I would like on this occasion to discuss, not the work that goes into translating texts, but that which we are all making in our effort to translate the practice of Buddhism. Maybe it hasn't occurred to you that you are a translator. We are all translators in the sense that the teachings which we have inherited from our Asian brothers and sisters can not be simply uprooted and replanted in another place on the planet without due attention to the differing environmental conditions. While there are certain principles that hold universally there is much that is relative to culture and tradition. So I suggest that the manner in which we are taking up this practice and the kind of effort we are making is our contribution to this shared task of translation. Can we become more conscious of this?
I have spoken often about identifying that which pertains to form and that which is the domain of spirit. Mixing up these aspects can mean that we put emphasis in the wrong place. In so doing we end up with results that we didn't bargain for. But sorting out these matters is far from easy. The sparkling radiance of these exotic teachings and techniques readily dazzle us. Especially since we have been in the dark for so long. And we might feel contented to settle for an initial response to this new-found light. However, the Buddha was consistent on his encouragement to not be fooled by the way things appear to be; only after careful scrutiny should we fully accept something to be true. This is talking about coming to know the benefit directly for ourselves. It is not suggesting we dismiss things because we don't immediately see the sense in them. So how should we approach this?
Surely the point of our taking up the Buddhist Way is to find support for our heart's yearning to be free. And naturally we begin by observing the way that others engage practice. But because a particular technique or system has been applied successfully by one person does not automatically mean that it will work for everyone. Those forms may have served well the aspirations of somebody else, but they are not automatically going to serve ours. It is wise to question ourselves: 'What am I in this for? What is important to me. What is it that is quickened in me when I see a teacher, or hear a teaching,?' I like to think about religious conventions as being like conventions around eating. If we are hungry then the point of eating food is to become free from the pain of hunger. Whether you go to a Japanese restaurant and eat with chopsticks or a Thai restaurant and eat with a spoon, or an Indian restaurant and eat with your fingers or whatever ... the conventions are not the point. The point is that we feel fed. So it is with practice. The point is that our hearts feel nourished. Our task is just that: to identify what it is that is nourishing and focus on that. This is the spirit. If we give this priority, whatever this may be in our case, then the forms which support it will rightly evolve. To not do so means we might be missing out on something worth having.
One thing we could be missing is a creative participation in our enquiry. If our translation is going to be effective, we have to be creatively involved with it. Yes, we respect the forms that we inherit, that's where we begin. And at times that requires we simply do what we are told - learning the form at this stage is the priority. For example if we are learning Tai Chi; we don't question the master because it feels uncomfortable and on our third lesson make some suggestions as to how the form could be altered. No. In the beginning we might feel awkward and look a little silly. However we simply learn the form and humbly accept that it doesn't feel right yet, remembering that these forms are supports for spirit - in this case Chi. If we practice the form with commitment then we do eventually learn to relax into the form. Then the Chi starts to move and we are grateful.
So we are not dismissing forms. We take up the form and wait until it settles for us. Then we feel for the spirit moving. When we are fully familiar with the spirit then that becomes the priority. Now we are in touch with the essence. This way forms which need to change will do so without compromising or obstructing spirit. If we attempt to change things too soon, based on our likes and dislikes, then we could be creating obstructions.
We respectfully look at the practices that we take on, feeling for the spirit; the teacher says practise this way, don't practise that way. We do what the teacher says but, as we proceed we are checking and feeling. We are not just believing. It is necessary to trust our teacher but trust is not mere belief. There is a big difference between trusting in what a teacher is offering and believing in them and their techniques. Many of us came into this path with conditioning from a different religious tradition; one which holds up belief as the whole point. Such an approach can not be applied in Buddhist teachings. In Buddhism beliefs are functional. We believe in things like rebirth for example; when we die we are reborn. But most of us don't know that to be objectively true. I don't know that it's true. I believe it. But the way in which I believe it, means, if somebody says it is all nonsense, then that's OK. I don't mind. They can have that view if they wish. I choose to hold to the belief that there is this process of rebirth, but I hold it lightly. The belief is not the end point.
When our teacher tells us to practice a certain way we take it on trust. The Buddha used an image of a goldsmith purifying gold to describe our effort to purify our relationship with the teachings; it's a process of removing the dross over and over again until you get pure gold. We purify our relationship to the teachings by cultivating enquiry, with feeling, into how it works for us. When we are practising various exercises and techniques and we find something is not working, we start having doubts. That's fine. Doubts do not have to be an obstruction in our practice. Doubts can also indicate that the spirit of enquiry is alive within us.
Enquiry is something that comes naturally to us in the West and we should value it. This is one of the contributions we are able to make to this task. We shouldn't automatically assume, that because our experience appears to contradict that which someone else is saying, that they are right and we are wrong. We listen. We feel it. We enquire. And if we proceed with a willingness to go gradually, translating everything we experience into practice, then I trust that an organic and lasting understanding will be born out of our effort.
