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Buddhist practice starts not with a leap of faith, but with a careful observation of our own experience. Among the many facets of experience that we can attend to, Buddhism pays special attention to the phenomenon of suffering: the first Noble Truth. It is a good place to start and it grabs our attention. Most of us can relate to the observation that there is suffering.
The very fertile question is, why? What makes us prone to suffering? If I fall off my bike and scrape my knee, and then ask why I'm suffering, it's a fairly trivial question. But if I am sitting here in one of the most beautiful places on the planet, healthy, with a full belly, and still I'm unhappy, then the question becomes very interesting. What's going on? Why should unhappiness arise? Why is there suffering of the mind? The question also becomes interesting when disharmony and conflict arise in relationships with other people. What causes the suffering of interpersonal conflict or international conflict? Why can't we just get along? It's another way of asking the second Noble Truth: What is the source of suffering?
Although there are myriad conditions that give rise to conflict and internal distress, many of the external factors are not really essential to the suffering that we experience. This is not to devalue the external factors, but the internal factors are more essential. And though many external factors are beyond our control, the internal factors happily offer more possibility for transmutation.
What is essential tothis suffering? What is invariably present as a source of the suffering we experience? As the Buddha was pursuing these questions, he drew the conclusion from his own experience that certain fundamental afflictions of the mind are the source of the distress we experience, whether in solitude, or in our relationships with other people and the environment. The most fundamental of these afflictions is delusion. We are actively misconstruing reality, and that messes things up. From this active misconstruction of reality arise other distortions of the mind. The Sanskrit word for mental affliction is klesa. It is related to the word klista, which means to twist or to be warped. As we look out on the world through the window of our mind, somehow the window gets warped. What we are seeing is reality, but a twisted reality, and we respond to it in an unstraightforward way. The Tibetan word for an adept, or highly realized being (drang srong) means straight, not twisted.
The fundamental problem is delusion. As Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." He put his finger right on the button: The crucial problem is that we don't know what we're doing. And from this delusion, other twistings of the mind occur: selfish craving, hostility, aggression, and a myriad other derivative afflictions.
Is it possible to be free of these sources of suffering, or are they simply part and parcel of being human? Is it possible to be free of them, not by repressing them or by taking a vacation or respite from them, but by totally, irrevocably eradicating these internal sources of affliction? It is an extraordinary question, a question the Buddha pursued for years. And from his own experience he drew the conclusion: Yes, it is possible. And so we engage with the four Noble Truths: suffering, the source of suffering, liberation from the source of suffering, and finally, the path to that liberation. Thereon hangs the rest of the tale.
If the root problem is delusion, then the root antidote must be something that meets that delusion head on. The root antidote for delusion is probably not loving-kindness. Loving-kindness can serve as the antidote for hatred, indifference, or self-centeredness, but the root antidote for delusion is the realization of insight. Of the two wings of enlightenment, compassion and wisdom, the wisdom of insight is the one that meets delusion head on. This is why Buddhist practice places so much emphasis on the cultivation of insight (vipasyana).
Delusion takes various forms, but key to them all is an illusion concerning our own existencewho we are. A fruitful hypothesis (not dogma that we must believe) is that we are falsely construing ourselves as something existing independently, autonomously, separately from the environment and from other sentient beings. This little ego struggles through life, reaching for all good things and pushing all bad things away. Insofar as we buy into this false construction of reality, then implicitly we have already bound ourselves to conflict. If Ithe independent, autonomous Alanapproach another person, I do so not as a static rock, but with a lot of desires concerning my own well-being and the fulfillment of my happiness. And if the person whom I approach has a similar program, we have a conflict right from the start. If there is a whole room full of people, the problem increases proportionately.
We would be happier without that delusion, and insight is a way to cut right through it. It doesn't happen through faith in any dogma or belief system, but it is something we can know experientially without any shadow of a doubt. Insight is a mode of experience that cuts through the delusion incompatible with that experience, and the cutting edge of Buddhist practice in meditation is the cultivation of insight. What kind of insight? The emphasis is on realizing the nature of self. If we don't exist in autonomous, self-sufficient isolation, then how do we exist? And how can this become more than simply a philosophical conclusion? How does it become an insight?
