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Aro: An uncommon perspective
There are three distinct yet compatible approaches within Buddhism: self-liberation, transformation, and renunciation. Aro emphasises self-liberation and transformation, whereas it is more common to prioritise renunciation.
Buddhism—as it is most commonly taught—gives an understanding of enlightenment as attainable only for celibates who undertake a life of intensive training and years of solitary retreat. In contrast Aro portrays enlightenment as potentially available to everyone in every moment. Certain Buddhist trends describe involvement with the material world as unclean; seeing secular existence as dangerously delusional – provoking negative emotions such as lust, greed, and anger. Aro, and other parallel lineages, depict the material world as a wondrous garden of delights that we should enjoy with utter thoroughness. Many forms of Buddhism forbid, or advise against, drinking alcohol. Aro—representing the transformational approach—requires skilful imbibing of alcohol when the ‘feast of appreciation and generosity’ is celebrated.
Despite these apparent contradictions, the views and practices of Aro derive from—and accord with—ancient Buddhist teachings. Contemporary as they may appear, they are not modern innovations. They do not compromise Asian traditions in favour of Western values – but are based on principles, long held by the adventurous independent minority within Buddhism.
Self-liberation means allowing emotional energy to be as it is. Generally we like to interfere – because we find the world less than fully satisfactory. Even when enjoying a vacation at the beach, we wish that the wine was a little dryer, the breeze a little warmer, and ourselves a little thinner. We also know that soon enough we will have to deal with a rush of work, a sick child, or an annoying acquaintance. We see our circumstances, not simply as an open environment – but in terms of how we can manipulate them as the project managers of our lives. We want some things, reject others, and the rest merges into the wallpaper of comfortable oblivion. This causes us to scurry around in a constant attempt to make the world conform to the preferences prompted by our conditioning.
When we allow our emotional realm to be as it is, we are freed to experience the texture of life directly. We can side-step the sour orthodoxy of preordained likes, dislikes, and habitual concepts. When we allow our perceptual life to be as it is, we are self-liberated to be as we are. We are freed from restrictive social rôles, conventional preoccupations, conservative anxieties, and mundane personal expectations. We are freed from constrictive ideas of: who we are and who we are not; who we should be and who we should not be; what we must do and must not do. The energy expended on worrying about the future, regretting the past, and judging the present is liberated – and we find tremendous resources of generosity, accuracy, vitality, creativity, and spaciousness – the natural freedom that is of benefit to all. Buddhism describes this as enlightenment.
Simply allowing experience to be as it is – is possible for us at any moment. We need only drop preconceptions of who we are, what we want, and how we are going to get it. Enlightenment is thus possible for everyone. Allowing experience to be as it is – is simple in theory – but it is not always easy to know where to begin. Aro provides specific techniques for accomplishing self-liberation. These are subtle however – and for this reason, Aro also employs the approach of transformation.
Our conflictive emotions militate against free experience. Our neediness, irritation, compulsiveness, anxiety, and depression continually fabricate vain attempts to fix ourselves and our circumstances. This either backfires—harming ourselves and others—or fails to bring lasting satisfaction. We are slaves to our emotions. We are unwilling to face reality as it is.
According to the transformational approach however, emotions need not be eliminated; in fact, they may be celebrated. Our emotions are problematic only if we take them seriously – as hard wired facts. Our emotions only control us when we suppose they mean something about ourselves and the world. We can break the links between emotional perception and emotional response: ‘You said something I didn’t like’, ‘I am feeling angry’, and ‘I will hurt you in retaliation’. With these links broken we can enjoy emotions unreservedly, as brilliant non-coercive bodily energy. We can experience emotional energy fully without suppression, analysis, judgment, fixation, or needing to inflict it on others.
In practicing the transformation of emotions, we learn to appreciate all circumstances. In appreciating circumstances, whatever emotions arise are free of compulsion, resentment, and boredom. There are many methods which employ enjoyment for recognising the spacious quality of emotions. Drinking alcohol is a practice in which we imbibe skilfully rather than gravitating to emotional incontinence. This facilitates the natural enjoyment of our situation – and loosens the bonds of the habitual concepts which judge situations as acceptable or unacceptable. Enjoyment releases the impetus which links events rigidly to conflicted feelings – and thence to conflicted actions.
