Spiritual Growth and Sunyata

I explained the difference and convergence of Sunyata and Nirvana yesterday. Today I want to go into what that means for every day spirituality. This is where the Buddhist tradition offers a variety of responses. There are those who feel that one first has to practice virtue, live up to the ideals of the many vows that Mahayana Buddhism knows and only then can one even start the meditation that leads to Nirvana.

In response to modernity this path has been shortened considerably. Many Western Buddhists practice meditation while not living up to even the (deceptively simple) five precepts. Then again: the aim of meditation has changed as well. Most people practice it not to gain Nirvana, but to live happier lives in the world. The aim to withdraw from the world and gain a disinterested wisdom is a rare one. Traditional Buddhists might interpret this as just another way of showing that the dharma can no longer produce arhats (people who are enlightened).

In Western Buddhism there is a contrary stream of the insight that however much some Zen masters may stress that satori (enlightenment) is something that happens in the blink of an eye – they did expect their students to live a certain kind of life. A certain lifestyle was implied, even though some zen teachers weren’t married.

I’m of the position that the word ‘spiritual growth’ has meaning from the perspective of the personality. The personality starts out unaware of enlightenment or even its potential. It starts out engrossed in personal problems, fascinations, hobbies etc. Western life, a life of riches compared to most people on the planet, is a life full of such occupations. I believe most of us are in some way entangled in that. Spiritual growth, for me, means the travel, the struggle, the process of getting rid of that. It’s a proces in which the emptiness of all that becomes clear. Once it is clear – that’s nirvana. And that insight may well be a flash taking just a moment. But even when that insight is there, to live it is still a lifelong effort.

This seemingly goes right against what Thich Nhat Hanh says here:

“We all have the tendency to struggle in our bodies and in our minds.  We believe that happiness is possible only in the future.  The realization that we have already arrived, that we don’t have to travel any further, that we are already here, can give us peace and joy.  The conditions for our happiness are already sufficient.  We only need to allow ourselves to be in the present moment, and we will be able to touch them.  What are we looking for to be happy?  Everything is already here.  We do not need to put an object in front of us to run after, believing that until we get it, we cannot be happy.  That object is always in the future, and we can never catch up to it.  We are already in the Pure Land, the Kingdom of God.  We are already a Buddha.  We only need to wake up and realize we are already here.”

But that same teacher has stressed the five precepts as a form of meditation. I believe it’s a distortion of Buddhism to only listen to half the teachings.

In order to keep this post short, I’ll just refer to a post about dealing or not dealing with anger by buddhistfemme. This is one of those spiritual growth issues that don’t just go away by not being aware of one’s emotions.

2 thoughts on “Spiritual Growth and Sunyata”

  1. nice concepts, accurate, it seems to me … i have aboandoned words about spirituality lately, i find … too much exposure over the yeras, perhaps, or an inward process is happening, or i am lzy, i won’t know which .. but i am commenting because something in your thinking seems important to be communicated at this time in this world, and not just to the “soiritual” world.

    thanks, gregory lent

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