Chapter Eight: The Difficulty of the Path
The good is one thing, the pleasant another; these two, having different objects, chain a man. It is well with him who clings to the good; he who chooses the pleasant misses his end.
- Chapter two, verse one of the Katha-Upanisad
This chapter explores a common teaching, which, although intuitive, may be distressing. The holy books of Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism all hold that to embrace the Divine and achieve ultimate perfection is very difficult in the human form. The path of compassion and enlightenment is by its very nature the path of struggle in this imperfect, material realm. One must actively restrain his or her thoughts and actions, and strive to serve the Divine Order by working to improve the lot of other beings. Unfortunately, most humans fail in the journey to their transcendent potential. This simple and common teaching on the difficulty of the path of perfection provides yet more evidence that all six traditions emanate from the same inspiration.
The teachings of the Buddha warn of the intensity and difficulty of the struggle to achieve Nirvana. Most of us will fail to fully utilize the blessing that is human existence. The second verse of chapter fourteen of the Dhammapada contains the following warning:
Hard is it to be born a human, hard is the life of mortals. Hard is it to gain the opportunity to hear the Sublime Truth, and hard indeed, to encounter the arising of the Buddhas. Hard to find is the thoroughbred person (the Buddha). One is not born everywhere. Where such a wise person is born, that clan thrives happily.
Buddhists believe that every human should be grateful for his or her life as a human being, because our consciousness provides a rare opportunity for the ultimate self-improvement, which leads to liberation from the sufferings of material existence. The Vedic traditions hold that within the myriad incarnations possible for a soul the human realm is highly desirable, because only sentient beings are capable of renouncing their material lusts and achieving Nirvana. Thus human existence is the ultimate test for a soul so incorporated. But as the preceding passage warns, most of humanity will fail to achieve the final state. This unfortunately reality is because, as verse eight from chapter twelve of the Dhammapada states:
Easy to do are things that are bad and harmful to oneself, but exceedingly difficult to do are things that are good and beneficial.
The truth of these words is self-evident. It is all-too-easy to succumb to temptation, and to live a life that rejects service to others. Only through true knowledge of the nature of our transient bodies and faith in our eternal souls can we overcome our base instincts. Unfortunately, most people will not tread the path of self-control. This unpleasant warning is found throughout the foundational texts of humanity’s various faiths.
Jesus often preached that the path he taught would not be easy to follow. The difficulty of entering into the Kingdom of Heaven is discussed in chapter seven, verses thirteen and fourteen of the book of Matthew. In this passage Jesus instructs humanity to:
Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
The "broad way" that leads to death is the path of materialism. It is very easy to be swayed from the correct path of universal morality by transient pleasures and distractions. All honest, thinking beings can see the truth of Jesus' words. Our material bodies are destined to perish and fade away. This is an undeniable fact. Only by taping into an eternal and ever-present potential can one find the passage to true life. Yet, the "strait gate" of service to the Divine through unceasing compassion is also narrow, and difficult to enter. Only a select few of humanity can escape their imperfections and find the path to everlasting life.
Many of Lao Tzu's admonitions conform to common conclusions found throughout this chapter. In a classically counter-intuitive Taoist outlook, to fully embrace the Tao is both simple and challenging. Section seventy of the Tao te Ching provides a Taoist perspective on the difficulty of living a truly enlightened life:
My words are very easy to understand and very easy to put into practice,
Yet no one in the world can understand them or put them into practice.
Words have an ancestor and affairs have a sovereign.
It is because people are ignorant that they fail to understand me.
Those who understand me are few;
Those who harm me are honoured.
Therefore the sage, while clad in homespun, conceals on his person a priceless piece of jade.
Although the universal teachings of the Divine are simple and easy to understand - restrain your lusts, help other beings, and live with a constant awareness of the omnipresent and eternal Divine order - they are difficult ideals for us as flawed human beings to follow. The spiritually-blinded ignore the realities of the Eternal Spirit and Divine Justice, and misuse their power to thrive in this problematic world. Very few know of the Essence of the Divine, and embrace a life of compassionate morality at the expense of their material well-being. However, to know the Divine is greatly valued, in part because of the very difficulty of such a mission. Therefore the Tao te Ching teaches us, just the other five holy texts examined in this book, that the path of sincere faith is a difficult one.
All religious teachings examined in this book hold that most of members of humanity will fail to live up to their Divine potential. Sura thirty four, verse thirty-six of the Qur'an further reinforces this common warning:
Say: "Verily my Lord enlarges and restricts the Provision to whom He pleases, but most men understand not."
The path of true devotion is an unceasing struggle in our material realm. One must trust in The All-Merciful rather than one’s own material means to provide for the needs of life. Remember, the word Muslim literally means in Arabic "one who submits". All creation is from the same Source, and this life is but a test. To be constantly aware of the Divine within us and others, and to live compassionately in times of both abundance and want is to conform one's live to the immutable Divine realities. One must let go of material whims, constantly serve others, and trust in the unseen order to understand and submit to the nature of the Eternal. Most humans will lack the understanding to embrace such ceaseless morality. Sura thirty, verses six through eight further describe the difficulty and rarity of living a holy life:
Never does Allah depart from His promise: but most men understand not.
They know but the outer (things) in the life of this world: but of the End of things they are heedless.
Do they not reflect in their own minds? Not but for just ends and for a term appointed, did Allah create the heavens and the earth, and all between them: yet are there truly many among men who deny the meeting with their Lord!
These verses explain once more the purpose of the material world. It is a test to see which souls are best in knowledge and deeds. All six holy texts teach that, unfortunately most of humanity will seek only the superficial pleasures of material existence. People are easily distracted from the path of faith and compassion. Far too many will fail to remember the inevitability of Divine reward and retribution. They will deny the possibility of cosmic justice, and lead lives which exploit others. When we look at the humanity's constant fratricidal strife, and the exploitation and destruction of the (Divinely-ordered) natural world wrought by modern society, we can see that indeed, "most men understand not”. The difficulty is embracing a holy life is spoken of in all sacred texts, and evidenced by the unfortunate realities our world.
Hindus believe that all human beings (except for selfless avatars of the Ultimate Divine) are by the very nature of their existence imperfect. If we were not imperfect, achievement of moksha and union with Brahman would have been achieved before our most recent birth. There would be no need for the trials inherent in human life, which can lead to complete self-improvement, if one was already perfect. As Krishna tells Arjuna in chapter two, verses sixty through sixty-three of the Gita:
The senses are so strong and impetuous, O Arjuna, that they forcibly carry away the mind even of a man of discrimination who is endeavoring to control them.
One who restrains his senses, keeping them under full control, and fixes his consciousness upon Me, is known as a man of steady intelligence.
While contemplating the objects of the senses, a person develops attachment for them, and from such attachment lust develops, and from lust anger arises.
From anger, complete delusion arises, and from delusion bewilderment of memory. When memory is bewildered, intelligence is lost, and when intelligence is lost one falls down again into the material pool.
The material illusion is extremely difficult to overcome. The senses are very powerful, and can easily lead one astray. Even those who seek the self-mastery that leads to union with the Supreme Soul may not achieve the ultimate goal. We must control our desires and constantly remember the transient nature of pleasure and pain. Human beings are naturally flawed, but each person must seek the true purpose of this existence by attempting to overcome the lust which leads to evil.
Chapter seven, verse three of the Gita further enumerates the unfortunate realities made explicit in the six holy texts:
Out of many thousands among men, one may endeavor for perfection, and of those who have achieved perfection, hardly one knows Me in truth.
Krishna taught that few people will achieve perfection. Indeed, the majority of humanity does not even seek the path of self-mastery and ultimate knowledge. Of those rare souls who acquire such a goal, even fewer truly know the full nature of the Divine. This passage, which at first seems somewhat pessimistic, has a hidden note of counter-intuitive optimism. Because of the grace of the Ultimate Divine, perfection is possible without complete understanding. However, most of humanity will fail to achieve moksha, the final liberation, because of the distractions of temporal lust. This does not mean that the spiritual quest is unsatisfactory. One must have faith and serve the Divine through knowledge, self-control and unwaveringly compassionate deeds, regardless of temporary setbacks and trials. The warnings found throughout all religions on the difficulty of the pure path are not meant to discourage the effort for self-improvement. A life well-lived shall always merit an unfailing recompense.
Finally, we come to the teachings of Confucius. He laments to his followers, in chapter four verse six of the Analects:
I have not seen a person who loved virtue, or one who hated what was not virtuous. He who loved virtue, would esteem nothing above it. He who hated what is not virtuous, would practice virtue in such a way that he would not allow anything that is not virtuous to approach his person.
Is any one able for one day to apply his strength to virtue? I have not seen the case in which his strength would be insufficient.
Should there possibly be any such case, I have not seen it.
Confucius condemns all of humanity for failing to live up to our innate Divine potential. One who truly “loves virtue” and lives in fully accordance with the mandates of Heaven will constantly think and act in perfect self-control and compassionate morality. This passage from the Analects teaches that we are all capable of perfection, but because of our flawed nature, we fail to completely embrace virtue and rid ourselves of base thoughts and actions. However, like the passage from the Gita quoted above, there is the sense of optimism that perfection is indeed possible. We all have the Spark within us that allows for union with the Ultimate Divine. Perhaps the quest for self-improvement is itself the victory over the evil aspects of our nature.
The commonly-held viewpoint of these six teachings is that the most human beings fail to follow the mandates of their spiritual messengers and do not seek to harness our innate Divine capabilities. This philosophical (and all-too-apparent) reality has serious practical applications for members of all faiths. First and foremost, no religion should seek to achieve political or ideological ascendancy on this earth. If most people will lack a complete understanding, what good is to try to impose a belief system through violence and coercion? No one religion or philosophy will ever completely dominate human society. Attempts to forcibly mandate religious thoughts and actions will only lead to violence, hypocrisy, and a dampening of the true attitude of sincere spirituality. Because the path to enlightenment is difficult, all individuals must focus their efforts on reforming themselves.