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Saturday, December 29, 2018

Everything in a Continuum

 In the process of being awake and aware, and aware of nothing in particular – it was an empty screen, no forms or feelings – I realize that without life, there is nothing to reflect on, not even awareness. But what is life? Is it an opposite of life? If so, how can life arise out of and made of inert things? Life and “non-life” are parts of a continuum. One comes out of another and merges into another. They are interdependent.
That is true of space and time as shown by Einstein and others. That is in the realm of the physical universe. 
Consciousness and emptiness seem to be such a pair too, in the realm of thought. 
At the micro/quantum level, wave and particle seem to be such a pair as fundamental units of the universe.
One cannot think of one in each pair without the other. They are part of a continuum. They are relative to each other.
It appears that there is no absolute, independent entity called space or time or life or non-life, conscious or comatose, particle or wave. They are relative to the other of that pair in a continuum. Our mind, which thinks with concepts made of sensory impressions and images, classifies everything and names each one. In the process of classification, the mind forgets that these separations are its own creations.
Come to think of it, color is a continuum. So are soundwaves. Our mind makes everything dichotomous for practical reasons – to live in this world. “Either or”, “yes-No” thinking is the mind’s survival mode. However, to understand the true nature of things, the mind needs analog thinking. That is why we humans have the pre-frontal cortex. It is our duty to use mind in both its “survival” mode and in the “understanding” mode.

But what is mind? How did it come about? What if there is no mind, like it was millennia ago, before humans came on the scene. Everything – particles and waves, space and time – was there. But there was no life. Therefore, no need for a category called life. Since there was no life, there was no mind to start classifying either.

Does any of this make sense?

Friday, December 21, 2018

Contemplative Science/Contemplative Prayer

Alan Wallace uses the term Contemplative Science to refer to meditation, since it is a scientific study of our minds although subjective in nature. Thomas Merton calls meditation practiced by Christians as Contemplative Prayer. Whatever name we give, the process of meditation includes reflecting on our own mental experiences as they appear in our consciousness. 
Consciousness has become a major subject of scientific scrutiny. There are several books on this subject. However, there is no definition of consciousness, agreed by all disciplines interested in this topic. That is because it is subjective and there are no objective means, as yet, of detecting and measuring consciousness. Two other topics defying definition are life and health.
The best we can do is to list its characteristics as experienced by each one of us and compare the list with those of others based on universal and uniform features. This is consciousness from the neurophysiological point of view. Not from a metaphysical point of view.
Buddha lists two features as characteristic of “pure” consciousness: luminosity and cognizant. The Vedas of India say the same thing. They are vague terms. However, both Buddha and the Vedas say that this is basic awareness (meta awareness) which illuminates everything – physical, mental, phenomenal, thoughts, emotions etc. It is aware of the objects of the mind and  of the mind itself.  In the Upanishad it says: tameva bhaantam anubhaati sarvam; tasya bhaasa sarvamidam vibhati. It shines on its own and illuminates everything.
This sounds interesting and intriguing. This also suggests that there is something else outside of our mind which gives the power of awareness to the mind. I have problem with that. Without a living body and a functioning brain, there is no mind. Without mind, there is no awareness. Granted that life is a mystery and consciousness is a mystery. Even if science figures out the “how” of life and of consciousness, I doubt we will ever find out “why”. 
This does not rule out the fact that everything we see and experience must have come out of “Something with Its Inherent Knowledge and Energy”, the Brahman, Father in Heaven, Allah or whatever name we have given.  
The best answer is ‘I do not know”.
The awareness of awareness is indeed special. My guess is that even some animals have this capacity. This is the faculty which leads to the ego (the I and the mine) and human arrogance. Therefore, it is worth reflecting on it to understand the realities of this universe and develop humility and compassion.
On a related note, I read in Aurobindo’s writing that the three worlds listed in the Vedas (Bhu, Bhuva and Swa) represent the body, mind and the connecting breath. Kaushitaki Upanishad says this too. Breath is another mystery without which there can be no life. Without life there can be no awareness.
It makes sense to focus on the breath, as the connection between the body and the mind and then focus on consciousness and the contents of the mind. The next step is awareness of consciousness of life and of our own awareness of that consciousness. The next step is to empty the contents and stay with pure awareness only.
That is what the original writings of the Upanishads and Buddha recommend. We get carried away by our arrogance. We refuse to consider the possibility that there are/ may be dimensions we are not aware of because of the limitations of our own brain and the mind. We get side-tracked and buried in so many side-paths and diversions.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Meditation can be at several levels

                Thinking deeply about something – concentration (may merge, immerse) (?dharana)

                Thinking about thinking – metacognition

                Being a witness to thinking – mindfulness (Dhyana?)

