“dependent arising is not merely one strand of doctrine among others, but the radical insight at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching, the insight from which everything else unfolds. […] When the arhat Assaji was asked to state the Master’s message as concisely as possible, he said it was the doctrine that phenomena arise and cease through causes. With a single sentence the Buddha dispels all doubt about the correctness of this summary: “He who sees dependent arising sees the Dhamma, he who sees the Dhamma sees dependent arising” (M.28;i,191)”
“Sakyamuni Buddha said:
It is as if a person who has clouded eyes
Sees flowers in space;
After the sickness in their clouded eyes is cured
The flowers in space vanish.
No scholars have clearly understood what was being said here. Because they do not know what space is, they do not know what flowers in space are. And because they do not know what flowers in space are, they do not know who has clouded eyes, they cannot decide who has clouded eyes, they have not met someone with clouded eyes, and they have never experienced clouded eyes themselves. On meeting a person who has clouded eyes, we can come to know what flowers in space are, and then we can see flowers in space.
Once we have seen flowers in space, we can also see how flowers in space vanish. The idea that once flowers in space vanish they will never reappear is a small belief. But if we don’t see flowers in space, what is there to see? If you only know flowers in space as something to get rid of, then you will never come to know the profound matter that follows from flowers in space, or the process by which they germinate, blossom, and fall free.
Among the scholars of the day, most think of space as the sky – the place where yang-energy resides, and a void in which the sun, moon and stars are suspended. For example, they probably think that flowers in space refers to colourful shapes floating along in a clear sky like clouds; like floating blossoms being blown here and there by the wind. They do not realise that the constituents of all created things and the things created by them, all that is known in the Universe: our original state of balance, our original nature, and so on, are all flowers in space.
Furthermore, they do not know that the constituents of all created things exist because of those things, and they do not know that the material world exists stably because of the existence of the real things in it. They only think that real things exist because of the material world they are in. They understand that flowers in space exist only when eyes are clouded, and do not see the truth that it is flowers in space that cause clouded eyes to exist.
Remember, as long as you are following the Buddha’s way, when your eyes are clouded, you realise your original nature, you realise something subtle, you are a buddha, a person of the three worlds, transcending the state of buddha. We should not be as stupid as to believe that clouded eyes are to be avoided and that reality is to be found somewhere else. That is a restricted view. If clouded eyes and flowers were delusions, the person attaching to that wrong view must also be a delusion, and the attachment must be a delusion. If all is delusion, we can never establish anything true. If we cannot establish what is true, there is no way that we can assert that clouded eyes and flowers are delusions.
When our realisation is clouded, all of the constituents of our realisation are decorated with clouds. And when our delusions are clouded, all the constituents of our delusions are decorated with clouds. For now, let us say that when clouded eyes are balanced, flowers in space are balanced, and when clouded eyes do not appear, then flowers in space do not appear. When all things show themselves as they are, then clouds and flowers show themselves as they are. This is not in the same dimension as time passing from past to present to future, and is not a situation that has a beginning, middle, and end. It is not like a situation that arises and passes; it is the very cause of the arising and passing – flowers arising in space and passing in space, arising in clouded eyes and passing in clouded eyes, arising in flowers and passing in flowers. All other times and places are also like this.
There may be many different ways of seeing flowers in space. There is seeing with clouded eyes, seeing with clear eyes, seeing with buddhist eyes, seeing with the eyes of our ancestors, seeing with eyes of the truth, and seeing with blind eyes. There is seeing with the eyes of three thousand years, seeing with the eyes of eight hundred years, seeing with the eyes of hundreds of eons, and seeing with the eyes of numberless eons. Although these are all ways of seeing flowers in space, there are also many kinds of space, and many kinds of flowers.
When we hear that space is originally without flowers, if we understand it to mean that the flowers that now exist in space were not there originally, our viewpoint is narrow and limited. We should move forward and take a more profound view. An ancestor said “What appears are never flowers.” And the real meaning of his words is that flowers have never appeared, that flowers have never disappeared, that the word “flowers” never captures flowers, and the word “space” never captures space. And we should not play around with discussions of whether flowers exist in space or whether flowers do not exist in space, mixing up before flowering and after flowering at random.
