In the life of a spiritual seeker, some experiences are forever after remembered and referred back to. They become markers on the spiritual journey. For me, the years-long study of the Wheel of Birth and Death, a Buddhist mandala, has been such a marker. I did not know that my Wheel study would shape my spiritual understanding of myself. I did not realize the power of my sustained study to be a guide and teacher to which I still often refer.
My study of the Wheel included the creation of a deck of cards, each one an illustration of the six realms of existence: The God, Titan, Human, Animal, Hell and Hungry Ghost Realms. On the playing card I made to depict the Human Realm is an image of a young girl. She is at the bottom of the heap of common human experiences: Family and friends, professional endeavors, enjoyment of the natural world and of beauty and art, the pleasures of having nice things and of reaching towards retirement. The Human Realm illustrates our shared desire for a good life, a happy life, a successful life. The Buddha taught that these human desires are a source of suffering. The young girl on the playing card, underneath all human striving, sees the suffering that life brings. She looks beyond her human experiences and in her looking she wonders, “What else? What am I supposed to learn, be and know while I am here?”
This image reminded me that I have been a seeker since I was a young girl. My seeking ties me to all humans who yearn to be set free of their human bondage, to be released from sorrow and alienation, to be united with wisdom, safety and divine care. As we begin to emerge from the fog of the human pursuit of happiness, we re-member this core impulse. Then we begin to trust that our impulse to seek the divine is leading us somewhere. We realize it can be leaned on, the energy of our yearning like fuel for our engine of transformation.
In my life this seeking, yearning impulse first took me into an exploration of Christianity. Next, I looked to political activity to answer the question, “How can suffering be ended?” My next evolution was into personal, psychological healing of the wounds of life. Each of these arenas ultimately disappointed me. None answered my longing to know that which is out beyond the particulars of one small life, that which holds us in an embrace within which we are free.
We are so lucky when human endeavors fail to satisfy our yearning for Truth. It is that deepest of disappointments, the sorrow of unfulfilled spiritual yearning, the relentless suffering for which we have tried so many remedies—this alone drives our hearts and minds onward, out beyond the life we see and know, out beyond our human existence.
When I found the mystical tradition of Zen, I found a home for my wandering spirit. The visceral feeling of coming home is balm for the seeker. It is another mark of our spiritual location when we see that this tradition, this teacher, these practices are why I am here. They are what I am to do with my life. The spiritual nourishment of committing to a method of practice is of the utmost help when the waves of earthly desires threaten to overwhelm the seeker. When we have our love of the Way, our hearts can lead us through many challenges posed by our habitual minds.
Zen practice has shown me the greed, hate and delusion that drive my suffering and the world’s suffering. The day-to-day work of a student of the Buddha is to peel back the layers of delusional clinging to solid form, to rigid ideas of a self, to all that was once held and may often still be held as dear and true. A post-it on the wall above my desk says, “Cleaning out the storehouse of old conditioning takes a lot of effort.” Beyond the conditioned opinions, the talk and news and family and politics and sickness and all the particulars of this little life lies an open field. The process of uncovering leads toward that open field, the highest form of consciousness available to human beings, the Eternal Wisdom that hails the end of craving, the end of want.
The opening to a spiritual path can lead us to powerful and all-encompassing experiences of this Eternal Wisdom: The indescribable certainty that Ultimate Compassion holds us, the dissolution of objects and people and self-concepts that bring in their wake pure contentment and absolute safety, free of wanting, thinking and knowing. With such experiences come irrefutable evidence that our sense of separation from others exists only in our picking and choosing minds.
Such moments of liberation have brought me the deepest nourishment. Then, old patterns of thought and perception have re-asserted themselves and these glimpses of Reality fade away. But they remain in my heart as gateways into a profoundly loving non-conceptual Truth that holds everything and is nothing. It is that toward which our spiritual calling points.
This powerful calling urges us toward a commitment to making spiritual practice the centerpiece of our brief time here on earth. Becoming ordained as a monk, I found myself receiving the fullest possible attention of my teacher and called to give the fullest possible attention of my life to the possibility of awakening. Such concentrated attention, in concert with shaving one’s head, wearing robes and taking vows, opens the seeker to another deeper level of relinquishment of identity and attachments.
Deeply letting go of so much that is familiar has been compared to falling off a cliff, or riding the rapids of an uncharted river. It is chaotic and scary, filled with uncertainty. Riding these rapids, we are asked to examine everything we think and feel and “know.” The examination takes us even into an exploration of our commitment to this path. We confront our own doubt and disbelief, our despair and cynicism, our desire for an easier path to glory. Spiritual doubt is a necessary component of the journey, each time it arises an opportunity to encounter the very heart-center of our willingness to continue.
When one can sustain the fall over the cliff, the rough travel over the rapids, one comes to know that all of these dark corners, all of the pain and unhappiness are necessary components of the spiritual project. They come to us so that we may come to see that all the demons are not “out there” but in our craving hearts and minds. We learn to hold this, our suffering, care-fully, dis-passionately, with gratitude. It takes effort and help from all the saints and teachers to learn from our personal struggles and reactivity, to calm down and dis-identify with it. In the end, the suffering we can endure and learn from: This is what shows us the Way.
Devotion, that very special quality of the heart that yearns to know Buddha mind, that keeps going, that can submit to the fire, this devotion grows stronger as the path leads on. Determination to drop the thoughts and feelings, to drop the pushing toward this and the choosing that, combine with devotion to the aim of being no one, going nowhere. Devotion to remaining aware of each and every experience as it is experienced, aware of the ego’s delusional take on experience and aware of being rooted in Reality, emptiness, no-self. These are our refuges, our protection.
Also a refuge: Just This. Uncovering Ultimate Truth is a matter of waiting for life to unfold, not gearing up. It is a matter of trusting the generous possibility for awakening embedded in every experience, no matter how difficult or confusing, no matter how much we want to skip over it, diminish it, blame someone else. It is a matter of first seeing, then relinquishing everything we think, feel and know so that we may trust the Source, not understand more, have more or be more. In this letting go lies the possibility for the realization that nothing is solid, substantial, lasting. Everything is change and flux. This knowing comes only as the ego is dismantled, self-concept by self-concept, day by day.
To sustain such a deep and all-encompassing practice, we seek to remain still, calm, kind to ourselves, patient, willing. We seek to fully accept and utilize the direction and wisdom of our teachers. It takes time. It is profoundly humbling. Failure and fear are our companions. And, we are not in charge. There is only practice with what is right here, right now. Incredibly, increasingly, silence pervades where once the conditioning was on fire. Incredibly, increasingly, wondering turns into wonder, gratitude and thanks-giving. To encounter such a measure of tranquility is yet another marker of the journey up the spiritual mountain, another gift from the Source of exactly the energy necessary to keep going.
Out beyond the delusion of this material world we taste the tranquil Buddha Mind stillness of ease, good will, trust and safety. In good times and hard. There, the heart rests free of attachment to the world of things. There, we know that all we cling to is only change and this knowing frees us from this mind, from this body. Buddha Mind is us. This Buddha Mind that is us: It has always been here, there, everywhere.
Lao Huo Shakya
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