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Author of this essay:

Yin Cai Shakya
(July 26, 2009)

by Yin Cai Shakya

In the Dhammapada, the Buddha warns us: "Whatever harm your strongest enemy can do, an ill-directed mind can do you far greater." This advice needs to be kept in mind by anyone who is trying to cultivate a serious Zen practice. An ill-directed mind is a formidable foe.

One of my fondest childhood memories was staying up late on Friday nights watching television with my dad. It was great fun, we'd order pizza and watch reruns of Dragnet, The Dick Van Dyke Show and the like, shows which had long been canceled only to emerge later in the Bardo of Syndication. The Old Man was a genius. All week long I'd be on a reruns and pizza jonze, and it was severe enough to ensure that I'd behave myself at school every day, complete my homework thoroughly, and perform competently on any and all math and spelling tests that might pop up, lest I lose my Friday evening connection. If I had a particularly noteworthy week at school he'd even let me squeeze one more show in, just as the cuckoo clock in the dining room would cuckoo the stroke of midnight. It was our favorite, Rod Serling's Night Gallery.

Dear Old Dad knew perfectly well that it was in the nature of a seven year-old to have an ill-directed mind. He also knew that I believed that television characters were real and so he assured me that if I ever strayed into alcohol or drugs Sergeant Joe Friday would be there to apprehend me and "bring me in" to face swift and terrible retribution. He used our time together, and the characters that we enjoyed watching so much, to help keep me and my ill-directed mind on the Moral Path.

What he wasn’t aware of, was the effect that Night Gallery would occasionally have on me.

Night Gallery, which originally aired on NBC from 1970 to 1973, had been the follow-up series to the hugely successful Twilight Zone. It was one of Dad's favorite shows when he was a young man, and he re-discovered it one night while flipping through the channels with me. Regularly featuring tales of witchcraft, demons and vengeful ghosts, Night Gallery could be described as a somewhat darker, more macabre version of its predecessor. That show regularly scared the Hell out of me, and I can recall one episode in particular that stayed with me for many subsequent nights.

The Story, entitled Since Aunt Ada Came to Stay, focuses on the troubles of a young husband who finds himself in the somewhat awkward predicament of having a crippled old witch as his houseguest. As I remember it, the story begins with our protagonist, a university Professor, leaving for work. The day is not unlike any other, his beautiful wife kisses him on the cheek, pins a green carnation which she had picked from her garden to his lapel, and he's off to work. Aside from the usual reservations that any man with a beautiful young wife at home would have regarding crotchety houseguests who invade a young couple's privacy and will be staying for God-only-knows-how-long, he has also become a little nervous about the old woman, and he can't seem to pinpoint the reason why. Later, when he expresses his concerns to his wife, she scoffs at him. Their guest happens to be her ailing, elderly Aunt. She believes his fears to be absurd, especially since he is a professor and ought to be more reasonable. Aunt Ada is something of an herbalist, and when her niece complains of a minor malady, the Professor observes her administering a special tea to her, concocted of an elaborate list of herbs and roots. The tea, she purports, is something of a "cure-all." He learns later, through a colleague that the tea he has on numerous occasions observed Aunt Ada giving to his wife is in fact a potion which can, when administered regularly, enable a witch to move her spirit into the body of the unsuspecting tea drinker. The transmigration, however, can occur only on a certain evening, the Autumn Equinox, at midnight, after the witch has completed the requisite conjuring.

At first he refuses to lend full credence to the claim. He opts instead to "get to the bottom of Aunt Ada", and does a little detective work. He takes a long drive, the destination being Aunt Ada's previous residence. He finds, upon arrival not an apartment, nor a mansion, cottage or convalescent home but rather, an old cemetery. A headstone, bearing the name "Ada Quigley" marks a grave which has, much to the amazement of the groundskeeper, begun to sprout flowers. "Nothing used to grow on that plot..."

