Q. Quite often I come across references to the Mahayana Bodhisattva ideal that suggest it is rather like being a Buddhist missionary, doing good deeds, working to save all beings from samsara. However, you seem to speak of it more in terms of being open to all of life, not discriminating in our daily experience. Do I misunderstand you? Perhaps you can say something further about how you view the bodhisattva ideal in actual practice.
A. First, you have to understand that the stereotypical missionary work we're familiar with through our Christian culture should not be seen as having a Buddhist equivalent. The idea that Buddhists travel around trying to convert people to their beliefs simply isn't in its history or philosophy. Speaking specifically about the bodhisattva, traditionally they do help others that are in need, but they do their work because they see suffering and therefore feel a need to help. They would never pronounce that they are such beings, and try to convert others to their own beliefs. But there is another perspective to this work alongside what we would normally perceive, which is always alluded to but often misunderstood, and this points to the unique position of an enlightening being. As insight deepens the bodhisattva sees with ever increasing clarity that all beings without exception are a product of his or her own mind, and that he or she is therefore responsible for their suffering. Bodhisattvas see that to liberate all beings from suffering, they – the bodhisattvas – must first know themselves ever more deeply. They see that to do this they also need to engage with those other beings as well as all of life (including blades of grass). For life as we know it is also a creation of the mind. It is because of this understanding, when bodhisattvas are seen to be doing good works, you are unlikely to understand the paradoxical nature of their understanding of their own lives. With still more clarity, bodhisattvas discover that they themselves do not exist outside of other beings. So, when they finally attain liberation and pass into nirvana, all other beings are also liberated with them, (including those blades of grass), and pass into nirvana with them. Now that is what you would call successful missionary work!
Q. Sometimes, while practising mindfulness I can feel like I am quite disconnected from others or what I am doing; I feel like I am holding back in a kind of self-conscious way, guarded, not quite letting go or something. I have noticed this can be accompanied by a sort of tension or seriousness about the way I practice, and live life in general. Perhaps I need to let go a bit, be a little more playful, but I am not sure how to bring this about. I would value any reflections you may have on this kind of experience, or advice you may have on how I may need to work with this.
A. I think this is a very good question and one that most of us committed to the Dharma could honestly admit experiencing. We take ourselves far too seriously, and that ingrained self-view that we must protect at all costs is the reason for this. When we see this, we see how enveloped and imprisoned we are by this self-view. I think one of the skilful ways to deal with this is not to be afraid to make mistakes, or to make a fool of yourself in other people's eyes. Be prepared to experiment. When you are about to fall into an old familiar reactive way of looking after your image of yourself – and therefore retreating to familiar and safe ground – don't go there. Take the opportunity to open and respond in a different way. Always experiment and be prepared to take a chance. This might bring up self-consciousness and fear. Open to it, but don't retreat. Your new and previously untried action may mess things up, or could even be something unskillful that you think others will react to, but don't worry. Play with it with honesty and be prepared to get it wrong. Who knows? You may get it right. And if you should feel foolish, open to that. Is it really that important? Or are we only concerned with playing it safe and protecting that self-image? I believe to take the opportunity to loosen ourselves up in any given situation by not hiding behind our defences is vital in developing our ability to respond correctly and spontaneously to life's challenges.
Q. In my meditation practice I am increasingly working on my mind through the body. I feel I have very much sort of groped my own way of doing this. During a long retreat I have recently completed I experienced quite strong twitching and what felt like bolts or twitches of energy release in different parts of my body, which I don't understand or particularly know what's the best way to work with. More lately I've been experiencing regular sort of energy releases from what I can best describe as the tail bone area, which seem to arise when I get concentrated or feel a bit inspired during my yidam practice. Could you offer any guidance on how to work with this in meditation?
A. This is an issue I've dealt with on several occasions answering forum questions, so I recommend you search through the archive to find those relevant questions and answers. Bringing your attention to the body and the hara area not just in sitting meditation but also throughout your daily life will familiarise you with the true and complete practice of reintegrating mind and body, and it is most important to be aware of this. Returning that wandering and erratic energy back into the hara again and again, and doing it with awareness, will promote a balanced practice of Dharma and give you a healthy, balanced body and mind. I have met many 'victims' in my time around Buddhism, practitioners who either have no knowledge of this or think it isn't important enough. But to me this is the most crucial issue in practice. To ignore this understanding and stay stuck in unskilful imbalanced habits will only get you into trouble, which could be serious and bring great danger to yourself both physically and emotionally.
Q. Buddhism stresses impermanence. A fruit of practice seems to be that one sees this more and more clearly in one's life. At times this seems to be leading me into more nihilistic states of mind. Do you have any advice on how I can work or turn this around to something more healthy?
A. To see impermanence is a great liberating experience because it encourages us to let go of our attachments. We hold on and grasp because we want things in a way that suits us, yet at the same time we know that whatever it is I'm holding on to will sooner or later go into change, bringing the inevitable grief of loss. When we finally accept the reality of impermanence and become not so caught up in our habits, we grasp less at things in our life, and begin to taste the spaciousness that letting go will bring. Seeing impermanence more clearly can be experienced as being nihilistic because our lives are always about reaffirming the sense of self through attachment. Taking refuge in impermanence can bring emotional unease and fear at our growing loss of self-identity. In fact, what happens over time is we become a lot more content with the simplicity that comes from not chasing old habitual attachments and find ourselves opening up to new vistas in our life that bring us to greater fulfillment. Walking this path, like so much in the spiritual life, often requires us to put faith in the subtle way of genuine change and not be too hasty to fill those newly-found spaces in our lives with still more things to do.