Virtuous confusion

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Back when I was in the NKT (New Kadampa Tradition) it was highly discouraged to read other Buddhist authors other than Geshe-la, or to take teachings from other traditions. If you did you were deemed a “mixer” and therefore not serious about your spiritual path. And while there was no written rule to this effect, once you got past the introductory programs, it was became pretty evident. The reason for this, we were told, was that it would divert us from the path that Geshe-la very clearly delineated in his books and study programs, and in general would just confuse us.

And you know what? They were absolutely right. Ever since I have started reading other Buddhist authors and exploring other traditions, I am confused. Which is refreshing. And disquieting. Refreshingly disquieting. Definitely not comfortable.

There was great comfort in my good fortune to happen upon Kadampa Buddhism and the very clearly laid out teachings. I will be forever grateful for their study programs which gave me such a good grounding in basic Buddhist principles. The fact that it was a fairly rigorous study program appealed to me and played to my strengths. I’ve always been a bit of a smarty pants. I catch on to intellectual concepts very easily, and can piece them together with other concepts to get a sense of the bigger picture. I’m good that way. With physical endeavors, not so much. But sitting on my ass thinking about shit? Oh bring it on, baby.

The method of meditation that I learned combined analytical contemplation with placement meditation. In other words, we would be meditating on an idea we had learned in our studies. In the analytical part of the contemplation we would deeply consider the topic, compare it with our own experience, use our imagination, etc. Once we had gotten to the object of the meditation – a determination or conclusion – we would focus on our mind on that single-pointedly, trying to deepen that feeling or thought and taking it from a merely intellectual construct to something we know in our heart. Our basic practice was Lam Rim – aka, the stages of the path – and by doing our round of the 21 meditations we would become deeply familiar with all the stages of the path to enlightenment. And while by doing this practice for a decade I definitely have a good grounding in the Buddhist path, but I think like many of my friends and others I have known in the NKT, I got a bit too fascinated by the map, and lost sight of the ultimate destination – enlightenment.

My new teacher, Anam Thubten, is not big on categorizing himself in terms of tradition. He’s slippery, that one. But, he keeps hitting home the point that we have to go beyond mere concepts because on the other side, there lies enlightenment. Great. Awesome. Count me in. I loves me some Heart Sutra. Yet, when I sit down to meditate and try to let go on my concepts, well . . . I just end up focusing on my breathing, which isn’t the point either.

So, since I seem to be lacking in any kind of practice of awareness or mindfulness, I decided to take an six week Introduction to Vipassana course at out Spirit Rock. Spirit Rock and Vipassana feels worlds away from the my experience in Tibetan traditions. So, there was a part of me that was desperately trying to fit what the young, very soft-spoken teacher was saying with what I already knew. I even mentally rolled our eyes when he asked us to lay on the floor and do an exercise I consider more a part of yoga than I do Buddhism. Oh lordy, aware of my body? I don’t do body awareness, thank you very much. May I get back in my head, please?

But, I’m staying open and giving it a try. It’s just another facet of the jewel that I haven’t explored yet. I need to suspend my judgment, and just let the questions arise and not stress out when the answers don’t come.

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14 responses »

  1. I have heard some good things about Vissipana. There’s a regular retreat held here in the Blue Mountains near Sydney. From what I’ve heard this retreat is quite hard core, but a truly transforming kind of experience. It’s not at all the intellectual exercise that Lam Rim tends to be. I have occasionally thought about getting into something like Zen meditation, but I am thinker, and I think the Gelugpa scholarly approach works for me. Yes, I know that doesn’t get me beyond conceptual thinking. Let me know if you make progress with this stuff. I’ve been practicing Vajrayogini for about 7 months and it’s really working well for me. Actually, it blows me away. I need to put more time into meditating on emptiness, but I think Tantra and Mahamudra is the way I’m going to go.

  2. Mix it up, baby!

    I sometimes *envy* (not really, it’s just a way to describe a way of looking at things – that’s a little abstract) people who have a firm solid foundation in the teachings. I don’t. And in that I get confused. I keep relearning things I should already know.

    So I guess what I’m trying to say is that mixing it up is somehow its own path. It also leads to the same destination albeit in a somewhat chaotic fashion.

  3. I’m the opposite of you in a way. It’s not that I can’t spend time in my head, but I do better when I’m firmly rooted in my body first, through some sort of body awareness (for me it’s yoga).

  4. i thin yer sposed to sit on yer ass and NOT think about stuff in Vipassana ~ or maybe that’s just what I had for lunch

  5. I hope to return to some kind of formal practice at some point. Just when and what I don’t know.

    All my understanding lies with Tibetan Buddhism – more specifically with the NKT. Lamrim, Lojong and Mahamudra is my background. After 9 years of study, teachings and retreats i have not engaged in any formal practice since.

    However i always fall back to my Lojong (training the Mind) practice. I find that every moment an opportunity arises to follow a good or a bad thought and change my mind.

    It’s a simple practice – but it’s damn hard. All that i can do for now.

  6. Ron – I’m glad to hear that you have a steady VY practice. That’s awesome. I wish I could have been more steadfast with that one.

    CB – There is definitely something to be said for systematic study of Buddhism. It’s like a good education – it gives you the foundation to go “out there” in the world and, in theory, go put what you’ve learned into practice. Now that I’ve been out there on my own a bit, I’m seeing the gaps in my education. Don’t know if this Vipassana thing will turn into a whole graduate degree program, or just an adult school class. I’m just happy to be learning.

    Robin – I used to do yoga, but I never really connected it to my spiritual practice. I’ve always felt my spiritual practice was in my head (or heart), so while I very much appreciated yoga, and not merely as exercise, I never considered it part of my spiritual practice.

    Marshmellows – it’s not so much that you’re not supposed to think, but rather you notice you’re thinking and become aware of it and not get enmeshed in it.

    Captain – I, too, hope that you can once again take up practice again. But, the fact that you are making an effort to practice Lojong in your daily life is great.

    Of all the faults of the NKT that have been countlessly enumerated, I think the cruelest is perhaps the dependency that is encouraged between our individual practice and the organization. There was little discussion about how we can maintain our personal practice outside of the classes and day courses and oh-so-very special events of the NKT. A lot of people, myself included, their only meditation practice was when they came to class or taught class. (Yes, I taught beginning meditation classes and lectured people on the benefits of meditation without even having a firmly entrenched home practice myself.)

    I hope you can once again find the joy and the peace of some kind of practice. For me, it was a matter of almost going back to a beginner’s mind. It was exciting to pick up these books by other teachers, and go check out new centers. At times it is confusing, but that’s part of the fun.

    Best of luck to you, Captain.

  7. o yeah ~ not thinkin about my ass = now that’s sum body awareness!

    also eye find stressing out about answers not coming is not all ways the worst thing cuz sum times sum thin breaks loose that was blockin the passage way ~ sorta like a spiritual heimlich manure = kinda messy tho.

  8. I think one of the most valid criticisms of the NKT is the fact that the meditation sessions are not all that good – certainly not those guided meditation sessions in FP or the drop in classes and most of the day courses. I have to admit, I have better results in my own personal daily practice at home. Also, my experience at the FPMT drop-in meditations has been infinitely better. At the NKT, they talk throughout, so it really is more of a lesson in how to indoctinate yourself on aspects of the path. In fact your meditation may be going infinitely better now that you are practicing outside the NKT, especially on Lam Rim. HYT meditation is of course another matter entirely and I am getting very good results from meditation at the centre on that. To be fair to the NKT though, they have always tried to stress to me that the basis of my meditation practice should be the daily practice I establish away from the centre. And I have managed to do that quite successfully.

  9. Marshmellow – I think mulling over something is different than stressing out about it. It’s one thing to consider something deeply and for a while, it’s another to strain. If you gotta strain, you’re only gonna give yourself hemorrhoids.

    Ron – The topic of the incessant chatter of the teacher lead meditations (no offense, Marshmellow) has been coming up a lot with my current/former NKT buddies when I’ve told them I’m taking the Vipassana class. Even on “retreats”, there wasn’t much time or emphasis on silent contemplation. So, I completely understand why some folks are at a loss of what to do when they are by themselves.

    And while I’m not saying that my teachers didn’t emphasize a personal practice, it felt like lip service. “Of course you all are practicing at home.” “Uh . . . yeah . . . no problem.” Yet, if you actually talked to people many, if not most, had real challenges when it came to a personal practice at home. In my not humble opinion, I think that there should have been more space for people to discuss their challenges or experiences with their home practice.

    I’m glad you haven’t experienced those problems. You are quite fortunate.

  10. Yes

    We’re in basic agreement on this. Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound as if I had mastered it and you hadn’t. I’m sure your practice is much more evolved than mine, which simply entails a fifteen to twenty minute meditation in the morning. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I wasn’t even beginning them with the meditation prayers. My home practice still hits wobbles and I still struggle somewhat with the placement meditation. As I said, I think going to another centre for basic meditation classes helped me significantly and I was able to apply that to my own daily practice too. Certainly, it’s helped my breathing meditation techniques, which in turn have helped me concentrate on the Lam Rim meditations. None of it is easy really though. And when I visited an FWBO centre recently, it was very apparent that most of the people practicing there seem much more adept at meditating for longer periods. Which is very telling.

  11. You’re absolutely right. The centres should be trying to help out with those sorts of difficulties. I still can’t believe that your home practice was a complete shambles because I read your blog about doing the Nyempa retreat at home, and I couldn’t have pulled that off! Not at my current level.

  12. Hi There Lazy Buddhist, Great to be back here again. A very interesting post. It’s amazing to hear that so much of your meditational practice, so far, has been intellectual or in your head. Going deeper into mind, and the intellectual center.

    From the Zen side the aim’s to get out of your head, to see reality. To step away from ego/memories to get perspective and clarity, to ‘see your mind’. The intellect is a huge trap, it’s so closely tied to Ego.

    I see the purpose, either stepping into or stepping away from, both are the same goal, both have traps.

    There’s no problems with body practice in Buddhism. The 8 Fold Path is about our whole life, not isolation or parts of it, Check out The 8 Gates for a Zen view of Body Practice (http://www.mro.org/zmm/training/eightgates.php).

    @Ron, Vipassana in the Blue Mountains is _very_ different to Vipassaana at Spirit Rock. BM is from the tradition of S.N. Goenka. Spirit Rock is in Theravadan tradition. (More info http://themiddleway.net/2007/05/23/more-to-vipassana-than-sn-goenka/).
    I’ve been on the 10 day retreat, it is very rewarding, but it’s not a Buddhist path. It’s a meditational practice without support
    of the Triple Gem.

    May all beings be blessed by the Dharma.

    Gassho,

    Wade

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