awakening

How to enter the stream

What you need to do to become a stream entrant

There are certain things you need to do, and attitudes that you need to cultivate, if you’re going to set up the conditions for insight to arise.

You’ll need periods of intensive practice, such as going on retreat. And I don’t mean just getting away for the odd weekend, which is all some people say they can manage. You need to have intensive spells of meditation for a week, ten days, two weeks, preferably longer.

Sometimes we find it hard to have the time. I heard someone say that when you say you don’t have time to do something it’s not a statement of fact, it’s a statement of values. When we say we don’t have time to go on retreat, this is a statement of what we think is important. Certainly there are practical difficulties — if you have a young child it’s very hard to get away for those first few years — but with time (and willingness) we can overcome these difficulties.

You need to do a lot of work to become a more positive person. You need to get rid of the gross manifestations of greed, hatred, and delusion. You need to be reasonably ethical. You need to work on being kind. You need to take responsibility for yourself. You have to have done a lot of letting go. You need to work on bringing Buddhist practice into your daily life. Your practice can’t be a hobby, and has to be the central orienting principle in your life. So your life has to be your practice. Your work has to be your practice, your parenting has to be your practice, your parenting and your friendships have to be your practice. Every aspect of your life has to become an avenue for cultivating mindfulness, compassion, and insight.

You’re going to need a sangha to do all of the above. We need other people to encourage us — and to challenge us. It’s all too easy for us to kid ourselves on about how spiritual we are, or to let ourselves off the hook when we face a spiritual challenge. A sangha holds a mirror up in front of us, so that we can see ourselves more clearly.

You need to have an enquiring mind. It’s very difficult to develop insight if you’re not prepared to question. And by this I don’t mean making a pain of yourself and arguing about everything. Gaining insight is about questioning your experience and questioning your assumptions about the world — your assumptions about where happiness comes from, your assumptions about who you are, your assumptions about things having permanence. Unless you’re prepared to question, you can’t break the fetters.

The enquiring mind is not afraid of uncertainty. In fact the enquiring mind thrives on uncertainty. I think a lot of what holds people back is too quickly assuming that they understand. It’s so easy to assent to Buddhist concepts, and being clever and having a quick mind can be a problem as well as a blessing. It’s easy to take ideas on board because they seem reasonable, without really thinking them through. The reason I decided to go study Buddhism at university was after I started noticing this in myself. I discovered that I could hold two contradictory ideas in my head at the same time. I could switch seamlessly from one to the other without ever noticing the contradiction, and I wanted an opportunity to be forced to think clearly. To give one example, it’s common to hear that the “eastern tradition” is that we should never talk about spiritual accomplishments such as enlightenment. So if we get enlightened we should be modest and never say anything about it. And then five minutes later we’ll read a sutta where the Buddha, or one of his disciples, proclaims his spiritual attainment, and think how wonderfully confident this all is. Another example would be believing that we literally have to aim to save all sentient beings in order to awaken, and in the next moment reading the Buddha’s life story in which he first gets awakened and then feels impelled to teach and help others. Often we never notice that we have two contradictory ideas in our mind, since each is only evoked under specific circumstances.

Stream entry involves breaking three fetters

Stream entry involves breaking three out of the ten fetters that hold us back from full awakening. These fetters are habits and views and acts of clinging that stop us from making progress.

The first fetter is “self-view.” It’s often expressed as “fixed self-view.” This is the assumption we have that we have a fixed and separate self that’s running the show of our lives. It’s not just that if we think we can’t change, we won’t, although that is true. This fetter is rather more subtle than that. It’s the view that there is a self that is somehow separate from our ever-changing experiences. So we may notice that our experiences are changing, but assume there’s some kind of stable, permanent self that has those experiences. But where could this kind of self lie?

To break this fetter, we have to simply notice, over and over again, that there’s nothing permanent in our experience. It’s not that we just understand impermanence intellectually. That’s often what we do. We talk about impermanence rather than just looking.

We watch our physical sensations. over and over, and see that they’re changing. We enquire. We look deeply. We question assumptions. So we find ourselves thinking “I’ve had this headache all day.” Well, actually you haven’t. Look closer. You’ve had it for a microsecond. Before that you had a slightly different headache for a microsecond. You’ve had a gazillion headaches, all a microsecond long, and each one different. So you notice this endless parade of headaches, coming and going, pulsing and throbbing. You come to realize that the headache is not a permanent thing. At some point you realize that everything that constitutes our sense of self is like that. Even the consciousness that notices the headaches coming and going is changing all the time. There’s nothing here but change. There’s no room for the kind of permanent self that we assume “has” our experiences.

This fetter, although we call it “(fixed) self view” is literally the fetter of “real body view” (sakkāya ditthi) and this literal sense of the term is an important component of the fetter. At a certain point we lose the sense of having a body, and instead we experience ourselves as a mass of ever-changing sensations. There’s a loss of the sense of solidity and permanence of the body. But this experience of the body dissolving doesn’t stop with the body. It extends to every aspect of our experience, and even to our sense of self.

So this is all you need to do. Just look. Notice that everything’s changing. And keep doing this until the penny drops that all there is is change. It’s really simple. We do this with physical sensations, feelings, thoughts, etc.

The second fetter is doubt. All three fetters break at the same time, so this one goes automatically when the fetter of self view breaks. When we break the fetter of self view, we see everything’s changing. This is changing, that is changing, everything is changing. And then it clicks, there’s nothing here that’s permanent. There’s nothing solid in my self.

Now this is very liberating! We’ve been under the grip of a delusion all our lives — the delusion of having a fixed and separate self. There’s been doubt about all this Freudian stuff lurking under the surface. There’s been doubt that we may be fundamentally incapable of becoming enlightened because of all the baggage we’ve been dragging around. And there’s been doubt about whether Buddhist practice can even go beyond making us a bit happier. Now doubt vanishes. Now we have confidence — confidence that comes from the evidence of our senses. So where could there be doubt? Where could it exist? How can your baggage hold you back when it’s impermanent and insubstantial? You’ve seen the reality of not-self, and there’s no room for doubt. (There will be other doubts about other things, but this particular doubt has gone).

The third fetter is “dependence on ethics and religious observances.” The wording of this fetter is strangely complex compared to the others, and it’s also harder to connect this with an experience that happens at the same as the other two fetters break. But apart from the stunning insight that there is no substance to the self, and the surge of confidence we feel as doubt falls away, there’s one other powerful experience that happens at stream entry — a sense of the immediacy and obviousness of the insights we’ve just experienced. Now that we’ve seen, we wonder why we haven’t seen before. After all, the reality of the insubstantiality of the self is out there in the open, just waiting to be seen. The reality of impermanence is not exactly a secret. So there’s this sense of wonder that this is all so easy to do, and we puzzle over why we haven’t seen it before.

