Conversations on the Convergence of Buddhism, Technology, and Global Culture

BG 191: Living as a River

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Episode Description:

Bodhipaksa is a teacher from the Triratna Buddhist Community, formerly the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. He joins us this week to explore the Buddhist teachings on impermanence and “change blindness.” We also explore one of the central practices that he teaches, called the 6-elements practice—one of the primary methods found in the earliest strata of Buddhist teachings. Finally, we explore the importance of enlightenment in his teaching, what is traditionally called stream-entry, but which he refers to as “entry-level enlightenment.”

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Transcript:

Vincent: Hello, Buddhist geeks, this is Vincent Horn, and I’m joined today, over Skype, with Bodhipaksa. Bodhipaksa, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. I know that you’ve actually tuned in to Buddhist Geeks before, and I’ve been following you on Twitter. So, it’s really cool to connect with someone that’s kind of plugged in to what we’re doing here at Buddhist Geeks.

Bodhipaksa: Thank you, I’m a big admirer.

Vincent: Cool. Thank you. I just wanted to say a little bit about your background, and this is sort of new for me. Even though I studied Buddhism in college, I knew very little about the order that you’re connected with, and that’s currently called Triratna Buddhist Community. It was formerly known as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. You were telling me before the interview that the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order is not a community that’s really that popular in America, but that it’s huge in other areas.

Bodhipaksa: Yes, it’s very large in Britain, in particular, it’s possibly the largest. It’s certainly one of the three largest Buddhist movements there.

Vincent: Nice. What was the deal with the shifting the name from the Western Buddhist Order to this Triratna Community?

Bodhipaksa: Well the Western Buddhist Order and Friends of the Western Buddhist Order started in London in the 1960s. It was initiated by a Buddhist monk who was from England who’d been practicing in India for 20 years. He came back and decided, for various reasons, to set up a new kind of Buddhist movement. He wanted, specifically, to set up something that addressed the Western condition. He didn’t think that either of the two main forms of Buddhism that were around in Britain in the mid-60s were particularly appropriate. There was monastic Buddhism, and there was kind of “hobby Buddhism.” People going to evening classes and learning about Buddhism but not really thinking of it in terms of a life-changing practice.

So he decided to start something that wasn’t monastic but was full on. Initially, actually, he called the movement Friends of the Western Sangha, renamed it, shortly afterwards, to Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, as that meant more to some people. But it’s grown since then. It started off in a little basement in London, and we now have a lot of order members, about a third of the Order, I believe, is in India. We have other members in Australia, in New Zealand, and a couple of people in Russia as well. Pitching yourself as being Western when you’re in those places doesn’t really work very well.

Vincent: Right.

Bodhipaksa: So, a name was picked, which is more universal. Triratna means the “three jewels,” of course, of the Buddha dharma and sangha. So we have a name that’s in Sanskrit and can be related to wherever you are.

Vincent: Nice. It sounds like this is a more progressive, looking it from the point of view of sort of spectrum of conservative to progressive, in the Buddhist tradition. So I think this is highly progressive type of movement.

Bodhipaksa: Definitely not conservative, more experimental. We have a lot of women order members. They’ve been smaller in numbers than the men, for example. Of course, as you know, in traditional Theravada Buddhism, in most forms of traditional Theravada Buddhism, there is no full ordination for women, so we’re progressive in that kind of regard. The women are catching up, actually. They’re going to be overtaking the men in a few years, I understand.

Vincent: I wanted to talk with you today about some of the things that you’ve written in a book that’s coming out right around now, which is “Living As a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change.” This book is coming out through Sounds True, where I worked for a few years, and your name definitely came up a lot while I was there.

I just wanted to say, first, that I really enjoyed reading it. It just flowed in a way that was really pleasant to read. I think it was the ideas, too, were very accessible. I’m thinking now, as you describe the Triratna Community, that there’s a connection here between the way that the ideas sort of just made sense immediately to my Western mind. Yeah, so I just wanted to thank you for that, because it’s not always common to read a book that’s both profound and also is really accessible and easy to read.

