Continuing the Commentary upon Summary of Faith and Practice
Thus all obstacles become impediments to faith unless we experience contrition and letting go.
Path with a Goal
When we undertake a spiritual project, we are trying to achieve something. Buddhism is commonly presented as the attempt to achieve enlightenment. One then experiences many things as getting in the way. Many of these things are habitual characteristics of oneself. This can lead to a good deal of personal development as one tries to reform one’s life and to make oneself fit more closely to the ideal.
At the same time, this struggle inevitably gives rise to many doubts. One swings like a pendulum from enthusiasm to dejection and back again. It can also lead to a great deal of deception, both of others and of oneself. This kind of deception is generally not ill-intended, it is simply that one wants so much to fit into the expectation that any sign that one is doing so tends to be taken as confirmation and one then adopts that sign (lakshana) and turns it into a habit so that one artificially creates the appearance of a positive feedback loop. However, spiritual progress is not really about artificially conforming to a prescribed pattern, nor about being preoccupied with appearances. It is about liberation.
Old Habits Come Back to Haunt & Help Us
Also, when the old habit that one thought that one had overcome shows up again, one experiences a disappointment which crystalises into a doubt about one’s practice. One thinks, “I thought I had dealt with that issue and got rid of it - yet, here I go again.” This is a blow to one’s ego - one’s pride. The ego wants to present a tidied up picture of oneself to the world and even to itself.
So when such an “obstacle” recurs there are two options. One is, as just stated, to feel knocked back and lose faith. The other is to accept that this evidence demonstrates one’s bombu nature. We can see that the difference between these two options is the difference between pride and humility. Pride is a kind of “hanging on”. When we hang on to an idea of ourselves, it manifests as pride. This is true even when the idea that we have of ourselves is negative. The negative pride involved in hanging onto the idea of oneself as a victim or a damaged person or no good can be every bit as rigid as that of thinking of oneself as superior. In fact, it is not at all uncommon for both positive and negative forms of pride to go together.
This whole matter is also related to different conceptions of the spiritual path. On the path of the arhat, the goal is purity. On this path, spiritual pride is the last fetter that one abandons. This is because it is a path of earnestly trying to achieve an ideal. This inevitably involves repression and later that has to be undone - pride is the driving force of repression. On the path of the myokonin the whole thing works the other way around. The spiritual task of renouncing pride through contrition is the foundation rather than the final step. One keeps coming back to it over and over again, which is why we place stress on the bombu paradigm. The bodhisattva path, which is the central theme of the Mahayana, can be entered upon from either perspective.
Also, here, I need to unpack a little further what is meant by “obstacle”. A spiritual obstacle is, broadly speaking, whatever brings one’s spiritual life to a halt or hiatus. Thus, something that induces complacency is just as much of an obstacle as something like a moral defeat. In fact, more so. The moral defeat might seem like an obstacle, but, in fact, might inject a new dynamic into one’s spiritual life as one wrestles with motives, consequences and conceptions of oneself and the world, whereas complacency may maroon one for a long time without anything useful happening at all.
We should be able to see, at least in principle, therefore, that many of the things that we think of as obstacles are not really so and that the real obstacles often go unnoticed. This, of course, is what the Buddha meant by avidya and this is why we talk about “awakening”. When we open our eyes to our actual spiritual condition, our complacency is shaken.