Pathfinding

Tuesday January 3, 2006

Path

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:

  1. The pride of thinking “I am better than others.”
  2. The pride of thinking “I am equal to others.”
  3. 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.

Tags: , , , ,
 
#1 · Chadie

4 January 2006

That we compare us with other in all parts of life, is not that one of the reasons for illusions? Or one thing that follows of our illusions of life?

I think so, sometimes.

I try to teach myself to realise that we all, everyone, is part of the same thing. And thats why we not are similar.

But it is so easy to fell in to compare with other. So easy.

#2 · Jayarava

4 January 2006

I like this piece. It’s something that is constantly going on in my head and I’m often unaware of it. So it’s good to be reminded. It makes connecting empathically with people very difficult.

Your desciption of meditating with this going on reminds me of a Dharma the Cat cartoon. The novice is sitting in the Zendo… he sits… then a little thought bubble appears… “mind and body completely dropped away… soon I will be the most advanced novice in the monastry” I’ve looked for the one but can’t find it – episode 27 is also relevant though.

The pride = comparison thing goes way back. I’m sure I’ve seen it in the Pali texts.

#3 · Will

4 January 2006

Thanks for your comments folks. Can you think of a particular place in the Pali texts where pride is discussed in these terms, Jayarava? It has been one of those things that has been going round and round my head for years, but when it comes to finding a reference for it, I’m stumped…

W :-)

#4 · Nacho

4 January 2006

Will, an outstanding piece, thank you. The issue of comparison and pride/ego building also resonates, but for me it rings from some Zen corner. The idea that putting ourselves down is as much a matter of feeding the ego as anything else.

In any case, this is a really on the spot post, and we speak often about how our practice to dismantle the ego is broad, but it is indeed so easy to forget that the ego works overtime and in all ways possible.

Thanks Will. I will be bringing this up at sangha.

Best,

N

#5 · Bill Gardner

4 January 2006

Terrific, Will.

By the way, sometimes social comparison works in less harmful ways. For example, people often cope with problems by extending sympathy toward those who are suffering more. “I’m OK, I just had to lose one breast. Think about those poor women who have to lose both breasts.” Comparing yourself with others can sometimes help make you less egocentric.

#6 · Will

4 January 2006

Good point, Bill!
W

#7 · Gareth

4 January 2006

Wonderful piece – I find myself forgetting the first, that we all practice unique dharmas, and doing the second, comparing myself with everyone I meet, all the time..

It’s easy to look for dogmatic answesrs – a page reference for every problem we encounter. But you’re right – they don’t always fit, and so we must find our own way.

Happy New Year!

Best Wishes

~Gareth

#8 · Bill Gardner

4 January 2006

This is just a bit dark… there is the light of others’ personal experience (the Buddha, Dogen, Thoreau…).

#9 · Will

4 January 2006

I agree about the light of others’ experience, but at the same time we must always translate into what this might mean for ourselves. As I’m not Dogen, the Buddha or Thoreau (or wasn’t the last time I checked), it is a matter of firstly reflecting on their experiences, and secondly of asking “what might this mean for me, here and now…?”

All the best,

Will

#10 · Nacho

5 January 2006

Bill, thanks for adding that very salient point about how some self-discounting might be important to practice. No doubt.

We’ll always be doing comparisons of the self—that’s how the self is constituted and survives. Hence, self-concept is always based on how we see ourselves reflected, and how we imagine ourselves, and imagine how others see us, etc. But, the nitty gritty seems to be in how we can manage this constant flood of material to sustain the “self” needed for conscious awareness—without letting it get out of control. Mindfulness practice at least allows us to pay close attention to this process! : )

Thanks folks,

N

#11 · Bill Gardner

5 January 2006

Will and all,
My points above are just quibbles. I think Will points at something essential. I would say that the key problem is desire for positional goods, and self-definition in terms of such goods, rather than social comparison per se (see http://eternalpeace.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/01/the_self_and_de.html).

(Will, can you enable Trackbacks on this site?)

#12 · Will

5 January 2006

Hi, Bill,

Thanks for the clarification, which is very useful. It has got me thinking… and I’ve posted a reply on your blog.

Trackbacks… unfortunately Textpattern, which this site uses, doesn’t do them, and although there are plugins, I hear that there are potential spam problems with these.

All the best,

Will

#13 · Tom

5 January 2006

A wonderful post and comment thread.

I am thinking that the effort is mainly one of converting the idea of not being prideful to one of making our thinking process, rather automatically, one of not making judgmental comparisons that are ego enhansing.

But I do disagree with Bill’s idea. I tend to think finding a worse-off person is just more judgmental comparing, evoking pity and putting us in a mind to always find someone we rank above.

We should not mistake pity for compassion.

#14 · Bill Gardner

6 January 2006

Tom,
“But I do disagree with Bill’s idea. I tend to think finding a worse-off person is just more judgmental comparing, evoking pity and putting us in a mind to always find someone we rank above. We should not mistake pity for compassion.”

I think you are right about pity. However, I think that what the cancer patient in my anecdote (real data, by the way) is doing is trying to escape self-pity rather than rank herself above another. One of the really amazing things about the human response to disease is how well most people adapt. Disease and disability do not predict happiness as well as one imagines that they should. I think the patient in question is trying to appreciate the value of her own life. That said, there may be a better way to find that value.

#15 · Jayarava

10 January 2006

Hi Will, You could start with http://www.accesstoinsight.org/index-subject.html#mana

Maana is the Pali term for conceit, although this does seem to be more about the conceit “I am” rather than the comparisons that you mentioned. I’ll keep looking.

Regards
Jayarava

Comments are turned off for this article.