Developing the courage
to free ourselves from a bad situation
The first principal realization of the path is the determination to be free from all problems and dissatisfaction. This arises from recognizing that our present situation isn’t completely satisfactory and that we’re capable of experiencing greater happiness. Thus, we’ll determine to free ourselves from a bad situation and to aim for a better one.
Some people use “renunciation” to mean the determination to be free. This is a misleading term because renunciation suggests self-mortification and asceticism. In fact, that isn’t the meaning of the Sanskrit and Pali term.
The determination to be free is an attitude. It doesn’t mean we have to leave our family and job to go live in a cave and eat nettles! The determination to be free is a call to change our attitude. The lifestyle we choose is another matter.
In other words, what we appear to be externally isn’t important, but what we are internally is. Living an ascetic life doesn’t necessarily mean that one has no interest in worldly pleasures: one could live in a cave and still daydream about food or sports cars! Material possessions and other people aren’t the problem. The problem is how we relate to them.
There are two levels to the determination to be free. The first is to be free from difficulties in future lives and to have happy rebirths. The second is to be free from all uncontrolled rebirth in cyclic existence and to attain liberation.
Why should we prepare for future lives? What about this life? There are a few reasons. First, preparing for future lives automatically makes our present life happier. To create the causes for happiness in future lives, we need to live ethically. When we avoid killing, stealing, unwise sexual behavior, lying, slander, harsh words, idle talk, coveting, maliciousness and wrong views, we’ll naturally become kinder people. We’ll get along better with others, and they’ll like and trust us more because we’ve stopped harming them. Also, we’ll be free from regret and guilt and will have a greater sense of inner purpose.
Second, preparing for the future isn’t something unusual. Most people prepare for their old age, in spite of the fact that many never live that long. On the other hand, preparations for future lives will never go to waste, because our minds continue after death.
Third, our present lives may not last long, and our future lives may begin soon, for we don’t know how long we’ll live. Also, since our present lives are short compared to the duration of the many lives to come, it’s wise to prepare for future lives.
The disadvantages of attachment
Attachment, an attitude which exaggerates the good qualities of a person or thing and clings to it, is the chief impediment to developing the determination to be free. Most of us are primarily concerned only with the happiness of our present life. We seek happiness by gratifying our senses. We always want to see beautiful things or nice-looking people, hear nice music or pleasing words, smell pleasant odors, taste delicious food and touch pleasing objects. We continually divide the world into what is attractive and what is repellent. We’re attached to what we consider pleasant and have aversion towards anything we deem unpleasant. With such a limited outlook, our minds have no space to consider future lives’ happiness or the bliss of liberation.
Ironically, seeking the happiness of only this life brings the opposite effect. To secure the objects of our attachment and to be free from those we have aversion for, we may act negatively and selfishly. These destructive actions create immediate problems as well as lay imprints on our mind streams that will generate unpleasant experiences in future lives.
For example, why do we angrily criticize other people? Attached to our own happiness, we lash out at those who seem to obstruct it. At that moment, we don’t care if we hurt their feelings. Sometimes we criticize others to feel powerful or to retaliate. When we succeed in harming them, we’re happy: “I got even! They’re miserable!” But what kind of people are we when we rejoice and gloat over others’ misery?
When we act negatively, we get very confused. If we steal, we don’t feel comfortable with ourselves. We can’t sleep well and are anxious that the authorities might investigate our affairs. If we engage in extramarital affairs, we become worried, and lie and make excuses to cover up. The relationship with our spouse deteriorates and mistrust grows. Our children suspect something is wrong, and feel insecure and upset. They lose respect for us.
In addition to the problems such activities create now, they leave imprints on our mind streams that cause us to encounter unhappy situations in the future.
When we’re very attached to the happiness of this life, we tend to exaggerate the importance of certain things. For example, we think, “I have to earn such and such a salary in order to be happy.” Until we earn that much, we feel unfulfilled. We overestimate the importance of money, and ignoring all the other good things in our life, become obsessed with accumulating it. Even if we get it, our attachment brings new problems: we fear others will steal our money or worry that people are friendly to us only because we’re rich. If the stock market goes down, we’re depressed.
The disadvantages of attachment were discussed extensively in the chapters “Taking the Ache out of Attachment” and “Love vs. Attachment,” so they won’t be repeated here. It must be emphasized, however, that the Buddha didn’t say sensual objects are bad or wrong. He encouraged us to examine our own experiences to determine whether or not sensual pleasures really bring the happiness we think they do. Also, he stressed that the problem lies not in the objects of the senses themselves, but in our attachment to them.
Without true understanding we may verbally pay tribute to the idea that attachment to sensual pleasures or to dear ones is to be abandoned. Then, when we try to avoid craving that person or thing, we face an internal civil war: our emotions say, “I want this,” and our intellect says, “No! You’re bad!” Such an internal battle is useless. Instead we can pause, examine our lives, and conclude that attachment makes us dissatisfied and unhappy. With such irrefutable proof of its disadvantages, we’ll no longer want to get involved with it.
Happiness now and in the future
Understanding the faults of attachment, we’ll determine to be free from clinging to the happiness of this life and all the sufferings it brings. Of course, we’ll still want to be happy now, but we won’t be obsessed with getting everything we think we need or want. In addition, we’ll recognize the importance of preparing for future lives.
The principal method to prepare for future lives and to eliminate turmoil in the present life is to observe cause and effect - karma - by abandoning destructive actions and practicing constructive ones.
To follow cause and effect, we must train ourselves in the techniques to subdue gross attachment, anger, jealousy, ignorance, deluded doubt and pride. Although the wisdom realizing emptiness is the ultimate way to subdue these disturbing emotions, for us beginners, meditation on impermanence is a good general antidote.
The meditation on impermanence involves recollecting that all the people, objects and situations change each moment. They don’t stay the same. Remembering impermanence helps us to avoid exaggerating the importance of what happens to us. For example, if we’re attached to our new car and are angry because someone dented it, we can think, “This car is always changing. It won’t last forever. Since the day it was made, it’s been deteriorating. I can enjoy it while it’s here. But I don’t need to be upset when it’s dented, for the nature of the car is that it changes.”
Some people, thinking this is a pessimistic view of life, say, “Everything changes, therefore there’s nothing to live for.” It’s true that none of the people, possessions or situations we now have will last forever. That’s the reality in which we live, and it can’t be altered. However, impermanence also means new things can happen. Impermanence allows for a helpless baby to grow into a skilled adult. Impermanence means our love, compassion, wisdom and skills can increase.
Each disturbing emotion also has a particular antidote. For attachment, we can contemplate the undesirable aspects of the object in order to balance our overestimation of its good qualities. For anger, we can remember that others want to be happy and to avoid suffering just as we do. Because they are confused about how to do so, they harm other beings. As we understand others’ situations and remember their kindness, we’ll develop patience and love in response to their harm.
Rejoicing at others’ happiness, good qualities and virtues is the remedy to jealousy. Studying and contemplating the Dharma cures ignorance. Breathing meditation frees us from the chatter and turbulence of deluded doubt. Pride is remedied by contemplating an extremely difficult subject, because then we’ll see how little we know. Another remedy for pride is to remember that everything we know or have comes from others, and therefore there’s no reason to be proud because we have it.
Calming these disturbing attitudes and developing detachment doesn’t mean we give away all our money and live as beggars. We need money to function in society. There’s nothing intrinsically good or bad about money. It’s our attitude about it that’s important, and thus we can develop a balanced view towards it. If we have a good income, very good; if we don’t, we can still feel happy and successful. When we have money, we’ll happily share it with others. We won’t try to buy friends or brag about our resources, and as a result we won’t be suspicious of others’ motives. Because we won’t be obsessed with having a certain income, we won’t cheat others in business or deceive them in order to earn more. Others will trust us, and we won’t feel ashamed of our actions.
Similarly, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with getting a good education or a good job. Whether these are beneficial or not depends on our motivation. If we study and train in a skill with the motivation to be able to offer service to others, our minds are peaceful and studying becomes a virtuous action. We can still want to do well on our exams and in our jobs - not because we want to have a good reputation or flaunt our wealth, but because we want to have a skill with which we can benefit others and improve our society.
Buddhism isn’t opposed to material and technological progress. This can improve the lives of many people. However, Buddhism stresses the need for balancing material and spiritual concerns, because external progress alone doesn’t make the world a happier place. Some modern societies have grave social problems and many unhappy people. If we develop nuclear energy but don’t have a sense of morality to govern how we use it, it does more harm than good. If we live in wealthy, high-tech societies but are enslaved by our desires and anger, we can’t enjoy what we have.
Therefore, Buddhism says external progress must be coupled with internal development. We need moral values, good ethics and a sense of responsibility for the welfare of everyone. In addition to loving-kindness and tolerance, we need wisdom. Then we can enjoy technological advancements while minimizing their unwanted side-effects.
It may seem paradoxical, but the less we’re attached to the finite pleasures of this life, the more we’ll have a happy and peaceful life! Being unattached doesn’t mean we “tune out” and don’t enjoy life. It’s quite the opposite, for with detachment we’ll be more relaxed and less anxious. This naturally allows us to relate to our environment and to other people in a more caring way. As we stop frantically grasping at our current happiness, we’ll become more able to enjoy everything around us.
Let’s get off the ferris wheel
The first level of the determination to be free involves wanting to be free from unfortunate rebirths and the negative actions that cause these rebirths. However, does securing a good rebirth solve all of our problems? Will we find perfect and unending happiness in any rebirth we take?
When we examine what could happen to us in future lives, we discover that even if we’re reborn as a human or as a celestial being with fantastic sensual pleasure, it doesn’t last forever. We’ll face problems in those lives too. Securing a good rebirth is thus a stopgap method to evade severe suffering. It helps for a while. But there isn’t lasting happiness to be found in any rebirth in cyclic existence.
It’s like riding on a ferris wheel that never stops: we go up and down continuously. As long as we’re under the influence of ignorance and disturbing attitudes and actions, we aren’t free. We’re trapped in the ferris wheel and obliged to go round and round, taking one rebirth and then another, without choice.
Seeing this situation, we’ll think, “There may seem to be many nice things to see on the ferris wheel, but it’s actually boring.” We’ll realize there’s nothing in any realm of existence that’s worth being attached to. All the pleasures in cyclic existence are temporary, and they don’t compensate for the fact that we continuously undergo birth and death.
Thinking in this way brings us to the second level of the determination to be free. We’ll feel, “It’s time to get good rebirths, but as long as I’m born anywhere in cyclic existence, I’m going to experience problems and difficulties without choice. This is a totally unsatisfactory situation. I want to be free from it!”
We wish for a state of lasting peace and happiness free from all undesirable circumstances. Seeing that all difficulties of cyclic existence are caused by ignorance, disturbing attitudes, and actions done under their influence, we’ll seek a method to free ourselves from these and to abide in nirvana, a state of liberation and happiness. Thus, the great Tibetan sage Lama Tzong Khapa said in The Foundation of All Good Qualities:
“There is no satisfaction in enjoying worldly pleasures. They are the door to all misery. Having realized that the fault of the pleasures of cyclic existence is that they cannot be trusted, may I be strongly intent on the bliss of liberation-inspire me thus! “
The method to completely eradicate disturbing attitudes and actions is to develop the three higher trainings: ethical conduct, concentration and wisdom. With ethical conduct, we’ll avoid destructive actions. On this foundation, we’ll practice concentration to subdue the gross disturbing attitudes and gain the ability to direct our minds to whatever object of meditation we wish, for as long as we wish. By combining concentration with wisdom, we’ll penetrate the meaning of reality and thus eliminate our ignorance, disturbing attitudes and the karmic imprints that produce suffering.
Let’s now look at ethical conduct, as it’s the foundation for all higher practices.