There is a statue of the Buddha in my living room, it is part of a small altar that I set up to remind myself of my practice. A small statue of a laughing Buddha sits next to it to remind myself not to take myself too seriously. It is a decoration and it looks beautiful but, it is mainly a statement I have made to myself about the meditation path I have decided to commit to. The serenity transpiring from the Buddha statue and the laughter shown by the laughing Buddha are very inspiring in my life.
When I joined Zenways, little I knew about Buddhism. Now, 3 years after, I can’t really remember what I knew about Buddhism back then. Let me try to remember. One thing I knew was that the Dalai Lama was the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. I remember to have always loved his smile and the fact that this smile appeared to be different from the smile I had seen in other religion leaders. That was, at least, the way I perceived it. I also knew that Buddhism was a very peaceful religion and that I also liked very much because I have never liked certain kind of mindless confrontations. I also knew that Buddhism was very popular in Asia and, in all honesty, I didn’t know of any Buddhist centres in Italy (now I know there are many). However, one thing I knew about Italy and Buddhism is that the most popular Italian football player was/is a Buddhist practitioner, Roberto Baggio. I always admired Roberto Baggio as a football player but never tried to find out why he became a Buddhist. Baggio’s football career was marked by the many physical injuries he had. However, despite the seriousness of the injuries, he always came back to do what he loved the most, playing football. I remember him to say that practising meditation and Buddhism played a major part in all these difficult comebacks he had. Now, Baggio’s perseverance and desire to come back after every time he fell, reminds me of the Japanese proverb “Nana korobi, ya oki” which means “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.” I learned myself, in these years of practising meditation, how to allow ‘failures’, hardship and difficulties into my life and my practice and how, in spite of that, to just keep going, just stand up one more time and pick it up once again. Resilience, perseverance and discipline are some of the characteristics that the practice of meditation develops and strengthens. Now, going back to what I knew about Buddhism, when I first met my-then-future-wife, she told me about her connection to Buddhism. First of all, she is from Vietnam which is what we can consider a Buddhist country. Secondly, her grandfather was a Buddhist monk so she had that direct connection to this religion or practice. Despite this connection, we never really got to speak in ‘depth’ about Buddhism. We have always spoken about spirituality and meditation in general but never specifically about Buddhism. So, in other words, when I joined Zenways and I started my journey with Buddhism I started from zero. Well, after all, where else one can start a journey if not from 0 anyway?
After joining Zenways, I started reading books on Buddhism, I watched videos, I went through all of Daizan’s talks and little by little I became more acquainted with the Buddhist practice and philosophy. What became evident from the beginning was the fact that I didn’t have to believe anything in particular; there was not a God to worship and there were not strict rules to follow. I, alone, would take responsibility for my practice and for the way I would conduct my life. I didn’t have to confess my sins, I didn’t have to pray to obtain forgiveness, I didn’t have to rely on someone else to go to heaven or to hell. I was doing this on my own. After a few months, I took the Buddhist precepts which I will talk about in another post. The contrast with Catholicism which is the religion of my youth was very clear. Somehow, in Catholicism the attention goes outwards, towards God. With Buddhism, the attention goes inwards, towards oneself. ‘Turn the light and make it shine inward’, is one of the meditation instructions I heard a few times. Learn about yourself and see whether that learning can make you become a better and more useful person. It became very apparent how Buddhism was not really a religion as one might conventionally think of one. Buddhism is more an exploration into the human conditions, more particularly, the mental conditions. It is an exploration into what conditions us to act, behave, react and move about in our life in the way we do. And, after seeing what conditions us more and more clearly for ourselves, we can start working on developing healthier ways of living peacefully with ourselves and with others. Personally, in these few years of practice, I got to understand why I just shy away from certain situations, why I have prejudices, why I get nervous when exposed to certain people or situations, why I get upset, angry and so on and so forth. Buddhism, for me, has been an exploration into seeing clearly the reality of my own conditions and, into seeing how these conditions can be transformed for my own benefit and for the benefit of all. I really found this very fascinating. My life has been transformed into an experiment where everything becomes a situation to explore. Life like a laboratory where I devote my time to experiment in order to find the best possible me. But how this exploration starts?
