Sacred geometry

In Praise of Restlessness

This retreat was jointly taught by Rob Burbea and one or more other Insight Meditation teachers. Here is the full retreat on Dharma Seed
This talk is the third part of a talk in three parts. (Part 1 is 'Questioning Awakening'; Part 2 is 'Buddhism Beyond Modernism'.)
Date25th November 2014
Retreat/SeriesNovember Solitary 2014


This talk is the third part of a talk in three parts. (Part 1 is "Questioning Awakening"; Part 2 is "Buddhism Beyond Modernism".)

I really hope that this is the final part of this very long talk, the third and final part. Just to begin by summarizing the main thrust of what we've covered in the last two talks, very briefly: through observing the range of Dharmas, if you like, that are out there, that we come into contact with, and our own, through observing, through reflection, and through inquiring into our own Dharma, whatever that Dharma is, and the Dharmas that we come into contact with, everything we talked about, we come to a realization. We're almost forced to admit that wrapped up, in a very fundamental way, wrapped up with all Dharmas are two things.

(1) One is what I was calling 'metaphysics.' Usually these things are wrapped up unconsciously; they're not fully conscious. That's why they're long talks, etc., to bring them to the surface. 'Metaphysics,' by which I mean three fancy words:

(i) Ontology: the deciding of what is real and what is not real, the inquiry or the demarcation, "This is real, that's not real."

(ii) Epistemology: how do we know what's real and what's not real? How do we know anything? What do we base our conclusions on -- meditation, something else, old science? What?

(iii) And cosmology, meaning "What is this world that we're living in? What is this existence? What is the structure of it? What is the order of the cosmos?" That always comes into any Dharma whatsoever, usually unconsciously, as I said.

That metaphysics, whatever the metaphysics is, is always based on assumptions. So if you poke at these questions, and you just follow one question to a deeper question, you'll get to a level -- whichever route you follow -- you get to a level where you cannot proceed without making some assumption at all. If I think, "Oh, yeah, but I practise non-conceptuality. I practise abiding in the non-conceptual, non-conceptualization," still there, because the mind is conceiving, and conceiving this kind of metaphysics, even when we're not thinking. Thinking and conceptuality are not the same. Even if I say, "I don't know, I'm not an intellectual type. I don't go in for all this stuff. I try not to think about things," still there. Even if I say, "I am a little bit intellectual, but I know that metaphysics has gone out of fashion, so I don't do metaphysics," still there. So metaphysics, usually at best half-conscious.

(2) And the second thing that's woven in fundamentally is what I was calling mythos or fantasy. This kind of imagination and fantasy is imbuing the whole of the Dharma, our Dharma, whatever it is, in some ways or others. This presence of mythos and fantasy is not a bad thing. The word 'fantasy' has such a negative connotation in our tradition, but really not saying it's a bad thing at all. What's 'bad,' or problematic, if you like, is not realizing that there's metaphysics operating, or that there's myth and fantasy operating. That would be problematic -- not admitting or not realizing it. So those two things together, the metaphysics woven in, and the fact that it's based on assumptions that are ultimately unprovable, and secondly, the pervasion of myth and fantasy. Those two things determine what the Four Noble Truths are and mean for us. The whole range of interpretation depends on the metaphysics and the mythos.

The Four Noble Truths are actually just words that Buddhists use in common. They're a skeleton. Rather than not admit all that, rather than kind of admit it but ignore it, or trying to assume, "No, no, it's this way. This is the truth. My way is the truth" (which we cannot; it's actually impossible), rather than all of that, what happens if we put this awareness of how fundamentally pervasive these two things are, the metaphysics and the mythos, if we put that at the forefront? Right at the front of our consciousness. Not trying to wriggle out. Not trying to say, "Oh, it's all fine," or whatever. Put it right at the forefront, because those things, the mythos and the metaphysics, will flavour, will direct, will shape, will colour, will circumscribe and limit, effectively, what the Dharma is for us, what the Four Noble Truths mean, what awakening is or we imagine it is, what practice is or becomes in its range, what the path is, what our sense of life is and existence itself. This is not irrelevant. It's major and fundamental, as I say.

But if we say all that, if we admit all that, then the usual ground that we have for the Dharma, the usual ground, in a way, is gone. We've taken it away. Then what? What then? What does this do? Where does it leave us? How do we proceed? How do we look? How do we need to look now? The usual ground is gone. Where will we find a ground? What ground can there be? How to relate to the groundlessness?

One clue, and I will come back to this, is in relation to this notion that the psyche does, if you like, create fantasies when it loves something, when it's involved in something, when something has meaningfulness. A fantasy is created there. It inhabits that fantasy, or the myth, or those fantasies or myths. This is inevitable. It's inevitable for the psyche. It's actually important. It's something necessary for the psyche. Maybe we go so far to say that doing, that creation of fantasy, and that inhabiting of myth, we could even say maybe there's a kind of holiness to that -- maybe, maybe. But it will be varied, because people will gravitate to, and will spin and be attracted to different myths, different fantasies. But all that puts a very different ground for the Dharma. The variety is good. It's good. It's not a problem. It's good. It's healthy. It's inevitable and necessary. The problem, or a problem, comes from a singularity, a singleness of fantasy, singleness of myth, or a singleness in the approach to 'truth' (in inverted commas, 'truth'), and the ways that we can know 'truth.'

Let's maybe go in that way, and ask about or explore a little bit: what are the possible fantasies, images, archetypes, if you like, of the path that can operate for us? Within that question, we could ask, related to the last talk: what is the fantasy or the image of the place, the degree, the range, and the styles of inquiry within the path? What's my fantasy of inquiry within my fantasy of the path? Again, that will vary. It varies hugely. Enrico Fermi, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from the twentieth century in nuclear physics, he said, "Never underestimate how much people really like to hear what they already know." It's a little judgmental. [laughter] But you can recognize a truth there. There's a little bit of a painful truth there. He's put his finger on something. However, it is a bit judgmental; perhaps he doesn't quite understand the totality or is not expressing in that statement the totality of what's involved. Because people have different personalities, and that has to be okay. It has to be okay.

