Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Against "Carrying the Practice"

When I first started going to the Tibetan Buddhist place, KCC, what I mostly went to was a Sunday evening discussion group. We read books by Kalu Rinpoche or Alan Wallace or Pema Chödrön and talked about them. A consistent theme, and one of the reasons I liked the group, was how, as our teacher put it, to "carry the practice" into everyday life. Putting the insights gained through meditation to work. When push came to shove, I felt, this was what mattered. If the practice didn't make me wiser, kinder, calmer, and healthier to be around in my daily life, what good was it? So we talked about how to deal with difficult relatives or unhealthy cravings or exasperating work situations in light of the Dharma. They were good discussions, and I miss them. I couldn't understand why our teacher stopped holding them.

As I've aged in the Dharma, though, I've become more and more skeptical of the usefulness, or even the possibility, of "carrying the practice" as a conscious endeavor. A friend of mine was contemplating suing the people he used to work for, who had treated him abusively (and illegally.) He asked me, did Buddhism have anything to say about how he should proceed? Besides just "concede"?

My answer, basically, was no. It doesn't have anything to say. You can't really run "what would the Buddha do?" scenarios, not very usefully. And to my thinking now, that's not what Buddhism is for. Buddhism is really pretty useless as a guide to daily life. We simply have to do our best, as we did before we met the Dharma, to look out for our own interests and yet to be fair and kind. It's hard and often unsatisfactory. Often there just don't seem to be any good solutions. That's life. Buddhism doesn't change it. Often it doesn't even shed any new light on it.

So what good is it? Why do I still think practice is worthwhile? Why do I still do it?

Buddhist practice changes two things: what we see, and how much space for creative response there is in between seeing it, and our habitual response to it. These are both things that happen before conscious problem-solving even begins. By the time we're contemplating a practical problem, and trying to decide what to do, the parts that Buddhist practice can help us with are mostly already over.

Buddhism, of course, has ethical precepts, just as any religion does, and they're much the same as everyone else's. Ethics is not something that changes a lot. Be kind, follow the reasonable rules of your people, do your share of the work & take only your share of the gain, think how it must be for the other guy. Avoid getting drunk. Try not to lose your temper. Tell the truth. Keep your promises. Give to the poor. That sort of thing. Nothing radical there. A good Buddhist and a good Muslim and a good atheist all look pretty much alike. And all of them find themselves in ethically perplexing situations where the rules aren't much help. You do your best. What else?

In Buddhism we work on familiarizing ourselves with the workings of our own mind. We watch its habitual patterns. We identify what it chooses to pay attention to, and what it prefers to ignore. In meditation, we attempt to stop, for the space of a few minutes, or at most a couple hours, taking our perceptions at face value, and attend instead to the process of perceiving. Instead of contemplating the stupidity of Sarah Palin, we attend to how we seek out only information that makes her look stupid, and avoid information that makes her look thoughtful. We watch ourselves construct her stupidity; we watch how obsessively we return to its construction, how urgently we resist its deconstruction. We begin to understand her stupidity as a property of our own minds, rather than as a property of Palin herself; and we begin to understand how we in fact are violently injuring our own hearts by holding on to our contempt for her.

Do we then vote for the McCain-Palin ticket? Of course not. And there's no reason why a Republican Buddhist should change her mind and vote Obama-Biden. That's not the level of change we're looking for. Buddhists have no more political perspicacity than anyone else, and there's no reason why they should. We shouldn't look for that. What we should look for is a deeper understanding of what our minds are doing.

In particular I distrust a sort of "heroic Buddhism," in which you really try to act as the Buddha would, with no concern whatever for your own well-being, letting everyone else's physical and emotional needs take precedence over your own. Without the Buddha's clarity this is only another variety of attachment, and an invitation to abuse. If Buddhist practice works, then true and effective generosity will grow of its own accord. Buddhist selflessness in practice would not look much like Jewish-mother selflessness. For one thing, the more you understand about the mind the better you understand that, generally, what people regard as the sources of their happiness are actually the sources of their misery, and that "doing what they want" is possibly the least kind thing you could do. A genuine Buddha would be a pain in the butt. The Buddha Shakyamuni's brother-in-law, you'll remember, wanted to kill him, and I bet he wasn't the only one.

In the long run -- yes, this understanding seeps into the practical world. We do become gentler, easier people to be around. We hold our opinions with a slightly less desperate clutch. We see things a little differently. But hard choices and perplexities don't go away. My feeling about practice now, is -- just do it, and leave it on the cushion. In daily life just do your best, as you always have. Don't look to Buddhism to solve your problems and change the externals of your worldly life. That's not what it's for.

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