Sangsara and Delusion

A psychologist might tell you that the greatest challenge to mental wellness is the failure to recognize that thoughts exist only in the brain. A Buddhist might simply say that thought is empty. The Buddhist might also speak of Sangsara, or Samsara.

Sangsara is a term used to describe the consciousness of objects combined with the delusion that objects exist independently of the observer. Awakening to reality destroys Sangsara in the sense that the delusion is destroyed. In the psychological sense, this means that thought is no longer seen to exist in the world as an independent, separate thing made of concrete substance.

Most of us know delusion as the stalker who believes a public figure is in love with them. As the hypochondriac who believes they are ill when no trace of illness can be found. Or as extreme jealousy where one believes his or her partner is cheating, even though there is no evidence to support that claim. The Buddhist would tell you, however, that the belief that any thought is something real and concrete is a delusion, and one shared by most of humanity.

It is easy to see delusion acting within yourself. Simply wonder if you really did lock the car door or if you really did put that credit card back in your wallet after your last purchase, and see how quickly that thought is felt to be real!

If you take that feeling into meditation and examine it, you will begin to see that not just that thought, but all your thoughts are felt to be real whether they correspond to the physical world or not. If you examine that feeling deeply, you will begin to see how your mental world extends into the outer world. You will begin to see that you are reacting to that mental world instead of your actual physical surroundings.

In seeing this you will begin to see how, as the Buddha said, you are bound to appearance. And how deeply your attention is fixed, as if hypnotized; upon an illusion you’ve mistaken for reality.

Knowing a thought to be just a thought, frees you from bondage to that thought. Knowing all thought to be just thinking, frees you from Sangsara.

To Awaken

The Buddha expounded the Dharma to show humanity how to overcome bondage to appearance. He is called the Fully Awakened One because he saw life as a fabric of dream illusions upon which we have become transfixed as if in a hypnotic trance. To Awaken is to break the trance and see the thoughts of waking consciousness as no more real than the images seen in dreams when asleep.

When we awake from sleep we know our dream to have been unreal. No matter how involved we were in its seeming reality, when we wake we do not check the bedroom for the people who were chasing us in our sleep. We put the dream aside to deal with the waking world.

To Awaken is to see that our day’s thoughts are no more real than the ones we had when we slept. It is like waking up from a dream, then waking up from our day thoughts.

To the unawakened, thoughts are not only seen to be true, they are seen to be real and powerful. There is a compulsion to act when a thought arises. There is a belief in the ‘this or that’ which creates irrational fear. There is a belief in the righteousness of political ideology and religious faith. In all of this there is, as the Buddha pointed out, a bondage to appearance as we are ruled by our thoughts instead of ruling them.

The Awakened one sees thought in the same way we see our dreams. There is no urge to act, just an option to act or not act. The ‘this or that’ that formerly created fear is now seen as nothing more than a mental image without substance.  Any system of thought is seen as neither more nor less valid than any other. In seeing this, the Awakened one finds no reason to argue, no reason to fight or go to war. Having seen the reality of awareness, the Awakened one is at peace.

To be a Fully Awakened Buddha is to realize all of life is a dream illusion. The first step in this realization is to plant the seed of doubt in the accuracy of your thoughts about reality.  The first step is to see how these thoughts, this appearance, holds you in sway.  Once planted, the seed of doubt will take root and grow into a tree that will one day bear the fruit of your Awakening.

Transparent Awareness.

A shift of base or emphasis starts when you begin to realize that your true nature is awareness. It’s a subtle shift wherein the objects of consciousness that so deeply preoccupied you in the past now become less important as consciousness itself comes to the fore. It’s as if all your life you’ve only seen the reflections in water and now, for the first time, you see water.

Of course, we never actually see awareness as a thing; just as most of the time we never actually see water. When we look at water we see what it reflects, or the light from things as it bends around and through it.  Awareness is much the same in that we usually know it only in relation to objects.

