The belief in the inherent existence of the Wheel of samsara, parallels an understanding of the ego and the objective cosmos as substantial entities in their own right and does not approach the Buddhist doctrines of anatma and sunyata, the egolessness and emptiness of conditional existence.
Here is a classic example from The Caravan:
Now as far as labels separating oneself, when I'm sawing firewood with the crosscut saw, I like for there to be enough difference between my hand and the wood that I can tell which is which so that I know which one to put the saw on. See, that's a basic level of ego necessary to involve yourself in cutting firewood.
Stephen consistently fails to distinguish between the empirical and noumenal forms of ego. The empirical ego or 'I' may be said to have a relative existence as a convention of speech in reference to practical experience. Unconscious clinging to the inherent existence of a noumenal ego, a solid 'I' or sense of separate self, is the definition of ignorance, the root of all suffering, giving rise to the teeming masses of- beings wandering in samsara.
In the course of writing this section, while considering the absence of teachings about emptiness on the old Farm, I was reminded of a Vajrayana list of eighteen vows relating to the practice of the bodhicitta, one of which is the prohibition against giving teachings on emptiness to those who are not yet ready to understand it. This is a precaution designed to encourage adequate moral and intellectual preparation prior to receiving such advanced instruction. The self-mind must be observed and understood to the point of insight before the radical teaching of no-self or emptiness is revealed in great detail. I originally assumed that perhaps Stephen was just biding his time until we were mature enough to receive these teachings, but his books provide too much evidence to indicate that these ideas were being arbitrarily disseminated as a sort of mystical spicing-up of a generally exoteric fare.
One indication of the truth of this is the fact that there are a number of different places in his books where Stephen refers to the unity of samsara and nirvana or the identity of the illusion and the ultimate attainment without ever presenting the teachings which would lead us to this realization for ourselves. Samsara and nirvana are only a unity from the viewpoint of full enlightenment. To state it otherwise is usually a form of consolation designed to justify egoic assumptions and forms of seeking typical of exoteric practitioners. To the unenlightened, samsara and nirvana are diametrically opposed. One is bondage and the other is liberation. Stephen offered us a number of ultimate statements like these from various traditions without ever getting into very much detail about any of them:
Without an awakened understanding, the ordinary individual will be liable to the type of confusion and nonsense that can result from a narrow interpretation of this and similar paradoxical statements. Ignorance itself is enlightenment or the deluding passions themselves are bodhi were phrases not popularized on the Farm for the obvious reason that they could be used to justify libertinism and irresponsible social behavior. This is directly paralleled by the premature and casual equation of samsara with nirvana. The implication is that we are already enlightened, making any esoteric discipline or study unnecessary. Although the admonition was to
Don't take anything for granted. Pay attention all the time.
- the average quality of attention available combined with these teachings in a way that did not require higher discrimination so that we could overestimate our present level of spiritual awakening.
To give the reader a little more insight into this important matter, I refer to the early Buddhist scriptures where it is shown that the unity of samsara and nirvana can be understood in two very different ways. In the Vishesacinta-brahma-pariprccha Sutra, it is said -
Samsara is Nirvana, because there is, when viewed from the ultimate nature of the Dharmakaya, nothing going out of, nor coming into, existence (Samsara being only apparent): Nirvana is samsara, when it is coveted and adhered to.
The world is a manifestation of the unborn absolute but takes on a relative appearance when any teleology is adopted; in short, where there is desire, the pain and pleasures of samsara will arise. Stephen would introduce these ideas and encourage us to talk about them but these were not common topics. but were metaphysical truths to be accepted rather than as expressions of a Buddha's insight to be realized by oneself in the state of direct perception.
This is echoed in the writings of Dogen-zenji:
There are those who say, 'Since the various Buddhas enlighten the whole world, all worldly phenomena express the enlightenment of the Buddhas. Therefore, since both self and others are encompassed in the enlightenment of the Buddhas, mountains, rivers, earth, sun, moon, stars, the four illusions, and the three poisons are all expressions of their enlightenment. Furthermore, since nothing is outside the Law, not even the three poisons and four illusions, the Tathagata can be seen in mountains and rivers, just as the whole world can be seen in each of its individual phenomena. Thus, each individual act is an expression of the ultimate Truth.' They designate all of this as (the meaning of) 'great enlightenment' and assert that it is 'the directly transmitted patriarchal Way. In present-day China those who talk in this manner are as numerous as rice plants, hemp, bamboo, and reeds. Although it is uncertain whose [Law] descendants they are, it is clear that they have not understood the Way of the Buddhas and patriarchs. While it is true that mountains, rivers, and earth are encompassed in the enlightenment of the various Buddhas, the way in which ordinary men view them is far different from that of the Buddhas, for ordinary men have never learned or heard about the true nature of enlightenment . . . If the Way of the Buddhas and patriarchs conformed to their views, neither the various Buddhas nor the patriarchs would have appeared in this world. Consequently, no one would be able to realize enlightenment. Attached to such views, they will never be able to realize that birth is [as it is] nonbirth.
