Temptation and Intention

Have you ever been tempted to do something, even though you knew you’d feel badly about it afterwards? Perhaps I should re-phrase the question: has a day gone by when you weren’t tempted to do something you wanted to, but you knew it afterwards might have negative consequences?

Stress-eating ice cream, telling a white lie, having “just one” drink or a one-night stand: these are the kinds of situations the Surangama sutra addresses. When you walk the Way you find yourself tempted by all sorts of conveniences and indulgences that modern society offers, but which run contrary to following the precepts. As verse 53 of the Tao Te Ching notes,

The Great Path is very smooth and straight,

but people are fond of bypaths.

Knee-jerk moralism, your conditioned guilty conscience and learned habits of “should” and “should not” will not save you. They didn’t save Ananda, the Buddha’s first cousin and one of his most devoted companions.

In last week’s essay on the Surangama Sutra’s first chapter. I skipped the discussing the prologue in order to avoid muddying the focus on “why practice?” The prologue, though, sets the stage by introducing us to Ananda, a first cousin of the Buddha who is devoted to practice but runs into difficulties. In the course of his daily begging rounds Ananda came to a house of courtesans; wanting to dutifully practice non-discriminating mind by taking each house in order, he did not want to exclude the “lowlifes” within from the merit they’d accumulate by donating food. So Ananda went up to the door and held up his bowl for alms. Then

“Wielding a spell that Kapila had obtained from a god of the Brahma Heavens, a young Mātaṅga woman seduced Ānanda onto her bed. Then she caressed him lasciviously until the power of his vows was on the verge of being broken.”

The Buddha, through his supernatural powers, saw

“Ānanda was succumbing to the carnal influence of the spell, [so] the Thus-Come One …..poured forth invincible light which was as dazzling as a hundred gems. Within that light sat a Buddha in full-lotus posture on a thousand-petaled sacred lotus, proclaiming a spiritually powerful mantra.”

Buddha sends Mañjuśri to Ānanda. Using this spiritually powerful mantra (which we will encounter later in the sutra), Mañjuśri defeats the evil spell, rescues Ānanda and also the young Mātaṅga woman from succumbing to their fatal attraction, and brings them back to the grove where Buddha is staying with his disciples. This is the occasion where Ananda, weeping, beseeches Shakyamuni to teach him how to become fully awakened.

We can imagine Ananda’s shame and regret through our own experiences of suffering remorse after being caught in some misbehavior. In the cultural context of the time, any sexual involvement was an obstacle to enlightenment. So was being born as a woman. In modern Buddhism, we need to do a lot of work to redress the misogynistic strains and to develop precepts which address sexuality beyond the extremes of celibacy and self-indulgence.

For our present purpose, though, the issue is not so much that Ananda came close to - heaven forbid! - having sex. The issue is that Ananda was at risk of betraying his vows. The words of the sutra point to this: “the power of his vows was on the verge of being broken.”

The harm we incur when we break a vow is not that we do something “bad.” The problem is when we vow one thing and do another, we undermine ourselves. The harm we incur is we then lose faith in ourselves.

As a psychotherapist, I often saw clients resolve to make some change, then berate themselves when they failed to follow through as they’d intended. They’d feel flawed, thinking they were insincere, or they were lacking something important: their willpower was “too weak,” they were “incapable of love,” “not smart enough” or - shifting the blame somewhat - they had been too injured by traumas, or never received the kind of parenting they truly needed, or the society put too many obstacles in their way. Perhaps their horoscope indicated their timing was off.

Their failure, though, did not lie in their stars, nor in their selves. The anger and sadness they felt was rooted in a less obvious combination of delusion and greed: a tendency to over-reach, to expect and grasp at too much too soon. We can be sincerely well-intentioned in our desires to be more loving, or more efficient, or less short-tempered or less ruled by fear. We humans might be capable of occasional self-observation and thought, but it comes with a magical tinge: “if I think it, it must/should be so.”

Once I form a vision - whether the vision is of being able to withstand the lure of sex, or of meditating daily, or of being kind to everyone - the petty details of how to implement the vision in practical small steps may seem unimportant due to a combination of pride (“I am able to do this”) and naive optimism (“nothing’s likely to get in the way”). This easily leads to disappointment, pessimism and shame. Sometimes we simply don’t know how to implement a change; sometimes we don’t even know that we don’t know. Our blind spots can be so mysterious.

We need to learn the step by step of things. Details involved in the ‘how to’ can be surprising, and require developing parts of us, & skills we never even thought of. Otherwise it’s a little like someone who has never exercised buying a fancy pair of running shoes assuming they’ll soon be racing marathons. Before laughing at that image, consider: have you ever bought a book, glanced at it, put it on your shelf and, now that it’s in your library, think of yourself as one of the book’s readers? I’ve seen a lot of people with yoga mats and meditation cushions in their homes who don’t have a regular yoga or meditation practice. The image easily substitutes for the reality. Much of the Surangama Sutra will be devoted to how easily we are beguiled by the images arising from our bodies and minds.

