A Talk by Ines Freedman (IMC, December 22, 2010)
(Transcribed and lightly edited by S.C.L. Eiler)
I want to talk just a little bit about concepts. Buddhism has a whole bunch of lists, and each one of these is like a whole concept in itself. We’ve got, The Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Path, The Five Hindrances, The Five Faculties, Seven Factors of Awakening. There are all these different lists. Some people have a regular practice and they don’t consider these too much, and other people really engage deeply with these concepts.
The practice can be very simple; you don’t necessarily need to know all these lists to work with your practice, but the concepts are useful. For instance, you may get in a place when you’re in your practice where you get stuck with something, and so you start working with, The Five Hindrances, and you can address that because you look at it from a different angle. You might be watching the breath, day-in, day-out, and you’re doing okay, but then you just feel a little bit stuck and you start noticing, ‘is there something I want to happen here, am I desiring something?’ The Five Hindrances are: desire, aversion, sloth and torpor, restlessness. Maybe you’re just being really restless around the breath. So, it gives you a chance to look at it from a different perspective.
Where I’m going with this is that concepts are still just concepts. For instance, one of the lists we talk about is, The Three Poisons, the roots for all the things inside us that harm us, and these roots are: greed, hatred and delusion. For instance, let’s say, maybe you’re going to work and you’re stuck in traffic, and you just turn on the radio. Maybe you were impatient, maybe you were bored, and so you didn’t like the way you felt; so, what got you to turn on the radio was the fact that you didn’t like how you were feeling, or aversion. Another way of looking at it is that here you are driving, and you think, ‘God, I want to feel something good; I want something that’s interesting and perks me up; so, desire is what motivates you to turn on the radio.
Now, you’re turning on the radio, and on the one hand you’re trying to push your experience away. On the other hand it’s because you want something. Or, maybe you turn on the radio totally oblivious to anything that’s going on, and that’s called delusion. You’re just turning it on without really knowing anything that’s happening inside you.
The greed, hatred and delusion are three sides of the same coin. Desire and aversion are two sides, and delusion’s the rim of the coin. But it’s not important to figure out which it is. There isn’t a right answer. Is it greed? Is it aversion? It doesn’t really matter. What really matters is what’s useful.
In Buddhism, the concepts that we use in practice are not meant to be something absolute to believe in. They’re really meant to be useful. The purpose of the concepts that we use in practice is to relieve ourselves from suffering, to free ourselves. And so, if a concept isn’t doing that the Buddha said that you can just let it go. You don’t need it.
This time of year, a lot people get together with family they haven’t seen for a long time, relatives. And one of the things that happens a lot is that you get together with people that, often there’s somebody at these events that we have difficulty with, it seems to be somewhat universal, somebody who has different political views, different religious views, different views about how you’re living your life. All these different types of conflicts that seem to arise at these end-of-the-year, wonderful joyous celebrations sometimes, and also sometimes very difficult family dynamics, or friends and relatives. What’s really happening with these difficulties is really the same thing. It’s about concepts.
You take two people and they’re talking about politics, and they’re at the opposite ends of the political spectrum. We’re talking about concepts. We’re not really talking about something that’s in the moment, that’s happening in the moment; and often these conversations are actually not very helpful to anybody. Usually you’re not going to convince a person who’s very extreme politically, at the other end. You’re not going to have effectiveness by talking to them if you’re all caught up in your own reactivity to them. And so, what’s happening in that situation is just clinging to concepts, to our opinions and our views about how things should be; and it’s something that separates us and causes a lot of pain in these circumstances.
Religions are basically concepts that we believe, and every religion has a concept that they believe is the truth, and every religion has sects that say, “no, no, my sect is the truth.” And so you have a series. In Buddhism, you see the same thing happened. It started with Theravada Buddhism, the Buddhism of the elders, and then Zen became a sect, Mahayana, and then Vajrayana, Tibetan Buddhism. As time went on, they diverged, and there’s a tendency to say, “this is the new way, this is the new truth,” but the thing that I want to point out here is that all these ideas are concepts. None of them are the truth; none of them are reality. They’re supposed to be useful, how are they useful.
