Dharma, Desire, and Daily Life
I was talking to a buddhist friend who has been practicing on his own for a while, and he mentioned that he no longer has the energy to chant for more than fifteen minutes at a time. Although this is a perfectly good amount of daimoku, it is considerably less than he used to do when connected with a group and considerably less than some people find is optimal to keep them centered. It occurred to me that this may be due to the lack of connection to the other aspects of the practice, which combines chanting with study and being part of a community, interacting with others about buddhism, for a kind of triad of buddhist practice. I have always found that when these three elements are combined, practice is strongest, its effect is most pronounced, and the prayer is most focused and purposeful. Practicing independently of a sect or community (sangha) presents challenges in these areas, and I have often found myself looking for study material. Some good materials can be found on the internet and other places. However, as a writer, I wanted to do my part to contribute to the pool of literature and share what others have shared with me and what my brief experience has taught me.
I believe it is important to write on interesting topics as they relate to buddhism. It is very easy for doctrinal analyses to become tedious and self-referential, lacking a direct connection to the world and our role in it. A friend once visited a certain temple near him and complained that the study materials were lacking in relevance. Though such a judgment is inherently subjective, I wanted to select topics that are of interest to the practicing community whose primary objectives in life relate to their families, professions, communities, and interests. This is the bulk of practitioners, for whom practice is a way of staying centered, balancing their lives, and doing what they have to do most effectively.
The thing that first interested me in the practice was the assurance that it can be used to succeed in anything. At the time, I had some exciting professional pursuits which I genuinely wanted to advance. I cared very little for wisdom, peace, compassion, and the other effects associated with buddhist practice. In retrospect, I never achieved what I wanted, and I am glad I didn't, because I really don't think I was ready. I still struggle professionally, and still have goals I am actively working toward. I have also found that one of the biggest obstacles to success in any undertaking, professionally, socially, or otherwise, is fear, as people tend to get in their own way. The irony is that this fear is typically associated with the very self-serving motives that often drive people's actions in the first place, and it is those very buddhist qualities of compassion, wisdom, and peace that help to ebb away at egocentric fears.
An oft-quoted buddhist saying suggests that earthly desires are enlightenment. I have heard this debated at length, and certain sects of buddhism find it to be a cheapening of the real doctrine. Without wanting to get involved in such a debate, as I think that doctrinal disputation often leads away from the harmonious interaction between people that is so central to buddhism, I do want to offer a few comments. As a buddha is a common mortal, because the supreme being is nothing other than the self that is awakened to its true identity, so the religious philosophy of buddhism should be no different from a secular philosophy, and so a buddhist truth should coincide in some way with secular truth. In this case, I believe it does. It is the well established idea that struggle builds character. It is the one teacher in this life that cannot fail to build strength, wisdom, and patience. It has a lot to do with the fact that the ultimate reality in buddhism is often realized when delving into the deepest muck of this world and is related to the beautiful image of the lotus flower growing up in a muddy swamp. It is the transformative power of struggle that turns anger to a sense of justice, anxiety to patience, and loneliness to compassion. It is the crowning effects of lifelong struggle that build individuals of dignity and strength.
The struggles come in two forms, the ones that come by themselves through misfortune and the ones that the practitioner selects. The traditional four buddhist sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, and death, are the kind that come by themselves. It is a certainty that most individuals will encounter some of these struggles at one time. However, life would be a pretty sullen enterprise if the only obstacles were randomly thrown in our path by fate.
Happily, we can choose our own. These are the ones associated with any undertaking, any goal we choose to pursue. Whether in the realm of social life, family, finances, or profession, the goals that people pursue will inevitably create obstacles. There is something exciting in encountering an obstacle to a goal one has chosen, and it is more easily approached with a sense of challenge and eagerness. When fate throws a random hurdle that we have not chosen, it is natural for resentment, anxiety, or even depression to result. However, when the obstacle relates to a goal that we have chosen because of its meaning to us personally, it it much easier to approach it in a constructive and rational way. The excitement of trying to make our goals a reality can provide this energy.
It is the desires that reside in the human heart that help to define who the individual is, and it is the pursuit of these desires that are some of the truest expressions of the human being. Especially when tempered by buddhist practice, it is often the case that desires are developed in a way that brings benefit not just to the practitioner but to others as well. As Deepak Chopra once related in his Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, each person has something unique to offer, and their goal in life, or dharma (to use his terminology -- different from the buddhist dharma) is to discover and develop that ability, to be of service to others. This is the ultimate fruition of desire, when its fulfillment is of benefit as much to others as the self.
There is nothing wrong with desires of a purely self-oriented nature, and they are essential to functioning as a human being. But the deepest fulfillment is achieved when personal desires are merged with the larger connection between the individual and others, whether it be their immediate family, the larger sphere of life on the planet, or anything in between. To find the nature in ourselves that is capable of fusing the personal desires with the fulfillment found in service is seldom an easy task, and it is often through a painstaking and time-consuming course of trial and error that this happy fusion can be found. It is like the saying that when you find what you were meant to do, you will be happy. It is like the new-age notion that you will not succeed with a task until you find the one that is what you were meant for. It is often only in the long view of retrospection that the real meaning of failures comes to light, and it is said that if you put your whole heart into a pursuit, no effort is wasted. It is a matter of building faith through experience to understand this on a deep level and no longer to question the purposefulness of efforts that seem superficially vain.
And so around the world, people find fulfillment in myriad capacities according to their own nature, as gardeners, lawyers, mothers, and anything else you can think of. It is not necessarily the pursuit itself, but the individual and their relationship to it. It is deeply personal and highly subjective.
The dharma that Chopra is talking about is not necessarily something that can come through a rational process. It is often found in letting go and accessing a part of yourself that is not always conscious, not always amenable to reason. Many ways exist of accessing the hidden voice that allows one to know his or her purpose, but certainly the practice of buddhism and the steady and regular chanting of gongyo and daimoku can help. It is the view that the daimoku of the lotus sutra is your life itself that makes it possible for daimoku to illuminate the self. It is the idea that there is no enlightenment outside of the self that ultimately relates our own deepest desires to our truest nature and relationship to the world.