Saturday, February 25, 2012

Loving-Kindness


Where does the time go? It’s been all year long so far that I’ve been exploring the Brahma-viharas, the “Four Sublime Abodes” of compassion, equanimity, sympathetic joy, and loving-kindness (Sangharakshita, 1980, p. 141), and their respective “near enemies” of pity, indifference, comparison, and attachment (Kornfield, 1993, p. 190). Nonetheless, I think we’re ready to bring this series to a close. If you’ve had the opportunity to read the previous posts exploring attachment (all four of them!) you’ll know that it’s quite the near enemy of loving-kindness, the usual English translation equivalent of the Sanskrit word, metta, which is referred to by Rahula (1959) as the extension of “unlimited, universal love and good-will… to all living beings without any kind of discrimination, ‘just as a mother loves her only child’” (p. 75).


The Buddha Calms An Enraged Elephant With Loving-Kindness

Clearly, the universal and non-discriminatory nature of metta as spoken of here reveals why attachment is its near enemy – especially the attachment that is romantic love! Indeed, romantic love almost always encompasses the singling out of but one individual from the multitudes of beings all around us on which to shower our attention and affection. Yes, and it almost always consists of the expectation that such attention and affection will likewise be showered back on us by that favored individual. And, of course, you know full well that any failure to win such reciprocity is considered a failure of epically tragic proportions – a failure worthy of (in the movies, anyway) the forfeiture of life itself!


I think the preceding paragraphs sketch out reasonably well the relationship between loving-kindness (metta) and its near enemy, attachment. I’d like to shift gears, then, and present a passage that I think highlights some of these recently addressed aspects of attachment, aversion, and loving-kindness while at the same time re-introducing a metta practice that I mentioned in my tribute to Ginny Morgan, from whom I learned it. (Please see May Their Compassion Embrace Us.) I hope you find the stylistic difference refreshing. Here goes…  


CCC

Jenna steered her car into the parking lot of her daughter’s school and maneuvered it into the usual spot where she could sit watching the building’s entrance. She was early, as was now her habit. Over the past couple of months that parking spot had become something of a refuge for her – a place where she could sit quietly and peacefully knowing that her daughter was safe inside. It was one of the few refuges that Jenna had anymore – since the tension level had begun to mount at home, anyway. Gary was out of work…, again; and drinking…, yet again. Back home she had to tiptoe around as if on eggshells. Here she could simply be herself, without having to feel the weight of all the crap that had somehow managed to pile onto her shoulders over the years.


She turned off the engine and let her hands slide from the steering wheel into her lap. She inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly a number of times until her breath had settled into her belly where she could feel the steady in and out movement of her diaphragm. With each breath, she settled deeper and deeper into stillness. This was why she’d come here. The stillness was like a cool drink of water on a scorching summer day; it was like a deep breath of fresh air after having dreamed that she was drowning.


Her daughter’s face suddenly appeared before her in her mind’s eye…, smiling…, glowing with the joy of youth. “Oh, my God,” she thought. “Where would I be if I didn’t have her in my life to give it meaning? What would keep me from simply disintegrating into nothingness?” Everything else she’d ever done already lay about her in a shambles: the career that she’d left behind after learning that she was pregnant; the marriage that she’d rushed into in order to make it all okay; her relationship with her parents, who never did like Gary, anyway; and her faith…, yes, even that which had seemed so solid for so long now lay like a pile of rubble strewn around. Samantha was all that she had left – the only thing left in her life that was still good and pure; the only thing left that she hadn’t messed up in one way or another. And now…. Tears formed in the corners of her eyes as she realized what a toll her strained marriage was having on her daughter. It seemed like a long, long time since she’d been able to smile as she was in that image.


Jenna listened to the sound of tires on asphalt as a car pulled in just a few spots away. The engine revved and then clattered into silence. She took advantage of the distraction to brush the tears from her cheeks and concentrate once again on her breathing. The stillness returned, but in that stillness was now an awareness of the presence of another human being. Her curiosity got the better of her and she turned to sneak a peek at whoever it was that just pulled in. Shit! It was that knuckleheaded father of the girl that had been bullying her daughter!


In an instant, the stillness that she had known was upturned. Her adrenaline surged and her breath rose up into her chest. It was all she could do to keep from throwing open the car door and bounding over to his car in order to give him a piece of her mind! What was that jerk doing, anyway, to have instilled such a mean streak in his daughter? She caught herself, though, when it suddenly occurred to her that she might very well be asking that question of herself in another year if she didn’t do something to change the toxic situation that was building up at home. Hmmph; how different were they, really? Could she say with any certainty what it was that separated one from the other?


She concentrated for a time until her breath had settled back down into her abdomen, and then she began a loving-kindness exercise that she’d learned from her meditation teacher. She imagined the man sitting calmly in front of her as she recited the following words in her mind:

May you be safe and protected.

May you live with ease and wellbeing.

May you be free from both inner and outer harm.

May you come to embody the gift of true freedom in this very life.


She repeated this over and over again with the man’s image in her mind until all the feelings of animosity that she’d felt toward him had faded into the stillness. She then imagined his daughter – the girl that had been bullying her Sammi – and she repeated the verse a number of times just for her. She pictured her husband, as well. She knew all too well the demons that he faced. Indeed, there was a time when she thought that her love might be enough to shoo them all away. Ah, but that was a long time ago….

May you be safe and protected.

May you live with ease and wellbeing.

May you be free from both inner and outer harm.

May you come to embody the gift of true freedom in this very life.


She imagined her daughter sitting before her as she repeated again and again on her behalf the offering of metta – loving-kindness. Of course, this was easy. There was no strain of any kind when she said those words. They were words that she could say just as easily right to her face – maybe as a nighttime lullaby of sorts. It was much harder, though, to give that offering to herself. She knew that she was weak. She knew that she was flawed. She knew that she was trying her best and yet it still never seem to be good enough. She knew that she had to start approaching life differently. And that was all the more reason that she needed some loving-kindness for herself.

May I be safe and protected.

May I live with ease and wellbeing.

May I be free from both inner and outer harm.

May I come to embody the gift of true freedom in this very life.


After reciting the metta offering a number of times on her own behalf she offered it up to the world, over and over again:

May all beings be safe and protected.

May all beings live with ease and wellbeing.

May all beings be free from both inner and outer harm.

May all beings come to embody the gift of true freedom in this very life – not one left out.


She didn’t know how many times she’d repeated the offering. After a time she was just sitting there in silence, experiencing a deep sense of stillness and a profound sense of acceptance and love for everyone and everything. After a time, the sound of children’s voices entered into the stillness and she opened up her eyes. The front doors of the school had opened and children were streaming out. One of the first to cross the lawn was the girl who’d been bullying her daughter, but Jenna didn’t see her as a bully anymore. She was just a child worthy of love like any other child. Jenna watched as the little girl opened the door to her father’s car and settled in somewhat awkwardly beside him. The father barely glanced at her before starting the engine and backing out of the parking place. It broke Jenna’s heart to realize that karma was playing out right before her eyes. He was just like her in never really feeling the love that he was worthy of, wasn’t he? He’d never learned to show the love that he certainly must feel in some measure. She was his daughter, after all!


