What is true freedom?
Is freedom measured financially, mentally or with some other yardstick?
Freedom, according to my view, has been best defined by Gautama Buddha, (known also as Siddhattha Gotama or Siddhārtha Gautama or Shakyamuni), who was an ascetic, a philosopher, spiritual leader, and teacher and founder of a philosophical school of thought called “Buddhism.”
Before reproducing his definition of the freedom, I would like to give a brief introduction of his life and struggle to search for the (ultimate) truth:
He lived and taught in the region around the border of modern-day Nepal and India sometime between the 6th to 4th century B.C.
Buddha also means “one who is awakened.”
He was actually a prince who reached adulthood with little experience of the world outside the palace walls, but one day he ventured out with a charioteer and was quickly confronted with the realities of human frailty. As he was born into a royal family in the village of Lumbini in present-day Nepal, his privileged life insulated him from the sufferings of life; sufferings such as sickness, age and death. However, one day, after growing up, marrying and having a child, Siddhartha went outside the royal enclosure where he lived. When he went outside he saw, each for the first time, an old man, a sick man, and a corpse.
This greatly disturbed him, and he learned that sickness, age, and death were the inevitable fate of human beings — a fate no-one could avoid.
Siddhartha had also seen a monk, who encouraged him to follow a life of extreme self-denial and discipline. Form that time he decided this was a sign that he should leave his protected royal life and live as a homeless holy man.
In the beginning of his search for the truth he travelled extensively and learned that there was very much suffering in the world. And in order to escape the inevitability of death, old age and pain, he first tried studying with religious men. This didn’t provide him with an clear and definite answer.
However instead of blaming God for all the suffering, he started practicing with a group of five ascetics, and his dedication to his quest was so stunning that the five ascetics became Siddhartha’s followers. When answers to his questions did not appear, however, he redoubled his efforts, enduring pain, fasting nearly to starvation and refusing water.
Whatever he tried, Siddhartha could not reach the level of insight he sought, until one day when a young girl offered him a bowl of rice. As he accepted it, he suddenly realized that corporeal austerity was not the means to achieve inner liberation, and that just living under harsh physical constraints was not helping him achieve spiritual release. So he had his rice, drank water and bathed in the river.
In another version of this story, at this point he stumbles into a river, barely strong enough to keep his head above water, and receives direction from a voice on the wind. In the more popular version, he is found in the woods by a milkmaid named Sujata, who mistakes him for a tree spirit because he is so emaciated, and offers him some rice milk. The milk revives him, and he ends his asceticism and goes to nearby village of Bodh Gaya where he seats himself on a bed of grass beneath a Bodhi tree and vows to remain there until he understands the means of living without suffering.
The five ascetics decided that Siddhartha had given up the ascetic life and would now follow the ways of the flesh, and they promptly left him.
Ultimately Siddhartha sat alone under the Bodhi tree, vowing to not get up until the truths he sought came to him, and he meditated until the sun came up the next day. He remained there for several days, purifying his mind, seeing his entire life, and previous lives, in his thoughts.
Here under the tree, he realized that life is the name of the balance between the aesthetic extremism and sensuous indulgence. He called this path the Middle Way. He understood that the life he was living guaranteed he would suffer and, further, that all of life was essentially defined by suffering from want or loss.
Afterwards, he preached his “middle way” of detachment from sense objects and renunciation of ignorance and illusion through his Four Noble Truths.
Here is the summary of his four Noble Truths:
The Four Aryan (or Noble) Truths are perhaps the most basic formulation of the Buddha’s teaching. They are expressed as follows: 1. All existence is dukkha. The word dukkha has been variously translated as ‘suffering’, ‘anguish’, ‘pain’, or ‘unsatisfactoriness’. The Buddha’s insight was that our lives are a struggle, and we do not find ultimate happiness or satisfaction in anything we experience. This is the problem of existence. 2. The cause of dukkha is craving. The natural human tendency is to blame our difficulties on things outside ourselves. But the Buddha says that their actual root is to be found in the mind itself. In particular our tendency to grasp at things (or alternatively to push them away) places us fundamentally at odds with the way life really is. 3. The cessation of dukkha comes with the cessation of craving. As we are the ultimate cause of our difficulties, we are also the solution. We cannot change the things that happen to us, but we can change our responses.