We cultivate the insight through a very close inquiry into the nature of our own being and experience. Mindfulness is essential here. This careful exploration leads to a vivid, unmediated experience of phenomena: of our own mental states, our feelings and desires, our perception of our body and the environment. It leads to a realization that this "I" we have been clinging to for so long doesn't exist at all. It's not that we do not existthat would be a silly conclusionbut that this particular "I' that we sense as separate and autonomous is simply nonexistent. This little ego does not exist: the one that tries to be in charge and has a real hard time, the one that gets so fearful and tries to plug down its emotions. The sense of it definitely exists, most grossly when we feel egotistical or arrogant, but this sense has no more referent than if I truly believed I were Napoleon and expected everyone to salute me as such. The sense we have of our own selves is just as deluded, because there is no referent. The idea is to inquire carefully into our own experience, our own will, mental states, feelings, past history, future desires, our whole sense of who we areand see for ourselves whether there is any substantial referent to this sense of "I." And if we do realize that no such self exists, where are we then?
There is a story told of Tsongkhapa, who lived in fifteenth-century Tibet. He was teaching to a group of monks about just this understanding of the emptiness of ego, and among this group was a monk from the district of Narthang who was listening very attentively. Sometimes, if there is a certain rapport between teacher and student, it's possible that just hearing the words can have a very great power for transformation. Tsongkhapa was just homing in on his point, that the self as we sense it does not exist, when the monk suddenly grabbed his collar as if he'd been hit by a jolt of electricity. Tsongkhapa saw this gesture, picked the man out from the crowd, and said, "Aha, this fellow from Narthang has just established his conventional self on the basis of his collar." The story may date from the fifteenth century, but what happened to the monk is neither ancient history nor very exceptional. It is not uncommon, when you start meditating, to experience a sudden sense of disorientation that makes you grab for something to hold on to. This fellow found his collar. I remember a person who was meditating very earnestly and intently, under the guidance of quite a realized teacher, and had a very profound realization with a radical shift of experience. It scared the living daylights out of this individual, and the experience then became something that had to be repressed. We have enough trauma in our lives without seeking out spiritual experiences that we then need to repress.
When you perceive your very self as identitylessas an experience and not just as a philosophical positionthis realization can come as the most precious of all possible treasures, utterly transformative and beyond compare. Or instead, you may perceive it as a loss of the greatest of all possible treasures. To meditate arduously only to find that you have lost your most treasured possessionyour selfseems like time not very well spent. The difference in these two experiences is really a fork in the road, a sheep-and-goats division; and the difference depends on the context in which you perceive the realization. Some groundwork is needed to ensure that you can welcome and embrace deep insight when it occurs, so that it enriches your life rather than giving you a sense of existential impoverishment. We can help ourselves to move toward the more fruitful of these two directions by gradually loosening our grip on our separate and autonomous sense of "I," not just intellectually but in our emotional lives and the choices we make.
It also helps to develop a sense of ourselves in relationship to others. I am my parent's child, I am a spouse, I am a teacher, I am a student, I am in a community, I am interrelated. The patchwork quilt of who we are derives from many sources: what others have told us, how people respond to us, how we relate to solitude. Our very sense of who we are is itself a dependently related event. It is fairly easy to understand cerebrally that we exist in relation to others, but as we lead our lives and follow our aspirations, are we doing so as if our own well-being were totally unrelated to that of anyone else? If so, then we are living a fraud and our hearts don't know what our minds are saying. As we start to live with the sense not only that we exist in interrelationship, but that our very well-being exists only in relationship to other people, then "my well-being" simply becomes a mere convention. Insofar as this becomes real and not just an assertion, then our grip on our autonomous ego softens. And insofar as we take into account the well-being of others, their sorrows and joys, and the fact that every sentient being wishes for happiness just as we doinsofar as we start to live this, it becomes our reality. As William James said, "our belief and attention are the same fact. For the moment, what we attend to is reality...." The previous reality of "my" desires, "my" joys and sorrows, doesn't get snuffed. Rather, it becomes part of the larger family. It takes on a broader context.
Imagine really embodying this quality of attending carefully from the heart and mind to the well-being of others, even as we continue to attend to our own. This is not self-negation, but rather self-contextualization. Imagine living life as if we already knew that we exist in interrelationship, with this norm as a platform from which to seek a realization of the absence of our autonomous, controlling ego. The realization then becomes an affirmation of our way of life. The chances become better and better that the realization will entail finding the greatest treasure and not losing it.
