Magic Wands



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            Before leaving office, George Bush made a trip to Somalia, and told the U.S. Marines there that they were doing God's work. Doing God's work? What utter nonsense! Why doesn't God do his own work? Such a statement implies that the situation in Somalia has arisen with God's consent, or that the claimed omnipotence of God is not supported by reality―is, in fact, denied by reality! Our capacity for superstitious belief and self-deception is so great! Half the world is under the malignant influence of the belief in a good, kind, omnipotent God. Why doesn't it wake up and shrug off its delusion? It's truly amazing!

            More often than not, people who follow religion―any religion―are unrealistic in the things they expect from it, and even though their expectations are seldom, if ever, fulfilled, they still go on believing and expecting. If, let us say, someone bought a car, and expected it to fly, he might be quite disappointed upon finding that it couldn't fly; the fault, however, would not lie with the car, but with him for expecting something from it that could not possibly happen.

            Unrealistic expectations of religion may be called "The Magic Wand Syndrome." Many people obviously think that by believing in and praying to some God or other, practicing yoga or meditation, and so on, something miraculous might happen, to transform or save them. They willingly do all kinds of things―pray, chant, follow rules or precepts, fast, perform penance, mortify their flesh, make pilgrimages, give donations, do charity work, become vegetarian, practice meditation, etc.―with the idea of getting something in return. But it is best to be careful, before we begin, otherwise we might trip over our own feet in our haste to get or attain, for that which we might expect to attain cannot be calculated or measured in terms of 'this-for-that.'

            Many things are involved in anything and everything―so many, in fact, that we cannot possibly imagine how many. Nowadays, people are worried about the damage to their health caused by smoking (and quite rightly, too); but, we cannot simply say that if you smoke you will get lung cancer, for though smoking might well be the major cause of lung cancer, it is not the only cause, and my father is living proof of this: he has smoked heavily since he was a boy and, at 83, he still shows no signs of lung cancer. Can we, perhaps, attribute this to his karma, and the lung cancer of others to theirs? An effect is not produced by just one cause, and neither does one cause produce just one effect.

            So, when we follow a religion, we cannot be sure that what we might do will inevitably produce the longed-for results, as we can know only some of the causes of those results, and by no means all. If we see someone getting results by doing certain things, that is no guarantee that if we do the same things in the same way, we shall get the same results, as each person has different accumulations―different karma―and so their actions produce different results, in different degrees. There is danger of disappointment in practicing Dharma with the idea of getting something in return, for though there would be results (as every action has a reaction), they might not be the ones we hoped for.

            If only we were not in so much of a hurry! If only we didn't want so much for ourselves―our own small selves! If only we would see that to live virtuously is sufficient reward in itself, without thinking of what we might get as a result! We would probably be more happy than we are, and there would be far less conflict between people of different religions―or even of the same religion―than there is, and the results that follow―as follow they do―would be far greater, and much sweeter and gratifying for not being sought or expected. If we expect something pleasant, we feel good when we get it; but if we get something pleasant when we are not expecting it, it is so much better as there is the element of surprise about it. So, if we really wish to give someone a gift―not from custom or because it is expected of us, but because we feel like giving it and want to give it―any day will do; it doesn't have to be a 'special' day, like Christmas or a birthday; we can make any day special, if we wish to, and there is no reason why we should not do. And the least expected the gift is, the better. When gifts are exchanged from custom, as at Christmas time, some people consider the value of the gifts they receive against that of those they give, and bad feelings often result.

            It is sometimes said that "It is more blessed to give than to receive," but really, we can give nothing that we have not first received, and in giving, there is a feeling of satisfaction of knowing that one has done something good or right, and made someone happy, and is this not a kind of receiving, too?

            If we were to plant seeds in the garden, but then, impatient for them to grow, every day or so we dig them up to see how well they are growing, we would probably damage them and impede their growth instead of promoting it. And this is like what happens if we are overly concerned with getting results from our Dharma practice.

            There was a Sufi woman mystic named Rabiah al-Hadawiyah, who lived in Baghdad during the 8th century, and sometimes she would be seen walking the streets with a flaming torch in one hand, and a pail of water in the other. When asked why she was doing this, she said that she wanted to bum down Heaven, and extinguish the flames of Hell, so that people would live righteously, and love God for His own sake, without greed for reward, or fear of punishment.

            There is a word in Buddhist parlance―Vipassana―that many people have seized upon, and there is a tremendous amount of pride and elitism attached to it. It means 'Insight’ or understanding clearly and directly how things are: subject to Anicca, Dukkha, and Anatta (Impermanence, Unsatisfactoriness, and Selflessness or No Self-Existence). When people babble on about 'practicing Vipassana', I feel they have acquired this word to their own detriment, and it would be better if they had never heard of it at all, for the simple reason that Insight isn't something that can be practiced; it is not within our capacity to practice it; on the contrary, it either arises or it does not arise (rarely does, usually does not), and there is no way by which we can force it to arise. All that we can do is to prepare ourselves, and open the doors and windows of our minds, and maybe―just maybe―it will come. The more we look for it and expect it, however, the more we drive it away, for it cannot be grasped and made into a personal possession; our efforts to 'get' and 'achieve' it―no matter how pious and good―are self-doomed to fail.

