The Sacred and the Lost
Being human is a tough proposition. Because we can think about anything, and have to, and because thinking involves always a binary opposition, every thought or concept —standing by virtue of the exclusion of its opposite, we are constantly caught on the horns of a dilemma. It's possible of course to fail to notice this, to go on about one's way in the certainty that everything's all right. But this only lasts so long. Eventually the backside of who we think we are and what we think the world is will peep out at us from around a corner and problems will ensue. So it seems very much as if there is no choice but to hurl ourselves headlong into the problem. The spiritual path, in all its various forms, begins here.
Religion, if this is what we want to call it, clangs about between these two poles: love of the world, affirmation of it; and dismay about the world, the denial of it and the wish for escape from it. This is certainly so in Buddhism, where we have, on the one hand, the so-called "small vehicle," in which we strive for individual freedom from a world which is inherently distracting, troublesome, and full of suffering, and on the other hand the so called "big vehicle," in which out of love for the world and all the creatures in it we embrace it in order to bring it to perfection. I want to be clear that I am not identifying the small and large vehicles with particular schools of Buddhism. They are tendencies, tensions, within all the schools of Buddhism, tendencies and tensions which also, I believe, exist in all traditions, between school and school, individual and individual within schools, and within almost any individual him or herself, if she looks closely enough.
And there are perfectly good reasons for this tension. The world is wonderful, colorful and bright. But it is also overwhelming. And embedded within it, as the very essence of its beauty, is the seed of suffering. As the Dhammapada says, the flower is beautiful, but within the flower there is an arrow aimed right at us. In our experience of the Path we find the world quite often too much for us. Too distracting and powerfully seductive. It pulls us in and eventually pulls us down. Our powers are no match for its relentless ongoing process of birth and death, excitement and letdown, its endless rhythm of ideas, emotions, successes, tragedies, forms, and colors, its powerful creative powers and enormous destructive potentials.
But to set all of this aside isn't the answer either. For one thing, how could one set it aside? Where to go to escape the world? Tibet (overrun by the Chinese)? Nepal (overrun by guru-seeking youngsters)? India (full of overwhelming poverty)? The world is certainly there too; perhaps moreso. A cabin in the woods? In Humboldt county (where they are destroying old growth redwoods)? On Maui (where the tourist trade rules)? Maybe somewhere in the Midwest, outside a small town somewhere? But there are newspapers, telephones, and neighbors. Anyway, you'll get lonesome. What about a monastery? Anyone who's spent time in one will tell you that the world is very much there too. A world apart perhaps, but a world nevertheless, and one which is perhaps in some ways even more difficult than the world at large, because the world at large will allow, to some extent, our non-participation, will allow us perhaps some breaks, some diversions, while the world of the monastery won't let us alone even for a moment. We must, it seems, be involved in its every controversy and personal drama. And even, forgetting all of this, and imagining somehow a Shangrila where we can be truly quiet, peaceful, and fulfilled (supported somehow by an inheritance) we will still have ourselves to contend with and all the worlds of our own minds. Wars and raging storms, volcanoes and lost loves are just as much there as anywhere. And even, further, assuming we could subdue all of this and find some sort of contentment, I think we would soon discover that that contentment was shallow without some way to express our gratitude for this body and life. And we would be, very soon, turning toward the world again, the world as a sacred place, as a field for the activity of our practice. And so we would, with a new sense of things, be confronted again with our human dilemma.
The world as sacred.
Asian Buddhism does not, as far as I know, have a word that corresponds to our English word "sacred." Perhaps the world kusala, which means "wholesome" or "skillful" comes closest. Kusala is that which aids us in the Path, that which is positive or beneficial. Akusala is the opposite. These could be taken as analogs of the words "sacred" and "profane", but there is an important difference. Buddhist thought and practice is fundamentally concerned about our behavior and our thought and so kusala and akusala are words that describe our activity, not the world. The word "sacred" refers generally to the world or something in it, or, more precisely, to our relation to, our experience of, the world or what is in it. Wholesome and unwholesome are about how we approach things. Sacred and profane point to the place at which our human need for meaning and significance touches the world around us.
