Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Four Reminders, Part Four: Suffering (or the Shortcomings of Samsara)

Fourth, the homes, friends, wealth, and comforts of samsara
Are the constant torment of the three sufferings,
Just like a feast before the executioner leads you to your death.
I must cut desire and attachment and attain enlightenment through exertion.

-- The fourth of the Four Reminders, on Suffering, or the Shortcomings of Samsara

In our entire lives, when have we ever been satisfied for more than a few minutes? We are forever wishing we had more of something, or something better, or that we could make it last longer. We even bring this approach to our meditation practice, measuring ourselves against some ideal concept of the perfect meditator and coming up short, wishing we were better. Even when things are going well, the undercurrent of dissatisfaction, the sense that things are not yet good enough, is always there. This constant restlessness and desire for improvement is the basic suffering of human existence. We can never simply be happy with the way things are.

We live under the illusion that if we could just get the pieces of the puzzle lined up correctly -- the right job, the right apartment, the right lover, the right spiritual state -- then this whole samsaric picture would really be fine, and we wouldn't have to suffer anymore. But this is delusional. If we were lucky enough to get all the pieces together, we still couldn't make it last. We'd still have the suffering of change, of seeing it all slip away, and the suffering that comes from the fear of that happening. The promise that external satisfaction is going to bring us lasting happiness is a false promise, one that can't really be fulfilled. Even when we get what we want, we soon want more.

Just being alive brings suffering, because there is always the basic clinging to life and fear of death. In fact, the suffering of fear pervades human existence. Look at how many things we are afraid of: death, illness, pain, ridicule, loneliness...the list goes on. But all these fears arise on the basis of desire and attachment. How could we be afraid of losing something to which we are not attached? From this perspective, the recipe for diminishing our fear and suffering is very simple: cut our desire and attachment.

The problem is that we constantly fail to recognize attachment and self-clinging as the cause of our suffering. When we are trapped in a state of anger and aggression, for example, we feel righteous and justified; we fail to notice the suffering that comes from being attached to our own point of view, which is being challenged by someone else. Similarly, when we are caught up in lust or poverty mentality, all we can see is the desired object and the happiness we believe it would bring us if we only had it. We fail to see that it is our own attachment to a concept that makes us unhappy.

Buddhism teaches that there are three forms of suffering:

  1. All-pervasive suffering: The basic quality of dissatisfaction and fear that pervades human existence
  2. The suffering of change: The actual experience of unwanted change, pain or loss
  3. The suffering of suffering: The added suffering that comes from struggling against the first two sufferings and trying to deny or avoid them, which only makes things worse -- in other words, the suffering that we bring upon ourselves

It's easy to see that the homes and wealth and comforts of samsara -- being liked, being respected, getting what we want, getting pleasure -- are the constant torment of the three sufferings. No matter how much of them we get, we always want more; they don't last; and we're always worried about losing them.

But what does it actually mean to cut desire and attachment to the homes, friends, wealth, and comforts of samsara? It doesn't mean that we have to wall ourselves off from the world and go live in a cave and eat nettle soup like Milarepa. Rather, it's a matter of ceasing to put our faith in these things, ceasing to believe that our ultimate happiness really depends upon them. It's okay to enjoy these things when they arise, but to get caught up in attachment to them or craving for more of them only leads to suffering.

Even if we were able to enjoy all the comforts of samsara for an entire lifetime (which would be the popular definition of a life well-lived: "the one who dies with the most toys wins"), it would still be temporary and not of any lasting benefit.

The challenge is to find a middle way, a balanced way of being in the world that avoids both the extreme of ascetic renunciation and the opposite extreme of materialist indulgence. This means being open to the experience of whatever comes to us in our lives -- without spending too much time worrying about keeping things a certain way. As Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche says, "Happiness is not at fault. Samsaric happiness can bring real happiness when we truly see its nature." There is nothing inherently wrong with the search for happiness; the problem is that it has been misdirected outside, rather than inside.

Cutting desire and attachment means cutting our tendency to put priority on mundane activities, and returning always to the true priority: waking up. How much time do you want to spend pursuing temporary pleasures that come from outside, versus ultimate liberation -- which comes from inside?

