Thursday, December 31, 2009

Cultural baggage, or Dhamma for the body?

When Westerners first encounter Buddhism in practice, some are a bit put off. Encountering Buddhism as a philosophy and a dogma is one thing, but Buddhism is more than just the Four Noble Truths. It is a practice, and as that term implies, practice makes perfect.

For example, some think of the aƱjali (placing the palms of the hands together and raising them to about the height of your heart) as too closely resembling what monotheistic people do when they pray. And the bowing, or the three prostrations that are so common with Buddhism, is a bit much as well for Westerners new to the Dhamma. While we all came to Buddhism for a variety of reasons, I think we all share an important characteristic of being, at the least, skeptical of there being a creator god in charge of everything. All this bowing and holding hands like a bunch of Carmelite Nuns can strike us as being too much like the religious hegemony we were leaving behind.

And then there’s all that burning of joss sticks, waving plumes of incense all about as though we just bought ourselves a New Age tiara and are preparing for another harmonic convergence. We light candles with such frequency that some might think we belong to a sect that is monitored by a group of mystical lesbians. Either that or we’re really cheap and don’t want to pay for the electricity to illuminate a lamp.

Some have called all this “cultural baggage,” a sort of ethnocentric superfluity of dramatic gestures that could just as easily be cast off as so much flotsam and jetsam. But the fact is that what’s perceived as mystical ballast plays an important role in the practice. Consider what Bhikkhu Khantipalo says about these “gestures of respect.”

“Dhamma is the way for training mind, speech and body. But the Buddha dhamma is sometimes regarded in a way which is too intellectual and theoretical so that there is a danger that it is not practiced as a way of training. To help with the training of the body there are various gestures which are expressions of one’s confidence in and reverence for the three Treasures. These actions when performed with due mindfulness are wholesome kamma made by way of the body. Repeated frequently they become habitual bodily kamma and it is good to have the habit of reverence as part of one’s character.”

Respectful is as respectful does.

The Buddha teaches that we create kamma three different ways: through mind, speech and body. We meditate to development mindfulness, which is essentially control over our mind, giving it focus so that we can have our mind attend to appropriate activities. We develop this finely focused mind so that we speak and behave skillfully as well, because we create kamma with our speech and actions. When we stop making kamma, we are free. Meditation trains our mind; performing these gestures trains our body.

So the next time you sit for meditation, be aware of your posture; when you bring your hands together, be aware of how you hold them; when you do the prostrations, do them deliberately and with full awareness of what your body is doing; and when you light the candles, make sure you blow them out before you leave the room. We don’t need to start any fires.

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