CrossCurrents Vo. 52, No. 2, pp. 254-263. Summer 2002.
"The Last Word on Learning Buddhism"
by William R. Stimson
I was at the Sunday morning service at the Ch'an Meditation Center. The speaker lectured on and on as we all sat cross-legged on cushions on the carpet. Individuals to the left of me and to the right moved now and then, rearranging their legs, making themselves comfortable. Because of my early Zen training, I sat all the while erect and still, without moving a single muscle -- deep in a peaceful meditation. I wasn't inattentive to the talk but mainly paid close attention to my own mind. Suddenly, it began to stir.
For that one instant, it was as if I were simultaneously inside and outside time. From the spacious and unperturbed dimension of the meditation, I watched closely as a vast complex came forward to claim me. Because I had been sitting so still for almost an hour already, I was attentive enough to see myself begin to fall into an identification with it. From within the complex, I realized the speaker was really enjoying hearing himself talk and I felt concern he wasn't about to wind down anytime soon and ring the bell. At the same time, I began getting the first unpleasant sensations in my folded legs. From long experience, I knew they were going to start aching unbearably. All this was familiar stuff from my early years meditating and so I recognized the complex was "me." It was me as I existed in time -- my conditioned self.
The arising of this "self" and the identification with it happened almost simultaneously -- that's the conditioning. Being "me" was a habit I had. Had I not been in such an attentive state, I wouldn't have noticed I could equally well do without it.
But I did notice. That's all I did -- nothing else. Immediately, I was free. Like the two wings of a bird, the noticing and the freedom operated in unison. The moment I saw I had begun to fall into an identification with "me," I was immediately free of "me."
I could see with such beautiful clarity that this "me" was not at all central to who or what I was. It was central, though, to the onset of the leg pain. To have let my consciousness be hijacked by it, I perceived in a flash, would have been tantamount to delivering my peaceful meditation into an agonizing bout of endurance. As it was, the pain was stopped dead in its tracks. It had dropped away of its own accord. I sat on for a long time after this, free of pain and immobile in peaceful meditation.
All this happened in the blink of an eye and, in that same blink, I realized it was happening. The realization was like the drop of a pebble in a pond. Ripples spread out in larger and larger circles. They vanished and the surface of the pond was still again. I sat a long time meditating in that stillness. Eventually the speaker did stop. It came as a surprise to me to hear the bell ring. It was as if no time had gone by at all.
I hardly gave the whole thing a second thought. The next morning I almost didn't write it down. It just chanced to spring to mind as I sat at my computer, as I do first thing every morning, and began typing.
Leg pain in sitting meditation is a mental attitude. The feeling "It's impossible. I can't bear it." is an ego feeling. When there is no "I", there is nothing to bear. In contrast, the more self-centered the sitting is, the more painful.
Only as these sentences started pouring down on the page, did it dawn on me: I had experienced the great Buddhist truth: "The source of suffering is the illusion of a separate self." It stunned me to have realized this myself -- on my own. It wasn't some big earth-shattering realization of enlightenment; only a plain everyday observation of the obvious.
I became sensitive, after that experience, to the way the Sunday lectures kept presenting the Buddha's realizations from the outside. Not a single lecture ever gave a view of how it was to experience one of these truths for oneself. In fact, the possibility that this could happen was never entertained. All the lectures presented the Buddha's insights as if they were necessarily foreign to any experience we ourselves could possibly have. The lectures called upon us -- not to experience these truths for ourselves, but to believe them and accept them as truth. In other words, the Buddha's great and timeless realizations had been turned into dogma and were being passed on to us as a belief system.
It seemed wrong to push the Buddha away from us like this and make him larger than life. If the historical Buddha had thought he was special and unlike anyone else, he wouldn't have gone around trying to share his realizations with others. Rather he must have immediately recognized that what he'd experienced of his own nature held true also for all sentient beings. Surely, he saw Buddhas everywhere. The idea was to touch them and spark it to start happening on the inside of those Buddhas like it had in him.
