“When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. And that’s my religion.”
– Abraham Lincoln
From June 6th to the 17th I was at the Ontario Vipassana Centre for a 10 day meditation course. I think I have referred to it as a “retreat” in the past, but I really think that conjures up images of relaxation, which are really not in line with my experience. I am somewhat hesitant to write too much about my experience for a number of reasons. At the forefront is the fact that should someone be interested in completing the course themselves, it would be wise to have very limited expectations in place prior to doing it. I had read a few “reviews” online and had talked to some past students prior to going and although I don’t think it negatively impacted my stay at the centre, I did feel like maybe I had put too much stock in their words and at times tried to realign my experience with what theirs were.
All that being said I will be posting some things about it over the next few weeks without going too much into my own personal memories. Overall I will say that it was a very challenging 10 days in every sense of the word (physically, emotionally, psychologically), however I am extremely happy that I went and committed fully to it. I am still mentally unpacking and processing everything that happened in my short time away, but I can already tell that it was an experience that will positively influence me for probably my entire life.
The reason that I started off this post with Lincoln’s quote is because the teacher of Vipassana, S. N. Goenka, has a lot to say about “blind faith”, which is to say relying on religious rituals and practices for the hope of receiving positive things in return, especially when this is in the absence of personal embodiment of those one worships. For example, I can worship Buddha but that would do me little good. To be a good person and to reach liberation one must embody the traits of saintly people like Buddha, Jesus Christ, etc and live one’s life … well, basically like a good person.
Goenka is very fond of story telling in order to explain concepts so I have a few of them stored in my memory bank which I hope to share with you. This is one of my favorites and frankly sums up perfectly how I feel about organized religion, which often equals blind faith.
One day a man comes to see Buddha and tells him that his father recently passed away and wonders if Buddha could do something for the father’s soul in order to guarantee a pleasant afterlife. The man says that priests have already performed some rights and rituals for his father, but he feels that the great Buddha’s blessing would be the ultimate assurance. Buddha tried to explain to the man that he cannot do anything for the man’s dead father, but this falls on deaf ears and the man continues to plead for help. Having understood that reasoning with the man is futile, Buddha tells him to go into the market and buy two clay pots. The man is to fill one with butter (ghee) and one with stones and to bring them back to Buddha. The man, elated at the prospect of Buddha’s help, runs to the market to get the supplies. He brings them back and following Buddha’s instructions, seals the pots, ties them together with a rope, and throws them into a nearby pond. Both of the pots sink to the bottom. Buddha then instructs the man to take a long stick and break open both of the pots underwater. At this point the man is extremely happy as this action is reminiscent of a Hindu practice in which the skull of the dead is broken open in order to release the soul. He breaks both of the clay pots and their contents spill out into the water. Predictably, the stones remain at the bottom of the pond while the butter rises to the surface. Buddha then asks the man to go get his priests, bring them to the pond, and ask them to perform their rights and rituals so that the stones come up to the surface of the pond and the butter sinks to the bottom. The man begins protesting and accuses Buddha of asking the impossible. Buddha then explains to the man that just as stones will always sink and butter will always float, so is the law of nature reflected in human beings. If one is full of stones (negative actions and bitterness) all of their life, they cannot expect to float upon their death, just like if one is full of butter (compassion, love, kindness) there is no way they will sink. It is not up to priests and other practitioners to save anyone, nor do they have the power to do so, everyone is responsible for their own salvation, and they alone can achieve it.
Although the teachings of Buddha involve the concept of karma and reincarnation, I believe the above parable could easily be applied to the concepts of Heaven and Hell or any such afterlife beliefs. Blind faith and relying on some outside source to give you happiness and salvation, just like blaming an outside source for your misery, is a futile game and one that you cannot ever win. So what will it be? Will you be full of stones or full of butter?
May you all live long, happy, harmonious, love-filled…and buttery…lives!