Personal Essay on Buddhist Philosophy
The following is an article I wrote for a research paper in an Asian religions class at Temple university. The story is true.
Enlightenment Is Not a Place
Over a year ago, I was privileged enough to go on a tour through China with my karate organization. Being interested in the origins of martial arts, we spent several days of our two-week long trip at the Shaolin Temple in Honan province, the birthplace of Chan Buddhism as well as many combat styles. So far, I was disgusted with China. The pollution, the communist propaganda, and the disregard for their heritage left me longing for some kind of spiritual insight. Having been taught to study and debate religion from a young age, I can't go for very long without getting my fix of theology. The Shaolin Temple was where I had hoped to sate that desire. Huston Smith does not speak much of the Shaolin or of Chan Buddhism, opting instead to use its Japanese cousin, Zen, "because the Communist takeover of China disrupted its religious life." (Smith 87) He was right to do so. I found nothing special in China. I meditated in Bodhidharma's Cave and felt nothing. But perhaps I would have if I had truly understood anything about Buddhism and its doctrine of non-attachment. Enlightenment can only be achieved through letting go of every attachment and desire: pleasure, ego, and even the Shaolin Temple.
Though Buddhism may seem quite simple, with its ultimate goal of "nothingness," the imperfect steps one takes in reaching that goal can often be quite complicated. The Buddhist concept of tahna, or desire, is one of these seemingly simple but actually complicated ideas. At the very core of tahna is two things I can only think to describe as "simple attachment" and "simple desire." Any remotely serious student of Buddhism understands these are the causes of all suffering and understands why they are so. Attachment to things of this universe will lead to suffering because all things are impermanent and therefore will be lost. Desire for things causes suffering because nothing is certain and at least some of the things one desires they will not receive. But these simple concepts are not the facets of tahna that I wish to discuss. The two ways in which attachment and desire cause suffering that I will focus on are far more sinister than simple attachment and desire, and even the most spiritually evolved people in the world may suffer from them. They are a desire for the future or past and an attachment to the path to enlightenment. And while I do not consider myself to be one of the most enlightened people in the world, I do feel that I was afflicted by both of these during one day in particular during my stay in Shaolin.
In his book The Philosophy of Desire in the Buddhist Pali Canon, David Webster focuses on a particular line in a Shakespearean Sonnet: "Desire is death." While perhaps not Shakespeare's intent, Webster takes the line quite literally, explaining that desire is an emotion fixated on the future, that pulls us closer and closer to death: "‘Desire is death' in the sense also that desire is a reaching out-a belief in future possibilities. But desire as a reaching forward always pulls us forward. It drags us, willingly at times, and in torment such as in the sonnet at other, but always we remain under the sway of this temporal gravity." (Webster 28) He goes on to draw parallels with Romeo and Juliet and their fixation on the future that ended in death, which I find sensible to make though, once again, this may not have been Shakespeare's reasoning. The point is that desire, by its very nature pulls us forward. How many times do we hear someone utter the phrase, "I can't wait until tomorrow"? This is due to a lack of focus on the here and now. Buddha was a highly practical person, who in many ways did not believe what he could not see. Emotions, personalities, and other such things that have no physical presence he preached as being illusions created by our attachments. So, I do not find it to be much of a stretch to say that Buddha would extend this attitude toward time as well. Technically speaking, the only thing that exists is the present. The future is not yet and the past is not anymore. And just as desire's fixation on the future can pull use forward to our own demise, attachment's fixation on the past can leave us looking back in the wrong direction while our life passes us by.
I had left the others in my group and followed a dirt path that led behind the temple. I was following the direction of a sign I had seen that read "Bodhidarma's Cave: 500 m." After a five hundred meter walk and refusing a ride from a man in an all-terrain vehicle, I came to another sign that read "Bodhidharma's cave: 3000 m." Now I understood why that man had offered me a ride. After flipping out over the fact that it makes no sense to create a sign that merely leads to another sign, I resigned myself to follow that path until I reached that damn cave and got the enlightenment I traveled halfway around the world for. This was where my desire took over and the suffering began. The challenge that followed when I learned that the cave was not only three kilometers away but also on top of a mountain only bolstered my ego and desire to succeed. What followed was an amazing and beautiful hike through areas more rural than I had imagined people still lived in. And all of it was taken for granted because the only thing I was focused on, the only thing I wanted to do, was get to that cave and meditate. It seems so foolish to me now that this event, which I have told dozens of times, much to the enjoyment of others, was almost lost on me while it was actually happening. How could it be that I was blind to something so interesting while I was engrossed in it, only to look back on it and realize just how unique an experience it was? It was because of my desire.
I suppose I should not have said that my desire first occurred when, in my anger, I pledged to get to that cave. Really, that was just the cue in that particular situation that triggered my desire to come into play and take over. I had been desiring that trip to china for nine months prior. Everyday was focused on either fantasizing about going to China or on planning how I was going to actually afford the trip. I wasted an entire summer working and trying to save money. I alienated friends. My funds were obnoxiously tight. And I sacrificed an entire semester of college (the trip occurred in early September and it simply wasn't feasible for me to miss that much school). All of this was done in the hopes that naïve little me, who thought he knew something about Chan Buddhism, might go to the place of its birth and attain some special wisdom from the journey.
I realize that this paper is not supposed to be all over the place, but just for clarity, allow me to diverge slightly. In Christianity I was taught that someday I would go to Heaven. The Christian mindset is ever looking forward to the next sign from God, or to the next good work to be done, or to Heaven itself. It is this mindset that causes enlightenment to pass me by every second of every day. My fixation on china, on the cave, on getting there was so strong that I had no ability to focus on the present and actually do (that's present tense) something once I got there. I was stuck in the future, passively waiting for it to come and for enlightenment to be brought on a silver platter.
