Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Great Way

Someone forwarded me an article today of a lecture given in 2003 by one Lewis Richmond at a Zen Center near SanFrancisco. It was about the importance of "not taking sides" in conflicts, as this action only creates more conflict. He goes on to make a compelling case and attempts to answer the obvious questions this stance raises like "What about intervening for the sake of justice? What about taking a stand to protect the innocent?"

Well, what about that?

Mr. Richmond goes on to, more or less, answer these questions. But that is not what caught my attention today. What got me was when he quoted the 3rd Zen Patriarch who said:

"The Great Way is not difficult
for those who do not pick and choose."

I had read this before and have quoted it myself in a number of instances. It ties in with the whole idea that our suffering is caused by our attachments. If we ceased to care we would be free from pain. It follows that our trouble begins when we go about labelling everything as "good" or "bad". I think ultimately this is absolutely true. If we had no preferences we would be "free". The problem as I see is that we are talking about a state of being that is so advanced that it is more or less unattainable for the average individual (or even the exceptional individual for that matter!). There are of course the odd "enlightened" persons that one hears about. Although I went on a Vispassana retreat a few years back and heard the teacher (Wes Nisker) say that in his many years he had never met a so called "enlightened" person in the true Buddhist sense of the term.

So I figured if even the teachers haven't arrived yet, what hope does the average practitioner have?

This brings up an issue that I have heard discussed in several circles. It goes like this: if your goal for sitting meditation is to relax, center yourself, or get to know your mind, it can be a wonderful thing. But if the ultimate goal is "enlightenment", then "sitting" may be basically a waste of time. That is for anyone who is not a monk and could thus go at it full time.

And this in turn brings us to the Buddhist answer to this problem, which is the historical development of Pure Land Buddhism. It is basically devotional in it's practice and is not based on sitting meditation. This reached it's most organized (and effective) state with the Shin Buddhist tradition of Japan. Which to this day remains the largest Buddhist sect in that country. This form was developed precisely for "householders" or those regular folk who could not just drop everything and go away to the monastery. It is essentially a Buddhism of "faith" rather that "works". And as such it has more that just a little in common with Christianity.

Hmmm. Very interesting!

But a topic for another day.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting topic Mike, and one that I have dealt with a few times myself at various instances.

    I think the core of the problem comes from the Nature of Buddhism itself. When I refer to Buddhism I'm basically referring to what the Buddha taught 2500 years ago - not the various instantiations found afterward- I find this to be best represented in Zen. Like many Westerners I seek the most stripped down version of the practice - not for the sake of convenience in my case but to tease out the philosophical virtues of it.
    And for me - and it seems to some extent for you too - I view much of Buddhism as a Philosophy - and no different save the manner in which the founder hit upon it - than any other Global philosophy (i.e. one that encompasses all aspects of the human situation). And as with all Philosophies absorbing the whole of the philosophy in one's daily life is impossible. One cannot try to reconcile , to take an easy example, Descartes' Mind/Body problem while shopping for groceries - We Shop for groceries when we shop for groceries, we don't try to keep remember at all times that the mind necessarily keeps us one level removed from the external world so I will never know if the cracker box is blue or green - In fact I don't even care at that point in time. I don't worry about whether my mind is a separate entity from my body or not when I'm raking leaves - only when I sit and cogitate do these issues come up.

    The everyday life of a man or woman who has accepted Buddhism as a Life Model necessarily negates the potential to live an enlightened life - choices must be made - value judgments must be made. We like to think that enlightened beings were devoid of such necessities, that they were so not connected from this world that it wasn't necessary for them to do so...but even the Buddha attempted to remain alive...even he had to eat sleep and defecate - and chose to do so rather than the alternative. Go to a Monastery and take a critical view of the Monastics you find there - they are no different than you and I, they simply make a more concerted effort to follow a philosophy that, like every philosophy falls short of ever being a completely accurate analysis of man's situation in life.
    This is why the teachers are often no more advanced than the students...
    To me Philosophy (and I think you can see here that I consider the Buddha a philosopher) is a practice that, uses the tool of reason to analyze and attempt to make sense of our universe much in the same way that Math is used. Man is called the rational animal, but Man only has the ABILITY to reason as he has the ability to do math and walk on two legs. We dont always use it (why are you sitting the way you are in the area you are - did you use logic in the choice or did you just choose in a non reasoning fashion...I bet you can use lots of neat mathematical equations to come to a similar conclusion)

    We float through life and try to use pieces of wise observations and insights we've gathered to do things in the best way possible. In short Philosophy is a practice of idealized concepts, abstractions and problems - many of which are problems only because the language is being used poorly (read Wittgenstein) and life is no idealized thing, nor is it an abstraction - it's the existence of a specific being, which in the case of man had the misfortune of self-awareness and civilization...