Sometimes I have a little laugh when I hear people writing or speaking about space; among American Buddhists, especially those whose studies include some Nyingma influence, space is a big buzzword. Space is like a holy grail. It’s a sort of god in and of itself, the way you hear people talk about it. Of course, now I’m going to talk about it (or already am talking about), so I’ll have to laugh at myself, too, if I get the chance.
Actually, the space thing was mentioned a little when I talked about the sky. Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche, a master teacher in the Nyingma tradition, and a prolific author, wrote that the sky is the “local representative” of space. It gives somehow a taste of space on the local, smaller-scale level.
I don’t think I can define space, without confusing myself or creating definitions that are confusing to other people. For some reason, Buddhists of the Tibetan ilk spend a lot of time talking about space. So it must be important. That’s one lesson I have learned, in terms of faith. Don’t buy an idea right off the bat, necessarily, but if you do hear an idea coming up over and over, then notice it. It’s probably an important one in your church or temple, in your tradition, and if you like that tradition, and feel a connection to it, those key ideas are worth paying attention to.
Space definitely relates to suffering and ease. The term suffering is a translation from “dukha,” which has also been translated as anxiety and discomfort. There is a corresponding term, “sukha,” also in the language of Pali, which the earliest Buddhist teachings are in, and this term I’ve heard translated as “ease.” I remember teacher Ethan Nichtern relating the information that dukha orginates as a term for an ill-fitting wheel for a cart. You can imagine a cart, a wooden cart, and one wheel has not been fitted properly, so it jangles around and bounces around, causing frustration for the cart-pusher, an ox, or maybe both. Nichtern, in this regard, called it “bad space.” The wheel doesn’t fit, the space hasn’t been aligned properly, so problems arise.
There are many ways to talk about suffering. There is extreme pain and anguish, like suffering from a painful illness, or a dislocated shoulder (that’s the closest I’ve come so far to heavy physical pain), or extreme emotional turmoil. (I think everyone’s acquainted with that one.) Then there’s less intense, but still real suffering: anxiety about making enough money, wondering if you’ll live a long life, feeling embarassed in front of a group, wanting someone but being too shy. There are a million forms. This is part of the idea when Buddhists say that life involves a lot of suffering. I naturally want to deny or ignore it, but that sort of approach simply does not work. If it did, you wouldn’t need any sort of path or practice. You could just go through life trying to enjoy pleasure and avoid or ignore pain. Somehow that does not work, and we’re intelligent enough to know it, on some level. That’s another kind of suffering- knowing that all of the classic strategies for finding happiness, joy, and satisfaction are horrible and insufficient.
There’s suffering, and then there’s ease. If having a painful back is suffering, then ease is the feeling of having that relax and lighten up. It’s a feeling of goodness. It’s not very intellectual or complicated. It’s simple and real. If the idea of goodness seems confusing, or problematic, then think of ease. There are times when the suffering dissipates, at least a little. That experience of goodness is something everyone knows. I can think of arguments I’ve had with my wife. Sometimes it takes a long time to resolve them, hours even. Sometimes when they’re resolved it doesn’t feel so great- I may have been pushy, or mean, or manipulative. I can definitely be those things when I argue. But when we can resolve an argument quickly, with a minimum of damage and uproar, that feels great. That’s ease.
It’s similar to the idea of space. Compare feelings of ease and suffering, in your mind. Then try comparing the feeling of being in a cramped, narrow, crowded physical space with feelings of physical freedom and openness.
Practice involves relating with space in a variety of ways. One reason practice is needed is that I think people instinctively love and desire that space, as a relief, but are also a little afraid of it. Boredom comes up pretty quickly. You might appreciate looking into the expanse of the sky, as I do, but how long do you look for, before you’re back into looking at people, cars, thinking of how to achieve what you want? It seems to get boring easily, and there is usually some anxiety underneath that boredom. Practice is a way of relating with that anxiety in the container of a technique. Space is desired, but without practice, it’s usually a little too anxiety-producing to stay with for very long (and unfortunately, giving it time does seem to be a requirement, just like with most skills, or relationships).
Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche, starting at some point in the 1970‘s, I believe, began teaching about what he called “TSK.” These were teachings on Time, Space, and Knowledge. The ideas were often Buddhist-flavored, but it was a new approach in other ways, with its own terminology, practices, and so forth. I’ve written about these teachings elsewhere, and I won’t refer to them much here. Of course, you can read his books yourself. These books are fascinating, challenging, and useful, I think, as a map of what can happen to practitioners (of any sort).
Time is obviously something Rinpoche wrote about, a great deal. Now, in the TSK teachings, in those books, time takes on a different range of meanings. In the language of TSK, time refers to the experience of things manifesting in reality, to the flow and vividness of things, as well as to more conventional ideas of past, present, and future.
But time is also something you need for practice. I have a schedule for my day, which I stick to, more or less. When I was working full-time, I had a more strict schedule, a more predictable one. These days, I work less, and do more writing and practicing, so my schedule allows me to relax a little, while getting some things done (and not just watching Fox News for three hours a day, which I did yesterday, being a little sick and feverish).
You need a space and some time if you’re going to practice. Actually, you need some knowledge, too. People naturally know how to meditate. It’s not a completely artificial pursuit. People don’t naturally know how to play chess, but they do naturally know how to work with their own minds, bodies, and their energy. Unfortunately, that gets buried over time, and you need reminders and training. But back to time and space.
In order to meditate or pray, you’ll need some time set aside, time when you probably won’t be bothered, so you can relax a bit. I used to go to the New York Shambhala center after work a few times a week, because I felt good there, and I could usually find a room to practice in by myself. It also helped me relax after work. I knew that sometimes (probably most, actually) just going home and checking email and so on wouldn’t help me relax, and that I wouldn’t really be able to enjoy myself until I’d destressed a little from work.
The space you practice in could be a temple, church, or community center. It could be your room, or, if you’re lucky, your own shrine room in your home.
There are, of course, other spaces- anywhere! You can practice outside, on the train, on the bus, walking down the street. That’s probably a good idea, a good investment of time. However, having more formal practice time set aside will strengthen practice, I think. Those other ways to practice are great, a lot of fun, maybe eye-opening, but they are more like condiments (at least in the beginning, I think). The main course is getting to a place where you can relax and let go, and sit for awhile.
It’s interesting. If you get to the point at which you not only practice a bit at home, but want to set up a little shrine, with maybe some flowers, a place to light candles, a picture or two, you’ll notice that this shrine space can change the way you view your home. You have your home, and then one area that is more “holy.” Of course, it’s very easy to get high-minded and say the whole universe is holy, but it’s hard to get the feel of this, or even a taste of it, until you view certain things as sacred, and develop some faith and devotion. I notice that I do treat my home shrine differently from the rest of my living area, as I should, but I’m also more aware of the way I treat other things in my apartment, and how I handle them. Creating one sort of space begins to bleed outward, into various other spaces.
Life is precious. On a common-sense level, you have this life, and maybe no other lives. Everyone is face with the prospect of wasting this life, or using it well. I think at that point, it’s up to the individual to do their homework and figure out what that means, to use your life well, and there’s no problem there. That’s actually the only way it can work, I think. It has to be an individual series of decisions, based on individual understanding.
In the Buddhist tradition, it’s considered very lucky to be a human at all. We could have been born something else- a fly, a dog, some other sort of being, maybe even a plant. That’s not usually mentioned, but I don’t see why not. You could have been a plant, unable to move very much, or do much intellectual. Plants are extraordinarily beautiful in their way, but they don’t seem to have a whole lot of freedom. I don’t think I’d want to be one.
Humans can make choices, be helpful to each other, and even reach various degrees of liberation, or enlightenment. Humans can sacrifice themselves for each other. Animals don’t have the same freedom of choice- they must have some, they do have personalities, and they act, but their freedom is much more limited. They don’t seem to be able to learn the same kinds of things, or in the same depth as people, and they can’t learn how to pray or meditate, as far as I know. One of my cats does like to sit with me when I meditate. When she was a kitten, and I was using a wooden Zen-style bench to sit on, she would sit under it. I would worry that it would collapse under my weight, and hurt her. That didn’t happen. She would always, as I remember, come along to meditation and sit with me. When I moved to a new apartment, the bench was given away, I think, and I switched to a soft cushion. Then she would sit next many times when I practiced.
