The Aesthetic of Meditation is Not Broken

I recently read an interview with a guy who says that the aesthetic of meditation is broken. I must be pretty dumb, because I don’t understand that at all. Aesthetic has a number of meanings, but dash if know which applies here. He also says that Buddhism needs to improve itself by looking to the design world, although he doesn’t specify which one if any he is referring to, and he talks about delivery models. The only thing I know about delivery models is Domino’s. They usually get the pizza to my door sooner than they say it will take over the phone. That, to me, is a good delivery model.

What’s broken is our approach to meditation, and for that matter, Buddhism. People make it all too complicated. Overcoming suffering is more important than any of the above stuff, or attaining various stages of realization or becoming stream-enterers or arhats. Being a bodhisattva is more important than becoming a buddha.

That’s why in the Heart Sutra, the Buddha stays in the background and a bodhisattva takes center stage and why one of the Buddha’s foremost disciples seeks guidance from the bodhisattva and not from the Buddha. The Mahayana authors of this sutra were sending a message. They apparently didn’t feel that they could just come out and say it, so they made their point with allegory. I think they were casting the bodhisattva as the higher ideal.

The seed of this thought was sown in my mind some 14 years ago at the Dalai Lama teachings on The Precious Garland. It’s just grown since then. I supposed it might qualify as a realization. The funny thing about realizations, though, is that they’re not much use unless you act on them. That’s the hard part. Putting them into action. That means changing our behavior, the way we think, speak and act. We should be more concerned with changing our lives than with trying to redesign the dharma-wheel.

As I said, I think it’s our approach that’s broken. The problem is with us and not the so-called delivery models. For one thing, I feel that if you are analyzing meditation in terms of how it is presented or what you want to achieve or even what you experience while meditating, then you’re doing something wrong. I’m not suggesting that presentation is unimportant, but it’s not as critical as learning how to practice meditation, and no teacher can practice for you. Nor am I saying that goals are verboten or you shouldn’t observe thoughts that come up during meditation. But you have to let them go. Especially once you get up from the meditation mat.

In fact, what we do after meditation is what Buddhism is all about. The only crucial issue in meditation is to what degree we have calmed our mind and how we are able to utilize that calmness, that clearness of mind, to transform our life. The goal is to overcome suffering. The first step in conquering suffering is to accept it. I’d say that acceptance trumps just about everything else. Our Western minds are geared towards deductive thinking, analyzing everything. You may not like hearing this, but Buddhism does require a certain amount of becoming Asian and by that I mean engaging in more inductive thinking.

People have a tough time with concepts like karma and rebirth because they resist them. They approach Buddhism as if it were a belief system and they don’t want to believe anything and they damn well don’t want to be told to believe in anything. We haven’t been able to completely throw off our Judeo-Christian conditioning. That’s understandable, after all, we’ve been brainwashed. There is probably a better word to use, but it comes down to the same thing. Our previous religious experience was precisely about belief. That’s not so important in Buddhism. So, if you don’t want to believe in karma or rebirth, then don’t. Just quit resisting. Let it go. And definitely, quit griping about it.

If we can leave resistance behind, if we can let go, then it doesn’t really matter if in the end we come to the conclusion that these concepts are not reasonable or if we think that they’re the greatest things since sliced pizza. All that truly matters is that we learn to become more accepting and let go of our attachments. If you stop resisting one thing, then you can stop resisting something else. Like suffering.

I would say that an understanding of karma helps in this regard because the prime point of karma is that we create our own suffering. Knowing this on a deep intuitive level will help us come to terms with it. Another way to put this is that we want to take away suffering’s power. When suffering comes there is really no way to resist it. We have to accept suffering. To do otherwise is to be in denial.

It’s like the errant thought that arises during meditation. We recognize it, accept the fact that it has arisen, and let it go. I am suffering. I must accept the fact of it. Lamenting the fact or wishing that I were not suffering changes nothing. Meeting suffering head on in this way helps us chip away at its power to destroy our lives.

Sometimes I like to say that you just have to surrender to the dharma. People don’t like the word surrender, though. They resist it. As I am using the word, it implies acceptance, not some form of slavery. Quit fighting. Quit analyzing so much. Practice the art of acceptance.

We can examine everything in various ways and yet never escape the truth that ultimately there is not a single thing that can be seized as substantial.

But you don’t have to accept my words. You can resist them if you like. That’s your privilege. After all, I’m not enlightened. I’m not an arhat or even a stream-enterer. But please, if nothing else, heed my advice about delivery models. When you want a good, hot pizza delivered fast, call Domino’s.

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8 thoughts on “The Aesthetic of Meditation is Not Broken

    1. Sorry, I was attempting a little humor. Wasn’t trying to make fun of you or anything like that. Of course, there are perhaps nicer ways of telling someone you didn’t think it was funny.

  1. Huh.
    I’ve looked at your reply to my sincere appreciative reaction to your blog several times now and still don’t get the humor. I’m curious — what was the joke? Are you uncomfortable with my taking the entire idea of stream entry in regards to you seriously?
    You do seem to be serious about your Buddhism and “stream entry” is part of the dharma, right? (though practioners have all kinds of ideas that can be very divergent) Was your bit about NOT being enlightened, etc. just some kind of joke that maybe I didn’t get either? I guess I thought you were doing something that seems silly to me, which is for serious long time practitioners to distance themselves from promised results from sincere practice. To me, a sure sign of “stream entry” is an understanding of each of the three characteristics on a gut level — and I really felt your blog expressed such an understanding.

