enlightenment

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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Not knowing how near the Truth is, people seek it far away

Some years ago I noticed an odd thing; a lot of the Buddhists I knew (including myself) didn’t talk much about getting enlightened. We didn’t talk much about what, specifically, we were doing in order to get enlightened. We didn’t talk much about what enlightenment was. And this was not just my impression. I asked other people whether this was what was going on, and they all agreed: enlightenment was not on our radar. And this is very odd, since the only reason that Buddhism exists is to help get us enlightened. The Dharma is nothing but the Way to enlightenment. And it seemed few of us were interested in going all the Way. So what were we interested in?

When think about what we’re doing in our Buddhist practice, we often think in worldly terms. We think about becoming a better person, about being kinder and more content. We think about how the Dharma can help us with specific problems we have. We think about being happier. These are all very good aims, and I’m not going to knock them. But Buddhism’s about much more than becoming more positive. It’s about transforming, on a very deep level, the way we see the world.

So I made it a project to be more concerned with enlightenment and how to get there. I made a point to make this concern more central in my life, to reflect on what enlightenment means, and what I should be doing to get there. And that brings us on to insight meditation, or vipassana. Vipassana is the next step beyond being more positive, which is a samatha activity. Vipassana is the practice of looking closely at your experience in order to recognize that everything constituting that experience is constantly changing. This what we call the “mark” or impermanence, or anicca. When we recognize the impermanence of our experiences, on deeper and deeper levels, this leads to us recognizing that there’s nothing in our experience worth grasping on to; after all, if our experiences are all constantly changing, then none of them can be the basis of lasting happiness. That’s the mark of unsatisfactoriness, or dukkha. And an awareness of impermanence, applied to ourselves, drums in the fact that there is no permanent self here to do any grasping. This is the mark of anatta, or not-self. These are the three marks. This is what vipassana is about. It’s about recognizing these three marks. It’s not just about intellectually understanding them, although some intellectual engagement is necessary, but about seeing their truth in our own experience.

Vipassana is an activity that we can do in any meditation practice. It’s not a special kind of meditation. So we can do it in the mindfulness of breathing practice, the metta bhavana, or just sitting. There are practices in which vipassana is more explicit, however, such as the six element practice, but this isn’t an exception. We could do the six element practice as a samatha (calming) practice, but as a matter of course we include insight reflections: “This is not me, this is not mine, I am not this.”

We can do vipassana reflections outside of meditation as well — when walking, taking the bus, having a conversation, cooking — although activities in which there’s some mental quiet are more conducive to this kind of reflection. And to reiterate an important point, vipassana is not opposed to samatha. What we’re meant to do is to calm and concentrate the mind, and then to take that calm, focused mind, and apply it to investigating the existential issues of the three marks. Samatha and vipasssana are like two wings, and we need both if we want to go the way to enlightenment.

Not knowing how near the Truth is, people seek it far away.

Now, how far away is enlightenment? We generally think of it as being very remote, which is perhaps why we don’t think about it very much. But as Hakuin said:

Not knowing how near the Truth is,
People seek it far away. What a pity!

I think there are a number of reasons why we think Enlightenment is far away, when it’s actually close by — right under our noses, or even closer than that.

Some of the perspectives of the Mahāyāna don’t help. In early days, when the Buddha’s feet were walking India’s dusty soil, people often got enlightened immediately. Many, many people seem to have had a radical shift of consciousness just upon hearing the Buddha speak for the first time. It just took a slight reorientation of the way they saw things, and bam! they were awakened. This didn’t happen to everybody, of course. Obviously some people had to practice for years. But many of them became awakened in this lifetime. Now the later Mahāyāna tradition, starting from about 500 years after the Buddha, were keen to build up the status of the Buddha. Presumably they were playing the game of “our teacher is the best.” So they built up the goal of Buddhism. Buddhists were now seeking enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, not just in our world but throughout the entire universe. And achieving this task would take countless lifetimes. Countless lifetimes, needless to say, is a long time. Elevating the status of the Buddha and of enlightenment in this way may have been very inspiring, but it also made the goal seem very remote. And those ideas still linger and influence us.

It’s interesting to note that although many contemporary schools call themselves Mahāyāna, few if any of them still emphasize these cosmic timescales. The Zen schools focus on awakening right here, right now. The Theravadin schools emphasize awakening in this life. The Pure Land schools are slightly different, because they emphasize awakening after death: we die and, through the grace of Amida Buddha, we are reborn in his Pure Land paradise, Sukhāvati, where we are assured enlightenment. So even there we’re aiming for enlightenment just after this very lifetime — not countless lifetimes from now. The Tibetan schools, or at least most of them, emphasize the possibility of awakening in this life. I think we need to embrace the notion of enlightenment in this lifetime, and not be overly swayed by this Mahāyāna perspective.

Another reason we think of enlightenment as being far away is because of a lack of self-worth. We think we have so many problems. We’re unworthy! We’re often very aware of our flaws. And then what do we not know about ourselves? Freud gave us this idea what there’s all this nastiness under the surface. I remember a scene from the comedy movie The Front Page where a Viennese Freudian psychoanalyst asks a condemned murderer about his childhood. The murderer replies that he had a perfectly normal childhood, to which the shrink replies, “I see. You wanted to kill your father and sleep with your mother.” So this is quite literally what Freud thought a “normal” person was like — a incestuous parricide kept in check by the super-ego. We’ve been affected by these ideas and we fear that there is unknown emotional baggage holding us back from enlightenment.

