22 December 2005

Pragmatic Buddhism in Six Simple Steps : part II

In the first half of this essay I started to present the Six Perfections as a pragmatic approach to Buddhism, and indeed to living. This second half will take up where I left off, cover the last three perfections and sum up.

I described the first three steps of the Buddhist path: generosity, kindness, and forbearance, as the quintessential Buddhist virtues. By approaching life from the point of view of generosity, kindness and forbearance we immediately benefit both ourselves and others in quite straightforward and obvious ways. There is another level of benefit which is a bit more long term however, and a bit less self-interested. What happens when we start to give up negative states like greed, stinginess, resentment, and anger is that we free up energy to be used for better purposes. Resentment, for instance, takes up an enormous amount of energy. Sustaining a juicy resentment can wear us out, and leave us feeling exhausted even if we do feel our indignation is justified. So by being more generous, kind and patient, we get an energy boost. And we're going to need this energy for the next stage on the path.

Up till now we have been working with the relatively gross energies of the body or speech. But behind these are our mind. We may have stopped behaving quite so selfishly, but we still believe that we are a separate self, and still feel greed, still get angry. The Buddhist approach is to take this new found energy and channel it through meditation. In meditation we work directly on the mind, transforming the mental states that have arisen, but also beginning to 'rewire' our brain so that we have a much greater choice in how we respond to the world. We begin with integrating practices that channel the energy, and bring our conscious and unconscious wills into alignment. It is relatively easy in meditation to begin to experience, at least temporarily, what it feels like to have this kind of integration. As we become more integrated we find we are more able to be generous, kind, and patient, and this in turn liberates more energy. Often during intensive meditation practice we might go through a period when we feel this energy coursing through our bodies - we may twitch or shudder for instance. As we become more used to having this energy available our bodies settle down, and we find we can become very still indeed. Our minds can become one-pointedly concentrated on the object of our mediation - one-pointed is the literal translation of samadhi.

This one-pointed state is blissful and completely easy and natural. It is the perfect state in which to begin to contemplate the true nature of reality. In Buddhist meditation systems therefore there are a second set of practices to help us do just that. We may, for example contemplate the impermanence of things: how everything we can think of arises and passes away. We notice thoughts and feelings for instance arising in our body and mind, lasting for a little while, and then passing away. We may start to really understand that this is happening to all things, all the time, and that we are not exempt. Or we may contemplate the way that all things are inter-related, how everything arises and falls because it depends on other things which also arise and fall away, in an infinite web of cause and effect. However we do it, it starts to become clear that the very idea of a separate self is completely misguided. Since everything shares the same nature, then in a very real sense "all is one". When this realisation goes beyond a rational acknowledgement and starts to radically alter the way 'we' relate to the world, this is known as Wisdom or prajña. Jña means knowledge or knowing, and pra is a suffix which something like "to the nth degree". And what is so great about this state? Well it has been described by many sages down the centuries. With Wisdom we are infinitely generous for instance because we have perfected generosity and no longer hold onto anything. We are infinitely kind because we make no distinction between self and other. And we have infinite positive energy because we have no investment in negativity. The calm, bliss, and focus which we experienced in meditation become a permanent state. And in this state anything and everything we do contributes to experiencing more of the same.

You'll have noticed, of course, that I didn't call this exposition Six Easy Steps. These steps are not easy. The Buddhist path can be really hard. What happens is that we constantly run up against our limitations. Our generosity knows bounds, our kindness is dependent on a million conditions being right, and our patience is strictly limited. Trying to practice "perfections" under these circumstances is setting ourselves up to fail. We are not perfect. However as I hope I have shown the path is actually quite practical, and quite straight-forward for anyone to understand. We can aim at perfection and take some practical steps in the right direction. Another wonderful thing about this approach to practice is that if something is not working at one level, then we just pay attention to the levels below. So if our meditation is not going well, we've tried everything but aren't getting anywhere with it, then we can look to our practice of forbearance – is there an opportunity to go deeper with this, to improve our sense of contentment and thereby give us a breakthrough in meditation? And if all else fails there is always giving. Even if we have completely lost it on every front, we can still do something generous: if we have nothing left to give materially, then we might give our time and energy. The greatest gift of all, according to the Buddhist tradition, is the gift of the Dharma.
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