The Journey of a Thousand Miles
Begins With One Step
Rev Master Myoho Harris
This follows on from, and can be read in conjunction with, a previous article, that appeared in the summer issue of the Journal, called Feelings: Writing on Water in which I wrote, “ For some, establishing and maintaining a steady daily practice will come easily, whilst for others it may be more challenging. There are many simple, easy to follow ways that can help us to be true to the wish in our hearts by enabling us to go in the right direction, and I would like to write about some of them in a future article”. This is that article.
It is understandable when someone feels disheartened because they think they are not making any progress on their spiritual journey, but just the fact that you are drawn to Buddhism and want to do something about your spiritual development is a rare and precious thing. No matter how small or fragile that spark may be at the moment, it is there, and just by reading this you are already acting upon it. That little spark, which is the arising of Buddha Nature, will keep calling you forth and, so long as you do not give up on yourself, the way forward will open up because our wish to train comes from the part of us that knows exactly what we need to do and will help us to do it.
From the combined wisdom and compassion of the Buddhist way comes forth a kaleidoscopic practicality that enables every single person to find a step forward, something that they are capable of doing right now that will enable them to turn towards that little spark and, step by step, keep trusting it more deeply.
To find that step we need to sympathetically and intuitively understand our natural pace. Our natural pace could also be described as doing the best we can, when we are doing this we are going forward and progress is being made. This is because doing our best means that we are at the full limit of our ability in this present moment and training in this way will lead to that limit being gradually opened up as we fulfil our potential to train.
Each one of us is unique and it never helps to compare ourselves, or our seeming lack of progress, with others. The scriptures tell us not to set up our own standards because the Buddha mind never judges us (or others). Judgemental thought, apart from being the result of seeing only part of the picture, tends to fix things and obscures clear sighted vision, whereas the mind of meditation looks with an attitude of open loving acceptance; what is holding this good being back, what is needed here, how can they be helped? Sometimes we seem to go forward in leaps and bounds and at others it is more gradual, like small drops of water wearing away stone. If we try to do more than we are capable of right now then not only do we flounder and become disheartened but, most importantly of all, we miss the smaller step that could have been successfully taken and would have inspired us to keep going.
Sometimes powerful feelings like fear doubt and anger, or just a sense of hopelessness arise and you may feel swamped by them. Perhaps they are more than you can sit with right now but help is at hand within the great practicality of the Buddhist way because there is always something that can be done. If you think you have tried and floundered or simply do not know where to start it is worth reflecting carefully upon what you feel you can realistically and gladly cope with on a consistent basis. Always look to see what you can do rather than worrying about what you cannot manage because the step that you can take is all you need. This could be as simple as not giving up on yourself, valuing the efforts you have made, keeping an openness to what will help you to move forward or refraining from doing things that you know are not right. It could be the occasional lighting of a candle and asking the universe to help you or keeping in touch with someone who trains. Anything that keeps open, rather than closes, the door to “going on” will increase and develop our ability to look at, understand and help ourselves in a real way.
If doing anything consistently is too much for you at the moment then just do what you can when you can, and value doing it,never miss an opportunity to give of yourself in this way because any and every movement towards resolving our confusion and doing something to connect with, instead of running from, ourselves and the heart of true insight is beyond value.
The scriptures tell us that the ways of training are thousandfold and that pure meditation must be done. ( Please refer to the section on meditation in the previous article.) If sitting daily in formal meditation is too much for you, (even one minute is of great value),then try doing it every other day or once a week (either alone or at a local group), and if you are ill you can of course meditate laying down. If you are cannot manage any formal sitting meditation at the moment don't despair. Just to want to meditate is training, it is the wish in the heart expressing itself, be glad that you can have this thought.
