Monday, January 23, 2017

Relax: Nothing is Under Control (sutra)

Elizabeth J. Harris, Ph.D. (; Dhr. Seven (ed.), Wisdom Quarterly
Relax. Nothing is under control. (KLR Rich/
Detachment and Compassion in Buddhism
To people looking at Buddhism in English, practicing compassion and detachment can appear incompatible.
This is especially true for those of us who consider ourselves to be socially just and politically engaged. In contemporary usage, "compassion" brings to mind outward-moving concern for others. "Detachment" suggests aloofness and withdrawal from the world.
Yet, Buddhism recommends both as admirable and necessary qualities to be cultivated. This raises questions:
  • If compassion means to relieve suffering in a positive way, and detachment means to remain aloof from the world, how can the two be practiced together?
  • Does detachment in Buddhism imply lack of concern for humanity?
  • Is the concept of compassion in Buddhism too passive, connected only with the inward-looking eye of meditation, or can it create real change in society?
It is possible to draw sentences from Buddhist writers that seem to support a rejection of outward concern for others. For example, Edward Conze wrote, "The Yogin can only come into contact with the unconditioned when he brushes aside anything which is conditioned" (Buddhist Thought in India, 1960, Ch. 5). Similarly, G.S.P. Misra wrote, "In the final analysis, all actions are to be put to cessation..."

The Buddha speaks of happiness involved in non-action, which he further says is an integral part of the Right Way or samma patipada (Development of Buddhist Ethics, p. 44).

Taken in isolation and out of context, these remarks can give the impression that the path to nirvana implies developing a lack of concern towards everything in samsara (the world, the wheel of rebirth and suffering). But is this inference correct? It is not.
This is an issue that touches on the whole question of transferring concepts across linguistic barriers, in this case Pali and English.

It calls not only for an understanding of how the concepts are used within the framework of the Pali language Buddhist texts, but also for an awareness of how the English terms used in translation function and whether or not they are adequate. Inevitably, a dialogue between two linguistic frameworks is necessary.

Viveka and viraga are the two Pali words that have been translated as "detachment." The two, however, are not synonymous. The primary meaning of viveka is separation, aloofness, seclusion. Often physical withdrawal is implied but the deeper inner detachment is paramount.

The later commentarial tradition, however, identifies three forms of viveka: kaya-viveka (physical withdrawal), citta-viveka (mental withdrawal), and upadhi-viveka (withdrawal from the roots of suffering).
Kaya-viveka, as a chosen way of life, was not uncommon during the time of the Buddha. To withdraw from the household life, renounce possessions, and adopt a solitary mendicancy was a recognized path.

The formation of the Buddhist monastic community (Sangha) was grounded in the belief that going out "from home to homelessness" could facilitate meditation and aid intensive spiritual development.

Yet, to equate the renunciation the Buddha encouraged with a physical withdrawal that either punished the body or completely rejected human contact would be a grave mistake.
The Buddha made it clear that the detachment of a noble disciple (ariya savaka) -- the detachment connected with the path to enlightenment and nirvana (the end of all suffering) was not essentially a physical act of withdrawal, let alone austerity.

Kaya-viveka was valuable only if seen as a means to the inner purging and mental (heart) transformation connected with the destruction of craving and clinging.

This is illustrated in the Udumbarika Sihanada Sutra in which the Buddha claims that the asceticism of a recluse who clings to solitude could lead to pride, carelessness, attention-seeking, and hypocrisy, if not linked to the cultivation of morals (virtue) and the effort to gain liberating insight (wisdom) through meditation (DN, Sutra No. 25). More
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