The truth of the matter is that regardless of my ability to live in the moment, I was still way off from the truth. The very fact that I wanted to meditate in the same cave as Bodhidharma shows that I understood nothing of the man or the principals he taught. I thought maybe there would be something special about the cave itself. The Taoist in me was kind of hoping I could lap up some of Bodhidharma's left over chi. It's even worse than that. I did it for the story. I love being able to say that I meditated in the same place as the legendary Tamo. My attachment to that place was so misplaced that even if it did have some kind of holy Buddhist sanctity, my going there would have tainted it. And even worse still, even closer to the heart of the matter, is the fact that even if that cave did have something special about it, Buddha would rebuke me for thinking that I need to use it to help me. Buddha was an emaciated monk who sat down under a tree in the middle of nowhere for a while. What's so special about that? Bodhidharma was a chubby recluse who was worried about falling asleep while he meditated. There's no magical and glorious story to tell there. I would have had better luck attaining enlightenment back home flipping through T.V. stations than on some pompous, holy journey to the mystical east.
I feel that the best authority on why the Shaolin Temple is no special place, and should not be revered as such, would be the Shaolin themselves. Or rather, an organization in Oregon that claims it was founded by the true Shaolin masters who fled China during the communist takeover. Regardless of the validity of their lineage, there is undeniable wisdom in their words: "Since non-attachment lies near the core of our Buddhism, we feel, not outrage, but a certain amusement regarding the current affairs of the Honan Temple...the spirit of Shaolin philosophy survives in the hearts of human beings, and not in any worldly place." (Order of Shaolin Ch'an 128) This they say after explaining how the Shaolin Temple in Honan is nothing more than a government funded tourist attraction staffed with actors. Whether or not these people are right in believing that they are descended from the true Shaolin, the fact is they believe it. They believe that the place where their way of life was first cultivated, the original home of their beliefs and ideals, is not only gone, but being used to further the ends of the very regime that made staying in China an impossibility for them. And yet, the only reason they tell of their plight is so that others might not be fooled into thinking they are learning something they are not by going to the Honan temple. (OSC 14, 125-28) They regard the loss of their ancestral home with comic flippancy. I cannot help but feel that this particular line was written just for me: "There is a constant stream of customers to Song San-and a smaller stream of martial artists who wish to be somehow "certified" by the "Shaolin abbot." (OSC 128)
If only I had read The Shaolin Grandmasters' Text a year earlier, I would not have wasted my time seeking enlightenment in China, for I was not truly seeking enlightenment at all but rather I sought validation. That is really the only thing one ever seeks when one does not let go of his attachments; we just call it enlightenment. And what the Order of Shaolin Ch'an says is true regarding the Shaolin Temple. There are vendors everywhere, the "monks" themselves set up shop all throughout the temple grounds. As I climbed up the mountain to Tamo's cave I found a smaller structure that was apparently where the various laborers around the temple eat their lunch and leave their trash. Garbage filled giant incense alters and the woods nearby were littered with months of refuse, dumped down the hill. At the very top of the mountain, there stood a giant statue of Bodhidarma, directly above his cave. There I found two vendors (at the top of a mountain!) and a Shaolin monk. The vendors used their digital camera and portable printer to take and print a picture of me with the monk. And all through this I remained blind, impatiently waiting for my enlightenment to come, until finally I looked out over China through its ever-present smog and realized "This place sucks."
Maybe it was satori, or maybe it was the adrenaline high from having just accidentally climbed a mountain, but I suddenly felt at peace. I had a realization there on that stupid mountain, and it is not the realization one would think after reading this story. I realized that there is enlightenment at the Shaolin Temple. The Temple is hardly even the structure that it used to be, having been burned down many times throughout history, most recently at the beginning of the 20th century. It was taken over by those who destroyed it and whored to the ignorant public. Simply the pollution showed a disregard for life that would appall any Buddhist. The Shaolin Temple, as I learned that day, is an impermanent thing, and therefore not worthy of attachment. Even the very spirit of the priestly order that once resided there is not immune to change. Thank God that I wasted 4,000 dollars on a trip to a country that's abandoned its past and a temple that would be better off in ruins; if I had found real monks there I might have had a "spiritual awakening" and completely missed the point. The fact of the matter is that there is enlightenment at the Shaolin Temple because enlightenment has no location and can even be found at that awful place. I just should not have had any attachment to it, as if it could somehow house the infinite bliss of enlightenment within its physical walls.
There is, however, a romanticized ending to my story. As I hurried back down the mountain before night fell, I paused for a moment to rest my legs. It was at this point that I noticed something: a grasshopper chirping at my feet. "In your face master Po," I rejoiced and continued my walk. Thank God once more for me not having any film left in my camera, lest I might have taken a picture of the grasshopper and formed an attachment to what I learned that day, thus undoing the moral of the whole ordeal.
The Shaolin Grandmasters' Text. Beaverton: Order of Shaolin Ch'an, 2004.
Webster, David. The Philosophy of Desire in the Buddhist Pali Canon. New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005
Smith, Huston. The Illustrated World Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
More by this Author
An essay written for a Psychology of Meditation class. This is an informal essay. It does include citations. It received an 'A.'
An academic essay written to describe to a western audience in summary what the Zen school of Buddhism is. Citations included.
For anyone taking an ancient history class who needs a run down of some of the big names in antiquity.