Adapting to Conditions

by Rev. Kinrei Bassis

(This article is based on a lecture I gave at Shasta Abbey on August 21, 2012 as part of a week long retreat on Bodhidharma. This lecture was based on an Outline of Practice by Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma gave four practices that encompass all of Buddhist training: suffering injustice, adapting to conditions, seeking nothing, and practicing the Dharma. This article is based on the lecture on the second practice-adapting to conditions. The talk has been edited and some sections expanded.)

“Adapting to conditions. As mortals, we’re ruled by conditions, not by ourselves. All the suffering and joy we experience depend on conditions. If we should be blessed by some great reward, such as fame or fortune, it’s the fruit of a seed planted by us in the past. When conditions change, it ends. Why delight In Its existence? But while success and failure depend on conditions, the mind neither waxes nor wanes. Those who remain unmoved by the wind of joy silently follow the Path.” 1    ~ Outline of Practice by Bodhidharma

I find this teaching of Bodhidharma’s to be very helpful. I particularly like the line; “Those who remain unmoved by the wind of joy, silently follow the Path.” Most people come to Buddhist practice wanting to deal with some aspect of their suffering. Most people recognize there are many difficulties in their life and they have numerous problems. But we rarely recognize how all our suffering and problems are simply the other side of what we are grasping; of what we are seeking and desiring. There is a widely used teaching in Buddhism, the Eight Worldly Concerns. They are gain and loss, fame and disgrace, pleasure and pain, praise and blame. Naturally it is normal and helpful to want pleasure rather than pain, gain rather than loss, etc. For us to gain a real understanding of the Dharma, we need to understand the Buddhist teaching that nothing fundamentally important is happening when we receive gain and loss, fame and disgrace, pleasure and pain, praise and blame. Naturally, being a sentient being, we are deeply conditioned to prefer pleasure to pain and this is true of all the Eight Worldly Concerns. We naturally prefer gain, fame, and praise. Yet all these worldly conditions just pass away like a dream as time washes them all away. Everything in the past becomes a memory, which is very much like a dream; a dream of pleasure or pain, a dream of fame or disgrace, a dream of gain or loss, a dream of praise or blame. For instance nothing fundamentally is happening when you have either pleasure or pain; there is nothing you can grasp. Pleasure and pain are just passing transient conditions. Praise and blame are just the floating opinions of others. Yet if you allow yourself to be intoxicated with praise, then you’ll be crushed when you get criticized. Again with arising of the opposites, if you obsess on gaining something then it can be very hard, or even devastating, if it is lost. Gain and loss seem so real in our daily lives yet as we approach our own mortality, it then becomes much easier to understand Dogen’s teaching “The kingdom of death must be entered by oneself alone, with nothing for company but our own good and bad karma”.2

Adapting to conditions is being willing to let go of what our little self is demanding and being willing to ask ourselves, what choices can we make that will lead to the best possible outcome? That which is stopping us from adapting to conditions is our fixed opinions, our hard judgments and our strong feelings of how things should be. When Great Master Dogen returned to Japan after being a monk in China for a number of years, he was asked what he had brought back from China. Dogen replied, “All I brought back was a soft and flexible mind.” To find real peace and contentment, we need a mind that is flexible and a heart that is soft so we can adjust and adapt to whatever conditions we encounter in our lives. This means that we are not strongly grasping our opinions and our wishes on how all the myriad of things in our life should be. We are making the effort to stop filling our minds and hearts with a seemingly never ending flow of desires and needs. Instead, we focus on having the right intention and then a willingness to pay attention to what results flow out of our choices.

