Saturday, January 21, 2012

Paravritti 2

by Tenabah c2012

I wanted to share a little more about the word "paravritti". The word appears in the Lankavatara Sutra in Buddhism. This sutra was the one that Bodhidharma, the sixth lineage holder of Zen Buddhism, studied and felt was the only sutra that a person needed to study in order to gain enlightenment. The word "paravritti" is a word used as a synonym for enlightenment. But like each synonym for enlightenment, it has its own unique gift and unique meaning. The Buddhist scholar Edward Conze translates this word as "a deep turning within the innermost consciousness".

I found this interesting because Jesus, when he starts his own Dharma teaching, says, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand." In ancient world of Jesus and Buddha, a teacher would usually sound a summary theme early in their teaching life. It would be like the four notes of Beethoven's fifth symphony upon which all kinds of more complex musical themes would develop off of or spin off of. The word for "repent" in the New Testament Greek of this summary theme is "metanoia" which literally means "go above (meta) your usual consciousness (noia)" and which also has the implied meaning of a deep turning within consciousness. In Jewish mystical writings, the idea of repentance is usually associated with changing direction, of moving in one direction with our lives and then turning completely around to go another direction. It is sometimes framed as living an "unrighteous" life to moving "towards God" who is seen as the source of love, compassion, and mercy (and who automatically forgives all sins when we do so).

The phrase "Kingdom of God" is a curious one in this passage, because it is in the present tense and is described as something within reach. Later passages describe this place as "within us and among us" (Luke 17). It is never used as identical to the word "heaven". In the Aramaic, the word translates as "kingdom" is "malkutha" and connects with the first of the ten spheres of life in the Qabalah. It is used to describe the Earth. In the prayer of Jesus has "te te malkutha" (part of "Thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven"). It has the meaning of stepping into a kind of new Earth, living trust of the Divine, letting it organize synchronicities to support how your life unfolds, and taking all events from this point onwards as meaningful and purposeful, within the hands of one higher power that rules over all lesser powers and which does not struggle with evil or need to struggle with evil. In short, Earth is part of heaven in this vision, just as Earth is part of the solar system. It is about stepping in faith and with free choice into a new heaven and a new Earth instantly, in the here and now, by entering into "metanoia", a transformed consciousness. In this new world, there are only two commandments that are "like unto" each other, "love God with all your heart (aka your everything)" and "love your neighbor (aka everyone) as your self". There is an implication that these two commandments are really the same commandment, that we are meant to love our neighbor and ourselves "as God" and to love God through loving our neighbor. It fits John 17 where Jesus prays that all his disciples be one "just as" he and God are one. In this passage, too, he talks of "gnosis", a special kind of knowledge that can only come from direct living experience, and which cannot come through conceptual analysis or dogmatic belief in some assertion being true. Both are experientially blind (the word "revelation" in the Greek of the NT having the meaning of "removal of scales from the eyes"). He uses a form of the word "gnosis" in this chapter in a sentence that talks about "eternal life" (which in the Gospel of John seems to be a synonym for "kingdom of God") IS knowing God. This word for knowing is also used to describe how two lovers know each other in intimate loving sexual union. It is obviously more than intellectually believing your lover exists or dogmatically believing that your lover exists, and must necessarily be experiential.

