The Meaning of Looking Deeply

In the Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone,  we learn that mindfulness involves “looking deeply at life as it is in the very Here and Now.”  It is a highly esteemed Sutra that starts with the well known words 

Do not pursue the past;
Do not lose yourself in the future.
The past no longer is;
The future has not yet come .
Looking deeply at life as it is, in the very Here and Now
The practitioner dwells in stability and freedom.

Thây, too, speaks frequently of looking deeply, but what does it actually mean?

Well, it means two different, but related things depending on whether we are talking about looking deeply in formal meditation or in ongoing mindfulness on an average weekday. 

In the latter case, we are encouraged to enter the activity of each moment so deeply, so completely, that only the activity remains.  If we manage to do this, even part-time, even occasionally, we will notice that we have left the dualistic frame of mind behind and have entered non-dual reality.  Only one thing is left: being in the doing. If I am wholly absorbed in driving the car, something funny happens:  The driver goes away and there is nothing left but being in the driving.  If this sounds scary, because you don’t want to find yourself in a driverless car, relax:  When there is no more driver, the driving will be perfect because being in the driving is the best driving anyone can do.

Let’s take another example that isn’t quite so scary:  If I am completely absorbed in chopping celery, I disappear.  What remains is awareness of being in the chopping.  It’s safer that way.  Because, as long as my I or self is still running interference, I am open to distractions and I am actually more likely to cut myself.

There is a wonderful Zen saying that encapsulates the essence of mindful living and working.  It goes like this:

“Miraculous deeds and acts of wonder:
I chop wood and carry water.”

What the teacher is hinting at is the fact that anything done in mindfulness turns into a miracle.  Actually, that’s not quite accurate: Nothing actually has to turn into a miracle, because everything already is one.  But mindfulness makes us recognize the miraculous in the mundane.  We tend to think of miracles in terms of some paranormal events, but if we look deeply into even the most ordinary activities, we are blown away by what’s really happening.  That’s one reason why we practice walking meditation.  Because we are walking so slowly, we can take the time to contemplate the miracle that is walking.  Thây has said more than once that “Walking on water is not the miracle. Walking on the earth is the real miracle.”  Just consider the beginningless sequence of events that had to unfold so that you could even take a single step.  The whole universe had to labour in perfect unison for eon upon eon to make this one step possible.  Miracle of miracles indeed!  Chopping wood and carrying water is really more than just two miracles: Wood is a million miracles, and so is the conjunction of anatomical and physiological events that have to occur before you can chop, to say nothing of the history of the universe that had to reel off to make you happen at all!

So we want to make a conscious connection with the miracles that surround us on all sides.  We want to become one with them.  How then do we get into this non-dual state?  Through awareness of breathing.  That is the key that opens the door to looking deeply.  We can also see it as our anchor that prevents us from drifting off.   Awareness of breathing tells us that we are still alive and therefore it’s okay to keep on chopping or hauling water or driving or whatever.

Merging with the breath and entering fully into everything we do, say, think, or feel encourages us to let go of selfing and enter “being in the doing,” and that’s an idea that is quite foreign to our Western brains.

Thây used to walk into the kitchen at Plum Village occasionally and he would ask a monk or nun “What are you doing?” If the answer was, “Oh, I’m just peeling potatoes,” Thây would correct the person because there was still the “I” involved in the peeling.  “I am aware,” would have been better.  Even here the answer still has an “I” in it, but the  “I” is now equated with awareness;  it’s not actually  doing anything, it’s just being—being aware. “Peeling while being aware of peeling” would have been an acceptable answer also, I imagine.  No “I” in that.  But the simplest answer would be a non-verbal one in the form of a mindful smile.  Here is a quote from The  Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching:

Sometimes I ask one of my students, what are you doing? to help him release his thinking about the past or the future and return to the present moment. I ask the question to help him to be—right here, right now.  To respond, he only needs to smile.  That would be enough to demonstrate his presence.

This picture of complete merging with the doing is central to our practice.  The metaphor even shows up occasionally in Western thought.  Angelus Silesius, a Christian mystic of the 17th century, wrote a little gatha about this, and of course he used the concepts of his time and place:

God, whose love and joy
Are present everywhere,
Can’t come to visit you
Unless you aren’t there.

We shouldn’t let the terminology bother us because we know that mystics are not hung up on concepts and narrow definitions, and neither should we be.  Angelus Silesius is saying that a big empty space is left when the self moves out, and that emptiness can be filled with something else, something he calls God.  In Buddhist terms we could say the same thing like this:

Buddha Nature is everything and everywhere,
When the deluded sense of a separate self has been recognized,
it falls apart, opening a sense of spaciousness
In which your own Buddha Nature can fully unfold..
(Trouble with this version is it doesn’t rhyme.)

The two versions are similar, but not identical.  In the firat version, you move out so that God can move in.  In the Dharma version, you don’t even have to move out because your self never existed as a reality anyway.  And Buddha Nature doesn’t have to move in because it has been there from your very beginning.  But now, with the delusion gone, Buddha Nature can unfold and grow. 

I think the best metaphor would be that of light and darkness.   Here the delusion of Self is represented by a darkness while the insight of Non-Self is the light.  The moment the light appears, the darkness vanishes without a trace.  The darkness doesn’t go anywhere because it isn’t real to begin with.  So once the light of the Non-Self appears, the delusion of a separate self is doomed.  It’s like turning on the light in a dark room.  You don’t see the darkness draining out of the room or slinking out the door.  The darkness doesn’t have to do that because it was never real to start with. 

