This teaching is directed at young monks who after ordination go back in contact with our conventional society. However, I find it also serves as a valuable reminder for every seriously practicing layperson. (“In the same manner four fears should be expected by a person leaving the household to become a homeless.”)
The Buddha compares the monk striving out into samsara with a sailor, venturing out onto a large ocean. A journey on such a large body of water comes with a unforeseeable number of dangers the poor sailor has to face.
It is interesting how the Buddha throughout the Canon keeps referring to the spiritual journey of the holy life to the journey on, or the crossing of water. He compares his teachings with the vessel you use to cross the water, or he describes the people in samsara how they in deep confusion run up and down the waterline, not knowing how to proceed. (i.e. Dhammapada 85, 86). Among the similes involving water the >Simile of the Raft< is probably one of the most famous images taught by the Buddha. He compares his own teachings to a raft that could be used to cross the river, but should be discarded when one made it safely to the other shore. The raft parable appears in the Alagaddupama (Water Snake Simile) Sutta of the Sutta-pitaka (Majjhima Nikaya 22). In this sutta, the Buddha discusses the importance of learning the dhamma properly and the danger of clinging to views.
Anyway, in this case the person who leaves his sangha (aka the monastery) finds himself alone on the ocean facing four kinds of dangers. (“Bhikkhus, these four are fears to be expected by those ascending to waters. What four?”)
The first danger the sailor faces are Waves. Outside of his protective community the person on a spiritual path will be confronted with people unfamiliar with his practice and equipped with untrained minds. He might be subject to misunderstandings, ridicule or blame. It will be very tempting to react with ill will, anger and aversion. Once his mind gives rise to these destructive states, like a wave that overthrows his vessel, he might soon be thrown of his path and drown under the impact of this strong emotions.
The second danger the sailor faces are crocodiles. A creature like a crocodiles knows pretty much nothing besides eating. It will stop at nothing on its way to a feast and it will forget any caution of danger to satisfy the greed for food. Once it has eaten it will return to do nothing, until the greed rises again. In the very same way a person a spiritual path can become a victim to the greed for food. Especially at a point where the more gross defilements like sexual pleasure, drugs and the constant stream of visual and auditory stimuli are under control. All of these can at least be avoided. However we can never stop eating. The addiction to food is one that can never easily be overcome. Hence it is dangerous like a hungry crocodile.
The third danger the sailor faces are whirlpools. whirlpools will suck you down to your death. The Whirlpool is a synonym for the five strands of sensual pleasures. This would be the pleasure we get from seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and thinking. (Remember that in Buddhism the cognition of a sense information is categorized as a sense.) I find this image to be particularly fitting. The simile is absolutely perfect. See, at the very beginning you don’t even realize what is happening to you. You just feel a slight tug at your body in the water and as you are slowly dragged into a wide circle you might think: “Hey, that’s kind of nice… Wheee!” Then comes the moment where it dawns on you that you cannot leave anymore, but who wants to leave anyway, when the pleasure is so strong. By the time you realize that there is always more and stronger and faster pleasure waiting for you, you will be swallowed and vanish in samsara completely. You might survive the waves. You might even survive the dangerous animals. Surviving the whirlpool, once you are in it to far is not going to happen. You have to avoid them completely. This simile is so accurate, it’s almost frightening.
The fourth danger the sailor faces are sharks. The shark serves as a synonym for the opposite sex. In the Canon this teaching was directed at monks, so the sharks are a synonym for women. However, it is rather obvious that this would be the other way around if the teaching was given to nuns. The idea is that whatever gender one is attracted to (may it be the opposite or the same) is the one sight that will grab a hold of you and will never let go again. Just like a shark who has found something to feed on. For someone not on a spiritual path this image maybe seems unnecessarily harsh, but for a monastic who is bound by the vow of celibacy this simile is spot on. Nothing gets a monk out of his robe faster then the object of sexual desire, metaphorically and literally. Sexual desire is so strong that it rightly deserves it’s own category next to the whirlpools. Sharks are by far the number one reason for a monastic to disrobe.
So, now you know. Whenever you venture out to sea, be aware of the four great dangers!
This year I turned forty and so far I’m not freaking out. I wondered, however, what advice I would give myself at age twenty, if I had a chance. German as I am, I came up with some structured guidelines. All steps are based on everything I did horribly wrong over the last twenty years.
00 Step zero: Take a break.
Whenever you panic because you need to do something immediately, just stop. I know you think it is important, but it really isn’t. Yes, I know,… but no, it’s not. Go have a tea. Meditate on the toilet. Breathe until your heart starts to beat again. Take a step back and observe. Especially observe yourself observing. Learn to just wait.
Now, you can start with step one…
01 Find compassion.
Don’t be cruel to yourself. The world will be cruel to you. People will be cruel to you. You have to work with that, however you are not required to help them. You have to find empathy and you have to use it on yourself, too. You have to feel the pain of others, but you also have to acknowledge yourself as a friend at some point. This is the hardest thing you will ever do. You might as well start early.
02 Don’t let fear make your decisions.
You will end up doing that anyway. At least stay conscious of it. At every time of the day you are procrastinating something out of fear. You don’t have to be afraid all the time. Everything in life can happen. Especially nothing. You will die a thousand deaths every week and miraculously live to tell about it.
03 All you need is less.
Gain content in life by minimalizing it. Stop the illusion of needing. Needing is something that is purely in your head. You absolutely do not need all that crap around you. It blocks the view on your life. Find the place of needing and observe it intensely until it goes away out of pure embarrassment. Try to reduce your needing until it goes away. Trust me, you don’t really need it.
