Spirituality and the Dharma
Kuden Paul Boyle
Forest City Zen Group
I would like to talk about my sense of spirituality in general, how it developed, and how it fits into the Dharma. In my experience, when someone finds out I practise Zen, they often start talking about what “spiritual” beliefs they have. I assume they are trying to find some common ground with me. More often than not, however, when these people talk about “spirituality” they are really talking about their metaphysical beliefs. For example, someone may believe in a deity, or angels, or other spiritual helpers. Such beliefs can encompass believing that certain inanimate objects (e.g. crystals) have various powers. Others might believe that performing certain rituals will have specific intended effects.
For me, my spirituality doesn't involve metaphysics. Rather, it is more about what I do than what I believe. I see spirituality in terms of relationships, and these relationships are framed by posing various questions to myself. The questions that I use are: 1) What is my relationship with myself?, 2) What is my relationship with other people and other beings?, 3) What is my relationship with the environment and the world around me? It's not so important to come up with answers as to hold open the questions. This is a moment by moment practice. It's about self-awareness and what I do to show up for my life. Am I feeling hateful, or open hearted in the moment? Do I feel an impulse to act on that emotional state?
I find these questions useful because for me, personally, they help me orient toward certain elements of the Eight-fold Path, like Right View, Right Intention, and Right Action. At the same time, these questions are general enough to clarify to non-Buddhists how I see spirituality, and that spirituality is not necessarily coupled to metaphysical beliefs or faith in supernatural beings. The way that my spirituality evolved seems similar to what are called the Five Characteristics of Dharma, which I will talk about a little later. First, however, I would like to talk about how my sense of spirituality developed.
Oddly enough, the original inspiration for this talk was the sutta called On Angulimala (MN 86). My favourite part of the sutta is where Angulimala, a notorious bandit and serial killer, is running to try to catch up to the Buddha in order to kill him. The Buddha is just walking along at his normal pace, but no matter what Angulimala does, he can't catch up to the Buddha. Finally, the Buddha turns toward Angulimala and tells him to stop, and Angulimala stops. After that Angulimala becomes a monk and an arhat. In another sutra we can learn what Angulimala's motivation was: It turns out Angulimala became a serial killer because he was misled by a spiritual teacher earlier in his life.
If we read Angulimala's story as metaphor, it offers an accessible lesson regarding what makes a wholesome versus unwholesome spiritual path. To make it relevant to our lives, we can interpret the the first clear mind precept (A disciple of Buddha does not kill) as being broader than referring to simply taking biological life. It can include killing someone's goodwill, their capacity for empathy and compassion, their enthusiasm, their open heartedness, their curiosity. Unwholesome spiritual paths can do this to people. I witnessed this in my own childhood when one of my parents became involved in fundamentalist Christianity. That became an example of what to avoid in my spiritual search.
The other point I want to bring up is Angulimala's running. He couldn't catch the Buddha no matter what he tried doing. His warped spiritual practice couldn't touch the Buddha (reality as it is). I see this as another metaphor for less than productive spiritual practices. There are some people who are always running from one path to the next, or they are running after the latest spiritual toys. The sutra is telling us that chasing after something doesn't help. We must stop. To paraphrase Jack Kornfield, it is better to dig one deep well rather than many shallow wells. Stopping allows us to dig deeply.
People don't pursue destructive or unwholesome spiritual paths because they are born inherently evil or flawed. They go down unwholesome paths because they are misguided either by their reasoning process or by influence of another. When I was at Tassajara I recall Paul Haller saying during a Dharma Talk something like, no matter what kind of screwed up, dysfunctional choices we've made at any given time, those choices always represent our best effort to say 'yes' to life. I would like to think that this is true for both myself and Angulimala. Because of our backgrounds and ignorance, much of the time, these dysfunctional choices turn out to be not so great. Many times we just repeat the same pattern because we don't know how to do it any other way, and we just hope for a different result. In any case, I liked what Paul Haller said because it gave me a way to see my own and other people's searching and struggles with compassionate eyes.
