A Balanced Practice

I was reading a book recently that gave me a chance to think about what can happen when our practice develops in an unbalanced way, when we focus too much on one skill or area and end up neglecting others. The Buddha described his teaching as ‘the middle way’, which for those who practice it means balance, and avoiding any kind of extreme is always a key consideration. I realise that balance has been something of a recurring theme over the last few week’s blog posts, Grace and balance go hand in hand, and developing balance through cultivating all of the factors of the Eightfold Path was an element in last week’s post too, so perhaps there is something in the air.

The book I was reading was Richard Randall’s ‘Life as a Siamese Monk’, written in the 1950s about his experiences as the first Englishman to be ordained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand. It was an interesting book and he seemed to have had quite a lot of profound insights, but I found it curious that he seemed to be allowed to meditate all the time. He didn’t say anything about doing any chores, or spending time with the other monks, and he only reported going on an almsround for food once and there was so much excitement at having a Western monk that the lay people came to the monastery to give him food, he didn’t even need to walk into the village. He reports that his skill in meditation developed very quickly, but I was left with the sense that despite the insights he had, he hadn’t gained much of a sense of peace from them.

Randall returned to England in 1955 with a few other Western monks, taking up residence in the Hampstead Vihara. During that time he played a crucial role in the way that Theravada Buddhism grew in the UK by helping to start the English Sangha Trust, which is the organisation that eventually facilitated Ajahn Sumedho’s arrival in England in 1977; and also by teaching some of those who went on to be instrumental in supporting the setting up of Chithurst and Amaravati. But despite that, we hear very little mention of him these days; he disrobed after only a few years saying he felt he had nothing more to teach, and although he did reordain a few years later this was again only for a few years and he subsequently disrobed again.

The sangha of Western Theravadan Buddhists in the UK didn’t really take off until Ajahn Sumedho arrived, and it has been suggested that part of the reason for this was that Randall and his other monks hadn’t had enough experience of living as monks and seeing how monastics and their lay followers interacted with each other to form a community. But it seems that this wasn’t a fault of their own making, the abbot that ordained them had made it his mission to spread his teachings to the West, so he allowed Randall and the others to just focus on meditation, perhaps with the thought that they would be able to start teaching sooner. Randall could already speak Pali, and spent many years giving lectures about Buddhism before he became a monk, so the abbot felt that since he already had that background that it was ok to let him just focus on meditation.

I can only guess what wider the impact of Randall’s unrounded training was on him as a person, did it lead to him disrobing? Did it damage his health? Did it impact on his faith in Buddhism? These things I don’t know, he didn’t address them directly in his book. It does seem a bit clearer that it did have an impact on his ability to create a sangha in the UK. On this issue It seems natural to compare his experience to that of Ajahn Sumedho’s since he had succeeded in the task that Randall had been unable to. Ajahn Sumedho had been a monk for ten years before he was asked to start a sangha here, and had been fully involved in every aspect of monastic life and practice. Even though the routine of being a monk in Thailand was often very hard work for Sumedho, he writes of many occasions that it proved to be a great source of learning for him. Randall by contrast had only been a monk of a year or so, and had only spent that time meditating, then giving lectures, when he was tasked with the job of starting a UK sangha. It is clear to see that the two men had very different preparations for the task.

By coincidence, a little while after I had started my first draft of this post I was reading another book, Crooked Cucumber by David Chadwick, a biography of the influential Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, and I felt like a similar situation had happened with some of his students to that of Richard Randall. Suzuki took over the Zen Centre in San Francisco in the 60s, and was keen to start a meditation group, perhaps particularly so as he had been unable to get many people interested in it at his temple in Japan. He found that Western students were extremely eager to learn to meditate, so he supported them to do that. But some of his students became keen to go to ‘the source’ to take training in Zen in Japan. Some of the first of his Western students to attempt this really struggled when they took up the Japanese training because it was incredibly strict, involved a lot of ritual, was very austere, and involved very little meditation. The instruction that Suzuki had given them in San Francisco had given them little preparation for the type of training they would undergo in Japan. If he had given them a more rounded training with a little less emphasis on meditation perhaps they wouldn’t have experienced such a shock to the system. But to be fair, it seems that Suzuki wasn’t trying to prepare them for it, or necessarily even believed that they would learn more there than with him; the students themselves were the ones who wanted to go to Japan, and for his part Suzuki appears to have put his efforts into delaying them for as long as he could.

