You Don’t Have to Know Your Limitations

Even if you’ve never seen one of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry movies, you are probably familiar with the line, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” I may or may not have seen the film that contains this line, I don’t recall (not a big Dirty Harry fan), so I can’t say in exactly what context the remark is made, other than I know he’s pointing a gun at someone. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t say this sentiment is always true.

In the Pali text, Majjhima Nikaya 62, the Buddha says to his son, Rahula,

“Develop a mind similar to space, then things of like and dislike will not take hold of your mind, nor will they remain . . . Rahula, abide in a mind like space.”

In Buddhism, the mind is often compared to space or to the sky. On one hand, the mind is a source of suffering, since negative thoughts and resulting speech and actions are causes of suffering. On the other hand, mind is a source of happiness, and is viewed as having unlimited potential. It is said to be as vast as sky or space.

T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i developed a concept he called i-nien san-ch’ien (Jp. ichinen sanzen) or “three thousand worlds in a single thought,” a way of expressing the notion that the mind is a microcosm of the universe. It is also limitless, permeating the entire universe. There is a theoretical way to understand this, and a practical way.

The practical implication of space-like mind is that we need not be restrained by self-imposed limitations; rather we should make a real effort to be rid of our limitations. We limit ourselves in many ways. As the passage above suggests, likes and dislike take hold of our mind. Our prejudices and preferences keep us in a specific mind-set, a comfort zone of the mind, and once we are settled in, it’s difficult to climb out. When we are reluctant, even afraid, to consider new ideas, new challenges, and so forth, we become prisoners in our own mind. Life is extremely limited behind bars.

Self-doubt is another way we limit ourselves. Self-doubt sends limiting messages to the mind. It also inhibits our ability to think freely, it inhibits our actions, causes depression, worry, dissatisfaction, leaving us feeling unfulfilled. Extreme self-doubt is obviously unhealthy.

There are times where reason and restraint are called for, when being realistic about our abilities will prevent us from making unwise decisions. So, perhaps it’s a good idea after all that we recognize some limitations, but we don’t need to be unnecessarily constrained by them. Our potential may not be literally unlimited, but it’s safe to say that it is far greater than we imagine.

Wayfarers on the Buddha path seeking to transcend sufferings and find happiness in this life should also be earnestly striving to transcend the limitations of the mind. Rebelling against self-shackling narrow mind and self-doubt is absolutely key to developing the boundless life we deserve.

“The capacity of the mind is as vast like space. It is limitless, neither round nor square, neither great nor small, neither blue, yellow, red or white. It is not above or below, or long or short. It is without anger and without joy, without like and dislike, without good or evil, and without beginning or end. The fields of the Buddha are identical to space.”

– The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch

Share