In the last post, I mentioned Huayan Buddhism, the Garland Flower school. In the Mahayana traditions, the Garland Sutra is said to be the first teaching of the Buddha after his great awakening. But when he tried to share this teaching, people didn’t get it. So he dialed it back and taught the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path to help his students cultivate deeper understanding.
This is an example of how the Buddha adjusted the focus of his teachings to what his students were ready to receive and able to understand. Today’s Buddhist teachers do the same, sharing the dharma as we understand it, using modern metaphors to address today’s challenges. The dharma stays alive and meaningful by meeting people where they are. But the dharma is the dharma. The Four Noble Truths and the Garland Sutra are all part of the same awareness. Cultivating the aspects of the Eightfold Path leads to understanding. The Buddha didn’t ‘awaken overnight’ any more than movie stars are overnight successes. In both cases it’s important to acknowledge and honor the dedication to cultivating the craft. For Buddhist practitioners, the craft is Wise Intention, Wise Effort, Wise Mindfulness, Wise Concentration, Wise Action, Wise Speech, and Wise Livelihood, and Wise View.
Regular meditation and gentle investigation activate our inner wisdom. That wisdom offers up the right insight at the right time. Perhaps you say, “Oh, I don’t have insights.” You may not have called it an insight, but I bet you have had aha moments when you understood something you didn’t understand before. For example, autumn is here. Maybe that activates an emotion, maybe sadness about the end of summer. But when you pause, relax, and look around, you might notice the beauty of the leaves changing colors, the crispness of the air, and other natural delights. Then you recognize that to everything there is a season. That is insight.
You might say it’s not original insight. “To everything there is a season” is a time-honored expression. True, and for good reason. But for you in that moment it came up and you understood the truth of it. You experienced it. Insight is not insight because it’s never been thought of before. It’s insight because you experience the truth of it for yourself in that moment. And having experienced it, you will never be quite the same. Something shifts in your understanding. You awaken a bit. Your world opens up.
For example, that particular insight opens your understanding of the nature of impermanence, a fundamental wisdom teaching Buddhists call anicca. Coming home again and again to understanding impermanence helps us be in skillful relationship with all the arising and falling away that happens in our lives. We don’t become immune to caring about this world, but we come to friendlier terms with change, loss, and our own mortality.
Another fundamental wisdom teaching is anatta, interbeing. It is a bit more challenging for many people, though modern science has made it infinitely more approachable. Rick Hanson in his very accessible books offers in-depth explanations of how science and these ancient teachings concur. Why learn about it? Because understanding anatta and anicca is the antidote to the poisons of greed, aversion, and delusion that cause us so much suffering, dukkha.
We can see the truth of this playing out in our own lives and in the world of human affairs. Remembering our intrinsic interconnection is so important when it seems we are being purposely divided by certain politicians and by the nature of social media algorhythms. But this interbeing is deeper than just seeing that we have more in common than what divides us. Here is something that came up for me out of meditation this morning:
This life we were born into, exactly as it is, is our altar, our place of worship. The faces of all we meet, whether family, friends, neighbors, strangers, whether human or another species, whether able to move about or rooted in the ground, whether the element of water, fire, air or earth — all of it is sacred and so are we, this body-mind, this consciousness, this fleeting existence and whatever came before or after, all of it is sacred. There is no other anywhere. This is it.
The Garland Sutra stresses that there is no other place to get to. There is no goal, no ‘there’ to get to where suddenly all will be great. If it’s not great here it won’t be great there. We carry our way of perceiving ourselves and the world around us wherever we go. So no matter where we go, if we are entrenched in fear, we’ll see what we fear. Until we find a way to befriend our fears through insight and awakening, we won’t find external rewards no matter how far we go.
As Westerners, we’re surrounded by cultural messages that are directly contrary to that. Americans especially are often obsessed with achievement, goals, and material success. We get tossed about on the Eight Worldly Winds and suffer endlessly. When we take that sense of striving into our spiritual investigations, we get caught up in imagining awakening as some distant horizon. And the thing about horizons is they never get any closer. Our focus needs to be on cultivating awareness and compassion in this moment just as it is. We are creating a way of being that is resilient, able to ride the Eight Worldly Winds without getting tossed about, able to have a wider perspective, seeing what we are experiencing with more clarity and compassion. This too shall pass: Impermanence. And we are not alone in this: Interbeing.