Buddhism places an emphasis on intention. Right intention is important, but our intentions can be as seductive as any courtesan, so it’s important not to be beguiled by them into forgetting: practice is nitty-gritty. A few years ago I attended a New Years meditation session where people gave voice to their practice resolutions for the coming year. After a while of listening to folks expressing their sincere intention to meditate in the morning, or to practice one of the paramitas, or to attend more retreats, I suggested we might spend some time discussing the specifics of how we planned to implement these lofty goals. I was roundly condemned for dirtying lofty goals with trivial technicalities and casting doubt on peoples’ sincerity.

Sincerity and determination are incomplete without the details of doing. Research on the implementation of intentions shows rates of any follow-through are low, and sustained follow-through is even lower. Medication compliance rates are around 30% to 50%. That’s for something as simple and important as taking a pill which has been prescribed as necessary for your health. Sitting down on the meditation cushion every day, being generous and kind to everyone you encounter - these are difficult. Breaking a habit of losing your temper or smoking cigarettes, maintaining sobriety and avoiding inappropriate sexual behavior - these are even more difficult.

Behavioral research on implementing intentions has shown the more we specify what we’re going to do, where and when, the more likely we’ll be to actually do it. If we say “I’m going to meditate every day this week” we need also be clear: on Tuesday, will we meditate in our bedroom or in the zendo, and will it be in the morning before work or at 7 pm before we get too tired at night? How about Wednesday when we have a pre-existing appointment? If we meditate at home, will other family members be likely to interrupt us? How many minutes will we meditate for? When we say “every day” do we mean “every week day” or “seven days a week, including weekends when the zendo is closed?”

This kind of specificity requires humility. We are biological beings who get tired and forget. We are social beings subject to the influences of all around us. It’s a good idea after forming an intention to ask ourselves: “how confident am I that I’ll actually do this completely?” When I ask clients that question, the usual response is “oh, pretty likely - maybe 70% or 80%.” That means there is a pretty good chance the person will fail in some aspect and feel dissatisfied with their efforts. I suggest whittling down the plan, making sure it’s do-able so they feel 95% confident.

Once they come up with a plan they feel 95% confident they can do, my clients often say, “but that’s not enough.” Of course not. No amount of practice is ever enough. Practice is not a matter of quantity: it’s not a matter of how much you do or don’t do. Practice is the art of being fully engaged in whatever you do do - which requires an honest appraisal of your (necessarily limited) abilities.

I wonder, if Ananda had paused in his begging rounds, looked at the house of courtesans, thought of how he’d woken up that morning feeling horny and decided it might be wiser to pass by the house and not tempt himself - would he have felt he was being “insufficiently” compliant with the Dharma? Too often our desires to be really good lead us to test ourselves with a difficult situation - and we end up doing something really bad.

We need to build our practice as carefully as we construct a house, if we want our practice to function as our sanctuary. Just as there are principles involved in how to pour a foundation or frame a window, there are principles involved in how to develop our habits of truthfulness, patience, energy, forbearance and the other paramitas. Many of our classic texts give precise instructions; we may need to modify some of these instructions to fit our current situation, but we ignore the minutiae at our peril, because these are our training grounds. If you brush your teeth without paying attention, how can you be mindful, calm and kind while someone yells at you - or when someone tries to seduce you?

In our current society, between billboards, newspapers, social media and click-bait, someone is yelling at us or seducing us all the time. We need to be careful to limit our exposure to what we’re capable of handling. It’s not a great idea for a recovering alcoholic to go into a bar; it’s not a great idea for a someone whose Buddhist practice hasn’t fully matured to go into a brothel - but that would have required Ananda to acknowledge he had not yet reached the lofty realms of realization of a Vimalakirti.

We need to support our efforts by building resilient structures in our communities, our homes, and our practice methods. One way of building resilience is to introduce what systems theorists call “redundancies:” multiple ways of realizing the same goal. If you only practice meditation on the breath, you’ll have difficulties meditating when you have pneumonia, asthma or a panic attack. At such times it helps to have some experience with meditating on posture, or a mantra or koan, to fall back on. Sometimes we need to reinforce the practice of one precept by drawing on another as an ally, or bolstering a negative with a positive. If Ananda wanted to refrain from sexuality, it might have helped to remind himself of his vow to be honest, and resolve that if he succumbs to desire he will need to tell the truth about it to his dharma friends.

You can meditate in the morning and then go about your day and assume you are protected against the infections of greed, hate and delusion. But you can also plan that when you make the 10 am phone call to your utility company, you’ll extend loving-kindness to the customer service representative. You can take vitamins and chloroquine to bolster your immune system against the covid virus and then go out unmasked, feeling proud of your ability to defeat any bug. Or you can practice appropriate distancing and wear a mask.

When you put on a face mask to help protect yourself and others, you can treat it as an annoying, uncomfortable inconvenience, using whatever mask is at hand. Or you put in the effort to find a mask that fits you, and treat the mask as your practice partner - reminding you of your vulnerabilities, and your connectedness with all beings.


Why Practice?

Surangama Sutra - Lecture 1

Why seek the Way? Why not kill? Why not steal?

One who practices meditation in stillness without renouncing all killing
is like one who hopes that nobody will hear him shout if he stops up his own ears.

One who practices meditation in stillness without renouncing all stealing
is like one who tries to fill a leaking cup with water.