And I think we fear enlightenment. Being fully enlightened would surely involve a big change. What would it be like? Would I be a different person? Would I still have my life. What about all my likes and dislikes? We like our attachments! We fear that there might in fact be so much change that enlightenment would be a kind of death. So this is scary. We might fear that we’re going to lose ourselves, and our individuality. I remember having this thought once, that if Buddhas are all perfect, then are they all the same? They’re clearly not, but we can fear that our personalities are going to be erased.

The models and language we use — even very traditional language and models — can be unhelpful. The Buddhist tradition has tended to talk in terms of exalted states of consciousness. We think of the jhānas. There are these four jhānas, and most of us have only limited experience of these. And then the commentaries take another set of four meditative states — the formless spheres, or ayātanas, and pile them on top of the jhānas. So there’s now this towering skyscraper that we might thing of as ever-more blissful states of consciousness, disappearing up into the sky. And we might think of enlightenment as being piled on top of all that. And here we are on the ground, or maybe, if we’re lucky, on the first floor from time to time. If even the jhānas are hard to get into, then enlightenment must be quite literally unattainable for us!

But this way of looking at enlightenment is inaccurate. Enlightenment is not a meditative state similar to the jhānas. It’s a way of looking at the world. We need some jhānic experience to prepare ourselves for having a breakthrough into insight, but we don’t need to have experienced all of the jhānas to have insight, and we don’t go through all the jhānas and find enlightenment awaiting us at the top. Enlightenment is more likely to happen at a time of crisis, or during a conversation, than during meditation. Many people, according to the Pāli scriptures, got enlightened when they were depressed and suicidal, or when they heard a teaching and had a “holy crap!” moment.

Another aspect of language that can mislead is when we talk about the “path” from saṃsāra to Nirvāṇa. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this language, but we often take it too literally and slip into thinking that saṃsāra and Nirvāṇa are almost literally like separate places, geographically isolated from each other. We think of the path as disappearing somewhere over the horizon, vanishing goodness-knows where. And then we think that this isn’t the place, this is not the life, in which we’re going to get enlightened. We may think that on some level we have to move away from this life in order to get to this “place” called enlightenment.

But saṃsāra and Nirvāṇa are not separate places. They’re not even places — they’re states of mind. The way to nirvāna is by looking closely at your samsāric mind. It’s not by getting away from where you are now, but by totally being where you are and getting to know that place intimately. We need to look at how we structure our experience into self and other. We need to question our assumptions and come to see how we misinterpret our experience. We need to look at things we think are permanent and come to see them as they are. We need to look at things we think are sources of lasting happiness and realize that actually they aren’t, and can’t be, sources of lasting happiness. We need to look at what we take to be a permanent and substantial self and to see that there’s no self like that to be found.

This is the place where we get enlightened. Awakening is just a shift in perspective away. So I suggest adopting the perspective that awakening is not far, but is right here. And when you make that shift in perspective, one of the first things that’s going to strike you is, “Why did it take me so long to see something so obvious?”

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“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” George Orwell

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” George Orwell

Metaphors can be traps. We can end up taking them too literally. The point of a metaphor is to help us see things more clearly (“time slips through our hands like sand” helps us connect something intangible and abstract, like time, to a physical experience, like sand trickling through our fingers). But sometimes metaphors mislead, and make it harder for us to see things clearly. The image of the spiritual path is one of those metaphors that can potentially trap and mislead us.

The Buddha himself used the image of his teaching being a path. One of his key teachings is the Eightfold Path (aṭṭhaṅgika magga), and in a famous teaching he explained that he was like an explorer who had beaten a path to an ancient city that had been lost in the jungle, and has come back to lead others along the path to see his discovery for themselves. It’s a venerable image. The problem isn’t the image itself, but how we relate to it.

How long is this path?

The thing that strikes me as a problem with the path metaphor could be expressed in a question: how long do we think the path is?

In the Buddha’s day, people would often get enlightened very quickly. In some cases they just had to hear a phrase, and insight would arise. In some cases it would take longer — perhaps some years of practice. But it was doable. Even people living householder lifestyles would get enlightened without too much difficulty. I’m not aware of examples of householders getting enlightened immediately, but there were, according to the scriptures, thousands of lay followers who attained the first level of enlightenment, and many hundreds who were just short of full awakening. The path was short. In the case of those who got enlightened immediately, it wasn’t so such a path as a single step.

The later Mahāyāna teachings tended to elevate enlightenment in order to glorify the Buddha’s attainment and inspire faith. The bigger his attainment, the greater the spiritual hero he was, right? And the greater a spiritual hero he was, the more inspiring he was. The problem was that they started talking in terms of the path to awakening stretching over an uncountable number of lifetimes. Sure, this was meant to inspire us, but if you believe enlightenment is unattainable in this very lifetime, what’s the chance that it’s actually going to happen? If you think it’s going to take thousands of lifetimes to get enlightened, you probably doing think it might happen to you in this life. And certainly not right now, in this very moment.

An alternative to the “path” metaphor

So what’s the alternative to thinking of enlightenment as being at the end of a long, long path? You could think of it as being at the end of a short path: that’s pretty much what the Buddha seemed to have in mind. Or you use a different metaphor, and think of awakening as being right here, right now, but you’re not seeing it because you’re looking at your experience the wrong way. It’s like one of those “Magic Eye” 3D pictures from the 1990s that looks like a mess of squiggles and images fragments, until you let your eyes refocus in just the right way, and suddenly there’s a stereoscopic image right there in front of you. In a way, the image has been there all along, but you weren’t looking in the right way. Maybe at certain points you didn’t believe that you could ever see the image. Maybe you started to doubt there was anything there. But if you persist then — boom! — there it is.

