Growing Beyond Ordinary Mind:  The Path of the Buddha

Frederick M Farrar

Why would anyone want to grow beyond the ordinariness of perception and conceptualisation which provides their familiar sense of place and security? Surely you’d have to be crazy to want to do that? Indeed the Tibetan name for those who succeed in doing exactly this is “crazy wisdom lama”, “lama” being the Tibetan term for guru, or spiritual mentor.

I can only attempt to answer the preceding question in a way which satisfies and makes sense to me. For me, it is no mystery in one sense. We human beings depend upon and thirst for knowledge. Our capacity for learning and understanding is far greater than the momentary applications of knowledge which we must, out of necessity, submit to in order to procure food, shelter, tools, and so on. As a consequence we feel hemmed in by our own limited actions and feel the wish to improve and overcome them. In this sense human being is experienced as an unfinished task and is accompanied by a yearning for completion.

This yearning, if misunderstood, could lead to obsession or addiction. We could become addicted to drugs, food, sex, literature, therapy, religion, - the list is endless. And so it is important to understand that we have this desire for completion, this desire for wholeness. It is equally important to understand that our ordinary mind, what Freud called our “ego”, is incapable of ever achieving the state of completeness which it is searching for. We thus find ourselves in a conundrum. We find ourselves acknowledging a desire for completion which we know we will never satisfy. We will always feel this desire. It is a condition of our ordinary ego-consciousness.

Paradoxically, in recognising the true character of this desire we would already have begun to transcend ordinary consciousness. By recognsing its functional nature we would have begun to discover a place in our mind which stands outside of the power and influence of the ordinary. And we would have been brought to this discovery, ironically, by that insatiable thirst itself.

At first this process may appear to be little more than an intellectual exercise, which, though satisfying in itself, does nothing to quench the thirst for wholeness. But little by little we may discover that this insight possesses power.

The more we realise that this thirst , which seems so heartfelt and close to our soul, is just a function of our ego, a product of our ordinary thoughts and perceptions, the more we may realise that our soul is not what we felt it to be. It’s as though we realise a trick has been played on us which we have suddenly spotted. What we thought was our innermost essence turns out to have been a fraud, an illusion, a mere fabrication. And so, still driven by that thirst we begin to look closely at precisely who or what we really are. And in doing so we open ourselves to the influence of those who have gone before us.

In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition this opening of ourselves to others’ influence is called “receiving adhishthana”, and is recognised as an extremely powerful catalyst in spiritual development. It is rather difficult for Westerners to properly get to grips with this concept. Often Westerners opt for one of two extremes: they either reject the whole idea outright as an example of insidious brainwashing, or, they devote themselves to their mentors in an idiotic, obsessive way, giving every appearance of wanting to expunge themselves of their own individuality. These two responses tell us more about the general level of spiritual immaturity amongst Westerners than about spiritual traditions per se. And of course gullibility attracts those who would exploit it, so that charlatanry is an ever-present danger for the vulnerable.

But if our motivation has been sincere and authentic our intuition will sort out the wheat from the chaff and we will recognise true wisdom when we see it. It will connect to and expand our own innate wisdom.

It used to be a catchphrase in the sixties to say that all paths lead to the same goal. In a sense this may be true . But it helps to know whether a particular path leads to a detour through damnation before arriving at its final destination! This is a problem we are faced with when confronted with the full gamut of spiritual traditions available to us in today’s world of modern telecommunications and air travel.

Once again, I can only bring my inadequate personal experience to bear on this. My own chosen path is a Buddhist path. It speaks to my mind and to my heart, and makes profound sense. I make no claim to be a good Buddhist practitioner, nor am I about to sell Buddhism to you, but I do wish to vouch for its immense maturity as a 2500 year old unbroken tradition of contemplation and spiritual wisdom. Within it are tools which could be used to evaluate any spiritual tradition, but above all is its central guiding principle - the complete abandonment of the conviction of “me” and “mine”.

In traditional Buddhist language this abandonment involves the perception and avoidance of the twin evils of eternalism and nihilism. In common language this means avoiding both the conviction that one’s self and one’s world do exist, and the conviction that they do not exist. If you know nothing of Buddhism you will probably be feeling baffled by now, so let me explain as best I can, though I freely admit that I will quickly be out of my depth and reduced to a mere interpreter of scriptures, lacking any authority of personal experience.

