Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Emptiness - what the hell is it?

When I started sitting at the Zendo, I was handed the Sutra book and we were all supposed to recite certain sutras together. It was considered voice zazen - becoming one with voice. I was at a point where I did not want to take part in anything that would even remotely resemble any kind of ritual. In my search, I had found Zen centers to be the least ritualistic institution and since I needed a place which could provide me company for my sitting practice, I figured I would play along with a little ritual.

I chanted the heart sutra for the first time and it made no sense at all!!!! What do they mean when they say everything is empty? All phenomena are empty? There are no eye, ears, nose, tongue or that there are no perceptions and feelings? I have all of these and I feel and touch them, how can they be empty???

Answer came to quite a long time after I started sitting with this question of emptiness. A big part of misunderstanding had to do with the translation of the word in English. By being empty, we usually mean an object to be empty of something. A cup is empty of tea, a glass is empty of water etc. The emptiness that is mentioned in Heart Sutra is not this kind of emptiness. It essentially means that any object does not have an independent existence by itself, it is empty of an independent existence and hence it is subject to impermanence. An object comes into existence based on conditions, for example, an unpleasant feeling happens when conditions such as these are present - criticism, not getting what one wants etc. In the physical world, if we take example of the cushion - we can say that it exists because of cotton, cloth and sewing.

Once we start seeing that objects or people do not have an independently existing self, we stop associating attributes to an object and start to look into conditions instead. This is a big shift in paradigm - to be able to look into contents and understand then rather to look at a certain object as one single thing existing by itself. Looking into contents enables us to understand the "why". Why a certain object or a certain person is behaving in a certain way. With this shift, it is not possible to call anything good or bad. Everything happens as a result of conditions that came together. There is no absolute identity that creates itself.

In search of answer - part II

Well..so here is the second part..As I said, I could not find answers in the space and figured that this method was not going to work for me. It is interesting that I was trying to find if any one else had a similar experience as me and I could not find any one. It is puzzling to me but oh well..BTW the method that I was using was Deepak Chopra's method of meditation.

So, after this, I stopped meditating for a long time. However, I could not stay away from it. Nothing else gripped my attention and made sense. In the meanwhile, I had married my loving hudband and moved to New York from Peoria, IL. Since I could not stay away from the question, I started looking into different meditation techniques again and one choice that seemed obvious was Buddhism. I explored Tibetan method but could not stick with it because of ritualism. I looked some more and came across something called Zen. I had no clue what it was but I figured I would try. So, I went to the Empty Hand Zen center(http://www.emptyhandzen.org/) in New Rochelle for an introductory session. And I was thrilled!! This is a place where the teacher gave simple instructions, did not promise any nirvana or any other kind of magic, just instructed me to sit with myself and observe.

Now, one may ask, so how is this different from what I was doing before? The big difference was "to observe". I was not supposed to stop my mind or manipulate it in any manner but to observe its workings. This to me was the key to the lock. Observe the mind and understand what it is about, how it functions and how it drives. This in my experience is true meditation. It is very easy to get lost in thoughts rather to observe them and that is where the breath comes into picture. It allows you to stay focused in the witness mode. Later I came to know that this is called Vipassana in Buddhism. Samatha or focusing the mind is also important because without that, you can get into witness mode. Now, in my sitting, I fluctuate between Samatha and Vipassana, getting into Samatha so that Vipassana can happen.

I wanted to put this out there for people like me who are exploring. I could not find any resources or any one to talk about what I experienced when I was trying to get into the "space" of mind without any thoughts and how dangerous it can be. I am sure there are people who have gone through a similar experience. Anyways, the bottom line - mind's function is to think and nothing is gained by stopping the thinking process. One needs to focus the mind and get into concentration, in order to be able to observe but it is not healthy to try to "stop" the mind processes.

Monday, December 29, 2008

In search of answer - part I

I don't exactly remember how I got the idea of meditation. I had never heard of it growing up in India. I was born in a heavily ritualistic family and had the concept of not just one God, but many.

Anyhow, there came a point in my life when I could not believe anymore that there was a creator who rewards one and punishes one. Mostly the inequality in life was not making sense - why people are born in different conditions, why they have different desires and why there is good and bad. I thought if someone really had the power of creation, how could they allow bad to be created. Either they did not have the power to stop bad from happening, in that case, how can they be almighty OR they had the power and have created both good and bad.

Well, I looked for answers in various religious texts and could not find it. Now, it is interesting that the question was so important to me that I was spending all my free time on it. I still do and this also amazes me as to why I have this particular interest and not something else. Again, I have not yet reached the answer. Nonetheless, I came across some reference to meditation and figured that might lead me to answers. I found a teacher who was providing basic instructions and I started to meditate.

Initially, my idea was that I just need to focus my mind and somehow, magically, all answers will appear. My initial instructions were to focus on a mantra and try to get into "spaces" between thoughts. Basically, focus your mind on the mantra which will stop the influx of thoughts and slowly there would be spaces between thoughts and these spaces were supposed to be the glimpse of self or God. I did master the concentration and focus process, it took some good six months and I could get myself focused in no time and witness the so called "space".

So, what happened after then? Did I achieve nirvana in my newly found space? NO. I did not.
Actually, the reverse started happening. My brain's normal functioning was breaking down and it was going into la-la land, not good for a single person who needs to go to work to pay bills. I stopped meditating and tried to pursue other interests. But my programming, configuration of this machine that I call me, could not stay away from the question. It was still looming. So, what happened then? I will continue in part II...

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Well..here I am..was quite to reluctant to start a blog of my own but finally decided to do it! Watch out this space for a zen meditator's musings...:)