Stillness and Contentedness

by Josho Pat Phelan


A yogi feels joy like a leaf
slowly falling from a tree,
or like a stone
sinking deeply in the ocean.
— Milarepa

This reminds me of Sharon Salzberg saying, "...our deepest happiness... is born from letting go of what is unnecessary." When I first read the Sharon Salzberg quote, I thought it referred to giving away unnecessary things, and it took me awhile to realize that this could also mean unnecessary emotions and our psychological or mental creations — our mental possessions and burdens, such as judgements, grudges, jealousies, regrets, attachments — basically, anything that doesn't pertain to this moment.

This idea is also found in the Chinese Buddhist and Taoist meditation manual, Secret of the Golden Flower. Referring to meditation practice, it says, "The more you let go, the greater the subtlety; and the greater the subtlety, the deeper the quietude." I would like to talk about the joy of letting go by looking at the relationship between stillness and contentedness. I think true contentment is possible when the mind is still, when whatever processes we go through to create and manifest the self come to rest. In stillness, the "I want," "I think," "I feel," "my memory," "my plans," and so on can stop. When wanting and thinking come to rest, the stillness and spaciousness that are left is true contentment. But the stillness I am referring to is not a static or dead space — it is vibrant and dynamic and it's what allows us to be open to the aliveness of everything. The energy in stillness connects us to the energy in all things. To be completely still requires the engagement of our full being. Eckhart Tolle said, "Only the stillness in you can perceive the silence outside." I would say that the opposite is also true, paying attention to silence outside can help us settle and return to our inner stillness.

Contentment is often considered the fulfillment of desire. I don't know if any of your desires have ever been satisfied, but when mine have, they are pretty quickly replaced by new desires. I heard about a study done with people who had won the lottery and instantly became multi-millionaires. The study concluded that the happiness people felt when they heard that they won lasted about five minutes, or about the same length of time that happiness lasts from more ordinary causes. I don't know if this is accurate, but I think that the habit of wanting, of reaching away from ourselves, is so strong for most of us, that it just overtakes us. In Buddhism the world we inhabit is considered a desire world or kama loka where the objects of our senses push and pull us along; and attachment to sense objects is what binds us to samsara, to the cycle of birth and death.

Shakyamuni Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths in his first sermon. More recently I have heard the Four Noble Truths of early Buddhism compared to the Four Bodhisattva Vows of Mahayana Buddhism. The first Noble Truth addresses the prevalence of dukkha, which is commonly translated as suffering but has a wide range of meaning that includes an underlying restlessness, an uneasiness, or dissatisfaction. The first Bodhisattva Vow is, "Beings are numberless, I vow to save them," or to free them, or to ferry them from this shore of samsara to the Other Shore of liberation. In the book Living by Vow, Shohaku Okumura said that "the deeper meaning of dukkha ...is related to impermanence.... The fact that we cannot control the reality of our lives is the root of the suffering described by Buddha which is based on our delusions and attachments to ego [or self]."

The second Noble Truth is that dukkha — suffering or dissatisfaction — is the result of craving, including a subtle kind of wanting that's pervasive in our culture and to a large extent, in our consciousness. The second Bodhisattva Vow addresses desire and it is, "Delusions or desires are inexhaustible, I vow to end them." Okumura Roshi said that delusions refer to "the hindrances, troubles, defilements, or passions that drive us to unwholesome action." He listed the four types of delusion which are "ignorance, egocentric views, arrogance, and self attachment [which] are .... the cause of suffering and unwholesome karma." He talked about arrogance and said that when we try to justify ourselves or try to be righteous, that those are causes that lead to arrogance, one of the forms of delusion.

The third Noble Truth is that when craving or desire ends, dukkha or suffering will end. And the third Bodhisattva Vow is "Dharma Gates, or the methods of practice leading to liberation are boundless, I vow to enter them." Okumura Roshi said that Dharma Gates "means teachings about reality and about reality-based practice." The fourth Noble Truth is that there is a method of practice that leads to liberation or to the ending of suffering which is described in the Eight-fold Path. The fourth Bodhisattva Vow is "Buddha's Way is unsurpassable, I vow to attain it or, we say, to become it" which, in a sense, is vowing to mature in the Eight-fold Path. Okumura Roshi said that the word "Way" is actually translated from the Sanskrit word "bodhi," which means awakening. So, the meaning of the fourth Bodhisattva Vow is, "Buddha's awakening is unsurpassable, I vow to attain it." These two sets of teachings, that form the foundation of Early Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism, address our predicament which is characterized by craving and delusion, and the antidote to both is practice, especially the practice of awareness right now, in this moment.

Letting go of the pursuit of our desires, recogniz-ing that desire is inexhaustible — unquenchable — and allowing our desires to come to rest, at least for the time being, is true contentment. We might say that the opposite of stillness is the wanting or dissatisfaction of dukkha. Another way dukkha is defined is the quality of experience that results when the mind is acted upon by delusion, and it can be any kind of delusion, or delusion about anything. The most basic and prevalent form of delusion is the idea that we are separate. Without this sense of separation, we couldn't and we wouldn't want to reach out for something else. In Zen our understanding of the second Bodhisattva Vow, "Delusions and desires are inexhaustible, I vow to end them," includes the idea of penetrating them, meaning to see our delusions and desires for what they really are — knowing how they push us around, propelling us to reach away from our present experience. By knowing them for what they are, we are no longer intoxicated with them, fearful of them, or cling to them in the same way. We may not end them, but we can become free of their power.

