Gate, gate paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi, Svaha
(Gone , gone , gone beyond, gone right beyond, Bodhi , svaha)

At the end of the sutra, Prajna Paramita Hridya, we chant, “Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi, Svaha!” Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone right beyond, and then, Bodhi. The whole of the Prajnaparamita is summed up in “going beyond.” The Prajnaparamita Hridya is a summation of the teaching of the Prajnaparamita school, one of the major schools of the Mahayana. The sutra can be reduced to, “ Gone, gone, gone beyond.”

The reason for working with a koan, such as “Who am I?” is to go beyond: beyond the sense of self, the sense “I am something.” This does not mean that we try to get rid of “I am something.” We do not say to ourselves, “I think I am something, but I am wrong; therefore I must I be nothing” In a similar way, a master said, “From the beginning not a thing is,” but that does not mean that we must dismiss things and see the world as a great hole; we must go beyond ‘I am’ and ‘things.’

So, what does ‘to go beyond’ mean?

Looking at a picture that hangs on the wall, you may be enchanted by the colour, forms, the proportions and design; but you ignore the canvas on which the painting was painted. And so it is with thoughts, ideas, emotions, as well as with the feeling of “I am,” and “the world is real:” all are painted on the canvas of Bodhi, or knowing. We ignore or forget the knowing, or, to use Gurdjieff’s words, “We forget ourselves.”

After we wake up from sleep, in retrospect, it seems as though sleep was just a blank; it seems there had been just nothing. But we can also remember similar blanks if we look back on a day. Sometimes at the end of a day we just cannot remember any of the day’s activities; we just feel that we have lived in a complete vacuum. But when we were living through that ‘vacuum’ we were deeply involved.

It is the same when we are asleep. When we are asleep, we are deeply involved, totally involved, but nothing stands out as a memory. Furthermore, during the night we drift in and out of dreams. When dreaming, we are neither awake nor fully asleep. Sometimes, but rarely, the dreams are sufficiently striking that they persist into the day. Most often, however, as we wake up, the dream just disappears and we often think afterwards, “Well, I didn’t dream last night, the night was just a blank.” That ‘blank’ is the canvas on which the picture of life is painted.

What I am calling a ‘canvas,’ but which the Prajnaparamita calls Bodhi, can also be called ‘being aware.’ Being aware is the constant factor beyond everything. In Sanskrit it is known as jna from which jnana and prajna are derived. When Nisargadatta talks about the immutable, this is what he is talking about.

We must be careful, of course, that we do not look upon being aware as having an independent existence that endures apart from the world. This is not so. Emptiness is form; form is emptiness: awareness is form; form is awareness. “It has no form, yet it appears.” Awareness has no form yet it appears; it appears as the room, as the anger, as the memory. The word, ‘to appear’ is a verb, it means something that is happening. The metaphor of a canvas can be misleading as canvas denotes something fixed that endures; awareness has no form that can be fixed.

When we are working on, “Who am I?” we discern the ‘substance’ beyond the content.(the etymology of substance is ‘that which stands under.’) Discern, cognize, penetrate, or go beyond the form to the substance. I try to use different words, but in the end, none of them are really satisfactory: substance, awareness, is beyond all thought.

This does not mean that we chase away thoughts, but recognize they are thoughts/awareness. We are fascinated by the thoughts, “Do I have cancer?” “Will I lose my job?” “ Is my child safe?” We are fascinated by their significance. We are fascinated by them in the same way that we are fascinated by the painting on the canvas. Moreover, thoughts are continuous to the point that they establish an apparent impenetrable wall that we constantly come up against. We have taken this wall so much for granted that we ignore the awareness that makes it possible and gives it life.

Although we are in contact with the wall of thought, we come to believe instead that we are in contact with the “real world.” When we say the world is real, we are referring to the world of thought, even though it is awareness that makes it real. If you truly investigate thoughts you will see the world that they create has no substance other than awareness. The wall is simply the stream of thought, and thoughts come out of awareness. When I say the world has no substance, I mean it has no independent substance, it has no independent reality.

