What if you can’t walk on water?

One night one of the beautiful people approached the Buddha with a question. Beautiful, and of indeterminate sexuality. Bhikkhu Bodhi uses “he” to refer to this devatā. Thanissaro Bhikkhu uses “she.” Whoever, the devatā‘s “stunning beauty” lit up the entire grove where the Buddha was staying that night.

(Bear with me as I muse on some Buddhists texts. I will close with very contemporary and very practical TED talks by a social work professor, Brené Brown.)

This beautiful being asked: “How, dear sir, did you cross the flood?”

The Buddha replied, “I crossed over the flood without pushing forward, without staying in place.”

Wait a minute, she said. How can you get across a flood if you don’t stop on the high spots and then work hard to get through the water between?

“When I pushed forward, I was whirled about. When I stayed in place, I sank. And so I crossed over the flood without pushing forward, without staying in place.”

This reply made her stop and think. Finally, she said:  “At long last I see” someone worthy of the highest respect, “totally unbound,” who didn’t stop or swim to avoid drowning.

Commentaries tell us that the Buddha gave a paradoxical answer in order to humble the devatā because she was conceited and could not understand his teaching until she changed her attitude. Note that her delayed reply expresses how she has changed her viewpoint, but does not say what she sees. She does not state some abstract concept that explains how the Buddha crossed the flood. Rather, she describes whom she sees.

Following up on a hint that Thanissaro Bhikkhu offers to those of us who have not achieved her insight and who still want to have ideas spelled out in words, I would suggest reading the Buddha’s phrase “without staying in place” as “ungrounded,” or “groundless.” We can cross over the floods of trouble that can drown us or sweep us away by staying ungrounded, groundless.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu refers us to another conversation between the Buddha and his monks, where the Buddha pursues this theme of staying ungrounded:

“Just as if there were a roofed house or a roofed hall having windows on the north, the south, or the east. When the sun rises, and a ray has entered by way of the window, where does it land?”
“On the western wall, lord.”
“And if there is no western wall, where does it land?”
“On the ground, lord.”
“And if there is no ground, where does it land?”
“On the water, lord.”
“And if there is no water, where does it land?”
“It does not land, lord.”
“In the same way, where … consciousness does not land or increase, … where there is no alighting … where there is no growth … where there is no production …. That, I tell you, has no sorrow, affliction, or despair.”

Elsewhere, we find a similar conclusion:

But when one doesn’t intend, arrange, or obsess [about anything], there is no support for the stationing of consciousness. There being no support, there is no landing of consciousness. When that consciousness doesn’t land & grow, … there is no … sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, or despair. Such is the cessation of this entire mass of suffering & stress.

Even in his earliest teachings, the Buddha pointed out how we can cross over, i.e., end stress, by staying ungrounded.

There is that dimension, monks, where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished [i.e., groundless], unevolving, without support [from some mental concept]. This, just this, is the end of stress.

I realize that my earlier attempts to provide concrete examples of the related idea of doing by not-doing came across as just as puzzling as the Buddha’s paradoxical answer to the devatā.  We saw the opera singer who didn’t sing, the comedian who didn’t move his lip, and the orchestra with no conductor. These reflections on the Buddha’s teachings probably don’t help. Crossing the flood without stopping or straining sounds just as weird today as it did more than 2,000 years ago. That’s why I was so excited when I belatedly discovered two talks that Brené Brown gave at TED conferences in 2010 and 2012.

Brené Brown is a professor in the school of social work at the University of Houston. Her 2010 TED talk concerned vulnerability, which is “the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

Her 2012 talk dealt with “listening to shame,” but as the short quote from her first talk indicates, she can’t talk about shame without talking about vulnerability. She still values vulnerability:

… vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. To create is to make something that has never existed before. There’s nothing more vulnerable than that. Adaptability to change is all about vulnerability.

As I listen to Dr. Brown talk about what we can do by embracing our vulnerability, I hear the Buddha telling how he crossed the flood without stopping or straining. I hear the Daoists telling us to do without doing. I hope that you will listen to Brené Brown’s words and that they do better at getting these ideas across than I have been able to do so far.

If we’re going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path. And I know it’s seductive to stand outside the arena, because I think I did it my whole life, and think to myself, I’m going to go in there and kick some ass when I’m bulletproof and when I’m perfect. And that is seductive. But the truth is that never happens. And even if you got as perfect as you could and as bulletproof as you could possibly muster when you got in there, that’s not what we want to see. We want you to go in. We want to be with you and across from you. And we just want, for ourselves and the people we care about and the people we work with, to dare greatly.

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