Bodhipaksa: Thank you very much.

Vincent: Yeah. I wanted to speak with you about one of the ideas that seem really central to the book, and of course, is central to the Buddhist tradition, which is the teachings on non-self. Could you say a little bit about why the teachings on non-self, or person permanence, are so central, so important in the way you talk about things?

Bodhipaksa: Well sure. I guess, the teaching of non-self or not-self is absolutely central to Buddhism. It’s seen as being one of the core delusions that we need to overcome if we want to achieve a deeper level of happiness and well-being. The idea that we have a separate and permanent self seems to be burned up with a lot of fear and confusion. It leads to defensiveness and to acquisition, a kind of overinvestment in materiality and then things like status, etc. So, it seems to be something that we really have to work at.

Vincent: There’s one piece where you talk about the mind and the brain and how we’re sort of wired for what’s called “change blindness.” What’s the deal with that concept, because that’s something that I found was a kind of a unique way of looking at this whole thing?

Bodhipaksa: Sure. Well, I try to think of some of the reasons for why we think we do have separate and permanent selves because we tend to, almost all of us, have this idea that “Yes, I am separate. There’s this boundary between me and the rest of the world, and I don’t really change that much.” Even if we can’t, exactly put our finger on it, even if we’ve seen a lot of change in ourselves, we think that there’s something permanent within ourselves. So, I try to look at some of the reasons for why is that we might overlook the change that is actually taking place in our experience. One very interesting thing that psychologists have been looking at is what’s called “change blindness.”

I describe a really interesting experiment in the book where people were invited to participate in a psychological experiment. They didn’t know exactly what the nature of the psychological experiment was when they were signing up. All they knew was that they had to turn up like it’s, for example, the fourth floor of the Psychology building in Harvard. They would be asked a few questions. So, you walked in, you got your letter saying that you’ve been invited to participate in the project. There’s somebody behind the desk who asks to see your letter and say a few words about what you’re going to be doing. You’re going to be going down the coordor here, take the second door on the left, but I need to give you this packet, first of all. He ducks behind the desk, stands up again, hand you the packet, and you go on your way. Most people, something like 80% of people don’t notice that the person who stood up with the packet was not the same person who ducks down behind the desk to get the packet, in the first place. [Laughter] They didn’t look alike, they weren’t dressed the same. They were of different heights, they had different hairstyles, they had different facial features. That’s a lot of change not to notice.

Vincent: That’s incredible.

Bodhipaksa: Some people noticed it, about 20% of people, I think, did notice it, but the vast majority of people don’t. It seems that we’re just not very good picking up on change. There’s various theories, I think, for why that is.

The brain can’t really process very much information at one time, so when you’re suddenly there in front of the desk and you’re busy thinking about all kinds of things, like, “Did he say the second door on the left or did he say the right? Am I going to get paid? I wonder what the questions are going to be like.” So, your mind is already kind of half-full of stuff. There’s not really enough mental space, as it were, to pick up on some other things.

So, we just end up screening out a lot of change. There’s a lot of the experiments like this being done actually. One of the most fascinating ones which I did was watching a video of people passing a basketball back and forth. You had to kind of how often the people dressed in white passed the ball to each other. What you didn’t notice until you watch the video again, that somebody dressed in a gorilla costume walked right through in the middle of the basketball court during the game. You just don’t see, you just don’t notice it. It’s hard to believe you wouldn’t, but it’s not.

Vincent: It’s amazing. I mean, I’ve heard about the gorilla experiment before, and I just couldn’t believe it. Yet, it seems really clear that, in fact, people didn’t see the gorilla.

Bodhipaksa: I think one thing that happens is that we just kind of label our experience. We have this kind of crude wordless labels almost. So, the guy behind the desk is just the guy behind the desk. We don’t need to know anymore about the guy behind the desk. If he was somebody who we thought we might need to remember, then we might put some energy into really noticing his facial features of how he was dressed or whatever. But, he’s just the guy behind the desk. So, that label suffices, it’s almost like an icon that’s there, and we just continue on our way.

