Nature and Awakening

praybuddhas
The Buddhas and their influence
Buddhaksetra - The Sanskrit means literally Buddha-field - is a concept that refers to the sphere of influence and activity of a Buddha. In Buddhist cosmology, each world-system (cakravāla) is the domain of a particular Buddha within which he arises and leads beings to liberation through his teachings. The concept came to prominence in the Mahāyāna on the basis of early speculations about the range of a Buddha's knowledge and the extent of his sensory powers. With the concept of a plurality of Buddhas came the notion of an infinite number of ‘Buddha-fields’ extending throughout the reaches of space in many directions or dimensions. These fields vary in their degree of perfection and are divided into two basic categories, pure and impure. The world we inhabit now is an instance of an impure Buddha-field since beings here are still subject to the basic vices of greed, hatred, and delusion. The most famous of the pure Buddha-fields or ‘Pure Lands’ is the paradise of the Buddha Amitābha in the west described in the Sukhāvatī-vyūha Sūtras, into which all may be reborn by calling upon the name of Amitābha. The existence of these pure Buddha-fields became immensely important in the development of popular devotional Buddhism, especially in China and Japan. [Answers.com Buddhist Dictionary]

I’d like to start by making clear that what I have to say in the this talk about the Buddhas and their fields of influence isn’t all from my own experience. Or rather, it is from my experience but I interpret that experience in my own particular ways. I read it; I read the signs that come to me, just as I suppose we all do. In modern life we have become accustomed to a very defined account of the world around us. Its is based on the fantasy that we exist as concrete unchanging individuals whose world is just what it seems to be, that can be measured in terms of time and space. But Buddhism takes a very different perspective on it all. The Buddhist vision of reality is that everything is alive. And that each individual can awaken to this, the nature of reality – using this word nature in the sense of ‘characteristic quality’. I think this is the best and most meaningful use of the English word ‘nature’, which can all too easily slip into being used in a highly conceptual, abstract, and romantic way.
I can say ‘I like nature’ or ‘I like being in nature’ and you know what I mean – I like being in woods, I like streams and landscapes and skyscapes and seascapes. But woods and streams are just a part of nature in that sense. Nature is everywhere. It’s in the city just as much – the sun and moon still shine, day still follows night. Skyscape is still there. Streams and landscape are still there, certainly buried under many layers of concrete and asphalt, yet nature is still there, as powerful as ever. Nature is everywhere. It is everything. It is our body. It is our mind. It is dhammaniyamata, the ‘ordered’ or natural aspect of all things. So when I say, ‘I like being in nature’, I really mean ‘I like being out of the city’, or ‘I like it when I’m more or less on my own, surrounded by lots and lots of non human beings’. All words are abstractions, because they are all pointers to experience rather than the experience itself. But some are more abstract than others. “Nature” in this sense, of ‘I like nature’, is a highly abstract and vague idea or concept that can mean many things to different people.
That’s why I like the other way we use the word, as in ‘the nature of’ something. The nature of fire is to be hot. People have their particular natures. It’s in the nature of jeans that after a year or two of use, they wear through at the knees. Grass grows. Rain falls. Grass is green. Rain is wet. Everything has its own particular nature, its particular set of qualities, the way it works, the way its particular conditionings come about. That’s certainly the Buddhist way of looking at it, i.e. in terms of all the conditions that bring things about. The way things emerge from their unique conditionings.
There are all kinds of natures in this sense. You can see many different realms of life with their different natures. Buddhism singles out of the infinite number of possibilities the famous five natures or niyamas. There’s matter in the sense of the elements of earth, water, fire and air – the planets, gravity, physics and chemistry. Nature operating in those particular ways.
There’s the whole biosphere, the realm of organisms – bodies, like ours; bacteria, organs of reproduction and digestion, growth, decay – biological nature. Green nature.
There ‘s the kind of nature that governs mental functioning. Perception. Sensing. Responding. Reacting. All beings sense one another in various ways. They detect the stuff around them. Automatic coordination of hand and eye and ear. The subtle magic of connection, that whole area that conditions how we sense and perceive and create a world.
