A practice of process/process of practice

Butterfly at the Pacific Science Center, Seattle WA

 

So as you can see down at the footer, I’ve been reading Thanissaro Bikkhu’s The Wings to Awakening for some time now, and the main theme I’m getting is that everything the Buddha taught comes down to a process of practice (or maybe a practice of process?) as well as a system of developing skills. It isn’t as simple as getting totally blissed out on some amateur enlightenment experience. And it isn’t so difficult that it’s completely untouchable and mystical. But it can be overwhelming, and at times seem paradoxical.

For instance, take karma. The conventional wisdom says that we need to develop good karma. And this is true. And isn’t. Because ultimately the goal is to develop the 4th type of karma, that which leads to the end of karma.

And what is kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma? The intention right there to abandon this kamma that is dark with dark result, the intention right there to abandon this kamma that is bright with bright result, the intention right there to abandon this kamma that is dark & bright with dark & bright result. This is called kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma.

It is in a virtuous life that we lay down the foundation for practice we construct that will aid us in our goal of unbinding. But that isn’t really enough either. Because we need to have right view and right mindfulness and cultivate all the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. Developing “right view” alone could take years, decades, lifetimes.

This path at times can seem complicated, especially when one tries to look at the entire path and system all at once. It is easy to get lost in the old sutras, or even in the modern commentary of them. There is a whole site devoted to the lists of lists in Buddhism, and the list is quite extensive.

This is where it helps to see the dharma as a practice, and viewing the dharma as a process really comes in. First, go to the triple gem. Actualize the precepts. Focus on the breath. Then focus on the body without reference to the feelings on the body that come up… etc…

One step at a time. One breathe at a time. We all know that the bucket fills one drop at a time. But in Buddhism we’re trying to empty that bucket. Sometimes we forget that it will empty the same way it filled up. At times we’ll need to use a thimble to gently scoop tiny drops out; other times we’ll need a ladle to splash things around a bit. There are many skills to develop on the path that we can layer onto our practice that all help us to empty that bucket and reach nirvana. 

There is no way to do this all at once. There is no way to do it in a week, a month, a year. You can’t jump right to the 4th type of karma. You have to start with the basics, and know your limitations. It is a process and it takes time. The dharma was laid out in a system of steps to take to finally reach ultimate unbinding, nirvana. Use the steps to focus on where your feet plant firmly on the ground and with one eye look a few feet ahead. In this way the great process will unravel itself and reveal a ground upon which you can forge your path.

So this is where my practice is. I view it knowing that probably no great awakening will happen this month or year. My practice is a process that will evolve, in that I have faith. To see it in this way feels liberating. For now I will stretch, and sit with my breath, and keep an eye out for the ox. I will sit for 20 minutes at a time. Next year, it will look different, more developed (hopefully!). In 20 years, it won’t resemble anything that I’m doing now. It’s hard work and the results aren’t evident right away. This is where faith comes in. Faith that what I’m doing today will lead to a better practice tomorrow. This is the process.

Cheers.

Advertisements

7 Comments

Filed under Buddhism

7 responses to “A practice of process/process of practice

  1. zenfant

    Adam, I saw this quote from Robert Aitken recently (he died a few days ago), but I think it puts the theme of this post very succintly:

    Our practice is not to clear up the mystery.

    It is to make the mystery clear.

    ~Robert Aitken Roshi

  2. I think you have a pretty good handle on things, Adam. I like the idea of “a practice of process.”

    I read Thanissaro Bikkhu’s chapter on kamma. I probably need to re-read because I found it a little confusing. The remembrance of previous lives and the working of karma is just one of the three descriptions given of the Buddha’s awakening (the others being insight into how the notion of ‘self’ or atman is the root of suffering and insight into dependent origination). However, the Buddha probably didn’t teach about karma or, sad to say, dependent origination.

    What does Thanissaro Bikkhu mean by an end to kamma? He says “then even when kamma was ended there would still remain the types of experience that came from other sources.” What other sources? You put an end to karma and that’s it. No action, no movement, no existence, nothing. He also talks about putting an end to the personal narrative. The same thing. It sounds like annihilation to me and I don’t buy that. Maybe I am not understanding it in terms of radically phenomenological analysis. Phenomenological can actually refer to several different ways of interpreting things, which he doesn’t seem to spell out.

    I suppose later on he gets into a more subtle way of looking at ending karma when he talks about mastering it in “a way that allows it to disband in an attentive state of non-intention,” but something still seems off to me, because “there is no telling what sudden surprises the results of one’s past kamma may still hold in store,” seems to preclude that there is only bad stuff.

    He also seems to be ascribing the thought processes of Nagarjuna and the Mahayana to the Buddha, which is not a big deal. It just bothers me a little because these Theravada guys have a bad habit of criticizing Mahayana thinking while at the same time appropriating it.

    • The fact that you found it only a little confusing makes me feel better. At first it shot completely over my head and I almost put it down right there. I’m about halfway through and things are making a bit more sense, but to look at the dharma in this way can be daunting. This is why I’m looking at it as more of a process. Get one frame of reference down, then the next, then the next… etc…

      I’m about halfway through right now, so I can’t speak to an overall opinion of the work. I’m not sure I agree with all of his concluscions on karma either. It seems like some of what he’s saying only works in theory, or something.

      Just curious, what makes you say that the Buddha probably never taught about karma or dependant origination?

      And yes, I do see Mahayana thought creep in to some of the Therevadan teachers’ stuff now and then.

  3. “Just curious, what makes you say that the Buddha probably never taught about karma or dependent origination?”

    Mainly because so many scholars have suggested it. I mean objective, academic scholars, as opposed to monk/teachers-who-are-also-scholars and who may not be so objective. It seems logical too, as least in regards to dependent origination, which is so intricate that it must have been something developed over a period of time. It just doesn’t seem like something that would appear as a “vision” during someone’s awakening.

    My personal theory is that the Buddha kept it simple. I think he was offering an alternative to the complex structure of Brahman religion and the complicated meditations of other ascetics of his day. I think he taught mindfulness and suffering, and maybe a couple of other things. Everything else was either developed over the long course of his teaching career or after he was gone. My feeling is that in general history is usually more mundane than we think.

  4. “One step at a time. One breathe at a time. We all know that the bucket fills one drop at a time. But in Buddhism we’re trying to empty that bucket. Sometimes we forget that it will empty the same way it filled up. At times we’ll need to use a thimble to gently scoop tiny drops out; other times we’ll need a ladle to splash things around a bit.”

    Great analogy. I like analogies because it breaks sometimes esoteric sounding knowledge into layman’s terms. This post, may I say, is one of your best. It was a breath of fresh air as I get a little sick of people shoving their dogma onto me. You know, the ones who like to patrol the buddhoblogosphere wagging their finger at everyone to tell them that they’re doing it all wrong. Owning your practice is another way of saying it I think because if it’s not personal then what the hell are we doing except cloning someone else?

    • Oh yes, I know who you’re talking about James. I like that: “owning your practice”.

      Thank you for the complement. I almost trashed this post before I posted it. Now I’m glad I didn’t.