A note on openness

The sudden entry into general circulation of a familiar term with a new ambience of meaning often has a significance that goes beyond mere philological curiosity. Since language is molded by thought at a level prior to and more basic than that of deliberate design, such changes in linguistic currency may well signal deeper changes taking place in the mental make-up of those who use the term. They can be seen as barometric indicators of transformations in the sphere of consciousness — in our patterns of thinking, in our attitudes, in our goals.

If there is one term that might be chosen to characterize the intellectual and moral climate of the present day, it would be the word "openness." This seemingly colorless word has come to mark the fulfillment of the centuries-long struggle against the oppressive weight of established tradition in so many diverse departments of human concern. Its three syllables are a hymn of victory for the triumph of the empirical method over formulated dogma as the key to knowledge, for the primacy of individual conscience over prescribed morality in the domain of ethics, and in our private lives, for the replacement of the reign of the superego by a new-found liberty to explore the subterranean channels of impulse and desire in whatever direction they might lead.

Perhaps most importantly, the notion of openness also points to a particular attitude toward experience, an attitude which has quietly permeated our culture so thoroughly that it now seems almost an innate human disposition. Briefly, this attitude might be described as a soft and affable affirmation of experience in its totality, coupled with a pliant receptivity to its full range of forms. This attitude, it must be stressed, only rarely solidifies into a consciously held conviction; more typically it lingers in the background of the mind as an unverbalized intuition, a fluid and shifting orientation toward the world. Historically rooted in the widespread decline of belief structures centered upon a transcendent goal of human life and an objectively grounded scale of values, the philosophy of openness takes all truth to be relative, all values personal and subjective. Thus it holds that our task in life is to open ourselves as fully as we can to the unfolding miracle of existence and to celebrate its infinite possibilities.

The spread of this attitude through the general culture has left its stamp on current interpretations of Buddhism as well. We thus find that for many of today's Buddhist teachers the Dhamma is essentially a method for arriving at the consummation of all that the notion of openness implies. From this perspective Buddhism is not a doctrine with its own distinct body of tenets, not a discipline guiding us to a supramundane goal, but a tool for opening to the here and now. The most basic flaw at the bottom of human suffering, it is held, is our tendency to close ourselves off from experience, to lock ourselves with our concepts and judgments into a limited compartment of reality. By developing through meditation a non-discriminating "choiceless" awareness which allows whatever arises to hold its ground, we are enabled to break through our constraints and merge with the stream of events, to dance with the "ten thousand things" — accepting them all yet without clinging to them.

While the advocates of openness are usually adroit in assimilating their principles to the classical Dhamma, a careful examination would reveal gaping differences between the two. Here I want to focus only on some crucial differences in their respective orientations toward experience. It should be noted at once that whereas the school of openness bids us to drop our discriminations, judgments and restraints in order to immerse ourselves in the dynamic flow of immediate experience, the Buddha prescribes an attitude toward experience that arises from carefully wrought judgments, employs precise discriminations, and issues in detachment and restraint. This attitude, the classical Buddhist counterfoil to the modern program of openness, might be summed up by one word found everywhere in the ancient texts. That word is heedfulness (appamada).

Heedfulness denotes an attitude of critical scrutiny directed toward one's own mind both in its internal movement and in its reactions to external affairs. The term suggests diligent effort and acute attentiveness, and it further sounds a note of moral caution and care. It thus implies, as the Buddha intended it to imply, that we are constantly exposed to danger — a danger born from within that becomes ever more imminent to the degree that we allow heedfulness to slip and we slide into its opposite: into heedlessness or negligence (pamada).

Such caution is necessary because deeds have consequences that extend beyond themselves. Whereas the school of openness tends to subordinate concern with the consequential aspect of action to a stress on abiding in the present moment, the classical Dhamma taught by the Buddha asks us to recognize that all willed actions, even our fleeting thoughts and impulses, are seeds with roots buried deep in the mind's beginningless past and with the potency to generate results in the distant horizons of the future. These long-range consequences of action are of enormous importance to us; for however far they might lie from our vision now, when the time comes for our deeds to ripen, it is we ourselves who must experience their fruits. As these fruits are invariably determined by the moral quality of our actions, diligent self-examination — that is, heedfulness — is urgently needed so that we may restrain ourselves from those deeds that seem pleasant but bear painful results, and so that we may apply ourselves to those deeds that may be difficult but yield long-term benefits.

The mode of thinking based on openness rejects duality as a product of discrimination and deluded concepts. It tacitly presupposes that existence as such is ultimately benign; that beyond our deluded concepts, the rich and vivid diversity of forms has a single taste, a taste that is sweet. In contrast, the attitude of heedfulness is grounded upon the view that existence is textured through and through by dualities that are profound and inescapably real. The world bears testimony to this vision in the contrast between the charming, delightful surfaces of things and their underlying hollowness and inadequacy; our minds bear testimony in the ongoing contest between the wholesome mental factors and the unwholesome ones, between the upward urge for purification and the downward pull of the defilements. 

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