By Dr.Tan Kheng Khoo
In order to realise the soul (atman), we must return to the Source. The Source is Unity. It is the One without a second. The Vedanta calls it the Parabrahman. It includes everything visible and invisible and nothing is excluded. From the beginning, all of us are discharged from the Source in batches (group souls). Each soul is thus a pure consciousness pinched off from the Source, but still connected to it. In the early stages of progressing as mineral, vegetable and animals we remain as group souls. However as we graduate to humans, the souls individualise to be separate human beings. The early humans tend to live in tribes for protection and economy. At this stage, they need mainly shelter, security, sex and food. At about 35,000 years ago when the Cro-magnons totally replaced the Neanderthals, man began to be more self-consciousness. But these Homo Sapiens only begin to ‘know that they know’ some time later. It is from here onwards that the law of karma came into its own in full force.
The Coverings of the Soul
As soon as each soul incarnates into the human body, each soul (atman) takes on 5 coverings (Koshas) to house it and for protection. These are (1) the covering of Bliss, (2) the covering of the physical body, (3) the auras, which are the subtle bodies, (4) the emotional body associated with some intellectual faculties and (5) the mind and its 6 sense organs. These 5 coverings protect the soul as well as being the vehicles for spiritual progress. However, the physical, emotional and mental bodies start to consolidate as an ego of the individual by stressing its separateness from others. This separation is facilitated by the presence of the 1st covering of Bliss and accentuated by the 5th covering of the individual mind. The covering of Bliss is the main source of our delusion---Maya. Following this separation process, the ego appropriates selfishness and pride with craving and desire. If the individual does not get what he wants, he becomes angry. Pride, craving and anger come from the mind (the 5th Kosha), and these traits are karma-productive. So for at least the last 30,000 years we have been accumulating karma. At each birth every soul brings along with it its Samskaras together with its portion of karma to be spent in this life. Samskaras are the tendencies, habits and imprints and impressions accrued from past lives. That means at this stage, every discerning individual is perpetually restless with suffering and there does not seem to be a way out. These lives of sorrow will continue until the individual decides to do something about it. At the peak of his sorrow he goes on to a spiritual search. He seeks for gurus, temples and ashrams, but to no avail until he is asked this question of "Who Am I?"
Who Am I?
When confronted with this question most people do not know how to answer it. They will say I am a father, a doctor, a rich man, a clever man or a smart guy. Others will say that they are good looking, athletic, old or young and hard working or lazy. We can go on ad nauseam but these are all the wrong answers. Then when we look up the spiritual books, most of them are no better. Your inquiry may take the following: Start asking what is permanent throughout one’s life. You will find that nothing is. You can only find what is not permanent. This is because the True Self is non-dual and inexplicable. One cannot describe it even though at this stage it is occasionally experienced. So we begin to earnestly question the purpose of life. Even those who are very successful materially, there is no peace of mind. The meticulous search brings us to the fact that the self is mainly composed of the body and mind. Having seen that the corpse is always left behind after death, we mistakenly believe that the mind with its emotions is the True Self. On further analysis, this is also found to be false. The realisation is that the self is nothing but a series of memories, experiences and acquired knowledge. All these may be forgotten and yet the self is carrying on as per normal. It is memory that gives us the illusion of a continuous self. The soul is Realty and consists of pure consciousness. This Presence is always there, ever bright and luminous. This Presence is the empty background against which all our dualistic mind-set is carried out. It is taking oneself as a separate individual that brings forth all the suffering and sorrow. Although one’s soul is void in nature, it is from this void deck that gives the soul its omnipotence. Let us now reiterate what is the false in us. The mind is the projected image of the ego and this image is supported by memories of the past. Memories give the illusion of continuity, but the individual has no independent existence. Maya consolidates this illusion of a continuous self. The mind can never be the True Self, as the mind is composed of momentary perceptions and experiences, which are connected to time. The True Self transcends time and is therefore timeless. We have been falsely taught that ‘I think, therefore I am’. This particular philosophy has been one of the greatest obstacles to enlightenment in the history of mankind. Then we begin to acquire knowledge and so-called truth from gurus and books? Even if these teachings are true, they are still second hand. Second hand knowledge cannot be the truth. Truth must arise afresh in an empty and quiet mind. This stillness and emptiness is beyond the mind, and this silence is the primordial background where the soul resides. The soul, which is pure consciousness, is really part of Cosmic Consciousness. When totally silent, it appears as Presence. Therefore in order to return back to our soul we have first to eradicate the ego and the self, which are obstructing the appearance of Presence. The first possible scenario is when Presence is seen as independent of the object and is a mere witness. Then one becomes pure consciousness when the witness itself is finally dissolved. At this stage, one realises that one cannot find the permanent Self because the seeker is what is being sought. The temporary self can never find the permanent Self. The eye cannot see itself, the eye.
