When the Way Gets in the Way
The teachings of the great spiritual masters are rarely straightforward - although we often wish they were and usually try to make them what they're not. We hear profound and complex truths and then do our best to squeeze them into our simplified little pigeonholes. Spiritual truths generally do not conform to our desire for black and white divisions. Instead, they often appear to us as paradoxical or even contradictory.
The word "paradox" comes from the Greek "para" ("beyond") and "doxa" ("belief"); paradoxos means "beyond belief" or "conflicting with expectation." And the truth does indeed often "conflict with expectation!" When we hear that the best thing to do when someone hurts us is to forgive and love them back, this does not accord with our impulsive and habitual urges. When we read that "the first shall be last and the last shall be first" we wonder if there hasn't been some mix-up at the printer's.
"A paradox," according to one dictionary, "is an apparent falsehood that is true, or an apparent truth that is false." And we, in our ignorance, often invert the two. We, for example, think of things that are impermanent as permanent, the impure we mistake for the pure, that which is without essence we believe has an essence, and what ultimately brings us problems we think will bring us happiness. Another dictionary defines "paradox" as "A statement that seems contradictory or absurd but is actually valid or true." The fact that the truth can appear to us to be "contradictory or absurd" is simply a measure of the depths of our own ignorance.
Bob Thurman is reputed to have said, "A dharma practitioner must have a high tolerance for cognitive dissonance." We must learn to open ourselves up to the paradoxical nature of spiritual truth, which really means we must let go of our usual classification of things into watertight and mutually exclusive categories. We must try to get more comfortable with the risky ambivalence of contradiction, incongruity, and conundrum.
It might seem paradoxical, for example, to say that we practitioners must BOTH learn how to work hard AND learn how to relax, to be BOTH disciplined AND free, to be BOTH mindful AND spontaneous. How can we be two contradictory things at once? How can we embrace and put into practice such paradoxical instruction?
We are fortunate that in our immediate lineage we are taught how important discipline and effort are to a spiritual life. Dabblers and dilettantes in the dharma don't usually stay too long with us. We insist that there is no substitution for -- and no real progress without -- a regular daily practice: daily meditation, contemplation, dharma study, checking one's morality, and some kind of physical practice like yoga that will keep the inner energies flowing well. Without the fourth of the six perfections of Mahayana Buddhism -- virya or "joyful effort" -- not much will happen in your spiritual life, as the Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life states clearly:
Once you have practiced patience, begin
Your practice of effort, for enlightenment lies
In making these kinds of effort.
Without a breeze they never flicker,
And just so in the absence of effort
Merit can never occur.
No effort, no merit. And I think anyone who is honest with themselves will recognize this. We know that it is at those times when we are really practicing well and consistently that we see noticeable shifts in our spiritual progress and level of happiness. On the other hand, it is when we slack off for days or even weeks and months that we backslide into our old habits and the unhappiness they engender.
But as many type-A personality dharma practitioners quickly find out, it is possible to bring all the stress we associate with our secular life into our spiritual life as well. We can worry, get tense, feel anxious and insecure, and in general get all worked up about the very thing that's supposed to bring us relief from such agitation. If your spiritual practice has become the source of anxiety and stress, it ain't a spiritual practice anymore.
It's important to work hard on the path to improve and perfect yourself. But it is equally important to cultivate a relaxed and stress-free attitude about the path. The way can get in the way if it becomes the source of anything other than happiness and joy.
That's why in the chapter on virya Master Shantideva also insists that to maintain pleasure in the practice one should take time off when necessary: " When one loses strength, one should leave off in order to work again later." All religious traditions have some form of the "holiday" ("holy day"), and in some of them it is programmed into the weekly schedule. Honoring the sabbath means taking a day off from one's labors - from one's secular work but also perhaps from the exertions of meditation, study, mindfulness, etc. When one has worked hard all week on a spiritual pratice, it is advisable to "leave off" for a bit, as Master Shantideva advises, so as to return to the practice refreshed, renewed, and inspired.
