Sunday, December 13, 2009

Much Ado About Nothing

I spent the past two-and-a-half weeks studying Madhyamaka with a great teacher named Israel Lifschitz, from Nitartha Institute. I'm grateful to Israel for sharing these insights with me and helping me understand the practical value of Madhyamaka, which often seems maddeningly dense and intellectual. If there is anything of value said in this essay, it's probably from Israel; I've just tried to put it into writing, and tie it together with some of my own feeble thoughts.

When the Buddha first attained enlightenment, he remained alone and silent for several weeks, uncertain that he could share with anyone else what he had realized. But eventually he decided that he had to try. His initial attempt, it is said, didn’t go very well. When asked about his realization by one of the first men he encountered, he said:

“I have found a mind that is pure, profound, luminous and free of stains.”

The man basically took a step back and said something like, “Okay...Well, good luck with that!” And off he went.

The Buddha realized that in order to share his realization with others, he would need to come down to earth a little bit more, and talk at a level that ordinary people could understand and put into practice. So he adopted a more practical style of teaching, relating very much to the everyday level of experience. But over the next 40 years, as a large following of disciples grew around him and practiced his teachings, he gradually moved closer and closer to his original revelation: in stages, he unveiled the depth of his realization, one step at a time. Each time his followers thought they’d arrived at a solid understanding of reality, the Buddha would pull the rug out from under them again and reveal a new, more profound way of understanding. The stages of the Buddhist path point, ever more directly, towards that pure, profound, luminous mind that is free of stains, which was the essence of the Buddha’s awakening.

The fact is that the Buddha’s realization was something that cannot really be put into words, and cannot be conceptually understood. It was dancing itself, an experience which no dance manual -- however well-written or illustrated -- can really convey. Over the past twenty-five centuries, however, Buddhist practitioners have developed a mind-numbingly complex and mind-bogglingly vast array of manuals and philosophical systems describing that dance and how we can replicate it in our own experience.

Many of these philosophical systems developed highly sophisticated, detailed descriptions and categorizations of the human mind and its experience. But among the most daunting, and most profound, of these philosophical systems is one that arose in India several centuries after the Buddha’s passing, which came to be known as the Madhyamaka school. Later, when Buddhism came to Tibet, the Madhyamaka system was enshrined there as the highest philosophical view; today, 1,500 years later, Tibetans are still arguing the same issues that were debated by Madhyamaka philosophers in India nearly 1,000 years earlier.

In fact, the Madhyamaka system is not much of a system, because it contains no elaborate descriptions of mind or of ultimate reality. That’s because the Madhyamaka philosophers don’t really hold a view or a position of their own. From the Madhyamaka perspective, there is nothing to say about the ultimate nature of things, because it is beyond words, beyond all reference points and concepts. The only way to conceptually approach emptiness, or the true nature of reality, they say, is through refuting everything that it is not. Through systematically annihilating every mistaken conceptual idea one might have about true reality, they aimed to create a space for the Buddha’s non-conceptual realization to arise. Thus, the Madhyamaka philosophers asserted no particular views of their own and had nothing to defend, but simply went about exposing the absurdity and contradictions of the views and positions held by everyone else.

Contrary to appearances, Madhyamaka is not a philosophical game or an intellectual exercise. Its purpose is not just to refute other people’s views, but in doing so, to uproot our ignorance and to expose the mistaken nature of our assumptions about reality. Like all Buddhist teachings and practices, the Madhyamaka method is intended to help us wake up; by demolishing our opinions with merciless logic, it aims to help us go beyond opinions altogether, to pure experience and a state of relaxation free of mental constructs. The irony of Madhyamaka is that it has nothing to say and points to a state of total simplicity -- the pure, profound, luminous mind beyond concept that the Buddha realized -- and yet the Madhyamaka philosophers produced a mountain of philosophical treatises that rival, in both complexity and volume, the output of any other philosophical system in the world.

The very center of our experience, the core of reality, what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world,” is a place where words and concepts cannot go. Madhyamaka deals with that core, that center, but it never says anything about it directly -- because nothing that can be said can possibly express the nature of that core. In a debate with a Madhyamaka philosopher, you have the right to remain silent, but anything you say can and will be used against you.

The Buddha taught that our ignorance and our clinging are the fundamental causes of our suffering. The aim of Madhyamaka is to uproot our ignorance of ultimate reality and expose our clinging to opinions and conceptual reference points. Holding onto our reference points and clinging to our opinions is the Madhyamaka definition of suffering; letting them go and relaxing into a space beyond concepts is freedom.

