The title for this blog post was inspired by some excellent advice from AJATT on learning a foreign language, and not giving up. Early in January he posted a couple bits of advice on Twitter:1
Keep learning and you’ll eventually stop sucking. Stop learning and you’ll suck forever.
We all know you suck. We know you live in Sucksville. That’s fine. You were born there. Just inch your way out.
The point of these bits of advice is the same: don’t be complacent and don’t fool yourself. When studying Japanese, or any language, it’s easy to believe that after studying a while your skills improve. But then, you speak with native speakers, and you still make terrible mistakes and sound really stupid. It’s happened to me time and time again.
So, AJATT’s advice is simple: just admit you suck. Once you do that, your mission is to keep trying and “inch your way out”. Eventually, you’ll suck less. This is brutal advice, but very true if you stop to think about it.
I thought of this because the Buddhist holiday of Nirvana Day is approaching a week from now.2 And to me, AJATT’s advice is true in a Buddhist context too.
Recently, while reading someone’s blog post about the issue of race and Buddhism in America, I was surprised by how many people attacked the blog poster, but also reiterated that they were Buddhists for a number of years. And yet, to anyone reading their posts, it would seem painfully obvious that they weren’t acting very “Buddhist” at that moment. But this really illustrates how the mind can fool itself. Ego is not something you can consciously perceive, but it drives a lot of what we do, think or believe. We fool ourselves all the time, and often don’t even know we do it.
People can lull themselves easily into believing their good, or they’re right, even when it’s painfully obvious to others around them that they are not. People who practice Buddhism for a long time can still easily fall prey to anger if someone wounds their ego just right. I know this painful lesson too well.
On the subject of Nirvana Day, the final words of the Buddha to his disciples, according to the Pali Canon, are thus:
“Now, then, monks, I exhort you: All fabrications are subject to decay. Bring about completion by being heedful.“
The Buddha didn’t say “you can stop halfway” or “just give it your best shot”.3 He urged his disciples to tread carefully from start to finish, even when they’ve advanced a long way on the path. Unless all three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance are completely uprooted, then you are not done. It is said that Maitreya Bodhisattva, a Bodhisattva of the 10th stage and the next Buddha to come, still pays homage to all the Buddhas in the sutras because even he realizes that he is not done, and that he still suffers from delusion, however small.
So, the point of AJATT’s advice (and this post) isn’t to hate yourself, but don’t allow yourself to get self-satisfied no matter who you are. Confucius, the great sage of China, was relentless in his efforts to improve himself even at an old age. As quoted in the Analects:
[2:18] Zizhang was studying to get an upgrade in his civil service rank. [Advising him about self-improvement,] Confucius said, “Listen widely to remove your doubts and be careful when speaking about the rest and your mistakes will be few. See much and get rid of what is dangerous and be careful in acting on the rest and your causes for regret will be few. Speaking without fault, acting without causing regret: ‘upgrading’ consists in this.”
[14:24] Confucius said: “The ancient scholars studied for their own improvement. Modern scholars study to impress others.”
The key is to always strive for improvement, and be wary of faults.
If I desire to enter the vast and great entrance to the mind, my natures is not equal to the task.
If I want to practice just a little bit of cultivation, my mind is difficult to rely on.
Thus even great Buddhists of the past still found much fault with themselves. And Honen wrote as well:
If indeed, it were by my own power that I attained it [birth in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha], there might be some excuse for my pride. But whenever pride arises within the heart, it shows positively that we are in the wrong, both in our faith and practice, and are utterly out of harmony with the Vow of Amida Buddha, and neither He nor any of the Buddhas will extend us their protection. Yes, indeed beware!”
So, to me, it seems better to just approach the Buddhist Path with the attitude that you suck and that Buddhist practice is to help you suck less. It’s OK to suck. We all do to some degree or another. Don’t worry about the other guy/gal and don’t compare yourself to others. Just strive to suck less and you’ll inch your way out eventually.
I found lately that this kind of attitude has invigorated my Buddhist practice even on the days when I don’t “feel like it” (I’m doing it to suck less, not because I feel like it).
It’s a hard way to look at Buddhism but sometimes we need a kick in the pants.
Namo Shaka Nyorai
Namo Amida Butsu
1 Apologies for all the American slang. For those not familiar, “to suck” means to be bad at something (下手).
2 February 15th according to Japanese Buddhist. Other Buddhist communities may vary.
3 Similarly, read chapter 7 of the Lotus Sutra.