Working and in Progress: Thoughts on Faith and Practice

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In this fathom-long body with its perceptions and thoughts there is the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world and the path to the cessation of the world.

Anguttara Nikaya 4:4

It seems significant that one’s suffering is so much one’s own burden whilst also being a generic experience undergone by all living creatures. To be simultaneously conscious of experiencing both creates a basis for metta to arise. In attempting to escape suffering and seek happiness for oneself, it is necessarily sought for others too. Personal experience has a broader foundation in sīla.

A while ago I was reminded of Albert Camus’ essay about the myth of Sisyphus, regarded here as a tragic anti-hero, who is condemned for all eternity to roll a rock up a mountain only to see it roll back down again. I remember it made an impact on me when I was a keen fan of Existentialist philosophy. In the angst-ridden drama of youth, it seemed a perfect representation of the human condition as an abyssal and inescapable state of suffering. However, I was also impressed by Camus’ essay ‘Le Mythe de Sisyphe,’ in which he suggests that it is possible to ‘imagine Sisyphus happy’. One may well ask the obvious questions: ‘How?’ Or: ‘Why?’ An answer may be: Because no suitable alternative is available as an appropriate response to faith (saddhā). Faith, when it is honoured, instigates something affirmative, sourced or derived from the very roots of suffering.

How can we see Sisyphus happy? It seems that we can see his task as exemplary in that he shows the five faculties operating together — Concentration and Energy, Faith and Wisdom, all bal-anced by Mindfulness. If we can balance the faculties, we may manage to push the rock to the pinnacle of the mountain – its weight, its physicality, all of our suffering, in one exact moment, at one specific place, at one point — disappears. So too in the practice, when the hindrances are overcome and we reach one-pointedness, one may then access an experience of equanimity. In each moment of contact with one’s own struggles, one’s own stone, the jhāna factors: vitakka, vicāra, pīti, sukha, and ekaggatā are all present. Until two by two, then one by one, they drop away and at the top of the mountain, ekaggatā alone remains. We may then taste the equipoise of samādhi.

Mastery in Five Ways

The diagram shown above[1] is a two-dimensional representation of an environment envisaged as a place which is both as inhospitable as that depicted in Piranesi’s Carceri’ etchings …[2]

 Piranesi's Carceri etchings

                                                                      … but also as clear, pure and placeless as a tabula rasa. We seem naturally, and at different times, to abide in both.

In the body of the mountain, with the stature of a grand and monumental rūpa, we have a perceptible sense of the unification of the elements. The Earth element is immediately evident in the blatancy of the mountain and in Sisyphus’ stone, his object of con-centration. Indeed, it is palpable too in Sisyphus’ body, which is completely engaged in its task. This body presents an affective episode in one of the various manifestations of rūpa and const-ancy. Air is characterised in the properties of the breath, which is brought into focus with Sisyphean gasping inhalations: in-breath and out-breath being forced and enforced to cope with the weight of the stone; a breath responsive to the effort required for the upwards push. Near the top of the mountain the air flow is cooler and stronger and so here, closer to a temporary goal, the weary body, breathed upon, is eased and healed. We imagine Sisyphus halting for a moment from his toil, aware for a time of his breathing, whence a stony silence falls in the pauses, the abodes between inhalation and exhalation. Water is present in the sweat and humidity — an emphasising, watery dampness. This is the element that ensures adherence and the conjoining of dhammas, making rūpa tangible. Fire, heating up the body is the fuel for anger and pain — the burning sensation of suffering — a manifest energy which can both sustain and transform the effect of our efforts. Space — if all pervasive, can it really be the context for an event? Consciousness is the very fact of human agency: the potential for bhāvanā.

The aggregates come together to form the individual, only to be dispersed like the sand which constitutes the stone. A point may be found.

The liberating potential of the Seven Factors of Awakening rests within the mountain, which are surely evident when we have sufficient faith to risk something. Our suffering has the potential to be transformative. Faith initiates the shift from Dependent Origination to Transcendent Origination.

We return to our patterns, our habits, as Sisyphus returns to his stone. So now what? (Hebrew colloquialism: “Nu?”). Therein lies the potential for paññā.

Faith and Practice photo

[1] The quotations are from A. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, transl. Justin O’Brien, (London: Hamish Hamilton Ltd., 1965) 95-99.

[2] Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78), Carceri d'Invenzione (“Imaginary Prisons”), from left to right: plates 4, 3, 14, 9, and 7.

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