Ah…the first post of the new year. Must be time for some resolutions…or, as I prefer, “revolutions”. Of course, I’m not talking about the kind that involve violent overthrow of a government, or lots of weapons, or that make international headlines. I’m referring to what we Buddhists call human revolution. It won’t be televised. However, if you want to make a real, long-lasting, and effective change in your life (for the better!), you can’t beat it. Much better than making the obligatory list of “resolutions” that are notorious for their short lifespan…sometimes lasting no longer than a champagne hangover.
Buddhism involves a lot of self-reflection. This doesn’t mean merely turning our attention inward, or focusing on ourselves to the exclusion of the rest of the world. The idea is not to perfect your own life while ignoring the unhappiness of those around you, but to work on yourself in the midst of your relationships with others. The major source of unhappiness is thinking that happiness and empowerment are outside us, or are at best only tenuously connected to our lives. With this belief, the desire for happiness and self-empowerment will be eternally in vain. You may seem to have acquired one or the other at times, perhaps even both at the same time, only to see them slip away. This impermanence is the reality of our material existence.
But impermanence can work both ways. Just as a momentary glory can fade, so too can a hellish unhappiness. As much as we long to hold onto the good stuff and can’t, the trade-off is that we get to shed the bad. In fact, often it’s letting go of the bad stuff that lets the good in. It’s difficult to simultaneously hold onto a grudge, for example, and have a good relationship with someone. But if you can let the grudge go, the relationship immediately begins to improve, even if you do nothing else. Imagine what changes you can effect by deciding (and taking steps) to make it better!
On New Year’s eve, I like to make a list of all the things I didn’t accomplish in the old year, including anything I wasn’t able to change or that made me sad, such as losing a friend or failing at something…or personality traits I think I’d be better off without. I also add in my friends’ problems…everything that seems not conducive to happiness. Once I get a nice, long, comprehensive list, I fold it up, toss it into the fire, and watch it burn. It’s a great feeling. Off with the old, on with the new…with the painful stuff gone, there’s room for the joy.
Making resolutions, setting goals-these are good things to do. We have to overcome the tendency, however, to scrap them at the first sign of failure, or if they don’t fall into place within the timetable we have set. This is how we defeat ourselves. If “genius is the art of taking infinite pains”, then idiocy must be taking no pains at all; in other words, without at least making the attempt to shape your life, you will be forever shaped (warped?) by such seemingly random circumstances as may befall you. Or as Daisaku Ikeda says in Buddhism Day by Day, “One of the epithets of a Buddha is, ‘Hero of the World.’ A Buddha is a valiant and noble champion who has conquered the sufferings of life in the real world. Nichiren writes: ‘Buddhism is like the body, and society like the shadow. When the body bends, so does the shadow.’ People cannot live apart from society. But to be constantly at the mercy of society’s ups and downs is a miserable existence. It is crucial for us to be strong and wise. The ‘body’ Nichiren refers to is, on the personal level, our faith.”
Faith can begin as a simple desire for a better life. In the context of religion, it’s usually defined as belief, either in a deity or a doctrine. In Buddhism, developing a deep and lasting faith requires more than an unsubstantiated belief or a superficial desire for self-improvement. Buddhism advances through an ongoing relationship between mentor and disciple, in which neither can exist without the other, and the expectation is that the disciple will surpass the mentor, becoming a mentor to others, and so on. This is nothing exotic; even the geniuses of the world had teachers. There’s really no such thing as ‘self-taught’. Life is continuing process of learning, building on what came before, and adapting. If that process stopped, life itself would end. Our responsibility is to keep that from happening…and yes, we do have that capability.
It’s that old choice: should I be a hero or a villain? Some prime examples of villains are Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Jong Il, who achieved wealth and power through inflicting misery on others. But everyone has the capacity to be a villain, even if it’s not on such an epic scale. Amassing worldly wealth and power, even at the expense of others, can be seductive, and it’s easy to forget your resolutions (and your faith) in the pursuit of it. But as Nichiren also says, “It is better to live a single day as a hero than to live to 120 and die in disgrace.” When you seek the good, you add to the good of the world. It’s easy to view the world’s problems as something outside your life, and either try to ignore them or feel overwhelmed with hopelessness in the face of them, but this is not the way to “conquer the sufferings of life in the real world”. Only by painstaking daily efforts can we fundamentally change the reality of our existence, but by doing so, we change the world. For the better.
Whether or not you consider yourself a Buddhist, you have the condition of Buddhahood within you, ready to flower. We all do. As David Bowie says, “we can be heroes, just for one day”.
One day. Then another day. And another. And so on…