Of Fish and Sacred Truths

Otto West: Apes don’t read philosophy.

Wanda: Yes they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it. Now let me correct you on a couple of things, OK? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not “Every man for himself.” And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up.

The above is an exchange between two of the characters in the wonderful film, “A Fish Called Wanda.” I happen to adore that movie, the writing, and all the performances in it. It’s a gem of a flick. That quote especially sticks in my head because of my long career as a spiritual seeker, and my admiration for Buddhism.

I recall laughing at this scene in particular. I was in full agreement with Wanda (as played by Jamie Lee Curtis) when she railed at Otto (as portrayed by Kevin Kline) in this relationship defining exchange. Wanda was right, Otto had missed the point of Buddhism entirely. Or so I thought…

You see, aS I studied Buddhism, and the life of the Buddha, I came to realize that Otto might not be as far off as Wanda thought. There’s a funny little thing about what the Buddha taught. People often associate him with achieving enlightenment. The odd thing is, he didn’t speak about enlightenment all that much. Not in a direct way anyways. He spoke a lot about Nirvana (which is often what people sort of mean when they use the word ‘enlightenment’), in the sense that he spoke about how someone who had achieved nirvana might comport themselves. He spoke a lot about suffering, and a way to end suffering (with the eight fold path) but it’s not altogether clear whether the end of suffering is nirvana, or whether the end of suffering is something that those who have arrived at nirvana happen to have. He also was fairly clear that his offering to humanity as a way to end suffering was an offering, not a cure all. Many times he stressed that those who followed him needed to test his assertions in their own experience, and he specifically admonished his followers to never take what someone else said as true if it didn’t prove true in their own lives. Lastly, the last words of the Buddha were for his followers to work very hard towards their liberation, and that they should each be a “light onto yourself.”

Another distinction that I think supports Otto’s claim has to do with the concepts in Buddhism of the Bodhisattva and the Arhat. The former is much more familiar to most Buddhists. Especially those lay Buddhists who are mostly exposed to the Dharma through “coffee table books” on the subject (like I was for many years.) The Bodhisattva is a Buddhist who defers the last step in the achievement of Nirvana so that they can stay on the Wheel of Reincarnation and help all other sentient beings achieve Nirvana first. For that type of Buddhist, Otto’s idea is a far stretch. The other type, the Arhat, actually pre-dates the concept of being a Bodhisattva by several centuries. The Arhat achieves Nirvana as quickly as possible, and then leaves the wheel. They don’t stick around to help others. They might help spread the dharma of the Buddha in their current life, but once that is over they do not return. (This is all a bit of a simplification, and these two poles are more like ends of the spectrum of how a particular Buddhist might be.) In the light of the Arhat path, Otto’s “central message of Buddhism” makes much more sense.

I am not saying that I am certain that Otto was right, and that Wanda (and all the Buddhists who agree with her) was wrong. What I am suggesting is that there is a way to look at part of the teaching of the Buddha that exhorts to a radical self-reliance. Time, and again, he urged those who would study his philosophy and practices to prove them in their own experience, and to accept the authority of no others.

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Make Practices Your Own

We all know that the “one size fits all” myth is a myth. It is never true in clothing or shoes. It’s even more true when it comes to practices we use to work on ourselves. From what I have seen, this fact is robustly ignored by most people. They dive into meditation practice, twisting their legs just so, lighting the prescribed incense, and wonder why their efforts seem frustrated. The same is true with yoga, bowling, psychoanalysis, and depression medication. People dogmatically stick to doing things the “right way”, for a long time before trying to figure out if the right way for them may not be the way they were told.

The thing about a practice is that it’s like anything you might take to fix an issue. Like aspirin for a headache. No two people react in exactly the same way to aspirin. For some it works, for some it doesn’t. Some are allergic. For some continued use is fatal. Aspirin is a general enough treatment that the differences are normally not that pronounced. The more specific a treatment gets, the more likely that the differences in people will show up.

