February 3, 2010

The Great Death…

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:50 am by aleksan

When I look at my life and the lives of others who try to practice the Buddha’s Way I wonder what difference all that reading and mind training actually makes. Are we any different from most other people because we are well versed in the Teachings and various practices of Buddhism? There is a wise old English saying “Fine words butter no parsnips.”

An over developed Ego
How much are these intellectually exciting insights really making a difference in my life? Am I becoming more aware of how I cause myself and others pain? The answer is Yes and No. Yes, I am becoming more aware of my greed, aversions and ignorance – but no, because it is usually after I have gobbled my food too quickly (causing the pain of indigestion) – or shouted at Penny, without thinking deeply (causing the pain of emotional hurt all round.) I am greedy for TV without subtitles but then feel bad because Kit can’t help being deaf. So I try to practice giving up of my greed. This works well for a while until my guard is down and yet again I act not from my inherent Buddha nature but from that over developed ego of mine – more pain!

Family Gurus
My best gurus are those around who remind me regularly to be like the Buddha or even to be a Buddha. They are not great sages but my wife Penny, her mother Kit – and our daughters – none culturally Buddhist in their own lives, but all aware of the need for me to be less impulsive and more tolerant. When I am reproached for not behaving in a Buddhist way I respond by saying that is why I practice Buddhist mindfulness and training – because I need the practice and wisdom – not because I am wise and good 100% of the time. (A Zen saying has it that 80% is perfection. – that would be pretty good!)

The Great Death
Gandhi said that the whole of Indian philosophy could be summed up in three words “Renounce and Enjoy.” The Buddha made it clear that the thing about life that makes us unhappy and unsatisfied is our attachment to ego – what Alan Watts called “the egocentric delusion.” The Buddha and subsequent teachers have shown us ways of mind cultivation and living based on a deeper basis than dualistic and self-centred ego perception. This has been well described by Zen Master Bankei as “the unborn Buddha mind” – that essence of ourselves that is not part of space-time and which we share, mostly unconsciously, with all sentient beings.

I find it easy to understand that my attachment to ego is the cause of my unhappiness and the unhappiness that I cause others, but it is much more difficult to tackle this problem in practice. Chan Buddhists talk about the importance of the Great Death that we must experience before we are “delivered.” I know that this means the death of my attachment to ego so that my perception can become clear and unstained.

Giving up pain
A wise saying, by a sage unknown to me, puts it in a nutshell “The pathway is smooth – why do you throw rocks in front of you?” An excellent question – why do I? Why do so many of us keep bunging down these jagged objects that make our progress, and the way of others so painful? The Dhammapada says somewhere that long term happiness can only be obtained by giving up short term pleasures that cause pain. So it is OK to be selfish in the long term then? Yes – in rather a cunning way!

A big insight for me was precisely this point brought out at the Buddhist Summer School at Leicester in August this year. John Peacock gave a series of excellent talks on a Chinese Buddhist text “The Three Principle Aspects of the Path” by Tsong kha pa. You might think this would be as dry as dust but John brought it to life and made it real for my personal Buddhist practice. The first principle is Renunciation, which for me has always lacked much attraction – until he suggested, almost as an aside, that one thing we might think of renouncing was our pain. Give up my pain! Great, this sounds more like it – I can buy this one, I thought.

Waking up
I laughed out loud when it struck me that Buddhism is, in a way, all about being as selfish as it is possible to be – because being really selfish means giving up all our pain and being free from the causes of pain – it means giving up the attachment to ego with its associated greed, anger, fear and wilful ignorance. To undergo the Great Death of ego-centred thinking and behaviour and live instead in awareness of my real identity – unborn and undying Buddha nature. To wake up from the world of dreams and live in a world of constant awareness without responding and reacting like a zombie to every twist and turn, every blow or blessing. My mind cultivation, slow as it may be, has been given a renewed impetus. St Anthony of Egypt puts this idea very simply – the way to be really happy is “to control the tongue and the belly.” These are the wisest of words but the most difficult to practice. What it needs is constant and regular mind cultivation (better description of the process and a more accurate translation I understand than the word meditation.)

Suspect secret Gurus
I find it helpful sometimes to practice a mind cultivation exercise in which I treat everyone I meet as an awakened being doing what ever is necessary to raise my awareness to a higher level. I try to see their speech and intentions as being in my very best interests, and modify my responses accordingly. If I am unfairly critiscised I see that as a lesson and try not to over react. When someone is angry with me that is a sign to be to be calm and understanding. This exercise helps me not just to be more aware, for a while at least, but also to see that I am just the same as other people – no better or worse but with the potential to change. So every being I meet is a teacher- a Guru – whether they know it or not! A Guru is not a special sort of person – every person is a special sort of Guru. This exercise is a fun thing to do and remarkably effective – but as with all practice it is easy to slip back and let ego or others dictate the way I behave.

We need each other
I am gradually finding that daily mindfulness is helping me to live in the present with awareness of the Buddha nature in myself and others – but I can not afford to be complacent – especially in the emotionally charged atmosphere of domestic living – the ultimate testing place! And I need the fellowship, support and encouragement of other Buddhists to keep at it. Gandhi was right “Renounce and Enjoy.”

Alexander Burnfield

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