With his worries and fears sufficiently confirmed, he returns home, resolute in his plans to defend his wife against Aunt Ada and the malignant designs she has for his wife. He tries to thwart Aunt Ada's plan by keeping his wife with him at all times, even when he teaches class at the university. He makes a critical mistake though, in underestimating Aunt Ada's power. On the appointed evening, while giving a lecture as a personal favor to another professor, he notices that his wife's face is no longer one among the audience, the chair she had occupied at the beginning of the lecture is conspicuously empty. He rushes home, seemingly in the nick of time, to discover Aunt Ada performing the preliminary rites and incantations. He remembers his colleague, who had initially warned him of the tea and what he said concerning a certain weapon that can defeat a witch; a green carnation. He tears the flower from his lapel, sets it ablaze and thrusts it towards the hideous witch who collapses, howling and writhing, on the floor.

With the witch safely disposed of, he and his wife resume the happy life they enjoyed before Aunt Ada came to stay. And then, one morning, as he pulls out of his driveway and his wife stands on the lawn waving goodbye, he looks back to see the unmistakable fear on his wife's face as she backs away from the green carnations in the garden.

I can recall seeing that episode for the first time, and being mortified upon going to be a short time after the credits rolled. I did not want the lights to go out, but fearing that if I made a fuss my father might not let me stay up late to watch TV with him again, I kept my mouth shut. After "lights out", that episode took what was left of my ill-directed mind and warped it up to speeds that left Joe Friday far behind on the dull Earth.

At the time, an old lady lived in the apartment above us. I often saw her slowly climb the stairs. After I saw Since Aunt Ada Came to Stay I would imagine her sleeping in the room directly above mine. And then I noticed that she always seemed to be pacing, slowly dragging a foot as she walked back and forth across the room. Every creak I heard was amplified a hundred decibels, and every little knock and every little rattle made me think that Aunt Ada was up there, in her bedroom, tapping with her cane the five corners of a pentagram she had drawn on the floor, just as she did in the television show. I thought I could hear her muttering words in a strange language. She used to bake cookies and give some to my father. I ate them. Had I come under her power? I was terrified.

At school, fearful thoughts would creep into my mind when I was supposed to be concentrating on arithmetic or history. The old woman had indeed possessed me, that much I was sure of.

A child's mind is easily and often ill-directed. As adults, we think that we outgrow these irrationalities, that our ability to apply logic and information to any situation lets us dispel such vagrant thoughts. But when, as adults, we engage in a profound religious practice, we discover that our mind is more ill-directed than ever, and that such ill-direction has many negative consequences.

Fortunately for us, the Buddha prescribes just the medicine we need when he admonishes us about the harm wrought by an ill-directed mind. When He says that it can cause us far greater harm than even our own worst enemy -which, as we have learned by now, is us- he is assuring us that our mind, when properly directed, can deliver us to the shore of liberation.

Throughout his youthful education, Gautama Buddha must have encountered the Upanishads.

Like many of us he may have sat, wide-eyed and full of awe before those beautiful verses as the words flashed in his mind as he read them, wondering all the time what they meant in terms of him and his place in the Universe. And later on, under the Bodhi tree, he came to experience their profound meaning directly. All he needed to do was follow the instructions.

Adhyatma Upanishad, verse 11. "Liberated from the grip of egoism, like the moon (after the eclipse), full, ever blissful, self-luminous, one attains one's essence."

"Liberated from the grip of egoism" is a powerful declaration. That grip, like a vice, can hold us still as the ego pounds us like a hammer, bending us to the shape of whatever it has attached its self to. How do we liberate ourselves from the grip of egoism, so that our true essence can shine through in all it's self-luminous splendor? Quite simply, we learn how to properly direct our mind.

Adhyatma Upanishad, verse 17. With the vision of the non-dual Self through unwavering concentration comes the dissolution without residue of the knots of ignorance in the heart.

