“The Buddha told Ananda, ‘You still listen to the Dharma with the conditioned mind, and so the Dharma becomes conditioned as well, and you do not obtain the Dharma-nature. It is like when someone points his finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guided by the finger, that person should see the moon. If he looks at the finger instead and mistakes it for the moon, he loses not only the moon but the finger also. Why? It is because he mistakes the pointing finger for the bright moon.'” ~Shurangam Sutta
“The teaching is like a raft that carries you to the other shore. The raft is needed, but the raft is not the other shore. An intelligent person would not carry the raft around on his head after making it across to the other shore. Bhikkhus, my teaching is the raft which can help you cross to the other shore beyond birth and death. Use the raft to cross to the other shore, but don’t hang onto it as your property. Do not become caught in the teaching. You must be able to let it go.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh from Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha
“We have to continue to learn. We have to be open. And we have to be ready to release our knowledge in order to come to a higher understanding of reality.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
In our lives, we have lots of training. Some of us were taught the forms of practice in our root religious traditions. We may have gone to classes to become good Christians, Muslims, Jews, or Buddhists. We may go on retreats to learn techniques of meditation or do mindfulness training, yoga training, or some form of wellness practice. In all these endeavors there’s a point of integration when we take the practice off the cushion or the mat and we bring it into our lives. I’ve heard this described as the way we learn to dance. At first, we count steps and follow the outline, but after repeated practice, the body learns what to do and we can respond to the changing music with grace and ability. In the same way, our practice gets into our bones and we learn to respond skillfully to what is happening.
In the Buddhist tradition siilabbata-paraamaasa, “grasping at precepts & practices,” is one of the five lower fetters from the list of the ten that binds us to Samsara, the repeating habits of causing suffering for ourselves. This means getting bound up in the appearance of doing things right and believing that fulfilling one’s obligations is equivalent to practicing real compassion and wise action. So, what does it mean to be devoted to our spiritual progress and practice but not attached to form? This means making our practice our own.
What does an integrated practice look like? Our lives are unique and as Jack Kornfield reminds us, in the eons of human development, there has never been this person on the planet who is you. We are all unique and have our own individual history and life situation and that life situation is constantly changing. When we believe that we satisfy our intentions for compassion and growth through our forms of practice, we set ourselves up for disappointment and frustration when the outside conditions of life don’t support us in fulfilling our goals. And we miss the opportunities to bring these practices to the relational world.
So, we may wake up and your dog is sick, and we have to call out of work and take her to the emergency vet and we don’t get to sit and meditate, or the pipes freeze and burst in the bathroom and we have to give up our weekend retreat to find a plumber and a carpenter to make repairs. We may be very diligent at saying our compassion phrases and blessing the strangers in the grocery store, but when our elderly neighbor needs a ride to the drug store, we don’t want to sacrifice our Qigong time and drive her. In our lives, we are called upon to be the embodiment of our training and our fundamental desire to wake up and alleviate suffering in the world.
Being unattached to forms and rituals may include the need to forgive ourselves for not doing what we want and doing what is necessary. The karma-phala, the karmic fruit of practice is apparent in our quality of heart in the moments when we are called upon to respond. Do we begrudge the time spent buying our kid winter boots because we have more spiritual projects to attend to, or can we carry our intention to befriend ourselves into that project as well? The practice of compassionate presence and non-abandoning ourselves becomes wedded to our being and we can practice mindfulness of the body, of our emotions, and compassionate care of ourselves and others, no matter what is happening.
With holidays coming and the demands of family and society ramping up, I encourage us all to practice some forgiveness and realism regarding our practice. Maybe this means letting go of our consistent meditation streak on the Insight Timer app or giving ourselves understanding when we only have time for three breaths to center ourselves before sleep. But be realistic, can we make time for our formal practice? Is it supporting what we do in our lives? If doing the practice creates more pain—that’s a signal that we need to change the plan. Practice is a crucial support for developing our own stillness and insight AND how do we make it our own? I’d love to hear some of the many ways your kindness is manifesting in the world. Drop a line, if you have time.
May we all trust our light,