Is individual liberation possible?

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During one of my talks on Anatta during a regular Buddhist meeting two weeks ago, I questioned the possibility of individual liberation, which is a shared belief in all schools of Buddhism. Take Buddha’s life story, for example. It is said that Buddha spent some six years learning from various gurus, practicing meditation and asceticism before he became enlightened. At that point, Buddha finally found a way to end suffering and he began his teaching career, helping others end suffering too.

This is my basic question — can there be individual liberation, regardless of the state of the world and regardless of how are other people doing? I will answer this question from a variety of perspectives. First, from the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, my position that there is no individual liberation. This is due to one of the Three Marks of Existence. The teaching of Anatta is one of the three marks. It is often expressed as “All phenomena are without self.” This means that they have no independent existence. It also follows from the central tenet of Buddhism, which is Pratītyasamutpāda (Dependent Origination). If all things depend on each other in order to arise, then there cannot be any independent existence. It is for this reason that Pratītyasamutpāda and Anatta are equivalent expressions of the same truth. During the last Buddhist meeting, some of my Buddhist friends believe that I am contradicting what is taught in Theravada Buddhism. It is because Theravada Buddhism is sometimes called the “Liberation Path,” while Mahayana Buddhism is sometimes called the “Bodhisattva’s Path.” The former emphasizes individual liberation while the latter emphasizes collective liberation. Thus, my position seems to bring back the historical rift between Theravada and Mahayana. I am also seen as favoring Mahayana at the expense of Theravada.

I would like to take this opportunity to clarify my position. Sometimes, we are caught in semantics. We must be careful in defining what we mean by the various terms. When I say there is no individual or personal liberation, I am not saying that the Theravada way is wrong or misguided. There is indeed personal or individual liberation in the common sense of the word. But we must remember that in Buddhist philosophy, there is no independent existence. So, the common notion of the “person,” “individual” and “self” are actually composite entities. Who am “I”? As a writer, I know that my ideas and inspirations come from the pool of collective consciousness. Yes, I have published two books and many articles. But I have always felt like a fisherman as I write — I am fishing form the cosmic pool of ideas, which have long existed before I was even born. It is in this sense that I know that I have no independent existence. I have no self. Another way to say it is that “I am the universe.” Every one of my expressions is something “I” sampled from the universe. I am nothing but a channel.

In his poem, “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman says: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” It is for a similar reason that I think I am the world. Zen poet and teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn uses the term “Interbeing.” None of us is an independent entity. The whole world is reflected in each one of us. All the ecologist, all the environmentalists, and all the observant poets will probably agree on this. Rachel Carson said that “In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is the story of the earth.” Now, this is very close to the Huayan idea of “one in all, and all in one.” It is Huayan’s unique and elegant philosophy of “mutual containment and interpenetration of all phenomena.” Mystic poet, William Blake, wrote in his poem,

To see a World in a Grain of Sand,

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

These are all expressions of Interbeing. It is both a poetic truth and a scientific truth. So, I am not contradicting the Theravada way of individual liberation. I am only pointing out that the so-called “individual” or “person” is really a composite entity and a multitude. The common notion of an individual, as an independent entity that can be separated from the rest of the world, is an illusion.

The Buddhist notion of ending suffering also needs to be clarified. Physical pain cannot be avoided, regardless of one is enlightened or not. What enlightenment and awareness can help is in relieving emotional pain. It is interesting to note that Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates the term “dukkha” not as “suffering,” but as “stressfulness.” A rational approach to life, such as the one offered by Buddhist teaching, can help us deal with unnecessary anxiety and emotional pain. Much of our emotional pain in daily life has to do with our insistence of what things “should be.” We are often stubborn in adapting to the changing circumstances. The first principle for ending suffering is to practice the art of non-attachment. Life flows. We should not try to grasp or fixate it. Stress often has to do with our not letting go. By not being attached to anything and going with the flow of life, the Buddhist practitioner eliminates unnecessary stress. Impermanence is one of the Three Marks of Existence. Fighting change is a recipe for suffering. Illness is natural. Aging is natural. Death is natural. By accepting reality and not fighting over things we cannot change, we learn to live life beautifully and lightheartedly. Thus, the first principle of graceful living is to flow with life and make adaptations.

The second principle for ending suffering is not to fight or agonize over things we have no control over. Someone has come up with what may be called a “Why Worry” flowchart. It is both funny and insightful. If you have a problem, there are only two possibilities — you either have a solution or you don’t. If you do have a solution, then use it to solve the problem. If not, then why agonize over it. It is beyond your control. You should not beat yourself up for being in that situation. Mortality is one good example. We all have a mortality problem. We also have an aging problem. There is absolutely nothing we can do about these matters. Worrying is counterproductive. It would just make us even less capable to cope. Incidentally, Jesus taught this in the Sermon on the Mount. I have called it the Sermon of the Birds. He said, “Look at the birds of the air: They do not sow or reap or gather into barns — and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” Going together with this is theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, which goes like this: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” If you look closely at the “Why Worry” flowchart, you may notice that one remaining problem is that it is often not easy to tell if there is a solution to a problem or not. So, this uncertainty is a subsidiary problem. For this reason, Niebuhr asks for the wisdom to know the difference between a solvable problem and an unsolvable one. In case we cannot decide, then this uncertainty problem should be run through the “Why Worry” flowchart too. It seems to me that we just have to do our best.

