Conduct and observance

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Wednesday, March 7, 2007


Greetings to all, and my apologies for my somewhat extended absence. I am, you see, on a business trip in China. It is only just now -- 5 days into the trip -- that I have arrived in Shanghai and am at my hotel room early enough in the evening to feel up to posting something.

Today's picture is the great wall in winter: the former edge of the Chinese empire.
One of the things I have been observing on this trip is how dependent we are on the state of our organism for our spiritual work. The organism produces all the energy we need to work, and when it is being taxed by external circumstances, especially those that arise as a result of extreme time change, the parts of us that are available to receive the kind of material we need to feed our souls do not have as much at their disposal as they usually do.

There is a paradigm in spiritual practice that suggests we should become free of external circumstances; that is, that somehow we can attain a state where the external does not have anything to do with how we are. Personally I think this is impossible. We can only exist at the juncture between the internal and the external.

In biology, it is well understood that habitats that represent edge conditions usually present the richest habitats. That is to say, on the edge of the wood in the brush there are more birds and animals than deep in the woods or out in the meadow. The coral reef, which is the edge of a continental shelf, is rich in life. The lagoons behind it and the deep ocean on the other side are less biologically diverse. Again, where cold ocean currents meet warm water there is an explosion of life. So the greatest diversity, the most food, the most dynamic and compelling conditions for life, all occur on edges. They occur where two different states meet and form a relationship.

It is no different in spiritual work. What we call our being, or our consciousness, inhabits an edge, a point between two levels: the higher level from which God emanates his holy energies, and the lower level where they are manifest in material reality. These two levels need to be in relationship, and it is the job of our consciousness to try and be present within this habitat, this edge, to bring the two together. Exactly as in the biological world, a very rich food exists here in this edge habitat we call life.

Allowing for that digression, back to my observations about my state. Although I had plenty of energy for meditation and enough energy to have a reasonable connection during day-to-day circumstances, it has been difficult to muster enough energy to engage in the active kind of pondering that I also like to engage in during daily life. So I see that there is only just so much available to me to work with. As I adjust to the time over here, more becomes available, and I see that all of a sudden centers within me are able to form better connections than they were when I first got here. There is a gradual return to a state that has more potential, more sensation, more receptivity within the vessel.

We might liken it to building up an electric charge that can do more. We are, after all, electromagnetic machines and all of the work that we do in living this life has an electromagnetic character of one kind or another.

In my own opinion, it is a good thing for us to admit to ourselves that our inability to attend to spiritual practice is not always because of laziness or deficiency. In many cases, it is actually a matter of potential: that is to say, we are doing pretty much the best we can with the energy we have available to us. There is not an unlimited amount of energy, and we should not expect to launch rockets with a thimble full of lighter fluid. We have to accept our conditions gracefully and work with what we have.

There was a man named William Segal in the Gurdjieff work who, in his professional life, followed the adage, "make do with what you have." Hope I am not misquoting him here: in any event, you get the gist. We need to learn how to be within the way things are and do what can be done with them. Without criticizing ourselves, without feeling that we are crappy or unable, without a negative attitude that colors all of our effort.

It's a good thing to just live this life, to be within it, to see that it is good food for our soul, and to constantly make an effort to meet it with love and sensitivity- to the best of our ability. We do not have to be shining stars all the time;

it is better to light one candle than it is to curse the darkness.

I miss you all, whoever you are and wherever you are. You do me kindness to read my words and share my experiences. Hopefully they are food for you in your own search.

Godspeed to all of you and I hope that I will give you more postings before the trip is over.

With love, Lee.

Thursday, March 1, 2007


Okay, already you are probably wondering what molecules have to do with spiritual questions.

This morning I was eating breakfast at the dining room table on a rag placemat. A certain kind of energy entered me and I suddenly got very very interested indeed in the placemat. The texture of the mat, the weave, the lint that was adhering to it, all of this became quite fascinating.

I was almost immediately aware of the fact that there was some very fine substance present, both in me, and in the quality of the impression itself. That is to say, something unusual in my physical body was corresponding to the way that the impression was entering me. Something that is not always present but that enriches my perception immensely.

Perhaps it isn't a matter of course to study spiritual questions from a scientific perspective, but if East wants to meet West I believe that we have to do this in order to have a better understanding of both. So there I was studying the exact nature of this phenomenon and trying to understand it at the same time that I bathed in sheer appreciation.

About 45 minutes later I was driving to work. My commute takes about an hour, and during that time I often ponder questions that have come up for me either or the day before, or on that same day. This question of the impression that entered me came up again. All of a sudden I understood it in a very different kind of way.

In order to explain what that was, I am going to have to speak a little bit about biology and medicine.

The way that the immune system functions in the human body is that various molecules attached to the surfaces of immune system cells are configured in just such a manner that they can bond with foreign molecular matter, that is to say, fragments of molecules belonging to viruses and bacteria. When a specialized immune system cell with the right kind of molecules identifies an enemy, it reports back to the system and instructs it to manufacture an appropriate molecular response. Soon the immune system is flooded with molecules of just the right kind to meet the invader and engage it.

