In times such as ours, when secular and material values dominate social and cultural life to an extreme degree, the intensity of the urge to have creates an ever widening gulf from the awareness of who and what we are. The primary purpose of Dharma is to reestablish a consciousness of being.
Having is characterized by acquisitiveness. Our worldview is dominated by the notion that the aim of personal existence is fulfilled in proportion to what we are able to amass and possess. This craving to acquire more and more extends into a vast range of different fields and realms. The most immediate and concrete realm is that of material objects. We accumulate inanimate things that seem to offer protection, security, and social status through their tangible and starkly present solidity.
The other realm is people: husbands, wives, children, friends, and acquaintances are all arranged in a circle around us connected to the center by threads of attachment and possessiveness. But the scope of having extends even further into the abstract realm of thought. We have divided this realm into various fields of knowledge: scientific, political, economic, sociological, historical, religious, and so on, into all the many subcategories that are constantly emerging. Each of these fields opens up new possibilities for further acquisitions. It is symptomatic of our having-oriented culture that the most intellectually admirable individual is commonly regarded as he who has stored the greatest number of facts and is able to retrieve them from his memory in the shortest possible time. Learning and education have frequently degenerated into the systematic accumulation of facts and information. Daily we are confronted with an inordinate quantity of news and are expected to assimilate it into the stockpile of other facts and figures already lying dormant in our memory. Progress has come to mean the ever increasing ability to accumulate lifeless objects within the greatest possible number of fields. Aptly we have dubbed ourselves “the consumer society.”
Even our own bodies and minds are regarded as “things’ we “have.” Life is said to be the most valuable thing we possess. Consequently, body, mind, and life are all looked upon as objects that “I” can somehow keep or lose. Here, as in all acts of having, a gulf is created between the possessor and the possessed. Having always presupposes a sharply defined dualism between subject and object. The subject thus seeks his or her well-being, as well as his or her sense of meaning and purpose, in the preservation and acquisition of objects from which he or she is necessarily isolated. The maxim becomes: “I am what I have” (Fromm).2 As a result, any sense of fulfillment will necessarily be illusory, because there is nothing one can have that one cannot fear to lose. Absorption in the horizontal dimension of having is the origin of all states of ontological insecurity. Anxiety, alienation, loneliness, emptiness, and meaninglessness are the fruits of living as an isolated subject amidst a multitude of lifeless objects. Although our scope of involvement may extend to numerous and diverse fields of interest and concern, as long as the notion of having predominates, our being remains empty and superficial. We wander around as strangers in a “lonely crowd”.
We are the hollow menWe are the stuffed menLeaning togetherHeadpiece filled with straw. Alas!Our dried voices, whenWe whisper togetherAre quiet and meaninglessAs wind in dry grassOr rats’ feet over broken glassIn our dry cellar. 3
T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men
What is it that we hope to achieve through all this incessant accumulation? Why are we compulsively motivated to have things? In the first place we instinctively sense that a certain element is lacking in our lives. A vague hunger echoes from deep within us. Perhaps through acquiring material objects, friends, and knowledge this void could be filled. So we set out into the world and start to consume whatever commodities it has to offer. We eat and for a while feel satisfied, but the pangs of hunger always return. Ironically, the more we crave to possess and dominate the world and others, the deeper and more unbearable becomes the chasm of our own emptiness. In order to conceal this rapidly widening gulf our compulsion develops into a frenzy. But, however hard we try, we will never succeed in filling an inner emptiness from the outside; it can only be filled from within. A lack of being remains unaffected by a plenitude of having.
So habituated are we to dealing with life uniquely within the limits of the horizontal dimension of having, that our consciousness of the possibility of an entirely other dimension of existence, namely, the vertical dimension of being, is rapidly fading to a vanishing point. Consequently, when our quest for fulfillment and meaning turns us to the sphere of religion–the receptacle for the traditional symbols of the dimension of being–we approach it in the only way we know how: as another region of having. Our religion, with its beliefs, rituals, and dogmas becomes another segment among all the other segments that constitute our linear and fragmented existence. It offers us another set of possible acquisitions, even more tempting than all the others: a meaning to life, immortality, enlightenment, the kingdom of heaven. Unfortunately, many organized and institutionalized religions only encourage this attitude. Heaven and hell are emphasized as particular places to which we can go. Enlightenment and eternal life are conceived as things that can be obtained by each individual. We can pay for them by accumulating sufficient quantities of the right currency, i.e. merit. Despite the efforts of their founders, the temples continue to be inhabited with those who only sell and buy.4 In this respect their merchandise has been accurately compared to opium.