People are also at different times or junctures in their life, where there's a time for inquiry, and bursting through walls, and breaking into new ground, and the groundlessness of that, and there's a time where we need to create structures, or get familiar with structures, ideas, understandings, Four Noble Truths, eightfold path, three of this, five of that, etc., "How does all that fit together?" I need to get used to those structures. But I think what he was pointing to is how easily for human beings inertia creeps in. We become spellbound a little bit by certain dogmas, especially when we don't even admit that dogma is operating. We fail to question. We are actually in a prison of some kind of structure of ideation without even realizing it.

Sometimes in life, this shattering of the structures that we've built or taken on and used, the shattering, this breaking of the vessels that I talked about last time, it happens to us. Something in our circumstances shatters relationships, shatters ideas, preconceptions, etc., and starts a process of inquiry. Other times in life, we're on fire with this. We are the ones doing the breaking. We are shattering. We're on fire with inquiry.

So it's important to point out, in terms of inquiry, that it can be agitating. It can be disturbing, deeply so. That's definitely true. There's a passage in the Pali Canon where the Buddha talks about -- he was reflecting and thinking and inquiring, and then he found himself quite agitated. He says, "Okay, stop now. Stop for now. Take a rest. Let's have some samādhi. Let's simplify the mind, and then, after a while, come back to the inquiry."[1] So where is the off switch? If I am on fire, can I find the off switch at times?

But for some people, or some periods in our life, we don't want the comfort of not being agitated. It's not what the soul needs. We're okay, deeply, in the soul, with being agitated, unsettled, disturbed, through the inquiry. Something in us needs that. Sometimes it's personal difficulties, and I'm still grappling with this or that, or this has happened in my life, and I maybe need that to settle before I can engage another level of inquiry, certainly. But sometimes it's more a question, again, of what is the archetype operating in the background to form the vision of my path? Do I have, or is there the dominance of the archetype of the calm, undisturbed sage, equanimous, unruffled, simple, a state of simplicity? Is that the archetype that's driving and framing my sense, my fantasy, of the path? Or is it the archetype of the incessant questioner, the probing one, the seeker on fire? This will form a lot. Last time we talked about Dionysus, the archetype of Dionysus, the god, and in that myth dismemberment, ripping apart in ecstasy, is a big part of the myth. And then we also talked about Hermes, the myth of Hermes, the god that's constantly moving. He is the god of the roads. He's the god of boundaries, of crossing boundaries, of communicating between the different gods, the different styles of existence and perspective, the different myths.

Henry Corbin was a scholar of Islamic mysticism. He said, "To be a philosopher" -- remember, a lover of wisdom, philo-sophía, lover of wisdom in the broad sense of the word:

To be a philosopher is to take to the road, never settling down in some place of satisfaction with a theory of the world.[2]

This is not saying, "Don't have or make theories, and don't entertain theories." It's not saying that. It's saying something about settling down. But there's no sense, in this more hermetic framing, this more hermetic archetype, of a concrete arrival point or a goal. Rafael López-Pedraza was a psychotherapist:

The only concern of Hermes as lord of the roads is to move along the new roads of the psyche, and that the psyche moves.[3]

Moving is what's important. So all these styles -- hermetic, Dionysian, non-inquiry, resting, non-agitation, all of that, being on fire -- all those styles are okay. They have to be okay, because of everything we've said. They have to be okay. So there are different styles.

But if we pick up this hermetic one, what I'm calling the hermetic, the Hermes one, there is with that or wrapped up in that -- what would you call? -- a kind of homelessness, or a kind of restlessness involved in the very archetype, in the paradigm, in that fantasy of the path. Let's dwell on this a little bit. When I say 'homelessness,' I don't mean the socio-economic factors that force a person in this country and other countries to live on the street, and the terribleness of that. I'm talking more about styles of existing. Some of them are metaphorical.

(1) The Buddha, in the Pali Canon, modelled and advocated a kind of renunciate homelessness. He wasn't even a big fan of monasteries. He wanted his monks and nuns to be homeless, not settling down in one place. It comes from the elevation of the idea of renunciation: to settle in one place, with certain people, with a comfortable environment, that would be attachment. So there's a renunciate type of homelessness, and that's what we're used to hearing about in the Dharma classically.

(2) Then there is, if you like, the kind of homelessness of the seeker. Moving on, moving on in search of something. Maybe it's thrills, maybe it's happiness, but I'm going to say the seeker in search of truth, the seeker in search of a teacher, in search of teachings. This is quite a common archetype in some Dharma circles.

(3) There's the homelessness of the fugitive, a third type that we could point out. This is different. This fugitive is fleeing from themselves, fleeing from their emotions, maybe from guilt, something in the past. They're fleeing. It's not a seeking; it's a running away.

(4) Then there's a fourth kind, what we could call the hermetic, the homelessness of the god Hermes. Renunciation is not necessarily the goal there; it's not even the guide. Hermes is not seeking a finality of truth. He's not seeking a finality of happiness, or even happiness per se, or thrill. He's certainly not fleeing anything. The road is home. Not settling down in one view, as Corbin puts it. In translating into the life, you can see some people, many, many years, decades even, travelling a lot in India, in Asia, and it is a life of homelessness at a certain level. At another level, it's actually quite static. There is not this probing questioning. There is not the shattering. Something is actually quite settled there. This is not literal, this homelessness that I'm talking about. Conversely, one person could be in the same place for years or decades, same routine -- every day they do this kind of thing, whatever it is -- but something is questioning. Something is constructing, shattering, and reconstructing new, different structures. Tectonic shifts are happening. The person is on fire. It's not so much about the outer circumstance.

