Talk 1 recording
Like all deep teachings the Buddhist teachings don't just take for granted that we are who we think we are and reality is what we think it is either.
The Buddhist teachings in general are referred to by the Sanskrit term "Dharma" which also means reality. So these teachings are seen as a way of re-understanding reality.
And reunderstanding reality in a positive way: in a way that relieves suffering
Buddhism suggests that the very way we look at ourselves and our experience, our reality, is a root cause of suffering and distress. We expect a certain kind of stability from a reality that's always changing and never quite the way we want it. And we expect a kind of independence and agency in ourselves which is in conflict with how radically dependent we are on each other.
The mind seems to narrow down and get tight, locked in, as we learn how to use language and concepts to simplify and organize the world. The useful tool of conceptual thinking and simplification is mistaken for a true definition of reality and we become blind to the shifting sands and interpentration and massive unknowability of things are they are.
And then from time to time reality shifts far enough from our conception of what's going on that we get a big jolt. And we're upset and we suffer. When we're saying to ourselves "this just can't be!" whether it's a car that won't start, a relationship that suddenly ends or a surprising and unexpected election result, those are moments when the Buddha's teachings - and really most teachings - help us to realize the problem isn't that things aren't the way they ought to be.
The problem is we have an idea that there is such a thing as "the way things ought to be." Things happen according to causes and conditions and when we are shocked but an outcome these teachings enourage us to both accept that what is, is, but also to wonder what those causes and conditions where and how we ourselves contributed to them.
Just like with Christianity there are actually many Buddhisms and some scholars doubt the usefulness of the term "Buddhism" altogether for such a diverse movement which has moved through multiple cultures over about 2600 years from the Buddha's day and of course he was a product of his time so even longer than that.
Generally speaking early Buddhism was concerned with deeply recognizing these fundamental misunderstandings of reality and reducing the mind's reactivity to it all. And the suffering that results from that.
This is an aspect of contemporary mindfulness we are all familiar with. Non-judgmental awareness. Acceptance. Being with what is without being so reactive. One teacher I like said that early Buddhism was about taming the mind. And there's a famous simile that's exactly that.
It talks about how running around chasing after the things we desire and resisting the things we dislike is like we're collection of wild and unruly animals who don't know any better. And our practice is to tether those animals. To hold us in the place. We sit on our cushion want watch our desires but to stay rooted. We can feel the tug of them but we don't let them pull us around until ulitmately they are exhausted and we can come to some peace. Taming the mind.
Here's a great passage from the Early Buddhist teachings - this is the Buddha speaking:
"Cognizing an idea with the intellect, [an ordinary person] is obsessed with pleasing ideas, is repelled by unpleasing ideas, and remains with body-mindfulness unestablished, with limited awareness. He does not discern, as it actually is present, the awareness-release, the discernment-release where any evil, unskillful mental qualities that have arisen utterly cease without remainder.
"Just as if a person, catching six animals of different ranges, of different habitats, were to bind them with a strong rope. Catching a snake, he would bind it with a strong rope. Catching a crocodile... a bird... a dog... a hyena... a monkey, he would bind it with a strong rope. Binding them all with a strong rope, and tying a knot in the middle, he would set chase to them.
"Then those six animals, of different ranges, of different habitats, would each pull toward its own range & habitat. The snake would pull, thinking, 'I'll go into the anthill.' The crocodile would pull, thinking, 'I'll go into the water.' The bird would pull, thinking, 'I'll fly up into the air.' The dog would pull, thinking, 'I'll go into the village.' The hyena would pull, thinking, 'I'll go into the charnel ground.' The monkey would pull, thinking, 'I'll go into the forest.' And when these six animals became internally exhausted, they would submit, they would surrender, they would come under the sway of whichever among them was the strongest. In the same way, when a monk whose mindfulness immersed in the body is undeveloped & unpursued, the eye pulls toward pleasing forms, while unpleasing forms are repellent. The ear pulls toward pleasing sounds... The nose pulls toward pleasing aromas... The tongue pulls toward pleasing flavors... The body pulls toward pleasing tactile sensations... The intellect pulls toward pleasing ideas, while unpleasing ideas are repellent. This, monks, is lack of restraint.
"And what is restraint? There is the case where a monk, seeing a form with the eye, is not obsessed with pleasing forms, is not repelled by unpleasing forms, and remains with body-mindfulness established, with immeasurable awareness. He discerns, as it actually is present, the awareness-release, the discernment-release where all evil, unskillful mental qualities that have arisen utterly cease without remainder.
when these six animals became internally exhausted, they would stand, sit, or lie down right there next to the post or stake. In the same way, when a monk whose mindfulness immersed in the body is developed & pursued, the eye does not pull toward pleasing forms, and unpleasing forms are not repellent. The ear does not pull toward pleasing sounds... The nose does not pull toward pleasing aromas... The tongue does not pull toward pleasing flavors... The body does not pull toward pleasing tactile sensations... The intellect does not pull toward pleasing ideas, and unpleasing ideas are not repellent. This, monks, is restraint.
