Shambhala Sun | January 2014
In Search of the Genuine
Feeling disillusioned with this artificial world is the
starting place of the spiritual path, say ANYEN RINPOCHE and ALLISON CHOYING ZANGMO. They offer a Buddhist take on the genuineness we long for.
Many of us turn
toward the spiritual path because of our disillusionment with the world we live
in. Some of us have felt disillusioned for as long as we can remember. Even as
children, we saw that the world does not match up to what we’ve being told. For
others, disillusionment may start to surface as we grow into adulthood. We feel
that everyone else is made happy by a hypocritical world that makes us
miserable. Why is that? What is wrong with us? We may self-medicate by using
drugs, alcohol, sex, or food to escape the reality of our lives. Others just
“give it a go,” trying to fit into our families, our workplaces, and our social
circle the best that we can. In the process, we ignore our inner experience. We
self-medicate with denial.
disillusionment becomes too much to bear, we should consider ourselves lucky.
In the Buddhist teachings, we say that human life is precious. But life is most
precious when we wake up and want to do something about our pervasive feelings
of unhappiness. As a result of our disillusionment, we aspire to make a
meaningful change in our lives. Often, this manifests as the desire to live in
a more genuine way.
One common idea is
that being “genuine” means expressing ourselves with sincerity—stripping away
all pretenses and being in the world “just as we are.” We begin to strip away
the layers of personality we’ve built up like a shell to protect us from
painful realities. We make our first step toward genuine living.
have come to associate this quality of living genuinely, openly, and honestly
with the Buddhist path. This is one of the most beautiful ways Buddhism has
interacted with Western culture. Buddhism is an authentic means of
transformation, and when we take the practice seriously we start to notice
changes in ourselves, our attitudes, and our habits that we thought were
The Buddhist path
makes us genuine in every way imaginable. However, this raises several
important questions. What does it mean to be genuine according to the Buddhist
tradition? What does a genuine person look like? How do we actually become more
genuine? The wish to become a more genuine human being is one of the main goals
of Buddhist practice. However, there are both similarities and differences in
the way Western culture understands what it means to be genuine and the way it
is understood by the Buddhist tradition.
In Western culture,
our wish to be a more genuine person may be associated with openly expressing
what is inside of us. We feel that for so long we have been participating in a
world that we do not believe in, a world that disappoints us. As a result, we
want to start living more honestly right away. We want to find a way to embody
our emerging spiritual values and spiritual life, to make our outer life more
closely reflect our inner beliefs. We sometimes describe this process as “being
true to ourselves.”
Honesty is an
important foundation of Western culture and its values. It is something we hold
so sacred that we teach our children about it in school and we expect public
figures and presidents to uphold it. When Buddhist teachers began to teach
Western students, it is quite possible that their first impression of Western
culture was of the value we place on honesty. So we have an excellent place to
start working with the Buddhist path.
In Western culture,
being genuine has to do with changes we make on the outside—we take what is
hidden inside of us and express it honestly to establish some kind of
authenticity in our lives. This is a good first step. But for a Buddhist
practitioner, becoming genuine is much more. It is a complete transformation of
In the Tibetan
language, one meaning of the word “genuine” is “free of deception,” which is
consistent with the Western understanding. But it also means “perfect purity”
and “flawlessness.” Therefore, we say that the truly genuine person is the one
who embodies perfectly purity: a realized person.
This is because
only realized people are completely free of self-attachment. We ordinary human
beings are filled with self-attachment, which causes us to have all kinds of
hidden agendas and unconscious motivations. Such hidden agendas never lead to
true openness and honesty. For this reason the Buddhist practice of genuineness
focuses on cutting through all levels of self-deception and self-attachment,
whether they are related to ourselves, others, or the outside world.
Cutting through our
hidden agendas is not easily done. However, this is something the Buddhist path
specifically trains us to do. According to the Mahayana Buddhist tradition,
wisdom is realized by practicing what we call “skillful means.” These are
techniques to take the aspiration we have to become genuine and bring it to
fruition. Traditionally, these skillful means are described as the first five
of the transcendental qualities, or paramitas : generosity, discipline,
patience, diligence, and meditative concentration. But I would distill all of
these into the essential transcendental quality: the paramita of
On the Buddhist
path, motivation is paramount. Motivation can seem like a small thing, but
actually it is everything. After all, it only takes a single match to burn down
a forest. Even very small thoughts and actions can be the cause of things that
are very great or very destructive. If we cultivate and train in the aspiration
to be genuinely free of self-attachment, then our motivation will ensure that
our actions are genuine, no matter how it appears.
mindfulness is the essential first step to genuine living. When we lack
mindfulness, we forget to reflect on and maintain a positive and unselfish
motivation. We may start off thinking, “I am going to be myself, honest, open,
and genuine,” but when a situation overwhelms us, we go right back to our usual
patterns. This happens because our aspiration wasn’t strong enough to begin
with. We haven’t trained in it enough to make it a true habit that we can fall
back on. Checking in with what is happening within us and becoming more mindful
of our own selfish thought patterns help us purify and cultivate a more genuine
For that reason, we
could say that the path of skillful means requires continual training in our
aspiration. As long as our conduct is infused with that perfectly pure
motivation, we know that our conduct is wholesome.
Other aspects of
the Buddhist path that can support our genuineness are the practices of
listening and contemplation. We can listen to, study, and contemplate texts
that teach about skillful means. We might study texts that present teachings on
how to embody bodhisattva conduct, such as the Way of the Bodhisattva.
We can also read the life stories of realized teachers, knowing that these
individuals have cut through all traces of self-attachment and are the greatest
examples of genuine living we could possibly find. They exemplify how to work
for the benefit of others and, ultimately, for peace.
Another way we can
learn how to become more genuine is to become involved in a community and to
rely on a spiritual teacher. One of the teacher’s primary responsibilities is
teaching students how to embody skillful means. This is done by interaction, by
example, and by direct instruction. It happens because of a deep connection
that forms between a student and the teacher, which enables the teacher’s very
way of being and interacting to influence and permeate the student. In this
way, the teacher becomes an authentic example of genuine living—being in this
world in a manner that best supports others.
Genuine living is
innate and natural. Inside each of us is the potential to cut through
self-attachment and express ourselves openly, honestly, and unselfishly.
With repeated training in and insight into our motivation, we are able to make
real and lasting changes to ourselves and our behavior. When we do this, we
have found the genuine wisdom of the Buddhist tradition.