What Does It Take?

“If you see a greater pleasure that comes from forsaking a lesser pleasure, be willing to forsake that lesser pleasure for the greater one,” writes Thai forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu, paraphrasing the Buddha in this issue’s Dharma Talk.

The restraint our teachers speak of seems so simple, and yet how often, after periods of steady practice, do we find ourselves relapsing into a life governed by the pursuit of petty pleasures? After all, if we buy the logic of a greater pleasure won through restraint—freedom from the pull of impulse and, ultimately, from suffering itself—shouldn’t restraint be a breeze?

You’d think so. But as the Bhikkhu points out, it’s easier said than done. When it comes to restraint, for instance, I have only to consider my own case: after months of regular exercise and a healthy diet, I wonder how I ever lived otherwise. Later, though, the answer comes quickly enough in the form of a few extra pounds. What gives, aside from a few buttons and a waistline? Knowing what I know, why should restraint be so difficult?

There are times when my practice can follow the same pattern, but the symptoms are a bit different: pulled from pleasure to momentary pleasure, I lose sight of the greater well-being derived from steady practice. Such was the case the other day when—at a time when my practice wasn’t at its most rigorous—I opened an email from a friend inviting me to a day of zazen. He quoted the evening gatha, or chant, that concludes a day of Zen practice:

Let me respectfully remind you.
Life and Death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken. Take heed.
Do not squander your life.

I shuddered. But did I sit that day? Not a chance! So what does it take? There are a number of reasons I might cite for my fickleness, among them the five traditional hindrances to practice enumerated in the Buddhist canon: desire, anger, sloth, restlessness, and doubt. (See the special section on working with the Five Hindrances.) On any given day I can take my pick, but that week what I’d found most intractable was good old-fashioned doubt. Was practice really getting me somewhere? Is enlightenment really possible?

An emphatic yes, Harvard psychologist Jack Engler would answer. Engler’s study under the masters Anagarika Munindra (1914–2003) and Dipa Ma (1911–1989) in the early 1970s instilled in him a rare optimism that to this day shows no signs of waning. While many Asian teachers advised their Western students to defer enlightenment to another lifetime, Munindra and Dipa Ma offered no such advice. Instead, they insisted that enlightenment was indeed realizable right here and now (see “Enlightenment in This Lifetime,”). The story of these two teachers would seem to offer a reasonable antidote to any doubt I could continue to harbor; and yet my resistance is not reasonable. What, I often wonder, is it going to take?

One winter, as I sat a ten-day retreat in a chilly meditation hall, a student tentatively asked during the evening question-and-answer session, “What should I do if a pleasant thought arises and I indulge it by following it?”

“Watch it arise and pass away,” the meditation instructor responded.

“But what if I can’t stop myself from following it?” she persisted. “Can’t you offer better advice?”

The gauntlet had been thrown down, and a short silence followed while the instructor gathered his thoughts. With slight irritation he finally answered, “Well, yes, I can. There are those times when you have to tell yourself”—here his voice rose—“'Just cut it out!’”

General laughter followed in a moment of shared awareness. It seemed we suddenly understood the dignity, the joy, the freedom of restraint, and the relief it could offer. No perseverating, no whining, and certainly no doubt seemed a match for it. And, as our teachers frequently remind us, it is in that moment of coming back to ourselves that our practice is strongest.





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