Notes on the nature of Mind:

A gift from my teacher

Sylvester photo

During the time I lived at the Benedictine monastery of Prinknash Abbey and for some years afterwards, I was blessed to have Dom Sylvester Houédard (1924–1992) as a teacher and guide. His wisdom, kindness and generosity were a precious gift which continues to unfold.

Two of the aims of the School of Contemplative Life in particular are deeply informed by my time with this wise, kind and generous man: to nurture the common ground in contemplative practice across faith traditions and to become a source of peace and an antidote to fundamentalism through exploring the various paths to our common home, where all distinctions fall away and “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

Dom Sylvester was deeply interested in the synergies and points of union between various religious traditions and coined the phrase “the wider ecumenism.” He wrote commentaries on Meister Eckhart, was a founder member of the Eckhart Society and honorary fellow of the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi society, as well as being a leading exponent of concrete poetry.

In 1983, due to his knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism, Dom Sylvester was asked to join a new sub-committee of the “Dialogue Interreligieux Monastique” commissioned by the Benedictine Abbot Primate. A good, short biography of Dom Sylvester [1] captures a delightful example of the warm esteem he was held in by friends of other religious traditions:

Jinpa Thupten Geshe [who was central to the Dalai Lama’s team of translators and interpreters] remembers an occasion when the Dom [as he was affectionately known] was “in conversation with His Holiness about his thoughts on the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness as well as the Tibetan Dzogchen view. His Holiness was rather struck by this and…mentioned something about the fact that [Thomas] Merton shared similar interests.” Jinpa continues: “It is a pity that the Dom was not able to find a senior Tibetan monk or a scholar who could have engaged more deeply and on a more sustained basis. Perhaps the problem was that there wasn’t a partner from the Tibetan side who could match the range and depths of the Dom’s interests — spirituality, philosophy, poetry and so on — to truly appreciate the opportunity.”

It is from a spirit of deep gratitude for the teaching and friendship of “the Dom” that I’d like to share some of his writings from time to time.

Some years after my time at Prinknash and toward the end of my legal studies, I wrote a dissertation exploring some of the legal and ethical dilemmas surrounding decisions to not provide medical treatment to profoundly ill new born children. The study involved examining the sanctity of life principle and concepts of personhood and I turned to Dom Sylvester for guidance.

In his typically generous way, Dom Sylvester responded by typing pages of thoughts and posted these to me in a document titled ‘ROUGH NOTES ON MIND FOR XPHR WHITTINGTON’. The notes were of great value for the dissertation and provided the framework for a rich ongoing conversation. And still do.

The short section of the “Rough Notes” given below are presented as they appear in the original typed document to help convey something of Dom Sylvester’s voice, style of writing and teaching.

“Mind or mens or sems is the ability to know: the possibility of knowing.

At one level, the things we know can be referred to as beings. We can say that each human is a being. This is the level of Buddhist “conventional truth” — i.e., the conventional truth about a thing, that it is, that we are. At this level we can talk of God as “Supreme Being.”

At a deeper level, any thing that we know is not a being but a becoming and any human is a becoming. This is the level of Buddhist ultimate truth — i.e., the ultimate truth about a thing is that it is empty of svabhavasiddhi, of the power of self-being, of aseitas (from-self-ness) and that it is (we are) the effect of cause — not some long-ago cause but of a cause present each instant. Everything is (we all are) ab alio (from non-self, from other). At this level we can say that God is Being but we become: God alone is, things and people become. We are not so much human-beings as human-becomings.

With regard to mind as the possibility of knowing (and of knowing this), there is one thing we know with absolute certitude, though (as Ibn ‘Arabi says) most people find it difficult: the only way of knowing this “as home truth” (in Zen terms) and not just as something we are told by other people (which is only “bought treasure”) is by meditation and it is meditation (not the obvious truth to which meditation is a gate) which people find difficult.

Ch’an/Zen developed out of this difficulty as a way for teaching novices to know it for themselves, to know the moon and not the finger pointing at it.

Among the ways of “conveying what can’t be conveyed” the four simplest are:

(1) To know anything at all is to “know” the mere possibility of knowing is anterior to all actual knowing. It follows that “know” has a special and unique sense here which in English can be rendered by “aware”, in Tibetan by “rigpa” and in Latin by Augustine’s word “contuition”;

(2) The one thing sought for being the seeker, there can be no way of finding it other than “finding by not finding” (a phrase common to both Buddhist and Christian);

(3) Future and past meet and “touch each other” in the mind with no gap between “will be” and “was” and so there is no room for “am” or for “is” (this is the meditation basic to all the Prophets who wrote the Old Testament). The present is not just some shortest possible stretch of time but (literally and absolutely) zero-time.

Living in the present we live in zero-time where “am” and “is” are ruled out (this is the ultimate truth of no-self). Pretending that the present is a very short moment (not an instant) is conventional truth and here we can use “am” and “is” — either ignorantly or knowing that they are mere conventions.

The present instant (not “moment”) is the an in Arabic and the nunc in Latin and out of this an or nunc or now we never move and we never have moved and we can’t move. As it is this which ultimately is the guarantee of our freedom, it is misleading to speak of being imprisoned in it (on the nature of our freedom through living in “the tower of our nunc” see the Avatamsaka (or Flower Ornament) Sutra.

From this “point of mind” in which future and past meet, we can look forward by anticipation and backward by memory: it is the apex mentis in Latin, the sems nyid in Tibetan, mostly “naked mind” in medieval English. The Avatamsaka says that at any single zero-time instant in our life everything we know, the whole cosmos, is present in this unextended point.

(4) Mind that knows is subject and what it knows is the object of its knowledge. Mind can thus never know itself (if it did it would only be as an object known, not as the subject knowing). Hence again the reason for talk in modern English of mind being aware, of “naked intent” in medieval English, and rigpa in Tibetan (mostly translated as “basic knowledge” or “basic awareness”, though naked awareness might be best). As Ibn ‘Arabi says, mind is its own veil. As Padmasambhava says, mind is (or has) its own time.

As the sky is not affected by clouds, mind as luminous possibility isn’t affected by clouded-reason, or ignorance or wrong-knowledge.

However much we know or don’t know, at apex mentis we always remain the same luminous possibility of knowing. Its pristine nature cannot be affected by anxiety or depression, by disease or injury, or even by the possibility of not being actualised as actual knowing.

In Buddhist terms, it is the seed of Buddhahood.

In Christian terms, it is the seed of Glory.”

[1] https://besharapublications.org.uk/dom-sylvester-houedard/#footnote4

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