A questioner once asked Nisagadatta, “When does awareness begin?” He replied, “Nothing has beginning or ending. As salt dissolves in water so does everything dissolve into pure being. Wisdom is eternally negating the unreal. To see the unreal is wisdom. Beyond this lies the inexpressible.”

The thoughts that we have are constantly dissolving. One of the questions I sometimes ask people is, “When you no longer think a thought, where does it go?” You can have the most painful thoughts, you can have the thought of being a total failure, and underlying it is extreme pain. But what happens to that thought when you go to sleep? How real is that thought? Even as you sit there a thought may be whipping you, hurting you, and then soon it disappears. And another thought comes up. Sometimes just as painful. Where do these thoughts come from? Where do they go?

We go to sleep; what happens to the sense of self? It just dissolves into awareness. Going to sleep is a very sweet process. Deep sleep has a beauty about it, a love about it. Why is that? Deep sleep is, in its way, nearest to our true nature. To realize our true nature we have to arouse the mind without resting it on anything. In deep sleep, the mind is not resting on anything: but it is not aroused. To go to sleep we dissolve our thoughts and the problems they give. We don’t solve them; we don’t take the day’s worries and solve them one by one and, having solved them, go to sleep. We don’t even let them go. It’s just like mist that disappears when the sun rises.

But what does Nisargadatta mean when he says, “Wisdom is eternally negating the unreal.” Negating the unreal is a way to look at practice. When we are asking, “Who am I?” we are negating the unreal. When we ask “What is Mu?” Mu is “No!” and in that “No!” is the dissolution of the unreal. Our problem is that we take the content of thoughts seriously; we take the thoughts as being real. If we get a thought, “I am no good,” we take that thought as being something that has value and truth. We believe the thought is saying something that is true, that it has value, reality and a consequence: I am no good. Having said or thought that, a number of other thoughts and feelings flow from it.

But if we really take a look at that ‘I’m no good,’ not at what it is saying, but as a thought /awareness  it dissolves. The thought cannot stand on its own in the light of awareness. It’s true that as soon as we turn to the thought itself and allow awareness to sink back into the background, the thought regains its power; but that does not mean it is real. It simply means that we have a habit, a tendency for the mind to run in certain grooves. It doesn’t mean that the content has any validity.

For example, Nisargadatta’s questioner talks about this habit of mind, when he says, “There is in me the conviction, I am the body. Granted, I am talking from unwisdom. But the state of feeling oneself to be the body, the body/mind, the mind/body or even pure mind, when did this begin?” This conviction, I am the body is the habit that is most deeply ingrained in us. It is a habit that is so complex, and has so many roots, that it is difficult to exhaust it. It takes many years of hard work to exhaust the conviction, I am the body.

The questioner asks, when does does this conviction begin? The implication in this question is that the conviction, and the thoughts of which it is composed, are something that ‘enter’ the mind and so have a beginning. This in turn implies that awareness is ‘something’ and the thoughts are ‘something’ else, and the two come together in time.

Nisargadatta replies, “You cannot speak of a beginning of consciousness. The very ideas of beginning and time are within consciousness. To talk meaningfully of the beginning of anything, you must step out of it. And the moment you step out of it, you realize that there is no such thing and never was. There is only reality in which no thing has any being of its own.”

It is like the question, when did I come into being, or when was I born? Yet, the very idea of things coming into being is dependant on ‘I,’ self, and the world of things already being there, already existing. When you are asleep, there is no question of beginnings and endings. But as you wake up so the day is planned out; a sequence emerges, and one says, “This has to be done first, that has to be done next…” and so there is the appearance of a beginning. Without the sense of self there is no world, there is no beginning. Moreover, there is no end either. That is self evident, but it is consistently overlooked. We always work on the assumption that the world existed and that I came into an already existing world, and one day I shall go out of the world leaving it behind.

Nisargadatta replies, “There is only reality in which no thing has any being of its own.”

