Obstacle as Path, Obstacle as Goal

Warm greetings from morning mist like rain at our new temporary vihara in the golden pastures of Bennett Valley, dear Dhamma friends,

Yesterday the members of our Dhammadharini Board of Directors gathered together in Petaluma at board member Elad's home, just seven miles from here. I am appreciating how accessible our new vihara is to the local communities around this area.

Ayya Sobhana and i, as senior monasic advisors to the board, were invited to the meeting. We all spent some time together processing what has happened for us, for Dhammadharini, in these past couple of months. We are at a very different place than was expected at the last board meeting we were working with final plans for a full bhikkhuni sangha entering into the Vassa at our hermitage, a final Volunteers Week, building tent platforms, some renovations on the hermitage camp kitchen so that it could get us through till the next phase, etc...

Who could know what was to come?

And how often is that so? Even on a seemingly every day drive to work, not to mention so many other things.

For the great wheel of impermanence is turning. Causal conditions are evolving and maturing for whatever is maturing and coming into being, whether seen and known and wisely attended to, or not. How often our attention is on other things, distractions, or play, or having our nose to the grindstone, or just moving in the flow of our regular, everyday habitual behaviors and perceptions.

And then something different happens.

How will we perceive this?

After our board meeting, i was reflecting on some of my early training in monastic life, and certain key teachings. Teachings that offer an different than average perspective on circumstances that would normally be characterized as "disasters, tragedies, obstacles, hindrances or challenges".

"Challenges" sounds most positive to my ear, as i was raised here in the US with nice and encouraging sayings like "challenges are to be overcome" and "there is no obstacle that is insurmountable".

And yet, we also hear the opposite: "it was an insurmountable obstacle" or "the challenge proved to be too much for him". And this, of course, is how obstacles and challenges often first appear and it is our big fear or concern with regards engaging with them.

I was remembering that very early on in my monastic life training i had memorized a saying that i learned of as The Simile of the Archer. The English translation i memorized was:

"The obstacle is that helping force which establishes one in the target".

A rather radical assertion, until you unpack the original Indic language of it. If i remember rightly, the nimitta, for the archer, is the target. Its shape is like a barricade, and it's function is to stop the free flight of the arrow. It is also meant to guide the arrow and point it right into its center -- and that is where the victory is found -- stopped right there, having penetrated the center, the core, the heart.

A nimitta is a sign, or object of attention. In meditation, nimittas arise with the gathering and focus of attention. The gathering, drawing in, concentrating and unifying our mental energies which can otherwise be scattered either in multi-tasking, distractions, or fragmentation of heart-mind. Or a nimitta can consciously be picked up as a useful tool to gather and focus awareness and attention.

I searched the internet yesterday evening for the old saying i had memorized long ago, wanting to come back to it again.

The first (and only) thing i encountered was its development in Zen. "The Obstacle is the Path". Seemingly unbidden, Google provided great images:

A Steve Boeses's HR Technology blog on Zen Lessons - the Art of Leadership touted "The Obstacle is the Path" as "Zen Lesson #1". Training for Warriors.com told the old story of the king who, sensing his people were falling into wrong attitude set a big boulder across their path to test them. The people shirked the obstacle, even his military turned away. Finally an old man paused, reflected, considered, and then found something to use it as a lever and move it aside bit by bit. Behind the boulder he finds the bag of gold the king had left there, with a note from him.

As i learned the Simile of the Archer, this mind training, this training on the Path, is about a complete revolution of attitude. A turning around of our heart. Encounter with what would ordinarily be considered and obstruction or hindrance, when wisely met with right intention and right attitude, becomes the path of practice. And, opanayiko -- leading inwards, leading onwards -- brings us straight into the heart of the Path and even on to and into the Goal itself.

Of course, without the crucial basic perspective (view) that this is useful, helpful, even positive, even extremely helpful -- and that there is a way -- this might not be possible. Here is the revolution, the turn around of attitude.

Then the tools: first of being able to pause, even stop. To reflect, consider... wise reflection,yoniso manasikara... patisankha yoniso. I write the Pali here for all those monastic readers and astute and studious lay friends reading who may have learned about yoniso manasikara as the practice of "wise reflection". Or who may have participated in the early morning daily chanting of the Buddha's words of advice and recommended contemplation "patisankha yoniso..." with regards our use of the basic requisites of life: "wise reflecting... (i approach my association and use of the basic requisites for life today)".