Perhaps you’ve seen pictures of boats floating in water that is so clear that it appears they are floating in mid-air.  Without the boats the water’s depth and transparency would be difficult to notice but with them it shines forth.  Awareness is like that, always present but difficult to notice.  Yet, if in our meditation we hold a subtle object in mind, we can turn our attention to the transparent awareness that surrounds and lays beneath it.

The Greek philosopher Plotinus wrote, “To attain the Good, we must ascend to the highest state, and, fixing our gaze thereon, lay aside the garments we donned when descending here below; just as, in the Mysteries, those who are admitted to penetrate into the inner recesses of the sanctuary, after having purified themselves, lay aside every garment, and advance stark naked.”

To follow Plotinus’ thought, if we lay aside the garments of thought and ego, we can penetrate into the recesses of our inner sanctuary where we may recognize Self without an object.  Then, we will know our true nature as bare, transparent awareness.

No Object Awareness

A First Nations story tells us that one evening the Great Spirit was looking for a wife. To each prospective bride the Great Spirit held out his cupped hands and ask, “What is in my hands.” Many sought to see what was there but in the end each could only answer, “Nothing.” Only one saw the night sky though the spirit hands and said, “I see stars.” In doing so she solved the riddle and became the Great Spirit’s wife.

Picasso may have done something similar to the Great Spirit’s bride when he drew “Warrior Hand” (shown above) after seeing his distorted fingers through a glass of water. And in meditation we must do something similar. We must look beyond the contents of mind to recognize the awareness that contains them.

We often approach meditation in the same way as the unsuccessful bride or non-artist. We seek something where there is nothing, all the while missing what is there. That is, we seek some special knowledge or a subtle object to experience, when the true ambrosia is awareness.

We falsely believe that because there is the word ‘awareness’ that awareness must be an object we can see.  But there is no object that is awareness.  There is no object awareness to observe.

When we take this false belief into meditation we seek some special awareness that will reveal our true nature.  But there is no special type of awareness; there is just your present, everyday awareness. Hence the instruction when meditating is to just be aware of being aware, just be or just sit. Yet in spite of these clear directions we continue to look for something in the awareness rather than the awareness itself. And in so doing we become unsuccessful brides who live in a sea of stars, yet see naught.

Nonobjective Awareness.

Mind consists of sense objects and concepts about these objects that are themselves also objects of awareness.

Awareness stands in contradistinction to the contents of mind, encompassing and comprehending all experience. Awareness is not recognizable as an object so may loosely be described as nonobjective.


It is interesting to note that abstract art is sometimes called nonobjective art. It is nonobjective in the sense that brush strokes and colors placed on a canvas do not represent anything in the physical world. There are no recognizable objects in nonobjective art. There is no recognizable subject, as well.

The arts have achieved a state of mind in which there are no recognizable objects and no subject. This state of mind approaches that which Buddhism calls “no-mind” but falls short as it still contains experiential material such as color and form. No-mind, however, contains no color and no form. It is a state wherein there is no sensation or conceptualization of any kind. There is in no-mind not even an awareness of “I”.

At first glance no-mind may be seen as an undesirable state of negation or nothingness. Nothing, however, can be further from the truth as no-mind is your natural state and your true nature. Being your true nature, no-mind is not something you possess or have but is what you immediately are. It is you stripped of all desire, intellection and grasping self.

Being your true nature, no-mind is right here, right now. It is inseparable from you and is, in truth, you. However, you do not recognize this because you have been giving yourself the wrong labels.

Over the course of years, lifetimes even, you have identified with the objects of awareness instead of awareness, itself. You have accepted labels like good or bad, happy or sad, male or female, young or old. Rather than recognizing your true nature, you have accepted a false identity that stands opposite it. You have forgotten that you are nonobjective awareness.

Fortunately, it is not necessary to stop all activities or bring the mind to a halt to realize awareness. Awareness is here right now. Even in your reading of this sentence, awareness is. Your present state of being awake is awareness. All you need do is recognize that you are this awareness.