Buddhism usually avoids theistic God language. It sometimes avoids it so much that many religious scholars in Christianity have categorized Buddha as an atheist or an agnostic. Others have assumed that Buddhism has some kind of idea of ultimate Divinity since in the experience of "nirvana", the third noble truth of the Buddha ("Nirvana is peace"), one experiences something the Buddha called "the unborn, the unchanging, and undying" (aka the Eternal). The Buddha used a lot of negation language, because he wanted to cut through every concept to reach a nonconceptual truth that the Zen Buddhists called "the Great Affirmation". In the Prajnaparmita set of sutras, there is a theme where even "Buddhist concepts" are also negated to reach this nonconceptual truth ("If even the Buddha's thoughts are meant to be transcended, how much more so even worldly thoughts"). This is a theme that I find a lot of people do not always "grok" about Buddhism, that it is more of a anti-philosophy than a philosophy and a non-belief system rather than a belief system, and even a kind of minimalist religion in that it is a way of life that is stripped down to something very essential. It does not mean either "atheism" (not believing in the existence of God) or theism (believing in the existence of God), because it is not about settling for any kind of belief at all. It is an insight into all conceptual beliefs and how they are not enlightenment. To use a metaphor to describe the view, if you liken the mind to a room full of furniture (with the mind being the space, and the concepts being the furniture), then a theist is one who has a beautiful giant statue in the middle of the room and an atheist has the same statue upside down. A Buddhist is one who notices what is in the room when all the furniture is removed.

What I got is that "paravritti" could be described if we assume we have two minds (we actually have about 12 different kinds of minds with 48 active factors and 52 peaceful factors). These two minds could be labelled "thinking mind" and "aware mind". The first mind focuses on interpreting, analyzing, testing, believing, and disbelieving. This mind eventually forms a belief system and out of this belief system comes a certain kind of "feeling of self", of who we are. This feeling of self is a mental construct which can react to other mental constructs. This mind "identifies" itself with the concept it has of itself and attaches to things that reinforces its sense of self, resists what negates this sense of self, is confused about what it has not figured out one way or the other, or ignores what does neither. Aware mind does not "think" at all. It is a silent mind that looks at everything and allows everything to be experienced. It is not merely a sensory mind that channels itself through the five senses. It is what "notices" all the sensations of the sensory mind. Without the aware mind, we would not experience anything at all, not even nothingness (which would be like "noticing" a blank).

In a person who is not enlightened, the thinking mind dominates and the aware mind is functioning unconsciously, behind the thinking mind, and is not noticed. I have always thought it a kind of curious paradox that the aware mind that notices literally everything and without which nothing at all could be noticed is the most not noticed thing. Objects of attention are constantly dwelled upon, but the act of attention itself is hardly ever focused upon. If you want to get a very immediate feeling of what could be a very deep form of meditation, place your attention on attention and do not think or analyze attention. Just hold steady on attention watching attention in silence. If you can keep the thinking mind out of it for five minutes, you can go very deep very fast (and then imagine what it would be like if you did a whole hour or even 40 straight days of this, the Buddha said if you could watch every breath without bringing in thought for one whole hour, then you would be enlightened).

If one even tries to meditate then one notices that "the thinking mind rules" and that the thinking mind, even though it creates our feeling of self, is "not us". If I decide to move my right hand upwards and then my right hand goes upwards, then my right hand "obeys me" and therefore in some sense expresses who I am. But if my right hand does not obey me and never does what I want it to, then I would not consider it a part of me. It would feel like something alien took my hand over. Yet our thinking minds are like this and we do not notice. Although I can control and direct my thinking to a certain extent, it usually is running thoughts without me. This shows up very strongly when I decide to "not think" and feel a massive traffic of thoughts running through my mind. My thinking mind can only be considered "mastered" or "an extension of myself" when I can do four things with my thoughts, (1) starting a thought, (2) modifying my thinking, (3) sustaining my thinking, and (4) stopping my thinking. Many people have not ever experienced the fourth aspect of mastery. It would be more true to say that thoughts are thinking them, that they identify with all the conditioned thoughts poured into them from teachers, peers, family, and religions. What replaces real thinking are just reactions of one thought to another. It is one of the more interesting and not so pleasant experiences one has in meditation to notice how much thinking runs oneself, rather than the other way around. What is curious is that this is the earliest experience one has when one first tries to do some serious meditation and tries to sit for one whole hour just watching the breath. The intention to just watch the breath and not think any thought other than holding the intention to watch the breath for one hour is never fulfilled (often for even years). What happens instead is that the mind wanders back to "thinking, thinking, thinking" and forgets to watch the breath, so much so that an honest appraisal of how long a person can sustain "no thought attention" is about five minutes out of the whole hour. Even this level of accomplishment can do miracles in consciousness.

