Potential, Personal Merit and Honest Desire
Written by: Michelle Belanger
Heated debates have been had throughout the community regarding each person's potential to Awaken. Some people believe that everyone can Awaken, if given enough time. Others believe that Awakening is something that only certain people can achieve. But the split in the community on this issue is by no means a new one. Spiritual traditions around the world have historically wrestled with the issue of potential versus actualization. Within certain sects of Christianity, there is the notion that only certain people have been gifted with God's grace. Only these spiritual elite are believed to be able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In extreme versions of this, such as can be found among Calvinists and Jehovah's Witnesses, the spiritual elite have already been chosen, and there is nothing a person can do to gain God's grace if it has not already been given to them.
Perhaps more appropriate to our beliefs is the Buddhist tradition which includes two distinct schools of thought: Mahayana Buddhism and Hinayana Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism, or “Great Vehicle” Buddhism, is based on the concept of universal salvation. In this tradition, enlightenment is seen as a ferry boat that is big enough to carry everyone in the world across the river of ignorance and into enlightenment.
Hinayana Buddhism is Little Vehicle Buddhism. Basically, this states that only some people can achieve enlightenment. Not everyone can fit on the ferry boat and it can only make so many trips.
Mahayana Buddhism is a very optimistic view. It looks at the seed of divinity within every being and says that by virtue of that divinity, everyone should be able to make that seed grow. It may take ten thousand lifetimes, but even the slow learners will get it eventually.
To a certain extent, however, this is like a school that will flunk students to a point, but after a while even those who have repeated the same grade seventeen times are still guaranteed a degree. Although it's a very nice way of looking at things, it also seems to undermine the notion of personal merit. After all, if you're going to get a degree whether you get A's or F's, why put all the effort in to get A's?
Hinayana Buddhism is much more practical, giving far more credit, in my view, to notions of personal merit and personal limitations. Little Vehicle Buddhism looks with a critical eye at the world around it and sees that not everyone has the same level of skill, motivation, or discipline. Hinayana Buddhism says that although everyone starts out with a seed of divinity within them, circumstances and personal limitations -- and especially personal choices -- sometimes mean that an individual cannot succeed in making that seed flourish and bloom.
The two main stances that I see in the community on Awakening, then, are essentially Little Vehicle Awakening and Big Vehicle Awakening. Some of us feel that everyone can Awaken, given the proper time and circumstances. Some of us feel that there are those people who will never Awaken, no matter what they are exposed to.
The difference really comes down to notions of personal merit. Awakening is not an easy thing, and some people just seem to have no interest in expanding their awareness. Why should such people Awaken when they neither work for it nor seem to desire it?
There is the danger of spiritual elitism with Little Vehicle Awakening, just as there is the danger of spiritual elitism with Hinayana Buddhism and Christain concepts of pre-destination. But does acknowledging that some people have limits necessarily lead to an elitist attitude?
I think this depends on how you approach the notion of limits. If you take Awakening as an evolutionary process of the soul that is achieved and refined through multiple rebirths, you see that everyone is given the potential to Awaken. However, individuals make choices, and sometimes those choices impede or utterly halt their forward progress.
Let's go back to the school analogy. Someone who has handicaps can overcome those limitations given time, opportunity, and a firm desire on the part of that person to overcome their obstacles. I believe the Universe provides people with time and opportunity. It is up to the individual themselves, however, to supply both the desire and the hard work.
My personal view on the issue is a blend of Mahayana and Hinayana stances. Everyone has the *potential* to Awakening. But not everyone will get on the boat. Not everyone wants to. So, in the end, Awakening is a matter of personal choice. Limits and merit play a role, but the biggest determining factor is a desire to become more than what you are. If that desire is lacking, if you're not willing to put the time and the effort into your development, then I don't think the Universe is just going to hand it to you.
And eventually, there will be a time when everyone else has moved forward and some people will be left on the otherside of the shore, yelling for a boat that's already moved on.