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Transformative Practices An Esalen Invitational Conference November 28 - December 2, 1999 Form and Formless in Spiritual Practice Kaisa Puhakka

Kaisa noted that most of the major spiritual traditions recognize a distinction between what she called "perfection of form" and "realization of the formless." The "formless" is variously understood as "shunyata," "Godhead," "Nirguna Brahman," etc. but in every case, it refers to what lies beyond particular forms and manifestations, such as ethical virtues or psychospiritual powers. Many also recognize that while the realization of formless is the summum bonum of spiritual life, there is really no practice that would serve as a means to it. The various spiritual and other transformative practice, on the other hand, are means to some end (the form that is being perfected). The means vs. ends dualism keeps the end forever beyond the practitioner's reach as something "transcendent." For Kaisa, the formless is immanent as much as it is transcendent, is ‘here" as much as it is ‘there." It is like the clear sky into which our mental structures and schemas dissolve. It is also the birth place of new and fresh visions. Kaisa had a bit of consternation about the exclusive emphasis in the talking points for the conference on transformative practices as a means to some goal or end. She pointed out that the pragmatic mindset of a would-be practitioner who is shopping around for the optimal transformative practice (that will get her from "here" to "there" in the quickest and most effortless manner) presupposes this dualism of means and ends. Yet, as soon as the realization of the formless is recognized as the ultimate aim, we have a paradox, namely, that the realization of the formless is the realization that the very means vs. ends dualism is an illusion. So the pragmatic mindset lands the practitioner in a dilemma: The optimal practice is the best means for realizing the illusoriness of the "means vs. ends" dualism. But because it is the best means for this realization, the dualism cannot be considered an illusion! How does a practitioner get out of this knot and the pragmatic mindset that gets her caught up in it? Kaisa believes that there is no practice for getting out of the pragmatic mindset, but there is a way of shifting the mindset. Kaisa feels very indebted to Nagarjuna, the 2nnd century Buddhist dialectician, for helping make this shift. When Kaisa studied Nagarjuna in graduate school, some of her class mates fell into a kind of "dark night of the soul" after being exposed to Nagarjuna's relentless analyses. For some reason, however, her own response was to feel liberated. Jeff asked why it was liberating to her while it had the opposite effect on the others. Kaisa speculated that they fell into nihilism because Nagarjuna left nothing for them to hang on to, but for her, he took away a veil. Kaisa then explained the form of Nagarjuna's dialectic, the so-called four-cornered negation (catuskoti). Any thesis or proposition (P) that is asserted as true generates four

