Mind over MatterMatt PickeringReligion 101Brantley GasawaySection BDOut of the myriad of religions that encompass the earth, one of theleast understood is Buddhism. In the pursuit of a higher plane of existence, aBuddhist monk will renounce his worldly secular life, instead embracing a lifeof meditation and study.
While attempting to achieve enlightenment, andtherefore 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. Byclearing the mind of mundane clutter and distractions, a monk can become in tunewith his inner being and body, which results in a greater understanding of thebarriers that need to collapse before nirvana can be achieved. This practice ofmeditation was the Buddhist practice that I participated in, with the intent ona greater understanding of what being a Buddhist means.
This exercise taught methe inherent difficulty in calming the mind, along with the negative effectsoutside influences like other people have on the practice.The first place I attempted to meditate was outside my dorm next to atree. This proved to be a comfortable place, yet full of distractions. I havemeditated before in my martial arts classes, yet it was difficult calming mymind. While concentrating on my breathing, I was easily distracted by outsideoccurrences such as leaves falling and people walking by. The more I attemptedto shut out the outside world, the more my mind focused on the little thingsaround me. I gained immediate appreciation of the Buddhist monk’s ability toshirk the outside world and focus on his inner self.
When I had meditated beforein my dojo, it was as a group and in silence. This greatly helped the exerciseand I can see why this is the modus operandi at most temples.The second place I attempted to meditate was in the basement of ReidHall. I hoped that the familiar surroundings would calm the mind easier andallow me to concentrate on clearing my mind.
While not an ideal setting, it wasbetter than outside. As I concentrated on my breathing and felt myself unwind, Iwas able to tune into the sound of the dryers in the distance and this whitenoise helped me focus on my spirit and not anything happening around me. Iimagined myself first as earth, then air, striving to feel these elements insideof me. However, friends from the hall soon entered the basement and inquiredabout what I was doing.
This broke my concentration, snapping my mind back intothe present. I was unable to achieve that sense of oneness again, as people camedown to play Ping-Pong, making the exercise virtually worthless. I had comecloser than the first time, yet had a long way to go.My third attempt at imitating a Buddhist monk while meditating tookplace in my room, while my roommates were gone. I sat cross-legged (the lotusposition was impossible for me) on the floor and once again concentrated on theair 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 forconcentrating than absolute silence. This time, I quickly sunk into a sense ofcalm, all my thoughts of school fading away. I imagined myself a monk in theChin Shan temple, striving for enlightenment. Just to add another level to theactivity (by this time is was fairly boring) I attempted to decipher the ZenBuddhist koan “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” This proved utterlyimpossible in the half-hour time period I was meditating, yet it gave me a feelfor what a Buddhist monk does and helped focus my errant mind, preventing itfrom wandering.
By far, the last time I meditated was the most successful. Therewere no major advances, everything was a measure of degree. Yet sitting for ahalf-hour cross-legged was no longer extremely uncomfortable, focusing thebreathing and mind was easier, and I felt at peace which was nice feeling in ausually 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 thesemen and women. I have always respected forms of mental concentration and theability to raise oneself into a higher plane of consciousness. In my study ofthe martial arts, the ability to become one with your opponent and thereforeknow how he will move before he actually moves is paramount.
This omniscientsense occurs only after years of training, and while a black belt who hastrained for six years I am still far from this state of ability. I can readilysee 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 fromsociety and group meditation is of great importance, especially in the beginningof one’s path toward the mastery of the Eight-fold Path. The seclusion isnecessary so that outside distractions and desires are eliminated. If the mindhas 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 fromlife and find the inner life within oneself. Yet this inner self, which isultimately to be eradicated, is hard to find. One can know who one is and yetnot be able to define oneself. One of the goals of a Buddhist monk is to be abletruthfully define oneself and this knowledge will then set one’s soul free. Yetthis endeavor is the hardest task a human can undertake.
To truly face what onereally is takes more courage than most people have. To aid this, the communityof the temple comes into play heavily. It is easier to meditate and deny oneselfthe riches of secular life if you struggle beside others. While Buddhismadvocates a personal struggle toward enlightenment, humans are gregarious beingsat heart and so normally work better in the presence of brethren.
Along withone’s fellow monks, the abbot and preceptor’s help guide and direct the learningof the monks. They offer subtle forms of encouragement, often disguised inhardship, that aid the monks in their struggle toward understanding. This is aboon, allowing enlightenment to occur quicker than in the solitary meditation Iexperienced.A Buddhist way of life is a lot harder than one may suspect, for whilethey are released from the worries of everyday life, the mental tasks assignedto them are far greater than worrying about what to cook for dinner tonight orpaying one’s electricity bill. Furthermore, a Buddhist lifestyle is not veryconducive to an American lifestyle.
I give a lot of credit to the founders ofthe Zen Mountain Center in San Francisco, creating a microcosm which can supportthe solitude necessary for personal growth is a daunting task. From my limitedventure into the life of a Buddhist, I learned that controlling one’s mind andthen harnessing this power to delve out truths and desires from oneself is afeat almost inconceivable by the normal mind. Those who accomplish this task aretruly Buddha’s, master’s of the world and therefore outside the grasp of time,free at last.Religion