Q. I had an unusual experience recently that I wonder if you could comment on. I had been in a rather busy city for a number of days when suddenly I noticed a significant change in how I was feeling come over me. I suddenly became more present, with a feeling of spaciousness and ease. It was so tangible and not due to any conscious cultivation on my part that I stopped to look around and see what was going on. It was then that it dawned on me that for the previous few minutes I'd been standing next to a waterfall (albeit man made). I can't help but feel that I accidentally happened on something important, but don't quite know exactly what.
A. Maybe your experience showed you how close you really are to that which is beyond our normal entrapment of self-perception. In those moments you lost your self and tasted the spaciousness and freedom that is so close to us, yet we rarely experience it. Usually we are looking somewhere for release from this self-confinement, and never realise that we are actually living out of that freedom each and every moment. Maybe your experience of the waterfall brought upon you the quietness of mind that sometimes allows us to glimpse the tranquility of our true nature.
Q. Some time back I had a discussion with someone whom I would look to as having a strong connection with dharma. In the course of the conversation he spoke about the demands of true practice and the need to let go of egoist desires. When he said this I was taken over by a deep sense of sadness and grief almost. It was if I had been told that my death was just around the corner and I was left with regret for all those things that I wished to do in life that I had never gotten to do. Honestly, I was almost depressed. In fact rather than being inspired to practice, I was more saddened about the passing of life. It really struck me how unwilling a large part of me is to truly let go of my own plans for my life. So I'm left wondering, whether in the absence of this basic (tough deeply critical, challenging and key) requirement for the arising of insight, is there really any point in practicing?
A. Dharma practice is about letting go. Letting go of our desires and aversions driven by this sense of self. This is a lovely ideal, but when we come to put the theories into practice and begin to taste how practice works, then we can have a few shocks as to what we've let ourselves in for. Our life begins to change, and also the aspirations that we previously cherished. We discover that when we begin to let go of our attachment to our desires, those very desires very often begin to fall away as well. We discover that those desires weren't for fulfillment in life, but were there for another reason, and that was to solely enhance the self. Now we are learning to let go of the self, certain life aspirations, as we had thought of them, begin to recede into the background as well. This can result in a sense of fear and loss. “What is life all about, if it isn't about pursuing what I want?” can be the cry. There will be emptiness and loneliness. To let go of self-motivating desires will be like dying, we will feel sad and desolate at our loss. But we learn to trust the Dharma, and stay with what is a basic existential experience. If we have faith and trust in the Dharma, through practice we begin to hand ourselves into that 'dying', to find a rebirth begins to take place. A rebirth that isn't self-possessed, but a rebirth that is truly mysterious. It is mysterious because it is our true self, and that true self is spacious and spontaneous, and beyond the cycle of birth and death. The true self that is fearless and warm-hearted.
Q. My question concerns labelling experience in and out of meditation. For example we can note our feelings, emotions and thoughts. Whether our experience is painful, pleasurable or neutral. We can also break our emotions down into the five hindrances or longer lists of mental states that exist within the Buddhist tradition. Doing this sometimes seems to help me objectify my experience and helps me notice when I am going down a certain path. At the same time I can't always define my mental states that easily, or differentiate feeling from emotion. I also experience some confusion as to what kind of breakdown is most helpful or necessary to practice. I would be grateful for any comments you may in this area.
A. This type of practice is something I'm not at all experienced with, and is definitely not in the spirit of the DharmaMind group or this website. My background is in Zen, whose spirit is not one of labelling or dissecting experience. While I do not consider myself to be a Zen practitioner these days, I have never left that spirit behind. The danger with wanting to label and compartmentalise what we are experiencing at this moment is that we can distance ourselves from the impact of the experience, and that can subtly lead us to disowning our relationship with that experience. We can take it into the realm of theory and labels rather than dealing with the emotional impact of whatever it may be. We discover through practice that in fact we spend so much of our time putting a space between ourselves and life's experiences anyway, seeing it to be a sort of safety device that allows us to avoid the emotional reaction that can be both fearful and challenging. This can create a sense of dissatisfaction and lack of fulfilment in life because we are only living a part of it. Noting that danger, Buddhism does offers us many fine practices that do use systems of labelling and box-filling in pursuit of wisdom.
Q. Considering that some of the Buddha's guidelines are a product of the conditions that were current in India at that time, we have to apply common sense in the modern world. We apply, for instance, the fifth Precept regarding intoxicants, to a range of things undreamed of in the Buddha's time. Then, I assume, animals for food were killed only as and when needed, whereas today they are killed in full anticipation of their requirement. Surely if we were to buy, say, a chicken in a shop, we are setting in motion its replacement, and we are therefore very culpable in its eventual death. Can you please comment?
A. This really is the old chestnut, and a subject covered elsewhere in the forum. I think both sides of the divide have a good case, so when all has been said I think it is a decision to be made by each of us as individuals, and that each 'side' needs to respect such decisions. I'm quite sure there were shops at the time of the Buddha that had lines of slaughtered chickens for sale. All I can add is that there is nothing in the traditional scriptures that instructs us not to eat meat. The Buddha's only involvement with this subject was to clearly explain the conditions that create unwholesome (akusala) karma by the taking of life for food. You may also like to note that none of the long-standing traditions are vegetarian. But if you wish to argue that man's consciousness has moved on since ancient Indian times, then let your own conscience define your ethical values, rather than wait to be told what to do.