-- the Surangama Sutra

The Surangama Sutra begins with Ananda asking Shakyamuni Buddha to explain the practices through which the Buddha, and all Thus-Come-Ones, fully awaken. Buddha asks Ananda what he saw in the Buddha which motivated him to seek after enlightenment, and Ananda replies: “I saw the thirty-two hallmarks, wondrous and incomparable, the entire body shining like crystal, with an inter-reflecting radiance.” Ananda admired this so much he shaved his head and left ordinary life so he could follow the Buddha.

So the beginning of the sutra asks us to look back on our own beginnings. What motivates us to do this practice? What are you looking for? How did you come to pursue this path?

This is the traditional subject for a student’s first public talk to the sangha. People often describe how they were in distress, and looked for a way that offered some promise of relief. Perhaps they were struggling with an addiction, or depression or anxiety (which are forms of addiction, though we don’t usually recognize them as such). Perhaps they were disappointed in love, or had suffered a loss when someone they loved had died. These are classic entrances to Buddhism: a dawning awareness of suffering, some awareness that the usual ways of avoiding suffering aren’t working, and a search for the root causes of suffering and a path for its release. These are the Four Noble Truths.

It’s not always so clear, though. I stumbled into Buddhist practice. I was in college, and although I certainly was miserable a good deal of the time as only a late adolescent can be, I was experimenting with all sorts of things. I took a class in yoga to fulfill a physical education requirement and avoid enrolling in team sports, which I was very bad at. Yoga introduced me to experiencing the body as something other than a clumsy container - it was my first taste of learning how tense I habitually was and that relaxation and ease might be real possibilities. It was also my introduction to meditation, and to paying attention to the breath. Yoga, though, was just one new encounter amongst many: I was passionate to sample as many new experiences of life as I could. Mind-altering drugs, the worlds of dream interpretation, the Freudian unconscious, and artistic epiphanies were all enticing. So was sex. I was attending a male-only school, and enrolled in a course on Japanese religion at a neighboring women’s school so I could meet potential dates. I developed a crush on one of the women in my class, and I attended my first Zen meditation retreat in an effort to impress her by enduring the pain of sitting full lotus during the retreat. The Zen teacher’s lectures intrigued me - but the invitation to enlightenment attracted me less as a way to serve all sentient beings and more as a road to becoming special in my girlfriend’s eyes or, failing that, to become selfless so I wouldn’t feel the pain of rejection.

I took advantage of a college exchange program to study abroad in Japan and spent several years there studying shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute deeply woven with Zen aesthetics. I lived in a small Zen monastery, and became quite disillusioned with its competitive strivings (people would boast of how many koans they’d solved) and its idealization of a teacher who, I later found out, had been a war criminal. I left the monastery but continued shakuhachi - and meditation, though I couldn’t say exactly why. Something had hooked me, though I needed many years more - including a period where I forsook meditation for psychology - before I turned to meditation in earnest. By that time I was in my late thirties: I was living in India on a Fulbright. Not knowing where else to turn, I resumed meditation, doing shikantaza - “just sitting” - trying to get to the bare bones of experience to discover some spark of inspiration. I’d still need a few more years of practice before realizing that being happy was impossible unless it was shared with all beings.

We usually begin meditation practice out of some personal need. Eventually, something unexpected happens: our self-centered goals begin to morph into wider, stranger shapes. Like a möbius strip, a small twist turning and reconnecting to itself changes the topology, and we enter different dimensional fields. Instead of being limited to an external mental quest seeking the Way, we discover the Way is also, always, seeking us. This is why we call the first talk students give in public to the sangha, in which we describe how we came to practice, Way-Seeking-Mind talks.

Some people, in their Way-Seeking-Mind talks, describe how they’ve always felt a calling, even when they were small children. They often describe how their upbringing didn’t provide a channel for this calling, either because they weren’t introduced to any spiritual teachings, or because the religion they grew up in seemed overly rigid, dogmatic, hypocritical or dry. One of the ironies of practice is how people drawn to practice from a “spiritual” standpoint need to discover their intensely personal hurts and desires before they can realize their more universal aspirations, just as people who come to practice from their personal suffering must discover how these are inextricable from the suffering - and liberation - of all beings.

This is true not just for Buddhism. Whether you are Catholic, Jewish, Sufi, Sunni, Protestant, Ethical Culturist, Unitarian, Marxist or Existentialist, at some point you must confront the question: what is it that really motivates you? Why bother to seek the Good Life? Why not just enjoy yourself for your brief time on earth? Kill, steal, fuck, lie as it benefits you? (Parenthetically, I find it strange that “fucking” is considered a swear word, while “killing,” “stealing,” and “lying” are somehow less objectionable).

In my own case, I came back to this question after I had a narrow brush with death. Once I realized I was really, truly, going to die it became clear not Zen nor Insight meditation, not qigong nor yoga, not trying to do some good or at least trying to not do harm - none of these were going to save me from pain and loss, hurt and death. I seriously considered throwing morals to the wind and “living for the moment” (after all, wasn’t that the premise of mindfulness and ‘Be Here Now’)?

