Today is July 4th and here in the US it is a holiday, a celebration of the country's independence. Most years the most visible part of this celebration is for people to gather, drink beer, watch football and 'blow shit up.'
This year feels different, as the holiday has thrown some of the divisions in the country into sharp contrast. As we work our way through a pandemic we still don't fully understand, a false dichotomy has developed where people see safety and caring as somehow antithetical to people's liberty. Even the choice to wear PPE or not has become politicized for some.
The word 'freedom' is always used a lot around this time, but this year it has become particularly pointed. And yet as we listen to how the word is being used it becomes clear that the meaning of the word differs greatly, and so it begs the question: What does it mean to be free?
There is a well-known and beautiful saying of the Buddha from the Pali Suttas that says:
Just as in the great ocean there is but one taste — the taste of salt — so in this Doctrine and Discipline there is but one taste — the taste of freedom
'Doctrine and Discipline' here means the teachings and our practice. What this is saying is that just like the ocean, whether we practice a little or devote our whole life to the practice, the 'taste' is the same - that of freedom. In his wonderful essay 'The Taste of Freedom' Bhikkhu Bodhi explains it like this:
Whether one samples water taken from the surface of the ocean, or from its middling region, or from its depths, the taste of the water is in every case the same — the taste of salt. And again, whether one drinks but a thimble-full of ocean water, or a glass-full, or a bucket-full, the same salty taste is present throughout. Analogously with the Buddha's Teaching, a single flavor — the flavor of freedom — pervades the entire Doctrine and Discipline, from its beginning to its end, from its gentle surface to its unfathomable depths. Whether one samples the Dhamma at its more elementary level — in the practice of generosity and moral discipline, in acts of devotion and piety, in conduct governed by reverence, courtesy, and loving-kindness; or at its intermediate level — in the taintless supramundane knowledge and deliverance realized by the liberated saint, in every case the taste is the same — the taste of freedom.
So what do we mean by 'freedom' here? If this is saying is that our freedom comes from our practice, then that seems at odds with those who believe that it means 'doing whatever I want, whatever the consequences.' Bhikkhu Bodhi addresses this in this way:
The solution to this seeming paradox lies in the distinction between two kinds of freedom — between freedom as license and freedom as spiritual autonomy. Contemporary man, for the most part, identifies freedom with license. For him, freedom means the license to pursue undisturbed his impulses, passions and whims. To be free, he believes, he must be at liberty to do whatever he wants, to say whatever he wants and to think whatever he wants. Every restriction laid upon this license he sees as an encroachment upon his freedom; hence a practical regimen calling for restraint of deed, word, and thought, for discipline and self-control, strikes him as a form of bondage.
For me, one of the best summations of what true freedom is comes from the (usually misquoted) Homily by Saint Augustine, where he says:
Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what thou wilt: whether thou hold thy peace, through love hold thy peace; whether thou cry out, through love cry out; whether thou correct, through love correct; whether thou spare, through love do thou spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.
What Augustine is saying here is that if our intentions come from a discipline of love, then our actions will be guided by that. Freedom is acting according to the discipline of love. Or, in Bhikkhu Bodhi's words our elementary practice is "the practice of generosity and moral discipline, in acts of devotion and piety, in conduct governed by reverence, courtesy, and loving-kindness." It is this that brings us freedom.
Wishing you all a taste of true freedom this holiday weekend,
I have linked below a fully guided meditation on 'one taste.' A few of us have committed to hit 'play' together at 7pm PT on Sunday 5th July. You are welcome to join us if you wish or listen on your own at any time. Please feel free to forward this to anyone you wish.
If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.
Photo by Anastasia Taioglou on Unsplash