When I first fell in love with Buddhism I was in high school, and this new way of thinking was, for me, a bit too much to take in. I started to keep a journal of things I found, and because I couldn’t make sense of lots of it, the pages quickly began to fill up with lists. Buddhism is full of lists: three of this, four of that, then eight of another thing, then six of this (or sometimes ten), twelve steps to this…
Not knowing how to start on this path—I didn’t have a teacher or a community, or even a clear sense of the various traditions within Buddhism—I thought it must be important to memorize these lists, so I tried. I didn’t do a great job, honestly. Even now, as a teacher, I stumble on the eightfold path (right understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, concentration). I can usually rattle off five or six, then I have to really think about it. I could try to blame some of that on my own teachers, who never spoke about lists at all. But I think it’s more my temperament. I pick up these lists, inspect them, and put them back down again; when I pick them up again, they always feel a little bit surprising and new.
There are a few simple lists that sustain me. One is the three treasures: buddha, dharma, and sangha. I think about them every day, looking at my life and my community from all three angles and trying—and sometimes failing—to keep them in some sort of balance. I am never unaware of the three poisons—attachment, aversion, and ignorance—and how they play into my reactions and decisions. And there are the five universal precepts: not to kill, steal, misuse sex, lie, or indulge in intoxicants. That’s my basic checklist on ethics, and though not every ethical choice is black-and-white, the list reminds me of something fundamental, something to keep coming back to.
I want to recommend something simple: take up a list for yourself. Maybe look it up on the internet and read more about it, find a book that unpacks it. Study it a little. But mostly, memorize it and carry it around with you, try it on as a lens onto the world, your actions, your motivations, your aspirations. Consider it homework. Is there a poem you were forced to memorize in elementary school, one you didn’t even understand but you still remember parts of it at weird times? That’s the idea—that poem is part of you, in ways you can’t even see.
Your list could be one I’ve mentioned already, but there are some other great ones out there, ones that look simple but carry enough depth to keep you busy for a lifetime. The six perfections (paramitas) are generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditation, and wisdom—who wouldn’t want to cultivate any one of those? That’s enough in itself, but these things also interact and inform each other—thus, the list. The four noble truths (dissatisfaction, its cause, the way beyond it, and the path) are the start of Buddhism, so if you’re taking up lists, it’s a pretty good place to begin. You probably don’t want to start with something like the twelvefold chain of causation—it’s kind of intricate—but depending on how analytical you are, it might be just the thing to pull you deeper into the teachings and a deeper understanding of your own life.
There’s a natural inclination, at least for many of us, to let this practice become something formless, to allow it some distance from the teachings and the tradition so that it becomes a meditation practice, or an attitude, or a feeling. There’s a truth in that approach—ultimately, this either becomes a part of us or it doesn’t, and if it does, it can lose its hard borders; the specifics of this or that may not feel very pressing or alive. For today, though, consider taking up a piece of it that feels a little clinical, a little cold. Hold it in our hands. Put it in your pocket. See if you can warm it up a little.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.
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