Our system of perception is probably very much like this, but we don't realize it. That is to say, as sensory perceptions arise and trigger chemical reactions in the nerve endings that receive them, there are potentially a wide range of chemical molecules that can interact with those. Some of the interactions are preferable to others in the sense that if the right kind of molecule meets an incoming impression, it might produce a feeling of joy, for example. If that particular molecule is not present and some less suitable molecule engages with the chemicals triggered by the incoming impression, the impression is less fine. This is why there are times when something that we see or hear or smell will move us in a special way and other times when almost exactly the same thing does almost nothing at all to us.

Another way of saying this is that indifference is produced by molecular deficiencies. If we can produce more and finer and more suitable molecules in our bodies to meet incoming impressions, the impressions feed us in a much deeper way.

So the whole work of meditation, the effort of sensation and perception with attention, is of trying to take in the right food in life actually an effort to get the right molecules into position so that when impressions come in we are better fed

It is possible to sense this quite precisely if we study incoming perceptions in more detail, especially in efforts to assess the physical, emotional, and intellectual effects they produce when we perceive those three factors acting in concert.

At a minimum we can begin to see how we truly are chemical factories, and how we need to begin to initiate some responsibility for our chemistry. Once again, it may sound peculiar to speak about this in the context of a spiritual search, but studying it could prove quite interesting for those who see the point.

the absolute

I have been engaged in some discussions with friends lately in which the subject of the absolute has come up.

When one looks this word up in the Oxford English dictionary, one finds that it has a bewildering number of definitions. Some of the definitions include the idea of something being perfect, completely sufficient unto itself. Another way of understanding the word is that it means "unconditional."

So we could take this word as meaning "perfect, sufficient unto itself, existing before conditions." Already to me this sounds like some kind of a distillation of Zen Buddhism. Yet this is the very same word that Gurdjieff used so frequently in describing what we generally call, in Christianity, God.

It's a big word, there's no doubt about it. And it turns out that we sell it short; we know little about the many different definitions it has, the many different ways that it manifests itself in usage; in fact, it turns out that we probably don't know what it means at all. Which is all too appropriate for a word that in some senses stands at the crossroads of all the world's major religions.

Not to mention the world of physics.

I'm going to use the word in a particular sense today in order to describe something we ought to be aware of, yet rarely are.

Over this past weekend, I found myself in a particular state of organic awareness that grows out of what one might call a cellular awareness of breathing. This state is not about recognizing the mechanics of breathing but rather the chemistry of breathing, that is, what is in the air that enters us.

Gurdjieff had a great deal to say about breath and air; he frequently explained that it contained the material needed for the growth of what he called the "kesdjan," or astral, body. I cannot say much about that, except to remark that some of the damndest strange things arise if one takes on the practice of intentional and conscious breathing of air.

Anyway, back to the point. This particular state I refer to above generally calls one to a greater awareness of one's mortality.

We are not aware of the fact that we are going to die. We claim we are, but the only place that this awareness resides is within our ordinary mind, which is a tiny fraction of our total being. This particular fraction specializes in theory, and has little connection to the emotional or physical parts which could, if they were working properly, also sense that we are mortal. Many of you who read the works of Gurdjieff are familiar with his idea that only a constant sense of our own mortality could call us to legitimate spiritual work. He said this, I believe, largely because any such "constant sense" would have to be born of all three centers- not just a resident of the part of us that construct theories about what we are, what we should be doing, and so on.

When the breath connects to the organism in a different way, the fact that one is in a piece of meat that is going to die becomes much more obvious. Dogen speaks a good deal of how we are "bags of skin and bones." I think he- and other Zen masters- were discussing the development of an awareness of this organic sense of mortality.

Now, you might say to yourself, "damn, that idea sounds depressing." But it is not depressing at all. If the sense of our mortality is developed through a connection between multiple centers in the correct manner, it is simply a fact that leaves little room for fear. I know whereof I speak, simply because when I was younger I always feared death greatly, and there are parts of me that still do. This understanding of death which I speak of is a different kind of understanding.

And why do I bring all of this up under the title of the absolute? Because, quite simply put, we are absolutely going to die. Every moment that passes by us is an absolute moment: it is as it is now, and it will never be again. Death is built in to time as intricately as cells are made up of molecules. One could say, without stretching the analogy much at all, that the entire universe is made up of an infinite number of deaths that proceed simultaneously everywhere. This may be a bit of insight as to why Gurdjieff called time "the merciless heropass."

In the same way that death is built into the universe, it is built into us. We have no real sense that every breath we take is a countdown to the one last breath of our lives, because we live in a theoretical part. We need to become much less theoretical in order to understand our mortality. Let me stress- the only way to do that is through a connection to inner centers with a more practical understanding.

The centers that regulate breathing -- the instinctive and moving centers -- are eminently practical. If we stop breathing, we die right away. Being in charge of that kind of activity conveys a real sense of urgency. The parts that do that work. They work because they have to work, and they know it.

We don't bother working because we don't know we have to work. And that is the problem in a nutshell.

If we can develop a connection to the centers that do know we have to work, maybe we can get somewhere. For as long as we dwell in theory, rather than in sensation and breathing, we are unlikely to believe we have to work in any organic sense.

