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The Wrong Way to Be Thoughtless

Buddha-Thoughtless but not thoughless“Even if he is fond of quoting appropriate texts, the thoughtless man who does not put them into practice himself is like a cowherd counting other people’s cows, not a partner in the Holy Life” (Buddha’s words from the Dhammapada 19).

The problem with the “thoughtless man” is that he is completely heedless of the spiritual life, confusing intellectual activity with spirituality. The heart of the problem is his incomprehension of the need to “take it personally” and apply the principles and practices in his life and change himself.

This malady afflicts all, both East and West, but it is particularly pernicious and persistent in the West. Knowing about something is not the same as being or possessing it, yet people avidly read books and attend lectures and seminars on spiritual life (including meditation) without the slightest intention of engaging in serious, dedicated practice.

Examples of being thoughtless

Just a few days ago I received a letter from someone telling me that she had given a lecture on the need for spiritual study. Afterward the attendees were rhapsodizing about how “inspiring” and “wonderful” it had been. But not a single one of them took her advice and opened a book.

Quite some time back I gave a talk at a Christian monastery on meditation. Everyone was thrilled and uplifted–they said. Not only did they say, “At last we know the way!” they even claimed that some time before in a vision one of them had been told that this teaching would be coming to them as fulfillment of their spiritual aspiration. (I modestly omit that in the vision the monk was told that “a master” would be giving them the teaching.)

Two days later, when I asked them how they were managing in meditation, as per my talk, they looked utterly blank and then unanimously said that they had not even tried to do so. When I vulgarly asked Why Not? one of them replied: “It just didn’t seem so important.” I went home.

My chagrin was uncalled for, really, because a few years before that I had been invited to a contemplative Catholic monastery to talk with the members on meditation. The first thing I did was ask who had read The Way of a Pilgrim, a Russian Orthodox book about constant prayer and meditation in the Holy Name of Jesus. Every one of them had not only read it, they all expressed great enthusiasm and admiration for it. It was their favorite spiritual book. “Have you tried to pray always and meditate as the book says?” was my innocent query. Silence. They looked at me as though I had asked if they had considered burying themselves alive, or something equally outrageous. I went home, then, too.

Multitudes want to hear about enlightenment, meditation, the Self, and the Buddha Nature, but hardly any want to do anything about it. As Saint Paul lamented: “Many sleep” (I Corinthians 11:30).

And many talk in their sleep.

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