I realized with some sadness that I wouldn’t be very good at killing (I’m not physically strong or good at weapons), stealing (I’m too awkward and fumbly) lying (my facial expressions give me away; I’m a terrible bluffer) or even fucking (I find sex more satisfying when there’s love involved, and knowing one another well enough to read each others’ signals). I guess I could harden myself, and train myself to kill, steal, lie and fuck, but it seems like a lot of work. And I’m a softie who cries easily at movies (so much for meditative “equanimity”). I know that however happy I may be, when I come across somebody who is suffering, it’s like a cloud passing over the sun. I can’t deny my happiness is tied up in yours.

When I sit meditation, every time I push away a thought or a feeling or a sensation, I am murdering a part of myself. How can I practice meditation without renouncing killing?

When I sit meditation, every time the mind wanders to past or future I am robbing myself of this moment. How can I practice meditation without renouncing stealing?

When I meditate to realize the Dharma, though, I run another risk: mesmerized by the glitter of enlightenment, by the brilliance of the thirty-two hallmarks that attracted Ananda, it’s easy to lose the Way. Which is why, in this first chapter of the Surangama Sutra, Buddha asks Ananda: “when you resolved to attain full awakening, what was it that saw those hallmarks and who was it that took delight in them and loved them?”

Ananda replies: “I delighted in them and loved them with my mind and eyes.”

The Buddha says “yes, your mind and eyes were the reason for your admiration and delight. Someone who does not know where his mind and eyes are will not be unable to overcome the stress of engagement with perceived objects….if bandits invade a country, the king’s soldiers must know where the bandits are in order to prevent them from taking over the country. Shakamuni then goes on to say to Ananda:

It is the fault of your mind and eyes that you are bound to
the circle of birth and death.

I am now asking you: precisely where are your mind and eyes?

Welcome to the world of the Surangama Sutra! Shakyamuni Buddha has just acknowledged Ananda’s mind and eyes were the gates for Ananda’s delight in the Dharma and motivated him to practice to realize enlightenment. With his next breath, though, Shakyamuni tells Ananda his eyes and mind are bandits that rob him of his ability to realize enlightenment: they are the culprits binding him to suffering, to an endless cycle of creation and destruction, to birth-and-death.

Beginning with the next chapter, a significant portion of the Surangama Sutra deals with how our sense perceptions mislead us, trapping us in worlds of illusion. Neuroscience and perceptual psychology agree: our nervous systems gives us images of the world, not the world itself. As neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett reminds us, “the brain functions through concepts.” We cannot realize enlightenment so long as we mistake our concepts for reality.

Buddhism describes our experience of the world through the five skandhas: form, feelings, perceptions, formations, and consciousness. Whether it’s possible to have direct access to reality is a matter of some debate in contemporary philosophy and perceptual neuroscience, but. Buddhism is clear that we all can, and do, have direct experiences of reality. We call this “suchness” or “thusness,” which is why Buddha is called the Tathagata, the “Thus-Come-One.” Suchness constantly preaches the Dharma, asking us to crack open our doors of perception, open our inner eyes and ears, drop body and mind in order to truly realize the reality of body-mind, enlightened bodhi-mind.

To do this, we need to be aware of where are our minds and eyes, our bodies and beings. That’s the first step, but it’s only a first step. Awareness of body and mind as objects still is easily caught; our sensible senses mislead us. When we accept the tangible touch and taste of the world as givens, as “real,” it’s easy to believe our thoughts and feelings are “real,” too. Then we are trapped within ideas of ourselves and mistake ourselves for our sensations and desires. It’s not that our sense impressions and the products of our minds are unreal: they are neither real nor unreal, but they are incomplete. They give us the illusion we’re separate from others, that we exist apart from the world which constitutes us. Then we yearn to bridge that painful separation - and, paradoxically, fear losing ourselves in the process.

I’m reminded of a time when I was visiting with my dear friend Carol. While she was preparing dinner, her four-year-old son Aaron asked her if he could have some gum. She told him no, they’d be having dinner shortly. Aaron protested briefly, then gave in and left the room.

About fifteen minutes later during a pause in our conversation, Carol and I heard a strange wet smacking, chewing sound coming from the adjacent living room. Puzzled, we quietly peeked into the room. There we saw four-year-old Aaron: his head was underneath the sofa, his feet and legs were sticking out, surrounded by discarded chewing-gum wrappers. He had taken a whole pack, extracted the sticks of gum, stuck them all in his mouth, and with his head hidden in the dark beneath the furniture, was lustily enjoying it: chomp! Chomp! Chomp! He was quite crestfallen when Carol called him to come out and scolded him (trying not to laugh) for disobeying her.

Aaron couldn’t figure out through what magical means his mother had figured out he had taken the gum and was chewing it. His eyes and mind and mouth were in the dark: he couldn’t see them, so nobody else could see what he was doing, could they?

Do you ever wonder why you don’t see your own enlightened nature? It’s sweet and elastic as chewing gum, but its flavor never fades.

Where are your eyes and mind at this moment?


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Important!?

We tend to confuse importance with reality. Both are illusions we live by.

Nothing is unimportant: suchness is the path to peace.