"Unwavering concentration" is the key, here. This verse tells us that the " dissolution without residue of the knots of ignorance in the heart", those knots of ignorance which are, of course, the ego and all of its cravings and desires, can be untied and left asunder never to bind us again, all we need do is concentrate on something constructive. This will lead us to the Supreme Vision of the non-dual Self, or better put, to directly experiencing the Buddha Self which is alive, singularly and unchanging, within each one of us.

A terrified child with a hyperactive imagination fueled by pizza and scary television shows is not practicing unwavering concentration. Rather, he is misinterpreting everything around him in his environment because he has allowed, at least temporarily, for the monsters and witches he was watching on television moments before to run wild in his mind. Unwavering concentration serves to still that writhing mind, not to the point of a numbing dullness, but rather, a focused, singularly pointed stream. A stream which, after a period of development, the length of which is entirely dependent upon the individual, will grow strong and sharp enough to pierce the Veil of Maya and allow said individual to experience Reality for what it truly is, as his or her own Buddha Nature. The adept will then see, as the Buddha Nature, no separation between himself and anything else as he surveys the world around him. There will be no notions what-so-ever of an "'I' who sees, and things to be seen", or "a witch upstairs with malignant intent, and an 'I' at whom the witch aims her intent.", et-cetera. There will only be that "Suchness" that the Buddha was so fond of mentioning.

You might ask, "How do we develop this "Unwavering concentration?" The answer is found in verse 34:

Adhyatma Upanishad, verse 34. 'Meditation' is indeed the exclusive attention of the mind fixed on (the import) rendered indubitable through listening and thinking.

This verse is, essentially, advising us to "take control" of the faculty of thought, and by extension, the faculty of consciousness, byway of a certain kind of meditation.

We, as human beings, possess certain faculties which facilitate the arising of thought and consciousness. For instance, we have eyes, and provided those eyes are in proper working order, we have sight. In the event that we happen to notice a blue jay pecking impatiently at the bird feeder outside, a "picture" of this moment is formed in our mind which we in turn become conscious of. In this very rudimentary example, two faculties are at work here: sight, and mind. There are others of course, those being hearing, tasting, feeling and smelling. Notice that, without mind, seeing wouldn't be happening, as, that which is seen must, obviously, be seen, and as such, there needs to be a "canvas" to paint this "picture" on. The same would hold true for hearing, tasting, feeling and smelling respectively, with regards to mind's necessary involvement.

Now, as we observe the blue jay busy at work procuring his breakfast from the bird feeder, thoughts may arise, such as "What a pretty little bird!" or "I remember the time my nephew was climbing up that tree and came a little too close to an angry mother blue jay and her nest full of babies! Boy was that funny!" And just as quickly as our blue jay thoughts arise, so do others, perhaps "I wonder how my sister is doing these days? That nephew of mine must be getting taller and taller now, he's 14 years old this year" to "I really should call my sister." and "Mom is always complaining about how I don't keep in touch with the family, but how can I, I have a lot on my plate right now with work and my kids. I need to buy laundry detergent at the supermarket. Oh my god my rhubarb pie is burning!"

The sight of a blue jay can invoke all manner of thoughts; and in this case, our ill-directed mind caused us to tarry too long at the bird feeder, neglecting the delicious rhubarb pie we were baking.

The task is, ostensibly, to bind up these faculties of ours such that we can pay exclusive attention to something. In the case of a meditation practice it can be anything, a mantra or yantra, a music selection or perhaps a breathing exercise. The object is to render this "something", or "import" as it is called, "indubitable through listening and thinking", in much the same way as we rendered our rhubarb pie inedible by paying attention to something else. The object is, to point as many of these faculties as we can on one specific subject.

We will use the mantra "Om." as our example.

