And Now For Something Completely Different

If I was a book in a library, then I'd finally be free

Activity in Buddhism

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[x-posted at Progressive Buddhism]

Whitney Joiner wrote an interesting appraisal of the Dharma Punx phenomenon, which she playfully titled “Dive-bar Dharma.” Specifically she considers how this new phenomenon within American Buddhism relates to the more original phenomenon of American Buddhism itself (i.e. Buddhism that rushed into America after WWII and proliferated with the then counter-culture). In the end she comes out with what, I think, is the typical utilitarian/skillful-means defense of the movement. Rather than strive for appeal through the quasi-authority of Eastern exoticism—which may or may not fairly describe the original appeal for ’50s and ’60s counter-culture-warriors like Allen Ginsberg, who like many other disaffected youth of his time was already enamored with quasi-mystic figures of the Romantic movement like William Blake and the less mystical but no less romantic Walt Whitman, not to mention being steeped in the Jewish and Christian mystic traditions—Joiner thinks Levine and a fellow dharma punk, Ethan Nichtern, are on the right track with their edgy new approach to spreading/practicing the dharma. What I think is missing from this sort of account is the flip-side of even this movement. I’ll digress for a moment in an excerpt from the lengthy comment I left, which I think says my point about as well as I care to right now.

The key to understanding how active Buddhist practice is already (before getting hipsterfied or whatever) is in understanding how active our minds are already.

We are typically dominated by a more or less mild froth of mental activity, both in the moment but largely also out of it. That is to say, when we pull out the drawer to get a spoon for eating our freshly poured bowl of cereal, our minds are probably engaged in that activity, but more likely than not a bunch of other stuff too—whatever we were doing before we made our bowl of cereal, whatever we anticipate doing afterwards and associations and thoughts of other sorts. What happens is we are constantly pulled out of the moment and to the extent that we are in the moment, the weight of the rest of our mental activity can make things that are not in this moment feel very present. Isn’t it common to be in a bad-mood and to take what someone said or did, or some otherwise inadvertent circumstance, as we put it “the wrong way,” only to realize later that “I was just in a bad-mood” and feel crumby about it?

Tarrying with this mental activity, which takes us out of the moment when we don’t even normally realize it until after the fact, is the core of Buddhist practice. Stilling the mind is not simply turning our inessential mental activity off, because we can’t turn our thoughts off like that. Luckily for us, what comes goes, and the same is true for our thoughts. So, the trick of Buddhist practice, at least when we’re talking about meditation, is staying with these thoughts long enough to notice that they are there, but not so that we become unaware of everything else that is going on around us. This is, on the one hand, profoundly difficult, more difficult than anything else someone can try and do, because it is asking that we stay in full contact with every nook and cranny of our mental activity so we don’t lose track of it. On the other hand, it turns out to be profoundly simple too, since after establishing our mindfulness, the mental activity goes away by itself. We’re just there to watch, engaged enough to know what’s going on, but not so much that we’re really worried about what’s going to come of it, since we already know: when this arises, that arises; when this ceases, that ceases.

In this way, Buddhism is already profoundly active from the get go. I’m very much on board with what one of the commenters said about the ease of this practice perhaps unskillfully being put before its simultaneous [depth and] difficulty. As much [as] overly esoteric practices and teachings are unskillful (not in themselves, but because they are brought [up in] an inappropriate context), I think that overly exoteric practices and teachings are probably just as unskillful. The idea that “you aren’t doing anything” isn’t wrong, as I already pointed out, but it’s incomplete, and it is incompleteness of a view or a practice that makes it unskillful. What we do on the meditation cushion, or however you meditate is, first of all, tremendous work, but it isn’t to be just something we do on the meditation cushion. The goal is bring this practice we have in meditation into every moment of our lives. If that doesn’t sound like positively the most difficult thing anyone has ever suggested to you, then I don’t know what will. Nonetheless, somewhat in defense of the article, it doesn’t matter what’s going on the outside so long as the same practice is happening on the inside, whether you say “Peace, man” or “Oi!”