What about that word, 'restlessness'? That opens a slightly different angle, if you like. Three kinds, we could point out three kinds of restlessness. (1) Everyone's going to be familiar with the hindrance of restlessness: the mind won't settle down. It's just bouncing off everywhere, all these thoughts. The body cannot sit still. That's the first type of restlessness. (2) Second type is, sometimes through practice, a lot of energy opens up in the being. I remember, must be almost thirty years ago now, my first day-long of meditation, which I struggled through with great pain. It was a real struggle for me to get through it. But afterwards, in the days and weeks following it, I found myself feeling very differently. I realized it was like I felt restless, although I wasn't acting restlessly, but I felt very strange compared to what I was used to. What had happened was more energy had come into the being, into the psychophysical system, and I just wasn't used to it. I needed to get used to having that much energy. That's a second type of, kind of restlessness. (3) It's the third type that I want to point to: this endless seeking, this endless questioning, this shattering of the vessels, building new structures better, evolving of structures which shatter too.

I will just throw out, actually, about the first restlessness, the hindrance. I was speaking, I had a phone interview with someone. They called me, and they said, "I just got back from work, and I'm really buzzing. I haven't even thought about what I want to talk about." I said, "That's fine." I wasn't in a hurry. "Take five minutes, and call me back when you're ready." She called back, and then she said, "That was really interesting. I had the five minutes. And then immediately [after] I got off the phone with you, I started thinking, 'Oh, maybe I can do some washing up. Maybe I should check my Facebook.'" It was showing her the degree of momentum of restlessness, the restless momentum that was there.

How to practise with that level of restlessness? Sometimes what can really help in those situations is to give the mind permission:"I will check the Facebook." Someone else was telling me when they noticed even a little bit of the possibility of a gap in their day opening up at home, and the possibility that there would be nothing to do in that gap, and they might be bored, there was this low-level fear of boredom, and so they turned on the TV. They were actually a little bit of a TV addict.

What can we do with this? One strategy: give the mind permission to watch TV, to do the Facebook, whatever it is, but say to it, "After one minute, five minutes, whatever, of really being mindful of the body and of the citta, of the mind and the heart, during those one, two, five minutes." Then we get to experience the state, in the body and in the mind, experience that hindrance of restlessness. What's key here is not just mindfulness, it's a certain kind of mindfulness. It needs to have a quality of spaciousness and allowing. It's those two qualities, the allowing and the spaciousness, that allow the restlessness to sort of spend itself. We can experience the restlessness, and calm starts coming into the being, into the system. Then we start, with practice, acquiring the taste of calmness, of settledness. It becomes an acquired taste. We begin to really like to dwell in calmness, etc. In this way, we can change the habitual groove, sometimes of a lifetime, gradually.

But what I really want to get at today is this third kind of restlessness, for which I am assuming a capacity and an ability that has been developed to stay steady with a degree of physical discomfort, whether it's itching, or a degree of pain even. To stay steady when you feel restless. To stay steady with long-term creative projects -- days, weeks, months, years even. To stay steady with situations of care, when you're caring for some person or some event, local or global situation; you're in for the long haul. It's the long haul. To stay steady. To stay steady, perhaps, in the different kind of relationship commitments that we have. A capacity to stay steady in relationship to whatever our work situation is, or in relationship to an institution, perhaps. So one can do all that, one can stay steady with that level of restlessness.

But in this third kind of restlessness, something else is impelling the being; some other fire is there. Maybe this is not so linear, actually. It may be better to say, "Can I differentiate the first kind of restlessness from the third kind of restlessness?" And learn when the hindrance of restlessness is actually hijacking my inquiry, and it's just the mind being agitated in a not-very-helpful way. So something about restlessness, and the importance of a different kind of restlessness, the place of a different kind of restlessness.

To quote from, I think it was Simon Critchley:

The responsibility of the philosopher ... is the production of crisis [in relationship to the present].[4]

Something then pokes at the sedimented tradition and moves on -- moves on, won't let it get too settled, onward, evolving. This word, 'inquiry,' reminds me of the French word, inquiétude. Picasso used that word when he talked about Cézanne, the paintings of Cézanne. He said, "So much art," Picasso said, "just doesn't interest me. It's so kind of insipid. But when I look at Cézanne, I look at those peaches, it interests me, because I can feel the inquiétude in it. I can feel the restless striving there, the anxiety, even, behind the artistic choices."[5] There's something of that wrapped up in this kind of restlessness.

To skip traditions, in the alchemical tradition, the tradition of alchemy, which is a lot about heat and fire, who is the master of the fire is the master of the alchemy, the master of the work. Who is the master of the fire is the master of the work. They talk about "beware of premature cooling" in the work. The first stage in the alchemical process is what they call nigredo, something burnt to charcoal, burnt. All the impurities and the stuff, my stuff and the history, it's burnt out, and leaves just black, nigredo. The second stage, there's a cooling. There is a degree of cooling to the albedo, a kind of purifying, something more white. It's more lunar, more cool, reflective. But it doesn't end there. It does not end there. Because the goal of the alchemical work is rubedo, red, like a ruby, blood, passion, fire. It's through the first two stages actually that the whole system, the material, can tolerate more heat. It can stand and withstand and handle more fire, more heat because, if you like, we've worked through some other stuff.

If we say, based on what we said in the last two talks, that truth is not singular, that the ways to truth also cannot be tunnel-visioned like that, a multiplicity of approach is necessary; if we say, also, that the vessels break, the structures break repeatedly, they need new structures, they will break again; and if we also say that fantasy is inevitable and necessary; if we say all that, then one possible fantasy of the Dharma and of the path is that liberation, awakening, is open-ended. It's open-ended. It has multiple directions, if you like. It is multidirectional. It's multiple. There are many different kinds and directions of liberation, and it does not end. What does it mean, what would it mean, to be liberated ideationally, in relationship to ideas? It's a very different way of thinking about what liberation might be. What would it be to be liberated in terms of fantasies, or in regard to fantasy, and not just be okay with a kind of standard Buddhist fantasy, standard (in this case, Theravādan) Buddhist fantasies, the usual ones? Would it be okay for that range of fantasy and mythos to be opened up in the being, and be part of what is awakened?

