Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist? Fill out the form below or submit your question online.
If the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, is so closely aligned with nature, and the two most universal laws of nature are desire and fear, how can the Dharma claim to be true when the essence of its teaching is to overcome desire and fear?
Great question Dear Reader, and I’m sorry it’s taken so long to get to it! I happened to take your question to Ajahn Anan, one of the most senior teachers in the Thai Forest Tradition, while I was in Thailand. I’ll start with his answer before I muck around with it. Keep in mind the challenges and issues in simultaneous translation, especially as the monk who was our go-between was fairly new to translation and hence new to conveying subtleties of the teachings. This is what Ajahn Anan said:
One who understands the truth of fear, the truth of desire, understands the truth of us. But if someone sees nature as “us” that means that he or she is not understanding the truth of ultimate reality. One who truly understands the nature of everything as emptiness, sees according to that nature. It is that mind which is in line with Dharma, with nature. An untrained mind is the one that doesn’t yet understand the truth of nature and the one that makes suffering arise.
To be frank, I certainly couldn’t answer your question more clearly and concisely, but perhaps I can forge ahead with unpacking Ajahn Anan’s response a bit. I added the above italicizations of emphasis for clarity. Truth appears italicized in his first sentence three times because he’s not talking about nature as we normally use and understand the word. He’s talking about the truth of nature as a physicist (and the fully enlightened) might understand it — constructed of many elements and relationships, completely interdependent on the presence of all these elements and relationships, and last, but not least, comprised mostly of empty space!
The physicist’s view of the natural world is not what we, in our normal states of consciousness, sense and experience (and likely not what he or she experiences either). When we look at a stone we assume it will feel solid. We lift it and confirm that assumption. When we plunge our hand into a mountain stream we expect it will feel cold and it does. This applies to all our senses for all our waking hours, and thus we negotiate the world by expectations and habit. Although the physicist may realize at an abstract level that the things she contacts in her sensorium are, in actuality, not what they seem to her normal consciousness and senses, she too negotiates the world by these normalized perceptions. As Ajahn Anan says, this way of being in the world is the lot of the untrained mind — untrained in the experience of Dharma and of seeing the real “truth of nature.”
One of the amazing fruits of Buddhist practice I can speak to in a limited way is the fact that over time, it slowly dissolves the misconceptions of mind and body by which we generally go about our business. As we go back and forth from our normal perceptions to other kinds of knowing cultivated through meditation and contemplation, we begin to experience the world with a two-fold vision of the truth of its ultimate nature versus a world we used to believe was solid and unambiguous. I’m guessing that more often than not, a fully liberated person experiences the world as constructed, ephemeral.
Annie Dillard touches on this kind of seeing in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”, when she writes, “the effort is really a discipline requiring a lifetime of dedicated struggle; it marks the literature of saints and monks of every order East and West.” She calls it, “another kind of seeing that involves a letting go.” A letting go, an unlearning of habits of perception. In her 1984 novel “The Lover,” Marguerite Duras wrote that, “the art of seeing has to be learned.” Whether or not she references the very same seeing that Buddhism enjoins us towards, my point is that a conscious effort is required to question our fixed interpretations of reality.
The ability to begin to discern the truth of our real nature, is, in the Buddhist worldview, the very most precious aspect of being human. Animals, as you Dear Reader pointed out, act according to desire and fear, or in Dharma terms — desire and aversion. These two modes are the fundamental nature of everything from single-celled critters to those with the most complicated brains on our planet. I am still stunned with this fact when watching a video of infinitesimal creatures coalescing around something they desire, or racing away from a threat. Watching a movie on animals of the African savanna on a long trans-Pacific flight once, I found myself awash in tears for the fact that the vast majority of animals spend their days and nights vigilant and wary of predators.
The gift that the Buddha — the Awakened One — gives to humanity is to awake from a fate of swinging from desire to fear and back again endlessly. As Ajahn Anan says above, it is the untrained mind that falls victim to these pushes and pulls; it is the untrained mind that causes and experiences suffering. The Buddha has offered us a path whereby we have some freedom to be otherwise. We have the ability to cultivate, over time, knowledge and experience of the world that does not have at its core a basic misapprehension of the world, a misapprehension that fuels unhappiness.
I’ll end with another quote from “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek“
Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.
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