After investigation among all the spiritual doctrines, . . . and seeing misery in adopting any view, searching for truth I came to purity and inner peace. Not by spiritual view, not by tradition, not by knowledge, nor by virtue and good deeds can anyone say that purity exists; nor by absence of spiritual views, by absence of tradition, by absence of knowledge, by absence of virtue and good deeds either; having abandoned these without adopting anything else, let such a one live calm and independent, not led into any of the resting places of the mind.
Thus the purpose of the Holy life does not consist in acquiring benefits, honor or fame, nor in gaining virtue, states of concentration nor insight and the eye of knowledge. The unshakable deliverance of heart, the sure heart’s release; this and this alone is the object of the holy life, its essence, its true goal.
These passages go together for me because they both speak of the sure heart’s release—finding freedom in all realms, fearless and full freedom of being. When I first went to practice in Asia it was common to hear monks say, “This teacher, my teacher, is the best, the most enlightened. He teaches the TRUE Buddha way. The other teachers and techniques don’t go to the depth of the path!” This was confusing at first because as a new student I could not separate the styles and practices and vehicles from their destination.
Since then, I have come to love these particular passages from the suttas because they inspire me to remember what all the practice, the blessings, the monasteries, the institutions and all the fuss—all of 2500 years of Buddhism—is really about. Ways and practices are not really the point; the raft is not the shore. When I try to figure out how to teach the best dharma in the West, I come back to take inspiration from this timeless center, the sure heart’s release. When I am tempted to think “I have it,” the right answer, the best way, I hear the Buddha speaking: Freedom is not a view or a practice, a tradition or a method. Like the bird who swims through the sky leaving no trace is the one who is free, holding to no resting place.
As a monk I initially thought this meant leaving the world and its complexity, being secluded and living incredibly simply in a remote monastery. But the freedom the Buddha expresses here does not mean we should go away, or not love things or even just live calmly or simply. Instead it is a capacity for love and compassion and nonattachment in any situation, in the whole of our world. It is freedom from our own grasping, fear and separateness. When we grasp, try to change, resist anything—body, feeling, idea, self—the Buddha wakes us up. He states that the only difference between a life of suffering (samsara) and a life of freedom (nirvana) is grasping the five processes of the physical world, the feelings, perceptions, responses and consciousness. Freedom is now, when we are not holding to a single thing.
These passages come from the Sutta Nipata, the very earliest sayings of the Buddha. The Sutta Nipata is filled with many expressions of this nondual dharma, as if the Buddha were expressing, very directly, the pinnacle of his enlightenment only later to put more focus on the means and practices to that end. For those who can understand, he speaks of the enlightenment beyond all forms, neither toward nor against, a still point. The Buddha invites us to discover the still point in this amazing dance of life. What an invitation!