I think of dukkha, whether it is the more subtle form of wanting or restlessness or the stronger form of misery, as being off balance from our present experience, as if we had one foot in the present and the other foot anticipating what will come next, reaching out to the future in hope of fulfilling our expectations and desires. The other way we are off-balance is from reviewing the past and feeling regret or resentment, with one foot stuck in the past. In this divided state, we are off center, whereas contentment, which is characterized by equanimity, is to have both feet balanced, resting squarely in the present. When we feel desire, anxiety, regret and so on, we are off balance, wobbling, ready to fall back into the past or tip over into the future. So, we could say that Buddhism is the practice of coming to rest, finding the still point of our equilibrium, through unambivalent engagement with the body and mind of the present, accepting that our own body and mind are enough. In the precepts ceremony we say, "Don't put another head on top of your own." This means to trust that your own body and mind are acceptable, are enough for practice.

Buddha gave a short teaching called "Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection." These are, "I am of the nature to age. I am of the nature to sicken. I am of the nature to die. All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me." And the last is, "I am the owner of my karma [or actions], heir to my karma, born of my karma, related to my karma, I abide supported by my karma; whatever karma I shall do, for good or for ill, of that I will be the heir." So, the actions of our body, speech, and mind matter. This may sound depressing, but according to Buddha, it's reality, and delusion can be defined as being at odds with reality. So, let's face reality so we won't be taken by surprise. Death means that there has been life. Without life we wouldn't die. And life is synonymous with impermanence — because we are alive, we have the opportunity to change and grow and to enjoy the ever-changing beauty of life.

Katagiri Roshi said that "The cause of suffering is that we have an object." "Having an object" refers to our everyday, discriminating consciousness which works to divide, separate, and compare, to judge and then reject or grasp its object. Through discriminating consciousness, we experience separation and divide the world into inside and outside, into "I like this and want more" or "I don't like that, and want it to go away." Zen emphasizes that the object, meaning duality, is the source of dukkha, the source of being off-balance.

Creating duality, separating from something and taking it as an object is necessary for clinging or craving. Anything that clings or is clung to as "I" or "mine" keeps us from fully entering this moment of experience and is considered a form of dukkha. Our usual way of being is to take our body and mind to be "me" — my perceptions, my feelings, my hangnail, my astigmatism, my character, my sense of humor, my insight. The Thai teacher, Buddhadhassa said that sometimes this teaching "is misunderstood to mean that birth, old age, sickness and death are themselves dukkha, but" he said, "these are just its vehicles. .... birth, old age, sickness, death, and so on, if they are not clung to as "I" or "mine," cannot be dukkha. The body and mind are the same. Dukkha is not inher-ent in the body and mind." He said, " Only when there is clinging... do they become dukkha."

The opposite of craving is nonclinging, which means when seeing, just see without responding to what you are seeing as pleasant or unpleasant. When we are able to just see, just taste, just hear without comparing or judging, without the desire either to hold on to or stop the experience, this is nonclinging. Since everything in the universe including our body and mind is constantly changing, our attachment to the way we want things to be is a constant source of dissatisfaction. Resisting change keeps us off balance, keeps us from entering the present moment completely. So, resistance is another form of dukkha. Resistance is characterized by contract-ing and tightening and leads to being stuck.

Eckhart Tolle talked about gratitude for the present moment, for the fullness of life we have at hand right now as true prosperity. Cultivating gratitude for this moment of being, for simply being alive, gives all of us tremendous potential for prosperity. Instead of trying to stay aware or mindful throughout the day, practice can be cultivating gratitude, a moment by moment gratitude for life. Soon, certainly sooner than we think, this life will end. Did we squander this moment of life?

It seems to me that joy is an antidote to the conditioning that closes our minds. Actually, beginner's mind is joy, and this joy sustains our practice. Practice can include a painful body; it can include the work needed to stay present, to stay on the cushion physically and mentally; it can include difficult emotional states; but over the years the bottom line is an underlying joy in the experience of zazen. Sometimes joy is felt as a relief from the complications of the world, and we take joy in the simplicity of just sitting. What I mean by joy isn't the same as happiness. Happiness is stronger, an emotion accompanied by an object. Chuang-tzu talked about happiness and it has been translated as, "Happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness." I think of this kind of happiness as joy, which can be very simple, or maybe joy is simplicity — the simplicity of doing one thing at a time and doing it with our whole being. In Zen, sometimes it's said that the essence of Mind is light, and returning to this light is joy. This joyful returning is only possible when we aren't reaching out to attain something.

Suzuki Roshi said, "The true practice of zazen is to sit as if drinking water when you are thirsty....You do not have to force yourself to drink water when you are thirsty; you are glad to drink water." He said, "If you have true joy in your zazen, that is true zazen."

© Copyright Josho Pat Phelan, 2018


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