From In Search of the Medicine Buddha
by David Crow, L.Ac.
There have been ages in the past when people’s minds were more pure. They were free of strong attachments, the cravings of self- cherishing, conflicting emotions. Before the world was troubled by the disturbances of collective ignorance, those who received meditation instructions easily entered the fathomless current, remaining undisturbed for days, weeks, and even months. "Now," Kalu Rinpoche once said, "even if a person practices all day, they will only experience a few moments of meditative absorption." How inestimably precious are contemplation's joys.
Far away, in the whirling vortex of the roaring city, people are moving here and there in repetitive gestures, producing this and manufacturing that, generating sales and increasing profits; those unwilling or unable to participate struggle to survive. Lines wind through stores, gas stations, bars and restaurants and theaters, hospitals, courts, jails, and churches feeding the destitute. Machines whir in thoughtful tones as they monitor our consumption; computerized corporate eyes and electronic mouths inform us of our balance due. A siren screams the pain of this existence, another wails as a life comes to an end somewhere. My heart murmurs ancient words of blessing and protection.
I sit, letting my thoughts unfold across the surface of consciousness, like the waves on Lake Fewa.
"As every thought arises, let it effortlessly fall away," Tulku Urgyen instructed me years ago. The old Rinpoche sat in his meditation box in a room full of shadows and incense, fingering his mala and looking out the window of Nagi Gompa. The monastery floated on the horizon of another world, surrounded by waterfalls and wildflowers high above the crowded streets of Kathmandu. Sitting straight up, the Tulku had looked at me intently through wizened Tibetan eyes and asked, "If you see the moon in the sky, and you see it reflected in pools of water, which is in reality the moon?" Taken aback by the simplicity of the question, I answered, "The moon in the sky." "Correct," Rinpoche had said. "So it is with the mind and thoughts."
Tulku Urgyen then told me to place my consciousness in the back of my head, look directly into my mind, and let thoughts fall away without grasping. Holding up his mala, he let it drop into his lap. “Like this," he said, repeating his gesture. "Look into the space between thoughts." We meditated in the silence of Shivapuri Mountain, while hermits practiced their devotions in caves in the vine-covered cliffs above us.
The Flower Ornament Scripture describes suffering as a web of fancified conceptualizing, habitual emotional attachment, grasping, and wishing. We chase every thought and passing fantasy as if they were inherently real, like the moon above, and fail to see how they arise from nothing, abide nowhere, and return to nothing, like pictures drawn with our finger in water, the trail of a bird’s flight through the air, or the moon's reflection. All our actions follow this empty play of nothingness, our attachments leading us into endless repetitive behavior and its subsequent consequences. "Discursive thoughts are the chains that bind us to suffering," Amchi-la once said. "As soon as we become attached to a thought, it leads to another, then another, and soon they spread into the myriad emotional conflicts and karmas of cyclical existence."
Kalu Rinpoche's spiritual forefather, Milarepa, sang of his liberation from the illusory chains of the mind. “He who is enslaved by his desires, insatiable and always longing, is ever sad. He who renounces all worldly things, free from worry and consideration, is ever joyful. A yogi who discards all ties, realizing everything is magic and illusion, is ever joyful. He who diverts himself, taxing his body and mind with sensuality, is ever sad. Do not bestir yourself and think too much. Put your mind at ease in a state of naturalness, and make no effort whatsoever."
And what happens when we sit and let each thought fall away, like Urgyen Rinpoche's mala falling softly into the folds of his robes? What do we see when we look into the space between each passing idea, concept, and fantasy?
"I have realized that flowing thoughts are phantom-like projections," the yogini Sahle Aui sang to her guru, Milarepa. "As waves rise from the sea they will vanish into it again. All doubts, errors, and temptations in the world are thus wiped out!"
The extinction of suffering lies in cutting off compulsive mental activity. With nothing to practice, resting in non-fabrication, non-doing, and non-striving, we discover tranquility, equanimity, and peace.
I think of Tulku Urgyen sitting quietly in his room, wrapped in blankets in his meditation box, casually fingering his mala like a rosary of forgotten worries. He was gazing out the window when 1 left him, across the Kathmandu Valley with its crowded and busy streets far below, so much like any other city. Everywhere, people are chasing after something, driven by hopes, fears, and needs through days of routines. It is rare in this age of confusion for one to dwell in the open expanse of mental freedom, contemplating the clear space of ungraspable quietude. Liberation is a joyful path, I imagine; maybe it is also a lonely place, where the great masters find themselves awake in a world of dreamers enslaved by the empty reflections of their minds.
Eagles soar through the afternoon sun, rain gathers on the eastern horizon, and evening spreads up the green canyons around Lake Fewa. In the mirror of my mind, I see sunset over Los Angeles. The freeways crawl like stagnant vaporous sewers, their inhabitants sitting transfixed with fatigue or impatiently accelerating their vehicles against the immobile mass. Above, the sky is the color of feverish blood, while below, the homeless gradually slip away from their unbearable reality into the strange realms of madness. The chemical slime of the city seeps through the storm drains into canals where the poor wash and drink, then to the ocean where children at the beach laugh and imagine the sea creatures that their ancestors once saw. 1 count the cycles of my breath on fragrant sandalwood beads brought from sacred Bodhgaya, inhaling the sadness of these hardships, and exhaling tranquility.
What have I accomplished today? No working hours have dragged by, changing minutes into dollars. I've made no business deals, attended no meetings of great importance. No material progress has occurred, and I have gained no delightful acquisitions to distract myself and impress others. Fame and fortune have not come my way while I rested in simple awareness, free of all such concerns. No worldly attainments, no socially redeeming productivity, no heroic deeds.
A bird begins to sing in the approaching darkness. It has a message, and I am listening. It sings for the sky, it sings for the trees, it sings for the animals, and it sings for the children. It sings gratitude for my doing nothing.
Photos by David Crow, Nepal, 1987
I'm sharing meditation techniques learned from my many years of study and practice in my newest training – Listening to the Heart. Please join me LIVE on Saturdays at 10am pacific until August 26th, or any time via the recordings that are posted after every class.