BOOKS: “Longing for Certainty: Reflections on the Buddhist Life”

During a retreat at the Bhavana Society Buddhist Forest Monastery in Hampshire County, W.Va., the prodigious library there is closed to the retreatant. This, I suppose, is to concentrate one on the lived experience of a silent Buddhist retreat instead of the often second-hand intellectual experience of the Dharma via books. But when I’m there off-retreat, the library is a jewel of a place. I’ve taken to reaching randomly off the shelves, then reading as much of the book that my reach produces during the hours or days of the visit. (You can sign the books out and take them overnight to your dormitory or kuti – the dozens of cabins sprinkled across the 50 acres of woodland property.) In this way, I’ve nabbed, out of the air, as it were, Buddhist books that have become a part of my life, often purchased off the Web upon returning home, like “A Still Forest Pool,” a collection of simply put, yet profoundly helpful talks and remarks by the wonderful Thai teacher Achaan Chah.

This last May while attending Vesak at Bhavana, my hand pulled down “Longing for Certainty: Reflections on the Buddhist Life” by Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano. A former actor and playwright, this American Buddhist monk melds walks in Nature and the back woods with reflections on the challenges and insights of the Buddha’s teachings on impermanence, craving and dukka. He has been described by esteemed Buddhist scholar and monk Bhikku Bodhi as “American Buddhism’s Thoreau.” As someone for whom regular walks in the deep woods are utterly essential to his mental hygiene, “Longing for Certainty,” written in lyrical, yet unsentimental, straightforward prose, came as a gift from the blue. Below is an excerpt that captures the monk’s style. This book is a follow-up to an earlier one titled “Available Truth: Excursions into Buddhist Wisdom and the Natural World,” both of which you can investigate further at Wisdom Books. (though I do like Amazon.com’s feature that allows you to read several pages of a book you’re interested in).

P.S.: Suggest Buddhist books that have become essential to you in comments to this post or write up a review and send it to douglas [at] hundredmountain.com.

EXCERPT (from pages 16 to 19) from “Longing for Certainty: Reflections on the Buddhist Life”” by Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano. As this reflection commences, he has been talking a walk off trail along a creek on a sunny winter’s day:

ALL CRAVING IS STRUGGLING ON A HILL OF SAND, which produces more weariness and suffering, not an ascent to peace; but we persist in spite of experience, because unexplained impulse drives us and because we simply do not see what else to do. Though we might even concede that the world is impermanent and liable to suffering, we wish to believe that, amid the boiling and subsiding of all phenomena, we at least have an indubitable stability, that we possess a self or ego which is superior to the surrounding flux and which we must exert all our strength to mollify, protect and entertain. In Buddhist teaching, however, this self is nothing but a baseless concept, a mere device of language. A human being, like other creatures, is a dynamic pattern of mental and physical events shifting through time, without any unchanging part. It follows then, that the ignorant compulsion to serve an imagined self can only deepen delusion and worsen error.

Now our hands and feet are getting cold. We hear no music in the waterfall and find no more beauty in the fantastic ice. Down here deep in the hollow, we see the sun vanishing behind the highest fringe of woods, and with it our rare sense of freedom is vanishing too. There is change happening and we do not like it. Shivering a little, rubbing our fingers, we look around at the way we have come with a sudden pang. Oh, let us turn back to home and warmth. Philosophy cannot stand the snow! But having come so far, having once made it to this strange place, we hold on for a minute, for the remembered, lovely smile on a statue yet haunts us. How could he, the Buddha, seeing impermanence and suffering and the emptiness of the idea of self, still smile? How could he walk, unhurried and fearless, through a hopeless world? But maybe the world is not hopeless. And maybe he had found the cure for these dire conditions that assail us.

