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REACHING OUT: April 08, 2001
Four ways of embracing the world
In the Buddhist conception of the four brahma-viharas, or sublime abodes, we find one of the most evocative images of an individual reaching out to embrace, and be embraced by, other beings in a shared condition of fulfilment. The brahma-viharas enshrine the Buddha's awareness that individual suffering is intimately bound up with the suffering of all sentient beings, and therefore, that individual enlightenment cannot be dissociated from collective redemption. For the Buddha was no melancholy elegist of suffering. Having delivered the bad news first that the individual, in ordinary life, is a slave to the thirst of the appetites and the poison of thwarted desires, he passed on swiftly to the techniques of self-transformation by which happiness could be attained.
Joanna Van Gruisen/Fotomedia
I. The Buddha begins by noting that suffering, dukkha, arises from tanha, the selfish desire that causes us to crave for sensual gratification, possession and control. And since the world does not always cater to our whims, we are seized by frustration and inadequacy; we abandon ourselves to rage, hatred and lust, plunge deeper into the mire of delusion. But the self that can acquiesce in its own degeneration can also reconstruct itself by effort. To the Buddha, this principle translated itself as the disciplining of the mind and senses through the arya-ashtangika-marga, the Noble Eightfold Path that is the core of the Buddha's dharma teaching: perfection of understanding and purpose; of speech and conduct; of occupation and effort; of attention and meditation.
Inspired by this teaching, the aspirant along the Buddha's path takes up residence in the four states of consciousness celebrated as the brahma-viharas or sublime abodes. These are maitri, karuna, mudita and upeksha: loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. Elaborating on these states in his commentary, the Visuddhi-magga (The Path of Purification), the scholar Buddhaghosha points out that they are a practical means by which the individual may step out of his narrow individuality to realise the larger oneness of life. Absorbed in meditation, the disciple lets his mind pervade the four quarters of the world with thoughts of loving-kindness. And so, recognising himself in all, he suffuses the whole world with love beyond measure.
From this attitude of maitri, loving-kindness towards all, non-possessive love, is born karuna, compassion: it takes the active form of empathy with those who suffer, who have lost hope, who are sunk in anguish. As a condition of understanding, karuna melts down all the barriers of separateness. It leads, also, to mudita, a sharing in others' happiness, a joy in others' joy, the renunciation of envy and malice. Finally, having shared in the emotions of others, the meditator enters upon a condition of serene detachment, upeksha. He responds to the world neither with attachment nor with aversion; he stands quiet witness to the flow of events, watching with equanimity as every action brings into being its own series of consequences, and passes into the kaleidoscopic pattern of life.
In effect, the practice of the brahma-viharas traces the bodhi-chitta-utpada (literally, the production of the illuminated consciousness): the opening of a transcendental possibility of being, a higher nature, within the realm of ordinary human experience. This implies a gradual transformation of the individual through the overcoming of the lower nature from which we habitually operate: that hard-wired genetic nature which registers our bondage to the reflexes and instincts we inherit from our primate past or acquire while surviving in human society.
The cultivation of the sublime abodes constitutes, therefore, a deliberate going against the grain of our usual behaviour, a shift from the conception of selfish survival to the conception of fulfilment based on altruism and interconnectedness. This is why the brahma-viharas are spoken of, in Buddhist tradition, as apramana, immeasurable, infinitely extensible: for they are intended as a means by which the practitioner can reach out to all sentient beings, all creation.
II. The practice of the brahma-viharas is intended to liberate the self from the chains of obsession that bind it to the objects of its longing or hatred. The cornerstone of the practice is found in the Buddha's teaching in the fifteenth chapter of the Dhammapada, the Verses on Joy (in Eknath Easwaran's translation): Let us live in joy, never hating those who hate us. Let us live in freedom, without hatred even among those who hate. For the Buddha, joy consists, not in returning hate with hate, but in refusing to be tainted by such a negative emotion: this refusal gives us freedom from the burden of harmful feeling.
In the Buddha's sophisticated psychology, joy emerges, not from the pursuit of goals, but from the serenity of having freed oneself from such a pursuit. For the Buddha, the truly joyous person is not the hunter, but the witness. And the attitude of the Buddhist witness is to formulate a relationship with the world with beings, objects, events that does not violate the Other. The Buddha's teaching of non-violence and self-restraint is articulated clearly in the Dhammapada (XVII, 221): Give up anger, give up pride, and free yourself from worldly bondage. No sorrow can befall those who never try to possess people and things as their own. Through this exercise of critical reason, we see that the Other ought not to be subjugated or objectified; we learn to resist the conquistador attitude.
