By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei
Some of the most difficult concepts of Buddhist thought to explain is often not the philosophical principles, but the psychological ideas that emerge from the understanding found in the Four Noble Truths, that teach how human emotions create both good and less good behaviors. Almost from the very beginning of Buddhist study we encounter the reasons for human suffering and unsatisfactoriness that point directly to how we develop and display them though our emotions. These emotions reflect our feelings at the time ….. anger, fear, happiness, sadness, need, and feelings of compassion are some of the many emotions we humans can experience, and act on. Our sense of who we are is so bound up in the desires we value, that for many who explore the Buddhist path that teaches we must learn to divest ourselves of many of our personal preferences in order to awaken to our full potential, is asking us to give up much of what makes us human too. It is so easy to consider nonattachment as a life-style that offers very little richness.
But, the Buddha is asking us to achieve a balance in what we desire that works to promote happiness and harmony for us and those around us. He is teaching us that we do not have to give up being emotional, just that we move away from unhealthy and un-productive displays of emotion that are not useful and productive in the long run. After all, karma is about outcomes and how they create movement in the world around us. So the key word here is balance, or achieving an equal-balance in how we act. It is about learning to bring control and composure to our behavior, that reflects a mature state of mind that is achieved when what we desire, and weighed against what we can achieve, reflects our practicing the Three Pure Precepts. In other words, our cultivating equanimity.
It is fare to ask, what is wrong with being very attached to the color red, or being extremely annoyed when people our rude and obnoxious? Well, with all things being equal, not much. And yes, I know you know there are healthy desires and unhealthy desires. The Buddha discovered just after his awakening, however, that desire can be like a house builder. The Dhammapada # 154 says, “Housebuilder, you have been seen! You will not build another house …. My mind has reached the destruction of craving.” His experience suggests his understanding that desires build a framework of a personality upon which suffering finds a stage for acting out in unproductive ways. What the Buddha is saying, is that a life of many desires can achieve an over-emotional human being, which is not good, even if many of those desires are harmless when taken one at a time. Being aware of self, or even our Buddha nature, is a human thing, something rocks and trees don’t have. It is what makes us spiritual beings. Because we have the capacity to like or not like something is what creates the notion of a permanent and unique self. Attachments often have the nature of permanence, that we can carry with us until we walk through the exit door.
The second element of the Four Noble Truths has as it’s core realization that it is not what we want, but that we want which creates human desire and thus displays of human emotions that has the potential for suffering. Desires are a complex human psycho-emotional human element, and creates complexity when confronted by the sense of self that makes how we learn to cultivate equanimity difficult. But there is an easy way to confront this challenge, and that is the practice of being mindful moment to moment. And in these moments we have the potential to achieve equanimity. But being awakened to the moment without wanting is not the same as having no emotion, for equanimity itself is an emotion. Visualize an emotional scale in the form of a single line, where at one end is absolute-frantic-action and at the other complete non-emotion (flat affect). On this human emotion scale equanimity should be found somewhere near the center. So you see, equanimity is a balanced-emotion. When we display calm and great composure in our actions, we are displaying constructive emotion that has the potential for achieving good. Either extreme is not it.
We do not become less human by controlling our emotions by curbing our desires. As Buddhist walking the middle way path we learn to practice responses to situations that gives proper credit to what is happening without trying to make it something else that is more about us than about the reality of the moment. And when we learn to achieve this level of equanimity in our practice we step closer to what it means to live a nobly human life. It teachers us to seek equanimity in our own experiences. Another way to keep our house uncluttered.