It is possible for you to immediately realize no-mind as your true nature. However, to sustain this recognition it is necessary to break the habit of mislabeling yourself as a “this or a that”. It is necessary to maintain the awareness without seeking outside of it for some object to experience. It is necessary to stop grasping and just be aware.  Nothing can be simpler.  Yet nothing seems so hard for the human mind to do.

The Thinker

There is a difference between thought and the thinker.

Thoughts are ideas, notions, images and memories that arise and fall in consciousness.  The thinker is the power of awareness that directs and sustains thought.

The thinker is the simplest thing of all.  So simple that you cannot even call it a thing!

Calling your self a thinker tells us more about your personality than what you actually are.  A feeling based personality could just as easily call his or her self a “feeler.”  A sensation type might use the word “sensor.”  Giving this power of awareness a name tells us nothing about what it is.

When we look for the thinker we cannot find it.  It’s like trying to look at your eye with your eye.  It can’t be done.

The thinker stands in opposition to all thought!

If we think about the thinker, we direct the awareness into the realm of thought.  Caught up in thinking we forget our true essence and wander into illusion, forgetting who and what we are.  Yet our true essence, our true nature, is still here.  It doesn’t go away, nor are we ever separated from it.

When taking up meditation, people take on the identity of a seeker.  Even when they are told, “You are It!” they still keep looking for something.

They look for some expansion of consciousness, an experience of light, love or knowledge.  They look for something complex.  They can’t accept that it is just this present awareness.  They think that’s too simple, so it can’t be the answer.

Yet, when people realize their true nature they invariably say, “It’s so simple! It was ‘me’ all along!”

Right now the difference between you living in samsara or you living in nirvana is just a simple recognition of your true essence as simple awareness.

Awareness that has no name.

Awareness that is not other than this present moment.

Buddhist Cartography: You Are Here.

I was in Stanley Park looking at the park map when my friend asked, “If we are here, then who are these people by the restrooms?”

Site maps often show two figures to indicate restroom facilities while using a marker of some sort to tell us where we are. As these maps emulate the workings of the human brain it should come as no surprise to learn that the brain also has an inner marker that says, “You are here.” What might come as a surprise is that, as with the site map, there isn’t actually any “you” there at the tip of the marker.

Just as the brain creates inner maps of the outer world, so does it create a map of a self that relates to the world. And just as the maps of the outer world are not the actual world, nor is the map of self your actual Self.

Identifying with the map of self has us believing we are such traits as “unreliable,” “worthless” or “bad” when, in fact, our true nature is clear; just as the water of a lake is clear and only reflects the blue of the sky or the green of the forest.

Most of us have been reading our inner maps for so long that we have forgotten our true nature.   Mindfulness and meditation are two practices that train us to turn our attention away from these maps so we may focus, first, on the outer world and, then, our true nature.

In mindfulness we focus our attention on whatever task we are doing at the moment. This turns our attention outward and away from our inner maps. As we progress in this outer focus we become more aware of the inner maps that our brains have superimposed on the world. We begin to see the difference between what “is” going on in the world as opposed to what we “think” is going on.

As part of my practice, I see my inner maps as constructs of the brain that exist only in the brain. I find this a great help in seeing the unreality of thought, as whatever exists in the brain alone can have no real existence in the outer world. This has helped dispel many fears, false beliefs and delusions; and is quite consistent with Tibetan Buddhism where the essential point is to see the world is an illusion.

In meditation the awareness is once again focused away from the inner maps, but this time it is turned back upon itself, i.e., one’s clear, true nature.

Here words become misleading. There is no actual “back” or “upon” in any sense that implies an objective self looking outward at the world. To think there is some person, mind or soul being aware of itself merely replaces one map of self with another, subtler one.

The ultimate form of meditation is Dogen’s shikantaza where one just sits as awareness itself. However, before most of us can “just sit” we need to disengage from our inner maps.   We need to put our maps of self and the world aside.