Jenna didn’t know the reasons why. She didn’t know how to make it any different. All she knew was that she was capable of loving them as she loved her own daughter. At least, she’d caught a glimpse of that possibility, anyway. And as she turned to see the children still streaming out of the school’s entrance, she saw children streaming out of schools all over the world. She saw them stepping through the doors of one-room schoolhouses and rising up from the circles that they’d formed around their teachers. She saw them hopping into cars and running along dusty trails back to their villages. She saw their parents waiting for them, silently hoping for them the best – wishing for them something better than they had ever had. It didn’t matter where they lived or what religion or politics they might have come to embrace. Jenna loved them. She realized that she really loved them.


“Oh, my God.” She buried her face in her hands.

“Mom… what’s wrong?”

Jenna suddenly realized that her daughter had opened up the car door and slid into the seat beside her. She studied her face for the longest time, as if she’d never really seen her in that light before – which perhaps she hadn’t.

“Oh, nothing’s wrong, Sammi.” She wiped the tears from her cheeks. “I guess I was just thinking about how much I really, really love you. That’s all.” She leaned over to hug Samantha as if she hadn’t seen her in years. At least, that’s the way it felt.


CCC

I hope this brief sketch brings to life at least a little bit the nature of and the potential interactions between attachment, aversion, and loving-kindness. In it we can see how Jenna’s attachment to her daughter for reasons not entirely related to unconditional love (i.e., it is Samantha’s existence that gives Jenna’s life meaning) actually heightens the aversion she feels for the bullying classmate and the father whom she holds responsible. The fact that Jenna has appropriated Samantha’s wellbeing into her own sense of self prompts the arising of aversion towards those who would do “her” harm. Of course, we should be averse to harm being perpetrated on others; however, Jenna’s attachment causes that aversion to manifest as personal animosity towards the bullying girl and her father. It is Jenna’s subsequent metta practice that allows her sense of self to expand such that it encompasses the wellness of all beings; and as her sense of kinship with all beings grows, the various attachments and aversions that had arisen from her previously smaller sense of self begin to lose their charge.


But what will happen to Jenna’s and her daughter’s relationship as Jenna’s attachment to Samantha diminishes? Will that mean that Jenna’s love for her daughter will have diminished? Will Samantha suffer from a diminished sense of specialness in the eyes of her mother? It would seem that familial and close partnership relationships do require some shared sense of specialness between and amongst all parties, wouldn’t it? Perhaps that is simply our shared karmic heritage, born of the social evolution of the human species. Hence, ordinary relationship dynamics might require shared attachment of some form. It’s just that we shouldn’t mistake that shared attachment for love in its highest form.


Indeed, I think it is fairly safe to conclude that the diminishment of attachment can actually make room for the growth of love in a higher form. How is that? Note that Jenna was, at least in part, living her life through her daughter. After all, it was Samantha’s existence that gave Jenna’s life meaning. Certainly we’ve all witnessed parents who live their lives through their children. The forms that this can take are myriad, from being unduly protective (I won’t let you make the same mistakes I made), to controlling (you will take advantage of the opportunities that I did/could not), to behaving quite literally as though their children are extensions of themselves (we went to the state finals this year!). However, when attachment of this kind is relinquished, room is then made for a more nurturing form of love – a form of love that seeks only to allow the loved individual to fully actualize the very uniqueness of their being. Of course, attachment can creep into even this form of love; e. g., “You know, you may not realize it right now, but one day you’ll see how what I’m doing is allowing you to fully actualize the uniqueness of your being.” Who decides, anyway, when someone is fully actualizing the uniqueness of their being?


Jenna experiences this deepening of love in the sketch above when she senses that she is seeing Samantha in a brand new light. She has stopped focusing on her as an extension of her own being and has begun to see her as an individual in her own right. When we no longer look at people through the lens of what they do for us, how they make us feel good, how they give our lives meaning, or how they fulfill our desires, then we become free to really see them as they are – and we become free to really love them as they are. So, awareness of attachment – the near enemy of loving-kindness – can indeed allow our love to move beyond a lesser, more self-serving form, and towards a form that we probably think we’re manifesting already!


Thanks for staying with me these past couple of months! I hope it’s clearer how the cultivation of these Brahma-viharas really does enable us to fulfill our bodhisattva vow to “save all beings”. I know these “sublime abodes” have become much clearer in my mind, anyway. Ironically, though, even as I feel that I’m seeing them with greater clarity, on another level these four attributes of compassion, equanimity, sympathetic joy, and loving-kindness seem now to blend together into but one entity – being in the world with unhindered awareness.



References


Chakrabarti, K. K. (1999). Classical Indian philosophy of mind, The Nyaya dualist tradition. State University of New York Press.


Conze, E. (1967). Buddhist thought in India, Three phases of Buddhist philosophy. Ann Arbor Paperbacks, The University of Michigan Press.


Conze, E., Horner, I. B., Snellgrove, D., & Waley, A. (1964). Buddhist texts through the ages. Harper Torchbooks, The Cloister Library, Harper & Row, Publishers.


Hamel, S., Leclerc, G., & Lefrancois, R. (2003). A psychological outlook on the concept of transcendent actualization. The International Journal For The Psychology of Religion, 13(1), pp. 3-15.


Khantipalo, Bhikkhu (2010). Practical advice for meditators. Access to Insight, 7 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/khantipalo/wheel116.html


Kornfield, J. (1993). A path with heart – A guide through the perils and promises of spiritual life. Bantam Books.


Loori, J. (2004). The whole earth is medicine. Featured in Mountain Record 22.3, Spring 2004. http://mro.org/zmm/teachings/daido/teisho35.php


Maslow, A. H. (1987). Motivation and personality, 3rd edition. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., as excerpted in Notable Selections in Human Development, 2nd Edition (Diessner, R. and Tiegs, J., eds.) McGraw-Hill/Dushkin.


Rahula, W. (1959). What the Buddha taught. Grove Press, New York.


Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin Company.


Sangharakshita, Bikshu (1980). A survey of Buddhism, 5th edition. Shambhala Publications, Inc. in association with Windhorse Publications.


Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.


Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (2011). Head & heart together: Bringing wisdom to the brahma-viharas. Access to Insight, 17 April 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/headandheart.html


Yoshida, R. (1979). Verse of repentance (tr. Yoshida, R.). Missouri Zen Center website. http://www.missourizencenter.org/SundayService.pdf


Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.