The Buddha's dharma translates, in interpersonal relationships, as attentiveness to the unease of the other; a sharing in the other's anguish; a willingness to engage in dialogue and concede one's errors, to measure distance with understanding. The point, in dealing with others, is to respect differences without permitting them to sour the quality of human relationship. We learn, moreover, to acknowledge the involvement of our future with that of all beings, the interweaving of our past with that of others. We see that we cannot assault the social and natural Other without assaulting ourselves; that we impair ourselves and our prospects when we set out to ruin our fellow beings and our ecology. Nor must this be a masochistic sacrifice of self for others: we realise, equally, that we can damage and throw others off balance by trying to destroy ourselves. Such is the complex realisation that the Vietnamese Zen master and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, celebrates as inter-being.
The Buddha asserts that no one can be transformed magically into a good person; ethical practice is a deliberate effort of self-training, and those who accept this teaching must reflect dispassionately upon their conduct. Even against the grain of their given nature, they must develop those positive skills through which humankind's highest possibilities may be realised. This explains why the Buddhist practitioner leads a life of athletic engagement with the world's problems and dilemmas; there is no space here for languor and lethargy, or for passive withdrawal and retreat. The emphasis is on developing the triple discipline of shila, prajna and samadhi: the practice of ethical conduct, the seeking of wisdom and the insight-giving practice of meditation respectively. While our lives can degenerate into a familiar cycle of momentary passion, menacing boredom and paralysing depression, the life secured by shila, prajna and samadhi manifests itself as a continuous cycle of self-examination and positive action, one that replenishes, rather than wears away, the soul, mind and body.
Under the scrutiny of the Buddhist teaching, the question of how to act in the world without harming oneself or others acquires an overwhelming and even revolutionary urgency. A similar urgency comes to permeate our consideration of our social relationships, our political convictions and our choices of cultural expression. The dynamic aspect of the cherished Buddhist principle of ahimsa, non-violence or non-violation, is maitri-bhavana: non-violence as an ethical commandment is relayed into practice as the opening of the self's capacities for love, consideration and compassion towards all beings at all levels.
III. Mahayana Buddhism enshrines a model of caring for others in the shape of the Bodhisattva, who is a Buddha on the way: he conducts himself with love, wisdom and concern for others through many lives, until he stands at the threshold of nirvana. And yet, so great is his compassionate desire to help the least of beings across the bridge to salvation, that the Bodhisattva remains in the world: ceaselessly deferring his own final enlightenment, he uses his spiritual merit to assist his fellow creatures towards perfection.
In the Vajradhvaja Sutra, we find the Bodhisattva's exacting vow, later to be codified by the great Buddhist sage, Shantideva of Nalanda, in his Shiksha-samuchaya: I must bear the burden of all beings, for I have vowed to save all things living, to bring them safe through the forest of birth, age, disease, death and rebirth. So I take upon myself all the sorrows of all beings... For it is better that I alone suffer than the multitude of living beings.... I agree to suffer as a ransom for all beings.... Truly I will not abandon them.
While very few of us might reasonably claim to be launched on the Bodhisattva's trajectory, it is a salutary antidote to cynicism to consider the ten paramitas, or spiritual perfections that a Bodhisattva is held to have developed. These are dana, charity; shila, right conduct; kshanti, forbearance; virya, courage; dhyana, meditative absorption; prajna, insight; upaya-kaushalya, skill in the choice of means to help beings achieve enlightenment; pranidhana, resolution; bala, power; and jnana, knowledge.
The Bodhisattva's exercise of these perfections in the service of others forms the theme of the Jatakas, the stories in which the Buddha recounts his previous lives to his disciples. In one of these stories, the Bodhisattva is a monkey-king who guides his followers out of danger even at the risk of losing his own life; in another, he is the spirit of a great sala tree, who offers his life to a king in place of a grove that the king wishes to cut down, so that the lives of thousands of trees and birds may be spared.
The lesson of the Jatakas is that the Buddha's dharma with its emphasis on unselfish service, joy, hope and dynamic interdependence is best conveyed by a life dedicated to mindful practice and right effort. Only by incarnating the values of the Buddha's dharma in one's own living does one understand them; the reading of abstruse dharma texts remains a sterile gathering of information unless it serves its proper role in the enhancement of practice.
