If you hang around spiritual endeavor long enough, maybe you will think, as I do, that all of us who take up practice are sometimes like a bunch of dogs circling some fire hydrant.
“Oh,” we may say, “the Dharma is like this” or “compassion is like that;” “enlightenment is like this” or “ignorance is like that.” It’s all pretty good encouragement, I suppose, if it nourishes a willingness to actually practice.
But what a lot of words, don’t you think? Who doesn’t want to be happy? Who doesn’t want to clarify the matter of suffering?Which one of us would not take a piece of that action? And so we circle as others have circled before us. Round and round the hydrant. Holy books, holy places, spiritual relics, spiritual activities. Many mistakes, many regrets all duly noted. It’s good, of course, but maybe there is some wondering as well … when, exactly, will I give my consent … just shut up and take a piss.
When I was young, Buddhism was generally regarded somewhat this way - a "naval gazing". The question that quite frequently troubles me is: Has the way the buddhism has established itself in the West done enough, or even much, to dispal this.
There is a value in introspective consciousness watching. It can bring its triumphs and frustrations just like any other activity, as recorded, for instance, by Dukkha Earl on Scribbler Sangha (3/3/05). It is an exercise that can cultivate a degree of calm and mental stability. There is a danger, however, that the pursuit of calm and stability go too far. We should not be too stable or too calm. It is appropriate that the world disturb us. A person who is undisturbed by what goes on in this world is not a noble ideal, simply insensitive. Calm and stability are not ends in themselves. If they are used for good, then they are themselves good, but the perfecting of an ability does not in itself ensure that that ability is then rightly used.
In the Sallekha Sutta (MN8) the Buddha talks about the right practice of sallekha, sometimes translated as effacement. First he details the various degrees of meditative attainment. Then, after each, he says, "these attainments are not called sallekha in the Noble One's discipline, they are called peaceful abidings." He goes on to say what sallekha really is: "Though others will be cruel, we shall not be cruel... Though others will kill, we shall not kill... Though other will take what is not given, we shall not do so..." He says that the inclination of mind toward wholesome things is good; verbal and bodily actions better. It is very clear in this sutta that mind training is not an end in itself - it has a purpose and that purpose is ethical action, both bodily and verbal. Much the same can be said for conceptual understanding. It is useful if it does actually lead to applied ethics.