Young, S. (1998-2010). How meditation works: An introductory overview of techniques for mental development within the Buddhist traditions of Theravada, Tantra and Zen and including reference to Christian contemplative practice. http://www.shinzen.org/Articles/artHow.htm


Zimmer, H. (1956). Philosophies of India (ed. Campbell, J.). Meridian Books, New York.



Image Credits


Buddha with the Elephant Nalagiri via:


The Wikimedia Commons description accompanying this image is as follows: “Nalagiri was an elephant with a bad character. Devadatta, a nephew of the Buddha who was jealous of Buddha and wanted to kill him, made Nalagirl purposefully very angry and set him loose in the street in which Buddha was walking with many other monks. As Nalagiri, running wildly and trumpeting, came closer to the Buddha, the Buddha mentally directed his loving kindness and friendliness (metta) to Nalagiri, because of which Nalagiri calmed down, and subsequently bowed low before the Buddha as a way of showing respect.”


Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Friday, February 17, 2012

Attachment, Sexuality, and Spirituality (Part 2 of 2)


At the close of the previous post I posed a rhetorical question that I will make even more specific here: How does a Buddhist who’s taken a bodhisattva vow to save all beings reconcile that chosen spiritual path – including its inherent admonition regarding the perils of the three poisons of attachment, aversion, and delusion – with the existence of a strong romantic attachment to one being in particular, and the yearning to physically manifest that love? Let’s see…, I probably won’t be able to convince you that I’ve transcended ordinary ideas regarding self and other, and, as such, am merely experiencing the pleasure of what is – these circumstances that I just happen to find my non-self in. Oh, and I probably won’t be able to convince you that I don’t really yearn for my beloved at all but, rather, simply find myself in her arms over and over again – enjoying great pleasure without ever feeling the need to be with her ever again. No, it seems that I’m left with only a few possible responses as to how this Buddhist reconciles these apparently contradictory realities: 1) I don’t. 2) I don’t feel that I need to. 3) I don’t feel that I need to but I do see how attempting to do so might be a good exercise in increasing awareness. Well, given the fact that I’ve heard people say that they wrestle with the whole “Buddhist non-attachment thing”, I think I’ll have a go at response number three. Yes, yes, you're right, I suppose I have pondered this whole “Buddhist non-attachment thing” from time to time myself!


Let me point out the direction that I’m going with this by quoting two of the previous century’s greatest minds in their respective fields; the first, a Nobel Prize winning physicist; the second, one of the most influential researchers in the field of counseling psychology:


“The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false.

The opposite of a great truth is also true.”

– Neils Bohr


“Openness to experience… means that [a person’s] beliefs are not rigid,

 that he can tolerate ambiguity. He can receive much conflicting evidence

without forcing closure upon the situation.”

– Carl Rogers




CCC


Life is a grand and glorious journey. Existence is suffering. Both of these statements are as true as the day is long. We just need to keep in mind that a measure of the size of one’s heart is its ability to hold all at once the profound joys and the deepest sorrows of being. Likewise, a measure of the expansiveness of one’s mind is its ability to embrace without anxiety the apparent contradictions encountered as it delves deeper and deeper into this phenomenon we call existence. I study Buddhism with great seriousness, but in the end the sum total of all the sutras and stories and commentaries amounts to nothing but a pile of maps and an occasional signpost pointing the way through the wilderness of life, and my life, in particular – the life of the self that is not other. And so I sort through that pile and I keep my eye out for the occasional signpost, but in the end I know that the terrain of my life has never been seen before in the history of the universe.


I heard George Clooney talking on the radio the other day about his experience of fame. He remarked that oftentimes when people meet him they’re so busy capturing the moment on their camera-phones that he can’t help but wonder how they could ever really say that they’ve met him! Perhaps you’ve noticed that, as well? People go through the most meaningful moments of their lives while peering at the world through the lens of whatever artificial device they’ve come to think is more important than the moment itself.  I think it must have been my recognition of this tendency to mistake the lens for that which the lens allows us to see that allowed me to thoughtfully consider and then set aside the teaching of the monk that I referred to in a recent post – the one who was telling us that we should forever maintain a running awareness commentary in our heads until our dying day. I must have felt that that would essentially amount to my going through life looking at everything as if through an artificial lens separating me from precisely that which I strive to experience to the fullest, the unfolding of life itself, without the constant insinuation of an observor into the process.


Are we being arrogant when we feel in our gut, as I did then, that we know what’s best for our life and our spiritual practice? Are we falling prey to our most self-serving and deeply entrenched karma – or are we simply making good use of the wisdom of the one who knows best the terrain of our life? How do we know? How do we really know when there’s not a single thing to be learned from the lifeless words of others with respect to how we (and nobody else) should proceed in the next moment. Conversely, how do we recognize when we’ve fallen under the spell of arrogant delusion and should return yet again to the guidance of the great teachers of the world? Why don’t I show my age by dusting off and revising an old Reagan-Gorbachev era phrase: trust in yourself – but verify.


Yes, life is a grand and glorious journey, full of myriad ways for the spirit to be in this world. I’ll leave it to the reader to find whatever it is they’d like to in that word, spirit. If you’ve been with me since the very beginning of this blog, however, you’ll recall that the word spirit “need not refer to any metaphysical reality at all” but, instead, “might merely refer to that which animates the otherwise inanimate matter of our bodies – thereby making us alive.” (See the post entitled Spirituality and Religion for more on that topic.) My experience of being alive is one of moment-by-moment navigation through an environment of riches: here work, and there play; here solitude, and there the company of many; now an exhilarating run through the woods, now an armchair and a lamp and the words of one of the great teachers of the world; at once contemplating the merits of non-attachment, perhaps even enjoying its peace for a time just prior to settling, once again, into the warm embrace of my beloved, and feeling all over again that feeling of yearning and desire. And all the while I traverse this terrain I’m guided by certain overarching principles such as the bodhisattva vow to save all beings, the intention to act with keen awareness, and the intention to actualize as best I can the gifts of this body, heart, and mind.


On one hand we might view such an experience of life as one of being incessantly jerked to and fro by the mysterious workings of our karma – our habit energy. On the other hand, we might view it in terms of the old Zen saying regarding how to live once the true nature of the self has been realized: “chop wood, carry water.” How is it, anyway, that we know when we’re simply chopping wood and carrying water as opposed to being swept along by our habit energy?

Um…, Maku, haven’t you chopped enough wood already? What, are you anxious that you might get a little bit chilly or something? Oh…, and in case you haven’t noticed, there’s enough water in the barrel to last a week. I know you’ve got a thing about carrying water with you wherever you go, but, come on! Have a little faith that there will be water enough tomorrow!

Perhaps part of us secretly yearns for a teacher who will take from us both the freedom and the responsibility that is our birthright – the freedom and responsibility to determine how to live our lives in accord with our true nature. Ah, but what if we did manage to find some human approximation of an idealized mother or father figure who will tell us how to be? Wouldn’t we end up resenting them sooner or later for doing precisely what we secretly yearn for them to do? We can’t remain children forever!


From time to time over the years I’ve wondered about this mind that we call enlightened. What would it be like to experience life with such a mind; to experience life as the Buddha did – as an awakened being? (Buddha means, quite simply, awakened being.) Thankfully, I wonder about such things less and less as time goes on. Call it an attachment that I’m gradually relinquishing! Interestingly, though, the writings of a Western psychologist, very much a non-Buddhist as far as I can tell, offered me the clearest glimpse of what a so-called enlightened or awakened being must be capable of. As you read the following quote from Carl Rogers (1961), the man who first described what he called the fully functioning person, please read it not merely in terms of knowing what would be of benefit to the self, but knowing what would be of benefit to others, as well. Read it in terms of one being – a self that is not other – actualizing his or her existence in the best way possible for all beings. In other words, read it in terms of a being that experiences the truth of emptiness, sunyata:

This [fully functioning person] is open to all of his experience, he has access to all of the available data in the situation, on which to base his behavior. He has knowledge of his own feelings and impulses, which are often complex and contradictory. He is freely able to sense the social demands, from the relatively rigid social “laws” to the desires of friends and family. He has access to his memories of similar situations, and the consequences of different behaviors in those situations. He has a relatively accurate perception of this external situation in all of its complexity. He is better able to permit his total organism, his conscious thought participating, to consider, weigh and balance each stimulus, need, and demand, and its relative weight and intensity. Out of this complex weighing and balancing he is able to discover that course of action which seems to come closest to satisfying all his needs in the situation, long-range as well as immediate needs. (p. 118)


Rogers is speaking of what he called the fully functioning person – an individual that Abraham Maslow would refer to as self-actualizing. However, I am asking you to consider these conceptualizations as being robust enough to encompass the individual who aspires to fully actualize the self in order that he or she might transcend it – in order that he or she might become one with all beings, and, to the extent that it is humanly possible, save all beings. Thus, I read in Rogers words a description of the keenly aware bodhisattva, weighing the needs of self and other with great accuracy such that the suffering of all beings might be most effectively ameliorated. Rogers (1961) goes on to note that “in most of us the defects which interfere with this weighing and balancing are that we include things that are not part of our experience, and exclude elements that are” (p. 119). Wow, might a modern day Buddhist teacher make just such a statement?


CCC

Believe it or not, the entire preceding discussion is required for me to adequately address my personal experience of attachment, sexuality, and spirituality. After all, what is the opposite of the great truth that the attachment that is romantic (sexual) love is merely a hindrance along the path to the realization of the profound spiritual state of equanimity? Might it be that romantic (sexual) love, if engaged in with appropriate awareness, becomes an avenue leading to a deeper understanding of the nature of attachment and the true nature of self and other, i.e. an avenue that leads in the end to that very state of equanimity?


I actually can't imagine living in a close relationship with one for whom I have no feelings of sexual desire whatsoever, What would such a relationship look like? Would it be like that between two siblings or friends or business partners – presumably platonic? Would it be a marriage of financial convenience? Would it exist solely for the sake of companionship? And even if one of these alternative reasons for coming together did form the basis of the relationship, would there not yet remain some form of attachment, emotional or other, that would be stronger than for any other particular being in the world? My present conception of romantic relationship, then, is one that encompasses occasional "descent" into deep attachment and overwhelming desire to actualize in a physical way that which the spirit yearns to make manifest. At the same time, however, I do not see being in such a relationship as some kind of zero-sum game in which whatever time and energy two individuals spend making love is time and energy not spent helping to save all other beings. I simply see it as a great unfolding of life itself. (By the way, It occurs to me that perhaps we each need to answer for ourselves what it means to vow to save all beings. Does it mean that we behave in a charitable and compassionate way to all beings without discrimination, or does it mean more precisely that we convey something of the wisdom of the Dharma that might help break the cycle of samsaric suffering?)


So, it is my contention that it is the degree of awareness that we bring to our experience of romantic (sexual) love that determines the nature of its spirituality. Is our attachment merely a lustful, greedy, yearning for sexual experience for the sake of our small self, or is it a celebration of mutual aliveness within these fleetingly impermanent bodies – a nurturing act that allows both individuals (both selves that are not other) to act in the world with greater joy, love, energy, vibrancy, compassion, understanding, acceptance, equanimity, and efficacy, so as to make it a better place? Does such attachment not enable us to help save each other (and all beings for that matter) just a little bit? I will be making a stronger case for this point of view next week just in case you find it lacking at the present.


In the Buddhist traditions, food is sometimes referred to as “medicine”, something that is required in order to maintain these bodies for the sake of practice and for the benefit of the world. The early monastics needed very little: a robe, an alms bowl, a reasonably comfortable and safe place to meditate and sleep, and either the generosity of the forest for the filling of their alms bowl or the householders that they happened to encounter on their rounds. Perhaps somewhere even today within our modern society a homeless individual is continuing this tradition of enjoying the barest subsistence level of material comfort with the intention of furthering his or her spiritual practice. Most of us, however, have either chosen or feel compelled to follow a different path. We live in relationship with significant others, we have jobs and homes and cars. In short, we have much more complicated lives. We also have an abundance of opportunities to form attachments of every ilk. Perhaps the mendicants and ascetics of yesteryear have proven to us that the human spirit can be maintained with but a modicum of “medicine”. Perhaps we, too, will one day yield to an inner urge to renounce that which we now feel is absolutely necessary for our survival. Even now I can picture myself selling my far-too-large house (even in its smallness) and moving into a studio apartment in a neighborhood where I could get around on foot or bicycle – eking out a living off of savings and perhaps some writing income. But could my spirit really thrive in all of its potential without the love that I presently feel for and from another?


And just what does this relationship need in order to flourish? Certainly it needs whatever “medicine” we both agree that it needs for our mutual survival. Perhaps that would be enough, maybe even more than enough. I suspect that many older couples find this to be so – after either their biological urges have dissipated or their physical bodies cease to be able to continue the level and nature of sexual expression that they once shared in days gone by. But what does this present moment require of me and the one for whom my love is that much greater than for any other? For this I will have to throw away the sutras, throw away the ideas of others, and throw away my preconceived notions of what spiritual practice is all about; for this I will need to listen to my body, mind, and heart – the totality of my organism, as Carl Rogers would say; for this I will need to listen to my lover, and listen to what my experience of the totality of the universe is telling me to do in this very moment. Can such an experience – sexual though it may be – not involve in some way the relinquishment of small ideas regarding the nature of the self? In offering oneself up to relationship in this way do we not transcend small ideas of self and other and arrive at a state of being in the world that is free of preconceived notions and conceptualizations? If, indeed, this is attachment, then so be it; I proceed with full awareness that it is so.