But I don’t know if she was meditating exactly. I think she was doing something, relaxing with me, practicing in some way. But there’s no way to know what she was doing, and no way to tell her how to meditate better.
Obviously, I’m no traditionalist when it comes to this area of the teachings. Traditionally, as I understand, humans are seen as clearly above animals, and the disabled. The disabled are also said not to be able to practice or receive teachings. I disagree. I know part of this is my modern liberal (mostly) mindset. America has evolved in a certain direction when it comes to animal rights, and the rights of those with disabilities. I don’t think that being blind means you can’t practice dharma. I think it would be difficult for schizophrenics, or those with very serious psychological disorders, but then you never know. I read an article recently about a man with schizophrenia who manages to have a large family, and works demanding hours for his church. He sounds like a remarkable man (and a Christian bodhisattva). He had a rough childhood, losing his parents early on and suffering various difficulties. He now takes in foster children and raises them with his wife. He does take some medication to cope with his illness. He is obviously a devoutly religious man, and a practitioner (at the least of service, which is no less than meditation).
It becomes a difficult question. I so often lean towards universalism and generality of the absolutely vague kind- who can’t practice? A rock? A tree? Do they “practice” in some way just by being part of the web of life, the interconnected fabric of reality? I’m sure they do, and in ways I can’t even imagine yet. There is certainly intelligence and energetic activity in the plant and animal worlds that have yet to be appreciated and understood. I do think that most animals naturally do something like meditation in order to regulate their bodies and minds. Of course, cats just sleep a lot too, and I wouldn’t call that meditation.
The amount of choice to be had is significant, though. It’s not the bottom line, necessarily, but it is significant. Humans do seem to have more choice, a greater range of choice than animals, and plants. So that lesson is pretty clear cut: you can choose a meaningful life, or a wasted life. That’s up to you. Since life is unpredictable, and could end suddenly, this is something to think about right now. It’s important to work on it now. You could plan to devote time to study or to doing good works when you’re older, but you may not get much older.
I should say that I’m getting most of these ideas from The Words of My Perfect Teacher, a famous Tibetan text on the path. My thoughts are based on this work. Here, it also says that the preciousness of life is not only determined by being a human or not, but by having some access to teachings, and a chance to practice them. The book lists the various conditions needed for a human life to be truly precious. In a broad way, the idea is that a truly precious life is one with enough conditions to support robust dharma practice. You need access to teachings, freedom of choice, and some chance to practice.
All of this talk about not wasting your life, and about the possibility of death can get pretty serious. It’s important that this is also a problem- when I explain a teaching, and it gets really serious, chances are that it’s my own arrogance and sense of importance that are getting in the way. I watched a video on the internet just tonight of some tulkus and lamas, high ranking teachers, with many years of intensive training, blessing a buddha statue. A large Buddha statue was recently set up in the South of the US, through a group there led by Khandro Rinpoche. Sometimes, looking at the lamas, often, actually, the most advanced practitioners seemed the most casual about their practice, about blessing the giant gold buddha. If such seasoned practitioners are relaxed about their practice, I probably should be too. At the same time, the sense of energy I felt around them was strong. It wasn’t that they were going through the motions, but that they were practicing powerfully, yet they were relaxed about it. They were bringing down lots of blessings to this gigantic statue, but it was the most ordinary thing in the world.
Do plants and animals meditate? I think in their own way, they do, and maybe this should be a source of competition- are we going to let win? Maybe it’s hopeless. You’ll never outsit a tree, or a rock, so don’t feel bad if you can only do a bit a day.
Practice does involve boundaries. This is similar to the idea of space. In practice, there is the place where it happens, and the time within which it occurs. I don’t want to talk to people, in person, or on the phone, when I practice. That’s a boundary. I know that if I did this, it would weaken the practice significantly. I also feel that if I let people disrupt my practice that way (not for emergencies obviously, that’s not what I’m talking about) it would be bad for them too, in the long run, so I don’t want them to get some sort of karmic repurcussion for interrupting me.
The idea of boundaries is one that I think comes from contemporary psychological/therapeutic thinking. That seems good, I guess. Although Buddhism has cross-pollinated with psychology in the West, it is not merely a psychological system. I’m not learned enough in Buddhism, or psychology to talk about boundaries much beyond that, but I did want to say it. Buddhism is not mere psychology. Saying this is not saying that Buddhism is a culture, either. I’m not saying that Buddhism is synonymous with the cultural elements which it has developed, which are often beautiful and helpful.
