Waking Up

Doubt everything. Find your own light. – Buddha

Buddhism is about waking up.  The root word in the ancient Pali language of Northern India of words like Buddhism and Buddha is Budh, which means “awaken.”  So Buddhism is the study and practice of awakening and Buddha is the awakened one.  Another term, Buddhadharma, is the path that leads to awakening, and awakening means the application of careful observation, reason and intuitive intelligence in order to see and experience life at deeper and subtler levels than our usual cultural and psychological conditioning makes possible. 

This makes Buddhism very different from Western religions in that it is not what is known as a “revealed” religion such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam which are based in supposed divine revelation.  One has to be a believer in these religions, doubt is forbidden, and faith generally means believing in teachings that often have very little to do with actual experience.  Buddhism, on the other hand, is based in the development of our full human observational and reasoning potential applied to the life we experience every day, and “awakening” into deep truths that are clearly present but usually overlooked.  Faith in Buddhism is faith in the capacity of every person to awaken from “egoic delusion,” believing in that which is believed because it is what one is accustomed to or is told to believe.  Doubt is essential and faith is earned. 

Remarkably, Buddhism describes existence to be very much like what modern quantum and field theory physics is stumbling upon concerning the nature of the Universe.  In mythic language, Buddhism describes what science now tells us about an underlying unified field of proto-energy from which the various energies of the Universe appear, with the very real possibility of that first energy being consciousness. Simultaneously, Buddhism is also increasingly recognized as a most effective psychology and system of ethics which recognizes the illusion and fixation on egoic separateness as the cause of human intrapsychic and social conflict, thus revolutionizing the social sciences.  Buddhism tells us we can have faith in our human capacities to lead us to truth if we just let go of being seduced by the self-absorption of ego and its stories of the superiority of ego’s fantasies based in its own specialness.  There is no one, Buddhism assures us, who does not possess “Buddha nature.”  We are all buddhas – only requiring that we awaken.

Albert Einstein, the pre-eminent figure of modern physics, said of Buddhism in a quite remarkable testimonial: “Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion of the future: it transcends a personal god, avoids dogma and theology; it covers both the natural and the spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.”

As a psychology, The Buddha is said to have stated, “The only thing I teach is the nature of suffering and the path that leads to its cessation.”   And in line with the core of Buddhism being awakening, what the Buddha then is saying is that human emotional suffering, which stands unique in all of nature for its personalization of difficulty into a subjective state of emotional pain, is the result of ignorance into the true nature of existence and humanity’s place within it, thus making Buddhism more of a cosmology and a psychology than a religion in Western terms.  In the Buddha’s exposition on the path that leads to the cessation of suffering he indicated eight human endeavors that were elemental for liberation from causing and being afflicted by this unnecessary “suffering.”  He called this teaching The Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path consists of what is called: Right View, Intention, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration.  Understandably, given the moralistic teachings of Western religions, there is the misperception that the “right” of The Eightfold Path is a moralistic teaching, but Buddhism does not teach morals, holding them to be projections of egoistic judgment.  Buddhism’s emphasis is rather on the development of inner virtue which will lead to the “right” understanding of how to proceed in life so as not to be a perpetrator or victim of unnecessary suffering.  This may seem semantic, but it is not.  The difference here is that while both morality and virtue point us to a code of conduct in the world, morality is judgmental and has as its source outside hierarchical power authority.  Virtue, as used in the Buddhist sense, arises naturally from within when a person is not off course in their life following egoistic urges, desires and fears rather than accurate perception of what beliefs, attitudes and behaviors contribute to happiness, peace and wisdom and which detract.  Morality leads to rebellion and disobedience.  Virtue is self-reinforcing and leads to wisdom and compassion; there is no outside authority to rebel against.  There is only learning based in one’s own experience.  Simply stated, selfishness leads to conflict; selfless compassion and generosity bring peace.  Happiness and unhappiness ultimately are about living in peaceful connection or in conflict, and Life will teach us this if we pay close enough attention, and it is the development of the capacity for close attention that is at the core of Buddhism.

The Path begins with Right View, and this is about realizing the fundamental interconnectedness of all phenomena and that egocentricity and the belief in the ego’s separate specialness set apart from all “other” is the source of human ignorance and confusion.  It points us to realize that the belief in dualistic separateness is but a self-reinforcing delusional appearance that actually arises out of non-dual unity, just as modern physics is revealing.  Right View is essentially that we are all in this Life together, and from a religious point of view, sinning is in the breaking of this bond, that Right View is the Sacred View, seeing and living in sacred connection with all Life.  This View then forms the basis for the following points along the Path.