I will continue musing on this matter in some way, shape, or form in the coming week. For now, though, let me close with some thoughts regarding how sexuality might either perpetuate a small-minded view of the self or foster its transcendence. I phrase these thoughts in the form of questions that we might consider in order to clarify our intentions:

Am I responding merely to an urge, a sense of need, or a feeling of deficit or emptiness within myself, or am I responding to the needs and feelings of my partner, and the world?

Do I desire this experience for the enrichment of myself, or do I desire that it enrich my partner, our relationship, and the world?

Do I view this experience as one of wielding power over another, or do I view it as one of yielding power and becoming vulnerable?

Do I see this act merely as one of receiving pleasure, alleviating boredom, etc., or do I see it as an opportunity to communicate with my partner on one of the deepest levels on which humans can communicate?

Do I consider this act merely one of the mutual fulfillment of biological needs, or do I see it within a larger emotional and even spiritual context?

Will this experience merely perpetuate or strengthen my view of myself as the most important and deserving entity in the world, or will it foster in me a sense of gratitude, for my partner and for the world?

Note: the Carl Rogers quote introducing this post is from Rogers (1961, pp. 115-116).


References


Chakrabarti, K. K. (1999). Classical Indian philosophy of mind, The Nyaya dualist tradition. State University of New York Press.

Conze, E. (1967). Buddhist thought in India, Three phases of Buddhist philosophy. Ann Arbor Paperbacks, The University of Michigan Press.

Conze, E., Horner, I. B., Snellgrove, D., & Waley, A. (1964). Buddhist texts through the ages. Harper Torchbooks, The Cloister Library, Harper & Row, Publishers.

Hamel, S., Leclerc, G., & Lefrancois, R. (2003). A psychological outlook on the concept of transcendent actualization. The International Journal For The Psychology of Religion, 13(1), pp. 3-15.

Khantipalo, Bhikkhu (2010). Practical advice for meditators. Access to Insight, 7 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/khantipalo/wheel116.html

Kornfield, J. (1993). A path with heart – A guide through the perils and promises of spiritual life. Bantam Books.

Loori, J. (2004). The whole earth is medicine. Featured in Mountain Record 22.3, Spring 2004. http://mro.org/zmm/teachings/daido/teisho35.php

Maslow, A. H. (1987). Motivation and personality, 3rd edition. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., as excerpted in Notable Selections in Human Development, 2nd Edition (Diessner, R. and Tiegs, J., eds.) McGraw-Hill/Dushkin.

Rahula, W. (1959). What the Buddha taught. Grove Press, New York.

Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin Company.

Sangharakshita, Bikshu (1980). A survey of Buddhism, 5th edition. Shambhala Publications, Inc. in association with Windhorse Publications.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (2011). Head & heart together: Bringing wisdom to the brahma-viharas. Access to Insight, 17 April 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/headandheart.html

Yoshida, R. (1979). Verse of repentance (tr. Yoshida, R.). Missouri Zen Center website. http://www.missourizencenter.org/SundayService.pdf

Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.

Young, S. (1998-2010). How meditation works: An introductory overview of techniques for mental development within the Buddhist traditions of Theravada, Tantra and Zen and including reference to Christian contemplative practice. http://www.shinzen.org/Articles/artHow.htm

Zimmer, H. (1956). Philosophies of India (ed. Campbell, J.). Meridian Books, New York.




Image Credits

Two Hands Over Blue Sky via:




Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Attachment, Sexuality, and Spirituality (Part 1 of 2)


Let me be clear from the start that the term attachment as used here is in reference to that of the so-called three poisons of attachment, aversion, and delusion spoken of amongst Buddhists, and not that of attachment theory as furthered by the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth and considered at length by counselors, psychologists, and developmental theorists. Come to think of it, there is probably much that can be said about the relationship between this Buddhist concept of attachment and the secure, avoidant, and ambivalent attachment styles that manifest during childrearing; for now, though, I must proceed with a narrower scope. Attachment, then, for the remainder of this post, will refer to that which is pointed to by the various terms and descriptions discussed previously: greed, lust, desire, craving, yearning, longing, grasping, covetousness, cupidity, and avarice; having hunger, thirst, affection, fondness, passion and/or sympathy for, or taking interest and/or delight in someone or something (Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon search for lobha and raga; Rahula, 1956, p. 145; Sangarakshita, 1980, p. 129; Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 7; Young, 1998-2010; with synonyms included where appropriate). Recall, also, that attachment encompasses aspects of “the desire to experience something frequently and repeatedly” (Chakrabarti, 1999, p. 52) or “the drive to repeat pleasant sensations” (Young, 1998-2010).


Perhaps it would be helpful to have a formal definition of what it means to be attached in the Buddhist sense. Toward that end, I propose the following for discussion and amendment as appropriate:

Attachment, in the Buddhist sense, is the existence within the individual of some latent or active desire for the experience of pleasure, satisfaction, or the release of tension. A particular attachment could be a yearning to re-experience conditions that were previously enjoyable, or it might be a yearning for certain conditions to exist based upon the imagined enjoyment that they will bring. Attachment at its most basic level arises from the view of the self as a separate entity, lacking in some way, which must obtain something that it does not presently have in order to feel complete, or at least better than before. The ‘something’ that the self feels it must obtain might be viewed as being outside the self in the mundane way that we speak of our physical environment and that which is contained therein, but it might also be something that we are more likely to view as being inside of ourselves, such as a meditative state or a spiritual experience, for instance. Attachment is usually viewed as being negative in that it is indicative of existence within the samsaric cycle of birth and death and all of the suffering contained therein. It is also considered a hindrance with respect to our experiencing the true peace of equanimity.


Now, given the definition above and my recent exploration of equanimity, it might be easy enough to quickly conclude that pleasure in all of its forms is bad and must be given up in order to live a spiritual life. However, Shinzen Young (1998-2010) makes an interesting point when he observes that it is the “hankering for mental and physical pleasure, not the pleasure itself [that is the] source of suffering.” This is a true enough statement, and one that we should keep in mind as we further contemplate attachment. This distinction might be more firmly rooted in practical reality, though, by noting as well that the addict does not suffer when he is adequately “fixed”, he only suffers when the effects of the drug of choice wear off and he begins, yet again, to experience withdrawal. Yes, it is possible to give oneself over completely to great pleasure without ever craving to recreate the same experience or a similar one. Thus, it is possible for pleasure to be experienced without the suffering of attachment. It’s just that we all know how difficult that can be. To greet and experience great pleasure with no further hankering to re-experience it would essentially require the same equanimity of mind that it would take in order to greet and experience great pain with no further aversion to it. Are we there yet? Besides, the focus of this post is sexual attachment, and sex is generally not something that we simply ‘find ourselves having’ – let alone being something that we might experience with great pleasure before walking away and never yearning for it ever again. No, it’s generally the case that we ‘find ourselves having’ sex precisely because we’ve been yearning for it.


