We are honored to exclusively share with you, our dear readers, excerpts from Frank Berliner’s new book, which you can purchase here if so inspired. Frank is a Buddhist and Shambhala teacher and professor at Naropa University, and our original Buddhadharma columnist (going 12 years back!). He is my meditation instructor and life coach, of sorts (I just call him “mentor”…or consiglieri), and his ability to convey simple wisdom about how to be fully human is powerful, dignified and helpful. May it be of benefit! ~ Waylon Lewis
Truths that Remind You to Wake Up
You will find yourself cycling emotionally from time to time through all of the realms of psychological fixation in your daily life. None of us is exempt from the power of the kleshas—whether anger, addictive craving, bewilderment, self-satisfied pride, or insecure competitiveness. Yet each of us has the great good fortune not to have to be afflicted permanently by any of them. It’s like playing Monopoly and drawing the card with a picture of the jail; but it says “Just Visiting.”
The human world is basically a realm of passion. It is a healthier kind of passion than the addictive kind that hungry ghosts experience, because it is mixed with intelligence and resourcefulness. We are capable of securing what we long for and enjoying it. But because of the truth of impermanence, nothing can give human beings lasting satisfaction or security. As the Buddha taught, we will inevitably either not get what we want, lose what we prize, or simply find ourselves no longer wanting what we once felt we couldn’t live without.
Unhooking from the Cycle of Frustration
Yet it is also characteristic of the intelligence of the human realm that we can detach ourselves from this cycle of frustration and look at it objectively and clearly. This is what the Buddha did, and what each of us can do for ourselves. By engaging with clarity and kindness, we can untie the knots of suffering and confusion we ourselves have created.
This is why the Buddha called our suffering a “noble” truth. The other realms do not seem to have the gaps of intelligence and clarity that might enable them to reflect on the futility of their game. The struggle to maintain their kleshas as a solid experience is too overwhelming; somehow they are forced to keep playing the same game, again and again. To them it feels like there is too much at stake to stop.
This recognition of the special opportunity for liberation from these patterns of emotional frustration, which the human realm offers us, is a central teaching in Tibetan Buddhism. There is an intense appreciation for having been born as a human being, rather than in one of the other realms. This is especially so since the literal existence of these realms and the inevitability of rebirth are both taken as self-evident, obvious truths in the Tibetan tradition. Reflecting on the special quality of the human realm—that it gives you the opportunity to free yourself from your self-created suffering—becomes a way to rekindle the inspiration to practice meditation on a daily basis.
Recalling that Your Human Life is a Precious Opportunity
This reflection is part of a series of four contemplations—called the Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind Toward the Dharma. These are sometimes referred to simply as The Four Reminders.
The first of the Four Reminders, expresses deep appreciation for the rare good fortune in having been born as a human being. It points to the special opportunity your human birth offers to pursue a truly meaningful purpose:
“First, this precious human body, free and well favored,
Is difficult to gain, and easy to lose.
Now I must do something meaningful.”
Recalling That You Don’t Have Forever
The second of the Four Reminders draws your attention to the fact that you don’t have endless time to make the fullest use of this precious opportunity. It does this by bringing the first mark of existence—impermanence—vividly to mind.
“Second, the world and its inhabitants are impermanent,
Especially the life of beings is like a bubble.
Death comes without warning—this body will be a corpse.
At that time only the dharma can help me.
I will practice it now with exertion.”
Impermanence is the law of the universe. Your death is an absolute certainty; only the exact time of its coming is unknowable. At the time of your death, nothing you have built up or accumulated or squirreled away during your life will be of any use to you. Indeed, to the extent that these things have become sources of clinging and attachment, they will actually hinder you. Since the necessity of letting go of clinging and attachment is one of the cornerstones of dharma practice, and since at the time of death the need to let go will no longer be a matter of choice for you, there is no time like the present moment to begin changing your attitude.
This emphasis on the importance of contemplating the certainty of your death as a way of inspiring you to a sense of urgency about meditative practice is common to many spiritual traditions. Recall the moment when the Yaqui Indian shaman, Don Juan, tells his apprentice Carlos Castaneda that to become an accomplished warrior, he must make a greater commitment to himself. He must stop both his incessant talking and his “internal dialogue.” When Carlos asks him how to do this, Don Juan replies that he should visualize his Death sitting always on his left shoulder. This will help him remember that there is no time for idle, frivolous verbal or mental chatter.
The Power of Simplicity
The example Henry David Thoreau lives in his classic book, Walden, illustrates a similar theme. His experiment in simple and mindful living, which he conducted for two years in a cabin he built on the shore of Walden Pond, was rooted in the same purity and power of intention that might inspire a young Buddhist monk in the forests of Burma. As Thoreau wrote in the chapter “Where I Lived and What I Lived For”:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach; and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear.”
Thoreau consciously withdrew from the commercial bustle of 19th century New England in order to reflect upon life’s deeper meaning and purpose. He discovered that he could live quite beautifully with very few possessions or comforts, and that this simplicity afforded him the opportunity to be with himself in a deeper way. From this vantage, he could look at his own life and the lives of his neighbors with both detachment and sympathy.
