• Andrea Sangiacomo

Where to start? Where to end?

We might encounter teachings, practices, and other aspects of contemplative traditions in a pretty random way: a Buddha Head looking out of a restaurant window, a youtube video suggested by your best friend, The Algorithm, a book grabbed at a train station, a casual conversation... But assume that one has some slightly more sustained interest in this area: where should they start?

There is no ideal starting point, in the sense that most of the likely starting points will be just that: entry avenues that will have to be left behind as one progresses further and deeper. Different entry points might work better in different circumstances, and hence for different people. Three of the most common are the following:

(1) Find Peace. Most people today (as in the past!) experience some form of stress, in a way or another, maybe not terribly severe, or sometimes to the point of reaching burn outs. It might be due to study, work, social settings, or it might have just became a general attitude. Stress is rarely far away from anxiety and other forms of tension, constriction, and emotional discomfort. One common reason to look into contemplative traditions is to search some guidance towards greater peace of mind.

When this is the case, the most immediate starting point would be some sort of calming practice, in which one learns both to ground attention into a relatively restful and peaceful context (e.g. the body), while also learning to metacognitively discerning various unnecessary tendency of restlessness, worry, and dissatisfaction. Having a calmer context to pursue this contemplation provides a basis to realize that it is not necessary to follow those disturbances, one might let them go. The more one does so, the weaker they become. In this way, calm and insight work in tandem to relieve stress.

This approach requires very little theory or familiarity with the underpinning philosophy of the contemplative tradition one stumbled upon (and on this front, the Buddhist teachings are comparable with those of other schools, such as Yoga). However, despite some results might be appreciated on the short term, to push this practice further will require necessarily quite a long time (years at best, if not decades) of continuous and committed practice. Commitment to regular and continuous practice might indeed be the ultimately most important factor of all in a successful practice. But during this time, it is likely that initial enthusiasm or motivation might get lost or overwhelmed by external conditions, doubts, or simply run out of fuel, by thus compromising practice itself. That's why, sooner or later, one will have to get a clearer sense of what the long-term point of practice might be, and use that understanding to consolidate and preserve one's commitment to practice in moments of plateau.

(2) Find Pure Consciousness. What most contemplative traditions share in terms of their underpinning philosophies is a certain experiential background. Even when they employ apparently different methods, most traditions agree on the fact that it is possible to reduce mental activities to the point that all that remains in experience is just pure consciousness. The tricky part (and the point on which agreement between different schools ends) is how this 'pure consciousness' is further spelled out. In the classical Yoga school, for instance, pure consciousness is conceived as a self-standing substance, ontologically eternal and distinct from the world of 'nature', which includes the mind. In the later Advaita-Vedanta school, the whole world itself is reduced to pure illusion, and only pure consciousness is considered to be genuinely real. In the Buddhist context, there are some assonances between this latter view and the Yogācāra school. The Theravāda Abhidhamma, instead, takes the world to be real, and ordinary consciousness to be momentary, although it also accepts the experience of a 'pure awareness'. This latter experience forms indeed the bedrock of the approached developed by the Thai forest tradition, for instance.

The discourses themselves deliberately avoid engaging in metaphysical discussions of what pure consciousness might be (whether it is eternal or not, distinct or not from the world, etc.). They also do not explicitly theorize 'pure consciousness' as a distinct component of reality, but rather suggest that when consciousness ceases to be steered by intentionality, then it reverts to its natural state of quiescence, in which no further activity manifests.

Be that as it may, the experience (rather than the theory) of pure consciousness defines what 'real peace' is. This means that real peace is not when I am sufficiently free from hindrances and stress so that I can finally enjoy myself and do whatever I desire and crave for (!). In 'pure consciousness' there is real peace because even the activity of enacting myself as this particular character has subsided. Selfhood is something that is done, and as any process it can also be stopped and resumed. And in the discourses, selfhood is mostly understood as an activity of appropriation, craving, and concern. In pure consciousness, this form of selfhood (the 'me' who worries, craves, and wants) disappears. That's real peace.

It does not take too many words to spell out this view. But given that it is highly dependent upon experience, and that this experience is hardly available in ordinary life, chances are that a purely intellectual grasping of pure consciousness will be plagued by biases, conceptual preferences, and underlying prejudices (pro or con). One might start from the theory, but without experiential basis, it will be extremely hard to actually sort out what the theory is talking about, eventually sinking in the sea of possible semantic permutations and interpretations that can be produced to make sense of something that one does not (yet) experience directly. Nonetheless, one might also take precisely this situation as a challenge and see practice as a way of sorting out what this talk about 'pure consciousness' is about. In any case, the idea of pure consciousness provides a longer-term and broader context for understanding any effort aimed at creating greater peace, by also giving to the idea of 'peace' a deeper meaning. Maybe this is not the ideal starting point for absolute beginners (unless they are very much philosophically inclined), but it will have to be taken into account at some point.

