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Practicing Buddhism

Michael Babcock, May 16th, 2010

Notes on a Practice

It’s interesting that one “practices” Buddhism. Almost as if one can never master it, that one is always “practicing.” It’s actually a comforting idea: it turns Buddhism into an ongoing process and not something to be attained. (On the other hand, the fact that doctors “practice” medicine is not very encouraging.)

Most of my exposure to Buddhism comes through the teachings of the Thai forest monk, Ajahn Chah and from monks and laypeople who lived and studied with Ajahn Chah for a time. Currently, I meditate (practice meditation) twice a day (morning and evening), each time for 20 to 40 minutes. As far as I can tell, the practice of meditation is what ultimately makes Buddhism work, that makes it possible to grasp and embody what the Buddha taught: that freedom comes from the ability to see/know everything exactly as it is.

Two themes, in particular,  have proven very useful.

Conditioned Reality

The first has to do with the conditioned nature of most of our daily reality. Ajahn Chah says:

Everything mental and physical, everything conceived and thought about without exception, is conditioned. [FH, 183]

Think about this. It means that the body is conditioned and that whatever we think or feel is conditioned. It means that whatever we think or feel would be different if our conditioning had been different.

We can easily see this. Take nearly any incident in life; here’s one. You are supposed to meet someone at a restaurant and they’re 20 minutes late. One (conditioned) response is to be furious: “I’m a busy person, I don’t have time to waste. How can he treat me like this!” A second person, different conditioning, might be delighted: “How great to have a little extra free time to just sit and relax.” A third person might not even notice or care. Basically, for nearly any event in our life we react with pleasure, anger or are neutral; this reaction is a result of past conditioning.

This is tremendously liberating. It means that we don’t have to believe our reactions, thoughts or feelings about any given matter. If we are angry about something and can catch it, we don’t need to react to it: we can simply notice it and realize: “this would be different if the conditioning were different.”  Then we can simply watch the reaction (thought or feeling) and see where it goes. We can watch it arise and pass away. We can imagine reacting differently.

If everything mental and physical is conditioned, it means that answers to ultimate questions can not be found in conditioned phenomena (mental or physical). By continually trying to find ultimate answers through thoughts or thinking, or believing that enlightenment can be attained by manipulating physical surroundings, we are like Nasrudin, searching in the wrong place for his keys.

Nasrudin is the character that appears in many teaching stories from the Middle East; you might say he is a wise fool. In this particular story a friend is walking home at night and he sees Nasrudin under the street lamp looking intently at the street. Here’s the exchange:

Friend: Nasrudin, what are you doing?
Nasrudin: I’m looking for my car keys?
Friend: Where did you lose them?
Nasrudin: I lost them in the house.
Friend: Why on earth are you looking for them here?
Nasrudin: Why there’s a nice light out here. It’s too dark in the house – I’d never find them there! Do you take me for a fool!

For a long time I didn’t quite get the meaning of this story. No one would be that stupid! Yet after listening and thinking about things Ajahn Chah says, I realized that mostly I am like Nasrudin: I’m trying to find answers in my thoughts and feelings, trying to figure it out. It’s a hopeless quest. There needs to be another way.

Ignorance and Understanding

The second helpful theme has to do with ignorance and understanding.

Ajahn Chah talks about the Buddha’s teaching that all delusion (actually, all of existence) arises through ignorance. Buddhism’s main thrust seems to be teaching us to experience reality exactly as it is,  to understand all things correctly. Ajahn Chah says this right understanding is key – if we understand correctly, everything else will follow:

We can see in our own practice that when we have right understanding and awareness, then right thought, right speech, right action, and right livelihood automatically follow. [SFP, 15]

Again, it’s easy to think about examples. Take my friend, who arrived 20 minutes late. I’m sitting there fuming and angry. Then when he comes, he tells me that he’s late because his child was hit by a baseball and he’d had to take him to the emergency room. This information, this understanding, completely changes what I feel: I go from anger to concern by just a simple understanding.

Apparently, the key understanding is that all conditioned things are impermanent. If we really grasp that, say, anger is a transitory feeling that has arisen and will soon pass away, then (if I understand correctly) we automatically won’t hold onto it or mistake it as something that “I” am feeling.

Finally, as you travel further along the path, you will come to see that nothing in the world has any essential value. There’s nothing to hold on to. Everything is like an old banana peel or a coconut husk—you have no use for it, no fascination with it. When you see that things in the world are like banana peels that have no great value for you, then you’re free to walk in the world without being bothered or hurt in any way. This is the path that brings you to freedom. [SFP, 153]

If I understand Ajahn Chah correctly, coming to this understanding is the heart of the practice: coming to really know and understand that conditioned objects or events (so anything arising in body or mind) are not worth paying attention to or identifying with:

Normally when sense objects come, we think about, dwell on, discourse over, and worry about them. Yet none of these objects is substantial: all are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and empty. Just cut them short and dissect them into these three common characteristics. [SFP, 37]

We meditate so that this understanding might arise. By picking a point of focus (typically the breath) and then paying attention to what happens in the mind, we can come to understand that everything that arises in body and mind is transitory, that whatever it is will arise and pass away.

Don’t go fixating on the way things appear to be. Recognize whatever appears to the mind as merely so—merely a moment of sensation and awareness, something impermanent that arises and passes away. There is nothing more than that. There is no self or other, no essence, nothing that should be grasped. [BD, 113]

Basically, all (ALL!) we are doing in our practice is developing the ability to see things exactly as they are, to know their true nature. We are practicing seeing everything that arises while we sit as transitory. It’s a practice that can often be unpleasant for neither meditation or practicing other aspects of Buddhism put an end to upset and suffering. It does give us the tools to deal with unpleasant conditions. We learn to simply observe, say, for example, that: “Anger is like this.” This phrase “. . . . is like this” can be used to see nearly any thought or feeling as an object and not myself. [With thanks to the talks of Ajahn Sumedho.]