I’ve tried to integrate this into my meditation teaching, because I realize that the brain has a limited capacity for bandwidth. Our short-term memory, for example, can only usually hold about 5-7 things. There’s not really that many things that we can pay attention to at one time. So, what happens when you’re sitting, meditating just following your breath, is very often that a lot of thoughts are coming up and you start paying attention to those thoughts. And I found that, if you, as it were, choke the bandwidth of your mind by just paying a lot of attention to a lot of different stimuli at the same time, then you enter a state of a kind of open, expansive awareness, where there’s basically no room for thinking anymore. You’ve taken up all of your bandwidth. It’s a bit like there’s a bandwidth hog using your wireless internet connection, and everything’s going really slowly. That’s normally a bad thing, but here what we’re talking about going slowly is the discursive thinking that’s connected with stress and anxiety and irritability and wanting things. There’s no room for that anymore, so all we do is just notice our experience.

Vincent: And this is something that is really counterintuitive to the normal way of walking around, and I wanted to talk with you about one of the main practices that you present in the book, which is the Six Element practice. Could you say a little bit about where that practice comes from, and then also it’d be fun to get into how it works and how it’s related to what we’ve been talking about.

Bodhipaksa: Sure. It’s a practice that is found in the earliest strata of Buddhist teachings–that is the Pali Canon–and it’s found in a text called the “Middle Length Sayings.” And, it is a practice of reflection on impermanence and non-self. In a way it’s kind of a non-duality practice, because what we’re doing is we take each of the elements in turn, and the elements are: the Earth element, which is everything solid, both within ourselves and outside of ourselves; the water element, which is everything liquid within ourselves and outside; the fire element, which, outside of ourselves, is represented in terms of energy, and within ourselves is represented in terms of the energy that’s involved in life or living metabolism. There’s the space element, which is the space that contains our body, and the space outside of ourselves, and there’s the consciousness element, which is a bit different.

What we do, for example, with the Earth element, is we start off by reflecting on the Earth element that constitutes the body, so you become aware of everything that’s solid within your body, and you can do that in two ways. You can do that experientially by just accessing your experience of the body right now. You can feel some solid parts of the body. Your hands are in contact with each other, for example, or your feet are in contact with the floor, or your butt is in contact with your meditation cushion, or whatever you’re sitting on.

So you can feel some of the solidity, but the practice also encourages us to use our imaginations and connect with what we know is there and is solid. So, I can’t sense my kidneys and my liver, for example, or even my bones, except where they’re making contact with something, but I become aware that all of that solid matter is there.

You reflect on the solid matter outside of yourself, so having reflected on solid matter that constitutes you, you reflect on the solid matter that constitutes what you normally think of as being “other.” So you’re calling to mind all the solid matter in the outside world–the Earth itself, all the rocks, the soil, the plants, buildings, other beings, etc.

And then you’re reflecting that these two things are not separate. So, you can reflect, for example, on how everything that is within you, everything that is solid within you, has come from the outside world, and we don’t tend to think of this very much. We’re vaguely aware of the fact that we’re eating, and that’s solid matter, and it’s going to be incorporated into the body, but when you start thinking about it, there’s not a single molecule in your body that is completely self-generated. There’s not a single atom which you’ve created. It all comes from outside. Even when you were born–or before you were born–when you were conceived, you started off as being a cell from your father, sperm, a cell from your mother, an egg. They weren’t you; that was part of your mother, part of your father. They fuse. They start growing by absorbing the elements from the outside world, and all of that is borrowed, and that goes on through your entire life. Everything is borrowed.

And you reflect on how it’s all moving back, as well. So having reflected on how the Earth element has all come from outside of you, you reflect on how the Earth element is in a continual process of returning. So, right now, I’m exhaling carbon dioxide, which was carbohydrates, which had been part of plants in the outside world, so it’s all flowing through. I took a dump this morning, so that’s part of the Earth element returning. And losing skin cells–as I’m sitting here, hairs are falling out. So there’s all this Earth element returning to the outside world. And of course, when you die, ultimately, you give all of it back.

