exercise more; maybe he was simply missing a few essential vitamins and minerals.” The class laughed in unison mostly dismissing my comment. No, no this is Camus; he is a serious philosopher, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. His ideas are important and profound.

However, the professor was not laughing. He looked at me and nodded. He understood my meaning and asked a better question: “If one is full of joy and contentment, then does one actually need a philosophical reason to live? What could possibly compel you to commit suicide if you were and continued to be happy?”

Not a single person in the large lecture hall had an answer.

Of course, Camus’ question is a serious question for most people because most people are simply not happy.

This is just my way of reminding those of you in the northern hemisphere that the darker days of winter are coming. Spending hours and hours of your time meditating is wonderful, but do not forget to do the easy things too – like taking your vitamins.

Tallis (Written November 2010)

A Terribly Scary Realization

Not long ago, while buying groceries, I had a terribly scary realization. I realized that I was treating the checkout clerk as a means to an end. (i.e. treating her as if her only reason for existing in that moment was to scan my items so that I could get on with my day, get on with more important matters - such as walking to my car, driving away in my car and getting stuck in traffic - you know those sorts of very important things.) Treating the present moment as a means to an end is characterised by impatience - we act and feel as if we want to be doing something else. I don't want to be talking to this checkout clerk, I'd rather be walking to my car. And then I don't want to be walking to my car, I'd rather be driving in my car. And then I don't want to be driving in my car, I'd rather be home having dinner. The pattern repeats without end. I am simply never satisfied with the present moment as it is naturally unfolding. Have you noticed that throughout the day you sometimes use the people that you meet as a means of escaping the present moment? We think, perhaps subconsciously, “How can I use you to get me to the next better moment?” We treat people as objects, as stepping-stones, as a means to an end.
We should never treat people as a means to an end. People are ends in themselves – just as their experience of the present moment is an end in itself. Everything always comes back to this moment and those who are experiencing it.
Today I want to share with you a simple but powerful exercise. Use the following exercise to help avoid treating the present moment (and each person that you meet) as a stepping-stone for the next “better” moment.
A 'Live-in-the-Moment' Exercise
At certain times throughout the day pretend that whatever you happen to be doing will never end. Suppose you are doing the dishes. Imagine that you will never finish doing them. What a dreadful thought – doing the dishes for the rest of time. Or perhaps waiting in line. The next time you are waiting in a queue imagine that you’ll never reach the front. Again, that would be a perfectly dreadful situation!

So why would we want to do that – why would we want to pretend that our present situation will never change? Well, if all future moments will be identical to the present moment then living in the present moment would be a cinch. That is to say, it would be pointless to long for some future moment if all future moments will be identical to the present moment. The present moment is already here! You would certainly not feel compelled to use the present moment as a stepping-stone to get to the next better moment if the next better moment will be no better than the previous better moment.

You can play the same game with your inner state (a feeling) as well as your outer state (ex. waiting in line). Imagine that your inner state will never change. Suppose you feel bored – now imagine that this feeling of boredom will persist for the rest of time. This is very interesting and rather frightening. If you really do this well, really convince yourself that your inner state will never change, it can be quite startling. You might even have a mini emotional breakdown. And in some cases that might be a very good thing to have.

Fully surrendering to this moment by pretending that it will loop endlessly may bring about the most remarkable inner change. Yet be careful, for longing for that inner change to occur (focusing on some future moment) will surely prevent you from fully surrendering to this moment. It is a nice catch-22.

Now after pretending for a time, remember the following refreshing truth: No state or situation remains the same even for a nanosecond; everything is always continuously changing. Enjoy the changes – in both your inner states and outer situations.


P.S. It has been a long time since my last post. My daughters are now 3 ½ years and 11 months old. I am enjoying the changes too, a lot of them. See you in another 11 months. (Maybe sooner, we’ll see.) Tallis  (Written November 2010)

Embracing Imperfections

People who know me know how imperfect I am. Buddhists, on the whole, have an odd relationship with imperfection. I remember in an interview Barbara Walter’s asked the Dalai Lama if he was enlightened. Here is the exchange:

Barbara Walters: Are you enlightened, your Holiness?

