Bringing Buddhism Down to Earth
Munich, Germany, June 1996
[lightly edited transcript]
Session Three: Unawareness of Reality
Just as we looked at the First Noble Truth in a more personal and accepting kind of way, likewise we need to look at the other three Noble Truths in the same way, so that we can have our Buddhist practice touch us personally in a much more meaningful and transformative manner.
Once we’ve acknowledged our difficulties in life and, in a sense, given a little bit of emotional support to ourselves, we look at the Second Noble Truth, the causes of suffering. We need to know what the cause is of the broken pipe not working, so that we can fix it. It’s very important when we look for the causes of our problems to do this in a personal way from the point of view of a middle path. In other words, we don’t want to set the blame just on external things, “ I’m like this because my mother did that to me when I was three years old and society did that and economics did that.” On the other hand, we don’t want to deny those factors totally and say, “It’s all my fault,” and put all the guilt and blame on ourselves in a heavy way.
When we speak about how the deepest cause of our suffering and problems is our own ignorance, then it’s quite easy to distort that and think, “I’m stupid; I’m bad; I’m no good. And so I’m the guilty one.” That’s all built up around thinking in terms of the solid ME always being the stupid one who does things wrong -- the bad one. I prefer to use, “We’re unaware of reality” rather than “We’re ignorant.” This can maybe help us to take a little bit of the judgmental quality off of the Second Noble Truth, the true causes of our difficulties in life.
To really get deeper and deeper into a more wholesome way of looking at the true causes of our lives being difficult, we really have to combine the Second Noble Truth with the understanding of voidness. There’s no solid ME inside, who’s the stupid one that messed everything up -- the solid Me who’s just messed everything up and is the real idiot. Usually, we use much stronger words in our minds.
Although we can trace the source of our difficulties in life to our own lack of awareness, that doesn’t negate dependent arising. All our problems have been caused not only from one thing -- like the example that a bucket is not filled by the first drop or the last drop of water. Likewise, all our problems in life are not caused by only one thing, with a big solid line around it, and nothing else has affected the situation. It’s not like that. Everything has arisen dependently on many factors, so there’s the combination of our lack of understanding and confusion, together with society and economics and what my mother did. And all of these drops together have filled the bucket of our difficult life.
When we say that the root cause of suffering is lack of awareness, what we’re referring to is that unawareness – either not knowing reality or knowing it incorrectly -- is the deepest cause of our suffering and, if we want to change the situation, this is what we really need to get rid of. This is because the other causes and conditions are either derivative from that unawareness or something that’s impossible for us to change. We can’t change something our mothers did when we were three years old. It’s finished; it’s history. It’s very important to work with the Second Noble Truth in a nonjudgmental way in this manner, by applying the teachings of voidness and dependent arising.
You get the general idea? The process is very similar to the one we went through before with regard to the First Noble Truth. We look inside and see that, “Sure, I’m confused and, sure, I don’t know what I’m doing in life,” but we try to acknowledge that without being judgmental. It’s a delicate thing. It’s like if we cut ourselves while chopping vegetables, we can accept that we cut ourselves without being heavy about it -- “Oh, I’m so stupid, I’m so bad...” Maybe we weren’t being very careful or whatever, but it happened. Things like that happen. We just sort of accept that. Moreover, we didn’t cut ourselves only because we weren’t paying attention. It also arose dependent on the fact that the knife was very sharp. If the knife weren’t sharp, we wouldn’t have cut ourselves. It’s also dependent on the fact that we were hungry and we happen to have a human body that has to be fed each day. If we didn’t have that, again, the accident wouldn’t have happened.
The same thing is true of all our problems in life. They arise from a combination of all these things and it’s like the fact that we’re not bad just because we cut ourselves. Again, we can do this using the feed-the-demon approach. Once we’re able to establish this nonjudgmental aspect with ourselves about the causes of our problems in life, then we can do that with others as well. Let’s try it.
With the Third Noble Truth, we’re dealing with the possibility of a true stopping of our problems. That’s what the word cessation means -- we can stop our problems, we can get rid of them. In English, the word cessation doesn’t mean much for the vast majority of people. It’s much too large a word that’s rarely used. It’s not a common word, so most of us wouldn’t know what it means. My mother certainly would never have known what that word meant, nor would she have ever used it in her life. So, let’s call the Third Noble Truth “true stoppings.”
