“The ignorance that gives rise to suffering occurs not because you don’t know enough or are not philosophically sophisticated enough to understand the true meaning of emptiness. It comes from being unwilling to admit that what you’re obviously doing right before your very eyes is causing suffering.”
Thanissaro in The Integrity of Emptiness
“To realize that things are one is a very sympathetic understanding. But how to treat things, one by one, each in a different way, with full care, that, I think, is your practice.”
Many years ago, on one of my first trips to rural Mexico, a young boy offered to sell me an armadillo. Once living, in his arms it was dead. Stiff. Stuffed and varnished. Its dark eyes were blank and its tail was curled into the humid air. I giggled and bought it for a few pesos and cradled it delicately in the back seat of our old Plymouth. It traveled back home with me and came to “live” for years in our home, a novelty and an amusing and curious conversation piece. Over time, I came to first see and then to deeply regret my rather startling ignorance in buying an animal that had been killed for my foolish entertainment.
The Buddha taught that we humans live in such ignorance, not seeing though the surface appearance of things or deeply understanding either how things work or what truly is the pathway to happiness. We are “uninstructed worldlings,” he said, like children guided only by our personal short-term comfort and amusement, neglecting the wider and deeper contexts in which all is unfolding. He had discovered that our minds trick us into limiting our awareness to a miniscule subset of the information that is available. We then go to great lengths to keep ourselves in that familiar comfort zone. Our minds are conditioned to envision – and tell ourselves relentless stories about – an imagined world and a (potential) happiness that fits with how we have been conditioned to think it is – or at least how we think it “should” be. In this mental process, we cultivate and sustain a sense of an integrated and coherent personal self who can think, plan, decide and execute personal agency in our everyday lives but who can nevertheless be fast asleep to the larger awareness of being as we struggle to maintain our conditioned and limited perceptions of ourselves, other selves and our world.
Locked into this illusion, even in our spiritual life, we can imagine ourselves able to disregard or ignore nature and other “different” living beings – even to indulge in disdain and hatred. We can seek out only that information that sustains our own personal world view. It is this kind of deluded thinking that supports the harm of our human belief in difference and division: human/animal, man/woman, gay/straight, black/white, liberal/conservative, “us”/”them.” As we continue our spiritual practice, we can come to see with increasing subtlety, our own ignorance, the limitations of what we “know” to be true and the deeper causes of our personal and collective suffering.
As it was for Siddhartha, suffering is often what brings each of us to investigation of the healing of these divisions. In modern times, we agonize over the poisoning of our lands and over the relentless residue of centuries of racial injustice. We struggle with battles over gender identity, immigration, gay marriages and supreme court nominees. Our daily news tells of strife and struggle and deaths fueled by fear and by perceptions of dangerous “others.” When we inquire directly into this suffering, such investigation can be a deep and wholesome basis for profound insight leading to unexpected freedom and the “spontaneous” emergence of healing responses. Wisely engaged, such challenges can signal the birth hour of deeper understandings and new guidance for wise action. After his enlightenment, the Buddha didn’t claim any special powers. He simply said that he was awake. Awake. Awake to how things actually work and to how to end suffering and be happy. He said that all that he knew was – and is – always available to each of us.
Interrupting automatic habit is the first step on any path. For anything new to happen, conditioned patterns of thought and emotion must be (first seen and then) interrupted. In any confusion, the Buddha taught, we can bring faith and curiosity and energy. We can cultivate presence and non-reactivity. What does the Dharma have to say about this? Where is wise view and wise intention? When there is suffering, what are we misunderstanding, not seeing clearly? Where are our perceptions and stories too narrow to include all of the available information? What are we hungry for that cannot satisfy? What are we bound up in that might be released? What are we clinging to that is ephemeral and insubstantial? Where are we insisting on personal control when, in fact, there is none? What, in this particular circumstance, given our own resources and abilities, constitutes wise effort and wise speech and wise action? It is always a deep and very intimate inquiry. When we react unwisely and only at a surface level to our sufferings, refusing to consider wider and deeper context and perspective, we deny the opportunity for healing and simply perpetuate and deepen our own and others’ ignorance and suffering.
It is not always tidy or easy. We can compare current inquiries into racial and sexual injustice to the messy, painful and often slow process of giving birth. Like bringing new life into the world, it is painful as we come to see with greater integrity, to take responsibility, and to make efforts to repair the suffering we and others have caused – both personally and collectively. Nevertheless, like giving birth, how we go about it matters. We need to remember that the pain is not personal, not “mine.” We need to discern when it is important to strive and push hard and when what is required are simple breath, relaxation, and trust in forces beyond our personal selves. We need guidance: those whose presence, wisdom and caring will nourish, support and guide us as we inquire into suffering, its causes and the path leading to the end – the end – of suffering.
Kindness and compassion are needed. If clear seeing were to bring only more struggle and condemnation of self and other, we would only feed more and more suffering. Personally, we would begin to hide our own confusions, not only from others but also from ourselves. We would shut down our inquiries before they even start. The invitation of our spiritual practice is to investigate our own and others’ suffering and ignorance without shame or blame, guided by kindness, compassion and, even, a joyful heart. The goal of our practice is to abandon: to abandon the causes of stress and disturbance wherever and whenever we find them.
Had you been there in that Mexican village to challenge me kindly, I might have more quickly broadened my youthful thinking about that little armadillo. Maybe; maybe not. However, had you ignored me and grumbled in private, it likely would only have deepened division between us. Certainly, it would not have offered me an opportunity to learn. Had you attacked me, I might simply have withdrawn into my own self-righteous defensiveness; our distance and division might have been profound and, filled with the mind’s own self-righteous story-telling, might still remain.
May we each individually commit, in small ways and large, to patient and committed practice and to opening to one another, guiding each other, and caring for one another. May our personal and collective ignorance diminish. May how we practice give birth to greater clarity and ever deepening freedom from suffering for ourselves and for all beings everywhere. Even armadillos.