One of the things that really started me really thinking about practice when I was a child was an experience where I was laying on my balcony, and I was looking at the stars at night. Millions of stars, and you know how a child’s mind wanders, and I thought, ‘wow, I wonder which is the farthest star.’ And I was looking, and suddenly I thought, ‘well that, I wonder if that’s the farthest one.’ And then I thought, ‘well there’s got to be something beyond that. What’s beyond the farthest star?’ And it just drove me crazy, but it brought me to a place at that age even, where I just said, “you know, there’s no way I could ever figure this out. I gave it my all. This is not figure-out-able.”
And it became kind of my reference point, and over the years I followed science, you know, what was the first moment: the big bang. But what was there before the big bang, where did it come from? All these ideas of infinity our minds cannot grasp; we’re not wired to intellectually understand infinity. And so, we think we can understand the purpose of the universe? It’s kind of arrogant in a way to think that we’ve got the concepts that explain life and the whole universe. The Buddha actually talked about this, and I’ll read it to you, he said, “speculation of the first moment or the purpose of the universe is an imponderable that is not to be speculated about. Whoever speculates about these things would go mad and experience vexation” (AN 4.77). So, he didn’t recommend it; it’s not useful.
The same thing, we talk about self and not self: is there a self? Is there not a self? The Buddha said of these questions, “a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views” (MN 2). So, he didn’t recommend trying to figure out whether there’s a self or not a self. Now, there are a lot of teachings on not self; so, the issue is not whether there’s a self or there’s not a self, but how is it useful, how can we use the whole concept of self or not self in a way that frees us. And one of the really obvious ways is to say, “here’s an idea I have that my relatives shouldn’t act that way. That’s just an idea; it’s not who I am, it’s just an idea.” That’s a really useful way to use the idea of self and not self: ‘it’s not who I am, that thought, that clinging.’
My husband and I, we’ve been together since I was a teenager, and we entered the practice together, and we’ve read books over the years, and we would always discuss them and really support each other in practice, but we have very different personalities. My personality tends to be driven: I’m one of the people who tends to over-commit; I tend to do too much and strive a little too much. He tends to be really laid-back and he can get a little bit complacent; that’s his style. And so, I always remember reading this book; I was very influenced by, Krishnamurti, early in my practice, and he wrote a book called, The Urgency of Change. It’s basically about the urgency of being in the present moment, because this is the only moment we have, but there was something about the word, “urgency,” that really caught me, whereas; for him, the one that caught him was, “radical acceptance.” But, it’s a very different way of pointing to the same thing. They’re concepts, are they useful?
Ajahn Sumedho, one of the things he said is that if sitting was enough, chickens would be enlightened. It’s an interesting idea; it’s really about the effort we put into practice. But then, I had another teacher who said to just sit, that sitting just leaves everything as it is, that the most effective way of transformation is to leave ourselves alone. But they’re both true. We want to put effort in practice and we want to leave everything alone. They seem opposite, but in a way it’s really being able to hold both of these at the same time that allows us not to cling to either, not to say, “this is the way,” because this is narrowing. ‘Also,’ this is ‘also,’ letting it all be just like it is, and, ‘let me do my utmost to bring diligence into my practice.’ That’s the balance, that’s how we reach the balance.
The one last thing I want to say, as we enter this, for those of you who are involved in this holiday season, is to maybe hold the question: is there a difference between somebody who is really open in their heart because they believe God is in everyone, and somebody who has a heart full of compassion because they’re not attached to a self? Is there any difference in the heart that’s open? It doesn’t really matter what the concepts that we have are, it just matters that we’re open and welcoming to whatever shows up in our lives, and to whoever shows up in our lives.
So, thank you all.