Sunday 02 Aug 2020
Is eternity a desirable state to try and cultivate? What does eternity mean? In this piece I would like to look at the way this question might resolve itself for a meditator on the Buddhist path. Buddhist practice is usually a gradual inclination toward the peace and stillness of the present moment, that will cause a practitioner to see a unification of their mind towards an understanding of enlightenment and what it means.
For some people the idea of eternity is sometimes aligned with the Christian idea of everlasting life. An eternal life with God in a state of bliss. A heavenly place where we exist in a state of love without judgement. It seems somewhat analogous to the way we can fall in love and be totally infatuated in a deliriously pleasant state. This can enable us to exist for a time in a way that is somehow beyond any temporal restriction, a state of bliss with our beloved and the world. When we apply this analogy to eternity it involves working with what we know and understand of our experience with physical existence that is then projected mentally into a future scenario. The idea is that we exist in a kind of narcotic state of mental blissful oblivion with the ability to create and experience all that is good, happy and harmonious beyond the earthly realm of duality. Unfortunately, when we consider this idea in a dualistic world such as ours, where everything, every physical particle, along with every thought, concept and idea, must naturally arise with an opposite, we start to see the delusion. We must consider that everlasting life can only exists with a beginning-less beginning.
Buddhist thought tends to eschew extremes like this, because we know that the Buddha ended up finding his enlightenment by practicing the Middle Way, the pathway between extremes. No doubt the experience that led him to this, helped him to develop the First Noble Truth of seeing Dukkha in all conditions. As Buddhists we are all familiar with and can identify with the Buddha’s struggles at the extremes in life. As a Prince, where presumably he commanded a fix for his every desire and then, his life as a renunciant where he lived with a hair shirt, denying and being averse to his body. From these experiences, when we look at the case of eternity verses beginning-less beginnings, we can see that this present moment is the balance point. We can see that this defines where the past is finished and gone, and the future has not yet come. In fact, we can see that Dukkha comes about in the relationship we have with the past and future across the present moment. This present moment is where reality, truth and beauty live. Indeed, uncovering the present moment is the work of our meditation practice. We keep uncovering the present moment inside our relationships with past and future. We go deeper into the moment to discover the energetic phase transitions that continue to unify us to the moment. Eventually we begin to experience and see what the Buddha was pointing to.
For those who practice a more meditative lifestyle, an idea or a belief in eternity may arrive in a different way, because the physicality of our existence may not be so important. Meditators on the path will have experienced the energetic phase transitions that confirm the Universe, along with our body, does unify back into the still consciousness. As the mind opens to this truth and beauty, the still consciousness that defines the present moment becomes very apparent. We can know beyond any doubt that it is the still consciousness of mind that moves to create the Universe, our body and our lives in space and time. We see that it is the mentality of our mind that precedes the physical. The perspective from the heart of the present moment allows us to know, beyond doubt, that it is all mentally constructed. We can see the enchantment of our lives and the way we grasp the conditions to create it all. The peace, the beauty and bliss of this stillness, the way we see emptiness penetrating and relaxing the physical and the mental realms, can be overwhelming. It shines with beauty and truth. It is a heavenly place to be. It is a tangible knowledge, and with practice it is there as an experience for the human condition. This experience is part of the Buddhist pathway but is not particularly religious. It can be a secular experience. In moral terms however, it is describing results that come from practicing the highest good for oneself and others. It is the unification of consciousness and it can be beguiling.
There can be confusion and debate around this state of mind in Buddhist circles. Some talk about it as original mind, and hold it up as enlightenment, but conditioning has not stopped. When the Buddha was asked to explain enlightenment, he is said to have maintained a ‘Noble Silence”, however he did talk about it as cessation. He spoke often about having stopped! So, even though this state of still consciousness is very pure, still, empty and spacious, it is still an aggregation and is structured with dualistic karma primed for rebirth. It may provide a rebirth in a heavenly state that is long lasting, but it is still built with Dukkha. The enchantment coupled with the purity of a God like being can cause a subtle grasping of space from past to future which causes stillness to move with a belief that it is still. It is a delusion of what the present moment is. It can be beguiling, but in the end these Deva realms are balanced with the realms of hell. The Buddha said that they are all delusional. The aggregation of still consciousness, is “beginning and ending countless times in the wink of an eye”, the Buddha noted. This iteration forms a mind stream of consciousness that is not free of Spacetime and conditioning. The Buddha spoke of many encounters with deluded God like beings who were in effect still trapped in the rounds of Samsara. He counselled that ending or finishing one’s life into this condition will bring the potential to be born again. Dukkha, the first Noble truth along with its arising (Second Noble truth) and its ending (Third Noble truth) is all still at play. The Buddha labelled this experience as “Mundane”. There is still another phase transition required to stop.
Cultivation and amplification of still consciousness will allow mindfulness to do its work in perfecting the Four Noble Truths. Working to balance and finish with any moral questions with right energy flowing into Samadhi and Mindfulness to allow insight and wisdom to peak. When these conditions are right, Mindfulness will see what it is to know that consciousness has stopped. The Buddha called this experience ”Supra Mundane”. Mindfulness will know that when consciousness stops, the mind has unified completely. In this state there can be no more rebirth because there is no external mind stream flowing to activate any karmic potential. It has all finished. Conditioning is finished. There is Cessation. This is not an atheistic position. It reflects the reality of the present moment and the insight explains the Buddha’s “Three Characteristics” of Dukkha, Anicca (movement) and Anatta (no self) perfectly. There are some, perhaps many, who do not become Arahant even though they have experienced Cessation. The Buddha categorised four pathways for knowledge of this experience to fruit at one’s death. First, the person may be a “Stream Winner”; one who has entered the stream of Cessation, where a person may be reborn, but is destined to be Arahant (Fully enlightened) soon. (Seven lifetimes in the idiomatic language of the Buddha’s time). The second pathway is a “Once Returner”. One more lifetime with Cessation and full enlightenment at the end of that life. Third is a “Non-Returner”. One, who during the important time of their death, will finish in Cessation and become enlightened. Then the fourth pathway is for those who have realised completely, before their death, and have become “Arahant” --- Fully Enlightened before they die. An example is the Buddha himself and many of his disciples.
Eternity on the face of it may seem attractive, but a cursory examination of it along with an understanding of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths allows us to see the inherent Dukkha and the beguiling and enchanting nature of the world. The Middle Way sets out a path for us to realise the truth of Cessation and enlightenment, and the Buddha encouraged us to see that this path leads to an end of Dukkha. Enlightenment is the ending of Dukkha. From this perspective we see that the Four Noble Truths are far and away the most important four Stanza’s of poetry ever written.