Meditation and practice should never become a chore, a dour drudgery. I remember someone once saying to me, “Not meditating at the end of the day is just another thing to feel bad about”. True practice works in harmony with our humanity, not in opposition to it. At the end of a long day you can take Refuge whilst sinking into a hot bath. As you give yourself to the water in the bath so you can lower the eyes, turn the gaze within and yield to the 'water of the spirit', the flow of meditation, within you own being. Even if you do not feel able to formally meditate just letting all thoughts fall away and being fully one with the water is an expression of gratitude and training which can connect us with the Refuge, or relaxing into a favourite armchair, with eyes resting on the ground, gently breath out the tensions of the day, let go of all that has gone before and “just be” within the eternal heartbeat of inner reflection.
If you feel particularly tense or distressed breath slowly and deeply for a few minutes, letting the air fill your lungs, then pause for a moment between the exhalation and inhalation, letting thoughts fall away like melted snow slides off a roof. Have a gentle and caring attitude towards yourself, as you feel body and mind beginning to settle say “I come for Refuge” or whatever short statement of faith feels natural to you, then rest in the heart of those words, open to all that they have to offer you, and let your breathing find its natural rhythm. How we approach something conditions its outcome, a gentle and simple activity like this is of great value in itself and can also help those who feel frazzled at the end of a long day to effortlessly move onto their meditation bench for a few moments as naturally as water flows from one container to another.
Contemplative activity is compassionate and wise, it works fore not against us. We sometimes need to put in a little effort to give ourselves the opportunity of seeing both that this is so and that rather than being a chore it is what we really want to do because it is so helpful. Something that begins by being an effort, an act of will, a choice, eventually becomes effortless because training is not something we do, it is our natural way of being. No one who has found that rooted place of stillness and lives in a way where the life of Buddha Nature can express itself through and as their life would ever want to go back to being the way they were. So there is a great deal at stake here and any movement at all towards living from stillness rather than from agitation is a gift to oneself and all beings.
Here are some more suggestions of simple, easy to follow ways that can provide both a starting point for those who are struggling to establish a practice and, for those who are already sitting regularly, a means of maintaining a steady grounded contact with the heart of the Refuge throughout a busy working day. I have used them all at different times and many have become a integral and natural part of my daily life. We are all different and if you do not feel drawn to any of them maybe they will inspire you to find other practical ways that work for you. What matters is that we make the effort, the choice, to think, act, live in a way that will transform our lives. The ways of training are limitless but our time on this planet is not.
Asking for help is such a simple and deeply profound act yet we often forget to do it or don't see the value of it. You can begin ( and end ) the day by taking a moment to stand up straight with vigour, the feet firmly connecting with the ground, hands together palm to palm in the gassho, and say with all your heart, “ I take my Refuge in the Buddha, I take my Refuge in the Dharma, I take my Refuge in the Sangha. Please help me, thank you” This takes about one minute, it is an act which both offers oneself and opens the heart. It expresses our willingness to learn and change, faith that we can and gratitude for all that is given to us. It connects us with the Refuge and enables us to start living our day from the pure place, the still centre in the midst of all conditions. It is an exquisite thing to do.
To be effective this, like all the other suggestions, needs to be done wholeheartedly, with ones whole being, not halfheartedly with the radio on or whilst part of us is thinking about something else. If you live in a family unit or do not have an altar or a private place to do this it can be done in the bathroom as part of your morning routine, perhaps after you have brushed your teeth. Face the mirror thinking of it as the great jewelled mirror of meditation, and say it looking yourself straight in the eye. Buddha is everywhere, this whole world is our training ground and the meditation hall is within us, there are no limits, just find what works for you and your situation.
If there is a lot of fear or despair, or you feel you are in a rut, or just have a longing to deepen your training doing sets of three full bows one or two times a day is very helpful. This can be done before a Buddha statue or in any private space. Begin by standing up straight, hands palm to palm, then kneel on the ground, touching the floor with your forehead and raise the hands, with palms open wide, above your head. It is said that whilst bowing lasts Buddhism lasts and when there is no more bowing there is no more Buddhism. This is a profound act which makes much possible, it opens up our ability to both give and receive. It cannot all be intellectually understood or explained, nor does it need to be, indeed a religious journey takes us beyond what we think we know. Doing it with sincerity takes us beyond the world of knowing and into the heart of becoming, it reaffirms and reassures us that there is that upon which we can rely and that help is flowing towards us. We often turn away because of doubt in the form of fear of what may be within us, and this simple act can reassure us that there is nothing within us that does not have the heart of Buddha.