The Four Reminders, Part Three: Karma

Third, when death comes, I will be helpless.
Because I create karma, I must abandon evil deeds
And always devote my time to virtuous actions.
Thinking this, every day I will examine myself.

-- The third of the Four Reminders, on Karma

The law of karma holds that all the suffering we experience -- and for that matter, all the positive things we experience too -- are the result of our own actions of body, speech and mind.

For those of us who grew up in a Western culture, this idea may be hard to swallow. Generally, depending on our influences and our own inclinations, we are taught to adopt one of two standard viewpoints:

  1. Theism/eternalism: Someone else (God) is pulling the strings, deciding where we're born, how long we live, the experiences we have, and so on; and when we die, God decides the eternal destiny of our "soul"
  2. Nihilism/materialism: There's no rhyme or reason to our existence here; it's all random events taking place in an existential vacuum, and there is nothing beyond the flesh; when we die, our mindstream ceases to exist in any form whatsoever

Karma, on the other hand, is Buddhism's famous Middle Way, residing somewhere in between those two untenable extremes. Karma means that our experience is neither random and meaningless, nor is it being dictated by a creator god or puppetmaster. Rather, our experience is somehow the fruition of what we've created for ourselves -- even if we're not always capable of seeing the connections between cause and fruition.

At a practical, mundane level -- in terms of explaining our moment-to-moment, day-to-day and year-to-year experience of the world -- we might find that the view of karma makes more sense than either theism or nihilism. We can find evidence to support this in our own lives. Often the suffering or the happiness we experience is obviously self-created.

At a metaphysical level, too, some people find that karma provides a better explanation of our existence than either of the more commonly held alternatives. Having rejected both the theistic belief in a created "soul" that is eternally rewarded or punished for its actions in this life, as well as the nihilistic belief that every aspect of consciousness dies with the body, it follows that some part of the mind will survive the death of the body, and that the force of whatever karma it has accrued in the past will go towards shaping its future experiences or lives.

The good news about karma is that it means that we have the power to bring about the happiness and benefit of ourselves and other sentient beings. It's not a question of waiting and hoping that things will work out in the end, or that some higher power will step in and make suffering go away and shower us with everlasting happiness. The power to create suffering or happiness is in our own hands.

Karma is like a snowball: whichever direction we roll it in, it accumulates more and more mass. In each moment, we have a choice about which direction to roll the snowball: we can roll it towards further suffering and imprisonment in samsara, or we can roll it in the direction of freedom and ultimate happiness.

What kind of karmic future are we creating for ourselves? How much of a disconnect is there between how we aspire to be in the world and how we actually are?

Because of our tendency towards shame and self-denigration, however, it's important for us not to use karma as another way of beating ourselves up. While we should be aware of how we create negative karma, we should also be aware of how we generate positive karma and focus our energy and attention on doing more of that.

Our "individual" karma also has an impact on the beings around us. When we suffer, we tend to make others suffer along with us, and when we are happy, we tend to make others happy too. So our individual karma is not as individual as we think it is. Even if we don't say or do something, we can affect other people simply through the energetic quality or state of mind that we manifest in their presence. If they sense our tension and aggression, they become tense and aggressive. If they sense our love and compassion, they relax and open. We can have an impact on someone's life simply by the way we look at them in the subway or on the street, and this too creates karma. So it's important to remain aware of our state of mind and how we're manifesting that to the beings around us.

Everything we do creates a karmic result. It is a misunderstanding to think that there are some moments or situations that have moral implications, and others that don't. To contemplate karma is to realize that every instant of consciousness as a human being has moral implications, because even thoughts and intentions have the power to generate positive or negative karma and thus to bring about the happiness or suffering of sentient beings.

This is why our meditation practice is so important. Practice leads to the removal of cognitive and emotional obscurations, the transformation of poisons, and makes it possible to purify our karma. Practice is what carries us along the path, and the path is what leads to awakening.

The key to transforming and purifying karma is to bring awareness to all actions of body, speech and mind -- and our practice is the key to generating this awareness.

