I imagine everyone's getting a little sick of the Buddhism-themed posts this week, so I'll tie everything off with a look at the last of the big-T truths Buddhism espouses: the way you get out of suffering is the same way you get to Carnegie Hall. No, dummy, not via the Columbus Circle A train stop; practice.
I come back a lot to some of the things I picked up from legit Buddhist teachers that stood in stark contrast to the pop "Buddhism" that infests our culture. (John Cage once said that records are not music, and in the same way meditation cushions and biofeedback devices are not Buddhism.) One thing that stood out more and more as time went on was disabusing people of the idea that enlightenment, or Buddhism, was something you "got" the way you went out and purchased a new case for your iPhone. Or that it was something you experienced once and for all, like finally going to see that weird old church on the other side of town you've heard about all this time but never actually visited.
But Buddhism and enlightenment aren't either of those things, and in a way that's part of what makes them both less and more important than you think. They're not nice ideas alone, but a set of things you do consistently at most every step of your life — how you deal with what goes on both inside and outside of you. By getting into the habit of treating the inside a certain way, you get into the habit of treating everything else a certain way, too. What mattered most was not being able to say "I did this" or "I'm going to do that", but building certain habits around the described behaviors.
it's funny how flat-out mundane all this sounds when you spell it out. That's the funniest part: the biggest and most important things in life don't look that way from up close. They turn out to be dismayingly ordinary. But that's also they get overlooked, overthought, underappreciated. We've been conditioned to expect wisdom to be so hard to wrap our minds around that when we finally get an example of how straightforward it really is, we reject it. The real complexity and difficulty is in adhering to the mission at every step of the way. Small wonder a lot of people balk with it: they want something that works once so they can get it out of the way and then go right back to living a life that's riddled with all the by-products of having lived so inattentively!
One other thing about this practice-path-away-from-suffering thing is that it gets oversold mystically, and I think that's why many people reject it. They don't realize — in big part because it's never been explained to them — that the holy perfection and mysticism associated with this stuff is largely borne of the phrasing and reference-making used by the Buddha in his time and day to make what he was talking about comprehensible to the folks who gathered 'round and listened closely. We do the same thing today, when we talk about this stuff in terms of dealing with broken-down cars, lousy bosses, recurring illnesses, and bog-slow Internet connections. And while that's sometimes deceptive — there are bigger, more important reasons to do this stuff than "stress management", as Brad Warner pointed out — it's at least more comprehensible to most people than using the language of the sutras.
This is, I suspect, one of the reasons why Buddhism in lay practice puts little to no emphasis on scripture. The most important points about Buddhism can fit on the back of a business card, as Harold Ramis once demonstrated, and can be explained while standing on one foot. Sure, the Tripitaka is this big monster bookshelf that runs tens of thousands of pages, but Buddhists generally seem to take the same attitude towards it that the early Hebrew sage Hillel did. When asked by a Gentile to explain the Torah while standing on one leg, he responded in a manner I paraphrase thusly: "If you don't like something, don't do it to your neighbor. That's the whole meaning of the Torah. Everything else is commentary/explanation, so go study it [if you're curious]." Meaning that yes, the rest of it is important and worthy of a closer look, but if you don't go into it with that one core understanding informing your reading, you won't get a thing out of it.
And with all that out of my system for the time being ... back to our usual roster of me muttering about how much things stink. For a while, anyway!
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind