I’d heard there were trails in the woods next to the apartment I’d just moved into, but exactly where they were wasn’t at all obvious to me when I first took my dog for walks there. When I did find what looked to be pathways, they were in places very faint and it was easy to wander off them. And the more distinct trails had many branches, leading who knew where. Simple walks in the woods could become very complicated!
So as I explored the woods I went cautiously, not going too far. Sometimes, as I began to extend my walks, I lost my way, and wandered randomly until I found my way home again.
Three months later I know the trails pretty well. I always know where I am, and where all the various branches lead. I know how to get from point A to point B. What was once confusing and sometimes a bit scary is now familiar. I enjoy knowing my way around.
Lost in complexity
There’s something like that happens in our practice as well.
I’ve been studying Buddhism for over forty years now. I started exploring this tradition for the very simple reason that I wanted to suffer less, and I understood meditation in particular as being a way of bringing that about. And meditation, at least initially, seemed very simple: just keep returning your awareness to the breathing. And be kind.
Of course Buddhism turned out to be rather complex. Even just in the early teachings there is a plethora of lists: the three trainings, the four efforts, the five spiritual faculties, the six sense-bases, the seven factors of awakening, the eightfold path, the ten fetters, the 12 links of conditionality, and so on. If you want to make this even more complicated, you can learn the Pali and Sanskrit for all these terms.
It seems that you need to have an encyclopedic mind to keep all this straight in your mind. If you can do it, this can lead to a sense of unhelpful pride. You think that because you know lots of stuff, you understand the Dharma. And not being able to learn all of this stuff can leave people feeling inadequate. It’s easy to get lost in all the complexity.
- The Joy of Missing Out
- Just turn away
- Einstein: The leader is one who, out of the clutter, brings simplicity
- Twain: “Any so-called material thing that you want is merely a symbol…”
Awakening to simplicity
When the process of Awakening begins (the technical term is “Entering the Stream”), you see three things:
- The kind of separate, static self you always thought you had is an illusion.
- There is no doubt that Awakening is real. It’s begun to unfold within you, and will keep on doing so until it’s complete.
- The evidence for all this has been in front of you the whole time. It’s just that you’ve been ignoring it.
It’s the third of those things I’d like to talk about. I certainly don’t want to talk — at least not now — about self and non-self. After all, I’m talking about simplicity, so I want to keep things simple.
So as we practice, we get to this point where we have an awareness of the radical simplicity of practice itself. We realize that until that point we’ve been over-complicating things and failing to see what’s right in front of us. We’ve even been using Dharma teachings as a way of avoiding really looking at our experience — approaching practice intellectually rather than looking directly at our experience and seeing what’s really there.
But now, it’s clearer what is and what isn’t the path.
It’s a bit like me walking into the woods three months ago, not sure what was a trail and what wasn’t, and walking there now, when the trails seem obvious.
But then you get to that point where you realize that all that knowledge was just a complication and a distraction. It was even a hindrance, since it led either to a sense of inadequacy if you didn’t know it, or a sense of superiority if you did. And in any event, it was largely a distraction.
Let peace happen
Practice is very simple: just let yourself be at peace. That’s the path. Whatever is going on within you that is inhibiting you from being at peace, let go of it. If anger makes you unhappy, drop it. If trying to be perfect makes you unhappy, drop it. Just keep letting go of whatever is holding you back from being at peace.
And whatever happens within you that brings you real peace and joy, appreciate it and let it flow. If observing the flow of the breathing brings calmness, let that happen. If kindness makes your life sweeter, let it happen. Notice it. Value it. Call it to mind.
It really doesn’t have to be any more complex than that. It’s back to what I originally thought practice to be: just keep returning your awareness to the breathing. And be kind.