Dalai Lama: No. I do not know what would happen tonight. I do not know. And my memory – what details? . . . what happened yesterday? – I’ve already forget.

Barbara Walters: If you were enlightened you would remember everything?

Dalai Lama: Oh yes.
Barbara Walters: You haven’t reached that stage yet?
Dalai Lama: No.
[End Quote]
If you were enlightened then you would remember everything? Now I’m going to give the Dalai Lama the benefit of the doubt here. He was asked on national (worldwide?) television if he was enlightened. How can you possibly answer such a question and still appear to be both humble and wise? His was a good answer: In effect he said, “If you think that being enlightened means being perfect and all-knowing – then I am not enlightened. I don’t know, maybe the Dalai Lama really believes that the Buddha was omniscient. Maybe he doesn’t. But that’s not the point.
The point is that many Buddhists do equate enlightenment with this kind of perfection. (They equate enlightenment with physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual perfection.)

And this is very unfortunate.

Enlightenment has nothing whatsoever to do with being perfect, period.
It seems to me that the closest an enlightened person might ever come to being perfect is in the acceptance of his or her own imperfections. (Although I suspect even his or her acceptance would be imperfect.)
Suppose (pre-enlightenment) you have a poor memory (are always forgetting people’s names), can’t roll your “R’s”, have unattractive feet, can’t hit a golf ball straight, are losing your hair, wear contact lens, have allergies, and . . . well you can’t even count the number of imperfections you have for there are so many (plus you’ve never been that good at math anyway), and have a habit of writing run-on sentences, then post-enlightenment you will most likely still have all of those imperfections. Maybe you wouldn’t even consider those imperfections.
This is kind of a nice thought. I mean if you’re a little insecure about your shortcomings now – the thought that even enlightenment wouldn’t fix them is, I think, a little comforting. I mean what more do you want?
In fact, I suspect that the closer you are to enlightenment the more imperfections you would notice in yourself.
What about character imperfections? Surely an enlightened person would have no character flaws. Can you imagine an enlightened individual who is either arrogant or humourless? The Buddha couldn’t possibly have been conceited or stubborn.
Maybe, maybe not – what do you think?
Certain imperfections you just can’t change. Some you can. Certain flaws slowly change through their very acceptance. Sometimes you just can’t remember why you ever considered a particular “imperfection” a flaw in the first place. Perhaps for some individuals enlightenment is easy and all the real work is done after enlightenment. In the sutras, Buddha occasionally comes across a little conceited. Might it have been the case that he was just plain arrogant and had to work on this character flaw for years following his enlightenment? Maybe he never quite licked it.
I really like the following excerpt from the song ‘Anthem’ by Leonard Cohen:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
This is beautiful. How could the light get in if you had no cracks? And I might add that those cracks (imperfections) are also needed for the light to get out. The more imperfections you notice in yourself the better! More imperfections = more light.
Oh, how wonderful! Noticing and accepting your many flaws – perhaps this is the ultimate spiritual practice.
Radiant spiritual light is shining through the multitude of our embraced (even partially embraced) imperfections!
Wow! Doesn’t the mere thought of this make you want to go stand naked in front of a full length mirror under bright lights in order to search for and embrace your own imperfections? (Uhh . . . maybe it’s just me, never mind.)
Tallis (Written June 2009)

Addicted to Silence

Most people are addicted to thinking – letting a voice incessantly rambling on and on inside their minds.

But some people are addicted to silence – they “incessantly” don’t think about anything whatsoever. (The space between thoughts has expanded to such a degree that their minds are usually absolutely silent.)

In some ways being addicted to silence is even worse than being addicted to thinking.

Why worse?

Well, worse if silence is confused with emptiness (śūnyatā: all phenomena are dependent and conditioned on other phenomena and therefore are without essence).

Worse if silence is equated with nothing, is mistaken for Enlightenment – because if that’s the case you may start giving people some pretty terrible advice.

And worse still because, let’s face it, silence of the mind gets a bit boring after awhile.

If you’ve reached a state of silence of the mind and feel slightly let down, wondering, “Is that all? Is this it?” – don’t worry, that is not all, this is not it.

There is still more to come . . .

So you have silence of the mind – now what?

