“People lying in bed ill are lucky because they have the opportunity to do nothing but contemplate stress and pain … and let go of pain.”
Not exactly copy that sells. But in “Tough Teachings to Ease the Mind“, Upasika Kee Nanayon (1901-1978), among Thailand’s most revered female lay Buddhist teachers, reminds us of one of Buddhism’s toughest challenges: rather than shrink from the suffering of physical pain, can we come closer to it, examining its nature, seeing through it, and letting it go?
Sounds good enough, and I seem to be fine with it until I stub my toe or come down with the flu. How quickly I can abandon the teachings with my complaints: “This pain will never end. Why me? Nothing ever goes my way!” At such moments, to hear that I’m lucky to have the opportunity to feel at all can be pretty maddening. And so I wondered, if a reader is sick in bed, in pain, and despairing, will he or she get past the first line? I imagine such a reader tossing the issue away with a roll of the eyes. And yet, who better to reach than the rare few who are willing to practice through physical pain or mental anguish?
Ultimately, Nanayon’s are words of hope. The end result of the insight she offers is nothing less than the Buddha’s promise of freedom from suffering. With the bookstore shelves full of Buddhism-as-palliative, it seems only right that we offer our readers articles that are a challenge to our received notions and levels of comfort. There is no way around the realities of old age, sickness, and death, and we find that Tricycle’s readership has appreciated teachings that meet life head on.
For years, Buddhists have touted the immediate, day-to-day benefits of meditation on our mental and physical health. And for decades, scientists have held a pretty pessimistic view of the habituated mind’s ability to change. But over the past few years, the two disciplines—science and Buddhism—have come together with the efforts of the Mind and Life Institute, a group of scientists who meet regularly with the Dalai Lama to explore the convergence of the two fields. In this issue’s “Meeting of the Minds“, Tricycle sits down with the core participants of Mind and Life at Princeton University to discuss the group’s encouraging findings. With more focused attention, they’ve found, practitioners can overcome afflictive emotions—say, anger or lust—by recognizing them more quickly as they arise. As Mind and Life member B. Alan Wallace puts it, “You become aware of the emotion without being fused into it,” allowing space for a more equaniminous and balanced response, or none at all. Another member, John Kabat-Zinn, has taken Buddhist meditation to the medical establishment, and over the years has earned its respect. In “Healing Mind, Healing Body,” Kabat-Zinn demonstrates the positive impact of meditation on the immunological response. In a controlled study on psoriasis patients, he found that meditators healed four times faster than non-meditators. Pretty impressive results, especially considering that until recently, the concrete benefits of meditation had been simply overlooked. As Mind and Life member and best-selling author Daniel Goleman puts it, while meditation’s beneficial effect “is big news for science … Buddhists have recognized its usefulness for centuries.”
But Mind and Life members aren’t complaining: if Buddhist meditative techniques relieve suffering, whether under the Buddhist mantle or not, their efforts are worth it.
So Nanayon’s teachings are perhaps more palatable in this light, though no less challenging. If proof is what it takes to convince our Western minds, proof is at hand. At the same time, the achievements of our Buddhist forebears are all the more impressive then, for without any guarantee but faith in their own experience, they diligently pursued the path to liberation and passed it on.