Nestled here at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, the air around my hometown is often laden with moisture rising up to become part of the clouds that form over the region and then rain back down again. This summer has been an especially wet one here, and when it hasn’t actually been raining, or storming, there have been beautiful billowing cumulus clouds streaming past overhead like I haven’t noticed in a long, long time. They’ve actually reminded me of very pleasant times during my childhood when I’d lay back on the cool grass, alone or with a friend, holding to my nose a wild onion freshly plucked from the earth while watching clouds slowly form and change and slip away against a backdrop of brilliant blue – pulling me with them deeper and deeper into the joyous reverie of watchfulness without separation.
Unfortunately, even as I’m reminded of this joyous childhood reverie – and slip into some adult approximation of it from time to time in the here and now – I’m also vaguely haunted by the specter that this display of natural wonder is made all the more dramatic on account of climate change making the atmosphere warmer, thereby allowing it to hold ever more moisture, thereby making clouds all the more beautiful and plentiful, and thereby making rains and storms all the more unpredictable and powerful. Those clouds are no less beautiful than they were when I was a child, it’s just that their story, and my own, has become more complicated over time.
Buddhism has grown “more complicated” over time as well. There once was a time when all one need do was cultivate the four foundations of mindfulness in order to enjoy freedom from suffering.
Mindfulness of the body:
Breathing in a long breath, [a monk] knows, "I am breathing in a long breath"; breathing out a long breath, he knows, "I am breathing out a long breath." … and so forth…
Mindfulness of feeling:
[A] monk when experiencing a pleasant feeling knows, "I experience a pleasant feeling"; when experiencing a painful feeling, he knows, "I experience a painful feeling." … and so forth…
Mindfulness of consciousness:
[A] monk knows the consciousness with lust, as with lust; the consciousness without lust, as without lust; the consciousness with hate, as with hate ; the consciousness without hate, as without hate. … and so forth…
Mindfulness of mental objects:
[A] monk knows, "There is sense-desire in me," or when sense-desire is not present, he knows, "There is no sense-desire in me." He knows how the arising of the non-arisen sense-desire comes to be; he knows how the abandoning of the arisen sense-desire comes to be. … and so forth…
Indeed, the Buddha himself is reported to have said:
This is the only way, monks, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbana, namely, the four foundations of mindfulness. (Majjhima Nikaya 10)
Ah, those were the days, right! But then things got all complicated with the evolution of Mahayana Buddhism’s bodhisattva ideal of saving all beings. How does one save all beings, anyway, without cultivating a depth of wisdom that essentially amounts to God-like omniscience? That is the depth of wisdom that the Buddha attained under the Bodhi tree, isn’t it? So now when I see those beautiful clouds forming overhead, I not only have to be aware of the pleasant sensation of the “joyous reverie of watchfulness without separation,” I have to also be aware of the fact that the climate is changing, and I am contributing to that climate change with my burning of fossil fuels, and by doing so I am causing the suffering of all beings by making it harder for them to survive; indeed, I am causing them to die; and yet I’ve made a vow to save them all…
What do you think? If the Buddha were to have been born in this fossil-fueled age, albeit without the scientific knowledge that we presently enjoy, would he, while sitting under the Bodhi tree, somehow spontaneously become aware of the fact that our actions are warming the planet and causing suffering to all beings? And now that I am aware of this reality, what should I do? Should I follow that teaching of 2,500 years ago and simply focus on my body, feelings, consciousness, and mental activity; or should I cultivate something as close as I can to an omniscient awareness of the plight of all beings, and a willingness to act on their behalf?
We modern Buddhists have the benefit of 2,500 years or so of teachings, spanning entire schools of thought, plumbing the cumulative depths of meditative practice engaged in by sincere practitioners over the millennia. We needn’t view these varied teachings as being contradictory to one another. Perhaps these teachings can best be viewed as tools in a spiritual toolbox available for our skillful use, the skill that comes with the development of wisdom – prajna, in Sanskrit.
As I’ve reflected on this apparent quandary over the last couple of weeks, I’ve come to realize that the development of wisdom, prajna, involves both subtraction and addition. The teaching related to the four foundations of mindfulness is essentially the development of wisdom via the subtraction of inaccurate conceptualization. Cultivating mindfulness of what is going on within the body/mind of “our” experience allows us to relinquish our attachment to the conceptualization of individual and permanent selfhood – a relinquishment that is of utmost importance when it comes to alleviating “our” individual suffering as Buddhists understand it. Accompanying this attainment of wisdom via the subtraction of inaccurate conceptualizations is the attainment of wisdom via the addition of awareness. We can’t be taking our vow to save all beings very seriously without being open to awareness of the reality that they experience, their difficulties, their sufferings. For this we must maintain openness to continued learning, openness to the news of the world, openness to social realities, openness to new developments within the scientific realm.
It is painful to contemplate global warming and all of the suffering that it will entail – that, in fact, it already entails. However, one does not accept the bodhisattva vow to save all beings without being willing to take on such suffering even while maintaining awareness of the transcendent beauty that is within and all around.
Majjhima Nikaya 10. Satipatthana sutta: The foundations of mindfulness" (Nyanasatta Thera, Tr.). Published by Access to Insight, 14 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.010.nysa.html
Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank