Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Posts Tagged ‘prayer

The Cloud of Forgetting

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And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.—(The Book of Privy Counseling, Chapter 23)

About thirty years ago, in 1986 or so, I attended a day-long workshop on Buddhist and Christian contemplative practices. During the day various Buddhists led meditations based on vipassanā exercises, Theravādin mettābhāvanā, and Tibetan gtong-len practices, and an Anglican contemplative nun led a meditation based on the fourteenth-century guide to contemplative prayer called The Cloud of Unknowing. The author of The Cloud is unknown, but it is commonly believed that the same anonymous author wrote The Book of Privy Counseling that is quoted above. The session based on The Cloud of Unknowing turned out to have a profound and lasting influence on my own approach to meditation. In the present writing my aim is to reflect on one particular Cloud theme and how I have found it useful as a Buddhist practitioner.

First, for those who may not be familiar with The Cloud of Unknowing, the principal notion is that all the knowledge we have acquired in various ways eventually presents an obstacle to the only reliable way of truly knowing God, which is not through the intellect but through the experience of love. That experience of love takes place in what the author calls The Cloud of Unknowing. Access to that “cloud” is gained by first passing through what the author calls The Cloud of Forgetting. In practice, passing through this first cloud consists in making a deliberate effort to set aside all the beliefs and convictions one has acquired through indoctrination, teaching, catechism and personal study. All such intellectual knowing is to be put out of one’s mind so that the meditator can sit with a completely open heart to whatever may arise in the cloud of unknowing. The cloud of unknowing itself is simply (but not necessarily easily) sitting in complete silence with a mind free of thoughts, expectations, anticipation or personal concerns but with a loving readiness to receive whatever experiences may arise as if they were gifts lovingly bestowed. A Christian doing this practice will naturally speak of it in terms of loving and being loved by God, while a Buddhist may be more inclined to speak of it in terms of experiencing Suchness (tathatā) or the love of Amitābha Buddha, but of course to speak in such terms is possible only outside the clouds of forgetting and unknowing.

Since setting aside all dogmas and indoctrination permanently could prove to become socially awkward, or even dangerous to one’s health, within the context of a religious community that expects adherence to those dogmas, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing recommends again picking up the intellectual knowledge that one set had aside in the cloud of forgetting. After being in the cloud of unknowing, however, one is likely to hold all those views more lightly and perhaps even somewhat ironically. The contemplative who regularly practices this form of contemplative prayer may, for example, continue to say what he or she knows a Christian or Buddhist is supposed to say but is likely to have a profound sense of acceptance of the fact that others were given other lines to recite and are saying what they are expected to say. Believing in the sense of assenting to propositions, however, yields to wordless loving, and as practice deepens, loving becomes increasingly unconditional.

It has been my experience over the decades that there are more and more doctrines that I am prepared to leave at the threshold of the cloud of forgetting and to be disinclined to pick up again at the exit. Except in the most abstract and general way, I now find myself disinclined to recite the lines that as a Buddhist I was taught to say. Yes, I am still willing to say that attachment is a condition for eventual disappointment, and that is indeed a Buddhist teaching, but it is also a commonplace observation on which no tradition owns the copyright. Beyond voicing such commonly articulated observations as that, however, I am no longer led to speak as a Buddhist (or anything else that attempts to organize experiences into doctrinal structures).

Beyond a general disinclination to recite Buddhist dogmas, I feel a particularly strong resistance to repeat a few specific doctrines associated with Buddhism. There is one in particular that I have questioned so often that I have come to feel it is almost entirely useless,—at times even counterproductive—in contemporary society, namely, the doctrine of non-self (anātmavāda).