As I mentioned above, I have found it helpful to see my inner maps as fabrications of the brain. This applies not only to the maps I superimposed over the physical world but to my map of self, as well.

The inner map I have of myself is purely a construct of this brain and body. I did not have this map before incarnating into this body and, upon taking a new form, any new map of self will be just as illusory and impermanent as the one I use now.

Ultimately, self is nothing more than a marker on a map that says, “You are here.”   The only truth of that marker is that it points to emptiness, which is your true nature and your real Self.

Buddhist Cartography: Trauma Maps

In the days of the wooden mast sailing ships the most valued of secrets was the exploration map of the oceans and the world. On these maps the fortunes of nations were made or lost.

So important were these maps that traders and kings would hide them in sealed rooms while simultaneously displaying outdated ones for their competitors to see. They would also display maps with missing details or showed land were none existed in an attempt to mislead their enemies.

People suffering from trauma also use inner maps with holes where details should be and land where none exist. The holes are filled with hurt, anger, fear and shame. The land is the rationalizations and lies told to protect the psyche from the trauma, a false self, if you will, whose exposure would be as devastating to the traumatized as the theft of a map would have been to the fortunes of the old nations.

I recently had occasion to hear of a classic trauma map. A woman had offered her name as a reference for a man seeking employment. When the man actually gave her name she became unreasonably agitated to the extent that she sabotaged the man’s effort with the employer.

Following her trauma map, the woman was willing to be a reference because she felt it necessary to be helpful. However, lending her name meant she was bringing attention to herself; something a trauma map is designed to avoid. Her agitation and subsequent sabotage were the results of her trying to protect her core self from being known.

On another occasion a victim of rape told me that she avoided being assaulted again by going down dark alleys at one or two in the morning whenever she had to do some grocery shopping. As in the first story, this woman’s trauma map was drawn with the aim of self-protection, and self-protection meant not being seen.

Trauma maps are inner, secondary maps that are drawn with the pen of denial. They are drawn with the aim of hiding one’s core nature, which is seen as the source of one’s vulnerability. The essential feature of the map is, “Show your self in any way, and you die.” Concomitant with this denial is the creation of a false self that is drawn to deflect attention away from the core self.

Maps drawn from trauma may work well in traumatic situations but once the survival event is over, following them leads to paradoxical and conflicting behavior. Mindfulness starts the traumatized on the path to healing by enabling them to check their false thoughts with their actual experience. From this, the difference between thought and reality slowly comes to light.

Trauma maps, however, lead the seeker away from self, while mindfulness and meditation are meant to bring one face to face with one’s own true nature. Because of this, every effort must be made to avoid using a trauma map to guide one’s meditation. This means special attention is to be paid to observing and accepting one’s thoughts and feelings without repressing, denying or being overwhelmed by them. The traumatized mind is to avoid a central element of trauma, i.e., denial, by developing the quality of accepting whatever arises in consciousness without necessarily acting upon it.

Overcoming the brain’s directive to deny thought and emotion, without then becoming overwhelmed by them is a slow process for any mind, let along the traumatized one. But by using meditation to stabilize the mind, and mindfulness to accept what the brain has been denying, trauma and PTSD can be overcome. Then, your own true self that was seemingly lost will be found and, like the prodigal child, you will come home again.

Wood print “Yui” printed by Kyoto Hanga in Tokoyo.

Buddhist Cartography: Uncharted Silence.

Each of us is a walking atlas of inner maps that we use to navigate through life.

We have a primary map drawn through the brain’s ability to give form to the world through the use of language and the word.  This map gives our world a sense of stability and permanence that we call reality.

We have inner maps drawn by our families, culture and religion.  Others we’ve had more of a hand in drawing, such as friendship and relationship maps.  And, of course, there is the map we call the self, the map of who we think and believe our self to be.

Our atlases are the creation of the left side of the brain.  This part of the brain has its own type of GPS, or Global Positioning System, that it uses to select the map most appropriate for any given situation.  When you walk into a crowded room, for example, your internal GPS will pick up relevant signals and then select a map that tells you how to feel about the room, whether to leave or continue in and, if appropriate, it will even direct you where and with whom to sit.

Inner maps are sets of rules and judgments that direct behavior and thought.  We are usually not aware of their influence, as they typically lie either on the periphery of consciousness or entirely in the unconscious.  But the maps selected by our internal GPS determine to a large extent how we behave, what we feel and most of what we believe to be the choices made of our own free will.

The left side of the brain evaluates every passing moment of your life, making constant references to rules and judgments picked up in childhood.  It selects inner maps that direct you how to feel and what to think.  This process is often referred to in today’s spiritual literature as your “story”.  But if you want to know your true nature, you must still the story.  You must stop judging and close your atlas.

Mindfulness and meditation allows you to become aware of the story contained in your atlas.  To still the story, it helps to see your everyday thoughts as maps drawn by the left side of the brain.  It helps to see them as automatic processing that can go on without your conscious attention.  As such, they are not really you or your thoughts, so they can be put aside without any loss.  Then your attention can be turned to the non-thinking, right side of the brain wherein lies silence.

The right side of the brain is the non-verbal side so when you disengage from thought, you open the door to silence.  This is what is meant when the mystic tells you to still your thoughts, or when the Buddhist tells you to turn your mind to stillness.

If uncertain what is meant here, use mindfulness to see how your brain constantly judges, thinks and speaks.  Then ask yourself what it would be like if your brain could not do this; if you were not able to speak or communicate verbally.  Your answer cannot be in words which means your thinking brain cannot respond.  This creates a momentary stepping back from thought.  Gently hold onto that feeling.

As the brain will want to start up again you must focus the awareness on this feeling of not thinking.  Over time you will find that you can maintain this awareness even as the left side of the brain still thinks in the background.   Your aim is to take this disengagement into meditation and deepen it.

Buddhist Cartography: Mindfulness and Delusion.

Mindfulness is the Buddhist practice of turning the awareness to the present moment. The present moment is here defined, paradoxically, as your immediate space and its physical sensations of sounds, tastes and sights. It excludes, therefore, memories of the past and imaginings of the future.

When beginning meditation, we may be instructed to focus the awareness upon some object like a candle flame or the breath. Mindfulness extends this practice into daily life with the instruction to give full attention to whatever is being done at the moment.

Those practicing mindfulness know that thought regularly intrudes upon any attempt to stay in the moment. When this happens, the initial instruction is to turn the awareness back to whatever task was at hand. The intent, however, is not to suppress thought but to establish the immediate moment as a control group with which to explore thought.

A control group is a group separated from another group we wish to observe and test. In mindfulness, the control group is the immediate moment. The group we wish to test is our inner maps, or the thoughts and beliefs we have of reality and our self. This testing is done by continually comparing what we think is happening to what is actually happening (i.e., in the control group).

A preliminary step in establishing mindfulness is to separate the control group from the thoughts to be studied. This simply means developing an initial level of discrimination so you see a difference between what you actual experience and what you think about the experience.  The latter is something superimposed onto actual events and is often laden with emotions and beliefs.  I call this superimposition a secondary map.

An example of a secondary map is where a person views the world as an angry place when, in fact, there are no angry people around.  A person with such a map is often not aware his map is false so may go about avoiding people and being defensive.  If this person were to take up the practice of mindfulness, however, he would assign himself the task of checking his secondary map against the control group of the immediate moment.  And, finding no actual hostility, he would eventually conclude his inner map were false.

The belief in the reality of our secondary maps is quite strong and may take some time to dispel.  This belief is delusion in the Buddhist sense of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of reality.  Mindfulness ends delusion by developing your power to discriminate between delusion and reality; between the false and the true.

Delusion ends when through the consistent comparison of our inner maps to the immediate moment we see that what we “think” about our self and the world is not really our self or the world, at all. This is why mindfulness is said to be a power that brings clear comprehension and leads to wisdom, calmness and liberating discernment.