04 The key to success is showing up.
You have to put in the hours. Stop complaining, nobody cares. You have to keep pushing. Shut up and do your work. And I said pushing, not killing. There is a difference. To be able to train tomorrow, you have to let yourself survive. And no, there is no way to bypass the training. You have to put in the ten thousand hours. Stop arguing, you could have locked in another hour in the meantime.
05 Stay in clear sight of an emergency exit.
Never commit to one plan or one person or one dream or one career full and only. You will change so fast you will be surprised by yourself – if you notice, that is. Never go all in. Always come prepared with a plan B. Prepare for things to fall apart. Because they will. They always do. It’s what they do. It’s in their nature.
06 It’s about the result. Not how you get there.
Define a goal and go for that goal. If you don’t have a goal, don’t go. What you do has to have a desired result. Otherwise don’t do it. If you plan to be active as soon as >xyz< happens, you already lost. Don’t spent time on planning to structure the thinking about the actual doing. Do it.
07 Train to be brave.
Being brave needs practice. Your are not born brave. Seek out places in your life that make you uncomfortable. If there’s something scary waiting for you, start running towards it. If something scary lurks behind you, turn around and attack. Move in straight lines towards your fear. Once you arrive, there will be nothing there. I promise.
08 Other people can’t live your life.
Nobody can live your life for you. You have to do it yourself. You are the only person that can make you happy, nobody else can do that. It is your own opinion that counts for that. If you don’t have one, get one. You have to know who you are, where you are, what you stand for. Wearing other peoples opinions secondhand is useless.
09 Rely on your own power
There is no need to find a greater power outside of yourself. You can try, but you are wasting precious time. You are the creator. You create the universe you live in. Inventing beliefs just to outsource your responsibility is cowardly. So do respect other peoples gods, but don’t rely on them.
10 Go and find yourself
Spend your life searching for you. There is not enough time, so move slowly. Don’t trust the obvious, you’ll change. If it is very easy to catch yourself, you are holding the wrong person. Find happiness and peace and the end of suffering.
If someone asks me if I am a Buddhist, my answer is >Yes<. What a mundane message, I know, but bear with me for a second. This simple answer is usually followed by half a dozen disclaimer, which explain what I talk about when I talk about Buddhism. I wrote about that before >here<.
I do this because what most people know about Buddhism usually turns out to be surprisingly imprecise. Also, no matter what you say, half of all the Buddhist schools will immediately come after you with torches and pitchforks because they think you deliberately misrepresent their lineage. If you go on and then ask me >why< I am a Buddhist, I will answer that I simply tried everything else I could find and this is the only thing that ever worked for me.
From there I can go into deeper explanations, if there are further questions.
Most people somehow don’t do that. I learned that when I was younger. Asking people what spiritual path the follow would mostly get me confused looks. If I got an answer at all, it was usually that someone considers himself Christian. When I asked why, I was back to the blank stare.
Once I meet the parents of a girlfriend and they turned out to be some strange kind of fundamental Christians. I thought >awesome<, because if anyone knows their stuff, then the fundamentalists. So I asked a couple of innocent questions. I will never forget the moment when the confused mother turned to her husband and asked: “Honey, what do we believe in?”
This experience was really baffling to me, since in my life there is usually no shortage on people who will talk for twenty minutes straight about why they chose this particularly model of car and why the choice was crucial for their survival in this world.
Somehow I still think you should always know what you do and why. There is a real danger in not knowing this. If you are unaware of your path then some people might make you follow something you really don’t want to, just because you never bothered to look into it.
You should also know how other religions and spiritual paths look back at you and how the judge you. Small example: Did you know that the Pagans where convinced that Christians are not so much following a god but rather a powerful demon? I think about that, whenever I see them praying to a guy nailed to a tree. It makes me wonder.
I give you another more Buddhist example. Recently I met a wonderful and amazing woman who practices in a certain Sangha. Their practice is to sit in a circle and recite a mantra. The mantra is for healing. The idea is to send healing energy from the Buddha to yourself and others.
We talked about this and I remarked that this is a wonderful practice for healing especially with all the visualizations and that it is a really powerful way help others.
I also pointed out that it is strictly speaking (and if you want to get all technically about it) not a Buddhist teaching, since it is not a practice that is pointed at enlightenment.
I should have kept my mouth shut, because it turns out that her high-level-super-experienced-Tibetan-former-monk-teacher told her very explicitly that it indeed is a teaching that will lead her to enlightenment. She was very upset with me.
I never told her the rest of my thoughts, since it is not my business to criticize other peoples practice. However I thought to myself: If you sit in a circle and recite a mantra and you think that leads to enlightenment and that the quality of your recitation has influence on the speed of enlightenment you are not so much a Buddhist. You are a closet Hindu. You practice exactly that, what the Buddha went out to criticize the Brahmans for. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a Hindu. It’s just.. you might probably want to know about it, don’t you?
There is a crucial point in that story. Buddhism is all about knowing. No excuses. Especially not of the: >But-my-teacher-said-so<-kind. You are not supposed to believe anything a teacher says, or anything you read on some weird guys internet blog. Use your own head. There was a time back in the old days, after the Buddha passed on, when Buddhism was not called Buddhism yet and the monks gathered and wondered what they should call their spiritual tradition. What to call themselves. On idea was vibhajjavadin. The translation is: Those who follow the doctrine of analysis. Or to put it in modern words: Those who break shit down.
It became the name of one of the old sects. However, it’s quite accurate as a name.
It’s really what we do. We break shit down. Down to a point where there is no more breaking down. I say it again: It is all about knowing.