the online magazine about life as a creative process


Zen Lite


by Tim Baehr





I don't know how many other people stumble over, or back into, a spiritual practice. I certainly did. For several years I had been reading translations of Rumi's poetry, attending men's retreats, and reading Eckhard Tolle's The Power of Now. Actually, the stumbling may have gotten underway 30 or 40 years ago when I was reading Carlos Castaneda's books while in an agnostic stage between Roman Catholicism and the Episcopal Church.

Anyway, there came a point when I started meditating and thinking even more about alternate realities and thinking about the attachments that hold us back. I had experienced moments of ecstasy in doing holotropic breathwork, in which time and space had collapsed to a single point and nothing in the material world mattered.

A friend, after I described some of these feelings and experiences, said, "You're beginning to sound like a Buddhist." I guessed it was time to begin exploring what I had apparently stumbled upon.

Excitement and Confusion

There's always an initial period of excitement when starting out on a new path. On the Internet and in the few books I bought or borrowed, I found more than I could absorb about the various forms of Buddhism and their practices. I began to learn a new vocabulary - dukkha, dharma, samsara, karma - and tried to incorporate the concepts into my thinking.

Then things began to get too complicated. I started to visit a discussion website on religion in which Buddhists of various stripes were savaging each other for not following the "right" way, or not knowing Sanskrit or Pali (the traditional languages of Buddhist texts), or not having read all of the tens of thousands of pages of the sutras (texts written by followers of the Buddha and containing his discourses). I did not want to become a Buddhist scholar, but choosing from among the masses of text seemed impossible.

Then a question occurred to me: Who taught the teachers? Much religious scholarship in almost every religion, it seems, has come from followers and students trying to capture the essence of the dogmas and turn them into guidelines for others to follow. The original teachers and philosophers - Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Siddhartha, and others - got to where they were by living their lives. Maybe the dharma - the vast body of teachings about Buddhism - also meant life experiences, and the conclusions we might draw if we pay attention. Live and learn.

Somewhere along the way, I had learned of various versions of Zen, and the closest thing I found to the live-and-learn way of exploring things was Soto Zen, the main practice of which is sitting and breathing mediation. The idea, as I understood it, was to quiet the busy, thinking mind so that peace and insight could enter.

Meditation became the simplest possible, something my third-grade teacher could have taught in three sentences to her rowdy students: Sit down. Shut up. Pay attention.

The Collapse

My world of book-knowledge began to collapse in on itself. What was the absolute minimum I needed to know? What's the minimum for any religion or philosophy?

For the Judeo-Christian tradition, we have the Ten Commandments. If people took them literally and followed them faithfully, little or none of the theology that flows from them would be necessary.

But wait, there's less. Jesus had just two commandments: Love God, love your neighbor. It seems that one could go deeply enough into just those commandments to lead a righteous life.

For Buddhism, the minimum seems to be the Noble Eightfold Path. There's the Four Noble Truths, of course, but they're incorporated into the Eightfold Path. And there are several other numbered lists of virtues and hindrances, but they seem to be less fundamental than the simplicity of the Eightfold Path.

I started reciting a short version of the Eightfold Path before beginning meditation. Now the problem was to make sense of the steps. What did they mean?

A partial answer came from, of all places, a business writing course I teach. The principal lecturer emphasized the clarity, brevity, and vigor needed in effective business communications but also mentioned three other tests: Is it kind? Is it the truth? Is it necessary? In my reiterations of these principles to my students, I changed "Is it the truth?" to "Is it honest?" My rationale was that the results of simply telling the truth could be unkind, unnecessary, or in many cases simply misleading. My concept of honesty was that it is focused more on results and not misleading people.

The Steps

Here's my working version of the steps in the Eightfold Path. You should understand that it's not the "orthodox" version, and that if it works for me it may not work for you. The eight steps can be divided into three categories: spiritual underpinnings (Steps 1 and 2), proper behavior (Steps 3 through 5), and spiritual practice (Steps 6 through 8). The steps are not meant to be sequential.

1. Right View.

The Four Noble Truths.

- Life is basically unsatisfactory, full of disappointments and often painful.

- Much or all of the pain is mental. Mental anguish can make even physical pain less bearable. This pain is caused by clinging to things in an unhealthy way.

- There is a way to stop the pain.

- The way is the Eightfold Path.

2. Right Intention.

This has three parts:

- Loving-kindness - this is the sometimes very difficult requirement that we love not only the lovable but all beings, including unsavory folks, our enemies, and worse.

- Harmlessness - this is the commitment to behavior that does not harm others. It's a bit like the "do unto others" rule, but with an underpinning of compassion.

- Renunciation of desire - this does not mean we have to be puritanical drudges; for me, it means not letting the desire for things become a clinging attachment. The renunciation extends beyond physical pleasures to other kinds of attachments: pain, knowledge, our own ideas, and so forth.

3. Right Speech.

Traditionally, this means no lying, no meanness, no idle or silly speech. I like the more positive approach of the three tests I mentioned above:

- Is it honest?

- Is it kind?

- Is it necessary?

4. Right Action.

Traditionally, this means no stealing, no killing, no sexual misconduct. The details of these injunctions may include not eating meat, no premarital sex, and the like, depending on one's interpretation of the various Buddhist scriptures. Again, the positive approach seems to be better. For any action:

- Is it honest?

- Is it kind?

- Is it necessary?

5. Right Livelihood.

This seems to be a combination of the previous two. I think it probably came into the list in a realization that people often feel they must make moral compromises to make a living, and sometimes just to survive. Putting Right Livelihood in a separate step highlights the need to be moral in all our activities. Traditionally, Right Livelihood would exclude military service, butchering, loan sharking, and other activities that might cause pain, death, or other harm. The positive approach answers the same questions as for the other behaviors:

- Is it honest?

- Is it kind?

- Is it necessary?

6. Right Effort.

This is a tough one for me to grasp. Effort involves controlling good and bad mental impulses while meditating. But the principles could apply to one's daily attitudes as well. Right Effort acknowledges that our mental state can often be controlled by conscious choices:

- Abandoning negative states and keeping them from arising: anger, boredom, ennui, meanness, agitation, hopelessness, depression, lust.

- Preserving positive states and encouraging them to arise: calm, cheerfulness, interested engagement, hopefulness, kindness.

7. Right Meditation.

There are many formulas and rules for how to sit, where to sit, what to surround ourselves with. For those of us trying to simplify things, what more is there to say than the following:

- Sit down.

- Shut up.

- Pay attention.

8. Right Concentration.

For me, this is a byproduct of Right Meditation. If I pay attention long enough, I can focus on a single point or idea.

- Sometimes it's pure mental discipline, erasing the ego for a time.

- Sometimes it's loving-kindness directed at a particular person or group.

- Sometimes it's a sending/receiving kind of meditation (the Tibetan term is "tonglen") in which we breathe in other people's pain and suffering and breathe out light and healing. This is not like intercessory prayer; the goal is not the immediate alleviation of another's suffering. It's more like a breaking down of the barriers between ourselves and other people by becoming a part of their suffering.

Conscious and Unconscious

Even with a simple list - even if it's just Jesus' two commandments - it's very hard to keep everything in mind as we go about our daily lives. That's where practice comes in. Through meditation, I might be able to drive deep into myself the principles of proper behavior and intentions. Then, like the practiced athlete, I might have a chance, at least, that proper behavior and intentions will be partly automatic.




Tim Baehr is the editor of Menletter: A Journal for Men.





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