Like the Flow of a River

The meditation practiced by most people these days, known as “mindfulness,” is very simple and to some extent easy. I’ve always found that the real challenge is being consistent. Too often I approach my morning meditation with a begrudging attitude, as if the practice were something imposed on me, instead of something about which I should have a sense of eagerness.

A Buddhist teacher once gave a talk, and when he was finished he asked the people gathered around what they “practiced out of,” meaning what was their motivation for practice. He went around the room and received various answers and then came to the last person, a Japanese-American man. The teacher said to him, “Well, what do you practice out of?”

“Desperation?”

“No! Joy! You should practice out of great joy!”

The teacher was right. We should approach our practice with joy, and appreciation. It is truly a wonderful thing that we have this great tool for transformation. When I win over my begrudging attitude, I can feel how appreciation is the key that opens the door to enthusiasm. And then, it’s much easier to carry that enthusiasm over into my daily life and cultivate a genuine joy for living.

To sit and meditate is relatively easy. Joy, appreciation, and the rest of it is challenging. At least that has been my experience.

The late Geshe Gyeltsen (1923-2009), the marvelous Tibetan lama and human rights activist who founded the Thubten Dhargye Ling (“Land of Flourishing Dharma”) center in Long Beach, CA, wrote in his book Mirror of Wisdom,

Geshe Gyeltsen
Geshe Gyeltsen

The great Indian master, Chandrakirti, says that all kinds of accomplishments follow from diligence, consistency and enthusiasm. If we apply ourselves correctly to the proper practice we will eventually reach our destination. He says that if we don’t have constant enthusiasm, even if we are very intelligent we are not going to achieve very much. Intelligence is like a drawing made on water but constant enthusiasm in our practice is like a carving made in rock—it remains for a much longer time.

So, whatever practice each of us does, big or small, if we do it consistently, over the course of time we will find great progress within ourselves. One of the examples used in Buddhist literature is that our enthusiasm should be constant, like the flow of a river.”

The river represents flowing water, which in turn is a symbol for continuity and consistency. Rivers flow freely. When they meet obstacles such as rocks, water flows over them and keeps flowing. Eventually, it wears away the rocks.

In this manner, water can be hard, but as it says in the Tao Te Ching, nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. The takeaway here is that enthusiasm should not be forced, it must come naturally. Practice, too, should not be too hard or rigid. And yet, one thing I have learned in my 30 years as a Buddhist, is that those times when you want to practice the least is usually when you really need to practice the most.

To have a practice that flows like a river is to find the middle way.

Many, many years ago in New Orleans, long before they built the Riverfront up, I used to sit on the rocks beneath the Café du Monde, the legendary coffeehouse that serves beignets and coffee with chicory, and I would watch the water of the Mississippi River flow past the city, moving down toward the Gulf of Mexico. I was enthralled with the way that muddy water never stopped flowing, how it was ever constant. Of course, all rivers are like that, but there is something different about the Mississippi, perhaps because it’s so wide . . . and it just keeps moving, and you wonder how long has it been like that, how long will it continue . . . it makes you feel like you’re in the presence of eternity.

Did you ever stand and shiver,
Just because you were lookin’ at a river?

– Ramblin’ Jack Elliott singing about the Mississippi in “912 Greens”

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Bhavana: Development

Walpola Rahula (1907–1997) was a Sri Lankan Buddhist bhikkhu, scholar and writer. When he became the Professor of History and Religions at Northwestern University in 1964, he also became the first bhikkhu to hold a professorship in the West. His introduction to Buddhism, What the Buddha Taught, is considered a modern Buddhist classic. In the book, Rahula writes,

The word meditation is a very poor substitute for the original term bhavana, which means ‘culture’ or ‘development’, i.e., mental culture or mental development.” [1]

I think Rhaula’s statement would also apply to the word “mindfulness.”

I don’t know what Rahula means by “original term,” but I do recall either reading or hearing that bhavana was the term most often used by the historical Buddha in reference to meditative discipline. According to Alan Sponberg, the term is “certainly the broadest in its semantic range.” [2]

Rahula called bhavana “mental culture.” Amadeo Sole-Leris wrote that bhavana is “to cultivate and develop the vast potential of the mind in order to overcome the unsatisfactory nature of the internal and external circumstances in which we find ourselves.” [3]   Someone else (I don’t remember who) called it “creative control of the mind.”

I like the word development because I feel it accurately describes the process. In Buddhist practice we develop our innate potential for well-being and happiness. We can also say that bhavana in all its various forms is a system for training the mind. Buddhism teaches that an undisciplined mind is disturbed by circumstances such as gain or by loss, comfort or hardship, and is attached to transient things, all of which invites suffering. We want to train the mind so that we can learn better how to use reason and wisdom to deal with life’s challenges, and so we can break the habit of seizing and clinging, and this brings freedom from suffering, insofar as we can accept sufferings as they come without losing inner peace.