With our old human frailty beating within us, we try to concentrate, not stirring from our vigil beside the pool. Indeed, if everything in the world is impermanent, inevitably subject to arising and passing away, then it is unsatisfactory, untrustworthy, and prone to suffering. And if within this storm of transient feelings there is really no unique self to be found – no comfortable core of our personality to rely upon – then all our vanity is futile, for how should we ever feed an empty concept full with empty pleasures? And if all the objects we might crave are ultimately mist and illusion then we can never be satisfied, no matter how fast we labor. But if, by whatever happy means, we should cease to crave, would not the whole series of habit and affliction be broken?

We can scarcely imagine the consequences of such a relinquishment, such a release, but theoretically we can see that our ceaseless wanting, our insistence that things be this way or that, must always lead to sorrow. Still, it seems we want by instinct. We are born craving – how can we stop? Surely we would erase from our hearts all craving, hatred and fear if we could, but we have no notion of how to do that. We lack wisdom.

The water trickles and gurgles over ice and stone and ruffles the pool before us, preventing any clear reflection. We lack wisdom, but the Buddha did not. Craving born and loosed leads on wretchedly to suffering; but craving, we must understand, does not erupt out of nothing; it is not inevitable and all-powerful. The Buddha traced down the fiery string of its causes and found its source at last in ignorance. By ignorance craving is fed; by ignorance the multitudes of living beings lose their way and fall to error and grief. And have we not been long in that company? Peering at the world through the mist of ignorance, catching blurred reflections, we misperceive, misunderstand, and take the illusory for the real, the trivial for the worthy. Not knowing, not understanding, not comprehending things in their actual nature, we succumb to flavors, colors, fragrances, and give rise to craving and aversion again and again. Not questioning appearances, we pursue appearances and are deceived.

Whatever strength we have, whatever intelligence or will or nerve, will surely fail to bring us contentment if it is misdirected. Spiritual ignorance, this lack of true knowledge about reality, skews our faculties and sets us reeling, out of kilter, into the dangers of wrong perception. Taking the phantom of the senses as real and true, trusting to baseless premises, assuming the unconfirmed, we reason, scheme and strive, but never break finally free from suffering.

But if all craving could be abolished then our suffering would end. This thought, this memory of a teaching, stands out clear enough now against the pool, against the wasting snow, against the silent, uncomforting forest and the immeasurable heavens. Might it not also be true that our craving depends on the perpetuation of ignorance? Then our task must be to learn, to take such steps as will break down the wall of ignorance and let light fall into our confusion. If we could so train our minds as to look upon things without bias, then would not ignorance collapse and would we not escape the fatal sequence of wrong assumption and wrong actions? Now, as anxious, guessing beings, we frown and tremble; but the Buddha’s smile was unforced, because that imprisoning ignorance was all gone from him. Seeing things rightly as impermanent, unsatisfactory and empty of self, he was not bound to run and grasp at anything, and his step was graceful and sure across the troubled earth.

The wisdom that shatters craving and release the mind from suffering is not some esoteric, fortuitous inspiration but the gradual, built-up, practical understanding of the experience that flies through the senses. Liberation is obtainable – so taught the Buddha. There is a means, a path available to all who will exert themselves properly. We have head of such a thing, have heard that it lasted down through the riotous, forgetful centuries and survives even now, powerful and free.

Abruptly we look up, as if we might see that path suddenly and literally ahead of us among the trees – a smooth, unambiguous road to safety. But as before, there is only the dormant forest with loops of vines and the clutter of dead wood and the thin, slow-melting snow. The waterfall of white marble looms above us, and above that the rocky hill with patches of sunlight. We are alone, just as before. Or perhaps – not quite as before. For now with a rare diligence deliberately kindled against the cold, with a mind keen on the living moment, we find the barest smile at last bending our lips. Now, how might this be? we ask ourselves. Oh, small presumptuous creature, shall you take your little steps, shall you escape the labyrinth of time?

Well, we wonder, what about it? Alone in the maelstrom of centuries, shall we yet make an unpredictable move? Water at our feet is gleaming as it runs off through the still, snowy landscape – and with it somehow our indecision has departed. Thoughtful, faintly smiling, we turn now and step judiciously down the course of the rivulet. What a wonder that we restrained ourselves so long – and all to win this small smile? So will is not dead in us yet…


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