There is great resistance to just allowing the conditions to flow through our life because we find it very difficult to abandon our strongly held views of how life should be. This very resistance seems to be a central part of what we view as being human. This means we are grasping our suffering and justifying it with our deluded views. To be inwardly still with all these difficult conditions, allows all the feelings and thoughts to surface. Everything can be seen and felt. Unfortunately, this goes against our normal human conditioning which is to resist facing and feeling our difficulties and pain. There are many ways we resist being still and open to all our difficult karma. We find reasons not to meditate, reasons to not believe in our ability to deal with our difficulties. We can find fault with ourselves, fault with others, fault with the world. The solution to suffering lies in our wholehearted acceptance of whatever is happening in our lives, and all our suffering is rooted in our resistance to this acceptance.

Adapting to conditions requires us keep asking what is good to do, what is the right action in this specific situation, for these particular conditions. Whenever we are demanding that others be different, for the world to be different, we are then fighting with conditions rather than adapting to conditions. The most important condition we need to adapt to and accept is all the various conditions that are flowing through our hearts and minds. We do not actually control how we feel, nor do we control what thoughts arise in our minds. Adapting to conditions means when difficult emotions like fear arise, the question then is, what is the right response to these fearful thoughts and feelings? When despair is coming up, the question is what help can we offer to all our feelings of hopelessness and our critical thoughts? The problem is not that we have these difficult thoughts and feelings but rather how can we help our difficult karma. It is like having a dirty room. How do I help the karma of the dirty room? The dirty room just requires the effort of cleaning and it feels right to clean. Yet, if you don’t have time or the opportunity to clean, then you have to just let it go and realize there is nothing fundamentally wrong with something being dirty. Adapting to conditions means we have to trust that everything is fundamentally pure and no amount of dirt can change the truth of this inherent purity. Our spiritual training is to help these Truths to be seen and experienced; this is done by being willing to clean. Just as a dirty room is not fundamentally unclean or wrong, nothing is wrong with the dirt in our hearts. It just means we need to clean and purify our hearts. Fundamentally all fear, all hatred, all inadequacy, all pride, are just some of the things that need to be cleansed in our hearts.

Buddhist practice is the cultivating of our faith that everything we really want, our true treasure, can be found in the stillness of our hearts. When our hearts and minds are not grasping, not getting caught up with our desires, but instead being open to all the flow of conditions, then we can realize that nothing is fundamentally being affected in this flow. The word, Buddha, means awakened. The Buddha was someone who was no longer lost in his dream of birth and death. The dreamlike nature of birth and death is not that birth and death are not real. The dreamlike quality lies in how we give profound meaning to our triumphs and failures, to our pleasure and pain. The story of our life, a tale we keep telling ourselves, is usually a drama, with tragedy, with triumphs, and with failures. A famous line from the Diamond Sutra is, Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world: A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream. 3

To seek Buddahood is to seek to awaken from our dream of birth and death. What people call worldly life usually means being lost in this dream of birth and death. Our day-to-day experience, what we call life, is generally a perception of a world out of harmony, in which good and evil are both pervasive, in which happiness is hard to find and suffering hard to avoid. In our lives we search for happiness yet this appears and disappears from our lives without us being able to grasp and maintain our joy and peace. We hold on to the past, both our past wounds which still disturb us and our past joys whose memory we try to keep alive so as too sustain us in our present life. We keep thinking and grasping after an image of our future which is better than our present and we fear a future in which we have lost what we cherish most about our present life. We hope and dream of a future in which our life’s circumstances are better–an improved job, better relationships, a better body and health. We hope and dream of a future in which we are a better person, no longer having our current feelings of inadequacy or fear, despair or anguish. We hope and dream of a better world, a world in which justice and truth prevail and in which mankind works in harmony for the good of all sentient beings.

Many of our hopes and dreams are, in themselves, good and virtuous. It is natural and appropriate that we should try to attain a good life for ourselves, for our family, for our friends, for our town, for our nation, for our planet, and for all sentient beings. Yet what we usually think of as reality is really just ourselves being lost in a dream. Our sufferings is just like being lost in a nightmare and our happiness and joy, are just being caught up in a pleasant dream. The real goal of Buddhism is to awaken from our total absorption in these dreams and to do what the Buddha did, become awakened and experience the real ground of existence.

