What is this freedom from suffering everyone participating in diverse spiritual traditions talks about? Easily we end up imagining some disembodied state of purity that is unencumbered by the trials and tribulations of a solid body doomed to illness and decay. We may also silently hope for the disappearance of pain or equate freedom with the ability to get and do what we want. Nothing could be further from what freedom is all about as this old Asian story tells us.

A citizen goes to visit the king, who has a vast reputation for being wise, and asks: “Sire, does freedom in our lifetime exist?”
“Absolutely it does”, responds the king, immediately proceeding with the question: “How many legs do you have?”
Surprised by this question the citizen looks at himself, then answers: “Two, my Sire.”
The king: “Are you able to stand on one leg?”
“No problem”, says the citizen.
“So try and decide on which leg you want to stand”, invites the king.
The citizen reflects for a while, then lifts his left leg, remaining standing on only his right leg.
“Very good!” says the king, “now lift also your right leg!”
“I beg your pardon, Sire? That is impossible!”
To which the king responds: “You see, that is freedom! You are free, but only to take the first decision, none after that!”

Freedom is not liberation from reality. Quite on the contrary. It is liberation into reality, the ability to ‘be free and easy in the market place’ as they say in Zen, a sense of great flexibility in the face of life’s unpredictable waves of challenge. Freedom means that we have learned to get out of our own way, out of the way of how things are whether we like it or not, out of the way of how nature unfolds according to patterns all of its own beyond our comprehension. When we are free, we embrace the inevitable with ease and graciousness, and when we fail to be so gracious, we don’t become aggressive towards ourselves, but lovingly hold our limitations in the healing womb of awareness.

Freedom is not easy by any stretch of the imagination, because no stretch of the imagination can conceive what freedom is except for making it seem what it is not … easy. Freedom entails taking on the responsibility for the recreation of our lives in every moment we can remember to do so. Because no moment is free of defilements, every act of recreation is an act of purification. Freedom is the equanimity we find in the inevitable human condition of purgatory. Freedom requires suffering the way Nelson Mandela’s liberation required 27 years of imprisonment. The liberation from purgatory is not another place somewhere else such as we imagine paradise to be, but paradise is the full acceptance of purgatory, while hell is its stubborn rejection.

Only the infinite spaciousness of awareness, combined with a loving stance towards what is, can give us access to the deep peace that comes with realizing that hell and paradise are just the two masks of freedom.

Masks of purgatory

Copyright © 2015 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.