Monday, June 11, 2012

Does the path begin with "me" or "we"?

Contemplation (Photo credit: Susan Hall Frazier)
No, I'm not answering the question. It's for you.

In the Summer 2012 issue of Tricycle magazine Fleet Maull ponders:
Conventional contemplative wisdom states clearly that the path begins with ourselves, that we have to do our own work of cultivating mindfulness and awareness. We are told that we need to make friends with ourselves and develop loving-kindness and compassion before venturing very far into the sphere of bodhisattva activity or engaged spirituality. But what if this is an unnecessarily limited or even mistaken view? What if the path actually begins with us, the collective us, with interbeing, as Vietnamese peace activist and Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn teaches? What if the paths to both genuine liberation and collective awakening are inseparable and best informed by a social view of spirituality from the beginning?
He does not give an answer. I have no idea how we would actually answer any of these questions. How would you answer them?

The thoughts that initially occurred to me centered on the fact that the traditional teachings of contemplative wisdom were framed in historical and cultural context in which the hyper-individualism of many industrialized nation states, particularly the modern United States, was practically unknown.

The basic precepts of Abrahamic and Dharmic teachings (along with other major and minor religious paradigms), which are heavy on ethics, charity, and introspection, would have assumed a more intimate and collectivistic sense of identity and associated relationships. These basic precepts and the teachings in which they were grounded would have been expected then to be worked out in close relationship to others. In fact, virtually all of them must be worked out in relationship to others. You cannot cultivate (or discover) qualities such as mindfulness, loving-kindness, and compassion in a social vacuum.

In that sense, the work one is supposed to do for herself through an exploration of her inner landscape is directly connected to her perceptions of and behaviors in her outer landscape.
I've written before about an idea that I am sure is unoriginal,that the Bodhisattva doesn't turn back eschewing full and complete enlightenment. The Bodhisattva choice to continue on in cycles of rebirth in samsara is the key to enlightenment. That's why so many vows of the various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas sound so inspiring and powerful. The Bodhisattva realized her own enlightenment cannot be completed alone and for herself only. The sustained insight into emptiness wouldn't allow such discrimination and attachment to self.

Thus, for example, Dharmakara's vows about his Buddha-field are supposed to be true because we know he became Amitabha (a.k.a Amida) Buddha. If his vows had not been fulfilled in all places and times, he would not have become a Buddha. Thus in this sense (and the same is true for many other prominent figures in Buddhist mythology), there is an implied revelation that everyone already is and is already becoming and already has become enlightened.  This kind of apparent contradiction is also found in Christianity -- the Kingdom of Heaven is both already here and in the process of being realized.

"God" as known in mystical theism, or emptiness and tathata in Buddhism, and their analogues in other sacred traditions--the unborn, uncreated, undivided, undescribable source and substance of existence which is invisible yet seen everywhere as it illuminate all things--and the realization of the presence and reality of it/those/him/her/us/them/we, cannot be approached with either individualistic or collectivistic thinking, neither as an "I" nor as a "we". At least if I read the major sages, prophets, mystics, and contemplatives properly.

Yet, according to those same folk, we can prepare by exploring our sense of self and how it relates to others. And in the formula, self does kind of by necessity begin that loop. Nosce te ipsum. Know thyself.

And to do that, in addition to immersing oneself in silence, one can learn to read oneself by seeing the light and shadow they project and cast onto others and begin the hard work of loosening their attachments, generating concern for oneself and others. The same love you find in yourself you will find in others, and the same love you find in them must be within yourself. Or so the nearly cliched spiritual common wisdom goes.

So what do you think? Do you have to make at least some initial focus on yourself, even in the context of others, to understand the true nature of your being? And if so, and if the precepts the basic teachings and prayers and meditations and so on, including their manifestations through activities such as social justice, are in part a kind of training, what then is the actual "work" that Saints and Bodhisattva's engage in?

Now you've got two questions. But it's probably best not to try to answer them. Or at least not quickly or definitively. Could ruin some perfectly good growth and insight.
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