So, open-ended. It's interesting to compare that with -- some people like a very clear demarcation: "There are four levels of awakening." And it's very clear. It's very concrete: "I have it. I don't have it. It's this. It's not that." There's a line, a very clear line, delineating each one, very well-defined. This is alive and well in some circles. Not so much in the Gaia House Insight Meditation circle so much, but it's alive and well in some contemporary circles. Interesting that it tends to be young men who gravitate towards that. It's interesting. Not only, but it's interesting. So, wonderful, and it's quite bold of them to actually entertain such a view within a wider sphere that, as we said in the first talk, tends not to really talk much about the whole notion of awakening. But could someone who's holding that view actually be in need of more boldness of questioning, not less? Not quieten down, settle down, tame down, turn down the fire, but actually more boldness of questioning? By saying that, I am not, absolutely not saying there is no goal. And I'm certainly not saying, "You're already there." Something else. Something else in relation to all this.

Carl Jung wrote once:

The goal is important only as an idea; the essential thing is the opus which leads to the goal [the work which leads to the goal]: that is the goal of a lifetime.[6]

Goal as image, goal as fantasy, goal as enlivening mythos. Open-ended. That might be more the hermetic style. What, in that style, hermetic style, which is only one possible style, what might be then the teacher's role? What's the teaching style that goes with the hermetic style? Rather than me, the teacher, teach you X or Y as something finished, something I've done, arrived at, completed, and now passing on completed knowledge -- rather than that, maybe a communication. Is it possible to communicate a searching, a questioning, an open-endedness? Can I give that to you somehow? Communicate a restlessness, loose ends at times, possibilities, openings to move through, roads to try? Different, different. One can teach some of that, but there's an element that cannot be taught. Maybe it's more that a flame here -- not mine; it's not me, it's not mine -- a flame here, something on fire here, ignites something in your soul. Maybe. Something catches aflame, catches light, catches fire. Maybe.

Different -- same thing, but just from a slightly different angle, unpacking it from a slightly different angle: we said there's always a fantasy anyway. There's a fantasy and mythos involved in the path and how we see it and feel it. What if we ask, "Is the fantasy that I'm entertaining of my Dharma" -- whatever your Dharma is -- "is it that the Dharma is more like science, or more like religion, or more like art?"[7] I think all those three avenues of human endeavour and exploration of the psyche, etc., are all beautiful and really necessary parts of the soul, if you like. All beautiful.

But it's interesting to see it from that perspective, open it out from that perspective. Science, religion, art. They differ in certain interesting ways. One is in regards to the notion of truth, in regards to past and future. So science, at least the traditional view of science, tends to say, "As we move into the future, we will have more truth. There are things that we don't know what the truth is yet, but as we go into the future, we will have more truth. Historically, the whole tradition will have more truth." A religion looks back at the truth: "Someone, at some point in history, discovered something, and we're trying to replicate that discovery. The authority is in the past. The truth is in the past."

These are actually quite different. Just to give you an idea: for instance, nowadays in these kind of Dharma circles, it's very popular, people say, "Pali Canon. Let's go back to the Pali Canon." Everything is Pali Canon. It's a kind of fixation or obsession, almost, with the Pali Canon, and going back to the Pali Canon. How strange and bizarre that can seem if we actually stop to question: why? Why would we want to do that? Or rather, what's going on psychologically when we do that, when we get excited about that, and kind of want to blinker ourselves down that way? Would it not be a strange scientist to meet who says, "We've got to go back to the original teachings of Copernicus. He's the one who had the truth. Anything after that is a kind of devolution, a scattering, an impurity. It's other traditions coming in. He's the one that had the truth. Let's go back and find out exactly what he said." And then, struggling over the texts of Copernicus, and interpreting them differently. "Newton was a waste of time! Kepler, Newton. Forget about Einstein and all that stuff." [laughter]

What a strange idea, if I view it that way. As I said before, religious fantasy is operating. We need to see something for what it is. It's not a problem; let's just admit it. In relationship to truth, generally, and philosophical systems as well, science, religion, art, they differ. Science and religion do move towards the truth, or that's part of their mythos. They base a life or a view, and practice in religion is based on truth. Art, interestingly, may or may not decide -- any particular piece of art or artist may or may not decide it has any particular relationship with a notion called 'truth.' And it's not in a quest for any literal truth.

In relation to truth, again, to repeat what I said, if we admit, if we realize that metaphysics comes in, and it rests on assumptions -- at a certain level, you can't go beyond making certain assumptions, whatever they are -- and it rests on a fantasy, our Dharma rests on a fantasy of awakening, etc., the Four Noble Truths then become whatever they will become based on the metaphysics, based on the myth. If, also, through the inquiry, we said the whole relationship with truth has become loosened, opened because of the inquiry, where does that leave us? If you say, "Oh, it's about lessening suffering," okay, yes, it's definitely about lessening suffering. Of course it is. But, in time, if you practise with dedication and well, there will come a time when you're really more than fine. You're more than fine, or you're relatively fine, or you're very, very deeply fine. [laughter] Just, for some of you who feel I have so much in my stuff that it's impossible, it's not. It absolutely can happen. And we realize these Four Noble Truths are a skeleton. Then what? Why practise? How do I see the Dharma and practice?

Let's stay with this science/religion/art thing as just a way of opening up different possibilities of views of the Dharma, and pick out a few threads here. One is in relationship to the notion or the element of desire. Science, religion, and art all seem to be okay with desire. Desire has its place in science, in religion, and in art -- even if it brings some dukkha.

So at the time of the quantum physics revolution, Heisenberg, Bohr, and these other guys, there was so much desire, and so much passion involved in their searching, and so much suffering actually. Heisenberg has some beautiful passages in his writing, just how difficult they all found it, and how many nights were spent awake at the blackboard with the equations, debating with Bohr, etc. There's an upset there that comes from the desire, and it's okay. It's even beautiful. Or Einstein in that quote last time about the "holy curiosity of inquiry." Desire -- it's on fire with desire. There is an allowance for a kind of infinity of desire, if you like. It's endless. We're not really, in my lifetime, going to get to the end of all knowledge about the physics of the universe.