Conditioning is the most insidious and intractable of all factors. We have been conditioned by our (a) birth and family (parents and siblings), (b) school, colleges and universities, (c) work mates and colleagues, (d) religious institutions, (e) social clubs and stratification of societies, (f) members of the professions and vocations, (h) nationality, race, languages, dialects and sex, (i) the tradition, (j) samskaras from past lives, etc. Therefore one can see how deeply mired one is in view of all the above conditioning. It is possible that a very heavily conditioned life 5 centuries ago can impose upon the individual a very miserable present life. This is especially so when so much pain and suffering is inexplicable in this life. This is karma.
Now trying to find out what is the mind, we have already discovered that it is at least made up of memories, planning, experiences, beliefs, ideas and ideals and all the above conditioning. The latter include Samskaras from the past. Religious conditioning may be so strong that it may goad us to defend that religion even to the extent of killing. This historical truth has been repeated many times. So in de-conditioning oneself, the layers to be peeled off, as in an onion, are numerous. Every layer peeled is associated with pain and conflict. However, the de-conditioning must continue until all the false layers are destroyed, and then we find that in the centre of the onion there is nothing but emptiness. Emptiness is our true nature, which is pure consciousness. It is imbued with light and bliss. One can see now that the de-conditioning process can be long and painful. That means it may take several lives. Some Masters say that time is against us, as Reality is timeless. We cannot use time to see the timeless, but the timeless can embrace time and space. Timeless Reality is always there, being the witness of every transaction of the individual. Our True Self is really not involved and does not partake of any activities of the individual. But if we are so covered by our delusions and false beliefs, how can we ever go near trying to uncover the timeless in such a short while? Therefore in order to come to the last stages of our development, we still need time.
Time is required to clear the trash can
We can see for ourselves that the mind is filled with thousands of years of conditioning and memories, and therefore one cannot delete all of them at one press of a button! At the moment of practice, we have ideas, ideals, prejudices, fears and desires of becoming. All these are the layers of the onion. The process of peeling requires the wisdom of letting go completely the constituents of the mind. Even if the latter are of high philosophical content, they must also go. This is because we are dealing with beliefs, which are not facts, experienced by ourselves. A belief is not a fact. That means, in true meditation one must try to understand that all contents of the mind are false and second-hand. These thoughts come and go in the background of voidness. This voidness is the white sheet of paper that all our thoughts and memories are written on. All thoughts appear and disappear on the white sheet, but the white sheet remains forever.