The point that cannot be sufficiently emphasized today is that authentic religious consciousness is not another extension of the horizontal dimension of having, but an awakening to the presence of the vertical dimension of being. As such its inception must take place in a radical reorientation of one’s entire existence. Similarly, any evaluation or criticism of religion is meaningless when delivered from a horizontal outlook. With the discovery of the dimension of being, the aim and meaning of life is seen within the framework of an entirely new set of values, the principal of which is: instead of living in order to have more abundantly, it is necessary to live in order to be more abundantly. Religion should not be considered as an “optional extra” to life that we can either adopt or discard at will. In its true sense religion is the outcome of life itself. It is not something we adopt in addition to all our other concerns and partition off into a special section of the mind. When firmly rooted in the dimension of being our whole life becomes religious.
Thus the essential dynamic of religion can never be reduced to or identified with a particular system of beliefs or dogmas. Such systematic presentations of the religious essence are inevitable consequences of man’s attempt to conceptualize and thereby communicate his experience. As such they are necessary and valuable, but as soon as they arise there is the constant danger that they will be elevated into a set of self-sufficient values existing independently of the deeper reality they attempt to describe. It needs to be constantly borne in mind that all religious institutions and their accompanying belief-systems are culturally and historically conditioned phenomena which point beyond themselves to man’s ultimate concern. They themselves are never worthy of such concern; when applied to them it becomes an idolatrous concern.5
2. The Buddha’s Renunciation
The radical shift from the dimension of having to that of being, as constitutive of the turning point from a secular to a religious mode of existence, is dramatically illustrated by the life of Sh”kyamuni the Buddha. The principal features of the story of his life are traditionally presented as follows: The Prince Siddh”rtha is born as the heir to the throne of Suddhodana, the monarch of the small Sh”kya kingdom in Northern India. Shortly after his birth a sage called Asita predicts that the child will be either a mighty world ruler or a great religious saviour. Afraid of the latter alternative his father the King surrounds him with all variety of sensual pleasures; he is trained for the kingship, educated, and married. However, he happens to see, on four separate occasions while outside the royal palace, an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a religious mendicant. These events cause him to ponder more deeply the real meaning of life. Finally, disillusioned with the vanity of the worldly life, he secretly leaves the palace one night, discards his princely garb, dons the robe of a religious mendicant, and sets out to discover the true purpose of existence. After several years of practicing various austerities and meditations under different teachers, he still finds no answers. Finally, determined to find a solution to his questions, he sits down alone under a large tree and at last achieves enlightenment. After some hesitation he decides to communicate what he has found to mankind and thus embarks on a ministry that lasts for some forty years.6
The value of this account does not lie simply in its attempt to depict historical events, but in its symbolic meaning as a representation of an archetypal process. Although it is presented as the life-story of a particular person set in a particular place and time, its deeper meaning transcends its spatio-temporal horizons. When seen as a description of the transition from the dimension of having to that of being, it can be understood as the original pattern upon which the life of each Buddhist at every time in history can be modeled. This does not mean that in every case its form is to be literally imitated, but that its ontological significance can be realized within each concrete life.
The society into which the Buddha was born offered him two alternative possibilities of existence. On the one hand it was sufficiently stable and affluent to allow a young prince the greatest opportunities to fulfill his worldly ambitions. On the other hand, the political and social organization had developed to the point where men were free to engage in philosophical and religious enquiries concerning the more fundamental meaning and purpose of life. These two alternatives, the former opening into the dimension of having and the latter into the dimension of being, were potentially present from the moment of his birth. Their presence is symbolically disclosed by the prophesy of the sage Asita. However, his father’s values clearly lay solely within the scope of having, not in the dimension of being. He lavished all manner of sensual enjoyment upon him, gave him the best education possible, and saw him assure the continuation of the royal line by marrying and producing a son. But all the while he made certain that the painful and negative aspects of life were well concealed from him. Symbolically, the King represents the imposition of the values of a materially oriented secular society upon its individual members.
