Western Buddhist Review

Review: Blue Sky, White Cloud by Aloka David Smith

On Fri, 11 January, 2013 - 17:27
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dhivan thomas jones
Blue Sky, White Cloud by Āloka David Smith, DharmaMind Books, 2012, 204 pages, ISBN 978-095424753-9, UK £9.98 pb, also in e-book formats.

Review by Tejananda

An abiding challenge in attempting to communicate ‘the way things are’ – the dharma – is the very nature of language. This is no small matter. In a profound sense, the very nature of the dualistic concept-generating mind itself is what’s getting in the way of direct seeing-knowing of how things are. In fact, the difficulty is illustrated in what I’ve just written: ‘how things are’. As soon as we read the word ‘things’, there’s an automatic assumption that some substantial entity is being talked about. However, the Buddha’s teachings of conditioned arising and insubstantiality (or no-self, anātman) indicate unequivocally that no substantial ‘thing’, or ‘self’ exists. Belief in separately-existing ‘things’ over-against a separately-existing ‘me’ is precisely avidyā – not-knowing, ignorance – the root of stress, unsatisfactoriness and mental-emotional suffering (duḥkha).

One of the main ways in which language can be used to deal with this is through paradox – a well-known device in Buddhist discourse, particularly in the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras. We could say ‘things are no-things’, for example. But this too can be problematic if the paradox is understood to be a property of ‘reality’ itself, rather than an inevitable consequence of the limitations of language and concept. Language depends on a subject and an object; in reality there is no really-existing separate subject or object, while at the same time there is not an undifferentiated unity either. It’s probably best if we always try to bear in mind that, as far as talking about the nature of the dharma-as-reality is concerned, language is just ‘a finger pointing to the moon’.

In his new book, Āloka David Smith uses this metaphor and points to this challenge in communicating the dharma and dharma practice: ‘the basic principle of this practice is to be in this very moment before any form of thinking or concepts are created; communication through words, however useful or even essential, can conflict with this basic principle. This is a conundrum that must challenge any teacher of the immanent model.’ So far so good, one might think – or at least, perhaps, until we come to this word ‘immanent’. What’s going on here? Is this what the Buddha taught? Surely he taught a developmental approach!

Well, such a response would illustrate exactly what Āloka is talking about. So let’s pause before we look at any real or imaginary issues. Āloka David Smith’s Blue Sky, White Cloud, based on talks that he gave on a recent retreat for members of his DharmaMind group at Trigonos in North Wales, is about meditation as dharma practice. I write ‘practice’ advisedly, as theory is always subsumed into practice in this book. This is not a book about Buddhism; it presents tools for entering and deepening dharma practice.

A certain amount of theory is unavoidable, and part of this (for readers unfamiliar with Āloka’s teaching style) is the need to become accustomed to the particular terminology that he has been developing in his teaching over the years. Understanding is assisted by a prologue which covers traditional terms such as the six pāramitās as well as his own terminology such as ‘Dharma Mind, Worldly Mind’ and ‘The Five Pillars of Transformation’ (both of which are subjects of previous books he has written). This is a handy, in fact indispensable summary, and it makes it straightforward for the reader to transpose from Āloka’s expressions to the underlying dharma principles that they embody. Anyone unfamiliar with his approach might also wish to read the Afterword before the main chapters, as this gives further background about the author and his approach to dharma practice.

Right from the start, it’s clear that Āloka’s approach is about experience. This means an approach to practice which is mainly non-conceptual – there is no conceptual ‘reflection on the dharma’ here. The dharma is approached and ultimately realised through immediate experience of what is here. This doesn’t mean that the thinking mind is deprecated or presented as somehow needing to be ‘expunged’, it’s simply put in its place. In terms of the finger-moon metaphor, the thinking mind is the ‘finger’ – it will never, ever realise or be the full moon of bodhi. Hence, in the first part of the book, there is a lot of emphasis on the non-conceptual aspects of our experience: body, posture and awareness of the breath.

