Sunday, September 9, 2007

Pondering the meaning of liberation from suffering, part 5

Well, I don't know if this should be considered part five or merely part four and one half. But I'll stick with being ordinal to make it easier to follow the "series", if I can call it that. You can of course go back to read part one, part two, part three, or part four, which ended thusly:
We all bear each others burden of suffering in our response to the call from the Source, whether we name it God, Tao, Shunyata/Dharmakaya, etc, whether we encounter it in the person of Jesus, or Amida, etc. Because in seeing our deep interconnection and our true nature, how can we turn our backs? This relationship simultaneously functions as a call to action and the strength to answer the call.
But is that it? We hear and answer the call - we respond to the plight of others. Our suffering can be transformed into liberation and serve as a motivator to act to relieve the suffering of others as well, but is that all we can do? Is it enough?

In Buddhist terms, when we talk about being mindful, or about being engaged, or about exemplifying the four immeasurables of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, what is the impact? Or to put it another way, when we talk about interdependence, what are we really saying? Is the extent of the benefit of our attitudes and practice limited to our mundane interactions (i.e. I write something, it inspires someone else, it causes that person to do great things, which then benefits still more people, and so on)? Or are we connected on a deeper level? If I were stranded on a deserted island and everyone had forgotten about me, but I still kept practicing, would that in and of itself still benefit any sentient being, even if I were never rescued and no record of my life or activities on the island were ever recovered?

(Note, you aren't the only one wondering what the answer to this question is, so, stay tuned!)
I am, dear reader, not here to finally try my hand at answering this metaphysical mystery. But I was thinking about something today. I was at a UU service and they had a water ceremony, which involves sharing water from some event in your life that you collected and then telling a related story. This reminded me of something that was part of a Buddhist service (affiliated with the Cloudwater Zendo in Cleveland) I once attended regularly (adapted from a verse in the Tao Te Ching, if I am not mistaken):

The highest motive is to be like water
Water is necessary to all living things
It asks nothing in return
rather it flows humbly to the lowest level
Nothing is weaker than water
yet against those things which are strong and hard
nothing can surpass it
nor stand in its way
May we we all learn the way of water

Now what is relevant here is that this was used as the dedication of merit. So then I saw an event advertised talking about the value of Buddhist meditation to one's health and personal wellbeing. So I wondered, as I often do, what is the point? What is the point of the Buddhist path, or any serious spiritual path? In the (Mahayana) view of saving all sentient beings, or in the Christian way of doing the same, or wherever we find such concern - what does that mean? You can tell I've tried to consider this as this is the fifth installment of wondering about such things on this very web journal.

One view (from the perspective of a member of an industralized, generally secular society) is that there is a Higher Power that has given us specific instructions through human spokepersons about what we should do, and one of those things includes active worship and participating in the official religious ceremonies of a local community. But what about (American) Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists, progressive Christians, and others who do not have such an impetus? Well, they can share with their more firmly theistic brothers and sisters other reasons for doing such things, such as being social, having a time and place to explore spirituality, to enjoy the familiarity of the liturgy, or to enjoy the energy and artistry of the music, the readings, etc. But this falls into the category of "What does participation in such a service do for me?" If one does not value such things, loses interest in them, or finds something more fulfilling or rewarding, why would one continue to participate short of habit?

There is something else many firmly theistic congregations and denominations and other assorted spiritual and religious communities might share with their less firmly theistic or nontheistic counterparts - the goal to make the world a better place one effort and one community at a time. This would include social justice work, which is right up the alley of UUs and progressive Christians and to varying degrees different Buddhist communities. This improvement campaign can be personal, congregational, or inter-congregational. Rather than just self-interest, one can be motivated by a form of enlightened self-interest (which adds the assumption that what is good for others may ultimately be good for oneself). As a song in the Broadway musical Avenue Q says, "When you help others, you can't help helping yourself." And it works both ways. Improving yourself can be good for others. I suspect that many Western Buddhists, given the structure of imported Buddhist teaching and practice, primarily practice this form of benefit with regard to their spirituality.

