|April 1995||2538||Number 32|
Practice as Process
We spend a lot of time measuring our practice by comparing ourselves to other people. You know: are they more progressed than we are? Are we less progressed? We go around and around with this idea of trying to measure progress or our growth in practice. It's something which we have to investigate and watch, because we go to extremes of getting caught up in trying to decide what is progress; and then going to the other extreme of saying we shouldn't really think about progress, we should just not bother to consider what progress is.
This is one of the things I found when I was travelling through the United States, reading an article on Buddhist practice and finding out that there is less and less emphasis on enlightenment. People don't want to talk about enlightenment any more, because it's daunting to people to think in terms of practice and to think in terms of enlightenment because it seems so far off and remote which means that people are taking more of a worldly standard of what they think practice should be. I think a lot of it relates to the extremes we go to in trying to either measure progress or to avoid the measuring of progress. Hence our confusion as to what practice is and how to relate to practice; or what we consider growth and maturity in practice is. So I'd like to just give some reflections on what the Buddha gave as standards for growth in Dhamma, growth in practice, maturity in practice.
These are a set of four dhammas which are not talked about so much. They are called the four dhammas conducive to growth, to maturity. The first one is coming into contact with a wise being (sappurisa sasevana) - just the contact with someone who's wise. The second one is hearing the Dhamma, hearing the teachings sadhamma savanaa. The third one is skilful reflection, wise consideration yoniso manasikaara. And the last one is Dhammanupata patipattaa practising Dhamma in accordance with Dhamma. These are a framework for how to relate to growth.
People don't want to talk about enlightenment any more - because it seems so far off and remote -
One of the things we do is we tend to measure progress in terms of experience. We have some experience and we think This is . . .' and then we measure it and say, "This must mean that I'm progressing somehow". And then we have some other experience and say, "Well, this must mean I'm falling apart". We don't look at things in terms of process. We tend to isolate instances, isolate experiences; and then measure them, gauge them, and experience happiness or suffering because of them. The Buddha's teaching is more concerned with process. How do we get involved in the process of maturing? How do we get into the process of growing and progressing in our practice, rather than holding to some experience or trying to create some experience, so that we can say "Oh, right, I definitely must be progressing, I must be growing"?
It's necessary to take an interest in this process. It's something which is cyclical, it's not a linear progression. As you notice in the sense of coming to meet a wise being, of listening to Dhamma, skilful reflection, practising Dhamma in accordance with Dhamma these are things which revolve around each other all the time. You're not taking a linear progression and going from point A to point B. It's a process which is working all the time, on an external level and on an internal level because the wise being we should meet is also the wise being who's within us as well.
On an external level, we need to rely on teachers, on people who set the example, so we need to seek out a teacher, seek out someone who is a good example. And even if we're living in a monastery, practising together, to also seek out the teacher, seek out the people who are setting examples. This is where supporting each other is important. It doesn't mean if you're sitting at the top of the line you're a teacher or you're called a wise being. For each of us, it's our duty to try to set an example for others; and then for us, as we're living together, to try to support each other in practice. So seeking each other out is necessary seeking out those who can encourage us, who can give us guidance.
In the same way, with listening to teachings, if it's in the form of formal discourse, or listening to tapes, reading books whatever way that we can receive the teachings and reflect and contemplate the teachings is a way which is conducive to growth. Our practise is nurtured by coming into contact with teachings which are direct and in accordance with truth sadhamma sevan. Sadhamma is the 'good Dhamma' you're listening to, the good teachings - the teachings which are in accordance with Truth. Investigating them, listening to them, hearing them: it's the hearing of Dhamma which is one of the conditions for the arising of right view. If we've not heard the teachings, or not come into contact with teachings which are direct or straight, it's difficult for right view to arise. Unless you're a fully enlightened Buddha or a self-enlightened Buddha, it's difficult. We need to listen, we need to pay attention, we have to come into contact with teachings. And if we're not listening, not paying attention, then, of course, even if teachings are being given, they're not absorbed, not brought into the heart. So, then, listen to the teachings.