So, you reflect this way for the Earth element, for everything solid, for the water element, everything, liquid. I think I forgot to mention gas in the previous explanation. But the fire element, which is the energy taken from the outside world, and the air element, which I forgot to mention earlier, and is everything gaseous within the body and outside. And, you start to sense yourself not as being a thing, not as something separate and static, but you start to experience your body as being something in a process of flow. It’s like a stretch of river, which is not a thing. It’s an event, as it were. Things are flowing through.

You reflect on the space element, which in a way, it’s your appearance, which is continually changing. You reflect on the fact that all of these physical elements that we’ve been talking about have been passing through you, but this space that is you isn’t ultimately you either. It’s continually changing, and it’s also borrowed from the outside world. You don’t have any space that is just you.

So, what we’re doing is we’re looking at what we normally identify with as being ourselves, and realizing that there’s no substance there, there’s certainly nothing separate. There is nothing static.

I haven’t mentioned the consciousness element yet. That is the other thing that we identify with. We identify with our bodies, and we identify with our minds, and when we look at the consciousness element, all we see is a continuous process of change. There are various experiences coming into being, existing for a short time, and passing away again. There’s physical sensations of heat, pressure, etc. There are thoughts, feelings, emotions. They’re all arising and passing away again, so you begin to sense that, too, as being a river. And if none of these experiences that you’re having are, as it were, stuck inside you–if you’re not attached to them–if they’re not attached to you in some way, then in what sense are they actually you? You start to experience this sense of almost existential vertigo. All the attachments that you have to thinking about you are a certain way begin to get let go of.

Vincent: It sounds like, in some ways, the practice you’re describing is very similar to many types of practices, and yet there’s a difference that I’m also noticing. I’ve never done a practice quite like what you’re describing. And I was wondering, because it seems like you’re the type of person that can sort of take a step back from their own approach, if you could maybe say a little bit about what you found the strengths of this approach to be when compared to, maybe, other approaches and techniques, and also if you’ve noticed any weaknesses or limitations.

Bodhipaksa: Ok. In terms of strengths, I think it’s a very all-around practice. What I described in terms of the consciousness element, for example, is very similar to Vipassana meditation–traditional, classic insight meditation. In fact, it is traditional, classic insight meditation. But you’re also reflecting on your body, which is quite a powerful and grounded thing to do. You’re not just reflecting on your experience of sensations within the body, as you would tend to do with insight meditation, but you’re reflecting on your body as you are attached to it in your day-to-day experience.

So, I think it’s got that strength. It’s something that you can reflect on outside of meditation, of course, as well. When you’re eating, when you’re going to the bathroom, when you’re lifting the plug of hairs out of the shower and flushing it down the toilet, you can be aware of all these ramifications of what you are as a process. It does seem to be quite powerful.

On the other hand, well, that power can be unsettling for some people. When I was taught the practice, I was taught that it’s very important to do it in a metta-ful state–that is a state of mind imbued with loving-kindness. If you tried to, as it were, dismantle your sense of self when you’re not in a very positive state of mind, or if you experience self-hatred, for example, then I think that could lead to quite a disturbing and jarring experience. So it’s not a complete practice. I think it has to be combined with loving kindness practice, in particular. I’d say if it’s got a weakness, that’s it, but, in a way, it’s not really a weakness. It’s just how it is.

Vincent: Interesting. And one thing I was noticing is that there seems to be a real recognition just built in to the way that the practice is described–of this interdependence of things, that maybe is not as obvious in, for instance, some of the techniques that I’ve practiced.

Bodhipaksa: Yeah. It’s definitely a practice of reflecting on interconnectedness. It can lead to very strong experiences of the dissolving of the sense of self and other.

Vincent: Interesting. And like you’re saying, sometimes that dissolving can also be disturbing, and so there’s a way in which it’s got to be balanced by something.

