Saturday, March 14, 2009

More on spiritual homelessness

I don't have the time or energy to find and link all of the posts I've made here about my spiritual/religious indecisiveness, but they aren't hard to find with a scan through my blog. (You can find some recent examples here here here here and here.) I was discussing it a few weeks ago and attempted a straight-forward summary. You might find some of it familiar, or if not, perhaps it will help you understand other people a little better. Well-meaning suggestions are permited but I find they often reflect what the suggester needs/wants rather than might make sense to me. But that's OK.

So why do I hesitate? A major element is my own fear of making a bad choice and a general issue with indecisiveness. But is that it?

I think it boils down to seeking authenticity. It's born of a kind of a desire for (frustratingly) radical honesty. It (the religion and spirituality being discussed) all sounds nice but it's based on other people's reported experiences. If they are accurate, then my theology is really comprehensive and astute. And I have good reasons to believe the accuracy of certain people on these issues. Again, it's the lack of personal verification that sucks. I just can't buy it - any of it - otherwise. I spent twenty years calling myself a Christian but sensing incongruity and hypocrisy, a decade more as an agnostic/atheist which ultimately was too sterile, and another five studying and even practicing Buddhism. I am not looking to join a club or to find a label to wear. I've had my share.

In any case, this reminds me of something I once read. Basically, a student asked (paraphrasing): People seek rebirth in the Pure Land so they can be sure to attain enlightenment, but if the Pure Land isn't a literal place and is instead symbolic, then why not just go straight for enlightenment? Why seek to literally be reborn in an imaginary/metaphorical place? Here is part of the reply...

In truth, all the pure and impure lands in the ten directions are like dreams and illusions; however, only when we have attained the “Illusion-like Samadhi” can we see them as illusory and false. If we have not yet reached that stage, we will still see them as real, we are still subject to their sway, we will still know sorrow and happiness, we still feel uncomfortable during the summer heat and are even bothered by such small things as mosquito and ant bites. Thus, how can we speak about things being illusory? We should realize that the Pure Land method is a wonderful expedient of the Buddha, borrowing an illusory realm of happiness to help being escape from an illusory realm of great suffering, full of obstructing conditions and dangers. Them, from that happy, peaceful, illusory realm, cultivation progresses easily and the ever-silent realm of the True Mind is swiftly attained...

One more point to bear in mind: if we speak about the Truth of Emptiness without having attained that stage (or at least reached a certain level of achievement in our practice) we certainly cannot convert others but will only end up in useless arguments and disputes. (pp. 152)

Of the two types of attachments, to existence and to emptiness, the latter is very dangerous. Both the Lankavatara and the Esoteric Adornment Sutra state:

"It is better to be attached to existence, though attachment may be as great as Mount Sumeru, than to be attached to emptiness, though attachment may be as small as a mustard seed.”

Attachment to “existence” leads to mindfulness of cause and effect, wariness of transgressions and fear of breaking the precepts, as well as to Buddha and sutra recitation and performance of good deeds. Although these actions are bound to forms and not free and liberated, they are all conducive to merits, virtues, and good roots. On the other hand, if we are attached to emptiness without having attained True Emptiness, but refuse to follow forms and cultivate merits and virtues, we will certainly sink into the cycle of birth and death. (pp.153-154)

-excerpted from the comments of Master Thich Thien Tam in Pure Land Buddhism: Dailogs with Ancient Masters (from the section "Doubts & Questions about Pure Land")

In other words, it is one thing to start a practice believing literally in the metaphors and symbols (represented here as attachment to "existence"), and after long practice, come to move beyond the dichotomy of literal/symbolic based on having realized the Truth being pointed to in the tradition (represented here as attaining True Emptiness). But to just start saying "Oh, these are all just clever systems pointing to X", without ever having developed any genuine sense or appreciation of X beyond a dry and abstract conceptual level, you will then be "too clever" to really do the practices with sincerity, especially those where you need to "buy into" the imagery or the story (this cleverness represented here as attachment to "emptiness"). Hence you are actually #$^@* out of luck and would have been better off just believing in the literal view.

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