Essentially the Buddha only taught one thing - reality. His goal was not so much to teach about reality but to introduce reality directly to his listeners. His teachings are thus to be understood first and foremost as contemplative instructions rather than as abstract theories. In this regard the Buddha once said, “I do not propose theories. I analyse.” What he analysed was experience.

It is interesting that in Western psychodynamic theories we tend to evaluate feeling in terms of emotional depth. In Buddhism what is important is closeness. Whether the subject matter is emotionally deep or superficial, great clarity is brought to bear on one’s experience through various techniques of meditation. Through these techniques ordinary experience is seen with great precision.

What the Buddha taught, according to the early scriptures, was that if we look closely at our experience we will see that all of the things we experience arise in dependence upon previous conditions. This includes our own knowledge of things. This may seem remarkably unsurprising to a modern scientifically tutored mind, but, as the Buddha said to one of his followers, this is because we have not properly understood the full significance of the teaching. We have not understood that because things arise in dependence upon conditions they cannot, and do not, exist in themselves. They lack self-existence. Or, to put it more bluntly - they simply do not exist!

To see this as something which is intensely and personally significant is a startling discovery. It is no mere intellectual dally. To actually see with acute precision, the collapse of what one has always felt to be one’s self and one’s world, is a deeply affective experience. Neither is it an experience restricted to Buddhism. The whole of Plato’s philosophy was built on precisely this experience, the difference being that the Buddha allowed himself to abide in self-emptiness whereas Plato tried to fill that void with his notion of ideal forms.

For the Buddha, all phenomena, ideal or concrete, divine or mundane, were dependently arisen and hence self-empty. He thus perceived the unity of the whole of reality in the continuous nature of experience. And in the language of his day he described this as the world of Brahma, which in Western terminology means something like Absolute Reality, or God. His teaching could be viewed as a rather crude theory of causality, but again, if this were how we saw it it would be because we had not yet penetrated the surface of the teaching. Far from being a crude theory of causality it opens out into the subtlest and most profound of views.

This was no billiard ball version of the universe similar to the view of early Western scientific materialism. Rather, it resembles far more the view of the universe as an infinite holomovement described by the physicist David Bohm. But still it is more than either of these. The Buddha’s unflinching gaze penetrated and dissolved all such views as mere opinions about reality which were to be abandoned if one wished to know reality directly. When asked whether the four elements - air, earth, fire and water - really existed or not, he responded by challenging the nature of the question. He refused to answer the question posed in this way because neither possible answer to that question conveys the truth. Instead he rephrased the question, asking, “Where do earth, water, fire and air no footing find?” By changing the question in this way he altered the context of the question entirely, switching attention away from speculative notions about the cosmos to one’s actual experience of the elements. And his answer to the question thus reformulated was, “Where consciousness is signless, boundless, all-luminous.” The question about the nature of elemental existence is thus transformed into a question about the nature of experience and the status of the elements as phenomena within our experience. The Buddha is referring to that state of mind arrived at by successive stages of meditative absorption whereby increasingly subtle perceptions of conditioned phenomena are abandoned in the search for something real and essential. At this point mind is no longer a mind as opposed to a body. There is no longer any experienced distinction between mind and body. None of the higher functions of consciousness - sensation, perception, conceptualisation, feeling - are taking place. And yet the Buddha describes this as consciousness nevertheless. It is consciousness without any objects, simply resting in itself, arising as a result of training. Void of any coarse perceptions of phenomena and pervaded only by the subtle perception of radiance, openness and compassion, the Buddha is poised on the brink of his quintessential discovery.

What comes next by way of this path of contemplative introspection? Nothing. All that needed to be done has been done. Suddenly it as if everything were turned inside out. All knowledge of the world, aswell as all objects of knowledge, are seen to emerge spontaneously out of prior conditions, empty of any shred of self-existence. All speculation about the nature of the universe is clearly seen for what it is - mere opinion. The source of all experience, the very heart of personal existence, is that boundless glow of mindful being, spontaneously emerging out of its former states, void of self or other.

And once the Buddha realised this he took the final step of abandoning attachment even to that state of non-attachment, knowing that to try to preserve it would be a contrivance. Instead he returned to ordinary life, neither making plans for existence nor non-existence. And thus the ordinary was now rendered extraordinary by his complete liberation from all the fetters of existence previously induced by ignorance and misperception. All that remained was the fluid, dependent nature of undivided reality, within which the whole of one’s knowledge and means of knowing are active participants.

