Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Obstacles to Practice

Rock FlamesRock Flames, Helsinki, 2010

If you're geeky enough to start reading Buddhist philosophy, you'll quickly find that something called "obstacles" shows up pretty early. The Abhidharma—and related systems—contain meticulous taxonomies of obstacles, all derived from the three roots of the unbeneficial, craving, ill-will, and ignorance.

All that is very interesting, but a bit above my pay grade at the moment. Like most beginners, I think, I'm dealing with some rather simpler and more immediate obstacles. The kind that want to stop you from getting on the cushion in the first place.

The biggest hurdle by far that I've had to surmount was that of starting to practice in the first place. I've been interested in Buddhism for years. I've done some more or less superficial reading into it since I was a teenager, at least, and perhaps I even understood some of what it was saying. I've even wondered what it would be like to practice it. Yet over all those years, the idea of actually trying it, other than in some context like martial arts, perhaps, never really occurred to me.

The main reason for this was that I thought of Buddhism as practiced in my neck of the woods as inauthentic. I assumed that it was mostly about woolly-headed New Age types wearing robes and pretending to be monks while financing extravagant lifestyles of imported genu-wine Tibetan Masters, or their even more genu-wine enlightened disciples.

This view dates from the year 1987.

I spent that year in Nepal. My father got a gig with the United Nations, and took the whole family with him. I was 16. I went to a rather wonderful school there, and got to know a marvelous variety of people from all over the world, of an enormous variety of backgrounds, faiths, and cultures. My prom date was Pakistani; my best friends included an Iranian, a Dane, a New Zealander, a Dutch-Mauretanian, and an American, with the wider circle of people I hung out with including people from all corners of the globe.

That year left me with a big variety of indelible imprints, one of which was a deep certainty that it is possible to get along. I honestly do not recall any of the usual bullshit about Shi'ite against Sunni, Jew against Muslim, Hindu against Buddhist, Christian against atheist. We all hung out together, dated each other, did stupid teenage shit together, studied together, staged a production of Jesus Christ Superstar together (Jesus was played by a Jewish girl), trekked in the Himalayas together, and, of course, engaged in the usual high-school nastiness involving cliques and bullying and general viciousness, although a great deal less than in any other school I went to.

I encountered two other things in that formative year: spiritual tourists, and ordinary Nepalis, Hindus and Buddhists, doing their practice.

The Nepalis were completely at ease with their practice. It was woven into their daily life in little ways and big ones, as natural as eating or sleeping. In the morning, they stopped by the shrine to tell the local god good morning, leave a little offering and take the god's blessing for the day. On festival days—which were many—there was something else; a procession, something going on at Pashupathinath, a huge street party (and, for many, the only meal of the year containing meat) for Dasain, an enormous pilgrimage with hundreds of thousands of people for Siva Ratri. I participated in an intimate family ceremony with someone I got to know there; I still don't know what, exactly, the significance was, but it was very significant. There was our landlord's daughter's wedding, with 900 guests and six days of festivities, and a long conversation (via an interpreter) with a white-bearded rajguru chain-smoking cheroots. He had a wicked sense of humor, and laughed uproariously at an American he had met who said that he was also a rajguru, 'for two years now.'

Then there's the time we overnighted at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery called Sing Gompa, somewhere in Helambu. I crept into their meditation hall as the monks were chanting, for three hours straight. They said it was OK, and I didn't disturb anyone, I hope. Story for another post, perhaps.

And the spiritual tourists? They were embarrassing. Fancy robes, mala beads, lots of bells, sitting raptly at attention next to a sadhu who may or may not have been the real thing but probably wasn't, and much talk about astrology and auras and ayurveda and that kind of stuff. The only things more embarrassing than that were the washed-up hippies who showed up there for the cheap weed.

They made me embarrassed to be European. They also convinced me completely that Hinduism or Buddhism is something you have to be born to, that's so deeply embedded in the culture that carries it that the very idea of a European trying to practice it would be not only ridiculous, but also insulting to the culture whose forms they were clumsily aping.

Yeah, a wee bit categorical, perhaps. Not too nuanced. But then I was 16, and had only just discovered that I didn't believe in God. Sixteen-year-old atheists aren't the most nuanced of people, generally speaking. I don't think I ever went completely hardcore about my atheism, though. Something about the truth of what I saw in Sing Gompa, Pashupathinath, Bodhnath, Swayambunath, the blood-soaked square where the King slaughtered a hundred water buffaloes for Dasain, or that place where a monumental granite statue of Vishnu reclining on his cobra seemed to float lightly in a pond remained with me, inaccessible, but there.

Then 22 years went by, and one spring day I found myself attending a meditation course by some Buddhists I knew fuck all about. It was just about exactly what I expected—a couple of Finns in and out of monky robes, an Englishman singing the praises of an imported Tibetan master, New Age music, chocolates offered on an altar with a statue of the Buddha and the Tibetan master.

I really have no idea what pushed me to check on the Internet if maybe there was something there that didn't have that stench of spiritual tourism on it. I stumbled on the HZC website and enrolled on the next introduction, which would be in August, several months later. There's still the statue of the Buddha, the incense, and the robes, but no Tibetan masters and no New Age music, and, somehow, it's not the same at all.