Those 6 animals symbolizing our 5 senses and the mind that thinks - 6 senses told in Buddhist psychology.
So this is wonderful all by itself. That's why mindfulness is so amazing. There's an organized process by which restraint and presence are transformational. Habit patterns change and we are calmer, less reactive, and more peaceful. It is analytical - what kinds of animals (thoughts) and tendencies are we working with but also so simple. Stay put and them them run out of steam.
And then the later Buddhist movements which are collectively called the Mahayana - the "great" vehicle - they appreciated this but also extended it further. What about the person next to you who's still consumed by all of this? Don't you want to feel compassion for his suffering? How can you help her? Is it just through the example of your own practice - which is a powerful example to be sure - or is there a greater engagement possible?
And what if you notice that you don't feel like helping the person over there who's straining away tugging at the stake? That's their problem, you think, they brought that on themselves. They need to learn how to take care of this. While sometimes it's compassion and wise to give people space to find their way there's also ignoring and avoiding the suffering of others. There's also a subtle kind of stake pulling goig on - I don't want to be around you because your suffering and that makes me uncomfortable. That puts me in contact with my own pain.
Or taking it a step further what about someone who's stake pulling pain leads them to get in your face. What about a suffering being who insults you or disrepects you or blames you for something or takes credit for something you did? Is it possible then to be kind and understanding to see this is someone tied to a stake who's desparate. Or do we get defensive? Some might say it's natural and normal to be defensive if someone does something to you. Maybe so, but is it the only response available to us as humans or is there a broader range of response that's possible.
One way to think about this is a kind of balance between wisdom and compassion. The wisdom of seeing things as they are and interacting more wisely with experience so you suffer less - and have more joy. Wonderful. And compassion as our human ability to be in contact with suffering - our own or others' - and stay put with a willingness to help out. With openness and understanding. And of course not all helping is in fact compassion!
And more or less early Buddhism emphasized wisdom - and this brilliant wisdom has some into our society as mindfulness - and later Buddhism emphasized compassion.
Our topic this week is later Buddhism. in this system the emphasis isnt' on taming the mind but on training the mind. And immediately the powerful implicit idea the the mind can be changed and transformed.
The mind training teachings of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism are traced back to an Indian pundit named Atisha who lives in the 10th century and then through a series of teachers in Tibet in the 11th and 12th century who wrote famous commentaries on Atisha's work. And this has been a living tradition in Tibet to the present day and through the Tibetan disapora into Western culture. A famous proponent of these teachings in the West was the Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trunpa who formed a large center in Colorado in the 70's and through his most famous student which I bet you've heard of: Ani Pema Chodron.
And then about 10 years ago my own Zen teacher, Zoketsu Norman Fischer, took them up and gave a series of talks and retreats on them which became a wonderful book called Training in Compassion, Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong.
Lojong is simply Tibetan for mind-training.
The basic idea of this is to take up a progression of contemplations. The original work by Atisha was a framework - a list of key points and subpoints. Those subpoints are pithy instructions than can be turned over the mind like slogans or mantras. On their own they don't always mean that much - although some are quite clear - but you study their meaning and contemplate and memorize the slogans attached to that meaning. Then when this is working well, the slogan can immerge in our mind as a kind of guide when you need it the most.
When someone is coming at your at work you might, on a good day, instead of going right to a defensive or agressive response be able to have a shift in persepctive through this mind training. A slogan like "Be grateful to everyone" might pop into your mind. And you come up short for a moment and realize, oh: look I have something to learn here about suffering and compassion. This grouchy co-worker is my teacher right now. Wow. And wow is he suffering. Wooh. Thank you.
But that's not to say you have just a woo woo kind of transformation and suddenly it's all better. Although that can actually happen - when we react with gratitude or compassion to agression sometime the agressive person is healed and transformed. But more often it's that we have more space and power to choose a wiser response. We stay calm but we may still let that person know it is not okay with us that they speak to us in the way. We might share our feeling in a clear calm way, I feel belittled when you talk that way. Please don't do that. Let's sit down and work this out.
There are 7 points and 59 slogans. To practice with them all deeply takes a lot longer than we have so we'll just try to get the flavor for these teachings this week and take up a few of the slogans.
The first of the 7 points is called "Resolve to Begin" - and we are living that point right now. We showed up here. We resolve to begin, or to re-new our practice, making it new again. Beginning again.
The slogan under this point is "Train in the preliminaries" so this is one that requires some unpacking.
Consider the rarity and preciousness of human life.
Consider the inevitability of death.
Feel the awesome and indelible power of our actions.
Accept the inescability of pain and suffering.