We are what we think,
having become what we thought.
What can one do about worldly suffering? Many Buddhist writings speak of disgust for that which is “worldly.” In much Buddhist parlance, things having to do with the world (loka) are to be guarded against, avoided, turned away from and finally transcended, so that one can abide in a transworldly state (lokottara), at peace (shanti), in bliss (sukha), free from suffering (samsara), the painful flame of yearning (trishna) having been extinguished (nirvana). From this perspective, the world is a place of perpetually out-of-control beings who, driven by desires gone wild, try to endure the ups and downs as best they can. In fact, the Buddhist name for this world of ours is “realm of endurance” (sahaloka). In Mexico City Blues (211th Chorus), Jack Kerouac, that Western student of Buddhism, sings samsara’s sad song.
The wheel of the quivering meat
Turns in the void expelling human beings,
Pigs, turtles, frogs, insects, nits,
All the endless conception of living
Gnashing everywhere in Consciousness
Poor! I wish I was free
of that slaving meat wheel
and safe in heaven dead
It would seem that there is only one spiritual response to this mode of existence: to get out of worldly entanglements and to leave samsara.
But is this the whole story? Is this what Buddhism essentially teaches us about the world? Why has so much emphasis been put on repulsion toward worldly life? Why does Kerouac’s depiction seem to ring so true? I would suggest it is because we in the West carry, like a dormant attitudinal virus, the legacy of a medieval mindset, one accustomed to the Platonic denigration of the “lower appetites” and to the many Biblical passages that speak of our plight as “of a few days, and full of trouble” (Job 13:28, 14:1) and the world as a fleeting show of vanities (Ecclesiastes). Worldly life is seen as sinful and contemptible. This contemptus mundi is amply attested to in the writings of many a medieval cleric. Typical of the period is the lamentation of the monk Jean de Fecamp (d. 1078): “Miserable life, decrepit life, impure life sullied by humours, exhausted by grief, dried by heat, swollen by meats, mortified by fasts, dissolved by pranks, consumed by sadness, distressed by worries, blunted by security, bloated by riches, cast down by poverty….”
Our more recent humanist tradition, which sees the individual as the measure of all things, has not entirely eclipsed the view of life as a fearful enterprise laced with sin and guilt. The pervasive influence of this mindset as a dominant cultural legacy deserves more attention by Buddhist scholars and practitioners, for it is a bias we bring to both our study and our experience of the Dharma. It is well documented in the work of the French social historian Jean Delumeau. (See his Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture 13th–18th Centuries.) When we orient ourselves to Buddhist traditions, we bring the legacy with us. And that, I think, is why talk of disgust for the world and the yearning to “get out” seems so spiritually correct. We are unmindfully viewing the wide variety of Buddhist spiritual traditions through the lens of a Christian, European heritage.
Repulsion, however, isn’t the whole story. In the vast treasury of Buddhist traditions, there are other legacies, other attitudes and ways of talking about worldly life and spiritual work. The Buddhist path involves finding a suitable approach, one that honors our temperament and our potential for change.
One presentation of this variety, popular in the Buddhist traditions that took root in the Himalayan regions, consists of three possible spiritual orientations. The world can be shunned, transformed, or experienced as perfect just as it is. Only the first approach regards worldly life and the drives that fuel it as lacking value. The attitude of renunciation attempts to avoid and reject all worldly tendencies. The second approach, the attitude of transformation, regards worldly drives as worthy of spiritual engagement. Here one is encouraged to transform the worldly realm, which is seen to be constituted of both intellectual attitudes and emotional habits.
Whether one rejects or attempts to transform the world and its appetites, both perspectives suggest that life entails struggle. In psychological terms, the spiritual struggle with the world involves what Freud and, before him, Nietzsche termed the sublimation of habitual drives. Nietzsche spoke of different methods of struggle with “the violence of a drive… Thus: dodging the opportunities [for its satisfaction], implanting regularity in the drive, generating oversaturation and disgust with it, and bringing about its association with an agonizing thought—like that of disgrace, evil consequences, or insulted pride—then the dislocation of forces, and finally general [self-]weakening and exhaustion—those are the six methods.” (The Dawn.)
From the Buddhist perspective, renunciation and transformation are seen not as contradictory but as befitting different orientations and circumstances. As such, both are deemed noble (arya), because they lead one away from the extremes of nihilistic despair and cynicism on the one hand and self-centered absolutism on the other.
