By Rev. Kinrei Bassis
The universe is as the boundless sky,
As lotus blossoms above unclean water.
Pure and beyond the world
Is the Buddha Nature of the trainee.
O Holy Buddha, we take refuge in Thee.
A vital aspect of Buddhist training is cultivating a spacious mind. The above verse is what is recited at the closing of a meal in this tradition. That which will free ourselves from suffering is finding that spacious, boundless mind. It is easy to see the lack of spaciousness in our minds as we often spend our days filled with our worries, fears and desires.
One of our ways to cope with life is to actually narrow our focus and concentrate on the task at hand. We allow ourselves to be absorbed in what we are doing, on what we are seeking and on what we are avoiding. Just think of much of our mental dialogue as we go through our day. Often our success in life seems to have arisen from learning to have a narrow focus and being able to fully concentrate on our specific tasks and goals. This narrowing our focus to accomplish tasks is not completely wrong. We do not want to stop ourselves from successfully focusing on the many things we need to do, but we also need to maintain a sense of a deeper spiritual purpose. This helps us have a more spacious mind and a more open heart because we will both be doing our work but also bringing with it a recognition of the impermanence and the relative insignificance of what we are doing. Some spiritual practices can actually narrow our minds and close our hearts by having us just develop concentration on something. It would be like someone who meditates well only when all conditions are conducive for meditation but gets upset when some difficulties like noise or other people become distracting.
Sometimes someone will tell me how well they do with something, for example how they can be still and present and let everything go when they play the guitar. Yet it is not spiritually significant if you can be at one with your guitar playing or be at one with anything else you are doing. That sometimes may be useful but at other times it can be something negative because it is important that we be willing to see beyond a narrow focus of what we are doing so we have a sense of its true significance in the bigger picture of our life. Much of life’s irritation, frustration and worry comes out of this narrow focus that has us concentrating too hard at getting what we want in the present rather than having an open mind that sees what truly matters in a deeper sense. Frustration, irritation and anxiety comes out of this too narrow focus where we have lost sight of the broader view of what deeply matters in our life.
When difficulties arise, it is important to have what they call in Buddhism a fluid mind. It is the mind that can see both the significance and the insignificance of what we are currently immersed in. Yet one common way to misinterpret the Buddhist teaching of non attachment and letting go of all worldly desires, is to say this means all our worldly tasks have no importance. Everything we do has an importance and simultaneously also has a deeper sense of unimportance. A good example of this is let’s say I had a health problem. I can get absorbed in it, fixated on it, worried and anxious about my health problems. I can spend considerable time focusing on my symptoms of the illness. I can be filled with worries about the possibility of ongoing ill health or even dying. Taking care of my health is my responsibility and it has very significant importance, but on a deeper sense, life is flowing on and is bringing us to our inescapable decay and death. Our bodies must all fall apart. Yet we can cultivate the spacious mind that can see the deeper truth that is beyond ourselves, beyond our little mind which can so easily be obsessed with the importance of my body and the significance of what is happening in my life. Taking to heart our own inherent insignificance helps free our mind to see the deeper truth of the ever presence of our Buddha Nature.
The very concept of space can be helpful. Our mind can only conceive of space being boundless. Everything found within space has limits but space itself can only be conceived as limitless. Thus all the stuff in the world, all our lives, are just worldly conditions, but space can be seen as representing the boundless, the unconditioned. The Theravadin Buddhist Master, Ajahn Sumedho, liked using space as representing the unconditioned and everything with form or substance as conditions simply appearing and disappearing in space, the unconditioned.
The quote below is the words of the Buddha from the Udana Sutra:
O monks, there is an unborn, undying, unchanging, uncreated.
If this what not so, there would be no escape from that which
Is being born, dying, changing and created.