This teaching, which the Buddha described as lovely in its beginning, lovely in its middle and lovely in its ending, led to a life of blissful happiness and unshakable confidence, characterised by a profound sense of belonging in one’s world, and a heartfelt compassion for all of one’s fellow beings. At the same time it is the subtlest of teachings, difficult to truly comprehend. If one feels the teaching to be some sort of get-out clause which absolves one of personal responsibility for life, then one has missed the mark and slipped into self-denial. If, on the other hand, one begins to think of reality as some sort of divine super-being, then one has again missed the mark, having slipped into the arrogance of believing that reality can somehow be contained by the concept of existence. It all comes back to the Buddha’s goal of liberating people from the suffering caused by ignorance of reality. Our ignorance of reality is not to be mistaken for ignorance of opinions about reality. The Buddha wished to give people the actual experience, not a second hand account.

It is interesting in this regard that the God of biblical Judaism was always acknowledged as being beyond all comprehension and immeasurable. In keeping with this understanding the Jewish religion prohibits reference to God with symbols, names or iconographic images. This prohibition had nothing to do with bigotry or disdain for other’s religious beliefs. It was an expression of profound understanding of the true magnitude of the divine. It was of a magnitude beyond magnitude. And in Jewish Kabbalah it is said that God does not exist. God is beyond existence. In a similar vein, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger explains that the universal category Being, the category which includes everything, cannot legitimately be spoken of as a being. The latter is finite whereas the former is infinite.

Were we to restrict ourselves to abstract speculation we could spend forever pondering over whether the category of universal Being could exist or not. If we restricted ourselves to mathematical logic we could probably use such logic to show that such a category could not exist. But if we ask: does such a category have any real value? Does it correspond to anything about our experience? Then we are shifting the nature of our enquiry from abstract thought to concrete investigation. We are actually beginning to examine our own experience. And it is interesting that when the Buddha engaged in such an inquiry, stripping away layer after layer of representational consciousness, he ultimately arrived at the subtle experience of being as pure radiance.

One could become puzzled as to the true nature of this radiance. The problem lies in its paradoxical nature and the correspondingly contradictory statements made by the Buddha in the early scriptures alluding to it. On the one hand the Buddha describes it as having arisen in dependence on training. On the other hand he declares that his path leads the way to union with Brahma, which suggests the non-dual, non-conditioned nature of ultimate reality. What the Buddha showed was that the two are one. There is no contradiction between absolute non-duality and dependent arising. Indeed the clear perception of dependent arising reveals its true non-dual nature. Reality is continuous and undivided, and that is what allows change. The self-aware nature of radiant being is simultaneously both dependently arisen and a manifestation of non-dual reality. Thus there is no contradiction in having discovered the unconditioned, declaring then that there is no goal to be attained, no spiritual essence or soul which is special or hidden from normal view. In fact it is ordinary reality itself which is divine and sacred, and was so all along. The problem is our own failure to see it. There are no finite beings. The whole of “ordinary” reality is infinity! Realising that this is the case the Buddhist path of non-attachment to the illusion of reality becomes none other than the unhindered participation in that illusion.

The non-attached state is not some deep transcendental trance which Westerners familiar only with icons of the Buddha in meditative equipoise imagine it to be. It is simply (!) the experience of ordinary reality without the clutter which prevents us from experiencing its true nature.

Saying this, however, is likely to instill in the untrained listener an attitude of self-complacency. The ordinary mind will tend, on reaching this point in the account, to wonder what the point was in the first place. Why go to all that trouble to arrive back where you started - ordinary reality? This is an understandable response. It does however stem from the discrepancy between merely hearing the teaching and actually realising the teaching by carrying it out. It may be timely to recall a pertinent remark made by GK Chesterton, quoted in Harold Bloom’s recent book “Omens of Millenium”:

“That Jones shall worship the God within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.”

Chesterton’s scepticism is well justified. The ego is remarkably resilient and continually seeks to absorb all that lies beyond its limits, thus reducing spiritual teaching to mere verbiage, and spiritual practice to an ego-centric gesture. It is so easy to fall in this way, and we all do it constantly. But this is not something to be ashamed of. Our self-deception is, after all, our own particular path. We are already fallen. What else do we have to work with? As the Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche once said, the spiritual path is one insult after another to the self-inflated ego. Deflating and disillusioning that ego is precisely the work of the path, until eventually ordinary reality is transformed into the extraordinary by awakening the appreciative awareness of its inherent profundity.

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August 31, 1997

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