A Note on Openness
By Bhikkhu Bodhi
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
towards experience, an attitude that 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 un-verbalized intuition,
a fluid and shifting orientation towards 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 supra-mundane 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
"choice-less" 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 towards 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 towards 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 towards 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 beginning-less
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. That
this duality is not trivial is seen by the consequences: the one leads to Nibbána,
the state of deliverance, the Deathless, while the other leads back into the round
of repeated birth, samsára, which is also the realm of Mara, the Lord of
To practice heedfulness is to take full account of these dualities with their
profound implications. The heedful person does not aim at a choice-less awareness
open to existence in its totality, for to open oneself thus is to risk making
oneself vulnerable to just those elements in oneself that keep one bound to the
realm of Mara. The awareness developed through heedfulness is built upon a choice
-- a well-considered choice to abandon those qualities one understands to be detrimental
and to develop in their place those qualities one understands to be beneficial,
the states that lead to purity and peace.
Both in our outer involvements in the world and in the mind's internal procession
of thought, imagination and emotion, there continually spreads before us a forked
road. One branch of this fork beckons with the promise of pleasure and satisfaction
but in the end leads to pain and bondage; the other, steep and difficult to climb,
leads upward to enlightenment and liberation. To discard discrimination and judgment
for an easy-going openness to the world is to blur the important distinction between
these two quite different paths. To be heedful is to be aware of the dichotomy,
and to strive to avoid the one and pursue the other. As the Buddha reminds us,
heedfulness is the path to the deathless; heedlessness is the path of Death.