Notes on a talk by Michael Stone at Centre of Gravity, June 11, 2013
I’m just back from a five day conference of dharma teachers born after 1960. We come from such different traditions, different identity kits. Our elders built centres and lineages, and these are so important, though perhaps you could say they clung to them a little bit. We decided we would cling to each other. The first thing we did is spend a day and a half learning how to listen to each other.
How can we bring dharma alive in our culture? We’ve gone back to find the Buddha responding to his time, and the further back you go, the further you get from religion, from Buddhism. The Buddha was playing with a lot of the terms of the Vedic era. In Vedantic times (Vedantic literally means “after the Vedas”), practice in Brahmin households meant keeping three fires burning in the house and to make sacrifices in those fires. If you performed the rituals well, you could hope for a better rebirth, and move up the class system. Buddhists like to poo poo this idea of an everlasting fire, a fire that you tend for the whole of your life, but sometimes it’s important to give this fire everything: your hopes, your breath, your difficulties and temporary triumphs. How can you offer everything to a fire? What happens to the last log, where does it go? This is the conundrum for humans. We never have a final frame of reference. The mind is always creating frames and contexts out of name and form. Always trying to reframe experience to have a final and permanent frame. This causes dukkha, or separation as we get attached to our theories, our viewpoints.
The Buddha said these three fires are burning inside you. He internalizes the metaphysical view. The outside is the inside. What are the three fires? The fires of greed, hatred and delusion. Because of the burning, your mind turns in circles. And these are not the circles of death and reincarnation but a rebirth of patterns that recur moment after moment. The Buddha called this samsara (going around in circles). When we act on anger we plant a seed that recreates this pattern. And together these seeds, this accumulation of plantings, over time, create compulsions driven by greed and delusion. And then we like to make theories out of the why because it keeps us in our comfortably familiar addictions.
At the other end of samsara, when you’ve gone through the loops, you find nibbana or nirvana. It’s not an end state, it’s not the top floor of the hotel that you get to live in the rest of your life, it might last as long as a moment. It’s a cooking term meaning to cool down. The fires that are burning inside you cool down. You can blow out attachments to patterns of greed, hatred, ill will and delusion in your practice. From moment to moment you can see how your cravings and attachment are born from greed, hatred and confusion that keep us spinning in the wheel of samsara. Though we love our discomforts, we don’t want to be free of ourselves. I want to be separate, to hold onto my theories.
“Suppose monks, a man in the course of a journey saw a great expanse of water, whose near shore was dangerous and fearful and whose further shore was safe and free from fear, but there was no ferryboat or bridge going to the far shore. Then he thought: ‘Suppose I collect grass, twigs, branches and leaves and bind them together as a raft, and supported by the raft and making an effort with my hands and feet, I got safely across to the far shore…’ Having arrived at the far shore, he might think thus: ‘This raft has been very helpful to me, suppose I were to hoist it on my head or load it on my shoulder, then go wherever I want.’ Now monks, what do you think? By doing so, would that man be doing what should be done with the raft?”
“No venerable sir.”
“Having arrived at the far shore, he might think thus: ‘This raft has been very helpful to me, suppose I were to haul it onto the dry land or set it adrift in the water, and then go wherever I want.’ Now, monks, it is by so doing that the man would be doing what should done with that raft. So I have shown you how the dhamma is similar to a raft, being for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of grasping. Monks, when you know the dharma to be similar to a raft, you should abandon even good states, how much more so bad states.”
The hope is to cross over from the looping place, from samsara, to nirvana, the place that is “free from fear.” The place of fearlessness. Perhaps when we leave our loops behind we enter into fearlessness. And to do so we gather whatever is around us. This is what the dharma is made out of: grass, twigs, branches… whatever is around us in our lives. The material of our lives. This is what we build the raft out of. The dharma, or religion, is not something waiting at the top of the mountain, or at the end of the retreat when you’ve reached a special state. It’s grounded in your everyday life, moment after moment. You use your feet and hands, in other words, no one can practice for you, you have to make the crossing on your own steam. And once you’ve crossed over, the Buddha urges us to let go of the raft. We don’t need to cling to our methods, to our practices. We start again with each breath, with each moment.
