The past few years have taught me the wisdom in Daoist-influenced traditions of sudden liberation: in a certain way we can improve ourselves by not improving ourselves, through an acceptance of everything, including ourselves, in the present moment. Yet I had had good reason to be frustrated earlier with such traditions – for their rhetoric sometimes implies that that present-moment acceptance is easy, which it is not. It was a long and painful lesson for me learning how hard it is to be good. That made me a longtime advocate of what East Asian Buddhists would call the gradual path, but I increasingly also see the wisdom in its converse, the sudden. Can the two be reconciled?
Tiantai and Headspace provide a hugely important insight on how to deal with one’s bad emotional tendencies, one’s kleśas: contra Śāntideva, you shouldn’t fight the kleśas, but rather let go of them. I think they are right about that. The frustrating paradox is that letting go can actually be harder than fighting. If it were about fighting kleśas and being at war with them, as Śāntideva says, then it would simply be a matter of trying harder, putting in more effort. But when the effort needed is non-effort, trying not to try – well, how do you even do that? That was the issue I faced with my struggles with insomnia: it was indeed the case that what I needed to do was let go, but at that point I wasn’t capable of doing that, and I knew it.
So I suspect that letting-go doesn’t make any sense at the beginning of the path; the sudden path must come as the endpoint of the gradual, or at least as an endpoint. When you’re at conscious incompetence (let alone unconscious incompetence), you can’t just jump straight to conscious competence. You need something to do, to practise – in order to get yourself up to not-doing. Sometimes people do famously have moments of sudden liberation (what in Zen is called satori 悟) early in the process – but those moments drop away, and they are lost without an effortful process of getting back to them.
What is still needed for letting-go is a vigilance. Satori can put one in the present moment in one moment, but being in the present moment is a habit one needs to keep building so that one has it at every moment. Augustine and Śāntideva are right to be alarmed at how deep and persistent our bad habits go. Our natural tendencies and habits are to return to anger and fear and shame and self-pity, to not let them go. These self-destructive and other-destructive tendencies are observable at birth, if not before. If we just leave ourselves to those natural tendencies and habits, then we are in deep trouble.
That is the truth that gives rise to Śāntideva’s military metaphors: things inside us get really bad, and if we hope to live well, we can’t afford to accept them in the sense of leaving everything about ourselves untouched. We must instead watch ourselves carefully to observe the bad states arising – but then when we see them arising, what we need to do is let them go. This is a particular problem with angers and fears that are deeply rooted, when we have a hurt that goes so deeply down that we get angry or afraid any time it comes up: there we likely need to discover those roots and not simply be in the moment. There, the tools of modern talk therapy are our friends.
Yet the vigilance too can go too far, if it leads us to beat ourselves up for imperfection. Contra Augustine, it’s okay if anger or other bad emotions arise, as long as you notice them and let go. Sure that makes you forever imperfect – but that’s no problem in a cosmology where we are the accidental products of evolutionary chance rather than the design of an omnipotent omnibenevolent God. And the refusal to accept our imperfections leads us to its own deep problems – sometimes it can tempt us to act as if they’re not there. The one who wants to be an angel is a beast.
Here as elsewhere, the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer is essential. But the key in this context is that the prayer needs to be applied, not just to the world, but to oneself. I imagine this is one reason for the prayer’s enduring popularity in 12-step programs, full of people whose own flaws have brought them low: when you’ve dug yourself deep into a hole of addiction, even if you stop using the substance today, you’re not going to get out of the hole right away. And more generally – as much as I might like to immediately be as strong as Thich Quang Duc, to have the strength to be calm if I were set on fire tomorrow, that’s just not going to happen. After a lifetime of practice maybe, but not now. Self-improvement has its limits and we need to recognize them.
Being virtuous is always a challenge, one that requires what Aristotle calls phronēsis: the discernment of what each particular situation calls for. What’s at issue in this context is a sort of meta-phronēsis, a discernment of when to accept oneself and when to improve oneself. That comes with experience and practice, a practice that must still be gradual, even as its results are experienced in the moment.