by Carol Russell
A Dharma Talk given October 18, 2022
Gratitude for the inspiration for this talk goes to David Loy, Buddhist scholar, practicing Zen Buddhist and one of the founders of Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center, and to Joanna Macy, PhD, Buddhist scholar, systems thinker, activist, and root teacher for the Work That Reconnects.
Philosopher and social commentator Noam Chomsky recently said, "We’re approaching the most dangerous point in human history." He includes the potential for climate catastrophe, the threat of nuclear war, as well as the rise in authoritarian governments and the decline of democracy around the world, as the most pressing and threatening dangers to the world at this time.
What does Buddhism offer us in these times? Are we here to ‘wake up?’ Does that mean our own personal salvation journey or are we here to wake up to what is happening in the world?
Maybe less so now, in Western Buddhism, but historically, there has been an interpretation that the goal of practice is to transcend this world – not being reborn is the ultimate attainment. This can lead to a kind of indifference to and withdrawal from the threats to the world. Why be concerned with fixing the problems of the world if the goal is to get out of here?
Joseph Campbell, author and scholar of religion and mythology said:
Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.
Is this true in Buddhism?
The ultimate goal on the Buddhist path is often stated as nibbana.
The samyutta nikaya defines nibbana this way:
Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.
Are we to take this literally?
The story of the Buddha is that when he was young, it was the first sight of an old man, and ill man, and a corpse that sent him on his spiritual journey and led to his eventual awakening. And what we understand is that he taught for many decades, eventually growing old, becoming ill and then dying.
The dhatu-vibhanga sutta says:
Furthermore, a sage at peace is not born, does not age, does not die, is unagitated, and is free from longing. He has nothing whereby he would be born. Not being born, will he age? Not aging, will he die? Not dying, will he be agitated? Not being agitated, for what will he long?
There’s a lot here to tease apart, more than we have time for tonight. But we might ask, what might it mean metaphorically that ‘the sage at peace is not born and does not die?’
David Loy suggests deathlessness is a metaphor for emptiness, anatta, sometimes referred to as non-self. We are not born with a sense of a separate self, but it is naturally created as those around us reinforce this fabricated separate self, made up of habitual ways of reacting, thinking, and feeling. This fabricated self is inherently insecure and unstable. It is the source of suffering. Being entirely constructed, there is nothing to secure. This is what we explore in mindfulness, this sense of lack that we could say our ego, the fabricated self, is trying to fill up by grasping after control, love, and sense pleasure.
As the sutta says:
…a sage at peace is not born, does not age, does not die, is unagitated, and is free from longing. He has nothing whereby he would be born.
This is one of the core teachings, that we have the potential to be free of suffering, of the endless project of making ourselves real, making ourselves feel okay. And we get there, not by striving for that moment in the future when we have finally arranged things so we are totally fine, but by letting go into groundlessness, by realizing our essential interconnection to the all.
Thich Nhat Hanh:
I laugh when I think how I once sought paradise as a realm outside of the world of birth. It is right in the world of birth and death that the miraculous truth is revealed. But this is not the laughter of someone who suddenly acquires a great fortune; neither is it the laughter of one who has won a victory. It is, rather, the laughter of one who; after having painfully searched for something for a long time, finds it one morning in the pocket of his coat.
Right here in the pocket of our coat. That doesn’t strike me as a transcendent state. Rather it is finding paradise right here in the duality of life and death.
To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man's-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh.
David Loy tells a story of Zen Master Yunmen, who lived 864 – 949 CE. A student asked him, What is the fruit of all this practice? The Master’s answer: cultivating an appropriate response to the circumstances of our lives.
Circling back to Noam Chomsky: If this is the most dangerous point in human history, as practitioners how do we respond appropriately?
On one hand, if we believe in the goal of transcendence, the literal view of freeing ourselves from the cycle of rebirth, as opposed to metaphorical view of attaining deathlessness in this life (found right here in our coat pocket), will we be indifferent to the problems facing our world? How will we respond appropriately?
On the other hand, if the slow dismantling of the fabricated self reveals our inter-connectedness with all of life, how does that guide our response to what is happening to the world?
If awakening is to "experience each moment as completely fresh and new", as Pema writes, isn’t that the state of no birth, no death? Eternity is defined as what is timeless or exists outside time, no beginning and no end. Just here, this moment. Each moment completely new and fresh.
I don’t pretend to understand the latest discoveries of quantum mechanics, but it does seem to be proving some very strange behaviors of interacting particles that show that the universe is organized so that everything in it can potentially influence everything else. All of us are connected. Not in a metaphorical way, but by the fundamental way in which the fabric of our universe is woven. It is measurably true that we all influence one another, and that the matter of which we are made carries the potential for anything.
We are, on a quantum level, not separate. Interconnected.
How does that view influence how we ‘respond appropriately’ to what is going on in this most dangerous time?
For Joanna Macy, the answer of how to respond appropriately to the circumstances in our world is very clear.
I think the most important thing we need to hear is the voice inside us which connects us to all beings and to the whole web of life. That is needed now to counteract the crippling of the modern self, which is cruelly contained, as in a prison cell, by the hyper-individualism of the last five centuries.
When you really pay attention, you see that you are part of the whole web of life. When Thich Nhat Hanh was asked what we most need to do for the sake of our world, he said “to hear within ourselves the sounds of the earth crying.” I believe it’s true. The earth is crying, deep in our consciousness. Sometimes it reaches us.
The starting place of this work is the admonition to choose life. All of us probably aspire to that, but how do we do it in practice?
We can begin by choosing to be present. We can choose to pay attention. That is the essential magic of mindfulness, and of the Buddha’s own life.
When you pay attention to your experience, you realize that you’re not just a separate organism sitting here breathing. You are not only breathing but being breathed. You need an oxygen-producing web of life for you to breathe—you need trees, you need plankton.
So where does the self begin and where does it end? When you really pay attention, you see that you are part of the whole web of life. That leads you to want to know that life and to protect it.
Going back to the beginning of this talk, I proposed the question: Is the spiritual path for my own awakening, or is it to serve the world? In the end, are these even two different paths, or are they the same path? Are they sequential or do they mutually support one another?
Perhaps, simultaneously, we are practicing for our awakening AND we are applying the fruits of our awakening toward the goal of ‘responding appropriately.’ As we act for the benefit of others in these most dangerous times, we more deeply realize our inseparability from all. Realizing our inseparability, we naturally care for the all beings.
This is where the two streams of your life come together—the spiritual and the politically engaged.
I experience them as one river. In early Buddhist scriptures there is a simple and wonderful phrase describing the relation between wisdom and action: they are “like two hands washing each other.” It is a dance of reciprocity. You can’t have one without the other, because they generate each other.
Realizing that there is no separate, independent, permanent self and everything is interconnected in the ever-changing web of life [is] absolutely essential, but it also needs to include being willing to get your hands dirty.
The title for this talk includes this phrase: ‘this burning world.’ Do you think the world is burning? What do you see as the most pressing concern in the world right now?
Responding appropriately to these most dangerous times is a deeply personal call. How are you guided to respond? What tugs at your heart?
As activist Andrew Harvey says, ‘Don’t follow your bliss. Follow your heartbreak.’ What is breaking your heart in these dangerous times?
Please feel free to post your comments!
May all beings be well and happy. May all beings be safe and filled with loving kindness.
...to this resource for our community. Much gratitude goes out to our Dharma Leadership, our entire Sangha – and the numberless causes and conditions – for making this website possible, and for the joy I have experienced in creating it.
Detail of the Great Hall Mural
Courtesy Spirit Rock Meditation Center
Used with permission