Liberation and Eternal Vigilance

Taigen Leighton
Green Gulch Farm - July 3, 1994

[Note: This Dharma Talk was given in 1994, eight years before it is going on this website. Yet amid the dangers and threats of ever-expanding war we now face, Jefferson's remarks about eternal vigilance to our society and governance seem even more relevant. -Taigen]

Tomorrow is the Fourth of July. So a day early I will say, Happy Independence Day. Or as a Buddhist I would say Happy Interdependence Day.

There are various ways in which this Buddhist practice we do here at Green Gulch, and the Buddhist forms we use here, are pretty strange to us as Americans. But also I think there are many aspects of our culture that are quite congenial and receptive to Buddhism, and are gateways to our entering this kind of spiritual practice. For example, our interest and sophistication in psychology is a kind of gateway to many people interested in various Buddhist therapeutic techniques and psychological insights. Also I think there is a deep yearning for community in our culture. So the Buddhist experience of twenty-five hundred years of spiritual community is of great interest to us. And then for some who are interested in science, the cutting edge of the new physics and various other scientific realms may find that Buddhist cosmology and Buddhist philosophy resonate with the newest discoveries in science. There are many ways in which aspects of our culture entertain Buddhism and are gateways to Buddhism.

One of the strongest is the American ideal of freedom, of liberty and justice for all. We celebrate this weekend because the Declaration of Independence was dated the Fourth of July. Probably all of you know the sentence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

The goal of Buddhist practice is liberation, and I think there is a strong relationship there. When Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha who lived about 2500 years ago, was awakened, and became the Buddha, he said, "Now I see that all sentient beings without exception have the Buddha nature, and it is only because of their conditioning and confusion and ignorance that they do not realize it." Later in the thirteenth century the founder of our branch of Zen practice in Japan, Eihei Dogen, translated that idea as, "All sentient beings completely are Buddha nature." This is a kind of Buddhist declaration of independence.

What I want to discuss today are the various meanings of freedom and liberation, and the relationship between the American ideal of freedom and liberty, and the Buddhist goal of liberation.

I'll start with one of my favorite American Dharma utterances, "The price of liberation is eternal vigilance." This is by Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration of Independence. In some translations you may see it as "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." This applies to our political liberty, as Jefferson believed we night need a revolution or at least to re-form the government every twenty years. We definitely have to watch and guard for oppression in our society. But also I think in Buddhist liberation eternal vigilance is very important. When the Buddha was liberated it did not mean that he could check out and go back to the palace and live a life of privilege and take it easy. And for American Zen students when we get some sense of this Buddhist liberation, it doesn't mean that we can go back home and turn on the television and become couch potatoes. Or come into the zendo in the morning and close our eyes and doze off and become zafu potatoes.

Both liberty and liberation are about maintaining eternal vigilance. Whether it is freedom from social oppression or from personal oppression, freedom from corrupt governments or from our own corrupted psyches, the price of liberation is eternal vigilance.

Another way to talk about this is in terms of independence and interdependence. We could say that Buddhist teaching starts with the interdependence of all things. Actually each of us is totally interconnected with the whole universe. Here is a piece of wood that marks somebody's seat in our zendo, and yet it is totally connected to the sky and the clouds and the rain that rained on the tree, and the person who cut down the tree, and the mill workers who milled the tree, and the trucker who drove the pieces of wood, and somebody around here who beautifully calligraphed a Japanese word on it, and somebody else who taped it on. And what did they have for breakfast and where did that come from. Take any one thing and trace it back and it connects up with everything. And because everything is totally interdependent we have independence. Or maybe Buddhist teaching would say non-dependence. Non-dependence means that there is not a single thing to depend on. When we face any one thing we face everything, all together, all at once. So the image of this in Buddhism traditionally is a jeweled net. The whole universe is a vast net, and at every interstice, every place where the meshes meet, there is a little jewel. Each jewel reflects the jewels around it. And each of those jewels reflects all the jewels around them and so forth. So that actually each jewel reflects everything, every jewel in the whole net. So maybe in America we could call it the jeweled internet.

But any one thing, any particular teaching, or any particular person, any particular job, any particular relationship, any one thing that we think we can hold onto, that we think exists separately, is also a matter of depending on all things. There is nothing that is separate. It becomes a kind of slavery to feel like you are depending on some one thing, whatever it is. Actually, each of us has vast resources, because we are all interconnected. So by not depending on any one thing, by acknowledging interdependence with all things, we see our connection to all beings. And that is how we find our own innate independence. We are actually all free individuals because we are connected up with everything.

As for eternal vigilance, we could call vigilance attention. Attention is the cost of this liberation. We have to continue to pay attention. So the Buddha awakened, and then paid a great deal of attention to how he could share this with all beings. And in this eternal vigilance in Buddhism, "eternal" means right now. Every moment is eternal. So right now we have to be vigilant. Right now our liberation is a matter of paying attention to what is in front of us, including paying attention to the ways we imagine that we can depend on some one particular thing as if it were fixed and reliable. We actually do imagine that we have things we depend on. Of course they are dependable to a certain extent, conditionally. That is how we get up in the morning, get out the door, get into our car, and go wherever we do. We depend on many things. But also we must be able to let go of things that we think are separate and dependable, as separate things. These are illusions that we must be ready to let go of. One side of this freedom is non-attachment, as talked about in Buddhism. Or as the American song by Kris Kristofferen goes, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." The Japanese Zen master Uchiyama Roshi, said, "Gain is delusion, loss is enlightenment." When we think we have got something, that is a delusion. When we can let it go, when we can lose it, when we can be willing to surrender that to the vast jeweled internet, that is awakening, or liberation. This is not easy, as we all know.

The American ideal of democracy, of liberty and justice for all, particularly resonates with the Zen teaching we follow here, called Universal Vehicle Buddhism, or Mahayana, of which Zen is a part. In early Buddhism they had the ideal of personal liberation, that if I can only purify my own attachments, if I can only be free from my desires, that would be liberation. Then Buddhism evolved and the universal vehicle was developed. But it still included this sense of personal liberation, in which we study our own perceptions and how it is to just sit here on our cushions, what comes up, and what happens in our own body and mind. We study this closely, eternally vigilant right now. Thereby we come to see how we make up this process of alienation from the world, how we estrange ourselves by solidifying our sense of self and other, and we study this process very closely. This is the work of eternal vigilance. This is freedom from fundamental ignorance, the fundamental confusion that Buddha spoke of as he awakened.

Then the universal vehicle goes further to see that we cannot really be truly liberated if others down the block are suffering. It is not just a matter of clearing up your own psyche, and then you will be happy and free, with everything solved. We see that there are actually others around us who affect us, and that ultimately we are completely connected with them. It has to be liberty and justice for all, or justice and liberation for everyone.

When the Declaration of Independence was written and during the war to free the colonies from King George and the British oppression, Benjamin Franklin said, "If we don't stand together, we will all hang alone." He thought that all the colonies had to get together and stand up together for their liberty. And for us as Buddhist practitioners, each morning we sit upright together, facing the whole universe, facing the fact that we create suffering by imagining that we are separate from someone down the block. We imagine that we are hanging alone.

There is "freedom from" - freedom from colonization by governments or by our own confusion and ignorance, our own psychology. And there is also "freedom for" - freedom to do something positive to help others, to help all beings, to share whatever it is we have to share, to develop whatever qualities we have that are satisfying for ourselves and for everyone.

However, freedom is not escape. We cannot escape from our situation. I think there is an idea of freedom that was popular when I was growing up back in the sixties of freedom as kind of running away from problems, and escaping into some other way of being. Such escape does not really work. We have to acknowledge our karma. We have to accept our dharma position. We have to accept who we are, where we are, and what we are doing. And then we must really be there, with eternal vigilance, right now. Liberty and liberation do not happen in some ideal place, in some other place up in the sky. We are always here in some particular time and place, and we have to see ourselves and others in that context. The Buddha lived in a particular time and place; Thomas Jefferson lived in a particular time and place. And now most of us are aware that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves [and now, 2002, we know that he probably fathered children with one of his slaves]. This is a very interesting problem for us. It is hard not to make some judgment about that, and it is appropriate in some ways that we do have some judgments.

This week I have been reading some things about Thomas Jefferson and about that period. When the American founding fathers said that all men are created equal, it meant that women were not included. They couldn't vote. And also not all men were included. There was slavery. And even all free men were not included; one had to own a certain amount of property or land before one was included in the rights of the Constitution, or in the right to vote. I have heard that actually the group that was drafting the Declaration originally had written "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of property." Thomas Jefferson insisted on changing it to the pursuit of happiness. I bow deeply to Thomas Jefferson just for that. We have to see a particular context in which things are done. But also we cannot escape from the consequences of a particular time and place. We have to face those particular consequences. Freedom is not a matter of escaping responsibilities. We all know that we live in a very violent society. That is the consequence of this particular karma, this particular history of slavery and of near genocide of the people who lived here before the colonies, the Native Americans.

I understand that the U.S. Constitution was based in some large part on the confederation of the Iroquois nation. Benjamin Franklin and some others studied this and actually used parts of this Native American political system of the Iroquois people to draft our Constitution. Yet Benjamin Franklin himself later spoke of the Native Americans as an obstacle to the progress of the United States. Thomas Jefferson spoke highly of the Native Americans, actually studied the different tribes that he could find out about, and even wrote dictionaries of some of their languages. He was quite interested in their cultures, yet he helped to develop the Louisiana Purchase and spread the United States westward. He thought that the Native Americans needed to learn agriculture, that they would be better off that way. But while recognizing the shortcomings of Jefferson and many of his contemporaries, on this Fourth of July weekend I want to celebrate Thomas Jefferson and other of our American forefathers who in some ways still represent something that resonates with our Buddhist practice. In addition to his statement about eternal vigilance, Jefferson vowed eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the human mind. This was his personal vow. It feels to me very close to our Bodhisattva vow, our vow to save all beings. Jefferson's letters are very impressive. He had quite an active mind, with interests in many realms, and significant accomplishments in many of them. He was an architect, and a scientist, and he wrote about religion. As a Zen student I feel very related to him in terms of his inquiry into the divine, and his questions and concerns. Some of these are in the wonderful collection of letters he wrote to John Adams later in his life. Jefferson was very insistent on religious freedom and tolerance and accepting all forms of religion. In the epitaph he wrote for his own tombstone he did not mention that he was president of the United States. Instead he noted writing the Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia, and writing the Article of Religious Tolerance for the state of Virginia. This was important to him.

Many years ago I visited Monticello. It is quite impressive. Jefferson invented many gadgets one can see there. In some of the Mahayana sutras they talk about the bodhisattva activity being involved in doing things that help people, whatever it is, including inventions.

Wendy Johnson has told me that Jefferson was quite an accomplished gardener also. He had a very scientific attitude toward farming and gardening, and really understood each thing that happened on his plantation in terms of the whole ecology of the area. He was really aware in that kind of way. I think he would be interested in what we are doing at Green Gulch Farm. He thought that working with the soil, being on the land, was very important to democracy.

Having said all that, still, he was a slave holder. He thought it was an evil that should be eradicated, and actually worked to do that. Yet he did not free his own slaves until his will, on his deathbed. I am not a historian. Probably some of you know a lot more about this than I do. By the way, I heard that the Dalai Lama when he visited Monticello joked that he must have been Thomas Jefferson in a previous incarnation. We do not elect our presidents in that same way as Dalai Lamas are selected; perhaps unfortunately, we may sometimes think. Today, looking back and trying to be inspired by those who have gone before us in this kind of spiritual practice, we have to look at the particular time and place. Today there are people who criticize Shakyamuni Buddha also because he founded an order of nuns as well as an order of monks, but only reluctantly, after quite a bit of persistent pressuring from his stepmother, Mahprajapati, who was the leader of the first order of nuns. The nuns were definitely subordinate to the monks in the original Buddhist order. So American Buddhists today often criticize that, and from our modern perspective, rightly so. Certainly we might feel that there is some problem with that. But then we have to see the context of where he lived also, and the society in Northern India at that time, 2500 years ago. It was quite radical to start a Buddhist order and accept women at all. He accepted outcastes also, and stated quite clearly that it was definitely equally possible for women, outcastes, and everybody to awaken. This was extremely radical at that time. Still we maybe have some criticism. But I wonder how we will be judged in two hundred years, or in twenty-five hundred years. What things that we take for granted today, or things that we protest against today, will people look back and wonder, "How could they have done that?" We create pollution, many problems with the environment, all the wars. We watch people on television butcher each other and do not know what to do. And all the poisonous nuclear waste piles up, probably our most significant long-term legacy to the future of the planet. We should really be a little humble in looking back and judging others, it seems to me.

I want to go back to this pursuit of happiness, or, "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." I think about this idea of freedom and the Buddhist sense of liberation, and perhaps what Buddhism has to offer to us as Americans today. Maybe the most important area has to do with how we understand what is the happiness in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Happiness is not just material accumulation; consumerism and the pursuit of property. Still that is part of the American dream. I have seen that ironic bumper sticker: "Whoever dies with the most toys wins." What Buddhism teaches about happiness has to do not with material enjoyments, but with things like sympathetic joy. This is to be really happy when somebody else has something good happen to them. That is not always easy, to really be joyful, to be really sympathetic. Even if something that you wanted comes to somebody else and you do not have it, can we really be sympathetically joyful?

One basic idea of happiness in Buddhism is to be content with one's own situation, to be content with what one has, and not to need so much. To be grateful, to have gratitude for the everyday wonders that we do have, whatever our situation, leads to a kind of happiness. Just to be alive, we can be grateful for that. In Zen practice happiness has to do with uprightly facing our own life. Whatever it is, whatever comes up, keep sitting. You do not have to move. You do not have to be shaken or reactive to the situations that come up. Whether you are sitting in the zendo, or whatever you are doing, we can respond uprightly. We say that this upright posture is the gateway of repose and bliss, the gateway of peace and freedom.

With this eternal vigilance, with this attention, right now, we can give ourselves the time and space to be at liberty, to enjoy our lives, to appreciate what we do have in front of us, and to see what it is that we can do that will be helpful. I will close by reading the writing about liberation by another great American patriot who was also a great yogi. This is Henry David Thoreau talking about leaving his monastery at Walden Pond to re-enter the marketplace.

"I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so, with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains."

As Thoreau suggests, liberation, and true happiness, has to do with vigilantly going beyond our mental ruts, and being willing to share ourselves out in the world, enjoying the moonlight and mountains.