Being Natural is Rather Unusual

When we read about Chinese or Japanese Buddhism we come across passages that say such things as that the master “eats when hungry, drinks when thirsty, sleeps when tired.” and the like. We might then think, “what is so different about that?” or we might think that something very profound is being conveyed in a rather mysterious way.

However, it is also worth reflecting that not many people do live in such a way. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the world has always been divided into two groups, one of which is always hungry and the other never so. It is the same today. In some parts of the world, there is rarely enough to eat and hunger is an everyday experience never fully satisfied, but in the so-called developed world people hardly ever actually experience hunger. They eat long before arriving at that point, following social convention, and, usually, eating far more than they actually need.

The description of the Buddhist master, therefore, is not just an ideal for the individual, it is also a model for harmony in world society. A former president of the USA used quite often to assert that Americans had a “right” to their way of life. In fact, the idea of “rights” is a legal concept that does not really have relevance to this type of pronouncement, but, in any case, we know that if everybody on the planet adopted the American way of life as it currently is we would need four planets the size of the Earth to provide the necessary provisions. The “ecological footprint” of many other rich countries is not so very different.

On the other hand, it does not appear that the Master is necessarily a passionate social activist either. Really he is just living in a natural way. He might sometimes support a worthy social cause - many sages have done so - but his main modus is simply to live an authentic life. There is here a faith that anybody who lives in a more simple and natural way automatically makes an important contribution to the spiritual wellbeing of us all, without making a special point of it. Buddhism minimises self-consciousness.

A lot of “spiritual training” consists substantially in getting people to live in rather overly constrained ways. The trainee tries to get his mind under control in the way one might tame a wild horse. This has some benefits. However, it is worth noticing that while the trainee is trying ferociously to stop his mind going this way and that way, the master has a mind that goes and comes as it likes. How can this be?

When there is sunshine, he enjoys it. When there is rain, too. When the earth is green and when it is brown, crossing the sea or crossing the dessert, everything is full of light. Emotions come and go too, like clouds in the sky. He is not trying to put on a special appearance. To the casual observer, he is nothing special, occasionally a little odd, perhaps, and yet… there is something rare there, a precious jewel that has no name and is not consciously displayed.

When hungry eat. When tired, sleep. And while you sleep so, the Buddhas will sew that jewel secretly into the hem of your robe.

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  • Ekagata vs Loneliness

    A further dimension to this matter is the question of whether one exists if one is not observed. To eat when hungry, etc, is to respond to the demands of the body or circumstance without in any degree posing for the sake of a real or imagined audience. Such posing is deeply related to fear, and we do have such fears for good reason.

    I spend a good deal of my time completely alone. Sometimes I go a whole week without seeing anybody. Being completely alone is a bit like resetting the machine to factory settings. A tree presumably does not mind if it lives its whole life in the forest without ever being remarked upon by a human being. Perhaps it craves the attention of other trees. Perhaps not, though they do seem to like to grow close together - they too have survival instincts.

    To eat when hungry, sleep when tired, etc. is to be in solitude even if in the midst of people and this - ekagata - seems to have been an ideal propounded by Shakyamuni Buddha. This, then, bears on the question of loneliness. I never seem to feel lonely when I am here at Eleusis even if alone for a length of time, but I did experience loneliness living in Milan when I was seeing and talking with people everyday. This is something that I reflect upon and speculate about

    Perhaps it is painful to be observed yet not really seen, whereas to not be observed is to be free. I suppose that, at a level of basic instinct, the predators that we are most alarmed by are other humans and we are free of this fear when either they are not present or when they do actually "see" us and thereby take us into the safety (intimacy) of their clan.

    Yet when we join such a clan, we may have to adopt a lifestyle that does not suit. Buddha invites us to join a different clan. The Sanskrit word for clan is gotra and it occurs quite a lot in the texts. You may have noticed that  the practitioner is often referred to as "son or daughter of good family/clan" - this refers to the spiritual family, not the worldly one. By joining the sangha one becomes such and thus acquires a spiritual refuge. With such acceptance, one does not need to be so afraid. 

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