alternatives that exhaust all possibilities: 1) P is true, 2) not-P is true (the opposite claim), 3) both P and not-P are true, and 4) neither P nor not-P is true. Kaisa next discussed how the four-cornered negation applies to transformative practices and the claims or beliefs we have about their truth or effectiveness. The pragmatic mindset predisposes us to operate within stances 1) (Certain practices are the "best" for certain purposes) and 2) (These practices are not the "best" for these purposes.) The type of consciousness that goes with this is an exclusive "either/or" thinking. Stance 3, which affirms both P and not-P, would go with a more inclusive "both/and" thinking. This might be illustrated in the practice context by a vipassana practitioner who has come to see anything and everything that happens as grist for the practice mill. The fourth stance is tricky, Kaisa felt, because we don't have in our contemporary transpersonal discourse the kind of thinking that goes beyond the inclusive "both/and" to a kind of transparency of consciousness that sees "neither P nor not-P." She thought this might be the next step in our maturation. The "neither/nor" consciousness can be difficult to bear at first because it seems as absolute as the other stances. There can be a loss of all hope, one feels completely cut off and nothing works. However, this reaction betrays an attachment to the fourth alternative as a "position" that is affirmed, whereas Nagarjuna's point was that none of the four should be affirmed. Once all four, including the last, are seen as resting on an illusory dichotomy (that of P and not-P) then one may freely embrace what is without a need to either affirm or deny anything. Kaisa next talked about "formless" spiritual practices, such as the "wholly uncontrived mind" in Dzogchen, or the "no-mind" or "natural mind" in Zen. In the very traditions that recognize the formless, there is much "form" in their practices, but the form may have a different meaning altogether than being a "means" to some "end." A case in point is the Zen practice at Mt. Baldy Zen Center with which Kaisa is familiar. The form in that practice is tough and uncompromising. Every movement is formalized -- the position of eyes and hands, sitting, walking all have to be done according to a prescribed form. One is not even allowed to sniffle or wipe one's nose. There is no room whatsoever for making decisions or acting on preferences -- thus no room for the operation of the ego. Yet ego comes up all the time -- when one makes a mistake with the form, which is inevitable, or when emotions come up. Authority issues also get dredged up. Kaisa used her experiences with the Mt. Baldy practice to illustrate the shifts in consciousness that occur as one continues the practice. These shifts can be described in terms of the Nagarjunian dialectic. The novice practitioner's attitude is typically an ambitious one -- and a pragmatic one-- in which she wants to do the form perfectly and get the most out of this challenging practice -- thus affirming "P." But it is impossible to do the form even half-way right, let alone perfectly, and so the novice sets herself up to fail. In her disappointment and frustration, she then rejects "P" and affirms "not-P" -- any practice except the rigidly regimented Mt. Baldy practice works! Sitting with this kind of attitude plus the aches and pains that go with it is a kind of Zen hell. If the student sticks it out, however, things start loosening and all these knots dissolve. Suddenly one is in Zen heaven. This shift, however, does not happen until one has surrendered the ego that tried so hard and was so frustrated. Typically, the novice then reverts back to affirming "P" and

has several more rounds of heaven and hell, until a maturation occurs and one embraces, with equanimity "both P and not-P." Anything that happens is "good practice." One is not swayed by heaven and hell experiences anymore, one is mastering the practice, and enlightenment seems just around the corner. But no sooner has one comfortably settled into the smooth ride than one falls into another hell. This hell is of a different order than the previous one. This is where it begins to dawn on the practitioner than the pleasure of this ride and the very enlightenment project are still manifestations of the ego. The disillusionment and devastation of this realization can throw the practitioner into the real Dark Night of the Soul, the "second night" as described by St. John of the Cross. One is left with nothing at all, not even the noble, meaningful practice that has provided one with a sense of identity. The practitioner is likely to revert back to "both P and not-P" before he or she can accept the nothingness of "neither P nor not-P." But when this is finally embraced, the need to have any kind of identity may finally dissolve, and everything is fine just the way it is. Nothing needs to be accomplished, no forms need to be perfected. In a way, anything is now practice, but really, it makes no sense to even describe what one does as "practice" because there is nothing that is "nonpractice." The dichotomy between practice and something else dissolves. Yet, at Mt. Baldy, too, there is a strong element in the practice that involves perfection of form. This is especially true for the ordained people in their training as they rotate through different offices, such as that of the shoji (nurturing mother) and jikijitsu (stern father) who walks through the aisles of the zendo, menacingly carrying the kesaku (stick ready to strike anyone who sloughs off or is sleepy. George asked about the purpose of the kesaku from the viewpoint of practice, and Kaisa said that the meditators get an opportunity to process fearful or angry reactions that come up when the jikijitsu walks by with the stick, or when he stops, bows in front of them and gets ready to strike them. For Kaisa, these had been very good opportunities, and she felt she really moved through some stuff when she eventually experienced being hit as an act of love on the part of the jikijitsu. Don commented on the parallels between Kaisa's reflections and medieval Christian mysticism, especially the tension between our inability to earn grace and yet still having to do something. He thinks that the function of irony, humor, and artistry relates to formlessness. They lighten up our mindset so as to allow other stuff to come in. Kaisa noted that she found it very inspiring to see women acting as jikijitsus. She also thinks that it is valuable to have practices that are very available and accessible but also some, like the Mt Baldy Center, where those who are willing to go further out, even to extremes, have the opportunity to do so.