Removing Doubts & Obstacles When The Buddha’s Path Is Blocked


It’s not uncommon for Buddhists to feel like their practice has stalled. Concentration wavers, awareness is lost, doubts arise, and the Buddha’s supreme freedom from samsara seems hopelessly unattainable.  It can be an especially trying time if you’re a solitary practitioner lacking the guidance of a skilled meditation teacher. But it’s also an opportunity to straighten your views and re-affirm your refuge in the Triple Gem.

 


 

 

REMOVING DOUBTS & OBSTACLES WHEN THE BUDDHA’S PATH IS BLOCKED

Introduction

It’s not uncommon for Buddhists to feel like their practice has stalled. Concentration wavers, awareness is lost, doubts arise, and the Buddha’s supreme freedom from samsara seems hopelessly unattainable.  It can be an especially trying time if you’re a solitary practitioner lacking the guidance of a skilled meditation teacher. But it’s also an opportunity to straighten your views and re-affirm your refuge in the Triple Gem.


Towards Right View

The Buddha claimed to have known a lasting peace or happiness (nibbana or nirvana) that transcended the all too familiar sufferings of birth, ageing, sickness and death. According to the Buddha, if you want to experience nibbana you must first develop a theoretical understanding of the Four Noble Truths and enough trust or confidence (saddha) in this teaching to practice accordingly – i.e. “right view”. The Buddha promises a theoretical right view practice will mature eventually into an experiential right view practice that confirms his claim.

How far you get along the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path in this current lifetime will of course depend upon your karma (e.g. self-intended actions > self-created habits > self-conditioned character) and many other things that aren’t necessarily karma-related (e.g. genetic inheritance, home environment, workplace, societal institutions, etc.). Creating good karma by developing wholesome/skillful behaviours and stopping the creation of bad karma by abandoning unwholesome/unskillful behaviours, is referred to in Buddhism as the practice of developing morality. This practice constitutes one third of the Noble Eightfold Path; it involves observing your own beliefs and actions constantly in order to know their effects upon body and mind, and evaluating them accordingly.

Beliefs and actions are said to be wholesome and skillful (i.e. “good karma”) if they are a cause for mental happiness, but unwholesome and unskilful (i.e. “bad karma”) if they are a cause for mental unhappiness. Knowing what behaviours are skillful and what behaviours are unskillful is no easy task because of delusions, cravings and aversions. The Buddha therefore recommended to his lay followers abstention from killing, stealing, sexual abuse, lying, and intoxication.  Upholding these Five Precepts without breaking them is an exercise in mindfulness that allows you to test the Buddha’s claim that wholesome/skillful actions tend to lead one towards happiness and away from unhappiness. Upholding the Five Precepts enables you to appreciate fairly quickly that unwholesome gross actions such as killing, stealing, sexual abuse, lying, and intoxication, have a tendency to cause unhappiness and are best avoided. For more information on developing morality or sila see my blog notes on the ‘Sabbasava Sutta’ [1]

If you want to understand the finer subtleties of your actions, and their effects upon your happiness or unhappiness, you need to study and implement the Buddha’s advice on developing concentration and wisdom through meditation. Ideally you have sufficient faith, trust or confidence in the Four Noble Truths teaching to overcome the Five Hindrances of desire, aversion, laziness, worry, and doubt. You begin by focusing attention upon some object (typically the breath) and developing concentration stable enough to access the first jhana state. You may then choose to increase concentration in order to enjoy all of the different levels and subtleties of “form jhana” (rupa jhana) and “formless jhana” (arupa jhana), again and again. Alternatively, you may choose to impartially observe the arising and cessation of bodily and mental phenomena, again and again. Either way, you eventually reach a point where there is no longer any question of mistaking unreliable and inconsistent processes as “I”, “me”, “mine”, “self”, or “other”, and no basis therefore for further suffering.

That said, I think that samatha and vipassana are being overrated and abused in modern times. If you look at the suttas it’s obvious that meditation alone wasn’t the route to nibbana. Meditation was taught mainly to specialist monks who were living an austere and disciplined life. Lay followers were usually given more practical advice on upholding precepts and making merit through acts of kindness and generosity. Some fortunate people are said to have had enough good karma to attain enlightenment instantly merely upon hearing the Buddha speak!

The sila or morality aspects of the Path (‘right speech’, ‘right action’ and ‘right livelihood’) are supposed to be developed alongside the samadhi or concentration aspects (‘right effort’, ‘right mindfulness’, ‘right concentration’) and the panna or wisdom aspects (‘right view’, ‘right intention’). However, from what I hear and read on the internet, I suspect that many meditators aren’t actually seeking to put an end to samsara like the Buddha advised but are merely hoping to experience some ultimate reality fantasy. These days meditation is widely believed to be where the real action is in Buddhism. Scripture study and ritual performances (prostration, chanting, offerings, etc.) aimed at developing merit (punna) tend to be looked down upon as religiosity; optional extras, of interest only to Buddhist scholars or superstitious Buddhists who aren’t sophisticated enough to do meditation. Myself, I don’t see how meditation can help anyone who’s sabotaging their chances of developing concentration and insight with inappropriate mental, verbal, and bodily actions. Self-sabotage is what usually happens when you neglect to train in sila as the Buddha advised.

