At first, I thought I could evict the monkeys. And then I thought I might muzzle them, perhaps tie them up in a corner and silence them once and for all. Then I thought I could cooperate with them — indulge them a bit, perhaps. I even tried ignoring them.
Thankfully, the conditions were finally right for me to receive a game-changing instruction: don’t fight the monkeys, but instead learn to co-exist with them.
Of course, I’m talking about monkey mind.
As I approach the 10th anniversary of my first exposure to the Dharma, I find myself reflecting on my progress along the Buddhist path. I am, in a very literal sense, a different person than I was ten years ago, and my understanding of the teachings and practices of Buddhism has evolved a great deal. For example, I remember being filled with great optimism after studying the Four Noble Truths for the first time, as they seemed to so perfectly sum up our state of being.
Unfortunately, like many people (I suspect) who are new to Buddhism, I thought the Truths were an invitation to bypass the duhkha (Sanskrit for “suffering”) that pervades our lives and instead to focus on the path that ends suffering. Early on, I struggled for several years with the fact that my actions didn’t seem to reduce other’s suffering quickly enough, almost ignoring the First Noble Truth, which states that to live is, in fact, to suffer.
In the last few months, I’ve found myself picking up texts and teachings that seemed too difficult to absorb in the past. Among these are the works of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In the beginning, when I would come across his writings, I would be lost after just a couple of paragraphs. I struggled to digest the first few chapters of his Myth of Freedom, and I always felt that his Cosmic Joke was an indecipherable riddle.
The causes and conditions for me to understand these teachings simply weren’t there yet.
I’m now reading “Not for Happiness: A Guide to the So-Called Preliminary Practises,” by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche. I am filled with gratitude that I can start to understand (and not be offended — or worse, turned off by) his logic about the purpose of Buddhist practice:
“The aim of far too many teachings these days is to make people ‘feel good,’ and even some Buddhist masters are beginning to feel like New Age apostles. Their talks are entirely devoted to validating the manifestation of ego and endorsing the ‘rightness’ of our feelings, neither of which have anything to do with the teachings we find in the pith instructions. So, if you are only concerned about feeling good, you are far better off having a full body massage or listening to some uplifting or life-affirming music than receiving dharma teachings, which were definitely not designed to cheer you up. On the contrary, the dharma was devised specifically to exposure your feelings and make you feel awful.”
In accepting the truth behind Rinpoche’s words, I find myself overflowing with gratitude, not only for the fact that I am on this path, but that I have had the incredibly good fortune to find a teacher of my own who has helped me start to understand the real purpose of the Dharma and of my practice.
In 1974, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche addressed a group of students about the importance of meditation. I am blessed that those words, reprinted in the March 2012 edition of Shambhala Sun magazine, have found their way to me at a point when I am able to appreciate the depth of his seemingly simple instructions:
“This is what we are doing in the practice of meditation: constructing a staircase toward enlightenment. It requires very precise measurement of the boards to build the steps properly…Shamatha practice is building a staircase very deliberately, according to the Buddha. A staircase to what? To enlightenment? What is that? It doesn’t really matter. Just building the staircase may be good. No promise, no blame. Let us simplify the situation. Let us build this staircase very simply and directly.”
I honestly believe that this moment — this precise instant in time between the last second and the next — is the result of a set of interrelated causes and conditions that can not be separated from my past experiences. Everything I have done and thought, and every past action, word and deed have brought me to this exact point in time and space.
With that in mind, I honor the monkeys. I celebrate the mental chaos and suffering that has brought me to this place in this life. For without it, I would not have the earnest desire to undertake the work required to transform my mind and hopefully engage in lifetimes of action that will help bring an end to suffering for all sentient beings.
I dedicate the monkeys to that effort.