Anyway, enough of that. More about boundaries. There is the boundary of the body, as the breath leaves, and the very shifty and subtle and tricky boundary of the breath itself, a force of air and maybe something else that moves ceaselessly, through, into, and out of the body. Actually, it seems like all boundaries must have that nature, but thinking this is one thing, experiencing it another. The breath is one bridge to experiencing.
I read one blog writer say that Western Buddhists annoyed him because they seemed spaced out, lifeless, lacking in an ability to set boundaries. I don’t completely agree, the idea is a little simplistic (and to be fair to him, I think he was talking mostly from experience in one area of the world). However, I think I understand. It is a type. The fact that boundaries are empty does not mean that people should allow abuse or harm. I’ve found this out through experience. I thought for a while that being vulnerable was enough, and that experiencing the sharp edges of life was what I was supposed to do. Then it got to be too much, and at that point, in both my personal and professional life, I tried to fight back, but it had already gone too far. That was a big lesson in creating boundaries. If you don’t do it properly, things tend to get really painful. Now, this doesn’t mean having control. In spite of being good at the whole boundary thing, many people still suffer, and suffer unintended consequences of this boundary process. I’m sure of it. It’s almost impossible to see what the outcome of an action will be, so even skillful actions are a roll of the dice.
But it seems that you have to do it. They say that total openness is the goal. I am not there yet! I think boundaries are something you work with, as a practitioner, and this working with is slightly different from the way normal folks do it. Knowing emptiness and impermanence, first, make a huge impact on the understanding of boundaries. Since they do say openness is the way to go, I think that makes a good end goal. If I have to create boundaries, with as much intelligence and daring as I can muster, I want to do it in reference to that goal of openness, which maybe someday I’ll be able to realize more.
Space has boundaries around it. A room has space inside, and around it. Practice has space, before and after it (and during it).
There’s space and form. This kind of thinking is not absolute, as far as I know. It seems to be a sort of process, a training in itself. However, understanding that, thinking as training, is not the same as doing it. You have to learn to see space and form in order to have this training sink in.
One thing this points you towards is an experience of everyday reality that is slightly different. If you can see the space around an image, then the image, it’s like those optical illusions. They do something funny to your perception. There are interesting things going on in the shadow of that illusional process.
Of course, we’re mostly living in the world of form. That means things. That’s worth questioning. Why is it worth questioning? Why not? Is it so scary? What if things aren’t what they seem? There are ways to experience this more directly, not in terms of theory or bright ideas, but actually seeing and touching and feeling it. It is a little scary, I think, which is why there are these billion ways to enter the dharma. People need a billion ways, because they’re terrified, as I know I am. That terror and the instinct for practice seem to pulsate, like magnets. We’re stuck between them, pulsating.
Meditation is impartial. I try to be fair and unbiased, a lot of the time, in my personal life. This is not easy at all. I’m pretty impatient, easily irritated, easily embarassed, easily angry. Being unbiased, if that’s something you want to aim for, is no small chore.
In meditation, it’s much easier. That could be good training for the rest of life, I guess. I’d never thought about it much. I’m probably stealing this from someone else, some real teacher. Who knows? Maybe not.
Practice is naturally unbiased, because you just do the practice. You sit, and breathe, and work with the moving and shifting mind. Is the Buddha blank? If you look at many statues, he is giant,of course, and seems to either have no expression, or a very faint smile. Is that the face of nonbias? Why even consider going past bias? I think it’s a functional thing. Being biased against certain people, situations, and so on limits you, and makes life more difficult.
I get uptight about a lot. Let me think of an example. I definitely get uptight about people I don’t think are hardworking. If I see people as lazy, not working as hard as me, or not taking work seriously, I automatically judge them. They’re idiots, I think. They’re wasting time, wasting their lives. I do actually have thoughts like these, a lot. That’s a kind of bias, obviously. The merits of hardwork aside, I’m not really making anything better by being judgemental and mean. If I could convince those folks to work hard, and have a good life, that might be good (but then again, without knowing the details of their lives, it’s hard to say what hard work or a good life would constitute, that would have to be narrowed down). Breaking through bias is not about knowing what to accept or reject. I can still decide to work hard, myself, but I don’t have to carry a grudge against others. I’ll have to work on that one!
Practice is a chance to invite some unbiased mind in. This happens so naturally you won’t notice it, probably.
I think being unbiased can manifest as a kind of flexibility. That’s how I experience it, sometimes. Biased mind is somewhat uptight, stuck in its ways. Unbiased mind allows me to dance a little more, be a little more playful and practical simultaneously.
I often think that I’ve really gotten somewhere, practice-wise. I can have some pretty good ideas about philosophy. But then I’m also constantly being reminded of my limitations and uptightness. I’ve mentioned that word a lot, and I should say this directly: a good practitioner should not be uptight. That means a lack of flexibility, power, or patience.
I can let my wife watch her Thai TV shows, for a little bit, but not for too long. She got a phone call from her friend in America. My wife doesn’t generally talk on the phone for a long time, but tonight she did. Her friend had big news to share. My wife seemed engaged, excited to talk to her friend (who I know, a nice lady). But I got annoyed. I wanted to go to sleep. I wanted to watch TV with Kwandao, and relax, settle down. But the routine was broken. I was so uptight. I was together enough, and smart enough tonight to not lose my temper, and to be nice to her. It was really hard though! That is an example of bias. I was biased in favor of my habitual pattern. I was uncomfortable and annoyed that the pattern was broken, and actually a little confused about how to proceed. My reaction was annoyance, and an odd kind of emotionality. I hear this little voice, asking, “Aren’t you hurt? Aren’t you angry? I thought so!” That feeds the flames. It’s very odd, this instigating voice inside that causes a lot of emotion to appear.
Luckily, I was able to be a little flexible tonight. I think this could described as space, of a kind. The ability to relate with situations beyond bias is the ability to work with space. It is the same thing as a kind of flexibility. I thank my teachers and my practice for being able to do this. Years ago, I highly doubt that I would have been able to do even this, even these small acts of flexibility.
Bias involves hope and fear, which are connected. Sometimes hope is talked about as a good thing, as a kind of uplifted feeling. In the Buddhist and Shambhala traditions, hope is something more nefarious. It’s part of the highs and lows of fear. You hope for good things, and fear for bad things. This happens almost all the time, and it’s not pleasant. It’s another kind of bad fuel. It makes things run shakily, like an old car. I had an old Nissan Sentra, my first car. After a year or so of my creative driving, it ran very shakily. I would buy a cup of coffee, get onto the highway, and the shaking was so intense that a thick layer of bubbles would form on top. It was a cappucino machine on wheels.
The idea of going beyond bias is not to become a buddha robot. That’s faking it. I think the idea is more flexibility, and some more freedom to experience the range of life’s experience, not being totally hemmed in by preconceptions about what things are. It’s so incredibly easy to look at a cell phone, and think “Cell phone, I know that,” but then you look again, and it’s a TV remote.
Becoming unbiased involves working with hope and fear. These are based on mental chatter. You probably can’t destroy mental chatter. I’ve had many teachers tell me this, it’s not destroyable, and it’s been my experience too.
Practicing gives you tools to work with the chatter. It is sort of comfortable to ignore it. There’s so much of it, and it’s often unpleasant, silly, or disgusting. It’s also entrancing. If you want to become a bit less biased, if you want to overcome fear a bit, then you need to be able to work with the chatter that’s circling around, and practicing tunes you into this soundtrack of chatter.
As I’ve said, I teach ESL. I get really frustrated in class when I can’t explain something, or if a student seems a little stubborn. I’ve ended many a class feeling frustrated and supremely stressed out. I’m working on that one. I don’t want to come home feeling awful. I’m working on catching myself as I go into one of those fits of annoyance, so that I don’t get too upset. This is not quite the same thing as being unbiased, but it’s related. Without having practiced, I would not be as able to catch myself. Seeing that chatter more clearly lets me catch myself more easily. Catching yourself is important, so that emotions don’t take over.
You could be unbiased as far as that goes, and let emotions do what they like, but then that’s usually what happens, and the outcome is not usually that pretty.