The Eightfold Path, part 6
This article is the sixth 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 taking a look at the sixth factor of the path, right effort. This is an important dimension of the path with many subtleties, so we'll spend some time unpicking each step. First, though, I'd like to cover off another way you'll sometimes hear 'right effort' described.
Right effort as 'how much effort should you use in meditation?'
Effort is a contentious topic in Buddhism. Some people will tell you that practice should always be effortless, and anything else is wrong. My guess is that they're people who were prone to over-efforting themselves, and so their teachers gave them the most extreme advice in the hope of getting them to relax their grip just a little - and now they've taken that as a universal truth that applies to all meditators.
I've recently written about the dangers of using too much effort in practice, so I do absolutely agree that over-efforting is a problem - but I think it's going too far to say that any effort at all is bad or wrong. The fact is that we don't always want to practise, and it takes a certain amount of effort even to get ourselves to sit down on the cushion and start to meditate. Until the mind is quite deeply concentrated, it's also prone to distraction, and it does take a bit of effort to keep re-committing to the object of meditation until the mind settles sufficiently. This is why, in the article I linked above, I talked about 'relaxed diligence' - we absolutely do want to be relaxed, but we also need to be diligent, and that implies at least a bit of effort at times.
That previous article goes into this topic in more detail, so I'll leave it here for now and move on to the description of right effort found in Samyutta Nikaya 45.8, as shown at the top of this article.
The Four Great Efforts
SN45.8 defines right effort in terms of the 'four great efforts'. The definitions of the four are compact and sound a bit repetitive, so it's worth spending some time teasing each of the four apart to see how we might apply them in practice.
1. The effort to cause the non-arising of an unarisen unwholesome state
There's a whole lot of negatives in this one. Let's start at the end and work backwards. First, we need to understand what's meant by an 'unwholesome state'. What makes a state unwholesome? From the standpoint of early Buddhism, a state is unwholesome if it's conditioned by one or more of the Three Poisons - greed, hatred and confusion/delusion. Another classical list of unwholesome states is the Five Hindrances - sense desire, aversion, sloth and torpor, restlessness and remorse, sceptical doubt.
More generally, though, there's an invitation here to observe ourselves as we go through our days, using the mindfulness that we've cultivated in our meditation practice to see what makes us tick. The first two Noble Truths relate to understanding our first-person experience of suffering and what causes it to arise. We can't do that in the abstract; all we can do is observe ourselves and see what gives rise to suffering and negative states of mind. As we come to understand those better and better, we'll begin to identify triggers, and we can then act on that knowledge and start to avoid problems before they even come up.
Here's a concrete example. Suppose I'm a busy person and I don't always have time to eat breakfast - but, after a while of doing this practice, I notice that, on the days when I've skipped breakfast, my mornings seem to be generally more difficult, particularly around about 11 o'clock, when everything starts to feel just a bit more annoying than it really needs to be. It turns out that there's a name for this unwholesome state: 'hangry' (angry because hungry). It isn't that the world is secretly conspiring against me at 11am on certain days; it's that, by skipping breakfast, my body is a little bit undernourished, and the hunger that I've been keeping swept under the carpet is actually manifesting as a more critical, negative view of the people and events around me. Fortunately, this one has a relatively easy fix - I can commit to doing my very best to have breakfast every single day, come what may, even if I have to get up a few minutes earlier on a really busy day. This will require some effort on my part, but it also means I won't get hangry at 11am, and that's good for me and the people around me.
2. The effort to abandon an arisen unwholesome state
Sometimes, though, we find ourselves already in an unwholesome state. We can't go back in time and avoid it - it's here already. So the invitation of the second Great Effort is to find a way to get ourselves out of that 'arisen unwholesome state' - to abandon it.
Whereas the first Great Effort was more about detecting patterns in our personal triggers and learning to work around them, and could thus potentially be performed with at least some degree of thought and analysis 'at a distance', the second Great Effort is a much more visceral experience. You're right there in the thick of it, caught up in anger, fear, worry, greed, whatever it might be. To make matters worse, negative states often tend to have a self-reinforcing quality - realising that we're angry can make us even angrier ('how dare he make me feel this way?'), realising that we're worried can make us even more worried ('if I keep worrying like this I won't be able to sleep, and then I'll feel even worse tomorrow...'), and so on - which can make it even trickier to extract ourselves from what's going on.