Everything exists within space but what we pay attention to is all the things we find in the space. Space itself is unbounded and unconditioned. Space is always there but what we dwell on is all the stuff that is filling the space. But to be really aware of the space you need to stop focusing on all the objects in the space. Space is fundamentally neutral and peaceful but all the stuff in space is what we are either attracted to or repelled by. There is the expression a “bad space’ but the space is fine, we are having a problem with the stuff in the space. We think that this room is messy and it is a bad space. Or I may not like the fact that the trees are dying here or how unattractive this area is. Space itself is not being affected by what appears and disappears within it. Now move this concept of space and stuff to meditation. Think of what we’re trying to do in meditation, which is in a way not to concentrate on all the things that pop up in our minds. We need to let go and just bring our awareness to the stillness, the silence and our breath. This allows us to become aware of what we are clinging to in our minds and this helps us to let go of many of these habitual conditions of our mind. And then we can become more and more aware of this open and empty space in which our thoughts and feelings all appear and then all disappear.
Life can seem to be nothing more than dealing with all our various worldly conditions. All the things in our life are conditions; my body, my relationships, the news of the world, the smoke in the air and the Covid virus, my health and ill health and my savings and my expenses. There is global warming, global heating, earthquakes, fires, wars and economic downturns. These are all worldly conditions, but space is not being bound by what appears with it. And in a way, we are all longing to find that which is unconditioned. We all would like to free ourselves from this feeling of being bound by these difficult, worldly conditions.
The universe is as the boundless sky. We can all find a deep sense of the boundless by cultivating this spacious mind that seeks to recognize that no conditions have any fundamental substance and in a deeper sense, they can never bind us. And in this way, a spacious mind has a room for everything. Yet we can be aware of this spaciousness for everything only by not getting caught up in what appears in our minds. The real practice of meditation in daily life is our efforts to generate this spacious mind that allows all conditions to flow through our minds, both what we want and what we don’t want: both good and evil, both pleasure and pain, both good memories and bad memories. The spacious mind, by not clinging to what flows into our minds also then allows all conditions to keep flowing out of our minds. The strong feelings like anger, fear and desire both flow into our minds and if we do not cling, they keep flowing out of our minds, and we can discover that they have the same substance as a dream.
People in the world can often have a successful life, but they generally generate their success by having a narrow focus and just concentrating on whatever conditions in their life seem most important; their family, their job, their pleasures, their accomplishments. Yet all worldly success can vanish at any moment. Think of a world today where we are dealing with a pandemic. The world is full of people who thought everything was going well in their life. And suddenly hundreds of millions of people in the world right now are having major unanticipated problems. They may have lost their livelihood, their savings, their health, and many are now stuck dealing with many new and unanticipated difficult conditions. Yet Buddhist practice points us to a spacious mind that allows us to open our hearts to all the difficult conditions in our life and still find freedom and peace, no matter what difficulties are unfolding in our lives.
In a way, Buddhist practice can be seen as a way of creating a more spacious mind and heart. And all our suffering actually comes from this lack of spaciousness. The real source of suffering does not come from the difficult conditions that befall us. It is the way we narrow our focus and get absorbed in our reaction to the difficulty. Lets say somebody says something hurtful to you. People often mistakenly think that Buddhism will free you from being hurt. That is wrong. Life will always be giving us both conditions that hurt and conditions that feel good. The freedom in Buddhism comes from realizing both have no substance and clinging to them are the same as clinging to a dream. Yet people can generate enormous suffering from something that was hurtful by obsessing on how they were hurt. They frequently replay the hurt in their minds and make those painful conditions important. They will cling to being a victim and how others hurt them. People can be very old and dying and they may still be reliving some hurt from childhood that they have kept alive throughout their long life.