There is another reason, too, for laying a strong foundation. In practicing any meditation designed to yield radically transforming insight, whether in the Vipassana, Zen, or Tibetan Buddhist traditions, it is possible to get tantalizing glimmers that drift away elusively. It's like smelling something wonderful cooking in the next room. You try to track it down, but you hardly catch a little taste before it flits off, because the mind is not stable enough to enter into the insight and rest in it. Again, some groundwork is needed before we can sustain our realizations so they are not reduced to mere episodes in memory. So many people have an experience of tremendous value, but they cannot get access to it again. A year goes by, ten years, twenty years; it fades. It's better than if it had never happened, but if it was worthwhile at all, how much better to enter into it repeatedly, deepen it, and let it saturate your experience.
If we want to enter into very deep realization and new modes of experience, we should be well equipped to do so with stability and continuity. Insofar as we can do this, the realization has the greatest possibility of saturating our experience, our beliefs, our emotions. If we can abide in such realization with continuity and clarity, it will be radically transformative. Otherwise it's merely a flirtation.
That is the reason, from the top down, why we would want to cultivate both quiescence and the Four Immeasurables. The cultivation of quiescence and the Four Immeasurables lays a foundation so that the experience of insight will be favorable, with a deeply transformative value. Insight practice alone might be adequate if we were living in complete isolation from the environment, but that is not true. We are already embodied as full participants in life, with all of its tremendous diversity and its vicissitudes. It is possible to do a meditation retreat with great sincerity, earnestness, and determination; to develop some degree of stability and vividness; and then coming from that experience, to engage with people once again with conflict and hostility, completely blowing away everything you have accomplished. All that effort is shattered with one burst of anger, let alone the machine-gun bursts of repeated anger, craving, and jealousy.
For better or worse, our spiritual practice takes place within the context of our life; and for better or worse, our life entails a lot more than formal spiritual practice. It entails having children, spouses, parents, jobs. The quality of our behavior can be very destructive, unraveling any progress we have made in our formal spiritual practice. The bedrock of our practice does not lie in any meditation technique; the bedrock is our lives. The quality of how we spend our waking, and even our sleeping hours needs to be a fertile ground, so that once we start to grow and mature in our practice, the roots can go deeper and the sprout can come to fruition.
THE FOUNDATION OF ETHICS
This approach to Buddhist practice is a three-tiered pyramid, with insight at the apex as the cutting edge. The second tier, which facilitates insight and makes it effective, is meditation practice, including quiescence and the Four Immeasurables. The first tier at ground level is ethical discipline: turning our way of life into a fertile ground for our other practices. We don't need to be perfect saints to make progress; that would be a Catch-22 situation, obviously. But there are some guidelines that can protect us.
It's so frustrating to invest time in your practice only to have it shattered. Tibetans have been joking about this for so long, sometimes laughing at themselves and sometimes at us. They have met truckloads of earnest Westerners coming to India and Nepal, or to Buddhist centers in this country, striving so diligently in meditation retreats. The Tibetans say it is as if they come in for a shower, bathe clean, then jump in the nearest mudhole and wallow in it. Then they rush back to the shower, into retreat again, then back to the goop in the mudhole, back and forth, again and again. They think it's funny because it doesn't work.
Spiritual practice, which is intended to remove suffering and to lead us to experience the glorious potential of the human spirit, is like the sprout of a little tree. When it's still very small, even a baby rabbit could come along and decapitate it. End of story. One future tree just bit the dust. You build a fence around it so the rabbits can't get to it. Later you may have to put up larger fences for the deer or the elephants. You build whatever fences you need to protect something that is terribly vulnerable and extraordinarily preciousyour happiness. Ethical discipline is really a way of protecting yourself so that your efforts in spiritual practice can flourish without getting stomped to smithereens every other day, or every other year.
The guidelines are fairly simple. If you only want one, instead of the 253 precepts that a monk takes on, avoid inflicting injury on yourself or others. We could stop right there. If you are imaginative, you can extrapolate all 253 from that one. There are ten, however, that are enormously helpful in a general way. The first three pertain to the physical body. Then there are four for speech, because we use speech an awful lot. And finally, three relate to the mind. Bear in mind that they are all a protection for your own well-being, in solitude or in community.
1. Avoiding killing, as far as possible. It's true that if we breathe or eat, we kill. At the very least, bacteria are getting knocked off. Being absolutely pure is an impossible notion, but we can be more pure than impure. We can inflict less killing rather than more.