This step is where some skill in meditation is profoundly helpful - I honestly don't know of a better tool. The trick is that, in order to extract ourselves from a negative state, even if we have some kind of tool for changing our mind state (whether it's meditative, deep breathing, visualisation or something else entirely), we must first have that moment of mindfulness which says 'Oh, hey! I see what's going on. I'm in an unwholesome state, and it would be in my best interest to get out of it.' For me, at least, I've found that a regular meditation practice has greatly increased the frequency of those moments of mindfulness, and also their duration - giving me a longer window in which to do something about the negative state I've gotten myself into, before I get sucked back into it again.
Meditation is great training for the second Great Effort. A core part of the act of meditation is having those moments of mindfulness - noticing that, for the thousandth time this sitting, my attention has wandered away from the breath, body or whatever else I'm paying attention to, and that I need to make that small but significant effort to bring it back on topic again. That simple act is a kind of training is extracting myself from an unwholesome state (defined here as mind-wandering) and returning to a wholesome state (paying attention to my meditation object). We can liken this to lifting a small weight many, many times - over time, we get stronger, even if it takes a long time and we don't really notice the changes.
That moment of mindfulness is just the start, of course. We still need a way out of the unwholesome state. In some cases, that might be simple: in the hangry example, perhaps we notice that, once again, we skipped breakfast and now we're getting grumpy - but now that we're aware of the pattern, we can eat a banana or grab a handful of cashews from the secret stash under our desk at work, and that'll be enough to mollify the body until lunchtime. Some unwholesome states are likely to need individual solutions according to the specific situation. Other times, though, we may be able to bring general strategies to bear on the situation, and here again we see a benefit of a regular meditation practice, as we move on to...
3. The effort to cause the arising of an unarisen wholesome state
Many meditation techniques aim to bring about the arising of a wholesome state of some kind, thereby accomplishing the third Great Effort. Here are some examples:
In general, in early Buddhism the emphasis is on finding resources inside ourselves, rather than being dependent on the external world to supply sources of pleasure to keep us feeling good. It's easy to think 'Oh, I'll just eat another chocolate, that'll make me feel better,' but while that does trigger an all-too-brief experience of pleasure and a momentary decrease in stress, it's also not as good as having an inner source of wholesome states. (For one thing, maybe you've run out of chocolate and the shop is shut.) The momentariness of the pleasure of eating chocolate is also worth considering, particularly in light of the fourth Great Effort:
4. The effort to maintain and develop an arisen wholesome state
We don't just want a flash in a pan - a moment's relief from whatever unwholesome state we've dragged ourselves out of. Ideally, we want that wholesome state to persist, and even to get stronger.
My teacher's teacher Ayya Khema said that you should always begin a meditation session with some metta (loving kindness) practice. Quite apart from the cumulative benefit of the loving kindness practice itself, it also serves to put us into a wholesome state at the beginning of our meditation session, which tends to make everything that follows go a little more easily.
Sometimes, though, I'll sit down and try to get the metta going, but what comes out is a bit of a dribble... like a tap that's rusted up and doesn't want to open up all the way. There's some metta there, but it's a bit of a struggle and it'll fizzle out if I'm not careful - like the first wisp of smoke coming from a newly lit fire, that needs to be tended with care if it's going to become a steady blaze. What's needed at this point is care and subtlety - a nurturing attitude, providing an environment in which this embryonic feeling of metta can grow and develop, gradually opening up the tap until it's flowing more strongly.
This takes skill, and that skill comes from practice and repetition. Over time, we learn how to shift into this 'nurturing' attitude in order to help our fledgling wholesome states become their fullest selves. As we do so, we also learn how to maintain wholesome states in increasingly difficult situations. It's quite common for people new to meditation to start to find some peace and happiness in their practice, only for that to be shattered by a difficult encounter at work or a challenging family situation. This type of experience can knock the confidence of a new meditator - 'Oh, what's the use, it didn't work when it really mattered!' But it's just a matter of degree. Someone going to the gym for the first time isn't likely to be able to lift the heaviest weights. At any point in our practice, we'll have situations which really don't trouble us at all, situations which we can work with if we're careful, situations right on the edge of our abilities (which is where the most potential for growth can be found), and situations which are too much for us. A good sign of progress is when a situation that used to take some conscious effort to navigate no longer bothers us in the same way - our 'easy' category has grown larger, because our skills have grown stronger. Yes, there may still be situations which can knock us off balance and cause us to lose our cool, but expecting perfection is asking too much of ourselves. The fact is that, through regular practice, we can learn to inhabit more robust wholesome states more and more of the time - and each time we move the needle, even just a little, our lives get a little bit better overall.