The wild, untrained mind that we often dub “monkey mind,” can be pacified, the restless monkey brought under control. However, if we limit the broad range of practice bhavana covers to only the mind, then it is a poor substitute for what the Buddha taught.

What the Buddha sought to achieve personally was nothing less than total transformation of his entire being. That meant body as well as mind. I wonder if sometimes we don’t tend to focus on the mental health aspect of meditation and mindfulness and neglect the physical health side. Gautama Shakyamuni was called the Great Physician and his teachings the King of Medicines, not only for his psychology of mind. After the Buddha’s passing, a great tradition of healer-monks emerged, and this tradition is still upheld today in the system of Tibetan Medicine and healing.

Here is a wonderful explanation on the relationship between mind, body, and bhavana from Tulku Trondup, a prominent teaching in the area of Buddhist healing, that I found in his book Boundless Healing:

Mind and body are intimately connected, and the relationship of mind to body in meditation is very interesting. When we see the body as peaceful and beautiful, who or what is creating these feelings? The mind is. By creating peaceful feelings in the body, the mind is absorbed in those feelings. So although the body is the object to be healed, it also becomes the means of healing the mind – which is the ultimate goal of meditation.” [4]

– – – – – – – – – –

[1] Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press, 1974, 68

[2] Alan Sponberg, “Meditation in Fa-hsiang Buddhism”, Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism, Ed. Peter N. Gregory, University of Hawaii Press, 1986, 19

[3] Amadeo Sole-Leris, Tranquility and Insight An Introduction to the Oldest Form of Buddhist Meditation, Shambhala, 1986, 21

[4] Tulku Thondup, Boundless Healing Meditation Exercises to Enlighten the Mind and Heal the Body, Shambhala, 2000, 12

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Mindfulness Can Cure the Dreaded Berry Berry Disease (and Cooties)

Unlike some folks, I like the idea of corporate mindfulness.  Anything that helps foster more responsible capitalism should be encouraged. Take Forbes, for instance. A business publication founded back in 1917. They’ve jumped on the Mindfulness bandwagon. Just in the last month they’ve published articles such as Does Practicing Mindfulness Really Make For More Effective Leadership?, Meditation Isn’t Just Mind Medicine, It’s Also Good For Your Heart, and The Mindfulness Craze.

Speaking of the Mindfulness craze, I’m just wondering . . . Are you having a mindful day? Did you know that mindful meals are healthier? Are you running mindfully or practicing mindful walking? Do you know how to conduct a mindful job search?  Or, if you are already employed, are you being a mindful employee? Are you a parent? Do you know about mindful parenting? Do you have the mindfulness app for your Smartphone or iPhone?

mindfully

I could go on and on . . . and on!

You know what I find truly irritating? It’s when people use the term “mindful meditation,” for if “mindful” meant exactly what it is supposed to mean, then I think “mindful meditation” would be redundant. Wouldn’t it?

So, this begs the question, are we using mindful/mindfulness properly? In the proper context? One thing I know – we sure as hell are overusing it.

Mindfulness stands for the Pali word sati and the Sanskirt smrti, both of which mean “memory,” “recollection,” “remembering.” These terms signify the recalling of past events, which is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve with meditation. An instruction that I’ve often given, one I borrowed from Thich Nhat Hanh I think, is to sit with “no thought of the past, no anticipation of the future, just be in the now.”

Buddhist scholar John Dunne says “It is not really about memory in any very direct way; it is really the facet of mind that keeps the mind from wandering.” The Buddha used the word sati/smrti in the sense of “moment-to-moment awareness of present events.”

How did we get started with mindfulness in the first place? In 1881, T.W. Rhys Davids was the first to use “mindfulness” in his translations of suttas from the Digha and Majjhima Nikayas. It’s all his fault.

When we meditate we are trying to be mindful of the “present moment,” to use another term we’ve beaten to death like a dead horse. (?)

But, the real point I’d like to make is – oops, sorry, have to save it for another post. The mindfulness app on my phone just went off. Gentle bells alerting me it is time to be mindful . . . Oh joy, joy. I feel so special being ever so mindfully mindful.

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Seeing

Today marks the 31st anniversary of the day I accepted the Precepts and officially became a Buddhist. Then, I was full of answers. Now, full of questions. I question, for instance, if it is necessary to become a “Buddhist.” I question the doctrines of karma and rebirth. And yet, I cannot help leaning toward a sort of Buddhist exceptionalism, and I am waiting, like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for a rebirth of wonder.