(3) Finding the divine. The soteriological goal of the discourses is to bring about a complete eradication of the bases upon which the ordinary sense of self is constructed. This means that, upon reaching this goal, one can expect that nothing in experience will be interpreted and appropriated as 'mine' anymore. In the discourses, this process is most often presented as based on an individual effort (even when assisted by a community of friends and by teachers) and it is accomplished when the last trace of selfhood has vanished. Unlike later Indian traditions (such as Yoga, again) the discourses do not make much room for devotion to any form of divine entity as a means of reaching liberation, nor they understand liberation itself as somehow related with a merging with a divine entity. Perhaps also because of this seemingly "a-theist" (or better "God-independent") foundation, Buddhism has enjoyed large sympathy in the increasingly secularized context of contemporary Western society, which nonetheless still craves for some form of spiritual life.

However, from an experiential point of view, one might also see that something is missing in this presentation. Pure consciousness is not like a security camera (which sees but does not respond), nor like a radio (which speaks but does not listen). Pure consciousness is still consciousness, namely, it something that both listens and responds. Being 'pure', it does not necessarily listen or responds to any particular object or content of experience, but it is rather a space of pure listening and answering. Metaphorical language is inevitable in this domain, and one of the best metaphors is perhaps the idea of a silence, which is both listening and answering; or the idea of an original opening of experience, which is both welcoming and embracing, empty and full of love. By definition, this space is not 'me', since it can manifest only when 'me' no longer manifests. But this space is also not against 'me' in particular, since (by definition) it accepts the manifestation of anything, 'me' included. The issue is only assuming that 'I am' this conscious being, or that consciousness is mine. Besides that, pure consciousness has no qualms with 'me' being one of the possible contents that appears within it.

A consciousness that listens and responds provides the essence of what a person is. While taking things 'personally' can usually be understood in terms of appropriation (hence, something to let go of), the idea of dealing with a person usually refers to the fact that one is dealing with a conscious reality, capable of listening and responding. In this sense, pure consciousness is not an abstract entity, but it is best understood as a person (even if one does not venture further in articulating the ontological status of this person, whether it is eternal or not, etc.). And since pure consciousness is by definition the ground for any other possible experience, when it is conceived as a person, it must be a very special person, since it is the one who comes before and surrounds anything else. In human history, it is a common phenomenon to call this sort of persons 'divine', so we might call pure consciousness a 'divine person' (and even someone like Spinoza might agree on this use of the term). This does not have to carry any anthropomorphic connotations, nor to be linked to any particular positive religious system or infrastructure. It's just a way of denoting the singularity of this kind of personhood.

Now, the most crucial implication that follows from this reflection is that, on the one hand, this divine person becomes intelligible only insofar as 'I' get out of the picture, at least for some time. It is the practice that undermines the attitudes of appropriation towards experience that reveals pure consciousness at the bottom of it. But this revelation also shows that whatever else appears (including 'me') can only be a part, result, or somehow an implication of pure consciousness. And this means that fully understanding 'non appropriation' entails realizing that even 'myself' is not something I can dispose at my will. 'I' do not have the right to get rid of myself, since 'myself' does not originally belong to 'me', it is a phenomenon that appears within pure consciousness, and in that respect, it belongs there.

This reflection opens an entirely new perspective and broadens the scope of practice even further. The ideal of reaching the extinction of selfhood turns out to be just the starting point of a much bigger enterprise, which has to do with understanding how to surrender to the divine person one has discover to be their ground and master. In traditional Indian culture, this sort of path takes the name of bakthi, devotion, and it is surely not extraneous to the Buddhist tradition too (in which the 'divine person' is often presented in terms of 'Buddha Nature' or the quality of 'knowing' - Buddhahood - present in all sentient beings). Devotion is not a mindless attitude, but it is in fact a form of composure (samādhi). Devotion addresses a very specific and quite deep philosophical problem, namely, how to enact and embody the relation between the divine person and one of its manifestations/creatures/implications (depending on how one conceive of the 'contents' of experience that appear within pure consciousness). Finding the solution to this problem (which can only be a practical solution, namely, something that one has to do and to live) brings to a stage even higher than the ideal of awakening as just the extinction of greed, aversion, and ignorance, while also taking that as its condition of possibility.

If 'pure consciousness' might already sound too exotic for a beginner, talking about divine persons might be even more esoteric, bluffing and confusing (unless one is by character more of a faith-type). And yet, if one observes and reflects on the practice of letting go, and understands the basic injunction of letting go of oneself, it will become inevitable, sooner or later, to realize that this letting go and relinquishment of oneself can only take place completely when one let go of the very idea of being the one who lets go and achieve one's own awakening. 'I' cannot awaken. The only viable solution is to conceive of this process less as a solitary enterprise (and solitude is one of the landmarks of selfhood), and more as a relational effort, in which someone else is also involved, in this case, someone divine.

While difficult to grasp in the beginning, perhaps, this approach might eventually be the one that actually leads to the most important breakthrough, to the most complete relinquishment of selfhood, which occurs not in the solitary struggle of oneself against oneself, but in the loving surrender of oneself to the Other.

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