Tso-ch’an I (fundamentals of practice)
*Note* If you are attached to your dogma don’t bother reading this post.
I guess I thought everybody was doing this. But most “Buddhist” books don’t really address it. This post was spontaneously vomited out after I read an article about a monk with PTSD recently and I guess I found it rather shocking. Not to make light of his situation, it is tragic, but that his practice did not support him as he was going through his ordeal may be the larger tragedy.
Here is the deal from my limited perspective. Just about everybody everywhere more than likely has some type of diagnosable psychological disorder to some degree or another. I don’t know if that is quantifiable or true and I am admittedly just taking a stab at this, but if you examine your so called self for a while you will probably figure it out and come to a similar conclusion for yourself after a while too. I think.
*And no I do not think that Buddhism has every answer for every little jot and tittle out there, but keep in mind that the word Therapy is derived from Theravada, the old teachings of Buddhism.
I am not an accredited teacher at all, just so you know what you’re getting into before reading further. But I have found a certain system of training to be gradually helpful and to have something that people always try and steer you away from expecting from this type of practice… Results.
Now the hard part is that I could and probably should write a whole book about this. Right now I just don’t have the time. There have also been a number of books ranging from modern to ancient that cover everything I have to say too. I don’t know the exact number but I have heard that there are 84,000 sutras in the Pali Cannon alone, and that is just the start of it. They are all pretty much saying the same things.
All of the worthwhile teachings almost across the board seem to always start off with ethics. From Gautama Buddha saying “Avoid the two extremes” and even the teaching of the Four Noble Truths can be looked at as a teaching in ethics. (I know it is more than that, but it is a view) Many of the more idealistic religious organizations make ethics their sole focus with good reason. The most popular book of the last 2000 years was really just a treatise on ethics. When people commit themselves to Buddhist practice the first step is generally taking the precepts, which is nothing more than guidelines for ethical conduct. Sadly a lot of teaching lineages nowadays seem to only give the precepts lip service. This is a great tragedy.
Some of the most basic ways of cultivating ethical conduct are of course through practice. Three that I have found helpful are practicing generosity, gratitude or appreciation, and empathy. The “How too” is a little complicated and I think is dictated a lot by each individual person’s particular situation. But what is important is not stacking things against another or expecting an immediate (or any)return. For example; when I offer you tea I do not expect you to give me anything at all in return. Or when accepting a cup of tea, considering all the wonderful steps that it took to get that tea to your lips, going all the way back to the means by which that tea was cultivated and beyond. As to empathy that is a hard one to put into intelligible terms, but just truly being able to put yourself in another persons slippers is what I have in mind.
The next important step is cultivating concentration. It seems to me lately that some of the institutionalized “Meditation establishment” would have people skip over this step and jump right into developing wisdom. I do not see how this can work and I tend to think it could be quite dangerous for people to do as developing wisdom is tricky business since the mind is such an immensely vast thing, combine with every persons idiosyncrasy’s and neurosis’s it appears to me that without a firm development in concentration one could go off track real quick and in a hurry.
The hard part is it is often difficult to tell the difference between developing concentration and developing wisdom. Particularly as they both often take their form in practice of seated meditation. But what you are doing in that seated meditation is entirely different even if the physical posture might seem the same. It is also important to point out that you can also develop these things outside of seated meditation even though this might interfere with some people’s dogmatic approach to practice.
I am only going to touch on stuff I have done on the meditation cushion for simplicity sake but I want to give an honorable mention to the practice of making a sound on the end blown flute as falling under both concentration and wisdom too.
Aside: I would really like to expand this whole post into a book. Oh well.
So on developing concentration; yes you should try to sit either full lotus or half lotus. See a yoga teacher if you can’t figure those out. Seriously they are the professionals at that sort of thing and I am sure I do not have anything resembling perfect posture. Sometimes I even sit in a Burmese posture depending on how my bones and blood circulation is doing day to day.
But on to business of focusing the mind, when you get in front of a real teacher instead of “Just Sitting” you will often get an instruction to count the breath. This is kindergarten Zen. But I think it is important. To my mind you have to go through kindergarten before going through grade school and high school and on to university. Learn to focus the mind on just counting the breaths. This foundation of concentration is going to pay dividends for you later. You can count the inhalations and exhalations one to ten or you can just count one over and over. The important bit is learning that single pointed concentration. When your mind starts to ruminate, just count. Start thinking about your day, just count. My knee hurts, just count.
Once you have gotten proficient at counting the breath than you should move on to following the breath. I think there are some funny ancient names for this but just be aware of the breath as you inhale and exhale, it might be difficult starting out doing this as you might find yourself going back to following the breath. That is ok. This is not a competitive practice. Just work on following the breath until you can do it well enough to where your mind does not go into the routine of rumination about the day to day.
I know a bunch of the readers are saying in their heads right now that “Master so and so doesn’t teach all of this! You’re just making this up!” I assure you I am not making this up and if master so and so is who I think he is than he may not have mentioned it but he did indeed practice what I am going over right now cause this is what was taught in the schoolhouse he came from.
So the next thing you want to get into is body awareness. This is likely going to have been happening throughout but now is the time to focus on it. This is also where you are likely to begin to become a posture Nazi as well, please do understand that everyone has a unique posture, you really just have to concentrate on your own. I also think it is important to come back to it just to pay attention to what your body is going through AFTER you have gotten your posture down pat. And while this is still filed in with concentration it also gets a little gray here; up until this point the main effort is just getting you mind prepared for what comes next. However this portion may lead to some insight, particularly impermanence, as you stay with the sensations of your body you may begin to understand that there is nothing about you that is permanent. This is an important insight that you can’t just learn through reading or intellectual understanding but can experience happening in real time as you follow the sensations of the body. There are various other concentration practices out there often going under the guise of "Mindfulness" and many of them also wander back and forth from concentration to wisdom. I am not here to condemn anyone practice just so you know.
This is where most of the modern writings seem to focus. And that is a good thing but in my view kind of pointless without a grounding in the fundamentals. I won’t get into the dogmatic argument of koan practice vs. silent illumination vs. sole sitting or shikantaza or whatever. In my view they are all wonderful and wondrous practices and I find it pointless to stack one against another. I think what is most effective for each individual will depend largely on each person’s own circumstances. But it is important to go back to the fundamentals of ethics and concentration constantly while you are developing your wisdom practice. I say again it is important to go back to the fundamentals of ethics and concentration constantly while you are developing your wisdom practice. It is important to go back to the fundamentals of ethics and concentration constantly while you are developing your wisdom practice. I say it three times because this is where people get stuck and or go off into extremes. This is where the koan is warning about all the skulls littering the meditation platform. This is where it is important to find a good friend to help you along the way, and where the grounding of a meditation community comes in helpful. And for me this is where the playful ease of freedom is found. Do not get stuck.