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Opening to insight

Beech leafFundamentally, we don’t know anything about anything. How then can we even begin to cultivate insight into how things really are? Author, practitioner, and Dharma teacher Kamalashila suggests how we can learn to open up to reality.

It is late summer and 10:22 in the morning.

I am in my room in Birmingham. Just a few yards away, framed in the open window, are the upper branches of a luxuriant copper beech, its leaves displaying to the eye subtle, dark greens (olive, patinated bronze) as they reflect the morning sunshine.

The fine outer branches shift almost imperceptibly, shedding complex darker shadows within.

The tree is full of beech nuts, and the leaves on a few small branches have already turned a dead, uniform orange-brown. In such a calm moment as this, I can enjoy describing to myself the rich detail of a beautiful object.

But do I see it as it really is? There is a framework of assumptions that we impose on the reality we perceive. “It” “is” “10:22″ “in” “the morning.” “I” “am” “in” “my” “room” “in” “Birmingham.” Just a few yards “away,” framed “in” the open window, “are” the upper branches of a luxuriant “copper beech.” These accentuated words point to ideas that we use continually, ideas with which we make sense of life. We built them up painstakingly, over the long years of childhood.

Yet on each of the countless occasions that we have uttered these names and prepositions, we have to skip over fundamental problems that arise in communicating our experience.

 We don’t really know anything at all

We forget that we are raising matters concerning being, time, space, and form — matters which we profoundly do not understand. We do not even know what the word “is” implies. We don’t really know anything at all.

In our daily dealings with others we disregard this great ignorance we hold in common, devastatingly basic though it is. Otherwise, everything anyone said would entail long, irresolvable discussions on metaphysics. Everyone tacitly agrees to put these matters aside, since we cannot readily understand them. Yet they really are mysteries. We do not understand what a copper beech, or any particular object, truly is. Of course in the ordinary way we do know that a copper beech is a “tree.” It is a large woody perennial “plant,” with a distinct trunk, giving rise to branches or leaves at some distance from the ground.

Yet do we really know what a plant is? Yes, a plant is any living “organism” that typically synthesizes its food from inorganic substances, possesses cellulose cell walls, responds slowly and often permanently to a stimulus, lacks specialized sense organs and a nervous system, and has no powers of locomotion.

But then what is an organism? The dictionary explains that unless it happens to be an “animal,” an organism can be any living “plant.” But we have only just seen that a “plant” is a living “organism.” So all we can discover is that a tree is a plant, which is an organism, which is a plant, which is an organism.

We must wonder, sometimes, if there is any way to see reality as it is. Religions may tell us that we cannot expect to, that such an idea is hubristic, even blasphemous. And the accepted materialist theories about life all miss this point. So the mystery eventually becomes too much; it appears that we can only speculate – which seems idle, a waste of time. Most of us end up taking the position that we (whatever we are) just need to get on with living (whatever that might be).

The way we see our existence is thickly colored by the emotions and assumptions we hold, and leaves little room for compassion. Our world is perceived in a flickering half-light of wants and dislikes, and accounted for by an unquestioning common sense. We are so used to this perspective that it is difficult for us even to realize there is any problem. We repress the uncomfortable awareness that we understand nothing about life.

 …when death and other exposures to reality force open our eyes, we can bear to look at them only briefly, if at all  

What can set the seal on this repression is that pain and fear often accompany our glimpses of reality. Despite the childhood years spent learning about life and developing an urbane adult shell, we have still not fully adjusted to it. For when death and other exposures to reality force open our eyes, we can bear to look at them only briefly, if at all.

We really cannot bear much reality. It shakes the jelly at our core when friends or lovers separate from us, or when they die. Such experiences can be like lightning striking at night. Seeing for an instant just how much what we relied upon was founded on wishful thinking, we are reduced to a bare and naked state, in a vast, unfathomable universe.

