By John Lee Pendall
Most of us don’t have time for Buddhism. I know a close Dharma brother of mine would disagree, but it’s honestly true.
Most people don’t have time to study, meditate, go on retreats or even join a weekly sit. We don’t have the time for it because, when we’re not busy with other things, we’re trying to recover from being busy with other things. Buddhist meditation generally isn’t replenishing, and recovery is more important than enlightenment. Finding a few minutes each day to eat Cheetos and watch Netflix or cuddle with a loved one is more important than meditating for an hour.
A lot of clinicians warn us that meditation, mindfulness and the teachings on emptiness can be harmful for the mentally ill. News flash: we’re all a little mentally ill. Everyone’s crazy, everyone’s traumatized, and no one knows what they’re doing or what’s going on. We’re each just trying to hold onto what matters the best we can, we’re all just trying to keep it together enough to make it through the day. Every single priest or teacher out there needs to understand that and adjust accordingly.
When the time finally comes, when things do settle down—if they do—we’re not going to know what to do with all that free-time. That’s when the heavier Buddhist stuff comes in. That’s when we can be arhats and yogis. Until then, it’s the bodhisattva work for all of us. If you have enough time to meditate for three hours a day and write a thesis on the Avatamsaka Sutra before you’re 65, then I’ve gotta wonder if you’re getting out enough.
If you’re not getting out enough, then Buddhism isn’t going to work as well. It’s a social religion or philosophy grounded in how we interact with others and ourselves. That’s why all the hermits in the old Zen koans don’t wake up until someone disturbs their silence with an annoying question.
I was a hermit for almost 10 years. I thought I understood Buddhism; I thought my practice was going well. Then I left home and entered the world. I quickly realized that my practice was garbage.
We need other people in practice.
Most of the virtues and Immeasurables in Buddhism all revolve around our relationships. We can’t cultivate generosity if we’re alone all the time; we can’t cultivate patience if we don’t have to deal with annoying customers and co-workers. You’ve gotta get up and get out there. Get your hands dirty, stop fucking about with internet forums.
Other people are the practice, and that practice is kindness. Not just being kind, anyone can fake that, but being kindness, totally embodying the idea. If I had to ditch all of Buddhism, save for one teaching, I’d keep metta. If we truly practice metta well, we don’t really need anything else because all of the other teachings and methods point to it.
Just be nice, inside and out. Nice to others, nice to strangers, friends and even enemies. Nice to yourself. Make kindness a priority, and feeling warmth, softness and openness a free-form meditation. Be mindful of how you affect others and restrain yourself as needed. Then, over time, I promise you that things will get clearer on their own.
Of course there’s so much more we could tack onto that. We could bury it under mountains of philosophy and history. We could dive into exotic meditations that bring us face-to-face with buddhas and bodhisattvas, but—once again—who’s got time for that? Also, from a Zen standpoint, most of those views and methods end up having the opposite effect that we’re looking toward. They can make us feel special and they can make life seem extraordinary.
We suffer because we think we’re special and that life should be extraordinary.
We’re ordinary people, and life is ordinary life. Everyone’s suffering, everyone’s got an inner battle they’re trying to win. So just be nice and let go of anything that prevents you from being nice. Any view, belief, method, trait or interest that interferes with kindness is harmful and unnecessary, so let it go.
The Buddha, the prototype we have to go off of, was so nice that he knowingly ate spoiled pork. If he would’ve turned it down, then that would’ve offended the person who offered it. That’s how he died, and he didn’t care that he was dying because kindness made him unshakeable. I’m not saying that we should all be that nice—it’s just a story, after all—but that it’s something to work toward, an intention. To see that being kind matters even more than being alive.
Also, kindness is a revolutionary act. It not only goes against our culture, but even our nature. Each one of us has a savage beast in us that we can barely contain. We’re animals, and we survived because of how vicious, violent, lusty and cunning we can be. But we also survived because we can love and give. We can celebrate each other and contribute to greater goods. That’s our Buddha-nature, the Buddha-instinct that we all have in some way.
Buddha asked us to let go of our monkey-instinct and embrace Buddha-instinct, and the heart of it is being a decent person. Coincidentally, this (along with folk customs) is how Buddhism is practiced by all the lay people in Buddhism’s homelands. It’s a moral philosophy, and morality is what this world desperately needs right now.
Allow yourself to soften and open up. Let your walls come down—they’re not real, you’re not fooling anyone. Stop thinking of yourself as an identity trapped in a meat sack and try to see that you are kindness because kindness is a coming together, and that’s all we are: a coming together. Each being is a gathering, a community of organs and elements all from the Earth. Each person is trying to find their way home, trying to find something solid that never seems to be there.
So be that, be there. Be kind.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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