In my own story, I grew up in a pretty dysfunctional, chaotic household. One of my “solutions” to escape living with my family was to excel academically. I bided my time until I was able to leave home to go to university. After my first year of undergraduate, I stayed on campus (about a 4 hour drive from my parents' house) to take extra classes. Every summer, I was able to find something to do which allowed me to avoid going home. One summer it was doing undergraduate research for my adviser. The next summer it was a summer undergraduate research fellowship. I did well academically and received a lot of positive reinforcement from my peers and mentors. Still, there was the angst and the hollowness inside.
After I graduated from my undergraduate studies, I figured, well, academic achievement worked pretty well for me. So, let's continue this course of action, and go to graduate school! I did pretty well during graduate school too During this time I was reading about Taoism, Zen, and some western philosophy. I found these topics interesting, but it was all in my head. I couldn't plug it into the reality of my life. I found that despite my concern and best efforts, my life was beginning to fall apart.
Like Angulimala, I was running. I was trying to find and catch something which would bring me peace and contentment. No matter what I tried, I couldn't find “that thing” which would quiet the self-doubt and self-loathing. Eventually, the strategy of running by excelling had to stop. Toward the end of my Ph.D. studies, I did stop, or at least, began to stop. I learned, in a visceral way, the reality of the First Noble Truth – the reality of suffering. Once I was able to touch my own suffering, I could see how spiritual practice plugged into the reality of my life. For me, stopping entailed going to 12 Step groups to learn about and take responsibility for my own dysfunctional thought and behaviour patterns, and going to individual and group therapy. It also included taking up a meditation practice which led to a deepening involvement in Zen.
One of the things which I found quite valuable about 12 Step work was its immediacy and concreteness. In these groups members are encouraged to find a “higher power” which works for them. Like most people in this position, I did a little “shopping around”, but one of the criterion I used was that I didn't want to have to adopt elaborate metaphysical views. If possible, I wanted it to be something concrete which I could experience directly. After several years of recovery work, when I started studying the Buddhadharma, this was one of the things which stood out for me – the concreteness and practicality of the Dharma. In general, I think the Buddhadharma is like this because the Buddha emphasized causality. In the Nikayas (Pali Canon), we can find passages which outline five characteristics of the Dharma which emphasize the immediacy and concreteness of the teaching. I see a lot of similarity with what is emphasized in Zen practice. More recently I've begun to see these Five Characteristics of Dharma as the “five characteristics of spiritual practice”.
The five characteristics of the Dharma:
Sandhitthiko: is the principle of the concrete “here and now” in actual reality.
Akaliko: is the principle of immediacy. Sometimes this gets translated as “timeless”, but immediacy captures the essential meaning.
Ehipasiko: is the principle of invites investigation, the principle of “come and see”.
Opanayiko (Apanayiko): the principle of applicability. Deserves application within one's own mind. The principle of leading inward.
Paccattam Veditab Vinnuhi: is the principle that the teachings are experienced directly by the wise.
When these five characteristics show up in the Nikayas, someone is asking the Buddha, “Hey, how is your teaching directly visible, immediate, inviting one to come and see, applicable, and to be personally experienced by the wise?” The Buddha then explains a teaching. Inevitably, the answer revolves around some experience of self-awareness. For example, having seen a form with the eye, one experiences the form and craving for the form. Our awareness of what is going on with us is concrete and immediate. We can be curious about how we can practise with this in the moment. We can apply the Dharmic teachings to our awareness and experience these teachings directly.
I'll talk a little more about each of these five characteristics. I don't think the order is arbitrary. The way I see it is that the characteristics are listed in the order in which we engage them in practice.
Sandhitthiko: This is the principle of concrete practice, here and now in actual reality. This principle is deeply embedded in Zen. Many koans like Joshu's “Cypress Tree” or Tozan's “Three Pounds of Flax” embody the principle of here and now. One of the things which initially drew me to Soto Zen was the approach that everyday activity can be enlightened activity. Every mundane action and task can be a moment of creating practice. In Soto Zen we try to do every activity wholeheartedly. It is concrete and happens in the moment. This is why work practice is so important in Zen. We work with our experience through our activity. Suppose you are given a job during work period you don't like. In that moment being aware of your aversion is your concrete, here and now practice.
Akaliko: This is the principle of immediacy. Again, this principle is deeply embedded in Zen. Many of you can probably recall the story which Dogen tells in the Tenzo Kyokun regarding his encounter with an elderly tenzo. He asked the tenzo why don't you wait to dry the mushroon when the sun isn't so hot? The tenzo answered, “What time should I wait for?” Zen is full of this sort of immediacy. Now is a great time to do Zen practice! There is no other time to practise. Don't wait until you think you are prepared, the present moment is already here and ripe for practice.