I began to see the Sunday lectures at the Ch'an Center twisted the kinds of simple and profound clarifications I was beginning to have into something cosmically grandiose and impossible for the ordinary mortal to achieve in this lifetime. I got the feeling I was at the wrong end of a long historical progression that had started out with plain insights that were real and immediate -- the kind of realizations that could possibly occur, even if only partially, to some stupid jerk like me in a world like this -- and transformed them into a package for the consumption of the masses. Similarly, the big polluted river that snakes its way like a mudflow through the coastal industrial city started out high in the distant mountains as a pristine stream. When things come into the crowded human world, this happens. They get corrupted.
We realize today what we've done to our rivers and oceans, skies and forests. There are concerted efforts afoot to clean back up what we've sullied. Why not do the same with the spiritual rivers that reach our shores as muddied with popularizations and misrepresentations as our actual rivers are with filth and poisons? If we are to find what is pristine and unpolluted in these traditions, we must go back upstream -- back to what is pure, what is real. "How?" one might ask, "can we do this? We can't travel back in time!"
We can do it because the real river of Buddhism doesn't extend from the life of the historical Buddha 2,500 years ago forward to our time. That's only the river of institutions. That's a business of history and dogma, doctrine and national churches. The real river, like always -- just like it did in the time of the Buddha himself, at the moment of his enlightenment -- extends from the unknown that's deep within us to our realization and experience and then onward into the world in the form of our changed behavior, altered perceptions and different concerns. This is the living river. It is pristine and unsullied so long as we always draw from the source. The source is within us, not somewhere back in history.
The institutions of Buddhism have done a great service to us by bringing us, in as pure and unadulterated a form as possible, the actual fact of the Buddha's enlightenment, as well as a rich array of methods and techniques. We owe them so much!
Their failures are only the failures of institutions everywhere. Institutions survive and accomplish their mission to the extent they can further themselves. Over time they get corrupted so that this comes to be their main goal -- to further themselves. The justification, of course, is that to the extent they do this, they further their mission -- spread the dharma. What happens though is that, as they come increasingly into the world, they have to come, like the river, lower and lower. Repackaged again and again for more and more popular consumption, the dharma gets diluted into dogma. The great truths of enlightenment are reduced to popular religion. What is innate and unfolds from inside of us is pushed onto some great god-like figure of the past whose legacy is tightly held in the keep of the institution and its hierarchy in the form of a creed or orthodoxy that is sacrosanct. These institutions develop, in other words, "institutional egos" which take over and "unenlighten" them. This is what I was beginning to see in the Sunday morning lectures at my beloved Ch'an Meditation Center.
Increasingly I saw that the everyday and ordinary was more real to me than the intellectual ideology of the long Sunday morning lectures. Meditation was beginning to change my life in significant ways. For instance, I was simply walking down the street one day when I espied a bent-over little black woman directly in front of me. The sight of her labored walk suddenly overwhelmed me with a wave of something completely new and different -- the likes of which I'd never felt before. "What is this?" I asked myself, curious and inquiring.
"Compassion," came the immediate answer, as if the Buddha himself had whispered it softly into my ear. I felt compassion at that moment burst forth full-blown, for the first time in my life. So pure, so different, so real it was! To live a life without this: what a sad loss!
The subsequent Sunday, the lecturer at the Ch'an Meditation Center went on and on about how we should "develop a mind of compassion." The lecture did not accord with my own experience. The entreaty to force a compassionate attitude, to impose it upon our experience -- seemed phony to me now. I had seen for myself the real thing doesn't need to be imposed from outside. It arises spontaneously from within, in its own proper time.
Some months later, I was crossing town and came to a street corner. The brilliant sunlight blazed in reflection on an old white stone building illuminating it splendidly. "Thank you!" my heart cried out. "Oh, thank you so much!" I stood there mesmerized and overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude.