Sit with it. Notice that silence is something. I like to notice that silence is a type of sound – that it is a type of auditory experience. Notice that you are not this experience.

Just wait . . . while sitting in silence with the realization that you are not silence – something rather remarkable is bound to happen . . .

Tallis (Written June 2009)

The Disappearing Self

I’m watching the French Open. (Federer just lost the first set.) Anyway, my daughter keeps standing too close to the TV. And I keep telling her to move back. Telling her for the third time gave rise to following idea:

I was thinking about how when you move up close to the television screen the picture disappears – all you see are a bunch of dots (pixels). But then, of course, when you move back out a few feet there is the picture again.

This is like the experience of being a self. When you move deeply into the experience of being a self, it seems that the self disappears. But move back out a “few feet” and there is the self again.

So which position or state shows the situation as it really is? I suppose they both do. It all depends on your point of view. (Although, in the case of the television, sitting back a few feet is usually more practical.)

Okay, I need to go watch the rest of this tennis match.

[2 hours later]

(Federer won the match.)

I’m thinking that the deeper truth is not revealed in either the experience of being a self or the experience of being a no-self. But rather, the deeper truth is revealed in the movement between these states.

This is the miracle of an enlightened moment – freely moving between the experiences of self and no-self.

Tallis (Written June 2009)

Playing Catch

Today I’m playing catch with my daughter. (With a large soft Dora the Explorer ball.) She is two years old. She loves it. She says, “Catch again Daddy! Catch again!” I suppose she likes the motion.

This got me thinking about experiences. All experiences are in motion. They are vibrations – on and off; Neurons firing – on/off; Light waves, sound waves – on/off.

Playing catch is a slow vibration. Throw – catch – throw – catch.

There are perhaps an endless number of such pairs:

Birth/Death, Sleeping/Waking, Breathing: In/out.

I’ve noticed that I get into trouble when I interfere with any particular vibration – when I try to make-permanent only one half of a vibrating pair.

Try only breathing in. Trouble! (Okay that was an extreme example.)

The experience of being a self is a kind of vibration. It is really the experience of self and not-self. It is like breathing. You can’t just breathe in. Likewise, you can’t just feel like a self. The feeling of being a self is dependent upon a corresponding experience of not-self.

For example, the computer before you is definitely not you (relatively speaking). Maybe you look at it (and feel not-self) and a split second later get a sense (perhaps a gentle tension around your eyes) that it is you that is reading. You can’t have one experience (self) without the other (not-self). Together they form a vibrating pair.

So we could say that there is a small experience of self which is one pole of the self/not-self vibration.

And we could say that there is a larger experience of Self – which includes both vibrating poles: self and not-self.

We don’t want to stop the sense of small-self from arising any more than we want to stop breathing in. But rather, we want to notice that the experiences that are masquerading as the small-self, are arising in the context of a greater self/not-self experience.

You are this greater “self/not-self experience.”

When you notice this something rather interesting happens.

Okay time to play again . . .

Tallis (Written May 2009)

Jhana and the Formless Spheres

I remember reading about the Jhana and the formless spheres when I was a teenager. (The Jhana are deep meditative states. There are four stages of Jhana. In addition to the Jhana, there are four higher meditative states known as the formless spheres. ) They sounded very cool! Wow, to make it to the fourth Jhana, pure consciousness, the beginning of psychic powers! Or to enter into the sphere of infinite space, to become one with the universe! Wow!!