But in religion, too, there's a place for desire, usually. Even in the Pali Canon, there's a passage, I couldn't find it just now before the talk, but there's a passage where the Buddha talks about different kinds of pain, if you like. He talks about the pain of the seeker, or the pain of the contemplative on the path, practising diligently, but not yet awakened, and knows other people are liberated to a certain level, and feels the pain of that: "I'm not there yet." And in relationship to this desire, the Buddha doesn't say, "Yeah, give up your search. Let go. You're already there," or "Don't desire," or "Desire leads to dukkha." He does not say that. He says, "Don't give up. It goes with the territory. Yes, it's painful. Keep going. Get what you want. Seek what you want. Go after it."

There's a passage, again, I couldn't find it, of the Dalai Lama, where to paraphrase, he says something like, "In relation to worldly things and material things, we should watch our desires and be satisfied with very little. In relation to spiritual desires, we should never be satisfied." Never be satisfied; there's always more. Why is that okay for him? What makes that okay? It's partly the kindness and the non-inner-critic. But is there not something about cosmology that also makes that okay? It's a different vision that makes desire okay. Again, in religion, in terms of devotional practices, desire is central. Longing is central. It's recognized as having a necessity of place, and it's actually allowed and encouraged more. Listen to the Christian mystic, very deep mystic, St John of the Cross:

Faith, as it ripens, turns into an almost insatiable appetite, and the awake lion must prowl for God in places it once feared.[8]

In a devotional practice, longing, at a certain point, the longing itself is recognized to be God. Again, that word, we can be very wide with that word. Longing is God. Longing is divine. It comes from the divine.

In art, too, the relationship with desire ... it's a funny thing: in certain spiritual circles, there's not much art at all. There's a certain aesthetics, in certain rooms, basically, like meditation halls. But there's not much art in the Dharma, in certain Dharma scenes. It's not necessarily because of the renunciation left over and the asceticism left over from the Buddhist origins, because there is aesthetics. Is it something to do with the relationship with doing and desire? It's not part of the paradigm of the path. And much art needs doing and desire.

So what has come into the Dharma is a Zen paradigm of the calligrapher. [whooshing sound] What are those round -- what are they called? Ensō. You make the thing, and the idea is, "In a flash." No self, no doing, no desire, done. That kind of shrinks the range of what art can come to be. That elevation of the romance of spontaneity, of being in the moment, process elevated over product. None of that's in the Pali Canon at all, but it has come to imbue our way of thinking, perhaps.

What about long forms, long artistic forms, long novels, long symphonies, wrestling with the long form? We need desire. It has to be doing. What about the inquiétude that Picasso was talking about? Beethoven wrestling with his compositions, sending it to the printers. And then getting up in the middle of the night because he had the sense that the counterpoint wasn't quite right. Rushing over through the snow to the printer's, banging their door down. [laughter] Doesn't have a place. This is Edna O'Brien talking about James Joyce's writing of Ulysses, and what someone called "the wrenching testament to ambition and desire":

[Ulysses] took seven years of unbroken labour, twenty thousand hours of work, havoc to brain and body, nerves, agitation, fainting fits, numerous eye complaints -- glaucoma, iritis, cataract, crystallized cataract, nebula in the pupil, conjunctivitis, torn retina, blood accumulation, abscesses, and one tenth normal vision. That Joyce has risen above so much misunderstanding [and a book which had so much negativity and censoring, etc.] is surely a testament to those wounded eyes [Rob briefly pauses, chokes up], and the Holy Spirit in that ink bottle.[9]

There's a place for desire, deep desire, even when it's difficult. I was talking with another Dharma teacher, long-term Dharma teacher. It just didn't fit into his view. He just doesn't get it, and looks at it, "It's just dukkha. It's just the creation of pointless dukkha. There's no place for it in the Dharma." But again, here, there's the recognition that there's a kind of infinity: you finish one piece of work, it's the next. It's unending.

So science, religion, art all have a place for desire, and particularly this infinity, this unendableness, if that's a word, unendableness of desire, or a dimension or kind of desire that's unendable. Pothos is the word in the classics. Eros, classically, by the Greeks, was divided into three -- himeros, anteros, and pothos. James Hillman is explaining what this pothos is:

The longing towards the unattainable, the ungraspable, the incomprehensible, that idealization which is attendant upon all love and which is always beyond capture. Pothos ... idealizes and drives our wanderings; or as the romantics put it: we are defined not by what we are or what we do, but by our Sehnsucht [our longing]: Tell me for what you yearn and I shall tell you who you are. We are what we reach for, the idealized image that drives our wandering. This side of eros [the pothos] makes possible living in the world as a scene of impossible mythical action, mythologizing life.[10]

We'll come back to that. Or Henry Moore, the sculptor:

The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for [the rest of] your life. [I think that's an exaggeration, but ...] And the most important thing is -- it must be something you cannot possibly do![11]

Or the psychologist William James, who wrote about -- listen:

The fantastic and unnecessary character of [human] wants.... Even when their gratification [the desires, the wants, gratification] seems farthest off, the uneasiness they occasion is still the best guide of [a human being's, of man's] life, and will lead him to issues entirely beyond his present powers of reckoning. [The eros, the pothos, opens. It opens, it crashes down doors. He finishes,] Prune down his extravagance, sober him, and you undo him.[12]

If you remember back to the very first talk on the opening morning, the samādhi talk, not only is having a notion of meditation as no desire, no doing, desire and doing have no place in meditation, not only will that create a duality in life, where we have plenty of desire and plenty of doing necessarily, but also maybe something in the soul needs pothos. It needs this impossibly far longing.

So coming back to this question, why practise? Maybe, partly, we practise for pothos. Maybe practice and Dharma form, if you like, constellate, an avenue, a context, a support, for pothos, for a track on which, through which, this pothos can run and open and be unending. A mythos, the Dharma as mythos for pothos. Pothos, this unending -- it doesn't always mean being overwhelmed or contracted in pain of longing, not at all. And I don't mean to contradict here things I've said in other talks or other places. We can, we absolutely can, discover through practice radical freedoms, more radical, deeper than we had ever hoped. I know that's absolutely true. But it's saying more that there's always a new horizon. There's always a new horizon that opens, again and again.

