It seems to me that all those who enter a spiritual path have very similar goals, though these goals may not always be articulated. These might be described, in the broadest strokes, as love, as peace, as freedom from suffering—that is, as a happiness that is fulfilling in the most complete sense. This is, I think, a universal aspiration.
The question, then, that follows from this is: What are those forces that keep us from experiencing this kind of happiness? In Buddhism, these forces are called the defilements of mind, the afflictive emotions such as fear, greed, jealousy and hatred, which are all rooted in ignorance and delusion. Although various paths speak of the afflictive emotions in their own distinct ways, all share the understanding that we need some means to purify the heart and free the mind. While it may be addressed differently in different traditions, on the spiritual path there is really only one issue: extricating ourselves from those forces in the mind by which we are bound. This is not esoteric; it’s not mysterious. It’s simply the challenge of our everyday experience.
In Buddhism, our particular way of addressing these matters is to say that the root of the problem is the delusion of selfhood. Because we are living in this delusion, this prison of self, we identify with the afflictive emotions, thereby feeding and encouraging them. And whether we practice as householders engaged with family and work or as monks in the forest, the question is the same: Does what we do strengthen the sense of self through those habits of mind—fixation, contraction, identification—that prevent our aspiration for the highest happiness from being fulfilled, or does it work to purify the heart and free the mind from those qualities? This is the only question that really matters.
Debates about the relative merits of different approaches to the spiritual life are often framed in a way that is misleading. To speak, for example, of one approach as being life-affirming and another as life-denying misses the point, because the path is not about affirming life or denying it—it’s about emerging from delusion. If one’s practice as a householder comes from a place of self, a place of attachment, desire and identification, then that is not a path of liberation. Similarly, if one’s monastic practice is done from a place of fear or aversion, then that also is not the way. The reference point for examining our lives and the choices we make is the quality of heart and mind out of which they come. Skillful choices about the best circumstances and styles of practice will naturally vary according to the needs and the situation at particular times in people’s lives.
For example, one traditional Buddhist practice that Westerners sometimes find troubling is the contemplation of the non-beautiful aspects of the body. The problem is partly one of translation. The Pali word asuba is generally translated as “loathsome,” “repulsive” or “disgusting.” But the actual meaning of the word is simply “not beautiful,” a term with far fewer negative associations. But even when the language is cleaned up, for many the problem remains. Meditating on decaying corpses or on the “non-beautiful” aspects of our living bodies seems weird or out of balance. It seems to go against the belief that we should be learning to respect and honor the beauty of the body. It is crucial to understand that such objections miss the point of these practices, which is to release the mind from identification with the body. This is one of our most deeply rooted attachments and the cause of tremendous suffering.
So asuba practice has nothing to do with denying life or hating the body. It is simply one means to free ourselves from the delusion that takes the body to be the self. For some, these techniques will work well; perhaps for others contemplating the impermanent, insubstantial nature of beauty will be the path of freedom. How well any technique works depends on how it is taught and the particular conditioning of the individual who undertakes it. But we err when we extrapolate from a particular method a general characterization of an entire tradition. In all methods we must understand that which is essential about the transformative process of liberation.
Of course, it is not only the body with which we identify. We are continually ensnared by the workings of the mind—its moods, emotions, concepts, opinions, judgments and so forth. Caught up as we are in the mind’s busyness, it is only in rare moments that we touch that space of open, free awareness that is its true nature. One of the things I love about being on retreat is that it reveals so clearly that so much of the time the mind is in some state—sometimes obvious, sometimes extremely subtle—of attachment or aversion. Trungpa Rinpoche spoke of the meditative path as being one insult after another. This is important to understand because it points to the level of attentiveness we need to cultivate in our lives if we want to fulfill that aspiration for peace, for love, for freedom.
One of the dangers I see among Western practitioners is the enticement to say, “Well, everything I do is my practice,” as if no special effort is required. Theoretically this is a valid point, but is it really true in how we actually live? Staying awake does not come easily. It requires tremendous energy, commitment and courage. Just look to the examples of the great figures in any spiritual tradition—to the intensity, exertion and renunciation manifest in their practice. Meditation is very humbling in that it reflects back to us the depth of our attachments and the inspiration and commitment needed to get free of them. Sustained meditation practice makes it more difficult to fool ourselves.
Although renunciation may express itself in outward forms, its essence is the letting go of the mind’s habits of delusion. Even just a moment of such release is powerful, because it provides a reference point, an alternative to the false sense of self we ordinarily experience. The more we taste of this experience of emptiness, the more we can truly make our life our practice, rather than simply holding “life as practice” as a nice idea.
The profound stillness in which the mind’s intrinsic, radiant emptiness is realized is not something apart from spiritual activity in the world. It is its foundation. Each of us acts and abides within a unique set of karmic conditions, which localize us in the specifics of place, social and familial relationships, and all the other circumstances that make up our unfolding life. But these very circumstances are themselves empty. Emptiness and specificity are not in contradiction; they constitute a union. While we accept, open to and even honor the specifics of our lives, without the recognition of their essential emptiness, we will easily fall into attachment. The fullness of the spiritual path is the understanding that love, that compassion, is the expression of emptiness. These are not two separate things; the one is an attribute of the other.
In my own practice this understanding has been greatly enriched by some of the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. For many years, the bodhisattva vow of Mahayana Buddhism—to practice in order to save all beings—made little sense to me. How in the world would I, or anyone, be able to enlighten all beings? It seemed like a beautiful idea, but an impossibility. What gave the vow meaning to me was the teaching of absolute and relative bodhicitta, or “awakened mind.” Relative bodhicitta is compassion; absolute bodhicitta is emptiness. The compassionate activity expressed by the vow is the manifestation of the realization of emptiness. The energy to save all beings arises in precisely that consciousness that knows that there is no one to save and no one to do the saving. It is here that the spiritual path finds its completeness.
This article is based on an interview conducted by Andrew Cooper and Barbara Gates.