Buddhist practitioner, teacher, and author Noah Levine’s approach to spiritual practice is a radical one—he goes straight to the root of our beliefs, our society, and our humanity. In this provocative essay, he delivers a wake-up call, encouraging us to eschew oppressive systems for a direct, personal experience of awakening and the freedom that it offers.
Defy the Lies
Inside each one of us resides the truth, and however deeply buried or obscured that truth has become, we have the ability to uncover it and experience freedom for ourselves. Many of us have been seduced by the world’s enchanting offers of happiness through pleasure and accumulation—but it is a lie, a sham, a fallacy. In order to find true happiness and freedom, we must understand this clearly. Nothing short of a revolution in our perception of the material world can do this. The path to liberation is one of defiance and renunciation. We must overthrow the deluded dictators of our minds and see through the confusion of the world. This will take great effort and a steadfast engagement with our own moment-to-moment experience.
Surrounded by a dysfunctional culture, we have been destroying each other and this planet for too long. Even though there has been discussion about equality and human rights in the United States, this country is founded upon violence and oppression. Our forefathers stole this land from its native peoples, waging war upon the rightful inhabitants of this continent. The history of slavery and racist oppression toward each culture newly arrived on these shores has left us with a legacy of ignorance. Although some of the outright bigotry has lessened in our recent past, it is still the substratum of our society’s structure. But this is not just an American phenomenon; actually, our classist, sexist, and racist culture is quite similar to the ancient Indian society that Buddha was born into. Ignorance is not just Western or Eastern, it is human. Our human society is founded upon confusion, ignorance, and lies—oppressive factors that keep us in bondage to suffering. The legacy of violence and greed that our ancestors have left in their wake is the foundation upon which we find ourselves standing today.
Religion, which was created to give spiritual meaning and purpose to people, has also played a part in oppression, both in Eastern and Western religious traditions. The Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed were all revolutionaries who critiqued and attempted to dismantle the corrupt societal traditions of their time. Yet, like most things in human society, their teachings have been distorted and co-opted by the power-hungry patriarchal tradition. What were once the creation myths of ancient cultures have become doctrines of oppression. There has been more blood spilled and more people oppressed in the name of religion than for any other reason in history. Although faith and religiosity are central to human history, it may be time to reject all forms of organized religion, including so-called Buddhism, and begin afresh with practical, applicable, and experiential philosophy.
Much of what masquerades as Buddhism today is in direct opposition to what the Buddha actually did and taught. The Buddha was insistent on questioning and defying the religious structure. He urged all those he came into contact with to find the truth for themselves, not from faith or tradition, but out of one’s own direct experience of wisdom and compassion. So the spiritual revolutionary must defy the religious structures as well as the material world.
While we can look to religions and spiritual teachings for the tools of awakening—the truth does reside in the core of most religions—we must understand that all religions also contain confused traditions and lies that need to be destroyed by clear understanding and our own direct experience of awakening. For an awakened revolution to take root, the oppressive structures of society must be dismantled, and we must speak out against the causes of suffering. This is what the Buddha began to do, through nonviolent defiance and compassionate engagement with the system of oppression.
Defiance means to stand up for what you know is right, to reject the patriarchal human dogma, and to embrace the search for meaning with a steadfast engagement with reality. It means to see clearly our mind’s fears and attachments as impersonal conditioned phenomena. When we commit to the spiritual revolution, we are committed to developing or uncovering the truth that has been obscured and buried by the confusion of greed, hatred, and ignorance—beneath which we find the heart’s natural wisdom and compassion. There is nothing incompatible between defying the lies of human ignorance and serving the truth of the enlightened human potential. The spiritual revolutionary defies both the internal and external forces of oppression.
Serve the Truth!
Service is at the heart of the revolution. A deep commitment to honesty and integrity is necessary for all who wish to make positive change in the world. We don’t have to be perfect or holy, but we do need to be honest with ourselves and one another. We must dedicate ourselves to finding the deepest compassion and highest wisdom, and from that place we can live in accordance with the truth of reality. Through meditation, wise actions, and service, we will come to understand the importance of generosity, kindness, forgiveness, and compassion, and we will align our life with the truth of total personal responsibility.
Serving the truth is simply living life from the place of positive intentions. This may be counterintuitive; it may be the most radical stance one can take. It means rigorous honesty. It means doing the right thing even when everything in society is telling you to ignore, suppress, or abandon the path of nonviolence, understanding, and care.
What Is the Truth?
The truth is that violence is never the answer. There is no winner in violent conflicts, only harm caused to both sides. The spiritual revolutionary practices nonviolence.
The truth is that selfishness and greed never lead to happiness or contentment. Greed feeds discontent. The spiritual revolutionary practices generosity and service in the face of self-centeredness.
The truth is that ignoring or denying the oppression and confusion in the world is part of the problem. If we are not part of the solution, we are the problem. The spiritual revolutionary is engaged with the world and responds to oppression with open eyes and a willingness to protect others and alleviate oppression. At times this comes in the form of education, at other times in the form of hands-on nonviolent action.
The truth is that we are all grieving the losses of the past. Due to impermanence, everything is constantly dying. There is sorrow for the loss of all things. The spiritual revolutionary practices openness to the sorrow of existence, meeting change with understanding and pain with compassion.
The truth is that pleasure is addictive. We are all addicted to pleasure, we all crave for life to be always pleasant and never painful. The spiritual revolutionary practices nonattachment, breaking the addiction to the mind and enjoying the pleasure of life as it comes and goes.
The truth is that our suffering is optional. In life, pain and pleasure are a given, but we create suffering for ourselves through our clinging to pleasure and aversion to pain. The spiritual revolutionary practices radical acceptance, enjoying pleasure when it is present, accepting and caring about pain when it is present.
The truth is that much of the difficulty and confusion in life is impersonal. The human mind and body are not naturally in harmony with impermanence—it is not personal, it is just the developed survival mechanisms of our species. The spiritual revolutionary trains oneself to understand the impersonal reactive tendencies of the mind/body.
The truth is that freedom is possible in each moment and in this very life. We have the ability to let go, to let be, and to respond with care and understanding to what is happening in each moment.
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