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The Practice of the Third Watch of the Night

The Third Watch of the Night represents another radical expansion of identity for the practitioner of the Bodhi-tree meditation. It develops in the practitioner a broad acceptance of all kinds, complexities, and levels of identity, and shows their interconnectedness by direct intuitive perception.

The Bhairava comments on the Third Watch of the Night:

The incarnate Buddha sat beneath the tree of wisdom, aware of his own vast number of lives, and the infinities of lives of sentient beings. These are indeed vast realms. How can they be known?

The Third Watch of the Night meditation answers this question by asking the practitioner to intuitively examine the universe in broader and broader sweeps, taking in larger and larger vistas which include ever growing communities of beings. The method of such an examination involves seeing all beings as connected by a universal jeweled net of relationships:

Each being is a gem. Though Buddhism traditionally prizes the doctrine of three jewels, the true jewel is individual awareness. Each being shines with light from many sources, and the more individualized the being, the greater the facets for the reflection of the light of awareness. The simpler the being, the fewer the complex reflections, and the greater the capacity of light shining from a single surface.

The countless beings and the light of their awareness may be visualized as a jeweled net that exists in many dimensions. Each being is a jewel where the rope or thread of the net intersects. Each jewel reflects the light of every other jewel on the net.

The net may be seen as composed of layers of cloth woven together with jeweled thread, or great spider webs whose dewdrops are the infinite number of sentient beings. It may also be a giant canopy of flowering vines that fill the tropical rain forest skies, each interacting in all directions, and each flower full of diamonds. It may also be the night sky, full of star systems and galaxies, each star reflecting the limitless number of points of awareness in the universe.

Let us visualize a sky full of diamonds, or the vast shoreline of the world's oceans full of pearls instead of sand. The meditator is not watching it but existing in its midst, as a star or pearl of awareness. The meditator is in its center, perceiving and accepting more and more of the beings in the universe as good and worthy. None are rejected, no matter how full of ignorance, desire, and hatred. None are rejected for fear, sorrow, or blindness. All are part of the expanding mind of the meditator. All are recognized as part of that expanding Self that transcends selfhood.

He or she thinks,

"I am all these, pure or impure, great or small. As a living conscious being, I could be born in any of these forms. Indeed, I probably have been. There is no inherent difference between these forms of awareness and my own."

The more of the universe that is accepted, the greater grows the love and awareness of the practitioner. In the upward path to Buddhahood, all are taken on the journey. One cannot travel this road alone- this is a universal form of meditation. The person should contemplate all possible communities and life forms, starfish, coral, herons, squirrels, human beings - and take them into the universe as companions. The jeweled net becomes more and more filled with light, for the practitioner's mind expands outwardly, including all sentient beings, and upward becoming more and more unified in spiritual light. The more forms of consciousness, the greater the light.

He or she becomes the bodhisattva, who is not only the friend to all, but is also a part of all. His robes billow back, full of the shining hearts with whom he wishes to share his awareness. He walks on the Milky Way and the skies are the rays of his light. His companions on his journey are the far-flung lights of the pilgrim's path. The bodhisattva strives to bring the whole sentient universe to peace.

The meditation of the third watch begins with the flashing of the jewels of the net of universal interdependence. These flashes go to all other jewels, and there is a continual flashing of radiance. The nodes connect the worlds of light and emptiness, the sambhogakaya and the dharmakaya. The flashing energies unite these forms of infinity.

Each node is a center of awareness, whether atomic or subatomic, one-sensed or many-sensed. The jeweled net of nodes are linked together by the patterns of interaction which are known as karma. Whether the strands are bright or dark, full of sorrow or joy, they bind the jewels of awareness together. The node of individual awareness can only be liberated by absorbing more and more of the reflected awareness surrounding it, shining brilliantly with flashing light, broken into fragments by dark sorrow, gaining more and more facets until universes are absorbed by its all-encompassing awareness. As it moves down to encompass primitive forms of consciousness, it appears as compassion. As it grows upward to reflect more complex forms of consciousness, it appears as wisdom.

Eventually it expands like a sun in nova, and it incorporates both ignorance and clarity. True growth needs to encompass both or the person grows in a clumsy or unbalanced way, and the net of jewels is knotted. As pure awareness, all experience is recognized as one's own, and the bonds must be accepted as one's own, for the bonds must be recognized and accepted before their power can be overcome. The goal is not to reject one's own karmic bonds but to take on those of the world, and to recognize them as a part of infinite life.

The Third Watch of the Night does not reject the bondage of the world, but accepts it. Only by taking on the world's pain may one be free of it.

The Third Watch creates awareness of the vast connection of all sentient beings through the networks of existence. The networks are maintained by karma which is the limitation of awareness, and thus ignorance and suffering. However, penetration of the jewels gives insight and beauty, though the expression of the net itself is tragedy. The practitioner travels upward through the net of jeweled paradises bringing brilliant light, and the liberation of insight from ignorance. However, his or her descent through the net to the world of individual beings brings sorrow, for the jeweled lights of consciousness are further apart, and the darkness of ignorance is oppressive. The bodhisattva shines brightly but his or her light is obscured by layers of ignorance and suffering. Thus, his descent into the world is experienced as tragedy and sorrow, and his compassion is automatically evoked by entrance into the worlds of dark and heavy karma.

Part of the Third Night is moving from the darker parts of the network to the lighter ones, the worlds of flashing jewels, and the light of pure awareness and awareness of infinity. The net is the ladder that is climbed to bodhisattva status, through the intermediate worlds. It may be called the jeweled net of the sambhogakaya, for it links together the world of samsara and the world of the dharmakaya. The state of Emptiness is beyond the net, the source of the light of the jewels. We may compare the net to the rigging of a pirate ship, connecting the violence and darkness of the deck, with the observation post of the mast, where the observer may see clearly beyond the realm of the passions.

