The Ideal Meets the Real: Buddhism and Reality

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Buddhist philosophy and practice is packed with high ideals. Generosity of spirit and ‘cease to do harm’; compassion is non-negotiable, mindfulness, serenity arising from meditation, Nirvana, bodhisattvas, co-dependent arising, selflessness and . . . it is a long list of noble ideals. Contemporary living provides moment-to-moment opportunities to put those ideals into practice. At each of those moments the ideal meets the real.

There are a host of reasons for recognizing a need for something more. For some they need to fill what they experience as an empty place in their being, emptiness that they want to give form. Others need to find a way to come to terms with the prospect of death that they may fear or welcome, and to contemplate what might be before or beyond life from birth to death. Illness, chronic or unexpected is known to precipitate the need for drastic changes in psycho-emotional health. There are the curious; some who come for the novelty of exotic cultures and stay for the ideals, other who come out of curiosity, don’t connect and go in search of a different path. This recognized need is given form in the first three verses of the Three Refuges Vow: I go for refuge to the Buddha, the teacher; I go for refuge to the Dhamma, the teaching; I go for refuge to the Sangha, the taught. One ‘goes’ in order to experience if the ideals offer what they are searching for. They continue to ‘go’ when value in the refuges is experienced.

There are a host of reasons for choosing to continue a Buddhist practice. For some it is the goal of Nirvana or Enlightenment for themselves, others pursue the Noble Path for purely selfless reasons. Someone with psychological issues might see a way out of depression, guilt or grief through meditation; those with physical issues a way to control pain and suffering through mindfulness meditation. There are the curious who seek purely knowledge, and the seeker who is curious what Buddhism has to offer. Some are attracted to what they see as a simpler existence, others to what they see as a strict spiritual discipline. Each of them see the ideals of Buddhist philosophy and practice as a path to their destination, choosing to put in the effort necessary to fully engage the Noble Path. Among these reasons some discover the value of choosing to commit to Buddhist philosophy and practice which are given form in the second set of verses: I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the Dhamma; I take refuge in the Sangha. They choose to ‘take’ the guidance and support offered by the Refuges and make it part of HOW they are.

There are a host of reasons that people doubt or question the path they have chosen. It is when the ideals of philosophy and practice meet the realities of moment-to-moment life; it is when the rubber meets the road of contemporary existence that doubt arises. The plan is for the new tires to last 50,000 miles but the rough road, tight turns and a really big nail require creative re-description, an alternation of the plan when the tires are bald at 30,000. Doubt arises, questions arise. For some it is the excuse they were looking for to quit, to leave the path; others experience doubt and questions as emptiness that can be filled with forms of knowledge and experience. It is those that openly question their doubt that begin to experience how the ideal can be applied to the real. In the final verses the ideal truly meets the real: I have taken refuge in the Buddha; I have taken refuge in the Dhamma; I have taken refuge in the Sangha. A practitioner goes to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha for refuge out of a need. A practitioner takes refuge in the human being Siddhartha, the guidance of the Dhamma, and the collective path of the Sangha, committing to the ideals of all three. Now what? Having taken the Three Refuges means realizing the humanity of Siddhartha, the value of a dynamic dharma, and the support of the spiritual friends one encounters in the sangha as the external forces that are critical components of walking the Noble Path. The third stanza of verses has another intent. It is a reminder that like Siddhartha we are each human and his journey on the Noble Path can be anyones, that the dharma is empty (only potential) until it is engaged as part of HOW we are (given form), and that the support of the sangha brings strength to a Buddhist practice and that each practitioner offers their support to others. This realization is the ideal meeting the real.

In the Four Ennobling Truths it is the real that is initially offered by the Buddha. Suffering is a reality of the whole of human existence, as is the realization that craving and attachment are the primary causes of suffering, and there is a path out of suffering. The ideals of interacting with the causal Universe through appropriate intent, view, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration are expressed in the Eightfold Path. They are the guide to a clear understanding of each moment-to-moment reality so that the ideals can be appropriately, and situationally applied.

