Buddhism is practice

One thing all the great Buddhist masters both past and present have understood, is that reaping the full benefits of Buddhist teachings involves practice.

We might ask, what is meant by Buddhism? It’s simply the Western term we use for Buddha-dharma. And what does that mean? The teachings given by the historical Buddha. His take on things. His point of view. Philosophy. And so, to be a Buddhist is to be one who follows the teachings given by the Buddha.

First and foremost, the Buddha taught how to be in the present moment. This, he believed, was the key to transcending suffering because the present is where we suffer the most.

The past is gone: the future has not come. But whoever sees the Truth clearly in the present moment, and knows that which is unshakable, lives in a still, unmoving state of mind.

The Buddha, Bhaddekaratta Sutta

It’s not about stigmatizing people for what they do or don’t do, but at the same time, Buddhism is not Prof. Harold Hill’s Think System: “If you want to play the Minuet in G, think the Minuet in G.” You can think about becoming a Buddha all you want, but unless you do something, that’s as far as you’ll get. I don’t believe the Buddha cared to add yet another philosophy to the world’s storehouse. I believe he was more interested in offering a method for transcending suffering.

In general, we call the technique taught by the Buddha, meditation or spiritual practice. Specifically, the Buddha taught sati, “mindfulness”, or more formally Satipatthana, “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness.” The idea is to train your mind to be in the present moment.

This is too simple for some people who cannot resist the urge to over-intellectualize the teachings, often motivated by some ego-driven desire to claim that they have profound understandings that others don’t. Fortunately, for them, there are no shortage of weighty concepts to plummet the depths of, but in acutality, the Buddha’s core teachings are fairly simple. Buddha-dharma is meant to be grasped by everyone, not just those with learned minds.

This is not to say that being in the present moment is something easily achieved. Anyone can be “in the moment.” That’s not difficult. But The Buddha was pointing to a deeper sense of mindfulness. He was talking about an intuitive awareness that comes from some place beyond the surface consciousness, and he felt that one must train one’s mind in order to experience this true mindfulness.

The biggest challenge, which resists our capacity to understand with intellect alone, is to be able to carry mindfulness of the present moment over into daily life. This takes practice. Spiritual practice. It cannot come from merely thinking, reading and talking about dharma.

The great T’ien-t’ai master, Chih-i had this to say about the practice of Buddhism versus the study of it:

The practice of meditation alone, while wisdom is disregarded causes stupidity, and the practice of wisdom alone, while meditation is disregarded, causes infatuation . . . Thus, if meditation and wisdom are not in equal proportion, the practice is deficient.

Chih-i’s meditation techniques are generally categorized under the term chih-kuan, or stopping and seeing, which is the Chinese translation of samatha-vipasyana. In Japanese, shikan. It is based on Satipatthana, the foundation for all Buddhist meditation. Likewise, chih-kuan is the foundation for Zen’s zazen and shikan taza.

Today, Chih-i is under-appreciated.  He was one of the greatest philosophers to come after the Buddha, perhaps second only to Nagarjuna, his influence on the Ch’an/Zen school was considerable, and unlike Bodhidharma, there is no question of his historicity.

Here is a selection from the Moho Chih-kuan or “Great Stopping and Seeing”, based on Thomas Cleary’s translation (Stopping and Seeing: A Comprehensive Course in Buddhist Meditation). I think I have presented part of this before, but a really good teaching cannot be repeated too often:

Statue of T'ien-t'ai Chih-i

You cannot ascend to the stage of wondrous realization without practice. Only when you become skilled at churning, can you obtain ghee. The Lotus Sutra says, “Those who aspire to Buddhahood cultivate various practices.” There are many methods of practice . . . In general, we refer to them as ‘samadhis’, meaning that one thereby regulates, rectifies and calms the mind. Acarya Nagarjuna, in The Great Transcendent Wisdom Treatise, says, “Skillfully fixing the mind on one spot and not straying is called samadhi.” The Dharmadhatu [Dharma-realm] is ‘one spot.’  With true insight one is able to abide here without straying. In observing the mind and relying on [practice], one regulates and rectifies the mind. This is why we call them ‘samadhis’.

