Choosing Liberation

Van Gogh 'Miners' 1880 (detail)

I’M ON THE BUS, going to an early morning class in zone industrielle. As we get near, the bus is stopping at every stop to pick up people employed in the factories. Migrant workers from East Europe; men and women speaking a language unknown to me. Thin, sad, serious faces; reminds me of Van Gogh’s drawings of the miners in 19th Century. He was there as a clergyman and convinced that he could help them find ‘liberation’. But he wasn’t successful, poor old Vincent….

Bus is getting crowded, I have a book to read: ‘The Noble Eightfold Path’ by Bhikkhu Bodhi and I’m looking at this partly because there’s nowhere else to look without encountering another pair of eyes looking back at me. ‘The search for a spiritual path is born of suffering. It does not start with lights and ecstasy but with the hard tacks of pain, disappointment and confusion… for suffering to give birth to a genuine spiritual search, it must amount to more than something passively received…’ 

Urgent circumstances; this is about a level of suffering hard to endure and there’s just no getting away from it. In the past, my first reaction would have been to look for a way of easing the suffering, and I’d have gone for that straight away. And when it became obvious that such a thing is only a temporary solution I’d have continued with it anyway for as long as it took to find some other similar easing. The real way out, the way to the end of suffering is more deeply embedded.

More stops, more migrant workers get on the bus. Maybe they’re looking at me and thinking I shouldn’t be here, with my shirt and tie, polished shoes. What they don’t realise is that I’m a foreign worker too. I know how it feels to live in someone else’s country – I’ve been doing this for about 25 years. Okay, guys! I’m a teacher of English, and I’m on my way to teach your bosses, yes – but, as far as I’m concerned, we’re all the same here. And that’s how it is now, squashed up against the window glass; thin shoulders and arms pressing against me.

‘It has to trigger an inner realization, a perception which pierces through the facile complacency of our usual encounter with the world to glimpse the insecurity perpetually gaping underfoot. When this insight dawns, even if only momentarily, it can precipitate a profound personal crisis. It overturns accustomed goals and values, mocks our routine preoccupations, leaves old enjoyments stubbornly unsatisfying.’

It’s about being right out there; on the edge. And there was a time for me when it was like that; a confrontation with the obstruction. I had to give in to it. As soon as I did, there was something unseen that tipped the balance. There was the easing, but different this time – I got a little preview of the Way; nirodha: 3rd Noble Truth. Then the question of what to do next and this led to the Noble Eightfold Path magga. It was at Wat Pahnanchat and Ajahn J. explained all this to me later because at the time I didn’t know much about the Buddha’s teachings. What I’d experienced was a knee-jerk reaction; an ordinary human response. Same as it would be for anybody on this bus.

What would it take for the kind of insight described here by Bhikkhu Bodhi to be meaningful to these migrant workers? The endurance threshold would need to be lower than it is. As long as they have the ability to withstand hardship, it will go on like this because, for them, it’s about holding on, not letting go; they’re putting their small amounts of money together to send back home to support the family. So they choose to pursue this endeavour, I choose liberation. Does this mean I’ve taken the ‘soft’ way out?

Buddhism has always attracted the elite of whatever society it has traveled to, partly because you need to have traveled through a certain experience of materialism in order to arrive at the sense that there is something problematic about desire and longing, how they don’t lead to happiness, and more often than not lead to unhappiness. If you are still struggling to fulfil your fantasies of wealth, power, status, Buddhism is less likely to appeal to you.’ [‘An End to Suffering’ Pankaj Mishra]

The Buddha’s Teachings offer an opportunity for liberation that really only comes about if you already have a certain distance from economic concerns. In Thailand there’s always the option of living in the monastery for a period of time and following a spiritual path. This kind of choice is held in high regard. In the West, people have to structure their lives around employment. Their innate ability to be happy is exploited by commercial strategies and a fleeting, temporary happiness has come to be built-in to the system. People can’t escape from that unless they step out of the social status momentum they’re in and this means there’s the risk of losing everything.

The bus gets to the terminus, stops, air suspension lets out in one long last gasp, and the bus lowers itself on to its structure. I get out with everyone else in this strangely remote place with factory smells and set off walking along the path to the industrial buildings in the distance. Behind me the bus starts up, a worrying moment, no wish to be stranded in this particular reality. I look back at it as it rumbles off on its little round wheels.


(Link to: The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering’ by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

[Image: Vincent van Gogh 
Drawing, “Miners”, Pencil on Paper,
Cuesmes: September, 1880, Kröller-Müller Museum]

3 thoughts on “Choosing Liberation

  1. Pingback: mourning the loss of spring | dhamma footsteps

  2. Pingback: pain/resistance | dhamma footsteps

  3. Pingback: the buddha today | dhamma footsteps

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