The Thinker and his Thoughts
It will help if one realises that the thinker and his thoughts are really one. They are not separate. As long as there is a thinker looking at his thoughts, there is conflict in that individual. Therefore if there is no thinker separate from his thoughts, there is then only thinking. Thinking is only a process and not an individual. Thoughts are just images on one’s mind-screen. And these are ephemeral and changeable. Therefore thoughts cannot be the True Self. In the same token, if the thinker and thoughts are one, then the thinker is also not real. It is by this process of Divine reasoning that one can go deeper into other states of mind and uncover the thousands of samskaras of impressions, ideas, prejudices and fears from the past. Our inherited tendencies since birth are also very binding, especially if they are religious in nature. It is in delving deep into these states of mind that one can see where our beliefs and ideas came from. It is the unfolding of the layers of our belief systems that we realise how false the contents of the mind are. Even if they were true they were just beliefs from memories. Therefore whether they are true or not they must be erased, as these are merely our memories. Truth must be experienced NOW. It is experienced and immediately released. Experiences of the past or planning of the future cannot be Reality. One can only "Be" at the moment and not to "Become" at a later date. The Being must be from moment to moment. An experience of the last moment is also a memory. And looking forward to the next moment cannot be the truth.
A Glimpse of Reality is a Powerful Insight
When Reality is experienced in the "Now", although one may not know what it is, one’s fears and apprehensions will begin to recede. This insight of Reality is quite powerful and the person tends to erase away the fear of death. The faith in Reality has also begun to disperse away the conflicts and struggle of life, because one realises that there is no separation of individuals. Every one and everything are interconnected. Nothing is outside this ‘Unity’. Everything and every one of us are part of Cosmic Consciousness. There is now a certainty that there is no such thing as evil, sin, devil and hell. All these are only present in the minds of certain individuals. There are no such entities in Reality. This is Divine reasoning.
The Demolition of Self by Attrition
At this stage of development, we have to realise that in order to be with Reality, one must destroy the self. The self is the enemy of the truth. Therefore, one must disintegrate the self by erasing all the components of self. The contents of the mind must be understood to be nothing but intellectual fabrications and these cannot be analysed out of one’s mind. Anything that is already in the mind is old stuff. The old is never the truth. The new is ever fresh and one cannot anticipate it. Reality is the truth that is living from moment to moment in the Now. That means one must be aware all the time. While performing certain act, no thought of the past or future is allowed to accompany the action. The action must also be spontaneously fresh and not a reaction. Therefore always remember that you are alive now, full of alertness and awareness, with the heart full of unconditional love. In this way of true living, one slowly erases all memories of the past, which is the self. The final blow of killing the self is to stop wanting and craving, and most importantly to stop becoming. Just flow with the Tao and surrender totally to Reality. In this practice of full awareness, the self will be slowly disintegrated by attrition. Each time a belief or ideal is found to be false, a layer of the onion is being peeled off. After discrediting each component of the mind by finding it to be false, the mind becomes a little more silent. This continues until there is total quietness in the mind. This silence and stillness can then allow pure consciousness (Presence) to seep through intermittently. Depending on the intensity of the practice, this seepage may become a flood of pure consciousness. During this period, even new concepts have to be dissolved. Otherwise a new memory bank is formed. As one goes deeper into the silence, the Truth becomes clearer. This total silence is transformed into complete emptiness, which is perfect Love. This voidness is not the absence of thoughts due to suppression. It is the still and silent voidness that is our primordial nature. We were originally void and silent, full of love. Then the ego took over and became full of self. The True Self is nothing but Unconditional Love. When truth is realised, nothing matters anymore. Every day is a good day. There is now no more suffering or sorrow. One becomes younger and younger from day to day. Living daily in pure consciousness is like being soaked in the Infinite and the Uncreated, and this Presence being felt every moment of the day. Every moment of one’s life is accompanied with peace, joy and bliss. There is no more conflict. There is no more contention, stress or irritation. There is no more desire to become. There is no more struggling or searching for the truth. One is the truth!
Acquisition of Virtue
So from the above, we can see that in the past we have conditioned ourselves by setting ideals, concepts and beliefs. In this way we have imprisoned ourselves conceptually. We try to escape from this mental bondage by becoming virtuous. As there is a lack of understanding of this dilemma, controlling the mind here is totally useless. Without understanding, one cannot escape from this deep, mental conditioning, as fear is the underlying support of this conditioning. This is because one tries to bring in another idea to counter balance the controlling concept, but it is of no avail, as only mental conflict will ensue. As long as there is mental conflict there is no peace. When there is peace without fear and confusion, silence is the natural outcome. So without conflict, strain and struggle, one can be creative with peace and silence. The only way to live is to be aware moment to moment. One should not be concerned with ethics, or to become virtuous. When one is aware one does not have to become virtuous, for in living in the moment there is no fear or conflict. There is only Love and Wisdom. One is just BE. In this way there is no more self.
