Thursday, March 29, 2012

Skillful Means

"I use hundreds, thousands of various skillful means, such as different interpretations, indications, explanations, illustrations. It is not by reasoning that the way is to be found: it is beyond the pale of reasoning..."
--Shakyamuni Buddha, The Lotus Sutra

The Buddha spoke to many people in his lifetime, and he tailored his message to be as helpful as possible to each audience. When he spoke to his most dedicated and understanding followers, he gave them the highest level of abstract explanation they could swallow. When he spoke to skeptics, he encouraged them to put his teachings to the test of their own experience. When he spoke to ordinary citizens, he packaged his message in terms of their existing beliefs. He used stories and metaphors when he felt those would be most helpful. In short, he was a tactful teacher. The Buddha's use of tact is what he called "skillful means."

When people dive into the study of Buddhism without understanding skillful means, without taking into account the context and intention of each teaching, the overall message is not clear. It's kind of like reading a science article on wikipedia: one section is written at a 5th grade level, the next is written for grad students in quantum mechanics, and the overall meaning is lost. When the thousands of teachings of Buddhism are approached in the same haphazard way, there are many apparent contradictions in the teachings. However, these contradictions are resolved when they are put into context.

Here's an example: In the time and place of Buddha's teachings, about 400 BC in India, the culture widely believed that each person had a soul that would undergo reincarnation, and good deeds in this life would lead to reincarnation in a better state of existence, while bad deeds in this life would lead to rebirth in a state of existence with more suffering. When speaking to the general public, the Buddha explained his teachings in terms of these ideas because it would lead ordinary, selfish people to discover the joy of altruism. Thus it's possible to find many sutras in which the Buddha says that rebirth is real. However, when the Buddha spoke to his earnest but idealistic disciples, he said that rebirth is not real. He warned them that they should not believe in rebirth because it would cause them to believe that they have real ego-souls, and believing in the reality of the ego-soul would lead them back to selfishness, attachment, and suffering.

When speaking to a crowd of his wisest disciples in the Lankavatara Sutra, the Buddha gave a third interpretation of rebirth. He said that rebirth--along with all other phenomena--is neither real nor not real. He told these disciples to not get hung up on his other teachings; he was just using skillful means. In the other situations, he explained, he taught people according to their ability to understand. He said that, although the truth is that there is neither rebirth nor not rebirth, some of his disciples get attached to the selfish concern of their reincarnation. For them, they are better off starting with the concept of no-ego and no-rebirth. For other people, who are selfish, foolish, or superstitious, or who interpret the concept of no-ego and no-rebirth nihilistically, the Buddha said it would be better for them to believe in the reality of ego, soul, and rebirth so that they do not wallow in despair and lose sight of the teaching's ultimate purpose.

So there are 3 levels of interpretation: reality, no-reality, and neither reality nor no-reality. It's like the different interpretations of physics in high school, college, and grad school. In high school, we're taught that electrons behave like particles. In college we learn that electrons behave like waves and particles. In grad school they teach that electrons behave so crazily that no one even dares to say what they are. As with the Buddha's teachings, increasing levels of abstraction build up to a more refined and precise understanding that eventually surpasses the capacity of language. But each level is useful and serves a purpose. If you're just getting comfortable with high school physics, don't worry about quantum electrodynamics. If you're taking quantum, don't get hung up when the book disagrees with your high school physics teacher. Same thing with the sutras.

In Buddhism, they don't label the sutras according to grade or suggested age level, but they always start off by describing the audience the sutra was addressed to. That can give you an idea of how much subtlety is in the message, and what sort of skillful means are being employed. You might find one level speaks to you more than another. Don't worry about whether you're reading the most advanced stuff--don't make it an ego thing. All the teachings are here for our benefit. They should simply be used in the way that is most useful.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Ego: A Loyal Friend

"Wear your ego like a loose fitting garment.”

Sometimes our egos get us into trouble. Actually, a lot of times our egos get us into trouble. The ego is inherently not a team player. It's the part of the mind that believes "I should be the supreme ruler of the universe." Everything that stops us from attaining that exalted status is a crisis for the ego, and it has all kinds of ways of throwing tantrums in protest. Maybe it's a sniping comment, a career-ending outburst, an urge to punch someone, or simply annoyance in response to another person's every little action.

A lot of people go through life letting the ego call the shots, and the problem with this strategy is that the ego doesn't care about actual well-being; it cares only about the feeling of being special. The experiences necessary for growing up and being happy--and maybe even being successful--require the ego to confront failure and embarrassment; they require the ego to submit to the desires and leadership of other people; they require the ego to see its own imperfections. The ego would much rather delude itself: "I don't need to go to college--I'll just win American Idol/marry someone rich/start a business and sell it to Google." "I don't need to listen to that jerk--I'm better/smarter/prettier/more blessed/more realistic."

When facing the "harsh realities" of the world, the ego can turn to dysfunctional fantasies just to keep alive the feeling of being special. Poor people can convince themselves that the rich are evil and that poverty makes them morally superior. Rich people may feel guilty that people suffer in poverty and think they have the right to "fix" things by temporarily meddling in others' lives. Atheists may think that their skepticism is the sign of a superior mind, while religious people may think their faith is the sign of a superior heart.

