Do we Americans really understand Buddhism?
The goal of Buddhism is buddhahood.
What motivates one to achieve that goal is compassion. If that compassion is mainly for oneself, it is called renunciation, and its result is liberation. If that compassion is for all other sentient beings, it is called bodhicitta (awakened mind) and its result is enlightenment. Either way, the cause of compassion is suffering. One sees the fact of suffering, and one wishes to cure that suffering. On a personal level, the cure is renunciation, in the special sense of reducing one’s tendency to grasp at independent existence or self-existence. On a broader level, the cure is to actually achieve the state of a buddha, because the activities of a buddha are infinite.
I have been a buddhist for over a decade, in the formal sense, and probably somewhat longer than that in the informal sense. But, really, when I think about buddhism this way, it surprises me. Liberation, ok, I’m an American. I love the idea of liberty. I would love to be free, or relatively free, of the plague of mental suffering. Maybe I don’t like the word “renunciation” much. It sounds arid. It implies a kind of realism: not the realism that says if I want to make money I should learn to play the stock market, because money is the basis of everything in our current society, and if I’m really realistic I’ll do pretty well playing the stock market, too, so by being realistically-minded, I’m going to make myself independent and secure and maybe successful. No, plenty of us have that kind of realism. It implies another kind of realism: the one that says, if I play the stock-market, I’ll be part of its ups-and-downs. It certainly won’t take me out of the cycle of samsara. The first kind of realism, when one links it to renunciation, declares: I’d like to be innocent and free, but because that’s not realistic in a moneyed world, I’ll give up my innocence, I’ll become a bit more self-interested, in order to be independent. The second kind of realism, when one links it to renunciation, declares: my apparently natural belief in independent existence leads me to experience the various afflictive emotions that underpin suffering, and so, I’ll pay attention to the ways in which this deluded belief in independent existence arises.
This kind of liberation or liberty, which stems from renunciation of ignorance through a kind of alertness or insightful attention, is obviously not that American after all. It’s a slap in the face to our belief that if one is realistic one will make money and if one makes money most of one’s problems are solved: at least, relative to people without money, one can call oneself more successful or happier. With money we have more liberty. We’re liberated. The free market system made us free. We believe that, and then along comes a buddhist and says, this is a superficial liberty that does not at all address the real level of limitation or suffering. We’re still going to die. We’re still lonely. We’re still self-isolated and anxious. We still need root canals. We’re still subject to the eight sufferings, including subtle and pervasive conditioned suffering. Getting wealthy may even exhaust some of the good karma we’ve been accumulating for countless lives. Or it might lead us to actually accumulate some bad karma. Whether one believes in karma or not, this buddhist comes along and tells us, the fact is that we’re still subject to various emotions that can make us selfish and unlovable rather than truly compassionate and lovable. To cure ourselves of those afflictive emotions, one has to pay attention to one’s own mind and pierce through the dumb but pervasive premise, the deluded belief, in self-existence.
So, it’s a big step, I think, for an American to do that. When one makes that step, one finds that ‘renunciation’ is not arid at all. One finds, with a little attention to the matter, that thoughts liberate themselves, that all phenomena are self-liberating. After all, that’s the very meaning of impermanent, interdependent existence. One provides less fertile soil for afflictive emotions to sprout. The traditional metaphor is that one keeps an empty house, so that when a thief comes in, there is nothing for the thief to steal, and nothing for the owner to lose. But it’s not really a boring, empty house. It’s more like a house that dematerializes and materializes from moment to moment. Why would you want to fill your house with the best (not the cheapest) stuff from IKEA, if your house was as cool as that? The mind of renunciation, with its active insight into the way things exist in reality, is cool and free and also sort of joyful. It doesn’t have to go grasping at something to possess (a new couch or a pretty wife, or even an old couch and a plain wife) to feel like it has some kind of solid existence or relationship, because from moment to moment it experiences interrelationship. Intellectually, one can speak of an attitude that considers things interconnected and interrelated, but the mind of renunciation actually experiences this subtle dependent arising.
That’s what we’re after, isn’t it? I think when I became a buddhist, or turned my mind in the direction of meditation, questioning my identification with the thinker, that’s what I was after. I wanted to experience reality the way it really is. No one really needed to tell me that it would be much cooler than experiencing reality through social conditioning. I didn’t mean to start meditating. I just read books and really spent time trying to tell the difference between thought and awareness. When I started meditating, more and less by accident, and saw the actual fact of self-liberating awareness, it was a terrific shock. It really took me by surprise. Gradually, I had come closer to silence, and to the peace that seems active in silence, but I wasn’t actually prepared for the experience of voidness – not that things stopped existing, but the way they existed seemed to change. Basically, I had learned to shift out of the discursive mind (what Dzogchen practitioners call limited awareness or sem) into non conceptual mind (what Dzogchen practitioners call pure awareness or rigpa). I learned that when I became absorbed in meditation my experience of the phenomenal world also changed, appearing less concretely material and less permanent. This made the world a more interesting place. It makes a big, if subtle difference, to experience the moment to moment impermanence and interdependence of things. One moves from a world of objects to a world of relations.
I wasn’t exactly a buddhist at the time I realized this. But the fact that buddhism engages so deeply with this kind of meditative absorption certainly jump-started my interest. Anyway, it made it much more plausible to me that there might have been someone who came to be called the buddha, and it made me intrigued about what he actually realized. How far was he able to go with it, and what was the point of it all? And who were these Tibetan masters one heard about? Had Tibet really produced thousands of incredibly realized meditators, and had they, because of the genocidal Chinese invasion – in violation not only of human rights, but of every sane measure of human feeling, with crimes so heinous (vivisection, crucifixion, torture) we would not want to discuss them with school children, so horrific a mere photo would leave us traumatized – begun to teach in the west? Were these monks and nuns really full of peace and compassion?
Of the four noble truths, I became particularly interested in cessation. Was it possible for conventional experience to alter to such an extent that one was always meditating? Could the conventional mind, which perceives a world of objects, cease? And was that all that was meant by cessation, or did it also have something to do with no longer taking human birth, or at least no longer taking confused human birth?
I also found meaning in the four seals of dharma (as translated by HE Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche):
All compounded things are impermanent.
All emotions (contaminated phenomena) are painful.
All phenomena are empty.
Nirvana is beyond extremes.
Eventually, through some happy coincidences, I became a buddhist, but the point I’m trying to make is that even then I don’t think it really occurred to me that buddhists are serious about the goal of buddhahood. It’s supposed to take countless aeons, right? Planets can dissolve and reform several times over in that sort of span, so what’s the big surprise if an ordinary sentient being transforms into a buddha? But what I’ve come to realize is that – the question of how long it takes aside – teachers like the Dalai Lama are totally serious when they tell us about mental transformation, and when they tell us that the goal of practice is to transform the mind so completely that we develop infinite compassion with infinite activity.
So I think this is an important question for us American buddhists. Are we interested in personal liberation: a reduction in mental suffering and a concomitant experience of basic joy or interrelationship? Or, can we actually get our heads around the idea that you or I can transform the mind and become buddhas? I think for Tibetan buddhists this is not a small question, because, as a monk recently told me, enlightenment is different from liberation. With enlightenment, the motivation is infinite (compassion for others), the object is infinite (all sentient beings), and the result is infinite (infinite activity).
Are we ready for infinite?