Consider how we cling to the past, and how much suffering this causes us. We feel that we are conditioned and programmed by our past experiences, and we hold onto the memory of them tightly -- even (or especially) the bad stuff. We cling so very tightly to the labels we put on ourselves based on what we did or what was done to us in the past, and who we believe those experiences make us today. I am such-and-such kind of person and that’s who I really am, because such-and-such happened to me. We resist letting go of these labels because they define who we think we are. Who would we be without them? Our fixation and clinging to the past is like trying to clutch at water in our fists; by the time we close our hands on it, it’s already gone. The past no longer exists, and yet we constantly try to cling to it and make it permanent.

Madhyamaka doesn’t refute the appearances of life; it doesn’t say, for example, that the past never happened, or that the objects appearing in front of us now are not appearing. But it refutes, relentlessly, every single concept or opinion that we might impute onto that raw experience. It shows us how the mistaken notions we impute onto our experience -- and the fact that we believe what we impute -- block our ability to see reality as it is, and cause us unnecessary suffering. The problem behind our suffering, according to Madhyamaka, is not a lack of thinking or logic; it’s bad thinking, and bad logic.

When we let our minds be permeated by the ultimate view -- that things and experiences have no enduring essence that we can cling to, and that the true nature of reality is neither this way nor that way -- then our clinging is reduced. What is there to cling to? We don’t, after all, have to take the whole thing quite so seriously.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Wake Up, Wake Up!

This essay is a rework of a series of four shorter pieces published on this blog one year ago. It has been largely stripped of "Buddhist" jargon and rewritten to pass the mother test: hopefully even your mother could understand it.

Although enlightenment may be inevitable, and awakened mind itself may be our most basic nature, that doesn’t mean it comes naturally to us. We’ve been asleep at the wheel for a very long time — for decades, perhaps, or for countless lifetimes, depending on what you believe — and waking up from such a long sleep is not easy to do. Our sleep has a lot of momentum and energy behind it, like a train, and breaking that momentum also requires a lot of consciously directed energy. To stop a long freight train that’s moving fast, you don’t just slam on the brakes — you have to start applying the brakes a mile or two ahead of where you plan to actually stop.

The same is true on the spiritual path. Every once in a while, you hear about someone (like Eckhart Tolle) whose freight train came to an abrupt, unexpected stop, and there they were — suddenly wide awake. But that kind of person is as rare as a daytime star. For the rest of us, it’s a slow process. We have been hurtling forward, for such a long time, in the momentum of our confusion, that it takes a lot of consistent effort to even slow ourselves down. We apply the brakes by working with our minds and chipping away, bit by bit, at the momentum of our confusion. Eventually, we’ll be able to turn the train back towards its source, the primordial wisdom of awakened mind that is, according to almost every spiritual tradition, the origin of all things.

Count Your Blessings

The heart of the problem is that we take our lives for granted. We get stuck in complaining about all the big and little ways that life disappoints us, and we forget that, at the most basic level, we have it pretty good. We don’t have all the things we want, and we probably have other things we don’t want and can’t seem to get rid of, but in terms of having what we need for waking up — for putting the brakes on our confusion and turning the freight trains of our own minds back in the other direction — our circumstances really couldn’t be much better.

You’re a human being. You’ve probably been one all your life, so it’s difficult to imagine being anything else. But try to imagine it. What if you — whatever you call “you” — had been born as a horse, or a fish, or a dog, or a bug, or as some creature that humans have never seen and don’t have a name for? What kind of chances would you have, in such a life, to follow the path towards awakening? In the grand scheme of things, human beings are a pretty rare breed.

You have a body that works more or less well enough for you. Maybe it gives you problems — and, almost certainly, you’re not satisfied with your body the way it is — but consider, at the most basic level, how amazing and unlikely it is to merely exist in such a body. You are breathing, without even trying. You’re moving about. You probably have eyes, and ears, and hands. You can hold a book in your hands — a simple act that represents millions of years of evolution that resulted in the complex being that you are. But more than that — any monkey could hold a book, but you can read it. You have a mind that is capable of absorbing complex ideas and thinking in abstract ways; a mind, moreover, that is endowed with the blessing (or the curse, depending on what you do with it) of self-awareness. That is your human birthright, and it’s a power that many beings don’t have.

But it doesn’t stop there. You’re actually one of the luckiest human beings on the planet. Not only can you think and feel and move about, but you have the kind of circumstances, and the kind of mind, that has led you to seek out spiritual teachings in the first place. Imagine how many people in this world never have that opportunity. So many people are starving and struggling to survive, or born in places that are torn apart by war, or born with a mind that’s impaired; or they simply grow up in ways that only make them more confused and lead them further down the path of suffering. They never have a chance. But you’re one of the fortunate ones. If you’re like most people, you probably spend a lot of time complaining about your life circumstances, but in terms of your ability to progress along the spiritual path, your circumstances couldn’t really be much better. Wake up and smell the coffee.

Tibetan Buddhists call this kind of life a “precious human birth." They say it is incredibly rare, in the cosmic scheme of things, to be blessed with such a fortunate life; it would be a tragedy of cosmic proportions to waste such a precious gift, to not utilize it fully and meaningfully.

