by Bhikkhu Bodhi
It may be a truism of psychology that the desire for happiness is the most fundamental human drive, but it is important to note that this desire generally operates within the bounds set by another drive just as deep and pervasive. This other drive is the need for security. However insistent the raw itch for pleasure and gain may be, it is usually held in check by a cautious concern for our personal safety. We only feel at ease when we are sealed off from manifest danger, comfortably at home with ourselves and with our world, snugly tucked into familiar territory where everything seems friendly and dependable.
When we come across the Buddha’s teaching and begin to take that teaching seriously, we often find that it provokes in us disturbing waves of disquietude. This feeling arises from a clash — a sensed incompatibility — between the picture of the world that we hold to as the essential basis for our normal sense of security and the new perspectives on existence opened up to us by the Dhamma. We may try to shun the vistas that trouble us, we may pick and choose from the Dhamma what we like; but to the extent that we are prepared to take the teaching in earnest — on its own terms rather than on ours — we may discover that the insights which the Buddha wants to impart to us can be quite unsettling in their impact.
The first noble truth was never intended to be a comfortable truth; indeed, it is the discomforting quality of this truth that makes it noble. It tells us frankly that the routinely placid and predictable surface of our everyday lives is extremely fragile — a shared delusion with which we lull ourselves and each other into a false sense of security. Just beneath the surface, hidden from view, turbulent currents are stirring which at any time can break the surface calm. From the moment we are born we are sliding towards old age and death, susceptible to various diseases and accidents that may hasten our arrival at the appointed end. Driven by our desires we wander from life to life across the sand dunes of samsara, elated by our rises, shaken by our falls. The very stuff of our lives consists of nothing more than a conglomeration of five “heaps” of psychophysical processes, without any permanence or substance. Perhaps the Buddha’s most poignant statement on the human condition is his image of a man being swept along by a mountain torrent: he grasps for safety at the grasses along the banks only to find that they break off just as he takes hold of them.
However, though the Buddha begins by drawing our attention to the uncertainty that encompasses us even in the midst of comfort and enjoyment, he by no means ends there. The discourse on suffering is expounded, not to lead us to despair, but to awaken us from our complacent slumbers and to set us moving in the direction where our ultimate welfare can be found. Far from undercutting our need to feel secure, the Buddha’s teaching unfolds from that very same need, turning it into a sustained inquiry into what genuine security actually means.
Ordinarily, our benighted attempts to achieve security are governed by a myopic but imperious self-interest oriented around the standpoint of self. We assume that we possess a solid core of individual being, an inherently existent ego, and thus our varied plans and projects take shape as so many maneuvers to ward off threats to the self and promote its dominance in the overall scheme of things. The Buddha turns this whole point of view on its head by pointing out that anxiety is the dark twin of ego. He declares that all attempts to secure the interests of the ego necessarily arise out of clinging, and that the very act of clinging paves the way for our downfall when the object to which we hold perishes, as it must by its very nature.
The Buddha maintains that the way to true security lies precisely in the abolition of clinging. When all clinging has been uprooted, when all notions of “I” and “mine” have lost their obsessive sting, we will have no more fear, no more worry, no more anxious concern. Touched by the fluctuations of worldly events the mind remains stable, “sorrowless, stainless and secure” (Sn. 268).
While ultimate security lies only in the unconditioned, in Nibbana “the supreme security from bondage” (anuttara yogakkhema), as we wend our way through the rough terrain of our mundane lives we have available a provisional source of security that will help us deal effectively with the dangers and difficulties that beset us. This provisional security lies in firmly committing ourselves to the Dhamma as our source of solace and guidance, as our incomparable refuge. The word “dhamma” itself means that which upholds and supports. The Buddha’s teaching is called the Dhamma because it upholds those who live by it: it wards off the dangers to which we would be exposed if we were to flout it, it sustains us in our endeavor for the final good if we revere it and make it the foundation of our lives.
The Dhamma provides protection, not by any mystical blessing or downpour of saving grace, but by indicating the sure and certain guidelines that enable us to protect ourselves. Beneath the apparent randomness of visible events there runs an invisible but indomitable law which ensures that all goodness finds its due recompense. To act counter to this law is to invite disaster. To act in harmony with it is to tap its reserves of energy, to yoke them to one’s spiritual growth, and to make oneself a channel of help for others who likewise roam in search of a refuge.
The essential counsel that the Buddha gives us to secure our self-protection is to shun all evil, to practice the good, and to purify our minds. By the pursuit of non-violence, honesty, righteousness and truth we weave around ourselves an impenetrable net of virtue that ensures our well being even in the midst of violence and commotion. By cultivating the good we sow the seeds of wholesome qualities that will come to maturity as we continue on our path throughout the samsaric journey. And by purifying our minds of greed, hatred and delusion by mindfulness and diligent effort we will find for ourselves an island that no flood can overwhelm — the island of the Deathless.
Buddhist Publication Society Newsletter cover essay #15 (Spring 1990)
Copyright © 1990 Buddhist Publication Society
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