While writing an earlier post, I found an old blog post of mine, which had a really great quote by the late Ven. Yin-Shun, the highly influential Chinese Buddhist monk. Late in his book The Way to Buddhahood, he takes up the topic of “sudden” vs. “gradual” enlightenment, and writes:
Those who study Buddhism therefore ought not to go on about “sudden” or “gradual” enlightenment, for this is all empty talk! It is better to examine one’s own state of preparedness! Modern Chinese Buddhist thinking is very eccentric: it gives no consideration to people’s particular blessings or causes and conditions. What are their capacities? How are they provisioned in terms of blessings and wisdom? After making the resolution to study Buddhism, they want to be enlightened suddenly and want to become buddhas immediately. Without examining themselves and their own resolve, they think that such and such teaching is the great teaching that will enable them to become a buddha easily. This can be compared to wanting to become a leader and deciding to run for president without first pausing to examine one’s academic record. (pg 346)
Speaking from experience, I’ve often sought “that one teaching” that will make it all somehow fit together, but never quite found it. Ven. Yin-Shun continues:
Some people are even more ludicrous. They admit that they are of dull capacities and face strong karmic barriers and shallow wisdom, but they think that they can practice and easy doctrine and become a buddha. Such thoughts do not accord with the true Dharma. Those who truly resolve to study Buddhism should practice diligently. One should accumulate spiritual provisions, build sharp capacities, and have a firm mind. Without asking about sudden or gradual enlightenment or about when one will become a buddha, one should just keep cultivating….(pg. 346-347)
This second quotation really strikes me every time I read it. I think a lot of people incline toward “easy paths” in Buddhism because they lack confidence, or think only of the distant goal and obsess over what is required (or conversely, not enough, then wonder why they’re not enlightened). Sometimes, I think the argument for Dharma Decline while in Buddhist scripture,¹ can get abused as a kind of crutch or excuse.
In a way, it’s a lot like losing weight. There are plenty of diet fads, exercise machines, low-fat meals, special “routines”, etc. But none of these are really sustainable in the long-run. The key to losing weight really is just lifestyle changes: eating a balanced diet and getting more exercise, and then doing it for the rest of your life. It’s a lifestyle change, not a special “technique” or “project”.
I for one need to get down to at least 220 pounds or less, and I still have about 15 to go. I accomplished this once in my life before my second child was born, then gained it all back. The problem was that I was treating it as a “project”, and when I had no more time for that project, I neglected my weight again. Since I suffer from some weight–related ailments, I realized that losing weight alone isn’t enough, I really do need to change my lifestyle for good. They’re not huge changes, but if I don’t change my lifestyle, the problems will just return. The target weight isn’t important so anymore because I need to just take it one day at a time, and just eat better and be more active. It’s the only real viable long-term solution.
Or it is like learning a language. Suppose you want to learn Japanese or Korean, or some other language. Right now, you’re probably terrible at it. You’ll find websites promising to learn language X faster, or become a fluent speaker in 60 days or something, but if you ever travel to that part of the world, you’ll discover very quickly that such techniques do not prepare you for the messier, chaotic life in that country. Instead, you have to do things the old-school way: build up the basics slowly but surely, and just take it one day at a time for 10,000 hours if need be.
Speaking of one day at a time, or ichi nichi ichi zen (一日一善) in Japanese, my wife once scolded me about obsessing over the goal of Buddhism, and what technique or sect of Buddhism “works”. Don’t think about it, she said. Just take it one day at a time, and try to be a better person. Don’t worry if you’re making progress or not (would you even recognize if you did?). Looking back, that was really good advice, but I don’t think I fully appreciated it until now.
Little by little, I believe progress is possible, even for middle-aged lay people raising children. Instead of looking for an escape route or shortcut, or worrying about one’s own progress or lack thereof, just take it one day at a time.
¹ A number of sutras allude to the gradual decline and fading of the Buddhist institution (not the underlying Dharma), but the main sutra quoted is the Sutra of the Great Assembly because it divides the periods of decline in neat 500 or 1000 year blocks. Thus, many Buddhists use the chronology of this particular sutra to argue that the Dharma is beyond the point where anyone can put it into practice. This is not unique to any one school.
However, having thought about it lately, it’s better to take those numbers with a big grain of salt. I’ve never read that sutra (and I don’t think an English translation exists anyway), but somehow I feel it sounds a bit too formulaic to be authentic. We all know that the “84,000 doors of the Dharma” was never intended to literally be 84,000 for example. It’s obviously a metaphor. Similarly, it’s easy to forget sometimes that the Mahayana sutras were composed by mortal men and have to be weighed against the older sutras which are the closest thing we have to the genuine words of the Buddha.