My father used to quote Rousseau to me:
Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains…
The western Enlightenment idea of freedom is essentially freedom from social constructs. We are shaped, twisted, distorted from our true potential by the deadening, if not positively malign, forces of ‘society’. As the world becomes ever more compartmentalized, regulated, and bureaucratic, our ability to maintain an intrinsic freedom dwindles, little by little, until before we know it we have lost our vitality.
This essentially romantic view of our dismal modern predicament has been repeated endlessly throughout modern art, from Joyce’s Mr Duffy, who ‘lived a short distance from his body’, to Eleanor Rigby as she ‘Waits at the window/Wearing the face/That she keeps in a jar by the door…’. For us, the Hero is the One who breaks out of this predicament and realizes the fullness of her humanity.
But while western culture has excelled in expressing, in endlessly creative ways, the grimness of modernity, it has been far less successful in depicting what it is that the Hero actually does. Once they are ‘free’, where do they go? How do they live?
For the most part the answers are so mundane that they are scarcely less depressing than the initial situation: marry the one you want; leave a dead-end job and go to the country; give charity; or else, simply become a creative individual. This last option, beloved of the Romantics, is peculiarly attractive in the west, but, as someone who has lived the dream, it seems to me that as a vehicle for true liberation, artistic creativity is decidedly overrated. Its prominence in western thought, it seems to me, is little more than a self-justification by those who write the books…
It is not that these things are bad, it’s just that they are not deep enough. They answer certain human needs affecting certain aspects of who we are, but they are woefully inadequate to address the roots of our true humanity.
Perhaps the problem lies in mistaken assumptions. Are we really ‘Born Free’? A baby, lying there in its cot – is that freedom? A baby has very little freedom, mainly because he has so little capacity. He cannot choose, cannot act beyond a very limited sphere. We put our babies in bonds – restricting them in their cribs, or holding them close to our bodies – not to stifle them, but to protect them, to keep them alive. The norms of culture have evolved, not through a nefarious conspiracy of ‘old lady judges’ who ‘push fake morals’, but because culture keeps people alive. It feeds them, clothes them, and most important of all, conditions them with the social, ethical and linguistic conventions that prevent us from killing each other. I was forcefully reminded of this a few days ago by this passage from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, speaking of the Fayu people of New Guinea.
To us, a few dozen people constitute a small, ordinary gathering, but to the Fayu it was a rare, frightening event. Murderers suddenly found themselves face-to-face with their victim’s relatives. For example, one Fayu man spotted the man who had killed his father. The son raised his ax and rushed at the murderer but was wrestled to the ground by friends; then the murderer came at the prostrate son with an ax and was also wrestled down. Both men were held, screaming in rage, until they seemed sufficiently exhausted to be released. Other men periodically shouted insults at each other, shook with anger and frustration, and pounded the ground with their axes. That tension continued for the several days of the gathering…The Fayu consist of about 400 hunter-gatherers, divided into four clans and wandering over a few hundred square miles. According to their own account, they had formerly numbered about 2,000, but their population had been greatly reduced as a result of Fayu killing Fayu. They lacked political and social mechanisms, which we take for granted, to achieve peaceful resolution of serious disputes.
We are all Fayu, but for the benefits of culture. Of course, it is not the case that our ‘advanced’ culture has solved these things better than ‘primitives’: within both ‘primitive’ and ‘advanced’ societies we can equally find examples of the civilizing effects of culture, or of the violence and depravity that results when culture fails.
By nurturing, sustaining, and educating us, our societies have brought us to a level where we can ask the deepest questions. Perhaps we are wrong to criticize our culture for not providing the answers. Perhaps the answers lie beyond anything society can deliver.
Society, at its best, can enable us to live in reasonable safety, with enough food to eat, shelter, friends and family, health and education. It can give us freedom of speech and action, but it is up to us to choose what to do with this freedom. If we allow ourselves to be led by the manipulations of advertising and consumer culture, whose fault is that? Yes, there is a powerful conditioning, but there are plenty of people who just ignore the whole schmozzle. And good riddance. Notice that here I am not talking about the problems of society, about what happens when things go wrong, but about what society can achieve, and which it does achieve in some cases.