Within the context of active, organic mortality, we can discover a sense of acceptance and we can immediately begin to understand our lives less conditionally. By that I mean we see ourselves less in the context of the conditions our theories impose upon us and more in the context of the facts regarding how absolute life is.

Every moment where we encounter the absolute nature of a moment in life, we value it better, we learn more, and our sense of humility can grow.

Dogen's water

Water plays a central role in man's life on Earth, and it also plays a central role in almost all of the world's great religions and religious practices. It is, in fact, a sacred substance in so many different ways that to begin a discussion on it is something like trying to describe a beach one grain of sand at a time.

In Christianity, water is understood to have the ability to become wine if a man reaches a certain level of understanding. The allegorical meaning of this, to me at any rate, is that the impressions of life, which flow into us like water, filling this vessel of our body, can begin to convey something much richer and more intoxicating into us. When the blessings of God fill us, this water of life becomes wine. The famous Sufi poet Rumi understood this well; too often he speaks of the presence of God as an intoxicant, a rapture, a magnificent experience of the ordinary which lies beyond the understanding we usually carry in us. So the idea of life as a rapture is not just an idea we find in Christ's love; the Muslims understand this the same way.

Let's take a look at what a Buddhist says about this sacred substance of water, which can be understood as the fundamental substance of our life.

Here is a quote from Dogen's sutra of mountains and water. I quote this text from the Shobogenzo, as translated by Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross, 1994.

"In general, ways of seeing mountains and water differ according to the type of being that sees them: there are beings which see what we call water as a string of pearls, but this does not mean that they see a string of pearls as water. They probably see as their water a form that we see as something else. We see their string of pearls as water. There are beings which see the water as wonderful flowers; but this does not mean that they use flowers as water. Demons see water as raging flames, and see it as pus and blood. Dragons and fish see it as a palace, and see it as a tower. Some see water as the seven treasures and the mani gem; some see it as trees and forests and fences and walls; some see it as the pure and liberated Dharma nature; some see it as the real human body; and some see it as the oneness of physical form and mental nature. Human beings see it as water, the causes and conditions of death and life. Thus what is seen does indeed differ according to the kind of being that sees. Now let us be wary of this. Is it that there are various ways of seeing one object? Or is it that we have mistakenly assumed the various images to be one object? At the crown of effort, we should make still further effort. If the above is so, then practice and experience in pursuit of the truth also may not be only of one kind or of two kinds; and the ultimate state also may be of thousands of kinds and myriad varieties."

Okay, that's a long a mouthful of words. Some words, however, are worth more than the other words, and Dogen's words happen to be superior in almost every case.

Here he is speaking of water on a number of different levels, and explaining to us that this allegorical term means different things according to the level of being one is on.

In particular, he is speaking of water as the energy, or prana, that saturates all of reality and gives rise to everything that is. Because Dogen almost always speaks of practice- not theory, no matter how much people want to read theory into his words- he is speaking here of various practices, inner practices which involve the experience and transmission of energies.

The string of pearls is an esoteric practice involving forming a specific kind of connection between centers. Seeing water as wonderful flowers has to do with the practice of opening your inner flowers, which I have spoken about before on this blog. The inner state of dragons and fish, who experience the majestic palaces and towers of inner silence, is yet another type of experience. In fact Dogen cites seven different kinds of experience here, each one of which probably relates to a center. All of them are worthy of diligent investigation.

He goes on to say "when we keep this point in mind, although there are many kinds of water, it seems that there is no original water, and no water of many kinds. At the same time, the various waters which accord with the kinds of beings that see water do not depend on mind, do not depend on body, do not arise from karma, are not self-reliant, and are not reliant upon others; they have the liberated state of reliance on water itself."

What is this water he speaks of? It is nothing other than what Christians call the energy of the holy spirit: that rapture which descends from above, penetrates all, and contains everything within it. It is "our Father."

No matter what tradition one comes from, no matter what practice one undertakes, no matter what form one believes in, when one comes to this point of work, there has to be agreement.

To me, the value of the Dogen text is that it places an understanding of the rapture of this sacred water firmly within the practice of weaving a connection between the inner centers.

Yes, perhaps I am obsessive: this is a subject which I will continue to return to over and over again. In order to understand this, we must abandon the analysis: we must instead turn all attention inwards and intentionally seek a very fine "something" that exists within the body and can be used for that purpose. There is a great deal of assistance available for taking in the right kind of food if we learn to use our attention in an inward manner. This is the kind of work that turns water into wine.

If we want to receive the presence of God we must prepare a place for it. That place has to be a vessel, and the vessel has to be able to hold a little water.

The potter who shapes this vessel does not work like an ordinary potter. He undertakes a very physical kind of work, using a different kind of mind. He does not use the mind that makes noise or the mind that resides in silence. He does not use the mind he knows. He uses the mind of the unknown-

shaping a vessel precisely designed to receive what is needed

-where it is needed.

And even then the work is not done, because every pot, in order to be durable,

must be fired.

Love to all of you today, now let's get back to shaping clay-
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