Responsible for Ourselves

We need not bother with such theoretical questions as who, if anyone, was or is responsible for the universe; all that matters is to understand that we are responsible for ourselves.
— Richard Gombrich

I have not seen a better summary of the Buddha’s theological views than the quote above from Professor Gombrich’s book What the Buddha Thought. The Buddha had no patience for diversions from his goal, which was to end needless suffering.

He lived in a time when religion was being re-energized around the Indian subcontinent. Jainism and the Vedic sects that would lead to modern Hinduism were thriving, and sages wove complex stories about both the world’s creation and the lives of the gods, which were not at all similar to the immortal, infallible, omniscient creator god of the Abrahamic Bible.

root-of-suffering-is-attachment-570x377In 1967, the First Congress of the World Buddhist Sangha Council attempted to develop a set of points unifying Buddhist disciplines, and one widely agreed to was: We do not believe that this world was created and ruled by a god. That, of course, leaves a lot of room for those followers of Western religions who interpret the word in their own way, as Peter Mayer does beautifully in the Youtube video below.

The Buddha was willing to talk about the Vedic gods, in the same sense that we may talk about vampires and ghosts today, so some see Buddhism as polytheistic. But the Buddha cut short discussions about how the world was created, how it will end, and whether a supreme being or beings pulled the strings.

As Professor Gombrich says, we are responsible for ourselves. The Buddha believed in karma, that a chain of worldly causes and effects brings us to where we are right now, and the decisions we make at this moment determine what happens in the future. We will all know the pain of illness and the loss of loved ones, but we turn that pain into needless suffering by believing we should be able to avert it. The more we grasp at the idea that it shouldn’t be happening to us and that we don’t deserve it, the more we suffer.

That’s what the Buddha meant by attachment. We’re attached to the idea that we’re too good to experience bad stuff. And since aversion is just another form of attachment, we’re averse to bad stuff. Or maybe we’re attached to that new car, or that new god, that will end our suffering.

We are responsible for ourselves.

— Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)

Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine

21 Comments Add yours

  1. Daniel Peterson says:

    Detachment from everything reminds me of Nihilism. Great way to go.

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    1. melhpine says:

      I must have missed the part of my blog post where I talked about detachment, other than maybe being detached from thinking I’m too good to suffer.

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      1. Daniel Peterson says:

        detachment I derive as the antonym of attachment in the title quote of your post.

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      2. melhpine says:

        The title is “Responsible for Ourselves.” The associated graphic is a loose quote from the Buddha saying that the root of suffering is attachment. I see the antonym of that as non-attachment, or recognizing that we can love another, appreciate beauty, etc. without grasping.

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      3. Daniel Peterson says:

        you don’t consider “attachment” and “detachment” to be antonyms?

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      4. melhpine says:

        No. One has to become attached in the first place to become detached. It’s more like an antidote. The antonym of attachment in non-attachment, or not becoming attached in the first place. That may not matter to your desire to see what I’m saying as nihilism, but it matters a lot in what I’m trying to say. The more important thing is what I mean by attachment. If you put it in the context of love, it’s the difference between standing side by side with the other person and leaning on the other person. If you want to see that as nihilism, that’s OK with me. The label doesn’t matter.

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      5. Daniel Peterson says:

        it’s wonderful to see that you’ve never become attached to ANYTHING! That’s quite an achievement. Congratulations!

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    2. amiezor says:

      I too have trouble with the term ‘detachment’ and tried to define it better in an entry on my blog. It never made sense to me that we are told not to be attached to things – like saying you shouldn’t love things… It’s more that we should have a ‘light grasp’ on things. A view beyond our own personal expectations. Not to let our world come crashing down if our own personal expectations of outcomes and ideas of other people do not pan out. That’s how I think of it, anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Daniel Peterson says:

        ok. i’m looking it up. give me a minute.

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    3. Buddhists are not Nihilists. There is a good Buddhist quote I know as follows. If you think things are real you are a stupid as a cow. If you think they are not you are even stupider.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Daniel Peterson says:

        Thanks for the compliment.