Bodhipaksa: Yeah. Yeah. If you have that balance, though, if you have that sense of loving kindness so that it’s not so threatening anymore–and I have had experiences of feeling quite threatened during the practice–but if you do have that sense of confidence that comes from loving kindness, then that dissolving of the boundaries between yourself and others can be a really powerful experience. The practice leads, in fact, not to the dhyana that you often hear talked about, but to what’s often, in my opinion, erroneously called the arupa jhanas, the formless dhyanas, or higher dhyanas, which begin with a sense of the breakdown between the sense of self and other.

Vincent: Yeah, it’s interesting just the way you’re describing space and consciousness. Those are in the higher dhyanas or jhanas.

Bodhipaksa: They’re the first two.

Vincent: Yeah, they’re the first two.

Bodhipaksa: Yeah. So, the practice segues into the experience of the so-called arupa jhanas. I say that “the so-called” higher dhyanas, because it turns out you don’t have to go through the dhyanas, the four dhyanas, in order to get to the so-called higher dhyanas, and in the Pali Canon, they’re never called dhyanas; they’re called ayatanas, spheres. So I think there’s a bit of mythology built up that you have to go through the dhyanas in other to get to these so-called higher dhyanas. You can do it that way, but you don’t have to.

Vincent: Cool, I love the Buddhist Geekiness coming through right now. It’s good.

Bodhipaksa: Me too.

Vincent: [Laughs] So, to take it even to, maybe, a next level of geekiness, there was one thing that I was struck by as I was reading “Living as a River,” and that was that in some ways, when I heard you talking about non-self or writing about impermanence, there’s a way it struck me that it could be interpreted as you describing what I want to call “ontological realities”–that in some way, impermanence and not-self are true in some ultimate sense. And, as you know, this is one of the big critiques that the Madhyamaka school, and particularly Nagarjuna, were making of earlier strata teachings. And I wondered if you could say a little bit about that, because it’s something that isn’t really entirely clear in reading the book itself.

Bodhipaksa: Well, I would have hoped it was clearer than it might actually be, so maybe that’s something for the 2nd edition. No, I don’t think of impermanence and insubstantiality in a way as being ontological realities. I don’t think the Buddha really talked in terms of ontological realities at all. I think he talked about how our experience is, and I think what he was saying was that within our experience–what he called “The All”–that is, the sum totality of everything that is possible for us to experience. Within our experience, everything is changing all the time, and that there’s nothing within our experience that is permanent enough or stable enough to be able to be the basis of a separate and defined self.

So, I don’t think the Buddha really was that interested in external reality. I mean, obviously he was, in a sense; he lived in the world, but he wasn’t a scientist in the sense that he was making a statement that all fundamental particles are impermanent, for example. Even if he was aware of that concept, that wasn’t his interest. His interest was in suffering and how to get rid of suffering, and in order to address that, you have to look at the nature of our experience.

When the Buddha said everything is impermanent, I don’t think he was actually talking in terms of the world–the physical world that we inhabit. It so happens that it seems that pretty much everything does change. I believe some fundamental particles–perhaps neutrons or something–don’t, in a way, change; they don’t mutate into other particles; they don’t decay, but of course it all was moving around and interacting with other things, so there’s some kind of change there. But I don’t think that’s what the Buddha was interested in.

The Madhyamaka got–well, the Mahayana, more broadly–got kind of caught up in the same kind of trap. I mean, they ended up having to. They tended to reify Sunyata, emptiness. It tended to be seen as being a thing, and so you have Mahayana teachers who are having to say, “Well, emptiness itself is empty.” You got to keep reminding people of this, because it’s just a natural tendency to see impermanence as being a thing, and it’s not a thing, it’s just a description of the way things change. Sunyata isn’t a thing, it’s just a description of how our experiences and how our experience doesn’t constitute anything that can be taken to be an existent, permanent, separate self.

