By Layman Chushu (The Empty Boat Sangha)
“All dependent things
Are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, shadows
Like dew drops, a lightning flash
Contemplate them thus”
– Buddha in the Diamond Sutra
“…by recognizing the ‘dark’ stuff that was there, I could finally experience and own what was ‘light.’ I could really believe the good stuff once I took responsibility for the stuff that didn’t look quite as shiny on the outside. These are the real fruits of spiritual and psychological development.” – Ingrid Clayton in a Beware of Spiritual Bypass
I learned a new phrase recently called spiritual bypassing. Is it real? Does it really matter? Was the Buddha a spiritual bypasser?
Spiritual bypassing means that we are using spirituality to ignore our problems. We’re sweeping all that self-loathing, sorrow, and unpaid student loan debt under the rug. It’s closely related to spiritual materialism, which usually involves minimal growth and maximum pride.
I’ve witnessed socially disengaged Buddhists being charged with bypassing by engaged Buddhists. This isn’t totally uncalled for. There is much trouble in the world and it’s the aspiring Bodhisattva’s vow to be of service in any way possible. Whether it’s talking Dharma, defending the environment and oppressed peoples, cleaning up after a natural disaster, or cooking dinner for the family and buying cookies for co-workers. This is all in the realm of the Bodhisattva Vows.
However, the Diamond Sutra teaches us that Bodhisattvas don’t do these things with any perception of doing them. There is no self-centeredness or other-centeredness.
A Bodhisattva doesn’t contribute to a cause because they’re angry or because helping makes them feel good—they do it because it’s natural to them. This is difficult to imagine, isn’t it? It’s like a tree dropping apples that people can collect and eat at their leisure. The tree doesn’t entertain any ideas of giver or given, it is just doing what it does and it’s not concerned about what the plum tree down the road is doing. It’s not growing and dropping apples because people are hungry, it’s doing it to spread seeds.
This is the Bodhisattva’s work as well: using kindness to spread the Dharma, because the Dharma is wise kindness. That is our True Self; that is emptiness.
In emptiness, there is no person or personality. No politics, gender, or social class. There is no darkness and no light, no gain or loss, and no coming or going—no personal shadows to overcome, come to terms with, or ignore. That’s the True Self, aka the not-self. Dark and light, gain and loss, coming and going are like hallucinations dependent on the divided, self-centered mind, and the views we build upon them are called delusions.
It’s like how we—from a self-centered perspective—see day and night switching places. But really, it’s always day and always night somewhere on earth. Right now, each hour on the clock is present and accounted for around the globe. It is all times, all of the time. So, whenever we say, “It’s 7:01 in the morning,” we’re only speaking a partial truth dependent on ourselves, on where we are in the whole.
And of course, really there is no such thing as Central Time, Eastern Time, and so on—it’s an idea we all agreed to live by for the sake of convenience. Central Time is an illusion; the delusion would be like me saying that Central Time actually exists, that it’s the only time that exists, and fighting with everyone who disagrees.
To see through the illusory discriminating mind to the bright, spacious, clear-seeing, unfettered mind is the entire foundation of Mahayana practice.
People harm others and feel harmed by others for the same reason: cutting the world into this and that category and thinking that there is satisfaction to be found anywhere in it. People harm others because they believe that what isn’t them can make them happy. People feel harmed by others because they think that what isn’t them can make them unhappy. These are both extreme views. Without them, we would stop harming each other to satisfy our selfish desires.
Emptiness is beyond all extremes; that’s why Dharma practice is called the Middle Way.
There are no sides to take, only mouths to feed and minds to open. It is gentle work, like water washing a rough rock smooth over thousands of years. There is no hatred, and no hatred for those who hate; no violence against the violent because there is no fear. The relief from suffering in this era will never come from resistance, but from completely disregarding the noise—all the stories—as we would last night’s dreams. If everyone did this, oppressor and oppressed, victimizer and victim, would both vanish into thin air. Poof!
Is this spiritual bypassing?
To see things as they truly are, as interdependent to the point that all names and labels are outright lies? If it is, then Buddhadharma is 100% a discipline of spiritual bypassing. From the very beginning, the Dharma has been about escape—that’s why the Three Jewels are called Refuges. We are taking Refuge in the teachings, not viewing them from afar, not subverting them to either our selfish passions or our bleeding hearts, because both of those are aspects of self-centeredness.
We’re not supposed to fit the practice into our lives; we’re supposed to fit our lives into the practice. You can’t fit the practice into your life because the practice is too big! Too big for the fake self that has a name, views, and preferences. This is not the self we are supposed to practice with. We’re supposed to practice with our Buddha-nature, our Selfless Self. Vast, crisp, and indiscriminately compassionate.
We are not broken people trying to put ourselves back together. We are only broken because we think that we are.
There is no need to accept or reject our brokenness or the brokenness of the world—just seeing through it to the common ground is enough. It is good to learn to accept our shadows and to serve others, but only if we don’t entertain any notions that any of that is actually happening. It is all just a story.
Spiritual bypassing and healthy self-acceptance are both extremes. When I see a student struggling with their demons, I don’t ask them to make friends with them. I ask them to see them for what they are: fictions, stories. Accepting or rejecting them just plays into the same confused, storytelling mind that crafted them to begin with. That rabbit hole doesn’t end.
We will always have more demons to uncover and more habits to unravel. The world will always have more demands, more hungry stomachs, bloodthirsty tyrants, raging fists and open hands.
Compassion, in a Mahayana sense, is not rushing around trying to save the world—it’s seeing that there is no world to be saved and no such thing as saved or not saved. Then, with that Buddhaful, open-hearted mindset, we can truly serve others in an effective way that brings joy and smiles rather than sobs and angry sneers.
When one no longer sees oppressor-oppressed, then the battle is already over and we can treat the wounded. It’s the wounds that cause these battles to begin with. The Bodhisattva does not discriminate between friend and enemy when there is suffering involved.
If this is spiritual bypassing, then spiritual bypassing is my practice.
Upasaka Chushu is a mascot created by the Lay Order of the Empty Boat to share teachings from the reformed East Mountain school of Chan Buddhism.
Editor: Dana Gornall