Reading Ayya Khema’s “There’s No Need to Be Busy” (Fall 2022) was akin to finding the missing piece to a puzzle. Funny enough, the afternoon I discovered the article, I was contemplating whether my feelings of self-worth would be more complete if I were able to catapult myself into action and get things rolling.
My intuition told me to enjoy the peace, contentment, and relaxation of my last day off before returning to work. Yet I felt an equal pull in the opposite direction, that “I should be doing.” As though my self-dignity were at stake. I was in a mini tug-of-war between my thoughts and emotions. I feel the pressure to remain active from my family members, who are understandably motivated to see to it that I remain active and healthy. I scrolled down to see the title of this article and it was an “Ahhh . . . What have I discovered here!?” moment. It seems like Tricycle is always there to refocus me!
Like the author says, it is obviously not possible to live without activity and work. This article simply acknowledges that there should be time for restoration and relaxation in the midst of worldly activity.
That the hustle and bustle of Western society is unhealthy is very true in my case (and no doubt is true for many of my fellow Buddhists as well). This article has reassured me that I don’t have to feel guilty about that. When it’s appropriate, I can be content with things “just as they are.”
I want to pick up just one crucial point among many made by Bhikkhu Santi in his incisive and courageous critique of the Ajahn Chah Thai Forest lineage (“Putting Away the Books,” Fall 2022): that “seeing things as they really are” beyond any conceptual teaching or model—the very goal of that tradition’s meditation project—is in fact not possible.
Bhikkhu Santi writes that it was reading material outside the narrow range approved of by his seniors that eventually led him to see this: “I couldn’t take any lens—traditional, Buddhist, modern or other—as transparent, as a means to somehow ‘direct’ experience. I thus renounced the illusion of ‘seeing things as they are,’ along with any accompanying source of authority that claimed to transcend interpretive frameworks.”
Since this misconception is so fundamental to virtually every tradition, its revelation is a veritable bombshell in its ramifications for Buddhist teaching. It’s absolutely crucial for every Buddhist to understand and come to terms with it, so central is it to the Buddhist path.
To do so requires great courage and integrity, especially in a monastic setting such as Bhikkhu Santi’s, so radically undermining is it of the very heart of the traditional teaching. One is left forced to reassess one’s entire spiritual project all alone, bereft of the support of one’s sangha and the comfort of that traditional illusion.
“The truth we are after in our Buddhist practice is what works to liberate our heart-mind from dukkha.”
No wonder it’s traditionally been so fiercely and consistently denied. In this sense the saying attributed to Barbara Tober is apt: “Traditions are group efforts to keep the unexpected from happening.”
It’s most conspicuous perhaps, this radical misconception, in the Zen koan system, where “right” answers are called for to “pass” the koans.
Another independent thinker who came to a hard-won realization similar to that of Bhikkhu Santi is Dagmar Apel, as she relates in her wonderfully thought-provoking and insightful memoir Buddha’s Flower–Newton’s Apple. Reflecting on her kensho and its implications, she eventually realized “that we always become aware of an experience according to a description, an explanation or a label . . . and this includes the experience of enlightenment.”
This fact by no means negates the value of the experience; it merely changes, or refines, its meaning. It reminds us that the truth we are after in our Buddhist practice is not objective, factual truth, it’s what works to liberate our heart-mind from dukkha and its causes (at the same time not contradicting objective, factual truth). Whatever that might be for us, it will inevitably arise from, inextricably depend on, and be the particular fruit of a conceptual model, there’s no getting away from it. To see things “as they really are,” beyond and independent of any view, would require objective verifiability, impossible given the intrinsically subjective nature of such experience.
Konda Mason and Tara Brach spoke a lot about veganism in “The Myth of Separation” (Fall 2022), but when it comes to the consumption of meat, intention is what is truly important. Alaskan Inuits and desert dwellers like the nomadic Bedouin live on animal-based foods out of necessity due to the lack of plants in their environments. Many indigenous peoples also rely on animals. Veganism itself is somewhat of a myth because many of the plants they consume in their diet house tiny insects, and in general the vegan lifestyle is only accessible to privileged communities. Most vegans I know are very loving, but in some cases the adherence to the diet can become extreme.
Tricycle editor responds:
Konda Mason and Tara Brach were not proselytizing for what you might call “extreme” veganism—rather, they were making a case for a mindful push toward “ethical eating,” which Brach defines as “eating that causes as little harm as possible to other beings, to the earth, and to our own bodies.” I understood their interview as an open invitation to be more aware of the (often unconscious) dietary choices we make and the impact those choices can have. As Brach says when asked about eating meat in moderation:
“When I invite people into this inquiry [of ethical eating], I’m talking about going in the direction of increasingly plant-based eating. . . . This is a difficult domain, because it so easily brings up defensiveness, guilt, and anger. So it’s crucial for authentic open dialogue to step beyond judgment. Judgment only creates more separation. This is about inviting all of us to look honestly at our own behavior and our own impact.
Regarding your point about intention, Mason says later in the interview:
“I want to note that in many spiritual traditions a large part of how people practice involves sacrificing animals. We are not equating the cruelty of industrial meat production with these sacred rituals. Nor are we saying that people whose only available food source is animals should not feed themselves the way they do. However, these are exceptions, not the rule. Mostly, humans eat meat unconsciously, which supports the inhumanity we are speaking about.”
I am an avid meat-eater myself, and as much as I enjoyed this article, I doubt that any interview would halt my flesh cravings—but a sound argument is a sound argument, and that is what Mason and Brach provided. I think we could all benefit from eating a little more mindfully, and I don’t think that the fact that insects live on plants discredits their argument for ethical eating any more than the fact that microorganisms live in tap water.
—Daniel Ilan Cohen Thin,
Corrections: “The Jhana Underground” (Fall 2022) incorrectly identified a Theravada monk who participated in the historic 2009 ordination of women monastics as bhikkhunis. That monk was Ajahn Sujato, not Ajahn Sumedho. Jeanne Corrigal’s October Dharma Talk was printed with the wrong title and description. The correct title is “Closer Than We Think: Gentle Reflections on Death.” The Dharma Talk will explore ways that a balanced reflection on death can support wise and diverse action in three circles: with ourselves, with our close community, and globally, with all beings, in the climate crisis. Incorrect birth and death dates were printed for Ajahn Chah (1918–1992) and Rick Fields (1942–1999).
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