“What is My Job On This Planet Anyway”
Ven. David Xi-Ken Astor
One of the basic Buddhist questions concerns what kind of lifestyle actually promotes a state of “awakening.” While for many of us, enlightenment may seem to be something we can not define adequately, I think most of us hope to become more sane, gentle, grounded, helpful individuals through our involvement with our committed Buddhist practice. For me, that resulted in the beginnings of an awakened spiritual quality in my life, and fuller experiences of awareness have grow out of that reality. But what lifestyles actually promote these qualities of gentleness and harmony? If the question of appropriate lifestyle is resolved, then we need to question what attitudes are to be cultivated as we go about our lives, since observing the external formalities associated with a specific lifestyle is not guaranteed to result in gentleness and harmony.
In early Buddhism, which has often been regarded by Westerners I think as the definitive form of Buddhism, the answer was obvious: renunciation of the conventional lifestyle involving career and building a family in favor of a monastic lifestyle that bypasses both of these life interests was thought to be more conducive in achieving a state of awakening for most individuals because it was more conducive to an attitude of detachment. But for some forms of Buddhism, especially those belonging to later developments in Buddhism lumped together as “Mahayana Buddhism,” the distinction between monastics and laypeople is not so clear-cut any more. That is true today in some contemporary socially engaged monastic orders where monks live and interact in their communities for the purpose of participating more directly with others for promoting human flourishing. This experience in engaged Buddhism has acted to redefine the lifestyle of a Buddhist practice.
As committed Buddhist practitioners, we need to work out our pursuit of career and our practice of family life. Consider how the notion of “family” is being redefined in our contemporary Western culture, as the conventional definition no longer applies. These classic Buddhist concerns will provide some checks and balances for determining an appropriate level of involvement in work and family activities as we move into the 21st Century. We must ask ourselves the question as to whether we invest too much time and energy in work and family and too little in relationship and community building.
It is not difficult to make the case that the typical contemporary lifestyle is far too workaholic. The demands on time and energy of most of us are becoming more extreme. The impact of such demands on both family life and community involvement, to say nothing of their impact on the requirement for a serious Buddhist mediation practice, can be devastating. That is why I think this story of Buckminster Fuller has such a strong possibility to resonate for many of us.
We can never escape the world, no matter how much we want to try. Yet that is precisely what our human nature urges us to do sometimes. When I first moved aboard my cruising sailboat almost 17 years ago, I learned very quickly that “sailing away” did not afford more escape from the world than any other place. Rather, it presented a deeper encounter with it. I learned that this new lifestyle was not a rejection of the work-a-day world; it was a decision to engage with this world from a different dimension, from the enlarged perspective of beginning to know my social-self. This is the lesson I took away from this experience.
Our world contains a symbolic dimension of meaning. Mountains, trees, oceans, fields, birds, stars, galaxies, our moon — everything has an intrinsic meaning beyond its physical form. And everyone holds a timeless contemplative capacity to understand this symbolic world, to grasp its greater meaning, the essential patterns that unite all reality, which is the primary insight of the Four Ennobling Truths. This capacity has been obscured in the last century by our Western preoccupation with frenetic work and self indulgence. This contemplative capacity to discern the natural symbols embedded in our experience of nature is essentially an intuitive ability that everyone has but that few come to be aware of. Buckminster Fuller became awakened to this dimension, and bowed to its life changing potential.
We are social beings who grow in relation to others; we are defined through our relationships with them. We must seek to rediscover and recover community in our lives. Community gives us psychological balance, promotes healthy human development, creates stability in the midst of change, and acts as an anchor that gives us focus and calm. We need to be conscious of the social world, as well as the natural and symbolic worlds, because we have a permanent responsibility to it. We are not alone, which may be the greatest lesson of Fuller’s story. As our world becomes smaller, through a growing common culture, the true test of community will be our tolerance for a changing worldview, and how we adapt this change to our individual and social lives. Human flourishing is also about the challenge of engaging others. Engaged Buddhism is a lifestyle. A lifestyle that reflects our values and attitudes in order to make a difference. And that may just be one of the most worthy jobs on this planet.