Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness, Week Two: Emptiness of Self

We met on Friday to review the teaching from last week, add material from the book*, and work on the meditation related to this stage. It was a wonderful evening, with plenty of time for questions and discussion. The relationship between the teaching and the meditation became clear, and then we meditated together. Here are a few jewels from the book:

Regarding the three ignorances of seeing things as permanent, singular, and autonomous:
At this stage (of emptiness) one does not consider the emptiness of all phenomena but only the emptiness or lack of self in the person. The importance of this is that it is the clinging to the idea that one has a single, permanent, independent, truly existing self that is the root cause of all one's suffering. One does not need to have an explicit or clearly formulated idea of self in order to act as if one had one. 'Self' here means the implied self which might also be regarded as implied in the behavior of animals. Animals, just like us, identify themselves with their bodies and minds and are constantly seeking physical and mental comfort as they try to avoid discomfort and assuage pain.
(We laughed, because at this point Cozy was complaining that she wasn't being petted.)
Both animals and humans act as if they have a self to protect and preserve and one regards this behavior as automatic and instinctive as well as normal. When pain or discomfort arise, the automaric response is to try to remove it. It is extraneous to the self and the implication is that the self would naturally be happy if all pain and suffering were removed.

Strangely, however, when we try to analyze our behavior in relation to this self, we realize that we are very unclear as to what this self really is. Non-Buddhist thinkers have [sometimes] defined the self variously as resting in the brain, blood or heart and having such qualities as true or transcendental existence in or outside of the mind or body. To have any meaning such a self has to be lasting, for if it perished every moment one would not be so concerned about what was going to happen to the next moment; it would not be one's 'self' anymore. Again, it has to be single. If one had no separate identity, why should one worry about what happened to one's 'self' any more than one worried about anyone else's. It has to be independent or there would be no sense in saying, 'I did this' or 'I have that.' If one had no independent existence there would be no one to claim the actions and experiences as one's own. 

We all act as if we had lasting, separate, independent selves that it is our constant pre-occupation to protect and foster. It is an unthinking habit that most of us would normally be most unlikely to question or explain. However, all our suffering is associated with this pre-occupation. All loss and gain, pleasure and pain arise because we identify so closely with this vague feeling of selfness that we have. We are so emotionally involved with and attached to this 'self' that we take it for granted.

The meditator does not speculate about this 'self.' He does not have theories about whether it does or does not exist. Instead he just trains himself to watch dispassionately how his mind clings to the idea of 'self' and 'mine' and how all his sufferings arise from this attachment. At the same time he looks carefully for that self. He tries to isolate it from his other experiences. Since it is the culprit as far as all his suffering is concerned, he wants to find it and identify it. The irony is that however much he tries, he does not find anything that corresponds to the self. 
Then gradually, very gradually, it dawns on him that the reason he cannot find it is that it is not there and never was. There is a tremendous emotional resistance to this realization so it takes a long time to break through, but when it does there is an immediate release of tension and suffering. The cause of it has gone. The cause of it was a mental attachment to something that was not there.
The main thrust of Buddhism... is not about theories at all. It is about experience. In particular, it is concerned with the experience of suffering. What Buddhism has discovered is that the experience of suffering is always associated with strong emotional attachment to a vague sense of self. So Buddhism turns its attention onto that strong emotional response associated with that sense of 'self' and asks about how that 'self' is actually experienced. Where is the 'I' experienced?

There was much more, too much to type here. But perhaps this gives clarity as to the rationale for the meditation at this stage. We turn our attention to this vague sense of self and the emotional responses that go with them and turn the light on brightly. This is why Buddha taught vipassana meditation for realizing no-self. One brings attention to the experience of breathing, then notices sensations as they arise, abide, and dissolve. There are great links at the bottom of the last post for this, including guided audio meditations from the Insight Meditation Society.


Try to practice some vipassana meditation every day. And if you are fortunate enough in your life for a strong emotional response to arise, sit with it. Bring awareness to the feeling and ask yourself who or what it is that is suffering. Who is afraid of what will happen? Who feels bad about what happened? From the book:
You will find your thinking is full of contradictions, inconsistencies, and irresolvable paradoxes. This is normal. 
Continue to look for the self that is suffering, and when you do, a shift may occur. When that happens, rest in the shift without looking further. 

Hope to see you Friday night, when we'll look with more precision at the three ignorances in relation to the components we think of as our "self": the five aggregates.

* Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche

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