Suppose you live in a world where many people – including many very powerful people – seem to be affected by greed, hatred and illusion. There is a great deal of anger and fear in this world. This world is filled with all sorts of factions and the people tend to be very conscious of these factions. Opposition, confrontation, condemnation and violent action are all considered normal and proper responses to injustice, and whatever the circumstance, people by a large majority consider their own actions to be just and those of their adversaries to be unjust. The concept of enemy is important in this world. There are many wars.
Now suppose that you have come to believe that you know of a better way to live. A way based upon renunciation of violence in all its forms, compassion for all and ill will toward none. A way of humility, patience and doing whatever you can to help.
Can such a practice engage with such a world in an effective way? Or is that sort of practice an empty idealism that must be subordinated to the exigencies of the day?
Recently the subject of the additional troops being sent to war in Afghanistan came up. Someone asked what we can do with our practice – what does our practice lead us to do about war?
I think that our practice is much the same whatever scenario we consider. Our practice teaches us to live mindfully and ethically whatever the situation and to see our motivation as clearly as possible. Our motivations arise from our values, and if our commitment to a value – let’s say nonviolence (ahimsa) in this case – becomes shaky under stress, we want to face that shakiness. For example, we might think that we have no ambivalence about war. To look more closely at that we might consider whether our opposition to war would lead us to support the unconditional disarming of our military. In this violent, militarized world would we make the decision on behalf of all of our countrymen to be the first to lay down our arms? If we found the answer to be no, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that we were not committed to nonviolence or were not sincerely opposed to war. It might mean that there was some other competing factor complicating the situation. Fear, perhaps. The point is to work with what we find. Our resolve is strengthened if our understanding is better.
We’re not only looking deeply (svadhyaya) at our motivations and our actions we also are trying to see clearly the reality of things in general. Buddha taught that phenomena do not come into existence on their own. Things come into being because of causes and conditions. War has no existence of its own separate from the causes and conditions that give rise to it. So to take action we might work to end the causes and conditions that give rise to war while speaking out for peace.
War is an important case to consider, so much suffering arises from it. If we find that we ourselves have some ambivalence about war, that we might hesitate to disarm even though we believe in nonviolence, then that knowledge might help to open us up to more compassion for those who give the appearance of favoring violence. It might make us more compassionate toward the soldier who believes that he or she is serving honorably. And it might give us a better understanding of why people compulsively resort to violence.
Maybe in looking closely we see that, while we yearn for the ideal, we fear the loss of mundane effectiveness because we suspect that the ideal and the down to earth are dichotomous. We aren’t really sure of the ideal’s relevance in our day to day life, especially when the going gets rough.
I think that this is a false dichotomy. The principles of conduct given in the yoga sutra or in Buddhism are not commandments. There’s no condemnation for not practicing. It is completely conditioned upon our choice and our will power. In fact, it may be that the hardest thing about this is that we don’t have to do it. If our practice is anything at all it is a practice of daily life. Again and again we are instructed to pay attention to the present moment. And whatever progress we make is due to our own day to day effort. No effort, no progress. The ideal that inspires us and guides us is always there. The ideal is necessarily a part of our practice; it is the target we aim for. But as the master archer told the student, you must act as if the target were infinitely far off. The real practice is in the mindful, present-moment aiming of the arrow. If we only look for good practice through an imaginary lens of perfection our daily practice is apt to never feel like enough.
The great teachers have not taught us that we must be perfect. The great teachers have simply said, practice like this. And I do not think that the great teachers have set us tasks that are impossible. We can realize the truth. We can have a transforming practice. But we must not disdain small accomplishments. The path is long and difficult, and our small victories are cumulative. It is my belief that the real and true ideal to strive for is constant effort, abhyasa. The yamas and other precepts are our guides. They tell us to “practice like this.” And we can realize those ideals but not if we fixate on some imagined degree of realization. The practice is right here, right now. It can’t be otherwise. And it is inseparably ideal and ordinary. And it is perfectly practical. And our strongest position for action is the one which is based upon our deepest understanding.