Reflecting on the Dhammapada (7/26)

“At the end of the way
The master finds freedom
From desire and sorrow —
Freedom without bounds.”

The philosophy here is that suffering is caused by attachment and desire. To desire is to suffer; to be attached is to suffer. To understand the fleeting nature of all things and to release attachment to those things is to be free of suffering; to understand that desire creates a hole in the heart which may or may not be filled and therefore release desire/detach from desire is to be free of suffering. Freedom here is explicitly defined as being free of suffering. Therefore, the master is free because they have released attachment and rejected desire — they are free from the suffering these things (according to this philosophy) produce.

“Those who awaken
Never rest in one place.
Like swans, they rise
And leave the lake.”

To be “awake” or fully present, living in a state of mindfulness and being fully present, is to live without attachment. One understands the fleeting nature of each moment as it passes and feels no need to try to try to hold onto it, but rather is content to be happy with it in its moment then let it pass, and embrace the next moment.

“On the air they rise
And fly an invisible course,
Gathering nothing, storing nothing.
Their food is knowledge.
They live upon emptiness.
They have seen how to break free.”

To have broken free is to have rejected desire and released attachment. No longer clinging to that which is by its nature fleeting or impermanent, and no longer craving for that which prevents us from living present and fully in the moment of our living, one may be considered “emptied out” as compared to more “normal” modes of being. What then does such a person sustain themselves on? On meditation, on enjoyment of the present moment, on mindfulness, on growing knowledge/wisdom. There is no need to carry anything with them, at this state, and no need to store anything for later. There is only the present moment to be lived fully and enjoyed.

“Who can follow them?
Only the master.
Such is his purity.

Like a bird,
He rises on the limitless air
And flies an invisible course.
He wishes for nothing.
His food is knowledge.
He lives upon emptiness.
He has broken free.

He is the charioteer.
He has tamed his horses,
Pride and the senses.
Even the gods admire him.”

The master is able to follow these paths precisely because they have taken the time to work towards “awakeness.” Through a consistent practice of self honesty and compassion, and ever working towards greater health and wellbeing, they have “tamed the horses” of the wandering and volatile mind. They have become the “charioteer” of their mind, rather than being controlled by it.

This probably no longer needs saying as I’ve repeated it throughout these reflections yet it still feels as though it bears repeating: for those of us with a history of trauma and mental illness, this is much easier said than done. I can speak from my own experience of major depressive disorder and of post traumatic stress disorder, but I suspect that what I might say on this particular front would be applicable to many other conditions: the imbalances that certain mental illnesses cause in brain chemicals, which directly affects the emotional experience and the thought processes of the brain, can make it incredibly difficult if not impossible to simply “live mindfully” or “be fully present.” In fact, for some people, mindfulness practices may only put them at risk of sinking deeper into their symptoms, if not having a reaction along the lines of “This is supposed to work, why isn’t it working? What’s wrong with me?” that can exacerbate symptoms. The same is true for experiences that change the physiological landscape of the brain, such as trauma (which not only rewires the neurological pathways in the brain but can also actually wither some brain structures while increasing the capacity of others, such as the amygdala) or traumatic brain injuries, seizures, strokes, etc.

In the millenia since Buddhism was formed in India, we have learned so much about the brain and its functions and malfunctions, and room for these things in these philosophies must be made. We must be willing to understand that practices that work for some will not work for others, and allow for room in how we define “success.” Success for someone who is neurotypical will not be applicable for someone who is neurodivergent, who will need a measure of success that makes sense for their brain and their experiences. They may never be able to achieve the status of “master” as these ancient sayings defines the concept, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t become masterful in their own right. Working consciously to understand one’s condition and develop a practice than enables them to work within and around that condition, navigating it in a healthful and positive way on a path towards greater health and wellbeing, is itself a huge measure of success for someone suffering chronic mental health/brain health conditions and ought to be acknowledged as such.

“Yielding like the earth,
Joyous and clear like the lake,
Still as the stone at the door,
He is free from life and death.

His thoughts are still.
His words are still.
His work is stillness.
He sees his freedom and is free.”

In stillness — which we may here read as mindfulness (stilling the racing mind to be present in the moment) — the master finds freedom. They find peace in stillness, and in their embrace of whatever comes and their release of whatever goes, they are free from attachment and suffering.

“The master surrenders his beliefs.
He sees beyond the end and the beginning.

He cuts all ties.
He gives up all his desires.
He resists all temptations.
And he rises.”

“He cuts all ties” gets me. Let us remember: Siddhārtha Gautama was recorded to have had a wife and a son whom he left behind when he went in search of enlightenment. He did not only leave behind the immense privilege of his upbringing, but the family that was associated with it. This feels something which is often glossed over if not neglected entirely, at least in modern western discourse about Buddhism. At least insofar as I have seen.

There feels no small amount of callousness in such and action, though I am sure the argument could be made that such a man, in such a context both culturally and historically, may not have made any better a husband and father were he present rather than having abandoned his family. Perhaps nothing at all changed for those he left behind, but it is worth noting — just as it is worth noting his privilege when reflecting upon and discussing his sayings. It is valuable to remember that every human being speaks from a place of bias, and those biases are almost always self-serving — even in the most benevolent and magnanimous among us. To what degree might it have served the Buddha well to extoll the virtues of “cutting all ties” or to qualify such an action as the action of a “master”?

For that matter, let us consider the human animal: we are pack animals in a very real sense. Human connection and relationship is one of the very root and base needs we all experience. In hunter-gathered societies (the state of evolution at which our brains very much still linger despite the rapid development of our cultures and technologies) to lack relationship was a death sentence. We evolved to survive in groups, we evolve to need those relationships for our physical and mental health. How then do be reconcile the idea of “cutting all ties” as being an action that is inherently masterful rather than one that is self-harming? This is a question I have no real desire to answer at this moment, but it feels one worth pondering in the course of study, and perhaps should be answered by each individual according to their experiences and understandings in and of the world.

“And wherever he lives,
In the city or the country,
In the valley or in the hills,
There is great joy.

Even in the empty forest
He finds joy
Because he wants nothing.”

For lack of desire, the master is able to find joy in all that surrounds them, in any place that they may be. For lack of desire, their mind does not wander to “greener pastures” or other possibilities — they simply find joy in the beauty of the city or the country; the beauty offered by the valley or by the hills. The soft sounds of an empty forest — the wind moving through the boughs, bird song, the scurrying of animals in the underbrush or along the trunks of trees — can be fully enjoyed when the mind is not craving after something else. In this way, the master is simply one who has been able to attain peace, contentment, and joy in the present moment.

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