The Eightfold Path, part 3
This article is the third in an eight-part series on the Eightfold Path, a core teaching from early Buddhism. I introduced the Eightfold Path in the first article in the series, so go back and check that out if you haven't heard of it before. (You can find links to all the articles in this series on the index page in the 'Buddhist theory' section.)
This week we're going to take a look at the third aspect of the path: right speech.
Sometimes the Eightfold Path is divided into three subsections - sīla (ethics, morality), samādhi (meditation) and pañña (wisdom). We've already covered the wisdom section - right view and right intention. Right speech is the first of three aspects which make up the ethical component of the path, along with right action and right livelihood. We can look at these as offering suggestions for how to put into practice the intention of harmlessness, as discussed in the article on right intention.
Why should we be concerned with Buddhist ethics?
Before we go any further, I should say that my intention in writing these articles is not to 'preach Buddhism' or to tell you how to live your life, and I'm sorry if it comes across that way at any point. I regard each aspect of the Eightfold Path as something to explore for myself, in my own way and in my own life. Personally, I've found each of the eight aspects to be very rewarding both to contemplate and to put into practice, so I'd like to offer these to you as possibilities for you to do the same. Even if your primary interest is meditation practice, however, there can be great value in taking the ethical teachings on board.
On one level, as I noted above, Buddhist ethics is about the intention of harmlessness - living a life which minimises the suffering that we cause to others and to ourselves. The various aspects of the ethical teachings thus give us lenses to examine our behaviour and relationships. As we examine these closely, we may find more than just the obvious sources of suffering - we may start to notice ways in which we have unintentionally been causing harm, for example. We may also start to appreciate more the wider ramifications of our actions, and ultimately the interconnected nature of all things, which can open up perspectives on dependent origination.
On a practical level, we may also notice that taking the ethical teachings on board actually helps our meditation practice. Intentionally causing harm often weighs on our minds and bubbles back to the surface when we sit in meditation, causing us great discomfort. By comparison, leading a blameless life tends to leave us with fewer regrets and worries, provided we have a relaxed attitude to it rather than a puritanical, self-punishing one.
So now let's take a look at each of the four aspects of right speech mentioned by the Buddha above. Speech is immensely powerful, and we can cause great harm if we aren't careful - in a moment of careless, hurtful speech we can severely damage a relationship that took months or years to build up. So it's in our interest to wield its power carefully!
Lying ('false speech')
First in the Buddha's list is lying, often translated as 'false speech'. Lies come on a spectrum, from large, malicious falsehoods intended to deceive and manipulate for significant personal gain (we might think of certain politicians, Ponzi schemes and so on), all the way down to 'little white lies' intended to smooth over a social situation. Most of us have a sense that some lies are worse than others, and we each have a degree of tolerance for where we draw the line and start to feel like we're doing something wrong, or at least risky, when we tell a lie.
There's a lot to be said for telling the truth. As Mark Twain said, 'If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.' And studies have shown that people who lie a lot actually have more memory problems in the long run, presumably because their heads are full of so many different versions of events that they can't keep track of them all any more.
Personally, I don't like the feeling that telling an overt lie gives me, so I tend not to do it that much, but I've noticed that I'll often bend the truth to present myself a certain way in social situations, especially if I'm meeting someone new - it's surprisingly common that someone will say 'You've heard of X, right?', and if their tone of voice suggests that of course I should have heard of it because everyone who's anyone has heard of it, I'll almost certainly smile, nod and say 'yup', generally while making a mental note to look it up later and hoping that the conversation isn't going to get too much into the fine details of whatever the heck it is.
Routinely telling the truth has the advantage that people are likely to come to trust your word - when you say something, you'll be taken seriously, because you have a proven track record of speaking the truth. You also don't need to worry about being 'found out'. Conversely, if do tell lies then you have to live with the fear of the truth coming to light (which is the sort of thing that can easily disturb your meditation sessions!), and if you're caught out in a lie even a few times, other people will rapidly lose respect for you, and you'll have a harder time persuading people of something unlikely even when it really is true, because they've grown used to taking your words with a pinch of salt.