The ideals of Buddhist philosophy and practice are the foundation for moral character and ethical action that develop through effort and commitment to vows. Morals and ethics are often used as synonyms. Like body and mind cannot be separated and so are termed bodymind, morals and ethics must not be separate in our thoughts and actions. Moral intent and ethical action are inextricably connected. However, to highlight the situational aspect of the ideal meeting the real let’s creatively re-describe morals as the thinking process, ethics as actions based on those morals. Psychoemotional suffering arises when one insists on the reality conforming to the ideals, rather than the ideals adjusting to the reality. This suffering can be eased with the realization of a positive moral character that acts with situational ethical awareness. Morals are ideals, ethics are ideals interacting with moment-to-moment reality.

A firm sense of ethics then are viewed as the ideal way to approach all experiences. Putting ethics into action is when the ideal meets the real. The Three Pure Precepts offers the ideals of “cease to do harm”, “do only good”, “do good for others”. These can be viewed as dogmatic either/or proclamations. One is either doing harm or good, or they are not; very black and white. However, in the real world there is gray, the middle path. Decisions that lead to appropriate moral action are meant to be based in the Buddhist ideals, not limited by them.

There are jobs/careers/professions/employment that, on the surface seem impossible for a practicing Buddhist to do. Some, like gun running, illegal drug dealing, slavery, and pimping fall into the impossible category, but not all that seem so on the surface are. Questions get raised about others like being in the military and some retail depending on what is being sold or the actions of a particular company. The confrontation of ideals and reality can lead to psycho-emotional suffering as a practitioner struggles with the need for a paycheck, scarcity of jobs, and what actions their current employment requires.

Take working for a pest control company. Employees go out each day and spray pesticides and insecticides in order to kill or drive away household pests. Powerful, dangerous chemicals that can poison the earth and water are used. In doing this job is one “ceasing to do harm”? Focusing solely on the ideal of not doing harm the answer would be no; the employee is killing insects like roaches, termites and silverfish. Bring in the ideal of promoting health, happiness and harmony (human flourishing) offers a more appropriate view of this livelihood. Yes, harm is being done to some living beings. That cannot be denied, black and white. What about the people who live in the home or work in the business that is infested with pests? The reality is that household pests like roaches bring the possibility of transmitted diseases, termites and ants the destruction of the home. The ideal meets the real.

When viewed dogmatically the ideals of compassion, honoring life, and ceasing to do harm point to letting the pests live out their lives regardless of the negative impact on humans. Viewed through a different lens the ideals of compassion, honoring life and ceasing to do harm are balanced with the ideal of human flourishing (happiness, health and harmony) and the job of pest control takes on a different moral intent. If the intent behind pest control was the killing of pests that would be inappropriate but really the intent is to protect the health of people, to bring about a happier more harmonious living environment which is appropriate. An employee can go further to make their ideals part of reality. Recommend trying natural pesticides or sonics as replacements for poisonous chemicals. Speak to homeowners about ways they can limit attracting pests and protect their home from later incursions of pests. This is how ideals become components of reality.

Consider the pictures you may have seen of a group of people kneeling in tilled soil carefully picking worms and bugs from the soil, placing them in containers and transporting them away from the area. Usually what is being depicted are Tibetan Buddhists removing insects and such from an area where buildings is being done so that no harm is done to living beings. This is a wonderful ideal. The reality is that is is not possible to remove them all. It is intent that matters.

Compassion, selflessness, loving-kindness, generosity of spirit, pluralism and equanimity are some of the moral ideals of Buddhist philosophy. Acting ethically combines moral intent with situationally effective action. The Eightfold Path guides us to appropriate intent and view as the basis for wisdom and knowledge needed to develop a positive moral character, and to appropriate speech, action and livelihood to realize those morals as ethical behavior.

In every moment our ideals must engage with the realities of life as a human being. Applying those ideals situationally might seem to weaken the ideal itself. The opposite has been my own experience. Ideals become stronger as their value is more fully recognized. Reality undergoes positive transformation when morally based actions are taken with an appropriate view of the situation, and always with the intent to “cease to do harm”, “do only good”, “do good for others”.

Will ideals sometimes clash with the responsibilities and needs of reality? Yes. This is when intent matters the most. A Buddhist practitioner must approach reality with the intent to be the cause of the most wide-ranging wholesome effects when engaging their ideals.

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