As we are absorbed in the activity of meditation on the sacred syllable "Om", our sense of smell from which can arise memories of delicious pies, for example, is yoked to the task at hand by the smell of our sandalwood incense. To occupy our sense of sight, we gently close our eyes whilst we meditate in a well-lit room, to facilitate that scintillating Ganzfeld which acts as a "mile marker" in our practice. For hearing, we listen intently as we intone the sacred syllable. For touch, we "feel" the intonation, that is to say, we pay attention to the vibration that begins deep in our belly, and follow it as it skips up to our throat to the inside of our oral cavity, and then ends by gently trailing off, as a long, subtle vibration on our lips. And our mind must be occupied as well, because as any Adept will tell us "Even with all that stimuli going on, even when it seems as though the mind is keeping track of all of it, you'd be amazed at its ability to wander off somewhere!" and so, to keep our mind occupied and thus, properly directed, we focus our thoughts on the sacred syllable its self. When we intone "Ommmmm" and let the long 'm' vibrate on our lips, we can think to ourselves "'Om' is the sacred syllable, it announces the Divine. Why is that? Perhaps because it is the perfect syllable, the syllable from which all other syllables are born from, as, it makes use of ever aspect of human vocalization, one right after the other. Enunciation begins in the throat, then, it happens in the oral cavity, and then it ends in a vibration on the lips… This is interesting, everything else happens in this way, as well. Everything has a beginning, middle, and end. Our parents meet and fall in love, and a little while later, we are conceived. We're born, and we age. And then, later on, we die. This principle, included in this simple syllable, equates to the Vedic view of divinity. Brahman creates (the causes of conception, the intent before the syllable is uttered), Vishnu maintains (the living, the syllable in the throat and the oral cavity) and Shiva destroys (death, the syllable vibrating on the lips, slowly trailing off)." This is exclusive attention, this is unwavering concentration, vis-à-vis, the faculties are sharply pointed at one activity that involves one specific subject, and the thoughts are pointed there also, and are not given the freedom to roam far.

When meditation is practiced as instructed by the Adhyatma Upanishad as opposed to other forms of "just sitting" and Zazen, the ego can easily be transcended. This allows us to experience the self-luminous essence, or Buddha Nature, that we all share and from which -and from no place else- we receive the Dharma Transmission. Thus, in transcending that which draws an intellectual difference between him and her and the Buddha Self, we are able to experience the Buddha Self. The only time a subject can be "rendered indubitable" is if there is no "observer" around to render it otherwise. When "listening and thinking" (along with smelling, touching, tasting, etc) are all pointed at one, singular activity, the observer, or "one performing this activity so intently" can, and indeed will, be transcended, and eventually the Buddha Self and his penultimate view of Reality can, and indeed will, be experienced.

And what amazes people about this, is that sooner or later this practice has a tendency to infiltrate our lives in the every day world. We begin to notice that as we travel along the Path, and make an effort to practice Right Thought in our daily lives we begin to notice that distracting, troublesome thoughts don't arise with the frequency that they once did. And what's more, when they do, it is much easier for us to either analyze them objectively, if the severity of the thoughts warrants it, or dismiss them entirely and simply go back to concentrating on the task at hand. This is the beginning of liberation.

Another peculiar thing that we may notice, during those times when, from out of nowhere, our practice seems to suddenly deepen several hundred feet, is a growing sense of detachment not only from the goings on of the body (and all it's physical and mental faculties), but from the mind its self. One day we smell a pie, cooling on a windowsill and we remember our grandmother's house and how her kitchen smelled like apples. Or perhaps we see father and his so, playing with their dog in the front yard and suddenly, thoughts of a dog that we used to have come to mind. And then, from out of nowhere, we catch ourselves and think, "Hey! That's a thought about my dog!" as it arises. Confused, we scratch our head for a second and think, "Wait a minute, one thought popped up because of something I saw. The other one popped up when I thought it, because of the first thought... Who's thinking all these thoughts? Who am I?" And that is when it really starts getting good. Oh the abodes to which we can travel when we properly direct our thoughts towards a form from which consciousness arose and consciousness from which a form arose.

Clearly, in his simple admonishment to us concerning the harmful nature of an ill-directed mind, the Buddha cleverly encoded the entire formula for complete liberation.

Humming Bird