This essay is dated February 7, 2006. I turned it in as a piece of Creative Non-Fiction for my introductory creative writing class. The idea was to introduce the basic concepts of Buddhist thought to someone entirely unfamiliar. I'll keep working on it...
It seems that suffering is inherent in the human experience. Search the world over and you will not find one example of a person who has not felt mental anguish or physical discomfort. The human condition is undeniably unsatisfactory. This is the root of our devotion to religions the world over. Our undying belief in a more perfect form of existence is the driving force behind all forms of faith and worship.
This painful premise is not meant to sound depressing, for indeed there are great joys involved in the human experience as well. However, it is a blind man who denies the staggering anguish of man on both the personal and global level. With the help of thousands of years of Buddhist meditation and self-inquiry, i will try to reason through the causes of this suffering and how it is possible to put a stop to it all.
On the most basic level, birth is the cause of suffering. Birth is the initiation of a cycle that inevitably ends in death. Life typically begins in a mostly pleasant manner, as we are young and of able body and mind. However as our lives progress our faculties deteriorate. We grow old and are more prone to illness, and our physical abilities slowly stiffen. Throughout our lives we are subject to any number of discomforts: bones and hearts broken, insecurity and indecision, toil and trouble. At the end of our lives, we die and impose even more suffering upon those who have loved us. All this grief is rooted in the fact that we are born, for if we were enlightened enough never to have been born, we would easily avoid the nuisance of this physical existence.
So, in order to achieve the cessation of suffering, we need to learn how not to be born in the first place. Easier said than done, it would seem. In the Buddhist tradition, reincarnation is accepted as fact. The general idea being that, at the time of death, the soul (a purely cerebral existence that can be best conceptualized as similar to a sound or light wave) abandons the failing body and enters the realm of existence referred to as the Bardo, the state between life and death.
Moving at the speed of thought, we travel in this realm for what is commonly understood to be about 49 days. During this time, our experiences are extraordinarily vivid and intense, ranging from the serene to the terrifying. As a result of these experiences, the soul craves to re-establish its former self, to re-affirm its existence in physical form, therefore putting an end to the possibly confusing and chaotic state of the Bardo. Thus, the soul seeks out a suitable situation and takes refuge in a fertilized egg.
While this may sound like nothing more than an imaginative after-death story, it is not altogether unfounded. Through advanced meditation techniques, some practitioners have been able to, on some level, recreate the experience of death and infer many other details. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a canonical Buddhist text that describes the Bardo experience, providing advice on how one might achieve liberation from this state, as well as how the living are able to assist the deceased in this process.
In fact, there are many documented cases where people have distinct and confirmed recollections of people and events in their previous lives (google it, trust me). Thus, reincarnation is the only after-death theory with any evidence supporting it.
Getting back on track, it seems that the cause of (re)birth is our attachment to the familiarity of the physical world, as our discomfort in the Bardo leads us to desire for rebirth back in physical form. Throughout our lives we develop a strong attachment to our physical selves. We define ourselves with our bodies, our physical form, and as a result become scared and disoriented when we enter the Bardo, where our consciousness is the only pervading proof of our 'existence'.
Our overwhelming desire to prove that we exist is what leads us to rebirth, and thus into the cycle of suffering once again. There must be a way to prepare for this purely mental existence while still housed (imprisoned) in our physical bodies. This leads us to the central practice of Buddhism, which is of course, meditation.
The practice of meditation is in the spirit of awakening from confusion by working on one’s own mind. Meditation is not a form of hypnosis. It is not an escape from the world; it doesn’t involve any crazy mind tricks. Meditation is preparation to enter the world and deal with the temptations and discomfort in the best way possible. Meditation is inward focus. It is a practice of cleansing the mind and purifying perspective.
The goal is to clear the mind of thought, to set your attention simply in the moment, focusing the mind on bodily sensations that arise and fall from one moment to the next. A twitch in the leg, an itch above the eye, a distracting thought. The practice is to objectively observe these changes as they appear and as they pass. To avoid scratching an itch with stubborn will-power is to miss the point. The goal is to observe the itch as evidence of impermanence, for the itch will come but it will soon go away again. The same is true of intruding thoughts. They will come knocking, trying to disrupt concentration and again, the practice is to observe these thoughts objectively as they come and eventually go. The meditator is not to worry about the content of these thoughts, only to observe them as they are, recognize them as extrinsic to one's self and allow them to flow through, in one ear and out the other, as they say.
It takes discipline to avoid indulging these thoughts, following them where they may lead. However, when you catch yourself wandering down a distracted path, simply return your attention to the breath and concentrate on the moment.
Switching gears, i try to guide, remembering how i was guided by others...
Watch your breath. Breathe slow and deep, through your nose. Do not grasp for control, just observe the rhythm of your breathing. If your breath is short and shallow, observe, and know that your breath is short and shallow. As it becomes slow, and deep (and it will, naturally), observe, and know that your breath is slow and deep. Proper breathing technique requires activation of the belly (lower lungs, really). As you breath in, your belly ought to pudge out a bit beyond the sternum. As you begin to get in rhythm, it sometimes helps to push your exhalation just a second or two longer. This will empty more air out of your lungs, and naturally make your inhalation longer, smoother.
