Thursday, March 1, 2007

Do You Surrender All?

In a comment to something I wrote, Ray from Dharmakara's Prayer happened to say, among many other things, that "Pureland {Buddhism} is not about surrender in the sense understood by the monotheisms."

That opens up the question of what, if anything, surrender has to do with Buddhism. Having the inkling that I had written about the concept of surrender in Buddhism before, I decided to use the little search feature, and I was surprised at how many entries came up! So I guess this might read like one of those clip shows that sit-coms used to do...

One line of thought is that surrender means to simply roll over and give up, that it suggests a weak or ineffectual personality. Is that a quality promoted in Buddhist practice? I've thought about that before...
Still, I was thinking about the image projected onto (and possibly by?) Buddhists in some quarters as being wimpy. I think it may come from failing to parse "weak" and "meek" in the sense that it is one thing to forgive or be patient when you are in a position of perceived powerlessness and when you display such qualities from a position of strength. I don't know how many people who wear little Buddha pendants, who chant mantras, or who read Tricycle are or are not, in fact, wimpy ninnies or nihilistic egoists. I certainly don't have any right to cast the first stone at the glass house I call home. But, in my (needs to be more) humble opinion, there is nothing sissified or wuss-like about learning to surrender to, realize, accept, and promote boundless compassion.

It's so easy to say or think that if
someone is advocating "Love, love, love" that she or he must be an idealistic weenie who needs a dose of the cold, hard, and harsh nature of reality. But that's just it. The Buddhist path is not one of shutting yourself off from the world, or transcending it in these sense of ignoring it or not caring about it. I've written before, as have many others, that it is quite the opposite. In the Mahayana tradition, for example, the Bodhisattva ideal involves learning to hear the cries of the world, to see and truly appreciate the nature of suffering. You are not building up walls, you are tearing them down and making yourself even more open to the circumstances which tend to buffet people about emotionally and mentally. Liberation comes from facing the causes of suffering - birth, sickness and injury, old age, and death - not from hiding from them. You don't just get a "dose" of reality - you get the whole thing.

Cultivating love, loving-kindness,
metta - whatever name you prefer - in the face of such exposure to the best and the worst in humanity, for all of humanity, for all sentient beings - THAT is tough. Tough love. But you keep going - learning to allow, learning to accept, learning to appreciate.

Tough Love, Bleeding Heart

Surrender of course can also refer to giving up or letting go, and in a sacred tradition that refers so much to ridding ourselves of attachments, I think this is one use of the term (Western) Buddhists would be more comfortable with...

I personally don’t think a monk's robe necessarily reinforces the ego. In fact, I see it as a submission to a greater virtue/cause. The person is no longer “Larry Jackson, the former repair shop owner and father of three” when he dons the robe, lights the candles and incense on the altar, and sits at the head of the assembly. He is ‘no longer Larry’ but he is also not ‘no longer Larry’. For a time, he is the voice the of the Dharma, the image of the Buddha, and the head of the Sangha. It is form of voluntary servitude, allowing the space for this higher calling to exist alongside the ego and to represent more than just his personal identity. Now does that mean that in a technical sense the monk is not really Larry? No, but he has taken on the mantle of something greater than his own sense of self. The same is true of the fireman wearing his coat and helmet.

While it may seem simple to say that one way to avoid self-righteousness is to speak not from the ego but on behalf of a greater virtue/more inclusive perspective, it is also the case that often the ego slips back in through the backdoor. Instead of being in voluntary servitude to this higher calling, it gets flipped around so that the higher calling is placed in servitude to the ego. The piousness is hidden behind the title, or the outfit, or the regalia of the higher calling and becomes even more insidious and corrosive...
Reinforcing the ego (see my usage above) always leads to suffering in the end...(O)ne can transform suffering and past experiences (i.e. karmic seeds/baggage) into Bodhi and merit, but to do so in a way that leads to true liberation one must surrender the selfish portion. In other words, to use one’s experiences to fuel a passion for making a positive change is awesome, but doing so to try to fill some perceived gap in one’s completeness is the basis of the kind of craving/desire that leads to attachment, suffering, etc. Otherwise, while the person may fill their life with acts benefiting others (I am not disputing the value of such acts), underneath is still a suffering being who can never ‘do’ enough to fill that perceived hole in their being, and are ultimately acting out of selfishness rather than true compassion.

