Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Evolution and Buddhahood

Let no one suppose that evolution will ever exempt us from struggles. 'You forget,' said the Devil, with a chuckle, 'that I have been evolving too.'
— William Ralph Inge

When I read about the stages of practice and buddhahood in Tibetan texts, I come away with the sense that there is some ideal state to which all paths of practice converge. One finds elaborate descriptions of various stages, culminating in the final attainment of buddhahood. At the same time, I haven't seen any evidence for such a convergence, whether in the various teachers with whom I've studied, my own practice, or the countless hours I've spent with students.

Instead, I've come to appreciate that things just evolve. What went before shapes what follows. One can often and easily trace how a person's way of experiencing life has evolved out of family and childhood experiences. At the same time, something new and unsuspected can arise at any time. Education, social interactions, finding a life partner and other events introduce different strands that mix with what is already there and influence the way we develop. It's rich, it's complex, it can be utterly amazing, and it can be utterly dismaying. Sometimes what happens is all too predictable and sometimes it's completely unexpected.

The Middle Way, not falling into extremes, captures, very simply and very wonderfully, this complexity. We are not just body or just mind; things are neither ordered nor chaotic; the universe is neither one nor many, and so on.

The implications for practice are profound. Systems of practice such as the Path of Purity in the Theravadan tradition or the Graded Path texts in the Tibetan traditition lay out stages of development, types of practitioners, what practices are suitable for whom and when. These are extraordinary collections of the wisdom and experience of masters over the ages, but we can easily feel that something is wrong with us if we don't recognize our experience or can't fit ourselves into those descriptions.

We need to remember one thing: there is no such thing as normal. Normality is an average and no one is actually the average. All classification schemata are after the fact, seeking to ascribe an order to the chaos and complexity of evolution. Such schemata necessarily average things, but there are always aspects of experience that don't fit or lie at one or other extreme of the bell curve.

There are general principles in spiritual practice, just as there are general principles in evolution theory. But each plant, each organism grows its own way, and we need to respect that we, too, will grow our own way.

The Buddhist concept of causality reflects this sense of evolution. It's based on the notions of genesis and conditions. Just as an acorn is the genesis of an oak tree, the genesis of awakening in us is the very awareness that is present in experience. Just as an acorn requires water, warmth, nourishment, and shelter to begin its evolution into an oak tree, we need to provide the conditions for attention, awareness, and presence to grow and evolve in our own lives.

And how we evolve is how we evolve.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

...somewhere behind the most universal comprehension there must be an individual mind...
Clive James, Cultural Amnesia, page 508

We generally think of spiritual practice, and the training it involves, as something we learn from a teacher, a community or a tradition, or some combination of these three. We study texts and teachings. We are taught the particulars of practice, or a particular practice, from someone who is familiar or at least knowledgeable. Our study often includes stories about the struggles, experience, and achievements of others, usually the more famous, the more remarkable, or the more articulate. We are exposed to systems of discipline, systems of practice methods, and systems of philosophy. Our teacher or teachers may require, or we may choose, to discuss our experience with them, formally or informally, and we receive feedback, guidance, suggestions, cautions, etc.

We feel that we are becoming part of something and often forget that every spiritual practice, every teaching, every discourse or explanation began with ONE person's need to come to terms with his or her own experience. It is what worked for him or her, and his experience and understanding is what is being passed down to us.

The task, for each of us, is to ask, "Does this help me to resolve my own questions?"

One way to start is to ask, "For what question about the experience of life is this teaching an answer?" — a spiritual version of Jeopardy, if you wish.

We can begin with the usual suspects, basic meditation, death and impermanence, karma, and then move on to more subtle ones, such as bodhicitta (awakening mind), the two truths (apparent and ultimate), the two kinds of non-self (individual and experience), etc. Rather than give you my thoughts, please add your thoughts about these questions in the comments below.

We generally find that the questions we come up with are universal questions, in the sense that they have been asked for as long as history records (and probably longer). Each of the practices and teachings is how one person came to terms with that question. Maybe others find his or her answer or way of answering helpful, but not everyone, as we have so many different approaches.

The other day I watched Bab Aziz: the prince who contemplated his soul. It's a beautiful movie about a Sufi wandering in the desert with his grand-daughter. The movie opens with this quotation:

There are as many ways to God as there are souls on the earth.

And that is where I close.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Is your hair on fire?

Practice like your hair is on fire!

A traditional aphorism, which probably goes back to Buddhism in India. Gelek Rinpoche makes it the theme of his recent article in Buddhadharma. And it shows up in the Zen tradition and elsewhere.

