There are a lot of good aspects involved, if your teacher is a trained therapist or comes from a healing background. He or she will be qualified to catch you falling and help you work through any of your traumas. This is awesome and wonderful. There cannot be enough therapists using the Dhamma to help people heal.
However, I also recognize problems every time a meditator with a strong healing background becomes a teacher and starts to give Dhamma talks. Particularly when the teacher wants to make a living out of it. A teacher who wants to earn a living lives in great danger to tell his students whatever they want to hear, so they will come back and bring their friends. It happens consciously or unconsciously. What usually happens next is that you end up with a weird mixture of Wellness and something approaching spiritual tree-hugging. Maybe it’s just me, but contemporary Buddhism seems to overflow with healing teachers who want their students to feel good about themselves. You don’t get that a lot in Zen circles, however the Healing-Vipassana seems extremely popular these days and it even starts to export the ideas of Wellness-Buddhism back into Mahayana, which is hilarious in its very own way. I actually know a Zen-Place that renamed itself, just so it could get a piece of the mindfulness-business. If you know how Mahayana evolved, than this little fact is just cute.
So, what are the issues with that trend? What is wrong with a teacher who wants to make people feel good about themselves? How can I have possibly a problem with that?
Well, the problem is, that this not what Buddhism is for. Buddhism was not designed to make you feel good about yourself. Quite the opposite is true. In fact, healing and Buddhism can very well be opposed to each other, unless you are very clear and specific about what you mean by ‘healing’.
Most people talk about the need for healing, if they suffer from anything that restrains or hinders them from participating in conventional reality. This would be the reality that in Buddhism is subsumed under the umbrella-term ‘Samsara’. This is the reality where all your relationships and jobs and careers and all that stuff takes place. Any healing will therefore try to integrate you better into this meta-structure of reality, e.g. to heal the childhood trauma that keeps you from having healthy relationships with your wife. Or fix the idea that you are unworthy and not special enough to get promoted to the job that finally will make you happy. And while we are at it, fix the erectile dysfunction you get because you are secretly scared of women, so you can finally have the house full of children you always wanted. This is when you need to accept yourself and feel good about who you are.
And this, coincidentally, is also the place you should be in, >before< you enter the path of the Dhamma. You should have a place of healing and acceptance and well-being, not because this is the purpose of the Buddha’s teachings, but because this stable ground is needed to apply them. The job of a Dhamma-Teacher is to bring the whole of the realm of conventional reality to your awareness. A place you hopefully occupy in a stable and healthy way. He will point to the whole of this existence you created for yourself. Everything about what makes you happy, the dreams of jobs and relationships and career and plans for the future and family and almost everything that is dear and close to you… and then shred it to pieces. Because it is all fake and unreal. (This is why you should be stable in the first place. If your life is a psychotic mess, then a Zen-Sesshin is probably not the best place to address this…)
Buddhism is about deconstructing conventional reality until nothing is left you can use to lie to yourself. Buddhism is not meant to help you function better in Samsara. The Buddha was not about ‘Wellness’. A Dhamma teacher who meets you in your convoluted, neurotic samsaric mess and makes you feel good about yourself is useless. (He may be a good healer, though.) A Dhamma teacher is supposed to challenge you, to irritate you and to heavily piss you of. I once spent a weekend with a Zen-Teacher who was extremely cultivated and well behaved, friendly and polite. One day into the weekend I was ready to punch his face down his throat. The man was a really good teacher. He saw me as a big strong bear and therefor he gently but constantly kept poking me with a stick. Metaphorically speaking, of course. (Although Zen-Masters of the old days were known to use sticks, too.) That is what a teacher is for. Find you in your deluded place and use the right stick to beat you out of there.
I would like to repeat this point, just to really sail this home. If your teacher keeps telling you in his Dhamma talks that the moon does not shine in the sky but in your heart and you go home thinking that this is really, really deep and that the world would be a better place if we all could start and end the day with a big warm group hug, then you experienced something very, very strange, but it was not the teaching of the Buddha. If a true Dhamma-Teacher finds your exact frequency and hits you with what the Buddha taught, you will end up in tears and shaking, … trust me. (Yes, I know, you are supposed to grasp the truth and start laughing and dancing, that is another cliché. But this is really for monks, who already turned their back on Samsara and know exactly what to look for. The rest of us, who are still up to the neck in conventional reality will rather shake and cry.)
Now, is the path to enlightenment, which deconstructs conventional reality, not also a form of healing? Is it not a more (for lack of a better word) ‘real’ healing, since it is supposed to free us from suffering for good, while any form of healing in conventional reality is by definition only a painting over symptoms? Yes, of course. This is exactly the case and therefore I started out by saying that we should be really careful, what we talk about, when we use the word ‘healing’.
This is something we have to define for ourselves. What do we want healing from and what is this healing supposed to move us closer to? Is the place the healing got us to a place worth being, or is it really just another sickness. And is the sickness a disease that can be healed by wellness…?
This time I would like to talk about the heart. Sadly I don’t really understand enough to talk about this one from a teachers perspective, so I will tell a story instead.