This brings us back to an event notice I ran across in which the theme was discussing the value of Buddhist meditation to one's health and personal wellbeing. It also brings us back to the ending quotes from my last entry on liberation from suffering. If the benefit to others from our practice comes from how we interact with them in a material way, then we have enightened self-interest in reverse. That is, again, improving ourselves (by being calmer, more observant, more patient, more sensitive, etc) is good for the others we materially run across, either directly (in person) or indirectly (through our recorded words, thoughts, and deeds). I hadn't thought about any of this in a while, but it came to me that shorter yet suitable term for "enlightened self-interest in reverse" is "trickle-down spirituality". You improve yourself, and eventually it will "trickle down" to those around you.

(Now, don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with going to a service or participating in a formal practice for any of the reasons already discussed. This is not a put-down of those motives or their ultimate results in the local or greater community.)

Part of the basis of the Christian call for social justice is a sense of deep solidarity among all people. That is, if one of us is harmed, we are all harmed. If one of us is uplifted, we are all uplifted. Indeed, this is enshrined in the Gospel in the commandment to love one another as well as in the often-cited passage from Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 25 in which Jesus says that whenever you have helped others, you have helped him, and when you have ignored the plight of others, you have ignored him. In the Christian view this is more than just enlightened self-interest, it is rooted in the principle of divine love, or agape, which has been the subject of other posts, including the last one in the current series on liberation from suffering. In this sense Christ represents the direct, non-material connection we all have to one another (not counting the idea in physics that all matter and energy are so intimately connected, which is counter-intuitive to the other usage of the term that has been used so far in this post). At least for Christians and some interfaith mystics.

In (Mahayana) Buddhist terms (I tread lightly here - forgive any misleading generalization or outright mischaracterizations), the intertwined principles of no-self, dependent-coarising, emptiness, etc all point to a similar and very profound connection - one that is direct and immediate, regardless of any perceived distance in space-time. That is, while our actions may appear to have little immediate visible or even logical impact on "distant" people or places in the historical dimension, they are all simulataneously arising and dissolving in and of and from the ultimate dimension. Hence all phenomena contain (or are so connected to) all other phenomena. If that intepretation is even close to correct (both in the translation of ideas and in the truth of the ideas themselves), and I cannot claim that it is beyond my own influences (teachers, books, practice, etc), then it would seem that while "trickle-down spirituality" does have its benefits, viewing those as the sum of the value of practice is highly misleading and limiting.

This is where dedication of merit comes in. I had been reminded of a dedication of merit invocation by the water ceremony, and then I saw the mention of the event discussing the practical (and personal) benefits of Buddhist meditation.

So how might we interpret the dedication or transference of merit in the views of practice described? In the trickle-down view, saying "I dedicate the merits of this practice to the complete enlightenment of all sentient beings" is limited to dedicating one's self improvements to serving as an inspiration for others and reducing the suffering of those one encounters materially. If instead it is an acknowlegement that who we are is intimately connected and conveyed to all other sentient beings, then any benefit from practice is automatically "transferred" through the very process of our own struggle and acceptance. The verbal dedication is then a reminder of this truth and a warning against practicing for selfish reasons (such as the Emperor who wanted to know how much merit he had accrued by donating a large portion of his wealth to promoting Buddhism who was told he had gained none). Of course, one needn't accept either of these views. One can argue that it is simply a karmic brownie point system that was devised to inspire people to cultivate virtue when they were unable to find any other motivation. The case of dedication of merit serves to illustrate how I came to ponder these questions and illustrate the differences in various views, not as an endorsement for any particular interpretation (particularly as in some Asian countries merit is often seen as a way of getting loved ones "out of the lower realms" by donating to a temple, much like the indulgences once sold by the Catholic Church).

Getting back at last to the purpose of our practice, if we adopt the "merit is instaneously transferred" view, that is, that we have an immediate nonmaterial connection to all other sentient beings, then our practice takes on a new dimension. When we are bored, or frustrated, or suffering minor discomfort, it isn't just "for the people I may meet later today or later this week" (though they are not inconsequential), it is solidarity with all who suffer. When one of us suffers, we all suffer more. When one of us find peace, we all find some peace. Sitting in focused awareness and cultivating (and allowing the blossoming of) virtues such as the four immeasurables (loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, equanamity, and compassion) extends to all directions and all times, radiant and ever flowering.

In a sense, we are still where we were at the end of the last installment, but now it is a bit clearer what the implications are for adopting one view or another. So let's see what you think. Do you see your practice strictly as "trickle-down", or do you also see it as a case of "instant transfer"?

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