Our spiritual cognitive distortions

There are a couple of Buddhist teachings that I think relate to this metaphor of the image that’s right in front of us, but unseen. One of these is the “Four Vipallāsas.” The word vipallāsa means “inversion, perversion, derangement, corruption, distortion.” It’s similar to what psychologists nowadays call a “cognitive distortion.” These four vipallāsas — or “spiritual cognitive distortions” — are that we see things that are impermanent as being permanent, see things that are sources of pain as being sources of happiness, see things that are lacking in inherent selfhood as having inherent selfhood, and see things that are ugly as being attractive.

Here’s the interesting thing: it’s not as if impermanence, for example, is hidden from us. We just don’t see it. It’s right in front of us, all the time, but our minds don’t seem to be equipped to notice it. In fact, I’ve noticed that Buddhists often like to talk about impermanence more than actually observe it.

So it’s happening right now. Anything you notice is changing. When you notice your body you may think “Oh, there’s my body” but actually all you’re noticing is an ever-changing pattern of sensation. There’s no “body” there that you can perceive. Right now you’re reading these words. What you’re seeing is constantly changing. What’s in your mind is constantly changing. Everything in your mind is constantly changing. Try looking for something in your experience that doesn’t change. Having any luck? You say that the coffee cup in front of you isn’t changing? But you don’t ever experience a “coffee cup.” You have sense impressions of a coffee cup, and those sense impressions are in constant flux. Your eyes are jittering around all the time, because the receptors in your retinas stop responding if they’re exposed to the same stimulus for more than a fraction of a second. If your eye was frozen in place you’d literally be blind. The only reason you can perceive anything is because of change — impermanence.

So change, non-self, etc., are there all the time. We just need to pay attention. Look. Look right now. Everything you’re experiencing is changing. Keep looking. Eventually, as with the Magic Eye pictures, you’ll see what’s been there all along.

Not seeing the wood for the trees

I said there were a couple of teachings relating to not seeing what’s in front of us. The vipallāsas constitute one such teaching. The third fetter of “sīlabbata-parāmāsa,” usually translated as “dependence on rites and rituals,” is another. This is one of the three fetters that we break when we attain stream-entry, the first level of enlightenment.

The first fetter is straightforward — it’s when we no longer believe that we have a permanent, unchanging self. We keep observing that our experience is changing all the time, and eventually it clicks — that’s all there is. There’s just change.

The second fetter is doubt. Until we experience the breaking of the first fetter, there’s always some kind of doubt that it’s even possible. We may doubt that we can do it. (“Sure, other people can see these Magic Eye pictures, but I can’t.”) Or we may doubt that there’s a picture there. (“It’s a trick,” we say, as we stare hopelessly and the jumbled image.) Once we’ve seen that the separate and permanent self we’ve always taken for granted is an illusion, and once we’ve realized that it’s true that everything in our experience — everything! — is a constant flux, we feel a surge of confidence. We’ve stepped out of illusion, we know that the Buddha’s teaching is right, and we have confidence that further progress is possible. Actually, it’s inevitable.

But that third fetter — “dependence on rites and rituals” — what’s that got to do with anything? First it’s not a very good translation. “Sīla” is ethics or behavior, and “vata” (the second part of sīlabbata) is a religious duty, or observance, or spiritual practice. This is referring to the problem of our getting caught up in spiritual practices so that they become a hindrance to enlightenment, rather than a means to realizing enlightenment. For example, if we’re trying to be a “good Buddhist,” saying and doing all the right things, that’s of limited spiritual use. If we’re trying to impress people with our mastery of the teachings, that’s even worse.

Enlightenment is right here, right now

One of the most striking aspects of the experience of stream entry is a feeling of immediacy. When we have that perceptual shift and realize that what we’ve thought of as our “self” (permanent, unchanging, separate) is nothing more than a constellation of constantly changing events, it also strikes us that this is “obvious.” It’s right in front of our nose. It’s been in front of our nose our whole lives. But we just haven’t noticed.

Even the spiritual practices (sīla and vata) that we’ve been engaged with have sometimes prevented us from seeing the truth. We’ve been talking about impermanence, but not looking at it. We’ve been studying the path rather than walking it. Sometimes perhaps we’ve been walking the path, but haven’t wanted to stray too far, because it’s safe staying with the known.

So I suggest that sometimes, at least, we forget about the metaphor of the path, and instead think of enlightenment as being right here, right now. It’s just a question of recognizing what’s really going on — of allowing ourselves to see the impermanence that permeates every one of our experiences. We just need to look, and keep looking, until we see the obvious that’s sitting right in front of our noses.

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle” is from Orwell’s essay “In Front of Your Nose,” which was first published in the Tribune newspaper, London, March 22, 1946.

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“The End of Your World” by Adyashanti

“The End of Your World,” by Adyashanti

Enlightenment used to be something of a dirty word in the west, or at least it used to be considered improper to make any claims to be enlightened. People would say this reticence was an “eastern thing” — a sign of how spiritually mature Asia was, because of course you would “just know” that someone was Enlightened.

This was always nonsense. Looking at the Buddhist scriptures it’s hard to ignore the Buddha’s “Lion’s Roar” where he declares that he is awakened. There are two entire books of the Buddhist scriptures — the Therigatha and Theragatha — which are entirely composed of verses composed by people declaring that they, too, were Enlightened.

Title: The End of Your World: Uncensored Straight Talk on the Nature of Enlightenment
Author: Adyashanti
Publisher: Sounds True
ISBN: 978-1-59179-779-1
Available from: Sounds True, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store, Amazon.com, and Amazon.com Kindle Store.