During these 31 years I have been dedicated to a meditative practice, be it mantra or meditation, or both. I have been dedicated but not consistent. I am sure there are many meditation teachers who have nearly perfect practices. I am not one of them. I am too busy trying to be human to be perfect.

I don’t know how many of you practice meditation. I wouldn’t say that meditation is for everyone, unless they are Buddhist. Buddhism is a philosophy but more than that it is about the process of awakening, which is nearly impossible to describe, and according to Buddhism, impossible to undertake without meditation.

Buddhist Meditation, on the other hand, can be described, and although there are many variations, a good general description would be that it is a system for mind development. In turn, mind development can be described plainly as observing. The breath and the mind are the two most common objects for observation.

Another word for observation is seeing. T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i translated the Indian term for basic Buddhism meditation, samatha- vipassana (tranquility and insight) as “stopping and seeing” (chih-kuan), and said, “seeing (kuan) is observing, examining, introspecting . . . when the mind is seeing clearly it is seeing. The chief aim [of meditation] is the concentration of mind by special methods for the purpose of clear insight and to be rid of illusion.”

This is stating things very simply. Yet, I believe that the historical Buddha’s approach to meditation was very simple, in the beginning. I feel he wanted to offer an alternative to the complex meditation techniques offered by the teachers of his day.

The Buddha said if you want to overcome suffering, then once or twice a day, sit down, be still and calm your mind. Just focus on your breath and be one with the timeless reality of now.

It is true that meditation is not enough. We must apply the awareness and wisdom we cultivate through meditation into our daily life. It’s also true that meditation won’t change the world. But it may change you, and me. And we have to be the change we want to see in the world. Gandhi didn’t really say that. What he said was,

If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.”

In my experience, there are very few people who truly want to change their life. Oh, they will accept change if it comes easy to them and includes material benefits. Deep-seated change is too hard for most. Some people will never meditate because they are afraid of seeing too clearly the loneliness and pain of their life. When they try meditation, though, and stick with it, then they understand that observing also means seeing through our suffering, transcending it.

That is enough for today. It is after midnight and I need to post this and then go to bed. I have changed a lot in 31 years. One thing that’s changed is I am beginning to agree with the Dalai Lama that “Sleep is the best meditation.”

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It’s a Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod Buddhist World

In recent years, there’s been an on-going debate, or perhaps it should be called a discussion, over whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy. I always say that while Buddhism obviously embraces both religion and philosophy, it goes beyond them. It’s a path, a Way, and I think it is unique, which I suppose makes me a believer in Buddhist exceptionalism.

My attention was drawn yesterday to a 2007 interview in Tricycle with Robert Sharf, a professor at Berkeley. Sharf has some opinions about the religion vs. philosophy controversy, and evidently he has some issues with modern Buddhism that writer Andrew Cooper sums up this way:

Sharf’s critique of Buddhist modernism stems from a belief that we cannot reduce Buddhism to a simple set of propositions and practices without in some way distorting our sense of its wholeness and complexity. For Sharf, understanding a religious tradition demands not only familiarity with contemporary practice but also a willingness to enter into dialogue with what is historically past and culturally foreign. To participate in such a dialogue we need knowledge of the context in which the tradition is embedded and an ability to see past the presuppositions of our own time and place. Clearing the ground, as it were, for this dialogue with tradition is the job of critical scholarly practice in religious life.”

I couldn’t agree more. The only problem is that most people could care less about Buddhism’s historical past, and at best have only a passing interest in its cultural roots. They may not even be interested in becoming enlightened. They just want to meditate or chant, get some peace of mind, find a tool to help cope with problems, or experience just a small measure of happiness.

MPdfr2bSo what is to be done? Tell folks they can’t meditate unless they study Buddhist history? Insist that as a qualification for becoming a Buddhist, you must master all the teachings within the tradition you’ve associated yourself with? Naturally, that’s absurd. The right approach is a Middle Way approach, one that is accommodating to the needs of different individuals and their interests. Even so, Sharf’s point about understanding the context of Buddhism should be given some deliberation.

The logic of Buddha-dharma is Eastern, and therefore, contrasts, and at times, even conflicts with with Western logical thinking. Having a sense of the historical and culture context of Buddhism helps individuals navigate through this and reduces misunderstanding. It shouldn’t be mandatory, though. People should be able to feel they can come into Buddhism without being saddled with stuff they don’t want. We need to find better ways of presenting dharma in a Western context that doesn’t leave it diluted, detoured, or destroyed.

Sharf places the bulk of his criticism of Buddhist modernism with the Buddhism of a hundred or so years ago, when it was first introduced to the West. I get the impression that he feels the major players at that time, both Eastern and Western, mishandled some of the dharma and their flawed take remains embedded with Western Buddhism today.