If you feel too frightened frazzled or exhausted to meditate and are someone who relates to visual things you could try lighting a candle in front of a Buddha statue or an image that you find to be serene and beautiful, then relax in a comfortable chair and let you eyes rest upon the image in the same way that they would rest upon the floor if you were meditating.( This is not to be confused with any sort of visualisation technique that other schools of Buddhism may practice. Buddhism uses iconography because these lovely images can have a direct and profound effect upon us.) One of our scriptures says,”When we enter into the truth the truth enters into us”, just simply looking at a statue and drinking in its strength and serenity can be as this, it can have a calming effect upon body and mind and convey a sense of loving acceptance and reassurance that we are not struggling on alone. Buddha Nature longs for that which is IT'S own, and this is a way of letting in the help that is constantly flowing towards us.
Any simple everyday action, can be used as a way of connecting with the internal meditation hall, the place within us that holds our true wish and is ever ready to help us to live from it. For example whenever you get into your car you could pause for a moment, relax into the seat, feel how it supports you, think that just as this vehicle will take me where I need to go so will the wish in my heart to train, then lower the eyes as in meditation and, just for a few seconds, let everything fall away and “just be” before driving off and continuing with your day.
As you enter your place of work you can make a silent offering of yourself, having a willingness to give all that you can. Sometimes we withhold what we could give thinking that we are protecting ourselves or our rights, but actually we are just walling in the fear and anxiety and depriving ourselves of an opportunity to step into and become part of the boundless heart of Buddha. To withhold what you could give is a choice that results in feelings of loneliness and isolation from others. Look to see how you can serve others and help to make everyone around you a success in their own way. So often we desperately search for freedom from fear and peace of mind but when we give of ourselves in a pure way they will find us.
Generosity of spirit does not make us door mats for others to walk on or to use in unreasonable ways, instead it gives us a selfless confidence that is of the heart, so when we need to say no or ask if changes can be made we are able to do so in the right way, without fear or anger, and the outcome is generally more satisfactory.
Those who work on their own may find it helpful to have an altar or a favourite Buddha image near them. In a crowded office where you don't want to attract attention to yourself look for anything that can be the means of connecting you with the heart of the meditation, with the wish in your heart. We call it training because we voluntarily choose to actively help ourselves to cease from being driven by the pain and confusion within us and the forms of the practice are there to help us to do this, they point us towards and connect us with wisdom, ( clear insight) and compassion, ( helpful instead of destructive activity).
If you get pulled off centre during the working day take one activity that will be a time of letting go and just being. This could be going up and down stairs. As you approach the stairs lower the eyes and let all thoughts of who you are or where you are, what you have just done or are about to do, fall away and just be fully with the activity of walking. This means you will neither rush nor dawdle but will move in a way where body and mind are in unison, your feet are connecting fully with each step and your heartbeat is in harmony with your breathing. This happens naturally when our awareness is in the hara, ( the internal meditation hall) and is not something you need worry about. As you leave the stairs raise your eyes and engage fully, with energy and vigour, in your working day.
You could also pause for a moment at intervals throughout the day and look out of the window. There is a difference between daydreaming or mental distraction and letting the eyes rest in the vastness of the sky. The limitless nature of the heart is the same as the nature of the universe and letting go and yielding to the Refuge can be inspired by the sky as much as by a statue.
Being kept waiting on the telephone or in a supermarket queue are moments that are given to us throughout the day when we can lower the eyes, let go and turn within. This can be especially valuable for those who are working with anger and frustration, it is an opportunity to be still with minor irritability and explore how close is the connection between faith and patience.
