I recently picked up a book titled Tibetan Buddhism from the Ground Up by B. Alan Wallace. It’s been on my bookshelf for some time, and is the first book I’ve really read about Tibetan Buddhism. Lately, though, even the Zen books on my shelves are getting a bit dusty. Some say that’s a sign your dharma practice advancing, but not always so… My observation is that in many Zen groups people tend to stagnate. Little instruction is given, and frankly it vaguely resembles the Buddhism described in the most ancient scriptures. To be sure, Zen is a different religion or philosophy than that of early Buddhism, but that has not bothered me. In fact, it was part of the attraction. Too much learning, ceremony and ritual found in other Buddhisms seemed unappealing. However, there is this vague sense that much is missing. OK, now that sense is not so vague anymore.
I don’t see myself diving into the depths of Tibetan Buddhism, but it is a treasure trove of hundreds of years of Buddhist insight and progress worth learning a little about. Tibet, being isolated for so long as it was, has created it’s own unique Buddhisms too.
What I read in the beginning of the book mentioned above was nothing new in Buddhism, but I’d never heard it explained to me explicitly in Zen. It is the teaching of the Eight Worldly Concerns.
Basically, our human suffering that can be avoided can be boiled down to eight concerns common to us all. We have concerns about:
- Gain and loss
- Pleasure and pain
- Praise and blame
- Fame and disgrace
These are not pointed out as bad or good, but to draw our attention to how we may get caught in cycles that lead to suffering.
What stood out for me in this book was the author’s description of how even our best efforts in our dharma (spiritual) practice are often motivated by these eight worldly concerns. This is what I have observed in those attending Zen sittings, but more importantly in myself.
How many times have I sat with the hope to ease my anxiety or sadness? How often have I hoped to achieve insight that would lead me out of some form of pain? What about health benefits? Haven’t I even imagined what it would be like to be acknowledged by my teacher or other members? Maybe I could even start my own Zen center one day!
This, too, is a trap. It’s not just our urge for money, career, fame and so on that gets us in trouble. The more insidious traps are those veiled in “holy” intentions. Many of us can get caught for years in such futile pursuits without realizing it. Of course, this does not just apply to Buddhists, but Christians, Jews and every other flavor of spirituality and philosophy.
It can be particularly frustrating to be among those who’s desires and egos are clearly in control of them and are attempting to control others. They are like vampires or hungry ghosts! They want praise, an audience, prayer for a better house, money for an addition to the church and so on. Nothing will stop them because “it’s for a good cause!” In this state, the end justifies the means, all without seeing the damage it does to us and others.
No matter what our religion, or no religion, these eight worldly concerns seem to dominate our lives and the world. To free ourselves from these concerns, the author points directly to the brevity of life and meditation or contemplation on that fact. There will be a specific day in which we breathe our last. However, we like to imagine that it is in some nebulous future that need not concern us yet. But, if we dwell on the fact that we harbor death in our bodies right now, that all we have and all the people we love will be lost it takes the wind out of those eight concerns. We’ve all heard of the married couple that fought like cats and dogs for years only to become inseparably in love when one of them gets an incurable disease. All their quarrels seem like fluff, and the purpose of life unfolds to them. At least the see the futility of fighting and the value of compassion. Not always though!
For some of us, pondering our death may cause us to desperately experience as many pleasures as possible before that fateful day of doom arrives. Others may become gloomy, depressed and wonder what is the point of doing anything! Yet, for the mature it will quicken their desire to do good, to release their bonds to frivolous things and seek greater meaning in this brief existence. A little like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, they may open their hearts to a whole new way of living–a way that makes the most of what’s left of their lives.
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul points out his view that if Christ had not risen from the dead then we all may as well “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” From a Buddhist point of view, this is a tragic waste of a human life that is seen as having intrinsic value. The only reason to live is not immortality and pleasure of some sort.
To be fair, though, both Buddhism and Christianity are looking forward to “another life” beyond the current one. There seems to be more flexibility among Buddhists, but the notion of rebirth certainly suggests something similar to a “reward” or “punishment” for our actions. This is karma, but the Buddhist does not look at it as a reward or punishment, but as cause and effect…somewhat like the physical laws of nature. This is where the author of the book takes the reader next.
He admits that karma and rebirth are unknown from a scientific point of view, but makes a valiant attempt at offering a possible reason for considering it.
Whether you believe in a deity that rewards and punishes our behavior, or in karmic laws, neither or both! the subject of morality eventually leads to some discussion of it’s purpose. From a purely humanist point of view, there are innumerable, personal reasons for moral behavior beyond merely avoiding prison. There are strong arguments for believing that morality is strictly a human invention–part of our evolution. Buddhism may not argue that point either but arrives at that conclusion in a different way.
In the end, when I reflect on the Eight Worldly Concerns, it is not hard to see that within them are the cause of much human misery, misery beyond the trials and vicissitudes of merely being mortal. However, there is a hope in freeing ourselves, even to some small extent, from their trap if we see the brevity of this life before we reach its end.