Meditation: The Meaning of Freedom, by Lama Catherine Jetsun Yeshe
What is this thing called ‘freedom’ that we so earnestly wish for? Certainly, it means different things to different people. If we lived in so many parts of the world today: Russia, China, Afghanistan, Iran, Ukraine (to name a few), it might mean the freedom to live without war, the freedom to associate or gather together with people of like mind, the freedom to speak out, to get an education, to walk unmolested by reason of gender or sexual orientation.
How fortunate we are to live in a country where all those issues are non-events in most personal lives! But if we are engaged in spiritual search, this word ‘freedom’ takes on a different meaning. The ‘nafs’ or hindrance patterns, the Maras, are primarily internal, though they will most likely be reflected in external activity. At their gross level, they are the psychological imbalances, neuroses even, that prevent us from becoming clear, unobstructed people, able to relate in a wholesome way to ourselves and to others.
This is the first work of the awakening process. Some people will spend their whole lives attending to this level, or think that is the goal of the search, to be free of personal suffering. But from a deeper spiritual perspective, this is only the beginning. Particularly within Vajrayana, spiritual search is deemed suitable only for ‘spiritual warriors’. The term is not ill advised, as deeper spiritual work demands that we open ourselves to all aspects of the psyche. To become fully authentic, we must be willing to face all of the demons of the human race and know that we can accept that there are parts of ourselves and others that in certain circumstances could become so flawed that even we, spiritual beings, could inflict horrors on others. That is why we must strongly ground the spiritual journey in wholesome moral conduct, with compassion leading the way.
When we truly understand what Buddhists call ‘interdependent arising’ we begin to see the web that binds us to our planet and all the creatures and creation contained within it. The responsibility of the Bodhisattva within the Buddhist philosophy is to take on the world of suffering for the sake of others. Paradoxically, when we step across this threshold with a willingness to always help until ‘all beings have been released from samsara’, a miracle takes place. Our own suffering diminishes, freedom from negative patterning arises and our inner world as well as the world around us becomes a place of much more freedom. Here freedom arises from acceptance of those bonds, neither running towards them, nor running away.
Participating with full knowledge in the drama of human existence, we find ourselves searching for more and more skillful ways of helping others. Awakening for ourselves alone becomes unnecessary and even unthinkable. Worrying or searching for freedom becomes irrelevant. What remains is a person who is malleable, open and responsive, presenting him/herself as one ready to help at any time, place or in any way that can relieve another’s suffering.
‘Isms’ fall away. One is no longer engaged in Buddhism or Catholicism or any other ‘ism’. Religion itself can become a block to this freedom, especially if it attempts to present its ‘truth’ as the only truth. Compassion, however, remains outside any religious dogma. It is a message from heart to heart and hand to hand.
Catherine Rathbun received her traditional teaching name, Lama Jetsun Yeshe, from Ven. Karma Thinley Rinpoche, a lineage master of the Sakya and Kagyu traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, in 2002. She taught meditation at York University (1989 to 1997) and is the founding teacher at Friends of the Heart, a meditation centre in Toronto. With a background in dance — she was a member of the National Ballet Company of Canada from 1962 to 1963 — and a modern dance career in England (1967-69). She is the author of Developing the World Mind and Clear Heart, Open Mind, and is currently working on a new book called Waiting for Truffles: Meditations for Daily Living.