We have up until this point covered the first three noble truths. We have looked into suffering and the nature of suffering in the first noble truth. Then we examined the causes or origin of suffering in the second noble truth. Finally we discussed whether it was possible or not to dispel suffering in the third noble truth. Last week we began our discussion on the fourth noble truth which is the path which leads to the cessation of suffering. We talked about shamatha meditation and the ten virtuous acts. This week we will look into some of the obstacles we may face in these practices.
It is no secret that some of the more fundamental practices such as, shamatha meditation and the ten virtuous acts, can be somewhat boring. No one visits the pyramids in Egypt and marvels at the foundation the Egyptians created in order to construct the pyramids. Instead they are mesmerized by the great pyramids towering above them. However without the proper preparatory considerations the pyramids wouldn't be standing there for us to visit 10,000 years later! They would have crumbled to the ground after a hundred years or so, or least sank into the ground quite a bit. The same is true of our practice. We must invest the proper amount of effort in order to prepare ourselves for the practices which are still to come. For these practices we will need a calm, clear, more stable mind. This boredom we speak of could prove to be the biggest obstacle to really moving forward with our meditation practice. Therefore I think it necessary for us to explore not only the reason for this boredom, but also the antidote so to speak. In order for us to do this we must travel back through our talks about the defects of cyclic existence.
The five skandhas or aggregates are what come together in order to establish our sense of self, our notion if existence. We first created separation with self & other. As a result we experience relationship or interaction. Next we judged this interaction and reacted accordingly. When we judged something as good we attached to it, when we saw it as threatening we pushed it away, and if we saw it as confusing we ignored it. Then we labeled the situation with some concept. We called it girlfriend, boss, or whatever. It is at this point that we establish our identity, our role as employee, boyfriend, etc. Aside from this there doesn't appear to be any real solid sense of identification. In the fifth skandha, consciousness, the ego maintains itself within the context of the six themes or realms. There is a lot of time and energy spent in order to maintain our sanity, as our sanity becomes entirely dependent upon things which are by there very nature fleeting or impermanent. These sates of consciousness are referred to as the six realms which are the hells, ghost, animal, human, demi-god, and god realms. Each realm breaks down into further classifications, the eight hot hells & eight cold hells, but the common denominator is that there always seems to be a preoccupation with a particular theme. In the same order these six themes are aggression, addiction, stupidity, reason, competition, and pleasure. Inevitably we experience more success within some of these realms than with others, and therefore we become habituated with their themes. This habituation is karma, which is nothing more than our action or creation. We create the world we live in from our actions. On the basis of these six themes there are innumerable actions that one might take, but most of the acts can be classified within ten actions, the ten non-virtuous acts. The ten non-virtuous acts are killing stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive speech, harsh words, gossip, clinging to resentment, clinging to jealousy, and clinging to wrong views. We utilize these actions in accordance with our state of mind, whatever realm we are shifting through, in order to either establish or maintain some sense of security, as a way of policing our world. By security I mean some form of validation that we in fact do exist as some separate, solid, & permanent entity called "I". Whenever this validation isn't present we become restless, and this restlessness is the result of us surveying the external world for something to engage, but coming up empty handed. It is this restlessness that I am referring to as boredom.
Ego constantly needs some form of entertainment, some kind of relationship or interaction, in order to assure ego of it's existence. Whenever this is absent, ego becomes restless or goes into panic mode. At this point ego begins to scan the environment for some form of amusement. We turn on the TV and watch some ridiculously silly program, or maybe we call up a friend and talk about near nothingness. Sometimes we even pick a fight for no apparent reason! Eventually they tell us they are busy, and have to get off of the phone. So we find ourselves talking to the only person who will listen, ourselves. When we begin to try and give up meaningless activity such as gossip, we begin to confront boredom. This is why a lot of the preparatory practices, such as the ten virtuous acts & shamatha meditation, are difficult to practice. We are use to creating entertainment and validation with such things as discursive thought and the ten non- virtuous acts. Between shamatha meditation and the renunciation of the non-virtuous acts most of our usual ways of managing the world are stripped from us, and we begin to be met with boredom.
There are also secondary reasons it is difficult to renounce these ways of arranging the world. It is sometimes difficult to extend the type of tolerance & patience found necessary to refrain, for example from harsh speech. We may find ourselves in a discussion about something which we find very important to us, say politics or religion. Often subjects such as these are so important to us because they seem to play a big part in our identification. We see ourselves as Buddhist, Christians, Republicans, or Democrats, and when we find ourselves in a discussion about these matters it can seem to be threatening. The reason being is that part of what gives our lives the direction we take comfort in is the way we identify with certain philosophies or moral codes. These philosophies & moral codes seem to gives us meaning. When someone more informed or well averse in the art of debate sits down, and begins to question our system of belief we feel pushed back or attacked. So often we lash out, or abruptly end the conversation with a few choice words. We do this because they challenged our identity, our notion of who we are. Then in order to further manage the situation we walk around resentful at them and everyone that resembles them, cursing them up a wall in our heads.
