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Questions and Answers / Practice and Obstacles
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Questions and Answers / Practice and Obstacles (24 min.) MP3
Transcript of a talk delivered by Brother ChiSing
March 3, 2013 - Dallas, Texas

I really don't know what to talk about tonight, so maybe we can have questions; however, if there are no questions, I also have a few ideas in my mind too.

Audience member: I have a question. A few weeks back you talked about obstacles, and I either wasn't here, or you only talked about part of it--and I'm curious. I think someone told me what they heard, and it made me very curious.

ChiSing: Well, good. Let's have lots of questions, and I'll start with that one. Let me just hear what other questions people have.

Audience member #2: I read a book you recommended, gosh I hope I get the title-- A Time for Silence? The one thing (many things made me pause) but one was [the idea of] Buddhism as a psychology [and that] it's not effective; [It's only effective] as a religion--and I don't know whether I am "all in" on the religion. I am learning about Buddhism--but right now, maybe it is more of a psychology to me than a religion, you know? Is it not going to be effective then?

ChiSing: I'm not sure I understand your question though?

Audience member #2: In his book, he said Buddhism is only effective as a religion; not as a psychology. Where as I feel that love, and mindfulness, can be a way of life without being a religion.

ChiSing: Okay, are there any other questions?

Audience member #3: I just had a situation come up. What is a good way, when we are faced in our daily life with things that make us angry. I was trying to not attach myself to it, but it was...difficult.

ChiSing: Okay. Other questions?

Audience Member #4: I just wanted to respond to what you said [speaking to Audience member #2], [in regards to] the question about [how Buddhism] works as a religion, but not as a psychology. I'm not saying that I know the answer to that, but what is makes me think--is that religion often has an element of devotion and surrender. It includes the understanding, and the faith, that there is some substance; some benevolent/creative substance underlying all life, and psychology, I think, sometimes limits itself, sometimes, to the empirical and the scientific. My guess is that the person who said that, was thinking that Buddhism works when you have this element of true devotion, and true surrender. And if you're staying at the realm of empirical science--you don't always get that.

ChiSing: I like that! [Audience: laughs] I don't even have to talk tonight. [laughter]

ChiSing: Oh, Okay. Other questions? Or comments.

Audience member #2: I thought that was beautiful, and very well said. I think that my upbringing in the Catholic faith looks at the leader of a religion as a God-like figure--and I know Buddha is not a God-like figure, nor am I, necessarily, ready for him to be a God-like figure in my life and I think that is where I am "mixed up" a little bit. I still consider myself Christian to a degree/role--I believe in God; I believe in that....yet, I think what Buddha has to say is, in some ways, better. In some ways more profound...I don't know if that helped at all.

ChiSing: I think that Buddhism is effective as a religion, as a philosophy, as a psychology, and as a way of life--all of it. I think the best way to practice Buddhism, or any spiritual practice or tradition, is to practice it with your whole heart, your whole mind, your whole strength, and to practice it holistically. To allow it to penetrate, into all areas of your life (and not just one kind of area in your life).

Remember that the person who said this, the author of Return to Silence, is a Zen master--so, don't take his words too literally; because, sometimes, truth can be said in two opposite ways--and still be true. I think it's true, for many of us, that if Buddhism is only a religion and not a psychology--then it's just dead superstition, and dead ritualism; however, I think what he may have meant--like Karen said, by saying that Buddhism is effective as a religion, and not just as a psychology (I think Karen hit it right on). The way I might say it is that Buddhism is effective when it is practiced, holistically. Psychology is just one element of our spiritual practice. There's a psychological aspect to our practice; there's a devotional aspect; there's a charitable aspect, of service, to other beings; there's an ethical aspect; there's an experiential aspect (as we practice and experience insight for ourselves). So I think that's what he might have meant.

I have seen both extremes. When I go to Asia, a lot of the time it's not, full, holistic Buddhism--it's just the dead, outward, aspect that many people practice. They just go to the temple to light their incense--and that's about it. It doesn't really effect their whole psychological life, or their meditative life. It becomes just ritualism, only. Here in America, as people have been starting to practice Buddhism (especially among those of non-Asian decent ), I've noticed that the emphasis is on the psychology, the scientific aspects, the meditation aspects, the practical aspects; but I feel, very strongly that, it's a disservice to the full extent of what Buddhism has to offer, when you strip it down to just that, and you don't include the other elements that are also important--that help people.

