May 20, 2016

Seeking Freedom: Suffering and the First Seekers.

Jordan McQueen/Unsplash

Some years ago, I was living with Nyingma Buddhists in Berkeley while working at Dharma College. One of the men there, Santosh, recognized my desire to flee and escape the world. One day, he sat by the fire and looked me in the eyes. “Many people give up everything in India and escape to the mountains. But most are not ready. They have personal commitments or loans tying them to the city. When they go to the mountains, though they’re there physically, their mind is still in the city. The trick, you see, is to be in the city with your mind in the mountains.”

This was a powerful message for me at the time. It meant staying the course, continuing for my Master’s in Comparative Theology and remaining in the world. It meant studying and living like everyone else. But, as I enter into the world and into the city, the question still remains. What if the mountains are my calling? What if I am meant to let go of everything and escape the world?

I recently wrote an article about renunciation, called “Thinking About Renouncing, Think Again.” In this piece, I discussed what Santosh had suggested in his subtle way. I discussed the āśrama tradition in Indian philosophy, the arch of life and the four stages, which include student, householder, forest-dweller and renunciate. In this article, I explained how renunciation should be a difficult decision and that should take a lifetime to decide. But, like my mind, it fluctuates.

Today, I feel like giving up the system. I feel like turning my back on financial institutions and expectations. I want to say “to hell with the man and corporate greed and politics.” Today, on May 17, 2016, I want to get rid of everything, take a backpack and flee from the city, deep into the mountains, if only to sit in silence and think and think until everything around me dissipates.

But why the feeling? Why the dissatisfaction and desire to flee? Where does it all come from?

The answer, I believe, has two components.

The first is the present feeling of disenchantment. For me, it comes from pursuing a dream in a world that shirks from imagination. This feeling of displacement is a certain feeling of incompleteness and suffering. For fans of the Buddha, this will sound familiar. Indeed, suffering is the first of the Four Noble Truths—the truth of suffering.

The second component is my desire for freedom. Whether it’s escaping to the mountains, trying to live spiritually in a material world, or do meaningful work, there is some need for fulfillment, or some version of it—whether that be happiness, contentment, or simply acceptance of myself.

In my previous article, I discussed how people in India traditionally renounced after living a full life. They would have gone through their student years, they’d have been married, had a job and children. They’d even have retired before beginning to think about spiritual matters or God. But that was only one side of the coin. What if I want to think about God today? And think seriously?

Going back thousands of years, we find examples of Indian traditions that recognized the reality of suffering but chose not to accept its constraint in their lives. The liberation of Hinduism (mokṣa), the freedom of Jainism (kaivalyam) and the enlightenment of Buddhism (nirvāṇa) are all responses to universal suffering. Though, as I will show, the responses were stronger in the latter two, which branched from the Vedic tradition to seek autonomy and personal spirituality.

Nevertheless, for all the traditions, a sense of suffering was recognized since the very beginning. Thomas Berry, cultural historian and former professor at Fordham, traces manifestations of suffering to world-negating behavior in pre-Aryan India—i.e. the scantily clad munis wandering around the subcontinent around 2000 BCE. From these first ascetics to the renunciate traditions over a century later, the idea of suffering persisted. Berry writes, “This devaluation of the world as non-being, as confinement, as meaningless, as a source of moha (confusion), even as dukha (suffering) may be the most significant aspect of the entire spiritual development of India.”

Documentation of this can be seen in literature as early as the Vedic Hymns, which were composed by rishis (seers) sometime between 1700-1100 BCE. In a hymn (I, 25) to the god Varuna, the guardian of ṛta (order), the poets express their need for freedom from bondage.

As men everywhere, O divine Varuna, we daily offend you by our faults.
Yet give us not over to death through thy wrath when so provoked.
With our praises, O Varuna, we seek to obtain thy favor, to bind your heart as a driver binds his horse.
He knows the pathway of the lofty, swift, powerful wind, and the deities there above.
Listen, O Varuna, to this prayer of mine. Grant us joy.
To thee I cry out for thy protection.
Set us free from the upper bond, undo the bond between and that below, that we may live.

From this verse, we see that over 3000 years ago, humans felt some reality of suffering. Not only that, there was some awareness of the spiritual and a desire for freedom from bondage.

But why suffering? Why bondage? Was it because of famine and plague as is often argued?

In his book, Religions of India, Berry notes that suffering was not only caused by external influences on man, but by “the structure and inner limitations of his own being.” According to this argument, humans began to realize their position in the universe as finite. They felt what I often feel while looking up at the stars. “The world is so big, and yet it is only a dot in this great cosmos. Why me? Why this life? What is the point of it all and what do You want from me?”

This way of thinking ultimately led to the greatest shifts in perspective in cognitive history. When the idea of suffering was combined with constructs of an absolute, the concept of māyā emerged. The result was that the beautiful cosmos was suddenly something “out there,” a place far away from here, and that God or gods were somehow beyond us and beyond the world.