May you develop the skill and wisdom needed to avoid unarisen unwholesome states, abandon arisen unwholesome states, bring about unarisen wholesome states and cultivate arisen wholesome states!
Bring me your mind, and I'll pacify it for you!
This week we're looking at case 41 in the Gateless Barrier, Pacifying the Mind. Like a number of koans, it reads almost like a joke - there's a 'smart-ass' quality to the master's reply that, on first inspection, makes the whole thing seem like a bit of a game. Nevertheless, this 'so sharp you'll cut yourself' exchange actually conceals a profound truth, one that I'll attempt to point the way to as the article goes on. First, though, let's take a look at this week's cast of characters.
Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen, and Huike, his successor
Bodhidharma is generally regarded as a semi-legendary figure these days. He may or may not have existed as a real historical figure, and he probably didn't cross the Yellow River in China on a single blade of grass as the stories tell us he did, but nevertheless he represents the origin of the Zen school of Buddhism.
According to the story, Bodhidharma was an Indian (or possibly Persian) Buddhist teacher, who, already advanced in years, decided to travel to China to see how Buddhism was being practised over there. When he arrived, however, he wasn't impressed with what he found. Buddhism in China at the time was a scholarly affair, without much actual meditation practice happening. Disheartened, he retreated to a cave in the Songshan mountains, near the now-famous Shaolin Temple (yes, that one), and sat for nine years facing a wall. (Today, in the Soto style of Zen, the Silent Illumination practice is typically undertaken sitting facing a wall. The nine years of Bodhidharma's retreat have also been symbolically linked to the nine months of pregnancy, and in general there's a sense in Zen that awakening takes time to ripen and mature before it's really 'ready').
The koan begins with Bodhidharma at the end of his nine years of practice. Eventually, some of the monks at the Shaolin Temple started to take an interest in this crazy barbarian hermit living up in the cave, and eventually one named Huike approached him and asked for a teaching. At first, Bodhidharma ignored him, simply continuing to face the wall. This initial refusal to teach a new aspirant is echoed in the ritual that people wishing to become Zen monks must typically go through, where they're initially ignored and left outside the temple gates until they've proven their sincerity by waiting patiently for however long the temple deems necessary.
In Huike's case, he settled on a grand - and somewhat horrifying - gesture to show his sincerity - cutting off his own arm. Please don't try this at home! Quite a bit of self-mutilation has been practised in Chinese spiritual circles over the ages - one story about Bodhidharma says that, in order to stop himself falling asleep, he cut off his own eyelids and threw them away; where they fell to the ground, they sprouted into the first tea plants. Another story says that, as a result of his nine-year solitary retreat, he sat for so long that his legs fell off! In Japan today you'll often see 'Daruma dolls' (pictured above), Daruma being the Japanese pronunciation of Bodhidharma's name. These dolls have a round, weighted base to represent a body without legs, as a result of which they roll back upright each time they're pushed over - symbolising Daruma's indefatigable spirit, captured in the popular Japanese phrase 'seven times down, eight times up'. Getting back to Huike and the whole severed arm business, for modern readers it's probably better to interpret Huike's gesture as symbolic rather than literal - a sign of Huike's absolute dedication to take up Zen practice with Bodhidharma.
Anyway, eventually, Bodhidharma relented, and turned to face Huike, at which point the exchange described above took place. Commentators often suppose that there's a gap between Bodhidharma's request for Huike to 'bring me your mind' and the next line of dialogue, implying that Huike went away and spent some time searching for his mind, only to discover that he couldn't find it. This seems right to me - maybe I'm just a bit of a slowpoke, but it's always taken me quite a while to find genuine insights!
Whether or not this particular exchange led to an awakening for Huike is not recorded in the koan, but Huike went on to be considered Bodhidharma's foremost successor. (Bodhidharma had four students in total - not many for such a pivotal figure! - three men and one woman.)
But what does the exchange actually mean, and how can it help us in modern times?
Bringing peace to our minds
Huike comes to Bodhidharma complaining that his mind is not at peace. This is probably a state of affairs that we can all relate to. But what do we really mean when we say 'My mind is not at peace?'
One simple description of what it means to have a mind which is not at peace might be something like: I experience a string of disagreeable thoughts, emotions and other impressions, which I seem to be unable to prevent.
(If you have a different definition, let's hear it - please leave a comment down below!)
