Recently I’ve been reading The Buddha Before Buddhism, by Gil Fronsdal, which is a translation of what is believed to be one of the oldest Buddhist teachings. It’s had a powerful effect on the way I practice.
It’s interesting how simple this text is. There are no lists: no elaborate eightfold path, no detailed exposition of four noble truths. Rebirth comes up mainly when discussing the beliefs of other teachers; the effects of our actions are mainly discussed in terms of this life, here and now.
There’s nothing about Nirvana, or some future state of spiritual breakthrough. Bliss or happiness are not the main goals; peace is.
And that is the part I find most interesting. Peace, or being at peace, is the goal. There’s not a great deal of emphasis on how to get there in the future. Instead it seems that we’re just to be there now.
And that’s where the effect of reading The Buddha Before Buddhism comes in. I’ve found myself simply noticing whether “unpeace” has arisen, and simply pausing. Sometimes the thought, “What do I need to do or let go of in order to be at peace” arises.
That thought triggers spontaneous action. I ask, “How do I move my body in such a way that peace manifests?” Well, I move slowly and gracefully. “How do I eat in such a way that I feel at peace?” I eat slowly and mindfully, and without trying to do anything else at the same time.
If I’m feeling a bit tired and over-stimulated the question, “What do I need to do or let go of in order to be at peace” triggers the desire to rest. I put down whatever I’m doing, and just become aware of my surroundings, my body, my breathing, and so on. It’s not necessary to be happy; just to be at peace.
If I find myself anxious, the question is not “How do I get rid of this anxiety,” but how do I be at peace with this anxiety?” And my mind seems to already know to stop striving to be free of anxiety, and instead to accept it with mindfulness and kindness. There’s no need to get rid of anxiety in order to be at peace. Peace and anxious states can co-exist.
These “questions” that I’ve mentioned don’t necessarily appear as words. It’s more of a wordless realization that there is a state of peace that’s accessible, and that a way can be found to allow it to arise. It’s just like when I’m going to the local post office: I don’t need to talk myself through the journey. I don’t need to say, “OK, now I go up these stairs, then I turn left onto Main Street, then I cross the road at the lights…” Just as it’s enough to know that the post office is my destination for my feet to be able to find their own way there, it’s enough for me to remember that peace is what I want, and then my body and mind will take me there.
And there’s no intellectual process I have to work through in order to figure out how to respond. I don’t need to think anything through. The movement toward peace just happens spontaneously.
I suspect that for most people the greatest barrier would be the belief that they have to do something in order to get themselves to a state of peace. But really you don’t need to do anything. You just need to get out of the way and to let peace happen. You don’t need to learn what to do: your mind and body already know what needs to be let go of.
Another barrier might be the habit we have of constantly thinking that we have to defer wellbeing for sometime — specified or unspecified — in the future. “I just have to get out of debt,” of “I can be happy once I’ve lost 20 pounds,” or “I can relax once this busy spell is over.” This really is a habit of unconsciously deferring wellbeing — often to a time that never arrives, since we keep thinking of new things that have to be done before we can feel happy.
But the practice I’ve been doing is very simple and immediate. It’s also radically simple. And in my experience so far it’s been surprisingly effective.
A third barrier might well be that of expectations. We might have the expectation that peace is something extraordinary. And so when peace is present, and seems quite ordinary, we might think “This can’t be it” and return to craving some kind of ideal state, rejecting the peace that’s already present.
The “solution” to these barriers — grasping, deferring, rejecting — is incredibly simple. It’s just what I’ve said, which is asking, “What do I need to do or let go of in order to be at peace.” Let go of grasping, right now, and experience peace. Let go of deferring happiness right now, and just be at peace. Let go of your resistance to peace, and just experience it.
Peace is right here, right now. Stop ignoring it, and let it be your experience. Just be peace.
Just being peace.
I read you article with interest and totally agree. After a very long term illness, almost by chance I attended a local Buddhist center as I was recovering. All the teachings really resonated with me and over a period of years changed me as a person. Funnily enough these teachings gave a realization of my own earlier deep feelings which I had not fully realized.