The third principle for ending suffering is what I would call “not accepting the second arrow.” It may also be called “Mindful Response.” If you have already received the first arrow, that arrow should have awakened you and delivered a warning. You would have done something to avoid receiving a second arrow. In English, there is also an idiom that has a similar idea: Don’t rub salt into the wound. If you are already wounded by some event, don’t make the situation worse by responding to the situation unwisely. You have some options as to how to respond. When a traumatic event strikes, don’t just make a knee-jerk reaction. Pause a little. Your mindfulness buys you some time to come up with an appropriate response. Being mindful means that we are not robots that are on auto-pilot. To a certain extent, we have “free will.”

If we have cultivated good mental habits and healthy mindsets, and we are relatively mindful, we can indeed eliminate most, if not all, of our daily emotional pain. To the extent that we still have some residual emotional pain and anxiety, due to our deeply-entrenched habits and behavioral patterns, that is okay too. It goes back to the principle of not sweating over things we cannot control. We have to be okay with the fact that we fall short sometimes.

All of the above can be done on an individual basis. But does this mean that liberation is an individual business, not requiring collective effort?

The short answer is “No.” Note that in the analysis above, we have deliberately left out physical pain. We know that even the realized ones and enlightened arhats are not immune to physical pain. Physical pain is a natural law for any mortal. Whether the person is enlightened or not makes no difference. We can also shed some light on this matter by referencing the Assaji Sutta. Assaji was an old monk. The sutta tells the story of Assaji lying on his death bed as Buddha came to inquire about his illness. Note that Assaji was an enlightened monk. While it is not clear whether he was an arhat, he had attained at least the stage of a Stream Enterer. At the time of Buddha’s visit, Assaji was so much in pain that he could not practice concentration. He was moaning and groaning. Seeing his suffering, Buddha kindly reminded him of the law of impermanence and the truth of no-self. The message here is clear. It is futile to fight the pain of dying. The only thing for the old monk to do was to surrender to the natural process and not make things worse by hoping for the impossible. Thus, Buddha first reminded him that everybody dies. It is futile to fight the inevitable. There is nothing unfair or embarrassing to die a natural death. Second, Buddha reiterated the truth of Anatta. Very often, we fear death because we believe that there is a self that is dying. Buddha reminded Assaji that the self is an illusion that is not worth holding onto. Assaji was to let go and make peace with death.

From this, we can conclude that enlightenment only takes care of emotional pain and anguish. It has little bearing on physical pain. Now, returning to our original question — is there individual liberation, regardless of the rest of the world? At this point, we may say that there is liberation from emotional pain, from stress, and from existential anxiety if the practitioner has good mental habits, accept the truth of the Three Marks of Existence, and can maintain his mindfulness. But we have been limiting ourselves solely to the emotional and psychological realm. What about the physical realm? Certainly, our own enlightenment will not deliver us from the existential crises of climate change, loss of biodiversity, the breakdown of our ecosystem, wildfires, pandemics, race-based riots, and political chaos.

Abraham Maslow developed a hierarchy of human needs. There are (1) Physiological needs, (2) Safety needs, (3) Love and belongingness needs, (4) Self-esteem needs, (5) Self-realization needs, and (6) Self-transcendence needs. The most basic human needs are physiological and safety needs. How can we honestly say that we are liberated from suffering if we are hungry, thirsty, or homeless? And how can we honestly say that we can be at peace if we are sick or have no healthcare coverage during a pandemic? How can we be safe in the midst of political anarchy that poses the risk of a civil war? We cannot even be truly safe if the world is flooded with misinformation and conspiracy theories. Such false information seriously threatens our physical health. In addition, in the midst of an environmental disaster, the very planet we are living on is threatened. We may also run out of food sources and water sources.

These issues which threaten our physical well-being are physical ones that are macro in nature. They are certainly not issues that can be solved individually. The solution is social and political in nature and it requires a collective effort. This is the main reason for my position that individual liberation is a pipe dream. Yes, if one is enlightened and one has good mental habits, one may stay at peace in face of calamity. But how can we say that we are liberated if our physical well-being is facing an existential threat?

It is from this angle that I say that there can be no individual liberation regardless of the state of the rest of the world. The same line of reasoning also applies to the global health picture. Can any country remain free of the pandemic if a poor country such as India is raging with the disease?

The Vimalakirti Sutra says that “I am sick because the myriad sentient beings are sick.” This is true on several counts. It is true in terms of global health. It is true in terms of our global environmental picture. It is also true in terms of our mass culture. If our mass culture places materialism and greed over human values, how can our society be sane and peaceful?

To conclude, an individual’s enlightenment may save that individual from emotional pain and anguish, but it would not save him or her from physical pain and existential threats. Individual effort can go only so far. For the bulk of the world’s problems, collective effort is truly a necessity.

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