The Four Reminders, Part Two: Impermanence and Death

Second, the whole world and its inhabitants are impermanent:
In particular, the life of beings is like a bubble.
Death comes without warning: this body will be a corpse.
At that time, the Dharma will be my only help: I must practice it with exertion.

-- The second of the Four Reminders, on Impermanence and Death

Our habitual attitudes towards death are deeply unrealistic. We strive to keep the reality of death at arm's length, as if it were merely an abstract possibility -- something that might happen to other people, but probably not to me. Even when we hear the words of the traditional verse, "This body will be a corpse," we know intellectually that it's true -- and yet, somehow, the reality of it still does not entirely sink in. We coddle and cherish our bodies and pride ourselves on looking a certain way, and we may take it for granted that our bodies will continue to serve us well into the distant future. But of course this is not guaranteed -- in fact, it's not even bloody likely.

As we get older it becomes harder to live in denial of our body's gradual progression towards decrepitude and decay. Looking at photographs of ourselves when we were children, however, it's easy to see how quickly our lives are passing by. How much time do we have left, even under the best of circumstances?

The body is literally like a bubble -- so easily ruptured, it might be here one instant and gone the next. It would be madness to place our trust and identification in such a fleeting and fragile mirage. And yet that is what we do.

Our denial and ignorance about death arises on the basis of our fear of death. Our fear of death, in turn, thrives upon our denial and ignorance of it. This cycle of ignorance and fear of death causes us so much unnecessary suffering.

One reason we are so afraid of death is because we keep it at arm's length, and deny the reality of it. Losing our fear of death is synonymous with becoming more aware of death, more open to it -- which also means living our lives with a greater sense of urgency, remembering how little time we have left.

Our habit is to put off until "tomorrow" what we should do today, thinking that "tomorrow" we'll have more convenient circumstances. When we get this or that, we think, then we'll be able to really settle down and practice. But what if that never happens?

We spend so much of our lives focused on trying to fulfill our desires and passions. For example, if we are single we may devote our thought and energy to the idea that if we only had a partner, then things would be great and we could really start living. We get caught up in pursuing sex and romance, thinking maybe that will bring us lasting happiness. But looking at it from the larger perspective, isn't this just a distraction from what's really important? The clock is ticking, and when death comes for us, how are sex and romance going to help?

At the time of death, what will we be able to take with us? Not lovers, friends, family, possessions, or our bodies. The only "things" we might be able to carry with us into the bardo -- the Tibetan Buddhist term for the space between lives -- is our karma (both good and bad), and, perhaps, our intention to wake up from the cycle of suffering (if we've really formed that intention). But the 'color' of our karma and the strength of the intention we carry depend upon what we do and how we practice here and now. This is why we should practice with diligence.

With so little time left, what is really most important to you?

The Four Reminders, Part One: Precious Human Birth

First, contemplate the preciousness of being free and well-favored.
This is difficult to gain, easy to lose: now I must do something meaningful.

-- The first of the Four Reminders: Precious Human Birth

One of our most deeply rooted habitual patterns is self-criticism. Even when our situation is good, our minds always circle back to focus on what we lack, the areas where we perceive ourselves to be deficient. This is especially true here in the West, where our culture is steeped in the notion of Original Sin -- the idea that we are fundamentally bad, primordially corrupted, and we cannot be fixed without the intervention of a Higher Power to rescue us from ourselves. This is a far cry from the Eastern notion of Buddha Nature -- the idea that all beings are fundamentally good, primordially pure, and that each being has the potential to awaken to its own true nature through its own actions and awareness.

Our compulsive self-criticism and discontent often blinds us to our own positive qualities and fortunate circumstances, making it difficult for us to relax with ourselves as we are, or to rest with what is happening in the moment. For example, we may become speedy and impatient -- always restless and eager to be somewhere other than where we are. We can observe this sometimes in meditation practice. When we're sitting on the cushion with a group of meditators, we can't wait for the bell to ring so we can stand up and do walking meditation -- and then when we're walking, we can't wait for the bell to ring so we can sit back down again. Ridiculous!