The issue here is not just that we have a stopping or ending of our problems, but also of the causes of our problems. And we’re not just talking about one specific problem, because obviously any specific one problem is going to end. When we cook the meal and eat it, the specific problem of our hunger at that time will end. However, a bigger problem is that we’re going to get hungry again. So here we want to have a stopping of the recurring problem and the recurring causes of the problem. The cause of my hunger this evening, of course, is going to vanish when I eat supper. But my hunger is not going to be finished forever, however, when I’ve eaten my supper tonight. We’re not talking about the elimination of the cause of one particular problem, like being hungry now. We’re talking about the elimination of the continual arising of the cause. That’s the main focus here.
The issue is: “Do I really believe that it’s possible to get rid of the uncontrollably recurring stream of continuity of the cause of my problems? And if I do believe it’s possible, how do I actually get rid of it?” In other words, is it really possible to gain liberation and to gain enlightenment?
Those are very difficult points. If we’re not convinced, to at least some degree, that it’s possible to gain liberation from our problems forever, then what are we doing in Buddhism? What are we aiming for? Are we just aiming for a fantasy attainment that we don’t really believe is possible to achieve? If that’s the case, then it’s just a child’s fantasy -- becoming a Buddha and becoming liberated. And we’re fooling ourselves, just wasting our time trying to achieve something we don’t believe is possible to attain. That’s a serious question.
Unfortunately, the line of reasoning to understand how it’s possible to gain liberation and enlightenment is very difficult. It has to do with the whole presentation in the Prasangika philosophy that a true stopping is equivalent to voidness. It’s very difficult to actually understand. So, what does that mean for us, now? What it means in the context of this weekend course is that we’re not going to understand instantly how liberation is possible. It’s going to be a long process; but unless we understand that it’s possible, we’re not going to become convinced of it. If we’re not convinced of it, we’re not going to feel it, as we discussed yesterday -- through that whole process of how we accept something once we’ve understood it. What all of this boils down to is that provisionally we have to accept this point on faith -- that liberation and enlightenment are possible. This is a provisional way of working with it.
So is that “blind faith?” “I believe! Hallelujah!?” How do we believe in it? Some people may reply, “I can believe in it, because my guru is a Buddha. I see enlightenment in him, so it’s possible.” That’s not very stable for most people, because we can see with many highly developed spiritual teachers various faults. Sometimes they make mistakes. We have to differentiate between - and we’ll get into this later - the whole discussion of “Is the guru a Buddha from his or her own side,” or “Is a guru being a Buddha something that arises dependent on the relationship between the student and teacher?” Obviously it’s the second case. Things arise dependent on a point of view. Being a Buddha is not an absolute, established from the teacher’s own side as a fact to be taken literally. What happens in practice is that we find that many of these teachers that we thought were so wonderful make mistakes. And then we get disappointed and disillusioned and we might think that enlightenment is not possible.
We can apply the basic structure of the lam-rim, the graded stages of the path, to help us deal with this dilemma of believing that liberation and enlightenment are possible. Atisha’s version of the lam-rim presents three levels of motivation -- three aims, three goals. The highest is for enlightenment and the middle one is for liberation. There’s an initial level of motivation as well, which is to be reborn in one of the better rebirth states. If we want to put that initial aim in a little more simple language without having to deal directly with rebirth, basically it’s the motivation to make samsara better -- to improve our samsaric existence. Before we can think to improve our future lives, we need to think first of improving even this life.
What’s important here is to be honest with ourselves and not be spiritually pretentious. Very few people among Buddhist practitioners, I think, can really sincerely say that they are aiming for liberation and enlightenment. If we really are aiming for liberation, that means we have perfect renunciation. Most people don’t even want to hear about renunciation, let alone actually have it.
What we’re renouncing is not chocolate or television. What we’re renouncing is the cause of our problems, which is basically, on the initial level, our negative personality traits and the destructive behavior that comes about from them. That’s what we need to give up: our anger, our selfishness, our greed, our walls. Most of us are not willing to give up anything like that. We want to add some things on top of our lives -- happiness and all these other nice things -- but without having to give up anything. So, without renunciation, when we say, “I’m aiming for enlightenment, I’m aiming for liberation,” it’s not terribly sincere.