Yet life must go on. Numbly, we piece it back together. It is the old, old story: human existence is fragile, uncertain and inexplicable. Samsara, the endless cycle, is profoundly unsatisfactory. So it is a definite relief when, soon enough, the terrible questions are washed over by familiar concerns: work, chat, shopping, washing-up, bedtime drink. We welcome the crack in reality closing again. Yet, as we return to normal we know something has been lost. Along with the relief of returning to daily life, we feel once more imprisoned by a wall of unknowing.

Can there be a middle way between the unbearable intensity of reality and the unbearable dullness of ignorance? If there is, it must somehow be through relying on something real, and not on wishful thinking The path that transcends these painful extremes is the Dharma. Buddhist practices, because they arise out of an insight into reality, are effective in helping us to come to terms with it.

The cultivation of insight requires two qualities known as samatha and vipassana. Through a long-term development of samatha (which broadly means calm), the mind becomes strong, happy and confident.

Along with that strength comes greater receptivity, so we’re more able to see things as they are, without being seared by the experience. The ability to look is samatha; the actual seeing is vipassana. It is not that reality as a whole is intrinsically painful, but that we are not sufficiently large or awake to sustain the totality. In our weakened state, the light streaming in through the crack is too intensely brilliant to sustain; yet we know it is an opportunity, as an experience of a universal truth.

 …the light streaming in through the crack is too intensely brilliant to sustain  

We can take up this opportunity if we begin to cultivate that calm, receptive strength. Through so doing, we shall eventually become strong enough to sustain the sight of the total reality. Some degree of such a vision is to be expected in more experienced meditators, whose senses are somewhat calmed, and who look closely at their experience.

Vipassana can be induced by meditation, and that is generally the way it is cultivated. But insight into reality can arise anywhere, at any time, when circumstances make us question our assumptions about reality.

This may be sparked by some critical occurrence like a death, or a relationship ending. But it may arise at a quiet moment when our thoughts come together at a single point — we see that all things really are impermanent and we experience, as in a vision, what this central reality implies for our human potential. These experiences seldom arise, however, unless the mind has been prepared over a long time by meditation.

Having created a foundation of samatha, we generate vipassana by reflecting on the Dharma with the mental lucidity conferred by that tranquil state. Achieving this tranquil state requires considerable preparation in the rest of our life. We can prepare in a general way by cultivating mindfulness, and following a more ethical way of life. This brings integrity, consistency of character, and a buoying happiness.

We take the integration deeper by regularly practicing samatha meditations, such as the Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana.

At the same time as establishing this foundation in samatha, we also cultivate a second foundation of Wisdom, in its preliminary stages. That is, we learn about the Dharma, and reflect repeatedly on what we have learned. We mull over what we hear and read, make sure we understand what is being said, apply that to our own experience, ask clarifying questions, and in this way cultivate a thorough understanding of what the Buddha taught.

These two preliminary stages of “learning” and “reflecting” prepare the ground for Wisdom itself. Learning and reflecting on the Dharma are strands of spiritual life that one never stops cultivating. To examine afresh our understanding, even of the most elementary aspects of the path to Enlightenment, always bears fruit. Our appreciation of the Dharma is enriched as it gradually loses its tendency to literalism.

 To examine afresh our understanding always bears fruit  

Along with meditation, reflection is the most important Buddhist practice. Given some understanding of the Dharma and regular meditation, it is quite easy and natural to reflect. It is a more or less spontaneous activity, provided we are not too distracted. But it is more difficult to create a mental environment in which reflection can happen.

Nearly all of us are deeply addicted to filling our time with activities. This habit not only allows us no time simply to sit and sift our thoughts as they disentangle themselves and spread out in the mind, it also stunts our ability to reflect. Understanding needs an inner space in which to unfold.

If we can see the importance of developing the inner life of our thought, then that will naturally become our main priority. All other Buddhist practices will then aid this project of deepening reflection. Mindfulness (of body, feelings, mental states, and mental objects) will particularly help as a focus, as we notice our response to every experience, and remind ourselves in each response of our overall aim.

