28 Aug 2012

Teaching: Alan begins by framing the quest as the pursuit of inner knowledge, contrasting the centrality of subjective experience and mind in buddhism with the emphasis on understanding reality from the outside and materialism in science.
In science, conceptual understanding and reason are considered the highest goal. In buddhism, concepts are used as a means to arrive at non-conceptual experience/realization. Both the body and the environmental are composed of the 4 elements.
Meditation: mindfulness of the body with immediate experience of the 5 elements: 1) earth, 2) water, 3) fire, 4) air, and 5) space. For each of the elements, 1) observe nakedly, 2) can you observe anything stable or static?, and 3) can you directly perceive the space of the body?
Q1-2. Can we guide ourselves using internal dialog or verbal prompts during our meditation, or is this distracting?

Q3. Can we adjust for any physical discomfort during meditation? 

Q4. I’ve experienced the greatest stability in my meditations when the breath is short and shallow. Is this OK?

Meditation starts at 25:25

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This afternoon we begin some actual investigation. In the context of classic Buddhist education within India in the Nalanda Tradition, what we’re focusing on here falls very clearly in the category of Advaita Vidya, or inner knowledge; knowledge from the inside out. It’s really one of the great traditions, and as you probably know His Holiness Dalai Lama is very strongly promoting, trying to promulgate this whole orientation towards education and specifically to an understanding of Buddhadharma.

This Advaita Vidya, this inner knowledge, what it’s seeking to do is definitely in the pursuit of knowledge; not just faith or belief or something else, but really knowing reality as it is, from the inside out.

The perspective of science, outside in:

There is a quite an extraordinary complementarity here. It’s almost like there’s some grand design in terms of the whole current of western civilization, from the time of Aristotle right up through the “crescendo” beginning with Galileo four hundred years ago and right up to the present day, of really seeking to understand the nature of reality from the outside in, from God’s perspective. From God’s perspective - that was exactly what Galileo was after. What’s the universe look like from God’s perspective? From an outside perspective? What’s out there when we’re not looking? In other words, what’s really, absolutely, inherently and truly existent? How is the world really, as God himself sees it? So trying to approximate that. It’s called apotheosis and that is where the mind of man seeks to ascend to the perspective of God himself, to see what it looks like from God’s perspective.

Scientist don’t use that terminology anymore, they simply call it pure objectivity, which means that all subjective influences from the human side are banished through taboo. I have a whole book on that, “The Taboo of Subjectivity”. So, you’re getting reality as it is, as if we’re not involved, from the outside in.

The culmination of this – and this traces right back to Aristotle, right back to science today – the culmination of this approach to understanding reality, the natural universe, the natural world, the universe itself and our role in it; the culmination of this, when you come to the kind of cherry, the icing on the cake, the grand finale: It is a conceptual understanding. We are following Aristotle here: man’s highest faculty (and it’s very gender specific), man’s highest faculty is reason.

(3:40) That’s the grand finale. You say something, you think something or nowadays you publish a paper in a peer reviewed journal, and that’s when you get your Nobel Prize. In fact it will be said, the discovery isn’t made until it’s published or at least accepted in a peer reviewed journal – that’s when the discovery is made. You might have made a discovery years before, but that doesn’t count. It doesn’t count until it is conceptualized and it’s made public, published in a peer reviewed journal. Ok then, now it’s real, now here is your reward and that’s it. It culminates in conceptualization. That’s exactly what Galileo was after; he was a frustrated contemplative, as you might recall if you know his life story, he was trained as a contemplative as a youth. He wanted to stay in the monastery and his dad wouldn’t pay for it, so he had to go off to university. He tried medicine, he hated it, but found he was good at mathematics and the rest is history.

(4:19) So the culmination is conceptualization, but starting from the outside in. Of course, where this is leading to, when you finally get around to it, is the human mind. Frankly we don’t know what to do with it, because it’s not objective, it’s not physical, it’s not quantitative, it’s totally invisible to all methods of scientific inquiry. So what do you do?

Oh, you say, “ai caramba!” * Just say that the mind is the same as the brain. Now it’s mission accomplished, you can carry right on. Just say it, you know? Say it loud, have a whole bunch of people say it in unison: the mind is the brain; the mind is what the brain does. Let’s just say it altogether, we’ll all agree and after all reality is by vote, isn’t it? So we simply vote what’s true. That’s exactly what the scientific community has done. They’ve simply voted it in, with no evidence; all the evidence is to the contrary, there’s no evidence to support it, but…, never mind, let’s just just say that. That the mind is really just the brain.

*[“ai caramba”: it is a Brazilian expression used to express surprise.]