Right Intention is what holds us on the Path.  We must have a firm intention to overcome egoic delusion and the suffering that inevitably ensues, to be honest and courageous in evaluating our own experience so that we are not beholden to outside ego-based authority and are willing to stand in truth as it is experienced no matter how much social and cultural pressure tells us to conform to norms of selfish behavior.  Intention to discover and manifest our inherent connected goodness is what we can always come back to when we are seduced by ego’s call.  We can, without self-judgment – only discerning course correction – return to the Path.

Right Speech, Action and Livelihood are what bring the Path to life.  Somewhat like the Hippocratic Oath of medicine, it is in holding to a firm belief that we must seek to do no harm in our speech, actions and work in the world. These elements of the Path are not based in rules, but rather dynamic discernment in any given moment and situation as to what actions lead to harm, and holding to the insight that any harm that I bring into the world detracts from my own peace and joy, my own ability to be spiritually connected.  Any harm I bring into the world, or the seeing of another as an object for manipulation, will be an obstacle to the beauty of spiritual union and psychological health that is our true goal in life.

Right Effort tells us that only by bringing our intention into action through diligent training and practice do we have any possibility of overcoming ego’s seduction into self-absorption and the personalization of our experience in the world that inevitably leads to confusion and suffering.  Right Concentration and Mindfulness are the mental trainings that are necessary, for without the ability to concentrate the mind, we have no hope of stepping out of the superficial scanning that egoic mind employs to reinforce its biases and opinions.  We are stuck in a busy mind spinning stories of “me.” 

We need steady concentrative power to engage in mindfulness, which is conscientious application of non-judgmental awareness into the “what-is” of Life, to break through egoic delusion and to awaken into seeing and experiencing our interconnectedness.  Concentration power is the muscle behind awakening; Mindfulness is the artistry of bringing the full capacities of the mind – sensation, intellect, emotion, and intuition into balanced discerning inquiry into the mystery of Life.  Mindfulness breaks through the personalization of ego that has us locked in emotionality and intellectual justification for staying in our social/cultural/psychological predispositions that lead to the repeated misinterpretation and flawed action that is the essence of human neurosis.  Mindfulness allows us to see the interconnectedness of Life, for Mindfulness awakens us to being awareness, the connecting energy of consciousness in which the passing forms of Life appear, have a duration, and pass, while the consciousness energy of awareness is our one true constant and the actual source of discerning intelligence.

To awaken into Life’s secrets, we must doubt everything we are told and taught by our egocentric, selfish society.  We must bring our own faculties to bear in honed precision, just as the Buddha did, to bring the light of awakened awareness to the problem and resolution of suffering.  Having examined Life for ourselves and having found validity for ourselves, shaped by our own inquiry and discovery, then we can bring that which rings true into practice and have faith in its rightness because we have experienced it for ourselves.  Right View, Right intention and Right Effort will bring forth Right Action in our lives and in this we can have faith.

Awakened Politics

“Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By love alone is hatred appeased” – Buddha

We live in deeply troubled times.  America seems to be torn apart by a division that has the “Right” and the “Left” of our political spectrum pulled so far apart that they don’t even seem in hailing distance of each other; it’s as if the American continent is two tectonic plates moving in opposite directions, a disastrous quake a growing certainty.  The notion of “one nation, indivisible” seems more threatened than any time since the Civil War and there is so much mistrust, anger, anxiety and conflict that the pathway to reconciliation and healing seems overgrown with the weeds of mistrust and alienation.  If America were a family, it would seem on the verge of a divorce, the best course for the bitter and angry couple being to go their separate ways so that each can have some peace, and to chart their lives according to their needs and desires without conflict.

Well, in very important ways, America is a family, and, as with a family that is not just the battling couple but also children and interlocking responsibilities and relationships, there comes a moment when it is important to step back and realize the cost of a divorce carries too high a consequence, and it is then time to examine what is needed to save the family.   Americans of differing cultural and political orientations, just as with an embattled couple, seem lost focusing on differences and resentments, forgetting all that is held and valued in common, but America cannot split apart, nor can one faction gain dominance to the exclusion of others.  We have to find a way to readdress who we are and how interdependent with each other we are, or we will fall even deeper into national crisis.  In addressing this growing rift, Buddhist philosophy may have some helpful contribution.

If we were to distill Buddhist philosophy to its essence it would be about being “awake,” the word that is the most common translation of the root Sanskrit word “budh.”  And if we examine what this “awake” refers to, it is about having an expanded view of the realities of life, among them being the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things and situations, and that the idea there can be any lasting happiness derived from pursuing fulfillment separate from these interconnections will inevitably lead to more suffering.   As Americans what we have in common has to become far more important to us than our differences, for we are one society, and any group that wishes for lasting security and prosperity must see to the lasting prosperity and security of all.  Our politics needs to wake up to this reality if the bonds of this family are not to unravel even further.

