Bhikkhuni Triệt Như – The Fount of Happiness – No 18
Translated into English by Như Lưu
THE LIBERATION MATRIX
The title of this article may have surprised you, and you may wonder: “liberation is ... liberation, why do we want to enclose it into a matrix? Is there a contradiction here?” What is a matrix? It is a frame or a mold. For example, after we have taken a good photo, we need to choose a suitable frame that fits the picture and has the right color as it will enhance the picture once we hang it on the wall. If we bake a birthday cake, after we mix the flour, sugar and milk, we need to put it into a round, square or rectangular mold in order to give the loaf the desired shape. Or if we want to build a house, we need to draw up plans of the desired appearance and dimensions, then build the house according to these plans. If we think about a human’s life, our previous generation has also a commonly accepted template for their life: you study when you are young, you work when grown up to support your husband or wife, parents, and children, and you may have a rest in your old age.
Now that we have entered the spiritual path, there is also a commonly accepted template for Buddhist practice: the Eight Noble Path, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Seven Limbs of Enlightenment, etc. Today, I would like to discuss the ultimate aim of the spiritual path. In the Simile of the Heartwood sutta (Mahāsāropama sutta, Majjhima Nikāya, MN29) and the Root of All Things sutta (Mūlaka sutta, Aṅguttara Nikāya, AN 8.83), the Buddha taught that this aim is liberation.
A simple definition of liberation is freedom from constraints, total freedom. However this simple definition may lead us into misunderstanding, for example, we may say that discipline rules are constraints that restrict our freedom, and prevent us from having a serene and free mind. And we may hastily elaborate further: monastic life is bound by so many discipline rules, how can we practice spirituality, how can we keep our mind serene and attain liberation? And on the reasoning goes: if we lead a normal family life, we would enjoy more freedom as we are not bound by discipline rules, we could help others without restrictions, we could go wherever and do whatever we want without the need of seeking permission from anyone, life would be much more pleasant and we would attain enlightenment more quickly!
At first sight, this sounds like a reasonable opinion. My dear friends, it is your worldly mind that is speaking. If you walk out of line by a millimeter, you will end up deviating not only by a mile, but by a thousand miles.
Now, let us reflect logically. At the beginning of our spiritual journey, we have not yet developed a correct understanding of liberation and if we continue to build our reasoning on it, we may develop a wrong perspective and wrong thinking that may lead us into inadvertently criticizing the Three Jewels.
For this reason, the Developmental Buddhism texts remind us to refrain from teaching the Buddha Vehicle to ordinary people and those of low spiritual capacity as they may develop a misunderstanding that leads them to criticize and disparage the teaching. The teacher would then be at fault with the Three Jewels.
Liberation has a deeper meaning. We may identify three stages of liberation:
- While we are in embodiment, liberation means serenity, bliss, non-attachment to changes that occur in life.
- When leaving this word, it means leaving as we want, and not being forced by karma.
- After we have left this world, it means freedom from rebirth due to the force of karma and dwelling in nibbāna, this is also called completed liberation.
Liberation has also a contextual meaning: what are we liberated from? What has bound us? What has directed and controlled our life? What causes us suffering, worry, longing, disquiet, regret? What makes us feel regret and remorse? What causes hope and longing? What do we wish not see or meet?
Generally speaking, liberation applies to three areas:
Let us examine further these elements.
Mental defilements or old habits, fetters and underlying traumas have the strongest influence on our minds. These underlying forces cause our states of mind to change constantly. Most ordinary people, and I count ourselves in this category, have experienced joy or sadness in reaction to external circumstances. However a more accurate correct view is that we experience joy or sadness depending on the tangle of past experiences that we have accumulated in our mind. If the external circumstance accords with our desires, passions and tendencies, we experience happiness and fulfillment. The contrary leads us to experience sadness, suffering and disappointment. For this reason, our mind will only be liberated when mental defilements or old habits, fetters and underlying traumas have faded away. Our mind will then be clear like the water of the still autumn lake. It can reflect the image of the sparrow flying past without showing any ripples. This is the liberated mind. How can we transform mental defilements? In the All the Defilements sutta (Sabbāsava sutta, Majjhima Nikāya, MN 2), the Buddha taught several methods:
“Bhikkhus, there are defilements that should be abandoned by seeing. There are defilements that should be abandoned by restraining. There are defilements that should be abandoned by using. There are defilements that should be abandoned by enduring. There are defilements that should be abandoned by avoiding. There are defilements that should be abandoned by removing. There are defilements that should be abandoned by developing”
Our awareness becomes objective and truthful when we practice the As-it-is method. Whatever things are, we see and know them as they are. We do not elaborate further, nor compare, nor reason, nor label them. In this way, we eliminate subjective prejudices and fixed opinions. This is called liberated perspective.