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 — or the ways we perceive our outer circumstances to be unsatisfactory. This is especially true in the West, where our culture is steeped in the notion of Original Sin — the idea that we are, from the time we’re conceived in the womb, 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 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 be habitually speedy and impatient — always restless and eager to be somewhere other than where we are, doing something other than what we’re doing. I remember when I first caught this pattern coming up in my own mind, very vividly, in the midst of a weekend meditation training program. I found myself sitting there on the cushion, anxiously waiting for the bell to ring so I could get up and do walking meditation. Then, after a few minutes of walking meditation, I found myself anxiously waiting for the bell to ring again, so I could sit back down. When I realized the absurdity of what my mind was doing — always leaning into the next moment, the next activity, the next thought — I almost laughed out loud.

One of the roots of our discontent and restlessness may be residual, habitual feelings of shame, fear, deficiency and even self-pity that were ingrained in us early in life. If we let such feelings control our minds, they become a veil that prevents us from clearly seeing — much less utilizing — the opportunity for awakening that we have in this life. But through working with our minds in meditation, we can come to realize that these negative emotional habits have no inherent reality of their own. We're the ones who keep them spinning. 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.

Of all the infinite variety of situations into which we could have been born, we find ourselves now in this one — this very unlikely, slightly absurd human body, born into this very particular set of circumstances. In contrast to our habit of focusing on the negative, always feeling discontent over what our lives are lacking, we could, instead, turn our minds towards appreciating the precious qualities of this life, and making the best use of it — before it is gone. Part of what makes this human life we have so precious is that it is fleeting, and could totally disintegrate at any time, without warning. We should not take it for granted that our circumstances will always be so favorable; we should practice diligently on the spiritual path while we can.

At this very moment, all the necessary conditions have come together for you to be able to progress along the path toward enlightenment. 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. Wouldn't it suck to find yourself on your death-bed and be full of regret that you wasted your time in this life? What steps can you take to make sure that doesn't happen?

Time Is Running Out

In our modern Western culture, especially in America, we don’t even like to talk about death. It’s considered morbid to dwell on such things. We prefer to think about death as little as possible, until it absolutely can’t be avoided. We are like the ostrich that hides its head in the sand when afraid — it’s as if we imagine that by not looking squarely at the reality of death, we can somehow avoid being affected by it. When the death of a loved one happens, or when their own impending death comes within sight, most people are taken by surprise.

This attitude of denial and avoidance is, obviously, 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. Of course we know intellectually that we will die at some point — yet, somehow, emotionally, the reality of it still does not entirely sink in. We coddle and cherish our bodies and pride ourselves on looking young, and we may take it for granted that our bodies will continue to serve us well into the distant future. But as we get older it becomes harder to live in denial of the body's gradual progression towards decrepitude and decay. Looking at photographs of ourselves when we were children, it's easy to see how quickly our lives are passing by. Buddhist scriptures compare our lives to a bubble, a dew drop, a bolt of lightning, and a torrent of water rushing down a hillside. A human life is so brief, even under the best of circumstances — and the older we get, the faster the years and decades seem to go by. How much time do you imagine you have left on this earth?

The human body is literally like a bubble — so easily ruptured, it might be here one instant and gone the next. If you nick an artery, you could be dead within minutes. From a spiritual perspective, it would be madness to place our trust and identification in such a fleeting and fragile mirage as the body — to believe that the body is what we are. And yet we do precisely that, don't we?

We deny death because we’re afraid of it. And we’re afraid of it because we’re in denial about it. This cycle of ignorance and fear of death causes us so much unnecessary suffering. Losing our fear of death — becoming more aware of it, more open to it — means living our human 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 thing, we think, when we get all our ducks in a row, we'll finally be able to really settle down and focus on spiritual practice. But what if our ducks never get in a row, and time runs out?

We spend our lives trying to fulfill our desires and passions. If we are single we may devote our thoughts 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. There’s nothing particularly wrong with sex and romance. 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? When we’re lying there on our death-beds, is it really going to be enough to say to ourselves, “Yeah, I had a good time.”

At the time of death, we can’t take anything with us. Not lovers, friends, family, possessions, or our bodies. From the Buddhist point of view, the only thing we’ll be able carry with us into whatever happens next is the mind itself, which carries our karma (both good and bad) and our spiritual intentions. But the 'color' of our karma and the strength of the intentions we carry depend upon what we do and how we practice here and now.

With time running out, what is really most important to you? What could you be doing to make your life meaningful?

