From Rebel Buddha, Chapter 2, “What You Should Know” (pp. 32-33)
Since we are talking about the Buddhist spiritual path as a road to freedom, then we need to ask: freedom from what? And what does this freedom look like? In other words, we need to find out what the Buddha says about the starting point and end point of this journey. Then we can look into that and see if it holds up under scrutiny, and if it is the right path for us.
Sometimes we think that freedom means simply being free of any outside control—we can do whatever we like, when we like. Or maybe we think it means we are not controlled by inner psychological forces that inhibit the free expression of our feelings. But these kinds of freedom are only partial. If freedom is not accompanied by intelligence and basic good sense, we could end up just acting impulsively, letting our emotions off the leash. We might be free to shout at people or to stay out all night indulging our appetite for excitement and sensation, but we are certainly not in charge and we are not free. We may feel temporarily energized and liberated by that kind of freedom, but the feeling is short-lived and usually followed by more pain and more confusion. We may also think that freedom means having a choice. We are free to choose what to do with our lives, our time, and our money. We may choose wisely or foolishly, but it is our choice.
This so-called “freedom,” however, is just a façade when every day, we make the same choices, when we do the same things over and over and react in the same ways. Whether we are free spirits or traditionalists, type A or type B personalities, our actions are equally predictable. When we look beneath the surface to see what’s going on, why we are unhappy, we see the same storyline repeated again and again. If we fight with our boss at work, we probably fight at home with our roommate or our kids. We struggle here and there in our lives with the same unconscious patterns of aggression, desire, jealousy or denial, until we are caught in a web of our own making. These are precisely the things from which we work to free ourselves on the Buddhist path: those habitual patterns that dominate our lives and make it hard to see the awakened state of mind.
If you are interested in “meeting the Buddha” and following the spiritual path he described, then there are a few things you should know before you begin. First, Buddhism is primarily a study of mind and a system for training the mind. It is spiritual in nature, not religious. Its goal is self-knowledge, not salvation; freedom, not heaven. It relies on reason and analysis, contemplation and meditation, to transform knowledge about something into knowledge that surpasses understanding. But without your curiosity and questions, there is no path, no journey to be taken, even if you adopt all the forms of the tradition.