Next we have divisive speech - back-biting, gossip, propaganda, pitting 'us' against 'them'. This kind of speech is pretty horrible to be on the wrong end of, but it can exert a strong appeal if we have the chance to be the ones in control. Humans are social animals, and our brains have a hard-wired sense of our 'in-group' - so if we can use our speech to define that in-group, we have a lot of social power. However, it comes at a cost. Even 'harmless' gossip can upset someone if they subsequently find out that you were talking about them behind their back. Betraying a confidence or exposing someone's embarrassing secret can cause severe or even irreparable damage to a relationship. Plus, it's not cool.
Another dark side to this kind of speech is that, although it may make us feel powerful in the moment as we casually demonise someone on the fringes of a social group, in the long run it may actually undermine your relationships with the people who you're gossiping or complaining to, since they may begin to wonder if you similarly talk about them when they're not around.
Yet another potential issue with this kind of situation is that you might not be the only one engaging in divisive speech - if it’s normal within your social group to do this, then others might be talking about you behind your back, as well. Again, this is the kind of thing that could easily lead to disturbance in the mind when you’re trying to meditate, worrying what other people might be saying about you in your absence.
As with lying, harsh speech is something where we each have our own threshold for what’s OK. I have friends who won’t tolerate any kind of profanity at all, and I have other friends who use profanity as naturally as breathing. For me personally, intent is more important than the words themselves, but if I notice that someone else is more careful with their language then I’ll try to do the same in their presence.
Harsh speech isn’t just about swearing, though - it’s about how we speak to people more generally. In the era of the Internet we’ve all seen seemingly minor disagreements blow up into angry screaming matches with apparently very little provocation.
I’ve heard a variety of arguments in favour of anger. In particular, I’m aware that, for people who have been raised and socialised in such a way as to deny or suppress their anger, learning to reclaim and express that anger can be a necessary and even healthy part of overcoming their conditioning. As a day-to-day strategy, though, my observation is that yelling at someone rarely achieves the outcome you want - and even if it does, the other person doesn’t comply because their mind has changed or because they suddenly want to do it, but simply to make your anger go away.
Anger - like many other negative emotions - can also have a self-reinforcing quality. As we spend more and more time feeling anger, our world view changes, becoming harder and more critical - and giving us more causes for anger. Needless to say, quite apart from making you a more challenging person to be around, an excess of anger can also have a profoundly destabilising quality on your meditation practice. That’s not to say that we should try to suppress it when it arises - it’s better to let it come and go without getting caught up in it - but in the context of right speech it’s certainly worth inquiring as to whether yelling at people when they’ve annoyed us is really having the effect we want it to.
Talking nonsense ('idle chatter')
The final category is nonsense, also known as idle chatter. This is the kind of speech where people are speaking just to hear their own voice. It isn’t necessarily harmful but it isn’t meaningful either. The Buddha cautioned his followers against this kind of speech as being a waste of energy that could more usefully be applied in other directions.
In modern life, I think we need a bit of balance here. Sometimes the function of conversation is about connecting with people, maintaining our relationship without necessarily communicating important information. For me, that’s still worthwhile. But there’s a balance to be found. The more we talk just to fill the silence, the more people grow accustomed to the idea that usually we aren’t saying anything worth listening to. And if we feel compiled to fill social silences with noise, we’re likely to do the same with our mental silences in meditation too.
One very powerful off-cushion practice that we can use to explore our speech is to look at the intention behind what we're saying. What are we trying to achieve? Are we imparting useful, timely information? Are we connecting with a friend? Are we trying to make someone like us? Are we trying to persuade someone to do what we want? Are we exaggerating for effect, and does the other person know that? And so on. I won't say too much more about this because I'd rather you explored for yourself rather than having me tell you what to look for, but I will say that closely examining the intentions behind your speech can tell you a great deal about yourself.
Going in a totally different direction, a meditation practice which can help if we experience a lot of harsh self-talk (or just a lot of internal idle chatter) is the use of a mantra. A mantra is a word or phrase which we deliberately repeat, over and over.
My teacher Leigh Brasington first introduced me to the use of the mantra 'Buddho' (which means 'knowing') as an aid to concentration practice - you silently say the first syllable, 'bud', on the in-breath, and the second syllable, 'dho', on the out-breath.
I've also sat a retreat with another teacher, Jason Bartlett, who suggested using it differently - beginning by speaking the mantra aloud if you like, and going quickly enough that there's no gap for other thoughts to sneak in. As the practice stabilises, you may find that you intuitively shift to saying the mantra silently rather than aloud, and you might find that the speed changes. Go with it - trust the practice to take you where you need to go.
