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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, January 11, 2008

study as path

More reading, more keying-in of notes from my source books. Where is it all going? I don't know.

On the one hand, my Buddhist training tells me that book-learning is not and can never be a path to true knowledge--to ultimate truth. The truth--especially truth in the sense of a solution to the "puzzle" of life--can be realized only directly and nonconceptually. It is an experience, not something that can be put into a sentence.

I remember clearly when this teaching broke through into my mind. Perhaps paradoxically, it was via reading a book: The Way of Zen by Alan Watts. It was February 1978 and I was traveling through Europe with my friend Tim. Running low on funds, we had decided in Rome to turn around and head home. As we drove north out of the city, Tim was at the wheel of our 1970 Westfalia and I was sitting at the table, reading. And as I read, in the dim twilight of that overcast day, about how Buddhists discover reality by direct experience--through meditation--rather than learning about reality through words, I felt a deep sense of recognition and excitement. I wanted to have that experience!

For a time, maybe an hour or two, I felt a tremendous sense of elation and connection with my immediate experience. I really saw the interior of the van, the smudges on its windows; I smelled the cocktail of scents of its damp, food-containing interior. My senses were open, rich, alive: I was experiencing the world as directly as I had ever done, and it was a delicious thing.

But it quickly passed, and I was distressed to find my mind sinking into its ordinary worries, distractions, and even peevishness. I felt sickened by the plunge from such an exalted state of mind to such a grouchy, unpleasant one. If only I could stay in that more uplifted state! Why couldn't I?

That experience, fleeting though it was, was a key one in leading me to take up of Buddhist meditation myself in late 1986. I learned that the enlightenment of the Buddha would take sustained effort for an unknown time, probably many lifetimes. I also learned that enlightenment will never be realized in the future--it can only ever be realized in the present, the only moment we can actually experience. So, like all Buddhists, I trained in paying attention to the present moment. Even if you don't have the enlightenment of the Buddha, this is a wonderful way to live life--indeed the only way to truly live life, to actually be present for your life while it's happening.

I also learned that for all the talk about how enlightenment is nonconceptual, the Buddhists have a vast literature and students are urged to study it all the time. Indeed, it is held that to attain enlightenment through meditation alone--that is, without any accompanying study--is vastly more difficult and time-consuming than to follow a path of both practice and study, sometimes known as "walking with both feet."

Study is closely connected with the deeper meditation experience known as vipashyana, or clear seeing. The basic idea is that it's easier to see things when you know what you're looking for. Through study you learn theory, such as, say, the nature of the mind. Then, through practice, you put that theory to the test. You look to see whether the mind is as you've learned. Or, maybe more accurately, you glimpse directly the way your mind is, and recognize it as being what you've studied.

For a time I felt neurotic and anxious about how "conceptual" I was, and felt bad about my thirst for study. Eventually though that went away. Concepts--thoughts--in Buddhism are often likened to clouds in the clear blue sky of the mind. For the beginning meditator, the mind seems completely overcast, and the notion of clear blue beyond is mere hearsay. One nervously and anxiously looks for signs of clear blue.

It seems that the only real antidote to that nervousness and anxiety, which are themselves "overcasting" the sky, is to become thoroughly bored with the meditation practice. When you're bored enough, you start getting a "who cares?" attitude, and somewhere in there you notice the distinction between thoughts and the space they're floating in: the blue sky. You can start to relax about thoughts, since, as clouds, they're insubstantial, transitory, and basically nonthreatening. It's not particularly important whether they're there or not. Indeed, as the painter John Constable found, clouds are what make the sky so interesting and exciting.

So I continue to study. I know I won't become enlightened through study, but I will find new ideas, and new ways of connecting them, and therefore will find new things to look for in my own experience.

Interesting. I entered the path of Buddhism in the hope of finding nonconceptual reality, and have emerged from my training with a heightened ability and appreciation for study--for concepts.


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