This rush of feeling stopped me in my tracks. "Who am I thanking?" I asked myself. It struck me odd and wonderful that I should be so grateful for a simple sunlit building and that this gratitude should touch me so deep. I knew immediately I was thanking life that it could be so beautiful, and that it would expose its splendor so openly to me. I felt grateful to the historical Buddha and his practice of meditation transmitted to me through so many generations of teachers, for giving me the capacity again to be moved deeply and purely by the simple everyday miracle of life on this planet. I felt grateful to the Ch'an Meditation Center for everything that had started happening to me since I began going there.
I was taken aback, though, on a subsequent Sunday at the Ch'an Center, when the lecturer droned on and on about "engendering a mind of gratitude." I sensed those seated around me were hanging on the speaker's every word. I suddenly realized I didn't belong in these lectures. The notion of trying to impose gratitude struck me as absurd and superficial. To consciously control our behavior we have to split in two. One part tries to make the other be something it's not. What can come from this? I thought of the episodes that were beginning to happen to me day in and day out. The difference between what was real and what was fake stood out so pronounced in my mind. Nothing forced or imposed could be as sweet or beautiful as that which arises spontaneously because it is intrinsic and its time has come.
Around this time I came down with the flu. One of the devotees at the meditation center phoned to ask where I'd been. I told her I was sick in bed and at pains to get a good night's rest. The next evening, after I had finally managed to doze off into a deep healing sleep, the phone rang. It was this woman. I tactfully informed her I had at long last managed to get to sleep and her call had woken me. She explained she worked at a restaurant until 11 pm and could only call me after she got off. The next night the same thing happened, and the next night too. Finally I asked bluntly, "Why do you keep calling and waking me up just when I get to sleep? I'm not going to get better if I can't sleep."
"Shi Fu teaches us it is part of the Buddhist practice to call people when they are sick," she lectured, to correct my erroneous view.
"That's not real Buddhism," I blurted without thinking, "When you're just blindly following what somebody tells you to do. You end up doing the opposite of what's right."
I didn't get the feeling my comment was well-received. Next time I ran across the woman, I could see she viewed me as some kind of renegade who dared to question the teaching of the master and the meditation center's "party line."
I attended the Sunday lectures more and more infrequently. Instead, Sunday mornings I started taking my meditation cushion over to the Hudson River and meditating outdoors beside the river, under the open sky. It was a wasteland in those days of wrecked piers and junk-strewn cobblestone. There was one little Ailanthus tree struggling up out of a heap of rubble. But its green branches against the sky beside the mighty river imparted a magic to the place for me. I could understand why Herman Hesse's Siddhartha sat for so long beside his river. One day as I was meditating there, I spotted out of the corner of my eye a figure running and dodging. "Is it some dangerous or deranged derelict?" I wondered; for I was in a very isolated area. There was no one around to call for help. Nevertheless, I didn't look up or move a muscle but continued with my meditation. A few moments later, with the movements of an agile youth running and jumping, the figure came closer and entered my field of vision.
It was a tarpaulin, a square of canvas such as constructions workers used to tie down over a pile of materials. It had gotten lose. The wind gave it life and sent it dancing across the pavement. Momentarily, the brisk gust died down and the tarpaulin collapsed on the ground like the empty thing it was. Then, the wind blew up again and the "ghost" scampered energetically off into the distance -- looking every bit like a human figure on the run.
In the same way my mind made a person of that empty tarpaulin pushed around by the wind, I suddenly saw I created an illusory "myself" from having been blown this way and that through life by larger forces. I saw that the separate and independent self I'd always thought I had was just a fabrication of my own mind.
One of the next times I made it over to the Ch'an Meditation Center, the Sunday morning lecturer talked on and on about how we must "drop the self." Did he really imagine a realization of the illusory nature of the self could be grafted on to our experience by lecturing at us? It seemed so obvious to me it was an intrinsic and natural development that arose from the meditation practice. To each it arrives in its due time, when the requisite conditions are in place. And each person has the realization in his or her own unique way.