At the most basic level we must learn to have compassion for each other.  We must see that we have in common not only a national identity, history and future, but also that we are all human beings who want to be happy and not suffer, and that what are seen as differences among people are always only the result of factors of circumstances.  This includes such factors as race, mental and physical capacities or limitations, gender and sexual orientation, as well as all the cultural, economic, social and psychological factors that seem to set people apart from each other.  None of this, however, negates that underneath all these circumstantial factors we are all human-beings that have pretty much the same desires and fears.  The old saying, “There but for the grace of God go I” sums up well the Buddhist insight into the compassion that seems to be in short supply in our country.  This insight can cut through the perception of our differences to refocus us, and perhaps generate some true identification and feeling of caring for each other as brothers and sisters in this human and American journey.

Unfortunately, rather than compassionate understanding and strengthening our common bonds, we seem much too much focused on only caring about ourselves and those with whom we identify – what Buddhism sees as being small-minded, egoistic and inevitably leading to conflict and the worsening of problems.  It is this view from separateness that blinds us to the truth of our ultimate interconnectedness, and so Buddhism appropriately calls this egoistic perspective delusional; making us very vulnerable to delusional thinking and the creation of false problems and solutions.  Our politics seems dominated by straw-dog issues meant only to stir up emotions and divert attention from the real challenges that face us such as climate change, racial, economic, and regional divisions, and a political and economic system so corrupted by imbalanced influence and access by the powerful and wealthy that our economy is increasingly rigged to the detriment of the common people and is causing erosion of our democratic institutions and principles.

Much like with a family that has gotten lost in focusing on differences and believing that happiness can be found in the pursuit of separate agendas and desires while ignoring or rejecting the needs and desires of others, the American family has become lost in the delusion that our differences are more significant than what we share in common.  Like a family that has a parent focused on their selfish interest over the best balance of facilitating the needs and interests of all family members, America has too many in leadership that act as if the pursuit of their interest and the interests of their particular group of allies and supporters is more important than working to find and implement policies that address the needs of the total community of the American family.  This creates seemingly endless incidents of conflict and escalating mistrust that threatens to tear the family apart.  We need to wake up.  It must be recognized that no individual or identity group’s needs and wants are more important than those of all the members of this national family.

With that said, perhaps some basic principles of what is needed to heal a personal family in crisis may be very applicable to this present crisis of our national family.  It must be recognized that the family can only be saved if all members are completely committed to restoring the family to healthy functioning, and that each member or group within the family must be willing to take absolute responsibility for doing whatever they can to heal the family.   In this spirit, each member of the family must be allowed to voice their needs and to experience being heard, and all family members must agree to do what they can to facilitate the fulfillment of those needs.  The focus must shift from resentments over past conflicts and transgressions to acknowledgement and gratitude for what each member or group brings and can contribute to the health and happiness of the family.

Healthy communication must be established and supported where everyone is listened to with respect and genuine interest, and the benefits of American family membership must be equally available to everyone while the burden of its challenges are shared.  Finally, each individual and group must realize that while a great diversity of identities gives richness to our national life, finding and valuing a deeper collective identity in the family of the nation and humanity is the only path to well-being for everyone.  We must pledge to bring the very best of who we are to the accomplishment of a healthy national and human family and we must all take responsibility to care for each other and the nation.

To facilitate this healing, we must seek out and support the political leaders and candidates who best understand and will bring these healing principles into guiding our American society while we call to account and cease supporting and following those who practice the politics and practices of division, special interest and the delusional thinking that is pulling us apart.  There must be a resounding rejection of the politics of scapegoating, insult and lie, of personal and group power-seeking that pits us against each other using divisive rhetoric and concocted emotional issues, that undermines and weakens our democratic and security institutions.  We must redirect our energies to the truly critical issues we face like the environment, universal affordable healthcare, education and housing, and training our workforce for 21st Century jobs while we build that green and sustainable economy and strengthen political and economic democracy.

Most of all, we must, as individuals, bring compassionate understanding, respect, and care into our personal interactions with those we have disagreed with in the past.  We have to find our way to loving each other for what we share and need in common, realizing that our fixation with mistrusting and even hating each other over our differences is what is pushing us to the brink of failing as a nation.   To heal this nation we must begin practicing an awakened politics as individuals and as communities together, building a future that is dedicated to the common cause of harmonious flowering as one people celebrating its rich diversity.   Only genuine love for the ideals of America and for the community of Americans, all Americans, can heal this nation.  More hatred and division can only bring suffering and failure.  It is surely time to wake up to this fact.