Who doesn’t love the idea of freedom? That, along with the pursuit of happiness, are the two basic wishes of all living beings, including a caterpillar who caught a ride inside on my shirt just now. But it just so happens that freedom comes not from holding onto a false sense of being independent but from realizing our interdependence. Since today is July 4th, I thought it’d be a good day to talk some more about this.
Buddha’s ultimate view is the union of the two truths, which can be understand in various ways: the union of compassion and wisdom, the union of method and wisdom, the union of the vast and the profound, the union of conventional truth and ultimate truth, the union of appearance and emptiness, the union of great bliss and emptiness, and the yoga of non-dual clarity and profundity. As we progress through the stages of the path of Sutra and Tantra we deepen our realization of the union of the two truths until we attain the Union of No More Learning, Buddha’s omniscient wisdom.
Two-fer the price of one meditations
Right from the get-go we can start training in this union. Whenever we practice Buddha’s teachings (Dharma), as much as we possibly can we want to bring our understanding of the ultimate nature of things into all our other practices. One place we do this is within the mind-training (Lojong) teachings, where we meditate on the union of method and wisdom. Exchanging self with others, for example, requires letting go of self-grasping ignorance to fully empathize with others, feeling “self” about others.
I want to talk about the Lojong meditation on the kindness of others. This meditation on the one hand increases our love, connection, warmth, empathy, cherishing, and compassion; and on the other hand breaks down our sense of being a real independent me, thus undermining our ignorance of self-grasping. It’s a two-fer!
Our understanding of interconnection increases our understanding of emptiness, which in turn increases our understanding of interconnection. And so on. Interconnection is method or conventional truth, and emptiness is wisdom or ultimate truth; and these two combined synergistically are a way to develop vast and profound compassion for all living beings.
Normally our ignorance, the opposite of wisdom, holds ourselves to be completely independent, self-sufficient, and separated out from others — me, me, me over here, and you lot all over there. There’s a gap between us because I exist from my own side and you exist from your own side. And it stands to reason that I cherish my self more than your self because, for one thing, I’m very used to doing that and, for another, my sense of Me feels more real and solid to me than yours does.
Clinging to a real me and real other produces an illusion of separation, a complete hallucination – the separation, gap, or barrier between us does not exist. When we meditate on the kindness of others we are using Buddha’s method teachings to break down that barrier by seeing how we exist in dependence upon others. Being dependent on others is the opposite of being independent. This meditation, which I have brought up several times on this blog, shows how we are connected to all other living beings – how in fact we exist only in relationship with others. Take others away and we cease to exist. Like the legs of a tripod — take one leg away and the tripod falls over.
The kindness of others
All living beings deserve to be cherished because of the tremendous kindness they have shown us. All our temporary and ultimate happiness arises through their kindness. Even our body is the result of the kindness of others.
One way to start this meditation is by remembering how kind our mother was to make us this body out of her own bodily ingredients. We then basically came into this world naked and empty handed,
yet as soon as we were born, we were given a home, food, clothes, and everything we needed – all provided through the kindness of others.
Which is why we’re here today, right, reading this? We’re very possessive about our body but it’s not actually our body, it’s bits of our parents’ bodies + an enormous amount of food produced and grown by others. Do you grow and survive on your own food? As a kid, I thought I grew an orange in a greenhouse. In retrospect I can see that my grandfather was the one who did all the work – he was just trying to encourage me by letting me water it and proudly watch it grow. Yet, even if I do claim that orange, I’d be long dead if that’s all I’d ever been allowed to eat. Even if you do grow your own food, it’s still thanks to the soil, the implements, the seeds, the knowledge, etc. etc that all come from others. Every atom of our flesh and bones really comes from other people, does it not?
Normally we take so much for granted – this is a natural function of our self-grasping and self-cherishing – we assume things should go our way and are prepared to complain loudly when they do not. When the power goes out for hours, for example, it’s like, “Dear electricity people, I have never thought about you before in my entire life, but now I really love you and would like you to turn the lights back on again. Please.” We’re on the phone being all charming to them, but normally we don’t even care they exist.
We take everybody for granted. Starting with our mother, of course, and all the electricians, but also all the people who built our house, made our bed, gave us a job, taught us how to read and write, invented A/C for these hot summer months, and so on and so forth. We take it all for granted until we don’t have it.
As Geshe-la says, the mere fact that we’re alive today is a testimony to the great kindness of others, and they’re the reason we are able to enjoy all the pleasures and opportunities of this human life. If we start thinking about how many people are involved in keeping us going every minute of every day, we start to get the picture. It takes some contemplation to get there, and for it to be emotionally authentic; but we do come to see that others are the very infrastructure of our being, the very part and parcel of our existence – and that holding onto a separation between self and other is like trying to cut the sky in two with a knife.
If you had to give back everything that others have given you, what would you start with to make it last as long as possible? Maybe your hair. Or clothes. Or glasses. Or one toe. Or a hand. Or your education. Or your carpet. Or …
When I imagine giving back everything others have given me, I very quickly go out of existence. I literally go out of existence. I stop existing.
Which shows that I exist ONLY in dependence upon numerous other living beings. They are kind in the sense of being kindred or related. The motivation doesn’t matter because the point is that anyone who keeps us physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually alive and healthy is deserving of our gratitude, love, and respect. If someone saved us from drowning today we wouldn’t make them fill out a questionnaire: “Why did you do that? Do you love me? If you don’t love me, it doesn’t count.” We’d just feel grateful.
Meditating on the kindness of others shows us that we’re not inherently existent or independent (1), and we are like a cell in the body of life, inextricably connected and bound up with every other living being (2). Our very existence is only as relationship with others (2) — take away that relationship and we literally disappear (1).
Existing as a dependent relationship doesn’t mean one person over here is connected to another person over there by a real connection between them. We exist only AS connection – like two things leaning against each other, or as a short person exists only in relation to a tall person. There is not even one atom of self without other, or other without self. Contemplating this breaks down the hallucination that we are inherently existent; and the more this wisdom realizing ultimate truth grows, the more we understand how we exist as dependent relationship, which is conventional truth.
Rethink ourself as a cell in the body of life
This meditation has two effects: it helps us overcome self-grasping and it opens our heart to others and stops us taking them for granted, making us realize that we are completely indebted to them and that they are worthy of our love. They are the very infrastructure of our life so we need to look after them. As Geshe-la says:
In short, we need others for our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Without others, we are nothing. Our sense that we are an island, an independent, self-sufficient individual, bears no relation to reality. It is closer to the truth to picture ourself as a cell in the vast body of life, distinct yet intimately bound up with all living beings. We cannot exist without others, and they in turn are affected by everything we do.
Grasping at an independent self-sufficient self, we are continually developing self-cherishing, “What about me!?”, trying to secure our own wealth and good conditions all the time and endlessly angsting about own problems. But:
The idea that it is possible to secure our own welfare while neglecting that of others, or even at the expense of others, is completely unrealistic.
It is like a cell in the body not recognizing that it’s intimately bound up with every other cell in the body and that its welfare 100% depends upon others and others’ welfare depends upon it.
What freedom do we have?
Think of yourself for a moment as a cell in the body of life, distinct yet intimately bound up with all the other cells. One question is, how much freedom and independence do you really have? Where does freedom come from? Talking about this with a friend the other day, he gave me a quote from Mike Tyson:
Everybody has a plan until they’re punched in the face.
You probably had a plan today, right? We always have plans. And sometimes our plans kind of work out; but they still depend upon everybody else, don’t they?
If we’re talking about a cell in the body of life, what is its freedom? There is no freedom, on one level, because we can’t make other people do what we want them to do. We have no real idea what other people are going to do. We’re completely bound up and intertwined and dependent upon others, and we cannot control them.
With self-grasping and self-cherishing, we are continually trying to make our way in the world by controlling others but, the truth is, the only freedom we possess is the freedom to choose our (1) intention and (2) wisdom.
Being part of a greater whole is not just some kind of nice analogy. Existentially, we are not independent wholes unto ourselves but only part of a greater whole of all living beings. If our heart is in touch with this, naturally an intention will develop to look after and cherish others – we need them to be well because we’re all in this together. Bottom line, their welfare is my welfare, and my welfare is their welfare. We can choose to live in accordance with what is actually the case, the reality of the method teachings; and our intention becomes compassion, love, gratitude, respect. In this way, our life and our actions start to go much better. We start to have freedom because we’re aligned with the way things are. In fact, the more we cherish others, the more in alignment with reality we become, and therefore the more sane, kind, happy, and close to enlightenment.
The other freedom we have is to align ourselves with the wisdom that understands that we are not independent, we’re not cut off or self-sufficient. Then in that sense, also, we have the choice to not follow our futile self-grasping, self-cherishing, and all the other delusions that arise from these; and we start to experience deeper freedom and happiness through this wisdom.
In summary: meditating on the union of method and wisdom in this meditation gives rise to a pure intention and wisdom, with which we now have actual freedom and can accomplish everything we want.
Happy In Dependence Day!