The thing about most spiritual practices is they tend to be pretty specific. They also seem to have more of a capacity to being affected by differences between users. From what I can see this gets at one of the core distinctions that leaps out after you look at you for any length of time. Each view on reality is utterly unique, if only because one of the components that makes that tunnel is the view itself, and one view is not another view. Because of that, any practice that gets close to the core truth of what you are must, necessarily, be more vulnerable to differences in effect.

I think that it’s vitally important that this specificity be taken into account. The more the practitioner drills in, the more their unique nature gets revealed, and the more the “effects” of the practices become specific to them. To try and stick adamantly to the way these practices are “supposed” to unfold based on the reports of others who have used the practices before, is to pull away from one’s unique nature. That makes the practices increasingly less effective, and more superficial. One may still gain the surface and most common benefits, but one will no longer reveal new insights. Nor will they advance the development of that particular practice. If meditation students stick only to relaxation, all the states of mind explored and mapped by the Tibetan Buddhists (as only one example) would never become known.

When working on yourself it’s important to take you into account. Find what works for you and adapt as needed. There no carbon copying a one of a kind. Do you.

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Don’t Make A Big Deal Out Of It

The Buddha was not the first buddha. The Pali word “buddha” means “awakened.” The term existed before Gautama Siddhartha became the person we know as, “The Buddha” and founder of Buddhism. This happened during a period in history that some anthropologists refer to as the “Axial Age.” This was a turning point in where human beings looked for answers to the big questions in life:

“What does it all mean?”

“Why are we here?”

“What is the purpose of life?”

“Why must we suffer?”

It was at this time that people started looking “within” for answers, as opposed to looking to figures in the sky, or the spirits of their ancestors. It came slowly into general conception during this time that humanity might find solutions within itself.

The Buddha was not the only figure of note during the Axial Age. Other people held up as examples of this trend in humanity include Lao Tzu, Confucious, Plato, and Jesus Christ. There were many people through this period that made the transition to looking within for the solutions to life’s big questions. This was a momentous occurrence in the history of humanity. The again so was the wheel.

I don’t want to make light of the shift represented by the Axial Age. Far from it. I personally regard this as the time when humanity first got the opportunity to actually grow up. That being said, I do think that far to big of a deal has been made out of it. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition it has been said that even to hear of the word enlightenment is as fortuitous an event as if there were “an ageless turtle who lives on the bottom of the sea who comes to the surface once a century, and that upon the sea there is floating a single life preserver, and hearing of enlightenment is as great a stroke of luck as if the turtle surfaced accidentally within the ring of the life preserver.” That’s a lot of luck, right there! This treatment puts way too much pressure on the whole issue, in my humble opinion.

I don’t think that everyone can become a “fully realized enlightened master forever free from suffering” on a weekend retreat. Note that there is a lot going on with that title. What I am suggesting is that the fruits won during the Axial Age, here in the Information Age, are available to everyone. The entrance way to that solution is as easy as realizing that there are solutions to find, and discoveries to be made, by looking within your own process. Over time the number of methodologies for doing this have multiplied. Psychoanalysis, meditation, yoga, philosophy, general semantic, etc. All of these are entry ways that are viable to begin this investigation. Each of them has their own fruits to offer, and they don’t require years of effort.

The great sages of the past were great. I do not mean to denigrate their accomplishments in any way. Rather the opposite. It is my assertion that part of their greatness comes from the accessibility of the methods. The Buddha, for example, did not put forth a teaching that only those who give up everything can benefit from. The teachings and practices are meant to be a gift to the world at large and not the sole purview of a dedicated few. This confusion is exacerbated when we make a big deal out of it. It may be true that not everyone can be a fully realized Buddha. Then again, not everyone gets to be a concert pianist. That does not mean that a person cannot benefit from meditation, nor does it mean that a person cannot enjoy music.

As long as these matters are cast upon pedestals, we will loose the pervasive benefit they could have. That would be a shame.

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