Sunday, March 19, 2006


Reading about Buddhism in popular books, magazines, blogs, etc. is always very interesting, because there are so many people trying to figure out or claiming to know just what it is or what it is supposed to be. That is understandable. But there is also an implicit suggestion that whatever path one is on--Pure Land, Ch'an, Vajrayana, Nichiren, etc.--that there is some degree of realization or actualization beyond our limited conceptions and descriptions for which the Buddhist practitioner is striving. For some, this can be extended to all religious and spiritual traditions, i.e. sacred traditions. Often, this illusive "something" is relayed as being ubiquitous yet ineffable, so that the best these traditions can do is give us a shove in the right direction and then wait for inspiration to strike. I have written about this myself. Or as my Buddhist teacher put it, don't "be in the moment" because now you've created a distinction between "you" and "the moment". Hence such wisdom is a living wisdom, not a lesson about life but life itself. Or as I serendipitously suggested once, when thinking about the "meaning of life", try replacing the "of" with an equal sign. This can be very frustrating because it turns on our heads the notion that we must become steeped in the sutras, or the Torah, or the Gospels, etc., so that we can "figure it out". Not that there is anything wrong with conventional knowledge or scriptural wisdom and inspiration. All of it has a good use, but the hardest part I think of initially going deeper into a sacred tradition is that it is more about letting go and acceptance than how many verses you can quote, what level of philosophical pondering you are conversant in, or how many good deeds you've accumulated.

When it comes to difficulties assimilating Buddhism in places like the United States, we often hear about problems such as mistaking the teaching of no-self for thinly disguised nihilism, etc, because of linguistic and cultural translation of the Dharma into the West. But more subtly I think there is also the tendency to try to over-emphasize that which fits with our sensibilities and discard the rest as Asian cultural baggage. It is true, I think, that there is such baggage, especially when it comes to superstition and magical thinking. We have plenty of it in our own culture, so it isn't that unfamiliar. But then there is the issue of what is to be "accomplished" or "attained" and how this is to be done. Westerners such as myself love to emphasize the whole "do it yourself" attitude suggested in some Buddhist teachings, but we typically aren't that big on ideas of interconnectedness when it means we must also rely on others. That messes with our sense of self-determination. It's hard to reconcile the value of each unique individual with the fact that each individual exists only in relationship to other unique individuals. Then there is the idea of enlightenment and attainment. With the exception of Pure Land, most traditions translated into the West, at least superficially, tend to reinforce a notion of a kind of do-it-yourself salvationism as opposed to a sense of surrender. For many that sounds to much like Christianity--admitting you are a sinner and that you need the grace of God through Jesus Christ to redeem you. But surrender is always important in sacred traditions because of the obstacle of what is often in Buddhism referred to as the ego. Not the sense of being a unique person, but the attachment to the conditions that we think define us as static, rather than dynamic and interconnected beings.

That leads then to a misunderstanding or lack of appreciation of the concept of transformation in sacred traditions in general and Buddhism in particular, at least from the viewpoint of many Westerners. It is the old dualistic trap, wherein one thing must be destroyed or replaced by something else to effect change. Rather than flaws being transformed into strengths, we think in terms of removing or modifying that which is perceived as flawed and replacing or enhancing it with the necessary conditions or materials to make it better. Rather than curses being transformed into blessings, we think in terms of ways to reduce or eliminate behaviors we see as insulting and increasing behaviors we see as inspirational.

Now at this point I can anticipate that at least one of the two or three people who might actually stumble across this blog will be thinking: "Is this person advocating denying suffering or that people have any kind of moral or ethical obligations? Is this person saying that we should just accept everything, even rape and murder, and make no effort to help others who may be sick, or poor, or lonely?"

Let me state for the record I am absolutely not saying any of those things. When we can prevent or cure sickness, or poverty, etc., we most certainly should make every effort to do so! But these circumstances will always arise in some form. No matter what we do, people will ill, people will make regrettable choices, people will age, and eventually they will die. Being young, healthy, and rich does not prevent angst, depression, etc. Moreover, it is practically clichéd to mention how many people have felt blessed by things many of us would recoil at--being blind or deaf, suffering an injury or illness, or even "getting old". This is not to say that most or all of those who have gone through these things feel blessed about it. But it does point to something more to being a fulfilled sentient being with a deep sense of peace and joy than conditions and circumstances like wealth or health. I will go out on a limb and make a statement about what Buddhism does or does not say, what it does or does not offer, and so on (yeah, yeah, I know): Buddhism is not about making your life less chaotic or hectic, it is not circumventing problems with your boss or family or friends, it is not about getting rich or losing weight, it is not about escaping grief or physical/mental ailments or all of the messy, confusing, or frustrating conditions and circumstances which you might perceive as comprising what you would call "your life". Nor is it about becoming so wise and calm that you just stop noticing or caring about what mere mundane mortals refer to as pain or suffering. It's actually about charging headlong into your life, and realizing it isn't just your life but all of the lives you touch and that touch you. The sensations, feelings, and experiences of your life aren't dulled by some padding of mental discipline--quite the opposite. Such calloused barriers will fall and you will touch and know these things in their pure and undiluted form, being naked and unshielded from them.

This brings us back to transformation. Denying greed, hatred, and ignorance (the three poisons at the root of suffering in Buddhism) is foolish and unproductive. Remodeling our ego-self as a "good person" who can avoid these poisons through discipline and good intentions is just as futile. This is where spiritual hypocrisy and immodest piousness begins. It's just another delusion that keeps up bound to samsara, the cycle of suffering. Seeking liberation requires acknowledging being filled with/bound up in greed, hatred, and ignorance. These impulses may be well-hidden beneath a calm facade, but given the right circumstances, they will come out--either subtly or in a dramatic and horrible fashion. Being bound thus by our conditions of existence through these poisons must be accepted. You can't change anything until you acknowledge how things really are. For example, if you think your problem is a nagging spouse and not your alcohol abuse, you might see the "solution" as arguing with or even leaving said spouse rather than getting treatment for alcoholism. So too we have to understand our condition to remedy it. What Buddhism enables (and this is not an exclusivistic claim by any means) is the transformation of these poisons, not the denial of them. Going back to the analogy of being "naked" before our lives and experiencing them fully, that which we might have felt the need to shield ourselves from are transformed as well. That does not mean they become pleasurable, but it does mean that our exaggerated or unrealistic expectations which were causing unnecessary dread and apprehension (thereby exacerbating needless suffering) are exposed. So, technically, it isn't the "thing" or "circumstance" which really changes at all, but our minds.

Is an event a misfortune or challenge? A crisis or opportunity? Pointless or educational? Is a person who wishes you harm a foe or a teacher? Is it better to be arrogant or confident? Are your experiences/is your life filled with suffering or enlightenment?

Getting back to more practical issues, in terms of charity and social justice and mercy is it better to be someone who has taken an honest look at themselves and cultivated genuine wisdom and compassion from the transformation of greed, hatred, and ignorance or someone who is only superficially committed to such things so long as the conditions and circumstances are favorable and convenient? Is it better to talk a good game about philosophy and ethics or demonstrate authentic Bodhicitta? To limit our help to only making circumstances temporarily "better" or by giving an example of a fully actualized life where our nature isn't simply reactive to prevailing conditions? To merely lament suffering or help others transform it into enlightenment?

As always, the choice is yours.

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