Many Vajrayana Buddhist meditation practices begin with the intonation of the syllable AH. This being a short sound at the beginning of a longer practice, it is easy to say it and then progress on to the rest of the practice without giving much thought to its meaning or purpose. However, when we look into it, we find that this single syllable represents the entire practice, the entire teaching, and the entire path. When we understand and embody the meaning of the syllable AH, it becomes the foundation of every thing else we do. Putting it at the beginning of a practice is one of the many ways that Vajrayana Buddhism starts at the end of the path with something utterly simple and then works circularly backwards thorough increasing complications, ultimately arriving at the beginning again with utter simplicity. Because the syllable contains so much meaning, any approach to explaining it will necessarily fall short, so bear in mind that this perspective is but one among many. May it be useful.
They way I see it, the sun rises, moves through the sky, and sets. It makes sense to me that for most of human history, we believed that the sun moved around the earth. It really does seem that way. Even though now it’s a well-known fact that the earth moves around the sun, when I look skyward, I see the sun move. I believe the modern scientific explanation of orbital mechanics, but I am choosing to believe that explanation – I have not investigated it on my own and so I do not know the truth of it on the basis of my own experience. The way I see it, the sun rises, moves through the sky, and sets. The way I see it is quite different from the way it really is.
One of the premises of Buddhism is that until we carefully examine reality, the way it appears to us is not the way it is. Like everyone who watches the sun move through the sky, the truth is directly in front of us, but our false concepts confuse our perception. I think that because Buddhism has religious and metaphysical aspects to it, many of us automatically assume that the Buddhist pronouncement that things are not as they first appear hints that there is a mystical or supernatural dimension of reality to believe in, and that Buddhism, like many religions, is an attempt to introduce us to that mystical dimension, or even to change us into supernatural beings. The concept of enlightenment, for example, is often automatically considered to be extraordinary, and enlightened beings are assumed to be special, even magical. But in truth, enlightenment is merely the ability to know things as they are, like knowing that it’s really the earth that is moving, and not the sun. Enlightened beings are those who, like Copernicus and the Buddha, are able to find reality, even when it is a reality that seems to contradict ordinary experience.
In addition to containing religious and spiritual aspects that can mislead us into thinking supernatural thoughts, Buddhism also looks similar to philosophy, and that comparison can mislead us into thinking that Buddhism is a set of ideas that we can think about and then either agree with or disagree with. Many of us are connoisseurs of good ideas, shopping around amongst many metaphysical and philosophical traditions, and then building personal collages of our own ideas mixed with the snippets we’ve gathered along the way. While these collages can be beautiful, useful, and profound, they are just as often based on ideas and preferences as they are on accurate observations made through the diligent investigation of reality. Buddhism is not a collection of good ideas introduced to us by the Buddha and subsequent thinkers of good ideas, and yet we often approach it that way.
For example, we love to discuss the concept of karma, asking things like, “Do you believe in bad karma?” But karma is not something to believe in, and it isn’t at all like the idea that most of us conjure up about having some sort of universal overseeing intelligence that punishes us later for the wrongdoings we commit now. Instead, karma is just a Sanskrit word that describes the law of cause and effect. We could ask, “Do you believe in Newton’s Third Law? Does every action have an equal and opposite reaction?” and then we would be having a coherent discussion about karma. It’s not a matter of whether or not we believe in Newton’s Third Law. Newton was just describing the way things are. Similarly, a discussion about essential Buddhist concepts should be a discussion about ordinary things as they are, rather than a discussion about things as they seem, as we imagine them, or as we would like them to be.
The earth seems relatively flat, the stars seem like a dome of pinprick lights over my head, and the sun seems to move through the sky. For tens of thousands of years, we believed the stories we told ourselves about those observations, because no one had figured out what was really going on. Then, curious people started making more careful observations, and discovered the truth. Their thinking was neither religious nor philosophical. They were not mystics following the machinations of their own creative impulses, but dedicated and educated scientists, who put in the time and the effort to carefully consider their subjects. When they discovered and proved that the earth was round, that the stars inhabit vast expanses of space, and that we orbit the sun, they were not expounding upon fantastical religious stories, nor were they coming up with grand philosophical ideas. They were just describing things as they are. But because their descriptions contradicted both the religious and philosophical stories of the time, as well as the ordinary observations of everyone who had ever lived and looked skyward, pioneering scientists were often ostracized. The truth is often quite difficult to wrap our minds around, especially when our minds are so wrapped around such convincing falsehoods.
