As we sat to practice last night, below the yoga studio the Bowery was teeming with rush hour traffic and every third driver seemed to be leaning on their horn in frustration and hurry. My first thought was, “I’m glad I’m in here.” My second, “what a neat metaphor for the mind.” Excepting these small islands of mindful settling, my mind is usually a jammed New York street at rush hour.
This week’s topic at Hardcore Dharma (Don’t know what Hardcore Dharma is? Check out my introductory post and the run down of Sharon Salzberg’s guest lecture) was on the 3 Yanas, a uniquely Tibetan system of hierarchical classification of the three stages of development one moves through as a Buddhist practitioner.
One particular aspect of Ethan’s talk really piqued my interest because it has to do with compassion, not for others but for oneself as you learn to tame the mind. Compassion for ourselves seems straightforward enough but my sense is that it’s all to often the first aspect of wisdom to be discarded in our day-to-day.
The 3 Yanas are a graduated progression for practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. Broadly speaking, they run from Basic Stuff to Kinda Advanced Stuff to Ok Now You’re Literally A Colorful Enlightened Being stuff. Except that the Basic Stuff is still really difficult and requires years of practice. At least, I think so. I’m still very much in the Basic Stuff stage, so cut me some slack.
The second stage is Mahayana, not to be confused with the historical/geographic division of Buddhism into Mahayana vs. Theravada, while the third stage is Vajryana – I won’t discuss those here. The first stage is Hinayana, translated as “narrow.” “lesser,” or “precise” path. It consists of teachings like the 4 Foundations of Mindfulness, the 4 Reminders, and the 10 Virtuous & Non-Virtuous Actions.
The essential thrust of Hinayana, as Ethan pointed out, is to “really begin to contemplate the difference between wholesome and non-wholesome action.” It means bringing honesty to our destructive habits – viewing them clearly and, presumably, trying to change them – and to do this requires mindfulness and restraint. Mindfulness and Restraint can fairly be capitalized here, since they’re two big threads running through the Hinayana stage.
About halfway in to his discussion Ethan mentioned that some teachings sum up Hinayana as, “working to develop a healthy revulsion with samsara.”
My first thought: Haha. Revulsion to samsara = need for Buddhist barf bags. Cause’ there’s a lot of samsara out there.
My second (and more blog-worthy thought): Revulsion is a strong word. What does healthy
revulsion actually look like? As Ethan went on to ask, “how do you practice restraint and a healthy revulsion to confusion and non-wholesome behavior without becoming incredibly judgmental?”
This is important. I’ve listened to teachers, Pema Chodron among them, say we westerners really like to beat ourselves up and this feels true on an instinctive level. The amount of suffering caused by self-directed negative feelings is outsized and tragic, and it’s possible to use Buddhist teachings on restraint, meant to lead to liberation, to construct an elaborate cage of self-flagellation.
A slightly silly example: You gossip about someone and realize, “Oh crap, I’m not practicing Right Speech again, I’m such a fuck-up. I’ll never get the hang of this. I’m a bad Buddhist and therefore a bad person and I don’t deserve to be happy and people, rightly, do not love me.” I’ve certainly put myself through the ringer because I haven’t practiced in a few days and, goddamn it, I know I should.
Where does legitimate self-ass-kicking end and harsh self-judgement begin?
In conclusion, two things. First, as people trying to work compassionately with our minds, it’s a delicate knife’s edge that we walk. That is, unless you have an exceptionally robust sense of self-esteem and sharp critical sensibility. Second, this is something worth thinking about as we try to live by some of these rules on restraint.
As someone who’s struggled with an evil, vicious little troll-man voice living in the back of my mind, telling me my writing stinks, my shoes are out of style, I’ll never do such and such, it’s a good contemplation to take into each new day. I want to make progress on this path, but not at the expense of being nice to myself.