Māyā is often translated as “illusion” for this reason. It’s the world of endless change, the up and down of our human existence as things come and go. Though māyā was once seen as the magic or creative power with which reality was woven together by Brahman (God), it began to take on a pessimistic connotation and the world became a barrier between humans and a higher plane. As result, the beauty of creation and the magic of its inexplicable splendor was eventually lost. With the idea of an unreachable absolute, the world itself began to lose its luster. Māyā became a thin veil, separating man from the sacred and supreme. Consequently, according to Berry, the “phenomenal world came to be spoken of as unreal, as the realm of death and of nothingness.”

This idea is pervasive, corrosive like acid. A few years ago, I stood on the shores of Manikarnika in Varanasi, India. The Ganga River flowed by murky brown and four bodies burned all around. I stared into a funeral pyre at a man’s body in the flames an arm’s length away. I could feel the heat and hear the crackle as I watched his leg literally melt before my eyes, dripping yellow like wax. I was, essentially, slapped in the face with the reality of human existence. We all come and go, and we are gifted, or cursed, with life between this endless ebb and flow. And with this life, I thought, we are given a chance to make the most of “being.” We are given a chance to reach the other side, not only when in the fire, when our skull is cracked and our soul is released, but now, today.

It was this same idea that spurred Siddhartha and the first ascetics into the forests.

Around the middle of the first millennium BCE, a movement began in the northeast of India called śramaṇism. Śramaṇa is translated as “seeker,” or “one who performs austerities.” It finds its roots in Vedic literature, expanding to modern Yoga, which developed during this time.

Searching for answers, these individuals looked outside the norms of society, what was then a Vedic-oriented brahmanism. Forfeiting organized ritualism run by privileged priests, the first śramaṇa entered the woods to seek an isolated, ascetical experience on their own. This movement—with parallels to the Essenes in Judaism or figures such as St. Jerome and St. Mary of Egypt in Christianity—changed the face of spirituality in India forever, as well as worldwide.

The hold brahmans had on society was immediately threatened, the same way Catholicism was threatened by Protestants. Some historians argue that this was a direct retaliation to an unjust system. Others argue that they were independent uprisings that developed with new constructs of divinity—self, soul, God. Either way, people began to leave their communities to seek truth on their own. Drawing from Vedic practices, new groups slowly began to emerge and, ultimately, secularize. Consequently, the choice to renounce normative religion led to the formation of new religious traditions that globalized individual spirituality: the goal being freedom from suffering.

Like me, standing there beside the fire, and now with the whole world in front of me, these first renunciates saw a daunting step before them. They saw the priests regulating spirituality; they saw their families wanting to hold them back; they saw their bosses shirking from individuality.

Although there were various śramaṇa movements, two dominant groups stand out historically. Buddhism is the obvious one. But a fascinating tradition called Jainism also grew during the śramaṇa movement—giving the world one of the strictest paths of renunciation ever recorded.

Though Jains believe their religion has been around since time-immemorial, around 800 BCE, Mahavira and the first Jains appeared. These monks, who believed in the soul but not God, practiced non-violence (ahimsa) and renunciation. In terms of non-violence, theirs was a most peaceful existence, producing as little harm as possible to living creatures. There are monks that literally sweep their path in order not to step on insects and wear masks to prevent inhaling microscopic organisms. In fact, it was from a Jain that Gandhi borrowed the ideology of ahimsa.

In terms of renunciation, Jains took the concept of non-possession to the extreme. One of the major sects actually sacrificed their clothes—a practice that exists today. I was actually in the presence of one of these naked Digambara in Delhi, who was literally “sky-clad.” I still try to imagine a renunciate walking today down Broadway naked and without being arrested. This small meditation highlights the vast difference between the power of East and West spiritually and why people who take seeking seriously often give up on Western culture and flee to the East.

A few hundred years after modern Jainism developed, Buddhism took shape. Sometime around the fifth century BCE, Siddhartha Gautama was born in Lumbini, present-day Nepal. Born the son of a king, Siddhartha chose to renounce his material existence after realizing that he would always experience suffering if attached to the material world. He left his palace and took to the woods to practice an ascetical life. Buddhist and Jain literature both document him having lived with Jain monks for several years. But the Buddha (like you and I) also found the practices too severe. Leaving the company of Jain monks, young Siddhartha eventually established a middle way between extreme asceticism and materialism (Cāvārka, India’s own Epicurean tradition).

For my purposes, Siddhartha is the epitome of someone who was disenchanted with the world and renounced at a young age, only to find an answer that allowed him to return to it in the end. Siddhartha knew about the expectations of society, the accepted norms. In fact, the young prince was in the second stage of life. Though often unknown, he actually had a wife and a son! But that did not stop him from leaving home. Although the prince had everything he could ever need, he renounced it all and left his family, sacrificing everything to end the cycle of endless change.

As I sit here in a café, wondering how to go about my days—each and every one of them—I consider of what he must have gone through. At only 29-years-old, Siddhartha renounced the world and provided millions of men and women with an answer to the present feeling of disenchantment. He did not accept suffering and he did not remain blinded by money or cultural and corporate vanity. No, the young prince sought another way. Best yet, he returned to his wife and son an enlightened man.

And, last I checked, without money or possessions, he still managed to change the world.

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