ROUGH DRAFT Talk Given at Retreat Summer 2010
The Roots of Compassion Meditation
After the Buddha’s enlightenment, his first sermon, and having taught the acolytes gathering in deer park, the time came to send the monks forth into the world. Soon, the monks returned to Buddha asking how to deal with tree spirits. Monk’s attempting to meditate in the forests quickly discovered that the Tree Spirits were wreaking havoc with their attempts to meditate and driving them out of the forest and off the path of practice.
We can probably assume that the Buddha, being a reasonably enlightened being, was aware that there were no actual beings residing in trees with the intention of frightening passing monks. But rather than pointing out the fact that spirits are not inherent in trees, the Bhudda dealt directly with the problem that tree spirits are inherent in us and it is difficult to distinguish the difference This is where the story becomes relevant to us today. What the Buddha recognized was that our emotions, our fears, our resentments inevitably take form in our world. For Bhudda’s monks, this meant that trees began to make strange sounds and to move in ominous ways.
As children, we understand the malevolence of tree spirits but as adults we simply regard them as superstition and defeat them with our intellect. This, I urge you to reconsider. While it seems a simple thing to convince ourselves that tree spirits can not exist simply because there is no such thing as a tree spirit, in doing this, we actually place our selves in great peril and subject to the whim of tree spirits.
While we might find some success in casting tree spirits out of trees, this simply makes them harder to recognize.
Were there actual creatures living in the trees, we could perhaps rid the forest of them or at least confine them to the Discovery Channel as we have successfully done with the other creatures, like tigers, which hunted us in the forests. As children, we of course encounter them walking home late at night or even swaying in a storm outside of our window. With the help of a parent perhaps, we learn to inspect the tree in the morning light and see for ourselves that there is obviously nothing there but a simple tree. In time, we discover that we no longer fear the tree and we can fall asleep quite comfortably…until it begins to dawn on us that our friend was whispering to someone at school today and we begin to have a pretty good idea about what is going here… If we are smart we realize that we were better of when spirits lived in trees and they could be removed by sunshine.
And the problem is more serious than we think. Tree spirits are only the tip of the iceberg. Despite the fact that we believe we are seeing a world that is right before our eyes, the world that we see is actually a copy of it. No more real then the movie on a screen and no less a product of our interpretations and filled with metaphors and emotional sub-texts. All of our action, all of our karma goes into making this movie. We think what we are seeing is like simply viewing out of a window, but the eyes, the mechanism, don’t send a picture to the brain; they send an image to the occipital lobe in binary form. And when neuroscientists measure the signals flowing to the visual cortex, they have discovered that the majority of visual inputs come from memory, rather than the optic nerve. Much of what we see isn’t there, or at least not exactly the way we think it is. And yet we never ask ourselves,”what kind of movie is this?”
Consider the blind spots in the human visual field…
Demonstration of the blind spot
Instructions: You may need to reduce the size of your browser window if your screen is large or at a high resolution. Your face should be very close to the screen. Cover right eye and focus the left eye on the X. Now slowly move away from the screen. The O will disappear, while the A which is further to the left is still visible. As you move further away, the O will reappear. (Observe that you do not see a hole. Instead of the O you see a uniform grey background. The "hole" is filled in by your brain. Make sure there is not a glare on the screen as it will obscure the whole vision.)
Absolutely everything within these two blind spots is a construct, a representation, a movie. If we get up from the computer and walk outside and look at trees the parts of the tree in the visual blind spots are utterly indistinguishable from the parts that we have now learned we are seeing. Thus, the trees that aren’t there look exactly like the ones that are. We can not tell the difference.
The world that we see is more than the simple visual representation of objects. Woven subtly through these moving images is the history of our lives and our evolution, forming patterns recognizable to our emotional, physical, and mental selves. We can feel a pull toward a particular flower and leap away from it if we see a small coil of rope that appears in any way like a snake. The continuing monologue in our head is not all there is to our minds, and the brain largely ignores that voice as it depicts its vision of the world. So the question should arise, is this a Fellini film, or perhaps Woody Allen.
We might sit in a Martin Scorsese movie and ponder, wisely, how the events of his life up to the release of this film, have found their way onto the screen. How security treated our venerable director as he entered the studio grounds may have subtly altered the film, perhaps resulting in a particular word being deleted, or the camera being shifted ten degrees. Even more sagely, we may realize that fact that his name has appeared in a blog now changes the way we see the images Martin Scorsese’s tries to present to us. In any case we will be aware that the use of color, field of view, focus, metaphors, special effects and myriad possibilities will be combined to create a world and tell a complex and valuable story. The only difference between us and Martin Scorsese is that Mr. Scorsese knows he’s making a movie.
Thus the Buddha didn’t trouble the monks with the technical details of the existence of tree spirits. Instead he went directly to the root of the problem. When we do harm to others, we become attached to consequences of our action. When we rationally determine that we have escaped the consequences, our deeper minds, often correctly, come to believe that justice, lies hidden somewhere in the world around us. Since the internal monologue has dismissed our cautions and proceeds headlong into self centered action, the mind simply communicates beyond words and as artists have done to avoid despotic censorship since the beginning of time, simply weaves the truth into the fabric of an acceptable story. If our actions are harmful, a feeling of nemesis begins to take form.
Since, having deciding that it has overcome superstition is the source of much pride for the ego, our harmful actions are far less likely to create magical beings, but instead to devise ingenious ways to imbue the world around us with a foreboding sense of opposition which seems to inspire fear and demand our righteous indignation. Having achieved the level of enlightment that comes with the daylight, we seem to have learned that the problems we need to be wary of are caused by the federal government, motorists on the commute, and quite possibly the media and our co-workers.
Tree Spirits? These are nothing more then the way we have treated others poorly and the secret anger that we nurture within ourselves, whispered gossip, and things that were done when we thought no one was looking, and endless list all arising from anger and self-centeredness. Tree Spirits are gestated in the realization that the world naturally seeks a balance and we begin to wonder if the heads of others are like our own.
So the Buddha sat the monks down and taught the loving kindness sutra. The answer to anger and self-centeredness was simply to love and be kind…