Have we got dharma the wrong way round?

Dharma is something we strive towards but what if dharma is already in us? What if dharma is our default position and what we experience is a learnt overlay? 

What if we evolved into an altruistic, empathetic, compassionate and caring species of ape but owing to our overdeveloped brain we have become enveloped by the learnt rules of civilization which have to some extent suppressed, deflected or obscured our innate nature?

Dukka, impermanence and the self 

Dukka is suffering through wanting existence to be something it is not. When did we start to consider that existence owed us something? In order to desire something we don’t have certain foundational elements that have to be in place. First there has to be a self, an individual to create the desire, without an ego there is no one at home to do the desiring or feel the dissatisfaction of not getting it. The creation of the self automatically creates dualism; if there is a self there is a subject and if there is a subject there must by definition be an object. 

This is the Second element, there has to be something to desire and a reason for desiring it, the object. And third there has to be a barrier to obtaining the object of desire. Something between the subject and the object, the space created by dualism. 

Thus the emergence of the self, the individual, creates the conditions for dukka through the creation of the space of dualism. Once established this leads to the realisation that all objects are unsatisfactory as they are all impermanent. So no matter how many or how much we collect nothing lasts in this dualistic construct. 

Perhaps if we recognise that dualism is a construct we can see what lies beneath, existence is being in the world. Remembering playing as a child gives insight into this existence. In play there is no duality, there is only the experience of play. At the end of play comes the reemergence of the existence of duality.

The five hindrances

The five hindrances that are said to impede dharma practice, desire, anger, sloth, dissatisfaction, doubt can all be seen to some extent as learnt habits. No doubt there is a genetic base for some desires but the desires for those things we don’t need for survival might be a reflection of our learnt responses rather than anything innate. Adverts make us desire things which we certainly don’t need, no one thinks the desire for a new vacuum cleaner is innate.

We hurt when we are hit by a stone but our first response is surprise and we only engender hate when we develop a relationship with the person who threw the stone. We dont hate a cliff for letting a stone fall, or the person whose step disturbed the ground. hate only develops when we interpret the reason for the stone’s release as being an undeserved act of aggression.

We were not born slothful and children play constantly without becoming tired, boredom is a result of lack of imagination and creative endeavour, both of which are the result of lifestyles.

We worry, become restless and dissatisfied with our lot all because we are led to believe there is a better alternative. There is no better alternative to life and existence. What leads us to desire something other than what we have and where we are? Without exposure to the supposed benefits of alternatives we could not be aware of them and without awareness we could not desire them, we have therefore learnt to be dissatisfied.

Doubt might in this context be considered a useful attribute. Doubt about wisdom being something to aspire to. Perhaps wisdom is simply lying under the swaths of learnt habits to be revealed rather than attained?

The eightfold path

One of the issues secular dharma has with the eightfold path is the adjective Samma, traditionally translated as right but also interpreted to mean appropriate, complete, correct or other less dogmatic terms. One of the definitions in a Pali-English dictionary is ‘as it ought to be’

If we look at the eight; knowledge, perception, speech, action, work, effort, meditation and concentration and rather than doing these the right way we try act  them out as they ought to be, the emphasis changes from a set of guidelines held by a body that knows the correct way of doing things to doing things in way which is intrinsic to our nature. As it ought to be is, as it ought to exist. 

What then if the advice in the eight areas is not to do things the right way but to do them as they ought to be done. How ought we to act? “You ought to be more careful” this means not that you should follow rules of how to be careful but that acting with care is more sensible, again to be sensible is not to follow a rule but to act within our nature. “You ought to pay attention” is advice not to follow a rule but advice that to concentrate is inherently beneficial and sensible. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself” suggests that there is an undefined inherent ethic which you have violated.

What then is knowledge as it ought to be? Or speech as it ought to be? Or actions as they ought to be? Could these be to know, communicate and act as is our intrinsic nature? If not, What is the alternative? To act, communicate, work, concentrate following some other set of rules? If so, who made these rules? Who set the guidance? What higher guidance are we looking for? Perhaps the guidance is already within us. And the advice is to look for it under the layers that our upbringing has covered it with.

Can you remember learning to lie? Can you remember learning to steal? Can you remember learning to envy? Can you remember learning your status? Can you remember learning to hate?

Clearly humans have a great capacity for learning how to be but this learnt behaviour is not necessarily how we ought to behave. Perhaps we already know how we ought to behave but because of all we have learnt the path at times becomes obscured.

Seeing the dharma as a way of being and acting that is inherent leads to a different view of practice. Dharma practice is traditionally presented as procedures that lead to enlightenment. The eightfold path is presented as a guide to behaviour, a way to act ethically, but what if rather than how to be, it is an exposition of how we are?

These are thoughts that have been with me for some time and I am aware that they are poorly expressed and there are likely to be many holes in the hypothesis; it may indeed be fundamentally flawed. Please feel free to point out the errors as it is through dialogue that a more coherent idea might emerge. 

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