Calling myself a Buddhist, it turns out, was only the beginning. Buddhism was there for me in this dark time, not only as a way of focusing prayer, and certainly not merely as the resource for a hypothetical chaplain. The Buddhist ideas that taught me so much before were still there and a great comfort. And there was more still: I have now begun to practise Buddhism as I see it, on a far deeper level than I ever had before.
This practice still hasn’t meant what it means for most Yavanayāna Buddhists, up to and including my own mother: that is, the kind of quietly sitting concentration or internal observation that we usually refer to as “meditation”. When I struggled with insomnia last year, the medical staff at Boston Medical Center – without knowing I’d had any involvement with Buddhism – recommended mindfulness meditation, which went some way to helping then. I’ve meditated briefly a few times in the past few months as well, and I expect to do more in the future. But in an odd repeat of my experience at a Goenka vipassanā retreat, I found again that meditation was not the practice that made a big difference for me. Perhaps I’m just bad at it – but be that as it may, now as then, other Buddhist practices had a bigger impact on me.
The first practice to really affect me, and the one that set the rest in motion, was simple reading. Cancer takes a toll on the caregiver as well as the patient – my wife’s wonderful account likens it to being punched in the face by a large predator – and when both people in a relationship are feeling strained, the strain can express itself in anger and bitterness and other poor ways of acting and feeling. One rough and frustrating night, several months ago, reminded me of Śāntideva’s counsel, near the beginning of the Bodhicaryāvatāra, that the power of pāpa – our bad actions and emotions that produce bad results – is “vast and terrible”. After I had helped my wife to bed, I picked the book up and thought reading a few verses might calm my nerves as I prepared to try to sleep.
Did it ever. This is a book I’ve read dozens of times – I did my dissertation on it, after all – and as with most things one reads that often, in the past I often found myself quite tired of it. Yet this time I couldn’t put it down. Instead of a few verses, I read seven chapters, more than half of it. Śāntideva’s call to fight against anger, against self-pity, against craving – this was exactly what I needed.
We often don’t think of reading as a “spiritual practice”, but it is. Or rather, it can be. The always thought-provoking Paul Griffiths wrote a whole book about it. Griffiths draws a sharp distinction between “religious reading” and “consumerist reading” – the latter, of course, being what we usually practise, especially in academia. Consumerist readers learn to read quickly, in order to absorb or enjoy as many different texts as possible, often with the goal of writing something new as a result. “Religious” readers, on the other hand, read slowly, taking their time and savouring the work in order to make it a part of themselves. They reread, they memorize; if they write, they write commentaries or anthologies.
Philosophers are no exception to the rule that academics practise consumerist reading – comparative philosophers perhaps most of all, since there is such an overwhelming array of different things to know. I had indeed read and reread Śāntideva closely for the dissertation, but it was indeed for the dissertation – so that I could myself say something new and interesting, hopefully something that would enrich humanity.
But this time was different. This time, I was reading for myself – and yet in a way that somehow felt less selfish than reading for others. The Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi helped me realize this. In his chapters on reading and learning, translated by Daniel Gardner in Learning to Be a Sage, he makes a distinction notably similar to Griffiths’s, worried that people are reading the Confucian classics for the wrong reasons. These reasons include success on exams (some things never change) but they also include trying to produce new and flowery rhetoric to impress others. Instead he urges: “Read little but become intimately familiar with what you read; experience the text over and over again; and do not think about gain.” (Conversations of Master Chu 165.5, Gardner 131-2)
Zhu puts his approach to reading of this in a way that is surprising to Westerners used to a morality of altruism. He alludes to Confucius’s claim (Analects 14/24) that “In antiquity men studied for their own sake; nowadays men study for the sake of others.” In keeping with Confucius’s general predilection for antiquity, this is a claim that studying for others is bad; one should study for oneself:
The important thing for students today is to distinguish between the paths. What’s important is the boundary between “doing it for one’s own sake” and “doing it for the sake of others.” “To do it for one’s own sake” is to grasp the essence of things and affairs firsthand in reaching an understanding of them — you want to understand them for yourself. It isn’t to understand them recklessly, nor is it to understand them in a way that makes you look good, so that people will say yes, you have indeed understood; if this is how you were to go about it, even supposing you did understand them 100 per cent accurately, they’d still have no effect on you at all. You must first come to understand these paths; for only if you distinguish clearly between them can you understand the texts. (Conversations of Master Chu 139.4, Gardner p110)
This is what I have aimed for in the months since – for the text to have an effect on me, from experiencing it over and over again. Not reading it to write innovative essays or even to blog about it; any of that is a side effect. Instead reading it as a scripture, a fount of wisdom. I have been keeping up this practice in the months since. I have turned back to Śāntideva and many commentaries and interpretations on him, reading them slowly, patiently, with an eye to improving myself. And in so doing I’ve picked up other practices and even ideas, which I’ll speak of next time.