If one is constantly occupied by inner and outer hindrances that block proper mindfulness and they cannot be removed, one should recite the name of one Buddha, reproaching oneself and taking refuge in that Buddha . . . Why is this? It is similar to when people are happy or sad or depressed, they sing or cry or bemoan or laugh, and then they feel better. It is the same with a meditation practitioner. Breath and voice are physical activities, and they help to develop the mind to realize the inherent Buddha-nature  . . . when the mind is weak and one cannot remove the hindrances, chanting the name of a Buddha as a defense, can neutralize disturbing hindrances. If you have yet to grasp the essence of the teachings, ally yourself with the wise and put into practice what they teach you. In this way, you can enter samadhi with one practice, coming face to face with the Buddhas, and realizing the world of Buddhahood.

As for stopping and seeing [chih-kuan], by sitting upright and being mindful, one removes the veils of wrong concentration and does not engage in discursive thoughts. Do not let your mind wander, or cling to appearances. Single-pointedly focus on the Dharmadhatu. With a single thought on the Dharmadhatu, focusing  is then stopping, and seeing is one thought. When you understand that all dharmas are the Buddha’s teaching, before and after dissolve, and there are no more limits . . . one dwells where there is nothing to dwell on, just as Buddhas dwell, abiding in the silence of the Dharmadhatu. For this reason, you should not be afraid of this teaching.

Dharmadhatu is also called enlightenment, as well as the ‘inconceivable realm.’ It is also known as wisdom, for it is not becoming and not passing away. All phenomena are nothing other than Dharmadhatu. Do not let doubts arise while learning of this nondifference and nonduality.

If you can but understand in this manner . . . when one sees Buddha, one does not  think of Buddha as Buddha. There is no Buddha to be Buddha  . . . Seeing Buddha like this is very subtle. It is like space, it has no imperfection, and it promotes right mindfulness . . . Seeing Buddha is then like gazing into a mirror and seeing one’s own face.


3 thoughts on “Buddhism is practice

  1. If you accept the idea of the cycle of birth and death, then the face before you were born is reflected in your karma. The old saying goes, if you want to know your past, then look at the effects you are presently receiving and if you want to know your future, then look at the causes you are presently making.

    If you don’t accept the cycle of birth and death or karma, then there was nothing born you were born and will be nothing after you die.

  2. Great post. Would any word work equally well as a Buddha’s name for the chant?

    BTW I think the phrase is “plumb the depths”.

    1. Thank you. Personally, I feel that theoretically, any word will do. Some people might disagree with that. I feel what is more important than the word is the state of mind of the person reciting the word. What makes chanting a Buddha’s name or a mantra work is the meditative mind behind it.

      There are a couple of things to keep in mind, though. Words do have power. Some words are highly charged and can elicit intense feelings, such as the N-word. What make a word powerful in this way are the word associations. So if you chanted the name of someone you liked romantically or chanted “dog” or “cat” or made a mantra from commercial jingle, they might not work as well due to the associations the words carry. On the other hand, when you chant a Buddha’s name, you are working with associations that are more supportive to the kind of mind you are trying to cultivate.

      Now some mantras have no literal interpretation. Still, they are associated with awakening and compassion and other spiritual values. And sometimes, because they have no literal meaning and most of us have no associations to give the words whatsoever, they might be a bit more powerful. You can approached with a clean and clear mind.

      So, yes, I think any word will work, if you can recite it with the same spiritual spirit that you would a Buddha’s name or mantra. That, however, is not so easy and is something that a person who has practiced for many, many years might be able to pull off. I stick with the traditional ones myself.

      Plummet starts with a ‘p’, so I was close.

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