13. Killing The Buddha

Q: Something became so clear today about a way of thinking I picked up while living at a Buddhist monastery, sleeping for that year in a small tent without amenities. These were beautiful forest monks from Thailand. They owned nothing but their begging bowls and the robes on their backs. If they ate, it was because their followers fed them. Such extremes of bliss and suffering I experienced there. It was in the company of those monks that I adopted the ideaof surrendering all objects in my deep desire to know truth.

Since “killing the Buddha” [she means giving up reliance upon the woman who had been her guru for years, Ed.] I’ve pretty much been feeling my way along blindly. I’ve been trying on ideas and I’m musing on the question of how my life has unfolded. I own nothing of value but an old car and my artwork. There has been no significant other in my life for over 15 years. So, I am penniless and alone. How could that be when I was so committed to knowing truth?

It was shocking to comprehend that it had never been necessary to give up anything in order to be self-realized. Then, on reading your discussion about magical thinking, I understood that the magical thinking of the monastery days, even though they called it “Buddhism,” not magical thinking, had set me on thatcourse of renunciation.

But even now I still cannot comprehend that I never had a choice about any of it, nor in the matter of how my present understanding came to be. If no one has the power to choose, that would mean not only that I didn’t choose the magical thinking, along with the course of my life that was set in those monastery days, but that I did not choose to drop the magical thinking and kill the Buddha when I did that either. Robert, would you please comment and explain?

A: No one, I say, ever really chooses anything. After the profound shock of seeing that, I still had the feeling of choice sometimes, but that illusion seems to have disappeared entirely. Nowadays, I never even feel that I am choosing. It is clear to me that “Robert” exists in mutual co-dependence with everything else in the universe, and consequently has no more power to choose what to perceive, feel, or think, than a jellyfish has the power to swim against the tide. Case in point: I never chose to write about magical thinking. Those conversations just materialized in the same fashion as the words I find myself typing presently. Thoughts simply emerge unbidden. Who knows from where, how, or why?

Now, by the same token, on reading my words, no reader can simply choose to stop magical thinking. But reading those words might provide the last straw of information that, when added to everything else in a human mind, tips the balance among competing ideas just enough so that magical thinking what it is—escapism, and self-hypnosis. So if you are free of the magical thinking of your monastery days, it is not because you chose to rid yourself of such beliefs. When a lie is seen as a lie, belief in that lie ends automatically, not because someone has decided intentionally to stop believing.

Upon reading those same words of mine, someone else might not start to question her magical thinking as you did, but, feeling her religious convictions threatened, actually embrace them all the more, which in psychology is called “reaction formation.” Part of the reaction formed in thatframe of mind might include pitying poor old Robert for doubting that Jesus loves him and would welcome him in heaven if only he had sufficient faith, and would include, of course, nothing but endless compassion for skeptics like him who will burn in hell while the faithful enjoy an eternity in Paradise.

When one begins to grapple with the idea that one never had a real choice about anything, but only a seeming or ostensible choice, that might seem disempowering, depressing, or even frightening, but the upside is the fading away of remorse, self-reproach, and the like, which assume powers that no one really possesses.

You never chose the belief that renunciation of material interests was necessary for so-called “self-realization.” In your own words, you “picked it up” by contact with the monks. That’s how thoughts enter the mind; we pick them up by contact. That contact can be random, or someone may intentionally inject those thoughts, such as parents do with children “for their own good,” or spiritual teachers preaching to their flocks.

Thoughts, including the kinds of thoughts we call intentions, arise unavoidably, and there is no “myself” apart from them except as another thought. To be sure, when thoughts change, intentions change and behavior changes. But one cannot choose what to intend, nor decide what to think. If we could, this would be quite a different world.

We are what we are in this moment. Now, having seen the futility of renunciation as a spiritual method, you wrestle with regret: “Why couldn’t I have understood this earlier? If only I had, my life now might be entirely different.”

That may be true, but there is, I say, no “why.” That’s just the way the cookie crumbled. I feel happy for you that you have understood it all. The understanding that awareness is choiceless is the birth of compassion both for oneself and for one’s fellow beings who, one sees, have no more choice than you do but to be what they are.

Q1: Thanks so much for this Robert! Right on the mark, and even more fell into place after reading your reply. Did I choose this new insight? I can only say that it was revealed, and I have always wanted this deepening clarity of being. Moment by moment I see ever more clearly the freedom you express and teach in the words you share. And I am happy that you are happy for me. It helps to have friends around for this unraveling. It’s intensely painful, but all in all, I’m glad the cookie crumbles in this way.