“all things in the Universe are showing their real form. All things in the Universe show their flower-form, and all things, those we know and others beyond our imagination, are flowers in space and their fruits. And experience shows us that those flowers are tangible, just like the blossoms of apricot, willow, peach and plum trees are tangible.
Maybe we could also say “As soon as you recognise that the flowers in space are actually in your eyes, all the clouds instantly fall to the ground,” and “If space had its own eye, all the clouds would instantly fall to the ground.” This being so, the word clouded, the word eyes, and the word space all describe Zenki [‘total activity’, or ‘workings of the universe’]. And the phrase instantly fall to the ground suggests the thousand eyes that make up the body of Bodhisatttva Avalokitesvara. In sum, whenever and wherever eyes exist, there we will find flowers in space, and flowers in our eyes, but we say that these flowers in our eyes are in space.
Zen Master Sekimon Etetsu lived in Great Sung dynasty China in a temple on Ryozan Mountain. One day a monk asked him, “What is ‘the jewel in the mountain’?” What he is actually asking here is “What is buddha?” or “What is the truth?” The Master replies, “Flowers in space unfold on the ground. Throughout the whole of this land, there is no gate to our search for the truth.” Other descriptions of flowers in space can never match up to this.
All events happen on the ground; that is where they unfold. Just at this very moment there is a vast ground on which everything is unfolding; everything opens on this vast ground. The words “Throughout the whole of this land, there is no gate to our search for the truth” don’t mean that, since there is no gate we are unable to look for the truth; they mean that when we look for the truth, there is no barrier. Flowers in space open on the ground, and this vast ground itself depends on the opening of flowers. The principle that we need to recognise is that both the ground and space are flowers in space unfolding.”
“Between this sky and the faces turned toward it there is nothing on which to hang a mythology, a literature, an ethic, or a religion—only stones, flesh, stars, and those truths the hand can touch.
The world is beautiful, and outside there is no salvation. “
“Mindfulness is nothing more than basic concentration training. Although derived from Buddhism, it’s been stripped of the teachings on ethics that accompanied it, as well as the liberating aim of dissolving attachment to a false sense of self while enacting compassion for all other beings.
What remains is a tool of self-discipline, disguised as self-help. Instead of setting practitioners free, it helps them adjust to the very conditions that caused their problems. A truly revolutionary movement would seek to overturn this dysfunctional system, but mindfulness only serves to reinforce its destructive logic. The neoliberal order has imposed itself by stealth in the past few decades, widening inequality in pursuit of corporate wealth. People are expected to adapt to what this model demands of them. Stress has been pathologised and privatised, and the burden of managing it outsourced to individuals. Hence the pedlars of mindfulness step in to save the day.
But none of this means that mindfulness ought to be banned, or that anyone who finds it useful is deluded. Reducing suffering is a noble aim and it should be encouraged. But to do this effectively, teachers of mindfulness need to acknowledge that personal stress also has societal causes. By failing to address collective suffering, and systemic change that might remove it, they rob mindfulness of its real revolutionary potential, reducing it to something banal that keeps people focused on themselves.
Mindfulness advocates, perhaps unwittingly, are providing support for the status quo. Rather than discussing how attention is monetised and manipulated by corporations such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple, they locate the crisis in our minds. It is not the nature of the capitalist system that is inherently problematic; rather, it is the failure of individuals to be mindful and resilient in a precarious and uncertain economy. Then they sell us solutions that make us contented, mindful capitalists.
Mindfulness has been oversold and commodified, reduced to a technique for just about any instrumental purpose. It can give inner-city kids a calming time-out, or hedge-fund traders a mental edge, or reduce the stress of military drone pilots. Void of a moral compass or ethical commitments, unmoored from a vision of the social good, the commodification of mindfulness keeps it anchored in the ethos of the market.
In Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King argue that traditions of Asian wisdom have been subject to colonisation and commodification since the 18th century, producing a highly individualistic spirituality, perfectly accommodated to dominant cultural values and requiring no substantive change in lifestyle. Such an individualistic spirituality is clearly linked with the neoliberal agenda of privatisation, especially when masked by the ambiguous language used in mindfulness. Market forces are already exploiting the momentum of the mindfulness movement, reorienting its goals to a highly circumscribed individual realm.