This is why chant, “no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind”. We are chanting that the nose, the eyes, the ear have no independent reality of their own. This is also why we chant at the end, “gate, gate, paragate”. Once we have gone beyond, then there is no eye, ear, or nose.

Nisargadatta goes on to say, “Like waves are inseparable from the ocean, so all existence is rooted in being.”

“Form is only emptiness.” Form is the wave; emptiness the ocean. When you look around you see things; these are the forms, the waves. The ‘seeing’ is the emptiness, the ocean. When you have thoughts that are hurting you so much, these are forms. Knowing these thoughts is the emptiness. But you overlook the knowing. All that you are concerned about, is the content, the pain, and because of that you give the content a reality. It is almost as though a thought becomes an independent person.

Indeed for a long time, before humankind firmly established a sense of “I am something”, and introjected it, thoughts were other people. The Bible tells that God spoke to Moses; nowadays, we would say that Moses thought something. This is true of most of the interactions between the gods and human beings. Now we say that we think. In those days it was the gods that spoke as though they had an independent existence. This, by the way, does not mean that the gods were a product of the imagination. The Gods were as real as you are real to me.

The questioner persisted with his question, asking, “The fact is that here and now I am asking you, ‘when did the feeling I am the body arise?’ At my birth or this morning?” Nisargadatta replied, “Now.” The feeling I am the body is coming into existence right now! It’s not something that you received this morning or when you were born and persists as an enduring substance or substratum.. You are creating that feeling now. Nothing endures.

The questioner protests, “But I remember having it yesterday too!” Nisargadatta said, “The memory of yesterday is now only.” It is only now that you have that memory. The thought arises now, and the thought that you had it yesterday also arises now.

The questioner, quite perplexed, exclaims, “But surely I exist in time. I have a past and a future?”

`Nisargadatta “Yes, that’s how you see it, now.”

Now you are saying you have a past and a future. When you go into the past, you go into the past, now. When you project yourself into the future, you project yourself into the future, now.

Q.- “But there must have been a beginning.”

N.- “Now!”

Yes, there is a beginning now. Now is the beginning. We chant, “From the beginning all beings are Buddha”. But that beginning is not sometime in the eternal past. It is now. It is the origin; it is now.

When you are struggling with thoughts, those thoughts are now. When you are working on “Who am I?” you are working on “Who am I?” now. You cannot get away from now. “Coming and going we never leave home.” People say, “But I’ve always had this problem”, but this always having this problem is now! “This problem came from my childhood, from the way that my mother, or father, or someone, treated me.” But that childhood is now! You are born now; you die now.

‘Now’ is what we have called Bodhi and awareness. It is because we forget the knowing of a memory that we believe the memory has a reality in the past. Once we recognize that the memory is indeed now, in other words, once we put knowing back into the equation, we see that there is no past, there is no future, only now. Once we put the knowing back as “I know this thought,” that thought automatically is now and loses its power. Because we resist the thought, we say, “The thought is over there; I don’t like that thought, I don’t want that thought” the thought takes on a reality and a power of its own.

Thoughts are a product of mind and no product of mind can be more real than the mind itself. But then, is the mind real? It is but a collection of ‘products,’ each of them transitory. How can a succession of transitory products be considered real?

People often say, “I’m being bombarded with thoughts; I just can’t get away from them. Every time I look around there’s another thought.” To see thoughts like this is to give them an independent existence. It requires a degree of determination, a degree of strength of mind, to take one of those thoughts––above all a negative thought––and truly look at it.

We take everything for granted. As Nisargadatta says, “The illusion of being the body/mind is there only because it is not investigated.” ‘No investigation’ is the thread on which all states of mind are strung. We go into a room and it is light. We turn off the light. Where has there light gone?

You may say that is not a real question but simply a collection of words arranged like a question. But do you not ask what happens after death? Is that not only a collection of words that has no meaning?