When the Buddha got to realise the truth under the Bodhi Tree, at Bodh Gaya, in present Bihar, his only mission in life thereafter was to spread the consciousness of the basic message that anyone can achieve enlightenment and be free from the sorrows and worries of life.
So according to Buddha Freedom means freedom from desire or craving and his following quote very aptly summarises the idea:
Moreover, according to some Buddhist scholars, detachment from craving/desire (of people or things) is not separation from (or total renunciation of) the outside world in a typical sense, but opposite of separation. A Zen teacher John Daido Loori says that non-attachment should be understood as unity with all things:
“[A]ccording to the Buddhist point of view, non-attachment is exactly the opposite of separation. You need two things in order to have attachment: the thing you’re attaching to, and the person who’s attaching. In non-attachment, on the other hand, there’s unity. There’s unity because there’s nothing to attach to. If you have unified with the whole universe, there’s nothing outside of you, so the notion of attachment becomes absurd. Who will attach to what?”
To live in non-attachment means that we recognize there was never anything to attach or cling to in the first place. The recognition of this fact truly liberates us from the suffering. In other words suffering is caused by the illusion of self. From the Buddhist perspective, the idea of “individual self” is an illusion. It is not possible to separate self from its surroundings. Buddha in Lankavatara Sutra states, “Things are not what they seem… Deeds exist, but no doer can be found” (Majjhima Nikaya, 192).
I other words self can only be identified with reference to other peoples and surrounding and if there is nothing except you then you also don’t exist.
In short According to Buddhism, our view of the self as a singular, distinct, autonomous and lasting entity is at odds with reality and, therefore becomes a source of frustration and suffering. An exacerbated feeling of self-importance, self-cherishing, and self-centeredness are the basis for impulses of attraction and aversion, which quickly develop into mental afflictions of hatred, craving, arrogance, envy, and lack of discernment.
And when we get rid of this illusion, we are free.
For instance, your beloved is not just a physical reality outside you. He/she is also your imagination and is always with you in your imagination. Thus your are never separate from your beloved as you are always connected with beloved through your imagination or idea of the beloved in your mind.
Rumi also elucidates this very aptly in following words:
“Do not despair
if the Beloved pushes you away.
If He pushes you away today
it’s only so He can draw you back tomorrow.
If He closes the door on your face,
don’t leave, wait —
you’ll soon be by His side.
If He bars every passage,
don’t lose hope —
He’s about to show you
a secret way that nobody knows.”
“Remember me. I will be with you in the grave on the night you leave behind your shop and your family. When you hear my soft voice echoing in your tomb, you will realize that you were never hidden from my eyes. I am the pure awareness within your heart, with you during joy and celebration, suffering and despair. On that strange and fateful night you will hear a familar voice — you’ll be rescued from the fangs of snakes and the searing sting of scorpions. The euphoria of love will sweep over your grave; it will bring wine and friends, candles and food. When the light of realization dawns, shouting and upheaval will rise up from the graves! The dust of ages will be stirred by the cities of ecstasy, by the banging of drums, by the clamor of revolt! Dead bodies will tear off their shrouds and stuff their ears in fright — What use are the senses and the ears before the blast of that Trumpet? Look and you will see my form whether you are looking at yourself or toward that noise and confusion. Don’t be blurry-eyed, See me clearly- See my beauty without the old eyes of delusion. Beware! Beware! Don’t mistake me for this human form. The soul is not obscured by forms. Even if it were wrapped in a hundred folds of felt the rays of the soul’s light would still shine through. Beat the drum, Follow the minstrels of the city. It’s a day of renewal when every young man walks boldly on the path of love. Had everyone sought God Instead of crumbs and copper coins T’hey would not be sitting on the edge of the moat in darkness and regret. What kind of gossip-house have you opened in our city? Close your lips and shine on the world like loving sunlight. Shine like the Sun of Tabriz rising in the East. Shine like the star of victory. Shine like the whole universe is yours!” ― Rumi, Rumi: In the Arms of the Beloved
Thus the more one tries to understand the Buddha, the more one gets to realise the futility of living a meaningless life. A life of ignorance without the consciousness of who we are and what are we here for is a life wasted.
Buddha head at Wat Mahathat, Ayutthaya Historical Park, Thailand. Wat Mahathat is called the Monastery of the Great Relic and was built during the reign of two kings: Borommaracha I (r. 1370–1388) and…