Keeping It Simple (written 2016)
Today I had a lovely discussion with Dhamma friends. In the flow of discussion we referred, all of us, not just to various suttas, the Buddha's recorded teachings, but to Dhamma talks we'd heard, books we'd read by Dhamma teachers, and other conversations we'd had with fellow practitioners. Much of this is helpful. Some of it is confusing. And some of it leads to agitation or worry. In the end, the basic guide to practice is to keep it simple.
We set our intention toward the end of suffering and we trust our own experience. If we look carefully at our behaviors and their consequences, we will know what to cultivate and what to abandon. If we look carefully at the methods we employ in meditation, we will know what is carrying us toward peace and understanding, and what is taking us on interesting and problematic detours. The looking carefully is what is incorporated in right mindfulness and right effort.
This does not mean that we should not study or read or discuss. Only that we need to do so with right mindfulness and right effort, as we do everything else. Paying attention to what is going on now for us, and what follows from this. If something is causing struggle and confusion, seek clarification from a teacher if possible or set it aside as unhelpful at least at this time.
The Buddha, roughly paraphrased, said not to merely believe what he taught but to look at our own experience. To see for ourselves. This should likewise apply to whatever we encounter. The greatest effort needs to be in honesty here. What is my experience? Not, what do I think it should be, what do I want it to be, but what is it? How do I feel when I act in anger? What happens to my tranquility in meditation when I wander off into stories or yearn for a “special” experience?
For every factor in the eightfold path, whether it is view, intention, action, speech, livelihood, effort, mindfulness or concentration, we need to be curious and clear about what is happening and what it leads to.
There is a great deal of beauty and value in listening to the experience and wisdom of others. But it is good to listen with the other ear tuned to our own experience. Language is a clumsy tool, and I say this regretfully as one who is a lover of language. It can only approximate experience. And what is spoken or written is sifted further through the filter of my own understanding when I take it in. A word as simple as “dog” conjures different images and emotions for each person hearing it spoken. Embed it in a sentence and the variations escalate. Translate from one language to another and we've added a new dimension of potential miscommunication.
I am a devout follower of the Buddha. And I am grateful for those who have recorded his teachings, translated his words, interpreted and considered every aspect of the path. I am grateful too for my fellow practitioners, at the beginning perhaps of this journey, or further in, struggling to move toward a better way of living, aspiring to an end to suffering. So I will continue to study, to read, to listen and to discuss. And simultaneously to examine my own experience on the journey. Panning for gold is not a high tech process, it doesn't take complicated equipment and years of study, but it does require open eyes, discernment and continuous effort, just keeping it simple.