Clearly we are at the deep end of the dark age. I can tell because I’ve spent the last week eating cheese puffs. Like most of us here in the desire realm, I grasp at the world of form in a misguided attempt to reduce suffering. The array of distractions is vast: Cary Grant films, holidays at the beach, classic literature, retail therapy, red wine, dark chocolate, and, most recently, bite-sized bits of baked cornmeal covered in fake cheese.
The results are brilliant, though short-term. I encourage myself whenever possible to step out of this ultimately self-defeating cycle, but when the going gets rough, as it seems to be increasingly doing, I figure it’s better to choose my relatively harmless poison rather than losing it entirely and moving into heavier domains of negative karma, like homicide.
A few years ago, while I was trying to stay cheerful in the face of yawning issues like war, economic depression, and social disintegration, a popular Western Dharma teacher swept me off my feet. He lavished me with attention, entreated me to quit my job overseas and return to the US so that he could “take care of me.” After some time considering his offer, I showed up at his door one fine day. He dropped me the same day without warning, leaving me, in essence, on the street. I subsequently learned that he had been less than honest with me. Of course, that’s my version, and if you ask him he would no doubt tell you another story. Now, I am a big girl and have learned to take care of myself, but I have to admit that this unfortunate episode was the culprit of my current one bag a week habit. I am still a bit disillusioned and apathetic, and every so often it comes back to haunt me.
“That’s bullshit,” offered a helpful dharma friend when I shared my disappointment. I might add that he was not my friend for the ensuing 5 minutes. I had gone out on a limb and trusted someone who is considered an “expert” in the field of loving-kindness. Isn’t that a fair description of someone who teaches Dharma? Was it so absurd of me to expect him to behave with integrity, and to treat me with respect? It does, however, make it rather hard to consider trusting someone again.
But then I got it. My indignation was just as confused, just as “wrong” as my betrayer’s disrespect. This is not the “Get What You Want” program. This is samsara, and our job as practitioners is to see through this dualistic illusion and help others to do the same. If we were looking for the pureland, then we took the wrong exit in the bardo–we took a smoky left instead of heading straight for the bright lights of dewachen. So by default, we signed up for this life of unfulfilled desire, lies, lust, jealousy, pride and outrage. It’s our job to work with it as it is. And that is so Un-American.
The point is that this path is not about creating a version of reality that we can live with. It’s about living with the version of reality that we have created. And this is a tricky one for Americans who have heard from birth that we can have it our way, with a side of fries. Does this make Dharma practice more difficult for us? Maybe. If we are to become bodhisattvas, we first need to learn to treat each other well before we can consider benefiting all sentient beings. And that sometimes means not having it our way.
As Dharma practitioners, sometimes I think we have it harder in the US because of our lack of roots. We are the newest country on the planet, and so have the shortest history. We also have an exquisitely developed culture of materialism that lacks deeply entrenched traditions, leaving our social fabric at times pathetically frayed. Our freedom to choose can translate as startling superficiality.
Desire thrives in this culture of materialism, so if we live here, we are constantly encouraged to wonder: What Do I Want? Of course humans in the East also deal with such issues, and yet the strength of family tradition in many Asian cultures creates a different holding environment for working with desire. Each culture creates its own unique set of habitual patterns to work with; we might say that the American habit is confusing freedom of choice with freedom plain and simple.
Is this a problem? Or could we look at it from the point of view of endless possibilities to deepen our understanding of practice, and to see that the original nature is not obscured by any of these games. In these dark times, any opportunity to wake up to what is true should be welcomed. Perhaps from that perspective, if we are serious practitioners living in the West, we already have everything we want.