Back to the Beginning

An interview with Andrew Olendzki


Does our preference for “lamp” over “island” indicate why we see so little interest in monasticism in the West? We seem to pay lip service to renunciation while wanting things our own way. The Shramana movement was rooted in renunciation. And that’s certainly another reason early Buddhism is not popular. In the early tradition, anybody is capable of awakening. But this ultimate attainment requires a very deep uprooting of psychologically embedded defilements. The first step in ancient India was to leave home, as the Buddha himself did. And that is a very radical step. One of the things early Buddhism says is required in order to cultivate the requisite level of equanimity is the cutting off of social and familial relationships. Nobody today wants to hear that. The Buddha had great respect for householders—but it’s a somewhat different path.

There are people—albeit in the later schools—who view leaving home as an external display of cutting attachment, and see subtler ways to approach this. It’s true that the distinctions are blurring, because one can point to very attached, worldly monastics and very dedicated laypeople who meditate a lot more than most monks. But the Buddha was pointing to the fact that deep inside all human beings is the habit of attachment, and his principal insight was that this attachment is the root of suffering. It can be abandoned. But it’s going to take a lot of work. Leaving home does not change the fact that the mind is snared by craving, but it does attempt to provide optimal conditions to work with that craving. It’s presumably easier to work with attachment to one’s robe and bowl than to deal with attachment to family, responsibility, power, money, fame, and all the rest of it. So by increasing the level of renunciation, you somewhat reduce the amount of stuff that you have to work with in order to uproot craving.

The tendency in modern Westerners to feel that awakening in this lifetime is the only worthwhile goal may be an expression of either insecurity or vanity. In the American psyche, if there’s a gold medal out there—i.e., enlightenment—then anything else is second or third rate. That’s our competitive neurosis; it’s not the view I see in the texts. Awakening is a gradual process that everybody is engaged in on one level or another. Life as a householder is a rich opportunity. That’s certainly been my experience. I am quite content to live the life of a layman, and try to do so with the guidance and inspiration of the Buddhist tradition.

But in terms of the challenge that the Buddha laid out, is your aspiration capped in some way?
Certainly. By embracing the householder life, I don’t aspire to awakening in this lifetime. I think it’s naive or deluded to think that one can have it both ways, to live as a householder and get awakened here and now, at least in the way the Buddha understood awakening. But the adjustment is simple. You give up the expectation of awakening in this lifetime, which can be done without abandoning the aspiration for final enlightenment, and everything opens up in front of you. There are a thousand ways each day to become a more mindful, kind, generous, and noble person. And there are a thousand ways each day in which your doing so will influence others and contribute to reducing the suffering of all beings. At any point a layperson can choose to raise their sights to awakening here and now, but—just as with the goal of mastering any skill—this would require a radical reordering of priorities and lifestyle.

Is the Buddha’s enlightenment a source of inspiration for you? I do believe that something extraordinary happened to the Buddha under the Bodhi tree. But as the tradition evolved, the event became a huge historical drama: The Buddha lived many lifetimes, there were Buddhas before him and others will follow, he stands somehow at the center of the world system, and so forth. Personally, I am least inspired by that language. But I am profoundly moved to think of a more or less ordinary man going through this process of transformation involving yoga, asceticism, and meditation, understanding things in a radically new way, and then working throughout his life to share what he learned with others. The Buddhism that I am most drawn to reveals an astonishingly precise and penetrating investigation of the phenomenology of human experience. There is a well-known tendency in humans to idealize things. We certainly idealize the Buddha, and I think we may also idealize awakening. I am captivated by the possibility that this man found a way to radically reorder the human brain, and by the potential this holds for sustained human well-being.

Does what you call “holding some space around the Pali canon” contribute to this? I want to keep open the possibility that we do not yet fully understand what the Buddha was trying to teach us.

How are you doing that? Well, here at the study center in Barre we walk a fine line: We want to investigate the early texts and practices in ways people find personally relevant and meaningful, but we need to be careful not simply to plug ancient Buddhist information into our contemporary belief systems. On one hand lies the danger of merely reciting beliefs that were forged in another place and time and are no longer alive to us in a useful way; on the other hand we might create a Buddha who utters only teachings that are comfortable for a white middle-class American baby-boomer sensibility. The “middle way” here involves using classical maps to explore experience, while maintaining a critical spirit and a good deal of common sense.

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