It is clear from looking at the canonical and scholastic literature of Buddhism in India that the original doctrine was a critique of one specific doctrine held by rival schools, namely, the doctrine that the self (ātman) is a simple, unchanging substance that has no cause, has no agency, is unaffected by anything else and produces no effects. A fairly typical Buddhist critique of that notion of self is that if there is such an entity, we cannot know about it, since it has no effects, including the effect of making an impression on our faculties of sensing and understanding. Moreover, even if such an entity exists, it cannot play any role at all in the task of primary interest to a Buddhist, which is the task of changing one’s mentality from one that sets up the conditions for frustration and disappointment to one that painlessly deals with whatever experiences may present themselves. It takes only a moment’s reflection to see that the Buddhist doctrine of non-self is a critique of a view that hardly anyone in modern times holds. It is a razor in search of a beard. In the context of current beliefs about how the human mentality is constituted, arguing that there is not a simple, permanent, unchanging, uncaused, actionless and inconsequential self is approximately like arguing that there is no such thing as the fire-element phlogiston. Anyone standing on a soapbox and making such a proclamation is unlikely to meet any opposition. Such a safe proclamation is unnecessary and ultimately useless.

In the absence of an actually held negandum for the doctrine of non-self, modern Buddhists have tended either to absolutize the doctrine to mean that there is no self of any kind anywhere or to interpret it to be a warning against a particular notion of self called Ego.

The former of those options, saying that there is no self at all of any kind, is too obviously false to be worth more than a moment’s consideration. There clearly is a complex physical and psychological self that every healthy person experiences nearly every waking moment of every day, a self that is inaccessible to other selves and to which other selves are largely unknowable. The self of daily experience is so multifaceted that it does not admit of easy definition, but being difficult to define does not disqualify it from being something that most people devote most of their energy to making more or less successful attempts at protecting, nurturing, ameliorating and controlling. It is important to realize that being a self is not in any way contrary to the letter or to the spirt of Buddhist teachings. As one of the most treasured of all Buddhist texts, Dhammapada, says:

157. If one holds oneself dear, one should diligently watch oneself. Let the wise man keep vigil during any of the three watches of the night.

159. One should do what one teaches others to do; if one would train others, one should be well controlled oneself. Difficult, indeed, is self-control.

160. One truly is the protector of oneself; who else could the protector be? With oneself fully controlled, one gains a mastery that is hard to gain.

163. Easy to do are things that are bad and harmful to oneself. But exceedingly difficult to do are things that are good and beneficial.

165. By oneself is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself is one made pure. Purity and impurity depend on oneself; no one can purify another.

166. Let one not neglect one’s own welfare for the sake of another, however great. Clearly understanding one’s own welfare, let one be intent upon the good.

The second of the options, saying that denying self is really about denying Ego, is potentially more confusing that it would be to say nothing at all. That is because both in modern psychology and in ordinary language, the term ego has numerous meanings, so one must specify exactly which sense of the term one is taking pains to deny. In some discussions of abnormal psychology, for example, having a weak ego is said to be a characteristic of some types of serious mental illness. Given the polysemy of the term ego in modern usage, it is probably better not to present Buddhism as a set of antidotes against ego itself.

Buddhism may be presented as an antidote to egocentrism, that is, the inability to distinguish between self and other that manifests as an inability to grasp or appreciate any perspective or belief other than one’s own. Such an antidote, however, can be presented in a more straightforward way than by expounding the somewhat arcane Buddhist doctrine of anātmavāda. Rather than denying self (whatever that might mean) or problematizing the distinction between self and other in the mysterious language of non-dualism, it is probably more helpful simply to teach positive contemplative exercises such as the cultivation of friendship (mettā-bhāvanā), which begins with the recognition that one naturally strives for well-being for oneself, progresses to the realization that all conscious beings seek well-being for themselves and that there is no compelling reason why one should favor one’s own self over anyone else’s self, and finally extends the care that one has for oneself to an increasingly wide circle of other selves. While the cultivation of unconditional love for all beings is easier to say than to achieve, it is a task that is not in any way made easier by introducing the classical Buddhist doctrine of non-self.