Greek scholar Aristarchus of Samos had already developed a coherent theory of the planetary orbits around the sun almost two thousand years before Copernicus published On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres, which popular history often credits as first proof of the heliocentric orbit of the earth. Similarly, more than two thousand years after Siddhartha Gautama stated that he had carefully investigated the nature of reality and found it to both exist and not exist, quantum theorists are just starting to scratch the surface of that truth. Siddhartha himself based his investigations on the previous discoveries of at least three thousand years of the Vedic and Yoga traditions before him. These observations about the world and the way it works are not new discoveries, nor are they good ideas generated in the minds of special people. We human beings have been looking up at the stars and down into our own minds for a long time. Be it the arcane equations of an ancient Greek scholar, the rhythmic verses of the Dhammapala, or the radically insightful musings of Albert Einstein, we have been noticing and explaining natural reality to each other for thousands of years. As much as we’d like to believe that we are discovering something new, or becoming wise, we are more like people who have continued to believe that the sun moves through the sky, despite the ancient and enduring proof to the contrary.
Our religions tend to offer creative and supernatural descriptions of the way things are, and if we want, we can approach Buddhism as a religion. It will provide us with everything we need should we choose to use it that way. It can be a shamanistic religion, complete with divination, plant medicine, and animistic relationships with the natural landscape. Or, it can be a mystical religion, complete with chakras, mantras, rainbows, and reincarnation. If we’d like something more austere, we can wear black, think in riddles, and stare at the wall. We can even indulge in stories of immaculate conception, heaven, hell, demons, and sin, if we are so inclined. Buddhism takes the religious forms of the cultures that adopt it, and it does so because for as long as we’ve been around, we have created those religious frameworks. But we are not expected to believe the Buddhist religious stories, only to use them. They are allegorical, metaphorical, and mythical tools. They are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. The end of Buddhism in all its forms is not faith in the stories, nor the revelation of something supernatural, but personal awareness of the way things are. We may use the religious stories of Buddhism if they serve as effective supports to our development of awareness and discernment, or we may choose to proceed without much use of the religious stories, and instead concentrate on things that are more tangible, workable, and personal.
We can also approach Buddhism as a philosophy, and find a wealth of logic, debate, and semantics. Looking back to the origins of Buddhism from a philosophical perspective, we find that there is little difference between the philosophy of Buddhism and the many schools of Vedic and Yogic philosophy that came before it. Within Buddhism itself, there is a vast family tree of branching and even fundamentally contradictory schools. Reading of the distinctions between the schools of thought, it quickly becomes apparent that if we want to have elaborate arguments about very fine philosophical concepts, Buddhism and its cousins will deliver. But no matter what philosophical road we take, if it is authentic Buddhism, it leads not to a grand and final idea, but simply to awareness of the way things are. We may use the philosophical approaches of Buddhism to develop our capacities for logic, reason, and clarity, or we may choose to proceed without much use of philosophical thinking and instead concentrate on direct experience.
Here, we are not approaching Buddhism as a religion, and while we will use some philosophical thinking as a tool, our goal is not to prove a point, win an argument, or say something elegant. Our goal is to do what is necessary to see beyond appearances, into the nature of things. To that end, we are going to approach Buddhism more like a science than as a religion or a philosophy. Like diligent scientists we can design well-planned experiments, observe the results, and refuse to settle for anything but raw, natural truth.