So how does this relate to dependence on ethics and religious observances? Basically, this fetter seems to refer to the practices we’ve done that have ended up being a distraction from seeing impermanence and seeing the insubstantiality of the self. We get caught up in external practices that are distractions, like trying to be a “good Buddhist” and trying to impress, and especially trying to understand intellectually rather than just looking and seeing what’s right there in front of us.

Of course we need, in a way, to rely on ethics and religious practices. But sometimes we use them as distractions. We cling to the form of our practice and forget the spirit. We keep forgetting, on some level, what the purpose of practice is. And actually all we have to do is look. And look again. And again. Until finally the penny drops.

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Four ways to shake up your meditation practice

4 ways to shake up your meditation practiceLast month I wrote about how sometimes your meditation practice may seem to be going nowhere, and how that’s OK. It’s the “seems” that’s important, because sometimes you just can’t see the change that’s taking place, slowly and gradually, in your brain and mind. Connections can be growing, or strengthening in the brain, and you can be completely unaware of that until perhaps some tipping point is reached and you notice that you act differently, or feel differently, or see things differently.

But there are also times that you might want to shake things up. Here are four things you can do to stop your practice becoming stale.

Go deeper
You probably get habitual in your meditation. When you’re doing the mindfulness of breathing you probably pay attention to pretty much the same set of sensations every time, and call that “the breathing” or “the breath.” But we can shake that up and go deeper. Ask yourself, what is the breathing? Where do the sensations of “breathing” end and the sensations of “not-breathing” begin (that is, parts of the body that are not involved in breathing)? Elsewhere I’ve suggested ways to go deeper in that practice.

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Similarly in lovingkindness practice you probably get habitual. Maybe it works for you and you get a warm glow of kindness. But perhaps you need to look more closely at what you do, and what you allow into awareness and exclude from awareness. Perhaps there are parts of yourself you leave out (parts of your body you don’t pay attention to) or perhaps there are aspects of other people that you haven’t considered (it’s life-changing to realize that everyone is basically seeking happiness, and finding happiness elusive, for example). So you can look for parts of the body that you’ve ignored, and pay attention to the feelings that arise there. You can let a fuller awareness of others enter your mind by cultivating a sense of curiosity about them. Or maybe you’re busy doing the practice, but you don’t pay much attention to the feeling tone of how you do the practice. Can you soften? Become kinder? If you do, everything else will change.

Find your “cutting edge”
Right now I’m paying particular attention to the factors that give rise to jhāna, which is a deeply enjoyable and focused state of “flow” in meditation. I’m paying attention to cultivating the factors that lead to this flow state, and I’m paying attention to different transitions in my experience once the flow state is established. At other times I’ve really paid attention to the impermanence of each sensation, and really focused, moment by moment, on my constantly changing experience. I like to have a “cutting edge” in my practice, something I’m specifically working on.

What are you working on? Do you have any goals in meditation? Having goals doesn’t mean grasping after results, or rejecting your present experience. It simply means having a sense of the direction which you’re gently heading. For many people this is hard to understand, because they habitually grasp after attaining goals, but the apparent paradox of having goals yet being in the moment is worth exploring.

See the big picture
What’s your overall purpose in meditating? Is it to de-stress? Is it to be happier? Is it to be a better person so that you cause less suffering to others? Those are all excellent purposes, but they’re not enough. If you want to de-stress you’re trying to reduce suffering, and there is, according to the Buddhist tradition, an end-point where suffering is eliminated. If you want to be happier, there’s an ultimate state of peace that can be attained, which makes every other state of happiness look unsatisfactory in comparison. That state of peace, that end of suffering, is called bodhi, awakening, or enlightenment. If you want to cause less suffering to others … well, you get my point.

There’s no point grasping after awakening. If you grasp, you’ll just suffer more. But how about if you entered every meditation with the sense that you’re heading, ultimately, toward a radical shift in consciousness in which there is no grasping, no hatred — in which there’s deep peace, clarity, and compassion. And the attainment of this state may be, for all you know, just at the end of the next breath. Awakening has a habit of appearing unexpectedly. Often it’s come to people when they’ve been profoundly depressed, even suicidal. So see if you can have a sense that something mysterious and amazing is just a hair’s-breadth away. Let there be a sense of openness and wonder in your practice of meditation.

Do more
Sometimes you need to just do a lot more meditation. You need to get on retreat. This can be challenging, but that’s the point! If your meditation practice is a bit boring, you can probably handle that if you’re sitting for 30 minutes a day. But if you’re sitting for six hours? Or eight hours? You’ll probably get to the point fairly soon where you realize that you have to make a change. It’s either that or go crazy. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a breakthrough in your practice before you get to the stage of feeling like your head will explode (note: that has never actually happened to anyone in the entire 2,500 year history of Buddhist meditation), but sometimes you have to experience a crisis before you have that breakthrough. It’s tough to experience, but in the end it’s worth it.

Lastly, how do you know when you should just accept that your practice seems to be going nowhere, and when you should shake things up?

The things I’ve talked about above are things I think you’ve been doing all the time. I think if we all did these things — go for depth in our practice with an attitude of openness and curiosity; had a clear sense of something that we’re working on; keep in mind that enlightenment is what we’re working toward and that it may happen in any moment; and periodically do more intense periods of practice — then we wouldn’t have a sense of our meditation being stuck in a rut. Instead it would be a fresh and exciting thing to get on the cushion. So do these things first, and if you still feel stuck in a rut, then just be stuck. Accept your stuckness, and just keep doing the practice.

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Why meditation isn’t the main thing in my life

Given that I’m a meditation teacher and the author of a good number of books and audiobooks on meditation, you might think that meditation should be the central thing in my life. But — and this is something I only just realized — it’s not.

I’ve carried around, not very consciously, the idea that meditation should be the most important, the most central, thing in my life. And I suspect that this mostly unconscious idea has led to inner conflict and resistance. Certainly, when I realized just the other day that meditation wasn’t and shouldn’t be the central thing in my life, I felt unburdened. I felt lighter, freer, and clearer. The notion that meditation should be the central thing in my life was something that had been weighing me down.

It’s not that I don’t take meditation seriously. I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am. To use a common, but useful, analogy, brushing my teeth isn’t the most important part of my life, but I make sure I do it at least twice each day.

What is the most important thing in my life? What brings me the most happiness and gives me the sense that my life is being spent in a meaningful way is seeing people grow and become happier. Having a hand in that process is deeply fulfilling. So basically helping people is the central thing in my life.

