|January 1992||2535||Number 19|
Committed to Freedom
Sustaining commitment in whatever field - be it in spiritual life, marriage, or one's profession - is one of the challenges of life. The following two pieces by Ajahn Thanavaro offer different perspectives on how we can give something back to the world through developing the strength that comes from making a commitment to Dhamma.
Understanding our Commitments
Ajahn Thanavaro is senior monk at Santacittarama, our branch monastery in Italy. Here he reflects on the meaning of commitment, both in lay life and within the monastic form, in the light of his twelve years as a Buddhist monk.
Much of the confusion and suffering that we experience is caused by the lack of commitment in our lives. Nowadays, as in the past, people have gone beyond the boundary of their commitment. In other words, their commitment is not in accordance with Truth. Understanding nature is to know the Dhamma, to be the Dhamma, the Truth; this is our true commitment, this is what we are here for.
In the attempt to find happiness, we have sought experience of all kinds in the field of our senses. In our ignorance we have entered a minefield. This ignorance is not new, it is the same old veil that has always obscured the Truth. When directed by the sense of self, consciousness - through the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind - dictates the ups and downs of our moods and emotions, and causes the happiness and unhappiness in our lives. No matter how much we suffer, if we do not see this at the root, we will not change. We are like a man who, having entered a minefield, loses his legs and arms and still tries to walk in the wrong direction. This is what identifying with our body and mind is like.
The feeling of 'I' and 'mine', the holding to views and opinions, likes and dislikes, the craving for things, the clinging to sense objects, the following of our emotions, the acting out of our loves and hates, the abiding in doubt, worry and fear - these create the whole mass of suffering in our minds. We simply don't know the Truth, the Dhamma. We don't know that radiance and peace, the purity of our mind in its true nature. This Truth has to be experienced - here and now, by each one of us individually. It can be discovered if we are willing to understand our suffering - if we are willing to make a commitment.
We must remember clearly that our commitment is to understanding, and we are bound by it, until we are free in Truth alone.
Let's look at what kind of commitment can go into a relationship, for example: between a man and a woman. In life, it is natural for a man and a woman to become a couple. If there is a commitment, they will work to support each other, and grow in care and understanding - their relationship won't be based upon blind passion. They will carefully consider the two aspects of making a commitment. Firstly, the resolution to continue in one's effort to respect that commitment and secondly, the practical responsibility that the commitment entails. Actually, most times people don't even realise that they have made a commitment, they just follow their passions and inspirations - but of course there is much more. As my father puts it: 'After the honeymoon is over, somebody has to clean up and pay the bills!'
So a couple living together needs practical experience of how to run as a unit. Who will do the shopping? How will the accounting be done? Who will work? . . . and so on. Common sense has to be present in their commitment, and also tolerance and forgiveness which will help them in those areas of conflict where they may feel stuck. When a couple is able to surrender to one another, their resistance to life's situations lessens, and they come to feel more united and in harmony, less selfish. In this way, they can be capable of becoming parents as a further step in their development.
Then for the woman, the experience of pregnancy presents an opportunity for even greater commitment. If she is supported in this by her partner, she can joyfully accept the many changes that occur in her body and life. Allowing nature to take its course, she embraces her commitment to motherhood and, at the same time, the new organism forming in her womb is committed to life. A new living being is ready to enter the world for the journey into human existence.
The commitment of the couple to parenthood is what provides the security needed for the child to develop and grow. Wisdom is a key factor for raising a family in a harmonious way: without it, everyone suffers. Through commitment to their children, the parents can develop wisdom. It is important that they should try to maintain their peace of mind, neither worrying continuously, nor assuming that providing everything for their children will prevent them from suffering. Having or not having is not the cause of suffering. Rather, the cause is found in our ignorance of the effect of craving and clinging. Much of the confusion in our society is the result of this ignorance. The confusion within our families and in our relationships with others is at the base of our social maladies.
It is regrettable that so many people fail to acknowledge the responsibility in their lives - because they do not know the nature of their commitments. We must remember clearly that our commitment is to understanding, and we are bound by it, until we are free in Truth alone. Commitment is the preliminary condition for entering the Path of Wisdom; the supportive condition for carrying on the practice of understanding; and the essential condition for the fulfillment of the Path.
As human beings we are very fortunate. We have a psycho-physical organism endowed with a great capacity of expression. With our body and mind we can work and be creative; with our reflective abilities we can meditate, know our condition and contemplate. This life in the human form should be cherished as more precious than the rarest gem. We don't know how long we have to live. We are not in full control of our body; we would like it to be always healthy, but too many external factors control it. Therefore, we should make good use of our time. We should ask, 'What are my aims? What am I committed to?' - these questions are very important. In my own life, when I asked these questions, they gave rise to a strong feeling of urgency. I wanted to understand what life was all about and live in the right way.
When we ask these questions, we enter the path of learning. Now we can listen, study and practise the Dhamma. This is our top priority, our true commitment which will give us freedom.
For me, my commitment lies in the practice of the Buddha-Dhamma and in the bhikkhu form. The bhikkhu is a religious seeker supported by alms; a wanderer on a spiritual journey, a devotee on a pilgrimage to the interior holy places to be found in one's own mind. Many wonderful and difficult things can happen on this journey, but one should not be afraid of or fascinated by them. Through continuous investigation, we will realise their emptiness, and in that state there will be freedom from the suffering arising from attachment, aversion and ignorance. The life of the bhikkhu may also provide other people with a living example of the religious quest.
In the old days, the admission into the Order was very simple. In fact, the Buddha himself would welcome the new aspirant with the Pali formula: Ehi bhikkhu, svakkhato Dhammo caro brahmacariyam samma dukkhassa antakariyaya. 'Come, bhikkhu, well-expounded is the Dhamma. Live the Holy Life for the complete ending of dukkha.' No doubt, the sense of commitment of those bhikkhus to the Holy Life was enhanced by the fact that it was stated in the presence of a Buddha.
We have a very interesting story in the suttas illustrating this point. On one occasion a bhikkhu expressed the wish to become a universal monarch, in the presence of the Buddha. The Blessed One, having perceived in his mind's eye the wish of this bhikkhu, reprimanded him by saying that because that wish was made in his presence it would become true, but this was regrettable since if he had expressed a much nobler aspiration - for instance, to become a Buddha - this would have also been possible. From this example, we can see that our aspirations expressed in front of a highly realised teacher may be enhanced by the power of realisation of that person.
This is true also for the places of pilgrimage - centres of great spiritual energy that, throughout the centuries, have been visited by innumerable pilgrims who would pay respect to the holy shrines and reassert their religious commitment. Today, as in ancient times, we use celebrations, ceremonies and rituals to create a special occasion, and an atmosphere in which the statement of our commitment will be empowered by our own clarity and resolution, as well as by the acknowledgement of those present.
Once we have made a commitment, we have to sustain it through our own continuous application - in other words, we have to work at it. Often I am asked what work I do as a Buddhist monk. Well, my commitment lies in the monastic discipline and the teachings of the Buddha, so I feel that my work is to uphold that teaching and discipline. This practice is threefold, comprising morality, concentration and wisdom. For the bhikkhu, there are the 227 Patimokkha rules, wherein morality is cultivated by following a code of ethics demonstrating unsurpassed gentleness and refinement. For a lay Buddhist, there are five basic moral precepts: to refrain from 1) killing, 2) stealing, 3) sexual misconduct, 4) wrong speech (slander and lying) and, 5) the taking of alcohol and intoxicating drugs. These can provide every human being with guidelines drawn on the basis of the profound discovery of the Law of Cause and Effect. The old saying: 'If you do good, you will receive good; if you do bad, you will receive bad,' reflects a universal truth.
Today in our culture, there is the tendency to devalue everything. Much of morality has been surpassed by our desire for self-determinism. We don't want to be told how to behave or what to think. We prefer the free expression our feelings to courtesy and respect. While it is true that we have acquired a greater freedom of expression, unfortunately, through selfishness, this has often given rise to permissive and licentious behaviour. In a sense, we have sought a more responsible and mature position, but we often lack the wisdom to exercise such a freedom of choice. In the process, we have also destroyed many of the points of reference for true discernment.
The practice of virtue and restraint is an expression of our commitment to understanding, in all the areas of our experience. It will facilitate calmness and concentration, preparing the ground for insight and wisdom. Impeccable discipline will be possible if we are mindful of our intentions. Our motivation has to be clear: 'We shall end all ignorance. We don't need to doubt the usefulness of such an effort; when doubt arises, we can see it as another opportunity for a leap of faith.From our courage and determination, a new understanding of the way things are will emerge. Let us not fall by the wayside. Let us continue to be responsible to our commitment, with mindfulness of the way of Dhamma.