When we merge with the doing, the same thing happens.  All the stuff that we usually identify as our self is replaced by our True Nature.  Thây has developed this merging skill to perfection.  There was an occasion when he met a modern-day mystic, namely Thomas Merton.  Afterwards, while reflecting on the meeting, Merton observed,

“When you just see Thich Nhat Hanh opening the door and walking in, you know there is a holy man.”

Again, we wouldn’t use those exact  terms, and Thây would not describe himself as a holy man.  He would probably say what Bodhidharma once said to a king.  The king had bragged about his largesse in building many temples in his realm.  Now he wanted to know how much holiness he had acquired in the process.  Bodhidharma wan an utterly fearless man.  He had the chutzpah to tell the king, “No holiness, only emptiness.”  I suspect Thây would say something similar about himself. But still, Thomas Merton evidently experienced something extraordinary as he watched Thây touching the door handle, opening the door, stepping into the room, and closing the door.  He recognized that Thây was in that state of oneness that comes from being in the doing.  And Thomas Merton referred to that as holiness.  For us it is emptiness—emptiness of self.

Merging with the doing is an experiential way of practicing the Dharma Seal called “Non-Self” without getting all twisted up in intellectual contortions.  In everyday living, we have many opportunities to sink tracelessly into whatever we are doing at the time.  If “I” chop wood, “I” am stuck in the duality.  There’s me and there’s the wood-chopping.  That is how we normally view what we are doing if we aren’t mindful.  The “I” could be thinking about the evil neighbor while my arms wield the axe. However, if we completely merge with the chore, we leave the dualistic dimension and enter into oneness, at least for a short visit.

So that is looking deeply in our everyday practice, in the moments of mindfulness that we manage to create in the middle of a week day.  A similar experience is possible also in formal meditation in the sense that we start by being in breathing without any residue of “ego” or self.  Of course the ego won’t simply go away no matter how many times we tell it to get lost.  It will continue to run interference, and that is not altogether a bad thing.  As the ego kicks and screams while we are trying to establish a calm state of mind, we have a valuable opportunity to find out what  our ego is made of.  What are the thoughts and feelings it keeps bringing up?  Is it pulling us into the past, or is it pushing us into the future?  Or is it taking turns doing  both?  Is it revisiting old wounds or projecting wishes and desires into our quiet time?  If we are conscious of the rantings and ravings of the ego, we can discover what we need to work on.  Then we can make appointments with the mental formations that bubble up frequently, and we can make them the objects of a future meditation session. 

In the Anapanasati Sutra, the Buddha teaches us a definite sequence for our sitting meditation: First we merge with the breathing, meaning with our body.  Then we examine the feelings and our various mental formations,  and eventually we look deeply at the objects of mind. 

We can misinterpret this advice and think that looking deeply is another way of thinking hard about an “object of mind,” but here is an important difference between thinking hard and looking deeply.  This was something I did not understand to start with.  So during a question period I asked Thây what was the difference between concentrated thinking and looking deeply.  I still have the tape with his answer on it.  Thây said, in looking deeply we examine life in the light of the three Dharma Seals, in the light of Impermanence, Non-Self, and Nirvana. 

Ah!  That was it.

Thây often divides Buddhist meditation into two distinct phases:  The first one is called Stopping or Shamatha, and the second is Insight or Vipashyana.  First we create the right conditions by stopping, by calming our body, our feelings, and our mind or mental formations.  Then we are ready to enter Insight Meditation.  That is the pinnacle of meditation at which we begin to transform our whole world with the help of the truths called Impermanence, Non-Self, Emptiness, Interbeing, and Nirvana. 

But it is not only these Dharma Seals and Dharma Doors per se that we should meditate on.  Once we have gained an understanding of these deep teachings, we can then use them as keys to understanding an endless number of so-called objects of mind.

What is meant by objects of mind?  Well, a better question would be what is not meant by objects of mind?  Because this term includes practically anything under the sun or under Pluto or under… well, anything that exists within us and outside of us.  So objects of mind include the Five Hindrances that get in the way of a peaceful life devoted to spiritual growth.  Then there are the five skandhas, those bundles which constitute the totality of a human being.  One of those bundles, of course, is the long list of our mental formations, which can keep us occupied for a very long time.  They comprise all of our complex psychological processes, including our habits, afflictions, and addictions.   Our six sense organs and everything they transmit to us are also potential objects of mind.  In short, we can turn our meditative focus on all of these phenomena, and we can use the major teachings as keys to understanding, purifying, and transforming our mind.  So it is safe to say that we will never run out of topics to meditate on.  I think that is what Thây meant by saying that in looking deeply we examine life in the light of the three Dharma Seals. Life is a limitless topic that offers limitless numbers of objects of mind. 

In future meetings we will talk more about Impermanence and Non-Self and how they can help us understand and transform life and ourselves.  We want to understand what Impermanence  and Non-Self really mean.  But we will have precious little to say about the third Dharma Seal, which is Nirvana.  One simply should not speak about the unspeakable.

At first sight, the Dharma Seals and Dharma Doors are just more concepts, and as concepts they are useless, and maybe even scary.  They are not the Truth, because the Truth is beyond the reach of language or intellect, but they are indispensible tools, without which we cannot open the door to the Ultimate Dimension.


Presented December 2014 to the Buddha-Dharma Sangha on the Sunshine Coast, BC, “Awakened Heart of the Source”

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