Internal Affairs, Part One

January 17th, 2011

Here’s something I wrote that’s a little long for a blog post, so I’m cutting it into four parts over the next few days.

At the temple a few weeks ago, the reading from the Still Point Dhammapada was in many ways typical, yet perhaps one that calls for a note of clarification. It states:

The people whose minds
are well developed in
the Factors of Enlightenment
and who have rid themselves
of all craving
rejoice in their abandonment
of grasping.

It’s a good teaching, and a true teaching, but it’s the kind of teaching we often misunderstand. We might think that it means that good Buddhists don’t experience any grasping or craving. The Dhammapada might give us the idea that these things are not part of Buddhists’ lives.

I compare it to the rules of a game. There are games like chess, where the rules are largely external to the game. What happens in chess if you move your pawn three spaces? The answer: if you move your pawn three spaces, you’re not playing chess. More of the rules are internal to the game of Scrabble. If you play an improper word in Scrabble, your opponent must decide whether or not to challenge you and risk losing a turn. If you play a word that breaks the rules, you’re still playing Scrabble. A similar analogy: in bowling, the rules are mostly external; to learn to bowl is to learn to play by the rules. In soccer, more of the rules are internal. During your average soccer match, there will be violations of the rules, and there will be penalties. There are many times that it’s strategic to break a rule and risk a penalty.

When I think about the rules of a game this way, it applies in interesting ways to all aspects of life. Are the rules external or internal? Suppose you have a close friend who comes from a different background. You might, from time to time, say things that are considered rude or offensive, or your friend might say such a thing to you. If the rules are external, this is a sign that you shouldn’t be friends, because friends must respect each other. But if the rules are internal, then it is part of the game–during any interaction, there’s a chance that you’ll need to discuss what was appropriate and what was inappropriate. The dialogue is an inseparable part of the friendship.

Zen is not a game. But if we take one term for Zen–“objectless meditation”–and apply this question to it, the rule means something different if it is internal or external. When you sit in meditation and try to clear your mind, if thoughts arise, you might think it invalidates the Zen; it’s not Zen, because you have thoughts. But I prefer to see the “objectless” rule as internal. You work to clear your mind of clutter. During the process, you will have thoughts arise. During your average Zen meditation, you’ll need to face the experience of a wandering mind. That’s what meditation is.

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