Back in the day, around 2008(ish), when my son was a little baby, I used to push him around in his baby buggy all the time, so he would fall asleep already. That could take a while. We would walk through the park, come sunshine or rain, mostly on weekends and early in the morning, and it was quite peaceful. Nobody would be bugging us. Sooner or later he would be sound asleep and I always listened to podcasts. I had a little iPod and I would download the Zencast. I don’t even know if that one is still around. The fun fact about the Zencast back in 2008 was, that there were not that many Zen teachers putting out Dhamma talks on a regular bases yet, it was the very early day of podcasts. So what they did was to just substitute other Dhamma talks. One day, we were walking along the river on a Sunday morning, a guy named Gil Fronsdal started talking in my headphones about something called ‘Metta’. That strange word apparently meant ‘Loving kindness’ and was a key term in Buddhism. I was dumbfounded. Coming from a Zen/Martial Arts background everything related to ‘loving’ obviously had to be some weird nonsense for tree huggers and hippies.
Nevertheless, I listened and eventually even learned. And as it is often with things like that, it somehow got stuck back in my head. Years later, by then deep into Theravada territory, I was still trying to get a grip on the whole Metta thing. It’s not that I did not try, but I never quite understood what is was supposed to be all about. I tried to read smart books about the topic, like Jack Kornfield’s ‘Path with heart’, but didn’t even make it through the first chapter before I kinda lost the epub file. I even bought another copy, hardcover this time, but gave that away, too. I seemed to have the wrong training/personality for this stuff. It’s not even like loving kindness was totally unknown in Zen. During my brief encounter with a Japanese Zen teacher we had little tea ceremonies as a group. I remember him always saying stuff like: “And now we drink tea-givers love!”, and I was like: “Yeah, let’s do that, wait… what?” It was Zen alright. Even love was weird in Zen.
Somehow I made it to a Metta practice anyway. Persistency works. Turns out you don’t have to really get it to just send friendly thoughts to people. You think of someone you like and wish the person to be happy and healthy and peaceful. That’s easy enough. I could do that. So, I did that for a while, just sending out good energy to people and even myself, in a sort of grumbling way, like: “Yeah, I should maybe be happy, too, whatever…”.
So all was well, until I went to a week long meditation retreat in the deep south of Germany with Bhante Nyanabhodi. I signed on on the bases of: I want a retreat, he is a monk, … sold. What I did not know, was that he is the official successor of his teacher Ayya Khema and hence basically running her lineage. I also had no idea that Ayya Khema was known for her very Metta-centered approach to the dhamma training. This is karma for you. I only wanted to go on retreat for a week. Halfway through the retreat Bhante Nyanabhodi decided to share Ayya Khema’s favorite Metta-practice with us. It was a visualization technique where one imagines a lotus-flower in the middle of ones chest, where the heart is. The flower begins to bloom and sends out light that shines through the whole body, radiating the loving kindness one then shares with other people. I mean, seriously, a Lotus flower sharing love? Can it possibly get more hippie than that? I remember silently groaning in deep pain to myself, when the instructions unfolded.
However I went along with it thinking something like: “Well, as long as I’m here…”. I come from a strict breath work and Vipassana practice, but I do know a lot of energy visualization techniques from my Tai Chi training. I just never combined both systems. Maybe this is why my approach to this new way of doing Metta meditation proved to be slightly more effective than expected. I basically cried through every meditation for the rest of the week.
After the retreat it took me more than a month to regroup myself and get a grip on my practice again. The results of this simple metta meditation left me in quite a bit of a shock and I still am in awe how such a powerful technique can work in a mind of someone who evolutionary speaking is barley one step ahead of sitting in a tree and wondering why it is not possible to eat stones. This btw, is the reason for the monkey picture I drew and that you find at the top of this post. I like monkeys and I’m really bad at self portraits, so there you go.
Based on my new experience with Metta meditation I have to reconsider a lot that I thought I knew about the Buddhist path. Bhante Nyanabodhi calls Metta the greatest and most powerful integrating force on our way to enlightenment. Especially for us in the West, who are basically divided from others and our self from birth by a society that institutionalizes greed and hate and fear on every step of our childhood.
Also, it is not like this approach to the practice is in any way shape or form new or revolutionary. It is completely in line with the Buddha’s teaching. It is just one more possible way to approach inner development and the Buddha was very clear on this one:
Mettavihari yo bhikkhu pasanno buddhasasane adhigacche padam santam sankharupasamam sukham.
“The bhikkhu who lives exercising loving-kindness and is devoted to the Teaching of the Buddha will realize Nibbana — the Tranquil, the Unconditioned, the Blissful.”
[Dhammapada Verse 368]
As a last thought I would like to point something out, that Bhante Nyanabodhi said repeatedly during the repeat. He explained that this approach to the Dhamma, a path through Metta, is only for the most brave among the Buddha’s students, since the student has to face his own heart. I thought about this a long time and now I have to agree with him. Whenever I have witnessed a strong warrior backing out of a fight, he was usually facing himself. The more intimate the encounter, the faster the flight. Facing your own heart should therefor be the toughest challenge we can encounter. More than anything else I learned from this experience, I got a certainty that this is the one challenge we cannot run away from forever.
Oh, and btw, I bought another copy of Jack Kornfield’s ‘Path with Heart’ and this time a made it to the second chapter. So, there seems to be hope…