Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The "Ouch" Teaching

In his essay "The Test of Truth" (Best Buddhist Writing, 2004, originally published in the Fall 2003 issue of Tricycle), Larry Rosenberg offers this Chinese teaching story.

People came from far and wide to hear the dharma talks of a young teacher. Apparently he had some depth. And one day, an old master came to hear him. He sat in the back of the meditation hall while the young teacher was giving a dharma talk. But the young teacher saw him, and out of respect, knowing that he was a renowned teacher and also much older, said, "Please, come up here, sit next to me while I give my talk." So the old master rose and sat next to him. The young teacher resumed his talk, and every other word was a quotation from a different sutra or Zen master. The old master started to nod off in front of everyone. And the young teacher could see this out of the corner of his eye, but he just continued. The more authorities he cited, the sleepier the old master became. Finally, the young teacher couldn't stand it anymore, so he asked, "What's wrong? Is my teaching so boring, so awful, so totally off?" At that point, the old master leaned over and gave him a very hard pinch and the young teacher screamed, "Ouch!" The old master said, "Ah! That's what I've come all this way for. This pure teaching. This 'ouch' teaching."

Rosenberg offers this story within the context of his article focusing on the Kalama Sutta, which details a conversation between the Kalamas and the Buddha. The Kalamas ask tough questions about claims of various teachings to be the one true teaching. The Buddha responds that self-knowledge is the only valid test of a teaching's truth.

Rosenberg's argument, and the teaching story he offers, are relevant in my life right now, and maybe for other readers, as well. I love books, and I have a tendency to rely on reading as my primary means of acquiring knowledge. The Buddha would likely permit such study as a viable means of practice, but he would surely argue that the teachings I read must be confirmed or rejected through experience.

The mind tends to think it can study its way to enlightenment. Perhaps this is just another manifestation of ego. By definition, however, formlessness and nondual awareness transcend the capabilities of the rational mind.

I rely far too much on my rational mind. I need an old master sitting beside me to pinch me and remind me that direct experience is the only path to truth. I want to live in the moment of direct experience as much as humanly possible. I won't give up my studies, but I will make a greater effort to meditate regularly.

Being with the breath is one of the basic mind-training techniques, and also one of the most effective. I am going to make an effort to work on simply being with the breath in my practice. No more mantras or visualizations--nothing other than bringing awareness back to the breath over and over and over again.

But meditation is only a small part of daily life. I am also going to focus on being more present in everything I do during the day. If I am eating, I will eat as though nothing else exists. When I am training clients, my clients will be the only reality. When I am with my girlfriend, she will be the focus of my attention. This is a lofty goal, I know. However, it is the intent and the practice of bringing consciousness back into the moment that matters the most. I will seldom be as present as I want to be, but I am going to hold the intent.

We all spend so much time in our head. The truth does not reside in our head alone. We must cultivate the "ouch" teaching--a direct, unmediated experience of reality.
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