Yesterday afternoon I wrote the last post about the word “faith,” ending with how I want to avoid the dangers of closed-minded orthodoxy. That evening I went to my usual Monday meditation group. Before meditation begins we usually sit and chat. This time one of our two leaders went around asking people what they thought of the visiting teacher we had last week.
Since I was sitting next to her, she asked me first. I said that I really liked what the teacher, Oren Jay Sofer, had to say, Particularly I liked the way he explained dukkha as “difficulty.” (Dukkha is usually translated as “suffering.”) Most of the other comments were how people liked the way he went back to fundamentals.
Then, she asked one of the regulars, who just a couple of weeks ago explained to me that he comes from a Parsi Zoroastrian family. I’m not sure if he still practices that faith, but he does retreats in India with a guru. He’s also talked about meditating there at the tomb of some saint. He started kindly, but then began to list what he thought was missing from the talk, beginning with love. I thought that was a good point, though I did point out that the Buddha said that the essence of his teaching was dukkha and the ending of dukkha.
He went on to enumerate other omissions. When he got to “he didn’t talk about ‘the divinity of the individual self,'” I snapped “That’s not a Buddhist concept.” I meant that it wasn’t fair to criticize a Buddhist teacher for not preaching a non-Buddhist doctrine, but I was too quick and forceful. He stopped talking.
A newcomer jumped in to say that he had a problem with dukkha, whether you called it “difficulty” or “suffering.” He said he couldn’t see how difficulty could be ended. I said that we could look into the source of the difficulty and then undo it. There is a path to follow towards that undoiing. When he asked how that worked, I started to talk about the Buddhist concept of dependent origination, how difficulty and really everything we experience arise from many conditions. Knowing we can change these conditions can be a source of joy.
No sooner did I mention “dependent origination” than the leader, who’d been listening next to me, jumped in to say “And there’s the Four Noble Truths!” I had to bite my tongue to keep from blurting out “What do you think I’ve just been talking about?” (The company and the topic probably helped me not even to think about throwing an F-bomb into that retort. That I noticed this warned me how peeved I was. I like to think that practicing my resolution for this year also helped.)
We’ve had a rough time with each other. Her first words to me the first time I came were “Do you usually cite the number of sutta when you mention it?” She spoke in the same tone I had used early last evening so I just shut up then, not explaining that the other leader had just asked where he could find a particular teaching. A few months later I caught her off guard by criticizing something she said. Like last night, just thinking about the idea, not the feelings of the person. I could tell that I had bothered my Parsi friend when he started to criticize us for using the word dukkha. Indians use the word dukh, he said, which means “pain.” This time I did not argue about the differences between contemporary and ancient languages.
In Buddhist psychology I fall into the type of character always ready with a view on the matter. Being stuck on one’s views gets categorized as a taint, a barb, a bond, among other character flaws. When combined with craving and conceit, one proliferates views and starts arguments. That’s another irony of my behavior last night. I’ve been working on a long essay about how this process affects Buddhist philosophy.
Sometimes we ask ourselves why we are meditating. One of the best answers I’ve heard is that we’re practicing, practicing how to be aware of the moment, particularly aware of the gap between the moment and how we react to it. Obviously I need more practice.
Side note to self. Don’t have baked beans for lunch on a day you’re going to meditation in the evening. Even if you avoid olfactory embarrassment, the sound of a grumbling stomach resonates loudly in the middle of the profound quiet of a room full of people meditating.