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A Buddhist Perspective on Freedom

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There is no fire like greed
No crime like hatred
No sorrow like separation
No sickness like hunger of heart
And no joy like the joy of freedom

Look within
Be still
Free from fear and attachment,
Know the sweet joy of living in the way
Adapted from the Dhammapada
trans. Thomas Byrom




Before I was a monk, I travelled around the world for many years by myself doing what I wanted when I wanted, experiencing life as I wanted. I had an incredible amount of freedom. Actually, what I found was that I had so much freedom I was unable to live with it: should I do this or that, go here or there. After a while I started to see the same problems wherever I went: money, sex, politics and then nature, the same sky, the moon, stars, landscape. It was soon after this that I stopped travelling. In my short period on this planet, I’ve done quite a lot of things and had very good jobs, money, education, but there was still a lack: a basic feeling of not being contented. What I now notice as a monk looking back on this is that I had been meditating all this time; I was noticing the way things are and my mind was asking questions, and answers would appear just like the sun removing fog.


Freedom and unattachment


In the language of Buddhism, ultimate freedom is about not being attached to anything, yourself, your views, the body, the mind – nothing. This can bring a feeling that Buddhists get rid of everything. Or Buddhists can get attached ‘to not being attached’; that is, they go around saying: ‘Oh, I’m not attached to anything!’ Attachment is better explained as knowing: a very deep understanding of the way things are. You understand that, if you hold on to something, it will create suffering – try it out. The next time you eat something pleasant, try to keep the feeling; or, when you next dislike something, try to push it away as quickly as possible – both will lead to suffering. Another misconception is that Buddhists suffer. Buddhists use suffering; they do not create it. The Buddha suggested using suffering because most people suffer and understanding this leads to peace. Suffering includes good or pleasant things as well as bad or unpleasant things.


In the Buddhist scene, there is a lot of talk about ‘letting go’ but for me that’s never really worked. It’s a bit like having chewing-gum stuck to your hand and, each time you shake your hand, it’s still there. What I’ve used is ‘letting things be’ as they are. If you just let them be, they will cease in their own time. If you notice when things cease generally, there is a feeling of wellbeing. So, you’re walking across a road and a truck is coming: well, you know ‘just let it be’. This is where authority comes in – who is in charge of you? The Buddha’s last words were: ‘Be an island to yourself.’ – be your own authority.


Authority and responsibility


This authority is about being totally responsible (the ability to respond) for your actions by body, speech or mind. It does not blame or criticise, it knows. The more that we come to understand who we are, the more we can respect one another, to know when we don’t know, and to ask for help and guidance. Freedom without authority and authority without freedom, in my view, just lead to a mess. There is no respect for yourself or anybody else. This ultimate freedom is one of contentment; you feel well with the way life is – it’s actually asking a lot of you.


It is asking to undo the things you have learnt from the social, cultural and political/educational framework and to find out for yourself whether they are true or not. In order to be able to do this, an attitude of receiving is helpful – you need to have some space to do that. Space comes from stilling the mind; it’s a bit like adding watercolour to a pot of water – if you stir it up, it gets dirty; and if you stop stirring, the colour goes to the bottom and the water is clear. This receiving is like a mirror: a mirror does not judge you or give any viewpoint; it allows you to be the way you are.


Once you know what is what – a knowing, then you can collect whatever you need and respond to the situation with discriminative wisdom. The problem with Buddhism is that this final freedom is said to be so all-encompassing that it’s very hard to say what needs to be changed: you understand fully and it all seems so right; wars, famines, beauty, truth, honesty, political dishonesty. Everybody is on the journey back home and they are doing the right thing at the right time. So, this viewpoint gets moulded into the religion and you get a sort of ‘it’s all okay’ outlook. Ajah Chah, the abbot’s teacher at the monastery where I live, was a Thai meditation master, and he has a nice saying about these sorts of dilemmas: ‘Right but not true, true but not right.’ For a more detailed explanation see note below 1


What do you really want?


In my view most people that call themselves religious do not want freedom or authority; they want a nice bed and comfortable stories that say it’s all right, and let somebody else do it. They are not willing to sacrifice their own viewpoints, their own doubts and fears for the greater good because that freedom is just too much to hold: they feel ‘they’ have to do it. In the Buddhist scheme of things, you are already doing it, you are already that freedom and authority and you are unwilling to accept that.


Are you willing to be content? This is a recognition, not a thought process, right here, right now. When you are content or peaceful, the answer to the question comes and flows, and as soon as we contract and doubt, it comes from a memory or thoughts. I can hear the question, yes, but we can’t even use our memory – this is the limitation of language, of trying to explain something indescribable with the language that we have. As the Buddha says with all his teaching, try it out; see if it works for you, pick up the things you like, and the others, leave for the time being. This style of sharing is for reflection. See how this affects you – it is not a proclamation.


Make an island of yourself,
make yourself your refuge;
there is no other refuge.
Make truth your island,
make truth your refuge;
there is no other refuge.

Digha Nikaya, 16




1.   I would like also to point to the work of Ken Wilber, as his work in this area is helpful. His ideas about the development of consciousness, what type of authority and what type of freedom you can allow people to have depends on what stage of consciousness they are at and what you want for a solid, responsible society. This is a bit of political hot potato and to do justice to this you really need to read more of Ken Wilber’s ideas, and it is not where I personally would like to focus my energy. The main point of his work is that he suggests that we should be developing people that have the greatest depth with the widest span: knowing about the way things are and the best available conventional knowledge to aid implementation. Having one or the other does not work, as we can see in the world today. More information at or Ken Wilber’s book The Integral Vision: A Very Short Introduction to the Revolutionary Integral Approach to Life, God, the Universe, and Everything

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