So that's the first and biggest obstacle. Perhaps I would have started earlier, had someone told me that I have my head up my ass about that picture of Buddhism in the West being all play-acting. Perhaps I was only ready to get started right about now. But if someone's reading who's wondering what I was wondering, I say, give it a try. And also, if the first group you check out doesn't click, don't give up. There are lots of Buddhist sanghas out there. Most of us just don't go knocking on doors wanting to tell you about the Dharma, so you might never know (and from where I'm at, the ones who do are probably the ones you ought to be avoiding).

The second obstacle was the tedious and painful slog to get to the point where zazen became something more than minutes ticking away with excruciating slowness, with a side helping of aching legs and aching back.

For most people, Zazen feels pretty boring and pointless and definitely painful when you start out. What I would have liked to have heard more at that point is this: zazen isn't boring. If it's boring, whatever you're doing, it's not zazen, so try something else. If it isn't daydreaming and it isn't boring, that might be it, at which point it might be a good idea to ask someone who's been doing it for a while about it.1

For a quite a while, sitting was mostly boring and definitely painful. One thing that kept me going was posture practice. That gave me a sense of progress that kept me getting back on the cushion. I have—well, had—very stiff legs, and couldn't get anywhere near half-lotus. I couldn't even get near the Burmese posture. Sitting in seiza felt unstable and uncomfortable too. I figured I could change that by learning to do some stretching.

Stretching is very rewarding, because it feels good immediately, and especially if you start out very stiff, progress is remarkably fast, much faster than, say, building strength or muscle at the gym. For a quite a while, almost every time I sat down to do zazen, it felt physically a little better—a little less pain, a little more stability, I was able to get into first the Burmese posture, then quarter-lotus, then stay in the Burmese posture for ten minutes, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, then stay in the quarter-lotus, and eventually get into an ugly half-lotus of sorts.

Those cross-legged things are now on hiatus due to my little knee problem, but I look forward to getting back to them once that's sorted out; however, at this point other things about zazen have come to the fore, and posture practice has moved to the background a bit. Be as it may, intentionally practicing the physical side of sitting was very important in keeping me going through those long months that zazen really felt mostly boring.

There's a piece of advice to novices in the middle of this initial slog that I've heard from many sources. Naturally, I ignored it. Here it is again, for you to ignore, if you're in that slog, or, perhaps, chuckle at if you're one of the people who tried to give it to me.

As Kanja Sensei put it in one of her teishos:
Whatever it takes, stay with your practice.
The problem is that when you start, you don't have a clue what the fuck 'your practice' even is. Counting breaths feels pointless and stupid. You either lose count all the time, go over the count all the time, or figure out how to count mechanically while your mind is going all over the place. "You must really feel the numbers." Yeah, right, great. How?

While I had started to figure some stuff out by myself at that point, what got me over this hurdle was something I read in Daniel Ingram's book, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. It's the same advice. Paraphrasing:
Until you can get into access concentration, you ain't got squat. Pick an object and stay on it like a rabid dog until you have enough stability and skill to let the mind rest on it naturally.
Somehow, the image of that rabid dog hanging onto the practice helped me no end. Words are tricky things; the same thing said one way might make me go Huh? and said another way, it suddenly sinks in. Different words speak to different people, too.

Another thing that helped tremendously was daisan—the formal, one-on-one interview with someone who does have some idea of what's involved in this, and what not to do when advising people about it. There was a point where I had gotten some kicks out of zazen, and then it suddenly felt boring and tedious and pointless again, for a week, and another week, and another week. At that point I went to daisan, and the person who gave it said exactly what was needed to keep me going. And then after another week or two it was less tedious again. So thanks for that, Marja, if you happen to be reading. It made a difference.

And yeah, the side benefits from zazen do help me keep going. I've found myself taking the heavy philosophical-religious stuff more and more seriously lately, but it's kind of nice to be able to tell myself that if it happens that I'm totally deluding myself about that, the side benefits make this probably the most beneficial "hobby" that I've run across yet. If all I get from this is bompu Zen, I ain't complaining.


1Whatever you do, don't ask me. Hell, don't ask anybody who hasn't been at this for many more years than I have, and who has some understanding about helping people in their practice. These are two related but different skills, so someone who's been staring at a wall for a quarter century and who's enlightened as fuck might be completely incapable of advising anyone else. I've been at this for less than a year and a half, and am completely unqualified to give anyone any advice on this topic. You're reading this blog on your own risk. I do talk about stuff that's been helpful to me, but do not for a moment imagine that to mean that I understand anything at all about this stuff that goes beyond that very limited and very personal experience. Thanks.


  1. Your time in Nepal at 16 years old sounds formatively fun!

    I have connections with a missionary school in the Indian Himalayas (Dera Dunn) at a school called "WoodStock" that sounds similar to your experience.

    [Noticed I am off your blogroll]

  2. That's not my blogroll; it's a list of a few things that I'm particularly interested in right now. A few things have stayed there for a while, for a variety of reasons. Your last four blog posts weren't very relevant to my interests, so I dropped it; if you post something that is, I might well put it back. It's not a value judgment. Being included isn't an honor; being dropped isn't a slight. Or shouldn't be, anyway.

    You're not the first person to (apparently) get upset at being dropped off it, so perhaps I should remove it altogether, or replace it with links to some of my favorite posts, or something; it's clearly sending messages that I don't want to send. I don't like the usual way of using blogrolls as mutual backscratching/popularity/traffic-driving tools, and don't use it as one; nor do I have any intention of building a comprehensive catalog of anything.

    My full blogroll is in my profile, and yours is definitely still on it.