Buddhist practice of various sorts has helped me greatly in trying to deal with the frustrations of cancer care. I wrote already of the role of prayer to Mañjuśrī and Buddhist reading. Now I’d like to say more about what I learned from that reading – and how these practices all fit together.
After rereading Śāntideva himself, I decided to turn to recent Tibetan commentaries and restatements of his work, either written in English in their English translation. Some such works had languished unread on my bookshelves for years. I had avoided dipping deeply into the Tibetan reception of Śāntideva for my dissertation because, frankly, my Tibetan is not very good. I had tried to take Tibetan during an exceptionally busy semester (teaching two course sections, taking more Sanskrit, trying to write my dissertation proposal, and more I don’t even remember); something had to drop from my schedule, and Tibetan was it. I think the dissertation’s interpretive approach works without the Tibetan literature, but I do think Tibetan commentary could have benefitted it. I could theoretically have used that commentary in translation, but I was too scared of calling attention to a scholarly weakness. This is no longer a problem now that I’m no longer on the faculty track. Ironically, being outside academia allowed me to read and write more widely about my dissertation topic. By this point, above all, I was reading for myself rather than others – so fie upon the academic credentials game. Here English is good enough.
The first work I turned to was Pema Chödrön’s No Time To Lose. It is very much a Yavanayāna book. An adjective that struck me in reading it was “watered down” – but, to use a rather un-Buddhist metaphor, it seemed lightly watered down in the way one waters down a cask-strength Scotch, opened up by the process of weakening. Chödrön explains Śāntideva with a modern Western audience in mind. She deemphasizes Śāntideva’s praise of monasticism, and she typically naturalizes karma, treating it in terms of our own mental states and their effects. And this was exactly what I needed, and indeed still need. For I am not a monk and don’t intend to be; I was seeking help to resolve a grave trouble in my worldly household life and the life of the one I share it with. Nor do I believe in karma as generating better rebirths in future lives.
Rather, Chödrön takes us through Śāntideva’s work on the understanding that it really is good advice for living, even for non-monks. One of the ideas she highlights is watchfulness, or mindfulness: the need to monitor one’s thoughts constantly to stop the mental afflictions (kleśas) one is fighting against, like anger and self-pity, from coming back – or perhaps more importantly, to be aware enough when they do come back that one can reduce them, talk them down. This is easier said than done, especially for non-monks: we can’t always be thinking about our thoughts, we need to be thinking of the objects of our thoughts. But we can remind ourselves of the contexts where the afflictions most likely to hit us, and take those as opportunities to be particularly aware. (In my case at least, politics is a key example – and so is digital technology not working.)
And certain other practices also help bolster this watchfulness. The benefits of certain meditation practices are often touted – that’s why one such modernized Buddhist practice is now called “mindfulness meditation”. I certainly don’t rule out their working to that effect for me in the future, but they haven’t yet, at least not much. Rather, what helped focus my mind in a way that helped me deal with destructive emotions were the practices I’d already started doing – sometimes in modified form.
First of these was my scriptural reading itself. Just the fact of returning regularly to Śāntideva and his commentators, and reading them not for dissertation writing but to learn from them, helped my mind return to their teachings even when I wasn’t reading them. And then there were the prayers to Mañjuśrī – which took a new form because of my reading.
And then there was something else. In his How to Practice (pp. 96-9), the fourteenth Dalai Lama recommends what he calls the “seven meritorious practices” – which I recognized with a start as the anuttarapūjā, the “highest worship” that Śāntideva recommends in Bodhicaryāvatāra chapter II. This practice has taken a number of different historical forms – sometimes it has only five parts. But in addition to what I was already doing – asking Mañjuśrī for help with being good – there were three parts of it that directly sparked my interest, made me think that this kind of worship was something I needed in my life.
First there is pāpadeśanā, which is usually translated “confession of sin”. While I have often in the past disputed the translation of pāpa as “sin” (typically preferring “bad karma”), if the “sin” translation fits anywhere, it fits here: the practitioner admits and verbalizes bad deeds in a manner very close to Catholic confession. When I first encountered this section years ago, I found it off-putting at best. Now, though, after years of struggling to be a good person in the face of self-undermining, I see the wisdom and even comfort in it. Even if we aspire to the perfection of a bodhisattva, we shouldn’t expect that we have already reached it. We need to accept that we will be flawed, expect it, and remind ourselves of it in order to correct it.
But the pāpadeśanā is accompanied by a contrasting practice: puṇyānumodanā, rejoicing in good karma, in what is good. (A key reason I have disliked the translation of pāpa as “sin” is that “sin” has no opposite – but pāpa does, namely puṇya.) In Śāntideva this part is given a somewhat perfunctory treatment, but the Dalai Lama gives it a valuable spin: rejoice mentally in the good deeds, not only of yourself but of others. (Don’t go over their bad deeds, though. We can usually do with less notice of that.) It is a helpful reminder of the goodness that does accompany the badness in oneself and others, in the spirit of Confucius’s advice in Analects I.16: “The good man does not grieve that other people do not recognize his merits. His only anxiety is lest he should fail to recognize theirs.”
And finally there is pariṇāmanā, literally “redirection” – specifically the redirection of puṇya, of good karma. In this practice, one expresses the wish that any good karma one has earned through good practice be directed to the well-being of others. It’s easy to think of this as characteristically Mahāyāna, yet we effectively did it at the (Theravāda) Goenka meditation retreat I participated in a decade ago – and there, that practice had more of a lasting effect on me than any of the other meditation practices involved. The practice of wishing well-being even to one’s enemies, as Goenka recommended, is extremely powerful and does a great deal to quell one’s angers and hatreds.
But not only to one’s enemies. A long time ago, a colleague in my doctoral religion program noted how helpful it was in hard times to hear people saying “I’m praying for you”. I noted “it’s a good language for wishing people well” – a language one usually doesn’t have outside of a tradition with supernatural elements. Pariṇāmanā is very much the Buddhist equivalent of a Christian praying for another’s well-being. To those who are suffering in hard times, one has a way of daily keeping them in one’s thoughts.
I incorporated all of these into my nightly prayers to Mañjuśrī, enough that they are not only prayers anymore. Prayer, meditation, ritual, I’m not even sure what to call it. But it helped, and it helps.