    I went from feeling humbled and inspired by your blog, to kind of insulted by your reply to my compliment, to then a kind of shame at the idea that I’d called you an asshole when you were, reportedly, just “attempting a little humor” to just feeling chastised for myself being rude, to, then, just plain confused.

    I do apologize for using the word asshole. That was just too harsh and showed a real lack of tact on my part.

    1. Mike, thanks for your comment here, and for your sincere expression of appreciation which I completely blundered in responding to. It was just a dumb remark. What was the joke? Well, I think we have pretty well established that there wasn’t one. Just stupidity on my part.

      If you were advocating something completely nutty or off the Buddhist mark, that would be one thing. There are some crazy ideas that I don’t feel an obligation to take seriously at all, and if I were to make a cutting remark, I wouldn’t feel too bad about it since that’s what you get when you put crazy stuff out there. But stream entry does not fall under that category. While it has never figured much in my own practice, I know it does for others, and believe me the last thing I want to do is disparage sincere practitioners.

      The bit about not being enlightened etc. was written somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I don’t know how often you have read this blog, but one of the themes, and in fact, the blog’s name, deals with this notion of “becoming enlightened.” I don’t have much regard for people who claim enlightenment or arhatship and so on. I’m not putting you in that category – I know nothing about you. I just feel that if someone is truly enlightened, they are not going to be telling everyone about it. At the same time, I recognize that some people have different views on that subject.

      So I apologize for not being able to recognize the sincerity of your comment and for responding in such a smart-ass fashion. I do not, however, have any regrets about my response to the asshole comment. There is already too much rudeness, crudeness and lack of mutual respect in Buddhism these days, we don’t need to contribute to it. In light of my own lack of tactfulness here, it’s hardly anything I could hold against you, not that I would anyway. So I hope we can put this behind us and be friends.

      And thanks again for your thoughtful response.

  2. Cool. This is turning out much better than it began.
    I think that the subjects of stream entry, enlightenment, arhatship or any attainments can be so tricky and fraught with issues personal and spiritual.
    I hope that I take a middle way approach which is this:

    One the one hand we are all practicing dharma for a reason. We want peace, we want insight, we want more intimacy with life, etc. We start at some point, practice takes place, time goes by, and for some of us, things happen. We learn stuff in our brains and in our guts, we have experiences, insights. We can get off track, or we can sleep our way throught the whole thing with nary an effect. Some people who once had no experience with dharma become teachers and really seem to have something to impart. So, it seems silly to deny that there are signposts along the way, maps, even awakening(s) of some kind or another.

    But, on the other hand, to be practicing with too much focus on attaining specific goals for oneself can cause all kinds of problems. One has an idea in their little brain of what they want to happen and they get so caught up in making reality match that idea that they simply suffer when their expectations are never met and sadder still, they never get a chance to appreciate and see what is really going on because they are to busy with their ambitions. Pracitioners, also, can have legitimately wonderful and transformative insights and experiences which they share with others and then get off on the resultant ego satisfaction. However, years can pass, the insight can fade if it isn’t integrated into one’s life and practice and the “enlighened” person becomes just like everyone else.

    So I think that it is, generally, better to sit and practice with no gaining idea, but it’s a weird, odd act of denial that I don’t yet understand to pretend that one isn’t, actually, trying to do or get or accomplish something or that certain amounts of insight and relief from suffering don’t actually occur.

    So yes, my initial comment was meant as a compliment. I was very moved by your blog, it actually worked out for me some things I’d been grappling with lately. And, if, one definition of stream entry is to really get on a non conceptual level that things always change, that there is no permanent satisfaction to be had from the various objects of the world, and that all stuff is fundamentally empty of a separate, lasting “self” — then you whether you care or not just might be a stream entrant. Who doesn’t know it.

    And, yes Alec Baldwin and Tiny Fey are hilarious and 30 Rock is not. I love humor as well and spend much of my free time as a consumer of funny tv shows, movies, and comics. Laughing is fun and freeing.

    1. I think you have touched upon what is a crucial dilemma (for lack of a better word) that all who practice face, and that’s the delicate balance between the relative and the ultimate. On one hand we want to be free from conceptual thinking and just be in the present moment without anticipations, and on the other, it is ridiculous to think that we don’t engage in practice for a purpose or that goals can’t be helpful.

      The answer is, as it is for most things in Buddha-dharma, the Middle Way, striking a balance. Having goals and recognizing signposts, but not becoming attached to them. And I think your Middle Way approach is good and valid. I can see how to just sit and practice without ideas of gain could be seen as a form of denial, but I think they are rather like the other thoughts we lay aside during our periods of meditation. We know they’re there, that we have these thought, but we don’t dwell on them. And of course, there are meditation techniques in which we want to produce certain thoughts accompanied by a specific goal.

      My own feeling is that enlightenment is not really a goal as much as it is a process. I think it’s a progressive experience in which we accumulate glimpses or flashes of enlightenment. I also don’t think that it unfolds in any specific or universal way. As I believe you said, it is a personal experience, so it’s different for each individual, and to some extent, perhaps setting up these clearly delineated markers may be counter-productive or misleading. But then that depends on the person and the situation.

      So, anyway, thanks for the two compliments. I must say, though, that my blog might have helped another person seems far more valuable to me than any possibility of stream entry, because, as I see it, that’s what it’s all about.

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