Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting for lunch someone I’ve worked with on a few occasions in the past, and while discussing “goals” for 2017 I mentioned having to develop patience and perseverance even further. I also mentioned continuing the engagement with my internal dialogue on what I charge, how I market Dharma.house, what I want to offer, etc., and not letting the “need to pay my bills” take away my freedom to choose what I propose or how I teach.
She remarked that freedom is ‘expensive’ —which is true, but paid in efforts to reach our full potential and to free ourselves from what's not necessary— but also that it sounded weird to hear a Buddhist teacher speak of paying bills… One may imagine that running, or being on, retreats every month might lead anyone to perpetually “float on a lotus” and no longer experience mundane troubles. But this would be a caricature, of course.
As a Buddhist teacher, I'm not a buddha… I can share what I learnt, or what I experienced which might help others, I might know a few helpful questions and ways of looking… but this doesn't imply that the work is finished for me: there are higher levels of attainments. Moreover, beyond self-based comparisons, wisdom is without bounds anyway: as the context keeps changing, there always are new ways to find, in order to make things work for the best in the new circumstances at hand!
I don't believe in the fallacy of a ‘definitive’ awakening, once and forever: I think that even if we ever come to ‘purify’ our mind completely, the next moment we're always susceptible to grasping a new stimulus in an erroneous way… and then we again have some purifying to do! We might get really proficient at ‘purifying’, but this doesn't allow complacency; on the contrary, it calls for heightened vigilance and mindfulness of one's thoughts, it calls for putting such a skill to good use.
When one achieves a qualification, the work is not finished: instead, the real work (of application) starts! Milestones may be celebrated, sure, but they count as stepping stones, not finishing lines. After learning an art, you switch to practising the art, and maybe transmitting it too!
Even the Buddha wasn't perpetually smiling, or worry-free. Dealing with a large community every day wasn't easy: one finds the Buddha having to admonish monks (e.g. for not helping another, sick monk) or to explain / add rules in relation to improper behaviours he didn't necessarily anticipate but had to prevent the perpetuation of. The Buddha's qualities were certainly tested by his cousin Devadatta (who tried to retire the Buddha and take his place as leader of the community, tried to assassinate him and caused a schism)! Even dealing with the most basic needs (food) for a community was a heavy responsibility, with hard choices to make and challenges to answer during a famine. Navigating the political troubles in the region wasn't trivial either.
In Buddhism, there's a subtle difference between nirvāṇa and parinirvāṇa. After attaining nirvāṇa, after awakening, you still come back and still have have to deal with whatever your “karmic residues” throw at you: you're no longer creating new karma but some old seeds might still come to fruition. Only at death can you fully step out of conditionings! This doesn't mean the awakening or the attainment of nirvāṇa was incomplete though: what would ‘awakening’ even mean if you had no opportunity to manifest it? One can simply see this as a “Now that you're awakened to a wider, more inclusive perspective, please provide a different response from the usual self-serving, flawed responses. There's work to do!”
There's no ‘state’ of awakening per se; there's nothing ‘inherent’ associated to buddhahood. There's the cessation of some dream-like illusions, the tearing of some veils, then there are awakened responses. Wisdom is a way of functioning, an engagement with reality (“as it is”, as it evolves), beyond caricatural expectations and biased anticipations; it is not a static destination.
So, yes, I have bills to pay, and ways to find in order to pay these bills. That's why studying at Dharma.house is as cheap as possible, but cannot be entirely free for now… why I also gratefully accept donations… why I need to engage with the temptation to charge more (even though people might value more what they get, if it's more expensive —in a weird anti-appreciation twist)… why I have to find in what ways freedom from money might be embodied in our society (not in India, 26 centuries ago) and in what ways this would allow for a different answer from “marketing like a maniac”… but without pretending bills don't exist!
The goal is to float on a lotus while paying the bills. Because evasion from responsibilities is not a manifestation of freedom: instead, it's a manifestation of desires and aversions, of fear —it's the dictatorship of unexamined impulses.
Freedom from the fear of responsibility is necessary for the freedom to act (as one sees fit) to arise. Moreover, understanding responsibility stands on discerning consequences, as they are, without denial nor embellishment: taking responsibility is therefore a path to seeing reality as it is, and this is the very reason why the Buddha taught ethics as part of the eightfold path as well as the theory of karma! Thus, escaping responsibilities might actually limit spiritual progress, while paying bills might well constitute a door to more creative engagements, to challenging the idea of ‘needs’ (vs. ‘wants’), to changing one's life, and ultimately to freedom!
The Zen teacher, and great community builder, Dōgen Zenji (道元禅師) once wrote, in his Genjokoan:
Those who regard the mundane as a hindrance to spiritual life and practice only understand that in the mundane, nothing is sacred; what they have not yet understood is that in sacredness, nothing is mundane.
After all, the reason why the lotus is a buddhist symbol is precisely because, although the plant grows in muddy water, the flower emerges clean!