Friday, July 4, 2008

Refuge beneath an open sky

The Buddhist universe is an incredibly spacious one. I feel at times as if I have come out of a small dim room lit only by firelight, without windows, with a low ceiling, into sunshine and open air and a sky like the sky one sees over the Tibetan plateau in films. It must be the hugest, brightest, closest, widest, most brilliant sky on the whole planet. Mind is like the sky, Tibetan Buddhists say. My mind has been opened up by stepping into the fresh air of Buddhism.

No one is watching you. No one is there to judge or punish or reward. You can act blindly, poisonously, and suffer the consequences, or you can choose to wake up and act intelligently, compassionately, freely. The harm you do others is balanced out by the harm that actions of greed, hatred, and jealousy do to yourself. If you turn to the buddhas for help, if you take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, they will help you. No questions asked. No need to propitiate them, to offer sacrifice, to balance things tit for tat. The buddhas get nothing out of helping others except the joy of doing so, and it is a joy to them, and they don't need any extraneous reward.

It's basically a very egalitarian universe. Every sentient being, every mortal being that has some capacity to think and feel, has the capacity for buddhahood. In Sanskrit it's "tathagatagarbha", literally the embryo (garbha) of The Thus-Gone (tathagata), an honorific title meaning "gone to enlightenment". In English it's usually "buddha nature". I like to think of it as buddha potential. You, me, the fly on the wall, a horse, your pet bird, and all those other sentient beings not usually part of the Western worldview--the gods, titans, hungry ghosts, and denizens of hell--all have buddha potential, the potential to wake up, become free, attain omniscience, and become creative and genuinely helpful to others. Robert Thurman, in particular, makes being a buddha sound like an awful lot of fun. Nirvana is not just sitting there in meditation for an eternity of nothing. Buddhas and bodhisattvas are busy helping others and creating new possibilities.

For so many years I had a wealth of misconceptions about Buddhism: that it was austere, ascetic, nihilistic, self-complacent, available only to monastics. Those misconceptions were based on Western scholarship of the 1950s that took Southern Asian Buddhism as the only "authentic" form and then largely misunderstood it. I am grateful to have discovered that those ideas were wrong, wildly wrong, and that the Dharma had much to offer me--a way out of so much anxiety, irritability, and stress. There is no authority to please or offend. There is no sin, only the root error of ignorance, which is clinging to the idea of a fixed, permanent self that is somehow the center of the universe. There is no one to thank and no one to apologize to except one's fellow sentient beings, all of us on the slow journey toward enlightenment. By helping others we speed our own awakening; by waking up and realizing our potential, we become more able to help others.

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