If we want to understand orbital mechanics, we can put our minds to it, study the science until it becomes our own. Along the way, we’ll have to pick up some complicated math, and be willing to expand our perspective beyond our ordinary vantage point. Similarly, if we want to understand the nature of reality beyond mere appearances, we can study the science of mind until it becomes our own. Along the way, we’ll have to train our minds in quite subtle and sophisticated ways, and be willing to expand our perspective beyond our ordinary vantage point. A dedicated Buddhist may not know how Aristarchus of Samos figured out that we are spinning around the sun, but we can say that like Aristarchus, through careful observation and mind training, we have come to know, from both experiential and conceptual perspectives, that the nature of reality is not as it first appears. This isn’t something we do as a nice little hobby on the side. It is a sophisticated discipline, a refinement down to the essence of things.
As a discipline, science is rigorous, methodical, time-consuming, and relatively trustworthy. I am reminded of my friend who is a botanist. She set up an experiment at an altitude in the Rocky Mountains where the plants transition from lower elevation species to more Alpine species. She set up an array of infrared lights to simulate the effects of global warming, to see what will happen to those transitional species as the planet warms. Then, over a period of three years, she hiked out to the site, counted the leaves on each plant, measured each stem, etcetera, and carefully compared those results to the control group that was not heated. When she explained the experiment to me, I told her, “Oh my God. I’d never have the patience to do that,” which is true – methodical physical activities like that are nerve-wracking for me – but in retrospect, now I recognize that my meditation practice has required just that kind of patience, diligence, and much more time. I compare Buddhist practice to scientific inquiry because it takes real effort, real study, and real time.
Putting quality time into our practice is essential, but we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. While it is possible for an individual to conduct a thorough and insightful investigation into the nature of reality without ever encountering the works of previous explorers, in most cases it is useful to use the support of previous discoveries to bootstrap our process. We could perform all of the observations and calculations that Aristarchus of Samos did more than two thousand years ago, without ever consulting any work of any astronomer, and we’d ultimately come to the same conclusions. Or, we can use previous explorers’ work to save ourselves a bunch of time and effort. That’s why, like science students, we work on previously proven experiments until we understand the scientific process enough to do it on our own. Doing so, we bring ourselves into close contact with the wisdom and discoveries of the great pioneers. Eventually, their insights dawn within us, and then we may move on to make new discoveries.
The cannon of ancient and modern Buddhist texts that we have access to for our study and practice began as an oral tradition, transmitted directly from teacher to student, and to this day maintains an unbroken lineage of oral transmission. The words of the Buddha were first memorized and shared from teacher to student, and then eventually written down several hundred years after his death, establishing a written lineage. But despite having those written texts, every Buddhist culture keeps the unbroken oral tradition alive. This living lineage is maintained in two ways – by reading and memorizing the ancient texts, and by placing great importance on the teacher-student relationship. Buddhist teachings often point out that it is quite difficult to recognize the nature of reality without the support of a living person who has come to that recognition. I say “quite difficult” because being a rational tradition, Buddhism recognizes that we can make all of the necessary discoveries on our own, without the help of text or teacher, much like a person who looks carefully at the stars may come to understand their movement. However, in most cases, it is more expedient to rely upon the written lineage and the living teacher.
The Sanskrit word Dharma, when capitalized, is used to encompass the words of the Buddha and all of the subsequent Buddhist teachings that have emerged, including the words of our living teachers. The word dharma, when not capitalized, has a broader meaning. It refers to all phenomena, including mental objects. A simple definition of dharma is: “That which arises.” If something arises, be it an object or an idea, beneficial or harmful, wise or foolish, it is dharma. When the Buddha spoke, it was Dharma, the truth about the way things are, and what he spoke of was dharma, all that arises. In other words, he was like Aristarchus of Samos, describing the movement of the earth around the sun – not an idea, not something new, but something primordially true and presently available to everyone. It looks one way, they said, but really, it’s another. It’s just a matter of perspective. All perceptions and concepts are dharma, which is nature itself. The perceptions and concepts that are accurate are Dharma, the laws of nature.
