Saving vs. Enlightenment

The Dalai Lama’s book A Profound Mind (2012) is a non-polemical summary pf Buddhist thought, specifically Mahayana and Tibetan. These include teachings on dependent origination and emptiness derived from Nagajuna, and the creating of a mental disposition toward individual enlightenment, Bodhicitta, and compassion, derived from Shantideva.

The Mahayana trajectory of saving others while saving oneself, however, has always been a later development — or accretion — that has never settled well with the Theravada and Zen traditions. A social agenda to inner tranquility, even of the society in mind, is inevitably horizontal re enlightenment, and suggests a busyness and disippation of resources uncomfortable with or incompatible with the goal of an otherwise worldly aspiration such as saving others. The argument against Jesus, that he would save others but could not save himself, is taken as a literal admonition by the Mahayana tradition (by analogy, of course,since the saying never reached this far East).

Granted that, as the Dalia Lama puts it:

If we have not developed the required inner peace, then even if we are living the life of a hermit, our minds will be overwhelmed with anger and hatred, and we will have no peace.

This comment about hermits is understood in every eremitic tradition, but revises the burden for pursuing inner peace, which must be fulfilled before the pursuit of eremitism. Eremitism is not a concomitant position. But there is no allusion here to the physical and natural setting that fosters inner peace in the first place, or to the fact that the most successful setting has historically not been a social setting, at least not a complex or busy social setting. Otherwise the process of pursuing inner peace may become incompatible with saving others whether by teaching, preaching, engaging others, or even wish-intention.

The notion of the saving of self and others is derived from the solitary enlightenment experience of the historical Buddha followed by his preaching activity to “save” others. But the teaching was of how to achieve inner enlightenemtn, not how to save others, which is the external or extroverted act of preaching, not the act of achieving enlightenment. Without the latter, there likely is no saving of others, for who, even among the disciples of Buddha, is “enlightened”? We don’t know or ever will, especially in the context of thousands of years later among contemporaries.

The relevance of meditative practice to society is thus conflated with two different goals. The Dalai Lama discourages what he calls asceticism, which he considers extreme. But the asceticism criticized by the historical Buddha is nowhere practiced. It is, perhaps, a straw man. The issue today is the extreme of indulgence, not the extreme of asceticism.

The Dalia Lama writes:

It is best, I believe, for a lay practitioner to remain involved in society, while leading a spiritual life. Though some exceptional individuals may be capable of dedicating themselves totally to pursuing meditative practices, I myself try to follow a middle path, balancing spiritual and worldly responsibility.

This sentiment is safe and acceptable, but dilutes the traditions that constructed practice in the first place, leaving spiritual expression largely to clerics, monks, and scholars, a bifurcation familiar in the West, undertaken perhaps to make making Buddhism more adaptable to Western tastes and lifestyles.