Buddhist psychology can be seen as a cure for addiction or obsession. Addiction is officially defined as a compulsive behaviour pattern in which one develops unpleasant symptoms if one does not get one’s fix. There are, however, any number of lesser compulsive habits of thought and action, that we might call obsessions, that do not generate strong side effects, but which, nonetheless, tend to dominate one’s mentality in varying degrees. In this sense, virtually everybody has some obsessional tendency, though the objects of obsession may change from time to time.
Such obsessions may have good reason inasmuch as, living in the material world of conditioned existence, we maintain certain conditions to support life and society. We each have a package of favoured conditions with corresponding thoughts, images and feelings that tend to monopolise our mind. This package centres upon a mental complex we call the ego that is partly idiosyncratic but mostly socially conditioned.
The mind is a bit like a computer screen. On the edge of one’s screen there are a continual stream of pop-ups that distract one from one’s main task by offering attractive advertisements. They seems to say “Would you like one of these?” or “I have something special to offer!” and if you click on them, in no time you are redirected to a different programme. In the mind, these seductive programmes are our obsessions. In the computer the ads are targetted using algorithms based upon our previous activity. In the mind it is similar. As soon as one exercises one’s volition, the mind registers it and sets up a repetition loop that continues until it runs out of energy. Each time one buys into the repetition one strengthens the obsession.
Meditation can be defined as a spiritual exercise in which one holds a wholesome object in mind for an extended period. In this article I am writing about meditation in which the wholesome object is the nembutsu. From the perspective of Buddhism, the most wholesome objects are Buddha and Dharma. Buddha and Dharma are simply personal and impersonal aspects of the same thing. Nembutsu encompasses both aspects.
When we set ourselves to keep an object in mind, other things pretty soon start to intrude on our mind space. Although one may be following the nembutsu in rhythm with the breath, pop-ups are continually appearing on the edge of the mind, The vividness with which they do so is in proportion to the degree to which we are obsessed with them.
However, the most sane condition is that of keeping Buddha-Dharma in mind. Buddha-Dharma dissolves ego. In principle, therefore, nembutsu should have highest priority and when it does so the meditation will be stable. Such stability and poise is a sign of mental health.
In practice we are likely to find that, during our meditation, sometimes the nembutsu prevails and sometimes other objects get the upper hand. This may mean that sometimes meditation becomes a struggle. However, even this sense of struggle itself is riddled with ego. The Buddha describes meditation as “a peaceful abiding” or as “a state of joy and ease” or even as “equanimity”. This tells us that really stable meditation is not a struggle. It is not a matter of imposing one’s self-will upon the mental flow in a forceful manner.
Yet this does not mean that one goes to the opposite extreme of just letting whatever arises in the mind happen. To do so is just to sink back into one’s favourite obsessionality. There is a middle way, a balanced state, in which the effort expended in demoting each intrusion is no more than the minimum necessary. This small quantum of energy does not occupy the whole of one’s mind, but lets the intrusion fall into the background, so that the repeating nembutsu remains in foreground position.
When we practice in this way, it is rather like the images we read about in the sutras in which the Buddha is giving a discourse and all kinds of beings gather round to receive the Dharma. In the mind that is in a stable meditation, the repeating nembutsu invokes the Buddha in central place in the mind and all the other things that arrive in one’s mind space become like the multitude who come to listen to the Dharma. In the great assembly of the mind, it is not so much that we dismiss our obsessions as that we give each of them a place somewhere in the audience while the nembutsu holds up the flower of the Dharma in the centre.
I have talked about this practice here as a meditation exercise, yet as we get experienced we find that this is not merely the way to do an exercise, but becomes a main feature of how the mind of the practitioner operates, not just in the meditation period, but also in life generally. The mind centred upon Buddha-Dharma, with other activities going on all around, is a state of balanced sanity and the habit of continually returning to the nembutsu cultivates such stability and yields limitless joy.
When this becomes the case it is rather as though one were always doing every activity within the meditation hall. Although one might be sweeping the carpet, the Buddha-rupa remains there in pride of place. Thus everything is done in the presence of the Buddha-Dharma, which is to say, in the ambiance of the nembutsu. In this way, nembutsu becomes constant and stable, ever associated with even the most mundane activities. One's life revolves around the holy Name and so everything becomes a sacred activity and one's whole life becomes a Buddha hall. Even though one remains aware of one's own limited bombu nature, still everything is touched by other-power. What begins as our prayer to Buddha, becomes a case of our life being part of Buddha's great prayer for all beings. Then practice is no longer personal or even particularly conscious.
This reversal is a pivotal turn in the life of the spiritual practitioner. It might well, however, be something that occurs unremarked and this is generally the best way. It is not that I do a practice and thereby overcome my ego for the ego cannot conquer the ego. Nonetheless, the power of Buddha may slip in through the back door, as it were. The Buddha's radiant sanity envelopes and protects and all is completely assured.