But even that’s a bit of a simplification. I have a drive to become awakened, or enlightened. Or at least I have a drive to seek a meaningful way of living that maximizes my sense of happiness and peace and that minimizes the amount of unnecessary suffering I experience. That’s my quest. And it just so happens that the Buddhist goal of spiritual awakening and the Buddhist path to awakening match up with my own goal. That’s not surprising, since the whole Buddhist path is about ending suffering and finding peace.

I sometimes talk about my quest (and always think about it) as wanting to know the mind of the Buddha. Now that might sound a little selfish, or self-centered, but there’s another factor. It turns out that if I want to maximize my happiness, minimize the amount of unnecessary suffering I experience, experience more peace, and feel that I’m living life meaningfully, then I need to help others.

I can’t exactly explain why. You can call it “interconnectedness” if you want. You can talk about it in terms of non-duality. But fundamentally, helping others to move toward awakening (whether or not they’re aware that’s where they’re headed) seems to be inseparable from my own movement toward enlightenment. This is what the Mahāyāna called mahākaruṇā, or great compassion, in which we aim to guide all beings to the happiness of awakening. I believe this is what the earlier Buddhist tradition also called upekkhā, the fourth brahmavihāra. Everyone else is going to tell you that upekkhā is “equanimity,” but the root of the word upekkhā suggests that it originally meant “to watch over closely” and its place as the pinnacle of the brahmavihāras convinces me that upekkhā and mahākaruṇā are the same thing.

There’s another way you can express all this, which is to say that the Buddha (enlightenment, awakening, living an awakened life) is at the center of my life. And if I think of my life as a maṇṇḍ ala — a symbolic arrangement of values — then the Buddha is at the center of my maṇṇḍ ala.

Ideally, I’d like everything else in my life to relate to and be supportive of the center. That’s far from being the case: I have anger and craving and any number of bad habits that represent movements away from the center. But that’s what practice is about. It helps us to “want one thing.”

Meditation is just a support — albeit a crucial one — to the goal of getting myself and all beings to awakening: my “one thing.” It can never be, never has been, and never should be the most important thing in my life, even though it’s a crucial practice.

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“There Is No God and He Is Always with You,” by Brad Warner

There Is No God and He Is Always with You, Brad Warner

Brad Warner is an unconventional American Zen teacher, who seems sincerely to believe that he has found God, that God should be — or even is — an intrinsic part of Buddhist practice and realization, that others would benefit if they found God too, and who thinks that that believing in God might actually help us solve the world’s problems. He outlines all this in his latest book, There Is No God And He Is Always With You, in which he offers “straight talk about why this ‘godless religion’ [Zen Buddhism] has a lot to say about God.”

Some of the above will be as confounding for you as it was for me. After all, Buddhism is a non-theistic religion. The Buddha was not God, his spiritual realization had nothing to do with finding God, and the teachings that Buddhists follow have nothing to do with God. Buddhism in fact is attractive to many of us because it’s a spiritual tradition that is non-theistic, but Warner stands this on its head:

…in my opinion it’s entirely wrong to say that Buddhism is a religion without a God. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. To me Buddhism is a way to approach and understand God without dealing with religion.

The God that Warner believes in is not the anthropomorphic deity who, in popular imagination, sits in the sky making judgements about us and choosing, on Saturday afternoons, which college football team he will favor. Warner’s God is the entire universe, is us, is essentially indefinable, and is the supreme truth and ground of all being. For example:

Title: There Is No God And He Is Always With You
Author: Brad Warner
Publisher: New World Library
ISBN: 978-1-60868-183-9
Available from: New World Library, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

  • “I believed that the nonmaterial aspects of our existence were real elements of the natural universe, and that we might call those aspects of the universe God.” (page 138)
  • “I’m not talking about God as the first cause of everything. I’m saying that our direct experience of life is God. Life is God experiencing God.” (page 81)
  • “God transcends any attributes we could imagine. Attributes, qualities, and characteristics all distinguish something from other things. But one of God’s attributes is that he is everything.” (page 122)
  • “…the Chinese word inmo … refers to the ineffable substratum of reality, the ground of all being and nonbeing. To me, this is just another way of saying God.” (page XIV)
  • “The supreme truth is, to me, another name for God.” (XIV)

Warner feels qualified to teach God as a part of Buddhism because he has, he believes, had an experience of God. One time when Warner was crossing a bridge in Tokyo (although he stresses that his experience was outside space and time) he experienced himself as being “spread throughout the universe and throughout all of time.” It sounds like a powerful altered state of perception, although it might seem odd that a Buddhist — someone practicing in a nontheistic religion, would interpret such an experience in theistic terms, which he does: “This was God. Is God. Will always be God,” and “I came away from the experience knowing certain things for absolute fact. I know now that God exists.”

Now, having an experience is one thing, but having had experiences we want to “explain” them in some way, often in terms of our previous beliefs and mindsets. In fact, Warner actually points out, in the context of how spiritual experiences such as this can be dangerous, “You need to work through a lot of your personal shit before you get into something like this, or you’ll only be able to experience it in terms of your own personal shit.”

So the question that arises for me, as a Buddhist who feels no need to interpret his own experiences in theistic terms, and with reluctance to be reductionist and psychological, is whether God is part of Warner’s “shit” that he has not worked through. Interestingly, it seems that he had been searching for God through his Zen practice. For example, “I got into [Zen] for a number of other reasons … but the biggest one was that I wanted to know if God really existed.” So, it does sound rather like Warner had a pre-existing notion of God — wanted to believe in the existence of God, in fact — went looking for God in Zen (an unlikely venue, I would have thought) and then ended up interpreting a powerful experience of nonduality in terms of God.

There are clues in the book suggesting why Warner felt the need to see his spiritual quest in terms of God. In discussing an early Christian theory that God is beyond concepts like existence and non-existence, Warner points out:

“…in order to agree with the logic, you have to first accept that there is something called God who is infinite and omniscient and transcendent and so on. But what if you don’t believe in that in the first place? What if you’re coming to this discussion from the standpoint that all matter is essentially dead and that consciousness is just an accident arising from the movement of electricity in the cerebral cells of animals who think far too highly of their own random brain farts?

So we have a classic false dichotomy here: There is either a God, or we live in a dead universe in which consciousness is nothing more than meaningless “brain farts.” God or meaninglessness. Some of us don’t feel the need to be trapped in that dichotomy and in fact see the Dharma as a middle way — as providing a sense of the life and the universe as containing meaning without recourse to the terminology of “God.” Certainly the Buddha seemed to have no need of such concepts, and I think he knew a thing or two about his own realization.

Similarly we find (on page 188) “When we forget God we treat one another and the world we live in as objects.” This is a classic argument: if we don’t believe in God we can’t be good. God or meaninglessness. And yet many of us — Buddhists, atheists — find that we are perfectly capable of not treating others as objects. Lovingkindness and compassion are virtues that, in Buddhism, don’t rely on God. Morality in Buddhism does not rely on God. In fact morality, in Buddhism, arises from the very structure of the mind, in that our suffering or lack of suffering depend on our volitions, and the thoughts, words, and acts that spring from them. Thus, morality is intrinsic to the mind, and therefore to the universe.

