Notes on ‘The Spirituality of Imperfection’ – second dhamma talk in the 2011 Dhamma Talk Series: The Dance of Emptiness.
Talks kindly hosted by the Dance Centre, School of Performing Arts, Sukhumvit 24, Bangkok.
Below are notes, quotes, links – in case anyone who listened to the talk would like to follow up on any of the topics. It is not a transcript of the whole talk. The video will become available one day, when we get the hang of video editing software….
Topic of this talk:
The Spirituality of Imperfection (or Dropping Hot Coals)
Despite your best intentions, and harshest criticisms of others, you are no Saint. Where religion demands you be perfect, spirituality knows you are not. Where your highest aspiration makes you sit on the cushion, your raging mind will give you no peace. This is the spirituality of imperfection, and the long patient battle to tame the mind.
‘Attachment causes suffering’ makes no sense in worldly terms, but like most spiritual laws, makes perfect sense when it is viewed inwardly. The Suffering of imperfection is the compass to change, and the foundation teaching of Buddhism.
The audiences for these dhamma talks come from all walks. Some know a lot about Buddhism, and want specifics, and deeper teachings. Some are totally new to Buddhism. Some have an interest in yoga or martial arts. Others just want to find out a little about the Buddhism that is the basis of so much Thai culture. Some want something easy and entertaining, where others want hard core Buddhism. So the talks aim to be light, easy to follow, but much more specific and methodical than other speakers provide on occasional visits to Bangkok.
Recap: All these teachings of Buddhism (and other meditation lineages) are there to help you to empty out.
The first thing that has to go is your concepts – you have to learn how to put aside your presumptions and take a new look, from the angle of meditation rather than through your preconceptions. Emptiness is there when the conscious mind is not moving – even if the body is moving via the unconscious and you are performing an action [a point still open to debate if anyone would like to chime in]. This is being in the ‘zone’ that many athletes and other performing artists speak of. Since most of the time the conscious mind is engaged with its concepts, this is the first set of things that has to be put on hold.
Naturally, you must maintain your wisdom. Putting concepts on hold does not mean you give up your discernment, intelligence or common sense. Just the opposite. The Buddha often said ‘Don’t take my word for it, only if you have carefully examined, tested and worked through these teachings, should you accept them’.
Concepts are very stubborn – so much so it is hard to imagine any way of being without them. Luckily for meditation, you don’t have to be without them so much, as change your object of focus onto mindfulness, which is your tool for understanding that is ‘other’ than concepts. Your conceptual thinking will come under the gaze of mindfulness.
Walter Freeman is one example of how ideas and concepts can be persistent, even when damaging. He performed 3500 lobotomies, despite many instances, including Rosemary Kennedy, wife of the former president, of creating zombie-like brain damage.
One thing you will note about the thinking mind if you do meditation, is that it is out of control. You sit and tell your ‘self’ to watch the breath and relax. But your mind has other ideas, and will follow your instruction for about 15 seconds. Then it is off on its own venture. So who is in control of the mind? If you are not in control, does it control you? Is it a good master?
On the Hero’s Journey, which is a universal account of the journey inward of self discovery – not of the ‘taking a year in Asia to find yourself’ kind of discovery, but of directly travelling inward to see what the mind itself is like, there are certain motifs. These are story elements that are common to good faerie tales. They are rearranged in various ways, but follow patterns easily discernible. These familiar story elements are practically universal elements that Jung called ‘archetypes’. Below is an amusing graphic showing some of the more common ones used in Hollywood:
One part of the story is the Impossible Task. Snow White had one, Rapunzel, Skywalker, Hercules … and so do we – conquering your own superficial nature (as opposed to root nature) is an impossible task for any normal soul. Therefore, we need a weapon.
In story the weapon is often something that normal people would overlook. Jack got 5 magic beans for his family cow. Rapunzel had her hair, Samson beat 1000 Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey.
The meaning is this: there is a simple, seemingly innocent part of your experience that is overlooked. Using this is the weapon that will allow you complete the impossible task. In our case, it is mindfulness.
As you sit and try to be mindful you will notice that at some times you know what you are doing/feeling. Most of the time you are ‘lost’ or ‘caught up in’ the activity, be it thinking, hearing, feeling etc… The knowing and the ‘lostness’ become distinct after a period of practise – usually slowly after a number of years. The knowing, the mindfulness, becomes an object in itself, independent of what is known. The mind is turning back on itself. Eventually, we are assured, mind-knowing-mind is the state of enlightenment which makes itself known at the appropriate time.
Religion vs Spirituality
If you get accustomed to turning mindfulness back in upon the mind, the first thing you become aware of is Dukkha – suffering. It is not so pleasant in there. The mind is jumping about and there is no stability, no refuge. If you start to see this you are in the realm of spirituality.
This is the Religion of Idealogy vs the Spirituality of Imperfection.
The religion of idealogoy takes dogmatic view points, clings to unjustified beliefs, and tries to put these on other people. Buddhists are just as much prone to this as other religions. People read texts or listen to certain teachers and become convinced they are right – which immediately raises the opposite pole of any construct (if you looked at the ‘constructs’ link from the 1st talk in this series you will know that a conceptual construct always carries its opposite pole with it). The opposite pole to ‘I am right’ is ‘others are wrong’.
The spirituality of imperfection however, starts from a different standpoint. You know you are wrong. You know you have not got it figured out because you are suffering – the mind is out of control. What use are dogmatic views when you can see the basic instability of the mind, when you can see it as something that controls you.