Just who do you think you are, anyway?
And related to the idea of letting go of our attachments is the source of such grasping, the petty form of our individuality referred to as the ego...

I would add, to be clear, that this does not mean that said forms of sacred traditions do not emphasize the need to embrace the unknown or to surrender to the possibilities of existence. Such transformative notions often include teachings such as no-self or other expressions of going beyond the personal ego, but this should not be confused with giving up the power to chose or think. This subtle distinction is often lost in sweeping critiques of religion and spirituality, and it is also blurred by those wishing to prey on the vulnerable with brainwashing cult tactics.

To be or not to be: secular, a humanist, or a secular humanist

And of course, this can be offensive to certain Western sensibilities...

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...
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.


Nor is it a theme that is exclusive to Pure Land Buddhism...

I am not a priest nor have I studied extensively either the Chinese tradition or the Japanese forms, but it would seem that the difference between seeing the Pure Land primarily as this-worldly or other-worldly is kind of like asking which kind half of the delusion of duality you prefer--incomplete and biased answer A or incomplete and biased answer B? From my own extremely meager understanding, cultivating a pure mind (Buddha mind) through exhausting our own effort (self-power) and coming to surrender to the primal vow (other-power) basically tears down the distinction between here and there, far and near, known and unknown, other-worldly and this-worldly. It is akin to the core of the Heart Sutra, which is particularly popular in Ch'an/Zen schools--"Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form. Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form." Whether you approach Amitabha/Amida from a this-worldly or other-worldly perspective to begin with is just a matter of personal preference/karma--the realization ought to come out the same.

In Ch'an/Zen the practice is aimed at cultivating the Great Doubt, which is often expressed in some popularizations as "don't-know mind". As D.T. Suzuki suggests in Buddha of Infinite Light, this great doubt extends to what one can be certain of and what they can do to try to somehow "attain" enlightenment. The short version is that as long as one is "trying" to attain enlightenment, then one has not let go of the ego, the self-centered view of the universe. In letting go of such attachments, one does not embrace nihilism but rather accepts being connected to the foundation of reality and existence.

The Doubt and the Vow

I can't help but note how frequently the topic of "surrender" is associated in my writing with the notions of "transformation" and "facing reality in an unfiltered way". I suppose this shouldn't be a surprising outcome of reflection on Buddhism given the tradition's core tenets of impermanence, dependent co-arising, and no-self. It's like the analogy of holding onto a filthy rag. If you give the rag away, you gain not only the rag but the whole world. Instead, you keep clutching the rag, even as it continues to fall apart. OK, the filthy rag is a bad analogy, and most sacred traditions have more compelling versions of the same basic imagery, but it gets the point across (I hope). In the commentary which inspired this review, Ray quotes David Brazier on how faith and devotion are unpopular aspects of Buddhism among many Western practitioners. I think that the notions of surrender and transformation are similarly underrated (and likely for the same reason, the similarity to other sacred traditions-especially Christianity). It goes against the hard work + self-reliance = reward formula. Instead of working to gain improvement (the reward), it requires surrendering to let go of inadequacy (the baggage). That is, it's not about what you need to "get", but what you need to "lose".

Of course, that doesn't mean there is no place for hard work in Buddhism! But maybe another bad analogy or two will help here. Let's say you are an able-bodied young person and you want to join some volunteers to build a levy to prepare for a flood, but you first feel you should read several books about floods, and watch a documentary on sandbags, and get a degree in civil engineering, and join the Army Corps of engineers, and so on. That's all well and good but you don't need any of that to just grab some bags and start stacking. You already have what you need - you just need to use it. That's the difference here. In one case, you are "working hard" to "attain enlightenment" or whatever else you think you need to accomplish on your "path to being a Buddha". In the other case, you are "working hard" because you have realized you already have everything you need to get started; hence you don't need to "become" a Buddha anymore than an ocean wave needs to "become" water. The path to being a Buddha is the path of being a Buddha. Maybe it's time to give up that rag.


  1. Dharmavidya, on his blog,wrote recently -

    "One theme that emerged from this was the importance of the motif of defeat in Japanese Buddhism. The self does not have to surrender willingly before satori occurs or shinjin dawns, it has to be really defeated."

    This comment came after an interesting weekend event at Narborough. I know a couple of people who attended so i'll ask them about it when i see them tomorrow.


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