By John Lee Pendall
I frequently stumble on a really stupid fear about practice: Will this make me into a soft-bellied, boring, emotionless monk?
I like to start in on my views and fears by, first off, seeing if the assumptions they’re built are even valid. Are monks really soft-bellied, boring, and emotionless? Not really. I’m sure some of them are, but that’s just because they’re human and some people are that way. Rinzai (A priest, not a monk, but still applicable) used to shout, swear, and punch people in the face. A lot of the most well-known teachers and monastics were emotionally charged, dynamic people.
So, that fear is unfounded from the get-go. That means we have to take out the, “monk,” part and approach it again. To that, I’d ask myself, “Am I soft-bellied, boring, and emotionless right now?” No. That means, even if I strip away layer after layer of affliction to spy the naked mind beneath, I’m still just going to be me—I just won’t take myself so seriously.
We could easily translate the heady word ignorance into, “Taking things personally.” That’s the down-to-earth issue that Buddha practice addresses. We tend to go about our lives with the feeling that God, fate, or the universe has some kinda sadistic grudge against us. We start to adopt a, “Why me?” attitude toward life.
Does Buddhist practice help to make us into calmer, gentler, more well-balanced people?
It can, sure, but only if those qualities are a natural part of who you already are. Practice strips away everything that’s artificial about us, everything that we’ve acquired secondhand and tossed in the, “This is me,” bin. Most of it isn’t. The old koan, “What was your face before your mother was born?” can be interpreted as a question about who we really are beneath it all, before the world scribbled on our Etch A Sketch.
I’ve taken to calling that the Naked Mind—the mind as it was just before it first reached out and grasped onto something. Some schools call it Tathagatagarbha, or Buddha-nature, however, Tathagatagarhba literally means, “Embryo of the Thus-Come-One.” Embryonic is a great way to describe that mindset. Unlike even a newborn, an embryo is a clean slate. We aren’t born clean slates; we start to develop our temperaments and preferences while we’re still in the womb.
So, we’re already born with writing on us. Trippy, isn’t it? You can even form your first preferences for certain flavors while in utero because of the foods your mom ate while she was pregnant with you; you can form your initial preference for certain types of music based on what she listened to.
When Buddhists talk about Big Mind or Buddha-nature, we’re referencing something that existed before we were born that gets covered up by dispositions, habits, views, opinions, preferences, and self-concepts (our karma); Locke’s fabled tabula rasa, the blank slate—the clean page.
Many practitioners screw themselves over by taking this to an extreme. They either pick up even more burdensome views like merit and past lives, or they misinterpret the goal of practice into a confused mission to destroy the ego. What a load of total nonsense. Thinking that practice is ultimately about ditching yourself is worse than having never practiced at all. No, you’re stuck with yourself; you can’t escape yourself, and actively trying to destroy all of your afflictions just creates an even more subtle and damaging affliction in the process.
We don’t become boring, lifeless people by practicing Buddhism; quite the contrary, actually. We become boring, lifeless people by pretending to practice Buddhism.
Instead of stumbling on that natural Naked Mind that’s already there beneath it all, we just wrap ourselves in even more layers of delusion. As Bankei said, “You can’t become a Buddha. You can only remain a Buddha.” All of us are Buddhas, right now. I get the sneaking suspicion that, if we could truly accept that view, that no other view or method in Buddhism would be required for the Path to come to fruition this very moment
Try it out, if you like. Maybe just relax a little, focus on the breath for a minute or so, and then observe your mind and body without judgment. Then, think, “All beings are Buddhas.” You can repeat that a few times, pausing between each repetition to monitor how you’re feeling. Just let all the hand-me-down conditioning go and think, “All beings are Buddhas.” How does that make you feel? You don’t have to believe it to benefit from it; the idea alone is enough.
Buddhism isn’t about truth; that’s a huge clusterfuck of a tangent. Buddha practice is about what works. If you can recall those naked moments you’ve had in life, moments of direct appreciation of things as they are, then Buddha-nature teachings were made for you.
You don’t need to confuse yourself by scouring through the Canon, pitting concept against concept. Find the view and method that vibes with you, and put the rest on the back burner. There’s no need to have scholarly knowledge about emptiness or Buddha-nature if the Four Noble Truths vibe with you; there’s no need to have an in-depth understanding of the Four Noble Truths and emptiness if Buddha-nature vibes with you, etc.
Buddhism was never intended to be taken as a whole. So, if you do take it as a whole, you’ll be falling down that rabbit hole for years without making any real progress along your own Path.
A general knowledge of the teachings is good, but only because you can then pick up and set down certain teachings and methods as your practice changes over time. I recommend never implementing more than one Buddhist view/method simultaneously. It’ll twist your mind into knots and just result in you daydreaming or picking fights on Facebook.
Right now, I’m really digging the Buddha-nature teachings; they’re simple and optimistic, which means they’re the antithesis of my acquired personality which tends toward the dark and complicated. Complicated teachings and practices can be harmful to an already complicated mind. So, the simpler the better. There’s nothing simpler than, “We’re all Buddhas,” and being mindful of that in day-to-day life with a, “Let’s just see what happens,” attitude.
That doesn’t mean I’m going to become a Mr. Nice Guy saint-like figure. It just means I won’t take the comings and goings of life, or our cohabiting stupidity, personally. Also, once you strip down to your bare ass, you can then choose which clothes to put back on. Prior to that, we’re dressed up by the world, bundled under layers of winter gear in the scorching summer heat.
Thankfully, we’re all wearing our birthday suits beneath it all.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers Buddhism, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.
Feel free to check out his Facebook page, and his blog "Salty Dharma".