But while the case of a monk who doesn’t know how to be a monk, or Westerners experiencing the culture shock of traditional Zen training might not relate to our own ordinary experiences of practice, meditating all day and not doing anything else certainly does. There is an implicit recognition in Buddhism that it takes more than one skill to reach enlightenment, and each school has its own sets of factors, qualities, and skills to develop in tandem with each other. Some of them create a rounded set of skills that give us everything we need to see through our delusions, and others are designed to hold each other in check. So if our practice develops out of balance then we are likely to hit some hurdles long the way; this usually leads to little more than some frustration, or the occasional bit of egg on our faces, but for a few people it occasionally leads to more serious problems.

An example of a set of qualities that are designed to balance each other out are the five indriyas, or the spiritual powers as they are often translated. The five indriyas are faith, energy, mindfulness, wisdom, and concentration, and they are mental faculties that we already have before we start to practice. The idea is that we harness these pre-existing capabilities and use them to support our practice. They are split into pairs that are meant to hold each other in check; Bhikkhu Bodhi describes these pairs as serving to counter the “undesirable tendency inherent in the other” [1]. Faith is paired with wisdom, because too much faith and too little wisdom can make you vulnerable to believing in incorrect teachings and dubious teachers, and too much reliance on wisdom can make you inclined to not engage with anything that you don’t fully understand, and less willing to trust in learning from experience. Energy is paired with concentration, because too much concentration can make the mind dull and stagnant, and too much energy can make the mind difficult to focus. Mindfulness sits in the middle of them all, recognising when one pair has gone out of balance and acting to correct it appropriately.

Conze points out that even though we can regard each of the indriyas as virtues that doesn’t mean that indiscriminate development of them comes without problems; you can have too much of even a virtue:

“Excess is to be deprecated, even in virtues. All the five virtues must be regarded as one whole. Their balance and harmony is almost as important as the virtues themselves. They support each other to some extent, but they also stand in each other’s way. The one must sometimes be used to correct the excess of the other.”

“The Way of Wisdom: The Five Spiritual Faculties”, by Edward Conze. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/conze/wheel065.html .

The weakness of one indriya can impact outside of its pair too, for instance if faith is weak then there will be little reason or inclination to develop the indriyas or to give time to the practice. If mindfulness is weak then you will struggle to check the state of the other indriyas. If wisdom is weak then it will be difficult to recognise what the right actions are that help to develop the others. If concentration is weak then there won’t be enough applied focus to allow working on the others long enough to develop them fully. If energy is weak then it will be hard to develop any skills at all!

There are many other instances of this type of balancing of skills and qualities in Buddhist practice. Thanissaro Bhikku writes about samatha and vipassana as not opposite types of meditation practice but as complementary. He suggests vipassana helps to stop samatha from becoming a dull state, and samatha helps the mind to cope with the discomforts that come up in vipassana [2]. Bhikkhu Bodhi makes the suggestion that the core balance at the heart of practice is between compassion and renunciation [3], and other schools of Buddhism make the balance between the way of compassion and the way of wisdom.

The Brahmaviharas, translated as the Divine Abodes or the Sublime States, aren’t generally presented as balancing each other, but I have found Nyanaponika’s way of talking about them as working together has been very influential on my practice over the years [4]. The Brahmaviharas are metta, karuna, mudita, and uppeka, generally translated as loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Again, like the indriyas we can be inclined to see these qualities as only good, but with our unenlightened minds we can turn anything into a negative. Nyanaponika sees that as well as being important states to cultivate on their own, each Brahmavihara has a role to play in correcting the excesses of the others. The even headedness of equanimity for example, stops metta and mudita from becoming purely sentimental exercises. Metta can help to stop compassion from becoming focused only on those that we like or deem worthy; metta reminds us that our care has to extend equally to all beings. Compassion stops equanimity from becoming cold indifference, and it also reminds us that suffering exists in the world if we get overly focused on the uplifting elements of metta and mudita. Equanimity protects our compassion from crumbling under the weight of the amount of suffering in the world, and metta gives our equanimity the quality of selflessness instead of self-centredness.

While the balance of our skills is something that comes in time, naturally there will be some things that we get a flying start with and others that we need to develop as we go along, so having an unbalanced practice is how we all start out. But even though it is the norm, it can have detrimental effects if we never get round to correcting it. We can potentially burn ourselves out by using too much effort, or throw in the towel, because the parts of the practice we are focused on are too hard and unrewarding. Some of the monks who trained alongside Randall seem to have burned themselves out with intense meditation, and perhaps even Randall himself suffered from this. Conversely, we run the risk of never making it out of our armbands if we put all of our focus on undemanding practices, or never push ourselves out of our comfort zone. Perhaps this was an issue for some of Suzuki’s students, although the meditation training was challenging it was something that they enjoyed, but Suzuki hadn’t given them any of the sterner practices they would face in Japan.

