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The Wisdom of No Escape

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The Wisdom of No Escape

by Pema Chodron

Excerpt - Chapter 8, pages 52-57

No Such Thing as a True Story

In Taoism there's a famous saying that goes, "The Tao that can be spoken is not the ultimate Tao." Another way you could say that, although I've never seen it translated this way, is, "As soon as you begin to believe in something, then you can no longer see anything else." The truth you believe in and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.

     By the way that we think and by the way that we believe in things, in that way is our world created. In the Middle Ages, everyone accepted the idea, based on fear, that there was only one way to believe; if you didn't believe that way, you were the enemy. It was death to all forms of creative, fresh thinking. Many things that people had been able to see, people just couldn't see anymore because they didn't believe in them. Once they began to think and believe in a certain way, there were all kinds of things that they literally couldn't hear, see, smell, or touch, because those things were outside their belief system.

     Holding on to beliefs limits our experience of life. That doesn't mean that beliefs or ideas or thinking is a problem; the stubborn attitude of having to have things be a particular way, grasping on to our beliefs and thoughts, all these cause the problems. To put it simply, using your belief system this way creates a situation in which you choose to be blind instead of being able to see, to be deaf instead of being able to hear, to be dead rather than alive, asleep rather than awake.

     Nowadays, some people are stepping out and exploring, but other people are becoming more entrenched in their beliefs. A polarization is occurring, and as a result, for example, we have some Christians getting hysterical about the film The Last Temptation of Christ because someone dares to say that Christ is not what a lot of people want to think he is. When a belief system is threatened, people may even become so fanatical that they kill and destroy.

     An example is the response of Muslims to Salman Rushdie's novel Satanic Verses, in which he suggests that Muhammad was not what they believe he was  --  and for that they would condemn Rushdie to death. Actually you see this situation everywhere. Protestants are killing Catholics and Catholics are killing Protestants. Hindus are killing Buddhists and Buddhists are killing Hindus. Jews are killing Christians and Christians are killing Jews. Muslims are killing Christians and Christians are killing Muslims. There are wars all over the world because people are insulted that someone else doesn't agree with their belief system.

     Everybody is guilty of it. It's what is called fundamental theism. You want something to hold on to, you want to say, "Finally I have found it. This is it, and now I feel confirmed and secure and righteous." Buddhism is not free of it either. This is a human thing. But in Buddhism there is a teaching that would seemingly undercut all this, if people would only listen to it. It says, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill the Buddha." This means that if you can find Buddha and say, "It's this way; Buddha is like this," then you had better kill that "Buddha" that you found, that you can say is like this. Contemplative and mystical Christians, Hindus, Jews, people of all faiths and nonfaiths can also have this perspective: if you meet the Christ that can be named, kill that Christ. If you meet the Muhammad or the Jehovah or whoever that can be named and held on to and believed in, smash it.

     Now we get to the interesting part. How do you do that? Although this approach sounds pretty aggressive, when we talk this way, we're actually talking about the ultimate in nonaggression. People find it quite easy to have beliefs and to hold on to them and to let their whole world be a product of their belief system. They also find it quite easy to attack those who disagree. The harder, more courageous thing, which the hero and the heroine, the warrior, and the mystic do, is continually to look one's beliefs straight in the face, honestly and clearly, and then step beyond them. That requires a lot of heart and kindness. It requires being able to touch and know completely, to the core, your own experience, without harshness, without making any judgment.

     "When you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha" means that when you see that you're grasping or clinging to anything, whether conventionally it's called good or bad, make friends with that. Look into it. Get to know it completely and utterly. In that way it will let go of itself.

     It's said in the teachings that if you hold on to your belief there will be conflict. There's a wonderful story about this. There was a god who knew how men and women love to believe things to be true and make clubs and religions and political systems with the people who agree with them. They just love to make something out of nothing and then write its name on a big banner and march down the street waving it and yelling and screaming, only to have people who believe the opposite come toward them with their banner, yelling and screaming. This god decided to try to prove a point about the human condition so that people might, in seeing the absurdity of it, have a good laugh. (A good laugh is the best way to kill the Buddha.) He constructed a big hat divided right down the middle, the left side of which was brilliant blue and the right side flaming red. Then he went to a place where many people were working in the fields on the left side of a road and many other people were working in the fields on the right side of the road. There the god manifested in all his glory; no one could miss him. Big and radiant, wearing his hat, he walked straight down the road. All the people on the right side of the road dropped their hoes and looked up at this god; all the people on the left side of the road did the same. Everybody was amazed. Then he disappeared. Everyone shouted, "We saw God! We saw God!" They were all full of joy, until someone on the left said, "There he was in all his radiance and in his red hat!" And people on the right said, "No, he had on a blue hat." This disagreement escalated until the people built walls and began to throw stones at each other. Then the god appeared again. This time he walked in the other direction and then disappeared. Now all the people looked at each other and the ones on the right said, "Ah, you were right, he did have on a red hat. We're so sorry, we just saw incorrectly. You were right and we were wrong." The ones on the other side said, "No, no. You were right. We were wrong." At this point they didn't know whether to fight or to make friends. Most of them were completely puzzled by the situation. Then the god appeared again. This time he stood in the middle and he turned to the left and then he turned around to the right, and everyone started to laugh.

     For us, as people sitting here meditating, as people wanting to live a good, full, unrestricted, adventurous, real kind of life, there is concrete instruction that we can follow, which is the one that we have been following all along in meditation: see what is. Acknowledge it without judging it as right or wrong. Let it go and come back to the present moment. Whatever comes up, see what is without calling it right or wrong. Acknowledge it. See it clearly without judgment and let it go. Come back to the present moment. From now until the moment of your death, you could do this. As a way of becoming more compassionate toward yourself and toward others, as a way of becoming less dogmatic, prejudiced, determined to have your own way, absolutely sure that you're right and the other person is wrong, as a way to develop a sense of humor about the whole thing, to lighten it up, open it up, you could do this. You could also begin to notice whenever you find yourself blaming others or justifying yourself. If you spent the rest of your life just noticing that and letting it be a way to uncover the silliness of the human condition -- the tragic yet comic drama that we all continually buy into -- you could develop a lot of wisdom and a lot of kindness as well as a great sense of humor.

     Seeing when you justify yourself and when you blame others is not a reason to criticize yourself, but actually an opportunity to recognize what all people do and how it imprisons us in a very limited perspective of this world. It's a chance to see that you're holding on to your interpretation of reality; it allows you to reflect that that's all it is -- nothing more, nothing less: just your interpretation of reality.

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