The Jewel and the Staff

Image result for ksitigarbha"

Send Me

The bodhisattva Ksitigarbha has always moved me. For those who aren’t familiar, a bodhisattva is a being who, out of compassion for all sentient beings, vows to help each and every single one attain enlightenment before she does. The definition is indeed a paradox: one can’t help but wonder if by “stalling” buddhahood, the bodhisattva has already realized it. Did realization beget the attitude of helping all beings? Or does helping all beings beget the bodhisattva’s inevitable realization? Cue the wise yogini who, after being asked both questions, simply smiles and answers: “Yes.”

Ksitigarbha is the bodhisattva who not only tells the Buddha “I will stay for all beings and help them uncover their own enlightenment” but also adds, “oh, and by the way, please send me to the hell realms.” The teacher and author Vessantara describes Ksitigarbha as the “patron saint” of lost causes. She goes to the dark corners, to the places that humble and terrify us. She knocks on the gates of hell with a staff of compassion, holding a jewel of wisdom in her hands.

As many of you know, I’m working towards being a full-time hospital or hospice chaplain someday. Right now, I have the privilege of serving patients at a nearby hospital as a kind of chaplain-in-training (emphasis on the training part!) I was recently encouraged by my colleagues to contemplate and express what Buddhist spiritual care is from my point of view. Immediately, Ksitigarbha came to mind. I thought about how eagerly she volunteers to serve in the hell realms (“send me, Buddha!”) and how she goes without getting caught in its undertows herself (with a subtle smile on her face no less).

The bodhisattva ideal of Ksitigarbha goes to the root of what I believe a Buddhist approach to spiritual care is. Buddhist spiritual care is care that emerges from wisdom. Wisdom is accessed by cultivating an experiential understanding of how things are. We aren’t just talking about an experiential understanding of how things are in terms of events (e.g., “he had a car accident”), but an experiential understanding of the very nature and fabric of reality (e.g., what is the nature of a person, of suffering, of time, of any experience.) This understanding is cultivated – not through beliefs, ideas, or intellectualization alone – but principally through a different kind of knowing. This kind of knowing is experiential and more direct than thoughts. Contemplate, for example, how you know when you feel warm. Do you need a thought that says, “I feel warm” before you know you feel warm? Or do you just know you are warm whether or not a thought about it arises? For me, and according to Buddhist psychology, it is the latter. There is a way to repeatedly experience reality and know “it” with or without the presence of thoughts. This ability doesn’t only apply to relative reality (it being warm) but also the ultimate reality (the nature of warmth itself). Repeatedly becoming familiar with the raw material of experience starts to reveal insights. Wisdom occurs when we experience the world around us not simply as it appears, but also as it ultimately is (and always was). One recognizes wisdom and its all-pervasive primordial nature. One doesn’t “have wisdom” or possess it as some kind of trait. It is simply there, the way it is. And it can be experienced as an instinctive knowing of how things are, even before thought. One “knows” how it is with simple immediacy, just like one knows he or she is alive.

So how is it? What is it that one knows with simple immediacy? What is it that Ksitigarbha understands? What is it that a Buddhist spiritual care provider understands and practices understanding?

She knows that the nature of things is empty of any inherent self existence, and yet that phenomena nonetheless really do appear to exist.  Say what?! That’s a normal reaction. Let’s unpack both sides of that sentence.

Emptiness: “the nature of things is empty of any inherent self-existence.”

First, the doozy, the part that people have “difficulty believing,” and ultimately, have to experience themselves: that phenomena are empty of any inherent self-existence. This means that, if you try to find a single independent solid “thing” in your experience,  including your “self,” you won’t be able to find it. Instead, you’ll find parts. And those parts will have parts. And those part’s parts will have parts. And ultimately, there were never any “parts” at all. At the subtle level, one might be able to experience a shifting matrix of moving and dissipating energy, which is not a thing, but more akin to a process. It is nothing that can be held or “captured.” Take a feeling in your body, for example. Just choose one (physical or emotional). Try to find its core, its essence, its “thingness” and hold onto “it.” Find the part that doesn’t move. Can you find it?