That deep feeling of peace, almost despite the circumstances, gradually grew so that it was with me all the time. If this was only the smallest insight into Nirvana, it was so worthwhile. From what I understand Nirvana is a state of mind as much as anything.
Unfortunately I have had a relapse of my old illness which I hope will go again in time. Despite all the training, I am not totally at peace feeling so unwell but am doing a lot better than I would have done in the past. So all the training of the mind has been worthwhile.
Achieving deep peace puts all life into perspective and makes it all the more enjoyable. For me this is all the more preferable to the constant highs and lows that some experience.
Very enlightening, thank you for this.
Excellent piece! (LOL) Thank you ?
don’t know how that question mark got there…I know I don’t like using my phone for typing.
Great article. Helpful and shows how the Buddha’s teachings have made unessarily complex.
I agree! People who come to Dharma centers end up wrestling to grasp the nuances of complex teachings when they could be learning to simply be. One of the other repeated emphases in the Atthakavagga (the text translated in Buddha Before Buddhism) is of avoiding taking up any view. I find myself wondering how much in the early texts is even close to what the Buddha taught.
Great article to read, very timely. Thank you Bodhipaksa. Look forward to reading this book by Gil Fronsdal.
Always spoken with such wisdom and gentle kindness.
Thankyou so much.
Wendy / United Kingdom
Thank you so much for that. It dovetails so precisely what I have been thinking and feeling lately. It also puts the idea so much more concisely and accurately than I could ever have done. It also helps me feel that my practice (such as it is) is going in the right direction (I do realise that its not actually going anywhere but you know what I mean.) Again a big thank you and peace to you.
Interesting article, +Bodhipaksa. I’m wondering the same thing: how much of what I think Buddhism is about is true. Now I feel pretty confused. When times are hard, I have taken comfort in the 3rd and 4th Noble Truths; I’ve also wanted to get free from a sense of self because it does seem to lead to suffering; now I’m taking the Letting Go Into Joy class, about cultivating jhana. Is all of this invalid and irrelevant?
Well, there’s “what the Buddha taught” and “Buddhism.” And of course there are many different Buddhisms, but I mean “standard Buddhism” with its various lists. And what’s the relationship between these? Maybe the Buddha started off as this guy teaching a non-path where we just be at peace. And then maybe he enriched his teaching by adding other lists and practices. Maybe most of that other stuff was added by disciples because they thought it was useful or because it was stuff they’d picked up elsewhere, possibly previous to joining the Buddhist Sangha. It’s just not possible to say.
The main thing for me is not to get too caught up in the formulations, which I think often happens, and to be clear about what the essential principles are and how we put them into practice in our lives. So things like rebirth are almost meaningless for me, since how do I put that into practice? Karma doesn’t need to be understood in a technical sense, for the most part. It’s important to recognize it in action, though.
I find jhana useful as a tool for insight, as I outlined in my most recent article. And the way I teach it is in terms of letting go. So I think you’re fine there!
And the noble truths are just an elaboration of basic principles. And doesn’t that all come back to letting go as well?
Thanks for your reply, Bodhipaksa. In regard to your comments here ” be clear about what the essential principles are,” and “the noble truths are just an elaboration of basic principles,” I’m wondering what the essential or basic principles are?
I think of the essential principle as noticing clinging and letting go of it so that skillfulness can naturally emerge. That’s what happens in ethics and jhana, and I think also with wisdom/insight.
You are getting very good at not saying too much Bodhi. Nice piece.
Thank you, as always, for sharing your personal insight. I love the idea of being at peace now, whatever your current circumstance.
The interesting thing is that it’s possible to be at peace with not being at peace :)
Great article. I’ve been applying this perspective in certain areas of my life and I really relate to a lot of points you made here. Learning to be at peace with anxiety rather than trying to get rid if it (or any uncomfortable feeling) is definitely a very healthy approach to life.