Monthly Archives: July 2021

Reckless

The heart is a reckless thing, full of love and tenderness, not counting the cost of the risks it takes. It is the ego, the kludge we think is ourself, with its thoughts and its calculations, its appearances to be kept up, its scores to be settled, that will not let it sing. But the ego is a lash-up, a phoney self, a bundle of shadows. It does not even stay true to itself from one moment to the next.

It takes some training to equate complete letting go with comfort. But in fact, “nothing to hold on to” is the root of happiness. There’s a sense of freedom when we accept that we’re not in control. Pointing ourselves toward what we would most like to avoid makes our barriers and shields permeable.

Pema Chödrön – Tricycle, Winter 2001

And in fact we are not in control. All that is in control here is cause and effect, dependent origination. Take away the dream of control, and you find yourself at rest in the very ground of being, the isness that is before becoming. That is the heart’s true home, the healing of things in themselves.

We are not what we think we are, ever. We are paradox, human. We are bombu, scraps of foolishness on a changing wind. And we live in the middle, somewhere, in the muddle. Until the light dissolves us, there is nowhere else to be. Chödrön again:

The fact is that we spend a long time in the middle. This juicy spot is a fruitful place to be. Resting here completely—steadfastly experiencing the clarity of the present moment—is called enlightenment.

Settling in

Ultimately, even the nembutsu arises not from ourselves, from our own ego, but is experienced as the call from the deepest level of reality, from the depths of our own being, in which the flow of emptiness/oneness is realized in each manifestation of form and appearance.

Mark & Taitetsu Unno, from the foreword to Jeff Wilson, Buddhism of the Heart, Wisdom Publications 2009

In the Shin view, awakening isn’t something we strive desperately for and obtain through our own efforts at study or meditation—it is something we settle into and receive.

Jeff Wilson, Buddhism of the Heart, Wisdom Publications 2009, p.4

Over the years of my Christian contemplative practice, and perhaps even more so now, I have felt keenly that contemplation is not so much something we do as something we enter, however intentional that entering may have to be. I have never felt that practice was – for me at any rate – a matter of self-improvement, or even attainment. (This may be why I have always been uncomfortable with contemplative metaphors such as the eponymous ladder of John Climacus, and some of the rather Baroque imagery associated with Vajrayana Buddhism.) The sense is not one of passivity (as some have felt applicable to the concept of infused contemplation) but of receptivity, openness to something of which we are already part, albeit unconsciously. Practice, then, could be conceived as a way of becoming conscious, waking up, to this.

“This” of course, is really no more than “things-as-they-are”, that which actually is (Eckhart’s istigkeit) regardless of the ego’s samsaric constructs through which we, half-asleep, tend to experience objects and events: “Rather than desperately trying to bring about our own buddhahood, we recognize that if we relax and don’t stick our foolish egos in the way of things, then the Dharma will naturally bring about our transformation… Amida is the means by which the Dharma, the truth of things-as-they-are, acts upon us to help us awaken to liberation… what we need to do is develop trust in the embracing ocean of the Dharma.” (Wilson, op. cit., p. 33)

Perhaps this is why I have always been drawn to practices like the Jesus Prayer and the Nembutsu, which are explicitly simple practices for simple (bombu) people. For all the words we use, for all the complexities we in our anxieties construct, it is that just simple. All we need to do is stop thrashing about, and settle in.

Beyond the fences

Many of our institutions are struggling to seem relevant these days, that includes the church in its various forms. There are many reasons for this.

One reason is that for a long time religious institutions, such as the church, have tried to maintain a monopoly on access to the spiritual. ‘Come here’ they say, ‘do this’ or ‘read that’ and you can access the divine; the spiritual realm. Institutions as gatekeepers.

One of the great shifts in recent years has been the growing realisation that spirituality is not confined by a set of walls or dogmas, increasing proportions of society have come to see that they can perceive or experience the spiritual beyond the confines that the institutions have appeared to present. Beyond the fences that they were told were unclimbable. This loss of monopoly has added to the difficulties experienced by other institutions, making some of the religious institutions that rely upon it appear as if they have no relevance beyond that of cultural belonging. Gatekeepers are pointless if fences are illusions.

Simon J Cross – Weekday meditation 2/7/2021

For far too long I have tended to believe in the gatekeepers and their narratives of the borderlines. For far too long I felt, albeit unconsciously, that access to the spiritual, or at least to meaningful spiritual practice, depended upon making the right choice of gateway, at least on finding the gateway that was right for me, a gate for whose lock I had the key.

Sufficient introspection would have told me I was wrong, but there never seemed to be a gap for sufficient introspection. Being part of a religious institution put constraints on that kind of introspection, kept me thinking in the well-worn tracks of the (in my case Christian) doctrine and praxis I knew so well, effectively limiting my conclusions to those that would fit within the fences they defined.

The past 16 months or so, with churches and the places where people meet largely closed, have proved those fences to be illusory. The barriers between the selves I have seemed to be have proved illusory also: there is no longer any unavoidable incompatibility between thought and experience, between hope and grace.

In an article on the Secular Buddhist Network Robert M Ellis writes, “I do not describe myself as a Buddhist, because that process of practical examination of what works is far more important to me than loyalty to any tradition. Instead, I describe myself as a ‘Middle Way practitioner’ – where the Middle Way is understood as a universal principle that can be found both in Buddhism and in many other places.”

I am not sure that I would even describe myself as a middle way practitioner (with or without capitals), still less a Buddhist, these days. (I rather like the way Sam Harris, in Waking Up, avoids handing his key to that gatekeeper.) There must be many of us Einzelgänger and Einzelgängerinnen out here now, beyond the fences, and I’m coming to suspect that we don’t need to form communities, adopt labels, and things like that. We will find each other if we need each other, and just as the current pandemic that has given so many of us space to breathe is a fact of our time, so too is the internet that enables me to publish this post at the click of a button.