One problem with all these opinions is that they are divisive; they engender distrust, dislike, and even mistreatment of other people. Another problem, maybe the biggest problem, is that they foster self-destructive behavior. The ego will go to great lengths to maintain the fantasy it has spun for itself, even at the cost of one's own well-being. It can be completely counterproductive: hating the rich won't lead to a good livelihood, assuaging guilt won't make the world's problems vanish, intellectual arrogance leads to small-mindedness, and blind faith leads to grandiose delusions. When egotistical plans fail to produce the intended outcomes, many people interpret the failure of their actions as a personal assault, and the ego gets riled up for the next round of reactions.

Some people are lucky enough to learn from these mistakes, and they begin the process of understanding how their mind works. Zen is such a process, but I want to add that other traditions have their own ways of helping people get over ego hang-ups. Religious customs and laws serve to guide people past the ego's momentary passions so they can better live in tune with the reality of being a little person in a big world. When explored intelligently, these traditions can lead to a broader awareness that allows for a wonderful and deep understanding of life. Part of that understanding is an appreciation of the ego, its function and dysfunction, and what to do with it. This can bring powerful relief from a lot of the ego's bad behavior.

Yet there are still pitfalls. The ego is very sneaky.

Whether you take the Christian approach, for example, which puts the ego in its place beneath the supreme authority of God, or you take the Buddhist approach, which deconstructs the ego and the rest of empirical existence, you can fall back into the ego's trap pretty easily. You might have a sublime spiritual experience that puts you in touch with a deep feeling of connection with God or reality, and for a while the ego seems to be stilled; you feel content with your place in the universe and you don't want to change a thing. But then the ego gets active again and starts to speak up. It says, "Wow, that was an amazing experience. I'm making such great progress. I'm really good at this. Why doesn't anyone else see what I see? I must have some unique ability. I must be special." Then it's back to the old ways: "I don't need to meditate. I don't need to pray. I'm just naturally in tune with this stuff. Whatever I do is fine." Or there could be greed instead: "If I try harder, I'll attain enlightenment. Maybe God will start talking to me. Maybe I can develop psychic powers."

It's hard to see or stop these feelings from taking root; they are often happening at the periphery of consciousness. What is easy to see is the result of these thoughts: disapproval of people who do not meet the ego's idealistic new standards, frustration that the great spiritual experiences cannot be repeated or captured, or disappointment when reality fails to live up to the ego's unrealistic expectations. When a profound spiritual event is followed by a permeating dissatisfaction with life, the ego is often, perhaps always, the culprit. This may also be the case with any emotional event that is followed by depression or dissatisfaction. The ego gets really excited when things are going the way it wants, and it does not let go gracefully.

When people recognize that the ego is responsible for so much anguish, they may turn to spirituality as an escape. Ironically, this is still an egotistical action. As mentioned before, the ego can use spirituality to make itself feel special, but even deeper than that is the issue of intention: what are we really doing when we seek an escape from our anguish? Aren't we simply engaging in the delusion that we are too special to be subjected to pain?

We're looking for special treatment. We're hoping to be the one person who never suffers. In that hope, we turn our spiritual journey into an impossible mission that will bring about more frustration and disappointment than anything else, because every little pain in life will be a reminder that we are failing in this impossible goal, and so our pain will be multiplied and multiplied.

Clearly, we can suffer less if we just let go of the impossible goal and learn to live with the suffering that comes on its own without trying to escape.

But this doesn't come immediately. Nor should it. In this intermediate position, where we recognize the suffering caused by our egos, but we haven't moved past it, there are opportunities to see what the ego really is. This is the time look at it.

The ego's relentless effort to make you feel special, no matter how self-destructive it may be, no matter how badly its clever attempts backfire, shows us its true nature: it is like a loyal but simpleminded friend, a doting grandmother, or a loving, nagging spouse. Our ego loves us dearly and wants only the best for us, but does not understand what we really need. It is not evil or malicious. It is simply blinded by the intensity of its love for the being it calls "me." It is an emotional being, not intellectual. It cannot be swayed by reason. It wants to destroy anyone who stands in your way, even though you know you need those people on your side. It is convinced of your superiority and wants to encourage you to have more, do more, and be more because it believes you deserve it. So it nags and nags, thinking it's helping. It's actually making you suffer, but it doesn't see that. It's too caught up in its love for you. It won't admit to itself that it has hurt you--that would be painful--so it blames all your pain on others and hides its actions from itself. That's one reason it's so hard to see it for what it is.

Another confusing factor is that when the ego uses language, it uses the name "me" to refer to itself, to other parts of the mind, and to the idea of one's identity. We're taught to think of our minds (and selves) as single, unified entities, when the reality is that they are composed of many parts that interact in all kinds of ways. Even the ego isn't one thing. There are all the different layers of ego from each period of your life, layered like tree rings. There's so much going on that it's hard, probably impossible, to sort out the whole mess. And even if you did get to the bottom of it and figure out your mind and the meaning of life, the ego is not going to respond to a purely intellectual understanding. So what can be done?

