A Goal for Those Born and to Be Born

In this remarkable season, some new blossom or leaf, or yet another fresh scent, is appearing every day. Apple and plum blossoms, tiny oak leaves, and the delicate birch catkins mingle in backyards with black bears, their cubs not far behind. The smell of lilacs is born and soon gone.

“All things rise and pass away.”
These familiar words express the liberating insight the Buddha had on the night of his awakening. In reflecting on this simple fact, we tend to interest ourselves in the second part of the reflection and often forget the first part—the rising of all things. The teachings on compassion encourage us to be “wishing in gladness and in safety, may all beings be at ease … those born and those to be born.” We are encouraged to bestow care on everything that exists and everything that will exist. Mindfulness is the opposite of heedless. To be awake is to be wise and to care.

The Four Noble Truths is a teaching that grew from the basic understanding that the human experience of life revolves around the ceaseless movement of the rising and falling of dukkha, which is the strife, discontent, anger, grasping, delusion, and worry that colors our individual, collective, political lives. The Third Truth focuses on the cessation of such dukkha. It advises us to notice, savor, and appreciate moments of connectedness, contentment, generosity, kindness, and clarity when they naturally arise in our personal lives and in the community around us. Stabilizing this freedom from the painful, innate tendencies of reactivity, which can alienate and confuse us, is the goal of our practice. The Fourth Noble Truth lays out an eightfold path to this goal. A description of a future VIMS offering on the Eightfold Path is here.

Goal and path are inseparable. A goal needs a path, and without a goal, a path does not exist, even though the goal has not yet come into being. Bhikkhu Bodhi describes the relationship of the two with a powerful metaphor: “This relationship is analogous to the relation between a guided missile and its mobile target. The missile does not reach its target merely through its own initial thrust and direction. It finds it precisely because it is being controlled by signals the target is itself emitting.”

I was talking with a friend about the idea of “born and to be born” recently. “Oh,” she said, “is that like when I say hello to someone and the person I’m with asks me if that was a friend. ‘Not yet,’ I say.” Yes–– and I was reminded of the Dalai Lama saying, “I try to treat everyone I meet as an old friend.”

What we do in this world matters; so does our goal. When we understand that everything we intend as well as everything we do has an effect, and act accordingly, things get easier for us and for those we share the world with. Mindfulness and compassion shift the thrust of our lives in the direction of the moving target of freedom.

This last teaching from the Buddha, spoken as he lay dying, reinforces his initial liberating insight: “All conditioned things [rise and] pass away. Continue with care.”

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