Working With the Mind

When I first discovered Ajahn Chah I was delighted with how easy it all seemed to be. Meditate, have a great insight and everything will change. As I began to meditate and continued to read and study, it became clear that it is not quite this simple. In fact, Ajahn Chah warns us frequently that repeated practice is necessary, that each person must know for themselves, and that knowledge comes only through practice.

There’s a dual element of how we work with the mind. At one level we simply observe it without reacting to it:

We should let the mind think, let it do as it will, just watch it and not react to it. [SFP, 100]

On the other hand, we also need to train it

. . . the one who knows must teach it—explaining what is good and what is bad, pointing out the workings of cause and effect, showing that anything it holds on to will bring undesirable results–until the mind becomes reasonable, until it lets go. [SFP, 38]

Ajahn Chah says it’s like taking care of a water buffalo and a rice field. The buffalo wants to eat the rice plants so we let the buffalo wander but we keep watch over it. As long as the buffalo behaves itself, everything’s fine. If he goes too close to the rice plants we shout to scare him away; if he won’t listen, we hit him with a stick.

In training the mind, we watch. If it gets too involved with sense objects (the rice plants), we may need to be firm to get it to stop. Change comes about slowly because what is called for is learning to use the mind in a different way.  As Ajahn Chah says:

Why should it not take a long time? How long have you let your mind wander as it wished without doing anything to control it? How long have you allowed it to lead you around by the nose. [SFP, 145]

We develop the ability to concentrate (focus) the mind on a single point (samadhi). Then we can use the focused mind to examine all conditioned phenomena, to stay with it as we watch it arise and pass away and not get caught up in our thinking.

Meditation can be considered practice for the rest of our life: As Ajahn Chah said: “Do not put the meditation aside for a rest. . . . Contemplate all of it.” [SFP, 101, 102]

Other Useful Tools

Here are a few other elements that I have found useful to work with.

Ajahn Chah is adamant that one must develop morality. Living a moral life (and for a lay person, this is basically following the five precepts and refraining from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and taking intoxicating substances) establishes the basis for a calm mind. One accepts moral principles (precepts) and lives by them, observing the mind when it wants to transgress them and training it to behave.

I’ve also realized, largely through talks of monks in the Ajahn Chah tradition, that we also need to put energy into cultivating the qualities that we want to embody: it’s another aspect of training the mind. We have the ability to feel many qualities, such as compassion, forgiveness, clear-sightedness, joy or generosity (to name only a few). In our daily practice, we have the ability to call forth these qualities and express them in our lives.

One quality specifically worked with in Buddhism is metta (loving kindness). Metta can be a specific object of meditation (a point of one-sightedness), as when it is the theme of the loving kindness meditation. Another quality we can work with daily is generosity. We can train ourselves to call upon and express these qualities in our actions and can imagine them, call them forth, in our minds.

We can also practice simply letting go:

The heart of the path is so simple. No need for long explanations. Give up clinging to love and hate, just rest with things as they are. . . .  When you sit, let it be. When you walk, let it be. Grasp at nothing. Resist nothing. . . . it all comes back to this—just let it all be. [SFP, 5]

I find I need to train myself to let go. I usually want to grasp things. I’m finding that I can choose, instead, to let them go.

Another useful tool is training ourselves to view things from a different point of view. From one point of view, the whole Buddhist practice seems so very hard; Ajahn Chah also teaches that it doesn’t necessarily have to be complicated:

Just wake up! You create your own world. Do you want to practice or not? [SFP, 145]

In the book Being Dharma there’s a passage where Ajahn Chah likens the mind to a poisonous cobra snake. Is the snake dangerous? Only if you pick it up or disturb it. Is a rock heavy? Only if you pick it up.

It is as if all of our practice, all of our effort, is just to take us to a place where we can get the understanding of how very simple (indeed) it is to just let it all be. From one point of view, it is extremely difficult and hard: training a mind out of conditioning that is (at least!) one lifetime’s long. From another point of view, it really can be simple: just put it, whatever it is, down—just let it be. Then whatever else comes, let it be—again and again and again, right now:

But no matter how much it’s debated, the practice always comes down to this single point right here. When something arises, it arises right here. Whether a lot or a little, it originates right here. When it ceases, the cessation is right here. Where else? [FH, 185]

At this point I’m not at the moment-to-moment stage. In daily practice, these are all ideas and words that I find useful. Just put the rock down!

I currently rely heavily on the experience and words of Ajahn Chah. I don’t want to become the sort of person he talks about who “knows only the words of Buddhism and with the best intentions, go[es] around merely describing the characteristics of existence.” [SFP, 181] He often emphasizes needing to see for oneself, about not taking what he says and believing it without testing it out:

You should take what I’ve said and contemplate it. If anything is not right, please excuse me. You’ll know whether it’s right or wrong only if you practice and see for yourself.” [FH, 305]

Time for more practice.

Tools for Learning

Books of Ajahn Chah’s Teaching:

  • [BD] – Being Dharma: The Essence of the Buddha’s Teachings. Ajahn Chah, Translated by Paul Breiter. Shambala, Boston & London, 2001.
  • [FH] – Food for the Heart: The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Chah. Wisdom Publications, Somerville, MA, 2002.
  • [SFP] – A Still Forest Pool: The Insight Meditation of Achaan Chah, compiled by Jack Kornfield & Paul Breiter, First edition 1985 by The Theosophical Publishing House in Wheaton, Illinois.

Talks by a disciple of Ajahn Chah:

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Written by Michael Babcock, May 2010

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