Warner apparently cannot disengage life having meaning, a sense of the universe being alive, and morality from the concept of God. It’s not, therefore, surprising that he went searching for God, nor that he found Him.

On the whole I find Warner’s writing to be very interesting and endearingly honest. For example he’ll tell you something about quantum physics and then say he doesn’t understand it and so isn’t a good person to explain it. But often his talk strikes me as less than “straight,” and he repeatedly uses phrases suggesting that God is an established part of Buddhism. It’s fine when he says something like, “To me Buddhism is a way to approach and understand God without dealing with religion.” But then he’ll say something like “I think it expresses the Zen Buddhist approach to the matter of God very succinctly” (emphasis added). That Zen Buddhism has an approach to the matter of God is a surprise to me.

Similarly:

“There is no God and he is always with you” may sound like a simple non sequitur or a typical pointless Zen riddle. But it expresses the Zen point of view about God very succinctly. Even though what you think of as God can’t possibly exist, there is a real spiritual dimension to this world. There is something that can be called God. [Emphasis added.]

So again we have “the Zen point of view about God,” which seems to be suggesting that God is a part of Zen Buddhism. This Zen point of view, we’re told, is that “there is a real spiritual dimension to this world” (which few would argue with), but also that “there is something that can be called God.” That there is something that can be called God is not, to the best of my knowledge. a part of traditional Zen teaching, although Warner’s choice of words suggests that it is.

And again, he states that the book is an “attempt to make the Zen approach to the question of God comprehensible to a contemporary Western audience steeped in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions.” Not “one Zen Buddhist’s approach to the question of God,” nor “my approach to the question of God,” but “the Zen approach to God.”

If this is a technique for trying to give the impression that Zen (or Buddhism generally) has a position that is favorable to God, then it’s one that I’m disturbed by. It strikes me as talk that is the opposite of straight.

A similar pattern is found in Warner’s discussion of Dogen’s Shobogenzo. At first we have clarity: “Dogen’s writing never mentions God specifically.” Then Warner states his contradictory opinion, making it clear that it is an opinion, “In spite of this, I believe that Dogen’s Buddhism directly addresses questions about the nature of God.” That’s Warner’s belief. That’s fine.

But then the slippery slope begins: “Whenever I read this chapter I tend to substitute the word God for inmo. I don’t know what else Dogen could possibly be talking about other than God.” I don’t know any Japanese, but “inmo” (in other places I’ve seen it as “immo”) seems to be the Chinese or Japanese translation of the Sanskrit “tāthatā,” which is usually rendered as “suchness” — an odd-sounding word meaning something like “the way things are” or “reality.” In a Buddhist context it never means anything like “God.”

Then the momentum of our slippery slope grows: “it’s useful to look at what Dogen wrote about his concept of God” (emphasis added). Now we’re being told that Dogen has a concept of God, although he wrote about no such thing; he wrote about tāthatā, which Warner imagines must be God because he doesn’t know what else Dogen could possibly be talking about. I guess if you have a hammer and are desperate to use it, then everything starts to look like a nail.

Also:

This is where [Dogen] starts to talk about God. He says that another name for “it” [i.e. “inmo/immo, or tathatha/suchness] is the “supreme truth of bodhi.” The word bodhi means “enlightenment” or “awakening.” Dogen says, “The situation of this supreme truth of bodhi is such that even the whole universe in ten directions is just a small part of the supreme truth of bodhi: it may be that the truth of bodhi abounds beyond the universe.”

“This is where he starts to talk about God.” I see no talk about God in that passage, or in anything else Warner quotes from Dogen. I see some deep and intriguing talk about tāthatā and about “the supreme truth of bodhi.” But there’s nothing about God.

And later, “the Buddhist view of things is that God is neither spirit nor matter.” I was unaware that Buddhism had such a view.

These statements seem to me to fly in the face of Warner’s claims to be delivering “straight talk.”

I’m not arguing, of course, that Buddhists, especially in modern times, have talked about God one way or another. Warner gives examples, such as Nishijima Roshi (“God is the universe, the universe is God”), who has taught a lot of westerners and thus has had to deal with questions about God. The expression “There is no God and he is always with you” comes ultimately from Sasaki Roshi, who has also spent a long time (in the US) teaching westerners. But these are responses to people trying to reconcile their existing belief in God with their explorations of the non-theism of Buddhism.

So I’m just saying that God is not an established part of Buddhist teaching — in fact is alien to Buddhist teaching — but that Warner’s choice of words suggest he’s trying to give the impression that Dogen and other traditional Buddhist teachers have a view of God. But even in discussing contemporary teachers, Warner again tends to insert God where he hasn’t been mentioned:

“In Kobun Chino’s words, ‘You are held by the hand of the absolute’: that is, God holds his own hand.” But Kobun’s statement had nothing at all to do with God. He was again talking about tāhtatā, or something similar.

Warner admits that his use of the term “God” is problematic. He says more than once that it’s “dangerous” (page 175) and that it’s also divisive:

I think it would be better for us as Westerners to start using that dangerous and divisive word God when we talk about what happened to Buddha all those centuries ago and what continues to happen to contemporary people who follow his way.

He also accepts that the term God is eternalistic (that is, it contradicts impermanence) and dualistic, but seems to see that — somehow — as a plus:

The fact that eternalism/dualism is enshrined by the word God is one of the many facets of it that makes the word so useful, I think. The nature of my practice has always been that whenever I believe I’ve finally figured out what things mean, there ’s always another aspect that I’ve missed. Just when I believed Buddhism was all about getting rid of eternalism and dualism, there it was in the very fabric of the universe itself, something eternal and dualistic.”

Why does Warner think that this problematic, dangerous, divisive, eternalistic, and dualistic language is useful? Partly because there’s too much talk about enlightenment being something easy to attain, in contrast to “seeing God,” which is not easy to attain:

This is one reason that I’m trying to introduce the word God into the Western Buddhist dialogue. The word enlightenment, or substitutes such as transformation, seems to suggest a psychological state that one might induce with some kind of seminar or fancy technique or drugs. If we start talking in terms of “seeing God,” it might become clearer to everyone that we’re talking about something much grander and much more difficult.