                Total silence, aware of the silence - Samadhi

                A state beyond thinking and silence, not for ordinary mortals.

“Meditation is the first-person science of the mind” says Alan Wallace, in that we are observing the subjective reality of the mind itself. During meditation, objective sensory inputs and our perception of those inputs, become objects of inquiry. They form the substrate of deep-looking. At the same time, the thoughts and emotions that are generated by those perceptions become subjective experiences. The substrate for this subject-object nexus is the substrate consciousness (Thich Naht Hanh calls it Store Consciousness). Becoming aware of this substrate consciousness is meta-awareness.

Information is that which informs. What informs us is the input by sensory systems. We then interpret and modify these perceptions, codify and name them, using our thinking, memory, imaginations, bias etc. Whatever it is, Information about things is the content of the mind. When we reflect on it, it should be clear at the outset that Information about a thing is not the same as the thing. We can look deeper at what the connection is and what reality is. In deeper meditation, we learn to focus on the mental space without information. No one has seen space, atom, energy and mass. Nor has anyone seen information.

Both Buddha and Ramana ask us to reflect on the “I”. What stage am “I” at in this quest?

Who am I? On reflection, I decided to split this question into two parts.

1. Who am I? “I” am Balu, an impermanent, inter-being (as Thich Naht Hanh would define). In this sense I am a practical entity existing and interacting with the world around “me”. “I” am part of a whole. “I” interact with and depend on the whole and its contents and occupants. The whole resides in “me”, is part of me and in everything else. In this sense, "I" was there always and will be there in the future. In a more tangible form, "my" thoughts, words and actions will be the residues of this brief existence. But, who is asking that question?

2. What am “I”? “It” is a conceptual entity created by “my” mind as part of its function in dealing with the physical realities. It develops as I live and experience every moment, by owning up to each experience (saying that it is “mine”) and storing them for future reference. It also owns up to the actions of the physical body (“I did it”) in which it is generated. By repetition, it gives an impression of powers such as ownership and will which it does not have. There can be no more of “It” (Balu in “my” case) once the body and the brain (with the associated mind) are gone. 

That is where I am now.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Sermon on the Mount – Three Points of View: Part 2

Lord’s Prayer

 A famous passage called The Lord’s Prayer starts with the words: “Our Father which art in Heaven”. This prayer is used by Christians in their personal prayers and church services daily. It has a simple message of piety and thankfulness for all the good things we have. It has also deep spiritual meaning – not just requesting personal favors and material goods but seeking Spiritual realization.

 “Our Father which art in Heaven” is addressed to the Divine as if we are requesting our worldly father. Heaven is not somewhere else because the Kingdom of God is within us. Brother Lawrence said: “We must make our heart a spiritual temple wherein to adore Him incessantly.  He is within us; seek Him not elsewhere.”

Swami Prabhavananda interprets the words “Thy Kingdom come and Thy will be done……..” to mean that the Kingdom of God is here and now and the disciple asks for His guidance to carry out His will. It is  for realizing our own limitations and approaching the Divine with humility. Besides, unless one is spiritually illumined and has become one with Him, how can one know what His will is?

“Give us this day our daily bread” refers to the bread of Divine Grace and not in the simple meaning of bread to eat. “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” is a pleading for His forgiveness for all our physical and mental actions. Hinduism and Buddhism will interpret the “debts” to mean our Karma, the accumulated consequences of our actions in this and prior births. Even without this concept of karma, we are responsible for the consequences of our actions. If we take that responsibility and do not blame others it will be easy for us to forgive others for their actions and the consequences. Only when we have this forgiveness in our hearts can we appreciate forgiveness from God.

“And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil…………” is the next passage. In the Upanishad it says: “asato ma sat gamaya; tamaso ma jyotir gamaya; mrtyo ma amritam gamaya” meaning “O Lord, lead us from untruth to truth; from darkness to light; from death to immortality”.  It is an approach with humility to ask for help to resist temptations towards impermanent pleasures of the world. It is to ask help to go towards Light and away from darkness. It is to turn inwards towards the Kingdom of God and away from outward gaze of the senses.