Purification of the Mind
In the past, when religious doctrines teach us to be good we take a stand against evil. Because of the ego and the self, trying to be good and ethical becomes a battle of the opposites. Having taken a stand, we are now separated by the distinction of being in the ‘good’ camp opposed to the ‘bad’ camp. This distinction between good and bad prevents us from acting spontaneously. It only permits us to react according to the rules of the game of opposites. One can see now that the limited self must dissolve away before Reality can express Itself. That means this image of right and wrong is a falsehood that continues to obstruct the appearance of Reality. In the separation of good and bad, right and wrong our mind is suffused with self-righteous falsehoods. Using rituals like mantras, chanting, prayers and wrong methods of meditation will only entrench us more into a morass of deluded religious practices. One must drop every ritual, every religious belief and wrong practices propagated by religions and ‘Gurus’. No one in the world has an authority over the Real. Not even the ‘Holy’ books. The person must liberate himself by letting go of all beliefs and concepts. One can only let go when there is understanding that they are merely second hand precepts, concepts and mental fabrications. They are not real.
The Soul is Pure Consciousness
Once the mind is emptied of its contents, then the resulting pure consciousness can express the Real. As long as the mind is filled or partially consumed by all the false formulations the consciousness that is percolated will be equally confused. Individual consciousness is percolated consciousness. That means individual consciousness is muddied and befuddled consciousness. In other words, the mind is the sieve. If the holes in the sieve are blocked by falsehood, then the consciousness that is filtered through is of poor quality. It is tainted by the confused mind. Hardly any creativeness can be expected from this poorly filtered consciousness. Creativeness is beyond the mind. Consciousness does not exclusively remain in the mind. It can move in and out of the mind. In order to clear the mind of beliefs and formulations, one uses Divine reasoning, which is looking at the truth with clarity. Clarity is pure perception. This is the moment one sees an object, which is recognised and named. However, before the mind comes in to qualify the object, this fraction of a second is pure perception, which is clarity. Once the mind takes over the object, it is coloured or tainted by memory. But Divine reasoning can only bring us up to the end of the mind, as reasoning is useless beyond the mind. Reasoning does not function in Reality, even though it is Divine.
Love is Creativeness in Action
Individual consciousness is the entry point for Divine Consciousness. However if the mind is totally cleansed then Presence can bring in the creativeness that is ever present in Cosmic Consciousness. That means an individual can be overwhelmingly creative, when the mind is completely and totally cleansed out. The mode of creation is through Love, which is creativeness in action. Love cannot be measured or defined. It is Creative action and not reaction. So once one is filled with Creativeness in one’s consciousness, the only way of expressing Reality is through Love and affection. Without Love, affection and wisdom, Reality is not expressible. It is there, but it cannot come out without Love.
Reality is Timeless, Unknown and Ineffable
When one has penetrated beyond the mind into Reality, one realises that it is timeless, unknown and indescribable. That means it is impossible to put into words what has been experienced--- ineffable. It is also Eternity and omnipotent. Although this Unknowable is indescribable, it is also unending. The Unmanifest Reality can manifest anything. It can also make anything visible from the Invisible. This is the extent of its omnipotence. It is the Unborn, the Uncreated and the Unknowable. The only expression of the Reality is Love.
