Sometimes I worry that ‘Gentle Buddhism’ is an oxymoron. When I think of the Pali sutras, the closest thing we have to the Buddha’s actual words, what I remember is their endless lists of good qualities – concentration, wisdom, patience, pure speech… and how the Buddha exhorts us to perfect these qualities in order to become enlightened.
When I think of the Buddhist teachings in this way – as a self-development programme – it feels almost impossible. It also feels like a great deal of work. Maybe this is what Shakyamuni Buddha really intended for us all – that we should push ourselves to our limits, neglecting ourselves so we can be generous to others, and accepting all torment in service to our spiritual quest.
I decide to open my big fat copy of ‘The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha’* at random for some guidance. I flick through sutras about taking refuge in the three jewels (no striving here – that’s a relief) and a sutra where the Buddha praises Ananda’s good qualities. I feel a little relief – I remember that my fantasy of what they sutras contain is often different from my experience when I actually start to read them!
Before long I land on a sutra from The Book of the Fours (198:8 – p580) – ‘Self-Torment’. How interesting – the same word I used myself just before opening the book. In this teaching the Buddha describes how a person might torment themselves. A self-tormenter is one who doesn’t accept food if it’s brought by a pregnant woman or from a place where a dog is waiting. He (sparingly) eats hide-parings or moss or rice scum or cow dung. He pulls out his hair and beard, and rejects seats. He “…dwells pursuing the practice of tormenting and mortifying the body.”
Is this what the Buddha wanted us to do? No! In this sutra he is giving us a vivid example of someone who has taken self-torment too far, and warning us against it. This person who wears robes made of tree bark and who uses a mattress of thorns is definitely not acting with gentleness or care towards himself.
The Buddha does go on to list the things a person who doesn’t torment himself should never do (dancing, going to unsuitable shows, running errands). I may want to keep the dancing and the errands, but I read this part as his warning against the opposite of self-torment – a falling into excessive indulgence that can be just as damaging as self-mortification.
The Middle Path
This brings us to a quote by the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield*:
“For some years the Buddha practiced as an austere yogi in the forests of India. In time he realised that his extreme asceticism had brought him no more freedom than his previous indulgence in worldly pleasure. Instead, he saw that human freedom must come from practising a life of inner and outer balance, and he called this discovery the Middle Path.” ~ Jack Kornfield
Did the Buddha want us to go gently? I can’t know for sure. What we have of the Buddha’s teachings were passed orally from generation to generation before being written down in languages that were then translated and translated. Even if we had video-recordings of him, I can imagine the arguments that would develop online about what he actually meant! All we can do is read his teachings and those of other wise teachers and test them against our own experience.
I do know that self-mortification doesn’t work for me. I know that when I push myself too hard to do anything, there is a backlash, and I end up in a worse place than I was in before. It has taken me many decades to learn these lessons, and I am continuing to learn them. I will carry the Buddha’s words about that poor self-tormenting fellow with me, and when I next find myself thinking I should be eating rice scum after a day of indulgence, or pushing myself past a physical limit because it would be ‘good for me’ – just like the Buddha’s chap who ‘…squats continuously, devoted to maintaining the squatting position’!
I will ease up on myself, find some kindness, and direct myself back towards the Middle Way. Maybe you will too.
Go gently _/|\_
What beliefs do you hold about the Buddha, Buddhism or your own spiritual practice? How might they be limiting you? How can you add more gentleness into your approach to leading a spiritual life?
* The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha – A Translation of the Anguttara Nikaya by Bhikku Bodhi
* Teachings of the Buddha – Edited by Jack Kornfield