Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Try... Try.. Again

Most are familiar with the story of Nan-yueh's mirror, in which Master Nan-yueh observed that Ma-tsu was meditating diligently towards enlightenment and the Master then began to grind a stone. Ma-tsu became annoyed and asked why his master was doing this. The master replied, "I am polishing the stone to make a mirror out of it."
We can see that no matter the diligence, skill, and no matter how fine the cloth he uses to polish the stone, that surface can never reflect an image, just as meditation alone will not bring about enlightenment. Buddhism contains powerful techniques to unlock and discard the conventional construction of reality that we have built around our sense of self, but the application of these techniques must at all times be used with discerning wisdom.
The pain medication Tylenol cannot cure infection no matter the dosage, and might actually bring harm to the body instead. The most powerful drug is useless when used for the wrong ailment. Diligence misapplied is useless.
One fine example of this occurred during the holidays a few years back when I went to visit my mother. We went to a bulk grocer, which was the size of a warehouse, with a very large parking lot. After buying our food and waiting in the long holiday line we went to my mother's car and she used her remote control to attempt to open the trunk of her car to load the groceries. The trunk didn't open. Due to severe arthritis her hands are very fragile and I was asked to try. No change. She explained that the battery in the remote was weak and possibly needed changing. Fumbling through her purse she found the replacement battery. With shaking hands from the cold winter wind, I used a coin from my pocket, twisting and turning against the plastic, but could not get the case to open. Too many failed attempts in the past had worn away the edges of the groove making it very hard to open the battery cover. Using a slightly larger coin, with shaking hands and clattering teeth, I managed to open the cover, replace the battery, and close it once again... loosely. No change. It was shortly thereafter that a trunk was noticed, about three rows down, on a car of the same make and model. The trunk was wide open and had been for some time. Three people had been standing at the wrong car for twenty minutes, approaching one problem after another with diligence that bore the fruit of foolishness and laughter. A quick look inside of that car would demonstrate why the remote had failed to work. We jumped right to the problem itself without looking for the root cause. If we had succeeded in opening the trunk of the wrong car, matters would have been far worse.
Life will give us daily problems. The spiritual path will disguise our problems in many different packages, forms and feelings. We cannot blindly apply the techniques we learn as a generic cure-all, but must use discerning wisdom and be on guard for tricks of the mind. Like water, the mind wants to seek the path of least resistance. This path seems to lead to one of two extremes, in an exaggerated sense of self or in the nihilist path. We must tread the Madhyamaka, the middle way, the waist-high water, and keep our eyes on the sun. These two extremes and one thousand other poisons will descend on us quietly, through back doors or through whispers in ours ears. Like the mind that lingers off during meditation, we gently gain control and bring it back.
Diligence, patience, and hard work are pillars of spiritual practice but must be applied correctly or will be like Nan-yueh's mirror; all grind and no shine. The water is worth treading.

"Then the image of great Shakyamuni
just dawning in mind, heals me well,
as moon-rays heal the pain of fever.

Though that good system is thus marvelous,
Inexpert persons get totally confused
In every respect, as if they were
Tangled up in jungle grasses.

Having understood this problem,
I schooled myself in writings of skilled sages,
Studying with manifold exertions,
Seeking Your intent again and again.

And I studied numerous treatises
Of the Buddhist and the non-Buddhist schools,
Yet unremittingly my intellect
Was still tormented in the trap of doubt.

So I went to the night-lily garden of Nagarjuna's works,
Prophesied to elucidate correctly
The art of Your final Vehicle,
Free of the extremes of being and nothing.

There I saw, by the kindness of the Mentor,
All illuminated by garlands of white light
The true eloquence of the glorious Chandra moon,
Whose expanding orb of taintless wisdom
Courses freely in the sky of Scripture,
Dispels the darkness of extreme hearts,
Eclipses constellations of false truths;
And then my mind at last obtained relief!"
-Praise of Buddha Shakyamuni for His Teaching of Relativity: The Short Essence of Eloquence
Lama Tsong Khapa

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