Be sure not to ignore the natural stoppage that occurs at the juncture between inhalation and exhalation. This is part of a full breath, and should be observed as carefully as the rest of the process.
The breath is the gateway between the conscious and subconscious worlds, a swinging door, as it were. We breathe constantly, without having to think about it, and yet we are able to manipulate it if we choose. By focusing on breath, not controlling, just watching, we unite the conscious and the unconscious, thus eliminating the illusory duality of the mind, and making progress towards literally 'becoming one'. Focusing inwards, concentrating on breath and the 6 sense doors (audio, visual, touch, smell, taste and consciousness, which ties them all together), one becomes calm. Relaxation of the body and mind overwhelms. Confusion and doubts dissipate. Worries wane as one develops mindfulness of the world as it is. Understanding and accepting and loving the world as it is is the ultimate Wisdom.
The only constant is change itself. The universe is perpetually impermanent; reborn from moment to moment. Focus on this Truth liberates both the body and mind. When one experiences pain, getting burnt for example, one should know that the discomfort will pass, and is already passing. Simply observe the sensation and how it never stands still. In each moment it is slightly different, more intense or fading, stinging or numb. Physical suffering will cease with recognition that it is not a personal phenomenon. The nerve endings react and send messages to your brain. This is the impersonal, cause-and-effect law of the universe in action. Thus, it is up to you how you interpret any and all sensory messages.
Meditation is calming because it is active practice in delaying the time between stimulus and response, and that is exactly what must happen in order to objectify and observe physical discomfort. The ability to separate yourself from the personal experience of pain and observe it objectively as phenomena of the physical world takes practice and concentration.
The same is true of pleasurable moments. Someone pays a compliment and the first reaction is to feel pride and importance. But one must know that this too will pass. That is not to say that one must reject the kindness of others. It is to say that you are who you are regardless of other people’s perceptions. It is to understand that the words and actions of others have no affect on your true self, because their words and actions are simply the manifestation of their state of mind at that time.
Wisdom of this kind demands unconditional love of self. Different from ego, loving oneself is the only way to truly love anyone else. All hatred or anger directed outward is simply a reflection of an equal amount of hatred or anger directed inward, towards oneself. If you truly and totally love yourself, you will have no reason to strike out at others, for there is nothing they can say or do that can interfere with who you are, as you are. If you truly love yourself, inevitably you will love others as well, for you will see yourself in them. The same basic fear, discomforting confusion and insecurity exists (in one form or another) in all of us. It is the human condition. Thus, the wise individual will understand the cause of any despicable act, and have compassion, knowing it to be a result of cosmic ignorance and endless human misunderstanding.
Hatred cannot be conquered by more hatred. Kindness is the only force that can counteract hate. Think about Unlimited Friendliness. Imagine being so comfortable in your existence, that you would respond to any vicious attack with a compassionate, unperturbed smile (this is the picture of the Buddha). The pre-requisite is the understanding of self (and the emptiness there-of), and this is most effectively developed in meditation.
Think about Sympathetic Joy. To find joy in the happiness of others is truly divine. Meditate on that for a minute, or two. I'll have more to say here at some point i'm sure...
So, do not fear pain, for it will come but soon go. Do not revel in pleasure, for it too will come and also soon go. This is the correct understanding.
Do I need smooth transitions in a blog? I say no...
It is commonly known that Buddhist monks deny personal possessions, keeping only the simplest necessities for a healthy life. This is called Renunciation, where the monks renounce the physical world and all its treasures as a result of their commitment to the precepts of their faith. It is the firm understanding of impermanence that makes this process joyful. Material things are burdensome. The more stuff you've got, the more you've got to get attached to, the more you'll suffer when it fades away / is taken from you. The opposite is that, the less you want, the more you've got... meaning you are better able to recognize and appreciate the wondrous and infinite blessings inherent in human life, the obvious joy that is there for all to witness and participate in if only we are able to push the clouds aside and see the en-light-enment, as it were. It makes sense, if ya think about it.
Obviously renunciation runs counter-intuitive to our western, capitalist ideology, which preaches that only a fool would gleefully re-distribute all the wealth we worked so hard (enslaved so many people) to earn. However with sufficient wisdom, one realizes that riches and possessions are mere distractions, crowding the mind with the desire for more. Renunciation applies to people as well as things. Attachment to any person or place leads only to suffering in their absence. One must find refuge within oneself, for that is the only place true peace can be found. Taking comfort in others is a temporary and illusory solution to the complications of human existence.
This may sound quite cold-hearted and desolate, arguing for isolation and rejection of everything life has to offer. First of all, there is intense joy found in solitude. I highly recommend trying it. But in fact, renunciation is not cold-hearted in the least. Renunciation is not denial, or hatred of people and things; it is the acceptance that they go away. It is to see their true beauty anew in each passing moment. It is to see and appreciate them exactly as they are at that exact point in time. Seems to me that this would be the only reasonable definition of Love. From this perspective, cravings and desires subside and the mind is free to relish the world and everything in it precisely as it is, which of course is the only way it could be. This is the correct understanding.
OK for now.