How can I frame my dharma practice in more positive terms?

Satya Robyn, Harry Um, and Valerie Brown discuss the “positive” and “negative” focuses of Buddhist practice.

By Valerie Brown

Harry Um, Satya Robyn
From left to right: Satya Robyn, Harry Um, and Valerie Brown. Photos by Kaspa Thompson (left) and Katie Brown (right.)

Question: Buddhism is framed in such negative terms: mind-states to avoid, actions not to undertake, how not to be. Even enlightenment is the absence of delusion. I’d like to focus on what Buddhism is for, not just what it’s negating. How can I frame my practice in more positive terms?

Satya Robyn: Early this morning I went outside to sit in with our garden Buddha. I recited a mala of nembutsu—my main practice as a Pureland Buddhist—taking refuge in Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. Saying the nembutsu reminds me that I am already accepted just as I am, and that after I die I will be going to a good place. With every utterance of Namo Amida Bu, I relax a little more into the Buddha’s lap, and am slowly filled with faith.

Buddhism helps me to love and to be loved.

What is Buddhism for? Buddhism helps me to love and to be loved. How? By helping me to be less afraid. My teacher, Dharmavidya, says that all of our problems are a result of a lack of faith. I fear being disliked because I don’t trust that I’ll be okay on my own. I fear losing my job because I don’t trust that I’ll find another one. I fear getting a cancer diagnosis because I don’t trust that I’ll be able to handle whatever happens next.

When I read the Nikayas, I too am struck by the long lists of things to avoid and qualities to aspire to. I fall very short of these ideals! When I begin to feel overwhelmed and discouraged, however, I remember how my teacher would read those classic stories from the sutras in a gently humorous way; I could just see the Buddha’s fond smile as he described foolish student after foolish student. Sometimes I suspect the Buddha gave us so many instructions so he could keep us busy while the real work of dharma transmission is taking place—with a person-to-person infection of golden faith.

Those long lists of mind-states to avoid, actions not to undertake—I do find them helpful to remind myself of my vows and my aspirations as a Buddhist. Checking myself against the bodhisattva ideal shows me where I am experiencing a lack of faith and where I can make improvements. More than this, though, it keeps me humble, and it reminds me to keep turning—as a bombu, or foolish being—to the power of Amitabha. When I turn to the Buddha, I have an experience of her perfect love for me, with all my flaws and vulnerabilities. This love soaks into me and it helps me to feel less afraid. When I’m less afraid, I’m more generous, grateful, and loving, without needing to strive or push. It happens naturally. (A pleasant side effect is that it makes me happy!)

Buddhism can be misread as a neverending course of study, with the final test of enlightenment always looming. Instead, it’s a beautiful flower. Receive it, enjoy it, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Namo Amida Bu!

Harry Um: Like many students of the dharma, I try to see things through a lens of nondualism. So of course, it is tempting to say that there is no such thing as “positive” or “negative,” or at least that there is no meaningful distinction between them. However, it is also true that the teachings ascribed to the Buddha are often framed in negative terms—the aspiration, for example, for lust, anger, and delusion to be “absent.”

So it is worth exploring what it means for these things to be absent. I wonder if the wish to be free of them might sometimes be misunderstood as a cue to ignore them. As someone who struggles with expressing my own anger, I sometimes let myself believe I am transcending it when in actuality, I am probably suppressing it. It comes out later anyway, so my efforts are not only unhelpful, they are potentially harmful.

As a person of color, I cannot help but think of the parallels with today’s racial justice movements. Many well-meaning people regard themselves as being “not racist,” or having an absence of racist intent. But they still benefit from the racism that is embedded in structures and systems; we cannot truly say that they are “free” of it. This is why, as many activists continue to point out, the delusion of racism needs to be addressed proactively. And for that to happen, we need to start with the positive affirmation that it actually exists, around us and within us.

The trap of positive/negative dualism is the belief that, if we all just “get rid” of our “bad” mind-states, then we will be in the clear. This is tempting, but is also, in and of itself, a kind of delusion. There are countless examples of teachers who, purporting to have right understanding, have caused great harm with their unskillful actions.

If by “positive” we mean “pleasant,” then sitting with anger, grappling with racism, and confronting uncomfortable truths about ourselves may not feel positive. But if we regard these activities as efforts to achieve an appropriate, mindful response to a given reality, then labels such as “positive” and “negative” become less relevant.

Nevertheless, it is understandable and honest to wish for positivity as a way to frame the effort and intention needed to motivate practice. For this, it can be helpful to try to cultivate wholesome antidotes to unwholesome mind-states. To be without anger could also be to cultivate “a mind overflowing with kindness,” as Bhikkhu Bodhi puts it. Likewise, to be without greed could call for practicing generosity. And being without delusion would mean striving for a wise and skillful view, both of oneself and of the world.

Valerie Brown: In the Plum Village tradition, a practitioner is invited to engage mindfulness to support happiness, understanding, peace, compassion, and love in ourselves and in the world.  Mindfulness is a living path of practice that allows us to be fully alive in this present moment, to experience freedom and joy in this body, this breath, and this environment. Practicing in this way, we support ourselves as an act of self-love and self-care; this generates joy within that is available to be shared with others to create a better world.  With a steady, calm heart, we support ourselves, and all beings benefit.

Focusing on the negative within Buddhist teachings, we miss the essential positive elements.

In his writings and teachings, Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of the importance of stopping and looking deeply to see a situation clearly and develop greater understanding.  Practically speaking, this means pausing, returning to our body and breath, and considering whether our perceptions, beliefs, assumptions, or thoughts are correct.  It means asking, is there more that I may not be seeing or understanding?  Stopping, or shamatha, is one of the first aspects of meditation and an important spiritual practice of coming back to this moment, practicing concentration, and being fully present.  The second aspect of meditation is vipashyana, looking deeply to see the true nature of things.  As we encounter Buddhist teachings, we have an opportunity to practice stopping and looking deeply.

The Discourse on the Five Ways of Putting an End to Anger offers an important teaching on how to live with a wise and open heart, even in the most challenging situations and with the most challenging people (and also with people who embody kindness and goodness). Choosing to open our hearts with compassion to those who are suffering and to see the basic goodness and kindness in others helps us reframe our own afflictive emotions and awakens calm and happiness within.  In this way, we begin to understand even those who may have caused harm are deserving of our compassion. We can put this into practice through metta, or loving-kindness, meditation. With something as simple as “May all beings everywhere feel safe, peaceful, and compassion,” we can hold ourselves, those we care about, those we don’t know, those we believe have caused us harm, and all beings with positive regard.

Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term “interbeing,” which refers to awareness of the interconnected nature of all things.  From that perspective, the so-called “negative” contains the positive, suffering contains joy, what happens to me affects you.  Focusing on the negative within Buddhist teachings, we miss the essential positive elements.  An important question to ask here is, how might the “negative” in Buddhism be an opportunity to stop and look deeply?

Valerie Brown

Valerie Brown

Valerie Brown is a dharma teacher in the Plum Village tradition founded by Thich Nhat Hanh. She’s completing her forthcoming book: Braver Things: Fearless Living for Broken-Open, Pulled Apart, and Turned Upside Down Times.
Harry Um

Harry Um

Harry Um is a member of the Meditation Coalition of InsightLA and regularly facilitates its People of Color sangha.
Satya Robyn

Satya Robyn

Satya Robyn is a Pure Land priest at Amida Mandala Buddhist temple in the UK and a psychotherapist in private practice.