Tuesday September 19, 2006
A few weeks ago, I overheard a conversation between two meditators which ran something like this:
A: Apparently x has been meditating for twenty years.
B: Well, they don’t look as if they have…
I didn’t think much of this at the time, but when I reflected on it later, it seemed a rather curious kind of thing to say. After all, what is somebody who has been meditating for twenty years supposed to look like? Pondering long and hard on this matter, I complied a little check-list of common characteristics of dharma practitioners, first for general edification, and secondly so that it might be used as a handy field guide:
A Field Guide to Dharma Practitioners
Look out for the following characteristics.
- Spectacles (the result of long hours studying the Perfection of Wisdom texts)
- Slightly too short trousers (indicating an admirably unworldly lack of fashion sense – also look out for sandal and sock combinations, signifying the same thing)
- Slow and deliberate movements (to demonstrate level of mindfulness practice)
- A soft, sad smile about the lips (indicating awareness of and aloofness from dukkha)
- Frequent bowing at anything that seems remotely worthy of reverence (suggesting deep humility)
- A gentle odour of incense (indicating hours spent in meditation, letting the burning sandalwood fumes penetrate the clothing)
* * *
With this list, you can have fun sitting on the bus or walking the streets, and spotting who is a practitioner and who is not. You can even add your own characteristics to the list, helping to refine it a little.
When considered in the light of this list, x seemed to score pretty badly. But of course, putting it like this, it seems absurd. Nevertheless, implicit in this overheard conversation is the idea that a dharma practitioner should look like something or other. Thinking about it now, I wonder whether this idea can lead to a particular kind of Buddhist pose, not unlike that of Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous Parisian waiter:
Let us consider this waiter in the café. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tight-rope-walker. All his behaviour seems to us a game… But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a café. (Being and Nothingness, 59).
The difficulty with our waiter is that his actions are accompanied by a profound self-consciousness. He is acting out a part. Nothing quite feels natural. This is not a problem that only afflicts waiters. It is possible as a dharma practitioner as well to assume a kind of Buddhist or meditative pose, to take on a holy air; but this kind of self-consciousness seems to me to be a long way from genuine mindfulness, which has a kind of naturalness to it, a kind of ease. Just assuming the pose reduces practice to pantomime.
So whilst some saw x’s not particularly Buddhist demeanour as a cause for doubt about the depth of x’s practice, I wonder now if perhaps it was precisely the opposite.
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