Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Nagavagga: Elephants

When I began reading the Nagavagga, my eyes started to go out of focus and roll into the back of my head. Reading Dhamma has that effect on me occasionally. I mean, even when ellipsis are used to remove the repetitive language in the suttas, they can still be a chore for me to read. Hey, I never said I was a perfect Buddhist, or even a slightly better than average Buddhist. Remember, I like to collect things, drink wine and have sex with men. So that’s like two out of the Five Precepts right there, plus I’m ignoring the concept of non-attachment because I collect books and compact discs.

And now that I’ve reached Chapter 23 of the Dhammapada, I’m kinda running out of steam here. I’m beginning to sense the creeping approach of insincerity in my writing. But I can't give in now, I mean, after the Nagavagga, I only have four more to go! So I refocus my eyes and read the verses again. I don’t know a lot about elephants. And besides, I don’t have any photos of elephants. You’d think out of all those trips to Asia I would take at least one photo of an elephant. It’s not like I didn’t see any.

Anyway, that’s when the following set of verses grab my attention.

“If you gain a mature companion —
a fellow traveler, right-living, enlightened —
overcoming all dangers
go with him, gratified,

If you don’t gain a mature companion —
a fellow traveler, right-living, enlightened —
go alone
like a king renouncing his kingdom,
like the elephant in the Matanga wilds,
his herd.

Going alone is better,
There’s no companionship with a fool.
Go alone,
doing no evil, at peace,
like the elephant in the Matanga wilds.”

I can relate to this notion of going alone on many different levels. For example, there has been some discussion among the Buddhist bloggers I read recently about the value of having a teacher as well as the difficulty in finding one. And I don’t necessarily mean finding a good one, but being able to find any teacher within a 50 or 100 mile drive.

I was fortunate in that I found a good teacher who gave me a solid grounding in the Dhamma. I went to the Dhamma classes regularly, attended the guided meditation sessions regularly, and I went to the ceremonies too. I made my meager contributions to help the dhammasala’s financial health, as well as lent my sweat to help build a new meditation hall as well as repair a collapsed deck.

But now I am without a formal teacher, and the reality is that it hasn’t bothered me all that much. Granted, my practice lapsed, and frankly sucks for the time being. But I’m rebuilding my habits.

What these verses revealed to me was just how picky I’ve been about finding another teacher or another sangha on the one hand, and the overall disinclination I’ve had at bothering to seek one out. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing, because as these verses point out, it’s better to go alone than to hitch yourself up with a bad teacher.

You’d think living in Chicago there would be a plethora of teachers. Well, there are a lot of them. But I’m just not feeling that push yet to really go out and meet any of them. I have no doubt the time will come. For the time being, however, I am content to go it alone, doing no evil, and finding peace.

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