Both the written and the oral lineages of Buddhist Dharma are language-dependent. The Buddha made his initial discoveries, and then shared them with people through the use of the spoken word. Subsequently, those discoveries were passed from one person to the next in the oral tradition, and then preserved and expanded in the written form. If not for language, each of us would have to rediscover everything ourselves, without assistance. Because of language, we have access to the wisdom of those who have come before us. The written repository of Buddhist insight gives us access to the entire tradition, from the words of the Buddha to these contemporary teachings. When only an oral tradition exists, the sum of the knowledge of an individual is lost when they die, except to the extent that the individual has transmitted that knowledge directly to someone else. With written language, we are able to store and transmit much more information from one generation to the next. We have, in essence, access to the collected information of many generations of experimentation and research. For this reason, we are able to build upon the work of previous generations, always pushing the envelope of discovery.
We can see the language-based exponential growth of human information gathering and exchange exemplified in the rapid development of technology. Nowadays, almost all of what we wear, eat, and use as tools is built upon a framework of technology that is so deep and so complex as to be greater than any one mind can encompass alone. No one person can build a computer from dirt. It is built upon a vast infrastructure of information that dates back to the origins of mathematical concepts themselves – information that we have passed from one generation to the next in written form. Similarly, the Buddhist tradition in its current form is the product of several thousand years research, experimentation, and application based on the database of information passed through the generations in both the written and the oral traditions. The sophistication of the Buddhist tradition is such that even the first word of this meditation practice, AH, is something like a computer chip in that it contains a wealth of stored information built upon the accumulation of thousands of years of study and practice.
Somehow, we manage to store information in our minds, turn that information into words, and then transmit that information to someone else. We can explain how to do something, and if the explanation is good enough, someone listening to or reading the explanation can do it themselves. I can say, “If you freeze a banana and then put it in your smoothie, it’ll be delicious.” Of course, you don’t have to believe me. Instead, you can take my suggestion and try it for yourself. You may come back to me after you’ve tried a frozen banana in your smoothie and say, “I didn’t like it.” While we may have different opinions about the outcome, we can both agree that there was in fact a frozen banana in both of our smoothies, and you tried it because I used words to suggest it. The information was successfully transmitted from one person to another. Language is a bridge between the experiences of two people. Through language we can share our experiences with each other, and learn from each other.
When we look at it more closely, we can see that language is a means by which one person uses phonemes, shaped vibrations, be they physical or imagined, spoken or evoked through the written word, to trigger specific associations in the mind of the listener or reader. For example, I can use the word banana to trigger an association with that particular fruit in your mind. Though I have not even made the sounds associated with that word, when you read it, the sound, or the function of the sound, arises in your mind, followed quickly by the association. There is no banana here where I am, and there is no banana there where you are, but now we are both thinking about bananas because that particular collection of sound vibrations or imagined sound vibrations gives rise to the shared association with the fruit in our minds. The phonemes ba-na-na have nothing at all to do with the actual fruit, which is why there can be so many languages with so many different sounds all meaning the same thing. The sounds’ meanings are not intrinsic – they only have meaning through our shared associations.
Here we are exploring the meaning and the purpose of the AH sound in meditation practice. We can start by considering our shared associations with that sound, and then build new associations with it, until it becomes rich and meaningful. Then, when we read it, say it, or hear it, those rich and meaningful associations will arise in our minds as quickly and easily as bananas. In order to accomplish this, in order to turn the AH sound into something useful, we must build up its meaning gradually through repeated experience. Reading this book will be part of that experience, but in order for it to develop into its full potential, we must engage in practice, contemplation, interaction with teachers and other students, and give time to allow a natural maturing process to occur. If you’ve never tasted a banana, no words will be able to give you the experience. To know the taste of a banana, you must eat a banana. Think of this as a treasure map to a banana tree – just reading it will not be enough. You’ve got to put on your shoes, walk to the tree, pick the banana, and eat it. In this case, you’ve got to engage with your own experiences in such a way that you find out for yourself what Vajrayana Buddhists are talking about when they say AH.
In many languages, the AH sound is the first sound of the alphabet. It is arguably the first sound that most of us make, the first cry of a newborn. It is the sound of insight, laughter, tears, and the root sound for the words mother and father, mama and dada, ama and apa. On a very basic, very animal level, AH is the fundamental sound upon which we build all others. First there is silence, and then there is AH. In Vajrayana Buddhist practices, the AH syllable represents something similarly fundamental – it looks to the beginning of things.