So, work hard but relax when needed. But there's more. We must also learn to relax about working hard.
It's not just that, without taking breaks, the way or the path can become productive or stress rather than happiness. There is a deeper level to the concept of "the way getting in the way" -- of the means themselves becoming obstacles to the end. The very idea that the path leads to a place different from where you are is, ultimately, a problem. It is a form of discontentment with the here and now. And discontentment cannot be overcome through perpetually desiring something that you don't have or wishing you were someone you are not now. It is overcome by simply being happy with what you have and who you are.
There is an obvious problem in the idea that one needs to be a different person or acquire something other or more to be content. We cannot "achieve" or "attain" happiness in any other way than by just being happy with who we are and what we have. We continually defer the goal by thinking that we haven't yet reached it; we always keep it just beyond our grasp in the indefinite and imaginary future rather than in the real here and now.
Paradoxically (as it were), we need to work hard to get to the place where we realize that there has never been anything at all that we need to "acquire" or "obtain." We won't "reach" or "arrive at" nirvana; we will recognize and realize that it has always been a possibility right here, right now. To quote the great Arya Nagarjuna:
There is nothing whatsoever
That distinguishes samsara from nirvana
Or nirvana from samsara.
"Samsara" and "nirvana" are not distinct places or conditions; they are just two different perspectives on present reality. Our idealization of nirvana or enlightenment as some sort of never-never land, some heavenly realm completely and utterly different from where we are now, keeps it always in abeyance and at arm's length. Anam Thubten, in his new book entitled No Self, No Problem , writes:
Nirvana is not some kind of beautiful, celestial garden filled with peaches and mangoes, a place where everybody is walking around with beautiful halos. It is not a place where everyone is in a constant state of bliss. It's not even a transcendent state of mind that we are going to achieve. It is not a beautiful, ecstatic, trancelike state of mind that we can cherish. Rather, nirvana is a great cessation of the separation between us and the truth. It is the mere acknowledgment of what has been the case all along. It is like waking up from a nightmare. It's a great relief to discover that nothing has to be done.
We're deferring our own enlightenment by demanding the appearance of "mangoes, peachs, and halos" in the outer world. But nirvana and samsara are merely different viewpoints on our present reality. There is no nirvana to achieve through hard work and practice (although without hard work and practice, nothing will happen). There is only a nirvana to realize and apprehend through wisdom and understanding the truth (which comes from hard work and practice). We will, eventually, simply notice enlightenment, not procure it.
The nirvanic point of view is perfectly content, at peace, with nothing that needs changing or correction. And the samsaric point of view is the opposite. It is defined by discontentment, striving, effort, thirst and craving for something more, something different, something new and transformed from what is.
"Samsara," declares the Ashtavakra Gita, "is nothing other than having something that needs to be done."
So back to the paradoxical nature of the truth. We must work hard... to get to the point where we realize there is nothing whatsoever that needs to be done. As Arya Nagarjuna puts it, we will never get to the goal by grasping at it:
"Without grasping, I will extinguish suffering
And nirvana will be mine!"
The grasping of those who say this
Is a great grasping and clinging.
It is the grasping to the nirvanic state of non-grasping that keeps us from the nirvanic state of non-grasping! The very striving for truth, for happiness, for enlightenment, thwarts our awareness of it. In the Ashtavakra Gita, we read that
The fool does not reach ultimate reality because he wants it so bad. The wise one, without wanting at all, realizes the nature of the supreme and ultimate reality...
The fool does not obtain peace because he desires peace. The wise man always has a peaceful mind, knowing how things really are.
The "orthodoxy" tells us to discipline and exert ourselves (and that is true). A "heterodoxy" might suggest the opposite, to relax and let go (and that is also true). But the "paradoxy" teaches us to do both - to work hard AND relax, to make strong efforts to come to the realization that nothing needs doing, nothing needs to be fixed or to change or to be anything other than what it is... and always has been.
With all good wishes,