I work evenings and used to go out after work for pizza and beer to relax and get sleepy. As I meditated more and more, I didn't need beer to relax. Besides, I didn't want to wake up anymore with a headache in the morning and waste the little bit of precious time I had for writing. I also realized I was spending a lot of money I didn't need to spend -- and I was getting fatter. One night I was about to go out as usual for the beer and pizza and changed my mind. Instead, I sliced up an apple and had it with peanut butter as I prepared a hot cup of chamomile tea. Then I nestled in bed with the tea reading an interesting book. I came upon some profound passage that catapulted me right to sleep and into the most interesting dream. Next morning, my writing was deeper, more rewarding. This whole thing happened spontaneously, again and again. In the end, I stopped going out for beer and pizza altogether. "How much richer," I marveled, "to stop drinking this way than to just do it because I was told to obey some outside 'precept'!" I began to feel the lectures on precepts at the Ch'an Center had gotten it backwards. My resolve not to drink didn't come from making a vow but arose spontaneously from within as part of the gradual and organic unfolding of my intrinsic nature. It seemed obvious to me the precepts presented a picture of those traits which arose like this of their own accord in a mind purifying itself. They were not rules to be followed but a depiction of what actually happened to one naturally as a result of meditation. Looked at this way, the vows to maintain these precepts took on new meaning for me. I saw them as promises not to betray my own true nature. Many a time I slipped up and many a time the vows came to my assistance. And so even the vows themselves came into play on their own. I never imposed them on myself as the lecturer instructed.
That which comes from within like this is its own reward. No mention is made of this in the lectures at the meditation center. Instead there is much talk of "building up merit." I don't need to think of "building up merit." I'm not interested in amassing a bank account for some future lifetime. Doing the right thing is scintillating and enlivening in its immediate and beautiful effect. The lectures instruct us that we should transfer our merit to others. I don't need to "transfer the merit" to other people. The moment I do something right, everyone around me benefits from the enhancement of life in me. Just by being real I do more good than I could ever possibly do by trying. That bent over little black woman on the street -- she gave me to feel compassion. She didn't do it by a long lecture but just by being herself. I wonder how many other people she liberated. I doubt she'd ever heard the word "Buddhism." This is the way it works. This is the way it's real to me now. I stopped going to the Sunday lectures altogether.
I'm guessing it all started out right many hundreds of years ago and that the original Ch'an Buddhist teachers in ancient China didn't harangue their disciples about what they should do but instead gave them a beautiful picture of what happens in the enlightenment process. Instead of foisting upon them doctrinal objectives to be imposed on their behavior, I'm supposing these masters of old shared with their students a realization of the kinds of things which unfold naturally in them as they make their way along this path of inner development. As Ch'an Buddhism became acceptable to the intellectual establishment of those times and eventually to the power elite, money started pouring in for bigger and bigger temples and monastic centers. We can see the same happening in American today. And so we can supposed that, like it is doing today in America, in ancient China Ch'an Buddhism got off track somewhere along the way. What was real started getting turned into a church. What was wisdom became preaching.
I feel "taught Buddhism" sadly misses the essence and substitutes something fake for what is real. What everybody is sitting at the Ch'an Center Sunday mornings striving so hard to glean from the lectures are subtle and evanescent states of mind they themselves have certainly experienced on many occasions without even realizing it. They don't have to learn how to get enlightened. They only have to pause and grow still enough in meditation to notice what's already there inside them -- that beautiful symphony drowned out by the din of noisy conditioned ways. The truth plays in their bones. It dances in their gut. It runs in their blood. Meditation brings them to the river where they are part of the same flow as everything around. Without words, it teaches. By drowning out what's lesser, which can't sustain itself in silence, it takes hold -- until which point it bursts out like flowers in their path. Wherever they walk, it blooms and they gain that exquisite delight of being inside the miracle. When it happens it is so simple, so immediate, and so direct. It doesn't seem like a big thing! It's just rudimentary, basic, fundamental, ordinary. Above all, it's practical! It works: that day when I had the realization about suffering and self, my legs were understandably sore when I unfolded them at the end of the two-hour lecture and stood up, but while I was sitting I was not in pain.