From a scientific perspective, it is theorized that long ago there was an event, the Big Bang, which appears to be the moment that all of the matter and energy in the universe came into being. Our most sophisticated experiments continue to bring us closer and closer to an understanding of the conditions at that moment, now with measurements of gravitational waves that appear to have been initiated just milliseconds after the beginning of everything. The Big Bang theory seems to be quite accurate. Without contradicting that theory, another field of scientific inquiry has come up with similarly conclusive evidence that time is a non-linear two-way feedback loop, wherein the past affects the future and the future affects the past. The fact that time is non-linear, that the past and the future are simultaneous and interactive, does not negate the real and accurate observations concerning the cosmological beginning of things. There was a moment when this universe began, and not only is that moment simultaneous with now, but it is also simultaneous with all future events. While the scientific discipline is yet to arrive at a unified theory that reconciles the apparent contradictions between its equally accurate observations about the nature of reality, it is indisputably evident that both are true. There was a beginning of time, and also time is beginingless.
Now let’s consider the beginning of things from a Buddhist perspective. As with the Western scientific understanding of things, Buddhism includes creation stories from the perspective of linear time, as well as an understanding of the non-linear interconnectedness of all things through all time. Also like the Western perspective, Buddhism comfortably considers both seemingly contradictory explanations to be statements of fact. Because the traditional Buddhist creation stories are blatantly mythical, religious, and magical, we are not concerned with them here, but it suffices to say that they work as allegories to the more rational, non-linear perspective on the always arising spontaneous continuity of all things throughout all time. It is that non-linear perspective that we will now explore, starting with a look at the role of conscious awareness in our experience of reality. To keep things from getting too philosophical, I’ll begin the exploration by speaking from my own personal perspective.
Looking back at my life, I can’t remember having had any experience that took place outside the realm of my own body-centered, me-centered perspective. I can’t even fathom the possibility of having an experience outside the realm of my own awareness. While I have been alive, awake and conscious, everything I’ve seen, felt, heard, touched, tasted and thought, I’ve experienced only in my own awareness. Maybe I exist, and maybe the world exists. All I know for sure is that I experience everything in my conscious mind. My mind experiences senses, thoughts and feelings, and then it labels those things as self and world. I experience life always and only in the field of my own consciousness.
I was knocked unconscious once after hitting my head on the ground. I remember falling, and I remember waking up, but I don’t remember the unconscious moments. Several times, I’ve hyperventilated doing breathing exercises, and fallen unconscious. Similarly, after those experiences, I don’t remember anything about the time that I was unconscious. I was anesthetized once to have my wisdom teeth removed. I remember the smiling doctor, and then I woke up in the car in the parking lot of a drug store. My mother was inside getting my prescription pain medication. In every case that I have ever been unconscious, whether I’ve been knocked out, passed out, or medicated, I have no memory of the periods of time that I was unconscious. When I’m unconscious, I cease having experiences. For me, no consciousness equals no experience.
When I’m asleep, sometimes I am completely unconscious, in which case I experience nothing and have no memory of it. Sometimes when I am asleep, I dream. Though I’m not aware of my body and my surroundings, I experience dreams as thoughts, emotions, and pseudo-sensory experiences, and it all arises within the same conscious awareness that makes it possible for me to have experiences while I am awake. In my dreams, I am conscious, though mostly only of my dream-thoughts. When I wake up, I can say, “I was dreaming,” and like all of my experiences, my dreaming experiences happen only in realm my own personal awareness.
In addition to my ordinary sense perceptions and thinking activity, I feel a feeling of being me. My sense of self seems to be linked to my body, localized here within my body. When I use the pronoun “I” it evokes a feeling, a sense of being myself within my body, though I can’t precisely identify where my self resides. When I get introspective, I can’t find my sense of self in any particular location. It’s most certainly not in my appendages, because I can easily imagine cutting them off, and not losing my sense of self. When I really think about it, I find that my sense of self is connected with my conscious awareness. When I’m unconscious, I no longer experience a sense of self. When I’m conscious, I feel a sense of self. Again, upon investigation, I find that like all of my other experiences, my experience of self arises only in my conscious awareness.