I can’t.

People naturally at this point say things like, “Yeah but look at trees! And walls! And my body! Those are solid things!” As I write this, I’m looking at my favorite tree outside. A crow just landed on it. Is its “treeness” still in tact with the crow on it? Most people would say “yes.” Okay, well what if I cut off two branches, would its “tree existence” still be there? How many branches would I have to cut before you would no longer consider it a tree? Three? Five? All? Was there any “treeness” in the branches that got cut off? Is it “a tree” when its leaves are green? If so, does that mean it’s no longer “a tree” when its leaves are dead? We could try to find the solid self-existing tree, the core of “treeness” that does not change, but we won’t be able to find it. For Buddhists, all things follow this pattern. The human body, the psycho-spiritual “self”, mountains, a thought, physical pain, emotions, you name it.

Scientists are conceding this point. Studies show that, within seven to ten years, every cell we have in our body is “new,” i.e., has been replaced. You are literally a different “body” every seven to ten years. Also, it turns out, a concrete wall is actually more space than it is matter. And, if you examined that matter, it’s not still. It is made of quantum particles that are never in one place. The wall is actually more like an energetic process or pattern. And even that, scientists say,  doesn’t have a center that can be “located”; they can only speak in relative terms and describe probabilities of where particles might be located at any given moment. Some have even gone so far as to say that, actually, the world’s substantiality (or lack thereof) is much closer to the nature of a hologram than to the Newtonian materiality we take for granted.

Buddhists say the mind too, like all phenomena, is empty. It is not some “thing” that needs protection, or that has limitations. It is actually like space: inherently free, observable and yet incapable of being “captured.” Emptiness means there is freedom from the “thingness” we experience. Freedom from the “thingness” of the subject (the self), and freedom from the “thingness” of the object (phenomena). Freedom from duality, which means freedom of the notion that there is something “out there” because there is something or someone “in here.” Freedom from suffering because suffering is not some “thing” that will destroy us. The jewel that Ksitigarbha holds is the knowing of this inherent freedom, this ultimate reality. She goes to hell for the lost beings because she knows there is no such thing as hell and no such thing as lost beings.

And yet…there is not nothing. Reality is experienceable. The “experienceableness” brings us to the second (and inextricable) half of the equation that Ksitigarbha knows.



Appearances: “and yet, phenomena really do appear.”

The concrete wall may be mostly space but we still see the wall. We really do perceive “a tree.” Though your body is a cluster of moving and regenerating phenomena, it really will appear before you when you step in front of a mirror. In short, “thingness” doesn’t exist, but it really appears to. There are many real-life analogies that help explain appearances:

Consider a rainbow.  When there’s a rainbow, you can see it, right? It really does appear to exist. But if you tried to cut “it” into pieces, you wouldn’t be able to. You won’t be able to hold it or capture it. And yet, when certain causes and conditions arise, the appearance of a rainbow emerges, with magnificent colors, an arc, and it is often breathtaking in size. But when conditions are no longer sufficient, the appearance disappears.

Consider a mirage. When you’re driving on a hot day, the road before you can appear watery. It can look like you’re going to drive straight through a puddle. That perception really does appear. And yet, when you keep driving, you never “hit” the mirage at all.

Consider a dream. When you dream, “dream you” might walk out of your “dream house” and get into your “dream car.” You might drive on “dream roads” and get in a “dream car crash” (yikes!) Suddenly, you wake up in a sweat. It would be pointless to say that the dream didn’t appear, right? And yet, where did it go? If it really ultimately existed, we should be able to find it. But that’s not how we experience the fleeting elusive vapor of dreamlike appearances.

Similarly, Buddhists would say that, it’s not just rainbows, mirages, and dreams: on one hand, all phenomena really do appear.  When they speak of “relative reality,” they are speaking about this plane of appearances. Relative to a tree, a human appearance is distinct. Short appearances appear smaller than taller appearances. Pain really appears different than pleasure. Dark moods appear all together different than light-hearted ones.  The mind vaguely strikes us as distinct from the body. But if we were able to somehow apply an experiential microscope to each of these, we would find that their substance, their nature, is the same: it is emptiness, freedom from any concreteness.

