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Since 9/11 there has been a pervasive sense of anxiety in the world, and at the same time a search for spiritual answers. Is violence an aspect of human nature that can be cured, or are we caught in an endless cycle of violence that will never end? One of the most optimistic answers to that dilemma came from Buddha more than two thousand years ago. In the light of what he taught, I wanted to post my thoughts about the Buddhist solution and what it means for you and me as we seek to live in a troubling world.
Anyone coming to spirituality from the outside asks the same question: “What can it do for me?” There’s no universal key that unlocks the truth. However great the teaching, unless it can be made personal, it is sleeping. There’s no cut-and-dried case, especially today. You and I seek spirituality one by one, on our own terms. We have our own specific suffering that we want to heal. As old traditions no longer bind us together, isolation, ironically enough, has become the new tradition for millions of modern people. Feeling alone, unwanted, unloved, weak, lost, and empty is how the human disease feels today.
At no time in history have there been more stateless persons, refugees, overpopulation, and restless migration. Globalism makes the individual feel lost in the world, overwhelmed by its chaos, which always seems to be teetering between madness and catastrophe. Yet when people came to Buddha, they brought the same complaints. They felt helpless in the face of natural disasters, war, and poverty. They couldn’t comprehend a world on the edge of madness.
This dilemma has brought me closer to Buddha in recent years. I carry with me a few seminal ideas that have guided my life so far. One of them was expressed by Mahatma Gandhi when he said, “Be the change that you want to see in the world.” Because the world is so huge, it came as a revelation to me–and also a mystery – that by changing myself I can affect the world. This idea was not original to Gandhi. It’s an offshoot of a much older idea, traceable to ancient India, which says, “As you are, so is the world.” That, too, is a revelation and a mystery.
Most of us survive by pretending that the world is “out there,” at arm’s length, which gives us breathing space. We can pursue our comfortable lives without merging into the poverty, injustice, and violence that surrounds us. However, our comfort zone disappears if the world is as we are. The individual is suddenly thrust center stage, holding responsibility for troubles that begin “in here” before they appear “out there.” This is the same as saying that the world begins in consciousness. Buddha was famously practical. He told people to stop analyzing the world and its troubles. He also told them to stop relying on religious rituals and sacrifices, which are external. Buddha was the avatar of the situation we find ourselves in today, because he refused to rely on the traditional gods or God. He didn’t use the social safety net of the priestly caste with its automatic connection to spiritual privilege. Above all, he accepted the inescapable fact that each person is ultimately alone in the world. This aloneness is the very disease Buddha set out to cure.
His cure was a waking-up process, in which suffering came to be seen as rooted in false consciousness, and specifically in the dulled awareness that causes us to accept illusion for reality. The reason that people resort to violence, for example, is not that violence is inherent in human nature. Rather, violence is the result of a wrong diagnosis. That diagnosis puts the limited ego-self first in the world, and regards the demands of "I, me, mine" as the most important things to attain. The reason that people react with fear in the face of violence is that the ego goes into a panic trying to defend itself and its attachment to the physical body. The answer to violence for both the aggressor and the victim is to see through the false claims of the ego and thus to come to a true understanding of who we are and why we are here. Buddha's answer remains radical, but its truth offers a way out that may be our best hope for the future. Let's examine his solution in detail.
Buddha stood for peace, and one would think that he would praise us if we ended the present war (and all wars.) We are told that the American people have now woken up to the folly of the invasion of Iraq. Since wars are where illusions die the fastest, Buddha would also want us to end a war because we became more awake. I think these things are true, but Buddha was more radical. He wanted us to wake up in general, to see through all illusions. That is the only way to escape suffering before it occurs. Learning after the fact, as we are doing in Iraq, doesn't really accomplish Buddha's goal.
Observing how Buddhists follow his teaching, the steps of waking up include the following:
- Meditating on the core of silence within the mind.
- Observing the shifting contents of the mind carefully, separating out anything that sustain suffering and illusion.
- Unraveling the ego’s version of reality and piercing through the ego’s claim that it knows how to live properly.
- Facing the truth that everything in nature is impermanent.
- Letting go of materialism in both its crude and subtle form.
- Becoming detached from the self and realizing that the individual self is an illusion.
- Being mindful of one’s being, overcoming the distraction of thoughts and sensations.
- Abiding by a set of higher ethics whose basis is compassion for other people and reverence for life.