There is a kind of reference point or "anchor" that feeds our thinking mind and defines how we feel ourselves and what we feel ourselves to be. This point is our "identification" with our thinking mind and our building up of a personality around what we think and what we feel about what we think. We are usually thinking a massive number of thoughts every day and even running them through to form all our dreams and our reactions in waking life and dreaming life. This reference point is our most subtle ego self and it is a complete delusion. This reference point is constantly anchoring itself in certain thoughts, then other thoughts, then the body, then a sensation, then an emotion, and so on. In some it is more fixated than others. But if we try to look for this "anchor" point, we do not find anything there that we can call a "real self". Most of the time we are not looking for this reference point, but just assuming it and living from it without question. We live from our thinking mind and its massive antique shop of collected beliefs and disbeliefs. We constantly clash beliefs with each other, both inside us and with others. We think our beliefs are nifty things and judge others with our beliefs, and our judgments are also beliefs.

Paravritti is about "a deep turning of our innermost consciousness". It is about flipping the two minds around so that the deeper silent one rules and the thinking chattering mind submits, rather than the aware mind being merely a passive onlooker and the thinking mind ruling. When these two minds reverse the relationship, then we have paravritti, enlightenment. Then we live from "aware mind", identify with aware mind, and, finally, use the thinking mind, rather than get used by it. This is the deep turning within us that brings us into the realm of enlightenment. To me, it is the only revolution that really matters. Everything else is really rearranging the furniture in the room, throwing out some furniture, and getting new furniture, but never really noticing the room itself and what the room itself really means.

In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the final discourse of the Buddha before he releases his physical body in the consciousness action called "phowa", shared that we get at least four gifts from enlightenment. They are "love bliss, eternity, self, and freedom". This simple sharing is important in so many ways, because a lot of people assume that Buddha did not believe that any self at all existed. But he did not teach that. He taught that the "belief in self" that we had was a complete fiction and that what we assumed was our self did not exist and that if we looked for this self we would never find it because it did not exist. We would not find it inside the "skandhas" (our cognitions, thoughts, emotions, sensations, and our body), in any combination of the skandhas, or outside the skandhas. The key word in the teaching of no self is "looking" and "not finding" (emphasis on "looking" aka "awareness" aka "directed attention") because what we are looking for does not exist. There is no self that is like what we "think we are" (emphasis on "think"). What I find curious is that when this teaching of no self is presented, people think, think, think about it, usually negating or disbelieving what Buddha said, and never wondering how such an advanced teacher could propose such a weird idea. But if one actually "followed" the path of looking that Buddha actually taught, went within, and noticed that every thought has "no self" attached to it, every emotion has no self attached to it, every sensation has no self attached to it, all our impulses to do have no self attached to it, and our bodies have no self attached to it. There is nothing that even looks like a self anywhere to be found (I always wondered what such a self would even be imagined to be looked like, but no one even goes this far). Thoughts, emotions, and sensations are too fleeting to be related any kind of permanent abiding self. To use the room metaphor, they zip in and out of the room so fast that they are not in any way permanent to the room itself. Their very transitoriness clearly shows them to not be part of the room. What we normally think our self to be is something intrinsic to who and what we actually are, something that is always in the room and never leaves the room.