I might say, “There is a world, because I see it, and I feel it, etcetera. There are certainly other people in the world, because I interact with them. Also, those other people seem to be interacting with the same world that I am. When my friend touches a banana, I can touch that same banana, and we can agree that it exists.” The problem with that is that my friend, the banana, the world – all of it is taking place within the realm of my conscious awareness. All I can really say is that I am having experiences within the realm of my conscious awareness. I am stuck watching the world through my own eyes, in my own mind. All of the information I have access to comes in in the form of thoughts and senses arising in my conscious awareness. I can never get outside myself to verify my existence or the existence of a world other than that which I experience within the realm of my conscious awareness.
I’m not talking abstractly about the existence or non-existence of the world, and I’m not trying to say that we create the world in our minds. All I am doing is stating the bare naked truth of my own experience. In truth, I cannot talk about the world, only about my conscious experiences. I experience seeing, feeling, being, thinking – a vast and ever changing flood of experience saturates my conscious awareness. Every moment that I am conscious, I experience my senses – sight, touch, sound, all of it, flooding my awareness. And every moment that I am conscious, I experience thinking, conceptualization, ideation. All of it without exception arises within and only within the realm of my conscious awareness.
All that any one of us can claim to know is on the basis of our own experience. When we read these words, they arise in our experience. When we think about these words, the thoughts arise in our experience. When we are awake, it seems that we observe and interact with a world of objects, sounds, and energy. There seems to be a world out there. But when we look more closely at the situation, we can only conclude that all experience is in fact arising in what we call consciousness. When we become unconscious, be it through sleep, drugs, concussion, illness, and presumably death, we cease experiencing the world of objects, sounds, and energy. It may be that there is in fact a world out there, but all that we know is that which arises in consciousness. There is no means by which we can explore the world except through the vehicle of consciousness. Everything, it seems, arises in consciousness, and without consciousness, experience ceases, so we cannot conclusively say that anything exists or doesn’t exist, only that the totality of our experience of existence arises in consciousness.
Here is our first opportunity in the journey of this book to engage in genuine Buddhist practice. I’ve just stated that we cannot verify the existence or non-existence of a world – we can only verify the phenomena of experience within consciousness. Many of us, when encountering this idea for the first time will immediately reject it, saying, “But clearly the world exists. It’s right there. Are you saying that everything is happening in my mind, that I am not only the center of the universe, but in fact my consciousness is the only thing in the universe, and that you, and everything else only exists in my mind?” This is Buddhist practice, not philosophy, metaphysics, or religion, so when we have questions like this, we engage in the direct observation of our own experience to find the answers ourselves. After we’ve spent some time doing that, then we think about our experience, discuss it with others, and ultimately come to our own conclusions. In this way, we are not relying on impossibly complicated scientific experiments, lofty philosophical conceptualization, or unquestioning faith in the pronouncements of some mystical authority, but instead verifying everything on our own, leaving us with nothing but the irrefutable evidence gathered through the working of our own intelligent observations.
To practice experientially, we begin by noticing that we are awake, aware, conscious. Consciousness is a feeling that we can find in our experience. We can say, “I notice the feeling of being conscious. I am conscious.” In this way, we can engage in what is called meditation with an object of attention. The object of attention in this case is our feeling of being conscious. It is good practice to reside in meditation for a while, to learn how to keep our minds focused on the object of our attention, but for our purposes here it suffices just to generate the experience, identify the experience, and then progress forward to the next part of the practice. When we can say, “I am aware that I am conscious,” then we can move on with the practice.
Next, we turn our attention to our senses. We become aware of our sense experiences. “I am seeing. I feel my body. I hear sounds,” etcetera. This should be very easy to do, so after spending some time being aware of our sense experiences, we can move on to the next part. We ask ourselves, “Where do these sense experiences arise?” It is natural for us to think, “I hear with my ears, I see with my eyes,” etcetera. But a corpse has ears and eyes. What do we have that a corpse doesn’t?
