Monday, 14 April 2014

The Spectrum of Usefulness and Enlightenment.

I want to point out a distinction which I consider important for understanding the Mahayana and for avoiding a particular hindrance to enlightenment. My concern is that a certain wrong view leads us to be too busy, which I think stems from our understanding of how altruistic activity fits into Buddhism. We considered the Mahayana goal of Buddhahood to be merely a re-emphasis of the goal of full enlightenment.  However, it’s not difficult to see how this is a mistake. To become fully enlightened we do not also need to develop the extra abilities which make one a Buddha (like our historical Buddha) – for example, liberating yourself without the guidance of an enlightened teacher and successfully passing on that enlightenment to others. In fact, it should not come as a surprise that becoming fully enlightened does not mean you are suddenly going to be useful (like our historical Buddha). The problem, as I see it, is that our path to full enlightenment can be hindered by these mistaken views; they lead us to confuse the conditions necessary for our liberation with the conditions necessary for becoming useful to others. It seems to me that in reality the two goals represent two possible extremes on a spectrum of how much one is of actual benefit to others whilst gaining liberation. I.e. someone who is fully enlightened but not very useful to others and someone who is fully enlightened and is very useful to others. 

One implication of this is that there is a boundary between altruistic activity which moves us towards full enlightenment (i.e. an Arahant), and altruistic activity which is more than needed merely for our own full enlightenment (towards the Mahayana goal). Of course we can prolong our path to enlightenment by adding more altruistic activity; we could follow the recommendation for a Bodhisattva to train in the languages, medicines, and other things useful to others. These things can lengthen our path because they take up our mind. We should know that it is in fact not necessary to master any of the arts or sciences in order to gain enlightenment. If we do not clearly separate enlightenment from ability we are likely to think altruistic activity we are doing for others is also just what we need for our path to enlightenment, but this may not be the case. I think most of us are just being too busy and hindering our path to enlightenment. A manifestation of the wrong view which conflates enlightenment with abilities is that in practice we end up being too busy trying to become useful. This may also have lead to an undervaluation of monasteries, meditation and the life of calm in Triratna. 

Most importantly, more has been added in the Mahayana, explaining why the path to Buddhahood would take longer. This altruistic activity was never intended to be the direct path to a Bodhisattva’s enlightenment. It is not easy to see what is necessary for a particular person’s path. Extra altruistic activity can sometimes be helpful for a person’s path to enlightenment. One example of this is the story of Milarepa’s trials. However, those towers were not really built for the benefit of Marpa. There are several aspects at play here which we can easily confuse. For example, if we conflate enlightenment with ability we may expect someone to not be very enlightened just because they don't have very good social skills, or can’t give good public talks. Selflessness, altruism and altruistic activity need to be distinguished. Selflessness cannot actually be equated with usefulness to others; sometimes they overlap and sometimes they don’t. It seems to me that this really distinguishes the two goals. In terms of the goals of Buddhism we could say that they are characterised by a ‘spectrum of usefulness’ alongside the attainment of enlightenment; at one extreme there is mere enlightenment and at the other extreme there is enlightenment plus the fully developed ability to be useful to others. This has an early precedent in the Kitagiri Sutta which describes ‘liberation in both ways’. Perhaps this was an early example of what gradually developed into the Mahayana as the Buddha’s achievement began to be included in the schema of goals. We need to distinguish enlightenment from abilities as we see described in the Kitagiri Sutta if we are to both understand the Mahayana and avoid hindering our path to enlightenment. The movement’s approach to altruistic activity has helped it to grow, but now we should look more carefully our approach and even how we have been influenced by cultural conditioning, get the principle right and incorporate all aspects of ‘the spectrum’ correctly. 

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