Religious and philosophical teachings are better seen as invitations to discovery than as accurate descriptions of what one will discover. Teachings that prove useful to some people at some times may not be at all useful to other people, or to the same person at different times of life. In the culture of ancient India, there was a doctrine that all the changes of life are not to be taken too seriously, because they are not really the self, the true self being outside the realm of everyday experience. While some people no doubt found that way of thinking a useful way not to be overwhelmed by the world of change, others found it difficult to make sense of such a doctrine. It is said that the Buddha was among those who did not find the doctrine of a static true self (ātman) useful and sought to provide an alternative strategy, the dogma of non-self or even no self (anātman), to avoid being overwhelmed by the experience of constant change. That alternative is historically interesting, but that there is no simple, unchanging substance to be called the self now goes without saying. That which goes without saying is probably better left unsaid. Or, in the language of The Cloud of Unknowing, it is better left inside the cloud of forgetting.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Tuesday, May 24, 2016 at 20:06

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There is nothing more terrifying than one’s own mind.

There is no greater source of comfort than God.

What is God but one’s own mind?

The first of the above claims is a paraphrase of a Buddhist dictum. The second is a fair representation of a belief found in numerous theistic religions. The third is not a claim but a question. Perhaps it is a rhetorical question, in which case it could be worded as the claim "God is nothing but one’s own mind." This third claim could be made not as a metaphysical statement but more as an epistemological observation: "The only thing one can know of God is that part of God that can squeeze into the confines of one’s own mind. All the rest is perforce beyond one’s ken." Treat the question in whatever way suits your temperament.

The point of quoting the two claims and the question is to state what is increasingly obvious to me: one’s own mind is both the source of one’s greatest fear and one’s greatest comfort. The mind is both that to which one can go for refuge and that from which one feels a need to be a refugee. My own mind conjures up everything that terrifies me, and then it releases me from that terror by conjuring up something to protect me from the terrifying images it has created. The cycle continues unpredictably, sometimes amusingly and sometimes annoyingly. (Amusement and irritation, of course, are also created by the very mind taht creates the things that are found amusing and irritating.)

Folly takes many forms. One form it takes is the belief that the mind is somehow under one’s control—that one can volunteer oneself out of fear by thinking more clearly, or by meditating or by praying. As one who does a fair amount of thinking (clearly, I hope, at least on good days) and meditating and even a little bit of praying, I have observed that nothing is predictable. Sometimes meditation "works" and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes prayer provides relief, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes thinking is lucid, and often it is not. No practice can be known in advance to be effective. When things go well (that is, when terror goes dormant for a while, or when peace and tranquility arise or when love floods the heart), then one believes that whatever one was doing before things went well must be the cause of things going well. Or, if one honors the common religious taboo against taking credit for things going well, one may regard going well as an instance of divine grace—a gift, a charism. If one is otherwise conditioned or indoctrinated, one calls it all a matter of blind luck.

Whatever one calls it, all but the most foolish agree that there is not much of a correlation between what one sets out to achieve and what actually comes one’s way.

At the moment, I am very much at peace with the fact (if it really is a fact) that I have very little control over how I perceive things at any given moment. Peace of mind is a creation of the mind no less than terror, envy, hope and solace are creations of the mind. They come. They go. I just watch.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Saturday, May 2, 2009 at 15:38

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René Descartes begins his Meditations on First Philosophy with the observation that he is aware of mistaken views he has held in the past.

It is now some years since I detected how many were the beliefs that I had from my earliest youth admitted as true, and how doubtful was everything I had constructed on this basis…

No doubt most of us have had the same experience and so have learned to doubt what we now believe on the grounds that we have been mistaken before. But there is also another experience, namely, that of discovering that what we once believed we still believe, but on looking back on our former holding of the belief, our grasp then seems tentative compared to our grasp now. We might feel like saying “Yes, I knew it then, but I really know it now.”