Another teaching that Stephen popularized on the Farm was Hui-Neng's statement that if an ordinary man thinks an enlightened thought, he is enlightened and if an enlightened man has ordinary thoughts, he becomes ordinary. From the viewpoint that has not yet realized the emptiness of mind, this statement can be read as if the whole path is simply a matter of having a stream of 'enlightened thoughts' without ever gaining insight into the simultaneous non-existence of the thoughts, thinker and thinking. This is Great Emptiness, the doorway to liberating insight. In the Lankavatara Sutra, Buddha declares -
The dhyana-practicer, the dhyana, the subject for it, the destruction, the seeing of the Truth, - these are no more than discriminations; when this is recognized, this is emancipation.
Stephen encourages the 'here and now dharma' of enlightened thinking. In 1971 he answered a question about his own realization which has very definite implications relative to the part that the individual will and dualistic thinking play in initiating and maintaining such a state:
...And if you're cool, you think a lot of enlightened thoughts in a row and they stay pretty good that way. It's a process thing. I don't like to think of it as now you are, now you aren't. That depends on your contract with yourself. I made a contract with myself about a way I was going to be the rest of my life, and I haven't broken that contract.
Regarding this contracted self, there are certain meditative disciplines taught in the Mahamudra tradition of Tibetan Buddhism wherein the noumenal ego is referred to as the 'object of negation.' A yogi may spend months in perfecting the preliminary cognitions supporting a tacit recognition of the concrete sense of 'I' that is to be refuted by the view of egolessness. The ego to be transcended is this karmically-active noumenal ego.
According to the teachings of the Buddha, there is no ego necessary to perform tasks in this world. Gautama's most radical break with traditional wisdom was his doctrine of anatma or non-ego. In the language of the Buddhadharma, the ability to differentiate one's hand from a piece of firewood is a function of the third skandha, perception, which when purified, is transformed into discriminating wisdom. But even prior to this transformation in any given individual, it is said that there is no ego-self to be found within the five skandhas or apart from them.
In his printed works, Stephen usually equates the ego with the neutral witness of events, one's viewpoint, as if there were no transcendental consciousness or bodhicitta. This understanding of the ego as a necessary component of functional life aligns with Stephen's teachings about the objective existence of the wheel and the relativization of the absolute truth. It is the same logic which is behind the statement that we can't '...afford to blow our minds once a week. We have to remember something from one week to the next.'
If it is believed that the ego is a requirement of functional existence, there will be a level of ego-clinging inseparable from the living of daily life and outside of an occasional foray into higher dimensions, expanded states of consciousness will tend to be viewed with indifference as they might well interfere with the responsibilities of the lower stages of life. What is not realized is that in the higher stages of conscious evolution, ego identity is replaced by the transcendent intelligence (prajna, jnana, rigpa, bodhi) which has access to all the functional capabilities and vital energies of the born self without the ignorance and limitations of an ego. This is the village where all the thieves have been annihilated.
In the following from The Caravan, Stephen offers a definition:
It seems to me that you grow ego like barnacles in the material plane ... and that you have to be doing something about it all the time, and it can't be a question of ego death and then I'm done with it, because it ain't that way . If you're going to keep on existing in the plane, then you're going to keep having a viewpoint. And your viewpoint is your ego.
The allusion to barnacles in the first sentence is an apt metaphor, and one typical to yogas that involve purification. There is no doubt that extraordinary vigilance and concentration are necessary to undermine egoic habit-energy. To this end, Buddhists combine tranquility and insight like the two wings of a bird. Many of the preliminary practices of Vajrayana Buddhism are of a devotional and mystical nature, involving the purification of physical and psycho-emotional obscurations. But in the last two sentences of the paragraph quoted above, the ego is no longer identified with adventitious defilements and is instantly reified as the 'boat', the body-mind, the vehicle of experience itself. This implies the impossibility of any final or ultimate ego-death while alive, involving adherents of this doctrine in an endless process of scrubbing barnacles off a hull that is made of nothing but barnacles! He does not seem to understand the idea of 'nirvana with a remainder' .
