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Making Distinctions

by Fleda BrownJune 28, 2011

This week our local Sangha, or meditation group, started our study of One Dharma, by Joseph Goldstein. I read this book years ago, but I come to it new, now, as I’m in a different phase of my own practice. Like Goldstein, I spent many years in the Theravada tradition (Vipassana, with Shinzen Young as my teacher), and then, like Goldstein, came into the presence of a different flavor of the practice. A couple of years ago I met Sokuzan Bob Brown, a Zen Buddhist priest, who introduced me to Mahayana practice and thought.

I won’t attempt a scholar’s job of explaining differences. Goldstein asked himself these questions as he encountered differences: What am I after, here? Is awareness the end, or a means to the end? What is the nature of awareness? As he struggled with these questions, he began to see that he needed to maintain a “don’t know mind,” and that this, after all, is the point—that beginner’s mind that’s open to what is, rather than holding to fixed concepts of what we think “ought” to be.

The quotation at the beginning of Chapter One is: “There is one Dharma, not many. Distinctions arise from the needs of the ignorant.” (Sang-Ts’an).  But it is human nature to make distinctions, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem comes when we begin to believe that our distinctions are anything but the play of our minds. Nothing wrong with the play of our minds, either! As long as we see that that’s what we’re doing. There is validity in distinctions, but only in the provisional realm. When we are at last able to see through that realm, we see there aren’t any distinctions.

The word “ignorant” is not derogatory. It just means “one who doesn’t yet know.”

Goldstein sets out in this book, he says, to find what’s common to all Dharmas (teachings). He says if we have any hope of finding that, we first need some basic understanding of the tradition, and then we need that attitude of openness, that “don’t know mind.”

I, personally, found Vipassana practice (Theravada tradition) enormously helpful to teach me how to pay attention. “Pay attention,” or “just look,” for someone who’s never done that (me, at the time) are confusing instructions. Vipassana helped me to notice when the talk begins in my mind, when it ends, when exterior sound expands, when it contracts, where sensation is located in my body, what its flavor is, what its texture is, how and when it moves—and so on and so on. The idea is not to stop anything from happening.  The idea is to keep track, to “watch,” with equanimity.  To pay attention.

And the idea is that when we pay enough attention, long enough, we begin to “get it.” We see for ourselves that things are always in motion, and that there is no center, nothing we can call “me.” This is vastly oversimplifying, but maybe you can kind of get the idea.

I did this for almost 25 years.  The last five of those, I’d been away from a teacher. I was feeling stuck in my practice.  I met  Sokuzan Bob and asked for his advice. He said, “Turn, open your eyes, and face the wall. Quit all techniques. Just sit. Don’t direct your mind in any way, not even direct it to pay attention! Just observe.” “Am I really meditating?” I asked myself. “Seems like I’m doing nothing.”

This advice was profoundly helpful to me. I think I had been “working” to be a “good meditator.” When I let go of that, I began to “see through” my ideas about the practice. I could say lots more about this, but the point is, simply, for me, different ways of practicing have helped me at different times.  And it’s not JUST different ways of practice, it’s a different understanding about what awareness means, and even about the nature of what I call reality.

I think this understanding is cumulative for all of us. When we begin, we don’t get it at all. We do what we’re told to do and hope it makes a difference. We begin to see some small differences in our lives and so we keep on. As we sit year after year, our understanding of what we’re doing grows. As does our understanding of what “reality” is.


Poet and writer Fleda Brown reflects on the gatherings of her weekly meditation group, speaking to you as one who has long practiced meditation but still comes to the practice with a learner’s mind.

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