If we have habitual feelings of shame or fear of deficiency or self-pity, this can become a veil that prevents us from clearly seeing -- much less utilizing -- the precious opportunity for awakening that we have in this life. Yet, we can also recognize that these negative feelings have no inherent reality of their own. We're the ones who keep them turning. We give them energy and soil in which to grow. Yielding to these ancient patterns frustrates our emotional well-being and stifles our spiritual growth.

The antidote is to contemplate the First Reminder, to realize that we are blessed with the extraordinary freedoms and endowments of a precious human birth. All the favorable conditions that make it possible for us to progress along the path to enlightenment have come together in this lifetime.

Of all the infinite variety of situations into which we could have been born, we find ourselves now in this one. In contrast to our habit of focusing on the negative, always feeling discontent over what our lives are lacking, we could, instead, learn to appreciate the precious qualities of this life, and thereby make good use of it -- for our own benefit and for everyone else's benefit too -- before it is gone. For it is important to realize that the precious opportunity that exists for us right now is fleeting, and could disintegrate at any time. We should not take it for granted that our circumstances will always be this favorable. We should practice diligently while we can.

At this moment, all the freedoms and favorable conditions have come together for you to be able to progress along the path toward buddhahood. Yet none of these blessings that you presently enjoy are guaranteed to you. Any of them could easily be lost, at any time, through your own death or through changing life circumstances. If you do not recognize the precious opportunity you have now, and do not take advantage of it, when will you have the chance to do so again?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Why Meditate?

Why do we meditate? We need a good reason to do something so strange. Because sitting still and doing nothing is a rather bizarre occupation, when you think about it. Why not just watch TV instead?

Many of us who are on the Buddhist path, practicing meditation, have landed here after a rude awakening of some kind. A divorce, the loss of a loved one or a job, an addiction, or some other personal trauma has brought us to the sometimes long-overdue recognition that our old way of doing things isn’t working anymore. We come to the cushion looking for a new way to live.

The Buddha taught that, underneath everything in our human lives, there is a persistent and deep-seated sense of dissatisfaction that we cannot escape. The Buddha’s term for this, dukkha, is often translated into English as “suffering,” but it could also be translated as “unease” or “unsatisfactoriness.” The term is thought to have referred originally to a potter’s wheel that is off-kilter and makes a horrible screeching noise as it spins.

Most of us have spent our entire lives on the run from this one inescapable fact, what the Buddha called the First Noble Truth: underneath it all, behind even the most positive or pleasurable experiences, there is dukkha, the sense that something isn’t entirely right, that the pleasure is temporary and contains its own pain, that the fruit, even at the height of its ripeness, is already rotting from within. We look for happiness in things outside ourselves, but even when we get what we want we always seem to discover, each time with a fresh sense of surprise, that the elusive feeling of happiness dissolves and we have to start all over again.

At some point — and this is the point where meditation becomes possible — we may begin to sense that perhaps the lasting happiness we seek is never going to come from things outside. Seeing a sign in the window advising us to “Inquire Within,” we realize that we need to look at our own mind and discover a deeper truth about our own nature.

And so we land on the meditation cushion, where we are in for another rude awakening. We learn that the first step towards that internal transformation is cultivating attention, developing the capacity to stay present with ourselves and with what is happening right here, right now. Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, a Theravadan teacher, says:

You can’t make radical changes in the pattern of your life until you begin to see yourself exactly as you are now. As soon as you do that, changes will flow naturally. Mental cultivation through meditation is without rival in helping you achieve this sort of understanding and serene happiness.

Our rude awakening on the cushion comes from the discovery that our mind is wild and distracted, and seems to have a will of its own. We are confronted with the phenomenon that Buddhists traditionally call “monkey mind.” Our mind howls and jumps from one thought to the next, and we find ourselves at the mercy of our moods, memories, thoughts, emotions, and perceptions. Our noble intention to sit down and discover our true nature is obstructed by the screeching monkey that we discover is our own mind.

The Buddhist masters assure us of something that, at this point, we may find difficult to believe. Monkey mind, they say, is not the true nature of mind — it’s merely a collection of bad mental habits superimposed on the mind, habits that can be unraveled and dissolved. Mind’s true nature, they assure us, is clear and focused and peaceful.

