Jul 27, 2009
G.K. Chesterton: “The true object of all human life is play.”
The bodhisattva moves through life elegantly, “in the zone” and in a state of playful “flow,” and he can do this because he has abandoned any clinging to the idea of self. “Let go of your sense of self; you have nothing to lose but your suffering,” Bodhipaksa tells us.
I think Chesterton was absolutely right when he said that the object of life is play. The best kind of life we can live, I believe, is one in which we love, laugh, and learn: one in which we can be serious without being down, and can laugh irreverently at life’s difficulties without being facetious or trivializing them.
One problem is that we sometimes get into a habit of deferring happiness. We know we’re overdoing things now, taking life way too seriously and failing to nourish ourselves. We know that our needs aren’t being met. We’re aware that we’re stressed. That we’re over-working and spiritually under-nourished. But we live in hope that in six months, or next year, or after this big project is over, we’ll be able to start enjoying life. But we’ve been through this before, and we forget that six months, or a year ago, or before the last big project, we thought exactly the same thing. And here we are. And life’s still hard.
Because we think it’s “over there” we don’t try to create heaven here
Chesterton seems to fall into this way of thinking as well. In the full quotation he adds, after “The true object of all human life is play” the words, “Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground.” Even if he’s being metaphorical, the metaphor serves to distance us from happiness. Here we are on earth, with all our worldly cares. Heaven is somewhere over the horizon, and because we think it’s “over there” we don’t try to create heaven here.
Buddhist language sometimes can be interpreted in the same way. We talk about the life of frustration, stress, and suffering as being samsara. The literal meaning of samsara, “the faring on” suggests a long, hard slog. And then there’s nirvana, which is the “extinction” of delusion and suffering (although not, as some people used to argue, individual existence).
Nirvana, as the end of suffering, is the beginning of an unshakable state of peace; a joyful equanimity; a wise, compassionate, and serene way of being. It’s rather like earth and heaven, and often I hear people talk about the two as being separate places.
Other Buddhist metaphors reinforce that notion; we talk about practice as being “a path” and what does a path do but lead from one place to another place. And if there are two places they must be separate, and they may even be separated by a great distance. Some Buddhist schools (mainly now extinct, interestingly enough) used to see nirvana as being immeasurably far off, and only attainable after millions of lifetime of practice. While that may have emphasized how amazing enlightenment is, it also made it hard to take it seriously as a realistic goal.
Nirvana is ‘arriving.’
But earth and heaven are not places separated in space. It’s not that samsara is one place and nirvana is another. There’s only one reality, and we can see it in different ways. We can look at the world we live in with a mind that’s always seeking — always “faring on” through experiences, never really resting in the present moment, never really appreciating what’s going on right now, but always hoping that things are going to be better later on. We’re always thinking about what we’re going to do next, but when we get to that next thing we’ll be thinking of what’s coming after that. There’s always the promise of fulfillment, but it never quite arrives because we’ve not arrived. That is samsara.
And nirvana? That’s the same world — the world of children and commuting and deadlines and international conflicts — but seen with a different attitude. Nirvana is “arriving.” It’s letting go of the “faring on” attitude. It’s letting go of looking for fulfillment just over the horizon, and realizing that fulfillment is possible right here, right now.
Spatially, samsara and nirvana are the same place, but mentally they’re very different. When we talk about “the path”, we’re talking purely metaphorically. We’re not fundamentally talking about getting away from our current lives, but about changing our relationship to our current lives.
Samsara and nirvana are the same reality seem through different mental lenses
Sometimes, to be true, there are times when we do have to move on from a job, a relationship, a place, in order to find happiness. Sometimes the particular circumstances we find ourselves in are so difficult that we really need to get out. But in the end we realize that we take ourselves with us. We carry our own attitudes along with us wherever we go, and it’s all too often those attitudes that get us into difficult circumstances in the first place. Eventually we have to let go of the idea that happiness will come from getting circumstances in the outside world right, and accept that happiness will come by getting our attitude to life right.
As Sunada points out in her post, Playing our way through life, the life of the bodhisattva — the person who is “arriving” in life rather than “faring on” — is characterized by play, or līla. Līla means not just play, but grace, beauty, elegance, and loveliness. The idea is a life where we deal with difficulties gracefully, where our attitude is beautiful, where find elegant solutions to problems, where we appreciate the loveliness in others.
Another aspect of līla is “mere appearance, semblance, pretence, [and] disguise.” This doesn’t mean that spiritually advanced Buddhists are running around in disguise! It suggests that the bodhisattva is living in the world in a different way from the rest of us. Samsara and nirvana, remember, are the same reality seem through different mental lenses. The bodhisattva is living in the same world as we are, but isn’t confined by the same self-imposed limitations and assumptions. Crucially, the bodhisattva is aware that protecting our “selves” is the worst thing that we can do for ourselves. Let me give an analogy to explain.
Let go of your sense of self; you have nothing to lose but your suffering.
Imagine a basketball player “in the zone” or in a state of “flow.” There’s no thought of “Oh, here I am, and I have the ball, and there’s the opposition, and there’s the hoop, and I have to get past all those guys and score.” Instead, what you have is the complete absence of any sense of self and other. There’s simply a playful and spontaneous response to circumstances. He’s flowing around the court in a state of līla, with grace, beauty, elegance, and loveliness. Now consider the basketball player who does think all those things: he’s dead on the court. He’s wooden, because he’s either afraid or trying too hard for results. He’s paralyzed by his own self-consciousness and his awareness of others as obstacles who might stop him getting what he wants.
Bodhisattvas are very like that, but in terms of life as a whole rather than just what goes on on a basketball court. There’s freedom from the idea of there being beings to help, which is how the bodhisattva can help them. He can also help them because he has no idea that he is helping other beings — he just responds spontaneously, in the zone, in a state of flow.
Two different attitudes within one reality. It’s up to us to choose. And we can make remarkable changes in our attitude in the space of a moment. When we let go of our mental rigidity, relax, and create a mental space for creativity to appear, we can very quickly find a sense of play, of līla, bubbling up from within. Let go of your sense of self; you have nothing to lose but your suffering.