Skilful reflection is using the capacity for investigation to recognise clearly the way things function. How do we use our thought process? This is something that we have: we definitely have the ability to think. Sometimes the quality of yoniso - careful consideration, skilful reflection is not exercised as much as it should be. I remember an article I read (someone wrote a book about it; the title of the book was based on this article): In a small town, a fire was reported upstairs in a house. Smoke was coming out of the windows and the fire department was called. They go to the house, break in, go upstairs and find that the bed is on fire, smoking away, and there's somebody lying on the bed. So they rescue this person and put the fire out. And then after the fire is out and the danger's over, they ask the person who was lying on the bed how the fire started. And the person said, "I don't know, it was on fire when I lay down." Which is a distinct lack of yoniso! We laugh at it but, you know, how many times have we done really stupid things? And the kind of suffering that we get into, the confusion and the chaos that we create in out lives, shold normally be ringing all sorts of alarm bells! But we disregard them, and just go ahead and butt our heads up against this wall of suffering. Sio with yoniso, careful consideration, we can look at what it is that is creating suffering. This is our guidline in practice.
The Buddha has quite brilliantly used it as the bottom line in the teachings. What is it that is creating suffering? What is the way out of suffering? How is suffering caused? We need to be able to reflect and consider. There are different ways of investigating that: investigating the experience of suffering; how it's caused; where it comes from; what it revolves around. It's also just reflecting on the nature of our experience which things are pleasurable, which are suffering. What is the way out of both of them? Because our natural tendency is to go towards the pleasurable and to try to avoid what is suffering. But maybe that's not the way out. We need to be able to reflect sometimes, and contemplate the things which are pleasurable: they may be a fleeting pleasure, but inherently they lead to more suffering. Some of the things that are suffering are not necessarily just suffering; there could be something beneficial in them. So we need to be able to investigate experience as well. Some of the things also which seem pleasurable are pleasurable and should be cultivated.
Even though the Buddha uses suffering as a bottom line or a foundation in teaching, it's also skilful to recognise that the path we follow, the path of practice, is one that leads to something which is considered happiness, and is pleasurable: the pleasure or well-being of keeping our precepts well; the pleasure or well-being of restraint; the pleasure or well-being of kindness and compassion; the pleasure or well-being of the peaceful mind. These are all things which we need to cultivate, to develop. We need to understand their use or function and how to bring them up. But then we also have to recognise the grasping at the desire-based pleasure which leads to frustration and so to more suffering. In the same way, suffering is seen in two ways: the suffering which leads to more suffering and the suffering which leads out of suffering. We can notice when we're in the suffering of aversion or anger. It's unpleasant in the present moment and it leads to more suffering.
Whereas with something like, say, the suffering of having to endure something, the suffering of training oneself, the suffering of just having to sit still and watch the breath: there's an element of suffering there, but then it's also something that leads to a sense of well-being a training, a stabilising, a settling. So to be able to investigate, to be able to consider things carefully, is important. Our tendency, as I said, is to always consider things in black and white: "This is pleasurable, I'll go for it." "This is suffering, I want to get out of it, to avoid it." Whereas, if we look at things in terms of a process, there is that which is a cause for something else to arise. We're seeing it in a different light, relating to it in a different way. So that, through our consideration, our reflection, this is a supporting of our growth in practice. We have to consider: what is the way out? What is the way to peace? What is the way to freedom, to liberation?
Regarding practising Dhamma in accordance with Dhamma , there is a story in the Christian tradition. During the time of the building of the great cathedral at Chartres, there was much excitement at this great monument going up. Of course, it took several generations for it to be built, and word spread through Europe of this great cathedral. At one time, an Italian pilgrim came to Chartres to pay respects and see this cathedral being built. Arriving there in the late afternoon, coming in and looking around, he sees people packing up and doing this and that, cleaning up and he sees a man covered in wood shavings. He asks him, "What are you doing here?" "I'm a carpenter, I'm making doors and windows. I do all the woodwork here." Then he sees somebody else, all dirty and grubby and covered in dust. He asks again, "What are you doing here?" "I'm doing the stonework, carving these stones for the building." And then he sees somebody else, covered in various colours and glittering with bits of glass, and he asks him, "What are you doing here?" "Oh, I'm a glass worker, I'm makeing these windows." Then he sees a little old lady who is cleaning up, sweeping up at the end of the day, and he asks her, "What are you doing here?" She stops and looks up, and looks around her at the cathedral with its great sense of awe, and says "I'm here helping to build this great cathedral for the glory of god." That's a different perspective. That's a sense of seeing what the practice is, seeing what it means when they say, "practising Dhamma in accordance with Dhamma".You have to have a vision of what you are going towards, a vision of what you're practicing for. You have to have a vision of what the purpose is. And that's what our practice is. The practice that we're doing is what is going in that direction.
