Beset by Thoughts

Looking for a Leader:

In the Hindu tradition you have a Guru somewhere in the world who is perfectly suited to teach you. In Buddhism, we have no guru system, dating from the time of the Buddha’s death when he refused to appoint a leader of the Sangha, advising instead that the Dhamma should be the leader. It is also for this reason that monks use a ceremonial fan infront of their faces during ceremonies – it was intended to separate the figure of the speaker from the Dhamma itself.
The Tibetan system, relying heavily as it did on the later Indian schools of Buddhism, places a much greater emphasis on the relationship of teacher with pupil.
In what way can a good teacher help you? Just like you would spruce yourself up to meet an important person such as a Lord or member of the Royal Family, so when you are in front of someone you consider a great teacher you kind of listen harder, make your mind quite still. You put in more effort and attention. Other than that the teacher cannot do a lot for you. No one can do the meditation and work for you. Despite this, many people think that if they can just stay with the best teacher, or hear the best teaching, then everything will click into place that much faster.

Meeting the Buddha

The Suttas actually provide some interesting anecdotes on this topic. One is a story from just after the Buddha got enlightened, and was walking along in bliss. A naked ascetic called Upaka approached and asked him what was it made him seem to glow with such a brightness of complexion and who might his teacher be. The Buddha replied that in this universe of gods, devas and humans, there is none his equal, for he had attained to absolute perfection by putting away desire. The man shook his head and moved off.

Greatest of Teachers

Another story from the suttas is that of Mekhiya who was the personal attendant of the Buddha. He spied an enticing grove while on almsround and requested permission to leave the Buddha and go there to practise for the afternoon. He was refused permission. He repeated his request, saying, in paraphrase,

It is ok for you, you have got enlightened already. The rest of us still have work to do, so let me go to the grove and practise meditation.

Three times he was refused permission to go to the grove and meditate, even though there were no other duties for him to perform. Because he persisted in his request, he was finally allowed.

What can we say to you? Go do as you see fit

Yet getting to the grove he found that his mind was jumping around with thoughts. Thoughts that he could see were not beneficial – thoughts connected with desire, with aversion and foolishness.
The curious thing about this sutta is it shows even with the best of teachers, the Buddha himself, the disciples still experienced the same problems that we do today. Being beset by thoughts in this manner could describe many of us, even expert meditators, and even the Buddha’s own direct disciples experienced this struggle. On every meditation retreat many of the participants might feel that everyone else is ‘doing it properly’ and only they are hindered by the mind that jumps about. The story is handy to bear in mind when looking for a teacher. Vipassana meditation, pursued and developed makes you independent. The Dhamma itself becomes your teacher.
The other curiosity about the Mekhiya story is that even being with the best of teachers, the disciple still disagrees, and follows their own way sometimes.
The advice the Buddha gave to his attendant Mekhiya is interesting for several reasons, but will be the subject of a following blog.