Although Ksitigarbha understands that, ultimately, there is no hell and there is no such thing as a “lost being,” she nonetheless simultaneously knows that because we do not understand the innate freedom of ourselves and phenomena (their empty nature), we really do suffer as if hell and our “lost selves” did exist. Consider the dream example again: when our “dream car” crashes and we are “dream injured,” our sleeping body really flinches. The pulse of our sleeping body really does quicken. We really do sweat. We suffer.

Similarly, Ksitigarba holds the staff of compassion because she understands that suffering occurs based on the rigidity of our perceptions, i.e., based on our misunderstanding of how things are. We were never limited in the ways we thought, but because we think we are limited, so it appears to be to us.

A Reflection

Imagine you realized that the war-zone you were in was actually dreamlike. Vibrations appeared, but flowed through you. Your body is experienced as a rainbow: it appears but, like realizing a dream is a dream while still dreaming,  you know its not really there as a concrete harm-able “thing.” It is an unimaginable freedom that you experience, but one that you can’t describe in words. You see appearances and yet experience that these appearances are joy and freedom itself. And yet, looking around, you see your loved ones screaming, weeping. You see them in pain when their dream hopes dissolve, transforming and disappearing like a mirage on the road. You see their dreamlike being is just as fantastically free as the one you experience. There is the hearing and feeling of grief, and yet you can tell there is no “you” or “sensations” that could ever be in any kind of conflict because all of it is of the same ineffable free and unconfined substance that is no substance whatsoever. You are “awake,” seeing how things appear as a nightmare, but unafraid of the nightmare because you know what it is and what you and others are. At the same time, you see that others do not experience the dreamlike nature.

Compassion emerges naturally from this knowing. You are moved to help others, not out of sheer willpower or belief, but because it is as if you are watching others hit themselves with a hammer of their own perception and cry out in pain. Ksitigarba is moved. She uses her staff – her staff of skillful means and compassion – to knock on the gates of hell because she understands that to be liberated while others are suffering is no liberation at all. The staff of compassion is like a song that emerges from the mouth of realization. It bellows because that’s what the mouth of realization does. Compassion for the spiritual care provider is not “forced” or “mustered up” or “imitated,” it is expressed as the natural emergence of wisdom itself.

Not One, Not Two; and why the Buddhist emphasis on the mind? 

Though the mind is seen as having the same empty nature as all phenomena, it is considered unique in one important sense. It is the mind that is able to know its own empty essence. The mind can “know” that its own nature is “nothing whatsoever.” It is for this reason that the nature of reality is sometimes described in apophatic terms: not one, not two. The relative appearances are not separate from their empty nature. This is why the Heart Sutra reminds us, “form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” Appearances were always free and empty to begin with. The mind too, and indeed our true nature, was never anything but free, even while the karma of appearances continues to manifest.

The late Master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche summarizes it beautifully:

“The claim that buddha nature is a ‘thing’ that exists is incorrect. It is not a concrete thing with distinguishable characteristics; instead, it is wide open and indefinable, like space. However, you cannot claim that it is nonexistent, that there is not any buddha nature, because this nature is the very basis or source of everything that appears and exists….This buddha nature of ours, which is primordially free from the two extremes of being and not being, is described with the word ‘unity.’ What does unity mean in this context? Right now, visual forms, sounds and smells and so on are all present in our experience. If buddha nature were nonexistent, there could be no such experiences taking place. But if we say buddha nature does exist, then what is it that experiences? Can you pinpoint it? Thus, there is no confining these two. While perceiving, buddha nature is empty of a perceiver, while being empty, there is still experience.”

