Dhyana & Chains
Buddha says that dhyana releases one from "five fetters" - fetters are chains, as in prison. We are prisoners and dhyana is a kind of freedom. The five are
1. obsession with one’s own body
3. dependence upon a conventional or ritualised way of being
4. obsession with sense pleasures
The Medical Analogy
So we could say, 1
3. obsessive compulsive disorder
4. borderline personality disorder
and then treat meditation as a kind of medicament. This is certainly what some people are trying to do. This is one way of smuggling Buddhism into a materialistic culture. I don’t mind them doing this, so long as they smuggle Buddhism into the culture and don’t smuggle the culture into Buddhism.
The biggest problem for people coming from such a culture into Buddhism is that they bring such a fix-it-and-dispose-ot-it attitude with them. It is so pervasive that a whole sangha can easily become subverted in this way and become a kind of mental hospital - a a place for fixing the mind - in which there are no real physicians, but the patients are all treating each other. When the lunatics take over the asylum, real Buddhism is not to be found.
The Mind is Already Fixed
The mind does not need fixing. The mind is fine. It works. There is no problem in the mechanism. The problem is in the application. A perfectly good mind can be employed for all kinds of purposes from the most altruistic to the most diabolical. Even if the mind were faulty in some way, the same would be true.
The Prison Analogy
So why does Buddha say that dhyana will release one from these things? Firstly, it probably does help us to think in terms of “being released” rather than “being cured”. They are both good metaphors, but we are not really talking about diseases that are to be got rid of, we are talking about opening a door onto a much bigger and less confining space. The little cell does not need changing, but when we realise that the door is open we can walk out. When we look back we can see how that little room fits into the whole architecture. We do not need to demolish it.
This analogy, maybe, gives us some idea of what dhyana is. Dhyana is spacious. There is room within it for many things. Dhyana gets translated as “meditation” and one then wants to know how to do it, but dhyana is not a verb. Dhyana is a noun. It designates mind space, heart space, vast space.
Things You can Do
Being Alone: For sure, there are things you can do. For instance, you can spend some time on your own. Aloneness is a good way in, because when you are alone it is more difficult to blame everybody else. The reason that, in Zen, everybody sits facing the wall is so that one is more alone at that time. My teacher used to say, “When you meditate, there is just you and the wall… and there is nothing wrong with the wall.” Spending time alone gives one another dimension.
When one is alone one discovers one’s own rhythm. One also sees one’s own habits and preoccupations. Being alone may be a kind of hell sometimes, but it is a real space in which one is oneself in a more total way. This is one aspect of dhyana.
Settling: Another aspect is settling. When one is first alone one may feel as if all the dust in one’s life has been swept up by a whirlwind and is swirling around one. After a time, however, the dust settles. Let the dust of your life settle. Initially, perhaps, one thinks that one needs to get rid of it, but flailing one’s arms in an effort to clear a space in the dust storm just raises more dust. It will settle of its own accord if allowed to. So this is another aspect of dhyana.
Aloneness need not always be literal. Simply taking on complete responsibility is a kind of aloneness. Doing what you really think rather than what you think will make other people think what you want them to think about you. That is also dhyana.
Rapture: Then dhyana is also engagement. When we do something wholeheartedly, even if it is sitting in the sun, that is a kind of dhyana. Dhyana is rapture. This is why, in Buddhist training, one sometimes says to do one thing at a time and give it full attention. This is not so much to develop skill in attention or consciousness - though that is handy - it is to give one an experience of a pure space.
So dhyana is great space. It is leaving one’s little cell and going out into the big hall, or even into the garden. There is nothing to be destroyed or got rid of. You might do it sitting down cross legged on the floor, but not necessarily. Dhyana is not a protocol nor a treatment, it is a mental space and that space can be found anywhere.
So why do we build ourselves a little cell? Essentially out of fear and fear comes from feeling unloved and unsafe. Angulimala gave up killing people when the Buddha offered to protect him. The Buddha protected him by putting him in a monk’s robe. Buddhist practitioners are often referred to in the texts as “sons and daughters of good family”. Buddhism is the family of Buddha - it is a good family and people in it do not need to be afraid and huddled in little self-manufactured mental cells because in this good family one is loved just as one is. When one starts to trust that love one experiences dhyana, one’s nervous obsessions fade in proportion, one’s perplexity no longer obscures everything, the sun comes out from the clouds. The clouds now decorate the sky instead of hiding the sun. This is not because one has perfected a method, nor is it even that one’s bits of fear and confusion have disappeared; they are just a lot less important, a much smaller element in the scheme of things. The space has got bigger because one feels as one loved rather than as one abandoned, as one released rather than as one imprisoned, as one in one’s own country rather than lost in the desert. The gods protect and the Buddha smiles.