Mindfulness is easily co-opted and reduced to merely “pacifying feelings of anxiety and disquiet at the individual level, rather than seeking to challenge the social, political and economic inequalities that cause such distress”, write Carrette and King. But a commitment to this kind of privatised and psychologised mindfulness is political – therapeutically optimising individuals to make them “mentally fit”, attentive and resilient, so they may keep functioning within the system. Such capitulation seems like the farthest thing from a revolution – more like a quietist surrender.
A truly revolutionary mindfulness would challenge the western sense of entitlement to happiness irrespective of ethical conduct. However, mindfulness programmes do not ask executives to examine how their managerial decisions and corporate policies have institutionalised greed, ill will and delusion. Instead, the practice is being sold to executives as a way to de-stress, improve productivity and focus, and bounce back from working 80-hour weeks.
Should we celebrate the fact that this perversion is helping people to “auto-exploit” themselves? This is the core of the problem. The internalisation of focus for mindfulness practice also leads to other things being internalised, from corporate requirements to structures of dominance in society. Perhaps worst of all, this submissive position is framed as freedom. Indeed, mindfulness thrives on doublespeak about freedom, celebrating self-centered “freedoms” while paying no attention to civic responsibility, or the cultivation of a collective mindfulness that finds genuine freedom within a co-operative and just society.
Rather than being used as a means to awaken individuals and organisations to the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, mindfulness is more often refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.
Perhaps the most straightforward definition of neoliberalism comes from the French sociologist Pierre Bordieu, who calls it “a programme for destroying collective structures that may impede the pure market logic”. We are generally conditioned to think that a market-based society provides us with ample (if not equal) opportunities for increasing the value of our “human capital” and self-worth. And in order to fully actualise personal freedom and potential, we need to maximise our own welfare, freedom, and happiness by deftly managing internal resources.
We are trapped in a neoliberal trance by what the education scholar Henry Giroux calls a “disimagination machine”, because it stifles critical and radical thinking. We are admonished to look inward, and to manage ourselves. Disimagination impels us to abandon creative ideas about new possibilities. Instead of seeking to dismantle capitalism, or rein in its excesses, we should accept its demands and use self-discipline to be more effective in the market. To change the world, we are told to work on ourselves — to change our minds by being more mindful, nonjudgmental, and accepting of circumstances.
The ideological message is that if you cannot alter the circumstances causing distress, you can change your reactions to your circumstances. In some ways, this can be helpful, since many things are not in our control. But to abandon all efforts to fix them seems excessive. Mindfulness practices do not permit critique or debate of what might be unjust, culturally toxic or environmentally destructive. Rather, the mindful imperative to “accept things as they are” while practising “nonjudgmental, present moment awareness” acts as a social anesthesia, preserving the status quo.
We are also promised that we can gain self-mastery, controlling our minds and emotions so we can thrive and flourish amid the vagaries of capitalism.As Joshua Eisen, the author of Mindful Calculations, puts it: “Like kale, acai berries, gym memberships, vitamin water, and other new year’s resolutions, mindfulness indexes a profound desire to change, but one premised on a fundamental reassertion of neoliberal fantasies of self-control and unfettered agency.” We just have to sit in silence, watching our breath, and wait.
A monk asked Ummon: “What is Buddha?”
Ummon answered him: “Dried dung.”
“So let go, put everything down, everything except the knowing. Don’t be fooled if visions or sounds arise in your mind during meditation. Put them all down. Don’t take hold of anything at all. Just stay with this non-dual awareness. Don’t worry about the past or the future, just be still and you will reach the place where there’s no advancing, no retreating and no stopping, where there’s nothing to grasp at or cling to. Why? Because there’s no self, no “me” or “mine.” It’s all gone. The Buddha taught us to be emptied of everything in this way, not to carry anything with us. To know, and having known, let go.“
Mistaking the false for the real
and the real for the false,
one suffers a life of falsity.
But, seeing the false as the false
and the real as the real,
one lives in the perfectly real.