Tuesday January 3, 2006
A couple of nights ago, I was talking to a friend of mine on the telephone about what it means to practise the dharma, not in a general sense – because nobody practises the dharma in a general sense – but in the particular. Not what is it to practise the dharma? but what is it for me to practise the dharma? Because there are no off-the-peg solutions in this old game. The path is obscure. It does not lie open and inviting before us. We open the path by walking the path. Stephen Batchelor, in his excellent Living With the Devil points out that the Sanskrit noun pratipad (path) shares a root with the verb pratipadyate, which literally means “he or she paths”. (Stephen Batchelor Living With the Devil Riverhead Books 2004, 72) And because nobody else has precisely stood here, at this time and in this place with just this past and these passions and dreams and quirks and peculiarities, we are compelled to tread the path in a fashion that is uniquely our own.
The absence of off-the-peg solutions means that we ourselves are responsible for rediscovering this path for ourselves. And none of us are going to do this in exactly the same fashion. But in the face of this demand, we are often insecure. We want somebody else to tell us what to do, to take away the burden of having to find our own way. We start to compare ourselves with others, to condemn those who do not do things our way, or to berate ourselves because after ten years of practice we still haven’t rid ourselves of our worldly attachments and become monks or nuns or hermits in living in the bushes in the city park and begging for food.
In certain Buddhist texts, all comparisons of oneself with others are considered as manifestations of pride. For example, I think it was Tsongkhapa (correct me if I am wrong, you scholars out there) who claimed that there were three kinds of pride:
- The pride of thinking “I am better than others.”
- The pride of thinking “I am equal to others.”
- The pride of thinking “I am worse than others.”
How often does this happen in the meditation hall – we look over our shoulders and make judgements about our fellow meditators. This person is slumped. Look at them! So amateurish! They don’t even have a proper meditation stool, but have piled up a bunch of old cushions into a precarious ziggurat. But what about the other person to our right? The one wearing a sublime expression? They’re doing well. They might even be half way to awakening for all we know. The bastard! And so on… All these judgements are a form of self-reference, an obsession with our standing relative to others; and this continual self-reference, this ahamkara or “I-making”, weaving ideas about our selves and others, is exhausting. But still we persist with it, exhausting ourselves in the process.
This obsession with comparison reminds me of Heidegger. I came across Heidegger some eight years ago. I was living in a Buddhist community in Newcastle at the time, and had only a passing interest in philosophy. Externally at least, I had a relatively simple existence in those days, with a tiny room and a few books, a low desk where I would sit cross-legged to write and to read in the evenings. I found Being and Time in a bookshop in North Shields and my curiosity was provoked, so I bought it spent evening after evening reading the entire thing, scribbling notes in the margins with a pencil. I remember reading in particular about the very question that Tsongkhapa addresses: the comparison of oneself with others. Heidegger describes how we are subject to a:
…constant care as to the way one differs from [others], whether that difference is merely one that is to be evened out, whether one… has lagged behind the others and wants to catch up in relationship to them, or whether one… already has some priority over them and sets out to keep them suppressed. (Being and Time Section 27, p. 163ff in the Macquarrie & Robinson translation)
For Heidegger, the fact that we find ourselves in this world alongside others is fundamental, and does not depend upon the actual presence of anyone else. Even a shipwrecked sailor alone on an island is, in Heidegger’s sense, with others: he is perhaps both tormented and comforted by the memories of friends and family, he finds that the inanimate objects around him seem to take on human life, he scans the horizon for the funnels of ships or the skies for the dark specks of light aircraft, he is immersed in an irreducible sociality arising from the fact that the poor unfortunate sailor, abandoned there on his island, is human.
On account of this inescable fact that we are here with others, we find ourselves under the sway of forces that we don’t even understand – public opinion, the drip-feed or torrent of the mass-media, the conditions of our upbringing, the books that we read, the relationships we forge with others. We cannot absolve ourselves entirely from all these networks of relationship, because it is our nature to be thus entangled. Instead we must find a path which is not merely formed in opposition to others, nor one that is formed in conformity with others, but that is our own. It seems to me that it is at precisely these moments – when we are moving through the world free of thoughts of conformity and of opposition – that we notice that we are truly treading the path.
Whatever our views, desires, hopes, aspirations, fears, they will always be our own and nobody else’s. Whatever our approach to Buddhism, for it to be truly effective it will have to be born not from some abstract ideal, but out of an attentiveness to the world, to others and to the obscure promptings of our own hearts. This, it seems to me, is how the path may be best trod: resisting as far as possible the temptation to fall into the laziness of dogmatic systems and glib judgements; moving forward into the dark one step at a time with the understanding that we do not really know where we are going; guarding the aspiration to tread with as much kindness and thoughtfulness as we can muster, for as long as our breath may last.
I am reminded of the Buddha’s final words: “All component things in the world are changeable. They are not lasting. Work hard to gain your own liberation”.
Changeable, not lasting, in this short space between birth and death: this is the work of practice.
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