Then getting more subtle and deeper, Buddhism singles out in particular the nature of deliberate action. All conscious acts have a conditioning effect on the one who acts and this is a very special realm of nature. It is the area of karma or ethics, spiritual direction and of personal growth and development. Ethical sensitivity has its own world of conditionality – the way you naturally feel sorry when you hurt someone so you do your best to be kind, on a good day, and doing that creates trust and friendship. The way also that all that can go wrong when you lose the sensitivity and harden yourself against others’ suffering, become more and more of a monster. That whole area that covers what you do in your head, and the acts you do without anyone knowing, and the acts you make sure people definitely do know about. All that will is all having an effect behind the scenes, like Dorian Gray who had a magic portrait of himself up in his attic, which reflected how he really was. All the time he looked like a beautiful young man but the more horrible things he said and thought, the more monstrous the image up in the attic became. On the other hand the more kindly he was in real life, the more beautiful became the portrait.
So there are all these natures. Everything has its particular nature and works only in accordance with its nature. Raindrops don’t rise up into the sky; they keep falling on our heads. That’s physical conditionality. Wounds fester or heal. Food is digested or rejected: biological conditionality. Open your eyes and you’ll see something. That’s the operation of mental conditionality. Be generous, and that’ll usually have a good effect – according to ethical conditionality. So everything is according to its nature. Even spiritual development, even insight and awakening, has its own way of unfolding, its own particular nature. We call that the Dharma Nature or niyama, the conditioning effect of the real truth of things, the ultimate reality of how things are. When you come under the influence of reality, actual reality, things happen. You come under its influence through your practice, the practice of awakening to reality through shamatha (or calming the mind with helpful behaviour and meditations like the mindfulness of breathing) and the practice of vipashyana (coming closer to the real truth of things through seeing their insubstantial nature).
Doing these things you touch something very deep. Or something very deep touches you. You come into its orbit. Under its influence. Into the world of influences that is the Dharmakaya or the Dharma niyama, the Dharma nature.
I hope you can see that I’m trying to paint a picture here, give a feeling or impression of the conditioned nature of all existence. We live in a world of many influences within which we ourselves are an influence. That’s the way things really are, that’s pratityasamutpada, conditioned arising. We are an important part of the pattern. We inherit the influences, from the deep past of our ancestors: the way our bodies are, our skills and knee jerk responses, the nature of our biology and our perceptual processes, the way those have emerged over deep time into the present that is us. We inherit the very basic natural conditionings that are the great physical elements of earth, water, fire and air, and the way they all interact.
All this we inherit with our birth as human beings. Everyone does. Our birth as human beings also connects us with the influence of our cultural and spiritual ancestors – all the cultural traditions of the English, or the Scots, Irish, European, African – whatever they are – the poetry, myths, science, arts, crafts, design and even fashion. Our spiritual ancestors like the Buddha are all there in the background too, even if we have no idea of all the great practitioners in the many traditions.
We’re born into this great web of connections and the more you reflect on this pratityasamutpada, the more you understand the various natures of all its parts, the more you can make it work for you in your search for Awakening. This is also where you can make yourself receptive to the influence of the Buddhas. This is where you can tune into the Buddha Field, the field of influence of the Awakened Ones.
This was the title of my talk and it’s what I mainly wanted to talk about. It’s taken a while to get here because it’s a very big picture we’re getting into here, the whole picture is relevant.
As you probably know the Buddhist path emerges from the establishment of a ground of awareness. Mindfulness of all that I have been talking about – mindfulness of the great elements, mindfulness of the body and its functions, mindfulness of the mind and its activity, mindfulness of the ethical value of all our actions, attitudes, tendencies and habits. Mindfulness of the insubstantiality, the transparency, of all things including ourselves. All this practice of seeing through the transparency leading to those little deaths of the ego fantasy, our pride and our arrogance and our defensiveness and our concealment. Everything becoming transparent and letting in the light of the Dharmakaya, the real nature of life and existence.
And all this being lived, socially, in community and society and relationship. That’s the Buddhist path that leads out of the establishment of a ground of awareness, and then taking action in the field of behaviour. I wanted to sketch it out in this way to give some sense of the vastness of the field of our experience. Not only its vastness but more importantly its character, its qualities, its nature. How alive it all is.
