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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