So there’s nothing in the original Buddhist tradition that says you should be shy and bashful about your spiritual attainments. (Falsely claiming spiritual attainments is, of course, frowned upon, but that’s an entirely different matter.) So how did this myth arise? I suspect that in many cases western teachers were not saying whether they were enlightened or not because they hoped people would think they were. Often teachers are as bashful about saying that they are not awakened as about saying that they are. How delicious to keep people guessing!

But all that is changing. Western teachers — some of them very impressive individuals — are beginning to “come out” and to proclaim their awakening. They’re also explicitly teaching others how to wake up to reality. Adyashanti is one of those. Initially trained in the Zen tradition, Adya (as he is known) is now something of a post-Buddhist freewheeling non-dualist, having shed his Zen persona along with his ego. As best as I can gather, he doesn’t teach meditation, but instead offers “satsangs” (a term he has borrowed from the Hindu non-dualist tradition) where he simply talks.

He says,

“I’m not the kind of spiritual teacher who has a personal relationship with my students. I come, I teach, we interact when I teach, but I don’t have a retreat center; I don’t have an avenue in which we relate in a casual way.”

The End of Your World is an attempt to help others who may be experiencing awakening, or have experienced it, or have experienced something that they think might be awakening. It’s aimed at those who are confused about what the next step might be, or who are baffled by finding that spiritual awakening actually might bring with it a whole set of problems. The book has an authentic ring to it, and I have no doubt that Adya is in fact enlightened.

Adya has a broad definition of awakening. He includes not only permanent insights, but temporary experiences of non-duality. Thus, experiences that that the Buddhist tradition would emphatically deny are states of true awakening (the fourth jhana, and any of the so-called formless jeans) might be regarded by Adya as experiences of enlightenment. He does acknowledge that “some would say that if an awakening is momentary, it is not a real awakening,” but goes on to dismiss this on the grounds that non-abiding awakening (as he calls it) is on a trajectory toward the real deal. I’m not entirely convinced by this. On the one hand I see it as a kind of “spiritual grade inflation” (great for self-esteem!) but on the other hand I do think that experiences of selfless non-duality are important steps toward awakening and shouldn’t be undervalued.

Adya deals with the fact that awakening can be disorienting, and even painful, because in finding the truth we need to look at things more honestly, and this might be difficult. He says in fact that “in order to awaken, we must break out of the paradigm of always seeking to feel better.” He points out that once the enlightened state begins to manifest, there is a conflict with the remaining ego. Sometimes there is a conflict because they ego is dissolving, and the personality is changing. This presents the problem of coping with change. Sometimes the ego tries to co-opt the enlightened experience. The ego, for example, says “How do I stay in the awakened state?” The awakened state has no need of such questions, of course. Better questions for the ego, Adya points out, would be, “How is it that I’m unenlightening myself? How is it specifically that I’m putting myself back in illusion.” Enlightenment is, clearly a process.

One thing that disappointed me, in a small way, about Adya’s presentation of this process was that there’s no reference to the traditional Buddhist conception of the stages of awakening: stream entry, once-returner, non-returner, arahant. There are, naturally, other ways to approach the process of awakening (even within the Buddhist tradition — and the categories I mentioned are not used in the Zen tradition he is steeped in) but I would have liked to see his take on these stages of enlightenment. However, Adya does things his own way, and uses his own language and images, which is actually rather refreshing. His presentation is lively, and original, and it is engaging because of its being utterly unfettered by traditional language.

The author offers up a fair degree of spiritual autobiography, detailing his “first awakening” at the age of 25, and his “final awakening” at the age of 32, along with the ups and downs that came in between. Sometimes he seems a little coy; he repeatedly mentions his “Zen teacher,” under whom he studied for 14 or 15 years, without once mentioning her name. (I know from other sources that her name is Arvis Joen Justi, and that she was a disciple, although not an appointed Dharma Heir, of Maezumi Roshi. She’s now retired, so perhaps Adya didn’t want a bunch of readers seeking her out so that they could replicate his path). Other times he seems very candid, talking for example about a post-awakening “dysfunctional disaster” of a relationship, although he spares us the details.

As a teacher, Adya strikes me as being very nondogmatic. Teachers of nondualism can be very strong on criticizing the active cultivation of awakening through meditation and other practices. You’re supposed to just “wake up” without all of that malarky (although often those same teachers have done a lot of meditation themselves). Adya is careful not to cling to a position on this. “The truth,” he says, “never lies in any polarized statement or dualistic formulation.” Thus he recognizes that there are times we should push forward with effort, and other times we should “let grace do what only grace can do.”

Whether or not you’re awakened, and whether or not you’re on the Buddhist path, I think you’ll enjoy spending time with this very fresh, creative teacher.

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The paradox of having goals in the moment

There’s a lot of confusion about whether goals have a place in Buddhist practice. Buddhism’s about “being in the moment.” Right? And if you’re in the moment you shouldn’t be thinking about the future. And goals are a form of clinging, and we’re not supposed to cling, and so therefore goals have no place in spiritual practice. Right? Well, not so fast.

Sure, there can be problems with goals.

Goals can be something we cling to inappropriately, and so we end up giving ourselves a hard time when we don’t meet them.

Here’s something I’ve experienced, and that I’ve seen happen with many other people:

Early on, when I’d not long learned to meditate, I had a great sit, full of contentment, even bliss. I was effortlessly focused, filled with energy, and feeling like I was radiating compassion. It was wonderful; my first real experience that meditation could bring about powerful change.

So the next time I sat down to meditate I wanted that again. Why not? I’d cracked it! I had this meditation thing sorted out. I was probably on the verge of enlightenment. And of course, what happened? Distraction, despair, and doubt! I plunged into an emotional freefall, desperately wanting to recreate that experience, and failing miserably. And as I failed, I became despondent. And the more despondent I became, the more I failed. A classic vicious cycle.