The essence of the concept "sacred" lies within the idea of separation. That which is sacred is that which is set apart for a special purpose. The sacred then is the exclusive; it becomes sacred by virtue of what it excludes from itself, and it manifests it sacredness in its very difference. Because the sacred is exclusive and different and therefore special we are dedicated to it. Our activity in relation to what is sacred is magnified activity, profound, meaningful activity. The sacred therefore gives our life depth and meaning.
The difficulty with this idea of course exists at its very core.
It is the sacred's exclusivity. This exclusivity wants to make us very good and very aware and profoundly moved by meaning and deep purpose in one situation, but necessarily scornful or disrespectful at the very least indifferent in another situation. So there is the phenomenon found in all religious traditions of the pious person, powerfully dedicated to the sacred, who is also a terrible person in situations outside those for which piety is called. And there is also the narrow-mindedness and oppression of others that seems to come with the powerful sense of the exclusivity of the sacred. It seems as if the sacred, in order to be the sacred, must scapegoat the profane, must, in fact, see to it that there is a profane in order to scapegoat it. The exclusivity of the sacred is its downfall.
But perhaps there is another dimension to the concept of the sacred. What's separate or exclusive is also particular and distinct. It has a strong integrity in and of itself. It is what it is and it is not something else. It is this thing, not some other thing. So perhaps the essence of sacredness need not be its exclusivity, but rather its particularity. Sacred then becomes dedicated or devoted to the particular. It implies a powerful sense of commitment to something very concrete. It involves a certain sense of vowing, of letting go of other things outside the vow, outside the particular, of giving ourselves completely to one thing.
This sense of the sacred as the particular is fundamentally different from exclusivity. Exclusivity hoards turf; particularity doesn't. In fact, the essence of the sacred as the particular is that it is radically inclusive. Through total devotion to the particular we find the union that produces a sense of meaning in our life. In fact there is no other way to achieve union than through particularity because the only way to come out into the open space of our living, the field on which we can meet everything, is to walk down the long corridor of the particularities of our life. "All is one" might be a good idea, might carry a sentiment that we enjoy, but it is not effective as a practice, because we never really confront such a thing as a unity in our lives. We confront only this and then this and then this. To see the particularity of this one thing as exactly also everything, and to see that only through total devotion to this one thing can we reach everything, opens the possibility of the sacred as the universal. I have found this to be true with many powerful practitioners I have met over the years, people who, through total dedication to a particular thing throughout the course of a lifetime, whether that thing be a relationship, a skill or an art, a practice tradition, or even, perhaps, and most radically, each and every moment of living, have been able to somehow transcend that particular thing, or, in other words, include everything within it, acquiring in the process an ease and a graciousness that looks quite a bit like enlightenment.
A traditional Sanscrit Buddhist term that might be useful for extending our discussion here is tathata, which means "thus" or "just" or"merely" or "as it is," and indicates the real nature of things as they actually are, without any additional projections, elaborations, or improvements. Things as they simply and truly exist in their realness. The word forms a part of the epithet often used to refer to the Buddha: Tathagata, which means "the one who really comes and goes," or "the one who thus comes and goes" or "the one who simply comes and goes" without any extra flourish or panache.
This word tathata, interestingly, is seldom used in the Pali canon. It becomes a crucial concept for the Mahayana, in which the idea of freeing the mind of its projections and defiling conceptions becomes of paramount importance for the process of awakening. One wants to see things as they are, and to relate to them as such, without any mediating ideologies or viewpoints, Buddhist or otherwise. The deconstruction of Buddhist thought by Nagarjuna is accomplished for this purpose.
Seeing the world just the way it is sounds like a good idea (we all aspire to truth rather than falsehood, to accuracy rather than foolishness) but it is a radical idea that requires more of us than it seems to at first sight, because the world as we know it is nothing other than the world of our projections and confusions. The very idea of myself is the biggest projection of all, the screen beyond which I cannot see. Everything in my experience is colored by it; everything I cherish and desire is created by it. Here is the human dilemma then in its purest form: I want freedom, truth, and reality and I do not know what these things might be; I also want to enjoy my desires for myself, including my desire for truth and reality. These desires are compelling, contradictory, and confused. Although I have never seen a cake, I want to have my cake and eat it too.
But if I have my cake I am going to eat it because there is no other way to have it and of course when I eat it I will not have it. That which is eaten is the nature of cake. This then is things as they really are: pure and simple and constantly passing away, coming and going, free from our desires. Things as they are, from a human perspective, requires therefore an acute appreciation of loss, total loss, loss of self and loss of world. This is what freedom means. This is the real shape of the sacredness of the world, the union we find within the particularity of each moment of our lives. We are lost. In other words, it is not a question of holding to the world or transcending it. The real world is its own transcendence and our dilemma is conceptual. It is language and thought that imprison us, not the world, not even our own desire. And in order to be free we need to be free in relation to this transcendent world, because there isn't any other way. There isn't anywhere else to go.
A monk once asked Yun Men, "When there's no thought inside and no thing outside what is it?" Yun Men replied, "Upside down!"
Our world is upside down. We long for peace outside of activity but there isn't anything outside of activity. We want to hold onto the world but the whole world in its real form is nothing but loss, moment by moment. And there's no hope for this. There's only the appreciation of it for what it really is. With this appreciation we can once and for all respond to conditions as they arise. With this point of view the whole world and our particular place within it is the field for our practice.
How to practice then? Certainly we do practice. We meditate, we go to retreats and monasteries, we study the Dharma. And we understand all of this as particular yet not exclusive. This means that when its time to sit we sit but when its time to get up we forget about sitting and get up. Practice, because it holds the sacredness of our lives, is only one thing, always one thing, but we can't say or know what that one thing is.
But didn't the Buddha, facing a choice, leave home, renounce the world and his family and devote himself to a life of dedication to Dharma? And don't we as practitioners face a similar choice?
The story of the Buddha's renunciation comes to us through the Theravadin canon, one of the several versions of the canon that were handed down in the various schools that existed after Buddha's time. That this particular version of the story is the one that has been given to us in the West is simply an historical accident. It is not the "official" version or in any way the best version or the truest version. It is simply the one we happen to have given our attention to over the years.
I'd like here to briefly give another version of the renunciation story, a version that exists in the canon of another major early school, the Sarvastivadin school.
According to this version of the story Buddha didn't leave his wife and child in the middle of the night to go off to seek enlightenment. In this version in fact the Prince and Princess do not have a son. As he is leaving the palace, passing his wife's room, Siddhartha looks in at her, is overtaken by her loveliness and his affection for her, and doesn't want to go. He goes to her and they make love, conceiving on that very night their child. The Sarvastivadin version of the story then proceeds remarkably and mythically along a dual track. All of the events of Buddha's quest are matched exactly by the course of Yasodhara's pregnancy, which, like Buddha's journey, lasts for six years. And the moment when Buddha attains enlightenment under the Bo tree is exactly the moment when Yasodhara gives birth to their son Rahula. In the Theravadin version of the story the word Rahula is etymologized as fetter. But in this Sarvastivadin version "Rahula" is said to derive from the word meaning Moon God, because the dual event of Buddha's enlightenment and Rahula's birth takes place on the night of the full moon.
This story, as I understand it, is about sacredness and particularity and the loss these entail. Buddha does leave home and Yasodhara does stay. They give each other up and each must pursue his and her own path with full devotion. And as a result of this opting with full commitment to the path taken, fruition comes about: inner and outer birth ensue. But I think the story, read on a structural level, is not simply about, on one hand, the Buddha, his solitary heroic quest for enlightenment, and, on the other hand, the girl he leaves behind. Structurally, the story is clearly presented as a single narrative with two halves. The implication is that the enlightenment of the Buddha isn't just something that happens to him or is effected by him alone. Nothing in the way the story is told in the original privileges Siddhartha over Yasodhara. It's quite clear that it is the whole situation, both the outer birth and the inner turning, that describe the fullness of the Path. Leaving home and staying home, renouncing the world and accepting the world, are seen here as parts of a seamless whole. On the one hand we can't have it all. Our path is particular, and as such, involves renunciation. In the story Buddha is a renunciate. But so is Yasodhara. Buddha gives up the home life but Yasodhara gives up the homeless life. Both together, through their loss of each other and devotion to the individuality of their own lives, create the whole of enlightenment. Both appreciate the world as it really is.