The problem is not that something was hurtful. The problem is the way we feel that something went fundamentally wrong in that we had experienced deep hurt and pain. I remember talking to someone who lost their child and they were completely overwhelmed and consumed by this loss. And many years later, they were still consumed by the loss. Yet it the very nature of life to have birth and death and that does not exclude children. A spacious mind can even deal the loss of a child, one of life’s most painful conditions and embrace that pain within a deeper awareness of the inescapable everpresence of impermanence, and the reality of birth and death. I also remember speaking with a mother whose child had died. She told me that although the loss of their child was incredibly painful, she had a deep sense it was all alright; it just hurt like hell. She was hurt but she said she was at peace with the hurt and with her enormous loss.
We can be filled with all the problems in our life, the problems in the lives of the people around us and the endless problems in the world. Our unenlightened mind can be absorbed in trying to solve all these problems or by just not accepting all these difficulties. Yet the Buddhist practice keeps pointing us to letting things go and being at peace. We need to work at trying to have this spacious mind that can see beyond problems and let them go. And doing this will gradually generate a deep sense of something fundamentally good and positive that is always flowing through everything.
People often feel better at the end of a meditation retreat. Even though they often may have difficulty with all the meditation and had trouble letting go of their busy mind; nonetheless, when the retreat ends, they often find that their mind is more spacious and is less weighed down with all our normal habitual concerns. This points us to the liberating qualities of the meditation and mindfulness. I can remember when I first started to meditate, I had a difficult phone conversation with my mother that made me tense and upset. Then I remember sitting down to meditate and suddenly all these difficult feeling just washed away. And I realized, wow, I can actually let go of these difficult feelings. And it felt good. I cannot even remember what I was finding hard as it was just some insignificant way that mother could get on my nerves and bother me. But this was pointing me, in a small way, to a more spacious mind.
The spacious mind points us to liberation. If we learn to aware of the space rather than the stuff in the space, we are helping to free ourselves. It is the way, for example, that the space in the room is not affected by what furniture and furnishing enter the room and leave the room. The space itself is unbounded. We want that spacious mind which allows all our thoughts and feelings to come in and out. We are trying not to cling to anything or push anything away. They are whatever they are. We all will have endless good and bad conditions entering our mental space. Yet when we point ourselves to cultivating the awareness of this boundless space, the specific conditions entering our mental space start to have less importance.
One of the most common ways to translate the famous lines from the Scripture of Great Wisdom is, all forms are empty and empty are all forms. Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett preferred using the word, pure rather than empty but I, at times, prefer using the word empty. What Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett did not like about using empty or void is that those terms do not seem to have a positive aspect. If I tell someone, seek the emptiness, they may find it difficult to know what possible good can be found in emptiness. Yet the reason we need to seek that emptiness is that it is not really empty space, it is just empty of our little self. All space is filled with the sacred presence of what is indescribable. When we seek to let all our desires and fears go, we are then cultivating the faith and trust that within this seeming emptiness is the real life of Buddha, filling all things. Yet our normal, everyday mind can only grasp and understand conditions, can only understand stuff and does not have an intellectual understanding of the fullness we can find in this seeming emptiness. But allowing our minds to be more spacious points us to the unconditioned. We point ourselves towards liberation when we stop narrowing our minds with our grasping but instead opening ourselves to this boundless and
unconditioned awareness. Experiencing this boundless space does not bring a sense of something lacking but rather brings a deep sense of peace and joy. It is why Buddhism points us to Enlightenment.
When we are less bound up in our desires we can be more aware of the space, the openness around whatever situation you are dealing with. Be aware of the fact that in a deeper sense, nothing is fundamentally going on. It’s just all these various conditions appearing and disappearing in this boundless space. By changing the way we view whatever is unfolding in our lives, we can start freeing ourselves by learning to trust that nothing is really binding us. We find freedom is not found by getting rid of all our difficult stuff but by recognizing the ephemeral and empty of all the stuff. Everything is just conditions that are just appearing and disappearing in our spacious minds. That’s why we are trying to cultivate silence and space around all our obsessions, our fears, our thoughts, our problems. We can feel that something is going wrong when we are angry about something going wrong or we can choose to just notice it as an angry feeling just moving through our spacious mind.
