Read an Excerpt
Myth of Freedom
Fantasy and Reality
If we are to plant the complete Buddhist teachings in American soil we must first understand the fundamental principles of Buddhism and work through its basic meditation practices. Many people respond to Buddhism as if it were a new cult which might save them, which might enable them to deal with the world in the manner of picking flowers in a beautiful garden. But if we wish to pick flowers from a tree, we must first cultivate the roots and trunk, which means that we must work with our fears, frustrations, disappointments and irritations, the painful aspects of life.
People complain that Buddhism is an extremely gloomy religion because it emphasizes suffering and misery. Usually religions speak of beauty, song, ecstasy, bliss.
But according to Buddha, we must begin by seeing the experience of life as it is. We must see the truth of suffering, the reality of dissatisfaction. We cannot ignore it and attempt to examine only the glorious, pleasurable aspects of life. If one searches for a promised land, a Treasure Island, then the search only leads to more pain. We cannot reach such islands, we cannot attain enlightenment in such a manner. So all sects and schools of Buddhism agree that we must begin by facing the reality of our living situations. We cannot begin by dreaming. That would be only a temporary escape; real escape is impossible.
Buddhism, we express our willingness to be realistic through the practice of meditation. Meditation is not a matter of trying to achieve ecstasy, spiritual bliss or tranquility, nor is it attempting to become a better person. It is simply the creation of a space in which we are able to expose and undo our neurotic games, our self-deceptions, our hidden fears and hopes. We provide space through the simple discipline of doing nothing. Actually, doing nothing is very difficult. At first, we must begin by approximating doing nothing, and gradually our practice will develop. So meditation is a way of churning out the neuroses of mind and using them as part of our practice. Like manure, we do not throw our neuroses away, but we spread them on our garden; they become part of our richness.
In meditation practice, we neither hold the mind very tightly nor let it go completely. If we try to control the mind, then its energy will rebound back on us. If we let the mind go completely, then it will become very wild and chaotic. So we let the mind go, but at the same time there is some discipline involved. The techniques used in the Buddhist tradition are extremely simple.
Awareness of bodily movement, breath and one's physical situation are techniques common to all traditions. The basic practice is to be present, right here. The goal is also the technique. Precisely being in this moment, neither suppressing nor wildly letting go, but being precisely aware of what you are.
Breath, like bodily existence, is a neutral process which has no
"spiritual" connotations. We simply become mindful of its natural functioning. This is called shamatha practice. With this practice we begin to tread the hinayana or narrow path. This is not to say that the hinayana approach is simplistic or narrow-minded. Rather, because the mind is so complicated, so exotic, craving all sorts of entertainment constantly, the only way to deal with it is to channel it into a disciplined path without sidetracks. The hinayana is a vehicle which does not speed, one which is right on the point, a vehicle which does not get sidetracked. We have no opportunity to run away; we are right here and cannot step out. It is a vehicle without a reverse gear. And the simplicity of narrowness also brings an open attitude toward life situations, because we realize that there is no escape of any kind and give in to being right on the spot.
So we acknowledge what we are rather than try to hide from our problems and irritations. Meditation should not help you forget your commitment at the office. In fact, in the practice of sitting meditation you relate to your daily life all the time. Meditation practice brings our neuroses to the surface rather than hiding them at the bottom of our minds. It enables us to relate to our lives as something workable. I think people have the idea that, if only they could get away from the hustle and bustle of life, then they could really get into some sort of contemplative practice up in the mountains or at the seashore. But escaping the mundanity of our lives is to neglect the food, the actual nourishment which exists between two layers of bread. When you order a sandwich, you do not order two layers of bread. You have something in the middle which is chunky, eatable, delicious, and the bread comes along with it.
Then becoming more clearly aware of emotions and life situations and the space in which they occur might open us to a still more panoramic awareness. A
compassionate attitude, a warmth, develops at this point. It is an attitude of fundamental acceptance of oneself while still retaining critical intelligence.
We appreciate the joyful aspect of life along with the painful aspect. Relating to emotions ceases to be a big deal. Emotions are as they are, neither suppressed nor indulged but simply acknowledged. So the precise awareness of details leads into an openness to the complex totality of situations. Like a great river that runs down toward the ocean, the narrowness of discipline leads into the openness of panoramic awareness. Meditation is not purely sitting alone in a particular posture attending to simple processes, but is also an openness to the environment in which these processes take place. The environment becomes a reminder to us, continually giving us messages,
So before we indulge in any exotic techniques, playing with energies, playing with sense perceptions, playing with visions in terms of religious symbolism, we must sort out our minds fundamentally. We must begin our practice by walking the narrow path of simplicity, the hinayana path, before we can walk upon the open highway of compassionate action, the mahayana path. And only after our highway journey is well on its way need we concern ourselves about how to dance in the fields—the vajrayana or tantric teachings. The simplicity of the hinayana is the foundation for appreciating the splendor of the mahayana and the tremendous color of tantra. So before we relate with heaven we must relate to earth and work on our basic neuroses. The whole approach of Buddhism is to develop transcendental common sense, seeing things as they are, without magnifying what is or dreaming about what we would like to be.