So we wind up [with] mind having no role in nature at all. The mind is simply a little excretion, like brain poop. John Searle says, “The brain excretes thoughts like the gall bladder excretes bile.” So why don’t we just call it brain poop? That’s the role of consciousness; it’s brain poop, with no significance in the natural world at all. It’s just a sheer accident.

So that’s what you get when you come from the outside in: fantastic technology, a lot of knowledge, marvelous laws of nature, the mathematics is sublime. The only thing you left out is “You”, and you just wind up being equated to a brain with brain poop.

So that’s one approach. It is magnificent, and yet profoundly limited where it matters most.

(6:00)The Buddhist approach, inside out:

Then we have the Buddhist approach which is profoundly limited: no mathematics, no physics, no quantitative [measurements], no science of the brain, no cosmology, no telescopes, no technology. Let’s call it limited. But we have liberation! That counts.

This is from the inside out; where, from the very beginning, you’re assuming [that] of course mind has a role, because the only type of reality we’re interested in is that which is experiential. The culmination of the path, when you [become] an Arhat, a Pratyekabuddha, a Buddha, you realize Dzogchen, you achieve rainbow body. Is it conceptual or non-conceptual? Non-conceptual!

(7:03) In other words, no Nobel Prize but rather a Noble Prize. It’s called the Third Noble Truth. That’s your prize; the arya [arya-bodhisattva] prize. There’s no Nobel Prize because - where’s your paper?

In this marvelous film, called “The Yogis of Tibet”, there’s this incredibly accomplished yogi, Drupon Rinpoche. Formidable. He just looks right into the camera and says: “I can remember all my past lives. And although I appear human from the outside, inside it’s very different.” No Nobel Prize for him. He made some of the most important discoveries from his own experience about the nature of consciousness and… ah, whatever. Old man, funky looking old man.

(7:40) So [the inside out approach] culminates in the non-conceptual, and it’s the non-conceptual that radically transforms and liberates. The other one [the science approach, outside in] just gives you a Nobel Prize. It doesn’t liberate anything. It doesn’t even touch one single mental affliction. Doesn’t even touch it.

So, complementarity. I love the fact that I could fly here, I didn’t have to swim. Buddhism would have had me swim, and I wouldn’t have done it! So, it’s not one side is good and one is bad, but boy are they different!

We are profoundly, drastically missing in the modern world the necessary complement to this massive emphasis on the objective, the quantifiable and the totally reductionistic materialistic view of all of reality, where the absolute insistence is that we must understand the mind in biological terms. I was just reading a paper yesterday; the biologists say that we can’t understand biology in terms of pure physics and chemistry. No, you can’t do that. But can you understand the mind in terms of biology? Oh, yeah, that we can, no problem! So it is really hysterical. So this is complementary, this is from the inside out.

(8:45) Where are we going in this meditation that is coming right up?

When you come from the outside in and you’re really trying to understand – and this is what scientists [have been doing] from at least the time of Galileo, and you can go back to Aristotle – what they’ve been trying to understand is: what’s out there when we’re not looking? When you close your eyes? When you close your eyes, you don’t get these images. The images arise in dependence upon your visual cortex, right? Blue, red, all that kind of stuff; close your eyes, they’re not there. They’re not waiting for you when you open your eyes, as if images are traveling through space; they’re not. Physicists don’t believe that, neuroscientists don’t believe that, it’s not true.

When you close your eyes, when you close your ears, what’s still out there? What the scientists have come up with – and it’s brilliant, it’s ingenious, it’s very practical and very useful – is a whole periodic table of the elements that constitute the physical world. From the gases, all the way to the heavy metals, you know, radium, and particles that hardly last any time at all because they’re almost virtual. So, very very useful. Very useful for technology, very useful for developing a conceptual understanding of chemistry, of physics, right down to quantum mechanics, right down to particle physics. Very good. It’s brilliant science. I say that with only respect. Because those particles out there, those electrons, those protons and everything else all the way up; that’s what we assume to be there when we’re not looking. They don’t arise just by looking, they’re already there. This is not just make-believe, this is not something you conjure up with machines. This is really talking about what’s there when we’re not looking.

That is when you’re trying to look from the outside in. When we’re not here, when we’re closing our eyes, what’s still out there? Conceptually, cobalt, aluminum, copper, helium, hydrogen, oxygen, shall we go on? I don’t know how many, over a hundred elements I think. But that’s not the question from the Buddhist side.