Ehipasiko: this is the principle of “come and see for yourselves”. This is an invitation to try and experience the Dharma directly. Accepting the first two principles of sandhitthiko and akaliko outlined above make this easier. There is an element of faith here – that Buddhist teachings are directly relevant and applicable to my life in this moment. When I read some Buddhist teaching, I ask myself, “How is this teaching inviting me to practise?”. Sometimes it is concrete, like whole heartedly chopping vegetables. With other teachings, the investigation is a little more open ended. One example of open ended investigation would be living out the Bodhisattva Vows. Investigating how to liberate all beings isn't something we can figure out, but we can try and see for ourselves. Sometimes, we might come across a teaching where we have no idea how to apply it. In that case, I think it is OK to set it aside.
Opanayiko: this is the principle of applicability and turning inward. The Buddhadharma isn't “out there” to try to explain the physical universe. In Zen Mind Beginner's Mind, Suzuki-roshi captures the spirit of opanaykio with the following quote, “Usually, when someone believes in a particular religion, his attitude becomes more and more a sharp angle pointing away from himself. In our way the point of the angle is always pointing towards ourselves.” Suzuki-roshi is bringing up something important. We don't engage spiritually by engaging with external toys or thinking we know something about other people or the universe. And, we certainly don't engage spiritually by judging other people. The teachings are tools with which we can examine our interior life. Opanayiko leads inward and toward peace of mind. In a sense, opanayiko builds on the three previous characteristics of Dharma. When we see the teachings as concrete and practical, of immediate value, and want to investigate them, this naturally leads to opanayiko.
Paccattam Veditab Vinnuhi: this is the principle of direct experience of the wise. OK, so we may not think that we qualify as wise. So, I would like to suggest a rephrasing – the principle of direct experience through practice. This is the basis of faith in Buddhism. In Buddhism faith is not believing in something which cannot be proven. Faith is a developing confidence in the teachings by verifying them with our own experience.
As I mentioned previously, the order five characteristics of Dharma points out how we can engage in practice. First, we start with the here and now, our actual concrete experience. Second, we see the immediacy of practising the teachings. We don't wait for a “better” time. Third, we accept the invitation of “come and see”. How does this teaching invite me to practice? Fourth, we see the applicability of the teaching to our own experience. Finally, as a result of engaging process, we experience directly the result of the teachings. This is how the five characteristics of Dharma offer guidance about how to practise.
The usefulness of the five characteristics of Dharma extend to a couple of other related areas of practice. First, they can guide us in how we interpret and understand the Dharma. Second, we can cultivate the qualities in our practice.
When interpreting a Dharma teaching, I try to stick to these five characteristics. Is the teaching concrete? Is it immediate? Does it invite doing? How is it applicable to my interior life? If I cannot come up affirmatively to these questions, then I consider four possibilities: 1) the teaching should be interpreted symbolically, 2) the teaching is not right for me, 3) the teaching is not right for me at this time, or 4) the teaching is incorrect. I may not necessarily know which of these alternatives is true.
When a teaching doesn't make sense to me, the first thing I do is to try to interpret symbolically. I did this with the Angulimala Sutta when I was talking about that earlier. Another thing to realize about the Dharma is that certain teachings work well for some people and not for others. So, if we don't resonate with a teaching, then it's not really a problem. We persist until we do find a teaching with which we resonate. It could also be that we might not relate to a teaching when we are new to Zen, but over time we see its value. The converse can also be true. Teachings which appealed to us as beginners might not have the same draw after we have been sitting for awhile.
The other point about the five characteristics of the Dharma is that we can cultivate the these characteristics in our practice. To put it succinctly: when we practise the Dharma, we become the Dharma. The more thorough our practice the deeper the Dharma seeps into and permeates our body/mind. For example, after taking up the concrete practice of Zen, we may find that we are more rooted in the principles of “here and now”, “immediacy”, and “turning inward” and so on. We may find we are less drawn to speculative or metaphysical views and practices. We become more stable and rooted in reality as it is. Thank-you.
Copyright Kuden Paul Boyle, 2018