To my teenager mind these states sounded so lofty, so grand, that they might as well have been unattainable. Now, when I listen to an individual (including myself) speak about his/her own experiences and attainment of these states, I can usually hear an awkward mix of false humility and pride. That’s okay. We are human.
But the thing is: these states are very subtle, you really can’t exclaim “wow!” while in them; you’d kind of ruin it.
The first thing I want to say is that everyone already knows these states in a manner of speaking.
For example, does entering into a profoundly deep meditative state in which you are oblivious to all external sensations seem a little incredible to you?
But perhaps you already know this state. While having a dream (or a lucid dream would be closer to the state) someone could tap you on the shoulder and call your name and you might not notice.
That state doesn’t sound so special anymore. (Have you ever had a lucid dream and in the dream you’re meditating and your mind is absolutely silent? That would be very close to the state of the second or third Jhana.)
I am trying to make these states sound less impressive. They are very natural.
As we sleep we move through all of these states; it’s just that we are usually unconscious. I remember the first time I fell asleep consciously. I realized that these states are very ordinary, very familiar. Idealizing them will prevent you from entering into them consciously.
Something else to remember about these states is that they are subjective. They are your states. They may not match up perfectly to someone else’s description of them, even Siddhartha’s. There is a lot of disagreement and confusion concerning these states. I think what is important and what is most universally agreed upon is that with each successive Jhana or sphere what you previously took to be nothing is now discovered to be something.
What do I mean by that?
Here is an example: Say after years of meditating you have finally learned how to let your mind become silent. There is no sound. There is nothing. Wonderful! Maybe you are enlightened! Life goes on. You continue to meditate, enjoying your nothingness. But then one day you realize that the silence is in fact not nothing after all. You notice that silence is a type of sound. You realize that silence is an auditory experience. You discover that nothing (that is, what you mistook as nothing) is actually something.
This is the process of transcendence. The Witness is learning to differentiate itself from its experiences. With each successive Jhana or sphere the experiences become finer and finer. After each differentiation there arrives a new state that is taken to be nothing. You can’t see it because you are identified with it. However, given enough time you learn to see it, or hear it, and therefore differentiate yourself from it. The process of transcendence continues.
The same thing happens with inner body silence. Not the sound, but the feeling. You might not even notice the feeling. It is so subtle. You think that it is nothing at all. But one day you suddenly realize that the inner feeling of stillness is actually an experience. You may call it bliss.
And again the same thing happens with inner visual silence. Infinite space, the first formless sphere – at first you don’t notice it. It seems to be just infinite vast formless emptiness/nothingness. But then one day you notice that it is a type of visual experience. You differentiate from it; you see it as something. (It is when you begin to see it that you need to sit with it.)
And on and on you go in like manner.
Each time subtler and subtler experiences are discovered to be masquerading as the Witness or Experiencer. (Experiencer isn’t a real word, but I try to avoid the term Witness because the word seems to privilege visual experiences over other experiences. I should say “Witness”.)
What do these “altered states” have to do with enlightenment?
The answer is: Everything and nothing.
Everything, because you learn what you are not in these states.
Nothing, because Enlightenment does not necessarily take place while in any of these “altered states.”
When you are ready, it could happen at any time. When you are ready, you are hanging on by the finest thread. The attachment and therefore the “Witness” can go at any moment.
Finally, one day, perhaps while sitting in the park watching and listening to the flurry of activity around you, it happens, the “Witness” collapses into that which is experienced. The process of transcendence has worked itself to completion in the ordinary day to day waking state. Now, in that freedom, you simply see clearly, you are awake.
Tallis (Written May 2009)

Zen Mirrors, Don't-Know Mind, and Blue Whales

Part One: Exploring don’t-know mindHere’s a game you can play while in the state of ‘don’t-know mind.’ (no-mind)

Close your eyes and let your mind become silent; let it rest into don’t-know mind. Then let a little bit of knowing return. By letting just a hint of a thought arise you can trick yourself into believing that you are anything whatsoever. You can pretend that you are a cat, your best friend, or even God.

Don’t give away the fact that you are only pretending. Stay close to the state of ‘don’t-know mind’.

How far can you take this game?

Now pretend that you really are you. (Let just a hint of a “you-thought” arise.)

But then again maybe you aren’t really you? Maybe you are actually a butterfly or a blue whale.

Now you may start getting confused. So what or who are you?

Return to the state of don’t-know mind. (no-mind)

I love this state!

When you are done playing it is good to once again embrace your present personality and life situation.

What is the point of playing this game?

I suppose it is fun.
Part Two: Transcending the mind
The true don’t-know mind or enlightened mind is something more than the playful state described above.

It is not only silence or clarity of the mind, but rather it is no-mind or mind-transcended.

What does it mean to transcend the mind?

In order to understand what it means to transcend the mind, let’s compare it to transcending the body.

What does it mean to transcend the body (to be trans-physical)?

A rock is not trans-physical. It does not have a brain or a mind.