What went on here? First, the “good sit” arose because I had a non-grasping mind. The mind had let go of grasping after pleasant experiences and of trying to push away unpleasant experiences, and simply relaxed into a state of calmness, contentment, and concentration. In the second sit, there was an attitude of grasping after a particular experience. And when that experience didn’t arise (and it couldn’t, because an experience of non-grasping can’t be achieved through grasping) states such as aversion, doubt, and self-criticism arose. Grasping after the experience of a good sit stops a good sit from happening.

So that’s one problem with goals; they can be something we grasp after, and when we grasp after them they cause us to suffer.

What’s the solution to grasping after achieving goals? We don’t hold our goals as expectations, and therefore don’t beat ourselves up when we don’t achieve them. We hold our goals lightly, so that they represent the direction in which we want to move rather than something we must achieve. So we can have the goal of reproducing the “good sit,” but we’re not obsessed with the degree of progress we’re making. We accept that change is messy and unpredictable. And mostly importantly we accept that we have to start from where we are right now. We accept the present moment, because anything good that happens in our practice comes from acceptance.

Don’t assume that your happiness is going to arise automatically or magically just because you’ve set goals. Don’t beat yourself up when things don’t work out exactly as you planned. Life is unpredictable.

Apart from clinging to our goals, the worst mistake we can have is to lack goals altogether. If we don’t have any sense of direction in our spiritual practice, how are we going to find our way to enlightenment?

At its broadest, we should have the goal of becoming awakened. That’s what Buddhist practice is all about. The goal of enlightenment needs to be lightly held (see above). We shouldn’t think that just because we want to get enlightened it’s going to happen right now. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. But we shouldn’t expect it.

Practically speaking, though, we’ll probably have more specific things we’re working on. We might have a goal of becoming less cranky, or of becoming more patient, or more compassionate, for example.

In my own life I have any number of goals that are directly connected with my spiritual practice. I want to be more empathetic, particularly toward my wife. I want to be more patient with my children, especially when we’re in a hurry and they do what kids often do, which is get distracted. In my meditation practice I’m working on realizing non-duality more clearly, by letting go of the unconscious habit of regarding some sensations as “self” and others as “other.” I also have the goal of setting aside more time for meditation, because with my own work, two young kids, and a wife who works irregular hours, my meditation time can get squeezed to almost zero.

Sometimes we can have the wrong goals. I’m not talking about specifically spiritual goals here, but about goals that a spiritually-oriented person might have that aren’t helpful. For example, goals can be very materialistic. That’s not a problem in itself, but frankly materialism doesn’t work very well. There’s plenty of research showing that after an initial bost in happiness when we gain material wealth, we drift back down to a “hedonic set point.” The lesson to take from this is that happiness fundamentally comes from within — from our attitudes.

But say you make a goal to change your attitudes. Say you make a goal of appreciating every day the people you love. Or appreciating yourself every day. Of expressing gratitude every day. Of spending some time each day in meditation. Of serving others at least once a week. Those activities can change your hedonic set point (which isn’t set in stone — it’s just the end result of the habits you have). If you have those kinds of goals, and make meaningful effort to achieve them, then you’ll be a happier person.

Happiness may be implicit in the thinking behind materialist goals. Explicit is “I will earn $200,000 dollars a year.” Implicit is “and doing so will make me happy.” Of course the question that arises is, will it? Probably not.

If you’re earning 10 times as must as you did when you were a grad student, or 100 times more than that summer you volunteered to work with disabled kids, are you now 10 or 100 times happier than you were then? I’m guessing not. So why do you assume that what didn’t work in the past is going to somehow start working in the future? It almost certainly won’t. In fact, you were probably really happy working with those disabled kids because you grew as a person and realized how incredibly lucky you were. So if that worked in the past, why not set it as a goal for the future? That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go back and do that precise thing, but instead reconnect with the appreciation and giving that contributed to your wellbeing. Why not set a goal of recreating those elements in your life?

And if you haven’t made happiness your explicit goal, will you even remember it once you’re in the throes of trying to make your goals happen? Again, probably not. It’s hard enough to bear goals in mind when they’re fully conscious. When they’re assumed, they’ll tend to be forgotten.

But what about the idea that if you’re “in the moment” you shouldn’t be thinking about the future? Sadly, this is a common misunderstanding of what it means to be in the present moment. Talk of “being in the present moment” is a metaphor. Given that we can’t actually be anywhere else than the present moment, how could it be otherwise? What is the metaphor referring to, if it’s not to be taken literally? Well, much of the time when we’re distracted — when we’ve lost our mindfulness — we’re thinking about the past or future. We’re worrying, regretting, feeling angry, longing after things we think will make us happy. And crucially, we’re not aware that this is what we’re doing. What’s going on in the present moment is that we’re absorbed in unhelpful forms of thinking, and we’re not aware of that present-moment activity. Saying that we’re not in the present moment means just that we’re not aware of what we’re doing in the present moment.

It is perfectly possible to think of the past or future mindfully — that is, we’re aware we’re thinking about past events or events that might become. We’re not captive to those thoughts, and if they start to give rise to grasping or aversion we can notice this and take corrective action. That’s something we aren’t able to do when we’re distracted.

The Buddha often encouraged people to think mindfully about the past or future. He asked us to reflect on old age, sickness, and other forms of suffering the future will bring, for example, in order that we can motivate ourselves to practice now.

He also asks us over and over to note how experiences have passed away, so that we can appreciate impermanence and learn to let go of our grasping. There is no way to learn without contemplating the past.

The Buddha didn’t teach anything that opposed, in principle, having goals as part of our spiritual path. In fact the Buddha talked over and over about the goals of the spiritual path, and points out that we even have to have enthusiasm for attaining our goals.

