There are many possible reasons to get involved with the lifestyle and practice of the Buddha’s teachings. For some it is something they are born into and gives a sense of cultural identity. For others it’s something they stumble on partway through life and seems to provide answers to questions they didn’t know they had.
The teachings themselves proclaim a path to complete liberation and enlightenment, but what does that mean? It’s hard to imagine someone showing up with that as their goal. In order for that to be possible, they must have had the goal before they knew about Buddhist practice. Could we really have conceived of enlightenment before we knew it was possible? Instead we usually take on the quest for enlightenment once we become familiar with the teachings. Which means there was some other reason we showed up, and along the way we decided liberation was the higher, nobler goal. As I always say – we come for the wrong reasons, but stay for the right ones.
This is natural, and normal. This is the way it has to be – coming from ignorance into awakening. Acknowledging that we are imperfect, unguided, unfulfilled … these are part of realizing the truth of suffering. We shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge we don’t really know what we are doing or what we are trying to get. That is, in fact, the whole reason we show up to practice! The growth of a practitioner in faith and wisdom can usually be charted by how much they are willing to admit they don’t know.
There’s no expectation that we just meditate and renounce and work through all of our mental hang-ups purely on faith that someday everything will be better. Instead we should work to understand the nobler goals of the holy life so that we can shift to them from our coarse and worldly goals. What do I mean by worldly goals? Maybe we want to be happy, or comfortable, or to reduce our stress. Maybe we see practice as healthy. Maybe it gives us a feeling of connection and community. These are the goals that have an object – goals around getting something.
What are nobler goals? Wanting to be carefree, wanting to be friendly, wanting to be light and unburdened, wanting to have a clear conscience. Wanting to not care who is right as long as things work out for the best. Wanting to have no loose ends when you die. These goals are nobler because they lack an object; they involve recognizing a burden and wanting to shed it.
The Buddha doesn’t say that we shouldn’t have worldly goals. He taught his disciples how to be happy, cordial, respectful and responsible. All of the dhamma’s which lead to a comfortable and harmonious life: these he taught. But he also taught not to settle just for these. These are the stepping stones. They allow us to relax our craving and anxiety long enough to ask the important questions. Do I want to be right, or do I want to be free? Do I really need that thing to be happy? Is this worth doing if it makes myself or others miserable?
The end goal is almost impossible for a run-of-the-mill person to visualize, so we don’t need to be worried if we don’t yet have the aspiration to ‘achieve enlightenment for the welfare of all sentient beings’. That will come in time if we stick with it. But it will be built on thousands of tiny enlightenments, tiny letting-go’s, and chances are we’ll get a lot of our physical and emotional needs met along the way as well. In fact, one could say that by the time the noblest of goals has arisen, it’s attainment is already assured. When what we aspire for most is to be free, something that we can have at any moment without adding anything, what could really stand in our way?