The Way of the White Clouds

by Anāgarika Lāma Govinda | 123,888 words

The Way of the White Clouds as an eye-witness account and the description of a pilgrimage in Tibet during the last decenniums of its independence and unbroken cultural tradition, is the attempt to do justice to the above-mentioned task, as far as this is possible within the frame of personal experiences and impressions. This work is licensed under...

Chapter 29 - The Mind that Conquers Death

After having met and talked to Maung Tun Kyaing and his Father, as well as to many others who were intimately acquainted with them, I could understand the tremendous effect which Maung Tun Kyaing's words and presence had upon the people. And it struck me as significant that again -- as in the case of the Great Rishi of Mandalay Hill -- it was the Bodhisattva-Ideal, the directedness[1] towards a spiritual goal, which alone

can convert consciousness into a one-pointed, unified vital force that had spanned the chasm of death and had given the impetus that linked one life to the other in an ever-widening awareness of its responsibility and its all-embracing aim.

This linking up of lives was not achieved by clinging to the past or by a morbid curiosity about former existences by means of hypnotic trances or other abnormal psychic states, but by the forward-looking purposefulness of a directed mind, based on the insight and realisation of the universal nature of consciousness, rather than on the personal aspects of an individual past. The latter may appear automatically before the mind's eye in the process of meditation, especially in states of deep absorption, but they should never be pursued for their own sake.

As an example, I may mention here the Buddha's experience, which led to his final enlightenment, and in which his awareness in ever-widening circles, beginning with the remembrance of his former lives (but without giving undue importance to their individual features), proceeds to the realisation of how living beings come into existence, how they appear in ever new forms and conditions, according to their inborn or acquired tendencies, their subconscious desires and their conscious actions and after having thus traced life to its very origins, he observed the origination and dissolution of whole world-systems in endless cycles of materialisation and reintegration, following each other like a cosmic systole and diastole.

Only in such a cosmic vision can the individual path be seen in its proper perspective, from which it derives both its meaning and its value. Unless this perspective has been established, either mentally or through direct experience, pre-natal remembrances would prove to be only a burden, a useless and unnecessary encumbrance of the mind. It would nullify the very justification of death, namely its faculty of freeing us not only from a worn-out body, but even more so from an overcrowded intellect, from the rut of habits, of hardened opinions and prejudices, from the accumulations of inessential memory details, which bind us to the past and prevent any fresh approach to the problems of the present, stifling our awareness and spontaneity vis-d-vis new situations and wider relationships.

Directedness and spontaneity of consciousness may appear to be mutually exclusive, for which reason some of our modern apostles of 'spontaneous living' and 'Intuitive thought' deceive themselves and others with the idea that any form of logical thought, of purposefulness, intention, or spiritual direction -- in fact, any form of striving to overcome one's limitations, be it through meditation or any other practices -- are all forms of preconceived ideas with which we violate our intuitive genius. All this is very attractive to those who need a fashionable excuse for not exerting themselves, for merely drifting through life, mistaking whims and unpredictable behaviour for signs of spontaneity, laziness for a sign of detachment, and indifference towards moral values or towards the weal and woe of others for a sign of equanimity.

But the seeming contradiction between concentration and intuition, between directedness and spontaneity, is only due to thoughtless generalisations which have no foundation in experience or reality. Reality; therefore, seems paradox in terms of such abstract terminology, as, for instance, if we practise 'one-pointedness' or concentration in order to arrive at universality and all-inclusiveness (the very opposite of 'one-pointedness'), or if we have first to achieve individuality before we can experience universality.

We have to turn from a wayward, chaotic consciousness, from a mind that is agitated or diverted by all kinds of ephemeral objects and illusions, to a directed, i.e. co-ordinated, harmonised consciousness, which is not directed towards any particular point or limited object, but which consists so-to-say in the integration of all directions and points. 'One-pointedness' (ekāgratā) does not necessarily mean 'to be directed towards something (towards one particular object), but rather to be mentally and spiritually unified, like the rays of the sun in one focus. The focus of a lens is not directed towards anything: it simply unites the scattered rays of the sun and recreates the complete picture of the sun in one point; and this point, though it has no extension in space, does not abrogate the infinity of each ray which passes though it. Here we have the practical demonstration of the paradox, how the finite (the point) and the infinite (the rays) can be combined and co-exist.

The 'one-pointedness' of our consciousness is similar to the focalisation of a lens: it can be utilised for bringing a particular object into focus, or for the focalisation of consciousness itself, by excluding any particular object and just letting consciousness rest in itself, integrated in its own awareness. In such a state, one is not 'holding on to anything' or 'concentrating on anything', the mind is completely free from objectawareness or from the interference of will-power or intellectual activity.

For most people, however, it is necessary first to free themselves from the multiplicity of objects and sense-impressions by concentrating or focussing their attention on one object, and when they have thus succeeded in eliminating all outer and inner disturbances, then even this object can be dropped -- or rather it disappears by itself by losing its 'object'-character the moment the meditator has become one with it -- and the state of intuitive receptiveness and perception has been attained, a state in which we are no more bound by forms and objects or by aims and intentions.

Meditation in Buddhism, comprises both the preliminary states of thinking and reflecting and concentrating on a chosen subject (parikrama bhāvanā) as well as the states of attainment of complete integration (appanā bhāvanā) and intuitive awareness or spiritual vision (Dhyāna). Intuition, however, is based on repeated experience, and experience is based on practice. Only when practice has led to a complete mastery of any subject or any technique, so that they no more require our conscious attention, only then is it possible to rely on our intuition and to act spontaneously and effortlessly like a virtuoso, who masters his instrument (including his mind) to such an extent that he can compose or improvise with complete freedom without ever violating the laws on which the harmony of his creation is based.

Just as lower organisms serve as building materials for higher ones, so also the storedup experiences of the subconscious or automatic functions serve the higher purposes of the mind. Living cells turn into hard bones to support the structure of the body; and most of the bodily functions, like heart-beat, digestion, breathing, etc., have become automatic. If all these functions were dependent on our conscious effort all our energies and our attention would be absorbed by them, and no intellectual or spiritual life would be possible. As little therefore, as we should attempt to reverse automatic functions into conscious ones, should we attempt to revive the details of previous existences, from which repeated deaths have freed us, by converting the experiencevalue of each life into a quality of our character or an ability of our mind. Only those remembrances, which through the very force of their meaningfulness and direction towards an aim have retained their value, can have significance for our present life, and perhaps for our future ones too—provided the aim, or the idea that inspired us, was wide enough to include a future beyond the span of one lifetime.

Footnotes and references:


Directed consciousness, according to Buddhist psychology, is that which has 'entered the stream' towards liberation or enlightenment, in which its universal nature is realised. Undirected consciousness allows itself to be driven hither and thither by blind urges and external sense-stimuli. On account of its dependence upon the external world, it is called mundane consciousness (lokīya), while directed consciousness is called supramundane (lokuttura). The justification of the term 'directed' is borne out by the fact that the transition from worldly to supra-worldly consciousness is called 'entry into the stream' (sotāpatti) and that one who finds himself in this phase of development is called 'sotāpattna' (one who has entered the stream), (Cf. my The Psychological Attitude of Early Buddhist Philosophy Rider & Co. (London, 1961), p. 80.)

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: