Dharma of the Individual

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Buddhism in the West must find a way to skillfully harness the power of the individualistic view and action of those who choose the Noble Path. In each person is a reservoir of imagination, skills, gifts, compassion and the Buddha-element. These are reservoirs that can be tapped for the benefit of all. Their attitude might begin with the ideal of what’s in it for me. What does Buddhist philosophy and practice offer that will improve my situation? Each practitioner must be guided to the gradual realization that while expression is unique, suffering in some form is not. Awareness of the effects of the practitioners intent and action beyond themselves must be developed and nurtured so the realization that whatever the thought or action there are causal consequences.

There are practitioners who view Judeo/Christian beliefs as the cultural aspect of the West that Buddhism must come to terms with. In the West it is the dominant religious and social framework, especially in America. However, there is a prevailing psychological phenomena endemic to the majority of Americans regardless of religious or secular identity. Individualism. Finding skillful means of transforming perceptions of “what’s in it for me” to “what’s in it for all beings” is a major challenge for Western Buddhists.

We must first come to an understanding of individualism as a moral view and a social view common in the West. People who hold this worldview believe that the interests, wants and needs of the individual should come before that of any government or group. They resist all attempts by society or groups to interfere with their individual goals. The results of their individual actions might have some benefit to others but it is not their intention. Means of transforming individualism to an individual aware of the discontent, unsatisfactoriness and anguish of others and themselves equally, transforming individualism to an individual mindful of their own discontent, unsatisfactoriness and anguish.

In the Raga-vinaya Sutta: The Subduing of Passion (Anguttara Nikaya), the Buddha describes four types of individuals. There is one who practices only for their own benefit, one who practices only for the benefit of others, one who practices neither for their own benefit or the benefit of others, and one who practice for both their own benefit and that of others. The individualist tendency in the West is the first one described. That tendency is often what brings a Westerner to the practice of Buddhism, some want or need they hope that Buddhism can provide for them. The Buddha was clear that a Buddhist practice begins with development of the individual. He was equally clear that it must not end there. Skillful means must be found to lead the practitioner along a path to the fourth type of individual, one who practices for the benefit of self and others.

The lesson in the Lekha Sutta: Inscriptions (Anguttara Nikaya) offers a glimpse of that path. It describes three types of individuals based on their perceptions of their ability to transform. There is the individual that is like an inscription on rock, one that is like an inscription in soil, and one like an inscription in water. Each can be viewed as metaphor for the stages of bodymind in Buddhist practice.

An individualistic worldview combines the first type of person in each sutta. They will practice for only for their own benefit believing that like an inscription in rock their worldview is permanent. They hold to the ‘what’s in it for me’ mode of thinking and acting. Initially Buddhist practice can seem to verify this view. Emphasis is on personal transformation that begins with how that practice can improve the state of the individual bodymind. One learns to sit in meditation among a sangha, yet the bulk of that practice is done at home, alone, individually. One learns that emotions and habitual reactivities that plague the bodymind are transient phenomena, a view that the individual must come to realize. For a ‘what’s in it for me’ state of bodymind the serenity, the equanimity and the sense of personal accomplishment are enough, just what they were looking for. It is written in stone.

Siddhartha began his journey of personal spiritual transformation with the goal of understanding the forms of suffering he witnessed but never experienced. Prior to his achieving awareness of the plight of some human beings he was like an inscription in stone. In accordance with Hindu beliefs his personal and social actions were taken that would positively affect his rebirth. When he chose to leave his wife and child behind, to seek answers, he did so for his own benefit.

The next two types of individual present a danger to the bodymind and the view of an inscription in soil is a skillful way of getting beyond that danger. The view and action of one who practices only for the benefit of others misses entirely a critical aspect of Buddhism. The Buddha teaches that only with equanimity of focus on self and others can the value of the dharma be experienced. The person who practices neither for their own benefit or the benefit of others is going through the motions of being a Buddhist without any intent to engage the dharma in themselves or the world around them.

My nephew is an example of an individual who practices neither for himself or for others. He labels himself a Buddhist on forms for the United States Military because it allows him avoid particular requirements put on people of other faiths.

These views can seem to written in stone. In time and with effort any stone can be turned into soil. Buddhists are farmers and soil is where the unwholesome views and actions are weeded out and wholesome seeds planted and nurtured. Unwholesome views that are inscribed in a bodymind of soil can be transformed as the wind and water of the dharma wear them away allowing the planted seeds of appropriate view and intent to grow.

The fourth type of individual offered in the Raga-vinaya Sutta is the bodhisattva-in-training ideal, one who practices for the benefit of self and others. An individual that is like an inscription on water is most capable of reaching this view and intent, and taking the actions that arise as a result. They experience the current of the dharma from individualistic intent, to social intent, flow around the obstruction of neither self or social intent, to the realization that the dharma, when applied equally to self and other has its greatest value in the promotion of human flourishing.

Siddhartha transformed from one who practiced for their own benefit to one who practiced for the benefit of self and other. He awakened and stood up under the branches of the bodhi tree it is said he doubted his ability to teach others what he had come to realize as a Middle Path that could relieve the suffering of human beings. Siddhartha hesitated, and for that moment he was still practicing for himself. In the next moment he made the decision to try and transformed into one who would practice for self and others.

It takes skillful means to guide an individualistic Westerner along a path that not only accepts the benefit of the dharma to the individual but encourages it . . . in the beginning of practice, to the realization that practice of dharma is most valuable when equally engaged in service of the individual and society as that practice matures. This skillful means cannot just be the efforts and mentoring of a teacher. It must also arise in the thoughts and actions of the practitioner. To develop a mature Buddhist practice it takes both external and internal skillful means or one may find themselves inscribed in rock and fail to engaged the opportunities of soil and water to grow wholesome dispositions and habits.

 

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