Monday, January 26, 2015

Gampopa Variations — line 3

Let this path dissolve confusion.

As far as translation goes, this is probably the most straightforward of the four lines. For me, the steps we take in practice form a path. Thus, “this path” means the ongoing effort that we make in practice. I chose the word “dissolve” rather than the more conventional “clear away” because “dissolve” is closer to my own experience.

In almost all traditions of Buddhism (and, to be fair, in most traditions of contemplative practice), one finds a precise description of the path of practice, that is, a stage by stage description of the experiences that arise and what skills and abilities need to be developed at each stage. While certain understandings and certain abilities are needed before others become possible, when our own experience doesn’t correspond to the formal descriptions, we are often left with the feeling that something is wrong with our practice or that something is wrong with us.

In the vast majority of cases, that is not the case. The paths described in the texts are a synthesis of the experience of centuries of practice and teaching. Individual variations abound, and that’s why the notion of “the” path becomes problematic.

When our practice is effective, it inevitably brings us into our own confusion, or, to put it another way, awareness enters areas in us that we are ignored, shut down, too painful to touch or are passive to the point of being dead. In all these cases, the energy of practice acts like the rays of the sun shining on a cube of ice. The warmth of the sun heats up the water molecules until the ice can no longer maintain its crystalline structure and it starts to melt. The energy locked inside the patterns, those areas that are shut down or lifeless, is released and transformed into attention. With that higher level of attention, we can take the next step and a path forms beneath our feet.

To work this way, we need to go to the edge, to where we begin to lose attention. Most of the time we don’t need to go hunting for the edge. If we just rest and let the resting deepen, sooner or later we come to a place where we lose attention and become confused, and we don’t know why. That’s the edge.

Our first impulse is often to try to force the issue, break through the confusion or the block to whatever is on the other side. Each of us has to find the ways of working at the edge that work for us. For me, the operative word in the phrase “break through” is “break”, not “through”, so that approach has not worked well for me, though it does seem to work for others. Instead, I had to stop regarding confusion or a block as something that had to be removed or cleared away,  and be willing to experience and learn from that experience, wherever it took me.This is what led me to regard difficulties and blocks as features in the landscape in which I was traveling.

Now I simply bring my attention to it and experience it as completely as possible. I regard the confusion or the block as like a flower in bud and trust that in time it will open in the warmth of attention. I have no idea what will arise when it opens. When it does, my effort is then to experience and not react to what has been locked inside.

Other times, the confusion or the block is like a wall, an impenetrable wall that extends infinitely to the left, to the right. I can’t climb over  it, I can’t go around it and I can’t go underneath it. The only thing I can do is put my hand on the wall and feel it. Whether it’s a day, a week, or a decade, at some point, my hand starts to go into the wall, and then it’s up to me to follow it and again, step into the unknown.

Our path is a constant entering into the unknown. We put one foot in front of the other and those steps form our path. Things don’t go perfectly. We encounter confusion and difficulties again and again. But as Suzuki Roshi says, “In your very imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind.” And that way-seeking mind, the mind that is willing to go into the unknown, enables us dissolve confusion and make our way.

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