We begin 2019 with a series on foundational practices: what the Buddha often taught as the beginning of a series of “progressive instructions.” This is a style of teaching that presents the path to awakening step by step, often given to folks who are not yet believers, who have not yet taken refuge or who have just done so.
It starts with a series of topics that are not unique to Buddhism, but which seem to have been at the time of the Buddha widely agreed-upon wholesome practices that provide the basis for further inquiry. He then only offers “the teaching special to the Buddhas,” which is the Four Noble Truths and their implications, when the listener’s mind is clearly ready to hear them.
(See the Upāli Sutta, MN 56.18, a dramatic text in which the Buddha bests a disciple of a competing teacher, the Nigantha Nattaputta—possibly a caricature of the Jain founder Mahavira—for an example of this teaching style.)
Maybe because convert Buddhist practitioners in the West have had a preference for advanced deconstructive practices (like vipassanā), this layer of teaching hasn’t been as emphasized as teachings such as impermanence (anicca) and selflessness (anattā), or mediation instructions in general. But I think we lose something important when we omit these foundations, and arguably make achieving the liberative fruits of practice more difficult.
The beginning of this sequence consists of five topics:
- Giving (dāna)
- Ethics (sīla)
- The danger in sensual pleasures
- The benefits of renunciation
This series of talks will explore this set of basic orientations. They’re all awkward in various ways within contemporary capitalist empire, which makes them interesting to try to understand and consider including in our practice. But if they really are important foundations, we might wonder—upon feeling like our meditation and liberation practice isn’t going so well, as so many of us do, including me—if we’ve missed some initial steps on the path.
Maybe because of the strangeness of these concepts, or because I had just talked with her and was inspired, I included in the first weeks of this series a talk on saṇgha, community, based on a quote from my friend and fellow Spirit Rock teacher Erin Selover, describing what she feels is most needed for students as they begin the path: “Find your circle.” In many ways, with our practice being so much more isolated and individualistic than either the early town or wilderness Buddhist communities, she’s right in emphasizing the need to connect with people first. Isolation as the first wound.
Foundations: Ethics (sīla)
I started the series out of order, teaching on the indispensability of ethical action first. To me, and clearly my position on it is in reaction to the times and place I live in, ethical action is the cornerstone of the entire system of the dhamma. Here’s an attempt to say why that is the case.
Meditation: Lift up your heart, dignity in the body (1.8.19)
Talk: Ethics as the foundational action of the path (1.8.19)
Foundations: Community (saṇgha), “Find your circle.”
In the middle of our exploration of a set of Buddhist foundational practices, I gave a talk on community, or saṇgha as a hugely important support for practice, based on a phrase my friend and fellow Spirit Rock teacher Erin Selover used in a conversation we’d just had: “Find your circle.” We were talking about what students really needed as they began engaged contemplative practice, and she was emphasizing how deeply community is needed, especially given how isolated and separate so many of us feel.
This is a digression from the classical sequence, but brings in something that may have been assumed in the early Buddhist context. These foundational teachings were given in the context of community, often to people coming from established faith communities (with other teachers) or social groups. The wounded nature of postmodern Western society in terms of community is highlighted here. How can you even give dāna if you don’t belong to a community and practice in relation to a community? How would you even know who to give to? Restoring as best you can your relationship to community in this sense can be thought of as a prerequisite even to these “foundations” of practice.
Meditation: Resting into your body as home (1.15.19)
Talk: Saṇgha, “Find Your Circle”
Foundations: Giving (dāna)
Giving was so central to the early Buddhist system that it’s hard to overstate how much seems lost around this profound practice in the Western transmission. In the Insight Meditation system and other convert Buddhisms, dāna (Giving) is often just thought of as the practice of giving monetary donations for teachings or at the end of retreats. This makes sense in our culture that not only doesn’t know much about faith and generosity, but has minimal accessible monastic culture. Giving, as a practice for lay people, is really the core thing that makes monastic practice possible, and so is indispensable to the religion. Absent the monastic culture, giving still may be a beautiful training in letting go, but its force is substantially dulled when it becomes optional rather than central to practice.
Pūja: the full refuge & precepts chant sequence, with harmonium (1.22.19)
Meditation: Receiving support (1.22.19)
Talk: dāna, creating a culture of giving and receiving (1.22.19)
At various times in my teaching life, when I want to explore a topic I feel is central to Buddhist thought, I go to the discourses and read, and then think some version of, “Wait—nobody told me this!” This happens mainly around teachings that were part of earlier traditions but that didn’t make it into the set of useful teachings emphasized by Western teachers or Asian teachers speaking to a Western audience. The teaching on “heavens” is one of these.
It sounds (because it is) metaphysical and mythical and religious, all of which are reasons it hasn’t had much traction in the scientific-materialist West, but the implications of a rejection of the teachings on heavens are problematic, specifically in how they flirt with a rejection of personal kamma. The teaching on heavens is really a teaching on kamma and how actions always bear fruit. It’s the seed of the later teaching on Dependent Origination and liberation from saṃsāra, and as such rejecting it outright flirts with a distinct form of wrong view, namely nihilism. I gave this talk on my birthday.
