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Lions Roar : November 2014
cepts are so essential to our identity and way of being that look- ing at them closely can be a form of meditation that leads us to insight into selflessness, the true nature of reality. Individuality in this twenty-first century world, we have a strong culture of individuality, which can be either an obstacle or a support for our spiritual path. although we associate individualism with Western society, it has also developed in the east. it’s become a world-wide phenomenon. yet the mind you spend time getting to know so intimately is unique. there’s no mind exactly like your mind anywhere—and that’s just fine. it’s not necessary, desirable, or even possible for your mind to be just like anyone else’s mind. We all spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to others. Sometimes it’s to everyone else, and sometimes it’s to that one person who seems to have exactly what we want. We feel uncomfortable unless we’re the same as our peers and we work hard at being the same. that’s one challenge we face. another is always wanting to be different! either way, this attitude of individuality is a problem when it leads us to becoming self-centered. in the extreme, we can become so focused on our self that we feel no concern for oth- ers; there’s a lot of regard for “me” but little respect for others. this kind of individuality is a big stumbling block on our path to awakening. it’s negative in several ways. First, it’s further encouragement for our already existing self-clinging. Second, it makes us more intolerant; when our own interests aren’t getting all the attention, we’re not happy. and third, it makes us competi- tive. We can develop a very distorted ambition that eventually will deliver up a lot of pain and suffering. Finally, we become dif- ficult to live with, which means we won’t have many friends. even in a casual conversation, where we’re in general agreement with what others are saying, we might start disagreeing just to make our presence felt. We may not truly believe everything we’re say- ing, but in saying it we feel noticed at least. We’re not invisible in that moment; we feel we exist in a more solid way. When the impulse to express our individuality—to stand out from the crowd—is so strong that we start saying things we don’t really think, we become a little fake. We’re trying so hard to be different that we end up fooling ourselves. What we say is not really who we are. From the Buddhist point of view, there’s no need to try so hard to be different for the sake of being different. We are all naturally unique beings. the way each of us thinks and perceives the world is our own; therefore, the way we manifest in the world will naturally be our own too. We don’t need to add any more uniqueness to the uniqueness that’s already there. you can’t actually become more unique than you already are, just more irritating. every rose and even every rose petal is different. But the pet- als don’t compete with each other; they complement each other. in a similar way, we don’t have to compete with each other to assert our specialness or inherent value. another difficulty is that when we’re in the habit of being competitive, we inevitably bring it into our spiritual practice. even here we compare and compete, and then we suffer. if your concern is whose is better, faster, or more exotic, then it doesn’t matter whether you’re comparing cars or meditation practices. it’s the same confusion, the same “all about me” samsara. the question for someone interested in Buddhism today is, “Do i have to give up my individuality to be a Buddhist? are sanity and compassion antithetical to individualism?” From the Buddhist point of view, the expression of one’s individuality isn’t positive or negative in itself. it is how we work with our mind and motivation that tips the scales one way or the other. our sense of individuality can be profoundly helpful when we direct it toward a positive purpose. imagine all the times we’ve felt an urge to express our individuality for the usual self-centered pur- poses. What if instead we had directed all that “me” energy toward something meaningful, like our own enlightenment? that’s just what we’re instructed to do according to the theravada tradition. the first goal we need to reach for is our own personal freedom from suffering, our own individual liberation. and we’re the only ones who can do that. So the first stage of working with our mind and motivation focuses on trying to bring some genuine experi- ence of peace and happiness to ourselves. the mahayana sutra called The Sutra of the Fortunate Aeon also presents us with a positive picture of individuality. in this case, it shows how even enlightened appearances are unique. Just like confused sentient beings, no two buddhas are exactly the same. the sutra describes the appearance of a thousand enlightened beings, and each of these buddhas manifests according to their own individual aspirations to help beings. each of these buddhas’ compassionate activities are uniquely their own, yet all help to free us from our suffering. So from the mahayana point of view, individualism is not a problem. When our individualism is directed toward a positive Dzogchen ponlop Rinpoche is a master in the Nyingma and Kagyu schools of Vajrayana Buddhism. A strong advocate of American Buddhism, he is the founder of Nalandabodhi, an international sangha headquartered in Seattle. Ponlop Rinpoche’s most recent book is Rebel Buddha: a Guide to a Revolution of the mind. PHotoByKatRiNBRüGGeRmaNN SHAMBHALA SUN NoveMBer 2014 30