If we don't have a vision of what we're doing, a clear sense of what it's going towards, and try to lift our minds up towards that, then we get stuck in our own little dramas of me' practising the Dhamma and my difficulties and my suffering over it. Or we get caught up into being nice little Vinaya monks, keeping the rules and taking that as the path; or getting caught up in trying to get our meditation down. . . All these things are part of the path. We have to learn how to keep the rules, we have to learn how to be restrained according to a discipline, a sla. But it also has to be seen in terms of what it's for what its purpose is, what it's going towards in the same way as with the building of the cathedral: if they just get caught up in their little jobs, they miss the point of it and they miss the joy of the cathedral around them. So in our practice also, we have to have a sense of what we're practising, what we're doing to have a clear perception of that. But then, also, what is it going towards? You have to keep lifting the mind toward that.
Our sila is for lifting the mind beyond a tendency to just not be restrained; to be established in a sense of wanting to do the right thing you know, what is in accordance with truth. And meditation is not just to become proficient in keeping the mind on the breath. It's being able to develop a mindfulness and a clarity, which is able to stay with the object of meditation, but then also see what its nature is. Why is the mind bowing to our own feelings and thoughts and perceptions? Why do we keep taking it as self? If we don't have a sense of lifting the mind beyond just the mindfulness or a concentrated state, then we get bogged down and we don't experience the freedom of the mind, we don't experience the cessation of suffering, because it hasn't been in the context of its nature. The same with the teachings the teachings of the Buddha, or the Wisdom teachings: they're not just to be memorised or copied down in our notebooks and referred back to when we forget them. They're to be internalised and recognised. What are they for? They're for cutting off our delusions, for cutting through our attachments. So we have to keep bringing them in and lifting them up.
One way of seeing our practice of Dhamma is of going towards a goal: It has to be going towards something. Another aspect of it is, I think, putting the "little dhammas" in the "big dhammas". By that I mean getting ourselves orderly. Dhammaanupatipadaa: anu is the little things and it's going towards the bigger dhammas. So our practice is a progressive practice, it's a process. We have to learn how to fit it together. And also how to refer back. Sometimes we have difficulties in practice, sometimes doubts come up. Learn how to come back to the beginning. Learn how to start over again. Start from the beginning and do the basics, and then it grows from there, so that our practice is a constant sort of growing. Our progress then happens on its own. We also have to nurture it, to look after that process. That's what we have to learn: how to pay attention in practice and how to develop our practice. Our maturity comes from that. There's a tendency again to try to create some experience and then hold that experience - trying to have a clearer experience of "That's what Dhamma is.", "This is what practice is", or "This is what peace is." I think this is a great obstacle that we keep coming up against. We have to learn to pay attention to the process of just looking after things which support the growth of Dhamma - and then it grows from there.
This is what Ajahn Chah would emphasise over and over again in practice. We would come to him and ask him all sorts of questions. "Give us the method, give us the way". And he would so often tell us, it's not just squeezing an experience out of the mind. It's like growing a tree: you don't just put it in the ground and then force it to come up. You have to prepare the ground, you have to put the seed in the ground, you have to fertilise the soil, you have to water it, you have to look after it. . . and then the tree will grow on its own. And the tree will grow according to its own nature, and it will give fruit according to its nature. It's not our task to try to designate or try to force the tree to grow faster, or to give fruit in a particular way that we think it should. Learning how to look after the mind is similar to learning how to look after the tree.
So I offer this for your reflection.