'Why do you meditate?' 'What inspires you?' 'Why should I meditate?' I have been asked these questions many times. Early on, I realized that the best answer to all of them is: 'To meditate is enough in itself.' As it is not an intellectual exercise, the meaning of meditation is revealed simply by practicing it. Indeed, what we think about meditation is often quite different from the experience. And so, the inspiration for meditation is meditation itself.
Inspiration to begin
Everyone who meditates will have a different story about what inspired them to begin. My own teacher, Master Kusan, was born into a Buddhist family but had no particular interest in meditation until he became very ill. Then, at the suggestion of a Buddhist friend, he went to a hermitage, hoping to be cured by reciting the mantra associated with compassion and healing, om mani padme hum. He had to recite the mantra every day for a hundred days and, though he had not initially been entirely convinced by his friend's advice, by the end of the period he was cured. This experience inspired him to begin practicing meditation and become a monk.
When he began his first retreat, Master Kusan made a vow that for the sake of all beings he would become awakened by the end of three months. During this retreat he meditated day and night, but no matter how hard he tried he could not achieve awakening. Stilt plagued by thoughts and dreams, still agitated and confused, he became despondent and asked himself whether life would be worth living if he were not awakened. At that moment, he had a vision of the Himalayas, and realized that it was presumptuous of him to think he could attain awakening in three months when it had taken the Buddha six years. He told me that, thereafter, his faith and inspiration were unshakeable.
The story of Master Kusan's teacher is even more remarkable. Master Hyobong
was a Korean High Court judge who during the Japanese occupation was faced
with having to pass the death sentence on a Korean freedom fighter. Unable
to accept what he had to do, he vanished overnight, leaving everything
behind to wander the countryside in search of an honest way of life. Visiting
a Buddhist temple, he was inspired to become
a monk. He was already thirty-nine years old when he began to meditate. For him, it was a matter of great urgency to awaken and he became famous for his hard practice, even getting the nickname 'leathery buttocks'.
When I reflect on what inspires me to meditate, I see that my motivation has changed over time. It all started when I read a passage in the Dhammapada. The passage pointed out that before you could change others you had to change yourself:
If he makes himself as good as he tells others to be, then in truth he can teach others. Difficult indeed is self-control.
Until then, I had been very active politically, full of ideas about changing the world into a more peaceful and egalitarian place. When I read that passage, it occurred to me that I could not hope to change the world if I could not even change my own negative thoughts and painful feelings. Yet in the Dhammapada, the Buddha implies that through meditation it is possible to transform one's state of mind and oneself.
Reading this passage spurred me on to look for a teacher and a method, so I traveled East. As soon as I arrived at his monastery in Korea, Master Kusan suggested that I become a nun. I hesitated for a few days, finally convincing myself that maybe this would be a good opportunity, for a year or two, to learn exotic Eastern arts like tai chi and calligraphy, and to try out some meditation too. In the end, I stayed for ten years, did not do any tai chi or calligraphy, and the only thing I learnt about was meditation. After a while, I began to meditate for its own sake, without aiming at any particular goal
Meditation is its own inspiration because it is food for the spirit. You have to eat every day to sustain your body and, in the same way, you need meditation to nurture your spirit. What impels you to meditation is your inner being, who needs quietness and clarity, being instead of doing. Meditation gives you the opportunity to live a full human life; one where you express and act on all your goodness and wisdom. When you meditate you feel at home, you return to your original being.
Faith to be free
I believe that an act of meditation is actually an act of faith – of faith in your spirit, in your own potential. Faith is the basis of meditation. Not faith in something outside you – a metaphysical buddha, or an unattainable ideal, or someone else's words. The faith is in yourself, in your own 'buddha-nature'. You too can be a buddha, an awakened being that lives and responds in a wise, creative and compassionate way.
When you begin to meditate, you might feet separate from your faith, which is more like a belief. You might think it is a good idea to meditate without being sure why. At this stage, your faith is somewhat intellectual, you have to convince yourself. But persevere with that initial calling; you will see for yourself that meditation really works, not only in developing calm and clarity, but also in dissolving your grasping and negative reactions and allowing yourself to let go.
As part of my daily duties during one three month retreat, I had to clean the communal bathroom. Every day I would go to the bathroom and find another nun there, washing~ herself. It was no use explaining to her that it would be easier for me if she washed at another time; she insisted that she had to wash there and then before a certain ceremony - no other time would do. This went on for more than two weeks: I would forget all about her till our moment of contact in the bathroom, and then I would become angry and resentful on seeing her there. One day, I opened the door; she was there, I was there and everything was fine. I saw then one of the effects of meditation. It dissolves the mind's subconscious hold on negative emotions and circumstances until suddenly the grasping is released. Then you can respond to life with ease and lightness. You realize that you can be free. Faith is no longer a matter of intellectual belief but grows organically with your experience.
