“When we understand how our mind works, the practice becomes easy.” “When we understand how our mind works, the practice becomes easy.” Reginald A. Ray discusses the close connection between Buddhist philosophy and practice.
Buddhism is known, above all, as a religion of meditation, direct experience and personal transformation. At the same time, it contains a massive philosophical corpus, a wealth of different doctrinal schools, and a strong emphasis on study, analysis, correct reasoning and debate. This sometimes leaves observers with the impression of a fundamental discrepancy within the tradition itself, as if meditation and philosophical study were two divergent and even conflicting trends.
In fact, most Buddhist traditions see doctrinal and philosophical study on the one hand, and meditation on the other, as complementary. More pointedly, while agreeing that meditation is the ultimate Buddhist methodology and the sine qua non of enlightenment, there is a general consensus that in a very real sense meditation depends upon the sound conceptual understanding—called “right view”—cultivated through study. Without a sound conceptual understanding, one’s meditation practice will likely be fraught with obstacles and difficulties and, perhaps, will even prove fruitless.
The 12th-century Vietnamese Zen master Thuong Chieu, as quoted by Thich Nhat Hanh, remarks that “when we understand how our mind works, the practice becomes easy.” The converse is also true: when we do not understand how our mind works, the practice becomes difficult, if not impossible. But how do we arrive at this needed understanding? For most Buddhist traditions, we do so through philosophical study and reflection.
Buddhism articulates two extraordinarily important insights about the human mind. First, owing to our human karma, we inevitably are thinkers. We are always thinking things are one way or another. We incessantly generate ideas about ourselves, others and the larger world. Everything we do implies a complex network of ideas that we are carrying around. If we are short with someone it is because of what we think; if we are kind to someone else it is because of what we think.
Marriage, couples’ counseling and divorce all become necessary because of our thought processes—our thinking about what and how our partner should be. Even the way we turn over in bed is based on some thought, however rudimentary, of what will make us more comfortable. As human beings we have ideas about everything, and, since there is no choice in this, we might characterize ourselves as compulsive thinkers.
This leads us directly to the second insight: while we may have no choice about whether or not we engage in discursive thinking, we do have some latitude about what we think. And, according to Buddhism, it is what we think that makes all the difference. If we think one thing, the spiritual path becomes not only possible, but also a virtual necessity. However, if we think another, the spiritual path becomes a complete impossibility. For this reason, “right view” comes at the very beginning of the most important delineation of the path in Buddhism, the noble eightfold path. Far from conflicting with meditation, the right kind of thinking is the gate through which we must pass if we hope to engage successfully in meditation, or even to maintain an ongoing meditation practice at all.
Buddhism comes to this position through the realization that what we think, to a very large extent, limits and controls our experience. In other words, what we expect to see is going to have a huge impact on what we are able to see. For example, if we expect to see a substantial self, because we have not learned to question our assumption that the self is ultimately real, then no matter what actually arises in our experience, we will still “see” a substantial self and manipulate our experience so that whatever occurs will seem to confirm this belief.
This is why we cannot just sit down to meditate with our conventional and habitual views of “self” intact. If we do, even our meditation practice will reinforce our idea of a substantial “self.” Pleasurable states will make us feel happy and “successful” in our spirituality, while unpleasant states will leave us doubtful and depressed. Rather than looking impartially to see what is really there, we will skew our meditation toward cultivating the desired states. More tragically, because we have the wrong view of our practice, when unwanted states arise, rather than recognizing them as the gaps in our ego process that they are, we might even give up our practice entirely because we think we are “doing something wrong.”
Recognizing this dynamic of the human mind, Buddhism sets its practitioners to change, through study, what they expect to see. It sets itself to change the climate of our expectations so that we can fruitfully pursue the path.
The four noble truths—the classical, concise summary of right view in Buddhism—illustrate how the Buddha sets out to change the climate of our expectations. In the first noble truth, he suggests that the “self” is impermanent, insubstantial and fundamentally marked with suffering—the so-called “three marks of existence.”
The self is impermanent: it is nothing more than an idea and, like all other concepts, does not endure through time but arises and disappears moment after moment. It is also insubstantial because it is an idea without objective referent—there is nothing in reality that corresponds to this concept. Finally, all samsaric existence—that is, existence lived in terms of our “self”—is painful and marked with the struggle of suffering. The more we try to assert the reality and satisfactory nature of our non-existent “self,” the more we are in denial of what is, and, consequently, the more distress and struggle we feel in the face of our experience.
It is not enough to know what the self is not—that it is not permanent, substantial or pain-free. To have confidence in the Buddha’s message, we should also know why we think we have a solid self, how we generate such a thought and why we seek so avidly to maintain it.
To satisfy our curiosity on this point, the Buddha presents the second noble truth, the truth of the origin of our suffering. Driving our false belief in a substantial “self” is our thirst, in Rahula’s words, “to live, to exist, to re-exist, to continue, to become more and more.” We seek to fulfill this thirst through all kinds of “good” and “bad” actions. Each of us, depending on our personal history, builds up a repertoire of habitual behaviors of body, speech and mind. This repertoire constitutes our particular self-concept.
In the third noble truth, the Buddha points out that the impermanent, causally born “self” is not the only thing going on in our experience. There is a dimension of awareness—our buddhanature—that is free from subject and object, free from birth and death, and that is realized through the path. And, finally, he articulates the path through which we can release our fixation on our delusional notion of “self” and attain the bliss and liberation of nirvana.
The four noble truths thus represent an alternative and more realistic belief system than the one we typically carry around with us. Through our study and contemplation of these truths, the climate of our expectations gradually begins to change. Most importantly, we find we can acknowledge and integrate the experiences of openness, insubstantiality and non-self as they emerge in our experience of meditation and our daily lives. No longer expecting to find a substantial, continuous “self” within us, we are not dismayed when moments of shakiness, groundlessness or even inner emptiness arise. More than this, we can welcome them as harbingers of the freedom we seek.
When we discover how twisted and self-defeating our thoughts, words and actions can be, we are able to develop compassion for a “self” that, while deluded, has arisen as the inevitable accumulation of our life’s causes and conditions. In addition, we can find confidence that just as our suffering has arisen from one series of causes, the eventual elimination of our suffering can be brought about through another—namely those of the path. And when we do experience moments of utter selflessness, rather than retracting in fear, we can let go into that open state and experience its limitless vistas.