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A Buddhist's Look at the Concept of Freedom
Buddha, freedom and you.
“Oh, to be the ruler of life, not a slave.” Walt Whitman.
What is freedom? Is it living as we choose, our spirits unchained and unhindered by expectations and obligations? Is it releasing the inner entombed soul? A fire that stirs and wakes those living in unhappy resignation? Bob Dylan asked “How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?” So what exactly is freedom?
Being free means to avoid spiritual paralysis, to follow your beliefs and become a complete human being. Abraham Lincoln said it was the destiny of all people to be free. It’s similar to the Buddhist concept of Dharma.
Dharma, for Buddhists, is ultimate purpose or higher truth. It is our duty to find our personal truth. We must free ourselves and create our own future. Buddha described Dharma as the practice of Freedom.
To quote the Buddha, “Just as there is only one taste in the ocean—the taste of salt—so in Buddhism there is only one taste. The taste of Freedom.
In Buddhism, Dharma is a discipline that leads to Freedom. Many may think that discipline and freedom are opposite things. But they’re not! It takes more discipline to live free and prosper than to follow. Freedom also requires courage. Gandhi said, “Freedom doesn’t mean the absence of restrictions. It means possessing unshakable conviction in your choices in the face of an obstacle.”
Buddhism is about awareness, the power to view the options of the world with your eyes open. Freedom to see; Freedom to choose; Freedom to be free. But while Buddhism is meant to free our minds, what about our society? Can we be free thinkers in a society of expectations, judgments and conformity?
We live in what is euphemistically called a ‘Free Country’ but are we utilizing our Freedom? Are we willingly limiting ourselves? We’re told we should follow our dreams but if we’re brainwashed from childhood about what our life goals should be, are we really thinking freely when we say “I want to be a success” or “I want to be famous”. Aren’t our standard dreams just following the program? If we just do what everyone else is doing, what does that make us? There’s a difference between independence and Freedom. Independence means self-sufficiency but freedom means that we’re not imprisoned by anyone else’s words, deeds or thoughts. People have been trained to love permission instead of freedom.
Will Rogers said, "If you’re hungry, there’s not much choice when you’re eating from the apple barrel. All you can eat is an apple. Wouldn’t you rather eat from a fruit cart where you can have what you want?"
Can we break out of the cocoon of imposed thoughts or is that idea too frightening for us? Wordsworth said that we tire easily of Freedom. Choices can be scary. Kafka said “Sometimes it’s easier to be in chains.” The Buddha, however, once said “Life is constant change. Don’t be as still as a stone.” Freedom is the path to happiness and happiness usually lies in the place we don’t look for it.
To paraphrase the Buddha, Freedom does not lie in trying to escape but in accepting the impermanence of the physical world and freeing yourself from attachment to material things. We need to free ourselves from what we think we want. We’re given all of Earth to love but we choose only one or two things to care about. Yet do we really choose what we care about or is our choice made for us?
Do most people realize how constricted they are or is it too painful to think about? Shakespeare said “Others cannot abide the question ‘Are you free?’ simply because they know they aren’t.”
Are we free? Do we want to be? In whose service is perfect freedom? Ours or society’s or both? If we are free to be greater than we are, what heights could we aspire to? We could do great things with our freedom because Freedom is a noble thing. Lincoln said “Freedom is honorable both in what it gives and what it preserves.”
Rosa Luxemburg wrote in SOCIAL REFORM AND SOCIETY, that “Freedom is always and exclusively for the one who thinks differently.” Just think what your life would have been like if you were, as Alexander Dubek said, “As free as nature first made man to be!”
Lincoln also said “We should allow no modification to the belief in freedom.”
Are you free?