The central concern of the book is the practice of ‘silently-illuming’, an approach to realisation which, in Master Hakuin’s words from the Song of Meditation ‘takes as form the form of no-form’. Āloka originally referred to this approach as ‘pure awareness’ but comments that ‘it always left me with the feeling that it was describing the practice as something dualistic and judgmental, mainly because of the use of the word “pure”’. Certainly, as ‘silently-illuming’ is a traditional Chan term for this practice, it’s very appropriate for what Āloka is describing. However, just as a side note, I tend to think of the ‘pure’ in ‘pure awareness’ as suggesting ‘unadulterated’ (as in ‘pure sugar’) rather than ‘morally pure’. No matter – ‘pure awareness’ as a term for this approach has other flaws. He also remarks that he rejected ‘just sitting’ as suggesting mere passivity.

‘Silently-illuming’ as described and evoked by Āloka is anything but passive. It is tantamount to the Sanskrit term śamatha-vipaśyanā, calming-and-insight. ‘Silence’ suggests in the first place the mind that has been calmed or stilled with śamatha practice. For this, Āloka recommends a variant of mindfulness of breathing, using the rise and fall of the abdomen as an object of attention. In due course, it becomes evident that ‘you have a choice either to buy into thoughts or leave them alone’, and if they are left alone, ‘they appear and then they fade’. Whereas – a good point – ‘if thoughts become a problem and unwanted it’s because you grab them and turn them into something that they are not.’ There’s some good hands-on practical advice here on skilfully cultivating śamatha and avoiding possible pitfalls.

When the mind calms down, and mental activities even stop, it’s possible to discover that awareness is present, ‘quite free from restlessness… no thoughts, no attachments, no habits, no conditioning, no desire to achieve, no person, no personality…’ If this is noticed, or attention brought to it, it’s where the practice opens into ‘illuming’ or vipaśyanā. Āloka continues: ‘to assume that awareness is only part of your world and your identity is an assumption that needs to be challenged if you really want to unlock the potential of who you really are.’ The importance of beginning to recognise the nature of awareness in this way is that ‘you begin to realise that there is a part of you that is forever free from all your craziness’.

Once this is recognised, directly (which is itself an arising of vipaśyanā), the essence of the practice becomes what Āloka calls ‘polishing’ – which simply means ‘coming back to the place of realisation and silent stillness by no longer getting lost in the world of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ – and doing this over and over. Once discovered, it is to this place of ‘silent stillness’ in which there can be no thoughts of a self that one goes for refuge. In other words, this practice of silently illuming becomes one based on genuine prajñā (wisdom), direct-knowing of how things are, beyond belief in a separation of ‘self’ and ‘other’. (I find the term ‘polishing’ an interesting choice in the light of the well-know poem by the Sixth Chan Patriarch, Hui Neng. This poem was written to counter Shen Xiu’s poem that spoke of the need to ‘polish’ the mind, as one might polish dust off a mirror. Hui Neng’s poem by contrast asked, as all is empty, where would dust settle?)

Job done? Well, not quite – in fact, not anything like, as Āloka makes abundantly clear in the rest of the book. This discovery of the ‘silent stillness’ of awareness is a very significant event, but it’s still far from full ‘awakening’ (though this mistake can be made). ‘Just here’, he writes, ‘you bang up against the habits of a lifetime and your attachment to being productive and making progress’. These ‘habits of a lifetime’ refer to the saṃskāras, the driving energy-force of craving, avoiding and ignoring, and their multifarious derivatives. There may be some genuine insight now present, but these are still very much alive and kicking.

For example, if our practice loses contact with the ‘non-ego natural illumination’, we can easily become spiritually ambitious, grasping ‘spiritual goodies’ in exactly the same way as we grasp in ordinary everyday life. This is pretty much what Chogyam Trungpa referred to as ‘spiritual materialism’. Again, Āloka is very good at pointing to kinds of misperception or hindrances that can occur even when ‘silent stillness’ is known; examples include boredom, inertia and a deadness in one’s practice, as well as the many and various ways of grasping.