The passages on forgiveness (Matthew 6:14,15) are well-known and make the essence of the teachings of Christ. He said to forgive “until seventy times seven”. He asks us to forgive those who hurt us physically and verbally. Not to react to violence with violence; but react with forgiveness, compassion and love. He asked his disciples to love even one’s enemy. These are the same teachings as those of Buddha and Hindu texts. Gandhi, Mandela and King showed us how.

This is followed by advice on practicing religion and spirituality sincerely, not just for others to see. When Jesus says “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal” he is asking his disciples to develop discrimination and seek abiding bliss in the midst of fleeting worldly pleasures. He says: “But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven……”. This advice has been repeated by the wise in all traditions, all through history.

The remark that “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single…..” seems to suggest the need for one-pointed concentration and devotion. In other words, the advice is to let go of attachment to and pursuit of worldly pleasures of the senses and seek the Divine with single-minded focus, because “No man can serve two masters…………Ye cannot serve God and mammon” says Jesus.

In the next passage, Jesus advices his disciples not to worry about where the next food will come from, because He who made us will provide for us. Similar words can be heard in other tongues too as in Tamizh language “The one who planted the tree will water it too”. It is not practical. And it is also true that we have to make our efforts for His Grace to yield results. But, when one lives truly in a state of union with the Divine, live in the Kingdom of God within, questions such as “what will I eat? Where will I sleep?” seem to lose their weight and urgency. The advice is about maintaining poise in the midst of life’s uncertainties.

Besides, Jesus is not suggesting that we go starving, but says “ for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you”.  In a similar passage in Gita, Krishna says: “…if a man will worship me, and meditate upon me with an undistracted mind, devoting every moment to me, I shall supply all his needs and protect his possessions from loss”. 

“Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”. This is a teaching on living in the present moment deeply involved in prayer and reflection, not worrying about the past and anxious about the future. This is same as the Buddhist tradition of being mindful of and in the present moment.

A famous poem in Sanskrit says:

“Yesterday is but a dream,
Tomorrow is only a vision.
But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness,and every tomorrow a vision of hope.”

In his advice “judge not, that ye be judged”, Jesus asks us to work on our own weaknesses and improve our virtues and not to judge others.  “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considereth not the beam that is in thine own eyes”.

The next advice on not to “give that which is holy unto the dogs and cast your pearls before swine” is also common in the teachings of other traditions. In the Vedic tradition, there is a passage in Gita in which Krishna says to Arjuna: “Do not tell this truth to anyone who has no devotion and self-control, who despises his teacher and does not believe in me”.  Mundaka Upanishad says that the knowledge of Brahman is to be given only to those who obey Dharma and who are pure in heart.

The famous passage in the Sermon which says “…….all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them…” is echoed in Maha Bharatha with almost the same words. This teaching is common in all traditions and religions.

After saying that the gate is wide and the way is broad for the path to destruction, Jesus continues with “….straight is the gate and narrow is the way which leadeth into life, and few there be that find it”. In an identical passage in the Katha Upanishad: “Like the sharp edge of a razor, the sages say, is the path. Narrow it is, and difficult to tread”. This became the title of a book on the Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham.

Jesus closes his sermon by warning against following false prophets, which does not mean other religions. It means recognizing a realized soul as one who has studied the scriptures and who acts out of unbounded love for everything on earth and following what he preaches.

Finally, I like a simple summary of the Sermon on the Mount by Tolstoy (My Religion, page 87):

“Not to be angry and not to consider oneself better than others.

To avoid libertarianism, choose one woman, and remain faithful to her.

Do not bind yourselves with oaths and promises to the service of those who may constrain us to  commit acts of folly and wickedness.

Do not return evil for evil lest the evil rebound upon ourselves with redoubled force.

Do not consider men as foreigners because they dwell in another country and speak a different language”.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Sermon on the Mount – Three Points of View: Part 1

Sermon on the Mount is one of the most well-known sections in the New Testament. It is from Chapters 5,6 and 7 of the Gospel of Matthew. It includes the most important moral teachings of Jesus Christ and therefore, forms the central tenets of Christianity. Recently, I read three different interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount. They are Sermon on the Mount according to Vedanta by Swami Prabhavananda, Tolstoy’s interpretation and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis (German-Dutch Christian theologian of the 14th century). Here are some of my thoughts on reading these three versions and the original. 