In the mid-1980s I attended an interfaith meditation workshop at which Buddhist and Christian contemplatives led participates through contemplative exercises of various kinds. A Christian contemplative nun named Sister Benedetta led participants through a meditative exercise based on the 14th century text of unknown authorship entitled The Cloud of Unknowing. This was my first exposure to the text, and I immediately loved it.

The premise of The Cloud of Unknowing is that God is entirely unknown to us. God cannot be reached either through the intellect (by, for example, reasoning as Descartes did in his Meditations), or by imagination. God cannot be pictured, described, or understood; God cannot be seen, heard, tasted, smelled or touched. And yet there is in most people a yearning for some kind of perfection, a refuge to which one can turn to express gratitude for one’s joys and lamentations for one’s sorrows. In short, God is entirely hidden from the human seeker by a Cloud of Unknowing. That cloud can be penetrated, says the text, only by love. One cannot know God at all, but one can love that which is entirely unknown and unknowable.

Making contact with God through a love of the unknown is possible only for those who have no further pretense of knowing or understanding. In the language of the text, one must put everything behind what it calls a cloud of forgetting. One must forget, at least for the span of a period of meditation, all the indoctrination one has received, all the worldly concerns one has, all the aspirations one has cultivated, all the education one has acquired. With a mind utterly still and silent, one must simply wait. Often one waits in vain. Nothing shows up. Sometimes one’s waiting is rewarded with a feeling of love about which it is impossible to know for sure whether it has poured in from the outside or is flowing out from the depths of oneself.

The practice of the Cloud of Unknowing is deceptively simple. The mind is stilled by the repetition of a syllable. The anonymous author of the 14th century recommend a simple word like “love,” but other words will do just as well. Whenever one’s thoughts intrude into the silence, then one gently puts those thoughts behind the cloud of forgetting. One can imagine the cloud below oneself. One can imagine the intruding thought as a physical object that one holds out at arm’s length and simply lets go. On being let go, the thought drops through the cloud below and disappears from view.

Practicing the Cloud of Unknowing immediately seemed a good thing to do when I was first introduced to it. It still seems a good thing to do. The only thing that has changed over the years is a slow-burning but persistent conviction that the world as we have come to know it, and human civilization as we have learned to call it, are not likely to survive much longer. The way of living we have become accustomed to will surely perish eventually, if only because it is not sustainable. We are depleting almost all the resources that sustain life. Alongside the conviction that the world as we know it is on its last legs is a conviction that a better world could take the place of the world we know, but that this will happen only if we make a concerted effort to forget.

The Cloud of Unknowing recommends forgetting all worldly ambitions for material possessions and for praise and approval. It also recommends forgetting all the indoctrination we have received along the way. That is a beginning, but it is only a beginning. Most important of all is forgetting all the stories we tell about ourselves, all the biographical details that the ego cranks out to give itself significance and to diminish the significance of others. It is important to forget our nationality, our ethnicity, our connections to other speakers of our mother tongue, our tragedies, our sufferings, our losses, our gains, our joys and our laughter. These things can be abandoned for the span of a meditation session that lasts as long as it takes a stick of incense to burn down. Can they be forgotten for longer? Can they be forgotten forever?

The mystical tradition of Christianity interprets the crucifixion of Christ as the model for the death of the ego, the taking up of permanent residence on the other side of the cloud of forgetting. The crucifixion of Christ can bring about the salvation of only those for whom it is an internal and essentially private and personal act of dissolving what we modern people call the ego. It is only when the crucifixion takes the form of shattering the foundation upon which the sins of pride, envy, greed, gluttony, anger and lust are built that anything like salvation takes place. If that crucifixion does not take place in billions of minds, the earth will soon enough be just another sphere of lifeless rock captured in the gravitational field of a slowing dying star.

Had you hoped for a brighter future? A land of milk and honey? Angels and trumpets and clouds of glory? Forget it.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Friday, February 27, 2009 at 17:42

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