When we set out on a spiritual Way, we have, of course, something in mind, an idea of what, eventually, we hope to achieve—Heaven, Liberation, Nirvana, Enlightenment, Peace, etc. The ideal to which we aspire is, and must be, far ahead of us; there is a long way to go from the actual to that. But it must not be so far ahead that we do not get an occasional glimpse or inkling of what it is we are aiming for, otherwise it will be easy to give up in despair, crushed by the immensity and remoteness of the ideal.

We must begin with the actual, with ourselves as we are. But how are we? We understand little of our physical bodies, and even less of our minds. But we can see, if we care to, that we are the result of many forces and influences pressing on us from all sides, molding, twisting and changing us; there is no plan in it all, it is not consistent or deliberate, and even small things can remodel us considerably. We identify with the name our parents gave us and which is therefore not ours but theirs; we think we are as the mirror says we are, but that is only a reflection and not what it reflects. We do not have a very accurate picture of ourselves at all. Who are we? We simply do not know. The funny thing is, though, we never move away from ourselves; no matter what kind of journey we are on, we cannot get away from ourselves.

And then the ideal at which we aim: what do we know of that, except what others have told us or what we have read? What we do feel sure of, however, is that it must be different and better than what we are right now, as we are living in a state of misery and confusion; we are just not happy or integrated; we are impure, imperfect, incomplete, and there has to be, we presume, a better condition, a better state of being than this!

We live, then, in a state of anxiety and restlessness, not wanting to be what we are but something that we are not. We are divided in ourselves, at war with ourselves, mocked by the ideals we have set ourselves.

To become what we are not, to change from this to that, to grow and develop, requires effort along certain lines, and this doesn’t happen immediately, of course, but takes time. What often happens, however, is that we measure our imperfection beside the state of perfection at which we aim, and find ourselves deficient. This results in feelings of guilt and misery; sometimes we think: “After so long, I am no further along the way than I was when I began! What am I doing? Where am I going? Is there any point in continuing? Might I not as well give up?” This happens when our eyes are fixed so far ahead, longing for something that we probably will not reach for a long, long time—and maybe will never reach at all; perhaps it’s just a carrot on a stick, dangled before our nose to motivate us and get us moving in the direction of self-improvement and self-discovery—and forget to take into account the successes along the way, however small they may be.
Perhaps we are blinded by the ideal, and have lost sight of the actual; perhaps we are too hard on ourselves and do not give ourselves a chance. Does it mean we are unworthy and lack faith in the Way if something unfortunate happens to us? If we get sick or suffer, does it mean that we are sinful and therefore deserve it? If we are sad, afraid or angry at times, does it mean that we are not sufficiently grounded in the Dharma? No, it is not like this; it is simply because we are human, with our entire past still with us; it is because it is the normal human state. We may be trying to run before we can walk. To do so would be to overlook and disregard our great good fortune at being human rather than to use it to go further. It is said that it is very hard to be born human, and we should understand and appreciate this, not deprecate it. We might not be fully enlightened yet—we are not, let’s face it—but then, no-one starts out fully enlightened, do they?

Do you think, in your faint heartedness, dejection and despair that you are just not enlightened at all? That would be just as wrong as thinking you are fully enlightened when you are not, and would display ignorance and ingratitude about your human condition. It would also be a rejection and betrayal of all that people before us struggled for and passed on to us, a rejection even of the Buddha Himself and His Dharma! We must try to be realistic and not falsely modest. We are enlightened, to some degree—perhaps only to a small degree, but nevertheless, it is there. And although it is true that our thinking, feeling and understanding are often distorted and biased, they might be straightened out and our enlightenment increased—even until full enlightenment, if there is such a thing; at our stage, we do not know if there are limits to growth or not. It really helps to remember, though, that pain is not just a condition of decay but also of growth.

To understand ourselves, we must see our situation, our place among others, for it is simply not possible to understand ourselves alone, in isolation. We are like leaves or flowers on a tree; without the tree, we simply would not exist. And so, before we try to separate ourselves from the rest of humanity, we must look back and see how we have been carried by the stream of humanity to the present: we have always been part of something much bigger than ourselves and cannot ever be separate from it, as in our conceit we think we can. Suppose you were able to sever all connections with people and live on your own, growing your own food and making whatever you needed, like Robinson Crusoe on his island: what about your thoughts? They would still not be your own, but would be made up of the words of others, the language that you inherited in the place you were born. You see, we are not separate and never can be, but are dependent. Why are we so reluctant to recognize this? It doesn’t in the last detract from what we are; on the contrary, it leads us to see that we are part of a vast movement, a mystical unfolding, a cosmic drama. If we look back and peer into the mists of time we will get a dim idea of how far we have come as a species. Go to a museum and look at the exhibits of stone tools made by primitive man, see the replicas of their habitations, feel how it might have been in those far-off times, when life was precarious and short. You can’t deny we have evolved. But do you know how we evolved? And did you have any share in it, did you play a part in the evolution of our race? Why have we been born at this time and not another? Would you like to live as a cave-man, a million years ago? Think of what you have inherited by being born in this time: all the struggles, labors, pain and suffering of those who lived before you—including the crude, blind, uninformed gropings of our savage and primitive ancestors—and the understanding and skills that resulted therefrom, have contributed to and made possible everything that we now have. They have not really ceased to be, but are here with us now, through the things they bequeathed us. We must think about them kindly, with gratitude; their living was not in vain, and if we look at it in this way, our living will also not be in vain.

