Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection is elegant. Sometimes individuals mistakenly assume that evolution moves only in one direction only – as if for change to be valid it must be ‘progressive’ in a non-stop trajectory of development. The reality is something quite different. In fact, evolution occurs just as much by ‘regression’ as it does by ‘progression’ - such is the random nature of its unfolding. The human big-toe, for example, is actually a ‘deformed’ thumb similar that found on the human-hand today. At one time in human development, an early version of ‘us’ could climb trees and hold onto branches with the minimum of effort early in our development – similar to chimpanzees and other extant monkeys. However, when early humans took to pedal walking upright (along the ground), the thumbs on the ‘lower hands’ quite literally ‘devolved’ into a far more rigid ‘toe’ to aid balance and stability whilst standing, walking and running on two legs. This development ‘freed’ the human-hands to develop all kinds of dextrous activities which resulted in tool-making and the beginnings of the transformation of the environment.
Positive developments within human evolutionary development, therefore, are not always ‘progressive’, and yet such ‘negative’ changes make way for some quite stunning improvements in human-activity and thought-processing, etc. This observation can be applied to the individual with regards self-cultivation. Not every change in life is ‘positive’ or necessarily ‘conducive’ to well-being or progression, and yet if used in an appropriate manner, can be adapted to advance our psycho-physical developments outside of our perceived safety zones. Sometimes, for human-beings to develop more completely, it is the ‘uncomfortable’ and the ‘unthinkable’ that must be embraced and treated like a long-lost friend. To achieve this, as individuals we must bravely advance into situations that usually we would possess no possible reason to be associated with.
Many people, living in the modern world, are trained from birth to prefer those situations that confuse them least. Inherently, this also means that we tend to choose to live in situations that challenge us least. In a very subtle manner, we avoid the very challenges and conditions that would develop us the most, if only we allowed ourselves to manifest within them. Fear of failure, fear of suffering and fear of ridicule often keeps us from bravely exposing us to situations whereby we would not ‘voluntarily’ venture. Perhaps it is helping a homeless person covered in lice, urine and excreta, or assisting a disabled person with no social skills. It could be less obvious than this – such as mingling with those who hold intolerable ideological or political ideas. It could be an atheist mixing with a religionists – or a Socialist with a fascist, etc. My point is that sometimes, we must not artificially shut ourselves off from various realities just because we do not ‘like’ or ‘prefer’ them. Compassion and loving kindness work best when applied in situations and circumstance where neither of these attributes are thought to exist.
If we firmly understand whatever spiritual, political or social reality we subscribe to, then our reasoning and logic should be so strong that exposure to contradictory ideas and situations should not ‘weaken’ but only ‘strengthen’ our resolve. Difference, although very real and tangible, should not be considered as an excuse for walling ourselves off from expressing a greater love for humanity whilst cultivating an insight into the spiritual essence of all reality. The Daoist sage Zhuangzi once said that a truly enlightened being must be indifferent to praise or blame – surely the only way to test this is to voluntarily enter into situations where we would usually never choose to enter. We must bring ‘light’ to the darkest corners of the Earth through such undertakings!
The Buddha explains clearly, in every expression of his teaching, that consciousness and physical matter are not two different things, even though they may be viewed as two distinct expressions of the same underlying reality. This understanding avoids the traps of ‘idealism’ and gross ‘materialism’, which are both declared errors by the Buddha. It is not that the mind does not exist, or that the physical world does not exist – both definitely do within an interpretive context – but that attachment to one view or the other is unhelpful when it comes to meditational development and the cultivation of wisdom. Furthermore, within the Four Noble Truths, it is clear that ‘consciousness’ in the chain of becoming has ‘physical matter’ as its basis (I.e. matter, sensation, perception, thought formation and conscious awareness). If this was not the case, this chain would read ‘conscious awareness’, ‘thought formation’, ‘perception’, ‘sensation’ and ‘matter’ - but it does not. This is the error made by DR DT Suzuki in his commentary upon the Lankavatara Sutra, which is perpetuated by those who think the Yogacara School is ‘idealist’ - when in fact the founders of this school begin their analysis by firmly stating that they agree with the Buddha when he says that the human mind is ‘impermanent’. Besides, genuine Buddhist training is as much in the mind as it is in the body, with ‘sila’ (morality) being the control of thought and physical behaviour. The ‘stilling’ of the mind is as important as the ‘stilling’ of the body, although the former supersedes the latter with regard to transformation and perception thereof. However, for a human mind to be functional, it must be existent within a living body. As to what might happen ‘before birth’ and ‘after death’, the Buddha remains ‘silent’, with many people utilising the metaphysics of religion to fill in this void...
The body is disciplined so that the mind may be ‘focused’. The Buddha teaches a type of Yoga, or at least a path that is recognisably ‘Yogic’ in origination. One of the first lines of the Patanjali Sutra reads ‘Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness.’ (Feuerstein 1989). Yoga is also an umbrella term used to describe a profound mind and body training that generates a permanent psycho-physical transformation. This is not a ‘subjective’ delusion, as the Buddha warns against this misidentification of inner awareness, and neither is it a hedonistic attachment to external pleasures (or pain) depending upon the conditionality of an individual. The Buddha advocates a non-identification with thought (and feeling), and a detachment from all physical sensation. Although there is a stage whereby the mind becomes free of surface thought (and a ‘stillness’ is experienced), nevertheless, eventually the process of thought is re-born in the mind but in an entirely ‘new’ manner which no longer ‘obscures’, ‘confuses’ or induces any form of ‘suffering’, etc. (The post-enlightenment situation is controversial and open to debate.)
Being a ‘Bodhisattva’ requires an individual to become truly ‘universal’ in perception, understanding and empathy. The conundrum of personal suffering must be solved before the suffering of the entire world can be taken on without any form of hindrance. To be a genuine Bodhisattva, is to be able to take responsibility for every single mode of suffering that exists in this world and the worlds beyond. Universal suffering is not limited to only that which humans feel – but necessarily includes ALL suffering everywhere. Furthermore, the committed Bodhisattva willingly takes on the suffering of past, the present and the future. The ‘intention’ is to be with those who are experiencing suffering, and to spiritually offer support and sustenance to help them through that which most would find difficult to experience or even face. How this is to be achieved is entirely dependent upon circumstance as there is no single method that meets all requirements. This is not an easy ability to achieve or function to perform. This is why Buddhist monastics in China take the ‘Bodhisattva Vows’ as well as the ‘Vinaya Discipline’ as part of their spiritual responsibilities.