The first stage of the meditation is to see the jewels flashing.

Here the Bhairava describes the basic fabric of the universe as perceived during the Third Watch of the Night meditation:

Another way to meditate on the Third Watch of the Night is to perceive the universe as a vast glowing ocean of light beneath a dark sky. The ocean shines in golden white leaving shimmering echoes of waves upon a dark sand beach. As you look closer at the water, you observe that the water is made of tiny glowing particles - tiny dots of light. As you observe a dot of light, you see that it is made of complexes of even small dots of light. You go down and down, each light particle broken down into smaller light particles - only an illusion, made up of hundreds and thousands of smaller particles, also illusory. Everything is composed of something else, and nothing exists on its own.

What is the universe made of? This is the profound question of the Third Watch of the Night. Of what is reality composed?

The meditator moves through the realms of consciousness in many directions - size, time, space, unity, and multiplicity. We might understand the universe to be composed of many fragments of consciousness, the jewels in whose reflections can be seen all the other jewels. We might also understand it as a extensive embroidered brocade composed of millions and billions of living jewels on its surface, or waves carrying forth billions of one-celled light-creatures, or billion of stars that pulse like beating hearts. All of these metaphors can be applied.

The contemplation of the watches of the night destroys individuality. The person experiences being many lives, many species, and eventually many universes. He or she may go past the physical universe and into the spiritual ones. The minds of gods and Buddhas are vast in themselves, and each is like a wave in the infinite sambhogakaya ocean.

There are many forms of consciousness in the universe. There are not only individual centers, but also personifications of broader and broader areas of awareness. A universe may have a sense of self, as may a species, a race, or a galaxy. Indeed, the universes are full of selves of many types. The Third Watch of the Night represents consciousness of the unity of these into broader areas of self, oceans of selves, galaxies of selves. The mind of the bodhisattva is an enormous network of selves as he pulls them all towards universal awareness. The mind of the Buddha accepts both their existence and non-existence. And it also accepts the unlimited awareness towards which they strive.

The Limitations of Philosophical Buddhism

Today, many Buddhists identify themselves as philosophical Buddhists. The Bhairava believes that this approach misses out on the intuitive side of Buddhism and can unfortunately be used to justify vanity and ignorance.

The mediator should not rush to dismiss the existence of gods, bhairavas, bodhisattvas, and Buddhas. Today, we see philosophical Buddhists who are being trained to do this. By doing so, they miss out on the worlds that they need to know, and they also miss the help of guides. I am giving these teachings because of the rise of materialism, which limits the universes of awareness to the physical one. We have Buddhists being self-satisfied because they have denied the self, and proud because they know that the gods and Buddhas are false. Thus, they are superior to the deities. In reality, they reject what they do not know and have never seen. Thus they claim great knowledge, but are mired in ignorance and vanity. In this case, denial is the affirmation of blindness.

The individual cannot claim advanced knowledge of mathematics if he or she cannot understand simple arithmetic. One cannot claim to have encompassed the realities of the universe until he or she has experienced them. One cannot deny the ultimate nature of gods and Buddhas until he or she has met or transcended them. Otherwise, such denial is based on ignorance, neither knowing nor not knowing. The individual's only proof is the lack of knowledge, and the generalization from his or her own lack of experience.

While Buddhist philosophy claims depth, and actually has it [in abstract terms] in the last two watches of the night, it has largely lost access to that depth. This is because it has forgotten or rejected the first two watches of the night. We have Buddhists who enter the deconstruction of causality without [first] deconstructing identity. As a result, the ego expands and instead of insight, we get vanity. Knowledge evokes pride, which stays within the existing structure of the self, and puffs it out. The ego seeks recognition for its knowledge, and hierarchies of status and power begin to form, originally built on hierarchies of knowledge.

Now, true insight destroys hierarchies, but knowledge which is grasped and held strengthens them. Without the first two watches, the person is compressed between two types of knowledge - material knowledge of physical forces and objects, and religious knowledge of the Void, and the emptiness of phenomena and causality.

But if there is no identification with sentient life and no recognition of the universality of awareness and sorrow, then there is no genuine compassion evoked to balance the pressure between the two types of knowledge. Here, the mind and self become like a single vajra, the center squeezed and narrow between the vajra's middle by the weights of knowledge. What is needed is the second [perpendicular] vajra to expand the narrow selfhood into weights of compassion for past selves and for other beings. This creates the balanced double vajra. The individual should be balanced in his or her development like the double vajra and this will not occur without the practice of the first two watches of the night.

The awareness of the countless worlds of being and the infinite modes of being of the inhabitants of these worlds combined with the awareness of their interconnectedness on the great net is the beginning of the entrance into the state of Nirvana. This is the grand realization that precedes the Fourth Watch of the Night.

The bhairava views the knowledge of the three watches of the night as a kind of wealth that the seeker brings as an offering to the Buddha:

One should not go to the Buddha empty-handed. On should come bearing the treasures of the universe, the almost infinite collection of jewels which represent the minds of all sentient beings.

A Historical Note

The practice of the Third Watch of the Night bears a resemblance to the practices of the Nara school of Hua Yen or Kegon Buddhism. However, it does not contain the syncretistic elements. For example, there is no incorporation of the Japanese Sun Goddess Amaterasu, and no political dimension such as an association with an emperor or other national leader.

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Introduction | The Yidam or Spiritual Guide | The Symbol of the Bodhi-Tree | The First Watch of the Night | The Second Watch of the Night | The Third Watch of the Night | The Fourth Watch of the Night | Conclusion


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