Here’s where we have to paint another stroke on this “should” issue. What many of us think is that “I SHOULD be aiming for enlightenment, because if I’m not, I’m a bad practitioner and my guru won’t like me.” That’s a bit childish, isn’t it? What we need to try to see here is that the initial scope, the first level of motivation of aiming to improve our samsara, is perfectly legitimate. It’s okay to be on the first level. In fact it’s a great accomplishment to be on the first level. Most people don’t have any concept of trying to improve this life, yet alone future lives. And, here, we’re not talking about an economically improved life, but in terms of our inner development. Most people in this world aren’t interested in that. To be aiming for that is okay and, on that basis, we can get into the practice of Dharma and we can try, over a long period of time, to understand that it’s possible to gain liberation and enlightenment, because it can be difficult to really become convinced of that.
In other words, it’s more honest to think, “I really can’t say that I’m aiming for liberation and enlightenment now, because I’m not really convinced that it’s possible to achieve them and I don’t want to just work with a fairy tale. So, I’m aiming to try to understand that it’s possible, because then I can sincerely work for them. Meanwhile, I’m going to work on the level of trying to improve my samsaric situation, my difficult situation in life, and, regarding that, I do have a certain confidence that it’s possible to at least weaken the causes of my problems and to eliminate certain things that are a little bit easier to eliminate than my confusion.” This way of thinking enables us to actually work in what, I think, is a healthier way with a spiritual teacher.
Now, it’s not an issue whether or not the teacher is actually liberated or actually enlightened. That’s not the vital issue anymore. Rather, the issue is that this person is a more highly developed person than we are, who has really diminished, to a great extent, their confusion and anger and so on. We need to think, “Even if sometimes this person might make a mistake and sometimes this person might act a little bit emotionally upset, that’s okay. Later on, as I go further on the path, I’ll deal with how I relate to that in terms of ‘My teacher is trying to teach me something,’ and such things. I will deal with that issue later. Now on this level, it’s sufficient that I can acknowledge that this is a highly developed being. Whether my teacher is perfect or not doesn’t really matter to me now. They can inspire me to progress by the way that they are.”
Although this is not explained like this in the Buddhist teachings, I think that as a Western person, it’s very helpful to use this as a stage in our spiritual developmnent, because as Western people, very often we look at things in terms of black and white. In other words, either the teacher is a perfect Buddha or we think, “Forget about the whole spiritual path, because I saw them make a mistake.” In order to avoid that extreme, and also to avoid the extreme of saying that we’re working for liberation and enlightenment when really we’re not, I think this intermediate step is very helpful.
I find in my own personal practice that it doesn’t matter to me whether my teachers actually are Buddhas or not and whether or not they have all the qualities of the Buddha. Can they walk through a wall and fly through the air and multiply themselves into ten billion forms? I really don’t care. It makes no difference to me. But the fact that they’re so much more highly developed than I am in terms of what I can see and what I can relate to regarding how they deal with people, how they deal with life, and so on, shows me that they’re much more highly evolved than I am. That gives me inspiration that it’s possible to achieve the same.
This is a level that we can start to work with. I think it’s much more accessible. Becoming convinced that this level of stopping the causes of our problems is possible -- even though it might not be a true stopping to gain liberation -- is enough to enable us to function as a person within the initial scope of motivation. This is a perfectly legitimate level to be on in our spiritual practice and a necessary level to start with. In other words, when we see a teacher on such a level, we start to become convinced that it’s possible to achieve at least some level of the stopping of the causes of problems, even though it might not be a true cessation with which we attain liberation. Just to have conviction in the possibility of this level of the stopping of the causes of problems gives us the confidence to be able to function sincerely as a person within this initial level motivation. That’s a very necessary stage. Not only is it okay, but it’s a necessary stage that we need to go through in order to have a stable spiritual development.
What we need to avoid, then, is to just jump initially to the highest level of motivation and when we get disillusioned, then - crash! - we come back down to the ground. This is a very typical Western pattern of a student’s encounter with Buddhism. We avoid that by not being pretentious and by working first to improve our samsara which, after all, is usually why sincere people enter into Buddhism – we’re not just doing it as some sort of trip or some sort of sport. This is the first level of sincere involvement with Buddhism.
Then we get to the Fourth Noble Truth: in order to bring about this self-transformation, we have to do something ourselves. We need to be active; it’s not going to just happen out of the sky for no reason at all, with no effort. We have to actually change ourselves.
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