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      2. There was no compliment here. Nor a dis for that matter. If you don’t get it that’s fine, reflect on it for a while within a Buddhist frame.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Daniel Peterson says:

        You keep your Buddhism. I’ll keep Nihilism. Thank you very much.

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      4. For sure man I can totally respect that, knock your self out with nothing 🙂

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      5. Daniel Peterson says:

        Actually, it’s not “nothing.” It’s “nothingness.” You forgot the “-ness,” but don’t worry. I’ll forgive you.

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      6. The -ness is the nature of or qualities of, your right it’s a very important part. I likely would have said the very same thing had I been talking to someone about empty and emptiness. But if it’s really nothingness what have you to forgive me for?

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  2. amiezor says:

    Mel – I like how you ended this post. The idea that we’re “too good for bad stuff.” Those words – ‘good” and ‘bad’ – seem to cause much more trouble than they intended sometimes!! Great perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Peace Paul says:

    Aloha Mel,

    Nice post. My question is about the Bodhisattva vows in the Mahayana. If we have taken vows to “save all sentient beings” then aren’t we, in some sense, responsible for everyone. After all the Bodhisattva works tirelessly for the welfare of others, postponing his/her final liberation until all beings have been freed of suffering and the causes of suffering?

    This is, of course, different from the theological position you allude to in your article. Nevertheless, we all benefit from innumerable aids in this very life – the earth, the sky, the food we eat, the water we breath, the clothes we wear, etc. We could not exist alone. Certainly we benefit from the help of others just as others can benefit from our help. The recluse Shakyamuni would have died of hunger in a ditch and never become the Buddha if that cow maiden had not come along and taken responsibility for helping him.

    Peace, Paul

    Liked by 1 person

    1. melhpine says:

      Thank you, Paul. This would have been a good point to add to the piece. Maybe it will be my theme today. If we have taken the Bodhisattva Vow, as I have, of course we are responsible for “others.” I use the quotes because that’s another illusion. But we have enough trouble training our own mind. We must start there and teach by example.

      I also might have included something about material responsibility. We have a responsibility to help the hungry, the refugees, etc. I by no means meant to imply that it all stops at responsibility to ourselves. It’s very unlikely that here in this world anyone will be enlightened while starving or running for their life. But there’s also the danger of becoming attached to the material problems of the world. I’d welcome your thoughts on that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Peace Paul says:

        Aloha Mel,

        I agree completely that Metta – Love – the desire for others’ well being and Karuna – compassion – the desire that others be freed of suffering, must be practiced in the world in real and concrete ways. As Gandhi famously observed,”God comes to the hungry in the form of Bread.”

        As practitioners on the Bodhisattva path, we open ourselves to expressing unconditional love and compassion, which is the nature of awakening. The mind can, of course, be a bit tricky. But the deeper our faith in the Buddha and the Dharma, the more we are able to let go and just respond compassionately to each moment as it arises. None of us knows how a particular action is going to impact the world other than to know that love is a source of joy and peace and anger/hatred is not. Actions rooted in Compassion will tend to have beneficial results, even if we cannot see them.

        For me personally, there is really no distinction between the work that I am doing in my “day job” – working with the families impacted by poverty – and my Dharma practice. The work in the world is the “field of practice” for the Dharma. The formal practices that I do are only done so that I can better help those around me. My own enlightenment or concerns about whether or not I am becoming attached are not really issues. I have faith in the Buddha. The Buddha laid down a path for living a noble life and benefiting other beings. I am trying to follow that path.

        In the pureland tradition we have a beautiful vision of what a world without war, privation, and discrimination could look like. Following the pureland path means working to create such a world. In our particular tradition this is articulated as follows: “Resist Oppression. Assist the Afflicted. Demonstrate an Alternative.”

        Peace, Paul

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Another way to look at attachment is in meditation. The great Indian yogi said that it’s not our thoughts in meditation that are the problem, it is our attachment to them.
    Take this into daily life and if we are constantly running after the things we want, and away from the things we do not want, I think that we all might look or resemble a dog chasing his tail. What a waist of time that would be.

    Liked by 1 person

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