Buddhist Spiritual Care

So what do we do as Buddhist or Buddhist-inspired spiritual care providers? Wait for realization of the empty nature of all phenomena to dawn and then serve beings? I don’t think so. Here comes the paradox of the bodhisattva again. We can start anywhere on the circle. We can start by “being compassionate,” in the most authentic (and probably limited) way we know how, and subsequently come to see the nature of things, which in turn will make us realize we never needed to “attempt” or “will” compassion into being in the first place. It naturally arises from wisdom. Alternatively,  we can meditate on the nature of things while serving a patient, a friend, a colleague. While with them, we try to understand. We look, we listen, we perceive. It turns out, that the attentiveness and willingness to be with whatever (and whomever) arises, to understand their nature, is compassion. Either way, moment by moment, step by step, we serve while holding the knowing of the not one, not two truths. When we are overwhelmed, it means we need a little more of the jewel of wisdom, the part of us that knows how free reality really is; when we are arrogant, we need a bit more staff, to knock on the gates of hell, and see that suffering really does appear and can be experienced.

And when a patient is weeping and grieving because they know they are not going to recover from this latest bout of cancer, we aspire to, with a stable and relaxed knowing awareness, abide in wisdom. We do not fear because we know that this beautiful being is like the mind we are observing within ourselves: free by nature. And, we deeply honor and respect the relative, the cries of suffering that we ourselves know well. We take a leap, and the words come, the presence springs forth, and the tender empathy accompanies. We make it about their healing, their wholeness, and their enlightenment, because ours and theirs were never separate to begin with.








The right conditions: shamatha meditation.

beautiful bloom blooming blossom
Photo by Pixabay on

I have an orchid plant whose robust blossoming is, in many ways, completely mysterious to me. When she blooms, it’s with gusto (currently she has no fewer than 34 flowers on her four small, delicate branches.)  It seemed to have happened overnight, preceded by several months of quiet bare waiting. What caused her to erupt so magnificently? And how is it that I can see and experience the display?

On the one hand, we could say that the causes and conditions are too vast in number to name.  There was her original seed, the person who first planted her, the care of the grower, both of their parents, and their parents’ parents, the sun, the water, the person who transported her to the farmer’s market, the farmer’s market organizers, my preferences for pink-colored petals, the availability of an ATM (as I had no cash that day), and the ability to witness 2018-pink-orchid-bloom-a-palooza, brought to you by functioning eyeballs, consciousness, brain neurons and on and on and ON.  Plus, each of these causes have their own vast number of causes and conditions too.  For example, even if we only reflected on the truck that brought the orchid to the farmer’s market, we would soon be dizzy considering the myriad of people, technicians, business(wo)men, fire-power, air, space, blue prints, screws, nuts and bolts that combined to make that machine.  Without one of these conditions, we can’t really be certain that I could witness this particular orchid’s 34 blossoms as I write this.  When I think of all that goes into the experience, my conceptual mind quite literally can’t hold the vastness of it.

At the same time, we could look at my orchid right now and agree on some key conditions that led to her blooming:  she needed a parent seed, sun, water, space for her branches to extend, and soil for her roots to grow strong.  So, we could agree that, at a minimum, those key conditions were necessary for her to be in bloom right now. Whew, it feels good to have a list. I like lists.

Similarly, many many many Buddhist teachings (dig lists) and discuss the key conditions that lead to a successful meditation practice.  Meditation is the heart of Buddhist practice. Without it, we cannot understand the nature of reality. When we don’t understand what we and reality are, we get confused, fall into cyclical patterns, and suffer.  Realization comes from deeply understanding the nature of reality –  that is, truly and experientially knowing what we really are. Compassion is what naturally expresses itself from the wisdom of realizing the truth.  Although it’s possible that some people are capable of spontaneous sustained realization, most of us need the path of meditation to uncover wisdom (which, if you remember from my last blog post is already there.) The only thing standing between us and Buddhahood is the recognition that we are Buddhas already.  To recognize is to see. Meditation helps us focus and see clearly.

For most of us, meditation can be challenging, especially in the first few years (as a beginning meditator – I should know!) Our minds aren’t used to sitting still, and yet, we need a relatively stable mind to see what is happening.  Luckily, Buddhist yogis and meditation masters over the last 2500 years have done a lot of meditating and have jotted down some really helpful stuff! There are teachings that discuss the key causes and conditions that lead to stability of mind (shamatha meditation) and others that discuss the key causes and conditions of insights into the nature of reality (vipashyana meditation.) In short, these teachings discuss the seed, sun, water, space, and soil short-list that will help grow your meditation practice. The lists are by no means exhaustive, but I’ve found them very helpful. They are also challenging. Testing these teachings by putting them into practice has led to some pretty big changes in my life, many of which were difficult to adjust to.

There are many more teachings on the key causes and conditions of shamatha and vipashyana meditation than I could ever mention here. And, if you’re wondering about my sources, the info that follows below is pulled from: (1) Mahamudra: The Moonlight, Quintessence of Mind and Meditation, the (in my mind, essential) compilation of Buddhist teachings by various masters originally assembled by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal and translated by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa; and (2) Moonbeams of Mahamudra: The Classic Meditation Manual, by Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche.  I must give props to my kalayanamitra and partner, Dave, for (being beautiful) and introducing me to these and other really helpful texts.

Here, I’m focusing on one of many shortlists that discuss the causes of tranquility in shamatha meditation.  A short aside: shamatha means “peaceful abiding” or “calm abiding”; it is meditation to stabilize the mind.  The idea is that, if you really want to understand the nature of reality, you first need a mind that is steady and clear, i.e., one that can be aware of experience continuously in all its vividness.  This does NOT mean having no thoughts. (If that’s your goal in meditation – good luck with that!)  Truly, any experience is welcome during meditation. What makes meditation meditation is when we are able to rest our awareness on whatever experience arises.  Shamatha meditation is important because, it is only when concentration is stabilized and the mind has settled that we can cultivate insight and, ultimately, wisdom.  These insights might be spontaneous based on direct perception, or may arise from conceptual analysis of presently occurring experience. To cultivate either type of insight requires a mind that is steady and peaceful enough to gently follow the flow of experience, even if that experience includes some difficult emotions, wild fantasies, or restless boredom. There is a calmness that can abide even in rough seas by being present with experience again and again. That’s shamatha.

So, here is what the masters say. (Again, there are many teachings on the causes of tranquility/shamatha, but I am focusing on a small subset I found personally helpful. So far, of the many I’ve read, none of them conflict.) To stabilize the mind in shamatha meditation you need these basic causes and conditions:

1. A harmonious environment.  The teachings define a “harmonious environment” as one that is quiet, free from wild animals and disease, and near friends who follow a similar path of discipline.  Though nowadays we are less likely to be concerned about the possibility of wild animals or plagues threatening the stability of our practice, we might immediately understand the need for a beginning meditator to find a quiet place to sit and friends who are encouraging of sticking to the practice.  The crux of this teaching is an invitation to honestly examine our practice environment and assess whether it is truly conducive to cultivating the stability and peace of shamatha.  I’ll share a story to illustrate. Not too long ago, I lived with a romantic partner.  He was a wonderful person, but we were on different “spiritual pages” for most of our relationship, and it made meditation practice challenging for me.  If I snuck away from breakfast to practice in our bedroom in the morning, he might pry the door open and ask me questions about groceries we needed that day.  Or, if I was practicing at night I might hear an action movie in the living room, full of loud gunshot noises, car chase scenes, and so on.  It seemed like every weekend my partner wanted to go to parties or other social events when I wanted to study the dharma or just generally be more quiet. I was often asked questions about the utility of my practice, and asked to explain myself again and again.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with inquiring about groceries, watching exciting movies, going to parties, or questioning another person’s spiritual practice. But, was my living environment and partner truly conducive to meditation practice?  At my then level of skillfulness, it wasn’t. I needed an environment that was a bit more supportive, one where I could practice resting my awareness on my experience with fewer distractions. After all, it’s not advised to start practicing meditation in a loud mall. At first, we need all the help we can get given the busyness of our minds. Through many other twists and turns of events, I eventually found myself in a lower-key neighborhood, in a different house, with very sweet quiet roommates. I’m very fortunate that the room I rent also has a small annex room, which I’ve turned into a meditation space.  My current partner lives in a place apart, but nearby. We share meditation and practice in common. It has been my experience that these changes have truly helped deepen my shamatha practice.

