Vast is the robe of liberation / a formless field of benefaction.
What is liberation anyway? Each of us might answer differently, and all these answers could be valid. But for my purposes here I will describe liberation as freedom from the patterns of our minds, freedom from our conditioned existence.
Yet here we are in the midst of our conditioned existence, and our own mind. There are so many limitations, so many troublesome conditions: health and other physical limitations; conditioned mental states; family attachments and conflicts; the economic and class context we find ourselves in; our dependency on our society’s cultural frameworks. We live in limitation all the time. Perhaps the biggest and closest experience we have of limitation is our self, our ego and the feelings of how limited and boxed in we actually are.
How then can we relate to dharma affirmations like the verse which evokes the robe of liberation? And what about all the stories of practitioners who realize a state of liberation? Perhaps all that liberation talk only really makes sense for monastics whose lives have been set-up to focus solely on the dharma. But what can liberation really mean for lay people like us, who are practicing right in the middle of a complex web of limitations, attachments and worldly conditions?
Let’s consider Dogen’s famous advice to his lay student? “To study the Dharma is to study the self” — in other words, study the limitations. But we don’t want to stay there, going to therapy our entire lives! “To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.” Thus, in applying this teaching to our own lives, we might consider that liberation arises when we have forgotten the self, when we are simply engaged with what is manifesting in the flow of our lives — our daily chores, connecting with our partners, dealing with dying parents. Then, every experience, even the most challenging situation or conflict, teaches us, shows us the dharma, enlightens us.
There is passage in a Tibetan prayer I recite sometimes: “May I clearly perceive all experiences to be as insubstantial as the dream fabric of the night, and instantly awaken to perceive the pure wisdom display in the arising of every phenomenon.” The linguistic style is very different, but the meaning here dovetails well with Dogen’s teaching. All experiences and phenomena are transitory, like moments in a dance . . . yet as we awaken, we experience how each phenomenon enlightens us, how it displays wisdom, and teaches us the dharma.
Thus our liberation must be in the midst of daily life; it has to be, even in the midst of our experience of self. Dogen says we forget the self. Yes, this happens, and it is wonderful to let go and forget ourselves. And then we are confronted with the experience of self again, and again, confronted with limitation again and again. In fact we are responsible for ourselves. Who else can be? We see how we treat others. We notice how we are functioning in our work. Yes, we want to learn from our experiences, and become more clear and compassionate. But we can only do that right where we are, in the conditions we are in. The study goes on. We have both self, and no self. Limitation and liberation.