Our feet rest on the soil of the past, but we cannot stay here, and must go on. And shall we go on without pain, without fear, without problems? Of course not! The way ahead holds many difficulties; suffering will not be rare. Know, however, “that it is the broad view and the long vision which alone can cure our fearfulness and fortify our steps. A longer vista lies before us than even anthropology can offer of the past”. Your living is not for yourself alone. Your every action affects the world. What will you be doing as you read or hear what I have written, I wonder? Whatever it is, it will be changing the world in one way or another, imperceptible though it may be; you could equally well be doing something other than what you are doing, something better or something worse, but whatever it is, it is having an effect on the world. The world is changing constantly, becoming other than it is. We change it when we build or destroy; we change it when we scatter litter or pick up litter scattered by others; we change it by teaching and by cheating; we change it when we kill or heal, when we lie or when we steal; we change it when we drink or eat; we change it when we work or sleep; I am changing the world by writing books (hopefully for the better); in short, we cannot not change the world, because we are part of it, and so whatever we do has an effect on the whole.

Following a spiritual way, even though we may feel all alone and lonely thereon, has a salutary effect in the world around us, because we are making it just that bit more spiritual, and are using our energies positively instead of negatively. Moreover, we know that it is not just for ourselves that we do this, but for the world that we belong to and can never be apart from. Upon His Enlightenment, the Buddha did not cease to be human, and devoted the rest of His life to sharing with others what He had found. What an impact He had!

We should be careful not to let fear become the motivating force on our spiritual journey, for fear always distorts things and prevents clear seeing. We must see the situation as clearly as possible: We have been born; we are alive; we suffer; we will die. What will happen then, we really don’t know, but fear makes us think about it, and leads us to grasp at concepts that hold out hope of some sort of survival. Most of these concepts, however, come at a price: we must give or do something to qualify for their benefits. If the proffered hope is attractive enough, we struggle to do or give what is asked; we want, and therefore must pay.

Yes, something must be given up to adapt to the Way, of course; the Way will never adapt to us. But we should not do it with the idea of getting this for that, like buying something. If that is the way we do things, we will surely be disappointed. Giving up things that are not compatible with the Way should be done from understanding that it is the right thing to do—even if it is hard and painful—and not from a desire for results; we cannot bribe the Way. A moral code should be embraced and followed because it covers our relationships with others; it should be adopted from love for others rather than from fear of making ‘bad karma’ if we do not follow it, or from greed for ‘merit’ for following it. Love is a much better foundation for following the Way than fear or greed, and it arises from seeing clearly how things are. If we see that others are just like us in their desire to be happy and free from suffering, we will know what to do; the Way will open out before us; and although we know that merit or ‘good karma’ is essential, we will not let that be our guiding motive for following the Way, but will let good actions flow naturally, from understanding.
To reinforce what I have just said, I would like to quote here from the Roman emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius, of the 2nd century: “One man, when he has done a service to another, is ready to set it down to his account as a favor conferred. Another is not ready to do this, but still in his own mind he thinks of the man as his debtor, and he knows what he has done. A third in a manner does not even know what he has done, but is like a vine which has produced grapes, and seeks for nothing more after it has produced its proper fruit. As a horse when he has run, a dog when he has caught the game, a bee when it has made honey, so a man when he has done a good act does not call out for others to come and see, but goes on to another act, as a vine goes on to produce again the grapes in season”. (Meditations).

We are able to do good only because of supporting factors; so many things are involved in our actions; we do not act alone. So there is no reason to be proud or to think of oneself as good. We receive far more good from others than we in turn create, and should be happy that circumstances have conspired to bring about the opportunity to do good, without thinking about the results to oneself therefrom.

We must learn to love life. Sure, life is full of pain; sure, life will leave and we will die, but if we learn to love it for what it is, we will be able to learn far more about it than if we despise it, for in despising life we turn away from it and see only the surface, and there is much more to life than that. Living with love reduces the gulf between the actual and the ideal, while fear, greed, and concern for self widen it. Love overcomes fear and greed because it is concerned more with the whole than with the part, more with others than with self. We realize that enlightenment is not as far away as we used to think it was. We watch the interplay of conditions, less attached than we were before.

Love liberates.

“An age is called Dark not because the light fails to shine, but because people refuse to see it.”

James A. Michener: Space

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