A Great Challenge

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by Thanissara

In Zen practice, the journey of awakening is placed within the meta­phor of ascending the mountain and returning to the marketplace with bliss­ bestowing hands. While enlightenment was the culmination of Siddhar­tha’s search, it was also the beginning of another journey. His insight still had to be honed, tested, and communicated to the people around him. He didn’t ascend to heaven, or float away in nibbanic bliss, or have a jeweled crown placed on his head to be adored forevermore. This is a childish view, which some people attempt to live, manipulating the world and others to accommodate their spiritual narcissism and inflation, usually with dubious results. After awakening, even in small ways, we have the challenging task of living and demonstrating our understanding within the world. This includes the world of relationship, money, livelihood, including what we say and do, and more important, the consciousness we do it from. The other side of insight and the clarity we hone in meditation is the rather messy business of human life.

After his glorious awakening, the Buddha was very reluctant to return to the marketplace. In fact, he decided not to. He thought about how difficult it would be to communicate the subtlety of his realization. He knew it would be challenging, and he wasn’t sure he was up for it. Instead he felt more inclined to enjoy his own freedom, and just leave the world to its own devices:

Why should I teach what I attained with such difficulty? This Dhamma won’t make sense to those bound by greed and consumed by hatred; blinded by passions, impaled within darkness, they won’t see what goes against the current, so subtle, profound, difficult, and delicate.

It’s easy to sympathize. His estimation that it would be challenging to teach the Dharma was absolutely true. Besides trying to communicate a subtle understanding to those caught in various degrees of ignorance, he knew he would have to confront the status quo of the time. No one does that without realizing it’s a dangerous and sometimes lonely business. He would also have to face his tribe and family, who felt abandoned by him. Moreover, he had already been judged and rejected; maybe he didn’t want to go through that again. None of this seemed particularly easy. He may have even thought it was simply impossible. After all, breaking new ground is not only daunting, but it’s also hard to be sure it will go well. Maybe he would fail and die miserably.

photo by Nour C.

photo by Nour C.

When we stand at the cusp of a new paradigm, we face a similar challenge. Even as we wake up to the realities of our present climate cri­sis, we falter. We know what needs to happen, that we need to radically change our ways of living and generating energy if we are to have any hope of survival. Yet the challenge is overwhelming. If you drive into any city in the world at rush hour, thousands upon thousands of cars, many with only one occupant, are burning up precious fuel. As I write, it’s the Fourth of July, Independence Day in America. Outside on Lake Chickamauga, people are having fun racing around in motorboats and on jet skis. It is innocent fun, but it’s a party we can no longer afford.

We can’t afford, on any level, the oil and resource wars, and the dangerous extrac­tion of fossil fuels that will poison, and pollute further. We can’t hope to maintain human society if we allow the fossil fuel empire, and corporate power, to enact a global coup d’etat over democracy. The willful distor­tion of truth for political gain at the behest of an immense petroleum empire, which employs the most insidious use of power, and the sheer enormity of the task ahead, can lead us all to the same conclusion as the Buddha: It’s just too difficult! We are bound by greed and consumed by hatred; blinded by passions, impaled within darkness. We simply can’t or won’t see what goes against the current. However, the true Independence Day is not from the old colonial power of Britain. We now need independence from the forces that would drive our human civilization to collapse and render our planet unlivable.

At the moment the Buddha faltered, when he started thinking about retreating from the world, the faithful devas, who had cheered him on and who were still celebrating his success in their refined realms of pleasure and creativity, were devastated. They were simply horrified that he might he thinking of retiring to the Himalayas, renouncing his destiny to shine the brightest of lights in a world filled with shadows. The classical story tells us that in response to the Buddha’s reluctance, an illustrious, resplendent deva from the Brahma realm came to his assistance.

Then Brahma Sahampati, having known with his own awareness the line of thinking in the Blessed One’s awareness, thought: “The world is lost! The world is destroyed! The mind of the Tathagata…inclines to dwelling at ease, not to teaching the Dhamma!”

The Sutta goes on to say, just as a strong man might flex his extended arm, Brahma Sahampati disappeared from the Brahma-world and reap­peared in front of the Blessed One. Arranging his upper robe over one shoulder, he knelt down with his right knee on the ground, saluted the Blessed One with his hands before his heart, and said to him, “Lord, let the Blessed One teach the Dhamma! …There are beings with little dust in their eyes that are falling away because they do not hear the Dhamma. There will be those who will understand the Dhamma…. Rise up, hero, victor in battle! O Teacher, wander without debt in the world. Teach the Dhamma, O Blessed One: There will be those who will understand.”

There are always those who “get it.” And for want of trying, they would be left in the dark, alone and without support. This exchange between the Buddha and the Brahma god Sahampati is tremendously important. The concern for others and that the truth be disseminated is an imperative from the realms of the divine. The wheel of the Dharma must be turned out of compassion for living beings, and out of a need to evolve the world. In spite of the difficulties, the Buddha’s response gives a clear precedent for compassionate response within the world:

Then the Blessed One, having understood Brahma Sahampati’s invitation, out of compassion for beings, surveyed the world with the eye of an Awakened One. As he did so, he saw beings with little dust in their eyes and those with much, those with keen faculties and those with dull, those with good attributes and those with bad, those easy and those hard to teach. Having seen this, he answered Brahma Sahampati in verse: Wide open is the door to the deathless to all who have ears to hear. May those with faith, receive the Dharma.

In contemporary Buddhist thought, Mara, that which deludes, se­duces, and distorts, and Sahampati as a counter force, are interpreted as the Buddha’s own psycho-dynamic processes, or as an archetypal dynamic. The worldview at the time of the Buddha, however, personified the psychological and archetypal realms as actual spirit or cosmological beings. In many cultures, energies felt as transpersonal, tangible, and influential are real. Contemporary secular Buddhism tends to reduce Dharma, and the awakening process, to a purely personal psychologi­cal practice. It strips away the transpersonal, mythical, archetypal, communal, cosmological, mystical, and the unexpected appearance of divine impulse. When touched by the divine, we experience grace. We open into a deep web of intelligence that expands our small and partial view of what is possible. If we interpret everything through our own limitations, or see awakening within the confines of our own known parameters, we reduce the potential for quantum revelation, like the shift that enabled the Buddha to walk back into the fire of the world.

While realistic about the daunting challenge to secure a sustainable ecosystem, we also need that divine impulse that supports faith and hope. The Buddha said, “May those with faith, receive the Dhamma.” In medi­tation, as we allow ourselves to release from our known strategies, we enter the mystery of the deeper intelligence of life. When we touch that mystery with knowing awareness, it is revelatory. It initiates quantum so­lutions.

photo by Karina Krul

photo by Karina Krul

As we listen in to the deeper presence of our own heart, we will find the faith to keep going. Here, we leap beyond our fears and doubts. Something else can happen. We find a refuge and the possibility that there are forces of goodness that protect and support our endeavors. Einstein said, “Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe. A spirit vastly superior to that of humankind, and one in the face of which, we with our modest powers, must feel humble.”

The Buddha taught, “Hatred is never overcome by hatred, only by love is hatred overcome, this is the timeless truth.” Descending from the mountaintop to enter the marketplace, we enter the difficult journey of love. While wisdom liberates, as was the case for the Buddha on the night of his blissful awakening, compassion is a slower evolution, honed in the fire of relationship. The path of compassion is a challenging one. We learn it not through idealization, but through having our ideals burnt to ash by the challenge of meeting the world. No wonder the Buddha felt considerable apprehension when he tried to go back to the world he left behind. No wonder we feel apprehensive by the immense challenges of our time.

We could judge the world as a lost cause, and focus on being a “carbon-free person,” but the truth is, we can’t just hide out in our spiritual safe havens. We are part of a global system. To bring about the changes needed, we now have to work together and reach out across the boundaries, petty prejudices, and resentments we have collectively nurtured over millennia. It is a daunting task, but we should take heart: there is always help, sometimes from unexpected places, like the divine appearance of Sahampati, who spurred the Buddha on. To return to the marketplace is humbling journey. We will fall many times. I love that Mr. Mandela said, “Count not my successes, but the number of times I picked myself up after falling.” The important thing is that we try.

Although the Buddha was tempted to give up, he didn’t and neither should we. Inspired by the spirit of the Dharma, the Buddha overcame numerous challenges. He was right when he sensed it would be difficult. During his forty-one years of teaching he faced criticism, betrayals, famine, wars, deviant and power-mongering disciplines, death threats, slander, and attempts on his life. Yet he continued to teach, right to his last breath, leaving a path that inspired millions, shaped societies and civilizations, and uplifted humans and animals throughout the last 2,600 years. At this most calamitous of times, the Buddha’s message is more important than ever. As we meet the terrifying challenge of climate change, and the likely energy and social revolutions it will initiate, we will be thrust into devastating and exhilarating realities. Everything is changing now, very fast. And so, taking the Buddha’s example to heart, we know compassion as the overarching intention for navigating the inner and outer landscapes of our dying world.

Wishing: In gladness and in safety, may all beings be at ease. Whatever living beings there may be; may they be at ease! Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state. Let none through anger or ill-will wish harm upon another. Even as a parent protects with their life their child …so with a boundless heart, should one cherish all living beings.

−The Buddha


Thanissara is an author and a founder of Dharmagiri Insight Meditation Centre and Chattanooga Insight. She is a core teacher at Insight Meditation Society and affiliated teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

From Time to Stand Up: An Engaged Buddhist Manifesto for Our Earth, Copyright © 2015 by Thanissara, reprinted by permission of North Atlantic Books.

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