In Search of A Method

An interesting question arose from yesterday’s Buddhist meeting— is there is a concrete method that we can follow for our cultivation? Before we answer this question, let us clarify the following issues:

1. The goal: What are we really seeking? What is the goal for cultivation? It is absurd to talk about methods unless we know what our goals are.

2. The subject: What is the entity that is seeking? If you say that you are seeking enlightenment, then you must first understand who “you” are.

The first question is relatively easy to answer. Many Buddhists are seeking some kind of inner peace, “genuine happiness,” some kind of freedom from harm, lasting security, enlightenment, Nirvana, etc. These seem to be all worthwhile goals.

But the second question is much more difficult to answer. What is the entity that is seeking? We cannot really talk about the method before we know who or what the subject is.

I brought up the notion of the Anatta(no-self) Friday night. In Buddhist philosophy, the self is an illusion. The “being,” the “person,” or the “individual” in Buddhism is simply the Five Aggregates. But the Five Aggregates are never unstable. They are based on a bundle of conditions that are always changing. Buddhism belongs to what the West calls Process Philosophy. Life is flux. Nothing stays the same. That is the essence of the Three Marks of Existence. It is the Law of Impermanence. If your “self”(the Five Aggregates) is seeking permanent peace or security, then you are seeking a pipe dream. It simply cannot be done.

Having said this, there is a paradox — “you” can arrive at a kind of inner peace as soon as you realize that permanent bliss and lasting security are physically impossible. You realize just how ridiculous that idea is. You begin to laugh at this madness. You realize viscerally that this “self” that seeks protection is an illusion. That is when you give up trying. You surrender to the process, the flux. You make peace with what IS. You accept whatever life may bring. You arrive at a place of deep peace which is based on openness and the embracing of life. Famous psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck, spent some time studying Buddhism. He condensed his understanding of the First Noble Truth as follows, “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.” This is an inverse law. It is the wisdom of insecurity.

So, is there a method? Let me state it carefully. Your “method” is an illusion if you believe that there is a way to protect the “self,” and that there is actually a permanent self to protect. Such a belief will bring more harm than good — because it will strengthen your attachment to ego. Even this notion that there is a self who is the central controller is an illusion. Modern scientists and philosophers have confirmed that such a “controller” is nowhere to be found. This is my main objection to the talk of a “method.” If you believe, for example, that chanting Buddha’s name will allow you to be reborn in the Pure Land after your death, then such thinking will increase your fear of life. When I was giving Dharma talks in the 90s, an elderly lady who practiced chanting asked me, “How can I maintain concentration at the point of death so that I can continue to chant Buddha’s name?” People grasp at a “method” due to a sense of insecurity. But such grasping is a source of suffering.

But, in a sense, there is a “method.” This method is non-attachment. In the practice of non-attachment, there is no fixed formula or recipe. There cannot be written instructions for how to practice non-attachment. The key is just to see that the “self” is an illusion. There is no “you” to hold on to or protect. Such thinking stems from a stubborn bias. Albert Einstein said that “People like us who believe in physics know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” The same can be said that this idea that there is a “self” traveling in time is an illusion.

I would recommend following the Eightfold Path — Right Understanding, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Note here that Right Understanding includes the understanding of no-self and Dependent Origination. And Right Mindfulness includes taking note of the moments when we forget that the “self” is an illusion. The Eightfold Path is a path and a method. But we must understand that it would not shield us from impermanence and the vagaries of life. In fact, this method asks us to recognize the absurdity of such desire!

Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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