But as well as being this incredibly dynamic field that is our experience, here and now, as we wake from sleep, as we lose conscious awareness and fall into the sleep state, as we are born into this life, and as we fall, at death, into the after death state – even in addition to all this incredible experience that is the field of our lives, I want to draw attention to its also being a field of awakening: a Buddha Field.
I mentioned a little while ago that we are connected to many kinds of ancestors, and that this ancestry includes Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and other great practitioners. But what does this mean? You can say it simply means there is a link. Buddha gained awakening 2 ½ thousand years ago, more or less; his disciples practised and passed on the fruits of their practice and it’s all been kept alive, more or less, down to the present and we, coming into the orbit of these teachings and practices, participate in them and that’s what it means, this Buddha field. We have a connection, a living connection with the influence of our spiritual ancestor, the Buddha. All that is obviously true and that is an important part of the meaning of the word Buddhaksetra, Buddha field.
But there is a far more lively and direct meaning which goes beyond the rather mechanised, literal, historical, modern and sensible viewpoint that can still be felt hovering in the background in all this talk of influences. That is, that Buddhas are not just dead people who have an influence in the same way that dead poets, activists and other dead visionaries do. That nirvana, awakening, full enlightenment, is a state beyond life and death in which Buddhas continue to act for the benefit of unawakened living beings.
So their Buddha field is not just a cultural memory, however lively and meaningful, but a field of live interaction that includes the living energy of awakening.
This is in fact the meaning of Buddhaksetra and other such terms like Buddha Nature, Dharmakaya, and Dhammaniyama, the nature of awakening. That in some way we do not yet understand, awakened beings exist from their own side. I don’t wish here to suggest an interpretation of how the awakened ones exist. It is beyond my understanding. I only have my own conviction based on my interpretation of my experience that, in some way, the energy of awakening is a tangible force in the universe. But a consideration of some of the principles of physics, for example Newton’s third law of motion that states that ‘To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction’, seems to suggest that in nature, energy is never simply cut off. There is always some kind of continuation into another state. Newton applies his law to the momentum of material objects but it seems likely that something similar applies to the momentum of awareness, which is an extremely powerful force. So it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me that volitions and consciousness may continue in some way after death, and that this continuation applies as much to enlightened as to unenlightened consciousness.
That doesn’t mean that Manjughosa, Avalokitesvara, Tara, Sakyamuni and all the Buddhas of the great thousand fold Trichiliocosm actually exist out there, maybe on glorious thrones, concrete and real and permanent – any more than it means you and I exist here, concrete and real and permanent. We aren’t, so why should they be? The point is that the reality of being is beyond our understanding. All beings are said to be nondual, insubstantial, indescribable in their nature, so the manner of the Buddhas’ existence is no less and no more mysterious than our own. All we can say about Buddhas is that their nature is perfectly wise and compassionate.
So this field of compassionate energy is something that, in the words of my title, can be tuned in to. How we do this I’ve already explained. It is a consequence of practising the path of mindfulness – of integration, positive emotion and those spiritual deaths that come from insights. All is seen as transparent, and the golden light of Dharma can start to emerge from them. This is the classic eightfold path or threefold way of ethics, meditation and wisdom. We can also see tuning in to the Buddha field in terms of sadhana meditation, in which the initiate visualises her or his own body as it really is – conditioned, transparent and empty with the centres of subtle energy at the crown, throat, heart and elsewhere illuminated by symbolic colours and mantric syllables, and this subtle body being filled by the light of the influence of one of the Buddhas or Bodhisattvas under whose protection they have been placed by a preceptor. We can also see tuning in to the Buddha field in terms of devotional practice, ritual and especially puja. Puja is just a non specialised form of sadhana and it can be a very powerful inspiring medium for connecting and attuning oneself to the field of the Buddha’s influence.
So I hope this will help show in more depth the purpose of some of the less obvious results of our spiritual practices of mindfulness, ethics, meditation and development of wisdom. I feel it’s good to bring in the dimension that is not me or mine, that is not my project, which comes from beyond anything I can know or plan for.