Saturday, October 25, 2008

Success in practice?

But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.
— Plenty Coups, Crow Chief

Meaning in life is contingent upon the context in which we live our lives. A meaningful act in one context may not have any meaning in another. This was the dilemma the Crow faced when they had to give up their nomadic life and move to reservations. The actions that defined a warrior — horse-stealing, war, planting a coup stick, making an opposing tribe recognize the boundary of one’s range — no longer had meaning. It was not that one had failed at these actions. These actions had lost any sense of significance.

Such a shift is hard for most of us to imagine, yet, in both social and spiritual matters, we have definite notions of success and failure, of what gives meaning to life.

Socially, we usually define success in terms of happiness, prosperity, reputation, and respect.

What does it mean to “be successful” in one’s spiritual practice? Some might say it means to be awake, to be present. Others might say it means to have passed on faithfully the teachings, practices, understanding, experience, and rituals one received. Others might say it means to have developed a body of teaching and transmitted to a group of students who will transmit it in turn. Still others might say that it means to have lived one’s life without regret.

Is success the same in Zen, Theravadan, or Tibetan Buddhism, or are there differences? What about Buddhism as it is practiced in the West?

Spiritual practice, on the other hand, is concerned with the life we actually experience, the life that consists only of thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and the awareness in which these arise. In this life, what constitutes success or failure.

This is the parallel with Plenty Coups summation of what happened to the Crow. There is an important difference. The Crow did not seek the end of their life as they knew it. It was imposed upon them by the invasion of their territory by a materially more powerful people who had a different view and understanding of life. In spiritual practice, however, we intentionally seek to uncover the knowing in which our life as we know it comes to an end.