As we discover for ourselves what works and what doesn't, a confidence grows, bringing benefit to us individually and to the community at large. Discovering our own true way of practice is like finding a good restaurant; the first thing you want to do is take your friends along. My sense is that if we arrive at such confidence in a gradual way by respectfully questioning as we go along, we spontaneously find our own ways of expressing it. We are not just using other people's words. Such confidence will spill over - we won't even notice it happening - but others will.
Two orientations of effort
One way of illustrating this task of translating the practice is to look more closely at the ways we internalise the teachings on effort. If the kind of effort we make is not coming from a place of confidence, not only are we wasting energy, we could actually be doing ourselves harm. I see a lot of confusion in the way many Western meditators relate to the different types of effort required in practice. Sometimes there is a somewhat naive hope that by endlessly plugging away doing what they have been doing for years something good will come out of it.
These days I am convinced that there are basically two distinctly different orientations of effort. And we all have our own natural way of progressing on the path which we need to find. If we are practising somebody else's way then it might not work for us. I tried to practise for many years by having a goal 'out there' to strive towards. As I heard the teachings I understood this is what I should be doing. I received instruction in various techniques which were oriented towards realisation of this goal. The goal was called enlightenment or the deathless and so on but it was always 'out there in the future'. I was encouraged to make great effort to achieve the goal and to break through those things that obstructed progress towards it. And even when the words didn't directly say the goal was 'out there' that was how I heard the message.
Eventually I found myself in a terribly frustrating knot. At one point I felt that my whole commitment to practice was seriously challenged. Gratefully, with some help, I came to realise that the struggle I was caught in was about the very feeling of having to get somewhere. I had to 'fix' myself somehow and change what I was and get somewhere else. Clearly it wasn't working, so I gave up. In giving up I experienced a feeling like beginning a journey home. What a relief! Just when I was beginning to wonder if the journey itself was about to come to a sudden and sad ending. It felt like settling into something perfectly natural. And with this shift came a feeling, initially unnoticed, of being personally responsible. This was new.
From this experience grew a practice characterised by a strong sense of trusting in that which already exists. This was altogether different from striving towards achieving some goal. The effort that this new appreciation spontaneously called forth was 'not seeking'. My attention was - and is - looking and feeling in this moment; ' Where and when do I judge this situation as being somehow inadequate or wrong or lacking?' I found I was able to see quite clearly when I imposed on life some notion of how it should be. 'It shouldn't be this way, it should be that way'. Practice became simply, but resolutely, being with this awareness. Now I refer to this as source-oriented practice; a trusting heart intuiting that what we are looking for is right here, it isn't anywhere else, it isn't somewhere out there.
Many of us start meditating with a faculty of will that is not doing its job properly. In trying so hard and for so long to wilfully fix ourselves up, we have abused the very faculty of will. If you abuse alcohol for a period of years and become alcoholic, you can never again have a social drink. In our case we have over-used will. Now we can't help but over-do it and interfere with everything that happens. We can not simply receive a situation and gently apply will to direct and guide attention. If we find something we think is wrong we tend to automatically slam an opinion on it - 'it shouldn't be this way'. Then we set about wilfully trying to fix it.
For those of us who suffer this dysfunction, engaging will as the primary tool of meditative effort just doesn't work. However, we can disengage from will and abide in a mode of trusting in that which already is, trusting that reality is, trusting that truth is, and trusting that if we simply stop interfering with our compulsively judging mind, then an accurate and conscious appreciation of that which already is will reveal itself.
If you follow a path of practice that is goal-oriented you can expect to have a clear concept of what you should be doing and where you should be going. There will be appropriate actions to take for any obstacles that you might encounter. But if your path of practice is source-oriented it is not like this at all. Here you come to sit in meditation and you might begin by checking body posture, making sure the back is upright and head resting comfortably on the shoulders, chest open, belly at ease and then sitting there, bring into awareness that you don't know what you are doing. You simply don't know. All you know is that you are sitting there (and there may be times when even that you can't be sure of). You don't hang on to anything. But you do pay attention to watching the tendency of the mind to want to fix anything. Interest is focussed on the movement of mind towards taking sides, for and against.
Usually when I sit in meditation I do nothing. I assume a conscious posture and simply observe what's happening; maybe the mind is all over the place thinking about the liquorice I had the other night at somebody's house, about how its a pity the sun has gone, about how I will be in Beijing this time next week, or how the monks at Harnham sent an Email asking whether they should use gloss paint for the doors in the monastery kitchen and so on .... . Such thoughts might be going through my mind and they are absolute nonsense but I do nothing with them. Absolutely nothing, until I start to feel a little bit uncomfortable and then watch to see where that discomfort is coming from. It is always coming from the same place: 'I shouldn't be this way. I should be ... My mind should be clear, I shouldn't be ...'. Once this movement is identified a settling occurs. When we identify that which takes us away from our natural feeling of centredness we come home. This is not neccessarily the kind of effort one would be making in goal-seeking.
Knowing for yourself
Most of us have a natural tendency to incline in one of these two directions of effort. Some people are contented and confident when they have a clear sense of where they are supposed to be going. Others, if they focus on the idea of a goal, end up depressed, feeling like they are failing; trying to stop thinking, trying to sit properly, trying to make themselves happy, trying to be loving, trying to be patient, trying to be mindful, and always failing. What a terrible mistake! The worst disease of meditators: trying to be mindful. Some quit, feeling they had been wasting their time. However, if we realise that we don't have to do anything other than be present with an awareness of the compulsive judging mind and its chronic tendency to take sides for and against then our minds settle.
It is useful to understand how each of these two orientations has particular merits at different stages of practice. In the beginning, to build up some confidence, it is necessary that we have a good grasp of techniques. Even though we may relate more readily to source-oriented practice, if we haven't found a firm foundation on which to practice, or, even if we have found that firm foundation but our life is very busy, it can still be appropriate at times to make effort to exercise will and focus. The two orientations are not mutually exclusive.
I encourage people in the beginning to be very disciplined and count their breaths, one to ten, ten to one, every out breath - one, two, three, up to ten. Ten, nine, eight down to one. Being quite precise in the effort made. This way we get to know that our attention is our attention. We are not slaves, nor are we victims. If our attention is wandering off and we get caught up in resentment or desire, then we need to know that we are responsible for that. Our practice, whether we are goal-oriented or source-oriented, is not going to progress, until we are clear that we are responsible for the quality of attention with which we operate.
To reach this perspective it may be necessary to exercise a rigorous discipline of attention for a long period of time. Yet when we reach the point where we sense we could either continue making that kind of effort, refine down the techniques and systems in pursuit of a goal, but we somehow feel it isn't true to do so, then we need to be ready to adjust; to let go altogether of seeking anything. If it is right for us to make this choice then, when on doing so, we hear someone going on about their way of practice, we can say, 'oh, OK, that's fine'. We won't be shaken. It is really important that we don't keep letting ourselves be shaken by somebody else's enthusiasm.
As we settle more comfortably and confidently into making our own 'right effort' it becomes easier to recognise the various strengths and weaknesses of different styles of practice. In goal-oriented practice, for example, it is probably easier to generate energy. With a clear concept of what you are supposed to be doing, attention narrows, all distractions are excluded and you focus, focus, focus, focus. By being so exclusive, energy gathers; this way you readily observe yourself progressing along the path. This in turn supports faith. Of course there is a shadow side to this and it is directly related to this strength. In being so exclusive you risk chopping out things which could be useful. There is a danger of denial taking over. If old neurotic habits of avoidance have not been addressed and you take up goal seeker's practice these tendencies become compounded. This can be the birth of fundamentalism.
One of the strengths of source-oriented practice is that as we release out of striving and aiming for something other than here and now, a balanced, whole body-mind relaxation emerges. And this draws on our creativity. We have to be creative since by not excluding anything, everything must be translated into practice. There is no situation that is not a practice situation. However, that which appears as creativity can also be harbouring delusion. If we are so happy and relaxed that we are getting lazy or heedless with the precepts for example, then we need to know what is going on.
Another danger in source-oriented practice is that when we really do get into a pickle we could feel disinclined to do anything about it. This tends to happen because we don't relate anymore towards structures in the way we used to. Faith for us is inspired, not by a concept of what we hope lies ahead, but by that which we trust is already essentially true. However, if the clouds of fear and anger overshadow the radiance of our faith we can tremble badly, possibly even crumble. In this case it is important that we have already cultivated spiritual friendship. To have the blessing of association with others with whom we share a commitment to conscious relationship is an incomparably precious resource. When we gather in spiritual companionship a resonance is struck up in which we rightly feel safe. This relative security can be for us what concepts and goals are for spiritual technicians.
As we progress in our practice each of us has the task of checking to see whether we are moving into or out of balance. But how do we assess how things are moving? I say, if we are moving into balance it means we can handle more situations. There are more states of greater complexity that we can accommodate. If we are moving out of balance it means we can handle fewer and fewer situations - instead of spiritual practice liberating us and opening us up to life, it makes us exclusive and painfully cut off.
So it is wise for us all to examine our practice and see if we can find in which direction we feel we move most easily, which orientation of effort comes most naturally to us, what sort of language works. We need to prepare ourselves with the understanding that teachers of these different approaches use different ways of talking. So listen to the teachings you receive, and contemplate that which you read in books and see what makes sense to you. And then, I reckon you should go with that.
So this evening I am hopefully encouraging us all in investigating our contribution to this way of practice at this stage in its unfolding. Our careful enquiry means we will come to recognise our weaknesses, individually and collectively, and when we become quietly aware of our deficiencies we get creative. We can translate the practice. Adaptation will happen where it is necessary and it will be in the service of Dhamma. Possibly we won't even notice it. We will just know that the spirit of the Way is alive within us and that our hearts are more at ease.
Thank you very much for your attention.