The reason this is so hard to believe — although we may have an intuitive sense of its truth — is that it doesn’t seem to correspond to our experience most of the time. Our mind is a loud, noisy place full of voices clamoring and competing for attention, and we feel lucky if we even have an occasional glimpse of peace.

Tenzin Palmo, a Buddhist nun who spent twelve years meditating in a cave in the Himalayas, says that the modern human mind is like a garbage heap. With today’s technology and media, we have an unprecedented and constant influx of information, stories, ideas, emotions, opinions, images and desires flowing into our minds through our eyes and ears, and most of it is garbage. With no routine in place for clearing away the garbage that comes in, it just piles up there, and then what becomes of our minds? Meditation offers us a way to clear away some of the garbage.

So what stands in the way of our ability to settle into our mind’s natural state? One word for it is ego, which refers in this case to our sense of a separate and truly existent self, the “I.” Buddhism teaches us that this sense of self is an illusion, a hugely mistaken perception that has tragic consequences. From the mistaken sense of “self” comes the mistaken sense of “other,” the notions of “me and mine,” and all the ego’s schemes and maneuvers designed to satisfy its craving for comfort and pleasure.

Our ego’s schemes and maneuvers fall into three basic categories, which in Buddhism are called the Three Poisons. We compulsively grasp at what is pleasant and become attached to it; we push away or seek to destroy what is unpleasant; and we pretty much tune out the rest. Through our compulsive grasping at pleasure and avoidance of pain, we become habituated to reaching for something — food, sex, TV, a person, a drink or drug, whatever it may be for us — to ease the edginess of the moment, to blot out our sense of the dukkha that underlies our experience. Through the force of habit, we learn to instantly go into escape mode, rather than sitting with our feelings of uncertainty.

In the Shambhala tradition, this is what is known as cocoon. It may look different for each person, but in every case, cocoon is ego’s way of wrapping itself up in the illusion of security and protecting itself: it’s your personal strategy for getting all the good stuff, making all the bad stuff go away, and numbing yourself just in case there’s any pain.

The problem with this strategy is that it’s not grounded in reality. The things we habitually reach for to give us pleasure, in the end, bring us more pain. Our desire and our clinging to comfort only makes us more uncomfortable. In India, it’s said that hunters are able to trap small monkeys by boring a hole in the side of a coconut and placing something sweet inside. The monkeys reach through the hole and grasp the candy, but because they’ve formed their hand into a fist to grasp the candy, they’re unable to retract it from the coconut. The monkeys’ own desire, their grasping at the candy, is what traps them, and they don’t realize that they could free themselves very simply by letting go.

Now, here’s the good news: This is all in your mind. The source of all this activity, the place where both wisdom and neurosis arise, is in the mind. Where else could it be? And the mind can be trained. Bad habits can be unlearned. And mind’s true nature can be uncovered.

The Buddha taught:

The consequences of an [undisciplined] mind will follow you like the cart that follows the ox that pulls it. The consequences of a purified mind will follow you like your own shadow. No one can do more for you than your own purified mind — no parent, no relative, no friend, no one. A well-disciplined mind brings happiness.

From this perspective, we don’t come to meditation in order to “get” something — which is our habitual way of approaching things. Rather, we come to meditation in order to lose something: to lose our confusion, our distraction, our preconceptions, our prejudices, our denial, our destructive habitual patterns — all these cognitive and emotional veils that obscure our vision and distort our perception of reality, keeping us trapped in cycles of destructive, reactionary behavior.

What we may discover, as we begin to peel away those veils, is that we already have what we are looking for. It’s been here all along. Our mind’s true nature is basically good, and our life in this moment is fundamentally worth living not for what it could become if we did this or that, or had this or that, but simply for what it already is. The monkey may continue to dance on the garbage heap for some time to come, but underneath it all, we know we are not the monkey or the garbage heap — we are the Buddha, awakened, connected and free from the bondage of our own ego trip.

That, as Pema Chodron would say, is “news we can use.”