“FREEDOM”—superimposed upon rippling stars and stripes—declares a billboard along Highway 94 outside St. Louis. If we are free, I wonder, why must we work so hard to convince ourselves, and the rest of the world? The Land of the Free. The Free World. Fighting for Freedom. Free Trade. Freedom Fries. Are we frying ourselves in freedom?
The theme of freedom is central to both Buddhist teachings and the American cultural myth. Buddhist teachings on freedom (vimutti, liberation) consequently provide an excellent opportunity to examine our “indigenous ways” of understanding freedom, including the ways our preconceptions obstruct and prevent understanding what the Buddha taught. A variety of American assumptions about freedom have surfaced at retreats and Buddhists centers where I teach. I’ll wager that most of these assumptions have some influence on each of us.
We can apply the tools of mindfulness practice in recognizing these assumptions and thus mitigate their insidious influence. Many Western practitioners, Americans in particular, are enthusiastic about adapting Buddhism to our times and way of life. This often involves criticism of sexist and other “cultural baggage” from Asia. We would also do well to critique our own cultural baggage. Our notions of freedom are a good place to start such a critique. Let’s examine some of our assumptions:
Freedom from Pain, Discomfort and Inconvenience
With our vast pharmacology and entertainment media, why bother with pain? Shouldn’t we be happy all the time, like the smiling faces gracing the advertisements in Buddhist magazines? When bored, we can change the channel, take a trip to a more interesting locale, or find a more rewarding relationship. On retreats, we expect good food, hot showers and single rooms, and some people complain about the lack of laundry service. We confuse healthy sadness (e.g., over the desecrated state of our democracy and ecology) with depression and seek to escape it. Attachment to this goal of perceptual pleasantness gives us a childish understanding of dukkha and puts us at odds with many of life’s realities, preventing us from experiencing them directly and deeply. Why do we feel compelled to be upbeat and positive? Rather than medicating the ways life bites us, the Buddha shows us how to recognize the sources of the dukkha we bring upon ourselves. That opens the path to true freedom.
Freedom from Material Wants
We’ve been sold the American dream of middle-class security, affluence and success. We want to enjoy a lifestyle—multiple-car families, boutiques for everything, and broadband for all—that the planet’s resources cannot support. Even those of us with a social critique and serious Dhamma practice still fall for the illusion. The background noise of affluence is so high that we think our relatively lighter affluence is acceptable, if not a right. Yet our affluence is killing the biosphere, as well as the inner biosphere of practice. To open deeper space for practice we must let the teachings on renunciation trouble our unprecedented baby-boomer wealth.
Freedom from Limitations
Living as a superpower, pampered with affluence, doting on technology, it’s easy for us to ignore how life requires limits and boundaries. Overlooking the big sticks we still carry and believing we are the good guys, we throw our weight around in the world as if nobody should mind. Such arrogance trickles down into us all, no matter how liberal. As we shop around the world, fill the skies with airline exhaust, and refuse to live within the constraints of our ecosystems, we in effect throw out vinaya (discipline), renounce renunciation and rationalize away basic precepts. Lost in our delusions of autonomy, we deny the natural realities, family dynamics and social responsibilities that require boundaries and compromise. The freedom that doesn’t bite requires seeing that our own humanity is a shared inheritance and a socially supported dependent co-arising.
Freedom from Conditioning
The Buddha taught that all natural phenomena are dependent upon and thus influenced and conditioned by other things. Conditioned phenomena are known as sankhara and more specifically as paccaya when they condition other phenomena. I have heard students of Buddhism suggest that we should be free of all forms of conditioning. Are they and the Buddha talking about the same thing? I don’t think so. The use of similar terms seems to have created a muddle. Such Western notions of “conditioning” as the Pavlovian sort that we learned in high school and the sinister visions of social conditioning portrayed by Orwell are far more limited in scope than the Buddha’s profound and universal understanding of interdependence (idappaccayata). The Buddha’s teaching on conditionality cannot be reduced to mechanistic determinism such as that demonstrated when dogs are trained to salivate at the sound of a bell. As with our understanding of freedom, the invasion of a Western set of connotations into those of Buddhism make it difficult to understand which sort of conditioning is a problem because it produces suffering and which is simply life as it naturally is (tathata, thusness). Buddhism teaches that the problematic conditioning arises from misunderstanding, craving and clinging; if one wishes to be free of suffering, these conditions that cause suffering are to be abandoned. The Noble Eightfold Path is offered as the way to do so, such as when we view commercials or vote in elections with sufficient mindfulness, compassion and discernment.
On the other hand, there are the natural conditions of life (sankhara)—such as birth, aging and death—that cannot be avoided. Regarding the natural conditioned flow of life, “letting go” means not clinging to anything as “me” or “mine.” This also applies to the conditions of language, culture and shared meanings in which we are embedded. Need they bite us? Only when we take them as a basis for fixed views, ethnic identity and other forms of egoism. It’s fine to care about them and take responsibility for their skillful use. Similarly, the conditioning of our biology and the structure of our human nervous systems need not be erased. Rather than trying literally to escape the natural conditioning of life, biology and culture, it is more realistic and responsible to accept and understand them. Letting go means relaxing and abandoning egoistic conceiving of, grasping at and suffering over things; it doesn’t mean pretending things don’t matter to us or sinking into wishy-washy relativism. In Buddhism, suffering matters profoundly, as does liberation from suffering, and a strong commitment to them is necessary.
Freedom from Group Pressures, Commitment and Responsibility
Integration within healthy webs of relationship such as family, community and ecology require that we sacrifice some of our personal desires and conveniences, such as large houses in the petroleum sprawl of suburbia. In a way that may seem paradoxical to many of us, such sacrifices open up the freedom to live more fully in touch with our bodies, feelings and spiritual needs. Nor are personal sacrifices about losing ourselves in the group. Just such freedoms of healthy integration are forsaken in our pursuit of exaggerated individualism. A deep commitment to the well-being of others, society and the biosphere goes beyond mere gestures of involvement, such as social justice rhetoric in which nothing meaningful is sacrificed. A false freedom of noncommitment often lurks in the excuse masquerading as the question “What can I do?” This contains an embedded delusion because we are thinking in terms of “I alone,” which keeps us from working together constructively on grave issues of collective life and death. An individuality that commits to little more than its own likes, desires and comforts—whether buff bodies, the next trip or recycling—is not worthy of the life it has been lent. In effect, we turn our backs on the sangha and community we hope is our refuge.
Conversely, a sustainable ethic requires that we acknowledge and allow the relational webs that sustain us and give meaning to our lives. We can learn to relax selfishness and let others into our lives—that is, have impacts we cannot control. In that way, we embrace the freedom of give-and-take, which nourishes instead of biting. By being less trapped in hyperindividuality, we are free to participate more fully in sangha and the evolution of Dhamma in our lives and world. Thus, we find a wiser, more mature autonomy.
Freedom to Do Whatever it Takes to Preserve Our “Self-Esteem”
Buddhist teachers and practitioners are not immune to the competitiveness of our agonistic culture. Further, most American Buddhists have been members of our national cult of “self-esteem” at some phase of our lives, even if we failed in it somehow. Apparently bastardized from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs by our consumer and therapy industries, this cult insinuates self into much of what we do. Sadly, this often manifests in our not measuring up and thus feeling “low self-esteem” and guilt. Interestingly, Maslow’s notion of self-esteem derived from watching dominant alpha monkeys triumph over others. Although most Buddhist practitioners probably see that as unhealthy behavior for humans, we may not face up to how we nonetheless pursue elusive self-esteem and overlook Maslow’s original insights into the dominating self-love of aggressive males and the social benefits gained thereby. We now consider feeling good about ourselves a basic human right and confuse it with happiness, which allows us to overlook its dark side. If feeling good about our work is important, and measured by monetary success, then we are likely to overlook any selfishness and aggression that arise in achieving this kind of self-esteem. But this achievement orientation once again ignores the conditionality of our successes—for example, how much we rely upon others, the privileges of class, and the military dominance of the United States. Egocentric self-esteem takes something that naturally emerges from healthy, unselfish Buddhist practice and turns it into a goal, commodity and problem.
Practicing the Way and dropping egoism naturally leads to Dhammic contentment. Seeking to feel good about ourselves puts “me” right back at the center, where it can never be satisfied because it isn’t real enough to be satisfied. When we let go of “me” and “mine,” healthy esteem, confidence and contentment arise naturally. We require a “new common sense” that sees all self-centeredness as self-destructive. Let us esteem Dhamma rather than the self-biting.
As we explore the teachings and practices of Buddhism, may we be mindful of such cultural distortions. After all, they affect us all. To assume we are free of them is probably the worst illusion of all.