I think this is an insightful identification of a problem, combined with one of the worst conceivable suggestions for a solution. In traditional Christian terms, “seeing God” was indeed a task for spiritual heroes, who would have to go to extreme lengths (sometimes literally — they were often hermits) and commit to challenging and sometimes dangerous practices (some saints starved themselves almost to death in order to see God). And Buddhist teachers touting workshops that promise help you to “realize a deep experience of True Self” (In only two days! For $5000!) are clearly presenting a misleading account of what enlightenment is and how it is attained. But perhaps rather than introducing an alien and problematic concept to Buddhism we should be trying to promote a better understanding of enlightenment and of the difficulty of attaining it. My own equivalent of “seeing God” is my quest to “know the mind of the Buddha,” which is something I see as a lifelong quest, and not something that can be done in a two-day event at the Embassy Suites, LAX South (10:00 AM Monday to 6:00 PM Tuesday).

I’m actually sympathetic to what Warner is trying to achieve. As well as wanting to get away from the idea that enlightenment is easy to attain, he wants people to escape the notion that the universe is “dead” and meaningless. He wants people to see the world as alive, and to have personal connection with reality. He wants people to see themselves as being vaster than they can possibly imagine. These are all excellent aims. But you don’t need God for any of this. Buddhist teachings and practice already lead to these perspectives, and in fact it was presumably Warner’s Buddhist practice that provoked realization of connectedness, timelessness, and a profound sense of meaning. But he’s unfortunately interpreted that experience in terms of (to use his expression) the “shit” that he hasn’t worked through about God.

For an example of the universe as a loving, living presence, here’s one of my favorite quotes from Jan Chozen Bays’ book, How to Train a Wild Elephant:

Seeing with loving eyes is not a one-way experience, nor is it just a visual experience. When we touch something with loving eyes, we bring a certain warmth from our side, but we may also be surprised to feel warmth radiating back to us. We begin to wonder, is everything in the world made of love? And have I been blocking that out?

A sense of the world being imbued with a loving presence is not uncommon when we practice the brahmaviharas which, unfortunately, are an aspect of Buddhist practice that has been dropped by the Zen tradition.

Or in the Indo-Tibetan tradition we have the teaching of the universe as the manifestation of a primordial, living reality. Here’s the Dalai Lama:

I understand the Primordial Buddha, also known as Buddha Samantabhadra, to be the ultimate reality, the realm of the Dharmakaya — the space of emptiness — where all phenomena, pure and impure, are dissolved.

But His Holiness also clarifies: “It would be a grave error to conceive of [the Primordial Buddha] as an independent and autonomous existence from beginningless time.” In other words don’t think about this primordial reality as a separate God. Actually, that’s pretty similar to what Warner says, but without the problematic language. Which is my point; Buddhism already has it covered.

The Indo-Tibetan approach is subtle because it allows for us having a personal relationship with reality — a sense that the universe is imbued with compassion and wisdom — but at the same time it has a non-dualistic view. As the Dalai Lama puts it, “we do not visualize this source as a unique entity, but as the ultimate clear light of each being. We can also, on the basis of its pure essence, understand this clear light to be the Primordial Buddha.” We can even feel a strong sense of personal connection with the Dharmakaya (primordial reality) as it manifests through the Sambhogakaya — the forms we perceive as Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, with whom we can have a personal connection, all while not seeing them as separate from the nature of our own mind.

This may need some unpacking, or even some struggle, for many peple to understand it, but it seems clear to me that Buddhism already has, in non-theistic terms, what Warner sees as God, but without using the term God.

I think real problems emerge when you try to force God language into Buddhism. Warner at one point says that God is a good term to use for what Zen is about because “shoving the word God into a tidy intellectual container would be like trying to shove a live octopus into a Kleenex box.” But shoving the word “God” into Buddhism is equally problematic.

One practical problem is that many people are in fact looking for a religious tradition that doesn’t hinge on belief in a God, and will be put off by God-talk.

Another is that there’s a serious danger that once you force God into Buddhism, you no longer have Buddhism, but some kind of New Age quasi-Hinduism, or even something barely distinguishable from some of the nicer forms of Christianity.

And the very term “God,” as Warner points out, is divisive, dualistic, and dangerous. He thinks this is a good thing for Buddhism; I don’t. And once you start thinking of your spiritual quest in terms of wanting to know “what God wants from you” (the title of one of the chapters) you’ve opened the way to some dangerous delusions.

Despite my many reservations, there were things I liked about this book. I could write a lot about themes he raised, but I’ve already gone on longer than I’d intended. Short version: Brad Warner is a funny and interesting teacher. He’s endearingly self-deprecating. There are some great discussions about the nature of faith, about the need to be ready for awakening, about the nature of time, and about the problems of translation. Having read his book I definitely want to hang out with Dogen’s Shobogenzo.

But on the whole, the last thing I think Western Buddhism needs is the intrusion of God.

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Going all the way… (Day 97)

Stone steps ascendingI’ve been talking about the “divine abiding” of upekkha as being not equanimity, as it’s usually translated, but something that’s much warmer and more compassionate and supportive.

Equanimity suggests standing back, but the word upekkha means “closely watching.” I see upekkha as an intimate identification with beings’ deepest needs, and our desire that they experience the peace of awakening.

Just as mudita is when we want beings to develop skillful qualities and the peace and joy that comes from those qualities, so upekkha is when we want beings to develop insight, and the peace and joy that comes from that insight.

Upekkha is what the Mahāyāna came to call mahā-karunā — great compassion — in contrast to the brahmavihara of compassion, which is a simpler desire to relieve beings of suffering.

Because upekkha means wishing that beings awaken, you might make an assumption that upekkha is something you can’t really get into until you’ve gained some insight or had some deep experience of deep peace ourselves, but I don’t think that that would be a helpful or correct assumption. We can want the peace and joy of awakening for ourselves and for others without actually having experienced it. In fact it’s inevitable that this is the case. We’re always seeking some peace that is not yet ours. We can’t, by definition, know what awakening is like until we’ve experienced it. We don’t even know what is going to bring insight about.

100 Days of LovingkindnessBut we can have a sense of the direction we want to head in. We can have a sense of what we want to move away from — craving, aversion, and the suffering they bring. We can have an emerging sense of liberation from suffering as we learn to let go, to notice our experience mindfully and non-reactively, and to develop greater compassion. This amounts to a sense of direction, with a destination that’s essentially unknown.

This is one of the odd things about practicing the Dharma; we don’t really know what the goal is. The Buddha certainly didn’t say a lot about what the experience of being awakened was like. He talked about it as being beyond the scope of words to describe, although he did repeatedly describe it as being blissful, joyful, and peaceful. So all we have to go on is hints, and a promise of some experience very different from our own.

Blind faith? Sometimes it might be, but essentially it’s confidence and trust (two words that in some ways translate “shraddha” better than “faith”) based on experience. If you’ve followed the guidance of the Buddha and found that meditating and living ethically have brought more of a sense of meaning, peace, and sometimes joy into your life, then you have some experiential basis for trusting that maybe this guy knew what he was talking about. And if he talked about a goal that’s the ultimate in peace and joy, however obliquely, then there’s some basis for trust — or “faith,” if you like.

