An inescapable fact and challenge

Bhavana Society Buddha ~ 2010

In this uncertain political season, full of angst, anger and fear, I have wondered what to remark about the current agitated national scene in America. I will not use a Buddhist blog to share my own particular points of view except to note that when it comes to nations and politics, angst seems the norm. Yet how are we to face bedeviling fears and enormous questions – how shall we run our country? – when we are also consumed with the equally enormous question of how to run our daily lives?

I’ve been on vacation the past week, the first four days spent at the Bhavana Society Buddhist monastery in the eastern mountains of West Virginia. Now, I abide in a friend’s lovely townhouse in Washington, D.C., preparing to head out to the National Mall for Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” (and good luck with that!). So, the personal and the national have been playing out in my travels and in my thoughts. With coffee cup in hand, I cracked open Chapter 15 of Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano’s remarkable book, “Longing For Certainty: Reflections on the Buddhist Life,” (Wisdom Publication) this morning, instead of  lap-topping to my favorite political blog and getting all agitated again.

The good monk serves up much nourishment in the closing pages of a book whose voice and vivid imagery on finding Dhamma in daily life has become a treasured resource for me. The following is a gorgeously written call to attention to wake up out of the gloom of our moody, distracted introspections. Some members of our Meditation Circle purchased this book after reading other excerpts on this blog. I encourage other readers to do likewise for the full course of this American monk’s wise peregrinations and clear-headed expositions of the Buddha’s core teachings:

Excerpt (p. 71) by Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano from “Longing For Certainty: Reflections on the Buddhist Life,” (Wisdom Publications).

After enough hard experience we cannot believe that living comes to any wise conclusion by itself, or that suffering will finally be outlasted by patience alone. Among the numberless hours of dreaming and speculating, where is the true time that counts toward wisdom? Cause and effect crash through us every moment, unseen and unheard, perhaps, but making us and remaking us according to the nature of our actions. In considering history – of our own family or of all humanity – we are considering actions, changes, the endless turn of circumstances, the surge and fall of generations. Why should our own generation necessarily surge higher than any other and carry us with it? Whatever the fanfare around us, still we act as individuals, well or badly, and receive the results of those actions. Our own past and all of history teach us the essential sameness of worldly things, show us the prevailing passions of living beings, but do not direct us to liberation from suffering. For that we need the teachings of the Buddha.

We gaze out the window at the dazzling, motionless neighborhood – bright white under a winter blue – and through the near houses are new enough, time seems strangely indefinite, blown away as the snow has been blown away from the branches of the trees. We might also be living in any century, looking up with surprise from any life, any domestic moment, into that amazing emptiness of sky. Always it is something like this when we sit still enough and watch with mindfulness. We sense the vastness of the season, wherein we are always, it seems, beginning again to grapple with birth and death, beginning and hesitating and faltering for lack of knowledge or lack of faith.

Whether we yearn for the charming past or the intriguing future, still those white and blue depths of winter surround us – emblematic of the great dukkha that is continually regenerated out of ignorance by our actions. While cause and effect inexorably race on we have no grounds for esteeming ourselves necessarily superior or inferior, in moral safety or religious confidence, to past generations or our own past lives. We make our guesses, restrain or obey our impulses, and run along through the brief warmth of our years, hoping to attain at last to peace and contentment; but history, read out of books or sensed now in the belongings of our family, tells only of sameness beneath the flickering of incidents – the timeless moral questions and groping for certainty.

Staring out the window while the old papers lie light on our fingers, we find we cannot patronize the past at all, cannot think it quaint and strange, when all the loves and fears that the papers hint at burn in us on this bright and desolate afternoon. Time falls off, blows away in the perception of deep kinship even apart from names and bloodlines. All those multitudes born to ponder and endure birth and death, and all those untraceable antecedents to our present cares – how near they seem, how familiar. Impermanence paradoxically draws us together, because each generation experiences the same sequences of birth, aging, and death; each questions the aching mysteries of change; each loves and hopes and cries in pain. Each single being, too, flies on from birth to birth, not as a self but as a pattern of conditions, with each life making the impetus for a new one here or there. It is not easy, the Buddha says, to find a living being who has not at some time been our own close relative; such is the inconceivable depth of samsara, the succession of births and deaths. The string of our past lives, the string of impersonal causality that has brought about our present existence, runs back and back without beginning. Wherever we look, in whatever age or instant, suffering persists as an inescapable fact and challenge.

In such a flood of arising and passing away, how foolish is our trust in trivial novelty. Never mind the blaring of any generations – what is the noble life for a conscious being? Why should we not put our will into that? We are not separated from the mortal condition of our ancestors, and, wonderfully, we are not separated from the liberating Dhamma. The truths rediscovered by the Buddha are not, after all, lost behind a wall of centuries – they remain here, around us, accessible to the informed seeker. Where there is knowledge of Dhamma and where there is the will to contemplate the world that our senses show us, there is the possibility of weakening and destroying dukkha and attaining Nibbana.

And if it is true, as it now seems, that no meaningful time separates us from all our sentient kin back through the appalling ages of birth and death, why should we regard the Buddha himself as remote beyond all hoping? We are much given to exotic dreams, as if the great sages of the past existed only in some fantastic, unattainable land of magic; but the Buddha points to our immediate, individual responsibility: “One who see the Dhamma sees me; one who sees me sees the Dhamma.” (Samyutta Nikya 22:87). No imagination will guarantee us that vision – only careful attention  here and now will do that. The present moment is usually unexciting and ordinary, whatever the historical period – with the icy tedium of winter and the sweltering drone of summer, the work and the rest, the unclear longing for liberation – but if by study and by mindfulness we begin to see the Dhamma, even the first glimmer of its brilliance, we may be sure we are in the presence of the great teacher.

What then should we ask of the teacher? What do we expect of him? Do we hope to warm ourselves by his wisdom, marveling at his enlightenment as at some worldly spectacle? Only the development of or own character according to the Dhamma will bring us genuine peace. We will see no wonders as long as we make no effort to purify our minds. The Buddha says that even though a monk might hold on to the hem of his robe and follow right behind him, if he is still full of defilements and has not disciplined himself he would not, in truth, see the Buddha, because he fails to see the Dhamma. But there is, happily, another way of following:

Bhikkhus, even though a bhikkhu might live a hundred leagues away, if he is not covetous for objects of desire, not strongly passionate, not malevolent, uncorrupt in thought, with mindfulness established, clearly comprehending, concentrated, of unified mind and controlled faculties, he is close to me and I am close to him. What is the reason? That bhikkhu sees Dhamma. Seeing Dhamma, he sees me.

(Itivuttaka 92)

Rightly seeing Dhamma, then, one should act according to Dhamma. A Tathagata, a Buddha, is not someone who does our work for us; he is one who explains what we must do, and if we have not looked as he advises and have not begin to do the vital work, then we have missed his essential message. Cause and effect have driven us down this beginningless cataract of time, and if we are ever to cease tumbling or escape from the flood altogether we must eliminate the causes of harm and supply the causes of good. All ages tremble with covetousness, passion, malevolence, and corrupted thought; and for all ages and all persons protection can be found in mindfulness, concentration and control of the sense faculties. These are powers we can develop and exercise, whatever the external circumstances may be.

For too long, perhaps, we have merely waited, expecting or hoping for some as yet unrealized strength to spring up in us, or for our uncertainty to dissolve in a fortuitous onset of wisdom. We wish for a grand wind of inspiration to lift us suddenly from our gloom; but this wind is not summoned by mere desire. It is brought in being by conscious, faithful adherence to the Dhamma …

RELATED: ” A Pilgrimage in Autum”

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