Mindfulness of “I am”

Continuing to study Mindfulness by Joseph Goldstein.   These are notes on the middle part of Chapter 10, “Mindfulness of physical characteristics”

“Conceit” in its Buddhist usage, refers to the deeply rooted sense of “I am”, “I was”, or “I will be.”

This is the last of the veils of ignorance that needs to be removed before full awakening.

Studying the elements breaks down conceit.
In seeing the body as a collection of parts, none of which by themselves are particularly alluring, and then experiencing the body simply as an interplay of elements, the conceit of “I am” falls away.

Bhikkhu Nanananda spoke to this conceit of taking the elements as to be a self as “the misappropriation of public property.”

Contemplation of the elements leads to a radically different vision, where we go beyond even the concept of “being.”
When we split up the body as “just the elements,” we begin to lose the concept of a being or a person.  We begin to lose the sense of a solid body and only the feeling of sensation in space and the other elements are known.

From The Path of Purification, 5th century AD:

This bhikkhu who is devoted to the defining of the four elements is immersed in voidness and eliminates the perception of living beings… Because he has abolished the perception of living beings, he conquers fear and dread, and conquers delight and aversion (boredom), he is not exhilarated or depressed by agreeable or disagreeable things, and as one of great understanding, he either ends in the deathless realm or he is bound for a happy destiny.

Relative and Ultimate Truth

Through our practice of the four elements, we open a doorway to understanding two overarching principles that frame twenty-six hundred years of Buddhist Wisdom.

Relative truth — conventional world of subject and object, self and other, birth and death.  All of our familiar experiences.

The Ultimate truth sees this same world quite differently — there is no subject-object separation, in fact, there is no “things.”  It is the deepest aspect of the unmanifest, the uncreated, the unborn and the undying.

Goldstein likens it to a movie theater.  The movie and the story in the movie are a relative truth and for a while we see it as “real”.  But when we see the over-view that it is light playing on a screen, that it is projected from a little box, we see that it doesn’t really exist.  So too is the play of relative and absolute in Buddhist understanding.

So, in life, everything is a play of momentary, changing elements.

Don’t grieve for that which is non-existent.
From the Sutta Nipata:

Dry out that which is past, let there be nothing for you in the future.  If you do not grasp at anything in the present you will go about at peace.  One who, in regard to this entire mind/body complex, has no cherishing of it as “mine,” and who does not grieve for what is non-existent truly suffers no loss in the world.  For that person there is no thought of anything as “this is mine: or “this is another’s”; not finding any state of ownership, and realizing, “nothing is mine,” he does not grieve.

The contemplation of the elements opens up the idea that an “I” is separated from everything else.

The caution:
Getting stuck in the ultimate reality and losing the “ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows” of relative life is a very limited view of this understanding.

Nagarjuna, 2nd century, wrote:

It is sad to see those who mistakenly believe in material, concrete reality, but far more pitiful are those who are attached to emptiness.

Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche further elaborates on this potential pitfall of attachment to emptiness:

Those who believe in things can be helped through various kinds of practice, through skillful means – but those who fall into the abyss of emptiness find it almost impossible to re-emerge, since there seem to be no handholds, no steps, no gradual progression, nothing to do.

A mature spiritual practice sees the union of the relative and ultimate levels, with each informing and expressing the other.

The four divine abodes – lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity – are all based on the conceptual level of beings.
At the same time, the deeper our understanding of selflessness, the freer and more spontaneous are these beautiful mind states.

On the relative level – love and compassion are states we cultivate.
On the ultimate level, they are the responsive nature of the mind itself.  When we recognize the empty nature of phenomena, the energy to bring about the good of others dawns uncontrived and effortless.

In a humble way,
We have a motivation to practice not for ourselves alone but for the sake of others.

His holiness the Dalai Lama said:

I cannot pretend that I am really able to practice bodhicitta, but it does give me tremendous inspiration.  Deep inside me I realize how valuable and beneficial it is, that is all.

We can plants these seeds of aspiration in ourselves without pretension and without grandiose expectations.