Sunday September 4, 2005
This morning I got up and, as usual, hauled myself out of bed, made my way down the corridor, and sat down on a pile of cushions to meditate. I read a little first – just to clear my head, to sweep away the confusion of nocturnal images – and then put the book down, lit a candle and, as the sun rose, sat and followed my breath.
Whilst I meditated, I found myself asking myself why. Why was I there, sitting on the cushions, watching my breath? To what end? What was it all for? No answer to the question came. I returned to my breath and continued to sit until the sun had risen over the trees. Then I went to drink a mug of coffee.
This question: why bother? has puzzled me for a long time. Even more puzzling is the fact that I still do bother, that I still get up in the morning and sit in meditation, watching my breath, most of the mornings of my life. This is something of a koan – a knotty Zen paradox – for me. I still do this, even when I am utterly disillusioned with Buddhism. For Buddhism has not led me towards the truth. It has not shown me a bright, clear path to a better world. I have not attained much in the way of wisdom. I am disillusioned with the endless flow of Buddhist books churned out by the presses month after month. I am disillusioned with the pronouncements of Buddhist teachers who set themselves up as moral exemplars, a disillusionment that is only augmented each time a new scandal – sexual, financial or what-have-you – hits the headlines. Perhaps there is such a thing as Enlightenment; but I have no idea what it is, nor whether any individual I know is remotely close to this state. I am disillusioned with the Buddhist texts from previous eras with their baroque and florid imagery, their bizarre cosmologies, their obsession with the absurd doctrine of rebirth, with the dewy-eyed lionisation of the Buddha. I am disillusioned with the fantasies of the mystical east, with the restless desire for some kind of other world beyond this one, with the sickening profusion of gods and goddesses. I am disillusioned with all pretensions to piety… But above all, I am disillusioned with myself. My practice of ethics is rudimentary. I have not mastered my desires neither have I gained control of the turbulence of my own mind. I have not conquered the fear of death. I do not have much in the way of compassion.
Of course, I could try harder: but when I see those who are rigorous in their practice of ethics, I cannot help noticing a terrible strain, a self-consciousness that seems to border on self-obsession, a surfeit of carefulness. Then there is meditation: no doubt my meditation practice is weak and lax. Although I sit to meditate most mornings, as often as not my mind is distracted, my chin falls forward onto my breast, I nod off to sleep or fall into the most pleasant daydreaming; or else I am taken by the desire to go and do something more interesting. But when I look at those who spend their days meditating, I am frightened by their serene smiles, unnerved by their slow, deliberate speech. As for wisdom, I do not know what wisdom is, but it seems to me to be in short supply. Those who claim to have it, as often as not, fail to impress. And every day I can count up one hundred unwise things that I have done.
I am forced to conclude that there is not a single spiritual bone in my body. I lack the requisite faculties to be a Buddhist. I do not have the aspiration. I am inadequate to the task. I am clay, earthbound. If I believed in rebirth, which I do not, I could comfort myself with the thought that this life might be simply a preparatory one, hanging around on the fringes of Buddhism, so to speak, waiting in the hallway so that I might give it a proper shot next time round. But this life, it seems to me, is the only life there is; and thus I cannot draw comfort from this.
Such is the extent of my disillusionment, that I tell myself I should give up. I should put my flirtation with Buddhism behind me. Sometimes I wonder if I have already given up, but the awareness of the fact has not caught up with me yet. But then… most of the mornings of my life, I stumble out of bed, down the corridor and sit upon my cushions to meditate. Why? Perhaps, it occurs to me, this disillusionment is a sign that my Buddhist practice has not been in vain: a sign that it has been working…
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