Another, and perhaps more detrimental pitfall within the context of our spiritual development in it's totality, is becoming attached to individual peace or stability. As a result of practicing shamatha meditation our mind inevitably becomes more relaxed & settled. After six months or so of consistent meditation practice we find that we are no longer overwhelmed and bombarded by our thoughts. Furthermore if we are able to successfully abstain from the ten non-virtuous acts we will find our lives less chaotic & unmanageable. We will begin to enjoy certain positive consequences which are the result of our positive actions. Such a situation can be quite seductive. It is easy to get caught up in this newfound stability, but we must not confuse it with enlightenment. All that has really happened at this point is we have found a more efficient method for arranging the world. We have simply began to be more thoughtful of others, and calm our mind down through meditation techniques. The ego is still in power, and as long as the ego is in control it's world system still revolves around it's needs. While such a life is by no means a waste, we can go further, and there is a real need for us to do so. We have to let go of this experience of individual peace, and continue along the path. The way that we do this is through the Four Immeasurables.
I mentioned at the end of our last discussion our practice beginning to open up, starting to expand. This widening of our perspective is what is known as the Mahayana, or the great vehicle. It begins with the recognition of equanimity, the first of the Four Immeasurables. In the Hinayana vehicle we recognize the defects of cyclic existence, that our attempts to arrange a world which revolves around the ego is what has given rise to our dissatisfaction. We realize that in our mind we are the center of our universe. What gives rise to this greater perspective is when we realize others are exactly the same way. We realize that everyone sits at the center of his or her own universe. That essentially there are ton's of little relative world's, each with the individual that established them sitting smack in the middle of their orbital patterns. Alan Watts once said, "That in world that is round any point can be regarded as it's center." We see that others react in the way that they do for the same exact reasons that we react how we do. They all want to be happy and to avoid pain & discomfort. On a very fundamental level everyone is the same. We all do everything we do for the same reason, to create more desirable situations for ourselves, or to avoid unpleasant circumstances. The only reason we consider our pursuits for happiness or attempts to avoid pain and suffering more important is because of our self-centered systems for happiness. If we really stopped and thought about it, removed from a selfish perspective, it would be evident that our desires for happiness and wishes to avoid suffering are no more important than anyone else's. However if we were to consider everyone else, all the other people we encounter as a group instead of individually we would see that their benefit far outweighs just our benefit alone. After all this is the way we have set it up, "I" & the rest of world. Not only do such insights enable us to take ourselves less serious, realizing that our negative emotions are the result of our own patterns & misunderstanding, but they also enable us to take the annoying behaviors of others with a grain of salt. We see that when someone yells at us in traffic and flips us the bird it has little to do with us, and more to do with the current state of mind that person is victim to. I say this person is victim to the state of mind because they have no more idea why they are angry than they know who will be the President of France in the year 2050. Once we realize this we begin to develop the resolve to work with these people, to practice loving-kindness.
It is possible for us to see these people as more than a nuisance, we can see them as being of great benefit to us. There is a great story about Atisha, who was instrumental in bringing Buddhism to Tibet, that perfectly illustrates this point. When he arrived in the Himalayan country he brought with him his personal assistant. This assistant was rude, grumpy, and found to be most unpleasant by nearly everyone who came into contact with him. One day someone got to wondering, "Why would such a great teacher, like Atisha, put up with such a rude & inconsiderate person as him?" So the man asked Atisha, "Why do you tolerate this man?" Atisha asked, "Who?" The man replied, "The rude little personal assistant you drag with you everywhere!" Atisha answered, "Personal assistant? He is my teacher, he teaches me patience!" This man taught Atisha how to cultivate patience & tolerance. I once heard the Dalai Lama say "You can not consider a beggar an obstacle to practicing generosity, and you can not consider an angry person an obstacle to practicing patience." Patience is an absolutely necessary quality in order to grow along spiritual lines, but it requires of us to grant others the space to do as they may.
Practicing patience though is just one aspect of the Mahayana perspective. We have to develop equanimity, we have to learn not to see ourselves as more important than this person or that person, rather we must see them on an equal plane, as all beings are equal. It is not to say that things are all the same. The wisdom of discrimination recognizes these differences, but difference and equality shouldn't be confused. We have to see that we are in this together. At first this will be nothing more than an aspiration, a wish. Initially we will do good to remind ourselves frequently that, "Just as I want to be happy this person too wishes for happiness. Just as I want to avoid suffering & pain, this person too wishes to avoid pain & suffering. I have no more a right than they do to seek & attain these things." It is in this way that we can begin to move past our difficulties with the preliminary practices, and begin to develop a greater perspective, a Mahayana perspective, which includes everyone.