Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Landscapes of Wonder - Selections

Discovering Buddhist Dhamma in the World Around Us

1. In the Wilderness

Probably to most of us there have come exceptional, unworldly moments, like unsuspected deeps in a stream, when we fell through appearances—fell through ourselves—into an intuition of majesty and wonder. Perhaps we rounded a corner at sunset and saw the landscape charged with a rare light, or whirled away from company into a dark street where snow swooped down in a hush, or crossed a bridge, a field, a clearing in solemn pines, and experienced a mood half of pain and half of exaltation that briefly dissolved mundane thoughts. At such times we stretched our limits and reached—for what? A flock of questions and longings scattered like birds into the distance, leaving us waiting for some radiance to come back on the wind.

We are not the first to have felt like this. Countless generations have mused over such passing inspirations, hoping to see truth blaze up before the ordinary dullness closed in again. Unlike the coarse pangs that have briefly thrilled us, these are ambiguous meteors in the sky of the mind that hint—if we can find words for it—that what we have called life is a narrow and shabby thing and that a grander reality forever escapes us.

We are too busy to attend long to such glimpses, being occupied by a host of wants, fantasies, worries, and obsessions of all kinds. We are busy; we have things to do. Nobody knows quite why, but nearly everybody accepts that it is important and imperative to keep running, keep obeying the unseen spur of desire. There is education to be digested, wealth and love to be chased down, family to be built, projects to be carried out, achievements to be registered on plaques, and fun—oh, much fun—to be crammed into our senses. And one thing more: pain to be avoided. It would seem that because we have fingers we must fiddle in every piece of business within reach, because we have legs we must use them for bounding after entertainment, because we have a brain we must keep it hotly cranking to suppress any outbreak of uncertainty.

Everybody pretends to despise accumulation of things, but everybody accumulates. It is simply a practical requirement, we tell ourselves, a necessity for realizing the good life of abundance and self-fulfillment, and we must stay busy, absorbed, intense—even as stray moments of wonder glimmer like meteors overhead. When we leave our school years behind and venture bravely into what we think to be adulthood, we resolve with the confidence of youth that, unlike the sorry generations before us, we will not submit to the restraints of society but will cut our own splendid path through the world. How dispiriting, then, to discover in a few years that, far from constricting us, society has yielded us enormous scope, an unfenced range in which to run ourselves to death. Left to our own devices, we have been bullied by them and called in a score of others to our aid, until we are fairly reeling from one burdensome privilege to another. So many demands on our time! So many demands welling up—from where? Summer with its fragrances, winter with its gales—but through all seasons a subtle strain persists. At night, as we stare at the bedroom ceiling, thoughts troop through our minds like endless files of petitioners, laying on us this debt, that duty, this fear, that necessity, until we sleep, and wake again, eternally servants to busyness. How did we ever fall to this bondage?

In gloom or listlessness we ask ourselves what the purpose of all of this is. But when we ask without force at a low time the question dies away, rhetorical and fruitless. The best time to ask ourselves what is really significant and valuable in our experience is when we have disciplined our minds to contemplate or when we have momentarily drifted out of fierce currents—especially in those odd moments of spiritual attention: when the singing of insects strangely eases the heart, or the dripping in wet woods points to a greater stillness, or a silver wave blows through grass like memory through time. Then we might profitably ask ourselves, and look alertly for an answer.

In cold materialistic terms no earthly success lasts for long. Pile up an empire, if you will, but soon enough others will possess your mansions and erase your name. Lie low and tend your roses—still oblivion will find you out. Some tears are dropped, if you are lucky, and then you are forgotten, and whatever reverence, fear, or love you excited cools. So it has been and will be. The great and the humble totter down the same solitary, mortal track. But if this is all that can be said about the human career, shall we plunge at once into the hot ferment of the world, into noise and opinion and urgent competition? If destruction awaits us, shall we make haste to gulp down all the enjoyment we can? Indeed, we are powerfully drawn toward such desperate conclusions, not trusting ourselves to climb toward peace and equanimity, which we only glimpse and do not understand. We suspect that present entertainments will disappoint us, but rather than set out, of our own will, on a lonely, windy way, we burrow deeper into distractions. So we get busy and so we get more desperate.

But the stuff of the world will not hold together for long. In our best times we realize that and surge briefly above grubby habit, feeling a curious detachment and a yearning for something nobler. How can we be happy, and how can we get free, and might they ultimately be the same thing? If all that we might acquire is temporary, as it appears to be, might not deliverance lie in an entirely new direction? Why should the thought of deliverance even arise in this universe of endless diversions? Out of our musing such questions take shape, then melt away when our attention fails or anxiety heats up again. No time to think, so much to do!—here in our sphere of faulty but indispensable delights.

But why should our delights be indispensable? What drives us from one dissatisfaction to another? Too often we have found the delectable and the poisonous mingled in the same cup. Human life gets sorely entangled with pleasure and pain, joy and grief, hope and despair, and we cannot, for all our skill and gasping intensity, pick out just the good parts. The weather shifts; a smiling moment leads in its grim successor; we get fooled; we get hurt. Still we cannot let go of sharp wanting, and still we go on bleeding out our strength and crying secret tears, and still, oblivious to our desperation, the wild stream of circumstance twists and flows. Things, we observe forlornly, keep changing.

Nevertheless, in the midst of habit, a healthy doubt will keep returning to serious persons—a radical doubt that probes the foundation of the universe and the foundation of the mind itself. Things indeed keep changing. Let us knock down our philosophy to this block and build anew. We do right to doubt as long as doubt sets us to contemplation with eager minds, acknowledging our fundamental ignorance amid lapsing appearances. Things change and we change. What anchor, then, could we hold onto? Where is the end of doubt, where is the ultimate harbor to which we should steer? And who exactly are we who wish for peace? Too long we have been numbly content, or resigned, to let these questions pass, while still thinking ourselves rational and intelligent. An honest appraisal—an honest doubt—will not suffer such negligence, but will force us to lay open old assumptions, especially the great taken-for-granted belief that “I” am an inviolable, indivisible “self ” proceeding through a substantial world toward permanent well-being and happiness. If this belief is true, then why should doubt occur at all? Why should fear? Why should we experience those glancing moments of awe? Why do melancholy and regret so ravage us beneath our public cheer?

Keen questioning, probing through the jungle of our days, seems to open the way only to a deeper solitude, until in the little free space we have made we find, if we read the signs, that we are not the first to have ventured so far, and that a path leads onward from this spot. The name of the path is Dhamma, and it has been here all along, though it only becomes known to the world when a Buddha rediscovers it and points it out.

In our unhappy ignorance we might think that only by spurning all forms of belief could we have a chance of uncovering truth or escaping error, but by doing so we would distort wise caution to willful delusion. A critical attitude of mind should never prevent us from acting when acting is called for, as it certainly is when a path appears in the baneful wilderness. Which shall it be—off again through the thorny waste, or onward along the promising track?

The Pali word “Dhamma” (Dharma in Sanskrit) means true nature, the fundamental, liberating facts of reality, and the course of practice that leads to deliverance from all suffering. The Buddha, the Enlightened One, was the sage Siddhattha Gotama, who by his own efforts penetrated the ultimate mysteries of existence and then traveled about India, teaching the Dhamma for the welfare of men and women and all living beings. The Buddha referred to himself as a Tathāgata, which means “thus gone” or “thus come”—attained to supreme wisdom and liberation. He was one who had fully understood the world and transcended it. He was not a god or a supernatural being but a man who fulfilled the highest possibility of mankind, who broke through ignorance into perfection with his realization of this best of all paths.

The Dhamma as taught by the Buddha is at once a transcendent path and a practical one, the experience of which refutes the popular belief that higher consciousness must somehow require the surrender of common sense. Doubters and wanderers in search of certainty have often felt compelled to choose between ungoverned emotion and lifeless intellect, and thus have spiraled away on one wing with neither earth nor heaven steady in view. But the path of Dhamma is a way without extremes. The rational faculty, so highly admired in this scientific age, has its essential place, as it directs and supervises human effort with an understanding of how the world works and what promotes welfare and prosperity. It focuses the higher, intuitive faculty, which strikes directly into reality beyond conceptual categories and lifts the mind to states of balance and clarity infinitely removed from ignorant passion.

The Dhamma beautifully encompasses the twin problems of thoughtful people: how to get along serenely day to day in the toils of the world, and how to overcome the world and all its suffering forever. Too often we think these goals incompatible, but the Buddha shows them as complementary and mutually strengthening. The higher life, that abiding in holiness we somehow feel to be possible, needs as its basis a daily life nobly conducted, a porch well swept, a heart made tranquil; and the efforts to maintain a peaceful and comfortable family or to follow a satisfying professional career require for their success a communion with what is loftier and a faith in the interrelationship of actions. The religious person gazes upon streaking meteors, and waters his garden with conviction. He knows where he stands; he senses subtle currents; he acts according to Dhamma. Distress and alienation come about from not knowing and appreciating the vital interplay between the holy and the mundane, and this the Dhamma can remedy by making clear the consequences of thoughts, words, and deeds, and the benefits of understanding the processes of nature. Who would have supposed that worldly aggravations could be lessened by contemplating raindrops on a railing? Or that the most refined spiritual practices could be impeded or advanced by how attentively we wash the breakfast dishes? But connections exist. The Dhamma surprises its followers with new avenues of understanding— not of remote, esoteric matters, but of the factual business of living and becoming wiser and happier than we are now.

The Buddha understood that men and women are not, by and large, wise or truly happy, nor can they become so in the pursuit of seeming pleasure. His own strenuous search had led him to the solution of the problem in the Four Noble Truths—four profound, comprehensive facts or summations of existence. The first of these is the truth of suffering or dukkha. Birth, he saw, is suffering; likewise old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, despair, association with the undesired, separation from the desired, not getting what one wants, and even the basic, intertwined, material and mental components of a person. To the Buddha, what mattered above all else was putting an end to this oppressive suffering, this endlessly recurrent unsatisfactoriness, this dukkha. Here he moved counter to other thinkers who, in varying degrees of refinement, conceive of getting something more—pleasure, beauty, power, delight, knowledge—as compensation or counterbalance for the eternally unremedied suffering. He recognized the futility of piling more experience, be it ever so enchanting, on top of a crumbling base, and instead pressed on toward total freedom from all that was painful and obstructive, from the whole mass of repetitious misery. This dukkha was a pervasive condition that could not simply be smoothed out or hidden. But it could be destroyed.

The Buddha realized that pain, grief, woe, and suffering have their source and origin in craving (taṇhā). This is the second noble truth. This craving is the primal thirst that goes forever unslaked, sucking up oceans of sensation but still breathing out flames of dukkha. It may be classified into three forms: sensual craving, craving for existence, and craving for nonexistence. As long as craving rages unchecked, suffering will follow it, day to day and life to life, buffeting and searing the mind, which in its ignorance craves even more, throws up more passion, more straw for the flames—and round and round it goes. Having felt this, one feels that; having become this, one becomes that—and on and on but nowhere an end. When this arises that arises, then again something else. Events occur in a continuous, conditioned stream, sometimes pleasant, sometimes unpleasant, sometimes neutral, but always unsettled, flawed, twitching with unrest—as in a frantic costume ball in which the masks keep changing. Craving needles the mind, and the arm stretches out for objects. Then there is frustration, grasping, taking hold. Then, after the flicker of pleasure: disappointment, anxiety, loss, regret, and puzzlement. Then craving, unsated, flares again. Things are not reliable—they change; and the mind changes, too, trying on new masks over the same sad incomprehension.

The Buddhist answer to the problem of suffering is to break up and renounce this obsessive desire once and for all, rather than to keep chasing the phantoms of worldly delight. The third noble truth is the truth of the cessation of suffering. By completely abandoning and forsaking craving we can abolish suffering and achieve freedom. After all these years and aeons of incompleteness, we need a permanent happiness, not just fits of stimulation, so we must strip away decoration and seek foundations. We yearn for security, so we must not addict ourselves to the nonsecure. In the smoking landscape of desire and loss, what will protect us? Liberation must be the goal, not a softer bed in the prison of craving. Therefore the Buddha’s teaching is an instruction in getting free of craving. That done, everything is done. When this ceases that ceases. When ignorance is destroyed and craving withers away, greed, hatred, and delusion cannot come to be, and suffering, cut off at the roots, must expire and disappear. Then there can no longer be any mental affliction, or spiritual uncertainty, or confusion. The perfected one sees the universe just as it is, and experiences what the Buddha called “that unshakable deliverance of the heart.”

The fourth noble truth discovered by the Buddha is the practical way to this deliverance, the comprehensive program for release from suffering. This is the Noble Eightfold Path, which consists of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. These eight factors are not stages or steps to be perfected one after another but rather eight aspects of training to be developed together.

Right view is proper understanding of suffering as the central fact of sentient existence, and understanding also of suffering’s origin, its end, and the way to that end. Mundane right view is recognition of the power of good or bad deeds to bring about benefit or suffering for the doer of the deeds. Higher right view is the understanding and the eventual penetration of the Four Noble Truths themselves, which result in enlightenment.

Right intention is intention characterized by renunciation or nongreed, absence of ill will, and harmlessness.

Right speech is abstention from false speech, slanderous speech, harsh or abusive speech, and senseless, useless talk; or in positive terms, speech that is true, reliable, discreet, polite, reasonable, and pleasing to hear.

Right action is abstention from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct.

Right livelihood is the avoidance of dishonest or harmful occupations and the getting of a living through fair, moral occupations.

Right effort is the conscious, energetic effort to avoid unwholesome states that have not yet arisen, to overcome unwholesome states that have already arisen, to develop wholesome states that have not yet arisen, and to keep up wholesome states that have already arisen.

Right mindfulness is attentive observation of all aspects of mind and body so as to know, clearly and simply and without attachment, what is happening at any moment.

Right concentration is the wholesome concentration of the mind on an object so as to attain powerful clarity and profound tranquility.

The Buddha taught on these subjects long and thoroughly, knowing them to be supremely useful, so it is worth our while to pay heed and use his wise instruction to support our aspirations. In reaching for the highest we can by no means neglect our duties in rough or tedious life here and now—and indeed, here and now are exactly where we want relief and happiness. Like lamps in every room of a house, the eight factors of the Noble Eightfold Path reveal with a smoke-free light all the powers we wield for our own good and the good of others, showing us that by skillful management of such plain matters as speaking, working, and paying attention we can dispel sorrow, purify our understanding, and bring satisfaction and meaning to our labors. Deliverance of the heart does not come about through indulgence in incoherent states of mind, or through reliance on rituals, or through intellectual cleverness, or through stolid patience alone. We can achieve deliverance by consciously cutting through the bonds we have tied around ourselves, by resisting and ultimately destroying greed, hatred, and delusion, by making a final end of ignorant craving. The Noble Eightfold Path is the necessary means for accomplishing this, and if we keep to it, gradually refining our aim, it will guide us and console us and nourish us with wisdom.

Such is the rational, realistic outlook of Buddhism—no dreamy mysticism here. No feverish materialism, either, cackling over piles of crumbs. The Buddhist raises his or her eyes to the sky, not in expectation of showers of gold or accidental blessings, but in search of bare truth, weather signs, a higher way of striving, patterns to arouse the mind. However sharp the hunger, however keen the pain, nobody gets out of the jungle of troubles without making a sustained, personal effort. On all sides despondent multitudes shuffle, some longing for good luck, some expecting the genii of science, industry, or art to clear the way, to stop the pain. The Buddhist goes by way of Dhamma—the middle way—and does the walking alone, stumbles and gets up again, picks off the thorns, gets in the open and stays there with determined effort—no slave to false hope, no listless idler, and yet no superman: just a thinking being who has become convinced that the fearful storms of the universe are born in and burst out of his own heart and that nobody can quell them but him.

The negligent see their days and seasons as the tricky dice of fate, to be sweated over and implored. The attentive do not rely on uncontrollable twists of events but make their quiet progress by the lamps of nature—for Dhamma is nature rightly examined and rightly known. A resolute attention to the course of things, to the laws that shape the course, strikes off the sparks of insight that light our darkness. Provocative moments come—meteors lovely in their glittering flight—and pass away again. May that light, that trill of bird song, that sweet wind not vibrate in our thought for nothing but give rise to a brave will in us. How far then might we—bruised and baffled in the wilderness—journey by this old and beautiful wisdom? The Buddha, lost in history, beyond history, majestic, immovable, and gently smiling, speaks of suffering and the end of suffering. The learning and the going must be our tasks. How can we know if we have the strength? Let us step forward and see. The Buddha points, and as we turn to look the breezes of spring rush past us, bound for far places. A gate swings open and the path lies fair.

 

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© Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano, Landscapes of Wonder (Wisdom Publications, 2013)

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