John Daido Loori (2004) spoke on this issue of attachment as viewed within the context of the ultimate reality of emptiness, or sunyata (see also Heart Sutra and the Nature of Emptiness), when he said:

You need two things in order to have attachment: the thing you’re attaching to, and the person who’s attaching. In nonattachment, on the other hand, there’s unity. There’s unity because there’s nothing to attach to. If you have unified with the whole universe, there’s nothing outside of you, so the notion of attachment becomes absurd. Who will attach to what?

Ah, but even in light of the deep truth of these words, there is danger in us diving headlong into the realm of sexual hedonism because, after all, we are merely the universe being the universe, aren’t we? And that is precisely why I posed what I called the “fundamental question” in last week’s post:

If we are indeed the entire universe as the mystics of the many wisdom traditions so frequently describe, then why should we need to engage in austere spiritual practices involving self-denial, the severing of attachments, and the curtailment of aversions in order to realize it?

The answer, of course, relates to the fact that it is precisely because we view the world in terms of self and other that we have attachment and aversion. If we can refrain from falling into such deluded conceptions of self and other we can reside in equanimity – not needing anything or pushing anything away. Okay, I think we’re ready to dive into the deep, dark abyss of attachment, sexuality, and spirituality!





By the way, a song that I think very poignantly captures the yearning nature of romantic love as a quest for wholeness and completeness is David Bowie's version of Wild is the Wind from his Station To Station release. Written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, this song is a masterpiece of the genre.

CCC

Sexuality has rather commonly been viewed throughout the ages as a hindrance to spiritual progress; hence the concept of renunciation, priestly celibacy, etc. Even lay people have been known to practice celibacy for the sake of furthering the practice of their faith. The Shaker sect of Christianity, for example, mentioned in my previous post, essentially died out because the celibacy of its members hindered its perpetuation and renewal! It’s also interesting to note that the Ashram system of Hindu culture productively incorporates this view of sexuality and worldly attachment by breaking up the normal human lifespan into four stages wherein the individual successively: 1) enjoys childhood and the process of acquiring both secular and spiritual knowledge; 2) adopts a householder life of duty to family and society; 3) begins a process of withdrawal from secular life, perhaps teaching on matters of spiritual import; 4) enjoys complete renunciation of all attachments whatsoever. In other words, there is a season of life that is most appropriate for each of these respective pursuits. Our modern Western tendency, however, is to want to have it all – intensely fulfilling sexual experience and the spiritual realization of the sages, each within close temporal proximity of the other, or better yet, at the very same time!


Western secular culture has long considered the state of “being in love” to be one of the most joyful states of being, perhaps second only to that much more intensely ecstatic but shorter-lived experience of “falling in love.” Depictions of these are so ubiquitous in our music, literature, and visual arts that it is difficult to even contemplate that they might not necessarily represent phenomena that are universally valued by all human beings. Sure, we might acknowledge, there are cultures that still value the potential strengthening of interfamilial connections and the enhancement of economic and social standing over the actual strength of the affection between two individuals when determining whether or not a union between those individuals should be sanctioned. Those cultures, however, seem only to exist in the slow moving waters of civilization pushed aside by the rushing onslaught of modernity and its idealization of romantic (sexual) love. Just how long can such thinking hold out, anyway, against the inexorable progression of the human spirit and the expansion of consciousness? And, yet, part of us might still wonder whether romantic love really deserves to be thought of as existing at the forefront of this progression. Perhaps romantic love merely signifies the strengthening of ego in a hyper-individualistic modern world, a world in which our sense of self has become so keenly refined that there could be but one individual who could possibly mesh with who we are – our “soul mate”, if you will.


So, just what is the true nature of this thing called romantic love and all of the sexual chemistry that percolates therein? Is it merely karma, or is it a manifestation of spirit? Is it an attachment, a hindrance, a stumbling block along the path of deepening spirituality, or is it a vehicle in its own right that with appropriate intention might actually propel us along that path of deepening spirituality? Of course, quite often we do speak of love as being in the realm of the spirit – with romantic love being an even more personal manifestation of that spirit. Sexual expression, furthermore, is spoken of as the physical embodiment of the most glorious romantic love that the spirit intends to make manifest. According to Merriam-Webster, to consummate something is to make it perfect or complete. Likewise, the act of consummating a marriage or relationship by having sexual intercourse is an act of perfection or completion. Are we deluded when we speak of sexual activity in this way? Are we merely whitewashing with pretty spiritual talk what is at its core a purely procreative biological activity that feels good because the evolutionary process hit upon the utility of there being a reward to go along with the risk of becoming so distracted in a dangerous world? And if it turns out that sexuality and spirituality are indeed in conflict with each other, then must we choose one, or is it possible to remain in a romantic (and presumably sexual) relationship while at the same time treading a spiritual path that warns of the hindrance of attachment? How can we even begin to reconcile these two apparently conflicting paths? Argh, my head is beginning to hurt! Let’s bring this discussion back down to earth…


CCC


I had a workmate once with whom I enjoyed many a good lunchtime conversation – the most memorable of which were those pertaining to romantic relationships. One of those in particular had to do with the relative importance of the sexual chemistry between two partners. Now, I should probably also say that my friend possessed an earthy wisdom of such matters born of his long tenure in a relationship with an incredibly gorgeous woman with whom he did not otherwise seem all that compatible. Anyway, it was his contention that a strong mutual sexual attraction was absolutely imperative in order to bring a couple back together again after those inevitable larger squabbles that would surely have individuals with a weaker mutual attraction spiraling off to different corners of the galaxy. In other words, he was advocating that attachment be as strong as possible for the sake of the longevity of the relationship. In spite of the commonsensical ring of truth of my friend’s theory, I nevertheless held firm to my conviction that sexual attraction was not nearly as important as many other factors such as shared values and interests, communication style, personality, and so forth. I have to admit, though, that that was long before my list of “failed” relationships had grown anywhere near its present length!


It’s been interesting to contemplate these matters at this stage of life, just as I’m in the midst of falling in love once again. No, scratch that…, I’ve already fallen! For years I’ve wondered whether such a state of existence belonged only to a previous lifetime; and, yet, here I am – loving again for the very first time. Am I attached? Yes, I’m afraid so. Interestingly, though, this new attachment arrives at a time when both of us are the most spiritually “in tune” that we’ve ever been. This topic of attachment, then, is one that we’ve been discussing together at length, even as we realize how very easy it is to settle into an existence wherein mutual pleasure becomes the raison d'ĂȘtre of relationship! So, how does a Buddhist who’s taken a bodhisattva vow to save all beings and a Christian minister devoted to a life of service reconcile their chosen spiritual paths with this present state of romantic love and the yearning that exists to allow it physical manifestation? Well, I suppose I can only speak for the Buddhist, so here goes…


Oh, look, we’re completely out of time! {wink} Seriously, I’ve already prattled on long enough, and the hour is late. Until next week!




