Culture

'Attend to Your Own Salvation.'

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The tradition says that when Buddha was about 80, he told his followers he would die soon. He was visiting the town of Kusinara, just south of modern-day Nepal, and frankly the middle of freaking nowhere at the time, and for that matter today. He ate a food offering and became violently ill, and died. Depending on the tradition you follow, there were either poison mushrooms or spoiled pork in that last meal, but the Buddha himself insisted it wasn’t the food and told Ananda, his chief of staff and personal servant, to reassure the person who’d given him the food that it wasn’t his fault.

While he was dying, he asked his students to ask him any final questions. His last words were: “Remember, everything that is an aggregate is perishable. Attend to your own salvation.”

The whole story, along with a long summary of the Buddha’s teachings, is in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta — we Mahayana Buddhists have a very different, and way more exciting, version in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra in which the Buddha is attended by 80 billion monks, speaks in a great voice that covers the whole world, and generally would make a lovely manga comic, but never mind that for the moment.

The thing is, this is one of the core Buddhist teachings: you get yourself into this trap, and you have to get yourself out. We live with duhkha, that pain of everything slipping away from us, because we’re ignorant of the reality that there’s nothing permanent to hang on to; we escape from duhkha and enter nirvana, peace of mind and the end of the pain of duhkha, when we really understand that there’s nothing permanent to hang on to. And like personal salvation in evangelical Christianity or recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous, you have to do it yourself. No one can recover for you.


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That’s what Buddha was saying in his last words: Look, students, here I am, the Tathagata, the Buddha, and still I’m old and tired and worn out, like a cart that’s been over too many miles of bad roads. This body is an aggregate, stuff assembled by cause and effect, and it’s just like everything else assembled by cause and effect, impermanent, perishable, changing from state to state. Now I’m about to die; that’s part of impermanence. It’s the way things are. Don’t cling to me personally; each of you is your own teacher. You must diligently work to liberate yourselves.

And then there’s hipster Buddhism.

If you look around much in the Buddhist world, it’s easy to find the hipster Buddhists. They make lots of news. Robert Thurman (Uma’s dad) at Columbia, Richard Gere, lots of others, and more esoterically there’s Chögyam Trungpa’s kid Ösel Mukpo — also known as Sakyong Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche, Jampal Trinley Dradul and boy don’t the folks at the Shambhala Center twitch when I call him “Trungpa’s kid,” but I’m a Zen guy, you can’t take me anywhere.

The Sakyong — it’s a title — is the leader of Shambhala Buddhism, a training system originated by his dad. Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I think he’s a charlatan; he was a good kid and he has written some very insightful stuff. But Shambhala is now pushing an idea of an Enlightened Society, in which Shambhala students are being exhorted to become politically active. There’s a lot of background there, but basically this Enlightened Society would be based not on Gross National Product, but on a measure of Gross National Happiness that:

recognizes that material and financial wealth alone does not ensure true security, wellbeing, and human dignity, but that basic livelihood security is an essential component of wellbeing. In the face of excessive materialism, people yearn for the true wealth that comes from contentment, simplicity, and community. An enlightened society will encourage the cultivation of many forms of richness, including healthy family lives, strong and safe communities, an equitable distribution of resources, and support and care for those in need. It will invest in improving the health of the population and in ensuring that everyone has access to a standard of living that sustains their health and wellbeing as well as that of their families and dependents. That security is not an end in itself, but creates a supportive environment that encourages all citizens to realize their full potential.

Which seems to me, frankly, indistinguishable from the things that any Upper West Side hipster would say, whether Buddhist or not.

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Well, that’s fine; I have my own ideas how we might encourage healthy family lives and strong and safe communities, but they can have their own ideas.

The thing is, though, it doesn’t look to me to be very good Buddhism. This whole notion of Gross National Happiness, well, it seems like it’s an attempt to save everyone else. It’s an attempt to end suffering, but not by learning not to cling to impermanent things, but by trying to fix things.

It’s a kind of a dilemma, because I don’t mean to suggest we shouldn’t want to improve conditions, but the answer if you’re hungry isn’t to learn to overcome hunger, it’s to have lunch. The thing is, when you look at the program they’re talking about for an Enlightened Society, it comes around to being fight climate change, provide universal health care, support “real” education which promotes community and diversity instead of traditional topics — it turns out to be the whole list of usual suspects that you’d hear from any modern progressive.

That seems a bit suspicious to me. When I see these things in action, it always seems to me to produce suffering rather than reduce it. The solutions are always that an enlightened — or Enlightened — elite will tell us what to do and what to think, let us know that if we’re cutting down a tree we’re reducing the Gross National Happiness even if the damn tree was blocking my view and about to fall on my garage and generally impeding my happiness.

It seems basically to be a desire to meddle. I think that humans are changing the climate — so you should too, whether you disagree or not. If you don’t, you’re not Enlightened and not contributing to the Enlightened Society’s Gross National Happiness. I think it’s a shame that people get sick and don’t get treated (whether or not it’s true) and you should too. If you don’t, you’re not Enlightened and not contributing to the Gross National Happiness. We should be making everything All Better. But that desire to Make Everything Right isn’t an escape from suffering, it’s one of the roots of suffering, in Sanskrit bhavatrishna, the desire to make things behave. And the result of bhavatrishna is that you push things around, and things push back — so you push harder. And they push back harder. And you suffer.

As I say, it seems suspicious. Buddha taught a radical change in the way we think. How is it that the outcome of that radical change in thinking turns out to be the same old way of thinking?