Here is a follow-up conversation
DIALOGUE ON CHANGE AND CONTROL, PART 2
From the Dharma perspective the quality of feelings are indicators of state of mind and images of right/wrong and burden/relief point to what is happening in your mind. Such mental activity points us to the fundamental orientation we have to our lives.
In his first-ever talk, the Buddha said “I come to teach the truth of suffering and its relief”, so, if you feel some relief, then the presentation of Dharma has resonated with something in you. In essence, what the Buddha taught was we are not (spoiler alert!) the centre of the universe. OMG! What he proposed is that we are located in an incomprehensible network of cause-and-effect relationships (for future reading, this is called pratitya samutpada, or conditioned arising). Our Awakening is to understand that location, to understand its momentum or purpose and to direct our lives to it. The amount of control you can experience is determined by how you understand who this “I” to be.
Q. .. I've been in a canoe on rapid waters and I appreciate the challenge of it.
A. It seems to me that the only place we have much choice or control is how we lean towards or away from wholesome thoughts, intentions and actions. The lure and appeal of self-desires is potent, so, yes, it takes effort and determination.
Q. However, it also makes me sort of disheartened to think that I can't have an effective role in changing things I wish to see differently, particularly the suffering of others. But is that not a major intention - relief of suffering?
A. Quite the contrary, you have a decisive part to play in the relief of dukkha. You are not a passive receptor, nor are you just a cog in a wheel. The understanding of our true nature as children of the Buddha is also our awareness that we can express every breath and action for the relief of suffering beings. Once we start to see that responsibility and accept that, then we easily trim off all the wasted effort we make to protect the ego, to hide from truth, pain and maturity and to delude ourselves that we can live forever in lives of self-indulgence. Instead of clinging and grasping, life activities become rich with purpose and focus. What changes is the knowledge that the context of our every breath is the boundary-less expanse of the Buddha's loving kindness and compassion. We come to find the canoe is capsized and we swim in an ocean of compassion.
Q. And if we are unwholesome, do we not experience dukkha? So in that way do we not have some form of control?
A. Yes, unwholesome action (and thought and intention) are causes of dukkha. Always remember dukkha is not something limited to personal experience. The Buddha's first teaching was “sarvam dukkham” - meaning all this is incapable of providing satisfaction. He points to our identification of who we are as being located in the endless cycle of birth and death (that cycle of conditioned arising mentioned above) as the the reason we feel empty or lacking. Dukkha is not ours, it is the flavour of human experience.
This question of choice and control is not entirely clear to me. I know it is different from the current Western obsession with choice/control/autonomy/self. What I understand so far, and from my limited perspective of what is known as Pure Land teaching, is that choice is a perception of the presence of the liberative impulse of the Buddhas. There is no 'me' and even to the extent that there seems to be, that 'me' relies on the power of the Buddhas to direct 'me' to awareness.
Q. At the same time, though, there seems to be a certain level of "letting go" that must need to happen in order to focus our intentions on our movement with the momentum as opposed to working towards change.
A. The momentum is always about change anyway. The second teaching of the Buddha is anicca, impermanence. The critical detail is that it is not someone making change happen. Change is the form of reality. It is directed at openness, compassion and thorough self-awareness. What we can do is align ourselves with that momentum of change (i.e. wholesome activity) or struggle to maintain our deluded sense of individual autonomy (i.e. un-wholesome activity, that which generates more dukkha). The letting go is not abandoning a commitment to change, but of realizing that we are not isolated, individually-willed selves but are part of the compassionate activity of the Buddhas.
Yours in the Dharma,
om namo amida butsu