The Sermon on the Mount, which is the essence of the Gospel, as given by Jesus was meant for non-Christians, because there were no Christians at that time in history. It starts with the words “AND seeing the multitudes, he went up into the mountain:  and when he had sat down, his disciples came unto him”. This is interpreted by a scholar as an indication that whereas Jesus taught many “tribes”, he reserved his highest teachings for those who were spiritually ready.

One idea that comes out of Vedic, Buddhist and Christian teachings is that enlightened spiritual leaders usually gave two sets of talks, one for the common folks to be applied to their daily lives and another to those who are serious about spiritual life and are more disciplined. Buddha was explicit. He gave just five precepts to follow for the lay-followers and more elaborate ones such as celibacy for the monastics.

In the Hindu tradition, the more ascetic practices are suggested for those who want to become sannyasins (ascetics) and to those at the end of one’s family life in preparation for liberation. The Upanishads repeatedly point out that a good teacher will tailor his lessons to the readiness of his pupil. In his interpretation of Rg Veda, Sri Aurobindo points out that the rk verses contain two meanings, one referring to physical world and worldly life and another to mental life at a higher plane. Sanskrit words make this possible by their very structure.

It is amazing - it should not be – that several passages in the Sermon and the Vedic teachings (Upanishads) are literal translations of each other.

One of the early statements (5:5) in the sermon is “Blessed are the meek; for they inherit the earth”. The word “meek” suggests an attitude of surrender, freedom from ego. The idea of surrender and humility are recurring themes in Hindu tradition also. Separation from the divine accentuates the ego. The ideas of me and mine come in. Both Buddha and Ramana ask us to find out who the “I” is. “Nothing belongs to us. We just borrow for our life time” says Swami Prabhavananda.

“Blessed are the merciful; for they shall obtain mercy” says the Sermon. This is same as, or similar to, the teachings of Loving Kindness by Buddha. Patanjali says (The Yoga Philosophy Book 1 Sloka 33) that for peace of mind one need to develop benevolence, mercy, detachment and equanimity transcending vice and virtue.

“Blessed are the pure at heart for they shall see God” are the words of the Sermon. The Vedic system teaches observances to purify one’s mind. They include ten virtues (yama)based on abstaining from something, such as forgiveness, truthfulness, non-injury to all life forms. There are also ten other steps (Niyama) which require active participation such as charity, control of the mind, silence and fasting.  These are meant for the purification of the body and the mind. Letting go of the ego leads to purity of the mind according to Bhagavat Gita (2:61-64) and Buddha’s teachings.

Jesus said: “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25 and Mark 8:35)

Once we can see ourselves in others and others in ourselves, the teachings on “love thy neighbor”, “do not kill”, “make peace with your brother” (reconciliation) become easy to practice. Isa Upanishad (6) says: “He who sees all beings in one self and one’s Self in all beings feels no hatred”.

“Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called sons of God” says the Sermon. To send this kind of message of loving kindness to others, one must learn to forgive. Jesus said: “Forgive them for they know not what they do”. Buddha said the same thing before Jesus. There are some scholars who think that Jesus was aware of the teachings of Buddha.

There is a section on adultery and divorce in the Sermon which has been interpreted in various ways. They are contradictory to the basic teachings of Jesus about forgiveness and compassion. Therefore, Tolstoy made a deep study of this issue including verifications of the meanings of the words in the original texts and their translations in different languages and came to the following conclusions. The main point is that sexual passion can easily lead one to what Tolstoy calls “debauchery” or corruption of the mind and lewdness. Therefore, this advice in the Sermon is to help a man and a woman to live as pair, husband and wife and avoid chances for the corruption of the mind.

In summary, Tolstoy’s opinion is that it is best for a man and woman to be in stable relationship with an avenue for sexual satisfaction within moral and legal boundaries. If the wife is divorced by man for whatever reason, he is responsible since a woman then is exposed to sexual advances and she cannot protect herself.

After consulting several version of the Bible in several languages, Tolstoy states: “And thus once more I found a confirmation of the terrible fact that the meaning of the doctrine of Jesus is simple and clear, that its affirmations are emphatic and precise, but that commentaries upon the doctrine, inspired by a desire to sanction existing evil, have so obscured it that determined effort is demanded of him who would know the truth”. The same can be said of sacred texts from all religions.

What are the teachings in the other systems? In the Vedic system, adultery is discussed under self-control, self-mastery and control of passions. Buddha talks about control of passions also and in sexual matters is part of non-injury to a woman.