IV. The Buddha taught that those who lead a life illuminated by dharma are liberated from fear. Resolute in the practice of deepening insight and right conduct, they remain unshaken by the discontinuities of experience. It is the dharma, clearly, that permits Buddhist practitioners to maintain their serenity and nurture their joyfulness and creativity, even when faced with the horrors of endemic factional warfare (as in Laos), guerrilla insurgencies (as in Sri Lanka), genocide (as in Cambodia), colonialist persecution (as in Tibet) and political despotism (as in Burma). While we have the choice to live in delusion and act destructively towards ourselves and others, the Buddha and his inheritors' teachers like the Dalai Lama, U Ba Khin, Ayya Khema, Sangharakshita and Thich Nhat Hanh recommend another course. They urge us to reflect on our unconscious motivations and on the acts to which we commit ourselves. They remind us that our agitated lives are conducted by reference to habit and circumstance; we do not act independently, but merely react to stimuli. They suggest that we can liberate ourselves from destructiveness and delusion; that our lives would be better fulfilled if we were guided by loving-kindness, compassion, joy in others' joy, equanimity and sensitivity to the sufferings of others.
This brings us, inevitably, to the larger political implications of the individual practice of the brahma-viharas. By its very definition (for it takes all of creation as its stage), the dynamic of the brahma-viharas connects two projects together: on the one hand, the individual practice of cultivating creative, skilful and constructive states of mind; and on the other, the responsibility of translating this individual practice into a collective practice in the larger community. This passage from the refinement of the individual consciousness to the sharing of such a refinement in the sphere of interrelationship is automatically a political act. For the flowering of the bodhi-chitta is an emancipatory impulse that liberates human agency and channelises it beyond the private space of meditation, into a public theatre of engagement. The bodhi-chitta thus becomes an energy that dissolves all limiting structures: the hierarchies in which political relationships are constructed, the circuits through which social identities are organised and cultural values allocated.
Crucially, the process of the flowering of the bodhi-chitta acts against the asymmetries that are implicit in these collective arrangements: asymmetries of opportunity and entitlement; of privilege and recognition; imbalances in the distribution of resources and the control of terrain, such that some classes, races, regions and species dominate others. All these asymmetries, in however sophisticated a fashion they may be masked, are brute expressions of the lower nature, the nature that revels in power and domination. From the viewpoint of practice, how can we negotiate these asymmetries, or even begin to think of dissolving them? The practice of the brahma-viharas, in these circumstances, cannot be confined to mere sympathy, sentimental pity, or condescending charity. It can be meaningful only when practised in active mode as an empathy with those in anguish and lacking in the resources of hope, and as a renewal of altruistic action.
In such a predicament, the practice of the brahma-viharas becomes a praxis, an affirmation of solidarity: a mode of reaching out to others that is premised on the empathetic recognition of those in states of oppression. So articulated, the practice of the brahma-viharas becomes the basis for the possibility of constructive resistance in many areas of political engagement and endeavour. It allows for the formation of positive associations across lines of interest and orientation, proposing an alliance across a spectrum of oppressed or threatened groups, such as the industrial and rural proletariats, workers in the unorganised sector, ethnic minorities, ecological refugees and endangered species. This possibility takes on a particular importance in a post-colonial situation like ours, where the forces of oppression assume subtle and insidious forms: they work through a coalition of global and local elites whose aim is to establish a consumerist society, its flamboyant deceptions masking its cruel inequities.
Having said this, it is no simple matter to speak of the practice of the brahma-viharas as a political practice: this is not a prescription, but a challenge. How does one cultivate constructive states of mind and the higher nature, while also working in situations fraught with possibilities of resentment and frustration, laden with a sense of historical wrong and the rage of the dispossessed? The management of this paradox, as Gandhi and Ambedkar foresaw in their respective projects of resistance, solidarity and transformation, rests on the accurate identification of the problem.
The practice of the brahma-viharas ensures that we do not conflate the antagonisms with the actors, that we do not target individuals or classes. Instead, we see the prevailing social and political asymmetries as afflicting both the oppressors and the victims involved in them: the real antagonism is not one between individuals or classes, at its core, but one between the lower and the higher natures. In reaching out to the highest in the Other, we reach out to the highest within our own self.
Don't crush a flower
From Says Tuka, translated from the original Marathi and ed. Dilip Chitre, New Delhi, Penguin Books India, 1991.
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