The use of a mantra can be a great help in settling the mind because it fills up the mental 'channel' which would otherwise be open for wandering thoughts and internal chatter to come along. As the mind settles, the mantra can also turn into an insight practice - we can turn our attention to whatever it is which is silently saying the mantra in our own mind, and study that, while simply allowing the mantra to continue in the background.
Give these practices a go and see how you get on! I hope that you find some value in the principles and practices of right speech in your own life.
Why we have it all back-to-front
This week we're looking at case 38 in the Gateless Barrier, 'The ox passing through the window screen'. It's typically regarded as one of the more difficult koans in the collection, although as we'll see, there are more accessible layers to it as well. Even if you're totally new to the practice, there's something to take away here - so keep reading!
That one disobedient duck
On one level, this koan speaks to a frustrating experience that we've all had at one time or another. We've been working away at something, trying to get it all straightened out, doing our very best to get our proverbial ducks in a row... but there's one little detail that isn't quite right, a small crease in an otherwise immaculate tablecloth, one chair leg that's just a little shorter than the others, one disobedient duck that's out of line with the others. It may even be a detail that nobody else notices, but we can see it, plain as day.
More generally, it's fairly common to have a sense that life would be going OK if it weren't for that one thing. If we could only get past that... Oh, but then something else comes up. There's always something, isn't there? Sometimes it's something big, but often it's a relatively minor irritation in the grand scheme of things, and yet it spoils what would surely otherwise be total perfection and lasting happiness - right?
The fact is that we're good at spotting flaws, and often not so good at appreciating things as they are, warts and all. We are, in general, biased towards the negative - it takes roughly five positive experiences to make up for one negative one. This makes sense as a survival mechanism - if you miss out on a pleasant experience, it isn't the end of the world, but if you don't notice a hungry sabre-toothed cat waiting in the long grass, you aren't going to be passing on your genes to your descendants. But what's optimal for survival doesn't necessarily make for a happy life, or a fulfilled one - it's more a case of 'survival at all costs'. The good news is that we don't have to worry so much about sabre-toothed cats any more; the bad news is that that negativity bias is still hard-wired into our systems, and is free to latch on to the toxic boss, the irritating colleague, the noisy neighbour and so on.
The really good news is that there's something we can do about this. We can't always force our ducks to stand to attention like a well-trained avian platoon - but we can train ourselves to look at the world differently.
Harvard happiness researchers ran an experiment where they installed an app on the phones of their study participants; the app would periodically ping and ask a series of questions, including 'What are you doing?', 'How focused are you on what you're doing?', and 'How do you feel right now?' What they discovered is fascinating.
First, people reported higher scores of subjective wellbeing (i.e. they felt better) when they were more focused on whatever they were doing. That's great news for meditators, because a key part of meditation is training the mind to go where we want it to go, and to notice when it's wandering so we can come back again. This 'mind training' is a core part of all meditation techniques, so it doesn't even really matter what technique we're practising; whatever we do, we're building the skills we need to lead a happier life, simply by paying more attention to what we're doing.
Second, the degree of focus on the task at hand had significantly more impact on how people were feeling than the nature of the task itself. I find that pretty remarkable - it means that if you're doing something fairly unpleasant, but you're totally focused and absorbed into the activity, you're more likely to feel good than if you're relaxing at home with a cup of tea and something on the TV - conditions we would typically regard as pleasant - but your mind is going six different directions at once, worrying about this and that.
The takeaway here is that we don't have to get every last duck to line up in order to be happy. There will always be something going on - and if there isn't, you'll find a way to notice some small, previously covered-over source of irritation to get worked up about, because that's just what our brains do when they're left to their own devices. But if, instead, we can turn our full attention to whatever is right in front of us, we can find a form of happiness which is not dependent on having external circumstances arranged in a particular way.
How would it be to bring your full attention to what's right in front of you, not looking for flaws or potential improvements, but simply allowing it to be as it is?
Turning the koan on its head
Coming back to the koan, there's an odd little detail. The ox is passing through a window, and it's gotten stuck - but how did it manage to get its tail stuck? You'd have thought that if it were going to have trouble getting through the window, it might be because its head is too big, or its horns would get caught on the frame. Instead, though, it's managed to get almost all the way through - head, horns and even all four hooves. So how come its tail, the smallest and most flexible part, is the bit that got stuck?