A human being is trans-physical. We have brains. We have minds.

You are trans-physical. You can control your body with your brain-mind. The average human being can:

i) Rest: You can sit down in a chair and not move. It takes no effort. It is relaxing.
ii) Move (controlled): You can easily stand up and go for a walk.
iii) Move (uncontrolled): You can let your hands move freely as you talk, or maybe you can even let your entire body dance wildly, completely uninhibited.

These are the three basic states of the transcended body: resting, moving (controlled), and moving (uncontrolled).

Likewise, there are three basic states of the transcended mind: silent mind (resting), thinking mind (controlled), and thinking mind (uncontrolled):

i) A silent mind means that there is no internal voice; it means that no images, symbols, or concepts arise. If the mind is transcended, then not thinking is effortless, just as resting your body in a chair is effortless. (You simply let it drop.)
ii) A thinking mind (controlled) means that thoughts are consciously guided.
iii) A thinking mind (uncontrolled) means that thoughts are consciously allowed to wander - such as when daydreaming or even thinking and vocalizing nonsensical babble.

These are the three basic states of the transcended mind. (Ken Wilber would say that there are more, but let’s keep this simple for now.)

So we see that a mind transcended is not necessarily silent.
Sometimes it is noisy.

Now there is a very old Zen metaphor that equates the enlightened mind with a perfectly polished mirror. When thoughts arise they are clearly reflected in the mirror; when no thoughts arise they are clearly not reflected in the mirror.

This is a beautiful metaphor. However, it doesn’t seem to me that this metaphor quite captures the nature of the enlightenment event. Enlightenment is more than seeing clearly. It is realizing that you are free – and realizing this is always an event. It is an event that takes place after years, perhaps lifetimes, of polishing your mirror.

Maybe we could add something to this mirror metaphor to make it more complete. We could say that the enlightenment event does not take place the moment you attain a perfectly polished mirror – that is only a precursor - but rather the enlightenment event takes place the moment you walk through the mirror’s frame and realize that there actually is no mirror, there is just empty space.

The enlightenment event takes place the moment you reach the surface, after spending years, perhaps lifetimes, climbing out of a deep and dark cave. It is realizing that you are finally free - you are even free to go back into the cave if you wish and help others find their way out.

The enlightenment event is like a dolphin crashing through the surface of the ocean and realizing it can fly . . .

And yet, none of this really matters while in the state of playful don’t-know mind, for after all maybe you are really just a butterfly pretending to be a blue whale pretending to be a butterfly.

Tallis (Written May 2009)

Samsara: Around and around we go.

My two year old daughter and I just had a staring contest. I’m not sure who won. We both started laughing. Then she started running around and around our living room screaming with delight as only a little girl can.
Around and around we go. Sometimes it’s pretty sweet.


The Relationship between Ordinary and Extraordinary Experiences

Do you know people like Kent and Jim?

Kent and Jim are both long time meditators.

Kent has had many extraordinary spiritual experiences.
Jim has had none.

However, both are awake to more or less the same degree.

How is this possible?

Here is an analogy:

Jim and Kent are in a very dark and deep cave. They are seeking the light of day. (Enlightenment)

i) Jim follows a tunnel to the right. The tunnel slopes up to the surface very gradually. The intensity of daylight in the tunnel also increases very gradually. Slowly, slowly Jim makes his way to the surface. He doesn’t think about the light - he simply sees more and more clearly as he moves toward the surface. It is all very ordinary and natural. Eventually, Jim reaches the light of day. He sees with a rare clarity. He is enlightened.

ii) Kent follows a steep vertical tunnel to the left. The tunnel is a series of ascending rock platforms. As he climbs to each new platform the intensity of daylight in the tunnel increases in a brilliant burst. Each burst of light overwhelms Kent’s eyes, until he adjusts to the new light level. They are extraordinary experiences. Eventually, Kent makes it to the surface. Once his eyes adjust for the last time he thinks not about the intense light, he simply sees clearly. He is enlightened. So what has happened to the brilliant light? It is still there – in the very appearance of things.

In the end, for both Kent and Jim, things are very ordinary. It is just this.

Each one of us moves into the Light in his or her own way.