Dogen wrote, The most important question for all Buddhists is how to understand birth and death completely for then, should you be able to find the Buddha within birth and death, they both vanish.4 Buddhism points us to nirvana; it points us to a place in which we can find true liberation. This why Buddhism teaches us this body is not our true home and our small, often suffering self is not our Real Self. The Litany of the Great Compassionate One says, “Om to the One who leaps beyond all fear.”5 It means we can awaken from this dream full of fear and longing and realize that there is nothing we need to fear and nothing that we lack.

The Buddhist teaching of the Middle Way is found by not allowing ourselves to be caught up in the opposites of the Eight Worldly Concerns. The Buddhist Middle Way is the practice of adapting to conditions and finding the right way to relate the pleasure and pain, success and failure, etc. It is like the balance we need to find in our sitting meditation. We are neither grasping after our thoughts nor pushing them away. We need to bring our mind back when it wanders down the various distracting pathways of our discursive mind. This takes discipline and effort. Yet we need to be mindful and accept the thoughts and feelings that arise and not push them away. This is a soft effort which is a balance because you can actually push everything away so you blank your mind, or you can put no effort in your meditation and let your mind just drift. In our meditation practice, we’re accepting what’s going on and yet we’re still putting considerable effort into the hard work of maintaining our awareness–allowing all the thoughts and feelings to arise, but then, with mindfulness, letting them go.

         But while success and failure depend on conditions, the mind neither waxes nor wanes. Those who remain unmoved by the wind of joy silently follow the Path.

How can we find the mind that neither waxes nor wanes? This can seem to be an impossible task. How can we sit still and not be moved when we confront all the various difficulties we need to deal with in our lives? How can we not be moved by the power of these worldly conditions? Without the deep effort to try to see the deeper truth beyond these surface conditions, life can easily be depressing or bewildering, especially when disappointments or tragedies occur. An important part of the practice is to just be still and open our minds and hearts to the way things are. We will then start freeing ourselves from being overwhelmed and deluded by the appearance of things.

We free ourselves by letting go of ownership of the conditions that are passing through our lives. We are being deluded when we take ownership of any of the eight worldly conditions. All these conditions are just passing through us. Our world is created by the way our mind moves and becomes entangled in these worldly conditions. When our mind doesn’t understand the real nature of all these conditions, it is moved by them. Encountering good, bad, pleasure, or pain, we take possession of these conditions and then allow our minds to be filled with desire and aversion. We are moved by these desires and fears and allow them to direct our lives. To understand suffering we need to understand what is flowing through our lives and to understand our reaction to this flow of conditions. What is really happening when we suffer? When we are happy, where does the happiness come from, and what happens when the happiness goes away? If you cannot understand where your suffering and happiness come from, then how can you understand what is the real nature of your life?

We need a childlike trust in the impossible-our own Buddhahood. We must train with the faith that in the deepest sense, the external conditions do not matter. This body of ours is a body of karma, flowing inextricably towards old age, disease and death. Yet the wonderful truth that lies at the heart of Buddhism is that our real heart and mind is always completely unbounded and free.

Every Buddha and every Ancestor realizes that he is the same as the limitless sky and as great as the universe. When they realize their true body there is nothing within or without; when they realize their true body they are nowhere more upon the earth.” 6       Great Master Dogen-Kyojukaimon

1) Bodhidharma, The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, translated by Red Pine (Northpoint Press, 1987) p.5

2) Dogen, Zen is Eternal Life, translated by Jiyu-Kennett, (Shasta Abbey Press, 1999) p.95.

3) Dogen, Serene Reflection Meditation, translated by Jiyu-Kennett, (Shasta Abbey Press, 1989) p.74

4) Dogen, Zen is Eternal Life, translated by Jiyu-Kennett, (Shasta Abbey Press, 1999) p.94.

6) Dogen, Serene Reflection Meditation, translated by Jiyu-Kennett, (Shasta Abbey Press, 1989) p.75