Q . I know that in the interview section of your book ROA, you mention that the Western practitioner is no different in 'make up' than the Eastern. However, I wonder whether there are any challenges that we as westerners face that are particular to our modern day world.
A. Too many choices. This I see as a huge challenge for us in the modern world to work with. Historically, those aspiring to practising the Way had for the most part few chances to raise their own personal horizons in the ways that we can through, for example, life-transforming education or wealth accumulation. They would have been familiar with a more simple grounded life and, crucially, not have had the option of chopping and changing traditions when things became difficult for them. They would have accepted what was probably the only tradition that existed in their country, so denying mara the opportunity he or she now has in the West of tempting them to avoid their difficulties by hopping around from one to another of the many Buddhist schools or traditions on offer. So surely life would have been so much simpler than ours today, and probably involved just one outstanding desire – spiritual fulfilment? Back in those times it would surely have been the norm to accept that simplicity, and be grateful they had a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, and food in their stomachs. With these basics gratefully in place, they could give themselves to the practice whilst accepting their conditions, and not have to deal with the sort of restlessness for a ‘better’ material life that plagues most of us today. Simplicity and acceptance are two of the most crucial virtues needed for spiritual transformation, yet we in the West have not much of either.
Q . Firstly, thank you for posting the downloads on your website. To say I have benefited from them is an understatement. They have helped return me to Buddhism and with a fresh perspective that I expect will be very beneficial. As to my question: There appears to be a deep philosophical conflict between much counselling therapy in the West and Buddhism in regard to the approach to the self. Are there circumstances where you think therapy can be helpful along the way, perhaps for people with strong and unrealistically negative views of themselves?
A. It is true that there is something of a conflict between the different views of the spiritual path and forms of therapy. I think if we first of all understood what constitutes the ‘spiritual path’, then this misunderstanding would be less likely to arise. From my understanding of the spiritual path, I would define it as a path of complete transformation of the whole of our mental and emotional make up – with this entire transformation taking place in direct relation to the sense of a self. For it is that sense of a self that appropriates and possesses our mental and emotional being in the first place and it is from this that we create and enter the world of samsara and unfulfilment. Buddhist practices work with the entirety of our mental and emotional state, which includes our acknowledgement that there is this sense of a self and that it carries great influence. The major characteristic of the spiritual path is that it does not chop any of these parts into pieces, but rather embraces the whole, and it constitutes a journey that could be described as complete surrender through wisdom. Dharma practice is a sort of ‘polishing’ process whereby, through ever-deepening insight, the influence of that sense of a self is polished away, until it is thoroughly cleansed and seen through. When that seeing reaches its final maturity, the delusion of self, for a short period of time at least, shows itself to have been from the very beginning nothing more than a figment of our own imagination. It is at this moment that awakening takes place, and the astonishing nature of reality is revealed. Whilst many therapies these days may refer to the whole of ourselves as a sort of reference point, often using established Buddhist concepts, they nevertheless have to leave that wholeness of being to target specific aspects of the emotional personality. After all, it is the emotional personality imbalances that have brought the patient to the therapist in the first place, isn’t it? There then takes place a clear and very different approach to that of Dharma practice, a one-to-one interaction with the patient specifically targeting the personality problem, and finding ways to change it. Therapy has a significant role to play among those with imbalances and anxieties so great that they cannot practise the Dharma in a correct way. If you feel you are outside the parameters necessary to be able to practise, then seek out a therapist. Hopefully, one day after treatment you will be able to step back into the fold and practise the Dharma again. Personally, I think very few of us Buddhists need therapy. What we do need is to learn how to take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in a proper way and specifically take a teacher with the knowledge to encourage us to create a physical and emotional framework that will help support those perceived difficulties, and also, crucially, teach us how to work with these difficulties for ourselves. Through time, and a willingness to bear with the emotional forces you will inevitably experience, transformation will take place, and you will come through to be emotionally stronger and wiser. Strong negative self-views are common in us westerners, but true Dharma practice will work on that self-view burden; and should you need still further help, there are many meditation practices inherent in Buddhism to help support you.
Q . Often in my day-to-day life I have doubts that my practice is very effective. Though I do my best to practise, I worry that my city life is just too busy. However, each time I go on retreat I sense a deeper awareness of my body and a deeper connection with myself than the last retreat. It is then that I realise that something effective must be happening in my normal day-to-day life between retreats, and perhaps I need not be as concerned as I am. Is this sensible?
A. Because genuine change for the most part is unquantifiable be very careful about looking for it. I accept it is something that most of do and is natural to want to see change taking place. After all, this is why we practice, isn’t it? But before you start looking for change it’s a good idea to first get some notion how the natural unfolding of change actually takes place. From my experience I’d say that at least 90% of change is taking place on a sub-conscious level, and therefore pretty much beyond our ability to grasp it. The remaining 10% is left over for the conscious mind to see. And even the bit we think we see could be questionable especially if we want change to be taking place so much, we may well be seeing change when its not really there. Change is mysterious, and should really not be your concern. Change takes place quite naturally as our habitual karmic conditioning loses its power through practice. The energy that helps keep us trapped in our familiar habits reverts back into its original nature, and with that reversal a shift takes place in our basic makeup. It is because this shift takes place beyond our normal awareness, we don’t know it. If your practice is true then change will be taking place. Have faith that change is happening and don’t go looking for it. If you do the chances are you will not see it, for change is subtle and spread over long periods of time. If you think you should be seeing change you will inevitably be disappointed when you don’t and disillusionment will set in and your faith in the practice will falter. You don’t make change, so mind your own business and stick to the practice!