Vincent: Cool. And I guess to sort of finish up or wrap up this conversation, which has been really fascinating, I wanted to talk about, the penultimate goal in some ways, of Buddhist practice, which is enlightenment. And, one of the last chapters in your book is called Entering the Stream. You talk about stream-entry, or what you call entry-level enlightenment.

This is something that I know some teachers do talk about. And then, a lot of teaches seem to shy away from this in some way and there’s maybe not a lot of awareness of this concept, hich is actually, if you look back in the early strata like you were mentioning the Pali Canon. This stream-entry comes up all the time. So many suttas have this as a mention of, this person got stream-entry listening to the Buddha or, or doing this practice, etc. So could you say a little about stream-entry, and also, if you’ve noticed that this is something that people may shy away from in their teachings?

Bodhipaksa: Yeah I’ve noticed that there are some teachers who definitely make a point of talking about enlightenment and that enlightenment is why we’re doing practice in the first place. But when the average person comes along to a Dharma Center, usually their motivated by, something along the lines of, their life sucks. Or there’s some element of their life that sucks. There’s stress and there’s conflict with other people. And they just want to be a bit happier. So they come along and they find that there’s these tools which help them to become a bit happier, at least. I mean the tools can do a lot more than that. But, meditating makes you happier. When you’re, experiencing a bit more loving kindness, you’re a bit happier. When you learn to let go of things, you’re a bit happier. When you’re paying more attention to your experience and experiencing the freedom that comes with that, you’re a bit happier. And people I think get kind of stuck in that. It’s like, “Oh, this is okay. Yeah I’ll just keep doing my dharma practice and I’ll just keep getting a bit happier.” Buy they’re not thinking in terms of making some kind of big breakthrough in the way that they see the world. There’s this incremental change that they’re bringing about in their mental state. But they’re, not fundamentally challenging the way that they see the world.

And I think even teachers can get caught up in that. I have, in the past. Several years ago I was talking with some fellow practitioners and teachers. And saying, “You know I realize I don’t think about enlightenment very much. [laughing] Do you guys think about it? Do you talk about it? Do you teach about it?” And everyone kind of sat there and realized, “Well actually we, we don’t.”

So I started making it a point, and this was probably about seven or eight years ago, I started making a point of being more up front about why we were doing dharma practice in the first place. And, thinking more in terms of aiming at stream-entry. And, in a way I had always thought about that. It was in the back of my mind. But it wasn’t so much a kind of, conscience goal. More something I assumed would just happen at some time.

Vincent: Interesting. And I’m wondering, do you think to some degree with teachers that there’s a way in which the path has become so integrated into their own lives and so normal in a certain sense, that it becomes, weird to think about those sort of things? Or not natural in some way, to think about that in terms of their own experience, but it might be, in some ways, really important for someone who’s just starting on the path? Do you think that’s a possible explanation for why you and those teachers weren’t sort of talking about it that much?

Bodhipaksa: I’m not really sure. I think there’s a number of things going on. One is that we have a tendency, I think because of, a lack of self worth, and because of the nature of our delusions, whereby we think we have separate and permanent selves. We tend to think that spiritual goals are very far away. My own teacher, the founder of the Western Buddhist Order, Sangharakshita, he’s talked about stream-entry a lot. Which is why I said it’s always been in the back of my mind, at the very least. And, he said stream-entry is attainable in this lifetime. If you do a good few years of solid, dharma practice, you can take it for granted that you’ll, at some point, reach stream-entry. And so stream-entry becomes the goal. So there’s a lot of people in the Triratna Buddhist Order, who talk about stream-entry and think about it, as the next goal. But it becomes kind of, elevated. In the same way that the Buddha’s attainment has become kind of elevated, it’s almost out of our reach.

The Mahayana did this a lot. They took the goal of the Buddha, of Buddhahood, and said, “You’ve got to practice for innumerable lifetimes. You’re going have to practice for hundreds of thousands of lifetimes in order to get enlightened. And the Buddha has all these amazing cosmic qualities and he can create entire universes and all this kind of thing.” The Buddha seems so far away. He’s remote. Totally remote.

