Underlying this project aimed at achieving the technological conquest of nature or the technological conquest of the world, is another project occurring at a deeper level. This is the project of bringing concrete actuality under the control and domination of our conceptually constructed pictures of actuality. However, when we attempt to do this, there is inevitably a gulf, a gap, between the conceptual constructs that we create and the concrete actuality that they are intended to represent. The conceptual constructs can never successfully capture the concrete actuality as it is in itself and adequately represent it; then, at some level, this inadequacy of conceptualization becomes felt as painful. Through conceptualization we aim to manipulate things, to bend things to our wills, to make them subservient to our human purposes, and the conceptualization often serves this purpose well. But this project of manipulation is inevitably driven from deep within by a desire to dominate reality, to make reality completely amenable to the dictates of our will; this project turns actuality into a set of tools to be used by a self. However, the more we do this, the further removed things become from us, the more they escape our attempts to dominate them, and this then generates that deep feeling of inner anguish that I call “existential suffering.”
Now those Americans – and Westerners in general – who turn to Buddhism or to Dharma practice because they are oppressed, either consciously or unconsciously, by the sense of existential suffering see the Dharma as a means of restoring a sense of meaning and purpose to their lives. Not only do they see it in this way, but
it works in this way. It helps them to overcome this bitter feeling of alienation from themselves, from others, and from the natural world. In the Theravada tradition, or the Vipassana movement, the practice of mindfulness serves this purpose by helping us to cut through the net of conceptualization and obtain a fresh and direct encounter with immediate experience. It helps us to make a fresh and direct contact with our experience through the senses, to come back into the present moment, to make more direct contact with the workings of our own minds, and thereby to have fresher and more vital, more dynamic, more enriching human relationships. And so mindfulness meditation is seen as the technique that takes us back to the concrete experience of actuality, to actuality which is always fresh at every moment. For most people this is quite a startling revelation.
Now this function of mindfulness is common both to classical Buddhism and to meditation practice as taught within the lay Vipassana movement.1 Given that this function of mindfulness is common to the two, we can raise the questions: “Why does the lay Vipassana movement
remain primarily a lay Vipassana movement? Why doesn’t it evolve towards a monastic Sangha? Why doesn’t it look towards a monastic Sangha as a ‘polestar’ providing the ideal towards which its members should be striving?” And we can ask: “Is there a significant difference between the style of mindfulness meditation as taught within the lay Vipassana movement and mindfulness meditation as taught within a classical monastic-based system?”
As a way of answering this question, I want to go back and take another look at the type of suffering that Dharma practice is intended to address, at what I have called existential suffering, the sense of lack, the sense of meaninglessness, the feeling of alienation. Now, from the perspective of classical Buddhism, this sense of lack or voidness of meaning would be seen as
emblematic, that is it would be seen as pointing beyond itself to the intrinsic and ever-present unsatisfactory nature of samsaric existence itself. And when
this is seen, when this is recognized, a practitioner’s natural response would be to head in the direction of renunciation, to leave behind the home life and to set out for the homeless life, seeking to solve the great problem of birth and death. If, however, one doesn’t yet have the strength to go forth into homelessness, or if one’s conditions aren’t suitable for taking this step, one would practice at home with a mind that
slants in the direction of renunciation, that inclines in the direction of renunciation, and looks towards renunciation as a worthy goal. And if one cannot practice at home with a mind that slants to renunciation, one would still naturally respect and revere those who have left the household life and taken up the homeless life; one would be full of admiration for those who have exchanged the garments of the householder for the ochre-brown-maroon robe of the Buddhist monk or nun. One would recognize these virtuous and dedicated monks and nuns as the ones who represent the ideals and aspirations of Buddhism; one would see them as people who have fulfilled one’s own inner ideals and aspirations. One would revere them as bearing the lifeblood of the Buddha in their veins. One would regard them, as the ancient expression puts it, as truly “a field of merit for the world.”
However, for the sense of existential suffering to give rise to this perception of what I call the “intrinsic and ever-existing unsatisfactory nature of samsaric existence,” two additional factors are needed. What are these two additional factors? One of these is
faith. In Pali, it’s called saddhÁ. And what does
saddhÁ mean? It means faith in the Triple Gem: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. It means faith in the Buddha as the fully enlightened teacher; faith in the Dharma as the Buddha’s teaching – the
full teaching, not just a selection of sayings, cleverly arranged and organized and quoted on occasion, often
misquoted according to one’s convenience; and faith in the Sangha. This last doesn’t mean faith in the community of those who are practicing together (which is not the meaning of the word “Sangha”); it means faith, first in the
ariyan Sangha, the invisible spiritual community of those who have attained realization of the world-transcending Dharma – and then it’s also faith in the
monastic Sangha as a community (though not every monk and nun!)—a community that abides here in this world as the visible, human, embodied representation of the ariyan Sangha.