After Buddha shows that thoughts, emotions, and sensations are too fleeting to be a permanent self or even a basis for a permanent self, then he goes on to analyze the body in a similar manner and does not find any self there either. We already have a sense of some difference between an alive body and corpse and assume the latter has no self in it. We associate the self with something that is only there when the body is "alive". If a person is "brain dead" then the self has gone from the body. This shows that what we feel is our self is not related to the mere existence of the body. Yet when we try to find some kind of body characteristic that is the self, we find none. If we look for an electric pattern in the brain or chemical pattern in the brain, or a combination of both, there does not seem to be one. It seems that our "waking self" disappears when we sleep, our "dreaming self" disappears when we wake up, and both disappear when we are in nondreaming sleep, and both are different from when the body is a corpse and there is no dynamic electro-chemical activity in the brain at all. What we call our personality is a pattern of mental and emotional reactions that people usually identify with us, and some continuity of this pattern as it often changes dramatically over time. Yet if some evil vile demonic personality was to "take over" our body, we would assume that something alien kicked us out of our body or at least the command center of our bodies, and started to live "in our body". Sometimes mental illnesses look like this or sometimes certain powerful drugs can do this, even against the will of the person, and even sometimes electrodes stimulating different parts of the brain can do weird things inside, like activate very vivid memories "against our will". The cognitions of various events, our noticing them, seems to be pulled around by sensations drawing us into them. Where is any self in this?

If we follow by "looking" and negating anything that is not a self, then we enter into "emptiness". Something releases its grip on consciousness, we are freed from a curious illusion about something, the thinking mind and its constructs are broken through, and we awaken to a deeper mind which feels like an "aware wakefulness". This deeper mind does not need to reference itself through any thought (including the thought of self), any concept (including the concept of self), any belief, any sensation, any emotion, or even any body. All these things are "content" (furniture in the room) which whether there or not there does not change the nature of the room or container. It is as if we have always been looking out a window to see a mountain, see the sunrise and sunset, see rain clouds and rain, trees turn green in the spring and brown in the fall, and yet did not ever notice the window we were looking through, or even the eye that looked through the window, or even the looking itself. If we notice the looking, rather than what is looked, and enter into the looking, we can enter this "awake awareness" and abide there. We can still use the thinking mind. In fact, unless we abide in aware mind, we are really used by the thinking mind rather than actually thinking. In order to maintain aware mind, learning how to engage thought without getting lost in thought becomes important and necessary. Zen usually focuses on mastery of thought by learning how to "not think", while Tibetan Buddhism focuses on mastery of thought by extensive visualizations and then erasing those visualizations. Thoughts are very powerful. They are even more powerful when we learn how to focus thought from our silent aware mind and "intend". A kind of telepathy becomes stronger over time. There is a feeling of self, of a kind of ground identity, as luminous presence. There is a feeling of this being "eternal". There is a kind of peace and happiness within this presence that is not a pleasurable sensation sustained indefinitely, but something deeper, calmer, and which is consistent below the pleasant and unpleasant sensations, all the craving and resistance games that come from those sensations when the mental construct self rules us. There is also a freedom that arises. When the previous self before the shift is looked at, it feels like we were a basketball dribbled all over the court and getting passed around all the time by our thoughts, emotions, sensations, and impulses to do, bouncing off of all kinds of boards, and never stopping to rest. When I looked back at my previous mind, it felt like all my thinking was just reactions of reactions to reactions with nothing really intentionally starting, focusing, following, and stopping any contemplation. It was like thought had a will of its own or was running on autopilot, and no one was really there. It felt like a fever had ended, and all the feverish thoughts had calmed down to zero, and something simple, wonderful, and obvious appeared.


  1. :) I just wrote you a rather long-winded reply in gratitude for your well-written explication of paravritti, and for some strange reason when I pressed the publish button below, it came back 'an error occurred'; i then pressed publish again, but of course now the comment box was empty. 'Cannot send an empty comment' it said.
    Ah yes! Kensho!

  2. Dear Mike, Thank you for your kind thoughts. I have had the same thing happen to me a few times and lost a few posts that way. I found that using Gedit or Notepad to write the post that then cutting and pasting saved a few, since I do not delete the post until it has successfully transferred. It is particularly useful on blogspot, because there is a character limit to the comment posts. I can sometimes post the longer than the limit by breaking up the larger post into smaller separate posts. In any case, thank you for your empty yet full comment! Blessings, Will