That’s pretty much all I have to say, but I should still add a bit more. What is at stake for Buddhists brought up in Generation X and now Generation Y is still very much what was at stake for the first mentionable generation of American Buddhists in the last century: suffering and its cessation. I probably gloss over a lot when I say this, but I’m not giving a rigorous historical account, just a perspective. The way I see it, people have come to the dhamma because they are ready to begin taking up the path to the cessation of (their) suffering and dissatisfaction with life. If they aren’t, then allure of the exotic (whether its from China, the hippie commune, or the tattoo-parlor) wears off, as everything does, and they get on with their lives—still unsatisfied.

The point I fear is missed by many in the Dharma Punx movement and those surrounding it is that we practice the dharma for its own sake—not because it’s cool or fun or whacky or edgy or however you want to describe the vehicle. I think this marks one of the difficulties for the development of a truly Western (or American) Buddhism, because we have a deep cultural penchant for commodities (i.e. things whose first and practically only purpose is to be consumable by as many people as possible, which is to say, things that are all exterior), which translates into approaching something like the dhamma asking “so what is it good for?” The only meaningful answer I can think of is: everything, and nothing less.

This reminds me of a story I’ve heard from somewhere about the Buddha and a farmer. The farmer comes to the Buddha, who he heard has this great teaching, and asks him if it can help him with this or that mundane problem of his life (nagging wife, unruly kids, failing crops, etc.). The Buddha says his teaching cannot help with any of those problems. He tells him that life is full of all kinds of problems, 83 to be exact, and the Buddha’s teaching will help him with none of them. The farmer, kind of ticked off, asks the Buddha just what good his teachings are then, if they in no way answer to any of these issues in his (or anyone else’s) life. The Buddha points out that his teachings are good and only good for one still yet unmentioned problem, an 84th problem enveloping all the other 83 problems: the farmer wants to have no more problems.

In a similar way, the American Buddhist community’s task is not to be popular (i.e. prolific in a social context insofar as that context stays the same), like when the farmer asks if it can fix this or that problem (i.e. a fix for a problem only when it’s a problem), but to remain effective. By effective I don’t mean in the sense that there is any particular, conventional issue it addresses, but because it remains true to its only purpose: the cessation of suffering.


Written by Joe

February 20, 2008 at 2:43 pm

One Response

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  1. The relationship between Receptivity and Activity in meditation.

    While teaching meditation or when discussing it with friends, I always try to keep basic principles in mind. Sometimes I refer to them overtly, but they are mostly in the background, providing the context within which the details of practicing meditation are explored. One such principle is the relationship between receptivity and activity. These are pillars upon which much of what happens in meditation practice rests.

    Receptivity consists in the ability to notice and be aware in a relaxed manner. It enables us to absorb and integrate the different impressions that arise as we meditate. It is like a fertile ground in which our positive mental states can grow and blossom. Receptivity can include strong aspirations — what we might call faith, and even insight. If we are receptive in the face of hindrances to meditation, we can sometimes gain access to a strong intuitive response, as if a well of deeper wisdom makes itself felt. And this guides us away from what is unhelpful.

    Activity refers to our endeavor and application. It is what we do in our practice, including the application of particular meditation practices and methods for stimulating positive states of mind, and overcoming hindrances. When we strengthen our positive states of mind — by using a phrase, or bringing to mind an appropriate image — we, are being active. When we consciously check for hindrances and adjust accordingly, we are being active. With practice, our ability to be active becomes intuitive rather than considered or premeditated.

    We need both receptivity and activity in our meditation practice and it is sometimes useful to assess the relationship between them to see how much of each is present. However, they are often intermingled, and they are always interrelated. Even so, most people have a bias towards either activity or receptivity. When the relationship between the two becomes attenuated, our meditation will suffer. Over-emphasis on activity can make our practice dry and shallow. A disproportionate emphasis on receptivity can lead to stagnation.

    For the whole article please go to


    February 22, 2008 at 4:10 am

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