It is your way.

Once they see clearly, Kent and Jim accept each other’s way.

This is beautiful.

Tallis (Written May 2009)

Kensho and Satori Experiences

On the Enlightenment Path I have experienced various glimpses of the Truth. At the age of 23 (I am now 34) I had the following glimpse:

“I am in my living room. It is 1:00 am. It is quiet. I am walking toward the front door. I hear the clock above the door ticking. I hear nothing but the ticking. I look at the clock, puzzled. Something is different. Reality has changed! What is it? It is too quiet. It is often quiet at night but not this quiet. Then I realize what is different. My busy chattering mind has stopped. I mean completely stopped. There is no internal voice. It seems like I am floating out of time. It is right now. It is intensely the present moment. Every experience that arises within me is richly alive. I touch the walls and floor. It is as if the textures I feel are emotions. Thick incredible depth exists both inside and outside of me. There is no separation between myself and my experience. I walk down to the lake. I stare out across the water. I am utterly amazed with existence. Hours pass. I finally return home and fall asleep.”

This kensho or satori experience was particularly powerful, perhaps because it lasted so long, approximately 5 hours. It was also the first time that my mind stopped without any direct effort on my part. It was at this time that I added ‘statue’ meditation to my practice. I would get up before the sunrise every day, stand on the shore and stare out across the lake. I would stand in one place without moving until after noon. (Hence the name ‘statue’ meditation.) (Apparently there are health concerns involved with this kind of practice, so be careful.)

Other satori experiences have followed since that time. (Wow that was 11 years ago!) I would like to share those other experiences with you in future posts.

Tallis (Written May 2009)

Naïve Realism: Part Two

Let’s continue from last day.

I’m trying to convince you that the physical world doesn’t actually take up any space. (For some reason I must think that this is important.)

Remember the blind artist Esref Armagan? His understanding of shape and dimension is not grounded in any kind of visual experience. He has never known any kind of visual experience. He knows that large objects take longer to physically feel than small objects. That is how he knows whether an object is large or small. When he moves his hands along an object, say a massive oak table, what he experiences is a physical tactile sensation that lasts for a certain length of time.

That is not how sighted people experience the world, even when they have their eyes closed. It is extremely difficult for a sighted person to close his or her eyes, to feel the shape and size of an object, like a table, and not at the same time imagine the object.

What I am suggesting is that without visual experience we would not and in fact, could not arrive at the conclusion that objects were extended in space.

I’m getting the sense that this post is going to be confusing. I’ll try not to ramble. I’ll try to be concise. But I can’t promise that I’ll succeed. Okay let’s face it - I will not succeed, but I’ll try anyway.

Let’s continue by noticing a simple truth: Subjective experience happens to a subject, not an object.

That is to say, when you taste strawberry ice cream, it is you who experience the taste, not the ice cream. The ice cream isn’t sitting in your freezer before you eat it experiencing itself. It isn’t thinking and feeling to itself, “Wow I am so delicious, yum...bliss....sigh.....[wonderful sensations]!”

When we listen to Beethoven, the sound waves are not experiencing themselves as great music, but rather it is you and me having the subjective experience. (Of course, the term ‘subjective experience’ is redundant because all experience is subjective by definition. But I’ll continue to use the term in order to reinforce that very point.)

When you look at a red fire truck, the colour red is experienced by you, not by the red fire truck. The experience of red doesn’t actually exist ‘out there’ in the physical world. A certain wave length of light that corresponds to the experience of red may exist ‘out there’, but not the experience itself.

Now, in exactly the same way, the experience of size doesn’t exist ‘out there' in the external world. (And therefore the idea of ‘out there’ is ultimately meaningless.)

We don’t assume that certain light waves are in any way ‘red’.

Neither should we assume that objective space is in any way spacious.

See the parallel?

Maybe I should just repeat something for you:

The physical world doesn’t actually take up any space!

Here’s another question: When we close our eyes and imagine the physical objective world ‘out there’ devoid of all experiences, in a strictly scientific and objective way, what do we imagine? Perhaps we imagine a basic 3 dimensional space stripped of everything that we think of as a subjective experience, . . . no colours, no tastes, etc. Perhaps we see a kind of changing black and white geometrical collection of atoms floating before us in our mind’s eye.

But if we are going to picture the world correctly, and strip it of all subjective experience, we must also strip it of visual experience.

It is often overlooked that the visual experience of space is indeed an experience. But of course it is, and being an experience, it only exists in our minds. Just as a mirror’s depth is only an illusion, so too is the world’s physical size. That just happens to be the way our brains represent things.

But it certainly seems like the world takes up space. Not only can we see the spaciousness of the world with our eyes, but we can also walk about in it. Doesn’t the fact that we can walk through the world prove that it has size? No. We can dream of walking through our house, it doesn’t mean that the house in our dream actually occupies space.

Does this mean that the objective world doesn’t exist? No, it does exist! It just doesn’t take up any space.

Let’s use an analogy here to help us understand this more deeply.

Suppose on your computer’s monitor is a picture of a sunset. The monitor’s picture (by analogy: your visual subjective experience) has a certain size, we can measure the screen’s sun, perhaps it is 5 millimetres in diameter. But the program (by analogy: objective reality) to which the monitor’s picture corresponds, the sequence of 0's and 1's in the computer, does not have size. (At least virtually no size – let’s just say it has no size for the sake of the analogy.)

Turning off the monitor (by analogy: closing your eyes) does not mean that the computer program (by analogy: the objective world) will cease to exist.

Regardless of whether the monitor is on or off the computer program will never take up any space.

Regardless of whether your eyes are open or closed, objective space does not and cannot take up any space.


Am I saying that we are all living in the Matrix!? No. I am saying that no matter what the objective world is, it cannot actually have any size, because size is a subjective experience. And yet, objective reality can still exist and certainly does seem to exist independent of our experience of it.

Believing that the objective world actually takes up space, ‘out there,’ is part of a particular world view known to philosophers as Naïve Realism. This false belief helps to create the illusion that we are separated from each other and from the world as a whole. If we truly understood that the physical 3-dimensional world doesn’t exist ‘out there’ in the way that we assume it does, then it might help us to understand that we also do not exist ‘in here’, the way we think we do. If there is no ‘outer’, then certainly there cannot really be any ‘inner’.

It is not that only the inner exists - or for that matter only the outer exists - but rather that there is ultimately neither outer nor inner.

This reminds me of a saying attributed to Jesus from the Gospel of Thomas:

“For when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, ... [abridged]... then will you enter the Kingdom."

Enough for today.
Tallis (Written May 2nd, 2009)

Naïve Realism: Part One

I’ve spent the day walking throughout the house with my eyes closed. It’s an experiment. My two year old daughter is helping. We are trying to imagine what it is like to be blind.


Well, you see last night we watched a Discovery Channel documentary on unusually gifted people. One man, Esref Armagan, was on for his ability to paint. Why was his ability to paint considered such an unusual gift? You guessed it, Mr. Armagan is blind. Although he was born without eyes, Mr. Armagan can paint the most beautiful scenes, colourful sunset landscapes with birds and trees – and all with the right rules of perspective and shading. How does he do it? We’ll return to that question later, but first back to my experiment.

So I’m walking throughout the house with my eyes closed when I have a rather painful revelation: Don’t walk about your house with your eyes closed unless you have shoes on. This may seem pretty obvious to you. Anyway, here’s something else I realized: When I was walking through the house with my eyes closed, I was not really experiencing the house as a blind person would. When a blindfolded sighted person walks through a room he or she visualizes the room. If the room is familiar, its layout is imagined, couch here, wall there, and so on,........if it is an unknown place, then just a basic space template is imagined, that is: the ground is imagined, an open space is imagined. Then when we feel objects around us, their position relative to us is imagined. None of this type of imagining happens for a person blind from birth.

If you ask a person who has been blind from birth questions related to the experience of space their answers reveal how much we take visual experience for granted. For example if you ask: Does a street sign appear smaller or larger the further away it is? Most blind people have no idea, but incorrectly guess larger for they associate larger with ‘further away’. Of course the further away an object is, the smaller it appears. For a blind person, the 3-dimensional world is not pictured ‘out there’, it is not pictured at all, but rather, it is felt.

