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Pointers, Doors, and Openings

In these notes I want to point out the relationship between the three marks of existence (the pointers), the three doors to freedom, and the three aspects of meditative experience (the openings). The three marks (change, suffering, and non-self) can be viewed as pointers, aspects of our experience that point to three doors of understanding (no definition, no aspiration, emptiness). When we go through these doors, certain experiences open up, hence, the three openings (clarity, bliss, and non-thought).

Change

Let’s start with the first pointer, change, which, when you really come down to it, means our mortality. Death is inevitable. No matter what we do, we will not survive. Everyone dies. No special ability prevents death, not strength, not beauty, not courage, not even spiritual awakening. Death presents us with an extreme paradox. On the one hand, it is absolutely certain each of us is going to die. Yet in our culture we have chosen to try to avoid this certainty as much as possible. On the other hand, there is no certainty when we are going to die. Again, we try to ensure through safeguards that nothing can possibly happen to us to interrupt our lives. Yet people have died and do die at all ages.

This presents us with a dilemma. How do we live knowing that we are going to die and not knowing when? Uchiyami Roshi, says:

…in this world of impermanence we have no idea what may occur during the night, maybe there will be an earthquake, or a disastrous fire, war may break out or perhaps a revolution might erupt, or we, ourselves, could very well meet death. Nevertheless, we are told to prepare the gruel for the following morning and make a plan for lunch. Moreover, we are to do this as tonight’s work. In preparing the meal for the following day as tonight’s work there is no goal for tomorrow being established, yet our direction for right now is clear; prepare tomorrow’s meal.

In other words, we do whatever is next with full attention but without any kind of expectation.

When we embrace life this way we find ourselves going through a door. The door is that experience is essentially ineffable: we can not say what it is. We can arrive at that door through meditation practice, by progressively seeing impermanence more and more deeply in our experience. We start with the observation that we are going to die, this life is going to end, I am going to cease to be as I am. We observe that in some way I am constantly ceasing to be. I am not the same person as when I was twenty years old or thirty years old. We begin to notice that changes occur on a daily basis and eventually on a moment-to-moment basis. We begin to see that there is nothing in our experience that we can say, this is it, this is me. It doesn’t matter where we start. In Eastern thought we tend to see awareness as what is real and that physical experience is a manifestation of that awareness. In the West we tend to look at things the other way around and say what is material is real and awareness is somehow added on to that. It doesn’t make any difference. We still end up with the ineffable nature of experience itself. This leads to a dissolving of the relationship to habituated reactions. We break the relationship between what is arising in experience and reacting to it immediately. In Buddhism, these two are clearly differentiated. As that link is broken we find ourselves opening to the clarity and the vividness of experience, the clarity and vividness of being. This comes because we begin now to accept experience without categorizing it, without putting a label on it.

Suffering

The Sanskrit word dukkha has a very wide range of meanings. It means everything from such discomforts as “I’m not sitting comfortably in my chair, I feel a little bit uneasy” right up to extreme physical torture, anguish, emotional pain, and all of those. The First Noble Truth says that dukkha, or dissatisfaction, is an inevitable component of conditioned experience. The Second Noble Truth says it originates in ourselves. More precisely, it originates in our emotional confusion.

One source of this confusion is the belief that we can find ways to meet our emotional needs. However, most emotional needs were laid down early in our lives. The people from whom we wanted love, attention, or understanding have changed. We have changed. We can’t go back. Yet the yearning remains, causing suffering for us now. Anybody who has practiced meditation for any length of time comes to a point when they see directly the process of how we create our suffering from such yearnings. When we understand this deeply it leads to a softening in us. Two things come out of that softening: we really understand how other people create their own suffering, and, even though we may not like them, we feel a natural warmth towards them. That warmth leads to loving kindness and compassion, a willingness to find a way to help them to become free of suffering.

As we accept suffering more deeply, we start moving through the second door which is no aspiration. Why do we suffer? Because we always want more. Its never enough. It is that grasping for something more which puts the whole process of suffering in motion. We enter this door when we begin to accept that suffering is a part of our existence. Joseph Goldstein notes that we often talk about letting go but how we actually let go is that we just let things be. It is not that we are actually letting go of something, we are letting things be right there. When we let things be we relax and open to the world of experience. There is a sense of happiness, even bliss, that comes with that opening.

Non-Self

The self in Buddhism refers to a specific self-image, that we are a permanent independent unit. We erroneously believe that we are, fundamentally, one thing that doesn’t change, independent of the rest of experience. None of these qualities make any logical sense, but we tend to hold to them emotionally and perceptually very strongly. The main point is that we never encounter ourselves as a permanent independent unit. It’s always a feeling or a way of looking at things. There is nothing actually there. There is no one to be. To experience ourselves that way isn’t a contradiction. It involves a deeper sense of dying. This is where faith connects with the practice of insight. The door here is emptiness or openness. There is nothing to hold onto.

Change shows us that we will not survive this life, that this experience we call life is ineffable. Suffering shows us that our emotional needs will never be met and points us to the fullness of experience and compassion when we let go of such yearning. Insight into self-image reveals that our efforts to be someone, to be something, are futile and generate a felt sense of separation from the world of experience. This is the final step in letting go of any attempt to categorize our experience. The experience which comes out of this is non-thought. Out of this comes a confidence of possibilities within ourselves. We are increasingly able to act without second thoughts and do what is appropriate. In other words, we come to know the stillness of the mind that no longer depends solely on conceptual processes to formulate responses to the world of experience.


Creative Commons LicenseThis article by Ken McLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.