Redefining the Three Trainings

Since I last wrote the wheel has turned smoothly at times and spun madly at others, and this is the way it goes, really.

I’m always motivated to practice, but my conception of what practice is tends to shift depending on my life circumstances. When lazy and overtired, there’s a tendency to say that deliberate and effortful practice is harmful and to neglect it. When happy, there’s a tendency to say that practice is all about gratitude and cultivating happiness, to the detriment of looking suffering in the face. When emotional, there’s a tendency to forget the good old common sense that comes from a bit of self-talk. And so it goes on, as the self tries to dissolve polar opposites by ignoring one side out of existence. As a practice forum I was reading earlier said, ‘I don’t ever find repression to be helpful’.

Balance is really a big theme at the moment, and has helped me to redefine the three Buddhist trainings in a way that makes more sense for me. The common thread is that none of the trainings exists in a separate ‘realm’; they blur into each other and are applicable to both working in the conditional and the seeking for the Unconditional, especially since life and practice are so difficult to separate out in the end.

Sīla: instead of translating it as ‘virtue’, I’d now describe it as ‘care’. Virtue implied a lot about my own moral Puritanism and perfectionism, even as I tried to describe this training as trying to be ethical rather than tot up points. Sila is now, for me, more about taking care with all aspects of life/practice. It is being heedful, gentle and caring for oneself as well as for others, not trying to be the hero or neglect others in the pursuit of enlightenment. It is assertive common sense about self-protection, use of resources and a patient attitude towards contemplative practice. It is not being a masochist and sitting for hours in the same position on the prayer cushion, as well as not letting myself avoid the next simple step on the ol’ path. It is planning to succeed and forgiving oneself for failing (with the knowledge that ‘succeed/fail’ go all melty at the edges if you’re not highly specific). It is recognising when a particular contemplative practice just feels intuitively not right for you, and discontinuing it. I’ve seen sila reduced to the simple practice of the Five Buddhist Precepts and this seems like a pat, simple way of starting people off when they have not yet developed skills like critical thinking, reflection, flexibility towards concepts and so on. This is not to say not killing, or taking what wasn’t given, isn’t the perfect expression of care- but I have noticed in some traditions there is such an overemphasis on avoiding pride towards good actions that it can collide with good old Catholic guilt, when it could instead include the use of cognitive behavioural approaches and, even better, positive psychology. More on this later.

Samādhi: This was translated to me as ‘concentration’ when I first began going on retreats. Reading Pragmatic Dharma also made me see this area of training as developing samatha, concentration meditation. Christopher Titmuss’s book Light on Enlightenment pointed out Samādhi to me as a wider change in perception and focus than simply doing jhāna, and another interesting translation recently was ‘higher mind’. I’d reject the latter one at the moment as, though it points to this change of perspective, it’s still something that I’d naturally warp into some kind of perfect and elitist intelligence. Instead, samatha for me is starting to feel like ‘right energy’. There is definitely something energetic going on (and has always been going on) with the cycles of practice, with Kenneth Folk describing the first few Buddhist Paths as ‘completing a physio-energetic loop’ once, and other schools of enlightenment talking about purifying auras and balancing energies. Now, I’m not a fan of this perfectionist stuff (and I am really, really against the description of some energies as ‘negative’) but I can see that things like Chi Kung, Tai Chi, yoga, body-centred vipassana and the like do point out to you that energy seems to get trapped, misdirected, and poorly channelled. This training, therefore, seems to be about directing efforts skilfully, flexibly, with the aforementioned care that the first training can help me to wield. It’s about the direct perception of these energies, via these contemplative practices, and so the deliberate wielding of them with an experiential exploration of how that can be done and a very direct lesson about what happens if you ignore them. I feel very scattershot with my attention and concentration at the moment, so I’ll talk about what I’m doing about it later.

