(This article appeared in Spirit Rock Newsletter, Spring 2016)
Different practitioners have different entry points into the practice: some start by reading multiple books, studying the suttas, and contemplating the teachings before they ever practice on the cushion. Some start with practice. Study, if ever and at all, comes later. As much as my friends and colleagues like to think of me as a heady academic type, admittedly, I’ve been in the latter camp. What drew me years ago was the first person investigation of my mind.
In the early years when I attended weeklong silent retreats, I was mainly there to meditate and explore my mind. I wasn’t so much interested in Buddhism, or any “ism”. Buddhist teachings, presented through evening dharma talks, seemed like the extra icing on the main cake of my personal experience. Since the talks were part of the daily retreat schedule, and having been brought up as a responsible Persian young lady, it was absolutely unthinkable to put the honor of my family at stake and skip the talks! And, I must admit, I was curious. So, I attended every talk and listened. I listened not just to the teachers’ stories and the practice instructions, but more and more, started to take note of the core teachings. Soon, I was recognizing aspects of my experience in the talks, and conversely, the teachings I heard in the evenings were further serving as pointers to seeing various aspects of my mind and reality.
Exactly when it was that I first had the great honor and pleasure to make the acquaintance of the suttas, I can’t remember. I think our meetings happened slowly and gradually, over many years. At first, it was just a casual acquaintance: a quote from a teacher here, and a paragraph there. The excerpts were sagacious and beautiful. Potent and redolent, like the essence of the most fragrant flower of wisdom, bringing inspiration and delight to my mind and heart. It was an aroma of wisdom and liberation from which I wanted to not just take a second-hand, passing whiff, but to soak in completely, first-hand.
I was inspired, but the formidable density of the volumes made it a bit of an intimidating task to start. What was needed at the time was a guide and the support of community to help me embark on the journey. This support came through sutta study classes and daylongs.
I distinctly remember my first reading of the famous Satipatthana Sutta, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, from the Majjhima Nikaya (MN), the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, at Spirit Rock on a weekend course, offered by my mentor, Guy Armstrong. I finally got to see for myself where the progression of the morning instructions at the insight retreats I had attended had been drawn from. Hooray! They were right here in the MN, spelled out: start with awareness of different aspects of the bodily experience (including breath), then open up to more subtle aspects of experience, such as feeling tones (pleasant, unpleasant, neutral), mind states, mental qualities and how they are conditioned, etc. etc. I was getting to know the suttas more intimately, and in the process, my heart soared. Gradually, the inevitable happened: I was falling in love.
Repeatedly, the suttas have instructed, shaken, challenged, uplifted, inspired, and cheered me on the path: When I follow the instructions of the Mindfulness of Death Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 6.19) and contemplate my potentially impending death in the length of an in and out breath, I feel appropriately shaken and alerted. The Simile of the Saw (MN 21.20) challenges my heart and mind to the heights and depths of non-harming and loving-kindness to which I can aspire to when I read that “even if bandits were to sever you savagely limb by limb with a two-handed saw, she who gave rise to a mind of hate towards them would not be carrying out my teaching”. The Canki Sutta (MN 95.17) uplifts and inspires me to align my daily life with my intention, and be heedful of my “bodily and mental behavior” as a practitioner, and especially, as a teacher, “in regard to the three kinds of states: … greed, hatred, and delusion.” When I read the Simile of the Cloth (MN 7.8), I feel cheered on as I recognize my lived experience in the teaching of confidence and dedication to the practice leading to gladness in the mind, which in turn leads to rapture, to tranquility, to pleasure, and to concentration.
My love affair is well under way, yet it feels like it is just getting started. For me, it is a joy, delight, and inspiration to read what may be the closest collections we have to the original teachings of a most remarkable human being who lived some 2600 years ago. I invite you to explore and discover the jewels in the suttas, and in particular, the passages that most resonate with you, for yourself, firsthand. And who knows, you may, too, find yourself falling in love with the suttas...