“My sense experiences arise in my mind.” Through investigation it becomes clear that having sense experiences depends on being conscious. When we are unconscious, our sense experiences are either greatly impaired, as in sleep, or totally absent, as in general anesthesia. After some experimentation and some thinking, we can come to the conclusion that our sense experiences do in fact arise in our conscious minds.
Now we can begin to think about it. Has anyone ever been aware of anything outside of their own conscious experience? Was Aristarchus of Samos paying attention to the movement of the spheres or was he paying attention to his experience of that movement as it arose in his thoughts and sense consciousness? If we are stubbornly honest about it, we have to say that no one has ever paid attention to anything except that which arose in their conscious minds. When we look at anything, study anything, think anything, all of it arises in the mind. It’s easier for us to recognize that things like thoughts, dreams, and memories arise in our minds, and more challenging for us to recognize that sense experiences also arise in our minds, but it is not an abstract metaphysical idea. If it seems too abstract, practice and experiment until it doesn’t. Remember, there is nothing here to believe, only something to try. Try figuring out where your sense experiences arise. Try finding something, anything that is not something in your conscious experience. If you can say, “Hey! I found this banana over here, and it is not arising in my consciousness,” then the ideas here are inaccurate.
Reading these words about Buddhist practice, it is easy to slip into the habit of doing what we usually do when reading about philosophy, religion, metaphysics, and mysticism, which is to merely read and then immediately evaluate whether or not we agree or disagree with the concepts being presented. We don’t usually do that when we read about science. When I say that quantum physicists have discovered that the thing that determines whether or not a photon presents itself as a particle or a wave is the presence of an observer, we do not say, “I disagree,” just because that sounds like a New Age idea. Instead, we say, “Wow! That’s fascinating.” We trust the scientific process to such a degree that we are usually quite willing to take their word for it, even when they say that consciousness is a determining factor in the presentation of reality. And we are right to trust the scientific method – it does a fairly good job limiting the development of false conclusions.
Philosophy and religion tend to lack such a rigorous framework for the development of accuracy, and there are a multitude of ridiculous ideas to believe in. In Buddhist practice, however, there are methods by which we avoid both blind faith and creative thinking that is disconnected from reality, and primary among those methods is direct experience. In other words, we perform the experiments ourselves, and arrive at our own conclusions. However, because the habit is to engage in either agreeing or disagreeing, believing or disbelieving when it comes to things that fall into the categories of religion or philosophy, it may be helpful to repeat again and again that we are not here to do that, but rather to engage directly, now, with the practice. That means spending some quality time – years – practicing and contemplating this simple meditation on sense experiences arising in consciousness.
What we are trying to do is to verify that in fact everything that we have ever known and will know, everything we will ever think, feel, see, and touch, arises in the space that we call consciousness. The scientists who study the distant stars, who look back in time to the beginning of the universe, are really only studying their awareness of those things as they arise in their minds, and any experience that we have of those scientists and their discoveries is ultimately an experience that arises nowhere but in our own minds. Just as the sun does not move through the sky, we do not see things outside of ourselves.
Operating from that understanding, it becomes clear that the investigation of the world around us can only be an investigation of our own minds. Likewise, an investigation of our own minds is an investigation of the source of all experience – all the world as it arises in our minds. We don’t need telescopes, microscopes, complicated math, or particle accelerators to study the nature of reality. Since all of reality as we know it arises in our conscious experience, by studying our own minds we can come to understand the nature of reality. We have access to the totality of our conscious experience, and since ours is ultimately the only intelligence we have to use, the only genuine study that we can engage in is to turn the light of our intelligence toward the experiences that arise in our conscious minds. In fact, that is all anyone can ever do. All the world arises in the space that we call mind, and the only intelligence we have to work with is our own.
In a nutshell, this is the non-linear Buddhist creation story: From the luminous expanse of mind, which has no qualities but is the basis of all qualities, which has no form but is the basis of all forms, which has no sound but is the basis of all sounds, arises AH, the spacious, open, awake quality of mind in which all thoughts and experiences arise.