All of our senses are gates through which the wish in our hearts to train can be called forth. The sound of a bird singing can be as the ringing of the bell calling us to meditation, to that place which is beyond birth and death, the stillness within the midst of work, traffic, family life and all activities.
For those who do not feel ready to attend a meditation group or a retreat listening to a recorded Dharma talk can develop a sense of connection with both our true wish and the monastic sangha. The words of a Dharma talk flow out of the heart of stillness and in through our ears and are heard on many different levels. As well as the thoughts and reactions we are aware of our karma and all that lays within us waiting to awaken “hears” and responds. Trust, both in oneself and others, can gradually unfold. Sometimes we see or hear the heart of Buddha within another being without realising that we are also seeing it in ourselves, for these seemingly different things are really one and the same.
We live in a book culture and most people with an interest in Buddhism like to read about it. A helpful way to do so is to sit up straight ( not slouched ) in a relaxed way, with the feet flat on the floor, ( rather than crossing ones legs), and to take a moment to let the mind clear and settle. As you begin reading let the eyes rest upon the words, as they would rest upon the floor when you meditate then the words can flow into the depths of your being, so every part of you can absorb them. Don't rush, the words need time to be digested. If your eyes are drawn back to reread something, or you want to pause and reflect upon a line let yourself be guided by that inclination. When we read in this way the the natural focus of attention is within our abdomen rather than in our heads and if the words call forth a memory or an aspect of our lives we can pause and let that unfold.
Probably the most powerful and effect way of grounding oneself in the heart of stillness throughout the day is to simply give your full attention, with body and mind together, concentrating on the activity of the moment. When this deeply profound practice is followed there is no way that we cannot go forward in our training because it will deepen our awareness and free us from the tangle of mental confusion that can run us ragged. If doing this all day is too stressful, ( stressful because awareness opens our eyes to things within and about ourselves that we do not always find easy to accept), rather than giving up, try doing it for one hour a day, then, when you are ready, you can add another hour, perhaps later in the day, and go on from there.
When someone has been part of our sangha for years but feels they are not getting anywhere it is often because there is an aspect of the training that is not being put into practice. If we go to a doctor who prescribes medication we will not get better by just carrying it around in our pocket, knowing it is there is not enough, it must be taken. The same is true of training. Because we have heard the words so many times it is all too easy to dismiss them so going back to the basics, with sincerity and humility, is a noble and beneficial act. Finding a trusted senior monastic you feel comfortable talking to can also be of great help.
If you know you are suffering and are drawn to Buddhism but something in you is not ready to start following the practice then just to maintain a connection with the Buddha Dharma and Sangha, in any way you can, is training and will keep the way forward open. Karma, in varying form of distress and anxiety,will keep presenting expressing itself within our life and sometimes things will have to get worse before we are ready to help ourselves in a real way. Suffering alerts us to a need, the part of us that knows we are suffering is seeing clearly, one day we will be ready to be guided by that clarity, and then we will find that the practice and our spiritual friends are right there, ready and glad to help us.
Practice shakes things loose and helps us to open our eyes and see aspects of ourselves in a new way and this can be difficult and challenging, but it also surprises us, by showing us that we are capable of doing much more than we thought we could. In time we come to see what a lonely tight little world we used to live in and as the limitless vastness of the heart draws us ever closer and help flows in from every quarter, our willingness to “let go”, listen deeply, and be guided by our wish to train is confirmed again and again.
Buddhism opens everything up and washes away all obstacles showing us that this whole world is our training ground, the meditation hall is within us and if we want to resolve our confusion and find and fulfil our purpose in life WE CAN. To be able to see and know this for ourselves we have to start somewhere, and we can start with the choice to take one small step.
Rev Master Myoho Harris
This article is copyrighted to Rev Master Myoho Harris of The Place of Peace Dharma House. You are welcome to download it for your own private use. For permission to reprint or use all or any part of it in any other way please contact Rev Master Myoho via P.O.Box 207, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, Wales, SY23 1WY. Thank you.