I have let go of a lot because of my practice, but I still harbor this compulsion to try to explain myself. Human communication is a bit of a mystery to me. I can’t say that writing almost obsessively is a rational response, but it’s not a rational sentiment to begin with.
I have already tried to explain the slightly complicated point that the predominance, that I can see, of Buddhist teachers in the United States who either are Asian or have traveled to Asia to study with masters there is not exactly a problem — we have a plethora of outstanding dharma teachers, which is a great thing — but can potentially have the unintended consequence of leading some people to conclude that travel to Asia is necessary for the highest attainments in Buddhism.
I’m not to the highest attainment yet, but I have gotten a whole lot closer than when I started, and without going to Asia. I have no aversion to traveling to Asia. I just have never had the opportunity. If you want to go to Asia, certainly you should go. Have fun. Study with realized masters. Achieve enlightenment.
To borrow a phrase, we’ll leave the light on for you.
I’ll keep plugging away here. So I want to show other people in the United States that what matters in Buddhism is the practice, not the location. The Buddha happened to have been born in northern India or southern Nepal and had the enormous benefit of the centuries of Indian philosophy from what is one of the oldest civilizations on the planet.
But the Buddha never said that one had to visit him or his homeland to achieve enlightenment. He likely did not think of himself as living in a place called “India.” Buddhism has now spread throughout Asia, from Malaysia to Mongolia. Remember that the Taliban tried to destroy two huge Buddha statues carved into a cliff in what is now Afghanistan.
And Buddhism has spread around the world. Even a nice (!) Episcopalian boy from Oklahoma City can grow up to be a Buddhist.
But the other reason why I do this is that, in my experience, a lot of Buddhist teachers leave a lot of the experience on the path out. Maybe they have a reason. Maybe they don’t think they do that. Maybe it’s a giant conspiracy! Okay, it’s not. That’s a joke.
Buddhist teachers do often rely on stories from their own lives to illustrate the teachings, which is a fine thing. Personal stories can serve to make points more concrete and accessible.
And maybe my experience is just unique, or weird. Everyone’s path is different.
But I think a more robust description of what we might call the phenomenology of the path is helpful. I have discussed with a Buddhist friend who has a Ph.D. in philosophy our independent conclusions that phenomenology is the closest western philosophy gets to Buddhism. Like Buddhism, phenomenology is heavily focused on mind and on the thoughts and thinking of individuals.
In Three Pillars of Zen, the editor includes a discussion by a Soto Zen master of what he calls “makyo,” which are the delusions and distortions we all suffer from. He says that, at the broadest level, our whole lives are makyo until we achieve full awakening. In a more specific sense, makyo are the various, sometimes really weird, experiences that can arise as you walk along the path. The mind is an amazing place and it has amazing tricks lurking in it that you may stumble upon as you meditate.
Maybe most Buddhist teachers implicitly take the same position as the Soto teacher in Three Pillars of Zen, that makyo is just noise and not worth paying attention to. Just ignore it and keep meditating. That’s what he says in the book, which also includes transcriptions of interviews with a number of students and their interviews with the teacher, where he says the same thing to those individuals who report experiences that the teacher suspects are just makyo.
But I have to wonder if some of this stuff is not weird enough that it might prove a deterrent to people who do not have anyone nearby who can tell them just to ignore it and keep meditating. You may see lights with your eyes closed. You may feel as if your head is going to explode. You may have perceptions or sensations that no one has ever had or that you can’t describe.
Just keep meditating.
I was never a very happy person. I stayed mostly unhappy for a long time after I started meditating. It is not a quick fix. But I am a persistent cuss and I kept at it. One day, out of nowhere, I had a flash of unaccountable happiness. It didn’t last long, but it was confirmation of what other people had said about the practice.
Since then, I have had moments when I was so happy it literally hurt. I felt like the happiness was frying the inside of my head. It wasn’t. I survived.
After choosing to work on jhana practice (look at Dharmaseed.org for an abundance of talks on this topic) for a while, I now have a reliable spot I can enter into at will to make myself happy for no discernible reason. One broad, underlying point is that, as Buddhist teachers often claim, happiness does not depend on external circumstances, which are impermanent and unsatisfying. The point of Buddhism is to learn to focus on your own capacity for happiness entirely apart from external circumstances.
But even as jhana practice gave me the capacity to be happy at will and pushed me clearly towards awakening, it also resulted in moments when i was really grumpy and annoyed at the world.
The Buddha, and modern Buddhist teachers, say that the practice only reveals reality. What Buddhists call hinderances, or mental bad habits and commitments that keep us from awakening, are the problem in the grand scheme, but can be provisionally useful in specific situations. Especially as children, we may have developed coping mechanisms that helped us survive then, but get in the way as adults.
After his awakening, the Buddha apparently did not get annoyed. The ultimate outcome of meditation, under some descriptions, is equanimity, which is the state of profound peace in which one cannot get annoyed.
I’m working on it. I am getting better. The ads at the beginning of Youtube videos are less annoying with each passing day. But having reality more fully exposed can, along the way, be really annoying. It feels as if the world is grating my brain. Unfun. Not recommended.
But, across the desert lies the promised land.
The short answer, I guess, which you never get from a historian, is just keep meditating. i have no doubt that I will no longer get annoyed once I awaken fully. You either.
Help spread the word.