Our Time On This Planet Is Short: Lighten Up
Ven. David Xi-Ken Astor 曦 肯
It is my sense from studying other Buddhist cultures, especially those in the East, that the people are very realistic and laid back in their Buddhist lay practice. Although they appear to practice with commitment and many out of a feeling of devotion, they also understand that we are all flawed human beings. So they tend to be less critical with themselves and with others.
Western students on the other hand, have a tendency to try to become the perfect practitioner, and to transform themselves into a model Buddhist that reflects the tradition they have chosen to practice. They often take on the etiquette and inner attitudes that often reflect another culture other than the one they were raised in. I wonder how much this just reflects an individual’s lack of confidence that a Buddhist practice can reflect just as easy their own culture’s values and contemporary worldviews, as it does a more established ‘foreign-flavor’ that might be more appealing. To establish and walk the Buddhist path with confidence, we need to accept and feel at ease in bringing Buddhism into our lives just as it is. While we will discover how to change our attitudes, behaviors, and lifestyles to reflect our new Buddhist worldview, we can do it where we are. We do not have to change our cultural values to find success that leads to human flourishing.
My studies have indicated that most Eastern Buddhist teachers have encountered the tendency of Western practitioners to take themselves and the dharma very seriously. And this is a good thing. But anything done in excess can lead to unintended consequences. This may arise from our experience with other religious traditions perhaps, but I have noticed that there is sometimes a humorless quality to the intensity and focus on achievement, and less on just being aware in-the-moment. Solemnity and earnestness often prevail in Western dharma circles.
One of the noticeable qualities of most Asian dharma teachers, and some Western teachers too, is their readiness to laugh and joke. The Dalai Lama is a prime example of someone who spontaneously laughs when anything strikes him as funny, even in the midst of a solemn ceremony. This does not mean that he is not deeply sincere; he’s just not TOO serious that’s all. My own teachers rarely showed much humor (at least around the students) , and almost never in the meditation hall. My teachers were more guarded in showing emotion, especially when wearing robes. Generally it may be our old companion the ego that likes to take itself seriously in order to feel important. So when we become interested in the dharma, the ego happily cloaks itself with an aura of spirituality and readily agrees to undertake up practice to become an improved and realized “me”. Rather than quietly working to change our minds, it is easy to fall into the trap of taking on the most advanced practices before we are ready. This may be especially true if you follow the Tibetan tradition with it’s many practices that empower their practitioners. This may result in creating stress and a feeling that our practice is floundering.
Students sometimes ask, “What will I gain from meditation practice?” or “When will I know that I have achieved a milestone in my practice?” As though they are working on a business project. And we even get the question, “What is the fastest and easiest way to enlightenment?” I love that one. One of the problems seems to be making our dharma practice into yet another goal to be accomplished.
The Cannon texts assure us that we need energy and dedication to advance along the path, just as we would to become proficient in any skill or sport. This is why a strong meditation practice is so important. Yet it is easy to fall into the pattern of making our practice rigid and ambitious. We may grow depressed when we do not appear to be making any progress: when we meditate and nothing seems to happen, or when we cannot regain our initial excitement, for example. Our very expectations create a barrier to the natural unfolding of the mind’s potential. And that happens on it’s own schedule.
A committed dharma practice is supposed to make our lives happier and less encumbered. So when our practice becomes yet another rock in the rucksack of life, making everything seem heavier and more stressful, something is not working properly. In the famous simile of a lute, the Buddha explained that just as the strings of a musical instrument should be neither too tight nor too loose, likewise our practice should be well tuned, not too intense and not too lax. We need to pace ourselves.
We need to encourage ourselves and our fellow practitioners to lighten up and stop taking ourselves so seriously. Sometimes I think that another “fold” on the Eightfold path should be humor. It is very unlikely that we will really accomplish full awakening in this lifetime. So what? By living an ethical and moral life, good karma results. Providing others, perhaps, an opportunity to discover the path to an aware body-mind. Knowing we are all connected makes this appealing to me. In this life, we can allow ourselves to relax a bit and enjoy the flowers, even as we keep walking onward.