And if we want to experience goal for ourselves (so to speak, since it’s not something that can be grasped or possessed), we can compassionately want others to experience that goal.

So we don’t have to have experience of the goal to be in a position to want it for others.

It’s not that we go all evangelistic and start pestering everyone we meet, asking them if they’ve “heard the word of the Buddha” and pressing little tracts into their hands. But we can learn to relate to others on the basis of what they can become, rather than on the basis of whatever constellation of habits and traits they happen to be right now. We can view others lovingly and compassionately, valuing their potential, and being an encouraging presence. This is the “close watching” of upekkha.

We don’t need to have experienced awakening to have upekkha, but one thing we do need is a desire for awakening. You can have lovingkindness for others — wishing for them to be happy — without personally feeling any connection with the goal of awakening, or enlightenment. You can have compassion for others — wishing for them to be free from suffering — without thinking about enlightenment at all. And similarly you can have mudita, and want others to become skillful and experience the peace and joy of a skillful life, without wanting to be enlightened. But I don’t think you can wish awakening for others unless you wish it for yourself.

And this is something that’s often strangely lacking in many Buddhists. Many of the practitioners I’ve met want to be better people. They want to be happier. They want to cause less suffering to others. But their ideals are very much rooted in puñña, or merit — becoming an incrementally better person by developing skillful qualities — rather than in pañña, or wisdom, which is a radical shift in the way we see ourselves. It’s quite common for Buddhists not to think about awakening, not to talk about awakening, and even not to think that awakening is a realistic possibility for them. In fact they might be quite clear that they think they’ll never have an insight experience.

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But awakening is the whole point of Dharma practice. And it can happen to anyone. It can happen anytime. I doubt if there’s a single person in the world who, in the moments before they had an insight experience, was thinking, “OK, I think enlightenment’s about to happen … wait … wait .. right, there it is!” Awakening always comes out of the blue. It’s always a surprise, or even a shock. And we should be open to the possibility of awakening happening to us. Not that we should expect anything to happen, but we should have the general aim of cultivating insight experiences. And we should be doing what it takes to awaken — not just living ethically and cultivating mindfulness and metta, but examining the impermanent, non-self, and unsatisfactory nature of our experience. We should be tilling the soil, planing seeds, and watering those seeds. You can’t make the plants grow through some act of will, but you can aim to grow a garden.

In fact, all this should increasingly become central to our lives. We should see ourselves as Buddhas in training. We should aim to go all the way to awakening. If we don’t have that aim, then how can we have that wish for others, and help them to free themselves from suffering? If we don’t ourselves have the desire to go all the way to awakening, how can we take others with us?

PS You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Looking into the heart’s depths (Day 92)

Homme et MéditationThe four brahmavihāras (divine abidings) are a progressive series of skillful qualities and the meditations in which we cultivate them.

So here’s my “yes, but” guide to how these four brahmavihāras of lovingkindness (mettā), compassion (karunā), joyful appreciation (muditā), and the desire that beings experience the peace of awakening (upekkhā) are related to each other.

Lovingkindness

So we start with the most fundamental brahmavihāra, which is lovingkindness. Lovingkindness grows from an awareness that our deepest desire is to be happy, and a humble recognition that happiness is often quite hard to find. So often we’re excited about something new in our lives — a new car, a new phone, a new relationship — and expect to be happy, and yet find that the course of our lives is bumpy, unpredictable, and often disappointing. Happiness comes, happiness goes, and we often don’t seem to have much control of it.

Reflecting on this sense of inconstancy, fragility, and unpredictability can lead to a sense of feeling vulnerable. And although this feeling is distinctly uncomfortable, it’s very real and very healthy, because it’s recognizing our desire for happiness and the difficulty of attaining happiness that allows us to recognize that others, too, have the same desire and the same difficulty. Desiring happiness and finding happiness to be elusive are fundamental and universal human experiences. Seeing this in others allows us to resonate with them; more and more we naturally want to do nothing to obstruct their happiness, and do what we can to help them be happy.

So basically, in lovingkindness, we wish others well and wish that they be happy.

Compassion

Yes, we wish that beings be happy, but still beings suffer. It’s when lovingkindness and an awareness of others’ suffering come together than compassion arises. That in fact is the very definition of compassion.

So we become aware of others’ suffering, and wish that they be free from that suffering. And as we train in compassion, increasingly we act in ways that help beings to avoid suffering.

We actually need a bit of upekkha — in the sense of closely watching (the root meaning of upekkhā) our feelings in a non-reactive way — as we cultivate both lovingkindness and compassion. We have to be prepared to accept things not being the way we ideally would want them to be, because we’re wanting beings to be happy and to be free from suffering, and yet so often they’re not happy and keep encountering suffering.

Joyful Appreciation

Yes, we wish beings to be happy and to be free from suffering, but they keep doing things that destroy their own happiness and cause them suffering. Well, don’t we all?

So we need to appreciate, rejoice in, and support the things beings do that actually do lead to peace and joy. From a Buddhist point of view, it’s skillful actions, words, and thoughts that lead to true peace and joy. Skillfulness is that which genuinely leads to happiness and freedom from unnecessary suffering.

So we rejoice in and encourage the development of qualities like courage, patience, mindfulness, kindness, compassion, and persistence. And we rejoice in the peace and joy that they bring.

We need even more upekkhā here, so that we don’t blame beings for not “obediently” being skillful! We want them to be happy and not to suffer, and yet they keep doing things that cause themselves and others to suffer. So this has to be handled with patience and forgiveness.

The Desire That Beings Experience the Peace of Awakening

Yes, we rejoice in the skillful, but it’s not possible for beings to become completely free from suffering by acting, thinking, and speaking skillfully. There are deep roots to our unskillful behavior. Unskillfulness is rooted in fundamental views we have about ourselves — false views — about our imagined separateness and permanence. And to uproot our unskillfulness (and the suffering it causes) we have to radically change the way we see ourselves and lose those false views.

In particular we have to cultivate a radical appreciation of impermanence (anicca) , so that we see that there is nothing for our “self” to cling to. In fact we come to see that there is no permanent or separate self to do any clinging in the first place. We can also appreciate that our experiences — even our actions — are not truly ours and are not us (anattā). We can’t hold onto them. We don’t really create them. This is hard to appreciate (your mind is probably rebelling at the concept) but I’ll explain this in a future post. We also develop a radical equanimity, which recognizes that it’s not our experiences that bring us happiness, but the way we relate to our experiences. Our experiences are inherently unsatisfactory (dukkha).

These kinds of reflections lead to a profound shift in our perspectives, which we call “insight.” And it’s this insight that leads to irrevocable peace.

