Let no one deceive another or despise anyone anywhere, or through anger or resistance wish for another to suffer.

Dawning of dhamma

Before Vipassana, part 1 - departure from helplessness.

I awoke on 7 October 2007 full of familiar despair and suffering, but also fully aware of the selfish contradiction of this condition. After all, my suffering was relative and hardly anything substantial when compared to the suffering of others. Yet the suffering was real. I could feel its presence. It was physical, persistent, ephemeral. I decided to read a book on Tibetan Buddhism and meditation, The Tibetan Book of Living & Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche. This book had found its way into my book collection by chance and like a geological feature, a diamond, or a fossil, it had worked its way through the strata of my collection to finally sit on the surface, to be noticed and dug out, dusted off and put to use. I found it very moving in its description of the fragility of life and the need to prepare for death. I also found it partly obscure and tentative in its analysis of what it was to explore these things. However, it did make clear this was not an intellectual exercise. Action was needed if anything at all was to be gained from its pages. I decided at once to follow the description given in the book of a method for open-eyed meditation. At one o’clock in the afternoon I sat down on a cushion on a mat on the floor of the spare bedroom of my flat and lit a stick of incense, ready and resolved to sit as long as it took for the incense to burn away. There it was. With such a simple gesture my meditation practice had begun, or so it seemed.

I relaxed my breath, adjusted my body in this unfamiliar posture and tried to concentrate without effort on whatever I could see before me. At first I began to gaze through the incense smoke twirling and drifting around me. I then began to focus on the triangle-shaped roof-line of the house across the street. I had never noticed this roof before. Its shape fascinated me. Inside the triangle at the apex there was another smaller triangle covered in rectangular slate tiles tinted here and there with greenish-gray lichen. Some of the tiles were cut in odd shapes to fit the triangle. At the top of the triangle, set on four horizontal rows of these oddly cut tiles were four diamond shaped ones with scalloped, indented edges, set together making a larger diamond shape.

As I gazed at the tiles, I began to also notice a surprising number of birds in the sky. Pigeons, magpies, wrens, honey eaters and others were all coming and going, flying this way and that, appearing as rapidly moving dots on the horizon, or sweeping down from the roof of my building and across to the neighbouring roofs or into nearby trees. I was surprised at first by how active they seemed, full of resolve and purpose, knowing exactly where they were and where they were going. This simple observation had consumed a surprisingly large amount of time. Clouds in the sky that had been woolly and bulky when I began my meditation had now become smeared and stretched in streaks along the horizon. As my gaze dropped to the incense stick, I was amazed to see that it had already burned half way down, leaving a long curl of ash quivering in suspension, held up by threads of burned stick above the red glow of the burning tip. My attention became taken by the smoke swirling and curling across the room. Small flurries, ripples, eddies, long strings, tight curls, looping indefinable streams and flows, were all pulsing with the turbulence of the warming and cooling air in the room, forming tiny patterns of localised weather as imprecise and varied as the streaming clouds making their way across the far horizon.

I became aware at this moment of the thoughts running alongside the observations I was making. At one level of thought I was creating a sound track to go along with what I was seeing. A considered set of phrases, something like a review of options for different music and themes went by, passing through my mind in fragments, drawn on the inner landscape as if on a transparent screen. Above this, as if checking the first set of thoughts, was a more singular set of thoughts, as if being made from a more fixed and vigilant viewpoint. I did not know it, but the first tentative stage of observing power had arisen in me. I felt a surge of strength. Somehow I had decided I was no longer helpless. Surely now my meditation had begun.

Before Vipassana, part 2 - mountains, eagles and rivers.

(Please understand this reminiscence is not instruction.Any approach would be an improvement on the one I have taken. I move here in this narrative through other forms of approach to dhamma in my own stumbling way. I am really only telling the story of my movement from one place to another.Seeking sustenance, a hungry person will eat greedily from any plate. So it was with me.I mean no disrespect to other approaches.I will only repeat, with fear of causing unintended disharmony, the words of my Wing Chun Sifu David Cheung: "Practice wrong technique, even for fifty years - still wrong."

One stick of incense burns down,the smoke of existence drifts, coils, vanishes - so long yet so short. Staring into the eye of an tiny elephant made from clay by a departed girlfriend, I watched the stick burning down in a hole in its back. The powerful elephant lives and dies. Its strength, wisdom, patience, compassion all fade away. 

From Rinpoche's book I took this mantra (entirely without permission or understanding) and began to recite:Om Ah Hum Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum. 
The vibrational quality of each sound made sense to me. I could feel the pulsations of energetic activity in and around the body. I settled. I stayed still. I stopped reciting. The silence became a void, an empty jar. Mundane thoughts were a heavy cloak. Once I began to grasp this, I began to see. Once seen, the heavy cloak was abruptly lifted. In a sudden rush of imagery I found myself diving from bridges, from high buildings, out of aeroplanes, falling towards mountains. Mountains are all different, the mind said. Be like a mountain. Sit still and wait, as all mountains do. Sitting still, doors began opening, one after the other. Some opened vertically, some horizontally, some were wooden, some were glass, paper, cloth, light, dark, decorated, plain. These were planes of consciousness, of illusion, opening only to reveal more onion skins. Plato meditated in his cave. He sought to take the Greeks beyond the everyday views of the city. Paul sought to teach the Greeks in Ephesus about spirit beyond stones and politics. Thoughts like these ran around, like screeching monkeys at the bars of a cage - reminding me of work, the heavy load of responsibility, social demands, academic weight, search for meaning in words and phrases of position and retort - yet no position was better, no retort effective, no comfortable place in the cage for the monkey. So I determined to take the cloak lightly: it is made of paper, a tissue fabricated from thought and light, dots of ink, insubstantial, effortless. I was seeing that as one problem dissolves, another begins. Nothing to be gained from being concerned. All this too place in the space of one hour, at the cost of one stick of incense.

The next day, my meditation went for much longer - "almost two hours!" - I wrote fervently in my notebook. I reflected on the movement of a river. Water is insubstantial, like thoughts. As the river flowed, I felt a great compassion for others. I felt myself swept up into the air and found myself contemplating that an eagle views the river as a ribbon, as a silvery thread. It fixes on the moment to strike. Life ends, life continues. Mountains flow with the river, slowly dissolving into its stream. Heraclitus understood the impermanence of thought. The eagle view is the realisation of this point.There is no up or down in an eagle's view, no ground or sky. I moved away from imagery to vibrational qualities of internal sounds. Words and phrases ran together from the pulsations of each breath: "Awaken! Heart of the enlightened mind!" and "Bless me into usefulness!" seemed to shout from some deep place within, echoing and reverberating. Had I heard these phrases before? Were they more than meaningful, worthy sentiments? Part 3 coming soon.