We just need to make sure that we have appropriate goals, and that we don’t cling to them. Without goals, there is no spiritual growth.

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With no effort or practice whatsoever, Enlightenment is here

In all sects of Buddhism, meditation is a prevalent practice,  but Buddhist teachers from different sects use different language to teach meditation.

There are meditations that focus on awareness and insight; meditations that focus on our breath, our body, our feelings, our minds and our mental qualities; and meditations for developing loving kindness within our minds and hearts.

It is easy, when learning a form of meditation, to just focus on the form and then judge whether or not we are doing it “right”.

There is freedom from this judging and striving in Dzogchen practice. Dilgo Khentse Rinpoche (1910-1991), one of the great luminaries of Tibetan Buddhism in the twentieth century,  was a highly realized and accomplished master dedicated to the transmission and preservation of Tibet’s spiritual legacy and a principle teacher of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Here is a list of some of the teachings on meditation from Dilgo Khentse Rinpoche:

  • “In meditation we can see through the illusion of past, present and future – the past is only an unreliable memory held in the present. The future is only a projection of our present conceptions. The present itself vanishes as soon as we try to grasp it.
  • We should free ourselves from our memories and preconceptions of meditation. Each moment of meditation is unique and full of potential.
  • Simply meditating in the moment, with our whole being, free from hesitation, boredom or excitement is Enlightenment.
  • Everything is naturally perfect just as it is,  we are naturally perfect as we are, a symbol of Enlightenment.
  • Everything and everyone is constantly changing, nothing is permanent. When we want things or people to remain the same, we suffer. When we want something different from what we have, we suffer.
  • With no effort or practice whatsoever, enlightenment is already here – it is not something or somewhere outside of ourselves. Striving for Enlightenment obstructs our free flow of energy.
  • The everyday practice of Dzogchen is just everyday life itself. Each moment is a moment that can be a moment of mindfulness, gratitude and meditation… there is no need to behave in any special way or attempt to attain anything above and beyond who we already are.
  • When meditating, we should feel it to be as natural as eating and breathing… we should realize that meditation transcends effort, practice, aims, goals and the duality of liberation and captivity. Our practice should be without effort, without strain, without attempts to control or force and without trying to become ‘peaceful’.
  • Therefore we should be natural and spontaneous, accepting and learning from everything.”

There is an expression in Dozgchen, emaho, which means each and every moment provides an opportunity to be kind, generous, honest, mindful, grateful and loving.  Emaho!

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Enlightenment in a myriad of beautiful ways

I found a beautiful article by Jack Kornfield recently, which begins with the question, “Is enlightenment just a myth?” There are so many different descriptions of what enlightenment is like, we might begin to wonder whether it’s all made up.

I’m certainly not enlightened, and so I don’t know the answer. But here’s what I do know. Over the years, I’ve watched as my friends and I have changed. And I mean radically. Some of us bear little resemblance to the people we were ten or fifteen years ago. And this is the interesting part. Though I can see that we’ve all become kinder and more confident people, we’ve all changed in very different directions. I think I’ve softened and opened up a lot. Some of us have become natural leaders and community-builders, though with different stripes. Still others have blossomed in their quieter lifestyles — as artists, healers, and the like.

My point is this. I’m seeing living evidence of the many potential colors that enlightenment could come in as each of us continues to grow. We’re all dedicated to the dharma, and yet expressing our commitment in so many different ways. As Jack Kornfield says,

When you actually experience consciousness free of identification with changing conditions, liberated from greed and hate, you find it multifaceted, like a mandala or a jewel, a crystal with many sides. Through one facet, the enlightened heart shines as luminous clarity, through another as perfect peace, through another as boundless compassion. Consciousness is timeless, ever-present, completely empty and full of all things. … Like the particle-and-wave nature of light, enlightenment consciousness is experienced in a myriad of beautiful ways.

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“The Three Commitments: Walking the Path of Liberation,” by Pema Chödrön

The Three Commitments

It has taken me an age to write this, and I have only just realized why.

Pema delivers such ‘big’ ideas and concepts – and often all in the same breath! It has taken quite a few listens. Also, the opportunity to review The Three Commitments arrived when I was creating an event called ‘White Night – What is Enlightenment?’ for Brighton Buddhist Centre, tending to an allotment (community garden), and producing a BBC documentary series, as well as a short stint at Buddhafield. Listening to Pema became a multitasking affair – either while driving or whilst making decorations with my friends for White Night, while it really should have been a pen-and-paper, full-attention type of affair and is probably something I will revisit.

Title: The Three Commitments: Walking the Path of Liberation
Author: Pema Chödrön
Publisher: Sounds True
ISBN: 978-1-59179-775-3
Format: 7 CDs (7 hours, 45 minutes), 1 Study guide (14 pages)
Available from: Sounds True, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Pema Chödrön is an American born Tibetan Buddhist nun, who has authored several books including The Places That Scare You and The Wisdom of No Escape. She is resident teacher at Gampo Abbey monastery in Nova Scotia.

The Three Commitments consists of 7 CDs (7 hours, 45 minutes) and 1 Study guide (14 pages). With The Three Commitments, Pema Chödrön brings her unique blend of authentic insight with informal and accessible instruction to guide the listener through each of these vows.

  • The Pratimoksha vows–how we can find personal liberation through the inner work of letting go
  • The Bodhisattva vows–the way of genuine and compassionate service to others
  • The Tantric vows–how to accept impermanence with true equanimity and touch the underlying stillness from which all worldly forms arise

As Pema explains, suffering arises when we resist the law of impermanence—the fact that everything we know, including ourselves, will one day die. Here she provides teachings and practices for fully embracing life’s ephemeral nature using these three traditional monastic vows, or “commitments.”

She makes it all sound so easy, but in a good way! She talks from first hand experience; her authentic voice helps listeners discover how each of these sacred vows is not a burden or restriction but a guiding beacon on the path of liberation. The dharma can easily overwhelm me, but Pema keeps it real with humour and personal stories.

So what have I taken from listening to The Three Commitments and this search for ‘What is Enlightenment?’ Well, the question as to whether I ‘believe’ in “Enlightenment” plays on my mind, but I do want to ‘let go’ and accept that being human is ambiguous, uncertain and groundless and I know I will find peace. A starting point is, as Pema states “When you take a vow, it sows a seed in the mind and heart that never goes away.”

As much as this sounds quite simple, there is much work to do on this path, Pema says “It’s like someone played a joke on us, and programmed us the wrong way,” we have a huge task on our hands, but as Pema states “Life is dynamic and fresh…so enjoy it!”

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The mindful enlightenment

Buddhist practices can help bring about a new kind of social enlightenment

A fresh kind of enlightenment is in the air. Madeleine Bunting recently reported on the bold vision for progress being set out by Matthew Taylor at the Royal Society Of Arts. Calling for a new “revolution of the mind”, the RSA is grounding its arguments in empirical studies from neuroscience and psychology.

Evidence from these disciplines is making it increasingly clear that we are social creatures with plastic minds, wired for empathy and able to access a consciousness that, if developed, could help release us from the shackles of emotion that so often bind us. Building on its 18th-century precursor, the defining feature of this enlightenment is an understanding that to tackle the world’s most pressing problems, we don’t just need more action, we need more awareness.

This is familiar territory for Buddhists, whose training is rooted in a path to awakening which holds dear the same kinds of insights – that through experiencing more clearly, we can begin to transcend the suffering that comes from thinking, feeling and behaving as if we are single, separate and solid. As we begin to realise the nature of our predicament through meditative disciplines, we naturally lean towards compassion for others, whose fate is intertwined with our own.

Some 2,500 years separate these appeals to enlightenment, but despite their common ground and aspiration, they can sound very different. One comes in the language of science, backed by observational studies of the brain, say, or human behaviour. The other has an ancient, religious feel – words like Buddha, meditation, even enlightenment (in this context) can prompt negative reactions that stem partly from current attitudes towards religion in our society. Centuries of Buddhism, in its many institutional forms, has no doubt contributed to this perception.

It seems unlikely that the man known as the Buddha would have wanted to establish a religion – his teaching is not a set of things to believe, but considerations for a way of life. Understanding, he said, must come through observation of one’s own direct experience – a kind of inner science based on first-person investigation of the body, mind and world. As Stephen Batchelor has pointed out, these core insights are easily cloaked in religious garb when that is the prevailing discourse of the day.

So what happens when Buddhism meets our secular world? Whereas some students of Asian emigre teachers in the 60s and 70s appeared spellbound, wide-eyed with enchantment at exciting foreign rituals, many western teachers have moved on – Jack Kornfield recently explained that “more and more, we’re teaching meditation not as a religious activity, but as a support for living a wise, healthy and compassionate inner life”. He added that some of his students don’t identify as Buddhists, “which is absolutely fine with me”.

Some new champions of Buddhist-inspired practice bear no mark of Buddhism at all – from universities and healthcare settings, to schools and boardrooms, mindfulness is being taught without reference to its religious heritage, while Andy Puddicombe’s media-savvy Headspace brand is taking meditation to the Jamie Oliver generation. Puddicombe has even managed to get Chris Evans sitting quietly for a second or two.

Traditionalists will complain about babies being thrown out with bathwater, and they may have a point – in our urge to connect with a wider audience, there is the danger of losing important, less palatable messages, honed over thousands of years. But if the Buddha’s insights are durable, then surely they can stand the creative tension that comes from attempts, Buddhist and secular, to forge new stretches on the road to enlightenment.

[Ed Halliwell, Guardian]
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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase…”

man climbing a cliff face

“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step,” said Martin Luther King.

Some years ago, two friends took me rock-climbing in Colorado. I’d only ever climbed with ropes once before, and that had been many years before, so really I was a complete beginner. And nervous.

I found myself suspended half-way up a cliff, in a state of panic, with my friends shouting encouragement from below. My breathing was tight, my heart was pounding, and my limbs felt weak and shaky, but I didn’t have time to think much about that. I was holding on to a narrow ledge that ran horizontally across the rock face — really it was more like a crease. The toes of my climbing shoes were precariously holding on to a couple of tiny nubbins that barely projected from the surface. It seemed like a miracle that I was able to hang on at all.

I looked up, and as far as I could see there was nothing but smooth rock all the way to the top. All I could see above me was a featureless expanse of cliff, with no hand- or toe-holds. I was only about a third of the way up, and it didn’t seem as if there was any way forward.

If I hadn’t decided to change something I’d have remained stuck

My pride wouldn’t let me give up. I took a few deep breaths to steady my nerves and give myself time to think. I looked around, and realized that the only way I could move was sideways. That wasn’t going to take me closer to the top, but at least it was movement, and I’d rather move than stay frozen in fear and indecision. I decided to go for it, rather than remain in my paralyzed state. So I found another nubbin to dig my toes into, and began to inch my way to the left, my fingertips barely keeping a grip on the ledge.