So in upekkhā bhāvana meditation we’re wishing the peace of awakening for ourselves and others. We recognize that if — to go back to mettā and karunā (lovingkindness and compassion) — we wish beings to be happy and free from suffering, then we ultimately need to do what we can to get ourselves and others to the point of spiritual awakening.

Upekkhā is often described as the consummation or pinnacle of the earlier brahmavihāras, and as a loving state it’s in no way cold or detached. When we penetrate deeply into lovingkindness we find a passionate desire to bring beings (ourselves included) to full awakening, or bodhi.

Upekkhā is the fulfillment of the other brahmavihāras. It’s their perfection. It’s the deepest form of love. How much more love could we have for beings than to wish for them to be totally free from the three toxins or greed, hatred, and delusion, and the suffering that they cause.

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“May all beings dwell in peace”: A guided meditation (Day 91)

handThis meditation is a recording of a Hangout I did on Google+ with members of Wildmind’s community. It’s an upekkha bhavana meditation, which is not really the “cultivation of equanimity” at all — or at least so I believe. To me, upekkhā is not equanimity. It doesn’t even mean equanimity in its etymological root, but something more like “closely watching.” Upekkhā is when we wish that beings attain the deep peace of awakening through accepting impermanence, or the arising and passing of things, or that everything changes (the exact words don’t matter much).

We are of course seeking the peace of awakening ourselves, and so at the beginning of this sit I encourage you to notice the constantly changing nature of your experience. We notice and accept that everything is changing, and this can lead to a profound sense of letting go in which we realize that there is nothing to hold on to, and in fact no one to do any holding on.

And this change is experienced in a loving and compassionate way, since this is, after all, an extension of the mettā (lovingkindness) practice.

I suggested then dropping in the following phrases:

  • May I accept the arising and passing of things.
  • May I find awakening.
  • May I dwell in peace.

These phrases are optional, but they can sharpen and clarify our desire for the peace of awakening, or bodhi.

And then we with the peace of awakening for all beings, starting with a neutral person (someone we don’t have a friendship or conflict with), then a friend, and then someone we do have difficulty with. Lastly, we extend our upekkha to all beings:

  • May all beings accept the arising and passing of things.
  • May all beings find awakening.
  • May all beings dwell in peace.

In the discussion at the end of the sit I discuss how upekkhā is not equanimity, but is the desire that all beings be liberated, and is exactly the same as the mahākaruṇā (great compassion) of the Mahāyāna. I suspect that the Mahāyāna may have used the term mahākaruṇā to distinguish this desire that all beings be liberated from karuṇā as a brahmavihāra, which is a simpler desire that all beings be free from suffering.

Enjoy!

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The anxiety of the long-distance meditator

Jeff Warren, New York Times: “You want to cultivate the crackling intensity of the ninja,” Daniel Ingram told me. Ingram made a living as an emergency doctor, but his real passion was teaching advanced meditation. It was day one of a 30-day solitary retreat, and this was my first meditation instruction. We were sitting in Ingram’s straw bale guesthouse, a squat round building next to the main house at the end of a long country road in rural Alabama. Behind the house a thick forest buzzed with insect life.

Ingram stood and began to walk, arms outstretched and eyes shock-widened, as though his …

Read the original article »

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“A little bit pregnant”

Woman holding her hands in a heart-shape over her pregnant belly.

In the Buddha’s day, many people got enlightened quickly. Some people would say this is because the Buddha was such a great teacher, and to some extent that’s got to be true. What better than to have an expert around? But most of the monks and nuns and householders would have had very little contact with the Buddha. After all, he couldn’t be everywhere!

What they did have, that was every bit as helpful as the presence of the Buddha, was the belief that enlightenment was possible. Having the Buddha around was helpful, perhaps, not so much because he was a “personal trainer” who was around to say just the right thing. It was more that he was a living example of what was possible. And as a result of the confidence this brought about, people awakened.

Even when people at the time of the Buddha talked about getting awakened in future lives, they didn’t talk in terms of the “countless lifetimes” that the Mahayana later came to regard as being necessary. They usually expected to get enlightened very soon, perhaps in the very next life. But the focus was very much on awakening here and now.

Nor did people at the time of the Buddha talk about deferring their own awakening until all others were awakened. This is another peculiar Mahayana idea that I believe makes enlightenment seem further away. It in fact makes enlightenment impossible. You just have to look at the Buddha’s own life to see how hollow this concept is; after all, the Buddha didn’t defer his own awakening! It might sound very noble and compassionate to say that we won’t get enlightened before others do, but surely the most compassionate thing we can do is to wake up right now, so that we can help others free themselves from suffering.

See also:

Now the first stage of enlightenment is traditionally held to be not far away from where we are. This use of “stages” of enlightenment can be confusing for people. We don’t always know there are stages to awakening. We think it’s all or nothing. Once I was teaching a class and I mentioned the traditional stages of awakening, and someone said, “Can you be a bit awakened? Isn’t being a bit awakened like being a little bit pregnant?” Actually, pregnancy’s a good metaphor. There is a big difference between having just conceived and being nine months pregnant, and between that and giving birth, and between that and having a toddler or a teenager. In other words, just as having a child is a process, so too awakening is a process. We’re all involved in this process of conceiving Buddhas, in giving birth to Buddhas, in giving birth to our own awakened selves.

So there are these stages in the process of awakening, of which the first stage is called “stream entry.” Like getting pregnant, this first stage, stream entry, is not that difficult. Well, stream entry is a bit more difficult than getting pregnant, at least for most people. My own teacher, Sangharakshita, encourages us to take stream entry as a “doable” goal for this life. It’s a significant goal because it’s irreversible. Up until stream entry our movement in the direction of awakening is reversible. We make progress, and then we fall back. We begin to wake up, and then we fall back into a sleep. Perhaps the dreams are interesting! But at stream entry there’s an unstoppable momentum behind the change, because you’ve really seen the truth of the marks for yourself. You’ve seen something, and you can never unsee it.

We’re all, I’d say, half way to that point of no return. Stream entry is a doable goal. It’s quite concrete, and quite achievable. Even non-Buddhists seem to be able to attain this.

Now people still try to see stream entry as being more distant than it is! It’s quite extraordinary how we try so hard to make goals unattainable. Some people take the idea of stream entry and raise it up to a kind of perfection. They imagine the stream entrant as being close to perfect: not capable of being unethical, never getting into bad moods, never getting anxious, never annoying anybody, never having cravings. But that description is more like full Buddhahood (with the exception of annoying people — the Buddha really annoyed a lot of people). To get to full awakening, we have to break ten fetters, and these include ill will and craving, and those are going to be there for two out of the four stages of awakening. To get to stream entry we only have to break three fetters, so we still have greed, hatred, and a lot of delusion to overcome.