References


Chakrabarti, K. K. (1999). Classical Indian philosophy of mind, The Nyaya dualist tradition. State University of New York Press.

Conze, E. (1967). Buddhist thought in India, Three phases of Buddhist philosophy. Ann Arbor Paperbacks, The University of Michigan Press.

Conze, E., Horner, I. B., Snellgrove, D., & Waley, A. (1964). Buddhist texts through the ages. Harper Torchbooks, The Cloister Library, Harper & Row, Publishers.

Hamel, S., Leclerc, G., & Lefrancois, R. (2003). A psychological outlook on the concept of transcendent actualization. The International Journal For The Psychology of Religion, 13(1), pp. 3-15.

Khantipalo, Bhikkhu (2010). Practical advice for meditators. Access to Insight, 7 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/khantipalo/wheel116.html

Kornfield, J. (1993). A path with heart – A guide through the perils and promises of spiritual life. Bantam Books.

Loori, J. (2004). The whole earth is medicine. Featured in Mountain Record 22.3, Spring 2004. http://mro.org/zmm/teachings/daido/teisho35.php

Maslow, A. H. (1987). Motivation and personality, 3rd edition. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., as excerpted in Notable Selections in Human Development, 2nd Edition (Diessner, R. and Tiegs, J., eds.) McGraw-Hill/Dushkin.

Rahula, W. (1959). What the Buddha taught. Grove Press, New York.

Sangharakshita, Bikshu (1980). A survey of Buddhism, 5th edition. Shambhala Publications, Inc. in association with Windhorse Publications.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (2011). Head & heart together: Bringing wisdom to the brahma-viharas. Access to Insight, 17 April 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/headandheart.html

Yoshida, R. (1979). Verse of repentance (tr. Yoshida, R.). Missouri Zen Center website. http://www.missourizencenter.org/SundayService.pdf

Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.

Young, S. (1998-2010). How meditation works: An introductory overview of techniques for mental development within the Buddhist traditions of Theravada, Tantra and Zen and including reference to Christian contemplative practice. http://www.shinzen.org/Articles/artHow.htm

Zimmer, H. (1956). Philosophies of India (ed. Campbell, J.). Meridian Books, New York.



Image Credits


Pygmalion via:

  

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Attachment (Yes, I'm Still Stuck On It)


Last week’s post found us taking a detour from the path of loving-kindness – the one that we’re “supposed” to be on – in order to explore the path of its near enemy, attachment – the path that we’re not to venture down no matter what, right? At least, that’s the way it’s spoken of sometimes, isn’t it? Let’s face it, though, far from being “the road less travelled,” the path of attachment is the one that we’re usually on – we just seem to have the tendency to travel it at night, before the moon has risen, when we’re sleepy and have our eyes half closed! So, now that the sun has risen and we’re wide awake (you know, we’ve had our mandatory quadruple-shot mocha latte, and all), let’s embark down this path called attachment with the intention of examining closely the terrain.




By the end of last week’s post we’d sorted through an abundance of words related to all of the various and sundry ways that we get pulled from the path leading to that place of calm, non-discriminating awareness (equanimity) and into those realms where our vision is obscured, our wisdom goes on holiday, and we engage in actions born of (and which serve to perpetuate) whatever unwholesome karma we’ve accumulated – unwholesome karma that will, if not duly remediated, keep us wandering in samsaric existence. We also saw that, ultimately, the many hindrances (kleshas) can be boiled down to a mere three unwholesome roots (akushala-mula), sometimes also referred to as the three poisonsattachment, aversion, and delusion. Furthermore, a simple model was introduced that displays how attachment and aversion can be thought of as existing on a spectrum not unlike the number line displayed below, with equanimity sitting solidly at the zero point.




Delusion, by the way, is the obscuration of our ability to see clearly that everything we need is already available to us on this tiny raft of ours, that nothing needs to be jettisoned overboard; that, in fact, this tiny raft “of ours” is but part of a larger and grander whole; that we are, in reality, the great ocean and all that calls it home, the storms that rage across it, the sun and moon that rise and set upon it, the stars that sparkle in its surface…, everything.


In light of this fundamental wholeness and completeness – and the fact that it is ours to experience at any time – we see that we can further collapse the three unwholesome roots or three poisons into two. After all, it is the deluded nature of our usual ideas about the self that prompts us to make judgments regarding what “we” lack and what “we” need to throw away. Thus, aversion is really just a manifestation of our attachment (clinging) to ideas of what we are or should be. We should be this without that. We should exist in comfort, without pain; our lives should go smoothly, without hardship; etc. Notice how easily this way of thinking about suffering fits into the way the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination describes the arising of suffering in the existing individual: consciousness gives rise to feelings which prompt craving and further perpetuate the compartmentalization of self and other (the process of appropriation) – all taking place within a context of fundamental delusion. Please see Dependent Origination - The Wheel of Becoming for a more detailed description of this process.  


The Fundamental Question


So it would seem that the fundamental question that we are contemplating as we attempt to understand this thing called attachment is this:


If we are indeed the entire universe as the mystics of the many wisdom traditions so frequently describe, then why should we need to engage in austere spiritual practices involving self-denial, the severing of attachments, and the curtailment of aversions in order to realize it?


My Zen Buddhist friends will, of course, recognize in this question the one that prompted the young Japanese monk, Dogen, to sail to China in the hopes of resolving his personal koan: If we are all innately endowed with Buddha-nature, then why do we need to practice?


Embarking on a Journey of Our Own


You know, there are just some questions that we have to answer for ourselves. Dogen was well-versed in the teachings of the Buddha, he had access to trained teachers, and yet he had to embark upon a journey all his own in order to have his question “answered”. And just what kind of journey will we embark upon? In order to answer that question it might be instructive to examine the presumed metaphysical context within which we practice Buddhism (or how we practice within any tradition, for that matter), and how this presumed context gives rise to our fundamental motivation for practicing. Surely each of us views this existential matter in very different ways, but I can think of at least two models that we can glean from the Buddhist literature:

  1. Our practice is shaped at least in part by the presumed reality of reincarnation. We take to heart the teaching regarding all of existence being suffering (duhkha) and so we practice in such a way that we’re either reborn into a higher birth more conducive to the continuation and perfection of this practice or, better yet, we’re released from the cycle of samsara altogether. The lives of the renunciants guide our practice. Their discipline and single-mindedness of purpose with respect to diminishing or severing their attachments are held in our highest regard, even if we cannot fully emulate their practice at the present time.
  2. Our practice is shaped at least in part by the recognition that we cannot know anything of a so-called afterlife. Reincarnation might exist, but that possibility does not overtly guide our practice. What guides our practice is a compassionate motivation to alleviate suffering right here and now – our own and that of others – even as we remain fully engaged in the many joyful and sorrowful challenges of falling in love, raising a family, making a living, and building community. Since our life is an ongoing process of integrating the secular and the spiritual, we are constantly facing circumstances that require us to act with the very best compassion and wisdom that our spiritual progress allows, however imperfect it might be. Thus, we practice with the intention of further deepening our compassion and enhancing the wisdom that informs our actions, thereby allowing our compassion to be brought to fruition more fully and completely in this life so that the suffering of the world will be diminished.