When we intone the sound AH at the beginning of a meditation practice like this one, there are a number of ways that we can approach it. Of course, we can simply say it because it is there, without giving it much forethought at all. Doing it this way isn’t entirely useless, because it builds an association in our minds between the sound and the practice. Gradually with repetition, saying the sound will remind us enough of the practice that when we say it, we will immediately shift our attention from worldly concerns to the matter at hand, which is the nature of mind. Thus, we begin to associate the AH sound with the nature of mind.
In that case, we use the toning of the sound to remind ourselves what the sound means. We sit down, ready for our practice, and then we say “AH.” Having explored the meaning of the sound previously, intoning it reminds us of that meaning, and so the sound is a trigger for us to recognize that all experience arises in the luminous, infinite, open space of mind. In this case, it may be useful to intone the sound three times, rather than just once. The first time gets us started, the second time is practice, and the third time we settle into it.
A slightly different approach is to carefully consider the meaning of the sound before we say it, until that meaning settles into us and becomes the state of our attention. If we’d like some help focusing our attention like this, we can read one of the many works from the Vajrayana tradition that describe the nature of mind. Reading the words of the great teachers who have stabilized their attention in the nature of mind can be an effective way to remind us that our minds are the same as theirs, especially if the words are presented in a way that is accessible and inspiring to us.
It is also useful to simply sit and think about what we are about to do, without consulting the words of others. Oftentimes, I just sit on my cushion and think to myself, “Ok Tobin. You are about to intone the AH sound,” and then I work to generate the internal felt sense of that. I harness my mind and pull it into the rich awareness and meaning that I have come to associate with that sound. Like catching the rope dangling from a hot air balloon and pulling it down to earth, this activity feels like effort for me in the beginning, and the benefits are worth the effort.
Once mind has settled into itself, then intoning the sound becomes an action, an expression of the function of the sound in the present moment. While subtle, the difference between using the sound as a reminder of its meaning and using the sound as an expression of its meaning is a profound one. To accomplish this, before we make the sound, we take as long as we need to cultivate the living, present, engaged meaning of AH in our attention. Once that meaning arises as a feeling in the body, once we recognize the nature of mind, once we feel our own attention as that open, welcoming, infinite space in which all things arise, then we become the first sound in the universe, the resounding AH that hums, vibrates right at the dividing line between being and non-being, form and formless, sound and silence. AH is what there is before creation, before the Big Bang – it is the moment before everything. AH is always here – it is the luminous expanse of our own minds.
Our experiences of the world around us are dependent on our capacity to sense vibrations. Sounds are vibrations transmitted through the movement of particles in the air. Light is vibration, waves of energy moving through space. Touch stimuli are transmitted to the central nervous system through the waves of the chemical-electric signals that run through our nerve pathways. Similarly, our ability to interact with the world outside ourselves is largely dependent on our capacity to generate vibrations. Speech is vibration. Our body language is shifting patterns in the vibration of light. Our movements and even our thoughts are the product of the waves and impulses generated in our brains. We are, in essence, vibration detectors and generators. Because of this capacity, we can generate sound vibrations that give rise to images in the mind. In the case of the AH sound, we are generating a vibration that is an expression of the space in which all things arise. Intoning the sound, we are like magicians casting the spell that announces unequivocally that the whole of creation is arising from the luminous spaciousness of mind.
Intoning AH at the beginning of our practice in this way sets the tone for the rest of the practice. We are no longer just a person engaging in a Vajrayana Buddhist practice – knowing that the tone is an expression of the basic spaciousness of mind, the rest of the practice arises out of that space, resonating into the sphere of physical existence as a pure expression of Dharma. We are saying, “All experience arises from the luminous expanse which is the fundamental nature of mind,” and from that point forward, we have the opportunity to engage with the world from that perspective. The purpose of engaging in such practices is to spend as much time as we can operating from that perspective, until it becomes our natural view. AH is the first sound, the first letter, the first utterance, the beginning of the story of being that is told in the spaciousness of the awakened mind.