This experience of a seemingly unstoppable stream of unpleasant experiences does seem to be quite common, at least within the self-selecting population of people interested in meditation practice. Quite a few people have come to my Wednesday night class asking how they can 'stop thoughts' because those thoughts cause them so much pain.
The usual answer I give is that meditation isn't really about stopping your thoughts - it's about finding a different relationship with them so that they don't cause us to suffer so much. Actually, though, that isn't quite true. If we do a lot of meditation (we're talking many hours a day) with a strong samadhi component, we actually can sometimes enter a peaceful state, initially for short periods, then for longer and longer stretches as our mind settles more and more, until it eventually becomes continuous. This kind of peace of mind can often be glimpsed on longer retreats (a month or more). However, it isn't terribly practical for most of us, since we have jobs, families and responsibilities to fit around the eight or so hours of daily meditation required to maintain this kind of state.
So, assuming you don't have unlimited spare time to spend in meditation sufficiently quietening your mind and body in order to be permanently tranquil, what else can you do? The short answer is 'insight practice'.
Concentration practice is good at bringing about a change in 'state' - moving us from a more agitated state to a more peaceful one. Insight practice, on the other hand, brings about a change in 'trait' - when we see things deeply enough, we form a new relationship to them, and thus have a permanently different experience as a result. One of the things we can explore in our insight practice is the mind itself - and it turns out that, if we come to understand our minds well enough, then we no longer find the comings and goings within our minds so bothersome. Thoughts and emotions may still come and go, but they lose their sting, and so no longer 'trouble' our minds in the same way.
So, what does it mean to 'understand our minds well enough'? What are these insights that practice will somehow give us?
Insight practice, the importance of personal experience, and the futility of 'explanations'
I've previously written quite a number of articles where I've done my best to provide my own answer to these questions. I've talked about various insights that can come out of Zen practice - into emptiness, non-duality, the nature of mind/awareness, and so forth. But the more I do this, the more I start to question how valuable these kinds of explanations actually are.
If you've never eaten a mango, no description of mine will ever convey the experience to you. Maybe I start by saying that it's yellow, and you say 'Oh, so it's like a banana, they're yellow.' Well, no, it isn't like a banana. So maybe I say that, well, no, the texture is more like a melon. 'Ah,' you say, 'it's like a yellow melon. Got it.' Nope, that still isn't right. You can't help but map my words onto experiences that you're already familiar with, because you have no other reference point. But the only experience that's really like eating a mango is, well, eating a damn mango. There's no form of words clever enough to capture that experience for you without you doing the taste test for yourself.
My Zen teacher has often commented that Zen seems to attract people who are pretty clever, and I've certainly run into quite a number of people who have read a lot of books about philosophy and science, really thought carefully about them, and can describe a very intellectually convincing model about what's going on both in their own minds and the world around them. Such people often have some kind of objection to Zen practice because they feel that their intellectual understanding of what's going on is 'better' than Zen in some way - more modern, more sophisticated, whatever. It's very difficult to 'persuade' such a person to suspend their well-thought-out philosophy of life in favour of claims which seem to be based in intangible experiences that are not available to the person asking for proof. It's a tough sell.
And yet that's how this works. The reason that the old Zen texts (and probably most of these articles) don't make any damn sense at first is because reality isn't what we think it is. We need to engage in long hours of diligent practice to see the truth of these things for ourselves - at which point all of the cryptic writings of the ancient masters (male and female, lay and monastic) start to make sense - because, finally, we've tasted the mango for ourselves, and so we can relate what's being described to our own experience. (This is often a humbling transition. Beforehand, it's easy to think 'Oh, this is all so confusing, why can't they just say it in plain language?' Afterwards, we're forced to admit that, actually, the old masters did a pretty good job.)
So rather than attempt to describe what you might find by looking at the experience of a mind not yet at peace, I'll instead simply give you some suggestions for how to investigate it for yourself. In the long run, that's the only thing that will ever make a difference for you personally. (Notice that that's what Bodhidharma does in the koan - he doesn't attempt to explain to Huike why his seemingly troubled mind isn't really a problem, he simply asks Huike to go and find his mind so that he can pacify it. Huike then obligingly undertakes the search for himself.)
Some suggested ways to look for your mind
Here are three meditative approaches to explore the nature of the mind. Pursue whichever feels more appealing to you - but stick with it. Insights tend to take a while to show up. We can view the practice as a process of gathering evidence which challenges our current world view - we need to get a critical mass of data in order to tip the scales in favour of a new way of seeing things, and that's going to take some time.