One saying in the AA is
Religion is for those who are afraid of going to Hell, where spirituality is for those who have already been.
So mindfulness is a practise. You start by learning, trying, failing, starting again. Like any sport or art that can transport people in the ‘zone’, you have to put in the hours of practise. No dancer, martial artist, sportsman … will hit the spot of spontaneous action in silence, without putting in the hours of conscious practise.
You are starting at one point, and have some inkling of the goal. What lies inbetween is called ‘STORY‘
Some Buddhist schools, and other lineages of Enlightenment such as the Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadata, Krishnamurti kinds of teaching say there is nothing to get, no where to go, you are already enlightened. From the standpoint of someone enlightened, this is true. Nothing you can change, is Enlightenment. Yet these great teachers are not quite correct. The Buddha specifically stated that there are things you can do. There is a destination. There is a WAY (magga) of PRACTISE (bhavana). This is the difference between an enlightened person, and a Buddha :- the latter is able to point out the way.
It is something of a technical point amongst certain styles of teaching however, for those experienced with different teachings.
You won’t get far into your study of Buddhism without coming across this term. Dukkha. Suffering.
Actually ‘suffering’ is not the best translation. There are other words that might be better – such as one common translation ‘stress’. Not in the ‘stressed out’ sense, but in the load bearing sense of a big bridge – it is under load the whole time, a kind of pressure to break. The bridge may stand for a thousand years, but it is still under a load – just like Dukkha might not be of the kind to break you, but if you look at the mind, there is an undoubted pressure, a motivation to action, a seeking for something more.
Dis-ease, conflict, unsatisfactoriness – are other terms. The uneasy, unsteady, wavering are good terms as they juxtapose the description of Enlightenment as Unwavering, Unshakable, Immutable.
Perhaps the best English term is Disquiet
One description of Dukkha in Buddhism is the suffering of pain, of change and of mindstates. Here we’ll skip through them quickly due to time constraints on the talk.
The first is Dukkha Dukkhata – the suffering of suffering. It has 2 kinds: bodily and mental.
Bodily pain is a given – even the Buddha had an aching back. Many teachings show how to use physical pain for spiritual development.
Mental pain is given as ‘pain, sorrow, lamentation, grief and despair’ of the mind. You can add/subtract terms – the meaning is pretty clear. (Salla Sutta speaks of each of these terms)
One famous metaphor in Buddhism is being hit by two arrows. If after the being hit by one arrow you take another – you are being foolish. So too if the first arrow of bodily suffering arises, you do not compound it with a second arrow which is mental suffering. Easy to say huh? The full Sutta is here if you are keen on the original text.
This is the suffering that comes from change.
While ‘all things change’ is a Buddhist teaching well known, it is rarely understood. You can ask So What? It does not seem like a teaching to base a religion on.
We have the story of Anuruddha as an example – he wanted to stay at home while his relatives went to ordain and look after their cousin – now the Buddha. When it was pointed out that there will never be any rest for a householder, Anuruddha decided to ordain and leave his relatives to look after the land.
If you have ever given your house a spring clean-to-end-all-cleans you will know that it just needs doing again. The changing nature of all things is a burden, though of a more subtle kind than the Dukkha Dukkhata.
The change of the world and the body is easy to see, but the change of the mind is very difficult to see.
Just as a monkey faring through the woods, through the great forest catches hold of a bough, letting it go seizes another, even so that which we call thought, mind, consciousness, that arises as one thing, ceases as another both by day and by night. S II95
In meditation you pay specific attention to the changing nature of the mind, which produces insight. (topic for another talk!). This is really something to base a religion on – it is quite a revelation when you see directly the instability of the mind.
This is translated as ‘all pervasive suffering’ in the Tibetan tradition. But the original is much more specific than that. Sankhara means ‘mind-states’. Your mind is constrained or liberated, in greed, hate or delusion, is bright or dull, concentrated or scattered … and many more ‘states’. The insight is that even if you really settle in meditation, there is an underground wavering, shaking. This is what St Teresa D’Avila called the ‘pain of just being’. Simply that you are, is a kind of Dukkha.
It is easy to ignore – just think about something else. But to some people, very few in fact, this is not good enough. The Buddha said there are two kinds of fool – one who shoulders a burden he should not, and one who does not shoulder a burden he should. This particular insight, only seen by those who really hit quiet still states in meditation, is the motivator – Samvega in the Pali, meaning to shake, to stir to action.
The talk is one hour long already, and so cut short here. The above 3 kinds of suffering deserve to be treated in more detail – they are interesting in their own right.
In the mean time you can see that this teaching is also designed to lead one to emptying out. Here’s a catch phrase – ‘Empty out – don’t figure out!’
A moth flies into a candle flame for good reason. They navigate by the light of the moon. As they fly so they check their position by the moon. If the position changes, they adjust. When they take a candle flame for the moon it seems to move in relation to them – so they adjust, and end up in the flame. The Buddha used this as an analogy for beings who have the wrong thing as their guiding light. They rush headlong into Dukkha.
Rushing headlong, missing what is essential,
bringing on one new bond after another,
some are intent only on what’s seen & heard–
like moths flying into the flame.
If even the subtle movement of the mind only seen by a meditator is also a kind of suffering – there is no where left to go. We are back with the Zen koan – if a man sits atop a 100 foot pole, how does he proceed?