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    Freedom and Forgiveness

    Excerpted from
    Benedict's Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of Saint Benedict
    By Patrick Henry

    Freedom is as elusive as it is desirable. Monastic values at first glance seem the very antithesis of freedom. Living according to a rule, even a rule understood as a trellis and not as a straitjacket, goes against the grain of a culture that celebrates individualism. Commitments tend to be provisional. As Norman Fischer pointed out, "Everybody is so conditioned to 'Let's get what we want, and when it's tough, if something better comes along, let's get that; we'd be thought fools not to switch allegiances.'" But can structure and boundary actually enhance freedom?

    Structure, Boundary, and Freedom

    Living according to a rule is, as Judith Simmer-Brown says, "like being in a marriage. There are always hard times, times when you wonder whether you should be married, and a lot of people, if things aren't working, tend to split, or have an affair, or take up a very absorbing job, or hobbies. This is what I call leakage. But sticking with the marriage, one develops a sense of depth in the relationship and in oneself. We experiment with sealing off the leaks, though we know there isn't any permanent sealing. This kind of trial and error while working within boundaries is integral to the contemplative life as I experience it."

    Norman Fischer agrees with her. "Yes, a rule is a commitment, and you're doing it whether you like it or not. That's how you learn. Benedict hints at this: through our patience we may be granted some part in Christ's own passion and thus in the end receive a share in his kingdom [Prologue 8]. After going through a time when you don't enjoy your practice, you learn that the tough time is always where the reward comes in."

    Commitment contributes to character, but more than moral fiber is tested and strengthened by patience and tenacity. Paradoxically, staying the course, plugging the leaks, respecting the boundaries, holding to a rule, make us freer. One always commits oneself before fully knowing what one is committing to. There is no such thing as a commitment that is made only after all the evidence is in. Commitment is based not on facts, but on desire-and the root meaning of desire is to follow a star. By keeping attention focused on the star, we can forestall the various myopias that bind us even when we think we are free.

    Freedom of Not Knowing

    Joseph Goldstein:

    Our proud attempts at upward climbing will really bring us down, whereas to step downwards in humility is the way to lift our spirit up towards God. Sometimes humility itself can become a stance of the ego, or perhaps be confused with feelings of unworthiness. Wei Wu Wei captures the essence of this virtue when he writes, "Humility is the absence of any one to be proud." True humility comes most fully with the wisdom of selflessness, rather than being someone who is humble-for even a humble one can be self-centered.

    One of the greatest stumbling blocks to the experience of humility is the strong attachment we can have to views and opinions, of both worldly and spiritual matters. The particular spiritual practices and studies we have undertaken inevitably condition us. It is easy to become attached to our point of view and miss the even greater wisdom that comes from silence of mind.

    In 1974 I had just returned from a seven-year period of study and practice in India, where I was immersed in the Burmese tradition of Buddhism. For the next few summers I taught meditation at Naropa Institute (now University) in Boulder, Colorado. During one of those summer sessions I saw a poster advertising a talk by a great Lama of the Tibetan Tradition, Dudjom Rinpoche. The poster said that Rinpoche was an incarnation of Sariputra, the chief disciple of the Buddha. Now, in the Burmese tradition, when one becomes fully enlightened one no longer takes rebirth. Sariputra, who was second only to the Buddha in his understanding and wisdom, certainly fell into the category of enlightened beings. I was quite sure of this from all my years of study. Yet here was one of the most respected teachers of Tibet who was supposed to be Sariputra's incarnation. How to make sense of this contradiction?

    At first I was quite confused because my mind could not reconcile these two very different viewpoints. It reminded me of one of Yogi Berra's famous dictums, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." My mind simply stopped. But in that stopping, something important happened. For the first time I realized that, in fact, I didn't know whether Dudjom Rinpoche was the incarnation of Sariputra or not. And this "not knowing" became a place of great openness and freedom. A breath of fresh air blew through my mind, sweeping out many previously held opinions, conclusions, and certainties. Much of what I felt certain of was well out of the range of my personal experience, and while I could be said to know what was in the books, or what my teachers had said, not knowing felt much more authentic; it reflected a truer humility.

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