In the late sixties Janis Joplin’s voice rallied the bedraggled front lines of the cultural revolution with the refrain from “Me and Bobby McGee“: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” As she sang, the United States was committed to an unjust war, race riots had some cities in flames and every city on edge, and psychedelic drugs promised salvation from personal despair through sex, love, and ecstatic communion. For Janis and her fans, freedom from convention, freedom from parental and societal restraint, freedom from everything already labeled, categorized, and institutionalized was pursued with an urgency far surpassing that of the United States military fighting to keep Vietnam “free” from communism.
The Vietnam War created seismic cracks in the American Dream; and through the narrow, yet transformative, crevices of a shattered society crept Buddhism, conveying teachings on the nature of freedom that offered a radical alternative to both the mainstream and the counter-culture of that time. But, one generation later, Buddhism has surfaced and the Euro-American Buddhist communities have undergone their own transformations. Fresh inquiries into the nature of enlightenment and freedom are now required—and Janis Joplin, it turns out, may still be hitting the mark.
Related: Buddhism, Under Vietnam’s Thumb
In the modern world the word “liberation” is like a chameleon, changing its color with each new attachment: animal liberation, women’s liberation, liberation theology, gay liberation, or the liberation of Kuwait. These ideologies are vehicles of emotional energy so deeply entrenched in the American psyche that our rhetoric often displays undeniable irrationality. The emotional pitch of slogans such as Live Free or Die and Better Dead than Red dramatically proclaim the depth of our enslavement. But liberty, like everything else, is essentially empty of description: one person’s bondage is another’s freedom. Abraham Lincoln summarized this dilemma in a speech given in 1864:
The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty.
The wolf, the sheep, and the shepherd can be found in the major players in any war, including the Persian Gulf War: Iraq, Kuwait, and the United States.
Nevertheless, the “civil” liberties guaranteed by the Constitution are still being fought for by groups who do not enjoy the “rights” exercised by others. But when the legitimate and meritorious struggles around the world have been fought and won, when the constitutional rights of all Americans are insured—then who will be free? Will the sheep who has been “saved” from the jaws of the wolf be free? Why indeed has the shepherd protected the sheep? What are his intentions?
While social and political activists struggle on ideological battlegrounds, many Americans experience economic dependency as a form of coercion and oppression—as though the “pursuit of happiness” meant only economic freedom. Those who have attained material wealth and the outer freedoms that accompany it however, often come to realize that
economic mobility has little to do with inner freedom. The Buddha’s early life as a prince accustomed to luxury represents the good life of maximum “outer freedom.” But to experience bondage in the midst of wealth, privileges, luxury, and leisure is to begin to penetrate what Chogyam Trungpa called the “myth of freedom.”
A deep recognition of bondage leads naturally to a wish to be free. Initially this wish is concentrated on the cultivation of an inner life and the withdrawal from samsara. One discovers that the attention is not at all free, that the attention is habitually flowing out toward the objects of our senses and the objects of our desires. The movement toward inner freedom is advanced in Buddhism principally through practices of attention and awareness—exercises that usually reveal more about the pervasive nature of imprisonment than any potential state of liberation.
We generally view freedom as the ability to do what we want to do, when and where we want to do it. Our “pursuit of happiness” is deemed successful to the extent that we can fulfill our desires. But at a certain point, one begins to suspect that one’s view of freedom is upside-down: desires are seen as having a life of their own and, whether “good” or “bad,” desires are—as the Great Vows say—inexhaustible. Understood as a generic force, these desires are no longer “mine” but habitually exert an extraordinary control over “my” life.
Buddhism introduces an artificial aspect to a “natural” life by creating conditions for a struggle between the desires and the nondesires. Exercises, tests, practices, and precepts harness the habitual outflow of our attention, and allow the greed, attachment, and suffering that stems from both ignorance and the habitual indulgence of desires to be recognized. The Buddhist formula of Dependent Origination places desire within a causally determined process, and suggests that as long as the mechanical nature of this process remains unobserved, we attribute freedom to what is not free.