One meaning, obviously, is to make full use of this fleeting human experience to wake up. But there are two assumptions here: the experience of being human is but one of many and waking up is the highest purpose of life.

How do approach practice if you don't buy one or other of these assumptions?

Another interpretation is that this phrase expresses the kind of totally awake clarity that one is aiming for in practice. Again, there is an assumption, namely, that this level of attention is to be sustained for long periods, if not indefinitely.

What happens to a person who is not able to sustain such a level of attention but tries to do so anyway? Frequently, he or she tries harder and harder, growing tighter and tighter, moving further and further out of the balance and rest in which clarity and freedom arise. Eventually, he or she is forced to rest, and then something quite different happens. This recognition can, as it did for Buddha Shakyamuni, lead in a very different direction. Or, a student, broken in body and heart, can just give up, and lapse into a cynical view of spiritual practice.

In traditional settings, students, by and large, had access only to instruction appropriate to their level of ability and practice. Often, students had to be encouraged to practice what they were given.

In today's world, we have access to practice instructions at every level. This access creates a different kind of problem, how to know what practice is appropriate for one's level of understanding, ability, and interest. Anyone who has practiced for any length of time knows that what works at one phase of practice may be counterproductive at another.

The consequence is that, ultimately, we have to take responsibility in determining what to practice when and how to practice it.

So, I put the question very simply: is practicing like your hair is on fire a good way for you to practice?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

reference and loneliness

The person without a range of reference is not more authentically human for being so. He is just more alone.
— Clive James, Cultural Amnesia, pg. 391

I picked this book up out of curiosity. In this instance, the curiosity has paid of manifold, for this rich, textured book contains fascinating accounts, observations, and insights into the lives and works of many who formed and shaped our cultural heritage, from Keats to Einstein, from Trotsky to Tacitus, both the famous and, at least for me, the obscure. An added bonus is James' writing style, a marvel of depth, beauty and simplicity on complex and often controversial topics.

This quotation struck me in light of the weight placed on no reference in Buddhist practice, e.g., non-referential awareness, or non-referential compassion. One may perhaps object that the word reference is being used in two different ways, but what happens if what if one considers that there may be something in common in the two phrases awareness that has no reference and the person without a range of reference?

In either case, one has a sense of open space, infinite, without center or circumference, a feeling that reminds me of the location in north-eastern New Mexico where I've taught retreats for the last few years, right at the edge of the Great Plains, where heaven and earth are somehow joined in the dusty blue of a distant horizon. When I walk out into the plains, there is no reference. One is completely alone, and, ironically, the very experience of aloneness is a reminder that this thing we call life consists of precisely of physical, emotional, and mental sensations arising from our interaction with the world around us.

To have no range of reference is to cut oneself off from life.

In an odd way, this quotation embodies the two most salient aspects of human experience: we have no idea what this experience is, yet we meet and respond (or react) to what arises in every moment of our lives.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Awakening? Peace? Truth? Freedom?

All that is conditioned is impermanent.
All emotional reactions are suffering.
All experience is empty.
To go beyond misery is peace.

The four seals, as these four lines are called, make it clear that the aim of Buddhist practice is peace. It is the end of suffering.

A prevailing myth in Western Buddhism is the maxim "know ye the truth, and the truth will make you free". This misleading Christian myth (John 8:32) can, perhaps, be laid at the door of Socrates and his followers. They envisioned an ideal world of forms in which beauty, goodness, and truth were one and the same. This sentiment has, in our age, led people to ignore the fact that the various values of a democratic society — equality, justice, freedom, etc. — often conflict with one another.

The myth is deeply embedded in the Western thought and, inevitably, has insinuated itself into Buddhist thinking in Western societies.

What leads one to embark on Buddhist practice? There is only one answer: a mind (or heart) that is not at peace. One may call the aim awakening, or freedom, or presence, but these are all misleading terms, each of them implicitly suggesting a "higher" or "truer" way of living, or being, or whatever.

We cannot know what is true. As Chuang Tzu says, "How do I know I'm not a butterfly dreaming that I'm Chuang Tzu?"

Awakening? The best we can do, as Wittgenstein said, is to awaken to the understanding that we are asleep and dreaming.

Freedom? The more clearly one sees things, the less choice one has. The illusion of choice is actually an indication of a lack of freedom.

Presence? When I say that I am present in a situation, I mean that I am not being distracted or torn apart by internal or external tensions, in other words, a kind of peace, no?

If you look at the actual experience that these terms refer to, you find peace, peace from the tension of not knowing what experience is, peace from the tension of feeling bound and conditioned, peace from the tension between subject and object, etc.