Dispatches From The North

Tania Kindersley lives in the North East of Scotland with two amiable lab collie crosses and one very grumpy Gloucester Old Spot pig. She co-wrote Backwards In High Heels: The Impossible Art of Being Female, with Sarah Vine.

In which I utterly fail to achieve enlightenment

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Sometimes, research takes me in odd directions. Just lately, I found myself reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. (This should not be confused with the famous and ancient Tibetan Book of the Dead, which I am strictly informed I may not understand unless I am steeped in Buddhist practice; it is much too complicated and subtle.)

In tremendous arrogance, I thought I knew a little bit about Buddhism. Instinctively, I liked the fact that it had no gods, but believed that everyone, with effort and practice, could achieve enlightenment. That felt nicely democratic to me. I knew a bit about mindfulness, and the thing of stilling the unquiet mind, often through meditation and concentration on the breath.

I knew, obviously, about reincarnation. Someone once asked me if I believed in reincarnation. I said, in my empirical way, that I had trouble with it because the numbers do not add up. If we are all descended from one mitochondrial Eve, then in order to get to the six billion souls that now exist, then an awful lot of splitting would have to go on. (I admit, I may be being too literal about the concept, or to have misunderstood it.)

It turns out that Buddhism is really complicated. It is also much stricter than I had imagined. There is a lot of reproof, about how our (the universal we is universally applied) entire lives are blighted by the ego and its grasping. We, apparently, hang on to all the wrong things and are doomed to walk through a vale of ignorance and misery unless we let go of all attachments and apply the spiritual practices. I may have been reading this on a bad day, but I felt a hint of finger-wagging in that.

As for the spiritual practices themselves, the one most particularly recommended is to let my mind dissolve into the mind of all the buddhas, by concentrating on dissolving into the mind of my master. I have no idea where to find a master in deepest Aberdeenshire, and the awful thing is I don’t really want to let my mind dissolve into his, or hers. (Huge point in Buddhism’s favour: even though the spiritual guides are called masters, they may be ladies. Hurrah!)

The more I read, the more awkward and uncomfortable I felt. Although I was reading for research, I was not averse to a bit of solace and spiritual enlightenment. I would love to be enlightened. I have always vaguely liked the idea of the kindness and gentleness of the Buddhist ideals. But oh, oh, I felt so scolded and bossed. I know I’d be rotten at the whole mind dissolving thing. I’m sure that properly enlightened people out there will be nodding their wise heads, as they see all this as the example of the ego at work. This must be a classic example of ego resistance; they’ll probably use me as a case study.

The book says that the ego, although it does not actually exist, is amazingly cunning and wily, and will do anything to keep me in its grasp. This is where my empirical mind throws up its hands and begs for mercy. How can something which does not exist be so clever? I suppose, on a philosophical level, thoughts do not actually exist in any corporeal sense. You cannot see or smell or taste a thought; you cannot draw it or touch it. It still may have astonishing power. The ego is merely a human construct we give to our sense of self. Perhaps, as such, it could be said not to exist; it is just a name, a chimera. I sit and ponder this for a while, until I feel like a snake chasing its own tail.

Now I’m terribly confused. I feel like a bit of a fat failure too. I thought I’d love the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying but I freely admit it left me baffled. Turns out, I don’t really understand the concept of Buddha mind, let alone know how to achieve it. I imagine the enlightened ones finding me a terrible disappointment. I shall have to return to my own spiritual touchstones, which are, at the moment, love and trees. I think, as long as I have love and trees, I can’t go far wrong.

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