There's an 'upside-down' or 'back-to-front' quality here (which might remind regular readers of case 14; we explored one kind of back-to-front situation in that article, so we're going in a different direction today). The same kind of language actually also shows up in early Buddhism, where discourses will often end with someone praising the Buddha by saying 'Excellent, sir, excellent! You have made the Dhamma clear in many ways, as though turning upright what had been turned upside down, revealing what had been concealed, showing the way to one who was lost, or holding up a lamp in the dark.' (Emphasis mine.)
One way to understand this upside-down quality is to look at what's sometimes called the 'ground of being' - the fundamental nature of our experience - and contrasting it with the perspective of the so-called 'small self', i.e. 'me, in here'.
Typically speaking, we experience a world centred on ourselves. I occupy a certain point in a space which is much larger than myself, and a certain moment in a time which goes back billions of years of history and extends forwards into the unknown future. I am the 'primary' thing in my experience, the bit that's always here no matter what else is going on, and the world consists of my relationships with the people and things around me.
As we meditate, however, we may come to see the world differently. As the mind settles, our experience can begin to simplify. Our wandering thoughts settle down. The sense of a hard, solid boundary between 'me in here' and 'everything else out there' softens, and may even fall away entirely. We begin to see that the sharp divisions between 'this' and 'that' are not fundamentally 'true', in the sense of being an unavoidable part of reality - they're just something that our minds are doing, a way of labelling parts of our experience to help us think about it. Over time, it may come to seem like it isn't 'me' that's primary after all, but rather something like 'awareness'.
As we shift into the perspective of awareness, we may experience various 'figure-ground reversals' - in other words, we may find that many of our previous ideas now seem back to front, or upside down.
There are many ways to explore the ground of being in practice. One approach is to investigate - to test what I've said above, not by thinking and reasoning about it, but by examining your own direct experience in meditation. Take some time to settle the mind first, then explore, and see what you might find. Another approach is simply to bear the above in mind and trust that it will reveal itself to you in the course of your practice, and then just sit and see what happens.
The last little bit
Making the shift from the perspective of 'me' to the perspective of the ground of being - touching into it for the first time, and then subsequently stabilising our recognition of it - is a key part of the path, but it isn't the end of the story. There's actually a subtle trap which can ensnare the unwary - which, fortunately, won't be you by the time you finish this article!
The possible pitfall of the 'ground of being' approach is that we come to think of 'awareness' as being a kind of 'thing' in its own right, a transcendent, pure entity which is perfect and lovely in every way, and thus separate from whatever is arising within it, i.e. the messy, unpleasant phenomena of the material world. Practice can then become skewed, all about leaving the nasty relative world behind and hanging out in pure awareness all the time, and as a result one's life and relationships can become neglected. We may think that we understand non-duality very well, having found a perspective ('awareness') from which we can see the entire relative world as non-separate ('the contents of awareness'), but we're still creating a duality between awareness and its contents.
So a crucial step in the practice is to dissolve that last little split, that final sense of separation, until ultimately all that's left is the unfolding moment - nothing transcendent, nothing separate, just this.
Again, as with the previous step, you might choose to investigate, searching for any remaining sense of separation in your experience, really examining in closely in your direct experience until it melts away. Or you can simply trust that it, too, will melt away in time, provided only that you don't continue to reinforce it by clinging to a separate, transcendent awareness as being the ultimate goal of your practice.
Meanwhile, if you see an ox caught in a window, help it to get free. It probably had no business climbing through the window in the first place, but now it's in trouble and needs your help.
May all beings (humans, oxen and all the rest) be well.
The Eightfold Path, part 2
This article is the second in an eight-part series on the Eightfold Path, a core teaching from early Buddhism. I introduced the Eightfold Path in the first article in the series, so go back and check that out if you haven't heard of it before. (You can find links to all the articles in this series on the index page in the 'Buddhist theory' section.)
This week we're going to take a look at the second aspect of the path: right intention. The Pali term here is samma sankappa - the Sanskrit equivalent of the second word is sankalpa, which readers with a yoga practice may recognise.
Intention is critically important in a meditation practice. Meditation can be used for many different purposes - calming the mind, opening the heart, developing insight, promoting health and vitality - and often the techniques involved can seem very similar. For example, a very common form of meditation is to place one's attention on the breathing, coming back each time the mind wanders away. If that technique is practised with the intention of developing exclusive focus on the breath, it tends to have the effect of calming and concentrating the mind. If it's practised with an emphasis on noticing the moment-to-moment arising and passing of the sensations which make up our experience of the breath, it becomes an insight practice. If we imagine ourselves drawing in the suffering of the world with an in-breath and sending out peace and compassion on the out-breath, it becomes a heart-opening practice. If we emphasise the exhalation and our contact with the earth, it becomes energetically grounding. And so on.
So it's quite natural to find intention as one of the aspects of the Eightfold Path. In particular, the early Buddhist teachings suggest certain intentions which are thought to be supportive for anyone who is interested in the stated goal of early Buddhism - liberation from suffering. Those three are the intention of renunciation, the intention of non-ill will, and the intention of harmlessness.
In today's article, we'll be focusing on the first of these, the intention of renunciation. The second one, the intention of non-ill will, has a bit of a confusing name as it's given in the quotation above, but this kind of negation often indicates that the opposite of the named quality is what's to be practised. So what's meant here is the opposite of non-ill will, which is good will, also known as loving kindness, or metta. I've written about loving kindness a couple of times before (here and here), so check out those articles if you're interested. As for the third, the intention of harmlessness, that intention is really the principle underlying sila, the ethical dimension of the early Buddhist path. The Eightfold Path breaks sila down into three aspects - right speech, right action and right livelihood - so we'll be exploring the intention of harmlessness in much more detail over the next three articles in this series.
So without further ado, let's get into the thorny topic of renunciation!
Renunciation, asceticism and the Buddha
Renunciation is a bit of a Marmite concept - you either love it or hate it. For many modern readers it has connotations of self-denial, perhaps even self-punishment. And it can sometimes be used as a justification for why the monastic life is the best way to practise Buddhism - because people in lay life are inextricably entangled in the pesky, icky things of the world, while monastic communities live at one remove. I'm going to suggest a different way of looking at renunciation which is more compatible with a life in the world, both because that's how I live myself and how I assume the vast majority of my readers live too.
First of all, it's worth noting that the Buddha himself actually rejected extreme asceticism. According to the discourses in the Pali canon, he came to the realisation that a life of material luxury and sensual indulgence was ultimately hollow and unsatisfying, and so set off in search of a better way. He tried all of the ascetic practices that were popular at the time, including (but by no means limited to) holding his breath for as long as possible (which apparently results in terrible headaches), and eating as little as possible - eventually, down to a single grain of rice per day, at which point he became so weak that he collapsed and had to be nursed back to health by a compassionate woman named Sujata. After that particular incident, he realised that he'd taken the path of self-denial to the very brink of death and it still hadn't brought him what he was looking for.
Then he remembered a time when, as a boy, he had spontaneously entered a deep meditation state known as jhana. The jhana states are pleasant, but it's a form of pleasure that comes from within, rather than a pleasure that's dependent on external factors like fine wines or chocolates. He noticed that material pleasures typically have an addictive quality - no sooner have you finished one chocolate than you're reaching for another - whereas practising jhana leads toward contentment, desirelessness and peace of mind. This seemed like a much better approach than either stuffing his face with food or starving himself to death - and so meditation, and this idea of spiritual happiness, became central to the Buddha's path of enlightenment. (We'll come back to jhana when we get to the end of the Eightfold Path - so stay tuned!)
What should we renounce, and why?
The Buddha's story can be interpreted in a couple of different ways. We could say: 'Aha, so material pleasures are evil, while spiritual pleasures are good. Renunciation therefore means to cut off all material pleasures and practise only spiritual pleasures.' That's certainly the approach taken by many monastic communities, which aim to cut off as much worldly pleasure as possible, resulting in a pretty hard life which nevertheless frees up space for spiritual practice.
With my Zen hat on, however, I'm a little sceptical of making hard dualities between 'good pleasures' and 'evil pleasures'. Echoing last week's article and the discussion of fetters arising in response to sense contacts, I think we can take a more nuanced approach, and ask whether a particular source of pleasure (be it material, spiritual or something else entirely) is actually a problem or not.