Buddhism, in my experience, is a creative endeavor. It has to do with the discovery of reality. To discover reality I have to re-invent myself in such a way that I am true. Being true, I can see truth. Thus when my core is enlightened, even a little bit, my ego goes dancing in its wind, like the tarpaulin down by the river. The innate joy of this dance from the authentic beauty within is so powerful and so real, and so much more compelling than anything else the world has to offer, that my ego doesn't need outside incentive. It desires with its whole little deluded heart to make itself transparent in every way to that which occasionally shines through it. Like a stained glass window, it delights when the light blazes through, making its true colors show -- because this is when it's most truly itself: when it lets the light through. It wants not itself, but that which comes through to do the magic. It vanishes before this with savor and with relish. Not because it was counter-conditioned by some imposed religious belief system, but because it has come to taste the delight of a sensuous abandon to the unconditioned, and the unconditional. Freedom is its own reward!
It seemed to me that to try to "learn" Buddhism in the way a student learns engineering or dentistry involves displacing the source of what is real onto the institution and its hierarchy. It's not my experience that Buddhism is primarily a matter of intellectual endeavor. My friend Nancy Joyce and I formed a Saturday meditation group -- free and open to anybody. The Ch'an Center graciously allowed us the use of its second floor meditation hall and now schedules us in almost every Saturday. Over the years that our Saturday group has been in existence, I have witnessed a remarkable transformation in those who attend on a regular basis for the all-day sittings. Nancy says she can see the same transformation in me and I can definitely see it in her. I feel that in our own small but significant way we have played a role in the reclamation of Buddhism's purest stream -- we who know nothing and are just ordinary people. Buddhism's highest power is when it becomes small and everyday and enters into the trickle of life.
For me, Buddhism is about my deepest and most innate nature. It isn't in the keep of the Ch'an Meditation Center or any other institution or belief system. The enlightened master doesn't have it. Buddha himself didn't have it. There's no place to go and get it because it's not some place else. It never left me. It's right inside what I am. I have only to go there deeply to find it. Meditation provides the conditions for it to emerge in the spontaneous and creative way that's most real.
The legalistic following of rules is too surfacy, too superficial -- ultimately it's fake. A much more profoundly rooted code of behavior and action arises naturally from the direct realizations that come while seated quietly in deep stillness. This code refines itself progressively as the realization deepens with further meditative practice. Daily life increasingly comes into focus as a primary form of practice.
To sit in quiet meditation. To notice the most self-evident truths. To delight in the spontaneous change in everyday behavior. To live more and more of life out of truth because such living is so much more deeply rewarding and beneficial. This is a Buddhism that for me is real.
There is a joy in reading and studying and attending informative lectures. The language of Buddhism is a delight -- a poetry that speaks the deepest truths about being. The heart's most profound currents are reflected in the texts and commentaries of the great and accomplished masters. None of this need have anything to do with indoctrination into a creed or climbing up through an institutional hierarchy.
Buddhism, for me, is not about climbing up and getting big but going down -- opening progressively down to a deeper level of existence. Becoming small. If anything, it entails shedding belief systems, layer by layer, that have nothing whatsoever to do with reality.
On his deathbed, the Buddha summed it all up nicely. He didn't say anything about imposing rules and codes of behavior on oneself or buying into belief systems. He simply admonished his disciples to be true. His dying words: "Be a light unto yourselves." To my mind, after some 2,500 years, this is still the last word on learning Buddhism.