Because the ego is an emotional being, it does respond to emotional experiences. One aim of spiritual practice is to lead you to the kind of experiences that will reach the ego. When that part of your mind finally discovers that there is happiness to be found in caring about others, in accepting change, in forgiving, and in simply living the life that you are living, then it will become an asset instead of an obstacle. Ultimately, this means teaching the ego to share some of its boundless love with others. When that finally happens, and the ego sees that it's not just okay, but wonderful to do, it creates a positive feedback cycle.

Nevertheless, old habits persist, and the ego still nags. The different sides of ego, the love and the nagging, are inseparable. But the more we come to understand and appreciate the ego, the more skillful we can be about our response to it. It's like learning to live with someone who loves you a lot but upsets you with their high expectations: sometimes you need their encouragement, and other times you have to brush off what they say.

When I first read the line "wear your ego like a loose fitting garment," which is vaguely attributed to Buddha on the Internet, I thought it meant "it should be easy to take it off." That understanding was based on the desire to escape from the suffering caused by the ego. But if that's impossible, the quote simply means that the ego should serve its function without being too restrictive, and that is a much more realistic state to work toward.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Zen, God, & The Road

What do you imagine when you think of God?

Yesterday a friend said she thought I didn't believe in God. I asked her, "Why do you think that?" She said, "Because you're a Buddhist."

True, I am. And before that I didn't believe in God. I had rejected my Jewish upbringing as a teenager and went through an atheist streak that led to a period of really depressing nihilistic thinking. As a result, much of my early life and decisions were dominated by fear and misery.

Then a few years ago, when I was about 25, I worked with a man who inspired me (and others) with his fearlessness, his patience, and his down-to-earth wisdom. He told me I was wrong about most things, especially in my choice to let fear structure my life. "Don't make fear-based decisions," he told me a hundred times. Being stubborn, I tried my hardest to prove him wrong, but I failed. So that's how I came to suspect, reluctantly, that there was more to reality than my stupid teenage nihilism could explain.

To understand the guy's secret, I went on a spiritual kick, reading the Tao Te Ching about 30 times and giving a second look to the Torah, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Qur'an. I found ancient teachings from Gautama Siddhartha, aka The Enlightened One, and modern teachings from Alan Watts, Jiddu Krishnamurti, and Shunryu Suzuki. At first, I had an egotistical motive--I wanted to cheat suffering and death and somehow save my mind from annihilation. But reading this stuff didn't save me or turn me into a saint; it was just a scramble of intriguing words that had no visceral impact.

In Freedom from the Known, Krishnamurti asked what it would take to make these ideas as urgent as a snake underfoot, or a blazing house fire. He never answered the question.

I got frustrated and felt like I had to do something big. I wanted to break out of my old habits. They were blinding me. I wanted to leave them behind. So I ended my lease, packed my car with the essentials and--to begin the practice of letting go--I gave away most everything else. Then I hit the road.

That journey changed my life. There was a lot of boredom and aching loneliness, punctuated with occasional flashes of danger, awe, romance and revelation. On the road I discovered the practice of Zen Buddhism, and it brought about radical improvements in my understanding, feelings, and behavior. For the first time in my adult life, I didn't feel lost. One by one I faced the dumb cravings and fears that had obstructed and confused me. One by one I brought down the blocks that prevented me from caring deeply about other people. I eventually came to believe that I was capable of fulfilling my childhood dream, which was to become a doctor. So after a year on the road, I went back to school.

Some time has gone by and life right now looks more like a routine than a journey. Still, I'm making progress by practicing Zen meditation and studying the Buddha's teachings, both on my own and with others.

Yet the big questions are still there. For one, do I believe in God?

Last night, I told my friend that Buddhists aren't necessarily atheists. Buddha occasionally talked about God, although he did it carefully. He said that words like "God," "Divine Reality," "Ultimate Truth," "Pure Beingness," and "Nirvana" all point to the same thing, but fall short of capturing its essence. Buddha went to great lengths to teach people about the pitfalls of using words to describe something that transcends ordinary existence, which is why Buddhists do not talk about God very often. In this regard I see a connection to the second of the Ten Commandments of Exodus, which forbids the creation of an image of God. Whether the image is made in our hands with clay or made in our minds with words, the image will always fall hopelessly short of its intended meaning, and confusion will begin.

The main idea is that Buddhism and the Abrahamic religions can point toward the same meaning, even though the words and the superficial forms are different.

So I'm a Buddhist, not because I do or don't believe in God, but because Buddhism is a practical way for me to keep my mind open to what that Ultimate Reality is, without getting caught up in images. That's what works for me. Different people come to understanding through different paths. If you seek the truth, it's hard but necessary to accept that one path is not more correct than another in any fundamental way.

Going forward, I want to keep exploring the various means of seeking truth: different religions, spiritual practices, philosophical and scientific investigations, and lifestyles. By sharing my opinions here, I hope to illuminate what these practices have in common and what they can share, rather than advocate one over the other.