We are learning to have a bigger picture in our life, a picture that includes more than just our problems and desires. If we are practicing Buddhism, we can try to see our lives within a vastly bigger picture. This bigger picture has us seeing that our lives are on the Buddhist path and this gives meaning to whatever we encounter and whatever we are doing, since it is all part of the path to Buddhahood. We are trying to be aware of the many things we have to be grateful for instead just seeing what is lacking. We need to try to notice the bigger picture of our life so we do not get lost in the small stuff.
Having a spacious mind does not stand against the ground of Right Action in Buddhism, of always trying to do what is good. If my dishes are dirty, it’s good to wash the dishes. If my room is dirty, it is good to clean my room. If someone needs help, and I can help, it is good to help. None of those things stand against the fact that “pure and beyond the world is Buddha Nature of the trainee”. Our spacious mind can embrace both the dirty and the clean room but it also true that it is good to clean the room and do whatever we can to bring forth more good in the world. And when we cannot clean, nothing is being fundamentally damaged by the dirt so we can be at peace with something being dirty.
One of the ways we get the more spacious minus is by letting go of the worrying and complaining mind and wholeheartedly doing whatever is needed with a grateful and positive mind. When we are washing the dishes, it is good to be washing the dishes. We can be grateful for the dishes. We can be grateful that we had food to eat. Much of the suffering in life comes from people thinking they need to seek the conditions that will make them happy. People are trying to grasp happiness rather than just trusting that true happiness is already there within this spacious mind.
Suffering is always coming out of us binding ourselves. It is the second Noble Truth, suffering is due to our attachments, due to our desires. Lots of conditions can bother us, irritate us, frustrate us. All of these difficult feeling are teaching us that we are restricting our minds and hearts and not being aware of the boundless space the surrounds all these conditions. Buddhists usually think it would be wonderful to be enlightened. Yet being enlightened means you have to be a peace with whatever is happening with you in this present situation and you are fully embracing wherever you are right now. It may be good to have improve some conditions but enlightenment means we are at peace with everything whether we can change it for the good or just need to accept these difficult or painful conditions.
Often people bind themselves with their reaction to their painful feelings. People often describe all their painful feelings to me and they want to know how they can make this pain go away. Yet, what’s causing them to suffer, is not the painful feelings; it is their lack of acceptance of their painful feeling. Yes, on a practical level, none of us want these painful feeling. I never want to feel embarrassed, feel hurt, feel scared, but I can find that in my spacious mind, that it is fine to have these painful feeling. We don’t have to get rid of them. We can just let it arise and pass in this boundless mind. We point ourselves to being beyond the world by not clinging to the pain and realizing that although we would prefer the pain to go away, we can still be fine with its presence. It’s the nature of things. As long as I live, I’m going to have painful feelings, just like health and ill health, pain and pleasure. Enlightened beings will still have painful feelings. They will just appear and disappear like a dream within their spacious mind.
Pure and beyond the world is the Buddha Nature of the trainee.
It seems to be completely normal to feel bound by endless worldly conditions. We free ourselves by realizing the world is not outside of us but the whole world is within our minds. It is not that this very complex world is not real. It is just the meaning of everything comes out of our minds; our desires and fears, our clinging and aversion, give the meaning and significance to everything we experience of our life and our experience of the entire world. Just like the meaning of slaughtering a cow comes from the point of view of your mind. It can be viewed as wonderful that this dead cow will be giving us delicious beef or awful that we are experiencing the horror of the killing of a sentient being. Yet when we let go and see the insubstantial nature of all the meanings we give everything, we can find that there is just boundless space. Just openness. Nothing’s binding us. Everything is within the boundless heart of Buddha. Our small minds may not fully understand what this means but when we are willing to let go of our desires and try to be still with an open mind and heart, we gain this sense of something open and boundless. This awareness helps us to trust that it is good that we are on the Buddhist path and that all we need to do is to wholeheartedly take the next step.