Some or all of these things stand for Buddha’s method by which the human disease might be cured. So how is the cure proceeding? The cure hasn’t found enough people, beautiful and noble as it is. Let’s say an outsider is coming in from the cold. He or she wants to be free of pain and suffering, wants to feel that life at its core is meaningful. To an outsider, it seems that the Buddhist cure has become difficult, complicated, and confusing.
- Sitting and trying to find a core of silence is beyond short attention spans and doesn’t fit into the hectic pace of modern life.
- Watching and examining the shifting contents of the mind is time-consuming and exhausting.
- Confronting the ego is nearly impossible, because it has a hundred heads for every one you cut off.
- Facing the truth that everything is impermanent frightens people.
- Seeking detachment makes people think they will be giving up worldly success and comfort.
- Abiding by a set of higher ethics makes them anxious that they will be prey to anyone who is stronger, less moral, and capable of using violence without any sense of guilt or remorse.
Bringing wisdom to a world built on illusion and suffering is difficult. Solving violence through peace seems unworkable. Detaching from materialism has little appeal when people everywhere are pursuing materialism with every breath. Yet the genius of Buddha’s teaching lies in its universality, and whatever is universal is also simple. Buddha’s cure has the capacity to appeal to the entire world.
Right now Buddha’s cure isn’t simple for most people because being alone isn’t simple. By asking people to go inside, Buddha seems to be asking them to be more alone. We must get to the very root of the problem first. Who feels alone? You and I. The minute we use those three basic words we confront the real difficulty. “You” are someone separate from me. “And” implies that we might be connected, and yet we don’t feel connected. “I” stands for my ego and everything it is stubbornly or desperately attached to. Buddha had to resolve all three issues of “you and I” before his teaching, the Dharma, could work a cure.
One reason that people revere Buddha but don’t follow him is that they don’t feel motivated enough to seek change. They hold an image of Buddhist monks perpetually meditating, observing strict discipline, and avoiding the world. The images aren’t false, but they aren’t complete, either. Like every great spiritual teaching, Buddhism turned into an organized religion, and in so doing it offered a way of life to ordinary people as well as renunciant monks. Yet I was struck by one comment that these posts received: “I know many Buddhists from Asian countries. They can recite the entire Heart Sutra from memory. But they never meditate. They don’t know how to quiet the mind, what the nature of their thoughts are, and they don’t have any spiritual practice. Sometimes they go to the temple as a social event, to meet and talk with people, or because their family expects them to.“
In other words, Buddha’s teachings have suffered the same fate as Jesus’s. Yet also like Jesus, Buddha set the truth before his listeners so that they could choose it as a means to freedom. It’s an inescapable fact that Buddha was a master diagnostician of the human condition. No one has more rightly deserved the title of physician to the soul. Yet he refused to use words like spirit, soul, or God. He realized that the disease of separation and isolation had progressed so far that spirituality itself was infected. “Soul” and “God” are labels. Labels fit things you already see before you, things you already know. I can label myself an Indian male, a husband and father, a breadwinner, a citizen, and so on.
All these are things I see and know already. Can I label my soul the same way? No. To Buddha, God and the soul were question marks, not things with labels. They were unknowns. They had to be, because if someone seeks solace from God and communion with the soul, they can’t know in advance what their goal is. Otherwise, they’d simply be seeking themselves in disguise. Buddha understood that when people prayed to the gods, they were praying to creations of the mind, and what the mind creates has no substance or truth except as a projection. Anything I can label is a projection of a concept I know all too well. Maybe I can be clever enough to disguise my ego and project it as an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present deity. But whenever the known is projected into the unknown, something false is happening and the truth moves further away, not closer.
Buddha was a radical surgeon, and he cut out all labels that put a name on the unknown. Naturally, people who came to him for comfort and solace were shocked that Buddha proposed major surgery. They saw themselves as humble seekers after truth, which they would hear from his lips. Buddha knew better than to satisfy them–instead, he overturned their expectations about how truth works.
Truth isn’t found in words but through insight and self-discovery.
Truth isn’t taught or learned. It is wrapped inside consciousness itself.
To reach the truth, you must become it. Your consciousness must change until what is false has been left behind. Then truth will exist by itself, strong and self-sufficient.
These are simple, universal statements. Yet they became easy prey for the ego-personality. Let’s say that Buddha wanted us to be non-violent, to revere all forms of life, to extend compassion even to strangers. In the context of the religion that Buddha knew as a child, this truth already existed and went by the name of Ahimsa, often translated as harmlessness. A physician still acknowledges Ahimsa today as a medical duty to first do no harm. But Ahimsa can easily turn out to be part of the human disease rather than the cure. I can feel superior to violent people because I am non-violent. I can occupy the moral high ground and feel safe. I can avoid conflicts and step away when arguments turn into aggression and war.