Developing the inner life of thought is an essential preparation for meditation, because through it we move towards a synthesis that allows us to have faith in the possibility of Insight. This is not an intellectual synthesis, even though we could probably formulate some aspects of it verbally. It is a kind of knowing, yet its character is also emotional and volitional, so that with it comes sufficient confidence for us to open to whatever the truth might be.

Freedom from emotional conflict is essential if we are to do this, because the method of cultivating vipassana is to open the mind to some crucial point of Dharma, such as the truth of impermanence. It is a considerable step, and we must want to take it.

 Nearly all of us are deeply addicted to filling our time with activities  

To be effective, this opening up must be carried out when our minds are calmed and purified by dhyana, the conflict-free concentration brought about by samatha meditation. Thus in our samatha practice we need to have moved, at least to some extent, beyond conflicting emotions.

We have to entrust ourselves to the samatha practice in order to concentrate the mind, and move beyond the distractions of craving, anger, dullness and excitement — tendencies always present in ordinary consciousness. It is only in a mind unified and elevated by dhyanic meditation that vipassana contemplation can be nurtured and matured, through openness, into Wisdom (praj├▒a).

It is obvious that the mind is now in a quite different condition than at the preparatory levels of learning and reflection, when we are thinking out our understanding with the ordinary, relatively distracted mind. With vipassana in the context of meditative absorption, the mode of contemplation is uniquely light, flexible and spacious. It combines potential for lucid thought with great receptivity.

In this way we rest our mind on some aspect of the Dharma, perhaps the “emptiness” that is said to characterize all phenomena. A tree, a plant, an organism, a being, a Buddha: does any “thing” have a nature of its own, and if so what is that nature? There can be no fully satisfactory verbal answer. Yet our willingness to relax and open ourselves to the truth, cultivated over years of practice, may tip the balance so that truth is glimpsed and begins to light us up from within.

 It is encouraging to know that Buddhism makes us happy, yet this form of happiness cannot be relied upon  

The Buddha saw things as they actually are. His teaching is a way to cultivate the same insight into reality, and that insight is the aim of all Buddhist practices, from Right Livelihood and skillful communication, through mindfulness, to the various kinds of meditation. We easily lose sight of this aim. Left alone with Buddhist practice, we tend to grind to an agreeable halt at the foundations, at the happiness that comes from skillful actions and states of mind.

It is encouraging to know that Buddhism makes us happy, yet this form of happiness cannot be relied upon. Our skillful mental states are not permanently established; there is a danger that when circumstances change, our confidence and habitual goodness may deflate like a punctured bubble. Only Wisdom, once developed, provides a reliable response to the ravages of impermanence.

Morality and happiness, important as they are, are insufficient in themselves; happiness can even be so intoxicating that it obscures spiritual vision. So if we never develop insight, we will sooner or later lose the conditions for our happiness. In the end, in a large and unfathomable universe, it is our openness to wisdom that really matters.


Kamalashila is a Dharma teacher in the UK and author of Meditation: The Buddhist Way of Tranquillity and Insight (available in the UK from Windhorse Publications).

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Comment from Matthew Brown
Time: March 19, 2009, 6:48 pm

There is a story about the Buddha that this article reminded me of, that he told his disciples to contemplate the death and decay of their own bodies, and they were convinced by a stranger to let him kill them, to rid them of their despair. I feel like one of those disciples now, unready to really see the truth because I am too distracted by despair — the “lightning striking at night.” It is paradoxical, because it is because of grief over loss that I am seeking wisdom, but the grief is so overwhelming it often makes practice almost impossible. Yet the hope that I can overcome the grief with wisdom rather than denial goads me on.

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Comment from Mike S
Time: March 27, 2009, 12:54 am

What a well written and beautifully described path toward opening to insight. I’ve practiced vipassana for many years and it’s great to hear another person’s view on it.

I’ve added this post to spiri2al.com, please stop by and vote for it if you get the chance:
http://www.spiri2al.com/Meditation/opening-to-insight/

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