Yesterday, during my Tai Chi class, I had an insightful flash moment that encapsulated how I look upon Buddhism (and also other forms of spirituality) these churchless days.
We started off by doing the Yang Long Form. I'm familiar with the form, which, not surprisingly, is long. About twenty minutes worth of prescribed movements, though we usually breeze through the form a bit more quickly.
Tai Chi often is described as "moving meditation."
Yeah, it seems that way to me. Just as when I do my unmoving meditation, sometimes while doing Tai Chi my mind is calm and centered, and other times it is chaotically active.
Because I know the Long Form so well, I don't have to think much about what movement comes next. This left me free to do other things with my psyche. Like, daydream about what I'll eat for dinner, what's on my "to do" list after class, and such.
When I noticed myself drifting off into non-Tai Chi'ish thoughts, I gave myself a mental reprimand. "I should be focused on the here and now, not the there and then. I'm not really doing moving meditation if my mind isn't absorbed in the Tai Chi movements."
I went back and forth in this fashion for a few minutes while we were doing the Long Form, bouncing between (1) absorption in the moment, (2) distracting thoughts, and (3) noticing that I was engaged in (2) rather than (1) -- which was mildly annoying.
Then, as I turned toward the north wall in Grasp the Sparrow's Tail, I got a message from... who knows? Doesn't matter. Wherever it came from, my brain suddenly was filled with a wordless realization.
Expressed in words, it sounded something like this:
It doesn't matter what you're thinking, or not thinking. It doesn't matter how you're moving, or not moving. Whatever is happening now, it's going to change before too long. Thoughts come and go. Movements come and go. Relax. Accept what's here, then let it go. And accept what happens next.
During the rest of the Long Form, I didn't feel any pressure to be focused rather than distracted. Or to be thoughtless rather than thinking. Flowing with whatever was passing through my mind, or being expressed through my body, was enough. Nothing else to do.
This is pretty much how I've come to view the essence of Buddhist philosophy, which bears a lot of resemblance to Taoism (Tai Chi also can be called "Taoism expressed in movement").
For the past few nights my wife and I have been watching parts of a recorded PBS documentary, "The Buddha," a film by David Grubin. We're past the Buddha's enlightenment, which was described in a wonderfully clear fashion.
Here's some enlightenment-related quotes from the film by Buddhist experts who appeared in "The Buddha."
"It’s not like entering a new state; it’s uncovering or surrendering to the reality that has always been there. He realized he’d always been in Nirvana that Nirvana was always the case; your reality itself is Nirvana. It’s the unreality; it’s your ignorance that makes you think you’re this self-centered separate being trying to fight off an overwhelming universe and failing. You are that universe." -- Robert Thurman
"You’re already enlightened. He’s saying the capacity for enlightenment, that your awake-ness already exists within you." -- Mark Epstein
"Nirvana is this moment seen directly. There is no where else than here. The only gate is now. The only doorway is your own body and mind. There’s nowhere to go. There’s nothing else to be. There’s no destination. It’s not something to aim for in the afterlife. It’s simply the quality of this moment." -- Jane Hirshfield
"Just this, just this, this room where we are. Pay attention to that. Pay attention to who's there, pay attention to what isn't known there, pay attention to what is known there, pay attention to what everyone is thinking and feeling, what you're doing there, and pay attention. Pay attention." -- W.S. Merwin
In the film, Buddha is shown experimenting with various sorts of traditional religious/spiritual practices common in the India of his time (as now).
He meditated like crazy, trying to find some mystical center of both himself and existence at large. He engaged in extreme austerities, such as supposedly eating only one grain of rice a day. He'd already done the sensual enjoyment thing before he left the family palace, so he knew that didn't bring lasting satisfaction.
Then the Buddha gets it. The Middle Way. Nothing special. Nirvana is right here. Enlightenment is right here. There's nothing to strive for.
"Buddha meets someone who doesn’t see anything special about him because the awakened Buddha doesn’t look any different from anybody else. He is ordinary. Buddhism is not about being special. Buddhism is about being ordinary. And it is not about the continual exudation of bliss. It is about walking a normal human life with normal human beings, doing normal human things."
And this reminds you that you yourself might be a Buddha. At this moment, the person you’re looking at might be one. It’s an interesting practice. Just each person you see as you walk down the street; “Buddha? Buddha? Buddha? Buddha? Buddha?” -- Jane Hirshfield
It was strange, watching the parts of the film where modern Buddhists are shown practicing their rituals, to realize how far removed Buddhism now seems to be from what the Buddha is considered to have taught.
People go on meditation retreats where they sit still on mats for many hours a day, even though the Buddha explored the depths of yoga and meditation -- concluding that it didn't lead him anywhere.
People go on pilgrimages to Buddhist shrines, holy places, and temples, while revering Buddhist teachers, Zen and otherwise, even though the Buddha taught that truth is to be realized within oneself, not in any outside place or person.
As Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche says, the Buddha wasn't a Buddhist (just as Christ wasn't a Christian).
I strongly suspect that if we could be transported back to the time of Buddha, seeing him as he was, not as hundreds of years of legends and oral traditions made him out to be before Buddhist teachings were encapsulated in writing, we'd find a much different "Buddhism" from what is practiced now.
Much simpler. A lot less metaphysical. Non-religious. That's the Buddhism that appeals to me. Again: nothing special. Just this. Here. Now.