Where is your practice taking you?
Over the last few weeks in my Wednesday night Zen class we've been talking about the different approaches taken by various Buddhist traditions over the last two and a half thousand years - their world view, their aims, and the practices that support those aims. So I thought it might be interesting to take a deeper look at these issues and see how an understanding of the great diversity of Buddhisms can inform and support our personal spiritual practice.
Before we get into the meat of the article, I'll say that this is a contentious subject, and I know at least one significant figure in the Buddhist world who would flatly disagree with pretty much everything I'm about to say. I'm also going to touch on traditions and approaches which I haven't practised in any depth myself, so I apologise in advance if anyone feels their tradition is being utterly misrepresented. The point here is not so much to give 100% accurate descriptions of each approach as it is to illustrate the variety of approaches on offer, so I'm going to claim that I don't need total accuracy anyway. (If I did, this article would take months to write!)
Some people will tell you that all Buddhisms (and indeed all spiritual paths) are basically the same, pointing to the same perennial Ultimate Truth and using basically the same techniques. I would say that this is an oversimplification at best, and disingenuous at worst. What I see is a great plurality of traditions with different ways of understanding what it means to be human and what the purpose of spiritual practice is, drawing from a largely (but not entirely) shared set of practices which produce a largely (but not entirely) shared set of experiences, but explaining those practices and experiences in significantly different ways. In other words, it doesn't just matter what you do when you meditate, but also why you're doing it, and how you understand what happens to you as a result.
Let's take a look at a range of different approaches from the last few millennia to illustrate what I'm talking about.
No experience, no problem - yogic practice in the time of the Buddha
As I've previously described, in the time of the Buddha the world was seen as cyclic in nature, and essentially painful. Living beings would be born, suffer, die and then be born again, only to suffer all over again. The only way to win a game like that is not to play - but you can't even escape through suicide, because you'll only be reborn all over again.
According to the stories in the Pali canon (for example, Majjhima Nikaya 26, the Discourse on the Noble Search), the historical Buddha-to-be, Siddhartha Gautama, left home and wandered for several years trying to find an escape from the seemingly inevitable suffering of life. Amongst other approaches, he met a teacher called Alara Kalama, who taught a meditation practice called the dimension of nothingness. Readers familiar with the jhanas will recognise this as the seventh jhana, or third formless realm. If you don't know this kind of practice, basically it's a matter of focusing the attention very intently on an object until the mind becomes so absorbed that you proceed through a series of altered states of consciousness - in the case of Alara Kalama, arriving at the experience of nothingness, where you literally experience 'nothing' - no body sensation, no sights or sounds, not even space or consciousness; just nothing, the absence of anything at all.
In the same discourse we hear of another teacher, Uddaka Ramaputta, who taught an even deeper concentration state - the dimension of 'neither perception nor non-perception'. (Again, readers familiar with the jhanas will recognise this as the eighth jhana, or fourth formless realm.) What's the difference between this and the previous one? In the seventh jhana, you clearly perceive nothingness. In the eighth jhana, you don't clearly perceive anything at all, not even nothingness. At the same time, though, your experience hasn't totally stopped. Hence, neither perception nor non-perception.
Toward the end of MN26 we hear of a deeper state even than this - the cessation of perception and feeling. Here, you've gone even beyond 'neither perception nor non-perception', and your conscious experience simply switches off entirely, like going into deep dreamless sleep. Supposedly people can stay in this state for several days at a time - I can't say I've achieved this myself though!
The basic idea behind all of these approaches is one of transcendence. The world sucks, so let's get the heck out of it! So we learn to focus the mind so profoundly that our experience falls away - and if we have no experience, there's no suffering.
No emotions, no problem - the innovative approach of early Buddhism
According to the story, Siddhartha Gautama wasn't satisfied with these deep concentration states. They had a basic problem - as soon as you emerged from meditation, the suffering would come right back. And so the Buddha-to-be started down the path that will characterise all the subsequent developments that we'll see in this article - how to retain some kind of conscious experience while eliminating as much suffering as possible.
The Buddha's solution was to identify emotional reactivity as a source of avoidable suffering. There wasn't much he could do about the aches and pains of having a body (apart from continuing to practise those deep concentration states, which formed a core path of his teaching), but it turns out that one could train to eliminate greed, hatred and delusion, ultimately uprooting the sources of reactivity and leaving the practitioner in a state of 'coolness', or nibbana (the word literally meaning 'extinguished', like a candle flame that's been blown out).