With all this, just as a sort of side point, but it's kind of central as well: we might begin to question the whole relationship with eros in general in the Dharma, and what place that has. Sometimes we talk about fantasy. Sometimes a fantasy or myth -- particularly in Theravāda -- half conscious is the image of an awakened life as being a life purged of eros. A life purged of eros -- is that something we want?

So why practise? Yes, definitely happiness. Some people don't like that word. Joy, joy can come at times in superabundant ways. We can be overflowing with joy at times. Again, that's a matter of practice. It really is, even if that sounds very distant. We cannot be overflowing with joy all the time; it comes and goes. But joy is available, and it is a good reason to practise. Freedom, of course. But then we go back to what we started the whole series of talks by saying: what do we mean by 'freedom'? And what do we imagine the range of that freedom is? If I'm so plugged into the paradigm of evolutionary biology, I might say, "Well, my freedom is limited by my biological hardware that has evolved through evolution." So there's a range to this answer of what freedom is. But we've touched on that.

I was talking not too long ago with someone, and she's been practising for years. She said, "You know, my stuff and my problems now, they're kind of -- they're not so much a problem. They don't even come up. I've worked through it. They're kind of fragmented, gone. They come up sometimes, but it's really not that big a deal." And I said, "Okay, so why are you practising?" And she thought about it for a while. She said, "I guess because of the amazement and the wonder it keeps opening for me. It's more to do with that." That becomes a reason for practising.

Could we even extend that and say, could a reason -- I don't like the word 'reason,' but I can't think of another one -- could a reason for practising be that we practise for beauty? For beauty. The provenance of art is beauty, in a very wide sense, you could say. But also in science, it's interesting. Kepler, who came right after Copernicus, he was driven by a sense, by an inner conviction, of the necessity that however the planets moved, it had to be beautiful. Whatever equation governed the motion of the planets had to be beautiful. Why? Because he was actually plugged into a Neoplatonic philosophy of the structure of the cosmos. Dirac, who I think also got a Nobel Prize for physics in the twentieth century, he gave a lecture once, and he was talking about the search for the equations that govern different realms in physics, and he said, "It must be beautiful."[13] This is a scientist talking! Religion as well, there's beauty. But really it's art where that's the provenance. Beauty is the provenance, in a very wide sense.

Now, I would say that already, for probably everyone in this hall, beauty is already part of what you love in the Dharma. Some sense of beauty is already part of why you love the Dharma. You are not just in this as a set of techniques to reduce your suffering. That's how we market it. That's not the right word, is it? [laughter] But can you not tell, just a little introspection, that you're here for some thing, some elements here, with this teacher more than this one, whatever it is, with this place more than that place -- some of what you love has to do with beauty.

It may be the gentleness, certain teachers or teachings that pervade gentleness or kindness, and there's a beauty in that that draws your heart. It may be the sīla, the ethics, the purity, the goodness. There's a beauty to that. Or the wakefulness. We talked about that guy with the iPhone, doing his meditation, noting. For some people, what's wrong there? There's no beauty in that. Part of the beauty is tied to a cosmology. I see people on the front lawn sometimes, sitting on the benches, and I can see: totally present, totally bright mindfulness. The uprightness of mindfulness pervades the whole system, the mind, the body. It's palpable from the outside. Looking, looking, mindfully looking. What are they looking at? They're looking at nature, and imbued in that mindfulness is the beauty of nature, and the beauty of the cosmological sense of being part of that nature. You put that same person in front of a Microsoft Windows screensaver, is it the same? Same in terms of mindfulness; you're just being awake in terms of the visual sensations. Different, though. Whole different feel. We are in love, partly, with the beauty that a particular mythos of the Dharma, and its particular cosmology, sing to us with.

If we entertain the idea that maybe Dharma could be like art, or we could see the Dharma as kind of art, then beauty actually becomes very important -- and 'beauty' in a very wide sense. A beautiful life. The Dharma is about beauty, and about a beautiful life. But then, reducing suffering may be not that important. If we're really going to say, "Let's see it as an art," then the reduction of suffering actually becomes less important.

When I say this, "Dharma's like art," people say, "Yes, that's great. Of course it is. Lovely. Nice image. Nice metaphor." But I don't mean the art of peace. I don't mean the art of non-entanglement. I don't mean the art of equanimity, of simplicity, or even the art of freedom or reduction of suffering. I just mean art. Not 'art of' anything. Just art.

I think it was in the second talk I mentioned that one possibility, one possible way of kind of seeing what the Four Noble Truths are, is as an exploration of perception -- what I was calling 'phenomenological' in the philosophical language: that we can learn to notice what happens to our perception of self and the world and things when there is more clinging, and when there is less clinging, and when there's really less clinging. By 'clinging,' I mean very widely everything involved in clinging: identification, clinging at the reality of things, gross clinging, all of that.

Notice: clinging, up and down, and the perception of the world changes. Rather than the Four Noble Truths as pointing to trying to live a life of non-clinging -- which doesn't make sense*.* It doesn't make sense, a life of non-clinging. This is where so many modern Buddhists get into a problem. They're trying to live a life of non-clinging, and it won't work. It just doesn't work, for a number of reasons. Rather than a life of non-clinging, the Four Noble Truths as a kind of framework for entering into understanding the perception of world and existence and self. We begin to understand: empty, all this is empty. What I perceive is empty. It's dependent arising. And that, seeing deeply the emptiness, opens up possibilities, opens up all kinds of possibilities -- even the possibility of not prioritizing reducing suffering, that the reduction of suffering is not important always.

I know that quite a lot of people try and say that it's not authentic to the Pali Canon, etc., but in the Pali Canon, it's hard to get away from the teaching there that full liberation is not being reborn again. It's ending rebirth, going away from the world, not being reborn into the world. For that, disenchantment -- we need to be disenchanted with the world and the world of things. Disenchantment, I can't remember the Pali word, but it's a big theme in the Pali Canon, that it's important to be disenchanted.

