The inner tangle and the outer tangle—
This generation is entangled in a tangle.
And so I ask of Gotama this question:
Who succeeds in disentangling this tangle?
This is the opening question of the Visuddhi-magga or The Path of Purification, Buddhaghosa’s formidable fifth-century meditation manual. When I first heard these words in a lecture ten years ago, I felt a keen resonance and some confusion. This must be modern poetry, some unfamiliar passage from T.S. Eliot or John Ashbery. The language seemed so fresh, the question so urgent. Years later I am still working at this question.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Too many people distinguish between the inner world of our mind and the world outside, but these worlds are not separate. They belong to the same reality.” But this reality seems slippery, not so easy to embrace. The inner tangle makes a big ball of busyness, anxiety and confusion. The outer tangle mixes poverty, violence, consumerism, and the blind assumption that the world’s great riches exist to serve our pleasure.
My deep request is that our teachers speak in their dharma talks about our place in this fragile world, acknowledging our predicament, helping us explore the tangle of inner and outer. I am asking further that teachers point students towards engagement with the world as an expression of practice, right intention, clear seeing and compassion.
This kind of teaching and talk is strong medicine in a culture marked by self-concern and self-hatred. Relentless messages about what we must own, how we should look and who we ought to be assault every sense from earliest childhood. Such self-centered habits of mind may infect the very things that are holy to us—our respect for ourselves, our love of others, even our dharma practice. The compassion that we patiently and arduously cultivate in our sittings and retreats has the potential to lead to an understanding and opening that goes far beyond the meditation hall. In her new book, A Heart As Wide As The World, Sharon Salzberg points directly to this kind of understanding and to its transformative effects as an implicit remedy for practice shadowed by self-concern:
Wisdom arising from clear seeing recognizes that we are all connected to one another, that no one stands alone, that what we do makes a difference. Compassion transforms that vision into motivation to act for the sake of others. If we take care of others, others will take care of us, and “otherness” itself will drop away.
As dharma teachers you have an opportunity to model attention and engagement. Where our understanding is incomplete, you are in an ideal position to ask us to consider “how,” how to deepen our understanding, how to live. As we seek the spirit of renunciation, how do our own appetites and habits of consumption affect others half a world away? How do inner suffering and outer suffering—the suffering of a homeless family down the block, of a young girl wounded by a land mine in Cambodia, of Ogone people displaced by oil fields in Nigeria—feed each other in a seemingly endless tangle of greed, anger and delusion? When speaking about the all-pervading nature of Buddhadharma, how can you include those who may not feel safe or welcome in our centers and circles or in our society as it is today? Is it even possible or useful to separate things into inner and outer? Bowing to the deep vision of our teachers, I urge you to raise such questions and to welcome them for discussion when they come up in the sangha.
The sangha or community can turn questions to action. How and where we will act is itself an open question. Again, our understanding is incomplete. There is no manual or textbook. But open discussion and the sharing of our stories shed light on the risky and uncomfortable places we find ourselves in when we take up practice in the wide world. We learn from each other how to be present in “not knowing” and just how to press on from there. The collective wisdom of sangha can help us through the painful tangle of suffering.
Together with our sanghas, we begin to walk the Eightfold Path. Our first steps—Right View and Right Intention—lead directly into the territory of wisdom. Walpola Rahula writes that the qualities of detachment, love, and nonviolence are marks of wisdom and that “all thoughts of selfish desire, ill-will, hatred and violence are the result of a lack of wisdom—in all spheres of life whether individual, social, or political.”
Teachers and sangha together have the power to keep us on the beam of Right Intention. The intimate community of practice gives us a common language. To the extent that it is broad and open, community can lead us beyond our own limited experience and the dangers of narrow self-concern. We might even catch a glimpse of a hopeful future, a kind of dharmic society. Whatever that future may be, it will depend on rigorous investigation, honest self-reflection, and hard work—the very qualities we have been cultivating in our meditation practice—cleaving to our intention of liberation for all beings. Regardless of time and outcome, this can be our vow.
At the risk of presumption, I think that engaged Buddhism—simultaneously meeting oneself and the world—is a deepening, widening stream running through our Western practice. Some people feel this approach needs to be justified by sutras and ancient texts, and such assurances can be found. The Buddha did not mince words about ethics. But our direct experience of the world today naturally moves us toward engagement. The need is in front of us and inside us. Please, let us talk together.
How can dharma practitioners take refuge in our social intention and make it broad as a river? In this world so vulnerable to “globalization,” to complex and dangerous exploitation where humans, animals, plants, the rocks themselves are at risk, we seek to connect and to act. And to share our connections. As meditators, we need to sit down in a quiet place and experience ourselves in meditation. Seeing clearly, we also must get up from that quiet place and follow our deep vow to walk in the world as buddhas, freely sharing the dharma, offering steadiness to one another and comfort wherever it is needed, saving all beings and ourselves. When teachers and sangha invoke this vow together, we can help each other to see and walk and live just this way.
For all those ailing in the world,
Until their every sickness has been healed,
May I myself become for them
The doctor, nurse, the medicine itself.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,
A guide for those who journey on the road.
For those who wish to go across the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.
—Shantideva, Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, eighth century C.E.
The ideas expressed here were developed and refined by a working group which included Barbara Gates, Tova Green, Wendy Johnson, Joanna Macy, Maylie Scott and me. Inspiration has come from our many teachers and countless followers of the way. May we continue to learn and teach for the benefit of all beings.— A.S.