Pañña: Translated as ‘insight’ or ‘wisdom’, this is easily mistaken as a very subtle or rarefied form of conventional understanding. But for me, pañña will always be about the seeking of the Unconditional – not the grasping of it, because there is always something utterly Beyond about it – the movement towards the Unconditional being the practice. Grace is what bestows insight, but there is no training to bestow grace. Instead, whatever is bestowed can be used in the conditional world with the care of the first training through the focus of the second. The movement towards the Unconditional could be seen as the ultimate expression of the other two trainings, and can never really be apart from them paradoxically. Service work, acts of kindness, acts of faith, insight practice and the like are all particularly specific seekings for the Unconditional to me. To me they have a particular flavour- the warm, sensible feelings of the first training combined with the smooth, strong calm felt energies of the second, with a certain sense of reaching beyond that is the hallmark of seeking. Pañña will always for me be the journey and not the destination, the parlaying of unspoken and unspeakable insights into the simple guidance for the here and now. It also seems to be the recovery of a bold and meaningful (quoth the Buddha, ‘noble’) narrative for the self as a ‘cell in the body of humanity’ (Peace Pilgrim), distinctive and important nonetheless, with the poignancy that a transient and frustrated existence as a separate entity has- but with the hope (if you’re feeling religious like me) for the transcendence of that little self, the hope that carries the practitioner through the Dark Night and keeps them making that little gesture to the Unconditional.

Having waxed lyrical about the trainings, and how they seem to make a little more sense to me now in a reconciled way, I’ll also talk about what I’m doing about them. Chief with sīla is self-care: the recognition that the wholesome will always lead to the wholesome through the direct experience of stepping out of craving, the disregarding of quick pleasurable pursuits for the long term satisfaction of deeper urges that comes with a deliberate application of that knowledge even when the body feels nothing but craving (or so the Self likes to pretend), as much as I can. It basically boils down to healthy living for me as much as I can, and that’s increasingly so though one hangover or outburst of anger can really feel like a setback (again: the Self lies).

This is only really possible for me with the application of focus on the next task, the mindful performance of ‘the next right thing’, whether that is twenty minutes of Chi Kung or washing the dishes. It’s always possible to make it even more tastily mindful by deliberately setting my intention and noting off distractions. Negative feelings and thoughts are just perfect for Mahasi noting practice for a neurotic western chap like me: no reaction required, just a recognition and back to whatever I was doing, channelling my energies to the place I choose to. Cognitively I have my own flexible plans for the next year, five years, ten years, twenty years, instead of trying to jump to the Zen Master’s ‘I have no plans’. It’s using what energy is there to gradually train myself. It means going into my thirties with a desire to do lots of fun, meaningful things that I never had the focus to do in my twenties. It means taking things one step at a time.

And finally there is pañña. At the moment a large amount is: wait and see. When I think I know, hold off, and then find out what happens. The second part is: keep practicing. There’s some definite improvement in reactivity and as usual, there’s that sense of grace at work at the moment, and so I’m striking while the iron is hot and trying to set up habits that will carry me through to when there is not that sense, the desert of the dark night again, where I don’t want to practice and see no point in practicing, that place where the best work is done. Reading through the discussions of more advanced practitioners than I of vipassana, it makes more sense than a few years ago that this entity’s life can be reduced to a set of signals, pattern recognitions, impulses, because this is what I experience in every day life, not ‘me’ or ‘mine’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; but then there is still this faith in the Unconditional that is basically, against all doubts and evidence, unshakeable. I’m aware that the sensations that make up the sense of guidance are conditional, but hope has become my favourite virtue, the one that immediately obliterates negativity when invoked. Specifically, I’m noting negativity and difficult thoughts/feelings/behaviours which is helping to point out that they are just that, sensations with no more importance than enjoyable or easily held ones. I’m letting myself dwell in positive emotions and circumstances, specifically those that arise from doing something I knew was right, that do not have an energetically buzzy sense behind them that says they were a quick fix. It’s good to dwell on one’s own good karma, I reckon, as well as one’s own good intentions, whilst this separate self still exists, in order to make it a good one- that’s purification for you. There’s the mindfulness of breathing when I have to be aware of other things at the same time, and the driving down into the bottom half of the body to ground myself. There’s prayer that says ‘I’m scared’ and there is the recognition that all of this is transient, dissatisfactory and not created by me in some way even as I try and do the best I can. There’s the awareness of mortality and the wondering about the afterlife. There’s the sense of journey and the reduction of it to ‘just this’, every time, forgetting whether my hair looks good or whether I’ll still want this in a year’s time. There’s gratitude. There is, on a clichéd but completely true note, just this.