The wisdom that has not been liberated is wisdom that we acquire through learning and imitating. This wisdom exists in someone else’s frame, it is not our own. When our mind is in a state of stable stillness, transcendental wisdom will spring forth and gives us totally new interpretations that are also called intuition or supra-intuition. The most prominent characteristic of this liberated wisdom is its innovative character. This means that it comes up with things that we have never known or understood before. Although these interpretations may not seem exceptional to others, however to us, they are totally new as they are still unknown to us yesterday. However, despite being innovative, they still fit within the Buddhas’ golden matrix. The Nikāya suttas refer to this spontaneously arising wisdom when it talks about “things that we never heard, never had been (adbhuta)”.
We have just explored the meaning of liberation from the Buddhist point of view. In reality, liberation is the same as enlightenment and freedom from suffering. These three aspects – freedom from suffering, enlightenment and liberation – are intimately linked, they are simultaneously causes and effects of each other, and therefore we may consider them as one. If we mention one aspect, we end up covering all three.
Now, let us explore how we can attain liberation. It is simply the age-old spiritual practice of Discipline-Stillness-Wisdom. This is the path that Buddhas from past, present and future have followed and will follow. From the most ancient Buddha Vipassī, through to the Wheel-turning Kings who ruled over their kingdoms with compassion and wisdom, to Sakkamuni Buddha of our present times, all have contributed in building the benevolent and perfect tradition of Discipline-Stillness-Wisdom. This is indeed the “liberation matrix”.
I tentatively use this term “matrix” to mean that if we step outside it, we will not reap the perfect fruit of “liberation”. Discipline points to the pure way of living of holy beings, Stillness points to the mind that is not attached to worldly matters, and Wisdom points to knowledge that is clear, objective and equal.
We have covered a general overview of the theory. How do we apply it in practice? In practice, from the ancient Buddhas like Vipassī Buddha, to Wheel-turning kings, to Sakyamuni Buddha and innumerable disciples of all Buddhas, all have experienced three stages in their practice: leave the home life, practice in seclusion, attain enlightenment.
These three stages correspond perfectly to our Discipline-Stillness-Wisdom matrix. When a person makes the decision to leave behind the family life, decidedly severe the bonds of desire and passion, and go forth without hesitation, he/she has already lightened his/her defilement burden and demonstrated that he/she no longer longs for the five desires of beauty, wealth, fame, food, and rest.
When this person dwells in the forest to practice in seclusion, his/her mind ceases to be attached to worldly matters.
Enlightenment comes as a result of determination, effort, and focusing the whole mind on the topic. The result is a sudden understanding of all phenomena, bringing into union mind and life.
We have now understood the “liberation matrix”. However, we also need to consider further the concept of monastic life. What is the meaning of monastic life?
In practical terms, it means leaving one’s family, leave it behind, living secluded from loved ones. In the Buddha’s early days, when a person makes the vow to join the monastic life, the Buddha would agree to this person becoming immediately a bhikkhu without the need for any further ceremony. After a short period of practice, they would attain arahat-hood, free from misdeeds. Later, as the sangha grew much larger, some disciples did not master the practice and made mistakes. Out of compassion, the Buddha developed discipline rules to remind them of the practice method. From then on, discipline forms an important practice method to those who have not yet attained enlightenment. Discipline rules are like a compass that guides our vessel towards the right destination, the safe harbor where no unwholesome karma is generated.
People who listened to the Buddha’s teaching and made a vow to join the monastic life, often asked the Buddha “to live with this Teaching and Discipline”. The teaching aims at transforming our understanding. Discipline aims at transforming our conduct. Understanding and conduct must be developed together in order to build the correct personality.
This view is the view of the enlightenment one. Before he entered nibbāna, the Buddha repeated this view to his disciples to assert the value of Teaching and Discipline. He reminded the assembled bhikkhus thus:
“After the Tathāgata has entered nibbāna, you should consider Discipline as your teacher. After the Tathāgata has entered nibbāna, you should consider the Right Teaching as your teacher. You should not take refuge in anyone else, in anything else.”
The sangha has been considered one of the Three Jewels because of its dual quality of Wisdom and Discipline. Therefore, if you haven’t yet seen the importance of Discipline in Buddhism, you should reflect further. If we consider Discipline as unnecessary constraints that deprive us of our freedom and put pressure on our serenity, if we consider that family life offers greater freedom etc., we should remind ourselves that we have stepped outside the “liberation matrix”. If we step outside this matrix, we would easily fall into the flow of worldly life, into the realm of Mara. Who is Mara? Mara is just ourselves. Staying within the strict “matrix” of Discipline is moving toward liberation and out of the power of Mara.
We should also remind ourselves that the Buddha also once made this comparison:
“Household life is crowded and dusty; life gone forth is wide open. It is not easy, while living in a home, to lead the holy life utterly perfect and pure as a polished shell. Suppose I shave off my hair and beard, put on the yellow robe, and go forth from the home life into homelessness.” (Majjhima Nikāya, MN 27, Cūḷahatthipadopama sutta, The Shorter Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant’s Footprint).
The Buddha has said so clearly but we have at times forgotten and put up the contrary argument. Are we right or is the Buddha right?
Meditation Hall, the 18th of July, 2021
Link to Vietnamese article: https://tanhkhong.org/p105a2581/triet-nhu-snhp018-cai-khuon-cua-giai-thoat