After reading Toni Packer’s The Silent Question again, I am reminded why I don’t readily adopt labels and that proclaiming that I’m Buddhist could put me in a box that I don’t want to be in and that doesn’t reflect reality. The fact is I currently have a lot of saddha (faith or confidence) and I have to in order to meditate all of my waking hours. I am immersed in a Buddhist culture, am living with monastics and have dedicated my life solely to practice right now. We’ll see if things change upon leaving Burma, getting back to the States, etc., but what’s important is that this practice is about daily life, and about making meditation a way of living, so that’s why for the first time I feel a need to identify with the religion…but really, it’s the self-inquiry and the questioning that matters (which can be entirely independent of anything faith-based). And the learning. The direct experiential learning. My teacher said the other day that wisdom (paññā) is what makes life meaningful. Wisdom being a synonym here for knowledge, insight, skillful practice, all in terms of the understanding of ultimate reality (anicca, dukkha, annatā).
What this kind of meditative work comes down to (yes, if only it were so simple!), at least from a Theravadan perspective, is understanding the teaching of anicca or impermanence, dukkha, which is translated most often as suffering but also as unsatisfactoriness or stress, and anattā or “no-self”. Anattā is referred to more as emptiness in the Mahayana schools and across the board is probably the most important single element of the Buddha’s teaching even though he supposedly said: “I teach only dukkha and the ending of dukkha”. Of the three, the first two concepts are a little easier to grasp than the last one. The Four Noble Truths state that there is suffering; not that everything is suffering but rather that there is the experience of suffering. It’s a fact. It’s not something we have to believe in, just like we don’t have to believe in the sun and that it will come up tomorrow. Similarly, we intuitively understand impermanence through the loss and death we experience in our lives, and more simply in things like cut flowers or sunsets. And meditation allows us to explore these truths much more deeply. But at the core of it all is the attachment to self, to the identification of all that we experience as “me” or “mine”. So then the work requires that we investigate the concept of self and really understand what it is. So we ask questions like, “who is aware of this moment?”, “what is experiencing this pain?”, “what is hearing this sound?”, “who is it that knows this experience?”. Toni Packer describes this type of investigation, this effort to move outside of conceptual thought in order to gain some understanding of anattā, in the following passage:
“I remember going through all this many years ago, racking my brain about this ‘I’ and ‘me’, trying to get to the root of it while driving to Rochester on the interstate. And if you, too, are interested in finding this out, go quietly into it any time it comes up for you. It is amazing to experience this quandary, this wondering, and investigating into not-knowing, because it really seems to exercise the brain and allow it to move outside its accustomed pathways of talking and thinking. Questioning can shake it up. Loosen its stuckness. Like we’ve said before, ‘cracking the cement of language’.”
Everything we relate to, we do so in terms of our self; it’s the only way we know how. But we’ve also probably all had the kind of bare awareness where the ego just falls completely away (imagine being alone in a forest hearing the wind rustling the leaves, or the moment of inspiration when something creative just comes oozing out of your fingers). It doesn’t happen often, and usually we’re not trying for it, but it’s pretty powerful to tap into this awareness that’s always there but unfortunately hidden by our normal ways of thinking about the world.
Sayadaw U Tejaniya teaches the practice of moment to moment awareness and the development of wisdom. He begs us to see and know ourselves that pain, happiness, whatever object the mind relates to, that it is all just nature, heaps of mental (nāma) and physical (rūpa) process happening over and over. Arising and passing away relentlessly. There’s nothing to hold onto. The “I” and all the adjectives we use to describe it are a concept and only that. So any label or word that I use on here is just a convention, a means of communication. It is a pointing to, a representation of something factual, but it in and of itself is not. (See next post for more on this topic.) So, Buddhist or not doesn’t really matter. Questioning, investigation, meditative inquiry, and realizing wisdom – we can all do that.
I’ll end this post with a few quotes (that I’m retiring from elsewhere on the Inernet) from two important influences, both adamantly “non-religious” though deeply “religious” people…
“But being a religious person, I would like to question the validity of everything for myself. That is the essence of religion, which is humility. Not to accept anything unless you understand the meaning there of, personally in your life. If you accept without understanding, you will be imposing upon the mind. And then you are neither true to the mind, nor true to the meaning. The essence of religion, which is humility, lies in uncovering the meaning of life, uncovering the meaning of every moment, learning the meaning for ourselves.”
– Vimala Thakar
“In the space which thought creates around itself there is no love. This space divides man from man, and in it is all the becoming, the battle of life, the agony and fear. Meditation is the ending of this space, the ending of the me.”
– J. Krishnamurti