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    Temptation and Intention

    Have you ever been tempted to do something, even though you knew you’d feel badly about it afterwards? Perhaps I should re-phrase the question: has a day gone by when you weren’t tempted to do something you wanted to, but you knew it afterwards might have negative consequences?

    Stress-eating ice cream, telling a white lie, having “just one” drink or a one-night stand: these are the kinds of situations the Surangama sutra addresses. When you walk the Way you find yourself tempted by all sorts of conveniences and indulgences that modern society offers, but which run contrary to following the precepts. As verse 53 of the Tao Te Ching notes,

    The Great Path is very smooth and straight,

    but people are fond of bypaths.

    Knee-jerk moralism, your conditioned guilty conscience and learned habits of “should” and “should not” will not save you. They didn’t save Ananda, the Buddha’s first cousin and one of his most devoted companions.

    In last week’s essay on the Surangama Sutra’s first chapter. I skipped the discussing the prologue in order to avoid muddying the focus on “why practice?” The prologue, though, sets the stage by introducing us to Ananda, a first cousin of the Buddha who is devoted to practice but runs into difficulties. In the course of his daily begging rounds Ananda came to a house of courtesans; wanting to dutifully practice non-discriminating mind by taking each house in order, he did not want to exclude the “lowlifes” within from the merit they’d accumulate by donating food. So Ananda went up to the door and held up his bowl for alms. Then

    “Wielding a spell that Kapila had obtained from a god of the Brahma Heavens, a young Mātaṅga woman seduced Ānanda onto her bed. Then she caressed him lasciviously until the power of his vows was on the verge of being broken.”

    The Buddha, through his supernatural powers, saw

    “Ānanda was succumbing to the carnal influence of the spell, [so] the Thus-Come One …..poured forth invincible light which was as dazzling as a hundred gems. Within that light sat a Buddha in full-lotus posture on a thousand-petaled sacred lotus, proclaiming a spiritually powerful mantra.”

    Buddha sends Mañjuśri to Ānanda. Using this spiritually powerful mantra (which we will encounter later in the sutra), Mañjuśri defeats the evil spell, rescues Ānanda and also the young Mātaṅga woman from succumbing to their fatal attraction, and brings them back to the grove where Buddha is staying with his disciples. This is the occasion where Ananda, weeping, beseeches Shakyamuni to teach him how to become fully awakened.

    We can imagine Ananda’s shame and regret through our own experiences of suffering remorse after being caught in some misbehavior. In the cultural context of the time, any sexual involvement was an obstacle to enlightenment. So was being born as a woman. In modern Buddhism, we need to do a lot of work to redress the misogynistic strains and to develop precepts which address sexuality beyond the extremes of celibacy and self-indulgence.

    For our present purpose, though, the issue is not so much that Ananda came close to - heaven forbid! - having sex. The issue is that Ananda was at risk of betraying his vows. The words of the sutra point to this: “the power of his vows was on the verge of being broken.”

    The harm we incur when we break a vow is not that we do something “bad.” The problem is when we vow one thing and do another, we undermine ourselves. The harm we incur is we then lose faith in ourselves.

    As a psychotherapist, I often saw clients resolve to make some change, then berate themselves when they failed to follow through as they’d intended. They’d feel flawed, thinking they were insincere, or they were lacking something important: their willpower was “too weak,” they were “incapable of love,” “not smart enough” or - shifting the blame somewhat - they had been too injured by traumas, or never received the kind of parenting they truly needed, or the society put too many obstacles in their way. Perhaps their horoscope indicated their timing was off.

    Their failure, though, did not lie in their stars, nor in their selves. The anger and sadness they felt was rooted in a less obvious combination of delusion and greed: a tendency to over-reach, to expect and grasp at too much too soon. We can be sincerely well-intentioned in our desires to be more loving, or more efficient, or less short-tempered or less ruled by fear. We humans might be capable of occasional self-observation and thought, but it comes with a magical tinge: “if I think it, it must/should be so.”

    Once I form a vision - whether the vision is of being able to withstand the lure of sex, or of meditating daily, or of being kind to everyone - the petty details of how to implement the vision in practical small steps may seem unimportant due to a combination of pride (“I am able to do this”) and naive optimism (“nothing’s likely to get in the way”). This easily leads to disappointment, pessimism and shame. Sometimes we simply don’t know how to implement a change; sometimes we don’t even know that we don’t know. Our blind spots can be so mysterious.

    We need to learn the step by step of things. Details involved in the ‘how to’ can be surprising, and require developing parts of us, & skills we never even thought of. Otherwise it’s a little like someone who has never exercised buying a fancy pair of running shoes assuming they’ll soon be racing marathons. Before laughing at that image, consider: have you ever bought a book, glanced at it, put it on your shelf and, now that it’s in your library, think of yourself as one of the book’s readers? I’ve seen a lot of people with yoga mats and meditation cushions in their homes who don’t have a regular yoga or meditation practice. The image easily substitutes for the reality. Much of the Surangama Sutra will be devoted to how easily we are beguiled by the images arising from our bodies and minds.