            If we were to examine our motives (and it is important to do so), we would probably find that our search, including our practice of such things as morality, charity, meditation, and so on, is rooted in greed, or fear, or some other shaky emotion; we want to acquire something we have heard might be acquired if we do certain things, or we are afraid of not getting such things if we do not do these things. What does it all mean? Let me use a mundane illustration:

            Recently, in Australia, some major stores held after Christmas sales, with greatly reduced prices advertised on some goods. As the management obviously hoped for and anticipated, people began lining up outside hours before opening time, and, when the doors were finally opened, there was a mad and unstoppable surge forward into the stores, with people being swept off their feet, falling down, being trampled on, suffering cuts, bruises, broken bones, and other injuries. For the sake of getting something cheap (which they might not have really needed anyway), they were prepared to behave shamelessly, completely disregarding other people around them―young or old―and push, shove, grapple, and grope. Yes, they might, eventually, have got a bargain, but at the same time they lost something in themselves, something that thoughtful people strive to protect and develop rather than discard: dignity. In our conceit, we consider ourselves superior to animals, but that is insulting animals, who are often superior to us!

            Life becomes more and more complex as we go on, and many of us find ourselves increasingly hard-put to cope with the speed of change; we become tense and fearful; simplicity of living recedes ever farther behind us. Yet would we abandon the luxuries and comforts that fill our homes for simple living? No, instead, we always want and acquire more. Some people, feeling the strains and pressures of life more acutely than others, perhaps, look around for something to help them deal with their problems and frustrations, and some find it―or so they think―in meditation, which becomes, in some cases, yet another possession, something else to think of as their own.

            If we go into the practice of meditation without understanding why we are doing it, or to get something out of it, it is rather like applying perfume or deodorant to cover up body odor: another odor is added instead of the first odor being removed. Moreover, mental derangement might easily result; it is not uncommon in ‘meditation freaks.'

            "I wish to find peace of mind," some people say, without ever trying to find out first why their minds are not peaceful, or whether it might not be the natural state of the mind to be un-peaceful. So, like hypochondriacs rushing to the medicine cabinet at the first tiny twinge of pain―real or imagined―they jump into this or that meditation method (and there are some strange and dubious ones around).

            It would be infinitely better, I feel, if we assessed ourselves as human beings, to see what we have and are, before trying to acquire and accumulate anything else. We tend to compare ourselves with others, and deprecate ourselves or envy others if we find that the comparison favors the others. How little we understand of what it means to be human! There is so much to do to understand what it means to be as we are right now, without grasping for more. The ladder we intend to use to reach the stars should first be planted on a firm foundation, and not on sandy ground; an understanding of the past is essential to understand the future.

            The word 'meditation' sets many people spinning, like tops, and gives them airy fairy ideas about something that has been going on in their minds, on and off, all their lives, but they never noticed it before. The word has become fashionable.

            Meditation should not be seen as a means to grasp something, or to escape from something, but as a realization of what is here, and what has always been here, a seeing of life as it is.

            Sometimes, overwhelmed by the omnipresence of suffering in the world, I feel as if a great burden is weighing me down and crushing me. It happened, several times, that this feeling came over me as I was walking along, and my legs felt as if they were made of lead: so heavy. Sitting down somewhere―it didn't matter where, even with people all around―my mind automatically became concentrated, without effort, and the object of concentration―suffering―seemed in no way repulsive or morbid, but was viewed in its cause-and-effect aspect. Meditation came, unsought, and there was no attempt to grasp it, or measure it with time; it was a thing of quality rather than quantity. Thus, suffering is seen as a key that unlocks closed doors, and not as something to be regarded with fear and loathing. (I feel that this kind of thing is not uncommon, and that most people might have experienced it now and then, although they might not have been aware of what it was: natural, un-produced meditation). By this, too, we see that, though suffering exists, and has arisen/arises from various causes, it can, with wisdom, be avoided or lessened; we are not helpless victims, bound and gagged on the altar of pain; we can change our condition, can change the world, in a positive way, though this can happen only if we understand how things are now.

            Some people will probably disagree with and dislike what I've said here, for shaking their beloved system, and exposing the fact that it is precariously balanced upon words like 'meditation' and 'insight'. Can we―dare we―suppose that insight into reality arises only through the practice of certain systems and disciplines? Can we catch the wind in a bottle, or put chains on the sea? Come on!

            I am not against sitting cross legged, and paying attention to one's breath; in fact, I think it is as good an exercise for the mind as gymnastics or calisthenics is for the body. But if we view it as a 'magic wand,' as something that will ultimately solve all our problems, I feel it is a case of expecting too much.

            To reiterate: Insight is not something we can 'practice' or 'do,' but must come to us, unsought and un-produced.

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Last Updated on:  03/01/2001 06:19 PM