Talking Dharma – Talking Perfection
Within western culture we have been conditioned to be imperfect. We have been conditioned to believe that there is something out there that can make us whole, complete, perfect. There is a great story from the second reformation period Buddhism known as the Mahayana, that points to the actuality factor of perfection. In the story an aged father, intent on securing a future for his son, sews a priceless jewel into the lining of his coat but doesn’t tell him about it in case he wastes it on the frivolous nature of youth. The father dies leaving the son destitute so the son goes off in search of his fortune. After years of living in abject poverty and ill-health he finally gives up and lays down to die only to find it uncomfortable because of a lump in the lining. He rips open the lining and finds the jewel and then dies. What the story is pointing to is the perfection of the current moment. It is only in this current moment where you can go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and it is always perfect. You don’t need to go anywhere to engage with the current moment. All you need to do in that moment is go for refuge and that is the inward journey expressed outwardly in what you think, say and do.
One of the downsides to the Mahayana approach in relation to the Bodhisattva ideal, which is the dedication of your practice to the benefit of others, is that it omits to understand that you can’t be of much genuine benefit to another until you’ve sorted out, to some extent at least, your own confusion first. Of course that does not mean that gives us an excuse not to live on the basis of kindness, but it acknowledges that it is pointless running around like a headless chicken trying to save everybody else from living with a worried mind when we are dong so on the basis of our own. What we do know from the traditional story of the Buddha is that his own journey began from an awareness of his own worrying mind and he did not begin helping others until his own confusion had been resolved. But do we stop helping others until we think we are perfect? Or do we help others whilst working on ourselves within the spirit of living a life based on kindness? I suggest that it is the latter that exemplifies the perfection of the present moment.
Classical Buddhism tends to assert that we cannot benefit others unless we are wise, enlightened, or at the very least one of the self-created spiritual elite of religious Buddhism in case our good intentions are misguided. But that, I suggest, is just institutionalised protectionism that creates the division that exists to prevent you from realizing clarity. You don’t need a dodgy name, a robe, a title or any other kind of status to act on the basis of kindness in this moment. All you need to do is do it. The difficulty is that our conditioning is forever telling us that we can only be happy if we are someone other than our present self. That it is dependent on someday, somewhere, somehow, different than what or where we are right now. It sets up the ‘if only’ mind-set of wanting things to be other than they are, which gives rise to the worrying mind. This is how we cling to the self-biased mind that creates worry that often is expressed in unhelpful self-images, lack of self-worth or low self-esteem that seems endemic within our culture. This drives the want for a better me. The Dharma journey offers an alternative option by encouraging you to engage with the current moment as it is in its current perfect state by accepting, it without judgement, or wanting it to be other than it is. It does this so we can wake up from the confusion of the self-biased mind and act on the basis of the conscious awareness of clarity, right here, right now, just as we are.
Being confused by the self-biased mind presents the biggest obstacle to authentic altruistic action because that sense of ‘us’ keeps turning every experience into a two-way transaction. But pity and sympathy result in being of benefit to others, so until compassion arises naturally as a result of conscious awareness then we act on the basis of where we currently are in this moment. Our practice is to become aware of our limitations but not be paralysed by them. I accept that for many this is easier said than done. After all, the voices demanding perfection are not just inside our heads. They are everywhere in our culture today. They come from outside and inside. It is so easy to give in to these internal dialogues, good teacher/bad teacher, good Buddhist/bad Buddhist. But it can be so suffocating and can drain the lifeblood or energy out of our practice. Underlying this inner critic, behind the veil of rampant insecurity, we find self-absorption. If we aim to ground our lives in a fixed sense of self, before long we find ourselves drowning in a whirlpool of unhelpful conditioned habitual patterns of thinking speaking and acting.
