Did Buddha Dream?

Once a monk made a request of Joshu
“I have just entered the monastery,” he said.
“Please give me instructions, Master.”
Joshu said, “Have you had your breakfast?”
“Yes, I have,” replied the monk.
“Then,” said Joshu, “wash your bowls.”
The monk had an insight.

-Zen koan

A fierce unrest seethes at the core
Of all existing things:
It was the eager wish to soar
That gave the gods their wings.
There throbs through all the worlds that are
This heart-beat hot and strong,
And shaken systems, star by star,
Awake and glow in song.

- Adapted from "Unrest" by Don Marquis, which I found in a Unitarian hymn book.

I‘ve been trying to reconcile a conflict between my personal drive and my meditation practice. On one hand, most of my self worth comes from helping humanity move forward. On the other hand, vipassana says that to see reality for what it is, I have to detach from the desires that cause me angst, craving, dissatisfaction. Surely, striving to help conquer grand challenges is one of those desires. I become attached to achieving it. To live mindfully, it seems, I should give up my aspirations. Or, to aspire to great things, it seems like I have to give up living in each moment, and live attached to the future I want to make real, accepting all the unhappiness along the way.

How delightful it would be to live satisfied with washing my bowls in every moment. But if I spend too many days washing my bowls, I’d probably find myself scraping off crumbs, thinking I’m capable of doing more good for the world.

Modifying my aspirations doesn’t help. I probably share this with the crowd of people, like those around me and those I interact with online, who dedicate themselves to fighting for justice, building a sustainable future on earth, spurring economic development at home and abroad, eliminating conflict, spreading good health. If we settle for satisfaction in each moment – to always feel we’ve done good enough – we become complacent. We limit what we can do for the world. Inaction is a lazy excuse for avoiding dissatisfaction, when the stakes for others matter so much.

I’ve temporarily reconciled this contradiction: maybe aspiring to move humanity forward is in itself a mindful act. Vipassana teaches that all is “conditioned” by all. That is, every human’s life is interdependent, and thus our thoughts and reactions are never independent. Nor are our environments, such as whether you and I have enough food and water, whether we live in peace or war, whether we have health and safety, or whether we have a nourishing natural environment. As much as we live in some ethereal “oneness of being”, we also live in a oneness of economics. We can, if we choose, help to improve the existence of others. This is the world we live in. Observe it as it is.

So, the lesson is this: as long as I live an internally mindful life – so long as the vibrating sensation of my breath rushing up my nostrils and down into my lungs still shows me beauty and change and nonexistence – then aspiring to improve the lives of all is to acknowledge the reality that I can, and that it needs to happen. It is, to me, not sufficient to retreat to the forest and listen to raindrops and admire insects and wash bowls. Let’s meet the mindful baseline in our own lives. Then we can strive to help others have health and safety, so they can find happiness in theirs.

Mindful awareness may be the most powerful tool. I can probably train myself so that being dissatisfied until radical change happens does not cause me to suffer one bit. Truthfully, I get a lot of energy and optimism from being dissatisfied with what I’ve done for the world. Each morning, I sit cross legged and follow my breath, and when I am done and open my eyes, I feel a sort of peace in my bones knowing that I am here, and there is work to do. Being mindful gives me the driving force of dissatisfaction while allowing me to detach from its suffering.

There will be moments when I haven’t slept for two days, I feel sick, people have lost faith in me, and it seems like everything will collapse tomorrow. In that moment, I might sit in agony. Or, I might feel the rising and falling of my chest, breathe out the tension in my forehead, and find stillness in my belly for a moment. There will be plenty of time, I’m sure, to admire the splish-splash-pit-pat of rain while envisioning how to bring forward a world inconceivably better for all.

Did Buddha aspire greatly? Surely, yes – or he wouldn’t have spread his discoveries as he did. He could have sat under that tree forever, nourished by kind people around him, and enjoying the sights and sounds and feelings of nirvana, until he withered and died and became fertilizer for the tree roots. But he didn’t. He saw some good in sharing with others his insights on reality, suffering, and the path out of suffering. More people ought to know, he must have thought.

Tomorrow I promise to wash my bowls, follow my breath, think of all that is to be done, and smile.