One of the advantages of getting old is that you can sometimes see the strands that run through your life and give it meaning. When I was thirteen or so I loved to hike into the nearby Mendip Hills. Later in life, I walked one or another of the long distant paths in the UK. Either alone, or with a couple of friends, and my home on my back, I delighted in the sense of freedom that these walks gave me. In my late teens and early twenties I took to hitch-hiking around the UK and Europe and, although there were periods of painful loneliness, I was almost addicted to the joyful freedom I felt when wandering alone with no goal in mind. In 1960 I read in The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac’s version of Japhy (Gary Snyder’s) vision:
“Give me another slug of that jug. How! Ho! Hoo!” Japhy leaping up. “I’ve been reading Whitman, know what he says, Cheer up slaves, and horrify foreign despots, he means that’s the attitude for the Bard, the Zen Lunacy bard of old desert paths, see the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn’t really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I see a vision of great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of ‘em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everyone and to all living creatures, that’s what I like about you Goldbrook and Smith, you two guys from the East Coast which I thought was dead.”
I responded to this vision – it was what I wanted, but how could it be realised?
In the late 60’s and early 70’s I discovered a spiritual dimension of freedom which arose from letting go of deeply held ideas about myself and the world around me. I struggled with the conflicting desires for spiritual freedom and the worldly security of career, sexual relationships, and financial solvency. I discovered Milarepa, and the Buddha of the Pali canon. As with Kerouac’s manic description, I felt an excited, anxious and restless desire to be gone from the conventional, stifling, world about me. Until I got to know him better, the Buddha seemed rather staid, but as I penetrated and tasted the freedom of which he spoke I appreciated more fully the depth of what he communicated.
The Buddha, as a wandering ascetic, was a symbol of something to which I felt very deeply attracted, but at that time I just couldn’t see giving up sex! It took several decades for me to realize fully that the profound freedom that the Buddha communicated in his words and deeds came from abandoning the world much more radically than just taking off for a few months hitch-hiking, or even a few months on retreat. I gradually discovered that meditation was about finding freedom ‘within’, that insight into the nature of things is a doorway to freedom, and, although it took me far too long, I finally realized that ethical practice in the form of the ten precepts, also leads to freedom.
I have loved freedom all my life, the Buddha is the most complete symbol of that freedom, and this is why I am his disciple. I’ve not always been a very good disciple, I’ve struggled with doubt and other pulls like ambition, pride, love of comfort, desire for pleasure and so on, but gradually I’ve seen more and more clearly that my root desire is for the freedom which the Buddha says is the characteristic taste of his Dharma.