Talk: Heavens, Christian trauma, and exploring the fruits of wholesome action (1.29.19)
Foundations: The dangers of sense pleasures
Continuing in the “nobody ever teaches on this vein,” we continue with the 4th topic in this list of foundations, “the dangers of sense pleasures.”
We’re midway through a series of classes looking at a series of topics the Buddha often taught as the foundations of practice — before he taught the 4 Noble Truths and the practice of deep letting go, he would teach these basics: Giving, Ethics, Heaven (basic karma: do good & you go to good places). The list completes with two interlinked topics:
The dangers of sensual pleasures, and the power of renunciation.
Expect me NOT to say that loving pleasure is bad, or that sex is bad (God/dess forbid!), or that the body is somehow sinful! I will certainly say that those ideas are a toxic inheritance from medieval Christian patriarchy. Pleasure, sex, and bodies are beautiful. Full stop.
This teaching in no way contradicts that, but on the contrary, acknowledges that pleasure is the most powerful sensation we get. Almost! I talk about a Buddhist framework called “the gratification, the danger, and the escape,” which describes WHY you might want to learn to be cautious around intense pleasurable sensory stimuli. And I’ll almost certainly say, in effect, this, which for greater emphasis I’ll draft here in verse:
Addiction to sensory pleasures leads to resource depletion,
which leads to extractive colonialism,
which keeps the addicted in denial about the sources of their pleasures,
and destroys civil society.
This is in harmony with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s tax-the-rich plan she’s talking up this past week. And how incredible it is that someone is finally saying out loud: “there should not be billionaires.” And next week: Renunciation as both the balm to individual anxiety AND the cure for capitalism. I know, good luck. But the Buddha always said this process goes against the stream of ordinary culture. This is one of the ways.
Meditation: Continuity, the basis of practice (2.5.19)
Talk: The dangers of sense pleasures (2.5.19)
Foundations: The benefits of renunciation
The beauty of letting go. Why it’s so good, if you’re rich, to give wealth away; why psychological interpretations of letting go are the favorite Dharma of the privileged, and what letting go might mean for the already poor; and why it isn’t necessarily good practice to turn renunciation into a metaphor (or something only monastics do).
This is the last topic in our series of foundational teachings, which I’ll flesh out for the next couple weeks. [Note: I didn’t really get through with renunciation in one talk, and have a couple weeks before our March-April series on Satipaṭṭhāna meditation starts, so I expect we’ll keep going with this topic for a week or two.]
Talk: The benefits of renunciation (2.12.19)
More on renunciation & the centrality of letting go on the path
The centrality of letting go as a basis of the path. We talk through an overview of these 5 foundational practices/understandings, and how they all incline toward letting go. The first 2 Noble Truths describe a deep letting go, which we can understand on literal, psychological, and existential levels. But also, letting go is complicated under neoliberal capitalism, especially for poor folks.
Letting go is still the heart of the path, because it’s existentially true, but it’s a hard virtue to accomplish well in a scarcity economy. We ended the night talking a bit both about poverty and scarcity, and then trauma and the nervous system. What if “letting go” is synonymous with deactivation from the self-protective ANS states of fight, flight, and freeze? If so, then the initial conditions that support deactivation (safety, pleasure, time) will be necessary before letting go is really possible, or before letting go is the right teaching. This is why this initial sequence of foundational teachings is useful.
Talk: What’s right, and complex, about the teaching on letting go (2.19.19)
Foundations Postscript: The 4 Requisites
Before a seeker can receive and benefit from the deconstructive inquiry that traditionally would follow these foundations, namely the 4 Noble Truths and their radical implications for the sense of self, they must be materially safe and cared for. You can’t practice unbinding your identity when you suffer food insecurity, housing insecurity, lack of adequate clothing and medicine.
The list of the 4 Requisites (food, shelter, clothing, medicine) describes the material survival needs that remain once renunciation and letting go have done their Marie Kondo on everything extra in your life. You need the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid, basically, before you can practice further in the direction of unbinding identity and clinging.
But if that’s the case, what about those who don’t have these? Can contemplative inquiry and other psychologically deconstructive practices be safely and effectively taught to the poor, the vulnerable, those engaged in material and community survival? Should they be? What resources or social structures must be in place first?
Basically, how does the economic context of the neoliberal West change the nature of Buddhist practice and its potential as a liberation path?
Meditation: Gratitude for the Requisites, Compassion for those without them. (2.26.19)
Talk: The 4 Requisites, poverty, the absence of monasticism as a social safety net, and the unreliability of the Requisites. Don’t take anything for granted. Gratitude. (2.26.19)
Through March & April 2019 we’ll look closely at meditation again, using the satipaṭṭhāna framework of Ven. Anālayo. We’ll be working from this book. See you soon.