2. Being free from excessive desire and being content with what one has. The teachings describe “curbing desires” as a key ingredient to resting the mind. This means refraining from being too attached to food or clothing, and being satisfied with what one has. This makes sense. When I was a teenager, every five minutes I wanted a new article of clothing. It was a drug, and I was totally addicted to the momentary “high” I would receive from wearing my new something-or-other. Consumption really consumes the mind. Although not impossible, it is much more difficult to rest the mind when we are constantly shopping, constantly planning our next outing, or overly concerned with the latest gadget. It’s not that we’re bad people for engaging in any of these things, its just that these things make it that much harder to cultivate steady shamatha practice. Since I do sitting meditation before breakfast, a hilarious repeat thought I usually have around the thirty-five minute-mark is “what I will eat when I’m done sitting?” I watch images come to mind of avocado toast or eggs and then let them (and my inner chuckle) float away. But, if in my free time I was constantly on the lookout for the best breakfast foods or constantly online shopping for new gluten free pancake batter or constantly flipping through savory breakfast recipes , you could see how breakfast thoughts might pop up with such frequency that it might be much more difficult to cultivate meditative stability.

3. Limiting activities. Before heading to graduate school part deux (seminary), I was a legal aid attorney. It’s hard for me to describe legal aid work to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. It was a job that was FULL, DENSE, and REVERBERATING AT A HIGH FREQUENCY, if that makes any sense. There was crisis after crisis, meeting after meeting, deadline after deadline. Of course, it was also full of dedicated colleagues and inspiring clients, but the point is that it was JAM PACKED. I would try practicing during lunch for fifteen minutes, but some filing deadline or phone call would peal me away. My morning practice would often get cut short too, having to run to an early client meeting, court date, or legal clinic somewhere around the Bay.  Even during a relatively non-busy day, the slightest work obligation would create a painful adrenaline rush. I realized my mind was so used to work tasks equaling stressful urgency, that even non-emergency tasks were creating emergency-like responses. Protecting space soon seemed essential, and not just to find time to sit but also to cultivate skillfulness in sitting. The excessive activity in my life generated a very busy mind-stream, making it difficult for this beginning meditator to rest awareness on experience (imagine trying to watch a drop of rain in the middle of a hurricane.) In short, the busyness of our days translate to the busyness of our minds. There is no doubt that limiting activities in our modern speedy world is challenging. Sometimes you can slow down and still keep your current job, other times – you can’t.  After several attempts to find space at work, I realized, given my level of skillfulness and realities of the job, there was simply too much activity for me to cultivate sanity, let alone shamatha.

4. Maintaining the precepts. Buddhist precepts are all about not causing harm. Rather than list them, I think its helpful to discuss why refraining from harm is considered an important condition of shamatha. For me, the power of the precepts is three-fold.  First, they repeatedly (and naturally) lead me to inner inquiry.  I start to wonder, “well – what is harm?” “How do I know if I have caused it?” “Did I just cause it now?” “Let me look.”  In that way, maintaining the precepts is about cultivating the pattern of looking into a situation in the present moment.  Second, in cultivating the precepts, I’ve seen how, deep down, I really don’t want to harm anyone. When I see this, it creates a spark of warmth. And, as John O’Donohue would say, one spark is really all we need.  Genuine care for others helps relax the mind and limit distractions. We become motivated by something bigger than ourselves. All of this leads to point three of why the precepts help shamatha. The precepts are meditation practice, simply off of the cushion. You come back, over and over again, to a desire for sentient beings to be free from suffering. You inquire what suffering is, and examine your present experience. You experience the warmth of caring – and you express yourself from there. Far from strict rules, the precepts are practices that only make our shamatha meditation that much more inspired, concentrated, and sharp.

