On Aversion for Samsara
Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.
He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.
The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity, too great for the eye of man.
Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.
—Proverbs of Hell
I am posting this from a train stop in south central Texas. I have already transitioned from bhikkhu to samanera, and thus am no longer fully ordained. This one is a day late because Texas is a big place with lots of barren land with no Internet. So it goes.
This pronouncement, so to speak, is inspired by some of the comments I have received in response, or reaction, to my recent Big Announcement. The gist of those comments is that dropping out of the bhikkhu sangha, the ordained Buddhist monkhood that is, is not simply a shame because of my years as a monk coming to an end, or my loss of venerable status, or the difficulties of starting almost from scratch at my mature age, or even the decrease in overall supporting circumstances for spiritual development; but rather the idea that NOT being a celibate monk following ancient monastic rules is necessarily inferior and lamentable. Or even more than that: the idea that being a monk is somehow NOT being stuck in Samsara, and that by dropping out I’m somehow plunging back into it. I would guess that, ironically, all or almost all of these commentators are not monks, so they are faulting me for not living as they themselves also do not live.
This is understandable I suppose, at least with regard to the notion that being a monk is superior to not being one. The Buddhist texts certainly do imply that, and occasionally just flat-out assert it. Then again, any religious system asserts its own superiority, regardless of what it might be; and those same texts also warn that being a bad monk is worse, and more dangerous from a karmic point of view, than being a bad or mediocre layman.
But some people would like somebody to live up to the ideals that they believe in but are unable or just unwilling to live up to. It is good, and comforting, to believe that there are saints and sages in this world. Still, being a monk, or rather being a good one, is not easy, and most people simply don’t have it in them to be one. Anyhow, I am moved to make a somewhat rambling response to all this.
First, some politics. Buddhism teaches that we are all responsible for our own situation in life; it is ultimately delusional to blame someone else, or leftists or fascists or globalists or Whitey or “the Jews” or women in general or men in general, or maybe the whole world at large, for our unhappiness. The leftist preference for blaming others and not accepting responsibility for one’s own problems is essentially one of volitionally wallowing in pain and spiritual bankruptcy and blaming someone else for it, and refusing to accept sole responsibility for one’s own successes and failures. But whether we are happy or not depends primarily and ultimately on our own attitude, and only secondarily at best on our position in the phenomenal world—and that position, according to Buddhist philosophy, is the result of our mental states, our sankharas, anyway.
“I’m not a monk and I am unhappy, therefore I am unhappy because I am not a monk”—this kind of thinking is not much more sensible than an unhappy monk’s idea that he is unhappy because he is one. Similar ideas cause people to do all sorts of things, to get married, have children, etc.: “I’m not married and I’m unhappy, so if I get married, then I’ll be happy…” Reality doesn’t work out this way very often, not even samsaric quasi reality.
As a general rule we are as happy or unhappy as we are out of karmic habit. A study was done years ago on quadriplegics for example, people who had had a sudden accident and were suddenly paralyzed from the neck down. The study found that after a few months to get used to the new situation, these folks tended to be just about as happy or unhappy as they were before the big accident. Cheerful people were just as cheerful and gloomy people were just as gloomy. Sometimes a change is called for and can be beneficial (or at least pleasant), but merely changing one’s lifestyle tends not to have as big of an effect on one’s overall happiness as most people would like to believe. If you are gloomy now you would probably be gloomy as a monk also. One’s character and personal attitude remains pretty much the same, with few exceptions.
One of the main criticisms of “Hinayana” Buddhists by Mahayana ones is that the “Hinayanists” have unskillful aversion for Samsara (which ultimately is no different from Nirvana, in an obscure metaphysical sense anyhow), and they also have a cowardly desire to escape from it, instead of simply learning how to face it with wisdom. Aversion for Samsara is still aversion, one of the unholy trinity of the Three Poisons: Attraction, Aversion, and Delusion. There is some wisdom in this; although I think the notorious Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, in which a bodhisattva named Vimalakirti, who was far more advanced (according to the sutra) than the Buddha’s own arahant chief disciples, frequented taverns and brothels, is rather pushing it.
I think it could be argued persuasively that fear of pain (or dukkha) is cowardice. Certainly there are some things in life for which enduring some pain is worth the trouble. Any honorable man can tell you that. (As my dear old macho father used to say, a little pain never hurt anyone.) The trick comes in seeing that pain or dukkha, like every other worldly phenomenon, is not ultimately real. But so long as we are in the samsaric world, love is truly the only thing that makes life worth living—and I’m referring to the ultimate meaning of love, open-hearted acceptance, not just animal mating instincts.
It is possible, and I think more possible than Theravada Buddhist monastic texts allow, for unordained laypeople to have high spiritual attainments. Ramana Maharshi reportedly became enlightened when he was a secular high school student sitting alone doing his homework. And it seems to me that most westerners with a reputation for high spiritual attainment and wisdom, even full enlightenment—like Paul Lowe, Eckhart Tolle, and Adhyashanti for example—are not only unordained laypeople but have been married besides, even after their great realization allegedly occurred. Of course there is no way to prove their attainment, and devout Theravadins may consider them all to be charlatans because they don’t fit the dogmatic descriptions of saints in the Pali texts, but by the same token there’s no way to prove the attainments of orthodox monks either. It does seem, though, that high attainments in the west usually happen accidentally, when they do happen, as a result of a crisis slamming the person out of his or her samsaric ruts. To my knowledge the crisis culminating in liberating insight tends not to be the misery of having a mate or a job, but rather something else.
Anyway, as I have discussed several times before, the western world is not well suited to orthodox Theravada monasticism, so it seems to me that something else really ought to be developed here, still in accordance with basic principles of Buddhist ethical philosophy. That would probably be easier and more realistic, and much more effective in the long run, than trying to modify western culture to fit a system with rules specifically designed for ancient India.
People want me to do what they themselves are unwilling to do, and if they tried it they might see that it is no guarantee of being all that much happier. And anyhow, like I keep saying, it doesn’t fit life in the west so well. The purpose of the renunciant life is primarily to reduce distractions so that one can penetrate all the phenomenal commotion of Samsara and see the reality that lies beneath. It is the cultivation of voidness. Though once one has the knack of seeing through it, more or less, one may continue seeing through it, to whatever degree, even at a county fair or in the midst of a bustling markeplace, or on a battlefield, or in a storm at sea, or maybe even at Vimalakirti’s favorite brothel.
So yeah, the primary purpose of being a monk is to increase one’s peace of mind, and to allow for steadier meditation. On the other hand, as I’ve discussed a few times elsewhere, a great weakness of Buddhist monasticism in modern times is that it presents few unexpected challenges, other than maybe obstacles while sitting crosslegged; and challenges are practically necessary to bring up one’s latent tendencies—otherwise they remain dormant and one remains clueless of their existence and unenlightened. The human realm is said to be the best place in the universe for progress in Dhamma because there is the right balance of suffering and wisdom (the lower realms have too much suffering and the higher ones have too little to spur on spiritual growth); and as I stated towards the end of the Big Announcement, disrobing actually presents more challenges, and more “freaking growth opportunities” than otherwise. So there is that. Practicing as a layman is in some respects practicing at a higher level, at a higher difficulty setting, and the rewards also can be proportionately higher, at least potentially.
Samsara is a psychological state, encompassing all phenomenal existence from the lowest hells to the highest heavens and including Buddhist monasteries, and it is ultimately an illusory state based on delusion. Thus one’s worldly, outward situation is not nearly as important as one’s mental states. I hope the mental states I have been cultivating for years have me prepared somewhat for a plunge back into the so-called “real world,” and that it may be beneficial to others to have a veteran yogi in their midst (even though I may be incognito and not obviously wearing a yogi uniform). Will I be able to put into practice the mindfulness and equanimity I have learned? Will the merit I have earned land me in a pleasant existence after disrobing? Time will tell, and we’ll see how it goes. Stay tuned for progress reports.
One last thing to walk away with. With all due respect to the Mahayana Buddhists, no matter what we do or don’t do, there will always be an infinite amount of suffering or dukkha in this universe. All beings will never be saved. At the same time, suffering/dukkha, along with those infinite suffering beings, are not ultimately real. Your life is pervaded by Divinity and blessings though, so there is that.