It can also help very much to spend some time settling the mind with a samadhi practice before engaging in insight work. When the mind is more focused, there's less noise, and more of our being is paying attention to what's going on, so if insights do show up, they tend to go deeper. That's not to say that so-called 'dry insight' (pure insight practice with no samadhi component) doesn't work - but in my experience it's more efficient to spend some time on samadhi first, so that's my recommendation.
When your mind is at least a little bit settled - there's often a fairly clear transition where your mind goes from wandering very frequently to being rather more stable - then move into any of the following practices.
1. Silent Illumination
In Silent Illumination practice, we simply rest, allowing both body and mind to become still. As the stilling process deepens, the usual noise in our experience quietens down, and subtler aspects reveal themselves to us. This is, by nature, an undirected process, and it can take its sweet time to do anything, but the great benefit is that there's really nothing to remember or do. Just sit there, allowing your body to breathe, and anytime you find yourself doing anything else at all (focusing on something in particular, trying to 'direct' your practice in a certain way, thinking about the practice, etc.), stop doing that. Trust, and see what happens. (If you need instructions for Silent Illumination, you can find them here, and a guided practice on the Audio page.)
One key point to note is that the stillness of Silent Illumination will (eventually!) reveal the nature of your mind to you, but the stillness is not the mind itself. What we find in the depths of Silent Illumination practice can eventually be found in every moment of life, no matter what's going on.
2. Koan: 'What, and where, is mind?'
Usually I recommend that people interested in koan practice start with 'Who am I?' That will actually get the job done as well. But since today's koan involves Bodhidharma asking Huike to go and fetch his mind, it also works well to use 'What, and where, is mind?' What is it that we're trying to pacify, and where can it be found? As usual when working with a koan, don't try to 'direct' the investigation in any way - just keep asking the question, over and over; notice what comes up, let it go, and repeat. (If you haven't worked with a koan before, you can find instructions here, and a guided 'Who am I?' koan practice on the Audio page.)
3. Direct investigation of the qualities of the mind
This third approach is more akin to the sort of thing you might find in the Tibetan Mahamudra tradition. Mahamudra insight practice (vipashyana) commonly involves a long sequence of quite specific investigations, looking at different aspects of the 'mind' (or, synonymously, the 'awareness'). The investigations can seem weird or even silly at first, but there's real power in practising this way, and it's included in today's list because it gives you something a bit more concrete to do than either of the two Zen approaches, which may suit certain types of people better.
Some example inquiries:
...And so on. (For a more comprehensive list of inquiries, check out the Mahamudra Meditation Center's Meditation Manual.)
One final note - keep going!
Insight meditation is a strange business. The practices often come across as weird, trivial or absurd. And yet they work - but only if we stick at it. If your practice is taking you to uncomfortable places then it's very helpful to reach out to a teacher to talk about what's going on, but by far the bigger problem is the boredom and frustration of 'nothing happening'. And yet it's only by crossing the desert that we reach the oasis. So please keep going! And then, when you truly discover your mind for yourself, you can write back to me and tell me how I should have explained it in this article...
The Eightfold Path, part 5
This article is the fifth 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 taking a look at the fifth factor of the path, right livelihood. As you can see from the quotation above, the instruction for this one is pretty simple - just avoid wrong livelihood! But what does that actually mean, and what difference does it make anyway? Let's get into it.
What is the 'wrong livelihood' we're supposed to abandon?
As you may have noticed, the definition of right livelihood that we find in Samyutta Nikaya 45.8, the discourse that we've been using all the way through this series of articles for the definitions of each aspect of the Eightfold Path, is rather sparse - some might say useless. We're told to abandon 'wrong livelihood', but we had probably already figured that one out given that there's something called 'right livelihood' that we're supposed to be doing instead.
If we search around some more in the Pali canon (the collection of discourses from the earliest stratum of the Buddhist teachings), sooner or later we come across Anguttara Nikaya 5.177, which suggests one definition of wrong livelihood:
"Monks, a lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison."
This is much more concrete, and thus at first sight appears to be much more helpful. OK, so we're supposed to avoid business in 'weapons' (selling weapons, maybe making them too?), business in 'human beings' (one imagines that this includes things like slavery rather than working in Human Resources), business in 'meat' (fishing, being a butcher?), business in 'intoxicants' (being a drug dealer is off the cards), and business in 'poison' (presumably both poisoning people and selling poison to others is frowned upon).
