Out of the myriad of religions that encompass the earth, one of the least understood is Buddhism. In the pursuit of a higher plane of existence, a Buddhist monk will renounce his worldly secular life, instead embracing a life of meditation and study. While attempting to achieve enlightenment, and therefore nirvana, a Buddhist must first come to eradicate his sense of self, effectively destroying his ego. By doing this, “durkha,” (pain and suffering), end and one can be at peace and harmony with the world and all who reside in it. A practice that helps monks achieve this enlightened state is meditation.
By learing the mind of mundane clutter and distractions, a monk can become in tune with his inner being and body, which results in a greater understanding of the barriers that need to collapse before nirvana can be achieved. This practice of meditation was the Buddhist practice that I participated in, with the intent on a greater understanding of what being a Buddhist means. This exercise taught me the inherent difficulty in calming the mind, along with the negative effects outside influences like other people have on the practice. The first place I attempted to meditate was outside my dorm next to a tree.
This proved to be a comfortable place, yet full of distractions. I have meditated before in my martial arts classes, yet it was difficult calming my mind. While concentrating on my breathing, I was easily distracted by outside occurrences such as leaves falling and people walking by. The more I attempted to shut out the outside world, the more my mind focused on the little things around me. I gained immediate appreciation of the Buddhist monk’s ability to shirk the outside world and focus on his inner self. When I had meditated before in my dojo, it was as a group and in silence.
This greatly helped the exercise nd I can see why this is the modus operandi at most temples. The second place I attempted to meditate was in the basement of Reid Hall. I hoped that the familiar surroundings would calm the mind easier and allow me to concentrate on clearing my mind. While not an ideal setting, it was better than outside. As I concentrated on my breathing and felt myself unwind, I was able to tune into the sound of the dryers in the distance and this white noise helped me focus on my spirit and not anything happening around me.
I imagined myself first as earth, then air, striving to feel these elements inside f me. However, friends from the hall soon entered the basement and inquired about what I was doing. This broke my concentration, snapping my mind back into the present. I was unable to achieve that sense of oneness again, as people came down to play Ping-Pong, making the exercise virtually worthless. I had come closer than the first time, yet had a long way to go. My third attempt at imitating a Buddhist monk while meditating took place in my room, while my roommates were gone.
I sat cross-legged (the lotus position was impossible for me) on the floor and once again concentrated on the ir flowing through my body. I found that just like the dryers in the basement, I was able to concentrate better with classical music on very softly. I guess, for me, the incessant noise of society makes white noise better for concentrating than absolute silence. This time, I quickly sunk into a sense of calm, all my thoughts of school fading away. I imagined myself a monk in the Chin Shan temple, striving for enlightenment.
Just to add another level to the activity (by this time is was fairly boring) I attempted to decipher the Zen Buddhist koan “What is the sound of one hand clapping? ” This proved utterly mpossible in the half-hour time period I was meditating, yet it gave me a feel for what a Buddhist monk does and helped focus my errant mind, preventing it from wandering. By far, the last time I meditated was the most successful. There were no major advances, everything was a measure of degree.
Yet sitting for a half-hour cross-legged was no longer extremely uncomfortable, focusing the breathing and mind was easier, and I felt at peace which was nice feeling in a usually hectic college day. After trying to emulate the life of a Buddhist monk, even for a total of an hour and a half, I have infinite more respect for these en and women. I have always respected forms of mental concentration and the ability to raise oneself into a higher plane of consciousness. In my study of the martial arts, the ability to become one with your opponent and therefore know how he will move before he actually moves is paramount.
This omniscient sense occurs only after years of training, and while a black belt who has trained for six years I am still far from this state of ability. I can readily see why the pursuit of nirvana can span a lifetime, indeed, multiple lifetimes. The mind is, indeed, the hardest element of the human body to control. With the brain’s need for activity, a combination of seclusion from society and group meditation is of great importance, especially in the beginning of one’s path toward the mastery of the Eight-fold Path.
The seclusion is necessary so that outside distractions and desires are eliminated. If the mind has nothing to crave or look forward to, it is easier to pursue the task at hand. Unlike the hustle and noise of Oxford, a temple offers a place to get away from life and find the inner life within oneself. Yet this inner self, which is ultimately to be eradicated, is hard to find. One can know who one is and yet ot be able to define oneself. One of the goals of a Buddhist monk is to be able truthfully define oneself and this knowledge will then set one’s soul free.
Yet this endeavor is the hardest task a human can undertake. To truly face what one really is takes more courage than most people have. To aid this, the community of the temple comes into play heavily. It is easier to meditate and deny oneself the riches of secular life if you struggle beside others. While Buddhism advocates a personal struggle toward enlightenment, humans are gregarious beings at heart and so normally work better in the presence of brethren. Along with one’s fellow monks, the abbot and preceptor’s help guide and direct the learning of the monks.
They offer subtle forms of encouragement, often disguised in hardship, that aid the monks in their struggle toward understanding. This is a boon, allowing enlightenment to occur quicker than in the solitary meditation I experienced. A Buddhist way of life is a lot harder than one may suspect, for while they are released from the worries of everyday life, the mental tasks assigned to them are far greater than worrying about what to cook for dinner tonight or paying one’s electricity bill. Furthermore, a Buddhist lifestyle is not very conducive to an American lifestyle.
I give a lot of credit to the founders of the Zen Mountain Center in San Francisco, creating a microcosm which can support the solitude necessary for personal growth is a daunting task. From my limited venture into the life of a Buddhist, I learned that controlling one’s mind and then harnessing this power to delve out truths and desires from oneself is a feat almost inconceivable by the normal mind. Those who accomplish this task are truly Buddha’s, master’s of the world and therefore outside the grasp of time, free at last.