Living Like a Buddha with Dan Zigmond

Thank you all so much for coming. It’s so nice to be back here at the Brooklyn Yoga Club. I’ve only been once before, for a very different event, and have been hoping to return ever since. I was so happy when Eddie offered to have me speak here tonight.

I’ve studied and practice in the Buddhist tradition for many years, ever since college. I was ordained as a Zen priest about twenty years ago. It’s a special privilege for a Buddhist like myself to speak at a temple like this, because Buddhism and yoga grew out of the same ancient Indian traditions. Our spiritual ancestors are the same.

And a couple years back, I co-wrote a book called Buddha’s Diet, about food and fasting and Buddha’s teachings. It’s a strange set of topics, and in some ways it surprised even myself when my friend Tara and I wrote it. I’ve just started a new book now, but I thought in my talk here today I would expand on one of the last chapters of that first book. It’s called “Living Like a Buddha.” It’s actually hardly about food at all.

And it makes sense that a book with Buddha in the title shouldn’t be just about eating. Buddha certainly wasn’t a diet guru. He wasn’t teaching about mindfulness to help people lose weight, or get in shape, or reduce stress. He wanted us all to aim much higher than that. He preached what he felt was an entirely new path based on his newfound “middle way,” which he said “gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment,” and ultimately to Nirvana. He wouldn’t be content with anyone merely shedding pounds. He wanted us to shed greed, hate, and delusion.

Many Buddhists are happy to see mindfulness find broad acceptance in the secular world today. And certainly mindfulness is everywhere, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Companies offer mindfulness trainings to employees; hospitals teach meditation to patients. I think this is largely good news. As one monk and Buddhist scholar wrote, “if psychotherapists can draw upon Buddhist mindfulness practice to help people overcome anxiety and distress, their work is most commendable.” But other Buddhist teachers have been skeptical, and even hostile to taking mindfulness out of Buddha’s original context. One cynical observer noted that “there is considerable enthusiasm for mindfulness these days, as long as it does not threaten to make us wise.” These critics argue that mindfulness can’t really be understood without the original context of everything else Buddha taught.

I worried about this when writing our book. Even in many Buddhist temples, when we teach new students the basic forms of meditation, we sometimes stop there, explaining how to position your legs and arms and maybe a bit about breathing, but not so much about living. We talk about the how of meditation much more than the why. Some feel this keeps our practice pure, untainted by crass goals and superficial striving. But others would insist again that Buddha taught these practices for a reason, and they can’t be so easily separated from that original context.

So what was the original context?

Buddha spoke about mindfulness in his very first lecture after his great awakening. He spoke to a small group of wandering ascetics who had gathered in a deer park outside the village of Sarnath in northeastern India. Right from the start his main focus was on his middle way, the way between the “unbeneficial” extremes of self-mortification and pure sensual pleasure. He mentioned mindfulness, too, but it was just one piece of his Eightfold Path that all needed to be practiced together. There were seven other pieces, too. To be sure, we needed to practice what he called “right mindfulness”. But we also needed right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right concentration. Mindfulness actually came toward the end, sandwiched there between effort and concentration.

If these eight seem like a lot to remember, they are. I can never quite recite them all from memory myself, even after studying them for nearly thirty years. Buddha had various ways of summarizing the Eightfold Path, like grouping the items into the three broad categories of wisdom (which combined right view and intention), ethics (which was right speech, action, and livelihood), and meditation (right effort, mindfulness, and concentration). But there’s no getting around the fact that this list includes basically everything. How you speak, how you act, how you work—it all matters. It’s not just what you do when you’re meditating—that just gets you three out of eight. And it’s not just being mindful—which is only one. It’s everything.

And why should you do all this? Why should you try to remember this confusing Eightfold Path and apply it to your daily life? Not because Buddha said so. And certainly not because I’m telling you to, or because you heard from any other teacher you’ve met, no matter how wise. (Sorry, Eddie.) Buddha wasn’t relaying the commandments of any god or supreme being. He claimed no authority over any of us. Instead, he was sharing a discovery he had made about how to relieve suffering. In his mind, he was explaining a natural law. It’s a bit like Isaac Newton discovering gravity. Two objects don’t attract each other in relation to their mass because anyone decreed it—they just do, because that’s the way the universe works. The Law of Gravity wasn’t created by Newton or passed by Parliament or ratified by the King. Gravity was there before Newton, and it would still be here if he had never described it. It exerts its force on believers and non-believers alike. Buddha felt the same way about his Eightfold Path. When we “speak or act with a peaceful mind,” he explained, “happiness follows.” It just does, as naturally and automatically as an apple falling from a tree.

So you should do the “right” thing because that’s what reduces suffering in the world. All the things we know are wrong—lying, cheating, stealing, killing—they all cause suffering. Even our minor missteps, our everyday slips of carelessness—these also cause suffering. And Buddha even took this line of reasoning a step further. It’s not just that acting immorally causes suffering—it’s that an act becomes immoral because it causes suffering.

But don’t take his word for it—try it yourself. Don’t try killing, of course. Definitely not. But how about lying? At one time or another, we’ve all tried that already. How did it turn out? Probably not so well. And not just lying to other people—how about lying to ourselves? We’ve all tried that, too. And almost invariably, it’s a disaster. It might feel good at first, maybe it even feels unavoidable sometimes, but in the long run, it causes suffering. That’s what Buddha discovered, and that’s what we all discover if we try it ourselves and pay attention to the results.

And this, by the way, is what Buddhists mean by karma. Karma was Buddha’s word for this discovery, this natural law of cause and effect. The Dalai Lama explains it this way: “If you act well, things will be good, and if you act badly, things will be bad.” It’s that simple.

Buddha did go into more specifics. Buddha had over two hundred detailed rules for monks and nuns covering everything from where to sleep to what to wear. And he covered the basics for laypeople, too: No killing, stealing, lying, or sexual misconduct.

But these rules just scratch the surface. For Buddha, living “right” means living in ways that reduces suffering—both for yourself or for everyone else. All the time. It’s a tall order, and it means thinking through everything we do. So “right speech,” for example, doesn’t just mean saying things that are true—although that’s part of it. But we should also say only what is necessary, and what is kind. Always.

That’s really what living like a Buddha boils down to, thinking about the consequences of our actions and always choosing the ones that reduce suffering. That’s why the Dalai Lama himself has also said, “My true religion is Kindness.” True kindness is the essence of that Eightfold Path.

And does it work? Can we really relieve suffering in ourselves and others?

Buddha says yes, that the end of suffering is possible. But it’s complicated. When something painful happens to us, we don’t just feel the immediate pain—we also have feelings about the pain. We’re angry about our pain, maybe frustrated or resentful, even vengeful sometimes. So we have two unpleasant feelings—a physical one and a mental one. Buddha described this as like being struck by two arrows. The first arrow we can’t avoid—pain hurts, whether we want it to or not. But the second arrow is our own choice. Even if we suffer from the pain, we don’t need to suffer about the pain.

Living like a Buddha is about avoiding these second arrows—not shooting them and not receiving them. Maybe you have to give bad news to a friend or offer honest criticism to a colleague at work. It may hurt the person you’re telling, like that first arrow. But we can say even painful words with kindness. We don’t need to fire a second arrow with the way we speak.

It’s not always easy to be kind. And none of us is kind all the time. But kindness matters.

Keep in mind that this kindness also applies to yourself. You are a sentient being, worthy of compassion. Living like a Buddha isn’t intended to be easy. Some advanced students spend long hours every day in meditation, and that’s difficult even for the most experienced practitioners. My first days on a retreat are often a little miserable, my body unused to long hours of sitting. But our practice should never be brutal. Hardship is sometimes inevitable, but it is never the goal itself. It’s all about that middle way. Don’t let yourself off the hook by taking shortcuts. But don’t beat yourself up if you falter now and then. Never feel that our practice requires you to be unkind, to yourself or anyone else.

I practice in the Soto Zen tradition, a branch of Buddhism brought first to Japan by our great teacher Eihei Dogen, and then eventually brought to America by my own teacher and others. Dogen himself once wrote: “To study the Buddha way is to study the self.” It is one of his most famous lines. This is exactly what Buddha himself did during his years as a wandering ascetic—he studied himself and tried to figure out which practices worked for him and which didn’t. That’s what all of us need to do. In my day job, I work as a data scientist at Instagram. In some ways, it may seem an odd job for a Zen priest. But living like a Buddha means becoming your body’s own data scientist, observing yourself as you live and work and even eat and move to see what works for you and what doesn’t. This applies to all your life. It may take some trial and error to learn which actions cause suffering and which relieve it. But you can’t do this if you’re not paying attention. This again is the essence of Buddha’s teachings—to pay attention to all our actions and their consequences.

The very next line Master Dogen wrote in that essay is in some ways even more interesting: “To study the self is to forget the self.” Because at some point, all this paying attention becomes second nature. The Dalai Lama isn’t kind because he wants to be. He’s kind because he has to be—because he’s always paying attention to his actions and their consequences. It’s easy to step on a bug or snail if you aren’t looking where you’re going. It’s much harder if you see it first.

In time our speech naturally becomes right speech, because we pay attention to the consequences of our words. Our livelihoods becomes right livelihoods, because we pay attention to how our work affects everyone around us. And so on. Even our eating becomes right eating, because we naturally pay attention to when and what we eat, and how this impacts our bodies and perhaps the planet. Mindfulness becomes second nature. We live our life aware of everything we do and the effect it has on everything around us.

In other words, we wake up.

Thank you for joining me here today, where we can all wake up a little together.