If you've read my previous article on right action and the precepts, however, you'll probably already know that I tend to get a bit suspicious of neat little lists like this. They seem to give a very straightforward answer to our moral questions, but a lot of it comes down to interpretation. While my comment above about Human Resources in relation to 'business in human beings' may have come across as facetious, there's a valid point there. I've lived a pretty sheltered life, but even I've worked for bosses who cared about me and looked out for my interests, and I've also worked for bosses whose only interest was to exploit me for everything I was worth and then throw me aside when I was all used up. Where do we draw the line with 'business in intoxicants' - are we concerned only with certain types of alcohol, or do we include creating apps which are designed to be habit-forming for the purpose of persuading people to part with significant amounts of money through hundreds of microtransactions?
Broadening our perspective on right livelihood
Let's set the specific list to one side for the moment. What's actually going on here? Why do these categories of 'right livelihood' and 'wrong livelihood' even exist?
Right livelihood is part of the section of the Eightfold Path concerned with sīla, or ethics. Fundamentally, all of the ethical teachings demonstrate how the second factor of the path, right intention, is to be practised - in particular, the intention of harmlessness. So we have the third factor, right speech, which points out how easily and immediately we can create harm through our speech, and provides some guidelines for how we can minimise that harm. Next, we have right action, which takes a broader perspective, looking not just at our speech but at our actions more generally, highlighting how we might cause harm through taking life, taking what is not given, or engaging in sexual misconduct. Finally, we arrive at right livelihood, which takes a broader perspective still, looking at the type of life we lead.
Our livelihood matters because it shapes so much of what we do - particularly if we broaden our sense of 'livelihood' to include 'lifestyle' rather than simply 'occupation'. Our lifestyle governs to a significant degree the types of situations we end up in - and thus some lifestyles are much more conducive to right speech and right action than others. A career criminal is very likely to have to tell lies (wrong speech) and take what is not given (wrong action) as a matter of course. Even leaving aside the harm that comes from such a lifestyle, being in this kind of life situation is very unlikely to lead to a peaceful mind which is well suited to meditation practice.
So I'm going to suggest that the most useful questions to ask ourselves in relation to right livelihood are not 'Is my occupation on the naughty list?', but rather 'How do I make my way through the world? What are the positive and negative aspects of my lifestyle? What effect does my lifestyle have on my state of mind? And, once I've really spent some time with this and come to a balanced assessment, how should I move forward?'
This kind of close examination of our lifestyle isn't necessarily a practice that needs to be undertaken every day - that could lead to endless second-guessing and self-paralysis - but it's definitely useful to go into great detail at least once, and then check in every so often (maybe every couple of years, or after a major life change) to see how things are going. Our lifestyles tend to drift rather slowly, usually too slowly to notice it happening in real time, so checking in every once in a while gives us the opportunity to notice how things might have drifted over the months and years.
Practice and life
The inclusion of right livelihood in the Eightfold Path really helps to highlight that, for the Buddha, 'practice' and 'life' were synonymous. For many of us, it's easy to relate to 'meditation' as just one of a wide range of activities in our busy lives, twenty minutes a day of self-care that we can treat a bit like going to the gym - we know we're better for doing it, but we leave the weights in the gym at the end of a session and forget about them until next time.
This is actually fine so far as it goes, and I don't mean to criticise anyone who has this kind of relationship to their meditation practice! I used to feel that way too, actually. For me, though, as my practice has gone deeper, I've started to notice more and more ways that my meditation practice and my life overlap. Insights that come up in meditation can often be applied to life situations - and conversely. (The model of 'excitation and stimulation' that I described in a recent article was something I first noticed as a result of looking at stress in my working life and experimenting with different strategies to manage it, not something that was directly related to meditation practice.)
In the Zen tradition, there's a strong sense that practice can be continuous - not limited to any particular time of day or posture, but rather an attitude of presence that is carried throughout all of the activities of the day. When we have work to do, we can apply ourselves wholeheartedly to it, focusing wholly on the task at hand. When we have a quiet moment, we can return to meditation, or simply rest in the present moment rather than letting our thoughts spin out into planning tomorrow's meeting for the seventeenth time.
As we do this, we start to feel the boundaries between 'practice' and 'life' dissolving. Meditation becomes more 'ordinary' and life becomes more 'extraordinary'. We discover that we can walk the spiritual path not in order to get to some special destination, but simply because walking the path is a good way to live.
May your practice (and your life) go well.