2. Avoid sexual misconduct. This applies especially to adultery, but more generally to using the sexual domain as an area for inflicting injury.
3. Avoid taking what is not given.
4. Avoid lying. This is an obvious one: avoid consciously, intentionally deceiving others, leading them away from truth.
5. Avoid slander. Slander has nothing to do with whether the words are true or false. But if the motivation is to create divisions between people or provoke enmity, that's slander. If it's false, it's a lie too.
6. Avoid abuse. This has nothing to do with whether you are telling the truth or a falsehood. Speech can be completely true with no exaggeration at all, and still be entirely abuse. It has to do with motivation. Are we using our words as weapons to wound someone? If the motivation behind the words is to inflict injury, it is abuse.
7. Avoid idle gossip. This refers not to casual talkas if we were only supposed to speak about "Meaningful Things"but to speech that is motivated by craving, hostility, or other mental distortions. Idle gossip is pointless, but in a muted, gradual way it's also damaging. Tibetan teachers say that it's the least harmful of the ten nonvirtues, and the easiest way to waste a whole life.
8. Avoid malice, or ill will. This state of mind is so painful to experience, it's amazing that people ever indulge in it at all. It's like having a snake in your lap, or eating excrement. Why would we ever want to give it two seconds if we had noticed it in the first? It's terrible to wish another sentient being harm. Wishing them to suffer hurts us.
9. Avoid avarice. This is not just desire; if I'm thirsty I desire water, and that's fine. Avarice is craving for something that belongs to somebody else, not wanting them to have it because I want it.
10. Finally, avoid what are called false views. This refers not to doctrine, whether Buddhist, or Christian, or Hindu, or atheist, but to a mindset that denies fundamental truths. For example, a false view is the belief that our actions are inconsequentialthat it doesn't really matter how we behave because things are controlled by chance or by fate, so we may as well just get by and have a good time. That is totally false, but people believe it, to varying extents. They think we can act or speak in certain ways with no repercussions. To shift to Buddhist terminology, it would be a denial of the truth of karma. Karma means action, and the law of karma is that actions have results. To deny this is just a view, but a view that can modify an entire life.
These ten precepts are simple, but they can be followed, and they set up a foundation in which the rest of these sometimes exalted practices and transformations of experience can take place. Without these simple things, we are probably just building sandcastles.
It's interesting to note that they are all negative restraints: "Avoid this." It doesn't say be good, or tell the truth. The negative approach indicates the quality of protection. We have something very preciousour life, our mind, our buddha-nature, our goals and aspirationsand we want to protect these. By simply avoiding the ten nonvirtuous actions, you create a space for this little plant to grow. With this kind of protection, a little practice, a little concern, it grows into a redwood tree which after a while doesn't need any protection at all. It provides protection to other creatures. In this way, ethical discipline is temporary insofar as it requires effort. As our own potential becomes manifest, as the wholesome qualities become stronger, then discipline falls away, because the virtue of our own mind is then protecting itself. An enlightened being can be utterly spontaneous at all times, without any restraint at all.
In the meantime, if ill will or other afflictions arisesarcasm, cynicism, selfishness, pettinessideally we restrain them (contrary to some psychology that one hears). Sometimes the mind is dominated by such afflictions: they rush in and the mind takes on that flavor. Santideva, the very well known Indian bodhisattva of the eighth century, counsels us to pause and do nothing when we note that our minds are dominated by an affliction. He did not say repress it, or pretend it's not there. Just pause, be present, and wait until it passes. It's like falling into delirium. That's not the time to go out and buy a house, or get married. Pick another time, but not while you're delirious. While you're delirious you just stay in bed and wait until you get well. The restraint of not acting at that moment is a gift to everybody.
Simple restraint lays a foundation. But in and of itself, it will not suffice. Restraint does not mean eradication. Merely pausing is not to eradicate the problem in itself. It's like placing yourself in quarantine when you fall ill. The illness spreads: if I feel nasty, and I speak with nastiness, it's like a contagious disease. There may be some people who have a strong spiritual immune system, and they just say," Alan's being nasty, I hope he gets over it quite soon." Other people may not handle it so well, in which case it is infectious. I don't literally give it to them, but I provide a catalyst that sparks it. But to quarantine an individual or a group of people is not to heal them. It's a gift to everybody else, and it's a gift to those who are ill because they don't really want to spread it. Once you have applied the quarantine of ethics, something else is required for the cure.