Monday, March 26, 2007

Subtle Stress and Sensation

From The Strategy of a Peaceful Mind (Ajaan Suwat Suvaco. Trans. by Thanissaro Bhikkhu):
Stress, for instance, is a noble truth. It's right there in front of you. Why don't you become disenchanted with it? Because you don't see it, don't see the cause from which it comes. Or when you see the cause, you don't see its connection to stress. Why is that? Because delusion gets in the way. You see pretty sights, hear lovely sounds, smell nice aromas, taste good flavors, and then you fall for them. You get carried away and grasp after them, thinking that you've acquired something. As for the things you don't yet have, you want to acquire them. Once you acquire them, you fall for them and get all attached and entangled. This is the origination of suffering. When these things are inconstant, they stop being peaceful. They become a turmoil because they're inconstant all the time.

1-Minute Contemplation: What pretty sights, lovely sounds, nice aromas, good flavors, and sensual textures have you experienced recently? Carry yourself back to that experience. When the sensation ended, what was your experience? Look deeply at your response. There was perhaps a thankfulness for the opportunity to experience such a wonderful sensation. Was there any longing? Perhaps a twinge of "missing?" Or a very slight desire to feel the sensation again?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

He Turned His Awareness to What Was Before Him

"After crossing his legs and adjusting his body, he turned his awareness to what was before him." (Pine, 2001. Pg. 1)

After the Buddha had finished eating his meal, he sat on the appointed seat to begin his teaching to the full assembly of bhikshus and fearless bodhisattvas. Just like the first part of the first chapter I discussed here, this sentence of the Diamond Sutra is full of meaning. Before beginning his teaching, the Buddha sat cross-legged on his seat and focused simply on that which was before him. Such mental composition is a model for our actions.

The Buddha was about to convey that which is now considered to be his principal exposition of emptiness. One might say that his next act subsequent to sitting down was going to be one of the most important of his life (given the vital importance of emptiness in the Buddhist tradition). Notice that he did not fret, did not roll his mental reel to practice his speech, did not look about him haphazardly. Rather, he "turned his awareness to what was before him." This is a wonderful teaching. No matter what we are about to do, even if it is potentially the most important thing in our lives, we can do no better than to bring our attention to the present moment--in time and place--and ground our thoughts, words, and actions on this foundation.

Sometimes it is easier to remember to bring our practice to such momentous occasions than to the everyday, seemingly unimportant actions such as shopping for groceries or talking to our spouse. But if it is important to turn our awareness to what is before us prior to a very important act, it is doubly so for our common actions. Such actions provide us many more opportunities to bring our mindfulness to bear on all aspects of our lives. And if we are capable of attending to the most meaningless action with the full force of our attention, imagine how much more powerful such attention will be when applied to critical events.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Our Life is the Life of a Buddha

A synopsis of part of chapter 1 of the Diamond Sutra:
While dwelling outside the city of Shravasti, as per his usual routine, the Buddha put on his outer robe, took up his begging bowl, and entered the city. After begging for food, and eating the city-dwellers' offerings of rice, he returned to his forest home. He put away his bowl and his outermost robe, washed his feet, and arranged himself on his cushion to begin his teaching.

In the Buddha's time, monks routinely obtained their meals by begging for food from householders (non-monastics). This practice served several beneficial purposes. For monastics, this practice taught them humility. Additionally, they learned to be thankful for the food they received, and it gave them the opportunity to practice non-attachment, as they learned to appreciate whatever food was given them. Begging for meals benefited the layperson as well, who was given the opportunity to practice generosity.

At first glance, this initial chapter of the Diamond Sutra might seem to be just setting the stage for the real teaching to come. But if we view it in that way, we miss the foremost lesson of this sutra. What actions do we see the Buddha performing in this opening chapter? He gets dressed, he obtains food, he eats, he puts his possessions away after returning home, and he washes. In other words, the daily actions of a Buddha do not differ from the daily actions of any one of us!

In the Ten Oxherding Pictures, created during the Sung Dynasty (1126 - 1279) in China as a depiction of the Buddhist path, the first picture is of a person searching for the ox. He walks down a path, and the ox is nowhere to be seen. In the second through ninth pictures, he locates, pursues, struggles with, tames, and eventually rides the ox. The final picture shows the ox herder walking down a path, the ox nowhere to be seen. The first and the last pictures convey the same basic image--the same teaching as that of the first chapter of the Diamond Sutra.