The sermon also points out, as do Hindu and Buddhist texts, that control of actions of lust alone is not adequate. Lustful thoughts must also be checked.

There have been many erudite discussions on the passage in the Sermon which says: “Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, for thou canst not make one hair white or black”. This comes soon after Jesus asks us “Swear not at all”, neither by Heaven which is His nor by the land which is “His footstool”. In his book on Confessions, St. Augustine spends several pages on this passage. According to Swami Prabhavananda,  this passage only means that we are full of ego and think we own this world and we can make what we want and explain everything. In fact, we do not own ever our own body and cannot fully control what happens to it. We must realize that He is the owner and the doer. In other words, this passage is to teach humility.

In the subsequent passage Jesus does not favor the custom of revenge of the Old Testament (eye for an eye) but asks his disciples to resist evil by not striking back but “turn to him the other cheek”. He asks his disciples to forgive, love the neighbor and, also the enemy. He says “what is the use of being nice to your kith and kin only. Anyone can do that. It requires special character to be nice to an enemy”.

This is exactly the teaching of Buddha 500 years earlier. This is the principle of non-resistance towards people who hurt you and who are unjust. It is not to be interpreted as bending to evil. It is offering resistance to injustice and cruelty without striking back. Buddha did this to Angulimala. Jesus did.  Mahatma Gandhi did. Nelson Mandela did. Martin Luther King did. Only those who have mastered themselves and are compassionate can do this.

In later passages Jesus asks his disciples to do charitable things, help the poor, pray in a humble way, in private, quietly and not with pomp and show for the world to see. There is a similar passage in Vidura Niti of Maha Bharata in which eight virtues are listed. (Chapter 3, sloka 69). They are sacrifice, charity, study, penance, truthfulness, forgiveness, mercy and non-covetousness. You can practice the first four for pomp and show, to look good in the eyes of others. The latter set of four are inherent only in the virtuous.

In interpreting Matthew 5:48 which states: “Therefore, ye shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect”, Swami Prabhavananda says that it is to encourage the disciples to seek inner perfection, a Divine perfection by realizing God within. It is to indicate that all the perfections we seek in this world are imperfect and impermanent.

Jesus teaches us to seek the Kingdom of God within each one of us, here and now. Vedas teaches us the same thing. The original source, the Father, the Divine is called Brahman; the individual soul is called Atman. Brahman is inherent in Atman. In other words, in us. “The Spirit of God dwelleth in you” says St.Luke.  Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman, the Primordial) says the Upanishad. The true nature of the Spirit is not in the body or in the mind. It is that which illuminates, energizes both. “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you true” says the Bible.

Therefore, the goal is seeking perfection or realizing the divine within us. That is the teachings of these Sermons and those of the Vedas. When the Bible speaks of rebirth, it need not be interpreted as the rebirth of Jesus or of us individuals. It is the spiritual rebirth by each one of us by merging with the source. The same can be said about the concept of rebirth in the Hindu philosophy.

This perfection of god-realization is called Samadhi in Hinduism, Nirvana in Buddhism and the Kingdom of God in Christianity. This state can be sought in different ways. Hinduism says that we are all made of different personalities and a method which works for one may not work for another. Therefore, Hinduism suggests four different paths, namely Karma marga or Path of Actions, Gnana Marga or the Intellectual Path, Bhakti Marga or the Path of Devotion and Raja Marga or the Path of Meditation.

 Most branches of Christianity emphasize faith and piety as the preferred mode and some as the exclusive mode. However, there are passages in the Bible which seem to support the path of action, and path of intellectual discrimination. For example, karma yoga or the path of action is nothing but offering all our actions to God as a sacrament. When Jesus said “In as much as ye have done it unto the least of these brethren, ye have done unto me” he suggested that serving others is worship of God.

In Gnana yoga the emphasis is on discrimination between the eternal and ephemeral. Both the Upanishads and Buddha ask the aspirants to reach for virtue and eternal bliss (Shreyas) and not for worldly rewards (preyas). Jesus said the same thing in: “..lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, whither neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through to steal……..Ye cannot serve God and mammon”.            

In Raja marga, the aspirant stays focused like a laser on the Supreme until he attains complete absorption with that One. This is called Dharana in Yoga sastra and St. Paul calls this “prayer to be offered without ceasing”. In recent times, Thomas Merton speaks of this approach as Contemplative Prayer. He calls it “a wordless total surrender of the heart in silence”. Jesus is also reported to have gone into the mountains for meditations in solitude.