And then, the tools. Like the old/wise man/person. Even a little something that can be used as a lever. Even to move and shift our perception of the obstacle just a little bit. And to return to it and practice doing that over and over again, with right mindfulness and right effort.

Or to take the perception of the obstacle as an object of focus. Those who have developed vipassana meditation practice will have noticed this. That when something is looked at closely and intently with strong mindfulness for a period of time, it tends to start to dissolve. It can be observed that what seemed like a solid phenomena is actually made up of many smaller parts. And that what seems solid and fixed, is actually in motion, and very much in flux. Ephemeral. Insight into the inherently impermanent, unstable, and non-independent, no-fixed-identity of all phenomena arises through directly seeing it.

In terms of dynamics in situations, there are also fluctuating groupings of perceptions which transitorily and provisionally come together to form the perception of what something is. Is it "obstacle" or is it "opportunity"?? Is it to be avoided, or is it to be engaged with in a reflective and wise way rolling or spinning the phenomena towards benefit. Into an opening of healthy, wholesome and beneficial possibility.

I had written earlier (Aug 5) of the silver lining -- even a gold lining -- to the clouds.

For me, faced with what was being spoken of as an emergency, a disaster and a tragedy, this took pausing, and looking for. What is the blessing here? What is the treasure? What is the hidden opportunity? Where does the Path lie within this?

Training the mind, turning the heart and mind to be open to this, perceptive of this. A conscious shift of perception.

The perception will shift according to the intention.

For this, clarification and purification of intention is extremely important. Clarifying our intention means to get down into our deep wish, our deep meaning, our deepest sense of purpose in being alive. We all have it, even if sometimes quite buried and stuffed down in the basement underneath mounds of other stuff. Or sometimes quite convoluted and distorted with layers of expectations learned from others.

But if we get down into it, we all share the deep and fundamental wish to be happy, to be free, to be free from suffering, stress and pain. Touching into this is at the heart of self love. Touching into this is at the heart of compassion. And it is at the heart of mutual appreciation and joy -- to be able to experience and to share in joy. It is deeply stabilizing and reconciling to touch into this.

We can also know this to be the heart of the Buddha's intention. Both in his path to awakening, and in his sharing the path afterwards for all of us. This precious path that we have inherited and are in the path of more and more deeply realizing and awakening to. Here path and goal meet in the depths of our heart's intention. Completely equally for both self and others. Just at the level of intention.

Allowing our hearts and minds to open to and become clean and clear and fresh and free in this fundamental pure intention is in and of itself a kind of great release. A kind of liberation.

For those who are Dhamma teachers, or those who consider themselves to be faithful Buddhists, or making efforts to support and to share the rightness and true, right benefits of the Buddha's teaching, letting the mind-heart take refuge in this intention can be the place of pause, the stopping point. By this, i mean consciously and intentionally uniting our intention for both self and other's welfare with our knowledge and intuition of the Buddha's intent in this Sasana (dispensation/sharing) of the Path. And letting this be the basis for action, the base for all of the conscious and choiceful action that emerges from and flows from there.

Some might feel or understand this as a kind of prayer, a touching into higher power. In fact it does touch into the higher power that is within us as human beings, and the power of the efficacy of this noble eightfold fold. It touches into the Dhamma wheel right at the very top and the very center, as well as out to its entire perimeter, include every fold, and each and every aspect. It is the center of our hearts and the place where we touch the path. It is the ground of our efforts and includes every bit of all of the efforts themselves. It is the ground of being, and touches right at the heart into what is transcendental, into the unconditioned.

It touches into the heart which knows the Unborn and Undying and is completely present, with knowing awareness, love, kindness, appreciation and deep transcendental and unconditional steadiness, in every aspect of birth and death. In every sorrow and every joy. And in what passes through all of it.

I wished to share this with our board yesterday, especially with dear friend Ann (as she brought up the subject), and with all. I share it with all of you, dear path friends -- all sharing fundamentally in this -- now.

Deeply wishing all of us the Best :-)
with reverence,

Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni

dew droplets hanging on misty tree boughs
at our vihara

amhakam, digharattam, hitaya, sukhaya
"for our long-lasting benefit and the happienss it gives us"