By John Lee Pendall
I suck at Buddhism. No matter what I do or how far I go, I always find myself plopped back at square one.
Story time: once upon a time, there was a dude named Milarepa. He sought out Marpa—a highly acclaimed teacher. Marpa said, “Sure, you can practice with me. But first, I want you to build a stupa (monumental Buddhist tower thing) to prove your dedication.” So Milarepa built that stupa. It was alright; kind of like the generic soda pop of stupas.
Marpa said, “This is shit. Tear it down and try again.”
Milarepa tried again, and again and again. Each time his stupas got better, but Marpa still ridiculed him and told him to start over from scratch.
Eventually, Milarepa built a masterpiece of a stupa. But, predictably, Marpa commented, “What’s wrong with you? This is garbage! Do it again!” Exhausted, humiliated, and fed-up with Marpa’s crap, Milarepa took off his sandal and hit Marpa on the head with it. After a moment of disbelief, Marpa laughed and said, “Now you’re ready to practice with me,” and Milarepa had an Awakening.
I can relate to this story.
Over and over again I get lost in a teaching or a method, I fixate on it and give it my all and then a crack forms in the foundation, and a little worm of doubt creeps in. I watch in horror as the whole thing crumbles to the ground. This is how it’s been since I started practicing five years ago. Really, it’s the theme of my life in general.
All these flights of fancy and distractions, all these unfinished projects. They always end up falling over, and I wander for awhile in that liminal night, coughing up ashes and guided by the smoldering firelight of the things I once held to be true. Then, “Ooh, what’s this?” and it starts over again.
Whether you’re like me or just stuck in a perpetual rut, it’s helpful to go back to square one. Japanese Zennists call that shoshin—beginner’s mind.
We value insight and truth in Buddhism, but in my experience, they’re the greatest obstacles of all. If you know what you’re doing, if you’re confident in your views and methods, then you’re probably full of crap. Because impermanence is the name of the game, and views are just thoughts. Thoughts are pretty much the most impermanent things around.
The first step to starting over is stepping back from what you’re doing right now. If you’re studying a lot, put down the books. If you’re not studying, pick one up. If you’re binging on Buddhist videos and podcasts, watch some cat videos instead. If you’re sitting two hours a day, go for a walk; if you’re walking, sit.
Second, focus on your physical health. This is a tough pill to swallow, but it’s difficult to practice effectively if you’re eating a whole bag of pork rinds each day or watching American Horror Story for nine hours straight. The people who invented Buddhism meditated a lot, but they weren’t sedentary. They walked miles each day and did hard labor to keep the monasteries from crumbling. I don’t think we can overlook that fact as we try to adopt Buddhism in the West.
If you’re unhealthy, then your practice is probably going to be unhealthy.
Mind and body aren’t separate. If you’re mentally scattered or stuck in a rut, it could be because your body is out of whack. Move around more, drink plenty of water (coffee isn’t water), and add some broccoli to your diet. Unfortunately, most researchers say that over-the-counter multivitamins are a scam; nothing beats the real thing.
Third, go back to basics. What were the first methods and views you used when you started practicing? Head back to those, even if it’s counting the breath. We don’t have to forget everything we’ve learned and practiced, but we can put it on the back-burner for awhile.
Sometimes we’ll go far with practice and then collapse back to the beginning because we haven’t digested something all the way before moving on. Who knows, we might never digest it completely. And that’s fine. Staying at the beginning is a lot better than being dragged back there a million times. But it’s gonna take a lot of mindfulness and diligence to stay at square one. Building stupas is an instinctual habit, just like collecting shiny things.
Lastly, avoid debates. Internet Buddhism can be a vile, slimy thing that gets us so caught up in the crusade to, “Preserve the Dharma,” that mindfulness and compassion get thrown out the window. We don’t need to preserve the Dharma—that’s what encyclopedias are for. We don’t have to defend it or correct every misunderstanding we see. That’s ego talking. Everyone with a smartphone an a Facebook account is a guru these days; I’m definitely guilty of it.
I’ve had to drop all of that and make it personal. At this point, I’d rather write about music, heartbreak and how the grass feels on my ankles than the Four Noble Truths and emptiness. I’m going to try to stay at square one this time and live Buddhism rather than think about it 24/7.
Like Ikkyu wrote, “The wise know nothing at all. Well, maybe one song.” If you’re like me, find that one song and put your heart into it instead of trying to master the discography.
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".