We have dealt with the theoretical side of Reality. Now what about the practice itself? Let us start with meditation:
Correct meditation is ‘meditating without meditation’
Meditation utilising the method of concentration by narrowing the mind to one object or one-pointedness is not correct meditation. This narrowing of the mind will not bring us to Reality. Correct meditation does not narrow the mind down by using a mantra, chanting or visualisation. True meditation should liberate the mind into stillness and silent openness. It is the stillness, emptiness and silence that will allow the pure consciousness to appear on its own. The stillness should not be forced. It should be a natural process of letting go of all thoughts and the self. One should not abide on any object, memory or ‘high thoughts’. All thoughts and mental chatter should be allowed to die on their own naturally. In this natural death of the mind, the blissful emptiness may then appear intermittently at the beginning. With practice this repeated return to our primordial base of silence and stillness will allow one to widen the interval between two thoughts. From the above then, one can conclude that all other methods and techniques of meditation are useless towards achieving self-realisation. The only helpful systems are mentioned in my article ‘Meditation on Emptiness’. In this essay, two systems are mentioned: (1) Dzogchen and (2) Shikantaza.
(1) Dzogchen is the theoretical reasoning and understanding of what is beyond the mind. This teaching stipulates that the mind is empty before the arrival of thoughts and void before we are born. It gives the same explanation as what has been explored above. It uses Tantra to deal with negative emotions. The practice is ‘meditation without meditating.’
(2) Shikantaza is the method of ‘merely sitting’. It is a practice of ‘thinking of non-thinking’. In fact it should be beyond ‘thinking and non-thinking’. That means every thought must be allowed to pass through the mind without dwelling on any one of them for even a second. One should not look at any thought or listen to any mental chatter. Just let them pass. Therefore thoughts are allowed to come to an end on their own accord. There should not be any coercion or suppression of thoughts as in concentration meditation.
Before one embarks on Shikantaza, it is prudent to practice Vipassana first. In Vipassana (Insight Meditation), one looks at one’s thoughts at the third eye area. The pictures are looked at calmly without emotional reaction and prejudice. There is no judgement, criticism or praise. There is merely a witnessing of the memories, planning and random thoughts. When they are fully looked at, they will eventually disappear on their own. With this impersonal looking with an understanding of the situation, these thoughts will die off, never to recur again. This must be done with an emotionless viewing as if they belong to some one else. Mental chatter is also a thought. It is a mental movement associated with hearing. This mental commentary can be quite torrential and incessant. Again, if one merely listens without fear, judgement and emotion, the chatter will die off like a blowing away of a storm. Then stillness will arise. It is not a forced silence as seen in concentration exercises. The emptiness is an opening for pure consciousness to seep through. In the beginning, this interval between two thoughts is very short-lived, but once experienced and maintained, it can be prolonged to a length of time. This is now the beginning of true and real meditation. If at the same time, the process of letting go or peeling of the onion is accelerated, one can begin to practice Shikantaza. In contrast to Vipassana, Shikantaza is not to abide on any object at all. Do not look at any picture that appears at the third eye. At the same time do not listen to any mental chatter. Just ignore all these pictures and mental commentary. In this Shikantaza practice, there is pure witnessing but there is no witness. This witnessing is ‘the one who knows’. The ‘one who knows’ is the Presence that merely watches events of the mind appearing and disappearing in the background of the white sheet. Presence is also there when one is in deep sleep. It is also there between 2 states. It is the background for everything that occurs in the mind. The white sheet is Presence and is also pure consciousness. Satori is the state of break through of pure consciousness into the mind. From thence onwards the unveiling of one’s pure consciousness progresses in stages until the final satori or enlightenment. The Zen teaching is that even after full enlightenment, the practice continues until death! Being in Cosmic Consciousness daily is like being in Nirvana every day. It is living in this world and yet not of this world.
