Why Buddhist practice does not aim to make our lives smoother or to create good human beings.

Student – I guess I’m what is called a cultural Buddhist. I participate in rituals such as annual rimdo/ pujas, visit lhakhangs/ temples on auspicious days, and make water and incense offerings at the choesham/ altar every morning. Now, I’ve always assumed that Buddhist practice was aimed at removing obstacles so that our lives are smoother, with less health and financial issues, and also to make us good human beings. A friend told me I was wrong and that making our lives more comfortable or even creating good human beings is not the aim of Buddhism. Is he correct? If so, then why do we make offerings or arrange rituals? What is the point? Please help allay my confusion. Thank you.

Master – Your friend is correct. Of course, Buddhism is not opposed to an obstacle-free life or being a good human being, but achieving these goals is not the aim of the Dharma. They may be a side product of practice, but they are not the primary objective of following the teachings of the Buddha.  

What, then, is the aim of Buddhism? Simply put, it is to awaken to the truth, and every practice, from secret tantric yoga to offering water before images of the Buddha and enlightened beings, has that aim. If it does not, then it cannot be considered an authentic Buddhist practice. 

Now, you may wonder why Buddhism does not hold a trouble-free life and creating good human beings as its highest aspiration. Are these not noble and valued objectives? Yes, in a worldly, samsaric context, these are no doubt the highest ideals. 

However, if we examine worldly existence, we understand that it does not truly exist, and this is the reason that Buddhism does not strive to achieve mundane ambitions. Simply put, what we see, hear, taste, touch, and think is an illusion, no more real than a dream.

As this concept is difficult to grasp, the Buddhist masters have offered us a number of examples, such as rainbows and mirages, that we can contemplate as a means to gain familiarity with this truth.   

How do we go about this? Well, we are aware that both rainbows and mirages can be clearly seen with the naked eye, but if we analyze them, no truly existing object can be found. In short, they are nothing more than the temporary joining together of factors with no truly existing essence. Now, this logic is not only valid for these two examples, but for all phenomena. 

Think of a mountain. Is it anything more than just a combination of rocks, earth, and the movement of tectonic plates? Consider our bodies. Do they possess a permanent and inherent essence beyond muscles, flesh, blood, and bones? 

If this concept is still difficult to understand, then imagine removing your limbs and organs one by one, while asking yourself where is this entity called ‘me’. At the beginning, you may conclude that it is the larger remaining part of the body, but as more parts are removed there will be no substantial area left. 

At that time, you can ask yourself, “Where am I” or “In which limb or organ did I disappear?”. “Was I in the liver, the heart, or perhaps the right hand?” In reality, there was no self, but like the rainbow and mirage, the body was just a temporary joining of parts with no truly existence essence.

In addition to lacking a truly existing essence, the illusory object is given a title that is based on our culture and experiences. As an example, four legs and a top is known as a table in much of the world, but is it ultimately so? In the Amazon jungle, the natives might see it as a boat. A goat may consider it as something to stand on, while a child will likely use it as a place to hide. Simply put, nothing has a true existence, but is merely a creation of our habituated thinking. It is just an illusion in a dream. 

To gain confidence in this concept requires repeated contemplation. If we do this, our habituated way of seeing things will break down, enabling us to experience the phenomenon in its true, raw state. This is what we call liberation. 

Now, to return to your question. As nothing is any more real than an illusion or a dream, once the causes and conditions that produced an object or experience end, they will disappear. In this way, creating a trouble-free life or developing good human beings is nothing more than attempting to be happy in a dream. It is just an illusion, a fantasy, and will only last as long as the dream endures. 

This is the reason why the aim of the Dharma is to wake us from the dream, not to make it more comfortable. As a side product of this awakening, however, negative emotions drop away and we become genuinely good human beings. 

Why is this the case? Well, the belief that we are permanently and truly existing beings who are separate from the environment and others, which in Buddhism is defined as ignorance, is the root cause of selfish and aggressive behavior.

Think of it like a heart that does not realize that it is connected to the other organs and the body as a whole. It will develop a self-serving and greedy character. In contrast, a heart that recognizes that it exists interdependently with the other organs, with the fluids from the kidneys in its flesh, and the blood it produces in the kidneys, will naturally work in harmony with its environment, not as a compulsion, but because they are one and the same. 

At this point, there is not even a concept of good, and action is just a natural outpouring of our Buddha nature, which is inherently pure. Perhaps we can compare this expression of our pure Buddha nature to the way that the sun unconditionally radiates light and warmth. It just expresses its nature with no idea of a self and other.  

 So, rather than setting up ideals and goals of being good, which are fabricated and will fall apart, Buddhism goes to the very essence of the issue, cutting away the very reasons why we act in negative ways. 

As an example of how eliminating ignorance leads to natural empathy, imagine you were born in a movie theater and spent your entire life there. As you had only seen the dramas, you took them as real. You were enticed by the lead characters and scared by the monsters.

Then, one day, you were persuaded to leave the movie theater. Suddenly, you realized that the scenes that you thought were real were just the result of film, light, projector, and screen joining together. 

Imagine how this realization will change your interaction with the movie characters. You will no longer feel attachment towards the lead actors or anger towards the monsters. Instead, you will see the entire drama with detached humor. This is awakening to the truth, which is the aim of the Dharma. 

Of course, we do not ignore the relative world, and suffering in a dream is still suffering, and so we do our best to help remove others’ pain. But ultimately, our aim is to awaken all sentient beings, including ourselves, to the truth, and in this way suffering and its causes is terminated once and for all.    

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