Making sense of a world in which nothing is as it seems
This week we're looking at case 40 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Kicking Over a Water Pitcher'. This rather peculiar story starts with Zen master Baizhang (last seen all the way back in case 2) asking a typically incomprehensible question, followed by equally bizarre answers. What's going on here?
Before we get into that in detail, let's go on a brief digression. It'll be relevant later, I promise.
How I became a recovering perfectionist
The seeds of my perfectionism were planted early. As a young'un I was academically gifted; my mum liked to see me do well, and my dad liked to needle people to wind them up ('Oh, 9 out of 10? Which one did you get wrong then?'), so I tended to set my sights pretty high (and avoid situations that would show me up to be less than perfect - not a great recipe for growth, but there you go).
Over the last decade or so of practice, that sense of perfectionism has gradually started to erode. Several factors have played into that. The lack of a clear external metric (marks out of 10) has been a big one, but somehow I still managed to hold on to an ideal of perfection for quite a while despite that. Then, in the last couple of years, as I've been confronting my tendency to apply too much effort to my meditation practice (see last week's article!), I've experimented with flipping from 'perfect' to 'good enough' as my ideal.
But that just replaces one problem with another - what's 'good enough'? This turns out to be a matter of perspective and context, rather than something that can ever be pinned down. To paraphrase a line from the Zhuangzi, if we say that something is good because it is praised by someone, then everything is good; if we say that something is bad beacuse it is criticised by someone, then everything is bad.
Let's take playing the piano as an example - this is something that I used to do (sadly I don't really have time any more). How good is 'good enough'? Well, it turns out that, no matter your level of skill, there will be some pieces of music that you can play easily (everyone can play a middle C if the right key is pointed out to them!), some which you can't play at all, and some which are right on the limit of your current level of skill. So you're 'good enough' to play the easy ones, need to get just a little better to play the ones that are right on the edge of your skill, and are not 'good enough' to play much more difficult pieces. The tricky bit is that it's easy to look at what we can't do and say 'Oh, I'm not good enough yet, I can't do xyz' - but that will always be the case. Many of the musicians who are regarded as the greatest in their field will comment in interviews that they're always practising, trying to get better, trying to reach some higher standard that feels forever beyond them.
To be clear, it isn't that it's a bad thing to want to improve! But if we're constantly beating ourselves up for not being 'good enough', then it may be helpful for us to investigate that notion to find out what it means to us. As we do that, we'll discover that it's much more of a moving target than we might have thought - and so our continual failure to achieve the satisfaction we thought we would find at the end of it all suddenly makes a lot more sense.
How does this relate to the koan?
What I've just described is one version of what's known as 'emptiness' in Zen. This slippery notion is all to do with pointing out how our concepts don't quite fit reality. We start with something simple like 'It needs to be perfect!' - that's a nice, apparently clear-cut target to aim for. Yet it turns out to be unreachable, again and again, and to the extent that we continue to cling to that idea of 'perfection', we suffer as a consequence of our failure to attain it. But then, through meditation and investigation of our experience, we realise that we've been chasing a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow - it's an optical illusion, something that doesn't really exist. And so we're able to relax and let go of the impossible goal, and the suffering that comes with it.
Seeing emptiness for ourselves (through a koan or Silent Illumination) is a major landmark on the path of Zen. It's a turning point, a point of no return - having seen the emptiness of the world, you can't ever go back to believing in a fully dependable, predictable world any more. And yet that isn't the end of the road by any means - in many ways it's more of a beginning.
As our understanding of emptiness deepens, we begin to notice more and more ways in which it applies to our experience. It turns out that all of our concepts are empty (including emptiness itself, but that's a head-scratcher for another day!). This can be very liberating, because all of a sudden the seemingly impenetrable walls keeping us trapped inside our suffering are revealed to be totally illusory. On the other hand, it can also be pretty confusing, as the seemingly dependable pillars of our life now appear to be shaky, impermanent and context-dependent. It's as if we've lived our whole lives with a road map which was beautifully clear but seriously misleading - we can no longer trust the road map any more, but then how are we going to get from A to B? How can we navigate at all in an empty world in which nothing is certain?
And that's what Zen master Baizhang is asking in this koan. He picks up a water pitcher - we know what a water pitcher is, you put water in it and you pour the water out when you want a drink. And yet we can assume that both Guishan and the leader of the assembly have done enough Zen practice to realise that the label 'water pitcher' doesn't fully capture what's going on here - it's just a limited concept, as empty as anything else. So if you can't call it a water pitcher, what do you call it?
What is a river?