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Since moving sideways was all I could do, I did it. And once I moved and took another look at my situation, I could see a handhold above me that hadn’t been visible before. I reached for it, and managed to get a toe-hold so that I could boost myself up. Above me was another hand-hold, and another, and another, and soon there was a clear way to climb to the top of the cliff, which I did, “Like a rat up a drainpipe,” as one friend put it. It was hard to believe that this was the same rock-face that just a few minutes before seemed utterly unscalable.

And here’s the thing: if I hadn’t made that one earlier change in my position, my perspective would never have shifted and I’d never have been able to move forwards. If I hadn’t decided to change something — even though I doubted that what I was doing was going to help in any way — I’d have remained stuck.

Faith, meaning blind faith, meaning to believe in something even in the absence of any supporting evidence, is not part of what I do as a Buddhist.

Sometimes, even if the way isn’t clear, you simply have to change something — almost anything — in order to see things from a different perspective. When we’re experiencing a “stuck” emotion, like despair, hopelessness, fear, or depression — those emotions that freeze us in place, unable to go forwards or back — sometimes we just have to try something new. We need to have the faith to take the first step.

And that means having faith in ourselves. And faith in the possibility that change is possible.

Faith, meaning blind faith, meaning to believe in something even in the absence of any supporting evidence, and often in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. This is not part of what I do as a Buddhist. And that’s quite proper.

Buddhism is not a “faith” in the sense that you have to assent to various unprovable claims. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. The Buddha suggested that we test his words as a goldsmith would test the purity of his metal. That’s the attitude we should adopt if we are to follow the Buddha — not believe his words but to test the method that his words were attempting to communicate.

Once the Buddha was talking to a clan who were very confused about religious practice. The tribe — called the Kalamas — were in a similar situation to many of us in the West today. They were surrounded by competing religious and philosophical traditions. Due to the discovery of iron, society had been changing. The old religions — which said that the structure of society, with the priests at the top, naturally, was ordained by the gods — were on the defensive because the structure of society had changed, with the emergence of a powerful new class of merchants. Those same merchants had more time for leisure and for asking what life was really all about. And increasingly, new religious movements were taking root, often in the forests, where renunciates would cut themselves off from society in order to explore meditation and other practices (sometimes extreme ascetic ones).

The Buddha suggested that we test his words as a goldsmith would test the purity of his metal.

So the Kalamas were faced with trying to make sense of the competing claims of dozens of religious and philosophical teachings. Some said that adherence to the old ways of the god was the right thing to do — keep paying the priests to mutter mantras and the crops would grow and you’ll be blessed with many children. Others said that all comfort should be renounced. Yet others said that sensory pleasure was the highest good and that no opportunity for gratification should be passed up. And there were many other traditions, advocating ethical codes, worship practices, meditative exercises, and belief systems.

So when the Buddha was passing through, they took the opportunity to ask him some tough questions about how to decide which teachings were true and which false. The Buddha’s answer was extensive and involved some Socratic dialog, but the most important part was this:

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias toward a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.

The Buddha wasn’t saying we should automatically reject tradition, scriptures, intuition, logic, etc. But he was saying that we need to submit these things to two tests:

1. Do teachings, when put into practice, lead to happiness and well-being. This doesn’t mean that we have to try out every teaching, because we can learn by observing others. But the important thing is to see whether or not teachings work in practice as tools for alleviating suffering, and for reducing craving, hatred, and delusion.

2. Are these teachings and practices praised by “the wise.” Now this is a tricky one, because who are the wise? Again, this comes back to experience. Who, in our observation, can generally be relied upon to give good advice? Who, in our experience, is generally reliable, trustworthy, and “walks the talk”?

In this teaching faith isn’t something that comes seems to come first. First is observation, reflection and practice (in short, experience), and then faith follows. We have to take the first step in order to get a sense whether the staircase actually leads anywhere. But in fact we need faith at the very beginning, even before we take the first step. When I was climbing, and found myself stuck, I had to have confidence that there was a possibility of climbing that cliff, and confidence that I could do it. In the absence of a clear way forward, I had to be open to seeing things from a new perspective, and that involved letting go of the handholds I had so that I could move on. In moving into the unknown there’s always a leap of faith.

Enlightenment may seem a long way off when we’re starting out, but it’s not as far as we might think.

I’ve often thought of the Buddha’s teaching as being like a map. He outlines a spiritual journey, and of course without having trodden the path all the way to the end we can’t say for sure whether the map actually matches the territory. But if we’ve explored the lower reaches of the path and found that the map corresponds to our experience, then we start to have some confidence that the rest of the map might be accurate too.

In the beginning we may simply have some trust in the people who are teaching us meditation and speaking from their experience, while at the same time asking ourselves whether what we’re hearing rings true. But then we need to test things out for ourselves. And fairly quickly we can discover for ourselves that, yes, if we pay attention to the breath the mind settles down and we’re happier; yes, Buddhist ethical principles do make daily life more harmonious and satisfying; yes, there are five hindrances and the techniques for overcoming them do work; yes, there are meditative states that are focused, peaceful, and deeply refreshing, just as described in the texts and by our teachers.

And what about Awakening, Enlightenment? That may seem a long way off when we’re starting out, but it’s not as far as we might think. When I had my first experience of non-self I was amazed by how easy and natural it was. There was no struggling for a breakthrough, just the gentle slipping away of a veil of delusion. I think if I’d realized how easy it was going to be it might have happened years earlier.

In many ways we’re conditioned to think of spiritual goals as being far off and almost beyond reach, and some later Buddhist teachings even suggest that it might take countless lifetimes to reach the end of the path. But in the earliest Buddhist scriptures people seemed to get awakened at the drop of a hat. Perhaps they were unburdened by expectations of how hard it was going to be. Perhaps they simply made a small shift in the way they were seeing things and found themselves with a new perspective — one that allowed them to go all the way to the top.

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