    Buddhism places an emphasis on intention. Right intention is important, but our intentions can be as seductive as any courtesan, so it’s important not to be beguiled by them into forgetting: practice is nitty-gritty. A few years ago I attended a New Years meditation session where people gave voice to their practice resolutions for the coming year. After a while of listening to folks expressing their sincere intention to meditate in the morning, or to practice one of the paramitas, or to attend more retreats, I suggested we might spend some time discussing the specifics of how we planned to implement these lofty goals. I was roundly condemned for dirtying lofty goals with trivial technicalities and casting doubt on peoples’ sincerity.

    Sincerity and determination are incomplete without the details of doing. Research on the implementation of intentions shows rates of any follow-through are low, and sustained follow-through is even lower. Medication compliance rates are around 30% to 50%. That’s for something as simple and important as taking a pill which has been prescribed as necessary for your health. Sitting down on the meditation cushion every day, being generous and kind to everyone you encounter - these are difficult. Breaking a habit of losing your temper or smoking cigarettes, maintaining sobriety and avoiding inappropriate sexual behavior - these are even more difficult.

    Behavioral research on implementing intentions has shown the more we specify what we’re going to do, where and when, the more likely we’ll be to actually do it. If we say “I’m going to meditate every day this week” we need also be clear: on Tuesday, will we meditate in our bedroom or in the zendo, and will it be in the morning before work or at 7 pm before we get too tired at night? How about Wednesday when we have a pre-existing appointment? If we meditate at home, will other family members be likely to interrupt us? How many minutes will we meditate for? When we say “every day” do we mean “every week day” or “seven days a week, including weekends when the zendo is closed?”

    This kind of specificity requires humility. We are biological beings who get tired and forget. We are social beings subject to the influences of all around us. It’s a good idea after forming an intention to ask ourselves: “how confident am I that I’ll actually do this completely?” When I ask clients that question, the usual response is “oh, pretty likely - maybe 70% or 80%.” That means there is a pretty good chance the person will fail in some aspect and feel dissatisfied with their efforts. I suggest whittling down the plan, making sure it’s do-able so they feel 95% confident.

    Once they come up with a plan they feel 95% confident they can do, my clients often say, “but that’s not enough.” Of course not. No amount of practice is ever enough. Practice is not a matter of quantity: it’s not a matter of how much you do or don’t do. Practice is the art of being fully engaged in whatever you do do - which requires an honest appraisal of your (necessarily limited) abilities.

    I wonder, if Ananda had paused in his begging rounds, looked at the house of courtesans, thought of how he’d woken up that morning feeling horny and decided it might be wiser to pass by the house and not tempt himself - would he have felt he was being “insufficiently” compliant with the Dharma? Too often our desires to be really good lead us to test ourselves with a difficult situation - and we end up doing something really bad.

    We need to build our practice as carefully as we construct a house, if we want our practice to function as our sanctuary. Just as there are principles involved in how to pour a foundation or frame a window, there are principles involved in how to develop our habits of truthfulness, patience, energy, forbearance and the other paramitas. Many of our classic texts give precise instructions; we may need to modify some of these instructions to fit our current situation, but we ignore the minutiae at our peril, because these are our training grounds. If you brush your teeth without paying attention, how can you be mindful, calm and kind while someone yells at you - or when someone tries to seduce you?

    In our current society, between billboards, newspapers, social media and click-bait, someone is yelling at us or seducing us all the time. We need to be careful to limit our exposure to what we’re capable of handling. It’s not a great idea for a recovering alcoholic to go into a bar; it’s not a great idea for a someone whose Buddhist practice hasn’t fully matured to go into a brothel - but that would have required Ananda to acknowledge he had not yet reached the lofty realms of realization of a Vimalakirti.

    We need to support our efforts by building resilient structures in our communities, our homes, and our practice methods. One way of building resilience is to introduce what systems theorists call “redundancies:” multiple ways of realizing the same goal. If you only practice meditation on the breath, you’ll have difficulties meditating when you have pneumonia, asthma or a panic attack. At such times it helps to have some experience with meditating on posture, or a mantra or koan, to fall back on. Sometimes we need to reinforce the practice of one precept by drawing on another as an ally, or bolstering a negative with a positive. If Ananda wanted to refrain from sexuality, it might have helped to remind himself of his vow to be honest, and resolve that if he succumbs to desire he will need to tell the truth about it to his dharma friends.

    You can meditate in the morning and then go about your day and assume you are protected against the infections of greed, hate and delusion. But you can also plan that when you make the 10 am phone call to your utility company, you’ll extend loving-kindness to the customer service representative. You can take vitamins and chloroquine to bolster your immune system against the covid virus and then go out unmasked, feeling proud of your ability to defeat any bug. Or you can practice appropriate distancing and wear a mask.

    When you put on a face mask to help protect yourself and others, you can treat it as an annoying, uncomfortable inconvenience, using whatever mask is at hand. Or you put in the effort to find a mask that fits you, and treat the mask as your practice partner - reminding you of your vulnerabilities, and your connectedness with all beings.


    Why Practice?

    Surangama Sutra - Lecture 1

    Why seek the Way? Why not kill? Why not steal?

    One who practices meditation in stillness without renouncing all killing
    is like one who hopes that nobody will hear him shout if he stops up his own ears.

    One who practices meditation in stillness without renouncing all stealing
    is like one who tries to fill a leaking cup with water.

    -- the Surangama Sutra

    The Surangama Sutra begins with Ananda asking Shakyamuni Buddha to explain the practices through which the Buddha, and all Thus-Come-Ones, fully awaken. Buddha asks Ananda what he saw in the Buddha which motivated him to seek after enlightenment, and Ananda replies: “I saw the thirty-two hallmarks, wondrous and incomparable, the entire body shining like crystal, with an inter-reflecting radiance.” Ananda admired this so much he shaved his head and left ordinary life so he could follow the Buddha.

    So the beginning of the sutra asks us to look back on our own beginnings. What motivates us to do this practice? What are you looking for? How did you come to pursue this path?

    This is the traditional subject for a student’s first public talk to the sangha. People often describe how they were in distress, and looked for a way that offered some promise of relief. Perhaps they were struggling with an addiction, or depression or anxiety (which are forms of addiction, though we don’t usually recognize them as such). Perhaps they were disappointed in love, or had suffered a loss when someone they loved had died. These are classic entrances to Buddhism: a dawning awareness of suffering, some awareness that the usual ways of avoiding suffering aren’t working, and a search for the root causes of suffering and a path for its release. These are the Four Noble Truths.

    It’s not always so clear, though. I stumbled into Buddhist practice. I was in college, and although I certainly was miserable a good deal of the time as only a late adolescent can be, I was experimenting with all sorts of things. I took a class in yoga to fulfill a physical education requirement and avoid enrolling in team sports, which I was very bad at. Yoga introduced me to experiencing the body as something other than a clumsy container - it was my first taste of learning how tense I habitually was and that relaxation and ease might be real possibilities. It was also my introduction to meditation, and to paying attention to the breath. Yoga, though, was just one new encounter amongst many: I was passionate to sample as many new experiences of life as I could. Mind-altering drugs, the worlds of dream interpretation, the Freudian unconscious, and artistic epiphanies were all enticing. So was sex. I was attending a male-only school, and enrolled in a course on Japanese religion at a neighboring women’s school so I could meet potential dates. I developed a crush on one of the women in my class, and I attended my first Zen meditation retreat in an effort to impress her by enduring the pain of sitting full lotus during the retreat. The Zen teacher’s lectures intrigued me - but the invitation to enlightenment attracted me less as a way to serve all sentient beings and more as a road to becoming special in my girlfriend’s eyes or, failing that, to become selfless so I wouldn’t feel the pain of rejection.

    I took advantage of a college exchange program to study abroad in Japan and spent several years there studying shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute deeply woven with Zen aesthetics. I lived in a small Zen monastery, and became quite disillusioned with its competitive strivings (people would boast of how many koans they’d solved) and its idealization of a teacher who, I later found out, had been a war criminal. I left the monastery but continued shakuhachi - and meditation, though I couldn’t say exactly why. Something had hooked me, though I needed many years more - including a period where I forsook meditation for psychology - before I turned to meditation in earnest. By that time I was in my late thirties: I was living in India on a Fulbright. Not knowing where else to turn, I resumed meditation, doing shikantaza - “just sitting” - trying to get to the bare bones of experience to discover some spark of inspiration. I’d still need a few more years of practice before realizing that being happy was impossible unless it was shared with all beings.

    We usually begin meditation practice out of some personal need. Eventually, something unexpected happens: our self-centered goals begin to morph into wider, stranger shapes. Like a möbius strip, a small twist turning and reconnecting to itself changes the topology, and we enter different dimensional fields. Instead of being limited to an external mental quest seeking the Way, we discover the Way is also, always, seeking us. This is why we call the first talk students give in public to the sangha, in which we describe how we came to practice, Way-Seeking-Mind talks.

    Some people, in their Way-Seeking-Mind talks, describe how they’ve always felt a calling, even when they were small children. They often describe how their upbringing didn’t provide a channel for this calling, either because they weren’t introduced to any spiritual teachings, or because the religion they grew up in seemed overly rigid, dogmatic, hypocritical or dry. One of the ironies of practice is how people drawn to practice from a “spiritual” standpoint need to discover their intensely personal hurts and desires before they can realize their more universal aspirations, just as people who come to practice from their personal suffering must discover how these are inextricable from the suffering - and liberation - of all beings.

    This is true not just for Buddhism. Whether you are Catholic, Jewish, Sufi, Sunni, Protestant, Ethical Culturist, Unitarian, Marxist or Existentialist, at some point you must confront the question: what is it that really motivates you? Why bother to seek the Good Life? Why not just enjoy yourself for your brief time on earth? Kill, steal, fuck, lie as it benefits you? (Parenthetically, I find it strange that “fucking” is considered a swear word, while “killing,” “stealing,” and “lying” are somehow less objectionable).

    In my own case, I came back to this question after I had a narrow brush with death. Once I realized I was really, truly, going to die it became clear not Zen nor Insight meditation, not qigong nor yoga, not trying to do some good or at least trying to not do harm - none of these were going to save me from pain and loss, hurt and death. I seriously considered throwing morals to the wind and “living for the moment” (after all, wasn’t that the premise of mindfulness and ‘Be Here Now’)?

