It All Depends on Your Perspective

William B. Turner
3 min readDec 9, 2021

One problem with understanding the Buddhist path, especially at the beginning, is that a lot of the concepts make much more sense from the perspective of a fully awakened person than from any other angle, but no one is fully awakened at the beginning, almost by definition.

It is usually the case that, when a teacher you trust tells you something that makes zero sense to you, the best approach is just to keep meditating on it and expect that it will come to make sense eventually.

For example, in Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, renunciation is a key concept. That sounds like a real buzzkill to an ordinary person in the United States. We’re supposed to want more always. The one who dies with the most toys wins, as one popular saying has it. Renunciation suggests giving up everything.

But according to one authoritative explanation, the Buddhist version of renunciation is less about giving up on things as it is changing our attitude towards those things. Grasping is the problem, not what you are grasping at. Greed and aversion, which are two sides of the same coin, are what we should strive to avoid.

Our expositor from above uses the example of the Dalai Lama, who apparently rides around in his hometown in India in a Mercedes Benz a lot. Some people really, really want a Mercedes Benz because it is a status mobile. It supposedly marks the driver as a person of means and sophisticated taste.

The Dalai Lama doesn’t care. He has no investment in the Eight Worldly Dharmas. He knows that the opinions of other people are like anything else — impermanent and not worth holding onto or grasping at. There is likely a sense in which he really does not understand the concept of a status mobile. I don’t know, but it seems likely that he does not choose the kind of car he rides around in. Someone else decides that they want to make sure the Dalai Lama has a highly reliable, comfortable car to ride in and thinks that the best option for meeting those goals is a Mercedes Benz, so it’s a purely practical decision.

This also gets to why compassion and lovingkindness are central to the Buddhist path. They arise automatically with the wisdom that comes from a consistent meditation practice, but there is also the danger, in theory, that someone who no longer cares at all what anyone thinks about them could be very cruel and dangerous. This is another way of describing complete shamelessness, which can lead a person to behave very badly.

Anyone who gains the wisdom of the Buddhist path also gains the realization that cruelty is self defeating because it brings bad karma and thus more suffering in the long run, no matter how gratifying the cruelty may be in the present.

So, when you encounter an idea on the Buddhist path that initially makes no sense, try to think about how it would look from the perspective of someone who is fully awakened and see if it makes more sense then.

And, as always, keep up your meditation practice.

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William B. Turner

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.