Degrees of Freedom

[This talk was also given as a dhamma talk at the Long Island Buddhist Meditation Center.  The video recording can be found on facebook at: ]

My dhamma name, Pamutto, comes from the root of a very common word: Mutti. Mutti means freedom. Since freedom is so essential to the Buddhist path it’s a well-known word. One very famous derivative is ‘vimutti’ where the ‘vi’ denotes separation: i.e., you’re not just free but you’ve gotten free from something. Sometimes people ask what the ‘pa’ means in my name means and how that differs from regular Mutti. The ‘pa’ is an emphatic particle, so it means ‘very free’, but I explain it this way: “Remember when you were a kid and you got out of school at the end of the day? That’s Mutti. When you get out of school for the summer, that’s Vimutti. When you graduate – that’s Pamutti.”

On one level it’s meant to be a joke but on another I think many connect with the idea. Most buddhists are familiar with the word Vimutti and the concept of liberation in Buddhism. But fewer have given it serious consideration. Many ethnic buddhists regard liberation as something distant, as the domain of monks. It may never have been presented just how accessible freedom is. What I think speaks to people the most is the idea that comes through in the pāli: freedom is not a binary concept, the difference between slavery and not-slavery. Freedom has degrees. There is a temporary relief from something, there is getting away from it and dwelling somewhere safe, and then there is complete and permanent freedom.

In popular usage the word Freedom is thrown around a lot without much understanding. Take ‘freedom of speech’. Everyone, whether in a democracy or a dictatorship, has the freedom to say whatever they want. No one, however, whether in a democracy or a dictatorship, has the freedom to say whatever they want without consequences. What this freedom really means is that in America we have the freedom from censorship. If we have a point we want to make we can usually shop around to find an audience that wants to hear it. This freedom is so woven in our culture we don’t think about it much. It’s like a fish in the ocean not being able to describe what water is like. For the most part we haven’t known anything else, so we dwell moving about freely without concern for such things until we say something that gets us in trouble and we realize consequences.

This is like the first kind of freedom: Mutti. Moving freely and unhindered. There are a variety of freedoms which are rare and special, like the freedom to choose our religion or the freedom to remain silent in court if speaking will hurt our defense. Then there are also more general freedoms the Buddha points to which are accessible in this human realm and are bright, joyful, and to-be-sought: the freedom from debt, freedom from disease, freedom from restriction and incarceration, freedom from slavery and oppression, and freedom from danger and fear. Any of these freedoms can be the source of limitless happiness and ease in ourselves.

We can cultivate these things by making wise choices: spending our money wisely, working skillfully, consuming what is appropriate, cultivating good friendships, avoiding bad friendships, living in suitable places, and nurturing peaceful communities. Everyone has the ability to cultivate this Mutti.

When the Buddha talks about these freedoms in the pāli canon, though, they are connected to the Five Hindrances. These are five states of mind that are the roots of this worldly stress and suffering. They are Sense Desire, Ill-Will, Sloth, Restlessness, and Doubt. This leads into an entirely different kind of Freedom: Vimutti. Again, the ‘vi’ denotes separation. We are not merely living free from a source of suffering. We are separating ourselves from the very cause of that suffering. Someone who has cleansed their mind of the hindrance of Sense Desire dwells in contentment. They feel full, satiated, and complete – no matter what their actual circumstances. With this level of freedom even someone living in a shack in the woods can have the perception of being a king.

Vimutti is a very powerful kind of freedom. It is not something to be found accidentally but something that is actively cultivated. This is the reason meditation is so important in Buddhist practice. Living in a Buddhist community, hearing the dhamma and living near enough to interact with the Sangha are all blessings. But there can also be obstacles which separate us from these things and the peace they bring us. When we have learned to find the source of freedom within ourselves we can truly be safe wherever we go.

Yet this form of freedom is still considered temporary. It is total but because the mind still contains the seeds of the hindrances, the roots of Greed, Hatred, and Delusion, these defilements can spring up again in the future. This does not downplay the value of Vimutti. We have to experience inner freedom to really understand what we are capable of. When we do, we will also realize that we have more to do to secure this freedom permanently.

The word ‘Pamutto’ wasn’t actually a common word in the pāli language. Even though there is only one main use of the word (and not the most auspicious), it is something every single monk has heard. That is because the word is used in the ordination chanting. Pamutti is a word which means ‘completely free’. In the ordination chanting new monks are warned that if they were to intentionally kill a human being they would no longer be a monk, with no hope of ordaining again in this life. They would be completely and irreversibly separated from the monastic sangha by their action. The Buddha says – “Like a man with his head cut off (pamutto) … it can not put it back on again.”

This is the flavor of the concept of Full liberation in the pāli canon. To attain complete freedom we must completely sever the ties that bind us to suffering. This goes beyond the temporary freedom of Vimutti brought about through subduing unwholesome mindstates. Here we are contemplating the very objects that bring about those mind states and seeing them for what they are. They are transient, unsatisfying, impersonal. They are not me, not mine, not my self.

Not strong are bonds of cloth, rope, and iron, the Buddha says. Truly strong are the bonds of family, of wealth, property, and of clan. A rope will rot away and break in a hundred years or less but these bonds spring anew day in and day out with ever new forms. We constantly reinforce them with our consideration and our attachment. Some people are not sure they even want to let go of these things. But the wise know that the true slavery is the shackle we wear willingly. We cannot be free until we are ready to let things go.

We let things go all the time without even thinking of it. When we get out of our car in a parking lot we are letting it go. It might not be there when we come back. We don’t realize but we are temporarily free from it as a burden. We stop thinking about it because we assume it is safe, and this freedom from concern allows us to shop or work or attend a concert without being worried the whole time. True wisdom though is not just forgetting things. We don’t attain freedom from anxiety by ignoring the things that upset us. We have to turn towards these things and understand their nature.

The reality if we look at it is we are not the real owner of the car. We have a title that implies ownership and we have possession of the keys. But we can’t really control whether the car stays where we leave it or is taken away. The government could impound it, a creditor could repossess it, a thief could steal it. The best we can do in the end is wisely choose where to park the car. Beyond that we can dwell in anxiety or just let go and see what happens. We can’t control the car but we can control how we direct our minds. Given this fact we start to learn that it is always possible to let go. Letting go doesn’t mean we lose our possessions, or our family, or our health. It means we acknowledge those things aren’t under our control but are the product of causes and conditions. We let go of the idea of control and we loosen the bonds that tie our mind to these objects.

When we let go completely we will experience a freedom unlike any other in this world. Complete liberation of the heart is permanent. This is because when we truly understand the cause of suffering we are also understanding it is an optional experience. It always makes things worse. When we give it up for good we will never go back. The external world will not change — it was always run by causes and conditions. But our internal world changes completely. Gone are greed, hatred, and delusion. What remains is a bright, happy, interested and energetic mind. A free mind.

Wherever you enter the path and to whatever degree you believe in liberation you will find these degrees of freedom. Following the precepts gives one degree of freedom, going to a temple provides another, and learning meditation provides yet another. As the teacher Ajahn Chah said: “Let go a little, get a little freedom. Let go a lot, get a lot of freedom. Let go completely, get complete freedom.” This is the choice we are presented and the option provided to us by the dhamma. So how about it? What would you like to be free of?

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