Now, some may read into these two contrasting motivations a covert comparison of the Theravada and Mahayana traditions, respectively, or perhaps monastic practice as compared to lay practice. That is not my intention. I actually think that practitioners from either tradition, whether lay or monastic, might approach practice from either orientation. Likewise, a person who is not practicing within the context of any particular tradition, but who remains open to the teachings of a variety of wisdom traditions may, upon reflection, find that they are proceeding with their exploration from one or the other of these orientations (or from some combination or variation thereof).


So, does attachment look different when examined through each of these lenses? In the first model, attachment would seem to be indicative of a fundamental failure to recognize existence for what it is, suffering, and practice for what it should be, an unwavering effort to alleviate suffering via the severing of attachments of every ilk – a failure that will, if not corrected, lead unerringly to a continuation of suffering in a very personal cycle of samsara. Furthermore, given the fact that we don’t know how much time we have, we best not waste one instant. Readers familiar with the old “fire and brimstone” style of Christian preaching might recognize in this approach to practice the admonishment attributed to Shaker preacher, Jane Wardley: “Repent. For the kingdom of God is at hand.” Now, please don’t take this as a criticism of that particular approach to either Buddhism or Christianity. For all I know, the Kingdom of God just might be at hand and a new and very personal samsara just might be in the cards for me when it arrives! Pleasant thoughts of the afterlife, notwithstanding, someone whose practice is more like that described in the second model is oriented towards alleviating the suffering of the world right here and now rather than concerning themselves with hypothetical future births. ‘Future birth’ to such a practitioner merely represents the next moment of existence. In this model, attachment still represents an obscuration of wise seeing, an obscuration that will certainly set up conditions for suffering in a future birth. However, given the virtually unavoidable nature of attachment, the way they virtually fall into our lap as we go about living our life in relationship with others, we (and the world) are well-served by our learning to navigate them skillfully. Do we really need to withdraw from attachment entirely in order to remain true to our bodhisattva vow to save all beings, or can we learn to navigate the terrain of attachment with enough wisdom and skill that we ultimately serve to diminish the amount of suffering in the world rather than increase it? In other words, do we look at our practice in terms of black and white absolutism, or do we see our practice as a navigation of endless shades of gray?


Here is a rather funny story that I think illustrates some essential differences between the two models of practice that I sketched out above: I attended a meditation retreat many years ago led by a teacher who was apparently very skilled at maintaining awareness of every action that he performed, and presumably every thought that ever crossed his mind, as well. It certainly appeared that way from the outside, anyway. In order to assist us in achieving that goal for ourselves he had us practice a form of walking meditation wherein we focused our awareness by engaging in what essentially amounted to a running commentary in our heads: “I am lifting my foot…, I am moving my foot…, I am placing my foot…, I am lifting my foot…, I am moving my foot…, I am placing my foot….” What struck me most about how he articulated this practice, however, was that he seemed to be saying that we should be doing this ALL the time – not just during walking meditation – not just as a training exercise. So, when he gave us the opportunity to ask questions by writing them on slips of paper, I simply had to jot down the following one: “When are we ready to dispense with the running mental commentary and just be?” With a very calm and serious demeanor he answered all the other questions, but when he finally got to mine (the last one) the faintest of smirks seemed to flash across his face. Of course, I knew exactly what he was thinking. He was thinking: “I am smirking – faintly.” And then he spoke. “The question is: When are we ready to dispense with the running mental commentary and just be?” His answer: “When you become a buddha.” Unfortunately I had the sneaking suspicion that he didn’t think that was going to be happening any time soon; not in this lifetime, anyway. Now, lest anyone think otherwise, I have the greatest respect for that teacher and that form of practice. It seemed to be working quite well as far as I could tell – for him. However, I simply do not see myself spending the rest of my life trying to maintain a running commentary in my head regarding every action that I perform. And that is precisely why I suggest that we examine the presumed metaphysical context within which we practice Buddhism. That is at least one aspect of awareness that I try to cultivate anyway.


Next week I’ll dive into cultivating awareness within the context of a romantic relationship – that veritable mother lode of attachments!




References


Chakrabarti, K. K. (1999). Classical Indian philosophy of mind, The Nyaya dualist tradition. State University of New York Press.

Conze, E. (1967). Buddhist thought in India, Three phases of Buddhist philosophy. Ann Arbor Paperbacks, The University of Michigan Press.

Conze, E., Horner, I. B., Snellgrove, D., & Waley, A. (1964). Buddhist texts through the ages. Harper Torchbooks, The Cloister Library, Harper & Row, Publishers.

Hamel, S., Leclerc, G., & Lefrancois, R. (2003). A psychological outlook on the concept of transcendent actualization. The International Journal For The Psychology of Religion, 13(1), pp. 3-15.

Khantipalo, Bhikkhu (2010). Practical advice for meditators. Access to Insight, 7 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/khantipalo/wheel116.html

Kornfield, J. (1993). A path with heart – A guide through the perils and promises of spiritual life. Bantam Books.

Maslow, A. H. (1987). Motivation and personality, 3rd edition. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., as excerpted in Notable Selections in Human Development, 2nd Edition (Diessner, R. and Tiegs, J., eds.) McGraw-Hill/Dushkin.

Rahula, W. (1959). What the Buddha taught. Grove Press, New York.

Sangharakshita, Bikshu (1980). A survey of Buddhism, 5th edition. Shambhala Publications, Inc. in association with Windhorse Publications.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (2011). Head & heart together: Bringing wisdom to the brahma-viharas. Access to Insight, 17 April 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/headandheart.html

Yoshida, R. (1979). Verse of repentance (tr. Yoshida, R.). Missouri Zen Center website. http://www.missourizencenter.org/SundayService.pdf

Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.

Young, S. (1998-2010). How meditation works: An introductory overview of techniques for mental development within the Buddhist traditions of Theravada, Tantra and Zen and including reference to Christian contemplative practice. http://www.shinzen.org/Articles/artHow.htm

Zimmer, H. (1956). Philosophies of India (ed. Campbell, J.). Meridian Books, New York.




Image Credits

Closeups of velcro hooks and loops via:





Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank