Thursday, 16 April 2009

Detachment, Hopelessness and Compassion

One might ask, "Why would these three topics even come up together?"

Oddly enough, they are related in the most curious of ways. Taking detachment first, we see that the basic way of dealing with suffering is to drop what we are telling ourselves about it. There is a saying, "Pain is unavoidable, suffering is optional."

Suffering is optional because when a mind is fully present and clear, "pain" becomes a sensation. It is only when the mind bandages a situation or experience with story upon story that it becomes suffering-prone.

To take a simple example, the next time you drop a hammer on your toe, try taking away the thoughts of "Pain! Bad!" going through your mind, and you may find that it is a totally different experience. An intense one, certainly, but its quality changes quite dramatically. This is what happens when you detach from a situation.

Given that you buy that tale, the question then is, "How do we go through life holding that state of detachment?"

Well, in line with my Buddhist train of thought of late on this blog, there are two dominant answers. They are, unsurprisingly, hopelessness and compassion.

The Hinayana path says you take a basic hopelessness about life around with you. I have talked about that a little in the discussion of the Four Noble Truths. The basic Hinayana, as I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, is the path that doesn't let you get away with it. If you experience pain, you will look for a way out, and chances are good that you will find the Hinayana path first. The Hinayana prescription is simple: Lose ye all hope who are in pain, and the pain will vanish.

Well, not quite, but it will bring your mind down to some semblance of peace. How's that? Good deal? This is not to give up reason for living. Not at all. On the contrary, it is an extremely free-ing reason for living, for it tells you that you can do what you can do, and life will do what it does regardless. It is the basis of mastery to recognise that you aren't really at the steering wheel, and life has a way of doing whatever it pleases, so get over it. This means you are free to do anything, although that doesn't mean you get away with murder. Some actions will throw you deeper into confusion and others will tend to clear things up a bit.

Which is which?

Well, the Hinayana doesn't really get to the central root of the issue, which is the self. If there is no "I", there is no development of attachment. Sometimes, in a flash of insigght, people discover this inherent emptiness of nature, which is shunyata. However, the poison of shunyata kicks in when you haven't really freed up the ego. This poison is the belief that since it's all okay anyway, you can do whatever you want. And since there is still an inherent "you" to that, the result is a lot of pain, even unconsciously.

So, we turn to Mahayana to clean up the mess. Mahayana says, very simply, to develop bodhichitta, the combination of compassion and wisdom, and especially compassion. This compassion says, through the practice of the six paramitas, amongst others, to give of ourselves freely. There are specific practices for this, amongst which I have come to believe Tonglen is of paramount importance.

However, the compassion at the basic stage plays a convenient trick with our minds - it changes the focus away from Self. This is if you are approaching the practice from a practising standpoint. You develop the relative bodhichitta - the compassion for all sentient beings. And by constantly reminding yourself how much suffering there is, you realise how lucky you are. In fact, that is a good practice all by itself. Think of the world of suffering, contemplate it, and give thanks for your situation.

When I was predominantly Hinayanic in my approach, I used to wonder why masters are constantly off on a "save the world" mission, and then I clicked that they did it less for the world, and more for themselves. They did that to keep their egos small and in perspective. I still think that is a valid view from a Hinayana perspective.

From a Mahayana and Vajrayana perspective, however, that is a very simplistic and foolish reason. The double aspects of relative and absolute bodhichitta are, respectively, developing the compassion towards all sentient beings and realising the emptiness of phenomena. The double aspects support each other. When you develop relative bodhichitta, and vow to save all sentient beings, at the very height of the experience, you realise that there are no beings to save, and neither are you substantial, and thus you cannot save anyway. And when you recognise there is nothing to save and no one who is saved, you have fallen into the realisation of absolute bodhichitta, the realisation of emptiness.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, my hero, takes an alternate and almost certainly wiser (although I have no idea why yet at this stage, but I trust the guy) view on this. He says you develop absolute bodhichitta first, and seeing the emptiness of all things, you realise you can afford to be more compassionate, because there is nothing to accumulate anyway. I believe that is a valid view, for sitting (or "abiding", to use more Buddhist vocabulary) in a state of the shunyata principle, there is nothing to be, and so compassion arises naturally - not for selfish purposes, but because there really is nothing else, at that level. Fascinating, no?

Anyway, that's how relative and absolute bodhichitta intertwine. Detachment comes naturally from genuine compassion, and in a deeper and more abiding way than hopelessness. But both work. Thank goodness for that.

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