Buddhism, like all "ism's", can be irritating. But that's the case with everything in life, really. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.
I resonate with Buddhist teachings.
However, as I make my way through Rob Burbea's in-depth examination of the Buddhist notions of emptiness, dependent arising, suffering, and such, some chapters in Seeing That Frees are too Buddhist-geeky for my taste.
Burbea, like some practitioners who are really into Buddhist teachings, strikes me as being akin to a car enthusiast who wants to fine-tune every aspect of a vehicle's operation. So his book goes into great detail about some issues that don't concern me much.
But Burbea is speaking in large part to readers who, like him, are really into Buddhism. He often refers to meditation during a lengthy retreat, something I've never done or wanted to do.
That said, I should give Burbea some slack.
For everybody in my Tai Chi class, which has no beginners, is really into Tai Chi, as is my instructor, naturally. Thus the details about weight distribution and placement of the body in Tai Chi moves we examine would annoy someone who just wants to relax and move in a flowing manner.
Which makes my Tai Chi about as geeky as Burbea's book about Buddhist teachings is.
Today, though, my interest in Seeing That Frees perked up again when I got to a chapter on "Emptiness and Awareness." Awareness fascinates me because awareness, or consciousness, is all we are, really.
No awareness, no us. No awareness, no connection with either the world within or the world without. Even if our heart beats and our lungs breathe, without awareness we are essentially dead. Unconsciousness is an inkling of death if it is temporary; truly death if it is permanent.
Burbea has a pleasingly subtle take on awareness. I'll try to describe the "Emptiness and Awareness" chapter as briefly as possible, though "brief" is often hard for me to attain in my posts about this book.
He starts off with the notion that many forms of spirituality make a central part of their teaching: awareness is like the vast empty sky that contains clouds and other phenomena, yet remains apart from what appears within it.
As it opens and becomes more steady, it can seem more and more that all phenomena appear to emerge out of this space of awareness, abide for a time, and then disappear back into it, while the space itself can have a sense of profound stillness, or imperturbability, to it.
Burbea then talks about the benefits this view of awareness as a vast empty space can have for us, as people trying to understand ourselves and as meditators. Awareness as the container that can hold any kind of object of awareness is a simple, appealing notion.
Yet there is a "but" to this.
When the perception opens in the kinds of ways described earlier, the tremendous sense of peace, freedom, and beauty that it may involve can often affect a meditator profoundly. It can be very tempting then to suppose that what is experienced is somehow ultimate.
...Perhaps it is surmised to be truly transcendent, truly free of all conditions that arise in it. The notions of emptiness and the space of awareness may get equated, so that the space of awareness itself is regarded as 'Emptiness'.
Similarly, because the experience of the space seems to accord with various descriptions one might have heard or read, it is also relatively common for this awareness to be referred to, for example, as the 'Ground of Being', as the 'Cosmic Consciousness', 'Big Mind', 'The One Mind', 'The Absolute', 'The Unconditioned', or 'the Unfabricated'.
And since a sense of divinity often permeates experience, a practitioner may begin to speak in theistic terms.
Burbea then makes the entirely reasonable point that having a thought or feeling about the "vastness of awareness" is still an object in awareness, not awareness itself. In fact, he believes, as I do also, that it is impossible to be aware of awareness itself, for we only can be aware of contents of awareness.
Can you imagine being aware of pure awareness? I can't. For awareness without an object or content of awareness would be a void, a cipher, a nothing. There would be no difference between it and death.
So almost certainly "pure awareness" is a fantasy, for a fantasy can be an object of awareness.
Burbea then says that there's an alternative approach to viewing awareness as an empty space that holds all objects of awareness.
All things can seem at that point to share the same 'substance' as awareness, and all experience may be seen as essentially a 'manifestation of awareness'. Then, not just the knowing, but the content of experiences too is sensed as having the nature of consciousness, being made of the same 'stuff' as awareness.
In other words, says Burbea, moments of consciousness can be seen as having both a knowing and a known aspect, with the knowing (consciousness) and the known (the perceptual object) lacking any essential difference.
This makes sense to me.
Again, there is no way to know anything about an object without awareness of the object. So awareness does seem to take on the qualities of the object. Even if a mechanism like a telescope, microscope, or whatever captures the perception of an object, unless a conscious knower is aware of that perception, it doesn't exist for us humans.
Whether the attention is wider or more narrow, the key to this way of looking is to recognize that what is seen or experienced is just that -- an experience -- and then see it that way -- as an experience, a perception -- rather than in the usual way of looking, which carries with it the imputation of a solid object 'out there'.
However, in the end Burbea says while both ways of looking at awareness are useful for a practitioner, they make awareness into something it is not: an entity with inherent existence. Meaning, actually awareness is fabricated or constructed just as everything else in existence is.
Both of those views are available to us. In practice, we may sometimes have, and encourage, a sense of awareness as separate from its objects, and this view can be very helpful; and at other times we may have, and encourage, a sense of the sameness of objects and awareness, and this view too may be helpful.
In both cases, however, as part of this view, a nature of awareness has been asserted which will not ultimately stand up to scrutiny. We will see, eventually, that the nature of awareness is neither the same as nor different from its objects of perception.
...Even though it may be regarded nominally as 'not a thing', because it is not materially substantial, an intuitive belief in the inherent existence of awareness has not been destroyed yet. Nevertheless, this fundamental omission does not alter the fact that both views may be ways of looking that support a great deal of letting go, of freedom, peace, and heart opening.
And they may, if employed skillfully, act as stepping-stones to deeper insight and a fuller realization of emptiness.