For example, from time to time I drink alcohol. I know that many people suffer terribly with alcohol addiction, but it's never been a problem for me. Sometimes I go a few months without drinking, just because it doesn't occur to me to drink. Sometimes I'll be a bit more socially active and have a bit more. It just doesn't make that much difference to me. On the other hand, when I drink a single Coke or Pepsi, the next day I will experience a very strong urge to have another Coke or Pepsi at about the same time, and before you know it I'll be drinking two a day, then three, then four. Then the headaches will start, and my teeth will get sensitive, and my sleep gets messed up, and it's clear that something has to be done. So then I'll go through the long, painful process of detox, experiencing withdrawal headaches and all sorts. Then I'll be clean for a while - generally, until I go on a business trip or have some other kind of stress spike, when I'm called on to be alert and sharp at a time when I'm totally exhausted, and I'll grab a Coke or Pepsi to perk myself up, and the cycle begins again. For me, drinking Coke or Pepsi leads to an addictive cycle of suffering in a way that drinking alcohol simply doesn't.
So when it comes to the renunciation aspect of right intention, it's perhaps more interesting not to look at it in terms of a blanket rule to cut off all material pleasures, but rather as an investigation of our attachments, fixations and dependencies. There are some things we're clearly better off without - addiction to crack cocaine, for instance - but many of the things in our lives are not so clear-cut, like the Coke/Pepsi example above. A rule of thumb that I've found to be useful is to ask myself 'Do I need this? Or could I be without it?' If the answer is 'hell yes, I need it!' then, if nothing else, that's a setup for suffering - because life is impermanent, and in the long run we're separated from everything dear and delightful to us. But if the answer is 'no, it's not that big a deal' then we probably don't need to worry too much about it, at least right now - we almost certainly have bigger spiritual fish to fry.
If we're living the life of a householder, it isn't really practical to observe the kind of self-denial practised by monastic communities. We have family, friends, colleagues, jobs, obligations. We typically won't be able to cut ourselves off from the world of sense pleasures, and so it isn't really useful to think of renunciation in those terms. But if we can instead look at it as a way of exploring our lives, identifying problematic relationships that lead to a lot of suffering, and finding ways to hold those relationships differently - which might mean avoiding something entirely, but doesn't necessarily have to - then renunciation suddenly becomes a more relevant concept.
Living with the intention of renunciation
It's important to say that renunciation isn't a 'once and done' kind of exercise - scan through your life, identify the trouble spots, cut those off and that's it, you're good forever. Life is a dynamic process in which the only constant is change. What's completely fine today might not always be that way, and what's a really big deal requiring a great deal of care today might not always be like that. For example, I go through cycles (pretty well correlated with my stress levels) where I start to overeat chocolate compulsively and have to be very careful, then things calm down and a bit of chocolate now and then is no big deal, and actually quite enjoyable.
Personally, I would suggest that we're looking for balance - steering clear of addictions where possible, but at the same time allowing ourselves to relax and have fun from time to time. (One of the drawbacks with taking the ascetic approach to renunciation is that no sooner have you cut off your sources of evil worldly pleasure, thereby 'purifying' yourself, than you start to notice smaller, previously unnoticed sources of worldly pleasure, which must then be cut off, only to reveal even smaller, subtler sources of pleasure, and on and on it goes. We're really good at finding faults in things - especially ourselves - when it's our intention to do so.)
Seen in this way, renunciation becomes both an on-going practice of inquiry, and a kind of guard-rail for our lives. We learn to see the warning signs when a healthy interest is becoming an unhealthy obsession, and adjust accordingly - steering away from known danger spots, but also allowing our lives to flex and breathe as necessary, rather than cramming ourselves into a straitjacket.
It's also important to say that living with this intention doesn't somehow make us better than other people. We all have our sticking points - and we tend to be able to see the sticking points of other people much more easily than we can see our own! Furthermore, just because something is a problem for me doesn't mean it's automatically a problem for someone else - I have no real grounds to pass judgement on others just because I've adopted a lofty Buddhist lifestyle. If anything, as we start to become more sensitive to our own sticking points as well as those of others, we start to see the incredible diversity of life - each person's individual way of making their way through the world, sometimes so different to our own that we struggle even to imagine how their life could possibly work, and yet it does.
So please give renunciation some consideration - not as a stick to beat yourself or others with, but as a way of exploring our relationships with the people and things in our lives, identifying potentially troublesome spots, and figuring out how we can live in such a way that we suffer a little less.
