Abandoning the sense of belonging to a group that held the key to enlightenment was a wrenching experience that left me feeling isolated for years, but once made, the decision proved irreversible. Clinging to this security had undermined the most important aspect of my practice—that of critical thinking. And yet, without the refuge of my formative years, how would I have acquired such a clear notion of where I was going and of the unique and creative nature of every path?
Two decades later, I owe a great deal to the lay life. I prefer words of common sense and humor to the flowery epithets of wisdom and compassion. I think less about Awakening than simply staying awake to the enlightening moments that are everywhere for anyone who pays attention. It’s not about belonging at all, but letting go.
I indulge myself too, and look back on the days of my monkhood with wonder and fondness. The people with whom I shared those huge idealistic dreams are dearer to me than I would ever have imagined. And although at first I horribly missed the moral support of a community, the sacrifice has been more than worthwhile: as the idealism has faded, the dreams have become unexpectedly real.
The Buddha taught for many years, but the dharma he explained wasn’t about acquiring knowledge; it was about changing the mind. It doesn’t take a lifetime of study. We all practice as we learn, all at our own rates.
I first encountered Buddhism as one who’d found his way, but I promptly got lost again in the very words that were supposed to set me free. Still, I remain in awe of the man Siddhartha Gautama and his skillful teachings, a treasure that not only survived the fossilizing effect of sanctification but even penetrated my thick skull. I’m as profoundly grateful to the teachers who maintained its vitality as I am to the instinct that led me off on my own. I think that all those who feel so inclined should study the old languages and texts of Buddhism, even take ordination and rise in the hierarchy—but never let down their guard against the illusion of security. There is nothing to hang on to. The path emerges from a personal, surprisingly innate sense of direction and not from what’s expected of us by those who supposedly know better. Staying awake means continually reevaluating the ground on which we walk. Buddha wasn’t trying to be humble when he told us to think for ourselves; it’s the very essence of his teaching:
Do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or with what has come down in scriptures or with conjecture or with logical inference or with weighing evidence or with liking for a view after pondering over it or with someone else’s ability or with the thought, “This monk is our teacher.” When you know in yourselves, “These things are wholesome, blameless, commended by the wise, and being adopted and put into effect they lead to welfare and happiness,” then you should practice and abide in them.
—From the Kalama Sutra
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