Taken together, these key conditions that help lead to a strong shamatha practice have some similarities. They each ask us to simplify our lives, slow down, and explore what is happening.  It’s as if the meditation masters are bellowing over and over again, “Oh you sweet beautiful human, if you want to practice meditation well, please stop, rest, and look!”  They aren’t trying to tell us we are bad people if we don’t, they are just concerned with the effects of complex living. So, a question I try to come back to, again and again, is: given my resources and needs, am I living in a way that is simple and sane enough to truly steady my mind?

And, what if the answer is no? What I have realized over the years is that the meditation masters did not say that spiritual practice would be easy. The relationship, job, or company you keep might not be conducive to practice. This is particularly relevant when we not only want to practice shamatha, but also want to live a spiritual life.  At one point I realized (and it terrified me), that if I was really going to follow my heart, I would have to face the fact that there were no guarantees that I wouldn’t experience great loss, great discomfort, and great change in a short period of time. The heart does not care much about comfort. It cares about realization and awakening, and it will bring us to our knees if it has to. This was my own experience. So, following our heart might mean letting go of the familiar. It might mean being scared of loneliness, and charging towards it. It might also mean trusting ourselves – that our sneaking suspicion that something just doesn’t work for us, might be right.  The question is – are we willing? Are we willing to do what it takes to cultivate the steadiness and simplicity we need to walk the spiritual path?

It starts with beginninglessness.

sky space dark galaxy
Photo by Pixabay on

According to Buddhist cosmology, time is empty of any inherent meaning and the cosmos is beginningless. There is, always, and ever was aliveness and limitless possibility. The scene is already in action, the cameras are already rolling. In fact, the cameras never “started” rolling – they just are rolling. In this cosmology, there is a vast horizon of  intelligence spanning in every conceivable direction and it is, and always was, full of possibilities. It’s not particularly mysterious, and yet it’s not definable either. We can experience it, but we can’t hold onto it – just like we can experience a breath of fresh air, but if we tried to synthesize or grasp it, it would elude us.  For Buddhists, it’s less about “who” or “what” created this vast unfolding experience and more like  – “whoah! there is boundlessness and an infinite ever-deepening array of experience! Dope!”  (Note: I have not authenticated that any Buddhist texts use the emphatic “dope.”)

So too I arrive on the scene of writing essays on Buddhism. The scene is already in action – there is already a boundless array of masters, contemplatives, practices, texts and commentaries as bountiful and as flourishing as the Buddhist conception of the cosmos. I underscore this theme of “beginninglessness” in my first blog post in part to dispel any illusions that my writings are novel or a “start.”  I am not a teacher. I am not a scholar. I do not hold any special place in any particular sangha.  I am only a practitioner of meditation and a student of Buddhism, hoping to explore what the Dharma teachings mean to me today.  One day, when I no longer need them, I hope to gently let them go. But, that might be a long time from now, so I hope you bear with me as I explore what these precious teachings mean. I will likely make many mistakes.

If the cosmos is really beginningless, as Buddhists claim, it would mean that time is merely conceptual. After all, if creation had an understood beginning point, we could understand subsequent events in terms of that original event, and thus show the existence of time. Yet in a cosmos where there is no beginning, time has no meaning. At best, it is a conceptual and comparative tool to capture that which is between a chosen “start” and “end” point. It has only relative meaning.  This is not to say the concept of time does not have utility: it’s quite convenient and delightful that I actually encounter my friends when we agree to meet at Cafe Trieste at 3pm. We will see one another should we all keep the commitment. Yet we have to admit, as a human family, we just superimposed this concept of time on our experience – a bit like the practical collective fantasy of embedding paper dollar bills with value. We all agreed on this conceptual overlay.  But, in an absolute sense, there never was, nor will there ever be a “time” that is not right now, just as piece of paper doesn’t have any inherent currency value.  We merely agreed on a concept for practical purposes. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Why does this matter to a practitioner? (This is a question that I endeavor to repeatedly ask of teachings I am grappling with, and trying to understand.)

