Buddhism in the West and Liberation as Eternal Vigilance

Taigen Dan Leighton
From an issue of "Dharma World" magazine, published in Japan, Copyright Kosei Publishing Company, Sept./Oct., 2004, contact: [email protected]


In the first half of the Lotus Sutra, on a few occasions Shakyamuni Buddha calls for those who might be willing and able to help share the Dharma (the teaching and the truth) revealed in the Lotus Sutra during the future "evil age" that will come long after the Buddha has departed.

I have always taken this story personally, as if the Buddha was referring to our own time. He must have been speaking about our present age of nuclear weapons proliferation and proposals for "usable" nuclear weapons; and of our legacy of nuclear waste from our last half-century's nuclear energy, waste that will be deadly for tens of thousands of years. Perhaps the Buddha foresaw the current environmental devastation from pollution of our air and oceans; from global warming and resultant climate change; from massive deforestation; from all the plant and animal species that have been exterminated in our lifetime; from the Kyoto Treaty abandoned. The Buddha must have been warning about the massive corruption of governments and economic institutions; about terrorism, and "pre-emptive" wars for financial gain; and about massive redistribution of resources and wealth toward those already most wealthy. In such an age, which enshrines greed and over-consumption and thereby impacts all of us in our personal awareness and conduct as well, who could possibly bring forth in response the wisdom and compassion of the Awakened Ones?

In the pivotal story in the middle of the Lotus Sutra, bodhisattvas visiting from distant world systems offer to return in such a future evil age to share the teaching. But the Buddha tells them it is not necessary. And thereupon, myriad native bodhisattvas emerge from the open space under the earth where they have been dwelling, and pledge to sustain diligent beneficial practice throughout vast ages of time. This leads to the central revelation of the Lotus Sutra that actually the Buddha only seems to pass away into nirvana, as an encouragement for us to practice. In reality, the Buddha has been present, practicing in the world for an extraordinarily long time, and will continue to be present for even longer.

How is it that these diligent bodhisattvas, and even the Buddha himself, remain present in this difficult world we are now occupying? What does this story represent and what guidance does it offer for the conflicts and well-being of people today?

Another significant event of the past half-century, along with the accumulation of nuclear wastes, is the noteworthy spread of Buddhist practice in the West. There have been many gateways for Buddhism's interface with Western culture, including modern psychology, modern scientific insights into neurology and physics, the remnants of contemplative traditions in Western religions, and the search for deeper meaning in increasingly secular, materialist societies. All of these, along with Western feminist insights, have in turn affected the Buddhism that is emerging in this modern transition. But another major avenue for entry of the Buddha teachings into the West, perhaps especially for the United States, and the gateway I will address here, is the democratic principle of liberty and justice for all. The Mahayana ideals of universal liberation, of benefiting all beings and of awakening together with all beings, resonate strongly with American social ideals of inclusion and freedom.

The principles of liberty and justice for all, and the inalienable right of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" were articulated by the United States founding fathers. Especially the writings of Thomas Jefferson offer comparison to Buddhist perspectives. Jefferson's writings remain a touchstone for these worthy principles, despite modern disclosures of his deplorable personal shortcomings, including not only slaveholding, but probably his having fathered children with one of his slaves. While Jefferson made some efforts towards the abolition of slavery early in his career, he succumbed to the conditioning and economic imperatives of the slave plantation culture in which he was raised. And yet, his enunciations of personal liberty for all, along with those of some of his contemporaries such as Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry, remain suggestive to modern views of liberation.

Jefferson was thinking of the corruption of governments and the need for sustained public oversight when he said, "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." He even once expressed the view that a political revolution might be necessary every twenty years. Of course, the American ideals of political freedom may seem feeble compared to the total liberation and freedom from our own inner greed, hatred, and delusion turned to by Buddhist devotees. However, slightly altering Jefferson's saying to "the price of liberation is eternal vigilance," we find a rather cogent Buddhist motto. The Buddhist practices of mindfulness and meditative awareness form another manner of ongoing vigilance. Buddhism did not end with Shakyamuni Buddha's unsurpassed complete awakening. Rather, the Buddhist order just began with the Buddha's liberation, and he himself continued ongoing meditation practice throughout his life. Similarly, for Buddhist devotees, in whatever age, the work of liberation from karmic hindrances and for the sake of helping all suffering beings involves sustaining the gaze of vigilant attention. Practically speaking, one must keep vigil over and attend to one's own inner intentions and habitual patterns derived from deep-rooted greed, anger, and confusion. Insight into these habit patterns may be transformative, but are not usually sufficient to eradicate them. Our humanity includes the recurrence of personal shortcomings.