The start is in the first teaching of the Buddha, life is suffering. That sounds a bit harsh and very naturally, I wanted to understand what the Buddha meant by that. After all, my life is what I would consider a happy life; I have all I need to have to live a very decent and satisfying life. So, what is this suffering that the Buddha is talking about? The first thing that the Buddha refers to, in my understanding, is the contrast between how life really is and how the mind would, many times, desire it to be. Talking personally, I can frequently observe a flow of thoughts, ideas, perceptions and so on that are geared towards wanting things to be different from how they really are. Let me explain. For instance, a thought about someone might pop into my head, it follows a story about this person and, as a result, I start acting or reacting towards this person in a certain way. Internally, there are now all the conditions for a certain degree of uneasiness when this person is around. This is the first sign of suffering; I am suffering when confronted by this person because of my prejudices, my ideas about her/him, what I think of her/him. As a result, I now might want this person to act differently, to think differently, to talk to me differently and so on. I suffer or, I am unsatisfied with this person because I want things to be different from how they really are. Now, this imaginary person is just an example to show how this suffering can appear in us and condition our life. In reality, this suffering or sense of unsatisfactoriness can be triggered by many different things such as all kind of life events, workplace matters, ourselves or the way we perceive ourselves and many, many other things. All can create the conditions for this inner turmoil since there is suffering in birth, in death, in illnesses, in marriages and so on and so forth. We can easily end up fighting the reality of everything and, our desire to want things different from they really are is the cause of our suffering. So, what can we do about that? Shall we keep fighting until we get all things the way we want them to be? Shall we always blame other people for our own suffering/unsatisfactoriness or, can we take some responsibility for it? What Buddhism practice can do to help us alleviating or eliminating altogether this suffering? After all, things are not going to change easily the way we want, people are not going to change either, life situations will still happen in the way they are meant to happen. However, in spite of this, the Buddha says that there is a way out of this suffering.
The Buddha proposes some friendly advises that will help us to develop some qualities which will allow us to alleviate or to eliminate our suffering. That is a good news. We can start seeing for ourselves what a healthy approach to the reality of things is and what is not. In my own experience, I could see that little by little, I was starting to align, at times with effort, to a healthier approach to reality. The mental fight to want things differently was becoming an option I could skip. It has become clear that it is my responsibility to allow this alignment to happen. Anyway, back to the friendly advises the Buddha has for us.
The first of these advises is to have a more skilful way of seeing things as they are, directly, not through the filter of our mind but, see things really. He is prompting us to deliberately observe how our mind can corrupt and condition our view of reality; just spend a few minutes to observe that for yourself with honesty and determination and you will see that very clearly, even after a short while. Observe the ‘monkey mind’. I heard that expression many times. The ‘monkey mind’ is the mind that can’t stay in one place for more than one second, it is the mind that constantly jumps from one thought to another one, from one idea to another one. It is the mind that sees all that is going on within itself and plays around with all that stuff. The Buddha carries on with his friendly advises and asks us to develop the skill of mindfulness. Can we keep observing what is going on in our mind without getting sucked in? Can we just be mindful of that? If we can do that, we can easily see how thoughts are impermanent. We can easily see how they constantly change and, we can easily observe that when left alone, these thoughts just move on. In other words, with practice and patience, we see more and more where the problems lie. Normally, we act or react far too quickly as a consequence of all our thoughts, ideas, emotions which cross the sky of our consciousness. The Buddha is inviting us to slow down, to observe first, to learn a little bit more about our own mental patterns and then, only after some time of observation, do our very best to respond to situations. Taking time to observe what is going on, externally and internally. What emotions, what thoughts, what instincts certain situations are provoking. How wisely can we balance the whole situation so that we do not cause any more suffering for ourselves and for others? What is there in the situation that can teach us a bit more about ourselves and the way our own mind works? Slowing down, taking time to observe, that is for me the first powerful advise I am taking from the Buddha. It is a way to learn to become more skilful in our actions and, we can become more skilful in our actions when we learn how to become more mindful of our own mind and its content. How can I be more skilful when I speak to people? What kind of job should I do which won’t create more suffering for myself and for others? Can I use my energy more skilfully? How more skilfully can I direct my intentions to become a kinder and wiser person?
The Buddha is inviting us to take some time to see for ourselves what makes us suffer, why life is suffering. And then, very compassionately, it gives us his friendly advises on how to end this suffering.
It takes practice, it takes time, it takes patience, it takes a certain level of determination and commitment to be a Buddhist. We have to work with our own shit, nobody else can do it for us and that can be, at times, very difficult. Buddhism is an opportunity for growth, it is an opportunity to ‘unbury’ our truest Self that has been buried under layers and layers of social conditionings, it has been buried deep into our habitual mental patters. In fact, the same patterns that have allowed us to survive and to function in life as human species. Our practice, the experiment we go through is one of the paths to find this truer Self again. This Self is still here, it has not gone anywhere. We have just grown used to use a different self, a more egotistical self that doesn’t allow us to see things how they really are and, that make us and others suffer. Buddhism is a practice that prompts us to revert this tendency and encourages us to find once again this forgotten Self. We train ourselves so that we can see It again and then, little by little, we can start acting again as It.
When I walk in my living room, I always look at the serenity transpiring from the statue of the Buddha and the laughter in the laughing Buddha’s face. They keep inspiring me to remain calm, to be patient and yet rigorous in my own practice. Very importantly, they remind me to keep smiling.