Another example may help to clarify what's going on, at least at the intellectual level. (Intellectual understanding doesn't go far enough, but it's the best I can offer in an article! In time, your Zen practice will reveal emptiness to you on an experiential level, which is where it really makes a difference in your life.)
What's a river? Perhaps this seems like a daft question - everyone knows what a river is. It's when you've got a bunch of water flowing from somewhere upstream to somewhere downstream, probably ultimately ending up in the sea. What's hard about that?
OK, but what actually is the river? Is it the water? Presumably not, because the water is constantly flowing - if you stand and watch a river, you're seeing new water every moment. What else is involved? Well, there's a channel carved into the earth which makes the water flow in a particular direction, starting at a particular place and ending somewhere else. That's pretty important too - different rivers have different names, and if you're planning to go boating with friends it matters whether you're meeting on the River Severn or the River Thames. But, then again, the course of the river changes from time to time - if it's rained a lot, it might flood, or a shallower side channel might dry up entirely. And over a much longer period of time, the flowing water erodes the earth forming the river channel, causing it to change shape and direction. Sometimes a river can be diverted, either intentionally or unintentionally, so even the point where it reaches the sea can change significantly. And yet we still consider it to be 'the same river', even though pretty much every observable characteristic of it changes over time.
So why does this work? Because, in general, the changes to the river are small enough that they don't make much practical difference. Some days the brook behind my house is barely a trickle, some days it's a pretty strong flow, but either way there's usually some water down there - enough for the neighbourhood dogs to jump into and splash around in, anyway. Yes, it's much more of a process than a thing, but the process is consistent enough that it's sometimes useful to be able to label it and refer to it, even though the label doesn't refer to anything totally objectively real or dependable in any absolute sense.
Getting back to the road map analogy, perhaps we started out believing that we had access to satellite imagery which mapped out the terrain perfectly; then, when we discovered that the map wasn't perfectly accurate after all, we experienced a period of disorientation, not knowing how to move forward now that we felt we could no longer trust the map. But then, as our understanding of emptiness deepens, we realise that we're dealing with something more like the London Underground map. We can't take it too literally, but once we understand how it works, we can still use it to get around - and that's much better than not having a map at all!
The two answers
Coming back to the koan, we can perhaps now understand what's going on with the two responses to Baizhang's question.
The leader of the assembly (presumably the head monk at the temple) says 'It cannot be called a tree stump.' (As an aside, this is my own choice of terminology - one version I've seen says 'It cannot be called a wooden upright bolt', but I don't even know what a wooden upright bolt is(!), and another says 'It cannot be called a stump', which it take to mean a tree stump rather than a severed limb, hence my choice of translation.)
This seems like a pretty random answer at first sight, but what he's saying is 'Just because it's empty doesn't mean that you can use any old label to describe it! Some labels are more useful than others. It's much more useful to think of it as a water pitcher than as a tree stump, for example - neither is "ultimately true" but one fits the observed phenomenon a lot better than the other.'
This is an important point, and it's a bit of a relief for anyone who's been wondering how on earth they'll ever able to have a normal conversation with someone else after realising emptiness for themselves. It's fine - you can still use all the same words you always have. The difference is that you now know there's more to it than that - and that, if any of those words are taken too seriously and clung to, that's a setup for suffering. Instead, we simply take up the words as we need to, use them for the time being, and then put them down again when they've served their purpose.
So, actually, although the monk 'loses' the competition, he gives a pretty good answer! However, he's pipped the post by Guishan, who simply kicks over the pitcher and walks away.
Guishan is making the same point, but much more directly. Whatever you choose to call it - a pitcher, a jug, a container of water - its behaviour is the same. If you want it to hold water, it needs to be upright. If you knock it over, the water spills out and makes a big mess.
In the Zen tradition, answering a question through action is typically regarded as better than answering through words. Words can sometimes be helpful, but often can indicate that one's understanding only goes to the intellectual level. One can 'talk a good game', but if an insight hasn't yet reached the deeper levels of our being, it hasn't changed our lives. When an insight goes deeply enough, it's expressed in our actions, not just in our words - what's referred to as 'bodily attainment' in the Zen tradition. That's when it's truly useful - when it's so integrated into our being that no thought is required, no reflection, no debate - we simply act in accordance with the Great Way, without having to think about it at all. And so, by responding with an action rather than words, Guishan demonstrates the depth of his understanding - and his readiness to embody the path for others, not merely to talk about it.
May you, too, come to embody the Great Way of Zen through your practice.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!