This morning I was writing my latest mail-out that goes out to subscribers (it will go out on Tuesday – if you want it, subscribe here).
This mail-out discusses the concept of stream entry – a key stage on the path to Buddhahood.
I’ve been reflecting on one of the qualities of the stream entrant today: their lack of superficiality. Their inability to ‘go through the motions’.
The danger of belief
One of the things that immediately attracted me about Buddhism was that it seeks to undermine itself. Or rather, it seeks to undermine the tendency humans have to get attached to things they believe in.
When people get attached in that way, and start to identify with their beliefs, dangerous things can happen. They start to protect their beliefs.
They use violence, manipulation, lobbying, infiltration of the offices of power.
It can get nasty.
The reason they were attracted to those beliefs in the first place gets lost in their scrambling to protect them.
Ways Buddhism seeks avoid literalism
- The focus is on direct seeing, not belief. There is no ‘word of God’ to protect. You have to realise the truth for yourself.
- The truth is conceived of as being beyond language. So anything that is spoken, including all the Buddhist stuff, might be useful, but it’s not an absolute truth that must be defended.
Two examples of this from the early tradition are the concept of ‘right view’ and the third fetter.
In the final analysis, all views are wrong views. Right view is the ‘direct seeing’ that I was talking about. It’s not about having an opinion. Sure the Buddhist teachings about not-self and so on are seen as one stage on the path to right view, but they aren’t it.
Attachment to rights and rituals
The third fetter – ‘attachment to rights and rituals as ends in themselves’ – is another safety valve.
In the pre-Buddhist Vedic tradition, performing rituals correctly gave you power over the universe. You hired the Brahmin priest to do the ritual for you to make sure the crops grew, the marriage was successful, stuff like that.
The ritual itself held the power.
The Buddha said it’s your mind that holds the power. The ritual may be an expression of that, but it may just be a bunch of pointless actions performed with a mind that doesn’t know what it’s doing.
This isn’t just aimed at undermining other religions. It’s about keeping Buddhists on their toes.
It’s easy to fall into a rut with Buddhist practice. You meditate everyday, turn up at the temple, light incense, bow to the Buddha statue, get the monk a new robe every year, whatever.
Zen is very good at breaking through superficiality. There’s a story about a ruler who paid for lots of temples to be built, supported lots of monks, had shrines built in honour of the Buddha.
He asked a zen master how much virtue he had accrued in all this activity.
‘No virtue’ came the reply.
But zen practitioners are just as susceptible as everyone else to this fetter. We learn a bunch of pithy stories, get a skinhead, face the wall with perfect posture everyday, learn all the chants, get ordained and feel very proud of ourselves.
We turn up regularly, the years pass. It’s comfortable. They’re our friends. This is what we do. Like a guy who goes down the allotment every week, with the same flask, using the same tools, planting the same stuff.
But this is Dharma practice. It isn’t like other stuff. It shouldn’t be comfortable. It shouldn’t be painful, but if it gets too comfortable we need to question whether we’re really practising at all.