[Let’s see below what Alan says about the Buddhist question:]

When you’re starting with the fundamental question: what’s the reality of suffering? You don’t ask: what’s the reality of suffering when nobody’s experiencing it? What’s the sound of one hand clapping? That’s a stupid question. What’s the nature of suffering when nobody’s experiencing it? Why are you asking such a dumb question? What is the origin of suffering when nobody’s experiencing it? Dumb question.

These questions are about our lives, about reality that we experience and not reality as it exists independently of our experience. That’s the framework for all the Buddhadharma; Zen, Chan, Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Dzogchen and everything. Four noble truths. It starts with experience, it moves through experience, it culminates in experience; it’s all about experience. It’s from the inside out, mind being central. The mind precedes all phenomena, all phenomena issue forth from the mind, all phenomena consist of the mind, Chapter 1, Verse 1, Dhammapada. It couldn’t get more central than that.

So Buddhism does not have a periodic table. This brilliant, and I mean it’s really just a masterpiece that all fits together so elegantly, this periodic table known to all the chemists, physicists and so forth. It’s brilliant, and there’s no such thing in Buddhism, because that’s not what you get when you look from the inside out.

What do you get when you look from the inside out? When you look [out from] that body of matter; the only body of matter in the universe that you can actually view from the inside out?

I can look at a cell phone and all I get is the surfaces. It’s smooth, it’s a bit heavy, it could be cool and so forth, and I can take it off. I’m getting surfaces all the way down, all the way through; it’s all surfaces. I don’t know what is like to be a cell phone. Is it like anything? It is boring? Or, in the words of one western Philosopher, “What’s it like to be a bat?” Well, only the bat knows. All we can do is stroke the little furry critters; little rats with wings. We only know it from the outside. There’s only one body of matter in the universe that we know what it’s like from the inside out. Only one – your body!

(13:12) You get to view it from the inside out. What’s it like to be embodied? What’s it like to have your own awareness permeate your body? What’s it like from the inside? You can ask that only of your body until you’re clairvoyant. This is the only one you have to look at.

When you go right into the body and you observe it, [you should do so] optimally with shamatha, or your best approximation of shamatha. Stable and clear, really looking without throwing a bunch of junk on it; all your conceptualizations, images, associations. OK, clean out the junk, and try to get a nice clear take [on] what’s arising in the space of the body. You find, lo and behold, only four elements. Not more than a hundred, because they don’t show up first person perspective, but four elements do, and these actually are enormously useful: [earth, water, fire and air.]

First the earth element. When you go into your body, can you feel that you have an immediate experience of firmness, of solidity. Like where your body is in contact with the cushion or your hands meet. You knock on your arm, knock on your head, yeah feels solid. That’s earth. I’ve got a lot of earth element there. It’s not dirt, just solid and firm. Earth element. We feel it.

Second, water element: moist and fluid. You feel it in your mouth. You don’t really feel the blood but you can experience fluidity, moisture in the body when you’re sweating and so forth.

Third, fire element. That’s a whole gradient from cold to hot. So if there’s very little fire element it feels cool; if it feels really hot, fire element is prominent.

Fourth, air element; the sensations of lightness, motility, motion of all kinds, buzzing, tingling, vibration, pulsing, movements of limbs and so forth. All of that is the air element.

Earth, water, fire and air. Where are these all emerging from? Space. The space of your body. They emerge from it and they dissolve back into it; emerging, merging. The very translation “element”, which I use because it’s pretty standard by now, it’s the translation from the Tibetan “jungwa”. In Sanskrit it’s “buta” I think, but in any case jungwa I know. Jungwa doesn’t literally mean “element” like the periodic table. Those are elements right? That’s not the connotation at all of the Sanskrit or the Tibetan. The jungwa, which is a very close translation from the Sanskrit, just means to emerge. Something is emerging, coming up, manifesting.

So within the space of the body there’s an emergence of solidity/firmness; we’re going to call that earth. An emergence of, experience of moisture, fluidity; we’re going to call that water. An emergence of warmth, heat; fire. An emergence of sensations of motions, tingling, vibration, movement of all kinds; we’ll call that air.

Where are they emerging from? Space. What do they all dissolve into? Space. Where they are present? Space.

[These four elements emerge from the space of your body. They emerge from the space of your body and dissolve back into the space of your body.]

Then there are derivative or emergent properties out of the elements such as smoothness, roughness and so forth. These are emerging out of the same elements, but all of this within the context of the lived world, the experienced world; not the world that exists independently of our experience, but the world that we are experiencing.