That's why here, at the Dallas Meditation Center, I've tried my best (while very much emphasizing psychology and meditation practice, and the practical aspects) to also make sure we have a little bit of chanting, a little bit of ritual, and a little bit of heart-opening practices too, so that we do not lose that part. There's a tendency to just strip it down to just the practical aspect of Buddhism; which is fine too, for those people in society who are more secular-oriented, and who have an aversion and a distaste for anything too religious--then that's a wonderful "dharma door" open for them to enter into the practice. For example, Jon Kabat-Zinn with his MBSR, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs--because he was able to, very wisely, refine it down to the practical/scientific aspects of the practice--now you see it in hospitals all over the country. If it had just stayed religious--you wouldn't see that, so the effectiveness would not have been as great. So I think, there is room for all of the different ways that we are practicing; there's room for the religious aspects, the secular aspects; scientific and psychological, etcetera. Really the point is to help all beings. So if a secular approach is helpful to some beings--go for it, I support it, and I am all for it. If a devotional aspect is helpful for other kinds of beings, then please, practice that.

There's just many different ways that we can practice that can help, but we also have to be careful not to idolize any aspect, because then we rigidify it, and then it becomes dead (and not helpful). It becomes either scientific dogma or religious dogma--but both are dogmas that can be harmful.

So, speaking of harmful, there are certain hindrances in our practice that we encounter. I mentioned them briefly before, a few weeks ago, but I guess I can mention them again today. The five hindrances--and I would like to illustrate it. You'll never see this in a book, this is just what I came up with in my own practice.

One hindrance to our practice is craving. When we are desiring something that is drawing us out of the present moment, and we just can't stop thinking about it. Like when we are meditating or just practicing in our daily life. Craving, and wanting to grasp onto something--and it just, totally, makes us feel unbalanced. That's one form of hindrance.

Another form of hindrance is its opposite, when you want to repulse from something--so aversion. Craving and aversion are sort of two sides to the same coin. So aversion is, to like, repulse from things. Obviously there are certain things that are good to desire, and there are certain things to keep away from. The problem is that we are so habituated to keep craving--even to the point when we know it is not good for us any more (and we still crave it). Or we repulse things all the time, we resist things, and we resist life as it is, and we just make ourselves angry and resentful all of the time--instead of just being able to accept. So it's a habit energy. It's not so much about the external things as it is the habit energy inside of us. We want to cultivate a certain way of learning how not to let craving drive us (or aversion drive us).

Then another hindrance is restlessness and worry. Which I think of as an energy going upward. When there is just too much fidgety energy, my mind is going all over the place; worrying and restless, and can't stop thinking, right? The complementary/opposite is usually called "sloth and torpor"--but I don't ever use the word "torpor", I have no idea what that is. [Audience: laughs] So I am just going to call it "sleepiness and laziness"--that's easier for me to understand. It's when we are very tired, very fatigued; where we just feel drowsy, and we don't have any motivation to practice. Right? That sort of energy-- so it's the opposite of restlessness and worry.

This helps me to remember, by putting it into these four arrows. It helps me to remember four of the hindrances. Then the fifth hindrance, I put it into the center. Spiralling, because this represents doubt and confusion. This is just a nice visual--one of these days, I am going to write a book and have all of my visuals because, when I meditate, I get these visuals of different teachings--and I think it's very helpful for memorization. When we are doubting at the practice, we are doubting Buddhism; doubting ourself, or we are feeling confused about what's right and wrong, or what's true or false (I'm not sure about what we are doing or why we are here)--these can be hindrances to our practice.

Luckily through our practice, we cultivate the antidotes to these things. There can be many different kinds of antidotes to these things. One sister had a question about one of these hindrances--aversion, which relates to anger. There was a story that Thich Nhat Hanh (and may have come from the Buddha) where an arson goes to a house while someone is away, and sets the house on fire. After a few minutes, the owner of the house comes back home and sees the arson running away, and sees the house starting to burn. In that moment he has to make a choice, he only has time to do one of two things--either he tries to catch the arson, and let the house burn down, or he can put out the fire (and the arson will escape--or maybe someone will help find him--but he doesn't know).

