“The important part of practice lies in contemplating. If you don’t contemplate, discernment won’t arise. The Buddha taught us to contemplate and test things to the point where we can clearly know for ourselves. Only then will we have a proper refuge. He never taught us to take refuge in things we ourselves can’t see or do.” Upasika Kee Nanayon
“To me, practice is everything that I do.” Avi Pryntz-Nadworny
March 7, 2019. Today is Nyepi, Balinese New year. Everything is quiet. Everything. Well, the white birds still fly back and forth to their home in Petulu; the red squirrels continue to chase each other up and down the coconut palms; the little munias still come to the edge of the pool to take their daily bath; the tiny geckos still dart along the bedroom walls; the soft rain still splashes in the garden. But all human activity is silent. There is no traffic. None. Everyone is home with their families. Not a single shop is open. The television and radio stations are silent; the internet is shut down. The island’s only airport is closed; airlines have cancelled all 428 flight for today. There is quiet. It is an amazing grace.
Nyepi is a Balinese holy day, a time for spiritual reflection, purification, and forgiveness. It is a sacred time of personal inquiry and renewed commitment to the balance between the forces of darkness and light. It is a time of deep dedication to spirit, family and community. This is a day to go inward. It is a time of harmony: a day to pause and consider and recommit to cultivation of a personal spiritual practice that goes beneath form to a personal mind and heart in tune with deepest value.
The Buddha would approve. Our modern western minds can sometimes equate spiritual practice with some special doing. We might perceive our ideas of personal accomplishment as important, maybe that of listening to or remembering a lot of conceptual teachings. We might challenge ourselves with participation in ritual or with accumulated hours of meditation practice in some place other than “here.” These, the Buddha taught, can be useful but, all in all, are barely a beginning. Study, he taught, is not of much use unless further developed with deep personal reflection, contemplation, openness and ongoing renewal of the kind that Nyepi invites. The Buddha summarized three levels of practice, three ways of cultivating this sort of ever deepening wisdom.
The first level of wisdom is that of hearing, a wisdom which arises when we don’t just accumulate teachings conceptually, but when we allow ourselves to truly be available to take them in. This is the beginner’s mind that Suzuki Roshi spoke of. It is an openness and readiness to receive the teachings: both the formal teachings and those of each moment. It is a deep willingness of mind and heart to let go, not to acquire, but to receive. Kittisaro and Thanissara describe this state of mind as prayer: “Prayer isn’t about asking for things, but about listening more deeply into the mystery of silence. We need to recognize that our ability to figure everything out is limited. In prayer, we accept our limitation and call on the mystery, which is also listening.”
Without this kind of attitude, Jack Engler describes how our spiritual practice can become simply another ego-centered pursuit: “The enlightenment ideal itself can be cathected narcissistically as a version…of the grandiose self…the achievement of a purified state of complete self-sufficiency and personal purity…which will be admired by others, and which will be invulnerable to further injury or disappointment.”
The Buddha’s second kind of wisdom arises from personal reflection on what we have received. We look kindly and intimately to see: how does this apply for me, here, now, with this? It is a very intimate investigation: what is there for me to know in this moment, this experience? This is the inquiry that the Buddha offered in his final teaching when he famously instructed that we each “… be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge.” We could mistakenly think that he was directing us to simply invent or pick and choose our own teaching, but he was inviting, rather, an ongoing and patient and diligent and deep personal reflection and inquiry: “… (using all of) the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.” What of the Dhamma applies for me with this that is arising? Where is dukkha, suffering? It’s cause? It’s end? How does this work? What is needed? What is wholesome?
The third kind of wisdom arises less from any mental activity than from direct non-conceptual practice. In our daily meditation we steadily build personal skill with presence and investigation and mystery. We directly observe pleasant, unpleasant, neutral objects as they relentlessly change and elude our personal control. Little by little we cultivate an ever deeper curiosity and kindness. We gradually learn to release both identification and overwhelm. In patiently cultivating this kind of awareness, we simply and diligently practice, creating over and over and over again within ourselves the conditions for deeper insight to arise. “It’s like this now; not mine, not certain; just this.” Insight at this third level of wisdom, like fruit ripening, isn’t something we DO. With kind, interested, present-centered practice, it arises, seemingly unbidden, like grace.
Cirque du Soleil performer Avi Pryntz-Nadworny, speaks of a similar kind of grace in the mundane world. He says of that all of his remarkable gymnastic accomplishments are not particularly special, but arise, rather, as the product of his quiet personal intention coupled with dedicated and diligent practice. Perhaps like us as we sit on our cushions, he says that with his performance skills he is always feeling like a total beginner, often tempted to become discouraged. With something new and unfamiliar, he often observes his mind desperately wanting to go back to “practicing” something already known: like how to be distracted and how to procrastinate. Nevertheless, for him, there is his ongoing commitment. He notes, wisely, that each of us is always practicing something and that we need to choose wisely.
So the third level of wisdom that the Buddha taught is this kind of activity: simply choosing to continually return to actually practicing the Dhamma: “…while you are walking, while you are standing, while you are sitting, while you are lying down, while you are busy at work, while you are resting in your home crowded with children.”
We cultivate a trust that, with care and wholesome intention, our practice will inevitably ripen into deeper wisdom. We nourish seeds of understandings as they unfold in their own way and time into wholesome fruit. We release our ego’s inclination to push or plan or own. We learn to recognize and receive as and how and when the harvest unfolds.
In Bali, the quiet Hindu remembrance of Nyepi reminds me: to slow down, to consider, to receive, reflect, forgive, taste, practice. In our own western daily lives, we each can continue to remind ourselves and one another. In the peace of remembering and of quiet reflection, we can cultivate all three kinds of wisdom, stepping away from the ordinary busyness of mind to simply open, to choose and to commit. Again.
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment,
without rush,without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.