May all beings be happy.
Rediscovering your experience
This week we're looking at case 37 in the Gateless Barrier, 'The Cypress Tree in the Garden'. (Sometimes the cypress tree is said to be in the (monastery) courtyard; Thomas Cleary translates it as 'yard', which I've rendered as 'garden' because I live in the UK. It really doesn't matter where the cypress tree is, though!)
This koan is especially memorable to me because I once complained to my teacher Daizan about it! I'd recently been reading a book about the Tibetan Mahamudra tradition; the insight practices in that tradition tend to be written in very straightforward, technical language, so they're right up my street and something I can get my head around very quickly. In comparison, Zen presents us with the cypress tree in the garden. I mean, come on! Daizan just smiled, as he usually does, and said 'What are you supposed to do with that, eh?' And maybe that's a sign that I should stop this article right now and just leave you to chew on it. But that isn't my style, so let's take a closer look and see what's going on here.
Seeing the world through jade-tinted glasses
When we're young, everything is interesting. Everywhere we go is a new place, or has something new to offer - a new experience, a new person. Sometimes that can be a bit daunting (like getting lost in a busy shopping centre), but most of the time it's pretty great - a seemingly endless banquet of new experiences, things to explore and try out.
As we grow older, we become more defined as individuals. We learn the kinds of things that we like and dislike - maybe I discover that I enjoy heavy guitar music but can't abide jazz, for example. We may regard ourselves as becoming more sophisticated in our tastes as we develop more and more refined tastes - not just classical music, but Beethoven; not just Beethoven, but his string quartets; not just any string quartets, but specifically the late ones; not just any old performance, but this particular set of players at this venue on this date. Along the way, more and more of the world becomes familiar to us - and, if we have sophisticated tastes, we'll probably find that more and more of it leaves us cold, while it takes more and more specific conditions to truly delight us. In other words, as we grow older, we become jaded.
There's a famous poem written by the third Zen ancestor in China, Sengcan, the name of which translates to something like 'Faith in Mind'. It begins as follows:
The Great Way is not difficult
If only you do not pick and choose
Neither love nor hate
And you will clearly understand.
Be off by a hair,
And you are as far from it as heaven from earth.
If you want the Way to appear,
Be neither for nor against.
For and against opposing each other
This is the mind's disease.
Without recognising the mysterious principle
It is useless to practise quietude.
That last line is a kicker - he's saying that if you don't understand this bit about not picking and choosing, it's a waste of time to meditate at all. Bit harsh!
There's a fun passage in one of Brad Warner's early books (I think it's Sit Down and Shut Up, although I can't find the reference and now I'm starting to wonder if I dreamt the whole thing) where he comments that Sengcan doesn't actually mean that, in order to be a Zen master, you're not allowed to have a favourite flavour of ice cream. (Daizan often says that if you preferred vanilla ice cream to chocolate ice cream before awakening then you'll still prefer it after awakening, although how anyone could prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate is the deepest mystery of all to me.)
So if Sengcan isn't suggesting that we need to systematically eradicate all our preferences and become equally comfortable with Metallica and Miles Davis, what actually is he getting at?
The Satipatthana Sutta and the fetters arising dependent on the senses
One of the key discourses in the early Buddhist tradition is the Satipatthana Sutta, which means something like 'the discourse on cultivating mindfulness'. (I have a series of articles on this discourse, so check those out if you're interested.)
The discourse is a big anthology of insight practices, one of which involves examining our experience through the lens of the 'six senses' - seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking. The instructions take each of the senses in turn and say the same thing for each one:
Here [one] knows the eye, [one] knows forms, and [one] knows the fetter that arises dependent on both, and [one] also knows how an unarisen fetter can arise, how an arisen fetter can be removed, and how a future arising of the removed fetter can be prevented.
The instruction here is to examine our visual experience in order to discover the 'fetter' that arises dependent on it - in other words, to see how our visual experience can lead us into suffering. On a simple level, it might go something like this: we see someone holding the latest iPhone, and suddenly we want it, we've got to have it, how come that person has it and we don't? Life is so unfair! On a more sophisticated level, perhaps it's something like 'Oh, it's a Picasso. I'm really more of a Rothko person, it's a shame they don't have any of those here.' In both cases, the visual experience has triggered an idea of how the present situation could have been better than it in fact is, and as a result our experience of the present moment is just that little bit more disappointing.
