Riding the race horse of awareness - discussion of a video of Neo-Advaita teacher Rupert Spira
Last Wednesday’s session of the “Old Street” study group we watched a YouTube video called “Abiding as Awareness is a Non Practice”, featuring a talk by the spiritual teacher and studio potter Rupert Spira (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73hmMugiqGg&t=611s). Spira’s teachings are linked to the Neo-Advaita movement which has its roots in the Indian Advaita Vedanta tradition according to Wikipedia. This video was suggested by a member of the group who found that it had helped him to better understand the ideas of non-duality and “objectless meditation”, terms that we often use to distinguish our practice of zazen from other forms of meditation. All of us found the short video very inspiring, and it allowed us to have an animated discussion about our own practice. Zen practice and Zen teachings are not so easily understood. It is quite common and to look at various traditions and philosophies in order to deepen our understanding. But we also need to be cautious. To the Western mind, all “Eastern Spirituality” can easily look the same. In my view it is through attentively looking at similarities and differences that we can benefit most from comparing various traditions. This is what I am trying to do in this essay.
The video shows a conversation between Spira and a woman in an invisible audience. The conversation seems to have been recorded in the context of a longer seminar or retreat. Spira addresses two questions: “What does it mean of being aware by being aware?” and “Why is it so difficult to direct awareness to oneself?” To answer these questions Spria makes a distinction between awareness and attention. He invites the woman to direct her awareness to various objects - a bunch of flowers, the trees in the window behind her or the tingling sensation in the soles of her feet. He then guides her to reflect on the nature of this directed awareness. She agrees that the awareness of the flowers, trees - note that she had to turn around to see them - and the sensation in her feet are all the result of wilfully directing attention - “shining” in Spira’s words - towards these objects. Spira then asks her if she is aware. “Yes, I am aware” is the answer. Spira then directs her to reflect what she did with her attention to come up with this answer. The woman replies after some consideration that she sort of went “inside”. Spira clarifies this reply by saying that she went to an experience that seems to be inside the body as opposed to the trees which are outside. All that one can find when exploring the “inside of the body” are sensations, he adds. These are the same types of experiences one has when directing attention to external objects such as trees or flowers. Spira then expands this idea. In the same way we only find sensations when exploring the inside of the body, we only find thoughts and ideas when we attentively look into the mind. The relationship between the two statements is not made clear explicitly. But as I understand it, Spira says that when we think we look inside the body we really look inside the mind. And there we only find thoughts and ideas, including sensations or perceptions of ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ objects.
Spira stresses repeatedly that wilful attention whether directed “inside” or “outside” and the resulting mental impressions are not the same as awareness. Attention requires an object to stretch itself towards. Awareness itself does not operate on objects and neither can it be the object of an attentive enquiry. But if awareness does not have the qualities of an object, it is perfectly logical to conclude that it is not accessible to the faculties of the mind which are trained to detect objects. What Spira demonstrates in the first part of the video is that people mistake attention for awareness. Although we think that we direct awareness to this and that, what we really do is directing attention. But if awareness is different from the attentive mind and its contents, what is it and how do we know that it exists? Spira continues to subtly direct the woman from the audience: “Where do you go to find the experience of being aware?” And then, providing the answer himself, he explains that we know we are aware because we experience being aware. In other words, our subjective experience of awareness is the proof that awareness must exist. To firm up this point Spira guides the woman: “You don’t believe now that you are aware - it is your experience.” Looking at what has been said so far in strictly logical terms, we have two premises: “awareness exists” and “awareness has non-objective qualities and is therefore not accessible to the mind”. But how can we then experience this elusive awareness? Only by not trying to direct our attention towards it. In Spira’s own words: “... it is the opposite of the focusing of attention. It is actually a de-focusing of the attention.” And then Spira guides the women to the final link of his reasoning: “What is it that experiences being aware?” The woman gives the right answer: “I guess I would have to say ‘itself’.” Spira confirms that this is the answer to the original first question. In order to experience awareness we really don’t need to do anything, or in Spira’s words: “To know itself awareness only needs to be itself. The way to know awareness is to be knowingly aware.”
This logical framework also provides the answer to the second original question about the difficulty to direct awareness to oneself. As awareness is by definition non-objective, any attempt to approach it through the object-detecting devices of the attentive mind is doomed from the outset. However, when the only thing we know is using our attentive mental faculties, then the closest we can get to experiencing awareness is by concentrating on a so-called “blank state”. This blank state is still an object and therefore accessible to the attentive mind, but it also mimics the objectless properties of true awareness. Practices like focusing on a blank state or meditative introspection are compassionate concessions or skilful means according to Spira. They by themselves cannot give access to awareness, but they provide a starting point for the spiritual journey. In this context, Spira provides an interesting view on meditation and its role. He says that directing the mind to a blank state is often misunderstood as meditation. For him, true meditation has to be objectless. In Spira’s own words: “Meditation is the sinking of attention into the emptiness of its own source.” The objectless nature of awareness means that there can be no method whatsoever to experience awareness. And equating the notions of “method” and “practice”, Spira concludes that any practice is a movement away from awareness. Experiencing awareness has to be a “non practice”.
All of this is very eloquently and convincingly presented. But why should we care? We have to read between the lines to understand why experiencing awareness is so important to Spira and his audience. Towards the end of the video, Spira gives us a clue when linking awareness to the notion of self. As soon as awareness realises that it doesn’t have to do anything to know itself, this insight comes as a great relief: “I have always been myself. I have never truly left myself and became a finite mind. I was never truly limited! I have never really left home!” I understand these words as the description of a spiritual awakening or liberation. True awareness is the same as the self - not the little self of the ego, but a self that goes beyond individuals and that is undivided. Those seeking awakening and liberation need to find communion with this big or cosmic self. This is the contents of many Indian spiritual traditions. At various points of the video we also learn a bit more about the relationship of awareness, attention and mind. Attention is awareness that rises up, that “stretches toward” a separate object in order to perceive it. It is therefore not really of a different essence than awareness, it is just awareness in a different - and maybe degenerate - form. This “stretched” awareness becomes incapable of recognising itself. And it then becomes the contents of the “finite mind”. This limited mind is locked in the dualism of subject and object. Spira wraps up his talk with a beautiful simile of a horse galloping away from its stable. How can we help the horse to return home? We cannot violently stop the horse and make it turn around. Instead, we have to gently and lovingly turn its tracks bit by bit to one side, until it has completed a circle without even realising it. The galloping horse is us of course. And if we follow Spira’s advice we may return home eventually to our own self that we have never truly left.
There is a lot in Spira’s talk that struggling followers of the Zen way will find attractive - I certainly do. Here are a few apparent similarities that I have found:
- There is the wonderful simile of a lost person who realises that she has never left home. I heard my own teacher talking many times about zazen like coming home to a place where nothing is missing and that we have never left. The notion strongly echoes the idea of buddha nature, that subtle quality that we all have or are, but that is so elusive at the same time.
- The idea of the finite mind that cannot grasp the true reality of awareness immediately reminds me of the doctrine of emptiness. Each time we chant the Heart Sutra we repeat that all phenomena are ultimately empty, but no matter how often we chant this, we don’t really understand. By substituting “phenomena” with “attention” and “emptiness” with “awareness” we suddenly seem to have a slick model at our hand that explains the relationship between emptiness and phenomena neatly.
- Then there is Spira’s notion of non-practice. Is this not the same what Eihei Dōgen - the 13th century founder of today’s Soto Zen tradition - meant when he taught that zazen is not a method with an end but “just sitting” - shikantaza? The purposeless nature of zazen is difficult for most of us. Again, Spira’s concept of awareness abiding in itself seems to offer a plausible explanation.
- And then there is the Zen notion of “non-thinking” or “beyond thinking” - hishiryo, another cryptic description of zazen. We are taught not to identify with the body or the mind, but then who is it that is breathing, whose mind is darting around, whose knees are hurting and who cannot wait for the bell to announce the end of the session? Once more, Spira’s attention-awareness seems to provide an answer. Settle into original awareness, and there will be no more disturbing dualism between subject and object.
This sense of familiarity between Zen Buddhism and Spira’s teaching is not surprising. Buddhism evolved for over a thousand years in India together with all the other major Indian religions and philosophies. All of them influenced each other in the process. But it would be wrong to conclude that all of these traditions teach the same. I am not really qualified to provide a definite answer here what Soto Zen is and how it is different from Indian spiritual thinking. But what I would like to highlight here are three points where according to my current understanding Zen practice and Zen doctrine differs from what Spira presents in his video.