So where we’re going, and we’ve just about finished here, is to take this very seriously, because what happens ever so often, I see it, oh, agonizingly too common, is psychologists especially, but neuroscientists really love to say this too: all of your first experience, oh, that’s illusory. Your first person experience is illusory. Your experience of your own mind, oh, that’s illusory, don’t take it seriously, we’ll take over from here thanks very much. We’ll study your brain, so just shut up, we’ll do a brain scan and we’ll tell you what is going on. (16:35)

One of the most hilarious instances of this I saw just a couple of days ago. It actually got published in major press. Some scientists took some guinea pigs, exposed them to dim light, then studied their brain activities, and they found brain activities that were comparable to the brain activates of humans when they are depressed. They just found some parallels. Guinea pigs exposed to dim light. What shall we conclude from this? Are you ready? Watching late night television leads to depression! This is not in a comic book; serious scientists spent money to come up with that conclusion. Then the press picked it up and said, “Oh, this is catchy! Late night television causes depression!” Imagine you’re a guinea pig, in your cage, with wood chips, surrounded by your own shit. You’ll never in your life ever escape, and you’re exposed to dim light. Might you be a bit depressed? Anyway? And they conclude from this that late night television makes you depressed.

I saw a really good spoof on this, it wasn’t a science writer, because they seem to be like puppies lapping up milk. Whatever the scientists say they just say it, they just do not seem to have any critical attitude at all. Whatever the scientists say, they just pass it on, like a choir. It actually took a comedian to say, “This is how you figure out that watching late night television makes you depressed? Why not actually ask someone who watches late night television, are you depressed?” But we wouldn’t want to go there, because that’s not scientific, right? I mean, what would you know whether you’re depressed or not? That’s your subjective experience, that’s illusory. Let’s get back to the hamster’s brains where we really know what is going on. So there’s a lot of real absurdity here. I mean it’s taking absurdity to the infinite levels; trying to figure out the nature of the human mind by way of hamster brains. It’s really quite something.

(19:11) What we are doing here is, we’re taking first person experience seriously and trying to refine it. Because, of course, we can be mistaken, we can misinterpret, we can project all kind of stuff, there’s no question about it. That’s what shamatha is for; to refine, to close down and shut down the noise, the junk, the rumination, the projections; [to] see clearly with stability, with vividness, with high resolution; [to] take first person [experience] seriously and make it into a rigorous approach to investigating the nature of the mind. It becomes flamboyant obvious that it’s not the brain, never was and never will be. It’s complete superstition and you can see that. That’s why I just speak like, “Oh, please stop saying this rubbish!” Especially in the name of science, which I so love and respect.

We’re coming right back to four elements: earth, water, fire and air. We’re going to look at them closely, as they emerge in the space of the body, see them for what they are. Follow the Buddha’s teachings: in the felt, let there be just the felt. Just take them nakedly; that is, we’re using concepts to identify – the phrase used a lot in Buddhism is: the finger pointed to the moon. So I say, “Look, Martin, look over there. Can you see the moon? It’s just rising over the horizon. Can you see it over there?” When I’m saying that, that’s all conceptual. But then he says, “Where, where?” And I say, “Right over there!” Then with the concept, and with my finger, what does he do? Think about the moon? No, he uses the words, “Can you see the moon rising over there?” and then he goes non-conceptual… Boom! Got it… Boom! Don’t got it. I see it, I don’t see it, but the concepts are just to direct you. It’s like pointing a gun or pointing a laser beam, pointing a telescope. So, earth, water, fire and air; we identify them by way of concepts, but once you’ve got on target, then just look at them closely.

That’s what Galileo did. He had a brilliant conceptual mind, but when he was looking through his telescope he was not just thinking about planets and stars. He was actually observing very, very carefully. With continuity, with stability, with vividness; revolutionizing modern science. He really started modern science. So it starts with concepts but then it goes beyond concepts; it goes right to direct, precise, sophisticated and replicable observation. That’s where we’re starting; conceptual categories of earth, water, fire, air and space. There’s the target, there’s the finger pointing to the moon, now just go in and look closely. Look closely, then start posing questions, as Galileo did when he saw these little dots right next to the larger dot that we call Jupiter. They could be background stars. They look just like stars; they’re little dots, stars are little dots. But he wasn’t satisfied with that. He saw those little dots clustered around Jupiter through his telescope. Then the question arose, are they background stars? In which case Jupiter will move across them. You’d just see Jupiter moving across and they would be stationary, right? Or what? And lo and behold, he found the little dots moved around Jupiter rather than Jupiter moving across the sky. So, big discovery: Jupiter has moons. Likewise, phases of Venus; likewise, craters of the moon; likewise, sunspots and so forth. (22:40) He observed carefully, but with a question; then he observed more carefully, and then he wrote one of the most epic texts in the whole history of modern science, Starry Messenger, 1609. The publication of what he saw. It’s brilliant! It’s really core science.