In the West, we tend to dismiss this as an issue of self-worth, low self-esteem, or, my current favourite ‘impostor syndrome.’ But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is that we believe in the existence of a worthy or unworthy self in the first place. Worthy/unworthy or perfect/imperfect are equally false narratives. In actuality there is no worthy or unworthy self. At first, Buddhist teachings on non-self sound crazy. How can we develop confidence without clinging to what we think of as us? But the actuality of the non-self principle actually helps us to disarm all our self-concepts, turning us away from the actual source of our worries. For some this can sound nihilistic but it clearly isn’t because the Buddha taught the middle way between eternalism and nihilism. What the teaching of non-self is pointing to is a realization experience that will eradicate the worrying mind so it can be at peace with itself, others and the world around it.
This is where the Bodhisattva ideal becomes helpful. In its most helpful definition it is about the motivational intent to realize clarity so we can be of most benefit to all beings, including ourselves. It provides the bridge between being and doing. It is the journey where being and doing can be united in action. When we are doing from the depths of being, the actions themselves arise organically from compassion. It can be so easy to think that the Bodhisattva ideal is a practice for people more highly realized than ourselves. It can also, for some, inflate a sense of specialness and classical Buddhism does seem to give out mixed messages on this point. On one hand, we’re told in no uncertain terms that we must become enlightened if we’re to have the discriminating wisdom that allows us to effectively help others and on the other hand, we are told that we must act now because we have been born into a world that is in dire need of our help. The fact is, we’re taking some form of action all the time. Since we can’t avoid action, since we’re committed to appropriate action, and since even our thoughts have consequences, we’re compelled to consider what is helpful; or unhelpful to others from all of our actions and omissions.
So what are we sleeping potential Buddha’s to do? I suggest it is helpful to act with enlightened intent and to pay attention to our motivational factors with integrity. Our day-to-day commitment is to do the best we can to live on the basis of kindness, to do the least amount of physical, emotional, or psychological harm to ourselves, others and the world around us. We do what we can in each current moment to alleviate the worrying mind in order to bring about awakening, even though we are sometimes helpful self, sometimes unhelpful self, sometimes in the actuality of non-self, and at other times still confused and worrying about our own perceived problems. If our practice is authentic, what does not waiver is the guiding principle of the Bodhicitta, the arising of the will to realize clarity for the benefit of all beings. When we act on the basis of this motivational intent it becomes an insightful opportunity to break through because it tunes us into what we really are. It is the opportunity to realize that we are an expression of no-thing-ness that is always the perfection of compassion.
In this current moment, in this current circumstance, which choice will strengthen your Bodhichitta, your will to realize clarity? Which conscious choice will express that commitment to be of benefit to all beings? Which conscious choice will advance the joy of beings and their relief from the worrying mind? Maybe right now it sounds a bit grandiose for us to work for the benefit of all beings. But if we aim as high as our sights allow, then the aspiration itself will be fulfilling. We will find contentment in the clarity and energy of our enlightened intention itself. When we act on Bodhichitta, we connect not only with our true nature but with all of nature as inter-relatedness becomes a lived experience.
If, as classical Buddhism continues to assert, awakening is some kind of idealized notion of self that is forever beyond our grasp in this life, then what exactly are we advancing toward in this life other than creating the conditions for on-going worry right up until the brain stops working? The idea that it sets out in its interpretation only works if you buy into the miscommunication about past and future lives that keeps the institutions in business. If you think about it for a while you will see that it actually provides the impetus for us not to awaken in this life so that we can earn some kind of merit badge by looking after the elite so that we can cash in at some apparent time in some kind of next life scenario. This, I suggest is not the Dharma of the Buddha. It is, I suggest the dogma of religion. By creating this idealised version of perfection of the historical Buddha and putting it out of our reach it misses the entire point of the Buddha’s communication. If Bodhicitta has arisen within us, if that motivational factor for awakening to be of benefit to all beings is authentic we can no longer enjoy the luxury of waiting for a perceived perfect self to arrive before helping others. We must be willing to do our best just as we are, wherever we find ourselves on this journey towards awakening and that moment will only ever be the perfect moment. When that motivational intent is present we are already perfect. Take a good look around you. Our world needs us now. Other beings need our best efforts now. The Dharma journey is to wake up, show up, and heed the call now in this perfect moment. Can you hear it?
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