Jefferson also declared that he vowed "eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." This reflects the practice of vow or commitment, also central to awakening practice. Unfettered expression of insight and kindness, whether in the personal or societal realm, requires dedication and persistence. One traditional version of bodhisattva vows are to save all sentient beings, to cut through all delusive afflictions, to enter all pathways to Dharma, and to realize the Buddha way. These inconceivable vows cannot be enacted based on rational or intellectual calculations. But they can be supported by vigilant attention to our conduct and awareness, dedication to helpfulness, and humble familiarity with our own limitations.

The Mahayana orientation encompasses kindness and forgiveness both to our own personal situation, and to that of the beings in the world around us. This is grounded on the fundamental Buddhist principle of interdependence. All beings are deeply interconnected in ways that we cannot possibly trace. Through "eternal" or continuing meditative vigilance we come to see how we ourselves concoct the process of alienation from the world, how we estrange ourselves by solidifying our sense of separation of self and other. We study this process very closely. Through this work of eternal vigilance we can begin to sense the freedom from fundamental ignorance and confusion that the Buddha proclaimed as he awakened. We can recognize the possibility of radically awakened presence in harmony with totality. Then the Mahayana universal vehicle goes further to show that we cannot be truly liberated if others nearby are suffering. It is not just a matter of clearing up our own psyches, and then we can be happy and free, with all problems resolved. We see that the others around us actually affect us, and that ultimately we are completely connected with them. We truly cannot be completely free while those around us are tyrannized, whether by societal or personal oppression. Ultimately, Buddhist awakening requires liberty and justice for all, or justice and liberation for everyone.

So how do we manifest this Dharmic awareness to benefit the world around us? The American principle of separation of church and state, initiated primarily by Jefferson, does not mean divorcing spiritual values from societal concerns. Jefferson was deeply concerned about spiritual and ethical matters in his writings, whatever his personal deficiencies. Separation of church and state was introduced so as to prevent the imposition of any one official dogma about religious values. All individuals were free to find their own way of worshipping and expressing the sacred. This was not intended to encourage amorality or secular materialism.

In Asian history, Buddhists often retreated from involvement in political affairs, realizing the futility of this when there were not effective cultural or social vehicles for reform. Living in feudal cultures without even the ideals of free speech or representative government, many Buddhists realized that their primary impact on their society might be through expressing an alternative example to the usual worldly pursuits. Of course there have been reform movements by Asian Buddhists, even in the face of great difficulty and societal control. And some Buddhist leaders chose to befriend and try to influence political rulers, as instilling Buddhist values often tempered the use of power somewhat. But we might also recognize that modern democratic principles, even when we see them merely given lip service and cynically abused, provide a fresh opportunity for helpful bodhisattvic activity.

Mahayana perspective may clarify the principle of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as the pursuit of happiness for All beings. It is noteworthy that Jefferson insisted that this portion of the U.S. Declaration of Independence be changed from an initial draft calling for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of property." The pursuit of happiness, even when not conflated with pure acquisition of property, has often been expressed in frivolous or even harmful manners, informed by commercial and materialistic consumerism. And yet, when we leaven the pursuit of happiness with the Buddhist intention, "May all beings be happy," we can understand and act to support happiness in a wider sense. Such happiness would not require hedonistic over-consumption, but would honor the contentment of appreciation and gratitude for that which our life and world already offers us. We can see happiness as related to a sense of wonder at the beauty of the world, and in the possibility of kindness and cooperation. Buddhist principles might help us share such positive outlooks, and also help us respond to societally produced suffering on behalf of others and all.

How can we in this modern "evil age," as implied in the Lotus Sutra, sustain the gaze of constant vigilance, both in the public and personal spheres? Buddhist practice principles apply on three levels: to oneself, the awareness and conduct of one's own body and mind; to all those we associate with directly in the course of our everyday activities when we arise from our particular meditative or other practices; and also to our society and culture, the entirety of the world around us. In this age of globalization and instant mass communication, events all around the world can impact all of us. We cannot avoid our involvement and responsibility in world events.

Bodhisattva Precepts can give us guidance in how to respond to the world around us, as well as how to care for our friends and family, and our own hearts and minds. How we each would respond appropriately may be very different depending on our individual capacities and limitations. The Buddhist principle of skillful means, also elaborated in the Lotus Sutra, would indicate that there could be a plethora of helpful modes with which to respond to the difficulties of society, from lobbying government representatives, to meditating silently for world peace, to acting with kindness toward those around us, to taking on deliberate projects or programs to alleviate specific social conditions that produce suffering.

We might say that all versions of bodhisattva precepts or ethical guidelines arise from the basic practice of taking refuge in Buddha. Informed by Buddhist practice, study, realization of the pain of suffering, and the possibility of responding with calm and kindness, we turn toward that which feels most deeply true and aware. Taking refuge is learning to trust our engagement with reality. Without getting stuck in dogmatic or self-righteous attachment to one particular view of how that might appear, we look to see how we might respond to the troubles of the world, as well as of those around us.

Traditional Buddhist ethical principles provide guidance. One is the teaching of non-harming, ahimsa in Sanskrit. This means studying and knowing our own tendencies and habitual reactions well enough so that we do not cause harm in the world. But it also refers to our efforts to stop others from causing harm, in our immediate surroundings, but also in the world at large. Of course actually preventing harm is not always possible. Often there is nothing to be done except to calmly witness, with continuing vigilance, the situation. But the bodhisattva practices of patience and skillful means inform our considerations as we wait to see when we might have an opportunity to respond helpfully in the face of harm.

Another Mahayana imperative with ethical implications is the vow to benefit all beings. Not only self-serving conduct that seeks to surpass others, but any action on behalf of some to the detriment of others is problematic from this all-inclusive perspective. Nationalist or tribal policies and efforts at conquest are revealed as shortsighted when we understand the true interconnectedness of the world we share. We might find a way to benefit ourselves and our friends and family, an exclusive group of people, which may work for a while. But the reality is that we have to consider all beings, and see that we are not separate from them. For example, Palestinians and Israelis are closely related, yet they are trapped in a cycle of vengeance, and many are unwilling to listen to each other's pain. Some are still attempting to do peacemaking. But there will never be lasting peace until Israelis can hear the pain and suffering of the Palestinians, and until Palestinians also can hear the fear and suffering of the Israelis.

The ten major bodhisattva precepts, which are elaborated in the Brahma Net Sutra, include basic ethical imperatives such as not killing, not stealing, not lying, not supporting intoxication, not indulging in sexual misconduct, and not nurturing anger. Each of these includes positive aspects as well as negative, as not killing involves supporting life and vitality. Each of the precepts applies not only to our own personal conduct, but also to social values in the world around us. Not killing and supporting life implies activity to oppose war, but also to support a reasonable livelihood for people. Ultimately the precept of not killing requires supporting the possibility of a decent quality of life for all people. The societal implications of this precept involve affording everyone a minimal standard of material capacity, but also educating all to find spiritual meaning and nourishment in their lives. Not killing also implies supporting the other forms of life in our environment, upholding a healthy regard for the well-being of the planet.

The precept about not lying involves truth-telling. We try to speak our own truth as best we can, and that includes knowing that we do not know the entire truth. We do not know all the answers. This applies to considering the truth of our own lives, including acknowledging our own personal limitations. And it also applies to looking at the realities of our interactions with those around us, and of our culture. The more we are willing to say what we see, hear each other, communicate and consider other perspectives, and actually work at hearing the truth, the more aware we will be of what is really happening. In our society, this involves being willing to speak the truth to power. This is the realm of Jefferson's "eternal vigilance" that applies to our governments as well as personally. Speaking the truth of society means not just accepting what the mainstream media presents, but really investigating and sharing information. This is the practice and the precept of telling the truth.

We now live in a world of fear, in which violence is used against innocent civilians by terrorists and by governments. And our governments seek to increase our sense of fear. Many governmental and economic institutions have become shamelessly corrupt, and the inequities between the very wealthy and those less fortunate around the globe are increasing dramatically. In such a context, the precepts of Buddhist liberation must be applied to our own personal way of life, but also to the problems of the world around us. These Mahayana precepts, informed by the attitude of eternal vigilance, give us the possibility of responding with dignity, helping to lessen the suffering of the world. Thus we can act to support kindness and awareness in the world, to promote liberty and justice for all, and to face our fears without seeking to escape from the reality around us. In such a way can the teachings of Buddha, including those of the Lotus Sutra, still inform and illuminate the world.