But that’s exactly what the mind scientists aren’t doing. They are professionally trained not to look at the mind. That’s what Buddhist contemplatives, Hindus and so forth are professionally trained to do. Don’t just think about the mind, don’t just dogmatically equate with something that it’s not because you find it easier to study – which is the easy way out that all of modern science has taken – but actually observe it very closely, with rigor, sophistication, precision and see what you discover there.

So, we’re starting with the body and then we’ll move from there to the mind. We’ll go from coarse to subtle; starting with the body, then attending to feelings, and then we get to the mind, to consciousness itself. [Finally] we go supernova, [as we] try to look at the interrelationship among all these phenomena, physical, mental and so forth.

So this is a big deal. It’s really a big deal. This is the complement to the awe inspiring, the majestic, the wondrous discoveries made by science looking from outside in, but just falling flat on their face when it comes to the nature of consciousness. [They] really don’t have a clue what the nature of mind is, or the role of mind in nature because they’ve already decided it’s only the brain. Well, if you’ve already decided then you’re not going to discover anything. It’s called an illusion of knowledge blocking actual discovery, and that just saturates the mind sciences. Illusions of knowledge just like smoke filling a room. Henry David Thoreau called it “the smoke of opinion”. That’s just clouding everything. In the scientific study of the mind they just cannot get away from their materialistic assumptions. They will one day, but – man! They’re taking a long time. So we don’t have to wait for them, just go right in with clear awareness. You do not need to bring any metaphysical assumptions with you. Just look closely, attend closely; first to the body and next week we’ll go onto feelings, we’ll go onto mind, we’ll go onto consciousness itself. See what you see. This is not brain washing, this is not dogma; it’s just radical empiricism. [We’ll look] at the body from the inside out and then we will start posing questions.

Are you ready? Ok! Get into a comfortable position.


(25:45) The first step, as always, is just to relax. To literally settle down, letting your awareness descend right down to the ground, non-conceptually, going right into this mode of immediate awareness, simply attending to the emergence of the earth element as your body is in contact with the ground. If you are in a supine position you have a lot to work with, all the sensations from the back of the head down to the heels, lots of earth element, very good for grounding the awareness.

Let your awareness rise up and fill the space of the body, settling it in its natural state, relaxed, still and vigilant. Settle your respiration in its natural rhythm.

For this short time set aside all your cares, all mundane concerns, give yourself a break, freedom, just to rest silently, non-conceptually, in the present moment. See what it’s like just to be present.

For just a short time, simply allow your awareness to rest without focusing it upon anything, external or internal, sensory or mental; just be present, rebooting, with no object, without meditating on anything; just be present in the present moment, without distraction, without grasping.

Now direct the light of your awareness, focus your mindfulness on the space of the body, viewing this physical phenomenon from the inside out, let your awareness flood the space of the body.

Like a finger pointing to the moon, take the concept, “earth element”, emerging as sensations of firmness and solidity and attend to them nakedly. In the felt let there be just the felt. Identify them conceptually but then drop the concept, drop the label. Observe what you observe. What is the earth element that you observe nakedly, perceptually?

Within the space of the body, do you detect any sensations associated with the water element, moisture, fluidity? If you can identify then focus clearly, non-conceptually; drink it in with your mind.

The fire element, that whole gradient from cold to hot: observe it directly. Areas of the body that feel cool, that feel warm, that feel hot; observe closely, closely apply mindfulness to the gradient of the fire element.

The air element, indicated by all sensations of motion; use the concepts to identify them and then observe them closely, non-conceptually.

Now, within the space of the body, can you directly perceive anything else other than earth, water, fire and air? Observe very closely.

Among these four elements, these sensations arising from moment to moment, do you see anything stable, static, unchanging? Does anything endure through time, statically?

Can you directly perceive the space of the body itself, the space from which the elements of earth, water, fire and air, emerge; in which they are present and into which they dissolve? Can you directly observe that space itself or can you only project it, imagine it, visualize it? Does that space have any qualities or is merely nothing, a mere vacuity, nothing at all?

If you sense that you can directly observe or perceive tactile space, then finesse the question. Are you observing it with your tactile awareness [in the same way] as you directly perceive tactilely the sensations of solidity, moisture, warmth and so forth? Or is the space of the body something you mentally perceive, not with tactile perception but with mental perception? See if you can discern the difference.

Transcribed by Rafael Carlos Giusti

Revised by Jim Parsley

Final edition by Rafael Carlos Giusti


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