Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Form and formlessness and the practice

I was just thinking about the fact that I have a year of Buddhist practice to draw on as I begin 2006 and so it might be worth wondering how it is shaping up.

My practice is interesting because I never know what it will bring. I was cautioned when I began my formal practice about trying to bring in a yard-stick as it is detrimental to try to measure how "good" or "bad" one's practice is. So, I was thinking about how I would explain this to someone who might have trouble thinking outside of measurable goals. One thing that I came up with is that it is like the expression, "If it ain't broke don't fix it." But ironically that's just what we do--we want to take the living moment and try to attach all sorts of things to it. That doesn't mean do nothing, but just doing what you are doing. People often try to add or take away from things as they analyze them, but the practice of being fully present is antithetical to these tendencies. It's so hard sometimes just to let the moment be. We bring unnecessary presumptions and attitudes with us, not just reasonable predictions and estimations based on experience or measurement, but tendencies to use predetermined values and prejudice rather than evaluating each situation as it is. We just keep adding and changing and adjusting and adding and removing and readjusting, so someting that is ever present and is complete and ready as is can be practically unfathomable at times.

So, then, I am often asked how I know if I am doing my practice right. In a way, apart from proper posture (which simply helps to reduce discomfort from long periods of sitting) and an object of concentration (which helps to gather focus), there is no "right" or "wrong". This is where form and formlessness comes in. Imagine for a moment a totality of all experience, existence in its entirety. Imagine it is all connected, each point in time and space connected to every other. The totality is beyond measurement and typically beyond genuine conception. Now, on the one hand, no matter where you are, you are connected to the whole, so it doesn't matter where or when or what; after all, you've got to be somewhere, and that's covered by "everything". That is similar to formlessness. It isn't bound by any particular configuration of matter or energy or awareness. It has no limits or boundaries, it has no means of conventional description or measurement. It is imminence--the totality being resolved into individual components. Then, there is your specific location on the cosmic map. It is a unique position in time and space and the view from there, from each moment from the perspective of each individual, and so your individual position within the whole is always changing. The perspective each of us has is then also changing. Transcendence, then, is the resolution of the individual components into the totality.

So...what? OK, well, this is a very rough summary, but the point is that during practice one can realize the moment through form or formless, from the process of imminence or transcendence. If my relative position within the universe is always changing, then from the perspective of form why should I expect the same result (insight, feeling, knowledge, sensation, etc) from practice to practice? On the other hand, from the perspective of formlessness, it is irrelevant to even talk about position since there is no discrimination in the absolute. I have not yet, however, experienced the more elusive ability to switch between thinking of things in terms of form and formlessness, to see both simultaneously and seamlessly, where imminence meets transcendence.

I also find it interesting that this scheme plays out in a variety of religious imagery. For example, both Jesus (Christianity) and Amitabha Buddha (Mahayana Buddhism, particularly Pure Land) begin as external beings exemplifying perfection in wisdom and compassion and other virtues as well as their connection to the universe. So does, ironically, the dharma or law of the Lotus Sutra in Nichiren Buddhism. Then the practioner sees them as an internal aspect or integrated component. Finally there is no distinction at all--he/she/it is neither external or internal. Transcedence meets imminence.

Oh, and while I have read books on Buddhism and mysticism and listened to dharma talks, no, this isn't just a paraphrase of something else I've read or heard. It's an attempt to explain my point of view (certainly influenced by various teachers) in my own words, so don't blame others for my descriptions.

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