We are happy to publish a guest post from Cosimo author and Buddhist Paul Breiter, entitled "Imitating and Pretending - Thoughts from Retreat." Enjoy!
All past masters have followed the path of sublime beings before them. We say in Tibetan, “In life, we imitate others; whoever is the best imitator succeeds.” Similarly, because all Buddhists imitate the Buddha, whoever imitates him best will become a Buddha.
--Lama Tharchin Rinpoche
While doing meditation retreats, I often ask myself, “Where did I go wrong?” The answer that comes is “Everywhere.” But over the years I’ve learned to recognize the patterns of drama that take place in quiet solitude. Disengaged from accustomed busyness and distraction, there is naturally a lot of ferment. During one retreat several years ago, in the first week I saw that I was responsible for the war on Iraq. In the second week I was causing spiritual masters to pass away. In the third week I felt I’d become some kind of non-human life form and worried that the person who brought my groceries would probably drop the bags and run away screaming if she caught sight of me.
And all of that passed, like everything does, and in following years it took less and less time for the dramas to play themselves out. A professional football team once had the motto, “Talk is cheap. Play the game.” I started to think, “Drama is cheap. Do the practice.” (That team went on to win a Super Bowl after printing t-shirts with those words.)
In certain quarters there is talk of the “resultant path” as opposed to a causal path, or “taking the result as the path.” As with many other Buddhist concepts, it can be seen in very practical terms. Trungpa Rinpoche said that all he could do was provide a model of sanity to follow, and that practice is in large part imitation.
Without looking for anything esoteric, just consider sila, ethical conduct. When we resist habitual ways of doing things to follow a moral code, our hearts may not be in it completely, but we imitate the behavior of enlightened beings. Specifically, the complex monastic code of discipline, the Vinaya, could be seen as taking the way of the arhat as the path. Those who follow it for some time usually will realize that rather than being something burdensome and complicated, it actually makes life simple and brings a sense of freedom.
At the other end of the spectrum, seemingly abstruse or esoteric deity practices, for example, are explained as a way to develop pure vision, which can lead to recognition of the originally pure true nature of mind and phenomena. Sometimes I think of it as “pretending that things are the way they really are” or “trying to trick yourself into seeing things as they really are.” Such practices are contrived, of course, which raises red flags for some people. And even the pure vision that can come about from deity meditation is still considered illusory (but a great improvement on our usual impure illusory vision). Actually, we are already living in a totally contrived “reality,” one that is distorted by our habitual ways of perceiving and thinking; so antidotes may well be appropriate.
The Buddha taught on the different methods and antidotes for the defilements of mind, and in the case of discursive meditations, he said that whatever the mind takes up again and again it eventually becomes inclined to. And as with any other form of practice, discursive meditations are more suitable for some types of person than for others. They run the full gamut: meditations on the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; on renunciation; on lovingkindness and compassion; and on emptiness, to name but a few.
Ajahn Chah said that when the mind is temporarily free of defilements, we could be said to be “temporary arhats.” Scholars of Abhidharma would quibble, but there’s a point to his statement. So when we meditate on love and compassion, we could consider ourselves temporary bodhisattvas, and visualizing ourselves as Buddha-deities, we are temporary Buddhas. Why not encourage ourselves thus? In Soto Zen, the practice of shikan taza, “just sitting,” is spoken of as sitting like a Buddha. Dogen Zenji taught about this extensively and often poetically; in Bendowa, “A Discourse on Doing One’s Utmost in Practicing the Way of the Buddhas,” he says, “Even though it may be merely for a moment, when someone, whilst sitting upright in meditation, puts the mark of the Buddha Seal upon his…body, speech, and thought, the whole physical universe and everything in it becomes and is the Buddha Seal; all of space, throughout, becomes and is enlightenment.”
I think there must have been good reason for the Buddha to have taught all these methods of meditation and guides for conduct. I once heard a talk by the Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, and in conclusion he said, “You don’t have to worry that I’m trying to deceive you. I’m an old man now, near the end of my life, so I really have no reason to want to trick you.”
“Those who cling to things as truly existing are like animals. Those who cling to things as not existing are worse.”
About the Author
Paul Breiter was born in Brooklyn in 1948. In 1970, he became ordained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, where he met Ajahn Chah and became his student. After disrobing in 1977, Breiter returned to the US and continued Buddhist study with masters in the states. Breiter's books include One Monk, Many Masters, A Still Forest Pool, Venerable Father: A Life with Ajahn Chah, Being Dharma, and Everything Arises, Everything Falls Away.