To this day, those who are firmly entrenched in the horizontal dimension demand that their values remain supreme and unchallenged. This fanaticism is unconsciously motivated by the sense of a vague and indeterminate threat lurking among those inconvenient aberrations of life: aging, sickness, and death. Consequently, these phenomena are concealed in hospitals, homes, morgues and well-tended graveyards. Death and insanity, especially, are even ostracized from speech and, whenever possible, from thought. Anyone who spends his existence dwelling on these things is regarded as ‘morbid” or “unable to enjoy life” and is likewise cast out into the barely tolerated niches reserved for philosophers, monks, and other eccentrics.
However, it was precisely through grasping the significance of old-age, sickness, death, and the life of a religious mendicant that an awareness of the dimension of being arose in the young prince’s mind. From this point on his life was radically transformed; he could no longer acquiesce in the superficial values of having and maintain an undisturbed conscience. It would be stretching the imagination too far to suppose that his father’s attempts at concealment had caused him to literally have never seen or heard of old-age, sickness, and death. The point is that, in having his attention constantly diverted to possibilities within the sphere of having, he had never realized the deeper existential meaning of these phenomena. From this moment onwards he could no longer be contented with a pursuit of numerous particular achievements, for he was now confronted with the question of the meaning of life as a whole. In the constant shadow of death what real meaning could worldly power and glory have for him? Suddenly all his previous values were declared bankrupt. Instead of seeing the surface of the world as rich and full of meaning, he now perceived it from the deeper vantage-point of being and realized it to be barren and empty. Therefore the real significance of old-age, sickness, and death lies in their function as concrete symbols for the dimension of being. But once they have opened up this dimension, a radically new way of life needs to be adopted that is capable of fulfilling the existential possibilities that have now been revealed. Thus the religious mendicant becomes the living symbol for a mode of existence that seeks life in being as opposed to having.
With this new perspective on life awakening within him the prince began to feel imprisoned in his palace. That is to say, within the confines of the horizontal dimension of having he realized there to be no opportunity for the possibility of discovering the meaning and purpose of being. On four separate occasions he had ventured beyond the boundaries of the “palace” and had glimpsed the deeper and more fundamental questions of life. These experiences had profoundly disturbed him, but he still returned to the palace and outwardly continued his royal life as before. However, he finally reached a point where the contradiction between the growing intensity of these questions and his superficial life of sensual enjoyment became unbearable. So one night he took leave of his sleeping courtesans and departed from the palace to take up the life of a religious mendicant dedicated to the search for truth. Thus he arrived at a point where a compromise between having and being was no longer acceptable and he had no alternative but to devote himself to a new way of life centered entirely around the principles and values of being. The final departure from the palace, which is also referred to as the ‘renunciation,” is thus a symbol for the radical shift from the dimension of having to that of being.
For the following six years he trained himself in the various spiritual disciplines that were practiced in those days but still found no answer to his questions. Finally he settled down at the foot of the pipal tree and, with the strong determination not to rise again until he had reached his goal, achieved enlightenment and became a Buddha. In the following chapters we shall analyze this process more closely in terms of its ontological and existential significance. We have seen how the renunciation was a description of the shift from the sphere of having to the sphere of being. Likewise the striving for enlightenment can be seen as the process of authentically actualizing the potentialities of human being, and Buddhahood as the actualization of the optimum state of being.
3. The Paradigmatic Character of the Buddha’s Life
The more we analyze this account of the Buddha’s life, the clearer it should become that its meaning is not restricted to the description of a particular historical event but is of universal significance. It depicts the essential dynamism of Buddhism through the powerful imagery of the life-story of its founder. Thus it synthesizes a description of the process of actualization of the universal potentialities of human existence with the concrete life story of one man. Its true spiritual value lies in its simultaneous portrayal of the personal embodiment of a universal process and the universal significance of a personal life.
Even today each of the main features of the story can be understood in terms of our own personal existence. The “prophesy” of Asita, as a statement of the innermost existential possibilities into which man can project his being, is just as applicable to us now as it was to the Prince Siddh”rtha two and a half thousand years ago. The “king,” as representative of the values of a having-oriented society imposes his will upon us and conditions the course of our lives in much the same way as he did to the Buddha. The image of the “palace” is especially powerful today when more and more people are able to surround themselves with sensual enjoyments and material affluence. To an unprecedented degree are old-age, sickness, death, and the religious mendicant kept out of the public view and disregarded by society. Nevertheless, the possibility still remains for us to be struck by the existential questions of life and to make the shift from the dimension of having to that of being. Like the Prince Siddh”rtha we may have to secretly slip away form the palace at night while everyone is sleeping. However, this should not be naively interpreted as meaning that it is necessary to actually reject our homes, families, social obligations, and so forth; we can easily do all these things without ever undergoing any radical change within ourselves. The essential element involved in ‘renunciation” is our forsaking the values of having and awakening to the consciousness of being. We leave behind us “those still sleeping in the palace at night,” meaning that we move beyond the condition of ignorantly (‘sleeping”) and blindly (“at night”) indulging in acquisition, possession and consumption (“the palace”), and begin to experience life from a totally other dimension.
Genuine renunciation is not a partial or conditional transformation of certain attitudes or beliefs; it involves a radical change of the entire personality. Our very being in the world is transformed. Evidently this process of ontological metamorphosis may effect corresponding changes in our intellectual, emotional, and social behaviour, but any transformations in the latter, no matter how remarkable, are not necessarily indicative of the former having taken place. Moreover, depending on the disposition and circumstances of the individual, this change may occur either suddenly or gradually. However, as is indicated in the story of the Buddha, it will probably take place over a substantial period of time during which it is nurtured by certain “key” experiences (by insight into one’s mortality, for example) before becoming crystallized in a conscious realization or an overt act. In the following account from the Pali canon the Buddha recalls how this awareness articulated itself in his mind.
And I too, monks, before awakening, while I was still the bodhisattva, not fully awakened, being liable to birth, aging, disease, dying and sorrow because of self, sought what was likewise liable to birth, aging, disease, dying and sorrow. Then it occurred to me, monks: “Why do I, liable to birth, aging, disease, dying and sorrow seek what is likewise liable to these things? Suppose that I, although being liable to birth, aging, disease, dying and sorrow because of self, having known the peril in what is likewise liable to these things, should seek the unborn, the unaging, the undecaying, the undying, the unsorrowing, the stainless, uttermost cessation of bondage–nibb”na.”7
This passage, formulated in the language of the earlier adherents of Buddhism, expresses the Buddha’s complete change in perspective in terms of a shift in concern from the finite and transient towards the infinite and abiding. Whatever terminology is used the main point remains clear: renunciation involves a total transformation of one’s experience of life as a whole.
A point is reached where the contradiction involved in perpetuating a having-oriented existence under the ever darkening shadow of the unrelenting questions of being becomes unbearable. We are left with no choice but to shift the center of our personal life from the dimension of having to that of being. This produces a sense of joyous inner release and freedom from the gnawing uneasiness of our previous vacillation. It is a firm and highly significant transition that is completely irrevocable. We die to the life of external values and are reborn into the life of inner meaning. However, we also find ourselves naked, alone, and homeless. This condition is starkly symbolized by the image of the religous mendicnt, the way of life that the Prince Siddh”rtha adopted upon his departure from the palace. It is related how he cut off his hair, exchanged his jewelry and royal clothing for the simple loincloth of a begging monk, and set out alone and homeless in search of the answers to the questions of life. Driven on by his unceasing determination to realize the purpose and meaning of existence he underwent repeated disappointments, extreme physical hardships, and expulsion from even the society of his fellow mendicants. Hence, although the quest for inner meaning may be realized to be the only viable form of existence, it is by no means a life of continuous comfort, ease, and spiritual joy. In accepting this task, we have to constantly confront our deepest anxieties, our emptiness, our despair, our doubts; and there is nowhere for us to escape and hide from them. It is impossible to ever turn back, and at times it seems impossible to ever make any further progress. Within the dimension of being we experience life with greater intensity. In contrast, the values and goals to which we previously gave so much importance are seen to be exceedingly shallow and artificial.
However, Sh”kyamuni did not become disheartened; he persevered and, through realizing Buddha-hood, finally established that an answer was to be found. Thus his life stands as an example which forcibly demonstrates that the inner purpose and meaning of our existence can be realized through the process of awakening to Buddhahood. Today, as much as ever before, it presents a direct challenge to each one of us to respond to the deepest questions of our existence in fully actualizing the potentialities of our innermost being.