Saturday, July 24, 2010

Study and Practice

Ave Maria
Ave Maria, Rome, 2008

"You can't get it from books." That's true, I'm sure. You can't get Buddhism by reading books any more than you can travel to Rome by poring over a roadmap.

It's been a long time since I last made as big an effort at study as in my attempts to get to grips with Vasubandhu. It's been tough going, and I'm getting a lot of stuff wrong. The first bits I wrote about him a month or so ago already seem seriously off in many ways, and I'm quite sure that the last bits I wrote will seem even more seriously off to anyone who's been working on this stuff for, say, a few years. I'm perfectly OK with that. I'm used to being wrong, especially about things I'm just starting to get into. Being wrong is usually no big deal, because I can always revise my beliefs as I learn new things. It's only a problem if I make bad decisions based on incorrect beliefs, and at this point in my practice, since all I'm really doing is sitting, that doesn't seem like an acute danger.

I'm getting a lot out of poring over these roadmaps.

Since I started with Vasubandhu, my practice has gone into high gear again. For a while—maybe a month or so—it had become a bit… routine, perhaps. I didn't feel particularly keen to sit; I sat largely because I knew that if didn't, it would make me feel worse—I wouldn't sleep as well, I'd be more nervous, anxious, and cranky, and so on. So I made myself sit, to take my medicine, every evening, even a little bit. The sitting itself wasn't anything much either; the monkey mind was chattering along, or I was struggling with drowsiness, or getting bored, wanting it to be over. Nevertheless, I managed not to skip two days in a row.

However, at some point, perhaps around the Karma-siddhi-prakaraṇa, it changed again. Suddenly, I want to sit. When I sit, the monkey mind is a lot quieter and sometimes goes off and nibbles on a banana in a corner somewhere, leaving me to feel my breath, the churning that's just on the threshold of consciousness, or a number of other difficult-to-describe things. Sometimes I get a huge kick out of it; at other times it feels good the same way lifting weights feels good. Sometimes the monkey mind keeps chattering so loudly that all I get is that, but even that feels less frustrating. I've bumped my home practice to two rounds a day, one in the morning, one in the evening, and I'm liking it.

I've also noticed some changes in the way I relate to things when off the zafu. I'm more sensitive to emotional affects in my surroundings, but more aware of picking up on them, and able to let go of them more quickly, and I've had more of those "Zen moments" when I'm suddenly aware of the background texture of the moment that I usually filter out—noises, smells, the sound and feeling of the wind, the quality of the light, and so on. It's not always pleasant, but I still like it.

I don't know if what I'm getting is Buddhism. I do think I'm learning something of what Vasubandhu thought, and what the mental landscape in the formative period of Mahayana Buddhism was about, which is fascinating in its own right. I'm not getting any cosmic truths or profound insights from my reading, although I am getting some little ones, such as realizing that I'm not a Buddhist, but I won't let that stop me from practicing Zen. And I do think it's directing my practice, in a good way.

So no, you can't get it from books, but a roadmap does come in handy if you're traveling to Rome. And no, I don't think there's necessarily any harm in reading, even without the benefit of a teacher to help you along.


  1. The nice thing about maps is they make you want to go places. They also help you find things you might otherwise miss. I think a traveler's approach to what you're doing makes as much or more sense as a worker bee approach.

    On the pic, what is on the (metal?) window shutter? Is it an imprint in rust or an actual engraving of a crest or something?

  2. It's cut through the metal, and it is a crest. I don't know whose or what it means.

    It's not a window, actually—it's a niche with a picture of the Virgin in it; the glass and bars are there to prevent vandalism. Rome—and Mediterranean towns and cities in general—are full of little shrines like that. I like them. They're generally maintained by the neighborhoods, or sometimes the parishes.

  3. Okay--I assumed it was someone's attempt to go beyond a curtain in the window to a display serving a dual purpose of piety and privacy. Shrine makes more sense. I actually saw similar stuff in Mexico. It's obviously an important thing in everyone's life, yet very everyday and unassuming. Here's a link to some images--some indoors, some out--that show that even the same religion picks up quite a different character depending on who is practicing it:

  4. Whoa, way-cool pictures!

    I've always liked Catholic practice—the little things like those shrines, lighting candles to saints, the liturgy, the blessings, that sort of thing. There's a great sincerity and power to it.

    Wish I could say the same about the institutional aspect... or the dogma.

  5. On a second look, some of those pics were actually people's art (it was the Elvis shrine that tipped me off)--wild...

    Rituals, especially rituals that are clear and simple, have a lot of power in the psych.I'm not sure what their role is but I usually think of them as pure symbolic enactments of a very simple human wish or state, and like an aroma or a melody, as such they're very evocative, often comforting, and much more explicit than words.

    (yeah, dogma not so much.)