Saturday, October 3, 2009

Why bother? Because I must

A couple very relevant issues are being discussed by a few of my favorite bloggers. They are relevant topics because they go to the heart of the Buddha’s teachings. But I wonder whether the questions being asked are the right questions, the skillful questions.

Over at Angry Asian Buddhist, I was made aware of another blogger at Hardcore Zen, who deigns to address a very buggy problem that we all face: how do we find perfection when it seems that every teacher we encounter is imperfect? I’m not a Zen practitioner, but Brad Warner’s answer to this question hits on the basic element in this problem: Our initial desire to seek perfection becomes a delusion because we expect to find it outside of ourselves in a teacher.

And what happens when we place our goal – the insight of a perfected mind – outside of ourselves, dependent on a teacher? We have set ourselves up for disappointment because, as Warner reveals, our teachers are human and being human, are imperfect.

Think about this: would you know an enlightened being if you encountered one?

Nathan over at Dangerous Harvests, sharing his reaction to Warner’s post, touches upon something that Warner alludes to, but doesn’t explicitly state, and that is the pitfall inherent in pinning one’s practice on obtaining wisdom from another person at the expense of studying the Dhamma. Having a teacher is certainly important, but there is a great deal one can learn from simply reading and contemplating the suttas in the Tipitika.

When I first “became a Buddhist,” I went to a monk who conducted Dhamma classes and guided meditation sessions. From him I learned how to read the Tipitika and apply the Buddha’s teachings in my life. I learned from him that the purpose of meditation was to gain control of my monkey mind so that I would be able to focus it on appropriate subjects. That basic guidance I received from this teacher I have carried with me as my practice is now largely on my own. The skills I learned from him I apply when I read the Tipitika and when I sit. Because my ability to achieve wisdom and understanding, to behave appropriately and not cause harm to others is entirely my responsibility.

How many of you still follow your kindergarten teacher around? And yet, some of the most basic lessons we learned from him or her are still with us, are they not?

If I were to stand in a room filled with people who identify as practicing Buddhists and I asked everyone this simple question – how many of you critically evaluate each and every action to determine whether you ought to continue with it – my response would hardly be different from the rest. Because I do not critically evaluate every action, every thought, every word, to determine whether it is skillful and will bring me good results. There are times I have the presence of mind to do this, but it is uncommon.

And yet, this is a basic practice in the Buddha’s teaching, so basic that he taught this to his son Rahula, who was a young child at the time. Failure to implement the Buddha’s teaching to Rahula in our daily life means we will fail in our meditation. That’s because while the practice of meditation is essential to our practice as Buddhists, it’s not the only thing we need to do.

Why do I meditate? Because I must. But my meditation is only a third of my practice. My imperfect teacher pointed out to me that my Buddhist practice can be pictured as a three-legged stool. The three legs of the stool are Virtue (Sila), Concentration (Samadhi), and Wisdom (Panna). I develop a concentrated mind through meditation, but my mind is so easily distracted because I don’t have the wisdom to always know what are appropriate subjects for me to attend to and because I’m not always behaving skillfully. To become more skillful, I need to develop appropriate virtue, but that also requires wisdom. After all, being gay means there are many things about my life that other may deem immoral, but are in fact skillful. And to develop that wisdom, I need to develop my concentration through meditation so I can focus my mind on the right things.

So everything is dependent on everything else. My teacher taught me that. But only I can sort through it all.


  1. You might enjoy The Spirituality Of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning. It's one of my favorite books on this subject, and it includes wisdom from a variety of traditions including several Buddhist lineages.

    Thank you for this thoughtful post.

  2. "How many of you still follow your kindergarten teacher around? And yet, some of the most basic lessons we learned from him or her are still with us, are they not?" I think these are important questions. And I cannot help of think of all those old monks, and also the ones today that live in places like the mountains of China, who spent a little time with a teacher and then went off on their own.

    Makes me wonder if some of this obsession with teacher-student relationships isn't a playing out of our own cultural baggage around growing up and standing on our own two feet in an authentic way.

  3. Nothing and no one is perfect.
    (Expecially my English).


  4. Saw your comment in S.Dhammika's blog on the subject of Jesus in India. Was glad to discover that I was not the only person who had found the connection between the Jesus teaching (especially as given in St Thomas' gospel) and Buddhism. You mention the book in your comment. Could you give the name and place of the publisher and the year. I'd like to obtain it.
    On the question of teachers and students. It depends on how prepared one is for the Teaching. In former lives. :) I badly needed a teacher's help only once and went to retreat with Ajaan Sumedho. And just one piece of advice helped me reach the state of deep peace and clarity which changed my life in so many ways. And stopped me asking many of your questions. :)