(Malunkyaputta): “The Buddha does not declare these to me, and I do not approve of and accept the fact that he does not declare these to me. Only if he declares to me either ‘the world is eternal’ or ‘the world is not eternal’ etc, then I will lead the spiritual life under him. If he does not, then I will abandon the training.”
(Buddha): “Suppose, Malunkyaputta, a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends brought a surgeon to treat him. The man would say: ‘I will not let the surgeon pull out this arrow until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me; until I know whether the man who wounded me was tall or short or of medium height; until I know whether the man who wounded me was dark or brown or golden skinned; until I know whether the man who wounded me lives in such a village or town or city; until I know whether the bow that wounded me was a long bow or a crossbow; until I know whether the bowstring that wounded me was fibre or reed or sinew or hemp or bark; until I know whether the shaft that wounded me was wild or cultivated; until I know with what kind of feathers the shaft that wounded me was fitted – whether those of a vulture or a crow or a hawk or a peacock or a stork; until I know what kind of arrow it was that wounded me – whether it was hoof-tipped or curved or barbed or calf-toothed or oleander. All this would still not be known to that man and meanwhile he would die…”
A man approaches the Buddha and he really wants to learn. But before he starts learning he wants to know: will I live forever? Is there a God, rebirth, heaven? Give me the big answers to the big questions. I have a great sadness in my life. I’m getting older, people I love are dying. My body is conditioned by culture, by pictures and the natural world. Every seven days all the water in my body changes, I’m talking to you in this room, but the water in my body is from California. If this is just a theory, then it’s just another frame I can hold onto to keep me from the experience of this moment, to keep me spinning me round and round. But if I can feel the water, how this water doesn’t belong to me, it doesn’t even belong to California, it’s just flowing through conditions.
We live in a physical world that is impermanent, and the mind is always going meta in order to console us. These stories can give us the feeling of eternity. The Buddha is trying to dismantle these stories and return us to the four ennobling truths. No need to worry about eternity. The point is to deal with the suffering you’re having now, in this moment, in this place.
“And what have I declared? ‘This is dukkha – I have declared. This is the arising – I have declared. This is the ceasing – I have declared. This is the path – I have declared. Why have I declared that? Because it is beneficial, it belongs to the fundamentals of the spiritual life, it leads to disengagement, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to awakening, to nibbana. That is why I have declared it.”
How can we let go of thirst, or aligning each moment via greed, anger and delusion, of how we think the world should be? Or as meditators we could ask the question like this: how can we stop and experience cessation? To be able to watch as an emotion, a thought, or a pattern of sensations fade away. To really know what it feels like in the body to experience the ebbing away of anger. Not just to know joy, but the absence of joy, to watch the vapour trail as it passes. There is so much pleasure in letting go. Most of us think that pleasure comes when we get what we want, when the desired object is attained. But these pleasures are temporary and fleeting, because one object leads inevitably to wanting another. There is a deeper pleasure in letting go of craving.
The eight fold path is quite vague. What does it mean to have an appropriate view, speech, concentration? It’s very open ended. Perhaps the Buddha was responding to a culture that was too certain about how to have a spiritual life. There were very fixed ideas about how many fires to have, and how many sacrifices and exactly how everything should be done. It was a system that was bent on conserving the past, on knowing what would happen before it happened, it was holding onto old ways. The Buddha was interested not in laws and doctrine, but in processes. The Buddha declares: you can let go and embrace the way things are. Why is craving bad for us? Because it obscures the path, all we can see is the fire. The Vedantics believed that behind the world was God, but the Buddha believed that behind the world was the world.