I have to emphasize that the word saddhÁ as used in the Buddhist texts—the word we translate as faith—is specifically tied to the Buddha Dharma. It has become fashionable amongst lay Dharma teachers, while knocking down “beliefs,” to extol faith. Faith, however, is then explained in such a way that its link to the Triple Gem is either eroded or fully broken, so that one could have faith in almost anything that’s considered good, sacred, and holy, and it’s still acceptable.
Faith has various aspects; it isn’t synonymous with belief, but one of its aspects is cognitive, and that involves holding certain beliefs. Among them is the belief that the historical Buddha, Gotama of the Sakyan clan, was
the fully enlightened Buddha of this historical period; and the belief that
his teaching is the teaching that leads to enlightenment and liberation; and the belief that those who have followed and practiced
his teaching with a high degree of success have gained world-transcending realization. That is, for classical Buddhism faith is uniquely rooted in the Triple Gem, and rooted in them partly by way of certain beliefs.
Faith also involves an emotional component. It involves devotion, and in this case it is devotion directed towards the Triple Gem, above all love and devotion directed towards the Buddha as the human being who has perfectly realized all the noble qualities and ideals expressive of the Dharma; also, as the one who, out of great compassion, has taken up the burden of teaching and transforming obtuse sentient beings like ourselves. I find that this aspect of devotion is conspicuously lacking in the contemporary lay Buddhist scene here in the U.S. With a few exceptions, we hardly see traces of devotion and reverence for the Buddha in any of the popular Western Buddhist journals.
So one factor necessary for this sense of existential suffering to lead to renunciation and the step into the monastic life is faith. The other factor is “right view” (sammÁ diééhi), and this is a factor on which I want to place a great deal of emphasis. In the classical teachings, there are many levels of right view, but for convenience’s sake we can speak of two kinds. The
foundational level is the right view of karma and its fruits, and to properly understand the working of karma and its fruits, one has to consider them in connection with the capacity of our actions to bring forth their results
through a sequence of many lives; that is, the right view of karma and its fruit means an understanding, at least in principle, of how karma generates “rebirth linking.” Many Americans (and Westerners) are hesitant to accept the teaching of karma and rebirth because they aren’t part of Western culture. Some even boldly proclaim that this is part of the “cultural baggage” of Asian Buddhism that we have to drop in order to forge a new “American (or Western) Buddhism” that will be meaningful to people here in the West. Again, they sometimes argue that such teachings as those on karma and rebirth are just shackles of dogma and belief with which the Buddhists of Asia have bound themselves. Today, it’s said, we have outgrown religious dogmas and beliefs; we want to become totally free, in the present, and this means we must become free of all those Asian Buddhist dogmas and beliefs.
My response to this is to offer an analogy. Suppose in India a new university were to be started and they would plan to open a physics department. Would the physics professors start to debate among themselves whether they should be teaching the Newtonian laws of motion, or the laws of thermodynamics, or Einstein relativity theory? Suppose some professor among them would stand up and say, “These laws and theories come from the West. They aren’t part of our cultural heritage. We shouldn’t be obliged to teach them in our university. They are part of the cultural baggage of the West that we have to drop when we teach physics in Asia.” The other professors would look at him and think he’s gone mad. Before they dropped the teaching of these physical laws, they would certainly drop
him from the department. Why so? Because the laws of physics aren’t taught just because they are part of someone’s cultural heritage. They are taught because they explain phenomena that are universally true, because they are just as valid in Beijing, Calcutta, Nairobi, and Istanbul as they are in London, New York, or Buenos Aires. And that is the meaning of physics. So too, the teachings of karma and rebirth are intended to explain the universal laws of the moral life; they explain laws that are vitally important to us, since they are the laws that govern our future destiny from life to life, the laws that underlie the whole process by which one progresses from the state of a deluded worldling to that of a liberated arahant or a perfectly enlightened Buddha. These teachings (at least the oldest versions of them) come from the Buddha himself. They were part of the content of his enlightenment, and he taught them to human beings for a good reason. These laws teach us how to make basic ethical decisions in our daily lives; they steer us away from evil and guide us towards the good; they form the backbone of Buddhist spirituality. They are intrinsic to the very meaning of the Dharma. Without gaining some insight into these laws, thinking, “Just by being mindful of the present I can attain the highest realizations,” one will be like a man who goes to a lake with a sieve, thinking to use it to collect water and fill his bucket. In the end, he will go back home with an empty bucket.
1 Naturally I’m speaking from the standpoint of the form of Buddhism with which I’m most familiar. In doing so I don’t want to marginalize those who are coming from other Buddhist traditions, but I actually want you to relate what I’m saying here to your own traditions, because I’m sure the same transformation that is affecting the Theravada tradition is affecting other Buddhist traditions.
To be continued