For many years I’ve been taking Buddhist teachings from Tibetan Lama Sogyal Rinpoche. I don’t call myself a “Buddhist,” or an any kind of “ist,” as I think about and try to practice various teachings from many paths and perspectives. I do find Buddhism appealing as it’s so psychological in its emphases, and Sogyal Rinpoche is a brilliant teacher.
My style of learning is generally to think about things, talk about them with others, get their feedback on what they think of my ideas, hear what their understanding is, etc. It’s probably a very Western way, as compared to that of many traditional cultures where you try to learn what the Masters have to say and put it into practice, with what often seems to me (I may be prejudiced here) an emphasis on rote learning rather than thinking about.
Recently some of us older students or Rinpoche have finally started having an email discussion about some aspects of what “enlightenment” or spiritual progress is from the Buddhist perspective and our own perspectives, and I thought it might be useful to share some of my comments on this here. Perhaps this is an example of what a modern, Western, transpersonal psychologist thinks.
The discussion started around an idea in Buddhist teachings that our unenlightened, ordinary state involves being too much lost in infinite complexities of deluded, samsaric existence. As a beautiful translation of a traditional Tibetan text by Sogyal Rinpoche puts it,
Ho! Mesmerized by the sheer varieties of perception,
Which are like the reflections of the moon in water,
Beings wander endlessly astray in samsara’s vicious cycle…..
My wife Judy noted that a reason for complexity is
>Why do we want to see what’s beyond the “sheer variety”? For me anyway, it’s to answer those old questions – Where do we come from? What’s REALLY going on here? How is it that I exist?<
I’m completely with her (makes for a good marriage). Yes, I don’t want me or other people to suffer, and clearly we can get distracted by all that complexity so we don’t learn the Buddhist procedures that would reduce our suffering, but that’s not enough for me. I’m curious! And I think my curiosity, my interest in knowing more, is one of my best features.
At my current level of (mis?)understanding, I know that many Buddhist practices will reduce my suffering, make me more effective at helping others, and also allow me much more innate contentment: just happy being, not needing constant entertainment and distraction. There’s also, I think, a promise in the teachings that if I ever got really really enlightened I would, like the Buddha, know everything, like he supposedly did. I know for sure the techniques and practices help a lot here-and-now, but I don’t really know about this way-down-the-road promise. I don’t actively deny the possibility, but I put it on “hold,” I know what results in ordinary life are, I don’t know about this.
So I hope to keep up a sensible level – respect the relative, as ordinary existence is called – of interest in and curiosity about, and attempts to improve the ordinary, the relative, but hopefully my meditations and other practices keep me reminded that this isn’t the absolute, the highest possible, stay open to the …. I was going to say “the More,” but this sounds greedy, I don’t know how to express the whatever is is/isn’t. But maybe some of you know what I mean.
Making this more concrete: the classic Buddhist teaching example of how our perception is distorted is about walking down a jungle path at twilight and mistaking a rope lying beside the path for a deadly snake. It’s a great illustration of how consciousness is constructed, biased, not just a high fidelity perception of what’s really there. The lesson, for me at least, being don’t automatically take everything you see and experience as necessarily true, it may be a little or a lot illusory and distorted. Learn to experience more of what’s called the 6th consciousness, simple sensory perception, not be always stuck in 7th consciousness, the automatic, biased elaborations and story that substitute almost instantly for actual perceptions..
On the other hand, as a being incarnated in a vulnerable physical body, the world, especially hot places like India, is full of dangerous things like snakes. I’m likely to survive much longer if my automatic processes (I think of this one as an ancient program hardwired into the human brain, human karma) scream “Snake, stop moving forward, jump back!!!,” I stop, then I’ll be happy to be embarrassed afterwards for being mistaken. Embarrassment is much lighter suffering than snake bite and dead…..
Again, just my personal opinion, but Buddhist teachings in general often seem to put too much emphasis on getting on to the Absolute compared to practical teachings for getting along better in the Relative. Not that there isn’t a lot of practical advice in Buddhism as I know it, but the balance doesn’t seem right to me.
Some of my friends, continuing our discussion, seemed to be a little embarrassed at wondering/speculating what more enlightenment would be like. I understand the need for knowing what various teaching say if you’re going to practice Buddhism, but I worry that too much humility, too much “Just quote what the Buddha or one of the enlightened Masters said” is not adaptive in our culture, so I wanted to encourage people to relax and think. Thus:
Can I encourage you, my friends, to stop apologizing for thinking about the teachings and their application to life? There is no problem with thinking, with “risings” per se, as I understand it (oh, oh, that’s coming close to an apology….), it’s the inappropriate and habitual attachments to thoughts that leads to problems. I’ve heard Sogyal Rinpoche teach that, and it’s certainly my own best understanding to date. It’s not thoughts (or feelings) that are a problem, it’s the following after them, the way they automatically carry us away into our fantasies and stories.
When I/we discuss our understandings of the teachings, I try to remember that we are like first graders having a discussion about what you will learn in college or graduate school. We probably have some little but correct understandings, but may be way off on others. So, in our Western intellectual culture at least, do we beat little kids when they think and talk about things they don’t understand?
I know, there are some very repressive parents and sub-cultures that do, but I never did. If I spoke up at all to kids I tried to encourage them to learn more things and think things through – and be prepared to learn more and think more as time went on, rather than think they had The Final Answer right now.
Gosh, as I write that I think I must have been an ideal parent—and I’m sure I was never that good, but that was my guiding ideal. Same thing with students in my undergraduate and graduate classes nowadays – if they can repeat the “facts” I’ve taught them correctly, that’s good, but if that’s all they do, I’m sad. I’m delighted when they think about and extend what they’ve been taught, when they don’t childishly stay in a “They are children, I am the grown up who must be right” stance, but think about, explore things beyond my initial teaching and stimulation.
One of the things that really attracted me to the Buddha as a teacher is his Sutta to the Kalamas. Here’s a translation I have:
-Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.
-Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
-Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumored by many.
-Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.
-Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
-But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason, and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
My personal understanding of this, fueled by ego and cultural conditioning, of course, as well as, hopefully, by common sense and genuine understanding, is don’t freeze your ideas and ideals at any point, keep open to the moment, to learning.
But there are many strains of Buddhism, and while I’m not a Buddhist scholar, I’ve gotten the impression in looking at some teachings that this sutta has been interpreted (arising in much more authoritarian cultures than ours?) as think until you reach the same conclusion the Buddha is supposed to have reached about things, and then you can or should stop thinking…..Sadly this approach can reinforce the tribal mentality that is part of being human, so we feel threatened by people who don’t fully conform to the approved interpretation and reject them (Me? Now? Sorry, I’m a thinker, even thought I try not to get too attached by my thoughts).
So in our culture, at least in my idealized understanding of it, we encourage our kids to think. So keep thinking, kids, and don’t apologize for it! Share your thinking, and the thoughts you get from us other kids may help you correct misunderstandings or understand better. And don’t be mean to yourself or others because they are thinking!
And maybe some day when we’re in graduate school and know so much much more, we’ll look back fondly on our little kids selves…..”They had some weird ideas, but they were good kids, had their hearts in the right places, and learned a lot….”