But if, going back to the first talk, we say, "Well, a lot of people don't believe. Some people do. Some people don't. A lot of people are agnostic," we cannot hold this ending of rebirth as a pervasive vision of what full awakening is. That changes, opens up the whole possibility of what the Four Noble Truths can be. They become a skeleton. So what are we doing? Why are we practising? Is it self-help? Is that what we're doing? Am I only interested in reducing suffering, or is something else wanted too? I don't know the word, but is it possibly that something in us wants enchantment*?* We want to be enchanted. That's why, partly, why we're practising. And that enchantment comes from the cosmology, the sense of what this is, what is the context of my practice, what I'm in. It comes from the cosmology, and it comes from the mythos. It includes the myth, given to the self, of the path. It's that that enchants. Hardly anyone nowadays talks about 'ending' suffering any more.

Some visions of awakening -- I mentioned them in the first talk, and just to pull out one to talk about: a kind of vision of full liberation as being in the moment, moment after moment, without any residue of resentment or something else hanging over from the past, colouring, distorting the freshness of the moment. So this process of existence just rolling on smoothly, and that's awakening. If you're really caught up in resentment, and clouded, and all this stuff, and you're very contracted, that will sound pretty attractive. Of course it will. But once a certain amount of freedom is there, that vision of awakening, it just doesn't sound that attractive. It's hardly a reason for the angels to trumpet in the heavens. It's okay. Maybe we want enchantment, a path of enchantment.

Now, I could have a vision of the world, the cosmos, that's an existentialist vision, going back to the first view, the limitations of this 'real' materiality, etc., or evolutionary biology, or the biological machine, etc. If that enchants you, great. Go for it, really. You are inhabiting a myth when you enter that. Just don't claim it's the truth, because of everything that we've said. Just let go of the truth claims, admit it's a mythos and a fantasy that places the self in a certain myth, and fine, great, beautiful. There has to be this range. Other people will be enchanted by a sense of the divine everywhere, what's called 'numinosity,' everywhere. The whole of existence numinous, holy somehow. Remember, 'divine,' these kind of words, they're open to interpretation, endlessly open to interpretation.

So if we say art, Dharma as art, then what is liberated? Well, my sense of life, my sense of existence. The cosmos is liberated. Liberated by the artist's vision, by the malleability of vision that comes through practice. So entertaining what I call different ways of looking, or different conceptual frameworks, what Henry Corbin calls different 'modes of being,' opens up, experientially, different cosmoses. We literally are in a different cosmos, depending on the way of looking, the way of conceiving, and the mode of being.

Olivier Messiaen was one of the great twentieth century composers, and he used to get up -- not every day, obviously -- and go to the forest very early in the morning, and listen to the dawn chorus, all this symphony of very rich birdsong. He had a phenomenal ear, and was able to transcribe this birdsong, very complex trilling, and beautiful, intricate melodies of all the different birds, and transcribe them, and put it into his music. Amazing, amazing music. He used to say the birds are the master musicians. They echo the music of the angels in the celestial city, in the heaven. It's a certain way of seeing, but that celestial city, that heaven, can be here. It can be a perception that opens out. That cosmos is available here, now, if I learn to listen differently, in different ways, if I learn to look in different ways. Cosmos becomes heaven. Different cosmoses become available. It's not a question of believing this or believing that. Remember, Hermes does not believe this or that; he believes in multiplicity. Also, careful of the hidden thought there: "It's really the case that evolution or reductionist materialism, little billiard balls of atoms pinging around independently of the observer ..." It's not that's what's really true, and we're just sort of pretending something. There is no really. And that opens something out.

So pothos, beauty, enchantment. Something in here is about Dharma as myth or myths (because it could be plural) to live by. Myths for us to live by. The Dharma as myth for us to live by and in. When we live in a myth that's alive for us, it brings certain qualities. They're hard to articulate or put your finger on. Soulfulness, if I would sum it up. That probably doesn't do much for you as a word. Resonance, depth, beauty, meaningfulness. This is what I would call it. Something is alive for us in ways that we can't quite box in or put our finger on. Soulfulness comes alive through the myth/myths that we're living. And maybe as much as reducing suffering, soulfulness could be our compass to set our direction among the range of Dharmas that are there.

You might be hearing this, talking about myths and enchantment and pothos and beauty, and this might sound -- especially the 'myth' bit -- might sound catastrophic, a catastrophic disappointment. It might sound. But it will only sound that way if you believe in a concrete, independently existing 'real,' which we so commonly unconsciously do: "Yes, yes, yes. But what's real is X or Y." When I take that away, when I really see through deep insight or deep inquiry that there is no concrete, independently existing 'real,' it opens up the necessity of this flexibility, this multiplicity of looking, and I admit all that, and then actually, this, what I'm suggesting now, comes not to be seen as problematic. It comes, actually, I think, to be seen in itself as something beautiful.

Just to wrap up: if I say one possibility is actually to see the Dharma as art -- it's just one possibility, to see it as art -- I mean more than when I said in the very first talk, on the first morning, that samādhi is an art, in the sense that samādhi involves a kind of technique, but a kind of craft, improvisation, and playfulness, etc., intuition. Samādhi is an art in that sense. If I say "Dharma as art," can you get the sense that I'm meaning something at a whole different level now? The groundlessness of truth claims, ultimately. The ultimate groundlessness of truth claims. The primacy of fantasy and mythos. This means that when we say "Dharma is art," we're talking at a whole different level here. Seeing emptiness deeply, and maybe certain personalities, and maybe certain philosophical understandings, etc., will help to see life as art, help to see that life can be seen as art. But if we had to sum up what's involved in that vision of Dharma as art, what could we say? I'll say five things.

(1) One is practice itself -- but also the vision, and also perception itself -- becomes creative. Like art, it's creative. This means it could be improvisatory, or it could be formulaic. It could be very individual. It is definitely developable. It's inexhaustible, though, like art is inexhaustible. You don't reach an end to it. It may involve technique, or it may not involve technique. But there's something about it that's not wholly describable. There's always in art a mysterious element. You can never quite get to the bottom of either the piece of art, if it's good art, or the making of it. So there's that aspect.