In describing one of his psychedelic experiences, Stephen wrote -
When I let go, I saw time split, kronon from kronon. I realized about the positive and negative of existence, that you don't have to worry about the negative part because it ain't, being its nature.
This is a great vision. The mature form of this samadhi realizes the non-existence of appearances as well as what Stephen calls 'the negative part.' What arises is no more real than the non-phenomenal background; in fact, their non-duality is absolute emptiness. In the ninth chapter of Shantideva's Bodhicaryavatara, he lays out a dialogue concerning the ultimate nature of phenomena:
Q: Since phenomena appear to both yogis and common people, why should there be any dispute over them?
A: Although they are similar in appearance, common people behold forms and other such things and conceive of them to be really existent; they do not understand them to be like an illusion. But since yogis do understand them to exist in such a way, it is here that the yogis and the common people disagree.
A careful study of Stephen's model of the universe reveals a conception of ego-death which is limited to a momentary process, a gap or non-experience after which one must return to the world of the ego, back 'on the wheel.' On the Farm, the teachings were not aimed at awakening to Buddhahood
In an eighteenth century Tibetan text called the 'Precious Garland of Tenets,' Konchog Jigme Wangpo gives elaborate descriptions of the theories behind the practices of different schools of the Indian Buddhism of his day. He states that the lesser vehicle school of the 'Great Exposition' posits that the smallest unit of matter and the shortest temporal unit of consciousness are absolute truths. This is to say that atoms or some finer article of energy-space, and the division of time into kronon or ksana are in some sense considered to be absolute or have true objective existence.
According to the Middle Way Consequence School, widely considered to be the supreme view of Tantric Buddhism, the absolute truth is to be identified with the emptiness of inherent existence of any object. Stephen's equation of the absolute truth with emptiness implies that the absolute has an objective existence. The identification of absolute reality with anything is another indication of the preliminary nature of his teaching.
Another interesting parallel between Konchog Jigme Wangpo's description of the teachings of the Great Exposition school and the Farm begins with students concentrating on the development of positive values -
...and can suppress manifest afflictive emotions, but cannot get rid of the seeds of the afflictive emotions. Many non-Buddhists attain their 'liberation' through this means; however, because of the fault of not destroying the seeds of desire by means of analytical cessation, such 'liberation' is only temporary.
Vision and energy were abundant on the old Farm. For Stephen and his closest friends, the momentary opening of the third eye on acid had revealed levels of ego and negative emotion which in many circles would still be considered subtle. This level of insight made possible the type of interaction which was virtually our legacy in the early days. It was common practice, especially when one first arrived on the Farm, that various blind spots in one's personality were unemotionally pointed out with the expectation that one was to quickly become responsible for such manifestations. But the Great Emptiness at the root of all phenomena was never named and celebrated and as a result, untransformed emotions were suppressed, sublimated and diverted rather than transformed.
As it came down, an irreducibly egoic and bodily-based view of existence was implicit in the living of Stephen's teachings and Farm 'realism.'. The incompleteness of our philosophy precluded any transformation of the deeper emotions. In the interests of community stability and the hopeful augmentation of our potential for exponential growth, a more simplistic and ultimately inadequate teaching was advocated.
Really, it's a question of what will is for.
Some folks think that will is for getting what they want...
Will is powerful but that isn't what will is for.
What you use will for is to don't be angry...
Control and discipline of the lower mind and emotions is a theme one comes upon again and again in Stephen's presentations. Although the struggle to control the passions by means of the will is a good preliminary exercise to help build psychic muscles and shape moral character, it is in no sense a complete teaching in that it neglects to evolve the practitioner beyond the mode of self-policing to reintegrate at more creative levels of involvement. Beyond the attempt to humanize oneself, the Tantric masters have developed a highly refined mind-science of transmutation employing the bi-polar energies of the attention/higher attention, desire/aspiration and erotic/ spiritual-longing as auto-catalytic operators quickening and supporting the process of self-liberating sadhana.