Staying Grounded in the Foundations

For the longest time, I didn’t make any progress on this Path because I had no foundation.

I was leaping from limb to limb like a meth-addled chimpanzee—chasing my tail, and getting distracted by each little leaf. It took disenchantment with Buddhism, a confusing relationship, and the near death experience of a family member to knock me on my ass.

Surprisingly, I found my ass plopped squarely on the early teachings, even though I started off with Zen before gallivanting around the Three Vehicles. I was aware of the Pali Canon and studied it, but I was definitely a Mahayana guy until I was pushed to my limit, and then fell apart with a—in the words of fictional anti-hero Takeshi Kovacs—, “That’s fucking enough!”

In the ensuing silence, the foundations were all that remained of my life, myself, and my practice.

One foundation is the All. It’s easy to externalize the teachings on morality, impermanence, and dependent arising. When we do that, we often end up jumping from branch to branch without any kind of anchor. We get lost in grand metaphysical debates, and turn Buddhism’s situation-specific rules of thumb into universal dogmas that we feel apply to all beings and all things.

But that’s not what this is about; this is about you. Your person, your habits, your dependent arising, your impermanence, your suffering, and your freedom from suffering. When you’re free of suffering, you’re no longer going to cause suffering to others.

The old books anchor us in ourselves, in our own minds and bodies. The Suttas ask, “What is the All? The eyes and sights; the ears and sounds; the nose and scents; the tongue and tastes; the body and touch; the mind and feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and attention. This is the All.”

When the Suttas mention, “The world,” it usually refers to the All as well.

Planting focus on how the teachings relate to the body and mind helps us to fine tune our practice. It keeps us from falling into the speculative trap, where we just sit there turning our wheels, driving in circles. So, it’s a practical view.

It’s also practical from an emotive standpoint. Dissatisfaction, sorrow, loneliness, and grief all stem from the unskillful ways we relate with the All. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, thoughts, the feelings associated with them, and the sense organs that support them are all impermanent.

When we feel—even a little bit—that there is something permanent within ourselves, then we get lured into habitual clinging and craving. Then, we suffer because it turns out we were wrong. In the end, that’s all it is. If we’re angry, afraid, lonely, sad, desperate, etc. it’s only because we’ve got something wrong, we’ve missed something, we’re wrong-minded.

Like the Dhammapada quips in verse 165:

By oneself are wrongs committed; by oneself one is harmed. Do no wrong, and suffering will not come. Everyone has the choice to be pure or impure. No one can purify another.

The flip-side (because there’s always a flip-side) is: by oneself is on set aright; by oneself is one healed.

Buddhas, Arhats, and Bodhisattvas don’t Awaken other beings; they’re simply Awake, and they interact with others in Awakened ways.

It’s like if you spent your whole life cutting in front of people in line because you didn’t know any better, and you didn’t understand why everyone always got so pissed off. Then, someone let you go ahead of them in line, and it felt good. And you saw them smile and knew that them being kind made them feel good too.

Your eyes conveyed a pleasant sight when that stranger let you go ahead, rather than the unpleasant sights and sounds experienced the times you cut ahead.

So, from then on, you started letting others go ahead of you in line. That kind stranger didn’t force you to change your habits, though. They didn’t do anything but be themselves and you saw that they simply felt good and comfortable being themselves. They were taking care of their World, and that care involuntarily extended to yours when your two worlds interacted.

There’s no rule that you have to be a bleeding heart rushing around to save everyone. Save yourself, and that’ll prevent you from being someone else’s roadblock to saving themselves.

When we lose track of these foundations, when we over-extend ourselves and our views, it’s easy to get carried away. What I practice now is a feet on the ground, salt of the earth Buddhism. I aim to speak plainly, but gently, and I don’t cut myself any slack because—when I do—I suffer and I serve as a condition for suffering.

So, it’s helpful to remember that when we talk about impermanence, we’re saying that sights, sounds, smells, tastes, etc. are impermanent; the sense organs that support them are impermanent; the pleasure, neutrality, and pain that these impressions offer are impermanent; the perceptions, volitions, and attention related to them are impermanent.

The ignorance, clinging, and craving that get tied up in all that are also impermanent. This All includes what we’d usually call other people, places, and things because they’re folded under “perception.”

When you get to Insight Meditation after surfing through the four jhanas—it’s that that you’re focusing on—the All. You won’t be sitting there thinking about how the universe is impermanent and dependently arisen, or how Joe Schmo down the road is, because—in that moment—those are just thoughts.

The focus is the All—this body, this mind, and these mental contents because suffering arises, peaks, declines, dissolves and non-arises here. In the space between bodies, there is no pain, so it’s a distraction to concentrate on such things. Samsara and nibbana are the principles that the All abides by, whether they be in line with blind pleasure-seeking, or eyes-open reality.

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