If one takes the approach that worldly life is a realm to be shunned, then the path of renunciation is appropriate. One trains oneself to guard the doors of perception, scanning for the arising of unwholesome tendencies so as to avoid them and thereby diminish their karmic residue. One practices calm and mindful avoidance in order to lessen upset and to let the subtle and luminous natural indwelling features of our being stabilize and, in time, become dominant.
Using those very same doors of perception, one can view the world and its ceaseless variety of circumstances as the fuel for transformation. On this path one trains to identify worldly entanglements and upsets so as to be able to select and apply a suitable “antidote” (pratipatti). Through a kind of spiritual homeopathy, constricted emotional entanglement is released. This is done by dissolving egoic fixations in the universally beneficent solvents of love, compassion, joy and equanimity. One finds ways to wake up to the sufferings of the world and embrace them, never rejecting any aspect of daily life as if it were outside the project of spirit. All of creation is seen as the sacred ground for spiritual effort. This path is fed by the energetic stream that flows from the source of one’s indwelling wakefulness, or Buddhanature. The ever-widening stream of wakefulness overflows the limitations of ego—the holding patterns (atma-graha) that reify and hence alienate our intrinsically abiding spirit of going beyond (paramita) those limitations. Our capacity to meet and dissolve habits is awakened and sustained by applying active capacities to “go beyond”—generosity, ethical conduct, patient endurance, diligence, contemplative cultivation and discerning wisdom. Ultimately, every being and every problem is experienced as insubstantial—part of a magical display created by the mind and sustained by the power of karmic habits. As the Indian Buddhist Chandrakirti puts it: “The mind itself creates living beings, and the great variety of worlds where they live. It is also taught that all forms of life are produced from karma; but without the mind, there would be no karma.” (Madhyamakavatara.)
The world, then, is experienced as either an impure realm of entanglement dominated by habitual and limited mind patterns or as a pure realm of bliss sustained by unlimited wakefulness. But when reified confusion is released into clarity through the transformative power of the wakeful mind, nirvana and samsara are not experienced as separate states.
One who trains in going beyond all frustrating limits is sustained in the work by the blessings of our own discerning wisdom (prajna), which is seen as flawless (amala) and luminous (prabhasvara). The name reserved for one who has completely awakened such wisdom is Buddha. Buddha is a powerfully sustaining presence that is responsive to the needs of beings who suffer. Buddhas serve as sources of refuge and objects of prayerful supplication. They are said to abide in and support every pure realm. Those who cultivate an attitude of transformation may invite the spiritual presence of these Buddhas into their daily lives. Remembrance of the Buddha (Buddhanusmrti), is an antidote to spiritual despair; mindful faith in our spiritual capacity valorizes worldly micro hassles via acts of remembrance. Not unlike those who repeat the Jesus Prayer, Buddhists who enter the path of transformation find that they are sustained by subtle mindful mnemonics.
The third noble attitude toward worldly life is radically different from those of rejection and transformation. It is one of direct liberation. Here the world and one’s place in it are directly recognized as free, unlimited and unconstrained just as they are. Every mode of experience, every situation is freeing. Whatever arises is recognized as it arises and in that recognition is freed. There is nothing to reject and nothing to accept. Things just happen—beyond every scheme for improvement, beyond yearning and hope for betterment. When experienced like this, all occasions are delightful, the cause of merriment and laughter. The Buddha Shakyamuni was known as “the one who laughs” and the fourteenth-century Buddhist savant Longchenpa reminded us, “When we see the world as it really is, then we will laugh out loud.” This is the naturally abiding manner of Buddhas: spiritual energy enjoying itself and communicating everywhere with laughter. It is the mystic mode, reserved for those rare gifted souls who live in the world free from all compulsion to transcend it, who have realized the truth of freedom in the ordinary. They are sustained by a continuum of spiritual awareness, for like the saints and mystics of every tradition, they exhibit unshakable confidence in the pure unbounded ecstasy and delight of living. This way of living dissolves every tendency to go astray into distorted modes of perception and response; it is beyond limitations based on clinging and aversion. Yet this is not a transcendent stance. It is the direct recognition of how things naturally abide as Buddha energy in—and as—this present moment, which is open, effulgent and continuous.
This brief survey of Buddhist attitudes toward the world and transworldly yearning is an attempt to convey a sense of the range of approaches reflected in the traditions. I would suggest that each of these approaches can be found within every living Buddhist tradition when dogma yields to direct experience. As such, no approach is higher or lower; each perfectly fits a certain temperament and capacity. Perhaps the greatest challenge is to discover as best as one can the noble approach for which one is best suited and to honor and accept the wide diversity of other approaches to the dilemma of human existence.