So you see a multi-pronged approach in early Buddhism. Concentration states are still taught, partly for temporary relief from suffering, and partly to stabilise the mind to make it easier to discover the insights that uproot greed, hatred and delusion in a more permanent way. Heart-opening practices are also taught, partly because they're good concentration practices and partly because they provide an antidote to strong negative emotions, ultimately culminating in equanimity, or neutrality. But early Buddhism also adds insight practice into the mix, and in particular an investigation of the impermanent, unsatisfactory and impersonal nature of all phenomena, causing a practitioner to become 'disenchanted' with the pleasures of the material world. The final step is to explore and uproot the sense of having a separate personal 'self' which enjoys pleasure and dislikes pain. When the world comes to be seen as a purely impersonal unfolding, there's no more personal experience of craving and aversion because there's nobody here to suffer it.
(As an aside, here we also start to run up against the necessity of insight to progress. The 'concentrate your way to oblivion' approach worked 100% within the existing world view that practitioners would already have had. Getting all the way to uprooting the self requires coming to see the world differently, however - differently enough that, at first glance, what the Buddha is saying might sound strange, impossible, ridiculous, or something that must be taken on faith because there's no way to know it for ourselves. The key point of Buddhist practice is that we can experience these things for ourselves - or, at least, we can have personal experiences which can be understood in terms of the new view that we're being invited to accept, thereby convincing ourselves that the view on offer is actually reasonable after all.)
No negative emotions, no problem - the path of karmic purification
Over time, some elements of the Buddhist sangha moved in an increasingly renunciate direction, focused on deep meditative experiences and emphasising withdrawal from the world. In response, another movement arose, suggesting that personal liberation from suffering wasn't enough, and that practitioners should also make helping others a significant part of the path. This approach became known as the Mahayana, famous for its Bodhisattva ideal, in which practitioners vow to postpone their enlightenment until all sentient beings have been saved from suffering.
With a more outward-looking view came new questions about how to be in the world to help other beings without simply being crushed by the same weight of suffering afflicting everyone else. In particular, was it really necessary to totally eliminate all attraction and aversion? Couldn't positive emotions be a valuable source of energy to help others? Perhaps, instead of crushing one's entire emotional range down to a dry wafer, we could simply eliminate the bad stuff, and keep the good?
Various views of 'purification' thus arose over the centuries. For example, the Yogacara school developed a model of the mind broken down into eight consciousnesses; the first first correspond to the regular five senses, the sixth is for conceptual thought, the seventh is the source of the sense of self and afflictive emotions, and the eighth is the consciousness of the 'storehouse', where our karmic 'seeds' are stored. Do something good, you plant a positive seed; do something bad, you'll plant a negative seed. Afflictive emotions are considered to be the result of the ripening of negative seeds, and thus practice consists in large part of purifying the storehouse of negative karma. Gradually, the afflictive emotions are purified too, and you can be in the world as a saintly, compassionate, loving being.
In this kind of approach, we might still use techniques like concentration or heart-opening practices, but now the sense is that deep concentration leads to a purification of our karma, and heart-opening cultivates positive karma while leading us away from creating more negative karma. Same practice, but a different view leading to a different outcome. We're no longer trying to extinguish ourselves entirely - we're simply trying to get rid of the bad stuff. The problem is, of course, that even positive emotions can be incredibly powerful and can lead us astray from time to time - so, although it might seem like there's less work to do in this approach, we have to be more careful not to fall into the trap of getting carried away by the emotions that we're allowing to remain in place.
Embracing problems into a source of energy - the tantric path
A later development is Tantric, or Vajrayana, Buddhism, sometimes referred to as the 'third turning of the Wheel of Dharma' (early Buddhism and the Mahayana being the first two). Tantra emphasises living fully in the world rather than removing yourself from it either completely or partially. Whereas someone following a path of purification might maintain a strict code of ethics, tantric approaches often involve violating moral rules as a deliberate part of the path.
The basic idea in tantra is that nothing is off limits. Rather than dividing up our experience into 'positive emotions' and 'negative emotions', we can instead come to see all emotions as simply forms of energy. That energy can manifest in destructive ways, or, through practice, be transmuted into 'wisdom energy' - a positive manifestation of the same basic energetic movement. So, for example, anger can be expressed destructively, but it can also provide tremendous clarity about a situation if handled correctly.
So now we're arriving at a very different view from early Buddhism, which sought to eliminate basically all attraction and aversion - instead, we positively welcome all of these qualities, we just need to know how to handle them. Needless to say, this is a high-risk, high-reward strategy, like juggling chainsaws - if you can pull it off, more power to you, but the potential to go astray is also pretty huge.
