“Can’t you Theravadans ever just relax and just be?”

Steven Goodheart Essays

Steven Goodheart Essays

I was talking with a Zen Buddhist buddy last week, we were “breaking each others chops” about the differences between Theravada teachings, which I lean heavily on in my meditation practice, and Zen, the tradition of my heart techer, Thich Nhat Hanh.

We talked about the differences and similarities of the two schools, and their common roots in the original teachings of the Buddha in the Pali canon.  We talked about koans and how to use them, and we had a lot fun with the “does a dog have Buddha nature” Zen koan. (Of course they do!  Just ask your dog.  Cats, however, are highly skeptical of the claim!)

After a while, we moved on to aspects of practice, and he said, “You Theravadans! Always about “skillful this and ‘skillful’ that! You work so hard at it! Can’t you Theravadans ever just relax and be?”

This totally cracked me up, because he knows Thây (Thich Nhat Hanh) is my root teacher.  And he knows I love Zen and learn from Zen masters as well as the Buddha. But he also knows how much of my meditation practice is rooted in Theravadan teaching and the Pali canon. But I laughed, and said, yes, in Theravada, just as in any other tradition, one can fall into the trap of doing Buddhism as learning a skill set! Every view, even right views, can be a sticky trap!

But, I added, there is also great joy in skillful right effort that brings about the end of suffering. I can still remember so vividly my original joy and sheer delight in finding a practice that finally, after decades of spiritual searching, actually works if you do it in the way the Buddha points out.

But of course, as we all know, having a great map is not the same as using that map to actually walk the mental terrain that leads to the end of suffering! And each of is different, and must find our own way to “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk.”

But I also thought, later on, that cultivation of skillful means—the “raft” the Buddha speaks of for crossing the river of suffering—is hardly the raison d’être of my practice in the Theravadan way. The whole point of right effort, diligence, perseverance, and mindfulness is to push on to the natural freedom of the heart, beyond all forms and conditions, where right action is not so much a “skill” we’ve learned but a constant state of being.  The cultivation of diligence, right effort, perseverance, and patience is not an end in itself but leads to the ineffable, the deathless, the unbounded.

Ajahn Chah

This pushing on past forms and conditions is one of the things Jack Kornfield talks about in his reminiscence of Ajahn Chah in the book Voices of Insight. This is what the great Thai forest master said, in words that may surprise some. Is the great Theravadan Master, Ajahn Chah, pointing to Zen’s Buddha nature? Decide for yourself, but don’t get caught in views! Here’s what Chah said to Kornfield:

“The original heart/mind shines like pure, clear water with the sweetest taste. But if the heart is pure, is our practice over? No, we must no cling even to this purity. We must go beyond all duality, all concepts, all bad, all good, all pure, all impure. We must go beyond self and nonself, beyond birth and death. When we see with the eye of wisdom, we know that the true Buddha is timeless, unborn, unrelated to any body, any history, any image. Buddha is the ground of all being, the realization of the truth of the unmoving mind.”

Surely this is the great inspiration and aspiration of all Buddhists, of whatever schools or lineage, and on this path, we are all dharma brothers and sisters!


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

4 Responses to ““Can’t you Theravadans ever just relax and just be?””

  1. Of course zen emphasizes skillful practice, but they might not call it that. Couldn’t you define skillful as “mindful”? Paying full attention to all actions. Or maybe I am not understanding the Theravadan definition properly.

    The point of finding differences is to have fun talking about them, in my honest opinion.

  2. I love the teachings of Ajahn Cha, whom I actually heard give talks at IMS many years ago. He had an unusual talent of cutting right to the core of things, as few do. However, this quotation, in my view, has the danger of being relied upon by the ” we are all fudge, you know ” school of nondualists ( and some Buddhists ) who want to do nothing but ” be “. A fine way to exist, if you truly have spent time preparing to do just that.

  3. Maps? Only a fool mistakes those for the territory. Thanks for another excellent post. Will be chewing away on it for the next week.


  1. Sitting for hours in meditation is not necessary « Metta Refuge - 2010/09/10

    […] “Can’t You Theravadans Ever Just Relax and Just Be? […]

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