We all want the enlightened state, and the wonderful visions and the peace. We want them. We look at all the things we want, but we don’t see the central fact—the wanting. It’s not the visions and the enlightenment that cause the problem (they just arrive or don’t as happens), it is the ME and the WANTING that cause all the problems. Added to that, of course, the hating things to be as they are, and wanting them to be different, and the fear of them not being.
Aspiration is all very well—in fact it is very well. The old saying goes: ‘It is not by suppressing the bad sides of us that we incline to enlightenment, but by inclining to enlightenment that the bad sides begin to diminish.’ But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to work at it ‘with diligence’, as the Buddha recommended.
Ajahn Sumedho has often told the story of how, as a young monk having achieved peace and tranquillity, he had to go to the nearest town to renew his visa. The official was rude and dismissive, and all of a sudden the tranquil monk was possessed by burning anger. So holy aspirations only go so far. The path is like Thomas Edison’s genius: ‘one per cent inspiration and ninety per cent perspiration!’
These loves, hates, frustrations etc, unpleasant as they seem, are the essential manure out of which the lotus of enlightenment grows and blossoms. And the bigger the clay, the bigger the Buddha, as the Zen men say, so the more and better the manure, the better for the flowering.
There is, unfortunately, no good iron without dross, as any foundryman will tell you. We all have to go through the refiner’s fire and if we do not, the final product will be seriously flawed and will not ‘ring true’ like a good piece of metal.
The Buddha didn’t teach: ‘Happiness and the way through happiness.’ When he was asked what he did teach, he replied instead: ‘Suffering and the way through suffering.’ That is our common experience whether peasant or patrician—the eternal problem of being human. There is no way of completely avoiding it, and pushing it away doesn’t help—the problems merely grow worse when suppressed and hidden, ‘What is suppressed is expressed.’ If you push it out of sight in one place, it just pops up somewhere else or in another guise. We have to acknowledge them and develop compassion for them and ourselves. They are part of the way we deal with the world; as we strive to free ourselves, so we must strive to free them. To attack them is to attack ourselves, like a man in the midst of the sea angrily attacking his leaking boat. We must instead plug the leaks, trim the sail (if we are lucky enough to have one) and set a course by the sun and stars (if we know how).
We are lucky enough to have charts that the Buddha left us and from the Sangha we can obtain experienced navigators, so at least we may have some idea where we are going, and that is a great blessing.
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First published in the February 2005 Buddhism Now.