Friday, August 6, 2010

Buddhism 1-2-3

Expanding upon my previous post – on how we can overdo our practice, particularly when we’re a new convert – I began recalling something my original teacher said one time. Whenever I feel like my practice is losing focus, I return to his simile of the three-legged stool.

I’m sure my teacher hadn’t originated this simile. The essence of this image can be found in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s writings, and that of Thanissaro Bhikkhu as well. But its simplistic beauty is worth sharing, because it had a profound impact on my practice.

Because, you see, Buddhism in America tends to attract intellectual types, and intellectual types tend to over-think just about everything. And when it comes to Buddhism, well, their seemingly erotic fascination with esoteric passages and the nuances of the Pali language often comes off as if they were preparing a dissertation on what the Jhanas symbolize within 21st Century life for the North American heterosexual male.

Sheesh. It’s just Buddhism folks. Yes, it’s profound; yes, it can radically change your life; yes, it can lead you to a sense of happiness unlike anything you can think of or anticipate – but it doesn’t require you to stand on your head while chanting an archaic language from memorized texts in an effort to subtly dissect the mind into its components parts, if there are any component parts to begin with.

All Buddhism requires of you is to be fully aware of what you are doing right now, and understand the consequences of those actions, because out of what happens right now your future arises.

It’s your movie; it wasn’t written for you; you write it as you go along.

Enlightenment doesn’t just magically happen because you belong to the right temple and chant all the right words with all your heart until your voice feels raspy and weak. Enlightenment is not delivered by Santa Claus because you’ve been a good boy or girl and followed all the precepts by rote without a shred of comprehension about what the precepts mean. Shit, happiness doesn’t even come that way. Skip the enlightenment part – how many of us are really invested in achieving total release? Come on, anyone out there? If you are, then you are wasting your freaking time reading this blog or anyone else’s blog.

I want to be a good person. I want to be beneficial to others. I want to avoid actions that harm others. I want to be happy. And when I die, I want it to be without fear.

What about you?

What my practice has taught me is that over-intellectualizing hides the truth. Buddhism will reveal the truth – if you let it. But to have that happen, keep it simple; which brings me back to my teacher’s simile of the three-legged stool.

There are three parts to a successful Buddhist practice: Sila, or virtue; Samadhi, or concentration; and Panna, or wisdom. Now think of each of these three parts as a leg on a stool. If each leg is the same length, then the seat of the stool – that’s you – is level and useful for comfortable sitting. When you sit on such a stool, it is stable and you feel secure, comfortable; you are so comfortable that you can do other things while sitting on that stool without ever thinking about whether it might tip over or you might fall off.

In other words, you are safe to be around.

Given that image, imagine what that stool might look like if all you do is read the suttas. You’ll be able to quote the Buddha like some Bible thumping idiot on a city street corner, but you won’t have a clue as to why people don’t like you. Or if all you do is meditate. You’ll have one hell of a tranquil mind, but you won’t be using its potential; when people go to a dictionary and look up the word “boring,” your photo will be there as the definition. Or if all you do is follow the precepts. You’ll be one unhappy celibate sonofabitch with spiders and cockroaches and rats all over your house, wishing you could join your friends for a beer now and then (I will spare all your delicate sensibilities about the sex part, but let me assure you, it ain’t pretty).

Yet, I’ve met people who I can quickly tell either do nothing but meditate, or do nothing but read the suttas, or who do nothing but blindly follow the precepts and then criticize everyone else for not following them. In fact, that was one of my turn-offs about Zen Buddhism; almost every Zennie I met did nothing but meditate and enthusiastically proclaimed that they needn’t do anything else. I can happily say that my respect for Zen has been enhanced by many of the Zennies you can find in my blog roll.

To be able to develop wisdom, you need to know the Buddha’s teachings; but before you are able to really grasp the teachings, you must develop your concentration through meditation so that your mind is focused; but to effectively develop a focused mind, you must follow the precepts to develop the virtue necessary to have a mind filled with ease, knowing you haven’t done something to bring about bad kamma; but to properly follow the precepts, you must have the wisdom to understand what they mean and how to apply them in your life; but to have that wisdom, you need to know what the Buddha taught and ….

Wisdom is knowing what is worthy of your mind’s attention, not memorization; concentration is having the ability to use your mind to investigate the way things really are, not how you think they are; and virtue is having compassion toward others by developing the Right Actions that lead you to be harmless, not refraining from an action because someone said it is wrong.

When my teacher shared this, my brain was like – duh! This led me to attending the weekly guided meditation sessions he conducted, and to me setting aside 20 minutes every day for meditation at home. It led to me attending his weekly Dhamma class when we methodically went through the suttas and talked about what they meant in today’s world. I still read the suttas over and over. And it led me to come to the dhammasala to work. I helped build the new meditation hall, helped set up and clean up before and after special occasions, and I also started hosting Dhamma study sessions at the library in the town where I lived, because the dhammasala I was attending was a 90-minute drive away and I could only go once a week, sometimes twice if I was fortunate.

That was 10 years ago. And for the most part, that remains my practice today. Am I successful? Depends on your measure. Am I happy? You betcha, but that also depends on how you measure happiness. Am I happy that my partner Benny had to leave the country to go back to Hong Kong? No. Am I happy about the fact I don’t know when or if we’ll ever be together again? No.

But am I happy that today I know my actions were honorable, beneficial and compassionate?

You betcha.

Love you Benny.

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