- The first point is probably minor and concerns the theoretical foundations of all schools of Buddhism. I am saying minor because the Buddha himself was not really concerned with ultimate principles. He focused on the practical issue of helping fellow beings to overcome very concrete suffering. Nonetheless, one of the most important and enduring insights of the Buddha is the teaching of non-self or anattā. This non-self does not only concern no notion of the little personal self or ego of humans. The Buddha understood anattā as the absence of any self, any sort of individual or universal entity, unity or divinity. All that exists is a constant flow of causes and conditions, producing and destroying all phenomena in an endless process. Phenomena only exist in relationship with each other and not independently. This includes Spira’s awareness which is as impermanent and devoid of intrinsic existence as anything else. Awareness therefore cannot serve as a basis for awakening in the Buddhist view. Spira places awareness in the place of the big, cosmic self. But according to the Buddha there is no such thing. It is of course true that in its long history Buddhism has also flirted with the idea of the absolute. This is just another way of addressing the great or universal self of other Indian traditions. Ideas like “the unborn”, “emptiness”, the “mind” or Buddha himself have been used at various stages to approximately describe an ultimate reality. And these quasi absolutes have then been used to guide peoples striving for awakening. But the doctrine of anattā has never been abolished. It has been brought back to life time and again whenever speculation became overbearing in Buddhism.
- The second point concerns Spira’s attitude towards the body. Spira dismisses the body as irrelevant when it comes to experiencing true awareness. “All there is to the body is just sensations” he says, and “The body is not aware.” For the followers of Zen the body is essential. And this again can be traced all the way back to the original teachings of the Buddha. For him all reality, humans, animals, plants and everything else were made up of material and psychological factors. This conviction has been formulated as the teaching of the five skhandas or groups of factors that come together in everything that exists. Four of the five skandhas are psychological - sensation, perception, mental tendencies and conditions, consciousness. But the remaining skandha and the first in the list is form or matter - the physical body in other words. And none of the skandhas can exist without all of the others. Master Dōgen refused to talk of body and mind in separate terms and preferred to speak of body-mind as a compound instead. The practice of zazen is very much a bodily practice as anybody will know who has tried to maintain the correct posture throughout a lengthy session. By dismissing the body and pointing towards a disembodied awareness as the source of awakening, Spira elegantly resolves the dualism between subject and object. But at the same time he opens up another one: the dualism between body and awareness or mind.
- My third and probably most important point concerns the role of practice. For Spira, practice is a concession to the “finite mind”. It gives the finite mind an object - the interior of the body, a blank state - so it can direct its attention towards something. But this practice can never be anything else but an aid for those who have not yet understood the ultimate truth of original awareness. Practice for Spira is a skilful means, a spiritual crutch. Once we have truly understood awareness, we don’t need to practice any more. In Soto Zen Buddhism this is not how we view practice. In Zen practice is the end, not the means. Practice, understood as concrete action, is what turns insight into tangible reality. In other words, practice realises insight - it makes it real.This is why we often say that insight or awakening is not the end of the way, but its beginning. What really matters is the practice that follows. Daily sitting zazen is practice. Living our lives according to the virtues of the paramitas - generosity, morality, patience, dedication, meditation and wisdom - is practice. Performing Buddhist ceremonies for the community is practice. In fact, the primacy of practice over insight is such that we often start to practice long before we understand. Initially, our practice is based on the trust in a teacher and in the tradition, not on our individual understanding. Our insight germinates and grows over the years as we continue to practice. As it matures, it informs our doings, and in turn the practice guides our insight. Our learning never really ends. Although our insight grows, it can never be complete. This is because reality is ultimately unknowable. It can only be known approximately, but never completely. In Spira’s view practice can be abandoned upon awakening; for Dōgen it is enlightenment itself.
I hope this essay does not come across like a criticism or dismissal of Rupert Spira’s teaching. If it appears this way, I apologise. I found the video as inspiring and animating as everybody else in the group where we discussed it. Approached in the right way, exploring diverse traditions can advance our understanding tremendously. But as followers of the Zen way, we also don’t need to be too afraid if we don’t understand everything all of the time. Think about all the knowledge that exists in the world, all that is knowable, all the books, the internet and the knowledge in the head of billions of living people. It will be immediately clear that no matter how much knowledge we accumulate, it will only ever be an insignificant fraction of the overall body of knowledge. Add to this equation all that is not knowable, and the base of our personal knowledge becomes even smaller. No matter how much we learn, we will always remain ignorant of most things. It is better to get used to this. This does not mean of course that we should not even try to learn. The right attitude towards knowledge is the one of a true scientist. True science is based on not knowing. Theories aren’t dogmas. They are to be tested time and again. Their truth is only a provisional one until an experiment exposes flaws. The follower of Zen should view all doctrines - Buddhist, Zen or others - in the same way. They are to be critically reviewed and tested constantly in the light of experience. They are to be abolished or modified if found wanting. In this way we can grow our understanding together with our practice for the benefit of all beings.
Discussion in "Old Street" group, 10 June 2020.