Meditation in Action
When one is outside of sitting meditation, what does one do? The answer is to be mindful moment to moment. However, together with this mindfulness practice, one must also give up the 5 poisons of desire, anger, selfishness, pride and ignorance. There should not be any grasping or wanting to be something or someone. Love and compassion should be vigorously practised. The awareness practice is spelt out in detail in Buddha’s teaching of Four Foundations of Mindfulness. In this very difficult practice, one must be aware of every action at every moment. While acting, doing or performing any task, one’s attention is purely on the task. The mind should be left empty. The mind should not be wandering all over the place trying to solve other problems or planning what to do in the next hour or so. Neither should the mind be allowed to wander of to somewhere else geographically. It should be left empty or concentrating on the task at hand. Even when listening to a lecture, one can leave the mind empty if one does not indulge in commentaries and do not allow the mind to wander. When one is planning daily chores, sit down and work them out. And that should be the sole purpose. The periods of practice need to be gradually lengthened. Starting with ten minutes on the first day and prolong it day by day until one is fully aware all day. When this final eventuality occurs, one will be in total stillness while one is performing all activities. One is now just a neutral witness like a mirror with no emotions and no identification is made. There is no viewer. There is just the viewing. At this stage there is only bliss, peace and calmness. Of course, if in one’s previous practice one has already arrived at this silent awareness, then Presence would be automatically instituted as the mirror-witness.
Every day some time must be devoted to contemplating the theories enunciated above. Slowly day by day, break down all the belief systems, theories and mental formulations hitherto accumulated. Repeatedly know that it is the self that is obstructing enlightenment. Realise what constitute the ego and the self. The ego is composed of the physical body, emotions and the mind. The ego can be inflated or deflated. Use this theme: ‘I am not my body, I am not my emotions and I am not my mind’ as if it is a mantra, whenever one is not in meditation or performing a task. When this theme is repeated often enough and believed to be true, there will come a time when the principle is realised. Without Insight Meditation, it is more difficult to realise that emotion and thoughts are not ‘self’. It is easy with the physical body, as one would have seen quite a few corpses in our life time, and this fact alone would make us realise the stark reality of ‘I am not the body’. On a daily basis, work out what composes the mind and together with emotions what constitute the ‘self’. It is only with this regime of emptying the mind on a daily basis can pure consciousness seep through. The consciousness is made the purer day by day with the ongoing process of letting go. The mind-sieve is being cleaned up at the same time. This means letting go of all things material and mundane with no desire to become anything. There should not be any craving for enlightenment. With this process, the practitioner will come to realise that the thinker and thoughts are one. Both are empty. There is only the process of ‘thinking’. No one is thinking and the thoughts are just fabrications of the mind, and they are ephemeral shadows on the mind-screen, to be erased in the next instant when a new thought comes along. From this stage onwards there is only seeing without a seer. There is only hearing without a hearer. There is only thinking without a thinker. However, these contemplations must continue even after the Truth has appeared again and again. At this stage one has only arrived at the individual soul level. This is the Brahman stage. There is yet a final stage to be reached, and this is the Absolute, the Ultimate State of Consciousness. It is the Parabrahman. In this final state there is absolutely no individuality. There is only the non-dual background of silence and stillness from which all dual activities are enacted. We are now in the background witnessing the flow of the river, completely uninvolved with all activities in the dualistic world. One is now merged with Reality. God is in me and I am part of God. I Am that I Am. Cosmic Consciousness is Unity and includes everything in every universe and the practitioner is part of It. He knows now that he is the same consciousness behind the earth, the ant, the orchid, the dog and every individual. He knows that he has never been separate. He now knows that even if he wants to be separate, it is not possible to do so.
The analogy here is that the wave of the sea realises that it is only a wave and has no independent existence. That means the practitioner has self-realised himself as the soul (atman)---Brahman. But then he must go one step further by realising that he is also the ocean---Parabrahman. After realising that he is also the ocean, he now just merely witnesses the antics of the wave without identifying himself as the wave anymore.
That is why the Zen yogi does not stop meditating even after he has self-realised himself. Self-realisation is merely at the individual soul level. The Ultimate State must be reached. Once one is ensconced in the Ultimate State of Consciousness, there is nothing else to do. There is nobody there. One has now become a polished mirror.