Therefore, while engaging in our daily practice, we need to realize that our true nature is that of a buddha. After attaining Awakening, it is not as if we suddenly don't have to eat or wash or walk. On the contrary, our external responsibilities and actions remain the same. The difference is in the mind guiding the actions. Instead of entering the city and becoming distracted by its many charms, we notice and appreciate the wonders of the city, and avoid attaching to them. Instead of eating our meal, distracted to the point of barely even tasting the wonderful flavors of the food, we eat in mindfulness, thankful for the opportunity to eat this meal, even while engaging our companions socially. Instead of walking with our minds bouncing between current events, the way we handled a meeting with our boss, and what we plan on doing later, we walk with a steady mind, applying it toward a purposefully chosen end.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Diamond Sutra: A Study

I am beginning a focused study of the Diamond Sutra, one of the primary sutras in the Prajna Paramita wisdom literature in Mahayana Buddhism. I am going to use two translations of the text. One is by Tom Graham (originally by Master Hsing Yun) in the book, Describing the Indescribable. The other is by Red Pine in his famous book, The Diamond Sutra: The Perfection of Wisdom. It is my hope to spend the next several months or more focusing on successive chapters of this sutra, both from textual and experiential perspectives. I will, of course, write about my study here. I hope you enjoy the journey as much as I expect to.

A Renaissance Mind

Sorry for the lack of posts here over the last month. I haven't had much time outside of school and work to maintain a regular writing schedule. However, I have made some very interesting observations. Over the last several years, a friend and I have often discussed how we feel mentally "sluggish," compared with the acuity we maintained when immersed in engineering coursework in college.

Now, two semesters into my Ph.D. program (electrical engineering), I notice a significant difference in my mental agility. My thinking has greater clarity; I've noticed that my mental "pictures" are more focused and sharp. And I attribute this improvement to my engineering studies.

There are side effects to this work, though. As I focus more on engineering principles and analytics, the part of my mind that writes seems to be taking a vacation. Leonardo Da Vinci, that great Renaissance thinker, accumulated hundreds of journals, while at the same time generating brilliant engineering designs, painting, sculpting, etc. How was he able to tap into the parts of his mind that excelled at mathematic principles, and then paint a masterpiece and record his unique observations of the natural world?

I'd love to hear others' experiences on this topic. Have you been successful in the mental agility displayed by Da Vinci? How? Have you too noticed that it's a struggle to get seemingly disparate parts of your mind to function optimally?

Thursday, March 01, 2007

How Much is Too Much? How Much is Too Little?

Very often, we want to attain the perfect state of mind, the perfect peace. We strive to handle a situation in the perfect way. We want our relationships to be perfect, and we want our careers to be perfect. Can we attain perfection? Sometimes. For athletes, something akin to perfection is being "in the zone." It's a state in which everything seems to be moving in slow motion, and you can do no wrong. But what can we do in other areas of life? How can we seek perfection?

A better question is, "What am I doing right now?" Right now, I'm writing. Some days, words flow easily. Other days--unfortunately quite common for me over the last couple weeks--I find it very hard to write. But both of these experiences have causes; it cannot be otherwise. Logically speaking, if I could arrange it such that all of the causes that cause me to write easily and well are operating when I sit down to write, and all of the causes that cause me to feel blocked are not operative, then there is only one possible result: I will write easily and well. The Buddha taught us that we can accomplish this. We are capable of this. We just have to do the work. And the work is mindfulness.

So when we're working on a project and we're getting frustrated, mindfulness is noticing that we're frustrated, then pushing that out of the way and bringing our minds to thoughts of peace, right? Wrong. Repression does not uproot the seeds of frustration because if we repress the emotion, what have we learned? Maybe we can force ourselves to feel peaceful--that does actually work some of the time--but we won't have moved any closer to knowing the true causes of our frustration. Mindfulness is noticing that we're frustrated. Then we notice how that feels specifically in the body. We acknowledge whether the feelings are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. We see them simply for what they are. We don't interpret the bodily sensations or feelings as good or bad. They are simply feelings, indicators of the frustration. By such "simple" practice--and I put simple in quotes because most of the time it sure doesn't feel simple--we will come to naturally know the causes of the frustration. Once we know the true causes, and have deeply realized for ourselves the skillfulness or unskillfulness of "frustration," we can choose to generate those causes, or avoid generating them.

When we experience anything, the question to ask is, "What am I doing right now?" When we are not being perfect, which is most of the time, we are being given a gift. We have the opportunity to look at ourselves and see what, specifically, we are doing right now, and how much of it, specifically, we are doing. And by simply observing the body, observing the feelings, observing the mind, we learn whether we are doing too much or too little. Only when we intimately know "too much" and "too little" can we follow the Middle Path.