When I embarked on the Buddhist path over seven years ago, the circumstances were, I imagine, not unlike those of the Beat poets.
A bout of existential nausea.
An unshakeable feeling of groundlessness that no movie, no self-help book, no relationship could fill.
An insecurity arising from questions such as, ‘Is this it?’ ‘Why live at all?’
I just felt so...sad.
The ‘heart of sadness’ and Buddhism
And then I read Cutting through Spiritual Materialism, and discovered that there was nothing wrong with this feeling that continually bubbled up; rather, it was to embraced:
If you search for awakened heart, if you put your hand through your rib cage and feel for it, there is nothing there except for tenderness. You feel sore and soft, and if you open your eyes to the rest of the world, you feel tremendous sadness. This kind of sadness doesn’t come from being mistreated. You don’t feel sad because someone has insulted you or because you feel impoverished.
Rather, this experience of sadness is unconditioned. It occurs because your heart is completely exposed. There is no skin or tissue covering it; it is pure raw meat. Even if a tiny mosquito lands on it, you feel so touched. Your experience is raw and tender and so personal.
The genuine heart of sadness comes from feeling that your nonexistent heart is full. You would like to spill your heart’s blood, give your heart to others.
Reading a spiritual teacher so genuine in his expression, so poetic in his articulation of this feeling that had lingered with me for years, got me to ditch my Zizek books and David Lynch films for the meditation cushion.
Never would I have thought that this undirected sadness and generalized awkwardness was just part and parcel of existence, a perpetual dissatisfactori-ness that marked the human condition. And this self that I’d been searching for? It had no ground to begin with. Scrambling to find one, paradoxically, just made things worse.
So...I did what any impulsive, searching college kid would do: I took a gap year to dive into the dharma, studying at the seat of the Buddha’s enlightenment in Bodh Gaya for four months, going on meditation retreats, attending teachings by great Buddhist masters, including the Dalai Lama.
And all of this was, mostly, an improvised act. There’s no curriculum to follow for being a Buddhist. No hard and fast rules, no church, no five times of prayer. Essentially, there’s no real structure - and that, first, was what drew me to it.
It was the Buddha’s injunction, after all, to approach practice empirically:
Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, “The monk is our teacher.” But when you yourselves know: “These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,” enter on and abide in them.
The Buddha’s so cheeky, isn’t he?
‘Don’t believe me, huh? Sure go on drowning your sorrows in comic books, skipping meditation sessions, and pretending like you’ll never die. See how that works out.’
Okay, maybe that’s how I hear it in my head.
Since that period, I’ve really been trying to work out for myself what it means to be a Buddhist. Sure, I identify with all these beliefs around the non-existence of the self, impermanence, and that, at the core, that we are all entwined together in this cycle of suffering that somehow forms the basis of compassion. But what does it mean on an everyday basis? (I’ve previously written about how, for several years, I thought that this meant I had to be a monk)
Meditation has been at the core of that practice. And, definitely, it’s helped loosen me up a little bit from my obsessions and inhibitions. I’ve also sought the advice of a lot of different masters.
But still, I’ve been wondering, ‘Am I doing this right?’ ‘Am I just getting stuck?’ Sometimes, for example, I wonder whether I’m doing the meditation just for that ephemeral feeling of abiding bliss rather than really understanding the truth.
Everything can feel so unstructured and messy: on the one hand you’ve got all the relative truth stuff - like cultivating mindfulness, compassion, and discipline - and then you’ve got the ultimate truth stuff that centers around this all-pervasive emptiness, which initially sounds like it negates the relative until you realize that it goes beyond concepts. And that, somehow, both the relative and ultimate need to be harmonized. The whole path can feel quite daunting.
In a recent talk (actually titled, ‘Peyote vs Shamatha vs Vipassana vs Habanero vs Mariachi vs Mojito’), Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche offered a useful framework that, to me, helped me coherently structure the Buddhist path:
I think I’ve probably heard similar frameworks before. But that’s the other thing I’ve found about Buddhism - sometimes, you need to hear the same thing a thousand times before it finally sinks in.
Here’s my stab at understanding the framework:
The View: At the Core of Everything Else
Of these four elements, the view is the most important. You lose these core beliefs, everything else crumbles. The view is encompassed by the four seals:
- All compounded things are impermanent
- All emotions are pain
- All phenomena are inherently non-existent.
- Nirvana is beyond concepts
(You can read more about the four seals here)
Intellectually, these are fairly easy to accept. But internalizing them is a whole ‘nother endeavor.
Practice: Breaking Down Concepts
All practices - meditation, chanting, making offerings, prostrations, and thousands more - are intended to bring the practitioner beyond “dualistic distinctions.”
Dualistic distinctions have to do with the concepts we create: ‘good vs. bad’, ‘you vs. me’. These distinctions create hope and fear, expectations and judgment. What happens to a tree when you remove its label, for example, and observe it for what it is? The poet William Blake was quite skillful at this:
How do you know but every bird that cuts the airy way, is an immense world of delight, closed by your senses five?
Seest thou the little winged fly, smaller than a grain of sand?
It has a heart like thee, a brain open to heaven and hell,
Withinside wondrous and expansive; its gates are not closed;
I hope thine are not.
Another method is ‘peyote’:
What these substances do is suddenly upset the normal dualistic distinctions. Suddenly that door is so far. Suddenly that cup is so heavy.
The problem, of course, is that peyote expires in 6 hours - leaving you are more angry and disappointed.
Behavior: The Middle Way
Next is behavior. Rinpoche doesn’t delve too much into this, describing it as the path to moderation and the “middle way”. At some level, I see this as ‘living the questions’ - as not taking extremes in practice in terms of penance and forcing oneself into a belief, while at the same time not over-indulging.
Result: Removing the dirt
Lastly, and to me the most profound, is the result. As Rinpoche points out, this isn’t something to be acquired; rather, it’s something to be eliminated. This is because there is nothing to be gained; we have that capacity already.
As Rumi once wrote,
Your task is not to seek for love,
but merely to seek and find
all the barriers within yourself
that you have built against it.
The metaphor of ‘dish-washing’ is quite evocative int his regard.
We talk about washing dishes as though the dish were the problem. But the dish hasn’t changed - it just has accumulated some potentially sticky residue from the food. ‘Washing dishes’, in this sense, is about restoring our image of the dish to its original state.
The Buddhist path is messy - but it doesn't have to be unclear
Seeking the truth is a necessarily messy endeavour that requires a lot of dish-washing.
But Rinpoche's fourfold framework has given me a sort of 'Buddhist GPS' to assess where I am on the path and where I may need to check in with myself.