But there is a way out, for the practices reveal, in glimpses, both our bondage and our freedom. Yet one can only take the practices prescribed by the Buddha so far if they remain isolated from conditions of ordinary “outer” life. And the “myth of freedom” is revealed again when tested by the demands and distractions of everyday life. When the householder Vimalakirti found Shakyamuni’s ordained disciple Sariputra sitting quietly alone at the foot of a tree he rebuked him:
Reverend Sariputra, this is not the way to absorb yourself in contemplation…. You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that you can manifest the nature of an ordinary person without abandoning your cultivated spiritual nature. You should absorb yourself in contemplation so that the mind neither settles within nor moves without toward external form…. You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that you are released in liberation without abandoning the passions which are the province of the world. (From Robert Thurman’s translation of the Vimalakirti-sutra.)
Sariputra’s error (from Vimalakirti’s point of view) is easy to identify with: in seeking “liberation” from the desires, he was trying to kill the wolf. One of the basic premises of the Mahayana movement is the doctrine that arhats like Sariputra were not fully enlightened. According to this teaching, freedom from desires and passions is not the same as the attainment of “liberation by mind” and “liberation by insight” which alone can cut the root of Dependent Origination: ignorance. Buddhism was not conceived as a means to become liberated from desire, but as a means to become liberated. Struggling with the energies of passions and desires is an important part—but only a part—of the path of enlightenment.
In the Vimalakirti-sutra the arhat Sariputra’s isolation and his aversion to passions are emblematic of flight from samsara and “entrance” into nirvana. The Mahayana paradigm of the bodhisattva who returns to the world from the threshold of nirvana is a symbolic development of ideas already present in the Pali canon. Canonical passages suggest the same idea in the Buddha’s statements about monks who are “free in both ways” (ubhatobhagavimutta). Those monks are not only free from the material world, but having attained the highest stations of the immaterial world and “cessation,” they reemerge in the “world.” The arhat’s reengagement in the world is much like the bodhisattva’s but the emphasis remains individual and ontological, while the bodhisattva adds an altruistic course.
Although this conflict about the role of desire (or the cessation of desire) is presented almost exclusively in the Mahayana schools, there are two traditions of discourse in early (pre-Mahayana) Buddhism that symbolize the historical decline of Buddhist dharma—a decline represented by the emphasis on moral and ethical precepts rather than on liberation (vimoksha). A pattern emerged in early Indian Buddhism in which the “question of desire” became separated from the “question of liberation”: the distinction seems to have been lost between desire as a generic force or energy and desire as defined by objects of desire. At the same time, conflicts emerged over the precepts (specific codes oriented toward specific desires and actions) and points of controversy were settled according to the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law.
There are numerous references in early texts to the Buddha’s prediction regarding the decline and demise of the “true” dharma (saddharma), which is in turn succeeded by a “counterfeit” dharma(patrupakadharma). The most common tradition maintains that the Buddha predicted that the true dharma would last a thousand years, but because women would be admitted into the Sangha, the true dharma would last only five hundred years. This prediction has become famous as a gender issue. But far more interesting are the predicted stages of decline, particularly since the Buddha maintained that “true dharma” would disappear with or without women in the Sangha. According to a text of the Haimavata school, what marks the decline of true dharma is a shift in emphasis through the succeeding centuries from liberation to concentration (samadhi), obeservance of precepts (siladhara), erudition (bahustruta), and finally, donation (dana). Other texts maintain that the true dharma would last a thousand years and that the first five hundred years after the Buddha’s death would be dominated by liberation and the second five hundred years by precepts and erudition.
The legendary prediction of the gradual decline of the “true” dharma and the switch from an emphasis on liberation to an emphasis on precepts have a remarkable parallel in the history of the Buddhist councils and the evolution of sectarian Buddhism. Tradition maintains that in the first council held following the Buddha’s death, the president of the assembly, Kasyapa, questioned two monks: Upali, an expert on the Vinaya (the ethical code for the ordained Sangha), and Ananda (the Buddha’s cousin and allegedly his favorite disciple) on the dharma. After Kasyapa finished his questioning, Ananda reported to the assembly that on his deathbed the Buddha had deemphasized the precepts, authorizing the Sangha to abolish the minor and lesser ones. This then became the point of controversy. Further more, Ananda had apparently not asked the Buddha what he meant (Ananda was reproached for this and other failures), and because the assembly could not reach agreement, Kasyapa proposed that all the precepts should be retained. This conservative motion won the day.
What is usually referred to as the “Second Council” took place at Vaisali about one hundred years after the Buddha’s parinirvana. This Second Council was convened to settle a dispute about whether or not ten specific practices transgressed the precepts. The practices considered included “using a sitting mat without a border,” accepting gold and silver, “storing salt in a horn,” and so on. The Sangha once again upheld the conservative position and maintained the prohibitions. The beginning of Buddhist sectarianism can be dated to this Second Councilor very soon thereafter. Canonical evidence suggests that tension existed between groups or individuals who emphasized liberation and those who emphasized precepts. It is precisely this tension that inspired the emergence of Mahayana Buddhism—and now the same debate has been reborn in contemporary Euro-American Buddhist communities.
Mahayana Buddhism generally exhibits a less dogmatic approach toward morality and ethics. But often overlooked is the fact that this ethical “laxity” was the result of a rigorous reorientation toward liberation (vimoksha) that relativized the sphere of precepts. For example, Indian texts show that in the conservative orders of Buddhism, capital offenses (murder and theft, for example) were punishable by excommunication regardless of motive. But in Asanga’s (c. 374-430 C.E.) writings on the bodhisattva practice, a more sophisticated and liberal view prevails. Asanga realized quite clearly that certain acts, while appearing heinous or abominable to those who judge, might actually have been committed for the benefit of others; here, the individual is not only free from offense, but may even gain great merit. A dangerous attitude perhaps, and vulnerable to abuse, but the logic is undeniable, unless one argues that appearances alone are true.
Nagarjuna (c. 150-250 C.E.) is even more explicit about the nature of this theoretical and practical orientation:
To speak of the nonexistence of sin and good action is not a false view. If one examines carefully the nature of things and one practices concentration on voidness (sunyatasamadhi), one sees, with the eye of wisdom, that sin does not exist; if sin does not exist, its opposite, good action, does not exist either.
Apparently, the tension between dharma and vinaya, between freedom and moral precepts, has existed since the earliest days of Buddhism. No doubt dharma and vinaya coexisted in all schools of ancient Buddhism, as they do today. But the perpetual co-existence of the dharma and vinaya only makes the shift more subtle and dangerous—a shift characterized by the emphasis on vinaya over dharma, precepts over freedom, outer over inner, and identifying the source of suffering as desire rather than ignorance. The shepherd may have “freed” the sheep, but the wolf will be back. The desires and passions may change form and seem to disappear, but the energy of desire is ever-present. The Mahavastu makes this point with an aphorism that sounds surprisingly Freudian:
Though a man live a chaste life for a long time, yet the latent fires of passion are not put out. But once again will the poison of passion break out, just as the fire that is latent in the wood cannot be suppressed.
When the source of suffering is located in desire, curbing desire becomes the focus of understanding. When the source of suffering is located in ignorance, an emphasis on liberation predominates. Like Buddhism, our democratic institutions were conceived by the Founders as an experiment in liberty and self-rule, but of a different order and on a different scale. We need to remind ourselves—as Buddhists and citizens—that both movements are really continuing experiments, and perhaps Jefferson was right when he said that we need a revolution every twenty years. The decline of the democratic ideal of freedom and the steady erosion of our civil liberties bears a noteworthy resemblance to the Buddhist pattern of decline: the rhetoric of morality and ethics over and against liberation and freedom. Groups “clinging to moral codes” (as Nagarjuna puts it), like the Moral Majority and politicians who cynically (or ignorantly) promote the imposition of “traditional values,” exemplify the very real threat to freedom that exists in our society.
The current tension between freedom and the imposition of moral codes was anticipated by the Founders and grew out of their experience with the Church of England. Thomas Jefferson’s phrase “separation of church and state” has been widely misunderstood in recent times as freedom from religion, as if a nation’s health and strength would be insured by a secular worldview divorced from religion. But Jefferson and his colleagues held just the opposite idea: the church was to be separated from the state because religion was a private matter and too important to be entrusted to a congress who might advance a particular creed or morality. If there was no separation between church and state (as advocated today by “fundamentalist” groups in countries all over the globe), then who would decide which church to sponsor, who would decide which prayers to hear in school?
Although Jefferson was thoughtfully and seriously religious (he edited his own version of the New Testament and was the largest contributor to the Episcopal church in Albemarle, Virginia, where he lived), he held religion to be a private affair best left out of politics. It is impossible to imagine President Jefferson (orVice President Jefferson) attacking a “cultural elite” and lecturing on “moral values” and appropriate behavior. Our current political climate is defined by groups and movements that feel a need to advance a formal moral agenda in politics. The “religious right” has sought to weaken the basic standards of freedom which even the highly politicized Reagan-
Bush Supreme Court has been cautious enough to affirm. In upholding the basic tenets of Roe v. Wade, the majority opinion for the Supreme Court wrote: “Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code.”
The plurality of freedoms advanced by the Constitution were born from the recognition that human beings are, regardless of rank, fallible and ignorant—it is simply the human condition—and by acknowledging this, the Founders emphasized the separation of powers as a means to insure our liberty. The inner liberty of the mind was so important to Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, and others that religion was separated even from the separation of powers: “Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested His supreme will that it shall remain free… ” (Jefferson)
Even so, the “unalienable rights” referred to in the Declaration of Independence as “self-evident” truths are not guaranteed. As other parts of the world are struggling toward liberty and self-determination, the decline of our own society is signaled not by the degeneration of morals and values, but by the rhetoric of a moral police that threatens our freedom. As we have seen, the Buddhist tradition maintains that to be free from desire does not necessarily lead to full enlightenment or liberation—the root of ignorance is still in place. On the other hand, if one makes liberation the center of one’s search, then it follows that one’s actions will be performed with this goal in mind and the chances for right actions will be enhanced when they are not seen as a series of obligatory enactments.
When a civilization or teaching is in decline, perhaps the most difficult question that arises is Where do I take my stand? What is the response, if any, that seems to be called for? Is there a relationship between the inner and outer movements toward freedom? Or to borrow from Holderin’s aphorism, where is the saving power that grows in times of danger?
Unlike other traditions, Buddhism is defined not as much by an orthodoxy (“correct dogma or belief”) as it is by orthopraxis (“correct practice”). And the one action that stands at the heart of Buddhism is the practice of meditation. Samadhi is usually translated as “concentration,” but the word literally indicates a synthesis or unification. Samadhi is more accurately understood as the practice or action that unifies. By establishing an awareness of one’s separate parts and their energies, samadhi creates the conditions for the unification of body, speech, and mind. It is the inner meditative practice, especially in the midst of outer conditions (as Vimalakirti indicated to Sariputra), that leads to the unification and eventual reconciliation of inner and outer, self and other. In this light the Buddha’s approach to both inner and outer transformation and liberation was indeed non-violent: I do not try to kill the wolf, to destroy my desires, or to impose my view on others. Like Socrates, the Buddha recognized that the politics of the soul are reflected in the politics of the world: “I do not fight with the world, but the world fights with me; for one who knows the dharma never fights with the world.” (From the Sutta-nipata).
Ultimately, one can say that the bodhisattva knows liberation when there is no longer an outer and inner, when there is nowhere to take one’s stand, when there is no longer a world to be saved, and no longer anyone to save it, when, as Janis Joplin put it, freedom’s just another word for no-thing left to lose.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.