At a guess I’d say a reasonably diligent practitioner — not a monk, but someone with a job and family, for example — could go all the way to stream entry in 15 to 20 years. Some people think that’s a long time and get demoralized. But what are you going to do with your life anyway? And it might take much less time. Insight can come out of the blue. It involves a slight shift of consciousness. It could happen right now, right this very moment!

Although meditating is important, awakening probably won’t happen for you when you’re meditating. It’s more likely to happen when your mind is wandering, or when you drop something, or when you hear something and suddenly you see things in a different way. In the scriptures it’s recorded that some people awoke when they were depressed, or even on the point of suicide. For me it happened when I was putting my daughter to bed.

I think it’s supremely important to believe that enlightenment is possible for us, and that it’s not too far away. If you believe something’s impossible for you, it effectively becomes impossible. Once awakening happens, the thing that strikes you most about it is how easy it all was. Once it’s happened — once you’ve seen the truth that your “self” is not a “thing,” but a beautifully unfolding process — you wonder why it took you so long. The truth was sitting there in plain view the whole time, but for some reason you never looked.

So I’d urge you to open to the idea that awakening could happen anytime. That it’s just around the corner. That it’s a slight shift in perspective away. Once you accept that, anything can happen.

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The Fourth Truth: There is a path that leads us away from suffering

Figure standing at the end of a path on a high point overlooking a lake

I used to be confused about why the third truth came before the fourth. And I realize now that if I could not accept or believe that there was an end to suffering, I would not have trudged the path. After all, I would not have known what would be at the end of the path—or if there would even be an end. If somebody had described to me the path that would lead me away from suffering before telling me that there is an end in sight for suffering, I would have most probably had an attack of horrified anxiety. And convinced myself that the life I was living was much more manageable than stepping on to the path that would supposedly lead me away from suffering!

The Four Noble Truths

The path that continues to lead me away from suffering is the threefold path of ethics, meditation and wisdom.

Threefold PathEightfold path
Ethics/VirtueRight Speech
Right Action
Right Livelihood
MindRight Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration
WisdomRight View
Right Intention

Ethics/Virtue

I cannot say how contented I have become, how much simplicity there is in my life, and how much stillness, too, since I have become more ethical. The five Buddhist precepts opened a door in my heart. They gave me tools to begin living my life differently. I remember becoming a mitra (a friend of the spiritual community) in my tradition. During my ceremony, I took on the five spiritual precepts. I knew as I recited them that they had given me a way to purify my heart. I took them on seriously, and recited the positive and negative forms daily for almost 5 years. Since my ordination in 2005 I have recited ten precepts daily. They have been the principals that have trained me to live my life with mindfulness. They are some of the tenets of right speech, right action and right livelihood: These are the five training principals that are universal to all lay Buddhist traditions. Many monastic communities can have as much as a 100 or more.

  1. I undertake to abstain from harming life. With deeds of loving kindness I purify my body.
  2. I undertake to abstain from taking the not given. With open handed generosity I purify my body.
  3. I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct. With stillness, simplicity and contentment I purify my body.
  4. I undertake to abstain from false speech. With truthful communication I purify my speech.
  5. I undertake to abstain from taking intoxicants. With mindfulness clear and radiant I purify my mind.

(The positive and negative precepts appear as cited by Urgyen Sangharakshita.)

Mind

After a week of learning to meditate, I walked out onto the street and thought the whole world was changing. I had “beginner’s mind.” I paused and chuckled to myself as I realized it was I who was changing and that there was no going back. I had a glimpse of seeing things as they actually were. Meditation caused a revolution in my physical, spiritual and emotional self. I began to walk, think and pray differently. The practice of metta, cultivating loving kindness for (a) myself, (b) a friend, (c) someone I do not know, and (d) an enemy, continues to revolutionize my life. People I thought I would never speak to have come back into my life, because this meditation allowed me to forgive my enemies in the fourth stage (d). The fourth stage cultivated compassion in my heart for my enemies. As the hatred melted away, my self-hatred also melted away, and I am a much happier person.

However, after my beginner’s mind began to fizzle, the real work began. I had to apply right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration to develop my meditation practice. I committed myself to the path of transformation. I began TO study, took up a daily meditation practice and went on retreats. In 2005 I effectively went for refuge, hence placing the three jewels at the centre of my life. The ideal of enlightenment (buddha), the teachings of the buddha (dharma) and spiritual community at the centre of my life (sangha.) I had a lay person ordination into the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. I was named Vimalasara (she who’;s essence is stainless and pure), took on the Bhodisattva vow, the ten precepts, and a visualization practice. My mind had most definitely changed; no longer were my decisions based solely on my sexuality, skin colour or gender. My decisions more and more are based on my going for refuge to the three jewels.

Wisdom

This part of the path, right view and right intention, brings me back to the fourth truth. I continue to develop my understanding of these truths. The Buddha says everything we experience has three characteristics, which are known as the three marks of conditioned existence. He says all life is (a) unsatisfactory, (b) impermanent, (c) unsubstantial, and nothing is fixed at all. These three marks have impacted my identity. I am not so attached to my female self, black self, or queer self. I used to experience everything through these filters. Hence I was often not open to others who were not female, black or queer. I was often judgmental and reactive. Although they had been part of my raft to help me along my recovery, if I was to continue to grow I had to let go of my fixed identities. They were at the centre of my life, and one could say I went to refuge them to them.

Letting go of identities meant I had to forgive those people who discriminated against me. Let go of those people who tried to label me with black stereotypes such as ‘intimidating, loud, aggressive, chip on my shoulder, athletic etc.’ I continue to learn to have compassion for those people who continue to discriminate against me. Without forgiveness, there is no room for wisdom. We must let go of fixed identities, thoughts and grudges. Integrate self and let go of self. Wisdom stops me from settling for the life I live now, which is much better than what it was 15 years ago. Despite how far I have come, I am committed to further understanding the truth. Training my mind, opening up to the possibility of real insight, letting go of self, practicing forgiveness and cultivating transformation, for me is a life time service.

Since stepping onto the path, the three jewels have become what is at the centre of my life. The majority of my decisions are based on going for refuge to the Buddha, the dharma, the sangha.

The Path

So I am on a path that leads me away from suffering. But sometimes I fall off, I stumble, and sometimes I choose not to walk it. But I always get back on. Fear can eat away at my faith and keep me off the path. But my faith can also eat away at my fear, and keep me on the path. There is no vacation from the spiritual life—I must strive on. If I reflect on the day I first walked into a Buddhist centre 23 years ago I know there is no alternative to the path. The Buddha made it simple with the eightfold path: live by these principals and we will gain insight and, perhaps even enlightenment.

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