(2) More importantly, though, if we say, "Dharma as art," it's not religious in the sense of the way I was using it before, of looking backward, trying to replicate something someone did thousands of years ago, or something someone said thousands of years ago. The authority and the truth are not back. We recognize past masters in art. Of course we do. But it's not limited to that. But there is, though, the mythos of the past that's very beautiful, the mythos of the Buddha, the mythos of the tradition and the texts. I love that. I love it. The mythos is alive. But it's recognized as mythos and fantasy, at least in part. So that's the second.

(3) The third is: it's not quite like science either, which, in the sort of classical view of science, attempts to arrive at a truth: "This is a truth. This is fact." Maybe what we're dealing with in Dharma as art is more a notion of poetic truth. So the things of the Dharma, the Dharma itself, awakening, Buddha, the tradition, this person, this teaching, but maybe also the cosmos itself and the things of the cosmos, maybe we're more in the realm, or we open up the capacity for seeing and knowing poetically. What does that mean, to know the cosmos poetically, and give that total legitimacy of place? It's different than a scientific model.

What would that mean, if we unpack that one in particular? A person writing a poem knows that the poem and the poetic images are creations -- my own creations, or they come to me, whatever. They're creations; it's undeniable. They're not realist though. They're not taken to be, "This is fact," or "This is reality." If in a poem someone says, "He has a garden in his heart. His heart is a garden," you don't go opening up the chest, looking inside for bits of grass and flowers. It's a poetic image. But it's true. It has its own kind of truth to it. It's not realist in that sense. Poetic knowing, poetic truth, if you like, is also very concerned with beauty in the very wide sense. It's different. It prioritizes beauty.

Another thing about poetic images is they're kind of infinite. What is awakening? What is the Buddha? What is anything, or this cosmos, or an image that might come of any of this? It's not something you can reach the bottom of. They're not reducible: "This means that. We put it in the box, and we're finished with it. We've summed it up."

I'll just mention very briefly: in Buddhist tantric texts, the Sanskrit is created in such a way that there are compounds of words, which actually open to a multiplicity of interpretations. The very text itself can be read in -- not countless, but a lot of different ways. Maybe that's intentional on the part of the authors, that there's this multiplicity. This poetic vision can come into what's supposed to be a holy text, a traditional text. In Jewish mysticism, the Hasidim, in some versions of Kabbalah, the Bible, the Torah, because it doesn't have vowels in it, it means that a certain word, the reader can place the vowels in the text as he or she chooses. So any word or any sentence is open to a whole range of interpretations. Some traditions even say you can move the letters around, and you can play other games. The idea is this holy book has anything but one meaning. In fact, it says that as many moments there are for all the people that will ever encounter this thing, that's how many interpretations there are. It's a whole different way. And not only that text, but the world, the cosmos, is also seen as text that can be multiply interpreted. Hermeneutics is the interpretation of holy texts. Cosmos as text that can be multiply interpreted.

(4) A fourth thing, which we've covered already, if Dharma can be seen as art, or if we would enter into that notion: it's not, as we said, only about reducing suffering. Art is not only about reducing suffering. Sometimes it is; sometimes it isn't.

(5) Fifth, and maybe very unusual nowadays: the Dharma as art, then art and Dharma not only about my life. So popular nowadays, the notion of meditation for everyday life or this or that. Of course that's important, and practice should have an impact in everyday life. But it's not only that. So Dharma and practice, maybe like art, maybe they also -- also, in addition to everyday life -- maybe they also have their own dimension. It's like its own sphere, its own strata of existence. It may spill over and affect everyday life. It may not. And it's completely fine. Why? Because it's art. Why does art exist? For art's sake. It's not art of this or that. It's just art.

Just to end now, a last thing about art: I think art will always be beyond whatever definitions human beings try to make of art. People say, "Art is about self-expression. It's about expression of your feelings. It's about creating something that's pleasing to the eye or the ear. It's about aesthetics. It's about this or that." It will always be bigger. There's something about art that will always be bigger than the human being's narrow definitions, or the human being's proposed purposes. Always bigger than the proposed purposes. Dharma as art, always something bigger. What is the purpose? I cannot box it in.

Shall we have some quiet time together?

  1. Source unknown, but compare to SN 46:53. ↩︎

  2. Henry Corbin, The Voyage and the Messenger, tr. Joseph Rowe (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1998), 140. ↩︎

  3. Rafael López-Pedraza, Hermes and His Children (3rd edn, Einsiedeln, Switzerland: Daimon Verlag, 2012). ↩︎

  4. Simon Critchley, Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 73. ↩︎

  5. Compare to the following quote attributed to Picasso in Ellen H. Johnson, Modern Art and the Object: A Century of Changing Attitudes, rev. and enl. edn (New York: Routledge, 2018), 3: "It's not what the artist does that counts, but what he is. Cézanne would never have interested me a bit if he had lived and thought like Jacques Emile Blanche, even if the apple he painted had been ten times as beautiful. What forces our interest is Cézanne's anxiety -- that's Cézanne's lesson." ↩︎

  6. C. G. Jung, The Psychology of the Transference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966), 36. ↩︎

  7. You can find later talks on this topic with the tag 'fantasies of the path,' or, for example, in the talk "In Love with the Way: Images of Path and of Self" (10 Feb. 2017),, accessed 25 Nov. 2020. ↩︎

  8. Daniel Ladinsky, Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West (New York: Penguin Compass, 2002), 311. ↩︎

  9. Edna O'Brien, James Joyce (New York: Penguin Group, 2011). ↩︎

  10. James Hillman, The Essential James Hillman: A Blue Fire, ed. Thomas Moore (New York: Routledge, 1989), 286--7. ↩︎

  11. Attributed to Henry Moore in Donald Hall, Henry Moore: The Life and Work of a Great Sculptor (London: Victor Gollancz, 1966). ↩︎

  12. William James, The Will to Believe (New York: Longmans, Greene, and Co., 1896), 131--2. ↩︎

  13. Graham Farmelo, It Must Be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science (London: Granta, 2001), xiii: "During a seminar in Moscow in 1955, when asked to summarise his philosophy of physics, he [Dirac] wrote on the blackboard in capital letters, 'Physical laws should have mathematical beauty.'" ↩︎

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry