Letting go ― east and west

2500 words

Buddhists insist that everything in our impermanent universe is destined to fall apart, to crumble like dust, to run through our grasping hands like water. You may ask: if everything is so empty, what then does Buddhism tell us to achieve, to obtain ― what should we live for? The answer is emphatically, nothing.

The Buddhists identify three cravings or thirsts whose “conquest” leads to nirvana; but it’s important to note: this conquest is not an achievement, a getting something. It’s a “letting go.” The three cravings are a short list intended to cover the entirety of potential human desiderata ― absolutely everything someone might choose as an object of desire and possession. There is nothing a human being could want that does not fall into one of these categories, and the goal is the letting go of them all. This short paragraph from the Samyutta Nikaya may be said to be Buddhist doctrine in a nutshell.

“Mendicants, there are these three cravings. What three? Craving for sensual pleasures, craving to continue existence, and craving to end existence. These are the three cravings. The noble eightfold path should be developed for the direct knowledge, complete understanding, finishing, and giving up of these three cravings. What is the noble eightfold path? It’s when a mendicant develops right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right immersion, which rely on seclusion, fading away, and cessation, and ripen as letting go. This is the noble eightfold path that should be developed for the direct knowledge, complete understanding, finishing, and giving up of these three cravings.”[1]

The first category of craving, sense pleasures, is the easiest to understand because the recognition of the passing nature of pleasurable experiences is essential to growing up. All acknow­ledge that the ability to postpone gratification is necessary if we are to accomplish any­thing in life. The pursuit of endless pleasure is delusional and those that try it eventually abandon it or they do not survive.

The second, that we are locked into an unrealistic craving to continue existence is not so obvious. It only becomes apparent when we are confronted with an experience of death that goes beyond a mere intel­lectual recognition. When the true precariousness of life comes home to us through a near-death experience or the death of a young, strong companion, family member or partner, it can be immobilizing, revealing the delusional nature of our day to day pursuit of accumulation. It is in such moments that we realize that amassing the resources for a long and secure life was an unrealistic fantasy, at best a throw of the dice. It becomes clear that we had taken for granted that living would be virtually endless, because when it is cut short we are astonished and feel betrayed. It’s only when that bubble bursts that we realize that it was an empty craving, as delusional as the quest for endless pleasure.

If permanently having pleasure and avoiding pain is a vain pursuit, and the accumulation of resources in the form of money, tools, land, buildings, family, etc., cannot prevent the disappearance of life in death, some may decide the best you can do to end the torment of life’s universal frustrations is to disappear and have it all over with. It’s what Buddhists call the desire for extinction, or the craving to end existence. It’s the flip-side of the frustration of the first two cravings.

But it has been a metaphysical axiom on the Indian subcontinent since time immemorial that after death you were re-incarnated and returned to life. The Buddha took that belief for granted. Therefore extinction was impossible. You were condemned to be reborn and to chase after the wind all over again. Hence Buddhists see this craving as another illusion.

I do not believe in re-incarnation. But if we bracket the worldview and just look at the ascetic coun­selling that he proposed, it becomes clear that by saying that there is absolutely nothing whatsoever to strive for in life including extinction, we are prevented from turning our attention any­where outside of ourselves, either in the excitations of the body and mind, or in the hope for a future life, or even in the sweet peace of oblivion. All we have is our mutually interrela­ted selves here and now, as we are, alive, situated as a community of biological organisms in an impermanent and impersonal mater­ial world. We are cast back on our living selves as the only valid object of human embrace and human service. There is no way out. The ultimate message of the Buddha is precisely and simply this: Forget about it! There is nowhere to go! There is nothing to get! LIVE! Choose what you are, pursue the flow of life here and now; embrace yourself as provided by Nature and live uprightly and generously as part of your survival network. It is all you’ve got and all you need.

All Buddha’s recommended practices focus on a communal self-embrace in the present moment. The Dharma, which includes socially responsible moral living, is the first. The Dharma, what the Jews would call Torah in its widest sense meaning the “law of nature,” produces nothing except peace, harmony and prosperity among people. It adds nothing whatsoever to what we were born with. We “gain” nothing by it. It does not give us “eternal life” or make us more than human with our cycle of life and death. Then mendicancy, begging for food, which Buddha enjoined on his monks, empha­sizes the precarious nature of human life and the necessity of our communal network for survi­val. Begging is symbolic. It is not meant to be a permanent social structure. By begging one does not control what one eats, because the food made available is the product of the labor and generosity of the human community. One eats what one is given. And it is sufficient because it is not the eating but the being-here-now sustained by the community’s collaboration that is the true desideratum. Eat, but eat detached and aware. Eat as part of a community, not for individual pleasure. Then, there’s breathing. One concentrates for long periods of time on one’s breathing, both during meditation and throughout the day. Think of it. Just breathing. When you are just breathing you are going nowhere, you are accomplishing nothing, you are accumulating nothing, you are just being-here-now. It’s not a command; it’s another symbolic exercise ― a practice ― designed to bring buried truths to the surface. The Buddha pushes us to learn to enjoy breathing because once we sense the simple joy of letting go ― no longer clinging to the past in regret or nostalgia or imagining a future of doom or triumph ― we begin to experience life as a process of continuous present joy . . . if lived fully in the moment detached from ulterior motives. But that can only be done by letting go of everything else. There is nothing to be found outside ourselves living here and now. All human activities are to be subsumed under the dynamic of this universal detachment. Whatever you do, do it detached, which means do it just to be-here and do it, not because of what it’s going to “get” for you. There is nothing to get. Life is going nowhere.

Letting go in the West

Many will say, we have to work, we have responsibilities to other people, we have to plan for the future. We can’t go around begging for food and expecting that others will feed us. And spending time just breathing is time wasted in a preciously short life. Of course they are right. But the objection is off-the-mark because mendicancy and meditation are practices ― symbolic activity, exercises designed to bring certain human values to the forefront of consciousness. Begging was never intended to be a model for economic interchange. This misunderstanding is reminiscent of the “dilemma” created by the advice of Jesus as recorded in Luke, which is also the result of erroneously taking a symbol literally:

Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ . . .

Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!   . . .   Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you — you of little faith![2]

The “dilemma” created by these statements of Jesus came crashing down on Roman Catholicism in the high middle ages when Christians under the leadership of Francis of Assisi attempted to take Jesus’ poetry literally and construct a way of life out of it. But after a short time in the 13th century few continued with the mendicant practices embraced by Francis and his original followers. Francis himself, because of his insistence on living in radical poverty, was sidelined by his own order which had abandoned his way of life ― and implicitly Jesus’ teaching which inspired it ― as practically impossible.

We have to acknowledge what was on the table here, and why, both before and after Francis, Christians never attempted to take Jesus literally. The literal personal, micro-managed divine providence described by Jesus in these beautiful passages, in fact, does not exist, and everybody knows it. Even a closer reading of the examples Jesus uses of the ravens and the day-lilies reveals that the resources provided by “God” are nothing more than the natural order. The ravens don’t have to work because their DNA produces feathers. In contrast, human DNA does not produce coats, shoes and houses for us, and so we have to work. “God” as a loving father who personally watches over and provides for each of his children . . . except in the most remote sense of having provided the material cosmos with its energy and regularities . . . is a mega-metaphor, a huge symbol. The real “God” does none of the things that Jesus described and certainly doesn’t save us from natural and man-made disasters. It is poetry so massive and all-encompassing as to amount to what anthropologists call a myth. By myth they mean the poetic, symbolic ground that establishes the foundational premises for an entire culture. In the lands of the West that myth was The Fatherhood of “God.”

The West had no choice. If “God” was a rational, willing, humanoid father-person, as they insisted, there had to be wall-to-wall divine providence. No alternative was possible. The two concepts are steel-bound corollaries. The entire civilization was built on the model of a patriarchy ― micro-control by an all-powerful father-ruler ― grounded on the imagined humanoid paternal personality of a “God” who controlled everything that happened, no matter how it was contradicted by the evidence. The “atheism” of our times is an obvious attempt to find our way back to reality after having for millennia erroneously embraced the religious myths and poetry of our ancient, pre-scientific ancestors as literal, scientific, historical fact.

Trust

By deconstructing Jesus’ poetry in Luke, we can understand the role it played as an application of the fundamental myth of Western culture. Once we see that Jesus’ examples were drawn from the patriarchal cultural ground of both the Hebrew and the Greco-Roman worldviews, we can appreciate his use of them to illustrate and motivate an attitude toward life that is at the very heart of all religious enlightenment: trust in the process of life, and abandonment of all attempts to substitute something else for it. In his idiom, that had to mean trust in the providence of “God.” The real issue for us is not the metaphy­s­ical background, which in both Christianity and Buddhism are pre-scientific and seriously flawed, but rather the spiritual dynamic their teachers tried to evoke. Trust, expressed by “letting go” of attempts to find a way out, is the ultimate religious truth across the board. The pre-scientific world­views evaporate, but the ascetical dynamics do not. There is no other way to live authentically.

Trust was exactly what the Buddha was trying to say by insisting on “letting-go” of all pursuits and strivings of whatever kind ― a radical, absolute and unequivocal abandonment of seeking for an outside source of permanent life. All traditions fundamentally propose the same thing: instead of seeking to obtain or become something we are not — including nothingness — the answer to life is to cherish and embrace what we are and to trust the process that brought us here and bears us onward. We have to embrace our impermanence, our inescapable perishing condition. Instead of looking outside of ourselves we have to look inward. We already have everything we could want, and our trans­­formation consists not in the escape into a refined hedonism, or becoming something other than what we are, or finding a vehicle to ride in other than the process that is bearing us forward, or retreating in despair from the struggle to build a just and sustainable world, but in learning to cherish and want what we already are and have. Trust in the process that produced us ― which means embracing, joining the process. The rest is delusion.

It is living in the present moment; minimally that means to stop distrusting LIFE . . . to embrace the Ocean we are swimming in with its work and struggles, the river of material impermanence that is carrying us along with everything else in the universe. We are all made of the same clay.

The universal bedrock of all religious enlightenment, east and west is trust in the process in which we are immersed. From science we know that process is the biological evolution of material energy. Accept­ing the process means embracing ourselves ― becoming thoroughly absorbed in what we are ― the flowing current of evolving matter, in which we live and move and have our being.

[1] Bhikkhu Sujato, Sumyatta Nikaya, 45:170 Kindle Locations 14736-14737

[2] New RSV Luke chapter 12