Not surprisingly, his neighbors regarded him as an odd and eccentric person for doing this. Yet he was content to accept their prejudiced view as part of the challenge that must always face an individual who pursues a life of contemplative simplicity, with integrity, in the midst of an overwhelmingly materialistic culture.
Thoreau died at age forty-three. He never married. His only living relatives at his death were two maiden aunts. They were proper Bostonian ladies who were quite pious and had come to regard him as the black sheep of the family. It is said that they visited him during his final illness, and that as they stood by his bedside, one of them said disapprovingly, “Henry, have you made your peace with God yet?”
He is said to have gently replied, “My dear aunt, I was not aware that God and I had ever quarreled.” At the time of his death, the way Thoreau lived had left him with a profound sense of peace.
This attitude of gentleness and simplicity, and the experience that develops from it, is traditionally called renunciation. In the Asian countries where the dharma has been practiced for well over two thousand years, the practice of renunciation has been connected with following the Buddha’s life example. You would renounce the world by becoming a monk or nun or mendicant yogi with few or no worldly possessions and attachments. In Southeast Asia, young practitioners would go to forest hermitages or solitary retreat huts and practice meditation completely apart from the society in which they had been born and raised.
This practice was something that the larger society both sanctioned and supported. It was as if these young spiritual seekers were doing this for everyone. To give monastics and yogis food or patronage or any kind of spiritual support conferred merit on the benefactor and the guarantee of a better rebirth. Therefore, the practice of renunciation was an honored part of the life of the individual and of the larger society supporting their efforts to follow the Buddha’s example in as pure a way as possible.
In our own culture, if you aspire to follow the Buddha’s life example, support for renunciation is not so easily obtained. The materialistic assumptions that Thoreau challenged more than 150 years ago are even more formidable now. There are few, if any, avenues you can formally pursue to renounce the world in a traditional way. As a result, you must find ways to emulate the inner commitment of the forest monk while living in the outer wilderness of the technological world.
Perhaps you make a personal connection with the teachings of Dharma—having heard them, read them, or met an inspiring teacher. As a result of this, you begin to commit yourself to mindfulness practice in a wholehearted way. Slowly your practice may begin to pervade your life. It is as if the dharma has begun to haunt you, and you can’t escape it. The truth of it is reflected back to you from every direction.
As you contemplate the three marks of existence and let them apply to your experience without evasion or denial, you learn that their reality is inescapable. You can’t distance yourself from them by intellectualizing them into neat categories. You cannot help but feel in the core of your heart how things are endlessly shifting and changing. You feel the subtle struggle of constantly maintaining your balance in the midst of this—even when your life is “going well.” When at last you feel that you have this delicate balancing act under control, something unexpected happens to pull the rug out from beneath you again.
You tell yourself that, somehow, the fact that ego doesn’t exist might provide you with an escape from this, as if saying to yourself, “Well, if it’s all egoless then it’s not really happening to me, is it?” But you find instead that the truth of non-ego makes your experience of the shifting poignancy of things more vivid and more direct than ever. As the Tibetans say,
“For those who are still asleep, suffering is like the stroke of a hair across the palm of the hand; for those who are awake, it is like the stroke of a hair across the eyeball.”
All of these lessons and insights may not come as sudden, explosive revelations. Rather they gradually seep into your view of your life; they slowly begin to grow inside you. You begin to feel not only a sense of urgency but also a genuine sadness. Your sadness comes not only from your realization of how much time you have already wasted in your cocoon, but at how much time everyone around you continues to waste in perpetuating their collective cocoon—a speedy, distracted world of mindlessness and unnecessary suffering. The practice of freeing yourself individually from unnecessary confusion and suffering is sometimes referred to as “the path of not causing harm to yourself and others.”
Renouncing being the cause of harm is an essential aspect of the Buddha’s teachings. It is not necessary to literally abandon the world altogether. But in practicing mindfulness until it becomes an integral part of your life, your attention to everything you think, say, and do becomes more and more sensitive and refined. This refinement has a powerful effect on your own life and the lives of all the others with whom you’re in relationship.
Recalling that The World’s Confusion Begins With You
This commitment to taking daily responsibility for your own contribution to the world’s insanity is expressed in the Third Reminder:
“Third, when my death comes I will be helpless.
Because of my past karma I must now abandon neurotic crime.
I will always devote myself to virtuous actions.
Thinking this, every day I will examine myself.”
You recognize how much pain and chaos your own actions cause you and others when they are based only on your kleshas. You sense acutely that there is less and less room for indulgence of that kind. Even if others all around you continue to live in this way, you recognize the importance of living your own life differently.
You see clearly that all the confusion and suffering in the world begins with your own mind. This is not to say that you personally take the blame for all that confusion. But you see how choiceless it is to begin by first taking full responsibility for your own contribution to the chaos. My teacher called this “developing confidence in your own sanity before you try to fix the world’s insanity.” He emphasized that it is a narrow path with no sidetracks, and that it requires a purity and strength of intention. Because it also requires courage, it is a warrior’s path. Ultimately what you are renouncing is a life based on your cocoon, motivated only by your habitual craving for security and your instincts of self-centeredness.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Frank Berliner