The Buddha, or Thich Nhat Hanh, said that the wise thing to do is to not chase after the arson, but to the put the fire out--in your own house. This is an illustration; when we are suddenly filled with a reactive anger towards something that someone else has done or said--our usual habit is to, instead of taking care of the fire that has now been lit up in our own consciousness and being, we don't take care of ourselves. Our habit energy is to go after the person, and blame them, and get mad at them, and try to tell them why they are to blame and all of these different things. All the while we are doing that, we're just allowing the fire of anger to just burn us up internally. We feed our habit energy of reactivity--so that the next time this happens, it's just going to get worse, and worse, and worse. To the point where someone might just say something, very innocent, but it "sets you off " because now it's not just about "that" it's about all of these other buttons from the past. It's no longer about the present moment any more.

So, in the moment, there is not really much that you can do to prevent all of the feeling of anger. If you've been practicing this for years and years--I mean [anger] is very powerful. There is not much you can do about that. You can at least start afresh and anew, and in the present moment. First of all, to take care of the fire in yourself--it's very helpful to stop going to the mind at that point. Stop going into the story in your mind. Bypass the mental story and go back to what you can actually feel in your body. Feel your body, and just really feel it. "Okay my heart is beating really fast, I am starting to sweat, I am tensing in my neck and shoulders, my stomach is feeling a little bit of a "pit" feeling, and my palms are sweating--and notice the sensations for one minute, and then breathe in and out (fully and deeply) into your abdomen for another minute. If you are able to, take a walk out in nature amongst the trees--and just walk--or walk fast. [Audience: laughs] Whatever is going to help you! Just so that the energy is slowly taking care of and has dissipated. Then, and only then, once the physical symptoms have calmed down--then, and only then are you ready to calmly analyze the thoughts, and the stories, and to take action (if necessary).

Obviously, this doesn't always work in every situation, because sometimes you have to make very quick decisions: but that is why we practice. I used to play the piano, and I remember having recital concerts (and I was so nervous). I couldn't just plop in front of that piano and just start playing something--just "out of the blue". There had to have been some sort of practice, for several times, before that concert. So we don't need to wait for a situation, of possible reactivity, to then start practicing--you've got to practice the habit of being able to come back to your body, to your breathe, calm down the mind--way before those situations occur so that when they occur, you're prepared. That's why we keep practicing, even when there is nothing wrong--we keep practicing. One student here made a little bit of an error which many of us make--and I've made myself, is when things were going "not so well", she was desperate to come here and to learn meditation, and it helped. Then when she found something else that also helped--she stopped, for a little while. See, that's actually a mistake--we practice when things are not going well, of course, but we also practice when things are going great. We have to always stay prepared.

Remember that the Buddha did not just practice to become enlightened (self enlightened only). Guess what happened after he became enlightened? He still meditated. For forty five years until he passed on. If the only reason to practice meditation is for enlightenment and all of these wonderful qualities for ourself--why would the Buddha keep practicing, after he was already fully enlightened? See that doesn't make any sense, if that's what you think--if you believe that we only practice to get these good qualities for ourself. I believe that the Buddha kept practicing because: that's just what we do. That's just what enlightenment loves to do; enlightenment loves to meditate, and loves to practice wisdom, peace, and loving-kindness. And, all that he did was just for other beings. All of the spiritual energy he was creating through his practice was no longer just for himself--but for other beings, to help all of us.

It's important to keep coming to sangha, and to keep practicing at home, and attending retreats from time to time when things are not going well, and also when things are going great, and when things are just sort of bland and boring. We practice through all of that. Not just for ourself, but for others.

By the way, I just wanted to say, I had a wonderful retreat last weekend in the East Coast with a dharma teacher who is the niece of Thich Nhat Hanh--her name is Anh-Huong Nguyen, and she is a wonderful dharma teacher, and I hadn't heard her give a talk since 14 years (when I went to my first retreat). It was really great to see her again, and practice with her. My heart opened during one of the walking meditations outside, in nature, and my mantra became just "thank you, thank you, thank you--just giving gratitude for everything and everyone in my life, and all of the blessings. It's so important to practice retreats from time to time. Sometimes it takes a retreat to break open your heart, on a more extended practice time. Because there is some stuff, "hard stuff", in here. [Audience: laughs] And sometimes it takes a retreat, from time to time, to really get to it. But while I was walking--I saw a snake skin on the ground, and I loved it because it was a wonderful sign, to me---this is the "year of the snake". Part of the theme of this year is to shed the old skin and to make room for the new. That's what we are called to do this year in our practice--and actually--our whole life.

I guess I'll talk next time about the insight I also received about Amitabah. Each syllable: A, mi, ta, bah; being an aspect of our whole, entire, evolutionary/spiritual journey in the universe.

Transcribed by Mark Edwards

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