Even when apparently dwelling self-lessly as openness and no-thing-ness, a subtle duality can easily be missed. Then, ‘distortion and attachment take place, and all you are doing is going round in circles reinforcing the self-myth’. In fact, Āloka points out, the self-view becomes more refined, yet more entrenched. The ‘self’ is becoming ‘wise and insightful and a bit puffed up’. It’s not that there’s no insight at all – there is. What Āloka is alerting meditators to here are issues which can occur, precisely, when insight has arisen. It’s this kind of observation that makes the book so useful as a practice manual. Āloka has clearly ‘been there’ and grappled with all these issues repeatedly himself and is passing on his observations from his own experience. There aren’t that many books that deal in this very experiential, hands-on way with issues arising not only before, but also subsequent to the arising of insight.

That said, there are a couple of turns of phrase which could be a bit misleading. These are mostly around what Āloka refers to as ‘the ego myth’, by which he simply means the self-view. He points out, correctly, that ‘breakthrough’ type experiences can lead to deluded and inflated views of ‘your’ dharma knowledge (p.101). He goes on ‘The ego myth doesn’t like to think that it’s misinterpreted anything, but rather likes to think that it’s making progress, and therefore always considers your experience to be an authentic one.’

Again, this is a valid observation, except that from this way of expressing it, it could tend to support the idea that the ‘ego myth’ really does have some kind of existence - it ‘thinks’. It’s essential to bear in mind that the self-view isn’t an entity in any sense at all, nor does it point to the existence of an entity, but merely an ‘automatic’ self-reinforcing mental habit, that is, a saṃskāra. My concern is that this way of expressing the point could tend to support the surprisingly common mistaken view that dharma practice is about ‘destroying the ego’ – destroying a really-existing self as distinct from seeing through it – rather than seeing directly that it never existed in the first place. It’s very clear from Āloka’s overall discussion of this that he’s not making this mistake personally, but a couple of expressions of this kind could do with clarification.

I’ve only touched on the useful and illuminating observations and practice hints that the book contains. One is the importance of getting out of your comfort zone. Opening to sky-like awareness, empty of ‘self’, can lead to a sense of insecurity because our usual defence mechanisms have been dropped. Rather than allow the defences to slam back into place, Āloka encourages us to ‘go into the unknown with courage and face your fears… habits formed around protecting yourself reveal a trepidation which for most of your life has kept you bound and diminished. Like a baby in its early years of playful development, you now learn how to respond to situations in life through experimentation, which by definition means you will make mistakes.’

This is very useful advice. Our fears can include the fear of ‘not getting it right’ or of being ‘disloyal’ to our teachers and whatever approach to meditation they taught us. Yet unless we’re prepared to experiment, our practice will remain stuck. If we do experiment, we’ll make mistakes, or what we could regard as mistakes. But without the possibility of mistakes, by staying safe within the confines of what we already know, we’ll learn very little in our practice and certainly not move beyond the self-view. The exhortation to be ‘playful’ is also excellent. Dharma practice is serious, but if we’re bound into some rather fearful idea that it always has to be very solemn, again we’re liable to remain stuck.

Among many other useful sections, one towards the end of the book takes the six pāramitās (generosity, skilful conduct, patient acceptance, energy, absorption and insight) and shows how they can be used to address the a common dilemma in dharma practice: ‘how to engage and commit to change without it being just another ego exercise of exchanging one personality for another’. In other words, replacing what we might regard as our ‘old, mundane’ personality with a ‘new more enlightened, bodhisattva’ personality. Which is, of course, just an idea – but, to the extent that it is not actually imbued with prajñā or insight, an idea that’s likely to lead to results that have little to do with deepening our practice and realisation of the dharma.

Āloka’s approach to the pāramitās is to see them not so much as a Mahāyāna version of the precepts as natural manifestations of realisation: ‘The pāramitās take you directly to discovery and engagement with your inner nature and therefore beyond the realm of self.’ To the extent that the practice is based on direct experience of stillness and illumination, you can discover directly that ‘the essence and engagement of generosity and ethics are motivated from within; your growing ability to trust and ‘get out of the way’ of these natural qualities will allow them to arise and function according to circumstances.’ Āloka helpfully draws out the implications of this in relation to all six pāramitās: if the belief in ‘I’ gets out of the way, these qualities are what naturally tends to arise in our lives and actions.