In a tantric approach we might still seek to use a technique like a heart-opening practice, but now we might be doing it in order to evoke powerful energies within ourselves to work with them. Similarly, deep concentration is still likely to be valuable, but perhaps because it allows us to see with greater clarity whether we're about to chop off our own limbs with one of our chainsaws. (Tantra also tends to use visualisation to evoke and work with powerful energetic forces, and the visualisations tend to be so elaborate that strong concentration is pretty much required.)
Your 'problems' were never really problems at all - emptiness, non-duality and Zen
Yet another approach - and the one we find in Zen, as well as Tibetan traditions like Dzogchen and Mahamudra - is based around recognition of the mind-originated nature of all experience. Rather than viewing our experience as a window onto an objectively 'real' world, where suffering is an inescapable fact of a cruel world that hates us, we can instead come to recognise that everything we experience is simply a projection of our minds. Although we seem to inhabit a world of concrete things, in fact those 'things' are merely an activity of the mind, carving up the seamless whole that is our direct experience into conveniently labeled objects which can then be used to tell ourselves stories about the world to help us understand and navigate what's going on. And rather than being trapped permanently in this dualistic world of good and bad, right and wrong, gain and loss, we can instead learn to see the world non-dualistically, perceiving the wholeness of our experience with just as much clarity as we normally experience the separateness. When we do this, all judgements of pleasure and pain fall away, and the holistically experienced world is simply known to be totally fine just the way it is.
This approach is perhaps even more radical than tantra. Not only do we get to keep every part of our experience, but we don't even need to transmute it from afflictive energy into wisdom energy. All that's required is that we can learn to see the world through the non-dual lens. Of course, that's easier said than done! And of all the approaches I've described so far, this is the hardest to wrap your head around when you first encounter it. Traditions like Zen seem to be filled with paradox and beautiful but totally mysterious poetry, rather than the concrete, practical instructions of early Buddhism. Practice may consist of 'just sitting', or contemplating apparently unanswerable questions like 'What is this?'
To make matters worse, because this kind of approach emphasises a way of seeing the world which is so different to our usual perception, it's easy to misinterpret the teachings out of context. If the world is fine just the way it is, we might wonder, do we still need to be concerned about all the suffering? If good and bad are just projections of the mind, does that mean we don't have to act ethically? If there aren't really anything 'things' out there, only projections of the mind, does that mean that I am the creator of the universe and I can do whatever I like? (The answers are yes, no and no respectively, by the way.)
The first challenge with a tradition like Zen is getting a first taste of the true nature of experience (called kensho in Zen). As I mentioned earlier, the view of non-duality might sound ridiculous, impossible or fanciful at first, and we may be reluctant to take on faith something which sounds so outlandish. But through diligent Zen practice we can come to a direct experience of the world in which the sense of separation falls away, and we experience the seamless whole of reality all at once. After having had that experience, the seemingly cryptic Zen texts become recognisable as the best attempts of previous masters to describe this same experience.
After having had that initial kensho, the second challenge is then figuring out how to integrate it into your day-to-day experience, so that it becomes an on-going part of your life as opposed to a peak experience. Over time, more of the peace and contentment of the non-dual perspective becomes available even in the midst of the most intense activity on the dualistic level, as the two perspectives are gradually brought into harmony.
Neither of these steps is easy! However, the great strength of this approach is that you can live a totally grounded, normal life whilst following it, rather than needing to renounce the world and live in a cave.
Indeed, in such a tradition we may well include seemingly dualistic heart-opening practices, partly because we understand the importance of continuing to lead kind, compassionate lives at the relative level, but also because we can use them to explore our sense of duality - why is it easier to feel loving kindness for one person than another, when their essential nature is exactly the same?
Conclusion - context matters!
What I hope I've shown over the course of this article is that there are not only many different ways to meditate, but also many ways to understand why and how the practice is working and where it's taking us. As we've progressed through these different views, we've progressively redefined 'suffering', allowing ourselves to keep more and more of our ordinary experience, so that we can participate more fully in our lives whilst minimising or mitigating the hardships we must endure. Depending on where you draw the line between 'unnecessary suffering' and 'pain which must necessarily be endured in order to do xyz', the approach we take in practice will be substantially different.
Many teachers are not particularly explicit about the specific view of practice that they're teaching, and will simply use terms like 'enlightenment' and 'Right View' like everyone knows what they mean and everyone means the same thing by them, but this is not the case at all. Having some kind of sense of what you're trying to do and why is really important in the long run.
On the other hand, it's true that there's a lot of commonality in the actual techniques of meditation. One way to approach the practice is simply to try out different techniques until you find one that you like, maybe because it's enjoyable or simply because it seems interesting or intriguing somehow. In the short term, practising anything at all is a good start! At some point, though, you may find yourself wanting to understand more deeply what exactly is going on in these practices - and that's where context is everything.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!