I agree with much of what Sharf has to say, for instance that “There is also a kind of arrogance in claiming that Buddhism is not so much a religion as it is the path to the truth behind all religions.” It’s not. All religious philosophies do not point to One truth. They are not all the same, nor all they all equal. Buddhism does not lead to the same truth as Christianity. Although there are points where they may intersect, Buddhism and Christianity are entirely different paths. I’m not sure I’d call it arrogance. Seems more like confusion to me.

On the other hand, I disagree with a number of his comments about attempts to make Buddhism compatible with science, but I also realize that it’s not important for Buddhism to be compatible with science.

On a slightly different subject, he says that “[When] we downplay ritual, we risk weakening our bonds to community and tradition. That’s a pretty major loss.” Not really. The sangha during the Buddha’s time had a terrific sense of community, and very little ritual. Most Buddhist ritualism came long after the Buddha departed the scene.

One important point Sharf makes is about the emphasis on “experience,” such as kensho, satori, realizing high states of attainment like sotapatti, or “stream entry” – experiences we can place under the heading of “sudden enlightenment.” Even though many of these concepts date back to early Buddhism, the modern preoccupation with them is a dangerous trend because it gives people the impression that meditation is a quick fix. When they find out it isn’t, they often give up. Frequently, I hear people say that meditation is boring. Yeah, it is. And hard, too. However, the point of meditation is not to have some attainment but to change yourself, to cultivate (bhavana) a better person. When people give up because it’s not easy, they miss out on the real the benefit of practice that could have been theirs.

According to Sharf, when “primacy is given to individual spiritual experience”, something is lost. Here I think he is talking about experience in a different context than that discussed in the above paragraph. And what gets lost? He says, “The sangha gets lost! The community gets lost.” Personally, I don’t feel that Buddhism is really about community. It’s about the teachings, the dharma, and the ultimate transformation of the individual who practices dharma.

lampsThis is why the Buddha taught “enlightenment by one’s own efforts” and advised his followers to “be lamps unto themselves, relying upon themselves only and not relying upon any external help.” Practice must include others, but not necessarily in any organized sense, rather more in the way that one person lights a lamp within themselves, and then helps the next person light their lamp.

I’m not suggesting that community isn’t helpful, even essential, for it is difficult to maintain a practice without the camaraderie and mutual encouragement found in a sangha.

Things do get lost in modern Buddhism. Michael McGhee, a senior lecturer in philosophy at Liverpool University, who has weighed into this discussion of religion vs. philosophy with a more recent article, “Is Buddhism a religion?” makes a point about the effort to de- mythologize or secularize Buddhism that I feel is worth calling to your attention:

But it is one thing to seek to liberate Buddhist practice from unsustainable or unbelievable worldviews and another to reduce it to a mere technique, even one that is therapeutic. The usual culprit is the calming technique that makes it easier to carry out the bombing run or makes one a more sharply predatory capitalist. The reason one might want to say that meditation has been reduced to a technique is that it has lost its essential rootedness as a practice of ethical preparation.”

In my experience, ethics is an aspect of dharma that too often falls by the wayside in favor of other topics. I especially wonder about the more secular Buddhists (I don’t know if “Secular Buddhism” really exists off the Internet), and with behavioral medicine programs such as Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which I have no experience with – I wonder to what extent, if any, ethics in all the various forms of modern Buddhism is de-emphasized.

Because ethics is a synonym for morality, it has a negative connotation for many people. After all, one of the motivations for some to seek out Buddhism is frustration over the excessive moralizing of their previous religion. But we should never lose sight of the fact that Buddhism was among the first spiritual teachings in India to place an emphasis on moral conduct. It is not enough, the Buddha maintained, to merely practice meditation and reject materialism; one should also strive to lead a moral, upright life.

Ethics (sila) is one of the three pillars of Buddhism; the other two being meditation (samadhi), and wisdom (prajna). When ethics is left out, the dharma becomes lopsided.

Meditation helps balance the mind so that the influence of the roots of unwholesome mental states are counteracted. Wisdom is knowing the right thing to do, understanding the value of virtuous acts and the folly of non-virtuous ones. That, at least, is their most basic operations.

The Sanskrit word sila literally means “behavior,” and the real benefit to be derived from meditation and wisdom is a change in behavior, or in the Buddha’s words, “to avoid negative actions, and do actions that are good.” Thus, ethics in Buddhism is the result of meditation and wisdom, and without it, neither dharma nor practice is complete.

Well, that is more than enough for now. I hope I offered some thoughts worthy of your consideration, and thanks for reading The Endless Further.

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