By Alan Clements
When I entered a meditation center in Burma, one of the first things I was taught is that there are two ways to find liberation. Surprisingly, given that this was a meditation center, I found that meditation—“self-oriented” liberation—was the second and easier path to awakening. The first, and the more difficult, was liberation through world relationships.
The classical Buddhist texts refer to this approach as “the way of the Bodhisattva.” In contemporary, trans-religious terms this essentially means that by engaging in relationships we discover ourselves. Its more elevated meaning is that by serving the freedom of others we free ourselves. This style, which is the cornerstone of the “liberation through living” model of spiritual awakening, rests on the idea that wisdom—the liberating blend of intuitive discernment, creative compassion, and basic goodness—counters the habit of self-centered fixation. And self-centered fixation is the root cause of greed, fear, anger, and all other forms of suffering.
“Liberation through living” can be likened to the dedication of good parents who are willing to endure anything to safeguard their children. Caring is foremost in their minds. In time, their sense of family—a sphere of love and compassion—can expand beyond their own blood to embrace a larger, more complex circle of life. One begins to feel empathy—a deep heart bond—for life and for “otherness,” not just for one’s own children or circle of friends.
Such a person thrives on engaging relatedness; all types of relationships become one’s vehicle for awakening. Of course, the existential, psychological, and emotional physics of interpersonal relationships are complex and difficult, as we know. We will encounter numerous challenges and obstacles. When humans risk loving others as the basis of their being, it’s only natural that their hearts will be broken many times. Nonetheless, one must not be intimidated by rejection, hurt, or any other complexity. No one can take away or bargain with our dignity. When liberation becomes more important than safety—as I saw so often with those seeking freedom in Burma—the heart grows stronger and less protective. It becomes more available to actually participate in intimate situations. When people impose conditions on their freedom, they are not free until those conditions are met. If they become dependent on those conditions, their freedom disappears. Striking a human and realistic balance is necessary. As such, free people continually challenge fear and make “liberation through living” a way of being.
My Burmese guides often spoke about the importance of compassion. “The mindset of a person dedicated to liberation through world-relationships makes a life out of caring for others,” Mahasi Sayadaw said, “but it must be understood that caring for others is not enough.” He made it clear that compassion must be guided by dharma intelligence, which he described as “being able to discern the right course of action from the wrong one.”
To understand the subtleties involved in making skillful wisdom choices—decisions that release limitation and expand freedom—the person who seeks liberation through world-relationships, he said, “understands that awareness is the chief quality responsible for human freedom.” In other words, to understand how to liberate “shared space,” one must become fluent in knowing where one’s person begins and ends, what belongs to self and what doesn’t. Meditation—the application of sustained awareness—was essential in finding liberation through living.He concluded by explaining how most people in Burma who are serious about liberation “practice a combination of both styles”—liberation through intensive awareness meditation, and liberation through world-relationships. “One form serves the other and vice versa,” he said.