We often think of ‘renunciates,’ i.e., those living lives of “ascetic self-denial,” as holy people who have given everything away for the purpose of living lives of poverty and contemplation. Yet, even after giving away all of our material possessions, we can still be encumbered by immaterial ‘possessions’ such as anger, greed, and delusion. And lately, it seems to me that if we could free ourselves of our delusions, we’d be done with anger and greed.
If we cannot stop clinging to our delusions, we might as well keep our money, fine clothes, big houses, or just the hard-earned pittances of the grueling 9-5 minimum-wage existence because nothing will change, and as the old saying goes, it’s easier to be miserable with money than without it. Nothing will change until we ‘let go’ and stop clinging to our puffed up sense of ‘self’; our delight in others’ misfortune; our need for others’ approval; and our “right” to revenge. I know this because I’ve lived “with” and “without,” and additionally, despite being aware of some of my delusions, my actions often tell me, at the most disheartening times, that I am still under the influence of those delusions.
In the Dhammapada, the book to which I like to refer to as the “Buddhist Bible,” the final verse of chapter 7 says:
Delightful to the worthy
are the places where others
find no joy.
Being free of the pull of passions,
the worthy rejoice anywhere
they seek no delight.
That verse means something to me because I’ve read it about a million times. And it was, perhaps, the 999,998th time that it really started to mean something to me. It is now a quite common experience for me to reread something in the Buddhist canon that I’ve already reread, maybe hundreds of times, only to discover that it had either completely gone over my head or hadn’t even entered it before.
I keep mentioning my deficits, not because I want people to think how “humble” I am, but rather because it’s so scary to write about these topics because I am not a monastic, monastic scholar, or initiate. Also, as someone who has always loved words, and was an English major in college, I’ve learned, through my studies, and as a result of my meditation practice, that words are all but useless. The Buddha told his followers NOT to believe what he said because he said it, but rather to believe it because they’d EXPERIENCED it. Now, that’s humility. But it’s also true. We will not attain nibbana (nirvana) by reading “just the right book,” and even the Buddha, himself, if he still walked this Earth, could not grant or give us nibbana (nirvana) with a magical wave of his hand. As he directed us, we must be our own saviors:
“Monks, be islands unto yourselves, be your own refuge, having no other; let the Dhamma be an island and a refuge to you, having no other. Those who are islands unto themselves… should investigate to the very heart of things: ‘What is the source of sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair? How do they arise?’ [What is their origin?] — from the Attadiipaa Sutta: An Island to Oneself. translated from the Pali by Maurice O’Connell Walshe
I must say, here, that I am so fascinated by this directive to be islands unto ourselves. Prior to this, as any good English major, I’d always quoted the great poet, John Donne:
“No man is an island…”
Mr. Donne was very right — and very wrong…
It’s very different “knowing” something because someone (even a reputable someone) has told us something, and knowing it because we’ve experienced it. This is why someone could tell us the ultimate “secret to happiness,” but their words might mean nothing to us because we are either not ready to “hear” or “see” it, or simply because they are simply not the right words for us.
“Eureka moments” are usually quite personal and uniquely fashioned.