Faith is the bedrock of practice. When you encounter difficulty and your vision is clouded, faith keeps you going. I once spent a month in a chalet in Switzerland. Every morning, I would open the window and look out at thick white fog. The chalet overlooked a lake just below the fog-line; I had only to walk uphill for two minutes for the fog to dear and the sky to be blue. In the light, the sun was obvious; it was warm, it illuminated everything. In the fog, I could not see a thing - but I knew the sun was real and nearby. This is faith. It inspires you to know that awakening is close, to trust in the potential of awakening when the clouds finally dissolve.
Courage to continue
Faith directs you to the path; courage will give you the energy to continue. During my time in Korea, I heard many stories about respected monks and nuns, and how hard they practiced. I was always inspired by these tales. There was a story of a monk who worked all day and meditated all night, for months on end. Many tried to join him but very few could follow his example. Master Kusan himself told us of a time when he felt he had to practice very hard in order to help a dying friend. He had promised his friend that in his stead he would become awakened within forty-five days. For the final two weeks, he meditated on tiptoe because he was afraid he would fall asleep and not attain awakening. On another occasion, I visited some nuns who were doing a three-year silent retreat. I was so impressed by their dedication and lightness; they managed to joke and make me laugh in the midst of their deep silence.
All these meditators were inspired by their own great courage. Nobody had forced them to do what they were doing. They were just so determined, so convinced of the merits of meditation, and with such faith in their own buddha-nature, that they gave the practice all they had. But for you who live in the West, in a busy modern world, what does it mean to have courage in meditation? You require courage to face your mental and emotional habits. It is easy to say that you do not have the time to meditate, that maybe you will do it tomorrow when you are less busy or at the weekend when you are less tired. You need the courage to meditate now, in this unrepeatable moment, whether tired or busy, sad or happy.
When you meditate, it is essential to have the courage to concentrate and enquire. As you sit quietly, doing nothing, you will very quickly be caught up in daydreams, fantasies or worries. Courage bolsters your determination, reminds you to straighten your back and reaffirms your intention to be aware, to be awake, to be present. It enables you to break out of a dull or lazy state of mind and to resist tempting thoughts. Going beyond your habits and patterns - the way of living that is easiest for you - requires a great deal of courage. When meditation is difficult, courage gives you the motivation to persevere. Master Kusan used to say that sometimes meditation is as easy as pushing a boat on ice, but at other times as difficult as dragging to a well a cow who does not want to drink. You need the courage to enquire, to question your habits, to step into the unknown. One of the paradoxes of meditation is that faith and enquiry are equally important. Faith alone can make you narrow-minded; enquiry alone can make you agitated. The practice of one helps and supports the practice of the other.
Trust your experience
The Buddha put great emphasis on enquiry, on looking deeply into one's own experience. He was once asked by some villagers about the teachers who regularly passed through their village, advising them to follow this practice and that teaching. The Buddha told them to listen carefully and consider the meaning of what they heard. Did the teachings make sense? Could the villagers apply them? Would the practices help them? If applying a certain method made the villagers more ski[fu[ and wise, they should continue to practice it. If the results of a method were negative, they should discontinue it. The most important thin8 was to measure any teaching against the experience of their own lives. And this is what enquiry is about: considering one's own experience.
You should check out thoroughly any teacher or teaching - and also the way you practice. Is meditation helping you to become quieter and clearer? Is it helping you to be wiser and more compassionate? I once met a meditation teacher who told me a revealing tale about himself. An architect with a large office, he became interested in meditation and set aside a special corner of the building for that purpose. From time to time, he would announce that he was going to meditate and retire to this place. Then everybody would groan and dread his return because he would always be irritable and they had to put up with it, as he was the boss. When he realized that meditation seemed only to make him more angry, he started to observe how he meditated and saw that he was doin8 it all wron8. After that, he started to meditate properly and it finally did help him to become calmer and dearer.
I would like to 8ire two more examples. One concerns a Western monk in Korea who needed to do four hours of meditation every day. Like a fix, he had to have his four hours - but not only that, when he sat in meditation, he required total silence. If someone in-the room .next door clinked a teaspoon in a cup, he would complain that !t was too noisy to meditate. You must be careful not to become attached to meditation itself, or to its silence and stillness. Another Western monk came to our monastery in Korea to learn to meditate within a community. In Thailand, he used to go to an island and meditate on his own, with just a dog for company. There he could achieve a great state of stillness, but as soon as he came back to his large monastery he would get into difficulties. It is relatively easy to meditate on your own in a quiet place but you must be able to meditate under any circumstances, and brin8 creative awareness to your daily life and ordinary relationships.