So how can Esref Armagan, the blind artist, paint so accurately? How does he know that, for example, objects that are further away should be painted smaller than objects that are up close? “I was taught,” he says. “Not by any formal teacher, but by casual comments by friends and acquaintances.” He confides, “For a long time I figured that if an object was red, its shadow would be red too. But I was told it wasn't." How does he even know about colour? “I know that there's an important visual quality to seen objects called "colour" and that it varies from object to object.” He has memorized that apples are often red, that water is blue, and so on. For Esref, size isn’t a visual experience, but rather a temporal and tactile one. The larger an object is the more time it takes to trace with his hands. That’s how he knows it is large. A blind person learning to paint, and learning to paint well at that, is a remarkable achievement. (I can’t draw at all, so Mr. Armagan’s ability seemed, at first, borderline unbelievable to me. I feel more comfortable believing it now though. I’ve had time to understand how it is possible.)

Anyway, so here is what I’ve learned from my experiment:

I’ve learned that the physical world (universe) doesn’t actually take up any space!

And I’m going to try to convince you of this fact.

I think we mistakenly super-impose our subjective visual experience of depth, height, and width onto our idea of the objective world without knowing it. I don’t think objective space is extended the way we imagine. That is to say, (I’m really trying to make this clear) it doesn’t seem to me that objective reality actually takes up any space.

Huh? Yes you heard me. Space has no size! I mean suppose everybody were blind, would we even consider the possibility that the world took up any space? That just happens to be the particular way our eyes and brains represent objective reality. It doesn’t mean that the world really does take up space.

Maybe if I keep repeating myself again and again you will just start believing it through sheer force of delivery:

The physical world doesn’t actually take up any space!
The physical world doesn’t actually take up any space!
The physical world doesn’t actually take up any space!

Believe me yet? Great. That was easy.

Okay, for those of you who need further convincing let’s continue this next time. I’m getting tired, and the fact that I have to walk up what seems like far too many stairs from the basement to the second floor in order to get into bed is really starting to make me doubt this little revelation about distance being an illusion.

Tallis (Written April 28th, 2009)

Masquerading as One and Many.

I’ve noticed:
Moment to moment experience is strangely elusive. It is both many things pretending to be one, and one thing pretending to be many.

Take for example the experience of colour. When you try to imagine a colour, let's say blue, you may find that the experience of blue consists of both an image and a feeling. It is two things. Associated with the image is a feeling. Perhaps blue feels cool and soothing to you. But no, it is not simply that blue has an associated feeling component to it but rather that the “blue feeling” is an integral part of the experience of blue. That is to say, the experience of blue just isn’t blue when the feeling aspect of the experience is missing. Blue is one thing that has at least two aspects (i.e. an image/feeling). All experiences are like this, especially the experience of being a self. The experience of being a self is both: many things pretending to be one, and one thing pretending to be many.

(Writen April 25, 2009)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Watching my daughter play.

What is the meaning of life? As I watch my daughter play it seems so clear. Expression is the meaning of life. What more could life need? Expression in a thousand different forms – experiencing the dance of creation – that is the meaning.

Watch the horses as they run. Deep within them there lies a powerful force, an impulse to run. To not race across the land would cause them pain — so they run. We have that same deep impulse.

Hear the birds as they sing. Deep within them there lies an ancient drive, a yearning to sing. Without such expressive songs they would fall into sorrow — so they sing. We have that same ancient yearning.

Notice the children as they play. Deep within them there lies a creative energy, a spirit that laughs and plays. Without such fantasy they would become sick and lifeless — so they play. We all have that same creative spirit.

See how the trees grow toward the light. Deep within them there lies a strong desire, a longing for the light. Without such growth they would die — so toward the light they move. We have that same great longing.

Tallis. (Written April 23, 2009)

First Welcome

Today is Tuesday. I am listening to the rain. It is peaceful. I am still now, but earlier I was working -- cleaning.

Is this how peace descends?

The loving Spirit inspires the soul with light.
The enlightened soul embraces the mind with serenity.
The serene mind fills the heart with joy.
The joyful heart endows the body with courage.
The courageous body surrenders to Spirit in love.

Tallis (Written Tuesday, April 21, 2009)