And people start doing something similar with stream-entry. They start thinking of stream-entry as being, well it’s basically enlightenment isn’t it? And if you’re enlightened you’re basically perfect. So somebody who’s a stream-enterer is going be completely sorted. And it becomes another attainable goal. It’s a goal that’s been put in front of us and we’ve been told, “You can do this.” And we say “no, I don’t think so, not now, maybe sometime in the future.” That to me I think is the main reason that stream-entry gets pushed off is because well, we don’t think that we’re worthy, we think that there’s something inside of us that’s fundamentally flawed that’s going stop us from getting there, and so we make it unattainable.

Vincent: Interesting. And could you talk a little bit about why entering the stream is important; maybe kind of what it is, if it’s something that you can talk about.

Bodhipaksa: Okay. Why it’s important. Well, in the terms that the Pali Cannon uses, that is I think we can assume are the terms the Buddha used, there are a number of fetters holding us back. These are delusions and attachments that stand between us and full enlightenment, full Buddhahood. And if we break the first three of those we’re what’s called a stream enterer–we break the fetter of having a fixed and separate self, we break the fetter of doubt, and we break the fetter of dependence upon practices or inappropriate dependence on practices.

And all three of those are broken more or less simultaneously. I believe the teaching is they’re broken simultaneously, but I don’t know if you necessarily can experience them simultaneously. I think they’ll tend to be experienced in consecutive terms. And there’s just a breaking of a fundamental core delusion that there is something a separate and fixed about you. And that’s a liberating experience. When that core delusion dissipates and you realize everything that constitutes your experience is just changing all the time, and there is nothing else. There’s no hidden baggage that’s holding you back. Obviously, there’s the psychological baggage that holds us back and we have to transform, and dig up, and work with, and transform, but there’s nothing fundamentally holding you back from enlightenment. There’s an enormous sense of confidence, which emerges, which replaces the doubt.

Another thing that happens, which is related to the third fetter, is that you realize this is all actually very simple. When we’re caught up in the third fetter of inappropriate dependence upon religious practices, that tends to get caught up with our lack of self confidence. So, we think well, we need some special teaching, we need some special teacher in order to get enlightenment. We need to be doing something else from what we’re doing, so we perhaps wander restlessly from practice to practice, or we do our daily practice in a kind of semi-despondent way because we know it’s not really taking us all the way yet, and there’s an element of doubt involved in that.

But really what the Buddha was saying was something really simple. Look at your experience, right now. It’s changing all the time. It’s continually changing. All you have to do is look, and you’ll see that it’s continually changing all the time. There is no basis for a fixed, separate, permanent self.

And what tends to happen of course, with practices is that we talk about them, and think about them, and we sometimes over think things. An image I sometimes find myself using, a slightly absurd one, is that stream-entry is a bit like the Buddha having said, “Look, there’s a big pink elephant floating in the sky. Look at it.” And everyone says, “Wow, the Buddha says there’s a big pink elephant floating in the sky, I wonder what this elephant is like? I wonder how big this elephant is?” And then you get all the schools of thought about the big pink elephant, about whether it’s closer to being white, or closer to being red, etc., etc. So we talk about practice, we talk about impermanence. Ayya Khema can make the point we sometimes talk about impermanence so much that we forget to look and see that every experience that we’re having right now in this moment is impermanence.

Yeah, it’s actually really simple in the end. Just look, just see, notice that everything is changing all the time. At some point you’ll get it. At some point it’s going to click and you’re going realize that yeah, everything I’m experiencing is completely impairment. There’s no basis for a fixed separate me.

Author

Bodhipaksa

Bodhipaksa was born Graeme Stephen in Scotland and currently lives and teaches in New Hampshire. He is a Buddhist teacher and author who has been practicing within the Triratna Buddhist Community since 1982, and he has been a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order since 1993. Bodhipaksa runs the online meditation center Wildmind to increase awareness of the positive effects of meditation. Website: Bodhipaksa.com