We need to return, finally, to the matter of ‘real or imaginary issues’. There is no avoiding Āloka’s frequent references to his approach belonging to an ‘immanent model’, in contrast to a ‘developmental model’. What is the difference? I’ve been wondering of late whether these terms don’t give a somewhat false impression, as if they represent two completely distinct approaches within Buddhism as a whole. Looking at this book overall, it’s quite clear that a developmental path implicitly underlies much of what Āloka is writing about: ethical practice, śamatha and vipaśyanā. And ‘development’ happens to those undertaking this practice – śamatha practice such as mindfulness of breathing gives rise to the ‘silence’ side of the equation and on this basis, vipaśyanā arises as the ‘illumination’ side. My sense is that there may be a practical distinction, but not a simple ‘developmental – immanent’ model distinction.

Perhaps the most succinct description Āloka gives of what he means by an immanent approach is this: ‘The acknowledgment and recognition of our own innate, ever-present liberated nature, or Buddha nature, is the one pillar that stands out from all the others and distinguishes our form of training from some other Buddhist schools… Not only do we acknowledge our true nature but we actively try to recognise it and bring this recognition into both our sitting meditation and our daily life. It is… the one feature that makes the Buddha’s path a truly spiritual path, because of its recognition that there is that which lies beyond the dualistic world; that which cannot be recognized and known other than through direct experience.’

I couldn’t agree more that this perspective is vital, but is there really a diametrically different view in dharma traditions? Teachings in the Pali canon reflect the view above, using different language. One well-known example is from the Udāna: ‘There is… an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unfabricated. If there were not an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unfabricated, there would be no emancipation from the born, become, made, fabricated.’ If we transpose this into terms of ‘going for refuge’, there is ultimately no refuge in ‘things’ that are born, become, made, fabricated, because of their instability and insubstantiality. A real refuge is only discoverable if there is confidence (śraddhā) regarding the ‘unborn’, while, to slightly paraphrase Āloka’s words above, going for refuge means actively trying to realise it. As far as I can see, this basic view is true of all mainstream Buddhist traditions.

If there is a divergence of opinion around this area, it may be to do with whether or not the ‘Buddha nature’ is ‘ever-present’, i.e. whether it’s simply ‘there’ but ‘covered up by adventitious defilements’, the removal of which will ‘uncover’ it, or whether it’s somehow actually brought into being, developed, made, by virtue of ‘practice’. The latter view – which would be truly ‘developmental’ – represents a mistake I’ve occasionally come across. However, it would amount to ‘going for refuge to what is born, made, fabricated’, and not going for refuge in the Buddhist sense at all. Nirvana is the ‘going out’ of craving, aversion and delusion. What is thereby ‘discovered’ is the ‘unborn’. In short, it might make sense not to speak in terms of distinct ‘developmental’ and ‘immanent’ models. I’d suggest that most mainstream Buddhist traditions are on the continuum between these two (apparent) extremes.

What is perhaps distinctive in Zen, Dzogchen and Mahāmudrā as well as some non-Buddhist non-dual teaching is the use of ‘direct pointing’ to the undivided nature of things (implicitly no self is to be found). This includes the possibility that ‘the moon’ being pointed to becomes seen-known directly. In other words, insight arises. Such approaches are distinct from the more structured, path-oriented approaches. Nevertheless, all effective dharma approaches do involve a path – an apparent personal ‘journey’. There is some kind of path that leads to understanding, the direct understanding that arises, and the transformation that arises in its wake – the sudden or eventual dropping away of obscurations and saṃskāras that condition duḥkha.

So, maybe the new controversy should be around whether there is a controversy at all! Be that as it may, I certainly don’t mean these comments to reflect on the usefulness of this book as a guide to practice. For anyone whose practice has reached a stage in which a more ‘formless’ approach is relevant and necessary, whatever their practice tradition, a careful reading of this book is likely to be very helpful.

Tejananda is Chair of Vajraloka Buddhist Retreat Centre, North Wales, UK.

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