(Continued from August 1992 Issue 267)
This is probably why the Mahayana school gained such strength in India because it seems that the Buddhism of early centuries did drift very much toward isolationism and the Sangha practicing in a very elitist way built around salvation for oneself with no real concern for others. This brought a sterility and negativity, a nihilism into the teaching, and so as a revolt against that the more expansive, benevolent, generous and open-hearted teaching gained enormous strength in the early centuries. And after the Buddha's time, what is now called the Mahayana, or Northern tradition, sprang up from that. It was a breaking out from the limited, narrow-minded view.
Once, I started saying to myself, "Well, I don't care whether I feel even a moment of happiness for myself in this life; I don't care if I have to be reborn ten thousand million times. If I can do one kind act for one person in a thousand million lifetimes, then all that time will not have been wasted." Thoughts like this began to come up spontaneously in my mind, and I suddenly felt an incredible joy and happiness and a feeling of relief, which is kind of strange if you think about ten thousand million lifetimes of ineffective activity and complete pain and boredom. This could be a pretty strange deal. But the result was a vibrant joy and delight. It was the breaking out of the prison of self-concern.
Even in Mahayana Buddhism which is outgoing, geared very much toward altruism, generosity, compassion, developing a spiritual life for the sake of all beings, still if our practice stops at the state of,
me giving my life to help all others, even if this is highly developed, at the end of it there's still ME and YOU--me who is helping all sentient beings. Even in that respect, even though there can be a lot of joy, you still find this barrier, a sense of isolation or meaninglessness. There's a separation there. So, it is important to use the meditation practice to practice to not just absorb into altruistic thoughts and feelings, because, if you notice, a lot of the Buddha's teachings revolve around selflessness, around emptiness, like the teachings on Anatta, on No-Self. If there is no self who is it who's going to be radiating kindness over the entire world? If there's no self, then who is sending Metta and who is there to send it to? One then sees that there is a level of understanding, of being, which is beyond that which is tied up with self and other. No matter how high, refined and pure our aspiration might be, unless we go beyond that sense of self-identity and division in that respect, then there will always be that feeling of incompleteness, the desert experience will tend to creep in.
The Buddha advises us not to try to define the enlightened in conceptual terms because any conceptual definition can only fall short, can only be relatively true. The Buddha made very clear in the Theravada teaching just as much as in the scriptures of the Northern school that the ultimate perspective on things is this perspective of no fixed position, of actual realization of Truth, of abiding in that position of Awareness, rather than taking any kind of conceptual or idealistic position. That is our Refuge. Taking Refuge with Buddha is being that Awareness. So that we see that everything to do with our body, our feelings, our personality, our age, our nationality, our problems, our talents, all of these are simply attributes of the conditioned world that arise and pass away and there is awareness of those. The whole point of the practice is to constantly abide in that sense of awareness.
The result of trying to realize emptiness within a free-wheeling life means that you have to realize the emptiness of despair within and the depression that comes from following those desires. It's a related thing; you can't just focus on the absorption into pleasure without the other side of it. It's as if you're holding onto the wheel as it goes up the pleasure side, but you're still holding onto it as it goes down the other side. I'm not saying these things as a put-down but, having done this quite a bit myself, I realize that you just don't have the presence of mind to let go at the top. It's the way you'd like it to go but it doesn't really operate like that. So, you see how people within the Buddhist traditions can tend to identify with the external characteristics of their clan or their tribe. Theravada Buddhism often gets caught in small-mindedness and self-concern and the nihilism of life-negation. It has easily drifted into that over the centuries, the small-minded position, and the hollowness that comes with it. Mahayana Buddhism tends to drift into empty-minded idealism, high-minded idealism which is rather insubstantial, just a grand prop. You read Mahayana literature and there are fantastic, wonderful descriptions, very, very inspiring, but it tends to go in the direction of assuming that just the ideas and the aspiration are enough. Many people who follow those ideals don't actually live according to them; their actions, their ways, are often quite small-minded, quite selfish and superstitious. The Vajrayana tradition, their attachment, tends to go into magical practices and a lot of license and ritualism. You can see that simply aligning oneself with a particular social calling is not enough.
This is good to understand, how the different levels of our life, of our being, interplay with each other, because even though at some moment we might be seeing life, acknowledging and witnessing experience from the level of pure wisdom, from that place of timeless-spaceless-selfless awareness, the rest of the world is not necessarily seeing things from that point of view. What you have within Buddhist practice is a way of tying together all the different levels of our being.