Taming the Mind
Vigilance, Part One
When I came across Buddhism and meditation, this notion of taming the mind was central to its appeal. My boss in the library at college would speak wistfully of the power this practice brought to the mind. Mere attentive sitting can bring about the superpowers of tranquility and clarity. Pema Chodron says, "When the mind is settled, virtuous qualities come to us more naturally. We have fresh insights and more kindness, relaxation, and steadiness." If you think of the brain as a muscle, this is the yoga of the brain.
Chodron tells us the Vajrayana method is shamatha meditation. This sounds an awful lot like my Soto Zen's method of shikantaza. The first, "calm abiding." The second: "just sitting."
In verses 9-17, Shantideva brings this practice of taming the mind to the paramitas. Chodron says, "Until we work with the mind, the paramitas can't really liberate us. This is because the paramitas and letting go of self-clinging are the same." This gets at the core intention of shamatha and zazen: let go of self, and the clearness of insight will be revealed. In class, K reminded us of our center altar, Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, is always seated on a beast. This is the beast of the self, and this practice tames that beast.
The hostile multitudes are vast as space--
What chance is there that all should be subdued?
Let but this angry mind be overthrown
And every foe is then and there destroyed. (Shantideva 5.12)
The enemy is created in here, in my own mind. I can't change others, I can only change my own mind. In 5.13, the difference is envisioned with the options "to cover all the earth with sheets of hide" or to "simply wrap some leather round your feet."
All you who would protect your minds,
Maintain awareness and your mental vigilance.
Guard them both, at cost of life and limb--
Thus I join my hands, beseeching you. (Shantideva 5.23)
Awareness, or mindfulness, and mental vigilance, or alertness, are the qualities we would want to cultivate in calm abiding meditation. In Zen, we say "train as if your hair were on fire," as well as "nothing to gain." It is tricky. You want to just sit there, but you don't want to just sit back. You find that spot with practice.
"The mind, when...cramped by ignorance,/Is impotent and cannot do its work."(Shantideva 5.24) It is as though you're seeing the world through blinders, or by crawling through a cave. What you don't realize is that you've created your own blinders, or there is no cave. Chodron says, "The deepest ignorance is our misperception of reality, our dualistic perception." This is to think I am separate from you, and since I am separate from you, I must protect myself from you because you are surely only looking out for you and I must look out for me. This, she says, "clouds our natural mindfulness and alertness. Without a clear, stable mind, we live a fear-based life so controlled by our emotions that we don't really know what's going on."
No mental vigilance = "minds like water seeping from a leaking jug." I need to turn off the TV.
Perseverance does not equal mental vigilance.
Many have devotion, perseverance,Hmmm. Sound like a society you know?
Are learned also and endowed with faith,
But through the fault of lacking mental vigilance,
Will not escape the stain of sin and downfall. (Shantideva 5.26)
Defilements are a band of robbersAssumed in that thought is the view that recognizes the kleshas as observable, separate selves. The watcher uses mindfulness.
Waiting for their chance to bring us injury. (Shantideva 5.28)
This sounds like shutting out the world:
I shall never, vacantly,
Allow my gaze to wander all about,
But rather with a focused mind
Will always go with eyes cast down. (Shantideva 5.35)
This is what we cultivate during meditation retreats, and to a greater extent, monks cultivate it much of the time. I was surprised to read that, though, as the bodhisattva path smacks us down in the world among others. Where is the compassion? I just needed to turn the page, as Shantideva says next,
But that I might relax my gaze,
I'll sometimes raise my eyes and look around,
And if some person stands within my sight,
I'll greet him with a friendly word of welcome. (Shantideva 5.36)
It can take a while to get to this point, to turn the gaze inward and wholeheartedly shift actions and worldview, and also to be able to shift and act in the world and be there for others. If we try to do the second without the first, and I think most of the world does, we lack clarity and ability to give an appropriate 'friendly word of welcome.' If we try to do the first without the second, we really do set ourselves apart from the world in a selfish way. In the beginning, learning to do this awareness practice can be very self-involved.
This isn't just a practice of the mind, but one of the body. While the mind can turn inward, and can observe the body, where emotions tighten the muscles, how thoughts move us from side to side, the body can learn the habit of mindfulness, carrying the stillness of meditation out into the world of action. In verse 5.39, Shantideva takes us back and forth from actions of the body to scrutiny of the mind. Meditation retreats are designed to cultivate this scrutiny, alternating stillness and action, mindful work and rest. All the activities of the world...eating, speaking, walking, working, as well as meditating...are done with that inwardly focused gaze.
Chodron illustrates this balance well with this anecdote.
I'm reminded of a Native American man from the Taos Pueblo called Little Joe Gomez. In the early seventies, he met some people who were practicing complete silence. They were wearing chalkboards around their necks in case they needed to communicate. This got Little Joe laughing. When someone asked him what was so funny, he said, "Very easy to not talk; very difficult to talk mindfully."Another useful Tibetan word: dunzi. Meaningless distraction. The chalkboards could be useful, or could be meaningless distraction. Shantideva cautions against "grubbing in the soil, Or pulling up the grass or tracing idle patterns on the ground." Doodling. I found myself thinking of all the knitters, even in my Buddhist classes.
Many are fond these days of invoking the mantra "different styles of learning." Some are kinesthetic learners. Trainers encourage toys in work trainings, for the kinesthetic learners. Sometimes it seems to me the toys are an excuse to tune out, not tune in. In some ways this seems to be an indulgence, an admittance that we're not going to even try to train the mind. It can be dunzi to feign helplessness in training the mind, and it can be dunzi to cultivate the mind that must keep the body moving in order to think clearly. Where is the challenge? I believe it's been shown that true bilingual people are generally smarter. Their minds have been sharpened through the practiced ease of using two languages. We can also choose to sharpen our minds by cultivating more than one method of learning. We can choose the easy mindfulness practice of non-speaking, or we can choose to practice to keep awareness of the non-speaking mind even while we speak.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Taming the Mind