No Preferences

July 20, 2005

The Canon tells us that the Buddha’s contemporaries fell into two main camps: what you might call absolutists and relativists. The absolutists were the ones who had a theory about the nature of reality, saying that their theory was true and everything else was false. “The world is made out of atoms”: That’s one of their theories. Or, “The world is infinite,” “The world is not infinite,” “The world is eternal,” “The world is not eternal”: a long list of views about the world outside. And what those views usually come down to is that it’s impossible for human action to have any real impact on things, because the nature of the world is fixed.

At the other extreme are the relativists: those who hold that what you say about reality all depends on how you look at things, or who refuse to take any stance at all. Their stance, if you follow it to its logical conclusion, makes it impossible to do anything either, because if the world is totally chaotic, totally random — nothing is really set, nothing is really for certain — what are you going to do? Just muddle around? Some of them advised grabbing whatever pleasure you can because there’s no telling what’s going to happen the next moment, the next day down the line.

Just now we chanted the Buddha’s first sermon, and you notice that he doesn’t start out with either an absolutist or a relativist stance. He’s talking about courses of action. He says that if you do this, these are the results. If you indulge in sensuality, these are the results. If you indulge in self-mortification, those are the results, and neither gets any really good results. However, he said, there is a middle path, and it’s not a path worked out by reasoning through, or applying logic. It was arrived at simply by trying different paths and seeing what worked. He said this middle path is the path that leads to really desirable results: the end of suffering. It gives rise to vision, gives rise to knowledge, brings about peace, knowledge, nibbana.

So that’s what makes the Buddha’s teaching special: He had found a path of action. That’s what’s worth talking about: looking at which paths of action lead to suffering, which ones lead to the end of suffering, and then following the one that leads to the end of suffering, whether you like the path or not.

There’s a poem in China, attributed to the third patriarch, which starts out saying that the great way is not hard for those with no preferences. I don’t know what the third patriarch had in mind when he said that, but if you apply it to the Buddha’s approach, the only way to make sense of it is this: You do what has to be done, whether you like it or not.

There’s a sutta where the Buddha defines wisdom and discernment in terms of how you handle four courses of action. The first two are the things you like to do that give good results, and the things you don’t like to do that give bad results. Those two are not hard. They’re no-brainers. You avoid the things that you don’t like and give bad results, and you do the things you like to do and give good results. It’s all very easy. The difficult issues, and the ones that really test your discernment, are the next two courses of action: the things you like to do that give bad results, and things you don’t like to do that give good results. That’s where your preferences get in the way. That’s where your preferences make it hard.

So you have to learn how to look past your preferences, because there are times when the path really does require a lot of effort. You may say to yourself, “I don’t want to do this, I don’t like this,” and you wriggle around and find all kinds of excuses, but in the end what happens? You don’t get the results you want, because you’ve made it hard for yourself. Sometimes you have the other attitude — the macho attitude — and yet there are aspects of the path that require just watching, being very patient, very still. Your macho side may not like that. As for the things you like to do, you say “I don’t see what’s wrong with this.” You make all kinds of excuses and, again, in the end, you don’t get the results you want.

This is one of those areas where each person has to develop his or her own discernment: How are you going to get past your preferences?

The only way is to look at the situation and to try out various things to see what works. When you find what works, then whether you like it or not, you follow it. If your preferences complain, figure out ways of dealing with them to put them aside. Discernment doesn’t mean just seeing the right course of action; it also involves mastering the right way to put your preferences aside. Remind yourself that your preferences have gotten in the way, have gummed up the works, for a long, long time. How much longer are you going to side with them?

And how do you put them aside? Learn to observe them and see how they arise and pass away. See how they’re not-self, that you don’t have to identify with them. When you see something and a sense of liking or a disliking arises, you don’t have to get involved. When the liking and disliking have nobody to play with, they go away. It’s like that other Zen conundrum, the sound of one hand. When the liking comes up and you don’t respond: That’s the sound of one hand.

Once you get down to doing what simply has to be done, the path gets a lot easier. In other words you’re not adding difficulties on top of it. If you don’t make it unnecessarily difficult, it’s pretty manageable.

Look at the elements of the path: It doesn’t contain anything superhuman, anything that requires you to exhaust yourself. In fact, a lot of the path lies in learning how to husband your energy so that you don’t waste it on unskillful things. When you don’t waste it on unskillful things, you’ve got extra energy for the skillful ones. So on the days when the situation really does require that you sit for a long period of time to work through a difficult issue, you’ve got the energy to draw on, because you didn’t fritter it away with trivial pursuits. In particular you haven’t frittered it away trying to justify your preferences.

This is the way life is: It’s going to present you with difficult situations many, many times, whether you want them or not. If you can put yourself in the mood where you’re up for whatever arises, things are lot easier. The day is going to come when your death is going to stare you right in your face, and of course most people don’t want that. They run away and they try to wiggle out of it in all kinds of ways, yet the more they wiggle, the worse things get. But if you’ve been following the path with no regard for your preferences, then when death comes you can tell yourself, “This is what I’ve been practicing for all this time, so let’s do it right this time.” Memories of your life will start arising at that point and you’ll see things you’re going to miss, things you regret having done. You can’t let yourself get involved with those things, for they make things harder.

This is why we sit here pulling the mind away from its distractions. When you die there are going to be monstrous distractions, and they’re going to pull you strongly in their direction right when you’re at your weakest. If you simply give in to them, it’s going to have a major impact on how your rebirth is going to go. If you can maintain your calm center in the midst of whatever comes up, things will be a lot easier. Bad things will come up, good things will come up, so you’ll want to maintain your center. Don’t get excited by the good things. Don’t get upset by the bad.

It sounds like meditation instructions, but it’s also death instructions: how to die properly. Death is easy for those with no preferences — and one aspect of this great way we’re practicing here is getting ready for that fact. Life, of course, is a lot easier if you have no preferences, too. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have any goals or desires at all, simply that you do what has to be done.

If, when you sit down, your mind is a mess, you don’t say, “Well today is a bad day to meditate, I’m going to wait until some other time.” You learn how to sit with a mind that’s a mess, and begin to see the little threads of the possibility of finding some peace in the midst of the mess. When you can do that, you’ve learned a really important lesson, a much more important lesson than if you say, “Well, things are bad, so I’m just not going to tackle them.” That doesn’t teach you any lessons at all. The mind may not settle down as much as you’d like, but at least you’ve learned some important skills in how to deal with difficult situations. You may think, “I don’t want a difficult situation right now,” but there it is. What are you going to do? You do your best. And you figure out what is the best you can do, given the situation.

Then there are the times when things are easy. The mind settles down quickly and is very still, and the mind says, “Okay, what’s next? Let’s move on to insight.” Well, maybe you have to get your concentration solidified before you’re really ready to develop insight. There are many, many examples of people who’ve gotten a little bit of stillness and wanted to jump straight for insight, and end up jumping right off the cliff.

So wherever you are on the path, you do what has to be done. Don’t let your preferences get in the way. When you can manage that, then it’s not a question of being easy or difficult: You just do what has to be done. When you develop that attitude — that you’re willing to do what has to be done — you get the results you want. And sometimes the results are better than what you could have ever thought of wanting.