The common approach in Buddhism is renunciation. When it is not feasible to transform conflictive emotions, the renunciate approach avoids their negative consequences by renouncing the situations which provoke them. Deepening this practice leads to the renunciation of the emotions themselves—along with the ideas that link to particular circumstances.
Compassion for others is cultivated in the context of a peaceful mind. Monasticism (the institution of monks and nuns) is the ideal framework for practicing renunciation. One withdraws from the world, abandons possessions, social ties, and rôles. One abstains from anything that stirs desire or anger. It is on this basis that monks and nuns are forbidden alcohol and lay people advised against it. Celibacy has the same function. In the approach of renunciation, it can also be helpful to view the world as repulsive, corrupt, or unclean, in order not to be tempted by it.
The most widely taught forms of Buddhism in the West are based on the approach of renunciation. Although they do not require students to abandon everything to live in a monastery, they are primarily aimed at calming the mind by abstaining from emotional and circumstantial intensity.
Dzogchen, Tantra, and Sutra
In Buddhist terminology, the three approaches correspond to the principles of the three yanas. ‘Yana’ literally means ‘vehicle’ – something that takes you from one place to another. A yana has a base, or starting point; a path; and a result. The three yanas are as follows: Dzogchen’s path is self-liberation; Tantra’s path is transformation; and Sutra’s path is renunciation. Each yana has a characteristic style of explanation and practice.
The three yanas are not conflicting sects of Buddhism, but alternative and compatible approaches which are appropriate according to where we find ourselves. Methods of all three yanas are taught within Aro.
In Sutra the base, or starting point, is recognition that the project of making the world conform to our desires is malfunctional. When we feel so overwhelmed by the demands of the world that we become primarily concerned with our own needs and survival – Sutra and renunciation may be the best approach. The style of Sutra is reasonable, calm, and intellectual. The result of Sutra is selfless serenity, compassion, and tolerance.
The starting point for Tantra is the result of Sutra. Tantric transformation may be the appropriate path when the following criteria are met: basic confidence in ourselves and our lives; altruistic motivation; and openness to experimenting with unfamiliar situations. Tantra can be entirely functional whilst still pulled by strong emotions. The style of Tantra is dramatic, colourful, complex, emotional, and poetic. The result of Tantra is liberation: freedom from domination by conflictive emotions, indoctrination, customary rôles, and constricted expectations.
Dzogchen is uncommon, in that the base, path, and result are the same: liberation. Sutra is described as the slow vehicle, Tantra the fast vehicle, and Dzogchen the instantaneous vehicle. Dzogchen is instantaneous because there is no process necessary: it is the way of remaining liberated. When, through meditation, we have sufficient trust in the nature of reality to abandon need for control, Dzogchen is the best vehicle. The style of Dzogchen is simple, clear, joyful, and expansive.
Compatibility of the yanas
It can be confusing that one Buddhist teacher says ‘you must drink alcohol’ and another says ‘you must not drink alcohol’. This can also lead to unnecessary animosity between students of different schools. The apparent contradictions are due only to the different approaches taken in different yanas. There is no conflict when we understand that none of these approaches are absolute truth. All are simply methods that are useful according to circumstances. Drinking alcohol is neither inherently good nor inherently bad; it is helpful when practising Tantra, and an obstacle when practicing Sutra.
It is important when reading or hearing Buddhist instructions to ask yourself (or your teacher) to which yana they belong. If a method is designed to bring about a peaceful mind by withdrawing from problematic stimuli, it will be useful to those engaged in the practice of Sutra. If it is a means for experiencing the energy of emotions and situations as vivid but non-problematic – it is a Tantric teaching, which will be useful if you have reached the base of Tantra. If it is a means of simply experiencing what is without an agenda, it belongs to Dzogchen – the approach of self-liberation.