Thinking about Richard Randall again, I found it interesting that he hadn’t ever meditated until he was in Thailand making preparations for his ordination. His practice had started out in an unusually unbalanced way before he even became a monk: he was already a lecturer in Buddhism and could speak Pali, but he had never meditated. Perhaps by time he did start meditating it was already too late to properly balance out the years of mainly intellectual engagement with Buddhism; being thrown in at the deep end of being a monk doing menial chores might have been just what he needed. But of course, that wasn’t his choice completely, the abbot allowed him to just meditate all the time.

We on the other hand do often make the choice to swerve away from areas that either don’t interest us, we find difficult, or they rub us up the wrong way. Likewise when we are good at something it can make us reluctant to work on other areas, such as metta or dana. I’ve heard people saying how difficult it was in the beginning to get British Buddhists to work on metta, because they weren’t taken by the apparent sentimentality of it. They were good at logic and learning, so it took some persuasion to coax them to explore areas where rationality wasn’t required. Reading too much without anything practical to balance it with has the potential to make you too fixed in your views, too reliant on knowledge, and unable to engage with anything that you can’t figure out. Likewise an over attachment to metta practice can potentially make you reluctant to do anything that feels uncomfortable or to engage with anything that seems technical. Too much focus on insight meditation can make you disinclined to working on your concentration, something I’ve certainly been guilty of in my own practice, and which again can make you over reliant on working things out with logic and on ‘knowing’ instead of ‘doing’.

But there can be much more serious consequences to having a very unbalanced practice – meditating too intensely can have a major impact on your mental health. When I read Randall’s accounts of his meditation experiences, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps he had been allow to meditate too much, too soon, and without enough attention being paid to his mental state. Some of what he recounts of his experiences sounds like he lost touch with reality at times, and although strange mental states can occur temporarily during a meditation session they end when the meditation ends; it sounds like these states often continued beyond the end of the sit for Randall. If you spend time at a monastery or practice community you will hear stories about guests or trainees who had mental breakdowns due to overly intensive practice; it isn’t common but it also isn’t rare either. Meditation as a practice needs to be balanced out too, with embodied practices like mindful movement, with virtue, with metta practice, with study, work chores, conversation with Dhamma friends, and with just chilling out sometimes.

It isn’t straightforward to figure out how to balance your practice, and often we need our wise friends on the path to point us in the right direction, or to tell us to take our foot off the gas for a while. Sometimes we think the way to solve an issue is to work harder, but instead what we need to do is to learn how to be more relaxed. Take trying to settle a restless mind for example, often what we think we need to do is to concentrate more but instead what works better sometimes is to try less hard. At other times we think our mind is restless because it is full of energy, when actually it is restless because it doesn’t have enough energy to focus on one thing properly, so we need to energise ourselves instead of relaxing ourselves. When we have a range of skills to fall back on then it makes it easier for us to work out how to balance ourselves; we just try everything and see what works and what doesn’t, which is another good reason to have a well rounded practice with multiple skills to call on.

Personally I don’t think it even has to be the case that we are good at the all of the other elements of our practice to benefit from a balanced practice; just knowing that a practice needs to be balanced is a protective factor all on its own. When we know that a complete practice needs a range of qualities then we know that it is possible to do too much of one thing, so if we start to feel burned out by what we are doing we know that there are other areas to explore.

I’ve said it many times, but the only point that we can ever be sure that we are getting everything right is when we reach enlightenment, so until then we always have to be open to the fact that we are probably doing at least one thing wrong, and that our practices are almost certainly out of balance somewhere. Like the well made wheel I wrote about last year, sometimes we don’t know we are out of balance until we fall over, but picking ourselves up can be a little easier when we see that sometimes it wasn’t that we were doing something wrong, it was simply the case that we need a bit more balance.

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

[1] “The Five Spiritual Faculties”, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 5 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_22.html
[2] “One Tool Among Many: The Place of Vipassana in Buddhist Practice”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 8 March 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/onetool.htm
[3]”The Balanced Way”, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 5 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_08.html .
[4] “The Four Sublime States: Contemplations on Love, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity”, by Nyanaponika Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanaponika/wheel006.html .

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