Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly

What If Our Ordinary Experience Is All That Matters?

EACH TIME I sit down on a cushion and pay attention to what is happening, I find myself utterly incapable of putting whatever it is I’m experiencing into words. There’s something about the practice of meditation, be it Seon or any exercise in which we are asked just to pay attention to what is happening, in which we find ourselves confronted with what philosophers call the sheer facticity of our existence.

This is the inescapable fact of being this being that I am.

When I look inside, or say to myself, “I’m looking inside,” whatever that might mean, I seem to hit up against something that is intimately present to me but impossible to define. It always strikes me in the first instance as a particular sensation in the body, in the chest or stomach somewhere. It depends. I was reminded a few days ago of a passage by William James, who said:

[I]t maybe truly said that…the “Self of selves,” when carefully examined, is found to consist mainly of the collection of these peculiar motions in the head or between the head and throat…[I]t would follow that our entire feeling of spiritual activity, or what commonly passes by that name, is really a feeling of bodily activities whose exact nature is by most men overlooked.

Anyone who has spent time doing such introspection, whether in meditation or just out of curiosity about who you are, can probably recognize what James was on about. It’s curious that in pursuing such “deep” questions about the nature of who I am, in the end, if I’m utterly honest with myself, what presents itself is a completely banal physical sensation.

Some years ago I spent a couple of days in Nagi Gompa, a nunnery up in the hills above Kathmandu in Nepal, where I went to study Dzogchen with a teacher called Urgyen Tulku. From him I received the “pointing-out instruction” in which the teacher points out to you the nature of your mind, or—even more than that—the nature of rigpa, a primordial, pristine awareness that is more than your ordinary, everyday mind. But the problem was that no matter how much Urgyen Tulku tried to point this out to me, what I found myself actually aware of was a physical sensation somewhere in my body.

When I told him this, he said, “No! Look! It is without form, without shape, without color, without sensation,” and so on. But however much I was told what rigpa was, I could not get beyond a physical sensation somewhere in my body. Before I could think of mind or (or in colloquial Korean), which is the Chinese/Korean/Japanese word for the Pali word —“mind,” or “heart–mind” if you wish—but in his teaching it was really not very different from the rigpa of Dzogchen. When Kusan Sunim taught us to ask “What is this?” for him the “this” meant shin.

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