So often our states of mind, all names and forms of existence, are taken for granted and not investigated. They then exist in imagination and credulity. “I am” is the truth; “I am this, I am that” are the illusion, but taken for granted and rarely examined or questioned. To investigate, to no longer take things for granted, means that we have to overcome immense inertia, and most prefer to turn over and go to sleep.

Nothing is stronger than you, because you are real and everything else is dependant upon your being. No thought, any thought, is stronger than you are. You are the one that thinks it. There is no reason for you to be enslaved by any thought, to be the subject of any thought, because you are the one that’s giving that thought life.

Wisdom lies in remembering yourself. This means coming home to the medium in which everything arises. Dogen said, “The study of Buddhism is the study of the self.” And then he says, “The study of the self is to forget the self.” In other words, when one really remembers the self then the forms of the self, the sense of self, begin to dissolve. And finally he says, “To forget the self is to be one with the ten thousand things.” Everything arises in the medium of the self, or of knowing, or, to use an analogy that I have used, everything is but shadows thrown by the light of the projector.

For most of us the conviction, ‘I am the body,” seems to be the reality, and it seems to us that the truth, ‘I am pure being,’ must be imposed as an idea as something true but not experienced. Nisargadatta reminds us, ” What we think of as the body is an integration, in the mind, of a vast number of sensory perceptions.” This includes all of the kinaesthetic sensations, the emotions, the thoughts, the vision that we have. All of this is all added together, integrated, unified, just in the same way that when we go into a room, this room is a set of perceptions that we have and integrate.

It is said that in practicing we cross over to the other shore. Etymologically, the word ‘Paramita’ can be divided into two words: para and mita. Para means ’beyond’ and it also means ‘the further bank or shore.’ Mita means ‘that which has arrived.’ Paramita means that which has arrived at the further shore. “ Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate.” But the further shore is here and now.

In the words of T.S. Eliot

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

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14 Responses to Gate

  1. Annie Manseau says:

    Merci pour ce texte.

  2. Hanna Back says:

    Dear Albert,
    thank you so very much for this text. I always love the prajnaparamita, and particularly the end : gate, gate….
    I can only come back to the breath, which to me is the biggest mystery…………

  3. reggie says:

    “…Once we put the knowing back as “I know this thought,” that thought automatically is now and loses its power. Because we resist the thought, we say, “The thought is over there; I don’t like that thought, I don’t want that thought” the thought takes on a reality and a power of its own…”

    In the midst of pain from emotions and thoughts, it can seem so hopeless. Thank you for
    the above comment especially to help me face that pain when it comes.
    The pain seems so real and the way out seems so simple, to face the pain
    and acknowledge that “I know this thought”, that it will give me plenty of
    opportunity to practice. I hope to reach the other shore, and to realize
    that it is already here and now.

    • Albert Low says:

      “If you knew how to suffer you would have the power not to suffer.” But that does not mean that it is easy.
      Pain is the cry of unity that is split in two. Knowing how to suffer is not a contest, you cannot fail and you are not weak when at times the road is completely blocked. The big danger is self pity. That makes any pain, however small, ‘unbearable.’

  4. helmutm says:

    Not overlooking that ‘being aware’ has no independent existence apart from the world, helps to see that matter and awareness are one as well.

  5. Jacqueline V. says:

    It seems to me that the word ‘real’ is loaded with ambiguity, and what do we mean when we use it? Do we know what we mean when we use it?

  6. robertgodin says:

    Are not knowing and being one?

  7. Macleod says:

    How do you view Freud’s theory that the experience of the oceanic/gate, is a return to a pre-ego, pre-verbal, and infantile state – the one experienced by a dependent baby, entirely merged with the identity of the mother? Seems overly-simple to me. But I can’t rule this out as a possible form of self-delusion inherent to the exploration of higher states of conciousness. Thanks for your response.

  8. Albert Low says:

    I don’t have a view on oceanic states.

    However, as Freud was avowedly materialistic (he looked forward to the time when psychological states could be reduced to biological ones) and as he had never had any spiritual experience or leanings, I do not think him in anyway competent to make any judgments about religion or spirituality.

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