The Best Wealth
There is a sutta in which the Buddha responds to questions asked by a certain yakkha, Alavaka, concerning the best kind of wealth, the practice that brings happiness, the sweetest of all tastes and the noblest manner of living. His reply has always struck me as worthy of reflection, particularly in regard to the first aspect, where the Buddha says that confidence is the best wealth to a man in this world.
At first we might find ourselves asking why this confidence is given such importance, but after thinking about it for just a short while, it becomes clear that it is faith or confidence (saddhaa) that motivates us to begin to practise and to keep going - even when things are difficult - until we reach the final goal. If we don't have faith that liberation is possible and that we ourselves are capable of realising it, either we simply will not even be inclined to begin, or else we will give up when we find some obstacle along the way.
It is similar to when we fall sick. In order to benefit from the expertise of a good physician, several things need to come together. We need to recognise that we are sick (that there is suffering). We need to know or to hear of someone who understands the type of sickness that we have and who knows how to cure it. And we need to have confidence, or faith, that if we follow the instructions of our physician carefully, we will be cured; this may arise from the testimony of others or their example, or simply that we have tried everything else and this is our last hope. Contact with anyone who doesn't seem to be benefiting from such a cure, or absence of the hoped for improvement in our own condition lead naturally to a diminution of confidence, and in time an inclination to stop taking the medicine - particularly if it is unpleasant to take!
But this faith is not a matter of logical reasoning, it is a function of the heart; and it can only happen once we are willing to let go, even to the smallest degree, of the structures and props - the 'certainties' of mundane existence. When we enter into any undertaking, 'religious' or otherwise, in this spirit we actually engage ourselves in a particular relationship with 'Life', the 'Universe', 'Truth', 'God' - whatever we choose to call it. Instead of regarding ourselves as separate entities and feeling the need to understand and to keep everything under control, we relinquish our hold and - provided with a few simple guidelines - step forward bravely into the unknown. We trust in the possibility of total liberation and that, having taken one step along the path, we will have what we need to take the next. It is also clear that there is no certainty whatsoever regarding what that process itself may involve for us - there is no knowing... and this turns it into a rather joyous experience. It reminds me of someone I met while on pilgrimage, who has established schools in many of the poorest villages of Bihar. When under pressure to be more organised and 'public' in order to raise funds for her work, she said simply that it didn't feel right in her heart: "I'd rather rely on Providence than publicity." For her, it certainly seems to work, things come. Each day she witnesses the most extreme situations of poverty, which could engender oceans of anxiety, but instead she carries with her a sense of ease and joy - the blessings of a compassionate heart which is free from 'self' concern.
Our life of contemplation can have a similar quality, irrespective of the outer circumstances of our life. But, like anything: flying a kite, riding a bicycle, water skiing or anything else that looks delightful and appears easy, it takes effort, it takes training: a willing application, experiencing failure and trying again. Although in many areas the effort involves bodily action of some kind, above all, it is an application of attention that is needed. We need to learn how to listen to the heart: is it at ease, peaceful, joyous? Or does it feel burdened or agitated, as it struggles with conflicting and confusing longings: wanting to be perfect, to look good, to do the right thing; fearful of making a mistake, looking foolish or unworthy, or doing the wrong thing. We discover that in times of confusion or agitation it is better to wait until these things have passed and the prevailing mood is one of serene confidence and ease before acting; the benefit that comes then is infinitely greater.
On paper or thinking about it, it seems so obvious. Doing it is another matter. Perhaps a good beginning is to take a look at what destroys this faith. On the one hand it is the over - critical mind, and on the other - perhaps surprisingly - the dull, sloppy mind that can't be bothered to look for anything beyond a vaguely pain-free abiding right now. In fact I've noticed in my own mind a tendency to swing from one extreme to the other: "I'm not good enough; I'm this and this and this, and I just can't do it!" and: "Oh, I can't be bothered. What's the point of even trying?"... So, to counterbalance each of these tendencies, we need to question, to introduce an element of doubt into the mind that seems so certain: "Who says you're not good enough, that it can't be done? You don't want to believe everything that clever mind of yours tells you!" and, "Hey, wait a minute. Didn't the Buddha, himself say that there's a teaching for gods and humans (you're a human, aren't you) that can free the heart from all this suffering. He did it; others have done it - come on! Give it a go!"
We could start by doing something good, kind - or refraining from doing or saying something unkind. How does that feel? It feels good, doesn't it... Little by little we learn to flow with life, to participate skilfully in it rather than feeling the need always to be in control, to have things happen according to my ideas and avoiding the things that I'm afraid of or don't like.
It can be like a pilgrimage. We set out to honour, to celebrate the good; that is our intention. Along the way there are all kinds of unexpected delights, surprises and also obstacles, hardships. The only certainty is that things are uncertain; even with the most definite plan, there is no knowing what actually is in store for us along the way. All we can trust in is our ability to be present but, actually, in a manner of speaking that's all we need!