In subtle ways, then, Ahimsa gets co-opted by the ego, which wants to feel superior and to think well of itself without getting involved. (As an example, we only need to look at the widespread indifference to the Iraq war that is masked over by socially approved disapproval of it. The attitude may be right, but nothing really changes.) Truth can also get you into trouble. Following where Ahimsa leads, I may become a pacifist who finds himself hated by his society for refusing to protect it from enemies. This hatred may lead to persecution, and so I become a martyr to the truth. I get thrown in jail–or in extremis I become a monk setting himself on fire in Vietnam to stir the conscience of the world–and in the end I suffer more than if I hadn’t learned this truth called Ahimsa.
We face such riddles every day, which is why the promise made by Buddha and Jesus, that the truth will set us free, hasn’t been fulfilled. How can this situation change?
In the end, how does Buddha fit into the world? I think we will have an answer only after the question is put a bit differently. How does Buddha’s purpose fit into the world? His purpose was to bring a kind of spirituality that frees people to live in peace. Right now we desperately need secular spirituality. God has been hijacked by fundamentalism to the point that seekers who don’t want to be coerced by a fanatical concept of faith have few places to turn. Buddha opens a path to truth without a church.
Most importantly, Buddha’s truth is packaged. You can’t turn it into dogma that authorities enforce or a catechism that the devout memorize. Packaged truth is a trap. It can deepen the illusion it was meant to dispel and wind up making us even more separate. Take a spiritual value everyone believe in, like love. People have killed in the name of love and suffered terribly in countless ways. The positive is always woven in with the negative. Does the good of love outweigh the bad? Buddha didn’t measure truth that way. If it were enough to tell people to go and be good, to love and cause no harm, the human disease wouldn’t keep spreading. Buddha wanted to pluck out the seed of illusion, not feed the mind with new ideals that would succumb to corruption in the inexorable working of time.
He aimed for nothing less than an “inner revolution,” as one commentator has called it. Coming in from the cold, people yearn for this inner revolution because there is a hole inside them where God used to be. But in many ways that God was only an image, as Buddha would see it. Most people fail to find what they want from spirituality because they remove one image of God only to fill in another (they even turn Buddha into a god, the very thing he denied).Inner revolution, opening a path to liberation, is what Buddha holds out. Nothing less will cure the human disease.
If people could see that the human disease is temporary, the whole world would be transformed. Despite the burden of past beliefs that underlie a horrific conflict like the one in the Middle East, Buddha’s cure is taking hold, although we don’t know on what scale. Secular spirituality forms a separate subculture in every country where people have begun to seek a new way and a new set of beliefs. Their way doesn’t have to travel under the name of Buddha. The essence is about moving ahead, not about labels. Where the growth of consciousness is being nourished anywhere in the world, the following trends are evident:
- Meditation will become mainstream.
- Healing, both physical and psychological, will become commonplace.
- Prayer will be seen as real and efficacious.
- Manifestation of desires will be talked about as a real phenomenon.
- People will regain a connettion to spirit.
- Individuals will find answers inwardly to their deepest spiritual questions. They will believe in their private answers and live accordingly.
- Communities of belief will arise.
- Gurus and other spiritual authorities will wane in influence.
- A wisdom tradition will grow to embrace the great spiritual teachings at the heart of organized religion.
- Faith will no longer be seen as an irrational departure from reason and science.
- Wars will decline as peace becomes a social reality.
- Nature will regain its sacred value.
There is no spiritual path that can succeed without confronting the here and now. Buddha wanted us to be mindful of who were are at this moment because in the midst of disorder and confusion, which dominates every moment, there is the seed of Buddha nature, of awakening.
If you notice these seeds and give them value, they will expand, and in time they will fill the holes of isolation and meaninglessness. The path is subtle but natural, and open to everyone. To notice who you are is simple, not difficult. You can be gentle with yourself. There is no timetable, no need for rigor or discipline.
Your job is to notice that there is light within you, however small. A small candle is only different from the blazing sun by a matter of degree. Both are light by nature. Whatever makes your light grow will serve you. Meditation will not be a practice set apart in your day; it will become the normal state of self-awareness, of being awake instead of asleep. For two thousand years nature has held the cure for aloneness in its heart. When you realize yourself as Buddha, you are still alone, but your aloneness fills every corner of creation as far as the eye can see.
Deepak Chopra's most recent book is a novel Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment