Don’t assume you know everything. 😉
Let’s face it, we’ve all been taken in by appearances or by the illusion that something or someone will make us happy, only to find that eventually it doesn’t work out. What starts out as something great that makes us happy eventually makes us bored, or dissatisfied or even angry.
It’s the fact that we keep getting burned by this mistake, then repeating the process over and over, is a big part of the reason why we suffer. Sometimes in the midst of it all, we even suffer willingly. Such is the power of illusion!
But all of this is just us projecting our happiness onto that person or thing. Feverishly, we chase after this thing or that, and sometimes even get hurt. We might pick ourselves up and maybe be a bit wiser, but before long we’re chasing after something or someone else. Taken to its logical extreme: there’s no end to it.
I remember being younger, and dreaming about living and working in Japan, even raising a family there. I was caught up in the image of Japan being this awesome, punctual paradise of good customer service, great food, fun TV shows, cool Buddhist culture, undiscovered by so many others I knew around me. Much of this is still true about Japan, and one reason I still love visiting when I can, but I grudgingly realized over time that even if I lived there, I would still not be happy. I would just trade one set of problems and dissatisfactions for another. Some things would be better, some worse.
Granted, the years spent studying Japanese language and customs have been very helpful in communicating with my family and her family and friends more. Plus it hlped me appreciate her background more, so a lot of good has come out of it. But in the end, my wife and I agreed that things would be best if we just stayed here instead, even when I still hoped it would be otherwise.
I did the same for Buddhism too for a long time, trying to find that one, magical teaching, sutra or Buddhist school that would make me happy. I have had good experiences through my last 12 years as a Buddhist, and experienced some things I would describe as “profound moments” only more powerful. But when the feelings and inspiration wear off, I am back to my old self again.¹ Much of this provided good impetus for the blog, and also taught me a lot about Buddhism which I can now share with others via videos and such. But at the same time, I’ve learned to be more content with the teachings I already know and to just put them into practice.
As I write this, I am about to turn 40 years old. I will be be hitting the midpoint of my life. If I continue on as I have before, chasing one dream after another, I will just become a tired old man. It is not too late for me to stop, and it is never too late for you to either.
The power of Buddhism is waking up and realizing your own habits and patterns, and simply by being aware of these, you can begin steer things in a more wholesome direction. From there, contentment and liberation are simply a forgone conclusion.
¹ In my younger years, as a teenager in a local Christian church, I remember the same kind of feeling of religious euphoria after revivals, good prayer sessions, retreats, etc. But the feelings were never sustainable. Back then, I was too young to understand why, but Buddhist teachings such as the emptiness of all phenomena have helped.
Recently I stumbled upon an old, funny post I wrote about 7 years ago titled Am I Buddhist Anymore? A Brief Socratic Dialogue. I wrote this post at a time in my life when I was kind of burned out by work and by the hassles of Buddhist communities on the Internet,1 and wanted to go alone for a while and find my own path.
In the last year, I guess I have come full-circle back to this state, but now I am burned out by work, parenting and hassles of Buddhist communities in the real-world.2
After a few abortive attempts to find another Buddhist community to take part in, I just gradually learned to be content with finding my own way along the Buddhist path. If I had been less experienced in Buddhism, as I was when I wrote my old post, I might have felt more lonely, but nowadays I don’t feel the pang of isolation that comes with being without a Buddhist community. I’ve been Buddhist long enough that this is not my first rodeo.
At the same time, I like what I wrote here:
Fact is, when I think about Kannon Bodhisattva for example, I can’t help but smile. I found myself randomly doing that while walking home from work recently. That goes double for Shakyamuni Buddha. Lately, I feel like I understand him better than I did before, and it makes me appreciate him more than I did before.
I feel that way now too. Since I gave up on Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and kind of learned Buddhism all over again, this time without the heavy burden of doctrine and sectarianism, I find I appreciate Shakyamuni Buddha more and what he taught, without having to identify myself as one sect or another.
These days I am just a happy, content Buddhist. It sure took a long time to get here, but as I recently told my wife in the car, I think I’ve been happier and more content these past months than I have been for long, long time.
1 I used to spend a lot of time on places like E-Sangha, Beliefnet and so on. I guess it’s where I “cut my teeth” in discussing Buddhism to other people, but also where I learned about the ugly side of religion and the Internet too. I wasn’t all that sad when E-Sangha collapsed, though I have kept in touch with a few people on there since then.
2 Let alone the online ones which I deliberately avoid. Every very once in a while, I’ll log into some Buddhist forum I know (usually after I reset the password I forgot), answer a couple questions, realize I don’t like online Buddhist communities and don’t log in again for another 2-3 years.
Recently I found this hilarious article on the comedy new website, The Onion.1 I liked this article because, even though it is a joke, it is kind of true in an awkward sort of way.
Buddhism as a religion spends an awful lot of time analyzing the Self. Many religions take for granted the idea that the self is some kind of ethereal essence or energy apart from the body, and will persist beyond death. Yet, Buddhism is the only major religion that explicitly denies the existence of such a self or soul. Instead, the Self is something we construct out of our surroundings and sensory experiences.
Just like a rock band has a bunch of members that give the the band its “sound” and “feel”, yet none of them alone are the band, the Self is similarly constructed from an unimaginable combination of experiences, thoughts, impressions, influences, and so on. But it doesn’t stop at childhood. New experiences, thoughts, actions, etc, continue to pile onto this notion of Self and further steer us one way or another. None of it is static.
The implication of this is that under the right circumstances, one is capable of doing really great and noble things, or capable of being a rotten scoundrel.
This is why Buddhism places such a great emphasis on practice, cultivation, and personal conduct. All these things are intended to help steer the river into a different, more wholesome direction, ultimately laying down conditions for awakening. But they’re also intended to help guard the mind too because until one has fully broken through, they will need to remain vigilant.
1 I’ve been reading The Onion online for probably for 20 years now, and still love it.
Another quote from Sayādaw U Jotika’s book Snow in the Summer (available online too):
See how much you hurt yourself when you are upset. It’s not worth getting upset over anything. Be mindful. See anger only as anger, not ‘my anger’.
Don’t say you should not be angry. It is very important to be realistic. We have ideals, but we might never attain those ideals. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have ideals. It means we must be aware of our capacity. So, don’t be discouraged because you have ups and downs. Try to be mindful as much as possible. Try your best.
I used to feel bad (ashamed) about having faults (not being perfect). In some cases, it is other people’s unrealistic expectations project onto me; and unknowingly I slip into the role they expect of me. It is impossible; it is even dangerous; it makes me feel inadequate. But now I have learnt to be myself.
But this doesn’t mean you should give up on mindfulness though:
Please be mindful even though it is hard sometimes. When you think it is impossible to be mindful, that is the time when it is most important to be mindful.
It is more important to meditate when you are restless. When you think it is impossible for you to meditate because your mind is crazy — that is the most important time for you to meditate.
In the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, the Buddha said [in Pali language]: “Vikkhittam va cittam vikkhittam cittam pajanati.” (When the mind is restless, one knows that the mind is restless.) You are not expected to do more than that.
The Buddha did not say you should feel guilty for being greedy or angry. You know what’s happening. Don’t deceive yourself. That’s all you can do. So, be mindful but don’t beat yourself up. Acceptance and honesty is the most important thing.
Just knowing the states that the mind is in would be enough. If you try to do anything more than that, you’ll end up being even more frustrated.
Good advice for people everywhere.
Lately, I’ve been reading a somewhat obscure Buddhist book called Snow in the Summer by Ven. Sayādaw U Jotika (available online for free here), and wanted to share this quote from the first chapter on “Mind, Mindfulness and Meditation”:
People want to daydream; they don’t want mindfulness, mindfulness of the present, because in the present there is nothing one can daydream about.
To see my mind through and through, and not do deceive myself is now the most important task for me. When I don’t believe in something, it is very important for me to see clearly that I don’t believe in it instead of trying to believe it.
