09 August 2011

The Wise Will Know for Themselves

I'm in a position now of sometimes being asked what practice is like, what kinds of ups and downs I've been through, what's changed for me over the years, etc.  These are hard questions to answer.  The person asking is usually looking for something to avoid or anticipate, fear or hope for.  At the beginning of practice, maybe he or she is trying to size up whether it will all be worth it in the end.

I don't know what to tell them.  I don't know whether my issues are their issues, whether what scares me scares them, whether what I aspire to they aspire to.  Having had no idea myself what things I would encounter and what kinds of decisions I would make in light of practice, I can't begin to figure out what they will end up going through or doing.  And here's the kicker: I still don't know what practice is like, when you get right down to it.

I'd like to tell them two things, though, that I think might serve them well.  First, go where it scares you most and let it at you.  And if there's more than one place that scares you, go there as well and let it at you.  Feel the resistance, and open up wide.  Maybe not all at once, but be ready to do it.

The second thing I'd like to tell them is that, once they've done that and gone through, they'll never – ever – ask someone else about their practice and their experience again.  They will know all there is to know.  And if they want to know more, they'll already know the path to take.

I recently read an account of what a Thai thudong monk, engaged in a practice that invited him to face his own fear, went through:
I cried!  The tears flowed down my cheeks.  I cried as I thought to myself, "Why am I sitting here like some sort of orphan or abandoned child, sitting, soaking in the rain like a man who owns nothing, like an exile?" …Then I thought further, "All those people sitting comfortably in their homes right now probably don't even suspect that there is a monk sitting, soaking in the rain all night like this.  What's the point of it all?"  Thinking like this, I began to feel so thoroughly sorry for myself that the tears came gushing out.
I remember going through more than a few sesshins where I would cry in the shower.  I kept the brave face throughout the day, but once I was completely alone and already under water, the tears just flowed.  It was the same sentiment as the monk's: "Here I am doing this!  I ache, I'm tired, and I'm scared, and no one on earth cares in the least.  Most would tell me I'm stupid for doing this in the first place.  Why?  Why do I do this?"  I couldn't even bring that to my teacher.  I never felt more alone.

But there's more to the monk's story:
I sat …sat and listened.  After conquering my feelings I just sat and watched all manner of things arise in me, so many things that were possible to know but impossible to describe.  And I thought of the Buddha's words … Paccattaṁ veditabbo viññuhi – 'the wise will know for themselves.'  … That I had endured such suffering and sat through the rain like this … who was there to experience it with me?  Only I could know what it was like.*
For the monk, all this took place in the space of one night.  For me, as I suppose for many, coming to the end of the fear and anguish is an ongoing process that proceeds in fits and starts.  The time frame isn't important.   

What is important is the truth of the Buddha's words: Paccattaṁ veditabbo viññuhi – the wise will know for themselves. 

* Tiyavanich, Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailand, 101.

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