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The Temptation to Turn Away

Study & Arts, Sangha & Inclusion, Service & EngagementGuiding TeacherComment

When events in your life provoke fear or anger or any number of other difficult feelings, it's tempting to turn away. It's tempting to think that you can or should just withdraw, or put up a wall, or do your best to dismiss the things you can't understand. However, the history of mankind has shown that these responses do not work. For thousands of years, people have experienced pain and dissatisfaction as a result of their efforts to separate from others.

A fundamental teaching of Buddhism is emptiness, the fact that nothing comes into being permanently or independently. All things and all people must come into being, momentarily, in dependence on other people and things. That is to say, emptiness also means inseparability. There is no way to be separate. This is consistent with the laws of physics, as well as the Buddha's teachings.



Yet the illusion of separation is deep and pernicious. It begins with our sense of our own bodies, which develops during infancy.  And it continues into adolescence and beyond, as we develop an identity, a fixed view of self. Often times our identity is based on who we are not. We remind ourselves that we are not our parents, we are not our friends, and we are not our spouses. We remind ourselves, over and over again, that we are a certain kind of person, one that is defined at least in part by our skin. Is this really true?

Ultimately, there is no escaping the fact that this sense of difference is flawed and that it leads to difficulty. For example, when you see a star at night, that is a wave or a particle of light contacting your sense organs, the eyes. According to the Buddha, this creates a moment of eye consciousness. Then your brain sets out to identify it and to construct thoughts and feelings about it. So this tiny particle, which has traveled billions of miles and many years to reach your eye, effects both your body and mind in tangible ways. Thus, you are physically and mentally connected with, inter-being with that star across space and time. And due to the length of time that it takes for that light to reach your eye, the star may not even exist anymore. Yet, you are aware of its presence. How could you be separate from the stars?



And so it is with your relationship to all other beings on this Earth. You may think that reinforcing the separation is going to help, that it will lessen the pain and loss. You may think that building a mental or physical wall, or withdrawing from the situation will improve the situation. However, in the long run walls must come down, and withdrawal only compounds our loss. 

It is for this reason that the early Mahayana sutras teach about emptiness and the path of compassion together. Take the Diamond Sutra, for example. When Subhuti asks the Buddha how to control his thoughts, the Buddha replies that he should make a vow to save all beings, even while acknowledging that there are no beings to be saved. That is, we train the mind through compassionate activity that is in accord with the fact of emptiness. We know that to be human is to appear, in any given form, only for a flicker of an instant. One who deeply understands the implications of that will work to help others see it, so that they might have less confusion and suffering too.

Thus, when the events of life make you want to withdraw, it's the best time to step forward into the divide. It's the best time to remember that we are all human, and we are all more or less confused about how life really works. Despite that confusion, we are all also part of the vast fabric of reality, and therefore part of one family. Like the stars, we have a finite time to shine. So let's shine while we can.