I think there are several implications of beginninglessness on how we approach and view practice and study.  First, a beginningless cosmos matters because it means we can relax.  The reason we can relax is because we cannot “create” the enlightened mind.  It is there. We are not the principal cause of success or failure in this realm, even if we could  say that such a dynamic exists.  Usually, we think we are in total control. We arrived on the scene at birth and will exit at death and what we do in the meantime is totally our doing, right?  Whew, sounds stressful!  What if instead of starting from “scratch”, we arrive on the scene with pre-existing wisdom embedded in our bones and undeniable gifts handed down to us?  Gifts like clarity, generosity, compassion, fearlessness, and spaciousness.  We can study and practice gently, knowing that there is an abundance of these gifts, and all of them lead us back to now, to being — to home.  When I experience glimpses of this abundance, I honestly can’t say that these gifts are “mine” or accredited to “me.”  They simply become apparent and can be experienced.  Therefore, in the realm of practice and study – we don’t need to fabricate or strain, we can just relax into the self-existing landscape.   No need to tie sandbags to your ankles claiming that you are the root cause, the factory, the straight-A student or the one who will make “YOUR” mind enlightened through “YOUR” practice and study.  We are the sky, always there, and inherently full of infinite possibilities.  We just need to relax.

On the flipside, we need to learn how to relax. We can use relative concepts to understand this inherent absolute reality that ever-was and is self-existing.  Meditation practice, for example, creates a form by which we can discover that which is beyond form.  Similarly, in the realm of quantum physics, scientists have used precise tools to measure that which they discovered can’t be measured precisely (when trying to measure the exact location and velocity of sub-atomic particles, for example, scientists discovered that it can’t be done: instead, they can only estimate location/velocity “probabilities.”)  There is nothing wrong with forms, tools, or watches. In fact, they really do help us relax into the truth.  It’s just that the truth is not some “thing” we can relax into.

The other implication of a beginningless cosmos is that it creates, quite naturally, a humility in us when we begin to approach practice and study.   The world doesn’t center around “me”, the scene just is, remember? The cameras are rolling. This is not to shame or abase us in any way. In fact, it’s good news!  By humility, I just mean that there is no real reason to defend ourselves. We are part of something, and are something much much grander than we think. Humility becomes a natural expression of knowing that deeply and experientially.

At the same time, beginninglessness means we can have confidence!  We can have confidence that we are not making it up from “scratch”.  Abundance means that the possibilities for skillfulness, dignity, fierceness, and courage are ever-ripe.  Teachers and practitioners have been studying and honing in on meditation practices for 2500 years. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We can have confidence in the process of uncovering our nature.  With a beginningless cosmos, all practitioners are part of a living lineage, whether we know it or not.

The beginningless cosmos can also guide how we comport ourselves after practice and study – in our formless every day living meditation. Confidence is different from arrogance.  Generally, when we study, we try to grasp a concept, and often attempt to possess it in some way.  We might even boast or brag about it, showcase it our next social event.  This assumes the fact is stagnant and the fact’s cause is stagnant. Yet, if wisdom and all its stunning manifestations are primordial (have always been there): is there really anything to “get” in these sense we usually think of it?  Is there really anything we can “capture”?  In a beginningless cosmos, where there has always been, and ever-will-be wisdom, and where the stream of wisdom’s infinite manifestations is always flowing – each moment is bright and spontaneous. You can’t hold on to anything because it’s already gone and then another, and another, and another wonder!  Boasting would be so last season. 

For me, beginninglessness means that we arrive with gifts from forever, and that we are forever blessed to explore them in any context.  I hope to keep this in mind as I start this blog. I am not inventing anything, but merely endeavoring to brush my fingertips across the stream of ever-present wisdom when questions emerge from my practice.

What a head-scratching and amazing miracle to be born human, with a body and mind, capable of discovering what it means to dwell in, and be of the infinite!

Thank you for reading. May you all be well, happy and free.