Everything You Do Matters

“Karma” is one of those Buddhist words that have entered the popular vocabulary, but its meaning is very poorly understood. It’s not a big mystical thing. Karma basically means that whatever we think, say or do produces an effect in our minds and in the world around us. Everything we do matters, because everything produces consequences that ripple outward and affect the whole environment. The way it works is very simple: when we do something positive, it plants seeds of happiness; and when we do something negative, it plants seeds of suffering. Sooner or later, when the conditions are right in the soil of our minds, these seeds will come to fruition and we will experience the results of what we have done. If you plant an apple seed, and the right conditions come together to nourish it, you don’t get an oak tree. You get an apple tree.

For those of us who grew up in a Western culture, the idea of karma may be a little 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 mind-stream ceases to exist in any form whatsoever.

Those two basic viewpoints represent two extremes, polar opposites on the spectrum of belief about how we got here and what forces shape our human experience. Most people believe in one or the other of those two extremes. It never occurs to them that there might be a third alternative somewhere in-between those two untenable opposites. Karma is the essence of that third, middle way: it means that our experience is neither random and meaningless (nihilism), nor is it being dictated by a creator god or puppet-master (theism). Rather, what we experience is the fruition of what we've created for ourselves — even if we're not always capable of seeing the connections between cause and result. Sometimes we can find evidence to support this view in our own lives: often the suffering or the happiness we experience is obviously self-created. Other times, it can be hard to trace the connection between cause and result because we may have planted the seeds so long ago that we don’t remember. (Do you even remember what you had for lunch on the second Tuesday of last month?) We therefore imagine that there’s no connection and that our experiences are just “happening” to us for no particular reason, but from a Buddhist point of view that is delusion.

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. If we reject both the theistic belief in a created "soul" that is eternally rewarded or punished for its actions in this life, along with 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.

Karma is not like a judge, doling out rewards and punishments for good or bad behavior — that’s the theistic spin again. Karma doesn’t care what we do, because it’s not an entity; it’s just the way things work, a natural law, the way water is always wet and fire is always hot. Karma is like a snowball: whatever 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, or we can roll it in the direction of freedom and ultimate happiness. What kind of karmic future are you creating for yourself? Do your actions sync up with your aspirations, or are they going in two different directions? Is there a disconnect between how you aspire to be in the world and how you actually are?

Here’s the good news: karma means that we have the power to create happiness and to stop creating suffering. It's not a question of waiting and hoping that things will work out in the end, or that some kind of savior will step in and make suffering go away and shower us with everlasting happiness. The power to create our future happiness is in our own hands.

Our "individual" experience also affects the people and other 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 personal karma is not as personal as we think it is; we’re all swimming in it together. 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 too. Without realizing it, 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. Every single thing we do matters, and has consequences.

We normally think that there are some moments or situations that have moral implications, and others that don't. To contemplate the way karma works 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 effects and thus to bring about happiness or suffering.

This is why meditation practice is so important on the spiritual path. Through meditation, we see our minds more clearly and develop calmness and insight; thus, we begin to dismantle the cognitive and emotional obscurations that have been leading us to sabotage our own happiness. Practice is what carries us along the path, and the path leads us to awakening.

Cutting Desire and Attachment

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 we would live happily ever after, and we wouldn't have to suffer anymore. But there’s a flaw in that logic. Even if we were lucky enough to get all the pieces together and all the ducks lined up (something most people never do), 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 objects or conditions are going to bring us lasting happiness is a false promise, one that can never 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. Fear pervades human existence. We are afraid of so many things: death, illness, pain, ridicule, loneliness, heartbreak...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 causes 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 sometimes strikes people as morbid, because it talks a lot about suffering as a basic fact of life. Suffering, in fact, was the very first part of the Buddha’s very first sermon, after he attained enlightenment. But the Buddha wasn’t being morbid when he talked about suffering; he was just calling it like he saw it. He taught that human life is riddled with three basic kinds of suffering:

  1. All-pervasive suffering: The basic quality of dissatisfaction and fear that pervades human existence

  2. The suffering of change: The 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

All the material comforts in life in which we normally put our hope and trust — homes and wealth and pleasures, being liked, being respected, getting what we want — are shot through with these three types of suffering. No matter how much of them we get, we always want more; they don't last; and we're always worried about losing them.

Cutting desire and attachment doesn’t mean that we have to wall ourselves off from the world and go live in a cave and practice meditation 24 hours a day. It’s more a question of whether we put our faith and trust in temporary, material comforts, whether we honestly believe that our ultimate happiness depends upon them. It's okay to enjoy material comforts when they come along, but getting caught up in attachment to them and craving for more of them only leads to suffering.

The challenge is to find a middle path, 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. There is nothing inherently wrong with the search for happiness; the problem is that our search 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.

Ask yourself: Recognizing the incredible opportunity I have to wake up in this life, and knowing that time is running out and every single thing I do matters, how much of my life do I want to spend pursuing temporary pleasures that come from outside, and how much do I want to spend pursuing genuine freedom — which can only come from inside? What are my real priorities?