by Wayne Ren-Cheng
What do you think is the encompassing and corrective goal of practicing Buddhism, of walking the Noble Path? Sure, the first ideal that comes to mind is most likely to reach nirvana, to be removed from the ‘cycle of birth’. Is this really the path that the Awakened One was laying out for the majority of human beings? Or, was there a loftier, even more important goal?
Siddhartha was a human being with human being issues. He awakened to the realities of the Four Ennobling Truths as a human being, and as the Buddha, still a human being, he taught those realities. As a human being he lived those realities, realities that were all about the human condition. All humans suffer. A cause of suffering is unnatural craving and attachment, particularly for permanence. There is a way to out of suffering. That way is Eightfold. His focus was on the plight and liberation of human beings. Doesn’t this point to a particular intent in all of the Buddha’s teachings . . . how to be a better human being whether a monk or a layperson? In my worldview I believe the answer to be a loud and joyous . . . YES.
When the recognition arises that you are not the only one who suffers, that it is an encompassing human condition then you can’t help but develop empathy for the suffering of others as well as yourself. You start to look deeply at your own cravings and attachments and learn ways to lessen their hold on your psyche. You discover that there is an Eightfold Path away from suffering and apply the lessons of appropriate view, intent, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. Your mindfulness and awareness grow. Isn’t this cultivating a better human being?
Karma, compassion and generosity are three aspects of Buddhist philosophy and practice at the top of the “to do” list for any practitioner. These are meant to be the key considerations of a bodhisattva-in-training. One allows learning about the self, one requires learning about others, and one involves helping others without expectation. While these thoughts and actions are part of the path to nirvana, how important are they once that goal is reached?
You learn about karma. Every action you take has consequences. Every action that any human being takes has consequences. You recognize that you can’t control the actions of others, but you can, and must control your own actions. Taking an honest look at your past and at your present moment you assess actions taken with the intent of uncovering good and bad choices. Then, with a deeper look you reveal some of the consequences of those actions. Granted, most of the consequences will be unknown to you, but the ones you can see will prove the existence of karma, of human physics in action. Your bad choices led directly to bad results, for you or someone else. Your good choices, to good results. With this realization you strive to do your best for yourself and others. Isn’t this cultivating a better human being?
Compassion is non-negotiable for a Buddhist. The first of the Four Ennobling Truths teaches that suffering is a fact of human existence. That deep look at karmic consequences reveals the different depths of suffering that Truth points to. Suffering is something that all human beings have in common. Every human being is deserving of compassion because we are all connected through the Truth of suffering. Once compassion is realized then the dispositions of anger, hatred, intolerance, envy and fear fall away, and loving-kindness and tolerance arise. Isn’t this cultivating a better human being?
The other disposition that arises from a compassionate bodymind is generosity, and compassion arises from acts of a spirit of generosity. You can’t realize the encompassing nature of suffering, experience the arising of compassion, and not want to take intentional action to alleviate it. Generosity of spirit is that action. You take the path of freely offering your skills, time and gifts to all beings, offering done without any expectation of reward or recognition. You do it because it needs to be done. Whether you volunteer to teach unwed teenage mothers to care for their infants and themselves, or you make contributions of material goods to charitable organizations (first assuring you and your family have what is needed) you are practicing generosity of spirit. Isn’t this cultivating a better human being?
The second of the Four Ennobling Truths is that the major cause of suffering is unnatural craving and attachment, particularly for permanence. Nirvana, in the traditional sense seems like a state of permanence. You are released from the cycle of birth and death. You get to inhabit what I can only think of as a Buddhist sort of heaven. If the major cause of suffering is a craving for permanence and nothing is permanent then isn’t the goal of Nirvana going to cause suffering?
My teacher impressed upon me that Buddhist teachers are farmers, not hunters. I am not out trying to ‘hunt down’ nirvana . . . or enlightenment for that matter. Years of experience have shown me that this needs to be the intent of all practitioners, layperson and monk. The positive thoughts and actions we take must not be with the intent that ‘by doing this or that I will reach Nirvana’. If, or when Nirvana is reached it won’t be because it was hunted down through thought or action. It will be reached because it was grown into through thought and action. If reaching Nirvana is at the core of intent for those thoughts and actions then Nirvana can never be reached. Why you ask? If the intent of good thoughts and actions is predicated on reaching Nirvana then the intent is a selfish one . . . and selfishness can’t get you into Nirvana.
There is a goal for Buddhist practitioners that is much more important than reaching Nirvana, and that goal can be reached in the very next moment. Realizing the dharma named karma, the dharma named compassion, and the dharma named generosity will cause the arising of a better human being.