This is what Sengcan is getting at. It doesn't have to be a problem to prefer Rothko to Picasso (or Metallica to Miles Davis) - but if our wellbeing is dependent on getting the Rothko, we're in trouble. It's a wonderful ability to be able to imagine something other than what's here right now - it allows us to make plans, figure out solutions to problems and do all sorts of clever things - but if that faculty gets out of hand and taints every moment of our lives with a twinge of unhappiness, our minds can truly be said to be 'diseased', to use Sengcan's metaphor.
Emptiness and freshness
So what's the solution? In Zen practice, we make a big deal about emptiness. In a nutshell, 'emptiness' is the idea that the way we experience things is the product of our own minds, rather than how things 'really' are in themselves. What we experience starts with the information from our senses, but then it's filtered through our lifetime of experiences, preferences and prejudices, so that the end product has a distinctly jaded quality to it a lot of the time.
While this might all sound a bit abstract and theoretical, the practical result of exploring emptiness is that we can start to rediscover a sense of freshness in experience. (The Zen teacher Guo Gu actually uses the word 'freshness' rather than 'emptiness' for this reason, emphasising the practical effect rather than the theoretical underpinnings.)
As we do our meditation practice - whether it's a Zen practice like Silent Illumination or working with a koan, or an early Buddhist insight practice like the 'six senses' one I mentioned above - we start to discover a dynamic quality to our experience, a moment-by-moment transience, an ungraspability. As we look around the familiar room where we've meditated hundreds or thousands of times before, we begin to see not the boring old stuff that we've long since learnt how to ignore as our minds wander in search of something more interesting to distract us, but instead a new world, each moment sparkling with freshness. The experience can be something akin to being on holiday in an unfamiliar place, where buildings, people and cars are suddenly interesting again, simply by virtue of being not the same old stuff we're used to. Actually, nothing in the world is ever really 'same old, same old' - but we have to learn how to take off our jade-coloured glasses before we can see the freshness all around us.
One approach to experiencing this freshness is to use the method of 'direct contemplation', which I first encountered on retreat with the Western Chan Fellowship, and which you can find described in more detail in Guo Gu's excellent book Silent Illumination.
To do this practice, you'll need either something to look at or something to listen to. (I suggest using something from the natural world, and I strongly suggest not listening to music, at least until you've had a lot of practice with this technique.)
Ordinarily, our perceptions are totally bound up with our thoughts - we see or hear something, and a cluster of thoughts, opinions, preferences, memories and so forth arise too. As a minimum, it isn't just the sound of a babbling brook, it's also 'the sound of a babbling brook', i.e. we have some mental activity labelling it, maybe identifying particular sub-sounds within it, or remembering another time you heard a babbling brook... and so on.
So the practice is very simple. Anytime you notice yourself caught up in thought, or indeed doing anything other than simply hearing the sound or seeing the sight, let go of that, and come back to the hearing or seeing. And that's it. Don't try to measure your progress, don't start to wonder if you're experiencing this 'freshness' thing yet, don't start making a mental list of the next few things you're going to try to contemplate directly because this one isn't really doing it for you. Put all of that stuff down, over and over. If you think you've got it - well, now you're thinking about how you've got it, so put that down too. If you experience yourself melting away into the universe and becoming one with the object and everything else - well, now you're thinking about melting into the universe, so put that down too. If you're seeing a visual object, just see. If you're hearing a sound, just hear. That's it.
Now, in case you're at all concerned - and sometimes people do worry about this - doing this practice is not going to break your ability to think thoughts or interact with the world. We're not trying to train ourselves out of ever having another discriminating thought - that would be far worse than where we are now in many ways, because we'd become incapable of looking after ourselves. That's not where we're going. All we're doing here is a very simple exercise intended to loosen the tyranny of our discriminating mind, to give us a taste of the freshness that is available in every moment of experience. As we become more skilled in this practice, we tend to find that it actually integrates well into our lives, allowing us to be more receptive to simple pleasures when they're available to us, but without interfering with our ability to be focused, analytical and, yes, even sophisticated in our tastes when we need to be.
So give it a go, and see how you get on. How would it be for you to take off your jade-coloured glasses, even for a few seconds? How might the world look then? Find out!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!