The mind likes to dwell in the past or in the future; It touches the present only tangentially, doesn’t want to stay in the present; always looking for distraction—watching TV, listening to the radio, or a cassette, eating, talking, smoking, reading (yes, I forgot that—reading), and what not. Do we really like mindfulness? Well,…yes…but… Ha, ha. No wonder we are superficial.
Indeed, it seems like we crave for distractions because doing nothing makes us anxious for some reason. It’s probably why people like fidgeting with their mobile devices so much!
Next he writes:
We use mindfulness as a painkiller. Only when life becomes too painful do we want to go to a quiet place and meditate. Otherwise we are quite content with distractions.
What other things do we use as painkillers in our lives?
Food for thought…
After my grandfather passed away a couple months ago, I spent some time reading Roger Zelazny’s novel Isle of the Dead. This is my favorite quotation:1
Nick swore he’d die with his boots on, on some exotic safari, but he found his Kilimanjaro in a hospital on Earth, where they’d cured everything that was bothering him, except for the galloping pneumonia he’d picked up in the hospital.
That had been, roughly, two hundred and fifty years ago. I’d been a pallbearer.
I mashed out my cigarette and made my way back to the slip-sled….The dead are too much with us.
The last part really stuck with me. Shortly after my grandfather died, and especially around the time of the funeral, I kept thinking about him. I found some old items that my grandfather had given me as congratulations for graduating college (almost 20 years ago, wow) and other momentos from the past. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was still alive somehow and watching over me. I then started to think about other loved ones who had died in the past, even while I continued to live: friends, grandparents and so on.
Indeed, the dead are too much with us.
But then later I started to think about it from another angle: are they really with us, or are we holding on to them and their memory?
For example, my maternal grandmother died from cancer when I was about 14 (I think she was 57 or so). It happened during Thanksgiving weekend, but it had been a long-battle with cancer that spanned months. She had been a big influence on our lives, and especially on me and my choice to go into computing more.² She was greatly loved by the family, and when she passed, it was a hole in our lives that never got filled. We never really celebrated Christmas or Thanksgiving the same way we used to, and gradually all grew apart.
But that was also 27 years ago. A lot has happened since then, but at the same time, that part of me is still holding on to memories from 27+ years ago.
That’s the nature of the self. The “self” as described by the Buddha is a composite. There is no true, static, underlying self that serves as the foundation. It is a composite of things, through and through. These composites are normally grouped into five “aggregates” or “heaps”, namely physical form (brain, guts, nerves, etc), sensations, perception, mental formations and consciousness. The ancient Pali-language word for these aggregates is khandha and literally would just mean a heap or pile in the mundane sense, like a pile of leaves, etc.
The point here is that as a composite being, we are made up of all the combined experiences, thoughts, genetic attributes and external conditions that come together to make us what we are. Thus, my memories of Christmas and Thanksgiving are just another thing added to the “pile” as a kid. They’re great memories, especially the Christmas where I got a He-Man Castle Greyskull set, but they’re just memories.
Holding on to these memories and people is something that can becoming unhealthy if one becomes obsessed by it. In some ways, it’s a bit silly too, but letting go is hard too.
The fact is is that I am alive here and now. The past is the past, and the future is unwritten. There is nothing further to this.
Or, as the Buddha said it in the Bhaddekaratta Sutta (MN 131):
You shouldn’t chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past
is left behind.
is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there,
Not taken in,
that’s how you develop the heart.
what should be done today,
for — who knows? — tomorrow
There is no bargaining
with Mortality & his mighty horde.
Whoever lives thus ardently,
both day & night,
has truly had an auspicious day:
so says the Peaceful Sage.
(translation by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
I am grateful to my ancestors and loved ones who’ve moved on, but at the same time, I am alive here and now. All that matters is here and now.
² That was back when BBS’s, BASIC and Tandy TRS-80 Color Computers were all the rage. She was quite an enthusiast back then, and I remember owning a 64K Tandy Color Computer 2 back when it was the latest model. I inherited her 16K version as a result.