For us here at my Monastery and for some in the active Sangha, the frantic, last-minute push for some special projects is over, and now a space opens, a time for collecting ourselves. It is now Passover and Holy Week, an especially rich time to contemplate being in body.
We invite you to try this gentle exercise, best done in the stillness of sitting or being in nature. Without adding any thoughts, gently restraining the impulse to analysis or any kind of metaphorical or theological fanciness, allow yourself to notice “there is a body.” Be patient and gentle with yourself. Allow any background noise of thought or the life outside to be just that, background noise. Allow the sensation of being in a body that may appear.
The Buddha instructed his followers to abide contemplating the body internally, which is what we usually do when we meditate or often when we are relaxed and walking or sitting in nature. He also invited people to contemplate the body externally, which can mean observing other bodies around us…….not with judgment and comparison as we usually do but with an awareness that we humans are alike under the skin, all suffering, all striving, all awake and asleep by turns, at peace or gripped by fear or desire of some other conditioning.
Yet the Buddha also added an instruction to “abide contemplating both internally and externally.” This can mean having a two-way attention, sensing ourselves while being aware of the impact of our words and actions and presence on others and in the world around us. We humbly invite you to try this in the coming days. It can be amazing to see how opening to sensation and direct seeing–how inviting the whole of ourselves to be present–can support a deeper understanding of great and mysterious Truth.
This morning, in one of the first open group meditations in our Spring meditation program, a group of about 35 students and a few monastics, meditated and had a thoughtful exchange about what the Buddha meant by the word “samadhi”…..a word usually translated as “concentration.” Often, people dread the word and the state that they “think” goes with it. They associate concentration with the kind of grim mental effort made in college, usually the night before a test or a paper was due and fueled by lots of coffee and fear. In a meditation practice, it’s often easier to strongly prefer mindfulness, a sky-like state of awareness that shines a light on things like a butterfly, a blade of grass, the smell of a flower….and then moves on. Indeed, those beautiful moments of settling on a sensation or a sound are indeed moments of samadhi.
Samadhi happens when we are free from stress and strain. In his classic teaching on meditation, The Satipatthana Sutra, the Buddha describes concentration as being “free from desires and discontent with regard to the world.” It’s the blossoming of attention and joy that can appear when we are fully present. Once, in lesssns with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he talked about the Pali term samadhi….He described samadhi as the joy that comes when we let go of all the tensions and thoughts that keep us from being fully present. “Receiving joy is another way to say enjoyment, and samadhi is the act of refined enjoyment. It is based in skillfulness. It is the careful collection of oneself into the joy of the present moment. Joyfulness means there’s no fear, no tension, no ‘ought to.’ There isn’t anything we have to do about it. It’s just this.”
As a Buddhist, it is not possible for me to believe in accidental developments in our universe. It’s the law of Karma that the Buddha taught so long ago. Having been on this earth for over 40 years and dealing with people for most of that time, I am constantly reminded of what appears to be a “grand design”, without which only chaos can exist. To be sure, there are those who do not see the edges of that design and push to, “do it anyway”, only to suffer, sometimes a fatal outcome. An example of this grand design is the simple guideline “be respectful of others.” It calls on all of us to hold our tongues and be patient…..indeed words hurt often without people even recognizing that they’ve hurt you. Choose your words carefully or you risk a tear in the fabric of civility. These teachings stem from the Four Noble Truths and are practiced in “sila” or “Right Speech” in the Eightfold Path toward the cessation of suffering. But this simple guide calls for more than restraint, I believe. It is calling us to understand and appreciate each other. It is challenging us to ask why things are as they are. It is pointing the way to cooperative behavior that makes some places restful and others full of fear. It is so clear to me that society is moving away from this basic truth, and at times, I am alarmed. Will my friends’ great-grandchildren be able to live and travel in a free society or will they be under siege in a jungle environment? The changes I have seen in my life suggest a quickening pace toward an unraveling of the “grand design” despite islands of hope. It seems that dichotomies spring up everywhere overnight and never with the desire to compromise with the opposition, but to crush the opponent. I rarely see the desire to join forces and build a better world for us all, but rather to never give an inch while attacking with full force. Can we possibly continue in this direction? Will it not lead to a world-wide frame of reference that is now played out daily in the Middle East? Powerful influences driven by questionable motives toward equally questionable goals make the individual’s effort seem impotent by comparison. However, despite what I see, I believe it is not only necessary to stand up and speak out against this change, but that it is required of us if we expect our free society to be available for the generations to come. I believe we could all benefit from toning down the rhetoric and taking a minute to ask ourselves,”Is there a better way to say what’s on my mind?” What I enjoy of this American life rests on the shoulders of those who came before me who knew and accepted the simple principles of respect and cooperation. These ideals guided their actions within families and among peoples and nations. There were dramatic exceptions to be sure, but again what ultimately bound us together was and is the need to get along with each other and live unmolested. I believe we have the ability to work together as families and as nations when we screen our thoughts through the fine fabric of respect for ourselves and others.