The teaching method and its traps.
The five factors in practising
At the outset it is necessary to find a way of practising individually. The ancient texts cite for us several criteria that must be met: it is indeed necessary to find a Way, a Teacher, a Group – and all this in a time-frame and a space that suit our personal stage of development.
From the start one needs to engage with the teaching that one has chosen. Whether this is the fruit of an encounter or of an active search, it needs to correspond to one’s need.
It is useful, for example, to be aware of the origin of any spiritual path before stepping down it. If this path is one of renunciation or of religious isolation, it is unlikely to be compatible with the civic life of anyone who has a job.
It may be hard to verify this fact, but techniques for spiritual relaxation which consist in withdrawal from the world are unlikely to prove effective when urban life needs to be confronted.
It is important to find a path, or way, which ties in with one’s lifestyle.
Say what you like, it is just not practical to be obliged to wear orange clothes every day of one’s life…
Having chosen the Way, it is necessary to find the teacher.
A teacher who is a scholar may well be capable of discoursing upon and teaching the texts of the way, but a teacher needs to be more than a scholar… he needs to have practised what he is teaching; better yet, he should still be practising.
If one day you go into the mountains in some remote region, you will be more inclined to choose a local guide who is familiar with the terrain than some erudite individual who has written a book about the region…
A teacher must be not only an accomplished practitioner, since the fact that it is working for him does not necessarily make him a good teacher and does not guarantee that he is able to pass on his knowledge.
The teacher should ideally be someone who is happy and who has followed the teaching that he is now transmitting; who lives according to his chosen Way. And it is preferable that he still be practising actively.
It is important also when following the Way, that one’s fellow practitioners, male and female, get on well together and that the group dynamic be one of open exchange rather than of competition.
It is impossible that everyone should be friends, but an “entente cordiale” should at least prevail. A member of a group who is unable to integrate will never feel right; a group which contains individuals who perturb it will not develop well.
The three elements necessary for healthy individual practice are now in place.
What needs to be added to this is the component of space/time: it has to be the right moment and the right place.
When the conditions are favourable, then one needs to plunge in, get involved, invest oneself.
It is important to realise one’s luck in finding a practice for self-discovery which one enjoys, and to be responsible enough to take it seriously.
The chance to question oneself: a way towards the real
Questions about the human condition, a refusal to settle for slim rewards, the desire to know one’s true place in the world – these are all good reasons for entering into the Way.
In fact, all expectations, even the most misdirected, are good ways to be prompted into a personal search.
One’s initial expectation, which is always a fantasy, needs to be overcome through serious practice. The reason why one starts to follow a teaching is always a bad one – without fail. But this is a truth which reveals itself only in the course of practising.
Daily practice helps the dispelling of illusions and the gaining of a better perception of what is real.
One’s perceptions are always coloured by one’s prejudices and emotions: there is no such thing as an extrinsic perception.
Whatever the stimulations to one’s senses, that are then interpreted inwardly, these amount to merely what one accepts that one should see.
Look at the way one’s mood and feelings are able to change how one takes a compliment, an insult, or a piece of news.
Through balanced practice, one can eliminate a significant part of one’s prejudices and thus perceive the real world more correctly.
This meeting with reality is a journey that can only be undertaken alone, since sensations are uniquely internal.
Practice means learning how to train
It is important to understand that practice requires discipline – but a discipline that is joyous and enthusiastic.
This discipline should not be forced, but discovered through the benefits gained by direct experience, through one’s daily engagement with the Way.
The path that leads to self-knowledge leads also toward whatever is not of the self, toward the world, and toward sharing; but the inner work needs to be undertaken alone.
One’s relation with what is other than the self – with the other – will have an enormous impact on one’s relation to oneself.
The most important thing is to be enthusiastic about one’s daily practice, and to seek for an intimacy with every aspect of the Way.
The accumulation of knowledge without the work of assimilation that takes place in daily practice adds up to nothing: only direct experience, itself linked to an acting-out, has value for the practitioner.
Just do it..! For it is only in doing it that “it works”.
The teacher shows the Way, the practitioner does all the rest
It is clear that the role of the master, of the teacher, is cardinal: he gives the information that reveals the method and gives corrections which assist the pupil to practise properly.
What is more, if the teacher is a “good” teacher, he always has an answer to his pupils’ questions.
The teacher need not be erudite when it comes to practice, but it may be that he likes to be well informed about matters of the Way. The teacher should not just be a good practitioner himself, but needs to have passed through the stages that he is himself teaching.
The advantage of a teaching that has its roots in antiquity is that it has had a chance to grow through information and responses gathered over time, which help make it adaptable to all and sundry.
What the teacher gives should always be in proportion to what is being requested, following the principle of equilibrium.
But be careful with the role you ascribe to the teacher. He should not be permitted to obscure the importance of the pupil’s own common sense, or the pupil’s responsibilities towards his or her daily life. While he should be available, the teacher is not there to shoulder the pupil’s burdens or to organise a daily crèche. Yet if the teacher does not know the pupil personally, how will he ever be able to help him?
The Fantasy of Three Types of Laziness
In our tradition, there is talk of three types of laziness: “grumbling, loitering, and pretension”.
Grumbling, moaning, and making a running commentary should be forgone in favour of practice.
But careful: it’s not a matter of bottling everything up or of withholding communication from one’s fellow practitioners or one’s teacher… Most important is not to go round in circles complaining about false problems, while all the time looking to be reassured.
Life is not a reassuring experience, and nor is the Way.
“Loitering” is a friendly way of saying “sulking”. Despite being aware that practice is doing one good, one may fail to practise, assured of one’s own intellectual and physical superiority.
This is fair enough, in that everyone is free to do what he wants. But if one does not practise, then it’s not going to work out. One will sooner or later find oneself in a deep and dark abyss, mired within one’s fantasy of greatness and unable to respond to whatever the world is offering.
And then there is pretension…
This is the most devious form of laziness: one tries to come more frequently to class but only in order to “seize upon” titbits of information (maybe a secret that slips from the teacher’s lips when he’s a bit distracted!); or one tries to read on the subject of practice, to swot up on what others are doing and verify that it’s not better than what one is up to oneself; one debates and changes one’s mind; one weighs things up and undermines the Way, wasting one’s time in doing so – but subtly.
So subtle is the method that sometimes one notices nothing whatsoever, and it is possible to get away with this throughout one’s journey on the Way if one fails to broach the subject with one’s teacher… The Way which, as a result, will offer only a superficial form of knowledge.
One of the founding concepts of our tradition is that of the natural cycles: Everything in good time.
Even with the best teacher in the world and with all the qualities of an ideal student, time is going to be of the essence.
There can be no real practice without digestion of what is being taught: the time of learning is what permits the passage to real practice, but one needs to be capable of making what has been learned one’s own.
The Way is a path for life which helps one to understand oneself, to encounter the other with openness, and to go with the changes happening in the world around.
It needs to be accepted that nobody – nobody – can do this work on the pupil’s behalf.
As it is stated in the Daozhang:
“Not to practise when one knows the Way is idiotic;
To train too much is a way of avoiding life and its responsibilities;
To seek through 50 ways is the way to ensure certain impasse.”
Usus Magister Est Optimus.