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An appropriate response is not unique
January 28th, 2016
An appropriate response is not unique

   One key manifestation of the notion of buddhist freedom is that one can respond to the situation at hand 'appropriately'  (without bias, preference, prejudice or preconception getting in the way —one might note that "not getting in the way" isn't automatically the same as "not arising at all" even if not-arising is, of course, a pretty reliable way not to become a hindrance).

   Unfortunately, it is easy to assume that there's often only one 'best'  response, at any given time, whatever the circumstances are.

   If we think in terms of an optimisation problem, it's easy to imagine there's only one 'global best'.
   The distinction between good-doers and buddhas could even be imagined as similar to good-doers reaching their 'local best' and buddhas reaching the 'global best', getting rid of the 'local' dimension of subjectivity, of self-centredness (getting rid of 'their'  best to attain 'the' best).

   If one thinks along such lines, then the notion that preference or preconception might still arise in a buddha (even if it's not fed energy that would allow it to render a response inappropriate) might even start appearing impossible…
   As I once explained (, an early conception was that a buddha has simply ceased all afflictions, all hindrances, all ignorance and is therefore 'unrelated'  to Evil.
   But a later conception, and in my view a richer conception, is that what distinguishes a buddha from ordinary beings is the buddha's ability not to identify with such thoughts, hence not to perpetuate them: they arise, they cease, the buddha didn't act on them, nor did (s)he cling to them in any way. This is what the freedom to choose what you act on  brings: it lets Evil cease… In such a perspective, buddhas know evil (, or to phrase it like in the Pāḷi canon, buddhas know Māra! Buddhas see things as they are, so they discern biased thoughts as biased thoughts, but it's not the same as pretending such thoughts never ever come to exist.

   To understand further, one needs to consider that there’s hardly ever "only one way", only one best response. If there was, maybe there'd also be only one path to attain Nirvāṇa… Both caricatures should be abandoned (

   In optimisation literature, we usually get a Pareto boundary… a curve (possibly with seemingly chaotic contour) of equivalently-good solutions.
   One way to imagine this is simply to consider a mountain top: assume that a variety of conditions (e.g. oxygen seriously lacking above a given altitude) prevents you from reaching the top but also assume that, for the sake of all sentient beings, there’s still some interest in moving "as high as you can get".
   However high you might reach (based on the circumstances at hand), the acceptable responses will constitute a close loop around the top, a "contour line”, i.e. an infinity of equivalently good solutions… and 'choosing' which point of the line to aim for is then not so dependent on the goal, but on your starting point and obstacles in between! And in these starting point and obstacles, maybe one could find 'traces' of individual preferences…
   Would this suggestion constitute an insult to the Buddha? I don't think so: after all, even the most conservative school (Theravada) admits a distinction between nibbāna-with-residue and pari-nibbana! 'Residues' or 'traces', if the distinction doesn't lie in 'unconditioned' nibbāna, then it has to lie in the circumstances and challenges met.

   But that’s still not the reality we live in, in which impermanence rules!

   So imagine having to do the same, but now instead of moving as high as you can on a fixed  mountain, you have to be to the highest pressure point you can get to… not only facing that the masses of air move around and that the isobar lines are constantly moving, but also facing the fact that the highest point is constantly changing (not just moving around, but ceasing and arising/'jumping' somewhere else!), etc.
   Imagine navigating the attached video, with additional constraints like a maximum finite/conditioned speed at which the practitioner can move around, or a finite amount of energy based on donations (food, clothing, shelter, medicines) received to keep your body functioning…

   Does it sound like there’s only one unique best thing to do and that it’s always crystal clear?
   A temporary, local solution might be relatively easy to find (follow the local gradient!) but finding the best solution under constraints at all times isn't so straight forward.
   The very assumption that 'the' best solution might exist is dubious: predicting the weather beyond a short horizon is notoriously complicated (just like seeing the causal / karmic consequences, exponentially growing as one looks further in time) so aiming for the 'current' highest point might e.g. take you away from a future highest point about to arise (thereby preventing you to reach this future best in time)… Moreover, initial conditions would play a key role in which solutions can be attainable given one's constraints.
   If you add that the constraints themselves might be impermanent (e.g. your own ageing impacts them, ups and downs in donations impact them…), then how confident are you that there's only one  "best or most appropriate" response, even for a buddha?

   It is said that clinging to ideas about "what Enlightenment is" prevents from awakening…
   Even if one may legitimately 'aim' for supreme enlightenment, it's about 'doing', a lot more than about clinging to some preconception or prejudice (about how one 'should' behave in order to manifest supreme enlightenment). It's about 'functioning' as a buddha, more than 'being' (i.e. appropriating the label of) buddha.
   By focusing on 'doing', on 'embodying', you prevent the idea of (the unattainability of) perfection (of buddhahood) from sabotaging your motivation, your intention.

   Similarly, it's helpful to drop the idea of 'perfection' and/or 'uniqueness'  of "an appropriate response".
   By focusing on 'doing', on 'embodying', you prevent the idea of perfection (of an idealised response) from sabotaging your motivation, your intention.
   The buddhas we can see live in saṃsāra, i.e. in the midst of conditioned phenomena ( And among the conditions and circumstances, among impermanence and unsatisfactoriness, under ineffable and contingent constraints, there's no unique best global 'solution'… but an infinity (most of the time anyway!). Which solution you get to might manifest traces of preferences, or traces of past deeds that influence your starting point, and that's OK: these traces do not prevent from reaching one of the numberless 'best's (no more than the karmic residues of the Buddha prevented him from attaining nirvāṇa!).
   If you keep in mind one of traits of existence, "all conditioned  phenomena are impermanent ,"  then you can avoid the caricature of a unique, perfect answer… and recenter on mindfully enquiring into « what would be an  appropriate response now, a response that I can embody, given the constraints and conditions I face? »

   To aim to do our best, moment after moment, is to embody a wholesome effort, a wholesome intention not to settle for a self-serving "good enough" (
   This being said, perfect can be the enemy of best ;-) notably when perfect is unattainable and there's an infinity of equivalent bests (not all attainable from all initial circumstances)!