So, I’ve never worried myself too much about the jhanas. Sometimes my jhana experiences seem to match up with the Buddha’s descriptions. Sometimes they don’t. I’ve never been able to manifest psychic super powers like telepathy, or walking through walls, or flying through the air, such as the Buddha describes. Pleasure, pain, and boredom are constant companions, but less of a problem when I can remember to observe their impersonal changeability and temporariness. I can avoid identifying with sensory phenomena when I make a conscious effort to remain mindful of body, feelings, and thoughts. However, my pleasure-seeking/pain-avoiding personality reasserts itself as soon as I forget to remain mindful. Funnily enough, my mindfulness tends to be stronger and my practice more frequent when things appear to be going badly but less so when things seem to be going well. The trick is to keep mindfulness even at all times in order to avoid the bad and develop the good.  Sometimes mindfulness just isn’t enough, however, and additional strategies are needed when life seems to be falling apart. [3]

Will it always be like this for me? Probably. But still I carry on practicing with the intention of improving and remaining freer for longer. The Buddha is quite clear that practice in accordance with right view will yield good results if not complete cessation of suffering in this lifetime. Since I already know that I’m suffering and I want this suffering to stop, what have I got to lose by practicing the Buddha’s advice when I see no other better solutions out there?


Removing Doubts & Obstacles

“To abstain from all evil, to cultivate the good, and to purify one’s mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas” – Dhammapada XIV: 183 [2]

Hopefully it should now be clear that any doubts or obstacles blocking the Buddha’s Path must be removed by applying right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. Think of “right” in this case as meaning right for you given the situation you happen to be in right now, and given your current level of spirituality. There’s no Buddhist tradition or Buddhist practice that’s right for everyone and every circumstance. The Buddha recognised that people have different abilities and different living conditions, and he adapted his advice accordingly.

Seems to me that Buddhist practice boils down to knowing yourself through objective self-assessment, understanding your own strengths and weaknesses, and using your advantages and disadvantages skillfully in order to cultivate wholesome habits and eliminate unwholesome habits.

So, for example, if despite your best efforts your meditation isn’t bearing fruit you can resolve instead to strengthen refuge in the Triple Gem by performing meritorious acts of kindness. Here are some suggestions you can try –

  • On waking each morning, remember to dedicate any good fruits that may arise from your daily practice to all who are suffering.
  • Be kind to yourself. Forget about long excruciating sessions of vipassana on the meditation cushion. Cease striving for that elusive jhana state.
  • Try practicing instead a more relaxed awareness of body, thoughts, and feelings. Use the breath simply as an anchor while observing sights, sounds, touches, smells, tastes, thoughts and feelings; all arising in consciousness and disappearing from consciousness. Just watch them all come and go.
  • Acknowledge the presence of pleasure or pain, desire or aversion, boredom or arousal, laziness or energy, anxiety or peacefulness, doubt or confidence, etc. Understand that right now empirical reality is like this. If necessary, employ skilful thoughts and reasoning to avoid being drawn into the energy of anger, fear, or any other strong feelings. Don’t rationalise or identify unwholesomely with them. 
  • Keep practicing this simple skill of noting how things really are without adding any extra thoughts or expectations about the way things ought to be. Remember to do it often when walking, standing, sitting, or lying down. Don’t reserve this training for a specific time of day when you’re sat down on a meditation cushion.
  • Be always ready to assist the people you encounter online and face-to-face, and avoid breaking any of the Five Precepts. Observe how it feels when you know you’ve helped someone and how it feels when you know you’ve been negligent.
  • Study more suttas and commentaries. Write down in your own words what they mean to you. Share your personal dhamma learning in an appropriate forum where others are likely to appreciate it.
  • Be open to any feedback you get from other people. Notice your response when the feedback is kind/unkind, useful/useless, and carry on noticing after that initial responsive feeling has passed.
  • Invite all beings to rejoice in your good fortune each evening before going to sleep.

Finally, if you make Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha your main refuge it doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate any of the things that life has to offer. I find Buddhism and meditation great for bringing some perspective to my thoughts and feelings, but for the most part I’m a solitary practitioner and I value having additional non-Buddhist refuges like partner, family, home, friends, occupation, charitable work, health and fitness, hobbies, etc. Such refuges can be a source of physical and mental support in times of trouble, so long as I remember of course that these things aren’t really “mine” and they’ll change and disappear eventually just like everything else.


Conclusion

If you’re feeling blocked on the Buddha’s path it may be a sign that you need to clean up your act.  You don’t need to become a Goody Two-Shoes, but you do need to dispel any hindrances that are undermining right view and right intention. You can do this by making sila training a normal part of your day.

My advice to anyone floundering on The Path would be to focus more on developing morality until faith and energy are restored. Contemplate suttas and commentaries, practice devotion and kindness rituals, be generous and kind to the people you encounter online and face-to-face. If you’re not a reclusive renunciate training under the guidance of a skilled meditation teacher then don’t be gung-ho about it. Forget about long sessions on the cushion aimed at developing special mind states or profound insights; aim simply to know the way things are right now. Use the breath as an anchor while observing material and mental phenomena arising and subsiding in consciousness. Do this often when sitting, standing, walking, or lying down. Acknowledge the way things are in the present moment and let go any preconceived ideas and expectations about how things ought to be. Notice and evaluate your action responses when you’re paying attention to your daily living experiences and when you’re not paying attention to them. Adjust your practice and lifestyle in the light of these experiences.

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Notes

[1] ‘Notes On The Sabbasava Sutta (MN2)’ by Paul Lockey, Trusting In Buddha, 10 February 2013.

[2] Quoted in ‘The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.

[3] ‘When Life Allegedly Sucks: Maintaining Resilience & Peace Of Mind’ by Paul Lockey, Trusting In Buddha, 28 February 2016.

 

 

 

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