Feeling disillusioned with this artificial world is the starting place of the spiritual path, say Anyen Rinpoche and Allison Choying Zangmo. They offer a Buddhist take on the genuineness we long for.
Many of us turn toward the spiritual path because of our disillusionment with the world we live in. Some of us have felt disillusioned for as long as we can remember. Even as children, we saw that the world does not match what we’re being told. For others, disillusionment may start to surface as we grow into adulthood. We feel that everyone else is made happy by a hypocritical world that makes us miserable. Why is that?
What is wrong with us? We may self-medicate by using drugs, alcohol, sex, or food to escape the reality of our lives. Others just “give it a go,” trying to fit into our families, our workplaces, and our social circle the best that we can. In the process, we ignore our inner experience. We self-medicate with denial.
If our disillusionment becomes too much to bear, we should consider ourselves lucky. In Buddhist teachings, we say that human life is precious. But life is most precious when we wake up and want to do something about our pervasive feelings of unhappiness. As a result of our disillusionment, we aspire to make a meaningful change in our lives. Often, this manifests as the desire to live in a more genuine way.
One common idea is that being “genuine” means expressing ourselves with sincerity—stripping away all pretenses and being in the world “just as we are.” We begin to strip away the layers of personality we’ve built up like a shell to protect us from painful realities. We make our first step toward genuine living.
Many Westerners have come to associate this quality of living genuinely, openly, and honestly with the Buddhist path. This is one of the most beautiful ways Buddhism has interacted with Western culture. Buddhism is an authentic means of transformation, and when we take the practice seriously we start to notice changes in ourselves, our attitudes, and our habits that we thought were impossible.
The Buddhist path makes us genuine in every way imaginable. However, this raises several important questions. What does it mean to be genuine according to the Buddhist tradition? What does a genuine person look like? How do we actually become more genuine? The wish to become a more genuine human being is one of the main goals of Buddhist practice. However, there are both similarities and differences in the way Western culture understands what it means to be genuine and the way it is understood by the Buddhist tradition.
In Western culture, our wish to be a more genuine person may be associated with openly expressing what is inside of us. We feel that for so long we have been participating in a world that we do not believe in, a world that disappoints us.
As a result, we want to start living more honestly right away. We want to find a way to embody our emerging spiritual values and spiritual life, to make our outer life more closely reflect our inner beliefs. We sometimes describe this process as “being true to ourselves.”
Honesty is an important foundation of Western culture and its values. It is something we hold so sacred that we teach our children about it in school and we expect public figures and presidents to uphold it. When Buddhist teachers began to teach Western students, it is quite possible that their first impression of Western culture was of the value we place on honesty. So we have an excellent place to start working with the Buddhist path.
In Western culture, being genuine has to do with changes we make on the outside—we take what is hidden inside of us and express it honestly to establish some kind of authenticity in our lives.
This is a good first step. But for a Buddhist practitioner, becoming genuine is much more. It is a complete transformation of mind.
In the Tibetan language, one meaning of the word “genuine” is “free of deception,” which is consistent with the Western understanding. But it also means “perfect purity” and “flawlessness.” Therefore, we say that the truly genuine person is the one who embodies perfectly purity: a realized person.
This is because only realized people are completely free of self-attachment. We ordinary human beings are filled with self-attachment, which causes us to have all kinds of hidden agendas and unconscious motivations. Such hidden agendas never lead to true openness and honesty. For this reason the Buddhist practice of genuineness focuses on cutting through all levels of self-deception and self-attachment, whether they are related to ourselves, others, or the outside world.
Cutting through our hidden agendas is not easily done. However, this is something the Buddhist path specifically trains us to do. According to the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, wisdom is realized by practicing what we call “skillful means.” These are techniques to take the aspiration we have to become genuine and bring it to fruition. Traditionally, these skillful means are described as the first five of the transcendental qualities, or paramitas : generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, and meditative concentration. But I would distill all of these into the essential transcendental quality: the paramita of selflessness.
On the Buddhist path, motivation is paramount. Motivation can seem like a small thing, but actually it is everything. After all, it only takes a single match to burn down a forest. Even very small thoughts and actions can be the cause of things that are very great or very destructive. If we cultivate and train in the aspiration to be genuinely free of self-attachment, then our motivation will ensure that our actions are genuine, no matter how it appears.
Cultivating mindfulness is the essential first step to genuine living. When we lack mindfulness, we forget to reflect on and maintain a positive and unselfish motivation. We may start off thinking, “I am going to be myself, honest, open, and genuine,” but when a situation overwhelms us, we go right back to our usual patterns. This happens because our aspiration wasn’t strong enough to begin with. We haven’t trained in it enough to make it a true habit that we can fall back on. Checking in with what is happening within us and becoming more mindful of our own selfish thought patterns help us purify and cultivate a more genuine motivation.
For that reason, we could say that the path of skillful means requires continual training in our aspiration. As long as our conduct is infused with that perfectly pure motivation, we know that our conduct is wholesome.
Other aspects of the Buddhist path that can support our genuineness are the practices of listening and contemplation. We can listen to, study, and contemplate texts that teach about skillful means. We might study texts that present teachings on how to embody bodhisattva* conduct, such as the Way of the Bodhisattva. We can also read the life stories of realized teachers, knowing that these individuals have cut through all traces of self-attachment and are the greatest examples of genuine living we could possibly find. They exemplify how to work for the benefit of others and, ultimately, for peace.
Another way we can learn how to become more genuine is to become involved in a community and to rely on a spiritual teacher. One of the teacher’s primary responsibilities is teaching students how to embody skillful means. This is done by interaction, by example, and by direct instruction. It happens because of a deep connection that forms between a student and the teacher, which enables the teacher’s very way of being and interacting to influence and permeate the student. In this way, the teacher becomes an authentic example of genuine living—being in this world in a manner that best supports others.
Genuine living is innate and natural. Inside each of us is the potential to cut through self-attachment and express ourselves openly, honestly, and unselfishly. With repeated training in and insight into our motivation, we are able to make real and lasting changes to ourselves and our behavior. When we do this, we have found the genuine wisdom of the Buddhist tradition.
*a person who pursues a course in life that leads one to develop buddha-like qualities.