It seems to me that the Buddhist approach to freedom is virtually the inverse of the widespread liberal conception of freedom. Rather than the assumption that ‘we are born free’, Buddhism teaches us that freedom is something we have to earn. We have to actively work to deconstruct the effect of the trivializing and same-making of culture. We have to continually question, to be unsatisfied with the shallow answers to life’s problems that are on sale in the marketplace.
Buddhism supplies a more systematic and coherent account of freedom than Western culture. We are imprisoned by the negative and afflictive forces of our own minds, and have to work gradually to overcome these. Each step on the Buddhist path is consciously and freely chosen. There is no ‘Thou shalt’, instead we say, ‘I undertake the training…’. And at each step we are freed – not just aimlessly freed from whatever, but freed from those specific things that cause suffering for ourselves and others. each of the precepts is an exercise in freedom. Contentment, restraint, mindfulness, moderation – each of these essential Buddhist trainings frees us from the inessential. Deeper freedom comes from the release of the mind from the five hindrances in the jhanas, which the Buddha illustrated by similes such as a man released from prison, or a person who is cured after a long illness. Our deepest, most subtle bondage is the illusion that ‘I am’, and so final freedom comes from the elimination of any residual notion of a ‘self’.
From the texts as well as from modern examples, it is clear that there is a distinct notion of what this state of freedom is like. An arahant lives, eats, sleeps, laughs, and talks much like the rest of us. But they are untrammeled by illusion, by sadness, or anger. their life is said to be one of simplicity, contentment, mindfulness, and joy. And for the most part, they choose to do two things with their lives. Left to their own devices, they are simply happy and content. They live, and just that much. When the chance arises, they will work hard help others realize the same contentment. But they are not desperate or pushy: they respond to genuine needs, and otherwise remain silent.
Such an ideal of freedom may seem elusive and distant, but I believe it is possible. It’s a magnificent vision. But it should come with a warning. Such an ideal of personal and spiritual liberation does not displace or marginalize the importance of social freedoms. India in the Buddha’s day was a place of great freedom. People were free to live, to work, to wander across the countryside, to follow their beliefs and religious practices. Of course there were problems: caste, gender, slavery, wealth, and other socially constructed institutions restricted individual choice, like in any society. But the Buddhist culture arose in conflict with these social constructions. Indeed, Buddhism could never have appeared in a society that did not tolerate freedom of thought, speech, and religious practice.
Buddhist ethics should argue against caste boundaries, against discrimination, against inequality. And Buddhist praxis succeeded despite these things, not because of them. Nowhere did the Buddha argue that restrictions, submission to the cultural forms, were in themselves liberating. On the contrary, in texts such as the Sāmaññaphala Sutta, freedom from slavery is one of the prerequisites for undertaking committed Dhamma practice.
Similarly, for women, ordaining as bhikkhunis meant freedom from the socially mandated submission that was required of women. Virtually every Brahmanical law-book states at a woman can never be free. In her youth, she is subject to her father; in adult life to her husband; and in old age, to her sons. The inspired verse of bhikkhuni Muttā exalts that she is free of the three crooked things: the mortar, the pestle, and her crooked husband! Life gone forth was experienced by the nuns as freedom from the stifling restrictions of home life. Freedom from social constriction is a pre-requisite to spiritual freedom.
The many rules and restrictions undertaken by Buddhist monastics are themselves another step towards freedom. The crucial thing is that they are consciously chosen by mature adults. They are not imposed from outside as a means of control. If you don’t want to keep the rules, don’t ordain. If you do want to keep them, you can ordain, and enter into a community of responsible adults, for whom freedom is a gift to be used wisely and responsibly.
As monastics we have many freedoms: freedom from cooking, from shopping, from eating after noon. Freedom from the commitment, attachment, sacrifice, and pain of an intimate relationship. It’s easy to abuse these freedoms. That’s why training and communal support are such an essential part of our life.
Because that is the ultimate burden of freedom. With great freedom comes great responsibility. If we are granted the power of choice, and if we use that choice to suppress others, we have betrayed their trust and shown we are not worthy of responsibility.
In the end, perhaps this is why most of us choose lives of quiet desperation; why we find it so persuasive when the rich and powerful, whether politicians or spiritual leaders, explain to us the virtues of poverty and submission. It’s easier to let someone else make the tough choices. We can pretend to be impotent. Pretend we are less than fully human. Collude in our own inadequacy.
Or we can make a choice.