Limiting Ourselves

by Rev. Kinrei Bassis

It is the very nature of human life that we place limits on whatever we are doing. Everyone’s life has many different demands and needs and life is always a balancing act. Part of Right Action in Buddhism is how do we make the right choices that will lead to the most good and the least amount of suffering. In normal daily life, there are always limits on everything we do. Our time, our finances, our energy, our abilities; they all have limits. However, Buddhism is teaching us to embrace every aspect of our lives; promising us that we can find a place in our minds and hearts that is boundless, which has no limits. The work we do to support ourselves, the ways we take care of our health and our body, our responsibilities and interactions with family and friends, our ways of relaxing and our ways of working-are all parts of our lives that are being balanced in a way, so hopefully, what is truly needed, is being taken care of. Yet Buddhism is not ignoring the balancing of the various needs in our life but is also telling to look deeper and get in touch with a sense of wholeness that embraces every part of life. Yet the normal human way to relate to this is not to to see it as a mighty whole but rather to grasp after certain parts of life and push other parts away.

We impose limits on ourselves by the way we view ourselves and the way we view the world. We limit our spiritual life by seeing ourselves with judgmental eyes that places limits on what we can do, how much we change, what we can be. We place limits on ourselves when we say we cannot do something. We can convince ourselves we cannot meditate, we cannot put up with this person, or we can never accept this difficulty or let go that mistake. We think with great certainty that we know who we are and what we can be. We narrow our view of ourselves by clinging to our past history of who we have been. We delude ourselves and see a false picture of reality by not taking the Dharma to heart and trusting that nothing is a true problem and that everything can and will change.

It is normal to begin Buddhist practice with clear limits on what we want to offer to our Buddhist training. People will often begin with the intention, I would like to have a daily meditation practice, and I want my Buddhist training to help make me more peaceful and compassionate. These are normal and good entrances to the path of Buddhism. Yet as we practice, in order for our spiritual life to progress and deepen, our Buddhist practice needs to start moving from the periphery of our life towards a more and more central place. If we continue our practice, we can see better and better that there is nothing meaningless or outside our spiritual life and just transforming a few aspects around the periphery is not going to really work. When we look at our meditation and practice with a selfish mind, it often does not seem worth doing. Yet that which brings people to seek the Buddhist Way is our sense that there is much deeper meaning to our life. Meditation and Buddhist practice is pointing us to seek that which is deeply transcendent and, in most respects, completely inconceivable.

We need to recognize that real inner contentment has escaped us and we need to cultivate the faith in the fact that the true transcendent joy and peace that Buddhism promises is real and attainable. We are working at not believing in our limits and instead work at trusting that each action done with a good intention and right effort is taking another step towards that which will bring us liberation. When we are demanding that life give us something, even something positive like good health or world peace or lessening of someone’s suffering, we are closing our eyes to the help and wonders we are being given right now and thus losing sight of what we spiritually need to do. When we live in our heads filled with endless wants and needs, filled with our opinions and judgements of how things should be, how we should be, we mold this all into a hard and often depressing picture of what we think is reality. We wholeheartedly believe this illusive picture of ourselves and the world that we have generated.

We need to take refuge in this inner sense that has us seeking for something much deeper rather just following our normal worldly mind which is just trying to get what we want. The main way we counteract this worldly mind which puts limits on what we can do and what we can be, is cultivating our spiritual aspiration. It is our spiritual aspiration that can free us from our seeming limitations. That is why we need to always work at deepening our spiritual aspiration so that we can the faith to be able to see beyond our present limits. The Three Refuges, the Buddhist Precepts, the Bodhisattva vows, these are all ways to free us to go past the limits of who we think we are and place us on the path to Buddhahood. The Three Refuges of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha all point to what we should rely on and not just our opinions and judgments.

The Bodhisattva vows, for instance the vow “However innumerable sentient beings may be, I vow to save them all”. When I first started in Buddhism, and then for my first few years of Buddhist practice, this vow was not something I could relate to. I was having considerable difficulty in just helping myself so my thought was, “how could I even think about saving all sentient beings”. Yet eventually I began to take the deep aspiration of the Bodhisattva vows to heart and it was a great help. First, it forced me to look beyond this little self since it is obvious that I, Kinrei, am not going to save all sentient beings. But my willingness to cultivate that aspiration, allowed me to view my life and training in a much larger context. It made me recognize that is was not my little self that was going to help all beings. The vows helped me to stop always being so self-absorbed so that a deeper purpose and meaning can be found in my daily actions. “When the Buddha does all, and you follow this doing effortlessly and without worrying about it, you gain freedom from suffering and become, yourself, Buddha.” (Shoji-Dogen).

To deepen our aspiration for Buddhahood, we need to arouse a love and devotion for the teaching and practice. We need to view our spiritual life as something precious that we need to protect and care for. It is like trying to grow a frail plant. We must work to provide all the conditions that will allow it to flourish and flower. We feed our spiritual aspiration by cultivating our sense of gratitude and reverence and helping them to be more and more central in our actions and in our lives. We hurt our spiritual aspiration when we let our minds to be filled with self-absorbed thoughts, with hard opinions, and with strong desires. If we allow our selfishness to fill ourselves, we are wounding ourselves and then all we can see and feel are our wounds. Yet the sense of freedom and peace grows in our hearts when we stop trying to escape from whatever difficulties that life is giving us and accept these difficult conditions with gratitude and with an open heart.

Every moment is an opportunity to be grateful for what we are being given, trusting that the true gift is not getting what we want but having this opportunity to train and point our hearts and minds toward Buddhahood. All our mistakes and delusions do not stand against our ability to train with our present situation and working at letting go of whatever we seem to be grasping. All our deluded actions and thoughts, when we fully let go of them, will all vanish like dreams. And we must trust and aspire towards being awakened-waking up from our dreams of suffering and our dreams of happiness and finding what is real, the life of Buddha.