    I realized with some sadness that I wouldn’t be very good at killing (I’m not physically strong or good at weapons), stealing (I’m too awkward and fumbly) lying (my facial expressions give me away; I’m a terrible bluffer) or even fucking (I find sex more satisfying when there’s love involved, and knowing one another well enough to read each others’ signals). I guess I could harden myself, and train myself to kill, steal, lie and fuck, but it seems like a lot of work. And I’m a softie who cries easily at movies (so much for meditative “equanimity”). I know that however happy I may be, when I come across somebody who is suffering, it’s like a cloud passing over the sun. I can’t deny my happiness is tied up in yours.

    When I sit meditation, every time I push away a thought or a feeling or a sensation, I am murdering a part of myself. How can I practice meditation without renouncing killing?

    When I sit meditation, every time the mind wanders to past or future I am robbing myself of this moment. How can I practice meditation without renouncing stealing?

    When I meditate to realize the Dharma, though, I run another risk: mesmerized by the glitter of enlightenment, by the brilliance of the thirty-two hallmarks that attracted Ananda, it’s easy to lose the Way. Which is why, in this first chapter of the Surangama Sutra, Buddha asks Ananda: “when you resolved to attain full awakening, what was it that saw those hallmarks and who was it that took delight in them and loved them?”

    Ananda replies: “I delighted in them and loved them with my mind and eyes.”

    The Buddha says “yes, your mind and eyes were the reason for your admiration and delight. Someone who does not know where his mind and eyes are will not be unable to overcome the stress of engagement with perceived objects….if bandits invade a country, the king’s soldiers must know where the bandits are in order to prevent them from taking over the country. Shakamuni then goes on to say to Ananda:

    It is the fault of your mind and eyes that you are bound to
    the circle of birth and death.

    I am now asking you: precisely where are your mind and eyes?

    Welcome to the world of the Surangama Sutra! Shakyamuni Buddha has just acknowledged Ananda’s mind and eyes were the gates for Ananda’s delight in the Dharma and motivated him to practice to realize enlightenment. With his next breath, though, Shakyamuni tells Ananda his eyes and mind are bandits that rob him of his ability to realize enlightenment: they are the culprits binding him to suffering, to an endless cycle of creation and destruction, to birth-and-death.

    Beginning with the next chapter, a significant portion of the Surangama Sutra deals with how our sense perceptions mislead us, trapping us in worlds of illusion. Neuroscience and perceptual psychology agree: our nervous systems gives us images of the world, not the world itself. As neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett reminds us, “the brain functions through concepts.” We cannot realize enlightenment so long as we mistake our concepts for reality.

    Buddhism describes our experience of the world through the five skandhas: form, feelings, perceptions, formations, and consciousness. Whether it’s possible to have direct access to reality is a matter of some debate in contemporary philosophy and perceptual neuroscience, but. Buddhism is clear that we all can, and do, have direct experiences of reality. We call this “suchness” or “thusness,” which is why Buddha is called the Tathagata, the “Thus-Come-One.” Suchness constantly preaches the Dharma, asking us to crack open our doors of perception, open our inner eyes and ears, drop body and mind in order to truly realize the reality of body-mind, enlightened bodhi-mind.

    To do this, we need to be aware of where are our minds and eyes, our bodies and beings. That’s the first step, but it’s only a first step. Awareness of body and mind as objects still is easily caught; our sensible senses mislead us. When we accept the tangible touch and taste of the world as givens, as “real,” it’s easy to believe our thoughts and feelings are “real,” too. Then we are trapped within ideas of ourselves and mistake ourselves for our sensations and desires. It’s not that our sense impressions and the products of our minds are unreal: they are neither real nor unreal, but they are incomplete. They give us the illusion we’re separate from others, that we exist apart from the world which constitutes us. Then we yearn to bridge that painful separation - and, paradoxically, fear losing ourselves in the process.

    I’m reminded of a time when I was visiting with my dear friend Carol. While she was preparing dinner, her four-year-old son Aaron asked her if he could have some gum. She told him no, they’d be having dinner shortly. Aaron protested briefly, then gave in and left the room.

    About fifteen minutes later during a pause in our conversation, Carol and I heard a strange wet smacking, chewing sound coming from the adjacent living room. Puzzled, we quietly peeked into the room. There we saw four-year-old Aaron: his head was underneath the sofa, his feet and legs were sticking out, surrounded by discarded chewing-gum wrappers. He had taken a whole pack, extracted the sticks of gum, stuck them all in his mouth, and with his head hidden in the dark beneath the furniture, was lustily enjoying it: chomp! Chomp! Chomp! He was quite crestfallen when Carol called him to come out and scolded him (trying not to laugh) for disobeying her.

    Aaron couldn’t figure out through what magical means his mother had figured out he had taken the gum and was chewing it. His eyes and mind and mouth were in the dark: he couldn’t see them, so nobody else could see what he was doing, could they?

    Do you ever wonder why you don’t see your own enlightened nature? It’s sweet and elastic as chewing gum, but its flavor never fades.

    Where are your eyes and mind at this moment?


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